Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Me First by Max Kornell

Me First by Max Kornell
Nancy Paulsen Books

Rating: 5 stars

There is something pretty great about this book. Max Kornell manages to write and illustrate this story right at the intersection of Funny and Insightful. And he manages to right my perspective on my kids' bickering--which I appreciate because it's been off lately due to the normal mix of stomach bug grossness, shared space closeness, too much sleepiness, too much in-car-ness, too little outdoorness.

In this great new book by a great, new-ish author, two siblings argue about who is first--who is going first in a game, who got there first, who should do something first. Sound familiar? Right. The afternoon hike and picnic is full of "Me first!" and "Me first!" and still more "Me first!" Their parents are pretty calm about the whole thing--one day I'll be that calm--and when the two kids want to go home a different way, the parents allow them, as long as they go together.

On the new way home, they go through a few rounds of "Me first!s" that backfire--Martha tries a new berry first and has to spit it out because it's gross. Hal wants to go through an old fallen log but comes back out quickly after realizing it's filled with millions of cobwebs.

Hmm. Maybe this "Me first!" thing has its downsides.

But they don't learn this. Not yet, anyway, until Martha wants to cross a stream on a fallen log--"Me first!" she insists. The log breaks, she falls down in the water and is shaken up. Hal sweetly helps her up, and they walk back home together, arm in arm.

Sobered by the fall, a wave of politeness washes over them: Hal to Martha when they got to the front door: "You had quite a tumble back there. You go ahead." Martha to Hal when it was time to wash up before dinner: "You wash up first. You're the one that got covered in cobwebs."

These sweet manners continue through dinner. And after dinner Dad comments on how polite they are being towards each other. Mom quips, "Yes, but I noticed it first."

Chuckle, chuckle...!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Uni the Unicorn by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Uni the Unicorn by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Brigette Barrager
Random House Kids

Rating: 4 stars

Uni the Unicorn looks exactly like little girls want unicorns to look like: silky white with sparkles in her coat, impossibly pink mane and tail, dainty golden hooves, dazzling gems for eyes, swirly white horn that can mend any hurt. Uni the Unicorn also acts like little girls want unicorns to act: noble, regal, happy, and steadfast in her belief in the impossible.

This time, the impossible is a clever twist on little girls believing in unicorns: unlike all the other unicorns in the field, Uni the Unicorn believes in little girls. Her parents shake their horny heads at her, and encourage her to rethink her beliefs and spend her time more wisely. But Uni believes that somewhere there is a strong, smart, wonderful girl waiting to play with her.

Uni imagines all the wonderful things she’ll do with this little girl once she finds her: run fast through the meadow, spin and twirl in the sunlight, explore their world, and help forest creatures in need, and sometimes they’d sit quietly and talk about important things. And of course they would slide down rainbows together (of course!).

Uni believes. In a way only little kids really can.

What Uni doesn’t know—but readers soon do know—is that she is right. There is a little girl who is also teased by her friends for believing in something magical. This little girl believes in unicorns. She believes there is a strong, smart, wonderful unicorn waiting to play with her.

Each is waiting and hoping for the other, waiting for the chance to be friends.

Should your child get swept away by the magic in this tale, there are activities about Uni. These items and more are available at And even a song:

Anything by Amy Krouse Rosenthal is clever and funny, sweet and smart—she writes the types of books that you want in your child’s lap. The humor in them is so very intelligent: her clever lines make the reader think just a bit more, work just a bit more to understand and smile at the humor. We are fans of her in our house. There’s not a lot of Rosenthal’s wittiness in this book (besides the obvious and clever twist of unicorns believing in little girls), but there is a wonderful lesson in believing in that which you believe in, and maybe just maybe you’ll meet someone who holds the same belief as you. And maybe just maybe you’ll get to call that person Friend. Fingers crossed!

This review originally appeared in the Washington Family Magazine (right about HERE).

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Nana in the City by Lauren Castillo

Nana in the City by Lauren Castillo
Clarion Books

Rating: 5 stars

I'm always curious who wins the Caldecott and I like to get in on the prediction excitement with my kids. But while I love good illustrations and am glad there's an award for it, sometimes the story in a Caldecott winner falls short.

But that's not the case with this recent Caldecott honor book. Nana in the City has both: great story and incredible illustrations.

