Friday, July 31, 2009

It's a Wash! Bad Kitty Gets a Bath by Nick Bruel






We regret to inform you that Chapter Three was a dream.

Bad Kitty is back, and a stinky kitty she is, after a bit of a brou-ha-ha involving Poor Puppy (Bad Kitty) and a lot of spilled garbage. Tongue-washing isn't an option here. This situation calls for a bath, a bath involving a tub of warm water and lots of kitty shampoo.

In Nick Bruel's latest book in the Bad Kitty series, Kitty's owner knows that it's important to prepare Kitty's bath before you "introduce" her to the tub. Necessary supplies? Oh, warm water, kitty shampoo, dry towels, kitty-shaped bathrobe (with hood), the usual stuff, AND... suit of armor, your doctor on speed dial, a farewell note to the family, plasma and lots and lots of bandages, clean underwear (don't ask!), plane tickets to Aunt Pauline's to hide out until Kitty forgets all about it, and an ambulance in the driveway, motor running.

Giving a cat a bath is a bit like making rabbit stew. You know, first catch the rabbit? Catching a smart kitty takes a bit of doing. Bad Kitty disappears at the very sound of the word "bath," disguising herself cleverly as Puppy, complete with dog collar and a dog vocabulary ("DUHHH. ARF?") Luckily, unmasked, Bad Kitty runs for the bathroom where she once successfully hid out behind the toilet, only to find herself cornered before a steaming tub of bath water by a determined owner. There is an unfortunate incident involving failed persuasion and rather effective claws, until reverse psychology is applied. Kitty is persuaded that after her bath she will enjoy the spectacle of Puppy being doused with icy cold water, scrubbed with the chimney brush, the toilet brush, the paint brush and the toothbrush until he cries for mercy.

And with a MEOWR! REOWR! HISS! and a FFT! FFT! FFT! Kitty is given her bath, emerging as a skinny, scraggly, dripping, mess of bedraggled wet--but clean-smelling--fur. After the bath, of course, Kitty's little left fang is in full view, and her distaste with the whole process and its perpetrator is more than evident. As Bruel points out

This would NOT be a good time to pat her.

In fact, Kitty may avoid you altogether for a few hours... or days... or weeks.

Try not to take it personally. After all, you made Kitty do something that she HATED and never wanted to do....

You both hope you NEVER have to give Kitty a bath again.

Bruel's Bad Kitty Gets a Bath, (Roaring Brook Press) features the most laugh-out-loud hilarity yet. Although the author contends stoutly that this is a beginning chapter book, it is actually somewhere between a small-format picture book, a graphic novel, and a beginning chapter book, happily with the best aspects of all three. Bruel's comic illustrations are perfect examples of what we reviewers mean when we say the illustrations extend the text, and if his actual text were not so witty, this book could stand as a "story without words." But the text is really funny. Anyone who has ever bathed a angry cat (and they are ALL angry when soused in a tub of water) will recognize every bit of this humorous how-to book. In addition to the inserted Daily Nooz (Entire Family Flees for Life!), Quick Quiz, Common Cat Sounds and Their Meanings, Uncle Murray's Fun Facts,, and warning notes from The Editor hiding certain scenes he declares unsuited for the young, there is an Epilogue (How to Give a Puppy a Bath), and a Glossary, all part of the non-stop fun in this howl of a yowling good read.

Bruel's next Bad Kitty tale, Happy Birthday, Bad Kitty is forthcoming from Roaring Brook Press on September 1. Live long and prosper, Bad Kitty!

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

No Thanks! Moxy Maxwell Doesn't Love Writing Thank You Notes by Peggy Gifford

Mind you, Moxy Maxwell really is grateful for her Christmas presents, but in her latest adventure, she is up against a time deadline which promises "consequences" if she does not finish her twelve thank-you notes by the day after Christmas.

If Moxy's mom sounds a bit authoritarian, there's a serious bit of backstory to this pronouncement. In her first highly lauded book, Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little, (see my review here) Moxy procrastinates on her summer reading assignment until bedtime of the night before the first day of school. Oh, Stuart Little has been her constant companion all summer, splashed at the pool as Moxy rehearses synchronized swimming, sticky with lemonade from lazy sessions in the porch hammock while Moxy reads something else, and a bit dirty from traveling around in the car's back seat everywhere Moxy goes, but Moxy just can't seem to find some downtime to open the book.

