BooksForKidsBlog

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Somnolent Superhero: Chick 'n' Pug by Jennifer Sattler

CHICK HAD READ THE ADVENTURES OF WONDERPUG!

127 TIMES.

EVERY PAGE WAS FILLED WITH EXCITEMENT.

BUT THERE WAS NO EXCITEMENT IN THE CHICKEN COOP.


All the setting hens do is snooze on their nests. But inside Chick's tiny chest beats the heart of an adventurer, so without a backward look she sets forth into the wide world to find the excitement her little heart craves.

And what does Chick see but the very object of her hero worship. Can it be? It is a pug, wearing a striped dog sweater and a kerchief collar. It must be Wonderpug!

"WOW!" EVEN ASLEEP HE LOOKS WONDERFUL!"

But this pug is no wonder, unless you wonder how he can stay asleep through Chick's rapturous adulation. Even under her prodding he merely rolls over, scratches an itch, and falls back asleep. But nothing shakes Chick's belief that she has found her idol--one who can do no wrong. Even his persistent somnolence is proof of his superhero qualities:

HE MUST BE SAVING UP HIS ENERGY FOR HIS NEXT ADVENTURE!

And then there are footsteps coming nearer. An intruder? Will Wonderpug arise and vanquish the threat?

"OH, MR. SNUGGLES. YOU PLAY WITH PUGGLY WUGGLY!"

A woman drops a fat, sleepy cat, wearing a matching kerchief, down next to Wonderpug with a plop. Still the sleeping superhero doesn't stir. What's a fan to do in the face of such a fearful menace? Chick bravely steps into the breach with a loud "WOOF!"

Mr. Snuggles skedaddles presto.

"HMMF! MR. SNUGGLES DIDN'T COUNT ON WONDERPUG HAVING A SIDEKICK, DID HE?"

Jennifer Sattler's new Chick 'n' Pug (Bloomsbury, 2010) depends on her slyly humorous illustrations to put over her tale of a chick who pours all the power of her projected dreams upon the resolutely sleeping pug before her. Excitement is in the eye of the beholder here!

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Scrambled Eggs: Quackenstein Hatches A Family by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

MOST CREATURES LIVED
IN PACKS AND HERDS,
IN BLOATS AND LITTERS.

BUT ALL ALONE,
AND ON HIS OWN,
QUACKENSTEIN GREW BITTER.

HE WAS THE HERMIT OF THE ZOO.

But even grumpy old bachelors get lonely, and when Quack sees a sign advertising orphaned eggs needing homes, suddenly he sees his life changing. "I'll adopt!" he exclaims, and takes the egg back to his dark and gloomy little shack. Carefully he tends the rather large egg in its makeshift nest. "Dear Ducky-poo," he cooed, "you'll never be neglected."

But everything changes on that dark and stormy night when, in a gigantic flash of lightning, the egg cracks open dramatically, and out steps... Well, something that couldn't be called a ducky-poo by any stretch of the imagination. It's got long, curved claws, beady black eyes, a long black schnozz, black fur, and a long, flat tail! "You're no duck!" Quackenstein screams and runs out into the windswept night. Through brush and bramble Quack flees, but each time he stops for breath, the thing lurches up upon him. Finally Quackenstein is cornered in a dark cave.

QUACK THOUGHT, "THIS IS BAD!"
THE THING SAID, "HELLO, DAD."

QUACK COULD FEEL HIS COLD HEART MELT.

In Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen's brand-new Quackenstein Hatches a Family (Abrams, 2010) there's nary a hint of the lineage of the changeling that Quackenstein adopts, but for those in the mammalian know, Brian T. Jones' illustrations give us hints that his creature is no monster at all, just a mama-less monotreme--an echidna--whose egg a clueless zoo orderly must have mixed up with the orphaned duck eggs. It's an easy-going, ever-so-lightly-scary takeoff on the ever-popular Frankenstein theme that kids will take to like, well, ducks to water.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

Boo! Martha Speaks: Haunted House by Susan Meddaugh

Martha is helping out at the flower shop.

"Can you deliver these flowers?" Mom asked.

"Of course," Martha replies. "Where to?"

"This says 936 Elm Street, but nobody lives there," Mom frowns. "As kids we thought that house was haunted."

"Like with ghosts?" Martha wonders.

Despite Mom's reassurances that the the house must have new owners, Martha sets off on the errand with a bit of trepidation. The house does have a Gothic look about it, and the windows are all dark. "If I were a ghost," Martha muses, "I'd live here."

Martha scratches politely on the door. No one comes, but the door swings open creakily...to reveal a dark and dusty interior with formless white shapes barely visible inside. No one responds to Martha's tentative hello. Martha ventures a little further inside the gloomy interior and runs right into a chair, draped in a musty sheet. Startled, Martha tries to pull away and the chair cover settles like a shroud over her form.

The reader probably can guess where this one is going. Of course, the new owners, the Parkingtons, are trying to make the best of moving in without electricity, and when they see a mysterious white shape writhing and twisting in their already spooky living room..., well, now they are worried about ghosts, too. It's a merry, slightly scary mixup as Martha flees, without the basket of flowers, back to the flower shop where Helen and friend T.D. volunteer to go back into the haunted house to retrieve the misplaced flowers. Soon it is Helen's turn to be rescued from strange goings-on inside by the ever resourceful Martha.

Adapted from an episode on PBS' popular Martha program based on Susan Meddaugh's delightful Martha Speaks series, Martha Speaks: Haunted House (Reader) (Houghton-Mifflin, 2010) provides light Halloween fare for the beginning Level 2 reader. Having acquired speech and literacy from her daily dose of (what else) alphabet soup, Martha is the perfect advocate for reading, deftly working vocabulary and phonic lessons seamlessly and humorously into every book and television episode. Appended is some sticker fun and Martha's usual word play page to reinforce vocabulary covered in the book.

