Thursday, March 31, 2011

Secret Lives of School Supplies: The Little Red Pen by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel





It's nighttime in the classroom, and Teacher's desk is piled high with unchecked papers. Red Pen, her dutiful administrative assistant, hears the call of duty. But there's a mutiny among Teacher's other tools of the trade in her drawer. Do Stapler, Scissors, Eraser, No. 2 Pencil, Green Highlighter, and Pushpin (alias Senorita Chincheta) answer the call? Nope!

"Not I," they all say, listing a litany of complaints and miseries. Pencil is sharpened down to a nub; Scissors is getting dull from all his cutting up; Eraser's suffering from brain shrinkage, and all of them fear the ultimate end for over-the-hill office supplies, the Point of No Return, THE TRASH, where their former comrade-in-arms, Black Felt-Tip, was discarded when his cap was left off.

And Tank, the overweight and underexercised classroom hamster, is no help either. He snoozes on, in the shadow of his now rusty exercise wheel. So Red Pen soldiers on alone through the long night, scritch-scratching through the endless math papers and language arts worksheets, until at last she wobbles wearily, stumbles blearily, and rolls--off the desk!



There's nothing for it but to mount a rescue for their leader, and the supplies are at last out of the drawer and on the job. What to do? Suffice it to say that the daring desk-drawer deliverers take stock of their resources, creating a paperclip chain and coming up with a clever block and tackle apparatus involving a formerly unused hamster wheel and a suddenly er, motivated Tank, who, aroused to morph into Tankzilla by the pointedly talented Chincheta, takes an unexpected marathon run on his wheel and their lost leader is thus lifted out of school supply limbo.



In award-winning Janet Stevens' and daughter Susan Stevens Crummel's The Little Red Pen (Harcourt Houghton Mifflin, 2011) there's plenty to turn on the tickle boxes of sophisticated picture book readers--the clever takeoff on the venerable Little Red Hen motif, nifty wordplay on the properties of the sluggish supplies, and the clever climax which even throws in a gratis lesson in simple machines. Stevens' comic drawings do much to raise this detailed plot to high humor which sharp second and third-graders will readily appreciate. This tale is all set to become an, um, staple of schoolroom literature.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Case of the Purloined Eggs: April Adventure by Ron Roy

Brian sat up and rubbed his eyes. "Hey, what's this?" he asked. He held up a blue plastic egg. "It was on my pillow!"

"My egg had a note inside!" Bradley said, showing his egg.

"We all have notes!" Lucy said. "Mine says, GO WHERE A ROSE GROWS. SIGNED, THE SHADOW."

Nate crawled out of his sleeping bag. "Mine says, THERE YOU WILL FIND DIRECTIONS TO THE TREASURE. It's signed THE SHADOW, too!"

"Cool," Lucy said. "I love treasure hunts! But who's the Shadow?"

The second-grade siblings of those intrepid detectives made famous in Ron Roy's top-selling A to Z Mysteries, love a mystery, too, and when they head to the rose garden in the park downtown, they have no trouble finding the hidden plastic eggs. But one note inside tells them to find the golden eggs to claim their prize, but there are no golden eggs to be found. It's a mystery, and the young sleuths soon rise to the challenge.

A bit of traditional gumshoe legwork leads them to heir neighbor Mr. Pocket, who suggests that they concentrate on the nesting swans in the park. With that piece of information the four kids run back to the pond, where they find that the swans are not the least bit interested in letting them look for golden eggs in their nests. But like their super-sleuth siblings, these young detectives soon figure out what to do next, an investigation which also leads to an ecological adventure.

Young independent readers who are not quite ready for author Roy's popular A to Z detectives, will be glad to see his latest entry into the beginning chapter genre, Calendar Mysteries #4: April Adventure (A Stepping Stone Book(TM)), this one written in a very accessible Grade 1.8 reading level. With his illustrator John Steven Gurney's appealing illustrations, full- and half-page, throughout, this book boasts nine chapters and a real big-kid look for those just taking their first steps into reading an extended story on their own. Roy's Calendar Mysteries are a boon to the youngest beginning chapter readers with manageable vocabulary, familiar neighborhood settings, and appealing young characters who think for themselves.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Secrets of the Pyramids: The Last Pharoah by R. L. LeFevers

Mother stared at me for a long moment. "Your grandmother is right. You are a peculiar child."