In her latest story, Moxy runs into the same procrastination problem, despite the fact that her mom has literally threatened to ground her, forbidding her to board the flight with her twin Mark for her long-awaited visit to Hollywood with the movie mogul dad who hasn't had time for a Christmas visit in three years. Moxy plans to make that trip, but handwriting twelve notes seems more than she can cope with--until she comes up with a technological solution.

It seems that her stepdad Ajax has just gotten a fancy copy machine for Christmas, so high-tech that he has decreed that no one is to use it without his help. But since Ajax isn't home, Moxy takes matters into her own hands. Carefully, she prints out a generic thank-you letter:

Dear .....,
Thank you for............ It is very ......... and it will come in handy. I'll use it for various things like ......... and .......... In case you want to thank me for this thank you note, please wait until I get back from visiting my dad in Hollywood. I will be there for 6 1/2 days.

Have a breath-taking New Year!
Moxy Anne Maxwell

Wanting to spread the guilt in case anything unfortunate occurs, Moxy cons her brother Mark and friend Sam into actually operating the copier. Unfortunately, unfortunate events seem to follow Moxy wherever she goes. Mark has a bit of trouble programming the number of copies to be printed, so that 12 copies become 121,212. Moxy is not worried, however, when the copier keeps going beyond the first 12: she figures she has plenty of thank-you notes in her future, thanks to her mom, so a few extras can't hurt.

Moxy is worried about how she's going to get the gilt Thank You on the other side of her copies, and her solution involves the other big NO-N0 for her, gold spray paint. Fortunately, (or unfortunately as the case ensues) her grandma, Nonnie, has plenty of spray paint in her craft basket.

But when her mother returns from her errands, there are hundreds of generic thank yous spilling all over Ajax's office and a large gilt HANK YOU on the living room wall (the T is unfortunately on the front of Sam's red Christmas sweater). The promised consequences follow, and Moxy is devastated--that is, until Mark relates the telephone conversation he overheard between their mom and the movie mogul dad. It seems her dad called to cancel their visit because of a "very BIG deal" which requires his attention. Moxy suddenly realizes that her mom has taken the full rap for canceling her trip to protect her from the knowledge that her dad doesn't really care about her.

So Moxy picks up her pen and writes the most important thank-you note of all:

Dear Mother,
Thank you for loving me so much.
Have a breath-taking New Year!
Moxy Anne Maxwell (your daughter)

P.S.: In case you want to thank me for this thank you note, I'll be around all week.

With summer vacation trips in full swing, the audiobook of The Moxy Maxwell Collection: Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little, Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank You Notes is a great way to spend a few hours of travel time. Moxy's voice is hilarious but genuine, her family is funny but loving, and her slapstick misadventures are sure to keep restless kids giggling through the miles.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pinkies Up! Fancy Nancy Tea Parties by Jane O'Connor

Bonjour, Everybody!

What I love most about tea parties is that you can have one anytime. You don't need to wait for your birthday or Christmas or some other formal occasion (that's a fancy way of saying an important day) whenever you feel like celebrating. That's the time for a tea party!

In her latest "nonfiction" Fancy Nancy book, Jane O'Connor's Fancy Nancy: Tea Parties, (HarperCollins, 2009) Nancy, that hostess with the mostest of the primary crowd, gives tips for planning parties, including chapters on Ensembles and Etiquette, Classic Tea Parties, Buffet Tea Parties, Tea for Two, and Doll Tea Parties. Nancy's actual tips are quite useful--directions for finger refreshments (Nancy's Nibbles. Ants on a Log, Fruit Kabobs, and Festive Fondue), directions for making placemats and folding napkins, and and ideas for centerpieces (Lollipop Bouquet, Blossom Extravaganza).

Nancy even throws in a few felicitous French phrases (S'il vous plait, de rien, etc.) to make the small talk at the party sparkle. Her advice for handling party goers who turn up dressed casually (faux pas of all faux pas)? Have plenty of beads, feathers, and sparkly stuff to fancy them up on the spot! Punch-out recipe cards are included in the back of the book, lushly decorated in the signature Fancy Nancy pink and purple sparkles.