Martha is truly the young reader's best friend. Like Jane O'Connor's spin-off Fancy Nancy I-Can-Read series, this talking dog helps kids bone up on reading fundamentals and have great fun in the process. Long live Martha!

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Peter, Peter: The Very Best Pumpkin by Mark Kimball Moulton

IN THE SPRING PETER'S GRANDPARENTS GROW PLUMP, JUICY STRAWBERRIES, AND IN SUMMER CORN, CRISP AND SWEET AS HONEY.

BUT IT IS IN FALL THAT MIMI AND PAPA'S FARM PRODUCES THE MOST WONDERFUL CROP OF

PUMPKINS!

Peter loves to help with the pumpkins, and when he follows a runaway vine into the next field, he finds a special pumpkin that he claims for his own. All summer Peter makes sure that the pumpkin is carefully tended, watered, and protected. And that pumpkin grows into the largest, roundest, most perfect pumpkin of all.

But seemingly unknown to Peter, Meg, a girl new to the area, has been secretly watching him from behind the trees, learning as she sees how a pumpkin is nurtured. And when it is time to harvest the pumpkins and hold their annual pumpkin market, Peter's pumpkin's secret admirer shows up at the sale, her hopes set on the perfect pumpkin.


BUT HE WAS SAVING ONE PUMPKIN...

THE SPECIAL PUMPKIN,

THE BEST PUMPKIN OF ALL...

LATE ONE AFTERNOON MEG AND HER PARENTS CAME TO THE FARM TO PICK THEIR PUMPKIN...

MEG LOOKED EVERYWHERE.

"I THINK I KNOW WHERE TO LOOK," PETER SAID.


Mark Kimball Moulton's new and seasonal The Very Best Pumpkin (Simon & Schuster, 2010) offers a cozy, home-style story for the fall season, a story of pumpkins growing alongside a surprising friendship for the autumn season. Karen H. Good's arresting illustrations lift this simple story: her curving, curling pumpkin vines and glowing palette make this book almost impossible not to pick up and open, and the easy-going story of a friendship that grows along with the garden goes down as sweetly as a holiday pie.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Losers Weepers! Three Little Kittens by Jerry Pinkney

THREE LITTLE KITTENS

THEY GOT NEW MITTENS

AND THEY BEGAN TO CHEER,

OH, MOTHER DEAR, OH MOTHER DEAR,

MAY WE GO OUT TO PLAY?"


Artist Jerry Pinkney, five time Caldecott Honor winner, recently for his fabulous (in more ways than one) The Lion & the Mouse, sets out again to take a piece of venerable folklore and make it into a memorable picture book experience for modern kids. Pinkney sticks close to the traditional rhymes for his story line, concentrating on picturing the kittens both endearingly and realistically.

"OH, MOTHER DEAR, WE SADLY FEAR

OUR MITTENS WE HAVE LOST."

"WHAT? LOST YOUR MITTENS?

YOU CARELESS KITTENS!

THEN YOU SHALL HAVE NO PIE."

The little kittens, true to the traditional form, lose their mittens and find them, make a mess of their mittens with the pie filling and duly wash them, all to get back into their exasperated but patient mother's good graces in time to go back out to play, and we might guess, misplace their mittens yet again.

Pinkney's illustrations linger lovingly over the kitties' luxuriantly variegated fur, its texture tactually rendered in luscious pastel watercolors. Pinkney humorously hides the misplaced mittens in the autumn leaves that litter their playground, and in the closing slyly shows one kitten's new knitted cap already lost in the leaves again, thereby hiding a bit of visual fun for young readers here and there.

Three Little Kittens (Dial Books, 2010) is a vivacious fall-flavored addition to every nursery rhyme shelf. As School Library Journal says, "This is another superb entry in the artist's catalog of classics for a new generation."

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

No Place Like Gnome(ville): The Monster Princess: by D. J. MacHale

Down, down, down, in places below,
Caves can be found where krinkle nuts grow.

This world full of monsters is quiet and gloomy.
It’s dark. It’s spooky. It’s not very roomy.

The creatures who dwell there are called rugabees.
They dig up the krinkles and fight off the fleas.

The best krinkle-digger was Lala, by far.
So fast, so brave, a rugabee star.


But Lala is an dissatisfied rugabee. She loves to sing and craves to wear beautiful gowns and dance at brilliantly lighted balls. But as there’s zero chance of that underground, Lala takes her aspirations topside, giving the three lovely princesses dwelling in the castle above quite a start.

The precious princesses don’t mince their words. “You’re stinky!” they cry as they catch her trying on their fancy gowns. But Lala begs for a chance, and the princesses soon adopt her as their monster mascot make-over project. Scrubbed and scented, coiffed and decked out in a gown which compliments (well, sort of) her green hair and murky complexion, she is ready to be smuggled into the ball.

When she entered the ball
It was perfect and bright.
But the ending was not
To be happy that night.

It seems that the pretty princesses neglected that all important mani and pedi, and Lala’s claws, so well adapted to digging krinkle nuts, wreak havoc with her silken finery. The impostor is exposed as a princess pretender, and the pretty princesses turn on her like the clique they are and order her out. Lala flees down, down, down to her underground refuge, doomed, she thinks, to be “forever a troll.”

But alas, Lala realizes that she’s still wearing the princesses’ tattered gown, and like the honest rugabee she is, she determines to return above ground to return it to its owners. But there she finds the princesses in extremis, about to become princess-flavored appetizers for a ravening beast:

She saw the three princesses huddled in fear.
Trapped by a Weevil who grinned ear to ear.
“MY! I’M HUNGRY TODAY FOR SWEET PRINCESS PIE!” it gloated.