Her words stung me to the quick. Peculiar? Peculiar!

All the joy and promise of this trip evaporated. One part of me longed to explain the true reasons I acted so peculiar, but I didn't think the true reasons would make her feel any better. In fact, she would most likely ship me off to a sanatorium if she knew that I spent most of my time removing black magic and ancient curses from rare and powerful artifacts in the Museum of Legends and Antiquities that my parents oversaw back in London. Or that I spent quite a lot of energy avoiding secret societies that would love to get their hands on those artifacts and use them for their own evil ends. No, Mother wouldn't consider those reasons any less peculiar.

No, mother doesn't know the half of it, and Theodosia Throckmorton, with the powerful Orb of Ra in her Victorian reticule and the Emerald Tablet concealed in her smuggled cat 's basket, is on a mission for the Keepers of the Secrets to return those magical objects to her Egyptian allies, webjedin. Undercover as a demure eleven-year-old, Theodosia knows she must return the sacred relics, long held in England, without letting them fall into the hands of the Serpents of Chaos, all the while keeping these midnight activities a secret from her mother, who has only grudgingly brought her along to Egypt to help discover the tomb of Thutmose III.

Theodosia has long sensed that she somehow has the power to sense the hekau, ancient magical powers and curses left behind by the gods of Egypt, and once in Cairo her senses are almost overwhelmed by the miasma of these forces all around her. Still, she find allies in the form of Major Grindle, a British officer who is also a clandestine Keeper of the Secrets, and Hadji, a donkey boy who himself seems to have an aura of power despite his rags and small size.

Despite her best efforts, however, Theodosia finds herself falling into the hands of the henchmen of Chaos, and then her mother and Hadji, whom the Keepers and the Serpents of Chaos believe is the last and future Pharoah of a liberated Egypt, are also kidnapped and held for an unthinkable ransom, a price which only Theodosia can pay.

R. L. LeFevers' Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh (The Theodosia Series) (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), the fourth book in the notable Theodosia Series, proves to be the most engrossing adventure yet. Set in a turn-of-the-century Egypt awash in its own anticolonialist chaos, this episode has plenty of atmosphere as Theodosia transcends the restraints upon young girls of the period in midnight missions among the pyramids to foil skullduggerous villains, including the ever-reincarnated villain Braggenschnott and his minions of doom, the secret society of Chaos, which seeks to turn the powers of ancient Egypt into their own evil ends. Theodosia understands that she has a role to play and bravely uses her own developing powers in an atmospheric adventure story which will keep readers riveted to the page.

Despite its place as fourth in the series, this novel easily stands alone. In the hands of master storyteller LeFevers, Theodosia matures, growing in the recognition of her own powers and in her growing understanding that she is indeed a Rekhet, a descendant of the magical seer priestesses of ancient Egypt and that her peculiarity is no quirk of nature, but a magical bequest descended to her through her little-known grandfather. And we sense that with her now-understood true nature, Theodosia will return to the eternal struggle between the powers of good and evil with renewed powers in the next volume.

Fans of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians and his Egypt-centered The Kane Chronicles will find Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh (The Theodosia Series) familiar fantasy adventure territory.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Unflappable! Splat the Cat: Where's the Easter Bunny? by Rob Scotton



Splat is back in another holiday adventure. This time he sets forth to find the Easter Bunny and make sure that he knows to bring him an extra large Easter egg.

Never mind that the day before Easter is E.B.'s busiest day of the year. Splat is an exuberant first-grader, and he's just sure he can uncover that undercover Bunny in time.


Splat starts at home, looking behind his car. No Easter Bunny. He looks in his backyard shed. No Easter Bunny, just a lot of very strange-looking ducks! Hmmm!