Despite all the frou-frou, however, Nancy's best advice for the tea party hostess is quite simple:

1. Be fancy!

2. Have fun.

3. Don't forget to invite me!

Other Fancy Nancy "nonfiction" titles are Fancy Nancy's Fashion Parade!, Fancy Nancy's Favorite Fancy Words: From Accessories to Zany, Fancy Nancy Loves! Loves!! Loves!!! and Fancy Nancy: Let's Get Fancy Together!

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lonely Guy: The Big One-Oh by Dean Pitchford

I couldn't really say that there was anybody in school who I could call a friend. And certainly nobody who would call me a friend.

Except Jennifer, and I didn't even want to be seen with her.

But is that so bad--not having friends? I wondered. After all I've got school, I've got Boing Boing my dog and Monsters & Maniacs comics and making dinner every night. My life is full, I told myself. Even if it does get a little lonely sometimes....

I hadn't thought of it before, but, yeah, it gets lonely.

Charley Maplewood has always known he has no real friends, but he has a life-changing moment of truth one afternoon as he watches his weird next-door neighbor Garry Quarky being dumped by his unattractive girlfriend, nicknamed "Pincushion" by Charley for her unattractive body piercings and prickly personality. As she wildly steers her van over Charley's mom's shrubbery, she yells out her final breakup complaint:

"You can't change, Garry. Look at you! You're a grown man with no social fashion sense... and NO FRIENDS!

Face it, Garry. You're a FREAK!"

Suddenly in Garry's devastated face Charley Maplewood sees his own future. Somehow, he realizes, he's got to get some social skills and some friends. (Fashion sense can wait.) Charley pins his hopes on a party to celebrate his upcoming birthday, the big one-oh!

His mother is overjoyed to see Charley acting like a normal kid, and the birthday boy throws himself into making plans for the food, the decor, the entertainment, and oh, yeah, the hardest part--some friends to attend. His mania for horror comics gives him the idea for his theme, "House of Horrors," but he's without a clue how to carry it out until his dog Boing Boing runs into a problem with Garry. It seems Boing has nabbed a fake bloody foot from Garry's garage and Garry is desperate to get it back. In the course of retrieving the disgustingly realistic latex body part, Charley and Garry hit it off and Charley learns that his freaky neighbor is a former special effects expert whose resume is filled with ultra-cool B horror films and whose passion is sculpting scars and dismembered body parts. When Garry offers his collection of grisly props as decor for the party, Charley's double-digit birthday plans are a go--except for coming up with some actual friends to invite.

Charley's birthday theme is disgustingly gross enough to attract eight possible celebrants--Donna, the class golden girl, and her followers Dina and Dana, Leo, the coolest dude in the class, Darryl, the class nerd, and Leland, a.k.a "Cougar," the class bully, and his hanger-on, Scottie, and, in a weak moment of compassion, the hopelessly dorky Jennifer. But then, when he accepts a UPS delivery of special latex for the absent Garry, Charley can't resist using some to try making his own body parts and accidentally burns down the garage. His irrate mom forbids him even to speak to Garry, and when she has to take on extra work on Saturdays to pay for the damage, she cancels the birthday party as well.

But Charley has already invited the guests, and he knows his reputation at school will go down the tubes if he has to un-invite them, so he resolves to do the party on his own. His party-day prep turns out to be a disaster: his sister opens the oven and his cake batter falls to the thickness of a pancake; the DVD player jams, canceling his fall-back plan to show a horror movie; and the only decoration he can come up with is the lame clown-themed helium balloon bouquet his father sent from Scotland. Then, just as Cougar pronounces this the suckiest party in the history of the universe, there's an ominous knock at the door.

Outside lightning bolts zapped and threw quick spooky shadows on the wall. Thunder rattled our windows. In low, horrid tones, the Monster rumbled. "The Birthday Boy asked me to drop by and eat some of his..." He stopped and cleared his throat. "I mean, meet some of his classmates."

Since Cougar was in front of the pack, I could see his face the clearest. And it went white. "Uh, Charley's here somewhere." he stammered.

"Charley? Ah," said the Monster. "I've already seen him."

And, as he said that, from out of his overcoat he pulled... my head!

I'm serious! He was holding my head by my hair, and it had been cut off at the neck!

Everybody's jaw dropped down so far that I could see who still had their tonsils and who didn't. Then, in one big tidal wave of noise, they all screamed together.