And Lala, the champion krinkle-digger, just happens to have the right nutty snack along to divert the beast’s attention and save the pretty princesses from becoming the hors d’oeuvers du jour. All’s well that ends well, and Lala comes to the conclusion that digging krinkle nuts underground is her true calling and joyfully joins her family down under once more.

Here D. J. MacHale wryly reworks the perennial teen plot in which a clique of "popular girls" adopts some plain Jane and teaches her to walk and talk like a "Pop," until their made-over model fails to pass her popularity final at the prom. When the in-crowd sees through her pretense, the populars turn on their own creation--at which time the poor girl discovers who her "real" friends are. Ably abetted by Alexandra Boiger’s appropriately earthy palette, MacHale’s The Monster Princess (Aladdin, 2010) is a timely little takeoff on that ever-popular princess wannabe genre, with a pleasant “there’s-no-place-like-home (when you are a gnome)” conclusion, especially suited for the scary season.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Hudson Valley Halloween: Sleepy Hollow Sleepover by Ron Roy

Dink got up and walked over to the window. It had grown dark outside.

Then he heard it again, a thudding noise. Then he saw a light among the dark trees. "Guys, come here!" he said.

A horse raced out of the trees, past the cabin window. A rider carrying a jack-o'-lantern sat on the horse's back. The horse stopped, and the rider held the jack-o'-lantern high in the air.

Dink noticed the flowing cloak, just like on the rider he'd seen in the bank window. Only this one wasn't fake. This was a real man and a real horse.

Then Dink looked above the man's shoulders. There was nothing there!

"IT'S THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN!" Ruth Rose screamed.

Dink's dad is treating Josh, Ruth Rose, and Dink to a Halloween sleepover in Tarrytown, the setting of Washington Irving's classic tale of the Headless Horseman. First it's ice cream cones in the village, where the kids see the mechanical headless horseman in action in the local bank window and watch an armored car deliver sacks of money under armed guard to the bank.

Then it's off to unpack at their cabin, the Haunted House, where skeletons pop from the bureau and Dink spots the mysterious headless rider galloping past. Next the kids join other visiting kids for the "Haunted Hayride" sponsored by the Tarrytown Police Department. Their cloaked driver suddenly drops his pumpkin head among them and soon picks up a costumed zombie rising from the graveyard as they wend their way to the big bonfire and cookout in the woods. It's all frightfully fun, until, as Dink accidentally rolls his pumpkin bowling ball into the woods, he catches a glimpse of two suspicious masked men hanging out around the parked hay wagons.

But just then the kids are called to a campfire marshmallow session, and something happens that is outside the Police Department's Halloween script. Their hay wagons suddenly burst into flames and burn to the ground as the horrified horses dash away into the woods. Then the officers discover that their police cruisers' tires have been slashed. The kids and the Tarrytown police are marooned in the woods.

Finally back in town the next day, the kids learn that the bank where they watched the mechanical horseman has been robbed, leaving Bonnie the teller tied up in the floor. Then, as the novelty company truck comes to pick up their mechanical rider from the window display, Dink has a Sherlock Holmes moment and quickly climbs into the back of the truck where the figure has been loaded.

Under the tarp covering the load, Dink discovers bags of money hidden inside the horse's control panel. Josh and Ruth Rose crawl in to see what's up, and while Dink is silently showing them the stash under the tarp, the two men come back and climb into their truck. The three kids are trapped and on their way who knows where with two bank robbers inside the cab in front of them. Ruth Rose pulls out her trusty cell phone to call Dink's dad for help, but there's no signal! How can the three signal for help from the speeding truck?

Ron Roy may have covered the 26 letters of the alphabet already, but he's back in fine fettle in this Super Editon of his mega-popular A to Z Mysteries beginning chapter mysteries. A to Z Mysteries Super Edition #4: Sleepy Hollow Sleepover (A Stepping Stone Book(TM)) offers a well-delineated trio of resourceful young gumshoes, each with his or her own contributions to the sleuthing, plenty of suspense, and a superbly detailed and foreshadowed mystery which tests the youthful reader's own detecting skills along the way. There is even an "I-Spy" mystery coded message to be solved hidden within the fine full-page illustrations contributed by John Steven Gurney.

Pair this one with Ron Roy's earlier The Zombie Zone (A to Z Mysteries), set evocatively in the Louisiana bayou country, for a delightful duo of Halloween-time treats.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Feel Free to Bug Me! I Love Bugs! by Emma Dodd

I LOVE ALL BUGS...BIG BUGS AND SMALL
BUGS.

I LOVE SLIMY, CRAWLY, CREEPY BUGS!

Few kids are neutral on bugs. Some love 'em and some hate 'em, and our young narrator here adores them--all kinds of bugs.

I LOVE HARD, SPIKY, SPINY BUGS AND PRETTY SHINY BUGS.

I LOVE FUZZY,SUNNY, HONEY BUGS AND FURRY, WHIRRY, SPINY BUGS.

And with the help of author and artist Emma Dodd's blythly illustrated new
I Love Bugs (Holiday House, 2010), even bugophobes can come to appreciate the variety--color, size, shape, and abilities of bugs, Dodd doesn't bother with taxonomy--insect or arachnid, they're all bugs and they're all good to our enthusiastic narrator, who enjoys the spooky aspect of some of these critters:

EIGHT-LEGGED, SCARY BUGS.

HANG-FROM-THE-CEILING, SEND-ME-SCREAMING BUGS!!


Dodd's illustrations get right down on ground level with the your bugologist as he peers close up at the objects of his affection--ants, bees, stag beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and spiders, done up in kid-friendly flat, bright illustrations that put the critter under consideration stage center. Pair this book with Denise Fleming's lively and biologically correct Beetle Bop (see my 2007 review here) for a beginning science lesson on a subject for which it is NOT difficult to come up with suitable specimens for study!

