Monday, September 28, 2015

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake
Rating: 5 stars


We've been all about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory lately. The kids watched the old version of the movie--the slightly creepy one with Gene Wilder--a few times at the beach in August. Then, we listened to the book on CD this month. And finally, a week or so ago, they watched the newer version of the movie, starring Johnny Depp. At breakfast the next morning we had a fun, slightly nerdy, conversation about the similarities and differences between the book and the two movies. 

The book itself is wonderful. Do you remember it?

Young, poor Charlie Bucket's wildest hopes are realized when he is the fifth and final child to find the prized golden ticket that will gain him entrance into Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Kids don't go on the tour alone; each brings along a parent or grown-up as chaperone. The parents are one of my favorite parts of the book--the parents are rather hideous, backbone-less characters who've enabled their children to be the horrid, selfish creatures they've become. All but sweet Charlie, of course, who brings his Grandpa Joe.

Throughout the tour of the factory, all of the kids are treated to amazing sights and sounds and smells that are miles beyond their wildest imaginations. The other children are, one by one, ejected in fitting, surprising, mouth-dropping ways from the factory because of naughty, disobedient behavior. Finally, Charlie is the only one left. I forgot the end of the book, to be honest, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear Willy Wonka bequeath his entire factory to Charlie. When Wonka says to Charlie's protesting, "But Charlie! Nothing is impossible!" I felt my little-kid self swept up, wanting to believe him. I sure hope my kids do.

The book is inspired by Dahl's childhood (you can read about it as I did in Boy--Tales of Childhood), when Cadbury mailed test packages of chocolate to his boarding school in order to get the boys' opinions of their new products. And, back then, Cadbury and another company I've never heard of, Rowntree, would try to steal each other's chocolate recipes, just like people tried to steal Willy Wonka's recipes in the book.

We've listened to a few audiobooks this year, but this was the best. There were sound effects during the reading that made listening to it even more exciting...although Kiefer kept wondering when they were going to sing the Oompa Loompa song, which I'll now have in my head all day. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood

Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Meg Hunt

Rating: 5 stars

Chronicle Books

Earlier this year I forced (yes, forced!) my kids to watched the movie "Cinderella." We were heading to Disneyworld for the first time, and I felt they needed to know the story before arriving at the Magical Kingdom. I argued that it was a classic, and they'd have to know the story to appreciate some parts of Disneyworld and also dozens of books they'd read in their lives. When an author compared their character to Cinderella, I wanted them to know what s/he was writing about.

I was priming them for stories like the one Deborah Underwood has written.

Interstellar Cinderella turns the classic Cinderella tale on its head in some fantastic ways. Cinderella lives with her unkind stepsisters and nasty stepmother--on a different plant, and she's the family mechanic this time, not maid. When her stepsisters get invited to a royal space parade, Cinderella is told she can't attend. Her stepsisters grab her ever-handy toolbox to make sure she doesn't fix her way into going.

"But wait!" the price called after her
"Please tell me how to find--"
The girl was gone--but she had left
Her socket wrench behind.
But her stepsisters didn't count on Cinderella's godrobot, who hooked her up with a new space suit, complete with some handy tools. Cinderella zooms through the galaxy in time to see the parade. She's gets to see the ship of her dreams fly past...and watches it shoot up a cloud of grit and smoke!

The driver and owner of that ship, the prince, is helpless; his chief mechanic has just quit. Interstellar Cinderella comes to his rescue and fixes his ship in a jiffy. He's impressed and smitten! They "talk for hours of rocket ships," but suddenly it's midnight and she has to go home--as she flies away, her wrench falls out of her space suit. He grabs it. You see where this is going...

The next day he goes out looking for her. Girls from all over the galaxy try to fix the ship he's in with the wrench he's got, but they all fail...until Interstellar Cinderella gives it a try and makes it run smoothly.

Then he proposes marriage. Yikes!

(And this is the best part.)
She thought this over carefully.
Her family watched in panic.
"I'm far too young for marriage,
But I'll be your chief mechanic!"
Hip, hip hooray for Deborah Underwood's go-girl spin off of Cinderella! (And hooray for common sense prevailing for child brides!)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

First Grade Dropout by Audrey Vernick

First Grade Dropout by Audrey Vernick
Rating: 5 stars

Clarion Books

Oh dear ME this is such a funny book--and, better yet, wonderfully comforting for kids to read, especially at the beginning of the school year!

The narrator admits to being many things in his young life: hungry, four years old, crazy bored, soaking wet. But now he can add first grade dropout to his list. Because he did such an embarrassing thing that now he can never, ever, ever go back to Lakeview Elementary School tomorrow.