A young boy goes to visit his nana who--you've probably guessed--lives in the city. Specifically, New York City. The boy seems to have the expectation many of us do about grandmothers: they should be in a quiet place, taking care of kids, looking after the grandfather in the picture. Even I agree this stereotype is comforting (though flawed)...

But this boy's Nana is different.

"For you to wear on our walk today," she said.
"You'll see that the city is not scary at all."
When her grandson expresses his concern that "a city isn't a place for a nana," she smiles. She agrees that the city is loud and busy--but thinks it is more extraordinary than dangerous. She doesn't discredit his opinion, but she invites him to go along with her the following day to see the city through her eyes. During a night full of new sounds and not much sleep for her grandson, Nana sits and knits (that's grandmotherly, right?) and watches over him.

Before they set out on their adventure, Nana gives the boy what she's been knitting: a red cape. It makes him feel brave!

With few words and gorgeous illustrations, Castillo shows the boy and the reader the good sides of being loud (a funky breakdancer performing in the street), being busy (a bustling picnic area in the park), and being extraordinary (downtown Broadway area, with bright lights all around).

When it's time for the boy to leave, he agrees: A city is the perfect place for his Nana. And for him to visit. He gives the cape to Nana, so she'll be brave after he leaves.

I can't begin to tell you how talented Lauren Castillo is, but click HERE for a little glimpse of Amazing--there are some of the sketches for Nana in the City, how she uses salt to add depth to a picture, and a five-second video of her flipping through her sketchbook. In my next life, I'd like cool and quirky, warm and sweet characters to come from my fingertips, too...

If this book doesn't leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling, I'm not sure what will!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate
Clarion Books

Rating: 5 stars

In case you haven't heard, there's this book that has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for 108 weeks called The One and Only Ivan. Ivan is a gorilla who spends his time drumming his fingers and watching passers by at a shopping mall, where he's been sitting in a very small cage for a very long time. The story is fiction but it's based on a true story. There was a real gorilla Ivan who was purchased and plucked from a jungle and placed in...a shopping mall in Washington State.

This picture book, Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla, is the nonfiction account of Ivan's life.

Brace yourself, because it's not always a fun life to read about. But Applegate, who also wrote The One and Only Ivan, does a great job of unfolding his sad story in digestible bits, and the entire story illustrates one of my favorite maxims: "It all turns out okay. If it's not okay, it's not the end." And Ivan's life does turn out okay in the end. (It's a picture book--it's got to have a happy ending. What a relief!)
He'd grown into a silverback gorilla.
In the jungle, he would have been ready to protect his family.
But he had no family to protect.

Ivan starts his life in the jungle, born to a band of gorillas. He plays with, listens to, and closely observes other gorillas...he learns everything from them. And then one day, he is caught by poachers. He and another little gorilla baby are thrown into a dark crate and shipped to Tacoma, Washington.

Once there, they are treated as exotic baby-pets--everyone thinks these small animals are cute and interesting. But one gorilla baby dies and only Ivan is left. When Ivan grows out of the cute, small phase, his new owner doesn't know what to do with him. Soon, he is placed in a cage in the mall with a TV and an old tire and little else.

He spends twenty-seven years away from other gorillas, in that small cage. (Heart-breaking!)

Finally, after protests and petitions, Ivan is sent to Zoo Atlanta. After helping him adjust to his new environments, Ivan is released into a new band of gorillas. He lives there, happily it seems, until he finally dies at age 50 in 2012--and one year later, The One and Only Ivan won the Newbery.

So why read this book to your child? Is the lesson here simply "animals should stay in the wild" or "poachers should be stopped?" Sure, those lessons are great ones for kids to learn; the jobs in that field are certainly noble ones.

But I think there's a deeper message here about reinventing yourself, or starting a new chapter in life--it's so obvious that Ivan's life was sad and small, but then it changes. He starts a new chapter, and his life becomes big and full. Because a bunch of people cared, took the time, made the effort to help him get to a better place. Maybe some kids (and the grown-ups reading this book to them) can relate. Maybe some kids (and those grown-ups) have felt small or been in dark places, but because they took the time to care about themselves or others made the effort to help, maybe they're in a better place now. Maybe they're in the process of starting a brand new chapter in their lives. Maybe Ivan's story strikes a chord in them and gives them hope.

The One and Only Ivan is "on deck" as Lorelei says for us to read together next--I'll let you know how it goes. (We're reading Wonder now.) She was open to reading it last year, but after reading this picture book, she's very curious and eager to start. That makes two of us.