Of course, it's Garry to the rescue of the big one-oh party, and with the coolest, most spectacular birthday party entertainment under his belt, Charley's social status is secured. Even Cougar, who is so scared that he has to borrow dry underwear from Charley, looks like he's going to be on his side in the future. It's the best birthday ever for Charley Maplewood.

Dean Pitchford's The Big One-Oh has guaranteed guy appeal, but it's no simple gross-out story. Charley's clueless longing for social acceptance is genuine, and the other characters--his hard-pressed mom, the geeky but kind Garry, and even his sarcastic teenaged sister--come across as real people. There's humor and pathos and genuine fun here, making this a sure-fire good read for middle graders.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

A Day at the Beach: Wave by Susie Lee

The essence of what a picture book should be--Suzy Lee's brilliant, beautiful Wave, a story without words which speaks volumes, recreates the joy of a first encounter with the ocean's waves.

Executed in simple, almost primitive, charcoal pencil lines in dusky gray and black against a bright white background, the pages are lit up with the brilliant but soft blue of the ocean, its motion rendered evocatively with simple variations of color and swirls of foam. Into this scene comes a small girl, sturdy legs and windblown hair rendered in a few deft lines, watched over benevolently by her mother from the shade of her umbrella and by a line of five seagulls facing windward.

Approaching the edge, the girl retreats hastily from the first breaking wave, but she and the gulls quickly regroup as she ventures into the wet sand and puts a tentative toe into the wavelet as it rolls backward. Reassured, she splashes and twirls in the shallows.

But suddenly a giant wave begins to roll in. Temporarily frozen in the face of the curling, looming wave, girl and birds turn and flee up the shore's slope. At what she thinks a safe distance, the girl turns and saucily sticks out her tongue at the rogue wave. "You can't get me," she seems to be saying.

Then the wave breaks all over her, in a mass of roiling, splashing, swirling blue water, and just as hastily recoils, leaving the girl drenched and sitting, bottom sinking into the soft, wet sand, with her hair dripping and her legs stretched out before her.

But all round she sees what the wave has left for her--dozens of shells and even a living starfish--and she soon is gathering the bounty and calling to her mom to see what the sea has brought her. As her mother, umbrella folded and beachbag packed, comes down to the marge to gather her daughter and her treasures, the girl returns the starfish to the shallows, and then, turning to wave goodbye to the ocean and soaring gulls, heads home, salty, sandy, and happy.

It's everything a first day at the beach should be. Wave, is a little gem of a book which will appeal to all ages for its spare, sheer beauty and its wordless portrayal of childhood joy.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

When We Were Very Young: When Stella Was Very, Very Small by Marie-Louise Gay

When Stella was very, very small, she thought she was a turtle....

When Stella was very, very small, words looked like ants running off the pages.

Every night before going to bed, Stella listened to the trees talking.

They told stories about holding up the sky with their branches and tickling the bellies of the smallest clouds.

In her latest in the Stella series, When Stella Was Very, Very Small, author/illustrator Marie-Louise Gay gives the reader a peek back in time to Stella's very first years, where small but filled with creative imagination, Stella is very much herself from the beginning. In this exquisitely illustrated little book, we see the world through the eyes of the very young, when the real and the fantastic are pleasantly intertwined. The sweetness of the small Stella's world is now to be shared with her little brother Sam.
When Stella was very, very small, she explored the great tropical jungle behind her house. There she saw a ferocious man-eating tiger and joined slithering snakes.

Now Stella is big. The ants in her books have become words, and the words have become stories.

Now Stella can read these stories to her little brother Sam

Other rave-reviewed books starring the young Stella include Stella: Star of the Sea, Stella, Queen of the Snow, Stella, Fairy of the Forest, and Stella, Princess of the Sky, Sam, too, has his own books--Good Morning Sam (Stella), What Are You Doing, Sam?, and Good Night Sam (Stella). These sweet and simple stories are great for sharing with a younger and an older child.

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Pennsylvania Avenue Pooch: Bo: America's Commander-in-Leash by Naren Aryal

Presidential pets have always been celebrities--from Richard Nixon's Checkers to George H.W. Bush's Millie and Spot, from FDR's Fala to Chelsea Clinton's Socks--all of whom have become famous by virtue of where they parked their paws at night. And 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has truly seen a parade of pets, from John Quincy Adams' alligator to Tad Lincoln's goat, LBJ's beagles, Him and Her, and Caroline Kennedy's pony, Macaroni.