What did he do? He called his teacher, Ms. Morgan, "Mommy."

And everyone laughed. Including his best friend Tyler. "They laughed and slapped their desks and stomped their feet. And pointed. At me." Clever Audrey Vernick writes, "It was quiet. Then it started, all at once, like a big marching band of laughing people."

(Here's that big marching band of laughing people,
illustrated by clever Matthew Cordell.)
Our poor narrator can't imagine facing his class again, so he decides to drop out. He'll miss his friends and recess and a few other things, but he's got a plan to stay at home, work on his jump shot, get a job. You can tell this plan doesn't sit right with him, so he goes to soccer practice anyway. He sees his best friend Tyler, who acts like everything is normal.

Like the good best friend he is, Tyler listens to the plan and decides to drop out, too. "Awesome," Tyler says. "It'll be great! We can work on our junk shots."

Our narrator stifles a giggle. He tries not to laugh, but can't help it. Suddenly, he's smiling big and explaining to Tyler what is so funny--Tyler said junk shot, not jump shot. Tyler stands there for a second, but you know what he does next?

He laughs. At himself! Then they laugh together.

The boys decide to work on their junk shots tomorrow at recess, and show them to Ms., Mommy.

Great, great, great message: That we all make some silly, embarrassing mistakes from time to time. And while we want to shrivel up and disappear or pretend like it didn't happen or invent a time machine to go back and undo it, it's easier and best to not take ourselves too seriously and laugh a little with ourselves.

(We parents can lead by example here!)

Super quick story in my own life of saying "Mom" when I shouldn't have: On my very first night of college during a super cool, freshmen-only retreat, I was sleeping in a bunkhouse with about 20 other freshmen girls. In the middle of the night I had a dream and yelled, "MOM!" loudly. In a shocking moment of maturity, I admitted it was me when a couple girls asked about it the next morning, and I laughed along with them. I was known as the girl who yelled for her Mom for a few weeks, then everyone forgot about it. Like people always do (though, at the time, it doesn't seem like that'll ever happen).

Again, fantastic book--and so very pertinent! Let's bolster our kids with the confidence in knowing that they can get over embarrassing stuff now, when they're young, so they can handle embarrassing stuff on their own in the future. Because we all know that, like it or not, embarrassing stuff continues to happen!

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt

The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
Rating: 5 stars

Philomel Books

Lorelei squealed when she saw the sequel to The Day The Crayons Quit in my library bag. She and Ben actually had an argument about who could read it first. The oldest won, and when she finished, she sighed and handed it to him, saying "It's sooooo good."

It IS "sooooo good!"

Most of Duncan's crayons are scattered around the house, some a little further from home. Maroon crayon (once used to color a scab) is marooned in the basement. Neon Red Crayon was left poolside on vacation and is doing her best to travel back. Yellow and orange melted together outside; their argument over who should be the color of the sun is now over because they recognize its true color: "HOT." Tan crayon has been eaten then thrown up by a dog and now has bits of carpet fuzz stuck to him.

Nobody likes "Pea Green." So he's changing his name
 to Esteban the Magnificent!
You get the picture...each crayon has its own funny story of why they're not within an arm's reach away from Duncan. And they all want to get back to him, get back to their normal life of being used to scribble and color and imagine.

After reading all the postcards from these now-damaged crayons, he runs around and picks them all up. But they can't fit into his crayon box anymore. Therefore, he builds a crayon house where they can all fit and feel at home.

This isn't the best read-aloud story in the world, but the creativity of the story and the illustrations is off-the-charts. How can my kids not look at the stuff lying around a little differently?! But now I'm worried they'll pick up even less, hoping to get a postcard or two from their toys!


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Rodeo Red by Maripat Perkins

Rodeo Red by Maripat Perkins, illustrated by Molly Idle
Rating: 5 stars

Peachtree Press

Well, I'm just fit to be tied! This rodeo book is all that I've ever wanted in a sibling-cowboy book!

And I never even knew that's what I always wanted!

But yes indeed, I am smitten with Maripat Perkins' clever and sweet tale of two siblings working out how to live together. It doesn't hurt that she's got Caldecott honor-winner Molly Idle (Flora and the Flamingoillustrating "Rodeo Red," the heroine of this book; "Sideswiping Slim," her new little brother; and their story of a stolen pup named "Rusty."

Rusty belongs to Rodeo Red, and they "had always been happier than two buttons on a new shirt" until her little brother showed up. Rodeo Red nicknames him Sideswiping Slim even before his arms and legs reach out to everything that is hers.