Monday, April 13, 2015

This is Sadie by Sara O'Leary

This is Sadie by Sara O'Leary, illustrated by Julie Morstead
Tundra Books

Rating: 4 stars

Meet Sadie.

Sadie isn’t your typical little girl. She isn’t even your typical little-girl-with-a-big-imagination. In fact, the reader has a hard time figuring out who Sadie is, exactly, because she is so many things. She’s into so many things. She does so many things.

When we first meet Sadie, we see the literal Sadie: a girl with wispy-straight hair inside a simple, old cardboard box. But “no,” Sadie tells us. “I’m on an enormous boat, crossing a wide, wide sea.”

And so we readers of This is Sadie (released in May 2015) begin to get a glimpse of the first side of this unique character Sadie, the one whose head is filled with an imagination almost as vivid and brilliant as illustrator Julie Morstad can create. She imagines she is sailing at sea, lives under the water as a mermaid, has wings that help her fly over her neighborhood. Sadie’s not one to be pinned down by any one description—we need many of these amazing snapshots of her to understand who she is

What I love most about her is that she creates imaginary worlds for herself as either a boy or a girl—no need to follow any gender rules here. I love that Sadie provides for little girl readers the chance to also be the hero in a fairy tale world and a boy raised by wolves.

The book has no plot; its main goal, it seems to me, is to invite young readers (especially girls) to step outside their normal real-life and imagine themselves as something different. Maybe something bigger, maybe something smaller. Maybe someone more playful or more adventurous than they really are. And by trying on these different roles or personalities, maybe your little girl will discover that’s there is more than meets the eye to herself. 

The book ends as it begins—with that big cardboard box. This time Sadie is in a homemade tent, with crafts all around her and books stacked up to read—no iPad or TV or parental direction needed for this girl!  And the big box symbolizes all the possibilities. On the first page that big box was a boat. On the last, it is a snail shell, and Sadie is snoozing away under it, perhaps dreaming of her next adventure.

This is a gorgeous book—Julie Morstad is an extraordinary artist. I’m not sure if young readers will appreciate the details that make each page worthy of serious pause and attention, but they’ll grasp the feel of the picture immediately. The words are fine (a teensy bit random, I think—without a plot I feel a little lost), but the pictures will pull in readers and help them feel a part of something much bigger than their little world.

And maybe, just maybe, the switch on their imagination will be clicked on and their afternoons will be spent as a mermaid, as a flying girl, as a sailor at see, as a knight in shining armor. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

It's Only Stanley by Jon Agee

It's Only Stanley by Jon Agee
Dial Books for Young Readers

Rating: 5 stars

I subscribe to a handful of book-filled, kidlit newsletters; many of them include a "books coming out soon" section. It's Only Stanley has been on many of those lists for many weeks. So when it popped up on the holds shelf in the library yesterday, I was curious if it was going to be as good as the hype surrounding it.

Yup, it is.

Jon Agee has this absurd, dry humor that manages to stick with his characters and translate to a picture book in such impressive ways... He makes the totally crazy seem totally normal. And even if you don't deconstruct the book like I did after reading it, you will chuckle at it and your child will likely laugh out loud at it, just like Kiefer did. Each time he had this read to him last night. Which was twice. In a row. That's always a good sign of a good book...

Here's the story:

The Wimbleton family sleeps, and one by one a strange sound wakes them up. Each time, the extraordinary family dog, Stanley, is making the noise. And Stanley is one nocturnal, productive pup. Judging by the father's shrugs and nonchalant reaction, the family is clearly used to such noisy awakenings.

First, Wilma is awoken by a strange tune...but it's just Stanley, howling at the moon. Daughter Wendy then hears one loud CLANK...but it's just Stanley, fixing the oil tank.

"It's only Stanley," Walter said.
"He cleared the bathtub drain."
This goes on all night long, and each sound wakes another member of the family, who travels into the parents' room and into their bed, until the bed is funnily overcrowded with more and more sleepy Wimbleton family members.

Finally, he wakes up the youngest member of the family with some serious vibrations and sounds. Turns out that Stanley managed to transform the entire house into a rocket, and now the house--with the whole family--still in pajamas--is landing on the moon.