The search continues through the town, with Splat repeating his question everywhere he goes--behind doors, behind the open front section of the town newspaper, THE SGRATGHING POST, with its headline EASTER BUNNY MISSING! where he disturbs a perturbed citizen reading, behind a sign proclaiming "Easter Parade Tomorrow" being put up by his teacher Mrs. Whimpydimple, behind umbrellas held by his buddies Spike and Kitten, and even in his own mailbox.

Nope. Just a package addressed cheerily to Splat the Cat.

There's a sturdy flap to be opened for each place Splat searches, and behind it a familiar character in this best-selling series, while in the background, of course, Splat overlooks the subject of his search, the Easter Bunny, partly visible on almost every page--his ears sticking up from the bathtub beside which Splat's sister has just donned her pink robe, in the store window displays he passes downtown, with his back turned in a phone booth, and just skedaddling over the hill ahead of Splat, leaving telltale colored eggs in his wake.

Kids will probably spot the evidence of the Easter Bunny way before grownups do in Rob Scotton's latest Splat the Cat: Where's the Easter Bunny? (Schwartz & Wade, 2011). Splat is an irresistible character, his fur bristling with energy and his jittery tail always a-wave, filled with the curiosity he shares with his young readers.

Scotton, author of the popular Russell the Sheep books, has a winner here. His series of lift-the-flap paperbacks for the preschool set are a welcome addition to the hardback Splat the Cat series, featuring sturdy flaps with jolly surprises hidden beneath and a repetitive text which youngsters can easily memorize, making this one an "I can read it all by myself" book even for the youngest non-readers, one with lots of visual humor, and an ending which ties the whole book together in a most satisfying way--in an Easter basket with a jaunty bow, some strange-looking ducks--and an EXTRA BIG Easter egg for Splat.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mixed Media: Diary of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules-- The Movie

What do you get when you cross an insightful, yet clueless soliloquy on the middle school life as lived by a cartoon stick figure with a full-length feaure live-action film? Well, you get a lot of sight-gag-cum-pratfall humor and some genuine belly laughs which finally underscore one of the themes of Jeff Kinney's beloved and best-selling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series--you win some and you lose some.

Greg Heffley and his sidekick the ever-eager, ever-rotund Rowley are ready for some respect as they return to middle school as sophisticated seventh graders. Greg immediately falls into a mega-crush on new girl Holly Hills. She's gorgeous, a fashion model with long platium hair, and she's a good six inches taller than he is, so Greg decides to put the moves on her before she figures out he's at the bottom of the middle-school pecking order.

Meanwhile back at home Greg's mom instigates a little behavior modification on her warring sons, promising Greg and his downright devilish older brother Rodrick "Mom bucks" for spending quality time together. Rodrick quickly figures out how to game this system at Greg's expense, and when he filches Greg's famous diary and threatens to make public his secret crush, Greg's future is seriously compromised. Then, when Mom and Dad head off for a festive weekend, leaving the warring older brothers grounded at home, Rodrick stages a teen party which Greg and Rowley manage to crash, and keeping this episode secret makes temporary but uneasy allies of the two brothers.

But eventually even Greg's ineffectual Dad discovers the conspiracy of silence and the two malefactors are seriously busted, with Rodrick grounded from appearing with his band Loded Diper at the town talent show. Then Greg, in an act of unforeseen brotherly love, negotiates a compromise that lets Rodrick finally become a star--or so he thinks, until the script writers unexpectedly give Greg--and the viewer--the last, best laugh in the final moments of the film.

Script writers Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah keep the gags coming as they subject poor Greg to various comic humiliations--falling into a birthday cake at the roller rink as he tries to impress the lovely Holly, taking refuge clad only in his tightie whities in the ladies' restroom at Granddad's retirement home, and getting second best even in his encounters with now familiar classmates Chirag, Patty, and Fregley. Young actors Zach Gordon and Devon Bostick as Greg and Rodrick steal the show from their elders, especially the unfortunate Steve Zahn as Dad Frank Heffley, whose few lines are marred by painfull overacting. Supporting young players Robert Capron as Rowley and Grayson Russell as Fregley, one-dimensional as their roles must be, are at least dead ringers for their cartoon counterparts and have their own comic moments.