Once Slim learns to walk, he wants to play with Rodeo Red, and wants her stuff, too. One day he steals Rusty, her stuffed dog and faithful sidekick--and her parents back him up. She tries to take justice into her own hands by sneaking into his room during a nap and stealing the dog back--but she just wakes the baby. She tries to tie up the thief, but...well, that doesn't go down very well either.

The Sheriff showed up and well...
What followed weren't pretty.
Rodeo Red gets thrown in jail. (Well, not jail really, but the backwards chair made my kids and I laugh out loud because it really does look like jail.) She's befuddled, frustrated, and locked up. Once released from jail, she slumps into her afternoon snack, trying to think up a plan.

A plan arrives in the form of a package with a swanky new stuffed animal for her. From her aunt, who is more of a "city slicker." The stuffed animal is not Red's cup of tea, but she successfully trades the beast for her faithful dog, and both siblings end the story happy.

I love it. Love, love, love it! The cowboy twang required of me to read this book out loud was sun fun and made me so happy that I wanted to slip it on top of the "to read" stack every day. Idle's illustrations are beautiful and funny (how she got that combination right is so impressive to me), but it all started with a great sibling story told in a clever, fun way. Loved it!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean by Jane Lynch

Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean by Jane Lynch, Lara Embry, A.E. Mikesall, illustrated by Tricia Tusa
Random House Kids
Rating: 5 stars

Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean will be known in some circles as “Jane Lynch’s picture book.” Jane Lynch, of course, is the actress who plays the biggest bully on television: Sue Sylvester on Glee. But that’s not entirely fair—it’s not just another book by a famous author. Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean is a good book in its own right, regardless of its famous author. The story is strong, the message is important, the rhyme sounds great, and the illustrations are fantastic.
Marlene is a little girl with a big, mean streak, who delights in getting her way with her classmates. She pinches, kicks, flicks, throws, punches, and pushes—basically all those things you tell your kids not to do. She gets her power from other kids’ fear. And she delights in it, but after one stunt, Marlene is greedy for more power. She reigns supreme in her school until one boy with a little courage dares to ask one simple question: “Why?”

Freddy wants to know why everyone is so scared of her, especially when only her shadow is large. He wonders why all the kids shrink instead of standing up for themselves. Freddy dares the kids to ask themselves: Is this true? Is Marlene so bad? He doesn’t have any sort of show down or fight with Marlene. In fact, I find his demeanor and stance in Tricia Tusa’s illustrations pretty fascinating and pretty brilliant. He is a relaxed guy who is thinking out loud, simply pointing out how silly it is that everyone is following her orders when they really don’t have to.

Marlene isn’t happy about this, but she proves Freddy right when she does the least bully thing ever: she cries. Conveniently sprinkled into this moment in the story is some magic: her tears melt all the bully-causing anger inside her and Marlene’s anger flies out of her in three giant sneezes. 

While I don’t love this part of the story (because we all know the transformation from mean to kind happens a lot more slowly than a-choo, a-choo, A-CHOO!), I do like how Lynch and her two co-authors point out in the pages afterward how it’s sometimes easier to be mean than to be nice. I especially like these lines in the book:
You see, it’s a breeze to learn how to tease;It’s harder, sometimes, to be decent.
So true! In the end, Marlene ends up a whole lot nicer, but definitely not perfect. The text admits to her being “mostly cured” but there’s a picture of Marlene looking pretty darn delighted as she’s scaring a classmate with a gross bug. Perfect isn’t possible—it doesn’t even exist. So good for Marlene for sneezing out her bully-ness and becoming more decent. I would like to sneeze out some of my imperfections, too…

The fact that a famous author wrote this won’t hurt sales, but parents and teachers will pick this up and read it to their kids because of the fact stated above: it’s a strong story with an important message told in rhyming verse and the illustrations are fantastic.