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Fancying Up the Family Tree: Fancy Nancy: My Family History by Jane O'Connor

DO YOU KNOW ABOUT YOUR ANCESTORS? THEY ARE PEOPLE IN YOUR FAMILY WHO LIVED LONG AGO.

YOU SAY IT LIKE THIS: ANN-sess-terz.

ISN'T THAT A GREAT FANCY WORD?

Nancy is psyched by the idea of working on her family genealogy. Her grandpa is thrilled to share family photos and what he remembers. Nancy has two questions right away:

WERE THEY FAMOUS? DID THEY HAVE ADVENTURES?

Classmates Bree and Robert present their reports first. Bree tells how her great-grandfather became a war hero. Robert reports that his great-grandmother is already 100 years old. Nancy is impressed--and stricken with a bit of ancestor envy.

Back home she designs a fancy cover for her report and then settles down to write up what Grandpa related about her great-grandfather.

"MY GREAT-GRANDPA WAS A BANK GUARD," SHE BEGINS.

HMMM. THAT DOESN'T SOUND EXCITING.

SO I ADDED SOMETHING.

"One day he stopped a bunch of bank robbers."

Confidently, Nancy waits for her turn to give her report, sitting smugly through Yoko's and Clare's family histories. I do not mean to brag, but mine is way more interesting, she thinks to herself.

Then Nancy learns that her proud grandpa is planning to come to school the next day just to hear her give her report about his own dad. Nancy has a sinking feeling that he is not going to like the literary license she has taken with the facts of his father's life. Was it fanciful exaggeration, or was it just plain lying?

Jane O'Connor's newest in her Fancy Nancy I-Can-Read series, Fancy Nancy: My Family History (I Can Read Book 1) (Harper, 2010), once more has Nancy learning the limits of her boundless creativity and desire to make life fancy. Nancy's mom gently but firmly makes clear the difference between fiction and fact, and Nancy rewrites the report, this time sticking to the plain truth, retelling the sweet (and suddenly relevant) story of the time her great-grandfather as a boy confessed that he had broken his mother's favorite teapot. "It's an ordinary story. But I really like it," Nancy confesses.

Ted Enik sits in well for the noted illustrator of the picture book series, Robin Preiss Glasser, with drawings which match Glasser's cozy detail and those warm family settings which make a visit with the Clancy family (and ancestors) always a treat for the beginning reader. As always, a glossary of Nancy's Favorite Words is appended for review of the special vocabulary introduced in the text.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Halloween Kid by Rhode Montijo

Halloween is usually time for good old-fashioned dressin' up and gettin' some sweets.

But sometimes there are more tricks than treats.

Like the time those Toilet Paper Mummies rolled into town!

For moments when the bad guys roll into Treat City, who you gonna call? Well, there's always been The Halloween Kid, that masked marvel, the nemesis of such rowdies as the T.P. Mummies and the Pumpkin-Suckin' Vampires. Masked and topped with his big ten-gallon hat and astride his sturdy stick horse, he's always been there to vanquish any and all "Halloween-hatin' varmints" with his familiar
YE-HA-LLOWEEN!

As Halloween rolls around again, it looks as if the Halloween hoodlums have been all defeated and the world has been made safe for li'l treat wranglers. They're out in force--fairy princesses, ghosts, monsters, and diminutive Draculas all.

And then the Goodie Goblins Gang rides into town, runnin' wild and swiping treat bags right and left:

Some folks locked their doors and kept their li'l young-uns inside.

And some folks started handin' out stuff that wasn't even candy.

It was horrible.

Folks started talkin' 'bout cancelin' Halloween for good.

It's a job for The Halloween Kid all right. But this time it looks like the legendary Kid has met his match. The Goodie Goblins lasso the Kid and hide him in a cave in the hills, and it looks like for once and all these hauntin' hoodlums have hog-tied Halloween.

It's all up to The Kid's sturdy stick steed, who manages to escape and gallop away for reinforcements. Can he round up the trick-or-treat posse and save The Kid and Halloween, too?

Rhode Montijo's newest, The Halloween Kid (Simon & Schuster, 2010), all tricked out and treated to a 1950s cartoon style in a palette of dusty golds and rustic oranges, is a retro-treat for all those li'l buckaroos who'll cheer at seein' this gang of candy crooks hustled off to the hoosegow just in time for ye-Ha-lloween.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Boutique Birthday: Fancy Nancy and the Fabulous Fashion Boutique by Jane O'Connor

It is my sister's birthday on Saturday, so we are going on a shopping spree. That means we're buying balloons, napkins, party plates, cups--a ton of stuff.

My sister and Freddy are only interested in pirates, pirates, pirates... They're completely obsessed.

When she's not looking, I get my sister the perfect present--a black eye patch.

After they're done at Party Time, Mom, with sister Jo-Jo and Freddy still wearing their pirate hats, treats Nancy to a quick stop at Belle's Fabulous Fashion Boutique. On the sale table Nancy spots a fancy fan she's long had a yen for, but, alas, she's blown most of her money on her sister's gift. Then she has one of her brilliant (that's fancy for supersmart) ideas:

I will open my own fabulous fashion boutique and sell some of my old gowns and accessories. If I make enough money, that lace fan will be mine.

Back home, the whole family, even Jo-Jo and Bree's little brother Freddy, pitch in to create an al fresco boutique a la Belle's with "Bargains Galore," and as Frenchy's sign proclaims, "Dogs Welcome!" Nancy makes her first sale to twins Rhonda and Wanda. Wanda's a bit short on funds to pay for a glamorous necklace with genuine fake diamonds, but promises to return with her allowance money on the next day to pay for it. But there's a problem. Nancy's little sister, heretofore glamour proof, suddenly has to have it. But a deal is a deal, and Nancy has to say no to Jo-Jo. She tries appealing to her sister's fashion sense:

"Pirates don't wear rhinestone necklaces."