If the film suffers from the absence of the book's ironic narrator, whom some critics have likened to a younger Holden Caulfield and whose evaluations of the middle school scene are both hilarious and spot on, the writers keep the plot rolling and the laughs coming fast enough to make this movie well worth the short time spent in the cineplex.

Diary of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules is rated PG and runs 96 minutes.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Time Off: Little Chimp's Big Day by Lisa Schroeder


Whoops! Little Chimpanzee looks around, but Mom is nowhere in sight. Still... it is kinda interesting down here on the jungle floor.

And soon Little Chimp is off on his first grand adventure. He finds a jungle stream and tries to cross on a stepping stone when--the stone turns out to be the nice wide back of Hippo Baby and Little Chimp enjoys a free float downstream. But then his "boat" hears his daddy calling, and Little Chimp has to disembark in a hurry, Where can that mommy be? But a curious little chimpanzee has a short attention span and soon finds more new things to explore. He swings on vines, snacks on handy bananas, and dodges a leopard lying on a tree branch, all the while wondering Where is my mommy?

Of course, in Lisa Schroeder's Little Chimp's Big Day (Sterling, 2010) Little Chimp is the only one who doesn't know where Mother is. Illustrator Lisa McCue has her following along on Little Chimp's adventures, peeking through the leafy fronds on the jungle floor, hiding along the river bank, and following through the trees, until at last the little wanderer finds his way home and right into her waiting lap.

It's a pleasant excursion into the evergreen theme of the little runaway getting his first taste of being on his own, all well within the watchful eyes of his mother. Schroeder, known for her young adult novels, here provides a comforting outing for those little ones just contemplating their first solo steps into adventure in the wide world. A new tale to pair with Margaret Wise Brown's classic The Runaway Bunny.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Living on the Edge: Queen of the Falls by Chris Van Allsburg

Along the shoreline, waiting crowds spotted Annie's barrel, carried along in a raging river that became more violent as it raced toward the awful drop. The widow was on her way.

For a few seconds--one...two...three--Annie floated slowly and upright. She could hear the falls roaring, even through her thick oak barrel.

"Oh, Lord," she whispered, and then she was gone

Annie Taylor is in a pickle. Grown gray and elderly and stout, she can no longer attract enough young students to her Mrs. Taylor's Charm School. It's 1891, and Social Security is four decades in the future, and Annie somehow has to find another way to support herself in her golden years.

But it is also the era of P. T. Barnum and newspaper sensationalism, and Annie's considerable intelligence and imagination lead her to an outrageous financial security plan: if she could be the first person to survive a trip over Niagara Falls, she could earn enough in public appearances to support herself comfortably into old age.

For an unimpressive-looking former teacher of etiquette and the waltz, Annie Taylor turns out to have remarkable skills. She hires a publicist and throws herself into the design and building of her own space capsule, a super-sturdy watertight barrel complete with safety belt and padding to protect her during her passage over the mighty falls. Convincing a cooper to construct her barrel is hard enough, and her agent Frank Russell has to do a bit of fudging the facts to persuade the press to cover Annie's upcoming feat, attempting to pass the rotund sixty-two year old matron off as a glamorous globe-trotting forty-two-year-old adventuress. With her image tweaked and her barrel built, all Annie has to do, she hopes, is to survive the event and her future will be secure.

Bravely, she gathers her skirts and climbs aboard the small boat that will ferry her to the falls.

"I will not say goodbye,"she told the reporters and spectators, "for I know I will see you all shortly."

Stopping at a small island near the point of no return above the falls, Annie backs into her barrel, adjusts her padding and belts, and waves goodbye to boatmen who seal her barrel for the final float to the edge.

A shout went up. "Here she comes!" Some faint-hearted spectators screamed as they saw the barrel go over, others cheered, but most just stood silently with their mouths wide open and stared at the foaming water around the bottom of the falls. There was no sign of Annie,not even a piece of oak.

Suddenly the barrel bobbed to the surface.