Told in a great little rhyme that makes the book even more fun to read aloud (and also allows Kiefer and other kids to guess what Stanley is up to), this book is spot-on fantastic. Such a funny story with non-fussy sketches that pair nicely with bedtime--how can you not have sweet dreams when you chuckle yourself to sleep?

Sunday, April 5, 2015

100 Things That Make Me Happy by Amy Schwartz

100 Things That Make Me Happy by Amy Schwartz
Abrams Appleseed

Rating: 5 stars

And now, in the category of I Wish I Had Thought of That! (but could I have done it as well as she did? I'm not sure--I really like this book!), comes a bright new picture book full of little things that make little and big people really happy.

Where could a book like this go wrong?

I need not waste any of my early-morning thoughts on worrying, because this book does not go wrong.

Award-winning Amy Schwartz has written a poem of things that make most kids happy, and illustrated sweet vignettes and images to go with her words:
Bucket trucks, yellow ducks
Grocery carts, frosted hearts
Grandma's lap, a gingersnap
White snow, cookie dough
Apple pies, Butterflies
Mud puddles, soap bubbles, Grandpa's tools, swimming pools
Brother and sis, Good-night kiss
This book is a long list of things that remind me and hopefully other adult readers how easy-to-please kids are. And it makes me count my blessings to hang around kids most of the hours of my day because their easy-to-please-ness rubs off on me. (Or maybe my own easy-to-please childhood hasn't entirely vanished as I've matured into an adult?)  

I love that the kids in this book pause to celebrate the fact that they're riding big-kid bikes, watching a parade, get to sleep in an extra cozy bed, eating chocolate cake.

This is a book full of inspiration--I love the idea of my kids making books of their own like these. What makes your kid happy today? A list of ten or fifteen things, with drawings just as cute as those by Amy Schwartz's able hand, bound together with staples or string is a keepsake for sure, or a gift for an upcoming Mothers or Fathers Day...

I think on the next rainy day I'm going to get out the butcher paper and lay down flat on my belly alongside my kids to create a big ol' mural of things that make us happy...

Monday, March 30, 2015

Digby O'Day in the Fast Lane by Shirley Hughes

Digby O'Day in the Fast Lane by Shirley Hughes, illustrated by Clara Vulliamy
Candlewick Press

Rating: 4 stars

I was at a Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference over the weekend and learned something new. I actually learned a lot of new somethings, but this is the one pertaining to Digby O'Day in the Fast Lane: Squeezed between I Can Read early readers and middle grade is the "chapter book" genre for, generally speaking, 5 to 8 year olds. Within that there are a bunch of books cropping up that have a whole lot of pictures, some easier text, and are divided into chapters. These are called "early chapter books."

Digby O'Day is an early chapter book. It's the sort of book for kids who are wanting to read chapter books like their peers but aren't ready for them. Now, they can put this in their hands and feel comfortable knowing they're part of the reading chapter books crowd. If you click at the bottom of this blogpost on early chapter books, you'll see a few of the ones I've read and reviewed.

For some reason, Ben timed me when I read this. When I remarked on how quickly he read it, he handed it to me while we were sitting in the carpool lane, waiting to pick up Kiefer from preschool last week. "It took you eight minutes, Mom!" he reported. Ben's quirky competitiveness now gives you an idea of how long it took me to read it, and you can double that time for a kindergartener reading on-level and add more time for a child struggling to read.

Digby drove, and Percy admired the view.
Getting to the book, written by one of my favorite childhood authors Shirley Hughes (and illustrated by her daughter--how fun!):

This is a cute, please-everyone story of a dog named Digby, his pal Percy, and how they race against their sworn (okay, really there's not any swearing in this book) enemy Lou Ella. Lou Ella is a fancy-schmancy woman with a fancy-schmancy car that she upgrades at least once a year. She can always afford the nicest car but doesn't know a thing about fixing them up; Digby O'Day and his pal Percy are always stuck with their cute clunker but they make it run as smoothly as possible with their own two paws. Or four paws?

These three characters enter a race and, in tortoise-and-hare style, Lou Ella is so far in front that she decides to stop and have lunch. This plan backfires when lunch takes too long and Digby and Percy putt-putt by her and win the race. These three are likable characters...and they'll be back! This is the first in the series; two more are slated for publication within a year or two.