But her little sister is disconsolate. Nancy somehow feels bad for her sister. After all, it is her birthday. At last, Nancy gathers up her entrepreneurial earnings and treks over to persuade (that's fancy for getting somebody to do what you want) Wanda to accept a refund on the necklace. But Wanda takes a markup on the merchandise and drives a hard bargain, and Nancy is left with only pocket change, not enough to buy that lovely lace fan.

Still, Jo-Jo is thrilled with her eye patch and the sparkly necklace and wears both with her party pirate attire. Nancy bounces back with her usual elan, and when rain spoils the outdoor pirate treasure hunt, she comes through with an alternate activity--a dress-up fashion show for the little kids, using her leftover merchandise, with Nancy herself doing the fashion commentary and teaching them runway technique balancing bananas on their heads. The party is saved, and when it's time to blow out the four candles on the treasure chest cake, Nancy leans back against her dad with a feeling that she's done the right thing.

"You are a wonderful big sister," my dad whispers to me. I feel so happy, almost like it's my birthday too.

Jane O'Connor's just published Fancy Nancy and the Fabulous Fashion Boutique (Harper, 2010) shows our tutu-togged heroine in action. Nancy may be a first-class fashionista, but even better than her fashion sense is her ability to improvise her way through life's little fiascoes with a warm heart and inventive head. Robin Preiss Glasser's illustrations only grow more artful at portraying personality and emotion in her subjects' posture and expressions, and the deft details in her illustrations continue to give these picture books plenty of pizazz.

Big sister Fancy Nancy once again proves that she's the gal with the right stuff--and not just in her closet!

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Happy Endings: Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm

I blame Hollywood. Mama's watched so many pictures that she believes in happy endings. She's been waiting her whole life to find someone who'll sweep her off her feet and take care of her.

Me? I think life's more like that cartoon by Mr. Disney--The Three Little Pigs. Some big bad wolf's always trying to blow down your house.

It's 1935, deep Depression days. Turtle's mama favors Shirley Temple's perky optimism, but Turtle's patron saint is Little Orphan Annie. Sure, she doesn't have a dog like Sandy, but she has a cat, Smokey, with a singed tail, courtesy of some mean boys, who's just as loyal and just as smart. But despite her pretty mama's ability to find a succession of men friends, all of them love her and leave her, and Turtle has about given up on Daddy Warbucks to come to her rescue.

But just as Mama lands a housekeeping job with a rich lady and hooks up with Archie, a salesman that even Smokey the cat falls for, Turtle's frail hopes for a happy ending fall through again. Her crotchety boss hates kids and Mama decides to send her to live with her estranged family in Key West.

Key West in 1935 is no tourist paradise. Even the thick-skinned Turtle, used to being the bullied and tormented "housekeeper's daughter," finds it less than welcoming. "Truth is," she thinks, "the place looks like a broken chair that's been left out in the sun to rot." Her worn and harried Aunt Minnie is not thrilled when she shows up: she already has three raggle-taggle boys, Kermit, Beans, and little Buddy, who is usually missing his pants, and her energy and the family's budget is clearly stretched to the limit already. The boys are no less underwhelmed at the sight of their new girl cousin, but Aunt Minnie makes room for her, and in her aunt's quiet strength and determination Turtle senses a kindred spirit.

So, too, is sponge fisherman Slow Poke, whose grey eyes are strangely like her own, who occasionally hires her as a hand on his boat and who also likes to pretend that the two of them are Terry and Pat from the comic strip Terry and the Pirates, entertaining her with tales of pirate treasure to be found in the Keys. Reluctantly, the boys begin to allow her to tag along as a non-member on their almost daily rounds as the Diaper Gang.

"We watch of babies," says Kermit. "Bad ones."

"You ever take care of good babies?" I ask.

"Ain't no such thing."

Girls can't belong to the Diaper Gang, but there's one job the boys are glad to give her--feeding lunch to their ancient, disabled, and undeniably mean Nana Philly. Turtle is shocked to learn from her caretaker, Bea, that Nana Philly is her own grandmother and that her mama, newly pregnant ten years before and despairing of her boyfriend's support, was forced to leave Key West by her own mother. Still, Turtle is drawn to the old woman, who despite her habit of throwing her lunch on the floor every time it's offered, seems to hide some family secrets in her shrewd glances. Sticking to the job, Turtle slyly bests the old woman at her own game, finally earning grudging smiles every time she appears.

And it is Smokey who adopts Nana Philly as well and who leads her to an amazing discovery. Hidden in Nana Philly's termite-ridden piano, Turtle discovers something better than Daddy Warbucks' fortune--a gold coin and a crude map which says
This being Where Blacke Caesar putte His Treaffure.

This might just be the key to that happy ending her Mama needs, and Turtle even enlists the Diaper Gang to help commandeer a boat to a tiny nearby key, with nothing but a crumbling cistern, a sagging shack, and, they hope, a marker which will show them where to dig for Black Caesar's pirate gold.

And they do find that marker and many feet below in the sand they find a chest that is indeed filled with gold. But their joy soon turns to terror. Their boat has broken its moorings and they are marooned. Still, the area is a favorite of fishermen and spongers, there is water in the cistern, and they have good reason to hope for a rescue. But then Beans points out the weather signs that have gone unnoticed. A storm is approaching and it looks to be a bad one.

Indeed, it is the historic Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, and this time Turtle is sure that there is no happy ending ahead for her.