Chris Van Allsburg's forthcoming Queen of the Falls (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) tells the amazing story of the first person to survive a descent over Niagara Falls. It is not an account with an altogether happy ending. Annie's fame is short-lived and never very lucrative, and she is soon forced to eke out a meagre living selling souvenir postcards of herself and her barrel along the tourists' approach to the Falls.

But in the talented hands of the Caldecott Award-winning Allsburg (for The Polar Express and Jumanji) Annie Taylor reprises her heroic ride as the stalwart adventurer that she really was. Allsburg's sepia-toned pencil illustrations have the look of yellowed newspaper photos , but touches of his signature surrealism can be found in his opening illustration of a seventeen-story brick skyscraper embedded in the falls, in the overturned bud vase spilling its contents over the edge of her table as Annie becomes engrossed in her design drawings, and a broken egg in the foreground spilling from a tin can used as a model for herself inside her barrel. Allsburg also makes good use of his trademark shifting perspectives, changing cinematically from two-page long shots of the falls to dramatic closeups of Annie inside her cascading capsule and her horrified spectators in what is an altogether awesome effort by this noted illustrator.

Author Allsburg tells this strange story like it is, avoiding the urge to fall into a hagiographic biography of this unusual heroine. Since Annie's time, as Van Allsburg reveals in his brief appendix, there have been eight other successful trips over the falls, but if she did not earn the wealth she hoped for, at least in Queen of the Falls the remarkable Annie Taylor finds her share of lasting fame with a new generation as the first of the Niagara Falls daredevils:
" was the greatest feat ever performed," she said years later.

"And I am content when I can say, "I am the one who did it.'"

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Family Secrets: The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter

That night, Lucia lay in her bed, listening to nothing. The sound of nothing is the most ominous sound in the world. It's the sound a cat makes a second before it lunges for a mouse and sinks its arrow tippy teeth into the poor thing's neck. The sound of nothing was also the sound that Casper made right before he was about to leave them.

It's not for nothing that their schoolmates in the town of Little Tunk give the Hardscrabble kids a wide berth. Thirteen-year-old Otto never speaks--hasn't made an audible sound since his mother went missing when he was eight--and there's that black scarf around his neck, which along with his long blond hair, covers most of his pale face. Lucia (that's Lu-chee-ah, thank you) and Max are bright enough, maybe too bright to get along with their mundane age mates, so the kids stick with each other.

Their dad, Casper, is an odd one, too, making his living by painting portraits of the far-flung remnants of the world's cast-off royalty, a craft which often requires absences of several weeks and means that the children are sloughed off to stay with the ascerbic and misnamed Mrs. Carnival, an unimaginative village lady who obviously tolerates them only for the money.

Now, just as Lucia senses her father is about to be off again over their summer break, a letter comes from a mysterious relative, Great-Aunt Haddie Piggitt of Snoring-by-the-Sea, which ends with a thought-provoking P.S.:

What do the children know about their mother?

P.P.S. If the answer is "Yes," don't you think it's time you told them?

But just as the strong-minded Lucia is about to pursue this mystery, their father whisks them off to the railway station and puts them on the train to London to stay with his distant cousin Angela. Angela, however, is nowhere to be found when they arrive at her apartment, and when her dogwalker arrives to find the Hardscrabbles awakening from a rough layover in the hall, she tells them that Angela is off for a holiday in Germany. The Hardscrabbles reluctantly agree that there's nothing for it but to return to Little Tunks and throw themselves upon the none-too-gentle mercies of Mrs. Carnival until Casper's return. But on the way back to the station the kids are so frightened by a tattooed mugger that they abandon their bags, and escaping, find themselves stranded with very little money--only enough, it seems, to take the train to the nearby Snoring-by-the-Sea and seek refuge with the mysterious Great-Aunt Haddie.

Haddie, however, is not the expected elderly pensioner. She is a youngish and definitely offbeat woman who claims to have been their mother's only slightly older aunt and who has taken a summer rental of the Kneebone Castle's folly, a quirky but intriguing model of the deserted castle made for the children of the former owners, complete with scaled-down drawbridge, a miniature dungeon with mechanical rats where the children are put to bed, and a reputed underground secret passageway to the castle itself. Haddie feeds them on her despicably American peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and soup heated in her Bunsen burner, and regales them with stories of the folly's oddities and the neighborhood legend, The Kneebone Boy, a supposedly horribly hairy and deformed older brother of the folly's former residents kept prisoner somewhere in the castle.