Friday, September 4, 2015

While You Were Napping by Jenny Offill

While You Were Napping by Jenny Offill, illustrated by Barry Blitt

Rating: 4 stars
Random House Kids
WARNING: Do not read this book to your child if she or he still naps!!
For better or for worse, my three kids are past the napping stage. Mostly, it’s a for-better thing. And after the explosion of cool stuff that happens in this book while one little boy takes a nap, they’d never nap again.
While You Were Napping by Jenny Offill is a new-ish picture book published by Random House in late 2014. It’s a story told in the voice of a big sister speaking directly to a little brother. You must know that the humor is slightly twisted, just a little mean, but to me downright funny. Like it or not, it's the stuff of siblings. This big sister tells her little brother all the fun adventures that happened while he—and he alone—napped. All the other kids in the entire universe were up, partying with pirates and carousing with juice boxes, while he snored.
Here’s the fun that’s had:
They lined everyone up on the diving board
From the bravest to the scaredest,
Then waved their big swords in the air
And told us to make our last wishes.
First, construction workers roared by in their working trucks. Since they were “bored with building,” they offered their vehicles to the kids. Since there was no grass left when they were done bulldozing, the next cool activity they moved to was digging up dinosaur bones.
As if that wasn’t enough, some enormous robots strolled by with blue cotton candy—wouldn’t you know it? the slumbering child’s favorite kind—and the only other thing available to eat were french-sandwiches. No “please” was heard for miles.
Fireworks and rockets, lit by even the youngest of babies (yikes!) got the firefighters’ attention so they raced to the scene with their sirens screaming. The fire also attracted pirates with bandannas and eye patches, who lined up everyone on the neighbor’s diving board and threatened to make them walk the plank.
Finally, some astronauts arrived on their rocket ship to take everyone to the moon. The upside: learning to function in zero gravity. The downside: plenty of moon dust in the kids’ boots.
Luckily, none of this woke up the sleeping boy. How shocking to see the boy’s face turn grumpy despite his long nap! 
Rest assured that was the last nap of his life.

This was a delight to read to my three kids, who roared with every new page. With my slightly sarcastic sense of humor, they are pretty tuned in to what’s fact, and what’s fiction. Their sense of humor, especially the second and third children (both boys), is a little twisted. This book is not for that literal lad who might believe a little too much of it. Or for any child who is still napping—unless you don’t want that child to nap again. Ever.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Magic Treehouse Survival Guide by Mary Pope Osborne

Magic Treehouse Survival Guide by Mary Pope Osborne
Random House Children's Books

Rating: 4.5

There is so much to love about the Magic Tree House series! Mary Pope Osborne has been churning them out since 1992, taking her characters and my own children (and probably yours, too) on adventures all over the world and throughout history. Through research and clues, their own smarts and courage, Jack and Annie solve mysteries anywhere and everywhere.
In 2000, Mary Pope Osborne began writing nonfiction companion guides with her husband, Will Osborne, and sister Natalie Pope Boyce. Together, they wrote books chock full of information about animals, authors and events so that kids could “track the facts” in the fiction books Osborne had already written. Then there’s the Merlin series, started a few years later. These are longer and more challenging for kids whose reading level is higher. There’s even a Broadway play based on one of the books!
There really is something for everyone. Lorelei especially has thoroughly enjoyed the series. But when I saw this Survival Guide…I thought it was something altogether unique and cool and separate, and I was excited to grab it, read it, and tell you all about it. The cover alone is pretty fantastic; there’s a compass embedded into it, Jack is jumping from a shark and Annie is dangling by a rope over an alligator. Yikes!
Jack and Annie explain in the introduction that they’ve gone on some incredible adventures and, along the way, they’ve picked up a whole lot of useful survival skills. “Chances are,” they point out, “you’ll never need them, but in case you do, here they are.”
In the five different chapters, your child will read about:
• Wilderness skills (e.g., how to tell time without a watch, how to find water, what to do if you get lost)
• Animal attacks (e.g., how to survive a lion attack, a gator encounter, a stampede)
• Extreme weather (e.g., surviving extreme cold, preparing for power outage, staying safe in a thunderstorm)
• Disasters (e.g., surviving a tsunami, avalanche, fire)
• Incredible survivals, or things that are highly unlikely but still fun to read about (e.g., surviving T-Rex encounter, a shipwreck, zero gravity)
Each survival tip starts with a reference to one of Jack and Annie’s many adventures, and they explain a little bit about where they were at the time and why they had to learn how to, for example, survive a lion attack. For my oldest daughter who has read every single book, it was a reminder of a story she read years ago. For my son who hasn’t gotten through all of the Magic Tree House books yet, it was a helpful synopsis and an invitation to read more.
The book is geared to 7-10 year olds, and the text includes a lot of parental connection—Osborne reminds kids to check with their parents or heed parental guidance frequently throughout the book. I think that’s wise and, as a parent, I sure appreciate the reminder. While Jack and Annie are right—kids will likely never need more than “how to prepare for a power outage”—how fun it is to travel beyond kids’ mostly easy existence to situations that require serious courage and grit. How fun for kids to have a little more knowledge about what it takes to be in one of these situations.
I really hope my trio doesn’t ever have to sustain themselves on a diet of spiders. But if they do, I have Mary Pope Osborne to thank for their preparation!