Newbery Award-winner Jennifer L. Holms (for Our Only May Amelia (Harper Trophy Books) and Penny from Heaven) knows how to create crackerjack characters (even a cameo of Papa Ernest Hemingway), each so indelibly drawn that they seem like people you've always known, quirky, imperfect, but fully human. Her impeccable storytelling skills sweep the plot along at what at first appears a leisurely, meandering pace but which draws to a suspenseful climax that seems the mythical happy ending. But like one of Beethoven's symphonies, that false ending is only building to the real resolution, surprising but oh, so satisfying, that is the hallmark of the master storyteller. As the writer for Kirkus Reviews puts it, Holm's Turtle in Paradise (Random House, 2010) is "sweet, funny and superb." I couldn't say it better.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Out of Body Experience: Zen Ghost by Jon Muth

"Michael! There's a ghost outside!" said Karl.

"What?" asked Michael."

"A big scary-looking ghost."

"Is it Stillwater?"

"It doesn't have Stillwater's face," said Karl.

"Yes, it does. Come in, Stillwater." said Addie. Happy Halloween!"

The three kids are planning their costumes for a big night of trick-or-treating. Addy has a beautiful shimmery moon princess gown; Karl is designing his monster of awesome destruction costume; and Michael is torn between being a pirate and an owl.

"This is a very special Halloween. There is going to be a full moon, and I know someone who will tell you a ghost story," Stillwater promises them.

Michael decides on a pirate costume, and as it begins to darken, the three set out to score some treats. As the big Zen panda promised, the night is perfect. The sky is a deep Sapphire blue, the full moon is rising, and the street is filled with costumed kids--and had they looked closely, some not-so-human sojourners as well.

The kids garner a good haul and then trek through the moonlight to their appointed meeting place with Stillwater--a stone wall just through some autumn woods where Stillwater has promised to meet to take them to their storyteller. As Addy and Karl argue over trading treats, a masked and wispy white figure approaches.

"Boo!" said Stillwater. "Follow me."

The kids follow their bulky leader's ghostly form through the moonlight toward his house, which is already beginning to be artfully shrouded in mist. Inside they seat themselves on the floor as Stillwater indicates and a large panda who looks much like Stillwater takes a seat before them to tell his tale. Stillwater seats himself on the floor behind the children, and the storyteller begins.

It is a tale of two children, the closest of friends, who grow up expecting to be married. But the father of the young girl, Senjo, decides to marry her off to a rich older man who can provide for her and her whole family better than the poor young Ocho. On the eve of the wedding, Ocho, who cannot bear to see his love married to someone else, leaves their village, rowing his boat down the lake. But as he puts some distance behind him, he sees a shadowy figure following him along the bank. It is Senjo, and although the two know that what they are doing will be seen as wrong by their elders, Ocho takes Senjo into his boat and they travel far away to begin their lives together.

But after some time has passed, Senjo longs to see her family, and Ocho agrees to return with her and suffer the wrath of her father to make his wife happy. When they arrive at her father's dock, Ocho offers to go first to the father's door while Senjo waits behind. But when her father sees him at the door, he grows pale with astonishment, and leads Ocho to a room where a thin, shadowy, but familiar figure lies alone in the bed. Could it be Senjo, the same dear wife he has left waiting by the lake?

The children turn questioningly to Stillwater, but in the place where he was sitting there lies only his mask. There is but one Stillwater in the room, and he is the storyteller still sitting before them.

"That was a good story," said Abby. "Thank you."

As in his earlier books, Zen Shorts (Collector's Edition) (Zen) and Zen Ties Jon Muth's new Zen Ghosts (Scholastic, 2010) leaves the reader with much to contemplate. His Zen ghost story works as a straightforward atmospherically spooky story, and Muth's glowing illustrations are both stunningly realistic and emotionally evocative. Stillwater's paper white paper lantern echoes the image of the full moon, and Muth's autumn-tinged landscape contrasts satisfyingly with the cold white light of his full moon, underscoring his theme of dual existence. While the "doppelganger" is not unknown as a motif in European ghost stories, some youngsters will be a bit perplexed at the meaning behind Stillwater's story's surprising conclusion. Others who know the previous books will take what they can from the story and ponder its meaning on their own.

Muth's appendix explains the tale as derived from "The Gateless Gate," a koan, which he defines as "a question you have to answer for yourself"--one which appeals "directly to the intuitive part of the human consciousness."

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Name Game: My Name Is Not Isabella by Jennifer Fosberry

"COME ON, ISABELLA!" THE MOTHER SAID.

"IT'S TIME TO GET OUT OF BED."

"MY NAME IS NOT ISABELLA!" SAID THE LITTLE GIRL. "I AM SALLY, THE GREATEST, TOUGHEST ASTRONAUT WHO EVER WAS."

"WELL, SALLY, BLAST OUT OF BED, PUT ON YOUR SPACESUIT, AND COME DOWNSTAIRS FOR BREAKFAST."

But by the time our would-be heroine shows up for breakfast, she has shifted roles. Now she's Annie, the "greatest shooter who ever was." Heading out to the bus stop, she announces that she is now "Rosa, the greatest, bravest activist who ever was." Her mom is seemingly unruffled by her daughter's identity shifting.

"Well, ROSA, MARCH OUT AND TAKE YOUR SEAT ON THE BUS.

And so it goes through the day. Isabella's imagination morphs her into the scientist Marie Curie during science class, and when she returns home and is asked to set the table for dinner, she announces that she is now ...

..."ELIZABETH, THE GREATEST, KINDEST DOCTOR WHO EVER WAS."

"WELL, ELIZABETH, HAVE PATIENCE WITH YOUR MOTHER AND USE THE NICE PLATES, PLEASE."

In her new My Name Is Not Isabella: Just How Big Can a Little Girl Dream? (Jabberwocky, 2010), Jennifer Fosberry's lesson in women's history goes down easily, abetted by an appendix with information on Isabella's alternate identities and web sites for further investigation. Isabella even kindly tips one of her many hats toward the role of "Mommy" as she gets ready for bed, ready to rest up to see what she can be tomorrow.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Behave Yourself! Being a Pig Is Nice: A Child's Eye View of Manners by Sally Lloyd-Jones

When you are a PIG, it's not polite to be clean. It's very rude.