And now there's a new pup in the White House, Bo Obama, who's featured in a new (frankly fictionalized) book, Bo, America's Commander in Leash, (Mascot Books, 2009) which highlights the daily life of the presidential pup, whom author Naren Aryal, with tongue in cheek, calls our Commander-In-Leash.

Rather than being a tell-all memoir, Bo's narrative takes the reader on an insider's tour of the White House, from the Oval Office, where Bo confesses to making off with the presidential letter opener, to the Rose Garden, where a Little League team gives Bo an official jersey, complete with his name. As he escorts us through the historic rooms inside, Bo tells us that the White House has been the home of every president (and presidential pet) except George Washington. Bo does take time off from the historical data to point out the First Family's own special places--the girls' swing set, Mrs. Obama's organic garden, the outdoor basketball court, and, of course, the President's favorite sports scene, the basement bowling alley, presumably reinforced for gutter balls.

Scenes for special events are not slighted, as Bo guides the reader through the lawn where the Easter Egg Roll is held annually, the site of the official Christmas tree and the site of the July 4 Cookout. Other upcoming events, such as the presidential pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey and the lighting of the Christmas tree get short shrift so that Bo can point with special pride to the institution of a new White House custom, the greening of the fountain for St. Patrick's Day, first observed this year by the proudly Irish first family (Don't believe it? Go here!)

Prominently placed fact boxes provide plenty of historic presidential lore for young students, making this little book a light-hearted read-aloud introduction to a study of the White House and its historic residents past and present. For more factual information about the First Pooch, see Koji Kondo's photo essay Bo Obama: First Dog of the United States of America or my earlier roundup of presidential puppy stories here.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Six Days: Marching To Appomattox: The Footrace That Ended the Civil War by Ken Stark

If the Civil War began with the bang of exploding artillery shells over Fort Sumter, it ended quietly, with the scratch of two pens and the silence of two generals' handshakes. But the six days preceding this moment were a raucous death-stalking race against time and fate to Appomattox Court House. There General Lee hoped to find food and munitions for his gaunt and starving Army of Northern Virginia, which still numbered nearly 50,000. With provisions, he hoped somehow to escape capture and possible annihilation by the Union Army, 80,000 strong, and unite with General Joe Johnston's forces to the south to continue the war.

But the Union forces under Grant could taste victory, believing that if they could overtake Lee, they would have won the war's last battle. Grimly, Lee's starving men marched on to the west, inspired by the dignity and courage of their general. Secretly, however, many top officers doubted that they could carry out Lee's strategy. General Henry Wise faced up to this reality in his meeting with Lee:

This Army is hopelessly whipped... the blood of every man who is killed from this time forth is on your head, General Lee.

Author-illustrator Ken Stark traces the continuing free fall of the Confederacy's will to continue fighting. As the Union forces drew closer by the hour, even sending swift cavalry along the route of the Confederate foot soldiers to pillage their meagre waiting stores ahead of the marchers, men and horses dropped by the wayside and the Confederates abandoned arms for which they had no ammunition and ditched wagons and even cannons which they could not use. Still, Lee rejected Grant's personal pleas for surrender, hoping to reach the cache of food and ammunition waiting for his faltering army at Appomattox.

But when the Union raiders seized these supplies and the Army of Northern Virginia was surrounded by Grant's forces, Lee had to face the grim truth that standing to fight would not advance his cause, but lead to an inevitable and meaningless slaughter of his loyal forces. When Grant sent word by personal courier that his terms would require only that each rebel soldier lay down his arms and vow to fight no more, Lee wearily dressed himself in his best uniform, sash, and sword, and rode Traveller into the dooryard of the McLean family farm to make peace with the United States.

In Marching to Appomattox: The Footrace That Ended the Civil War (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009) Ken Stark narrates the last days of the war and the peace which changed the nation forever in an account which puts the young reader in the middle of the action. To do so the author shows great attention to detail, even to the rag doll of little Lula McLean, hurriedly left behind on the parlor sofa, which became an ironic "silent witness" to the surrender which ended a war which cost 600,000 deaths. His illustrations artfully portray the drama of those six days when the nation's future hung in the balance. An author's note, summarizing the final years of Generals Lee and Grant and the assassination of President Lincoln, and a useful bibliography and index make up the backmatter of this excellent and accessible book on the last days of the nation's war within.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Weather's Fine! What's the Weather Inside? by Karma Wilson

I Dare Ya

If you think poems are stupid,
And poetry's a bore,
If every poem you have ever read
Has almost made you snore,
And if you're sure this book's the same
As all you've read before,
I dare ya, yes, I dare ya.
Turn the page!