The whole experience is exceedingly odd, even for the Hardscrabbles, admittedly the odd ones back in their own environs, but Max and Lucia especially are captivated by the Kneebone Boy tale and set out, with Haddie's nonchalant blessing, to discover the secrets of Kneebones' strange home and especially that secret passage.

How the resourceful Hardscrabbles solve that mystery and not incidentally one of their own makes for an amusing, absorbing, and suspenseful Gothic tale of a summer break like no other. What the three find at the end of that perilous, literally cliff-hanging secret passage changes everything for them and reveals mysteries, not of the Kneebone family so much as their own--including why Otto never takes off that black scarf.

Ellen Potter's The Kneebone Boy (Feiwel & Friends, 2010) is no sunny suburban mystery for a summer's day, but as a mystery/adventure, it has its own eccentric charm, rather like that of a Lemony Snicket with heart. The intrepid Hardscrabbles are an endearing and refreshing trio of young heroes, and the narrator (unrevealed but surely Lucia) has a memorable voice. As Kirkus Reviews succinctly says, "A quirky charmer." It is that.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Albert Lite: Meet Einstein by Mariela Kleiner


And so do kids, and that quality of being able to question the basis of how everything works is the one which gives kids the ability to appreciate what scientists do when they ask "Why?"

And certainly Albert Einstein was not afraid to ask the big "why?" when he searched into the secrets of energy and matter themselves.

Mariela Kleiner's Meet Einstein (Meet Books, 2010) cheerily takes on the challenge of introducing science and its foremost icon, Albert Einstein, to the youngest readers. Of course, her Einstein is not the messy, hairy, and sometimes quirky Albert of history, but the iconic cartoon-cute, lab-coated Einstein, with his shock of unruly white hair and mustache.

Kleiner's text introduces the concept of science and of scientists, those who ask the big questions about everything--what's in the sky, how plants, animals, and the human body live. Although Viviana Garifoli's illustrations are a bit misleading (Einstein probably didn't spend a lot of his adult working life with bubbling beakers, telescopes, or with micrometers, measuring frogs), her Einstein is appealing to children and does portray the breadth of science However, she does concentrate on his investigation of the nature of light itself and of gravity, which Kleiner's text introduces briefly in its role in maintaining the relationship of sun, moon, and planets in the solar system.




With their final illustration of a youthful scientist, with an Einsteinian shock of hair, author and illustrator tie together the idea of the scientist with children's curiosity about the unknown, the ultimate aim of this book. Meet Einstein providea a focal point for adults to introduce the idea of science and scientists in early childhood education, providing an easily understandable introduction to basic units on light and gravity, and a good way to inspire youngsters to look at the world in a new way.

And for those young students who want to know more about the man himself, a good next step is Don Brown's Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein,, an accessible picture-book biography which takes the preschool and primary student a bit further into the details of Einstein's early life and into the significance of the great issues of his mature work.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Down to Earth: Grounded by Kate Klise

I knew I should've cried, but I couldn't. I didn't feel sad. That's the other thing about funerals: sometimes you don't feel sad. You don't feel anything at all other than a sense of floating above yourself, and looking down on the scene, thinking: That's not really me; that's not really them.

Daralynn knows she should be dead, would've been dead, if her mom had not grounded her for fishing at Doc Lake without permission. Her pilot dad, big brother, and little sister went off for a fun flight around the countryside while she sulked on the porch, and they all died in an meaningless crash.

Now there's just Daralyn, her angry, dry-eyed mother, and her increasingly senile grandmother Mamaw, who adopts and cares for all the dolls kindly neighbors gave Dara after the funeral, the care that her mother is now incapable of offering her.

I began to think of my life as a time line. Before the Crash was B.C.. After the Deaths was A.D.