You have to get muddy or you get in trouble.

And when you're filthy and yucky enough, your daddy will say, "Good job, my little piggy, all nice and muddy and ready for bed.

BUT, when you ARE a PIG, you smell...and that's not nice!"

There are plenty of laughs at the crucial differences between appropriate human and animal behaviors in Sally Lloyd-Jones' Being a Pig Is Nice: A Child's-Eye View of Manners, (Schwartz & Wade, 2009) but if you look just a bit beneath the surface, there's also some subtle teachings on the reasons for human manners. Skipping the nightly bath and going to bed filthy may seem a treat, but smelling like a PIG--not so much!

Lloyd-Jones points up the other side of being an owl and making noise all night. ("Stop that naughty sleeping right now! Don't make me fly over there or you'll be sorry!") and being a monkey ("You know the drill, young lady! Mouth open wide and show me your food! Now burp like a good little monkey!") Elephants get to splash everyone whether they like it or not, and snails get to dawdle even when they're impatient. And monsters? Your mom is always saying, "Are you going to be good? I HOPE NOT!"

But owls have to eat mice for breakfast, and snails have to be slimy, and monkeys have to eat grubs out of everyone's ears, and even monsters can't ever be good, even if they're in a mellow mood, so maybe it's not so bad just to be a polite child sometimes!

In Being a Pig Is Nice: A Child's-Eye View of Manners, Sally Lloyd-Jones and cartoonist/artist Don Krall enjoy a humorous look at human etiquette, poking gentle fun at moms and their warnings, but all in all making it seem generally preferable to stick to our tried and true human ways.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Moonlighting: Welcome to Monster Town by Ryan Hashka

THE SUN SETS ON MONSTER TOWN

AND THE CITY WAKES UP.

THE ZOMBIES ARE ON THEIR WAY TO WORK.

It's just another ho-hum workaday night in Monster Town. The yellow ghoul bus stops for monster kids to clamber aboard with their BatBoy lunchboxes in hand. Zombie office workers mumble their "How's it goin'?" to each other as they schlep to work with briefcases in one hand and a cuppa Joe in the other.

The ghost writers at the Monster City Gazette cover the news and crank out the haunt ads; and ghostmen with their monster mailbags dodge the usual dogs trying to bite their bony ankles as they deliver monster mail to Vampyra, Dr.Acula, and Lon Chaney. Master electrician Frank N. Stein, is ready to shock 'em all, and United Scare Lines is preparing a jetliner for takeoff.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Ryan Haska lets no old chestnut go unroasted in his Welcome to Monster Town (Christy Ottaviano Books) (Henry Holt, 2010). There are plenty of groaners in the brief text of his latest picture book for the primary reader, and although they may be old stuff to adults, they'll be fresh and new (and may require a bit of explanation) for youngsters new to spoofery. After all, that's the way these old gags live on to, er, haunt us. Who wouldn't giggle at vampires hard at work at--where else--the Monster Town Blood Bank? Second- and third-graders, who relish this kind of humor, will find this one, with its juicy visual gags done up in Hashka's appropriately monster-ish murky greens and blood red illustrations, good fun for the scary season.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Art for Art's Sake: Art & Max by David Wiesner

HEY, ART! THAT'S GREAT!

THE NAME IS ARTHUR.

I CAN PAINT, TOO, ARTHUR.

YOU, MAX? OH, ALL RIGHT. JUST DON'T GET IN THE WAY.

WHAT SHOULD I PAINT?

WELL, YOU COULD PAINT ME.


Little green Max is drawn to art by its colors and shapes, a would-be apprentice to the supercilious and somewhat solipsistic Arthur, who fancies himself the old master of classic realism. But little Max takes the invitation at face value, gleefully sloshing blue, yellow, orange, and purple acrylic paint all over the outraged Art.

OH, MAX... WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?

Max is nothing if not resourceful. He obediently brings a hose to blast the paint off of Art, leaving him wet, a pastel ghost of his former self. Max then brings a fan to dry Art out, and as he does the paint cracks, and falls away, like a shedding of his reptilian skin, leaving his Art a pale watercolor remnant of his former self.

Discombobulated, Art confesses to feeling rather washed out, and the ever-helpful little Max offers him a restorative drink of water. But as it goes down, the color washes out of him totally, leaving nothing of Art but a black-line outline. Flustered, little Max grabs Art's tail and shakes him vigorously--and the mistreated Arthur unravels and collapses into a pile of black, kinky yarn around the mystified Max's feet. The would-be artist's apprentice is left with nothing but the basics of art (and Art)--the line.

It's figuratively back to the drawing board for the aspiring artist, as Max tries to replicate Art's form, with several hitches along the way. His first try looks like a crayoned Kindergarten attempt at sketching a horned toad.

MORE DETAIL, I THINK.

Gradually, Max's skills progress, until a reasonable facsimile of the original Art stands before him in outline form.

HOW'S THAT?

ACCEPTABLE, I SUPPOSE, BUT DON'T FORGET MY FOOT.

But little Max soon grows weary of reapplying the color with the traditional artist's brush and finally resorts to vacuuming up his spilled paint and reversing the flow so that Art is doused with a colorful spray that gives his skin a definitely pointillistic treatment. Amazingly, Art is amused and intrigued with the effect.

FASCINATING!

Three-time Caldecott Award winner David Wiesner's work never fails to stretch the limits of the picture book medium. Moving from the ocean setting of his award-winning Flotsam (Caldecott Medal Book), in his new Art & Max (Clarion, 2010), he turns to the dry and neutral shades of the desert as the background for his canvas as he explores the media of color in the creative process. Despite the rather cerebral nature of his theme, Wiesner's genius for creating character and humor in his characters' faces make this a delightful story for the young. Max is a joyful youngster who approaches art with a childlike freshness that emphasizes the fun of exploring its media. Art teachers will also find this story intriguing, as in all of Wiesner's work, it explores the art of really seeing the world with fresh eyes, wide open. A funny tale of two reptiles and an art lesson--all in one!