Best-selling author Karma Wilson (of Bear Snores On fame) turns her wit and style to the art of poetry in her What's the Weather Inside? (McElderry/Simon & Schuster, 2009) which establishes her forthwith as a purveyor of poetry for children right up there with Jack Prelutsky.

Here's Wilson as she captures the essence of the mutt in "What My Dog Might Be Thinking."

I love to pee in the flower bed.
I love to eat things smelly and dead.
I love the smell of putridness.
I love to frolic in rotteness.
I love to bury my bones in a hole.
I love to drink from the toilet bowl.
I love to munch what the garbageman misses.
I love to give my people kisses!

Think you might rather have a cat after that? Here's "What Your Cat Might be Thinking:"

I'm the center of the universe.
I'm all out royalty.
There really isn't anyone
Who's near as good as me.
And if you plant a pretty plant,
Well, that's for me to chew.
And if you bring a puppy home,
Well, that's the end of you!

Wilson also takes on the subject of celebrity hype in "The Jesse James Song."

Jesse James, Jesse James,
Let's all write a song about Jesse James.
Now there was a man of renown and acclaim,
That all-time hero Jesse James.

Jesse James, Jesse, James,
He had glory and he had fame.
What did he do, that Jesse James,
That set the whole wide world aflame?

Jesse James, Jesse James,
What great thing did Jesse do?
Cheated, robbed, and killed folks too?
He did that stuff? Is that all true?

Jesse James, Jesse James,
Let's NOT write a song about Jesse James.
Let's sing out loud and sing out strong,
For someone else who DESERVES a song!

Wilson knows how to use rhyme and irony to tickle the funnybones of kids who enjoy the humorous poetry of Shel Silverstein, Jeff Foxworthy, and Alan Katz. Ably abetted by famed New Yorker cartoonist Barry Blitt, together these two have what it takes to get reluctant readers over the poetry barrier and into some real fun reading.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Move Over, Igor! Dr. Frankenstein's Human Body Book by Richard Walker

Subtitled The Monstrous Truth about How Your Body Works, Dorling-Kindersley's Dr. Frankenstein's Human Body Book mines the Dr. Frankenstein, er, vein as a hook to entice middle readers into a fascinating exploration of the human body. Bound in a big, poofy blood-red binding with a three-dimensional cutaway of the heart in the center, the entire book purports to be the notebook of Viktor Frankenstein for the edification of his new young assistant (just ignore Igor) in his latest, er, "body building" exercise.

In actuality, the volume is a clever junior anatomy guide, illustrated with clear color photos and drawings (as well as MRIs, angiograms, bone scans, SPECT [single photon emission computed tomography] scans, and other high technology images), conventionally presented by systems--skeletal, muscular, digestive, vascular, urinary, and central nervous systems, to name a few--with each broken down into appropriate organs, tissues, cells, organelles, and DNA molecules. Displayed in large-format, double-paged spreads printed on sturdy stock similar to that used for board books, the illustrations are sharp and detailed, with many cutaways to show the workings of organs such as the stomach, kidney, and brain. Text is straight-forward and not too technical, with major terms recurring in the glossary, but scientific terms are used where appropriate, such as the Latin names of the bones and muscles. Inset illustrations and text boxes, in the familiar Dorling Kindersley style, are used to good effect to point up important information, all set off in headings done up in an appropriate Gothic font.

In the midst of the technical information, body humor is also abundant, in the form of notebook entries written by the mad scientist himself, who apparently is crazed enough to enjoy the occasional surgical use of wordplay. Here's his note for Day 12, during the assembly of their creature's ears:

There's something in the air. I've been picking up the vibrations. Assistant has fine-tuned the hair cells, tightened the eardrum, and oiled the ossicles. Says everything's balanced. Hear! Hear!