As always, happy reading!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon
Dial Books for Young Readers

Rating: 5 stars

Lorelei just saw that I was reviewing this book. I had the book next to me. She said, "Oh I love when Dory becomes a dog named Chickenbone! Wait, I have to read it again." She grabbed the book from me and started the book. For the eighth time! "I LOVE this book!" she declared.

loved it too (though I only read it once).

There is so much to love! This is a super cute easy reader with an irrepressible, imaginative, funny, and likable youngest child as the main character and narrator. Six year old Dory is frustrated to be shunned by her two older siblings--she desperately wants to play with them! But they think she's annoying and babyish. 

To get their attention and for some imaginary fun, Dory invents playmates, plays along with their jokes and even pretends to be a dog. (Named Chickenbone, as Lorelei loves.) She even goes to the doctor as Chickenbone...I chuckled when she said "Woof!" each time the doctor asked which letter she was pointing at on the eye chart. Her mother was irate, just as I would be. I was happy to be reading about it--that seemed so funny in a book, but not so funny in real life.

Look at these fun sketches and how they cover the pages!
(And the siblings play happily ever after...on the next page.)
Anyway, in the end the two older siblings accept her and play like crazy together--a happy trio of siblings.

This is a fantastic choice for kids between five and nine years old who are just starting to read on their own. Big, cute, silly sketches are on every single page, making the text on each page more like an accompaniment to the pictures, making Dory Fantasmagory an inviting rather than a daunting book. (A sequel will be released in July 2015.)

This was a fun, short escape from my reality this morning when I couldn't go back to sleep after the stomach bug that hit Lorelei yesterday hit Ben around 3:30 AM. Please cross--no, double cross-- your fingers that it won't hit me!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Kate the Great Except When She's Not by Suzy Becker

Kate the Great Except When She's Not by Suzy Becker
Random House Kids

Rating: 3.5 stars

Meet Kate. Kate is a fifth-grader, a middle child, a girl who keeps a diary. In this whimsical coming-of-age story, Kate in Kate the Great Except When She’s Not (Random House, 2014) confronts the normal concerns of fitting in, friending the right kids, and doing the right thing. 

Kate is thrown for a loop when her parents ask her to be particularly kind to Nora, a girl she’s labeled as her “frenemy,” because Nora’s father is on an extended business trip and whose mother works a lot. But when an obligatory project ends up in an actual, authentic, albeit fragile friendship, Kate is forced to rethink her own assumptions about Nora and her own values. Kate reminds the reader that admitting you’re wrong about a person or yourself takes courage and humility. 

There is plenty to like about Kate, and plenty of other sub-plots in this middle grade novel to appreciate. She’s a fine flutist who plays in the school band, a budding artist who has trouble drawing noses, a Girl-Scout-esque member who doesn’t love the new troupe leader, and an imperfect, sometimes-swiping sister. Her family is a creative bunch; her overworking lawyer mom and always fun novelist father get along swimmingly and lead their trio of girls in conversations about little and big things (with the help of questions and quotations in “Bob,” the Big Old Bowl in the middle of the table). Kate learns plenty of good little life lessons throughout the book both in school and at home; therefore the reader picks up plenty of good little life lessons as well.

Kate the Great Except When She’s Not falls into the new-ish genre of “humorously illustrated diary novel.” This genre is not to be confused with a graphic novel, which is a book written and drawn entirely in comic strip format. Think Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries. There is something light-hearted, fun, and different about having drawings all over the page that definitely earns two thumb’s up from most kids.

The drawings alongside (or after, or under, or over, or…completely covering the page) the text usually illustrate the author’s thoughts or actions. In my experience, most of the books in this genre have drawings and text that are related, and the pictures help draw out or augment a particular scene or idea. 

Yet in Kate the Great Except When She’s Not, the doodles are sometimes fairly random, and I was left scratching my head for the connection between story and drawings. Or maybe adult readers don’t see the connections, and young readers—the audience of this particular genre—don’t need the connections. Maybe they find these random scratchings “hi-lar-ious!” in my daughter’s parlance without needing a reason for their existence. The book’s target audience is, after all, kids age 8 to 12, not adults in their mid- to late-thirties.

This is a fine book to give to a child in your life. It’s not one that you’ll keep on your shelf for generations because the themes and writing are so universal and phenomenal you can’t bear to part with it. It’s one your child will read in a long, lazy afternoon, chuckle at, appreciate, and then pass along to the next reading pal in their circle. 

And that’s not a bad thing at all.