In my B.C. life my mother didn't have a job. Now in the A.D. era, Mother was going to be a hair stylist for dead people.

For most of my life B.C., I'd been part of a family of five. Now we were a family of two--Mother and me, plus Mamaw next door.

In the tiny town of Digginsville, Missouri, population 402, there aren't many jobs for a young widow, and although taking a job styling client's hair for the local undertaker seems a strange job for the recently bereaved, in her matter-of-fact way Daralyn accepts her mom's new job and even goes along to learn the hairdressing trade, setting up her own styling chair for the kids in town and inadvertently creating "La Frenchie," a local haircut sensation. when she mistakes a little girl for a boy and gives her a Marlon Brando do.

Despite her mother's disapproval, Daralynn finds support from her flamboyant Aunt Josie, and things are beginning to look up in Digginsville. Dara is even heartened when she learns that what she takes to be a fancy ice-cream parlor is soon to open there Then she discovers to her mortification that a crematorium is not a sweet shop, but major competition for her mother's employer. To make matters even more complicated, the proposed proprietor of Clem's Crematorium turns out to be a devastatingly handsome fast talker who sweet-talks Aunt Josie out of her nest egg as backing and sweeps her off her feet with a proposal of marriage.

But Daralynn, a girl with both feet on the ground, intuits that there's something underhanded about Clem and throws all her eleven-year-old detective skills into sleuthing out the truth behind the new venture. What she discovers sets even the sensible Dara back on her heels, and when she learns that the much-touted cremation equipment which Josie paid for has never been delivered to Clem's enterprise, she realizes that she has to find out what the shyster is actually doing with those bodies he's being paid to cremate.

In a midnight confrontation at Doc Lake, Dara nails the murderous malefactor and proves herself a worthy heroine in Kate Klise's latest novel, appropriately titled Grounded (Feiwel & Friends, 2010). Klise is known for her quirky, yet poignant characters, and the aptly named Digginsville denizens are no exception, as salty as tears and as grounded in the realities of life as a cemetery marker. Klise brings her characters to a realization of the beauty of living life and valuing each other while they can in a story that is both an absorbing mystery adventure and a lesson for the soul.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Nice on Ice: Dream Big, Little Pig by Kristi Yamaguchi



Poppy is perky and Poppy is perpetually optimistic, but she could use a bit of career counseling.

Despite the fact that she's a "pot-bellied, waddling, toddling pig" of unquestionably portly proportions, she persists in her dream of performing in the public eye. First she fixates on a career as a ballerina. Her parents and grandparents cheer her on, but her teacher catches her on to her clumsiness right away and dismisses her with a brisk "Dancing is NOT for you!"

Undaunted, Poppy proceeds to try for stardom as a glamorous chanteuse, with similar results. And then, in a career choice which really plays against type, Poppy turns to dreams of being a glitzy, high-fashion runway model in, ahem, New Pork City. That one's a show-stopper, too, but not in the way Poppy hoped.

But you have to give Poppy points for perseverance. This time she turns to figure skating.


And in the best tradition of that Liitle Engine That Could and all those "I'm gonna to be a star," show biz movies, persistance and practice makes, if not "perfect," at least pretty good, and after many falls and failures, Poppy gets her moment in the spotlight, swirling and twirling to the cheers of the crowd, including her supportive family and friends. Kristi Yamaguchi's top-selling Dream Big, Little Pig! (Jabberwocky, 2011) is an appealing little picture book pointing to an alternate path for those aspiring stars who find ballet just a bit, um, too-too, and vamping it up on stage or on the runway just not their style. To steal a quote, "Ice is nice and will suffice."

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Bare Bear: Bear in Underwear by Todd H Doodler

Bear is hiding, but his friends are not seeking--at least no one comes to find him. Bear's mind turns to dinner, and with visions of ice cream and hot dogs in his head, his jog home is interrupted when he trips over a nice backpack on the trail. With food on his mind, Bear just picks it up and carries it along home, where it seems all his friends are waiting for him.