All in all, Dr. Frankenstein's Human Body Book does a monstrously good job of presenting the awe-inspiring structure and workings of the human body, right down to the macrophages which scour our alveoli to keep us respirating, expirating, and being inspired by the wonder of everything working together to form a living, thinking being. Or as Dr. Viktor himself might put it (if he were the publisher's pitchman), this is an electrifying presentation of anatomy and physiology for the middle reader at a monstrously reasonable price that won't frighten young creatures away.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Twin Trouble: Fancy Nancy, Pajama Day by Jane O'Connor

"Class, don't forget..." Ms. Glass says.

"...tomorrow is Pajama Day!" we shout in unison. (That's fancy for all together.)

Nancy and Bree race home to call each other about their wardrobe choice for the big day. Nancy decides to wear her new and elegant (that's fancy for fancy!) nightgown. Bree begs Nancy to wear her pajamas with the pink hearts and polka dots so the two of them can be twins together, but Nancy sticks to her elegant and unique gown, sure that her best best friend will understand how much she loves being fancy.

But when Nancy arrives at school, she finds that classmate Clara has worn pajamas with pink hearts and polka dots just like Bree's,

"Nancy, look!" says Bree. "Clara has on the same pajamas as mine." Brie and Clara giggle.

"We're twins!" says Clara. "And we didn't even plan it!"

All day the two play at being twins. At recess they scamper up the monkey bars together, and Nancy sadly realizes that there is no way she can climb up with them in her long gown. "And I can't hang upside down," she thinks. "Everyone would see my underpants!" Being elegant and unique begins to seem like a uniquely bad idea.

When school is out, Nancy invites Bree to come over to play, only to discover that she has already made a play date with her "twin," Clara. Nancy struggles to hold back tears. Has she lost her best friend for good?

Jane O'Connor's new Fancy Nancy: Pajama Day (I Can Read Book 1), in her popular beginning reader series, hits all the right notes in this story of friendship almost lost and happily re-found. It's another solid entry in a progressively important I-Can-Read set for early readers, ably illustrated by Ted Enik in Robin Preiss Glasser's signature style.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Toys On The Town: The Runaway Dolls by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin

FROM: Wilson and Sons
1 Scala Street
London, England

TO: William Seaborn Cox esq.
26 Wetherly Lane
Reade, Connecticut

The old, odd-looking package, delivered just as the Palmer family, with their daughters Kate and Nora, are about to leave on a two-week vacation, is a mystery. Addressed in a spidery, old-fashioned handwriting to the grandfather of Grandma Katharine, grandmother of Annabelle Doll's owner Kate, from the doll-maker who had created of Annabelle and all of her family, the enigmatic parcel seems to have come like a puzzle from the past, 100 years before.

Annabelle and her best doll friend, Tiffany Funcraft, are discussing the reason for the mystery package when a small, childish voice is heard calling out from inside.

"Hello! Hello!"

"Hello," Annabelle called. "We can hear you! Who are you?"

"I'm Matilda May," said the little voice.

Annabelle leaned toward the package again. "Matilda May, how old are you?"

"Um, one hundred." guessed the voice.

"How old are you in doll years?" Anabelle asked.

"Free, I fink," said Matilda May.

Then Annabelle has a brainstorm. The Doll family has always wondered why Baby Betsy was so much larger than any of the adult Doll family dolls. "I think this doll is the one who was supposed to come with our family instead of Baby Betsy. I think she's my lost baby sister."

Annabelle's logic is faultless, but the reality of her proposition frightens her parents. What would the Palmers think when they return from their vacation and find the mystery parcel ripped open and their 100-year-old doll set with a new family member? "That's just the kind of act that could put dollkind in jeopardy," said Papa. Discovery of their secret life could put all the Doll family into PDS--permanent doll state! Mama is adamant. "End of discussion," she says firmly.

But Annabelle knows her real little sister is inside that package, imprisoned since 1898, and she and her best friend Tiffany devise a rescue plan. With the help of their brothers Bobby Doll and Baily Funcraft, the girls quickly free little Tilly May and, hitching a ride on the neighbor boys' wagon, are soon in the middle of a daring runaway adventure.

At first the runaways find themselves lost in the city park and spend a frightening night in a makeshift garbage bag tent, menaced by raccoons and owls, but when morning comes and there is no sign of the neighbors' familiar red wagon returning, the five dolls realize that they must somehow find their way out of the wooded park and reluctantly make their way back home--if they can discover where Wetherby Lane is!