Wiesner here narrates the trailer for his newest book in explanation of his own thinking about the creative process.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Zap Flap! The Witchy Wories of Abbie Adams by Rhonda Hayter

Come to think of it, the day my brother tried to eat his first-grade teacher turned out to be the same day that my dad brought me home a very, very strange cat.

Abbie is used to the problems that go along with being a witch-in-training in a wizardly family. She finds it hard to remember to conceal her special abilities from her best friend Callie, and she only grumblingly puts up with her mom's insistence that she forgo magic and do her chores the hard way.

But when her first-grade brother Munch tries to morph into a wolf and chomp his teacher to keep out of timeout, Aggie has to zap off a quick timefreeze spell, persuade Munch to take his punishment calmly, and then throw in a tardy forgetting spell on everyone around to cover her tracks. A little too slow to return to class, her slipshod magic earns her a trip to the principal's office. Back home at last, the day is saved from total misery by her dad, who shows up from work with a tiny black kitten for her. After months of begging for a pet, Aggie is thrilled.

But the more she bonds with little Tom, the more she begins to wonder what kind of kitten he is. He seems actually to enjoy looking at her science textbook, and before long she realizes that the kitty can read--and quite well, knocking off scientific tomes as fast as she can check them out of the library for him. Then she finds him typing notes to her on her computer with his tiny paws. Suddenly Abbie gets it--Tom is really Thomas Edison, inventive genius, changed into a kitten at the age of 13. Although her mom and dad finally come up with a spell to return him to human form, they all realize that unless they can get Tom back to his own period in time to make all his world-altering inventions, history will be irretrievably changed.

Half in a trance from watching the pizzas in the microwave turn round and round as the cheese started to bubble, Tom murmured. "Um...I can't quite seem to recollect...'

"Technology," I answered.

"You know, Tom, if it weren't for a lot of the things you're going to invent, most of these things we use every day wouldn't even be around. Like if you hadn't invented a system to get electricity into people's houses, we sure wouldn't be microwaving pizzas right now. And if you hadn't thought up a way to record sound, we wouldn't be hearing that heavy metal Munch is blasting upstairs."

"Oh, Bother," said Tom, as he winced at the loud thumping of the bass. "P'raps I ought to rethink that one...once I finally think of it."

Despite her witchy worries, Abbie is the prime mover in this plot, and with the foiling of the bad-apple wizard behind the whole evil time-altering magic, the young witch manages to help solve their problem and make the world safe for microwaved pizza and heavy metal sound with wit and humor.

It's a candy-corn fiction confection with a kernel of time-travel suspense and a niblet of common sense and good will thrown in, and fans of the Disney sit-com The Wizards of Waverley Place will slip seamlessly right in to the dilemma of a young witch trying to make it in the muggle world. Aggie is a likable and lively character who isn't sparing with her endearing nonstop self narration, and The Witchy Worries of Abbie Adams (Dial Books, 2010) is a welcome addition to the popular tales of good little witches muddling along in a muggle world.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Don't Look Back! On a Windy Night by Nancy Raines Day

ON A WINDY NIGHT ON A WINDING ROAD
A BOY WALKS HOME WITH A HEAVY LOAD.

WHAT'S THAT? HIS HEART FLIP-FLOPS WITH FEAR.
A WHISPER RUSTLES IN HIS EAR.

CLICKETY-CLACK. BONES IN A SACK.
THEY COULD BE YOURS IF YOU LOOK BACK.

It's a setup for a really creepy tale. A boy walks home carrying a heavy sack, the clouds scuttle over the moon, and it's almost too dark to see. But as he walks down a hill and into a dark wood, he just knows he's hearing a whisper in his ear:


CLICKETY-CLACK. BONES IN A SACK.
THEY COULD BE YOURS. DON'T LOOK BACK!

WHO? DO YOU MEAN ME?
WHO ELSE? OWL HOOTS BACK FROM HIS TREE.

In the woods rough ghostly fingers seem to brush his face, and as he emerges into the windswept field, skeletons dance with much clicking and clacking. Fast and faster the boy goes, but when he stumbles and falls to the ground his fingers graze a motionless head that feels like it's dead!

Then he's almost home, running into his own backyard where a dark shadow seems to grab at his legs. Will he be caught here, almost at his own back door?


THE HAIRY BEAST SITS ON HIS SHOE.
AND IT MAKES A MEEK--ME-EW.

SO THE BOY SCOOPS UP HIS CAT.
THEY BOTH GO HOME--AND THAT IS THAT.
In Nancy Raines Day's just-in-time for Halloween On a Windy Night (Abrams, October, 2010), her rhyming text sets the reader or listener up for a truly scary dash through the dark, with something so scary just behind that we dare not look! Ghosts, skeletons, scary heads, hairy beasts, all those figments of the dark imagination are there. And at first glance, the illustrations set the scene for the same story.

But in a closer look, almost concealed by the dark, we see what's behind all these scary sounds. Dry leaves and bare branches brush the boy's face and legs; dry corn stalks crickle and crackle in the wind, ripe pumpkins scatter across the field, and a little black cat jumps out to greet his boy with a pounce--and finally, as a mouse spills the boy's trick-or-treat candy bag onto the floor with a clickety-clack, we know what that rattle and clack that seemed to follow the boy all the way home really was. It's all in great fun, and the scary walk home after Halloween trick-or-treating becomes a funny case of overblown imagination. Whew! What a trip!

For Halloween fun, pair this one with Linda Williams' wonderful classic, The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, for a duo of just-scary-enough Halloween stories for the young.

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