Cautiously, Bear opens the pack and pulls out---UNDERWEAR! All kinds--bloomers, boxers, briefs, in dots, stripes, blue and pink, big and snug. At the urging of his friends, Bear begins to try them on. Some are baggy, some are silly, and one pair is so tight that Bear's eyes begin to bulge! and finally hits upon a svelte pair of tightey-whiteys just his style. His buddies are pleased.


Todd Doodler's new Bear In Underwear (Blue Apple Books, 2010) is a real rib-tickler for kids of the age that finds the very word "underwear" hilarious. The clever cover, with Bear in real fabric tightey-whiteys, is sure to get this one going, and the funny remarks (done in snappy speech balloons) by his animal friends as the style show progresses and the giggle-provoking drawings of Bear in the wardrobe of underwear styles will keep the laughs coming all the way to the end.

Other undie-lit choices are Doodler's companion piece, Bear in Pink Underwear, and those other lingerie-lit favorites, Aliens Love Underpants, Dinosaurs Love Underpants, and Aliens in Underpants Save the World.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Little Stranger: There's Going to Be a Baby by John Burningham




It is that poignant, momentous, life-changing moment when a parent tells the firstborn that a new baby is going to come into the family. The young child has many questions, many conflicting thoughts, as, of course, do the prospective parents as well. What will the baby's name be? What will be baby do? Will there be messes and problems? Will the baby play with me? What will the baby do when he or she is grown up? Do we really NEED a baby?

In a marriage made in picture-book heaven, veteran author John Burningham joins his wife, Helen Oxenbury, long a noted illustrator, in their beautiful collaboration, There's Going to Be a Baby (Candlewick Press, 2010) to recreate the crucial period in which the as yet unborn child gradually becomes part of the family. We see mother and firstborn going about their daily lives, through the end of winter, the spring, and a long summer, as the baby slowly becomes more and more real to the child.


In Oxenbury's evocative double-page panelled spreads, the child imagines the baby, clad in a pastel onesie and boots, as he flips pancakes which stick to the ceiling and fall on his head, helping in the garden as mom plants spring flowers, and working in a zoo, feeding a bottle of milk to a baby monkey--and possibly being eaten by a tiger.

Doubts and fears also surface.


And when at last we see the child on the bus with his grandfather and walking into the hospital to meet the new baby, we know that the family is going to open up to enfold both the newcomer and the firstborn in his new role as big brother.


There's Going to Be a Baby combines picturesque, slightly old-fashioned illustrations of mother and child as the mom's tummy increases and the child's understanding of the meaning of a new sibling in his family also grows. Burningham and Oxenbury create a simple but realistic account of this process in a way that will facilitate authentic discussions between parent and child among their readers. This one is sure to become a classic must-have for expanding families.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Cat Connoisseur: I Don't Want a Cool Cat by Emma Dodd



As every cat owner has learned, there are as many cat personalities as there are cats, and our little would-be cat fancier is not being finicky as the proverbial feline when she sets out to find a perfect personality fit for her own pet.

Our little girl, with her pink dress and neat Mary Jane slippers, knows that a haughty Siamese will hog her bed and leave her the cast-off cat bed. That's not the cat for her!

She knows she doesn't want a fluffy, stuffy, foofy cat, or an orange-striper Tom spoiling for a fight. She definitely does not want a feed-me-now greedy cat, so stout he gets stuck in the pet door on the way to the food bowl. And nix to that prowly-scowly- yowly cat with a cat-itude.

There's got to be the right cat out there for a girl with an empty lap.




In the aesthetically delightful Emma Dodd's artistic hands, her latest, I Don't Want a Cool Cat!, (Little, Brown, 2010) is a fun and funny lesson in cat selection. Dodd's delicious illustrations, done up in clever double-page spreads with dramatic changes in perspective and perfect caricatures of the kitty types she describes, are spot-on in generating laughs, even without the text. But the rhythmic couplets, doubly appealing with their internal rhymes presented one line per page, are a joy to read, silently or aloud.

Great for story times or even for beginners to read solo, this one works well with Dodd's earlier companion book, I Don't Want a Posh Dog, for a pet-perfect pair.

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