Desperately dashing across the street and into the shelter of the nearest building, the dolls find themselves in McGinitie's Department Store. Resting and trying to get their bearings from a shelf, the five are discovered by an employee who promptly takes them upstairs to the toy department, where Annabelle, Bobby, and Tilly are displayed in a locked glass case with other antique dolls. Tiffany and Bailey Funcraft are tossed into the play area with other used dolls, where they lay low until darkness comes and the last of the cleaning crew move on.

Then the dolls discover that there is a rich society of dolls who come to life at night in McGinitie's toy department. There sympathetic and worldly wise dolls convince Annabelle that she must return to her family before the Palmers return from their holiday. But Annabelle realizes that there are many risks--she or Bobby or Tilly May could be sold before they escape, or they might be damaged by the pedestrians and vehicles outside in the city streets, or they might never find their way back to their home on Wetherby Lane.

Then the ingenuous Tiffany comes up with a plan--dangerous, but a potential way to escape McGinitie's and hitch a ride back with a part-time employee who is also the Palmer's neighbor. But even if the plan works, what will happen when the runaways return and Annabelle shows little Tilly May to Mama and Papa? Will she be imprisoned again in the box and sent back to London? Or will Grandma Katherine recognize the names on the package and figure out that Tilly is their long-lost baby?

Third in Ann M. Martin's best-selling series, Runaway Dolls, The (The Doll People) takes Annabelle and her hardy plastic friend Tiffany on their best adventure yet. Earlier books in the series are The Doll People, and Meanest Doll in the World, The Taking the daring doll people outside into the world adds new dimensions to the story of dolls who share a secret life when humans cannot see them. Caldecott Award-winning Brian Selznick's large and vivid pencil drawings add humor and appeal to this worthy sequel by Martin and her co-author Laura Godwin.

Another beloved series about the secret life of toys, written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by the equally notable Paul O. Zelinsky, includes the best-selling Toys Go Out, and its even better sequel, Toy Dance Party. reviewed here.

Many kids believe that their toys are special--that they somehow lead a life of their own when their humans are not around, and Ann M. Martin and Emily Jenkins must have learned from childhood readings of The Velveteen Rabbit
that toys have a way to become real if they are truly loved.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Beddy-Bye Buddy: Kiki's Blankie by Janie Bynum

Kiki adores her polka-dot blankie.

She never goes anywhere without it.

Kiki is an adorable and determined little monkey who is 100% blankie bound. Not that she simply drags it around like Linus, sucking her thumb, totally zoned out. Not this girl! Kiki is a very active and imaginative blankie buff. Her blankie becomes a backyard tent, a tablecloth, and a nifty napkin. The complete source of her couture, Kiki nixes the nice frocks her mom proffers, and artfully fashions her outfits out of the polka-dot fabric.

But practical purposes are just the beginning of Kiki's creative use of her blankie. When she's a cowgirl outlaw, it becomes her neckerchief mask. When she's a pirate, it becomes her headdress, and when she's a sailor, it's the sail for her round tub ship. And when Kiki is a superhero, of course, it is her cape!

But when a wayward wind snatches her blankie away and sends it flapping onto a high tree branch, Kiki runs into a snag as well. Resting malevolently beneath the tree where the beloved blankie is marooned is a toothy crocodile!

Not to worry! Our girl is nothing if not resourceful. Her fertile imagination comes up with several clever ruses--disguising herself as a ghost, flying over the tree to snatch the blankie--but then she realizes that to do those things, she has to have her special blankie.

But then, Kiki's imagination calls up the image of the croc chowing down on her beloved blankie, and she sees that it is up to her to save her blankie. Climbing a nearby bamboo stalk to the tippy-top, Kiki leans way out, bending the top down, down, down, until she can just reach the blankie still flapping in the breeze.

Back home, both Kiki and her blankie need a bath. But bedtime can't come until the blankie is dry, so Kiki falls asleep waiting patiently in front of the dryer for her blankie to emerge. After all,

She never goes anywhere without her blankie.

Even in her dreams.

Janie Bynum's charming little character, front and center in bold colors against a bright white background, makes her brand-new Kiki's Blankie (Sterling, 2009) a sure-fire bedtime treat for preschoolers who know what a favorite blanket can do!