(The original review was done for Washington FAMILY Magazine. Click HERE to access it.)

Monday, August 24, 2015

Gooney Bird Collection by Lois Lowry

Gooney Bird Collection (includes Gooney Bird Greene, Gooney Bird and the Room Mother, Gooney the Fabulous, Gooney Bird is So Absurd) by Lois Lowry
Random House
Rating: 5 stars

Lorelei, Ben, Kiefer, and I listened to this collection of Gooney Bird Greene books while traveling to, around, and from the beach this month. Because the beach we love the most is a solid six hours (without crazy beach traffic) away, I thought I'd try a few audio books. I looked for short ones, less than an hour long. This collection, by the prolific and talented Lois Lowry, was their second try. (The first, The Twits by Roald Dahl received a ho-hum rating from them.) This collection was a smashing success!

Gooney Bird is the clever, eccentric new girl who brings intrigue and excitement (in appropriate, elementary-school ways) to her classroom. She wants to sit smack-dab in the middle of the classroom because she likes to be smack-dab in the middle of the action. She wears tutus and sometimes underpants on her head (it's a "two pony-tailed hat," not underpants!) and even stilettos once, though she has buyer's remorse about them because they're so uncomfortable. She tells crazy stories that sound like far-fetched whoppers but are actually true, and she takes time and pride telling the whole story to her classmates.

What makes me want to climb the nearest hilltop and shout about these books? Lois Lowry has the recipe for a fantastic middle grade book because of the wild and funny, mostly believable but sometimes looney character of Gooney Bird. My kids loved her--Ben and Lorelei cheered for her, begged for me to put the CDs on in the car for even a five minute drive. And Lowry has the perfect amount of humor and education in each book. 

The classroom's teacher, Mrs. Pidgeon, and Gooney Bird herself teach the class (and all the readers) a huge amount in and through the books. In Gooney Bird Greene, Mrs. Pidgeon uses Gooney Bird's wild stories to teach how to write a story--how to have interesting characters, create a setting, weave a plot, add some suspense, etc. Gooney Bird is satisfied with her role as "junior teacher" (though I suspect if she was in a real-life classroom setting the teacher would want to bump down her importance just a notch). In Gooney the Fabulous, the class learns to write fables, and Gooney Bird's classmates all take turns sharing theirs, and Mrs. Pidgeon listen and critiques each one. In Gooney Bird is So Absurd, the class learns all about poetry and how to write different types of poems, including rap, which my kids loved.

Any age can listen, but because the books take place entirely inside the classroom, Kindergarten through fourth grade is its sweet spot. Highly recommend!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Walk on the Wild Side by Nicholas Oldland

Walk on the Wild Side by Nicholas Oldland
Kids Can Press

Rating: 5 stars

This book had me from its opening page: "There once was a bear, a moose, and a beaver who loved adventure. But sometimes their competitive natures got in the way of having fun."

Anyone who knows me understands why this might speak to me... I might be a teensy-weensy bit competitive. Just a tad. Every now and then.

Here is the story of these three wild friends:

They decide to go for a hike. During a snack break a few pages into the book--a few miles into their hike, they discuss ways to make their adventure a little more interesting. The beaver thought it'd be exciting to make the hike into a race!

So off they go. (The illustration of them running, each on two feet, is my all-time favorite.) Because of his long legs, the moose takes the lead. But a boulder suddenly drops down in front of him. To avoid getting squashed, the moose had to jump over the side of the mountain. (Oh, no!)

The beaver huffs and puffs up. He doesn't see the moose so he thinks he's fallen behind. He picks up his pace, unknowingly passing his fallen friend.

Luckily, the bear hears the moose and tries to rescue him. Unfortunately, his rescue attempt fails and moose ends up grabbing his paw and saving him. Their cries for help echo up the mountain, and the beaver turns around when he hears them. The beaver's instincts kick in and he chews down a tree, chews several notches in it, and lowers down the simple ladder. Relieved to not be dangling over the side of the mountain anymore, the beaver's friends breathe deeply.

They decide they've had enough racing for a day, and hike along together, exploring little and big things--together.

I have to admit I'm a little annoyed with myself that I've not seen these books before--this is the fourth book with this wild trio by Nicholas Oldland. I've ordered them all from our local library, but really I would love a print of these guys--I love their silly expressions, the western backdrop, their simple adventures.

(Oh, and by the way, this author also has a cool clothing store company--he started this picture book venture by first making kids' pajamas then thought, "Hmm...wouldn't it be cool to write a book for kids to read while they wore these pajamas?!" Check his company, Hatley, out HERE.)