Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes
Greenwillow Books

Rating: 3.5 stars

Billy Miller finds himself at the end of summer vacation, about to start second grade when he suddenly realizes that he might not be smart enough for second grade. The worrying creeps into his mind and he just can't shake it.

He starts second grade anyway--as if he has a choice!--and throughout the book he has small, second-grade-sized challenges that he worries about then overcomes, and Billy realizes that everything turns out okay in the end, and sometimes it turns out even better than okay.

Billy finishes the book at the very end of second grade just a little more confident and a little more capable than when he started.

I solidly liked this book, but Lorelei solidly loves it. She's read it a few times and recommended it to several of her friends. She read it the summer before her second grade, which I think is the perfect time to read The Year of Billy Miller, especially if that second grader has some (normal!) frets about school. There's nothing objectionable in this book and Billy has a yesteryear quality about him--he's a rule-following kid, a sweet big brother without a bit of sarcasm or eye-roll in his body. 

My favorite aspect of the book is the fact that there is no huge problem Billy needs to overcome. His parents don't fight or go through a divorce, no family member or friend dies, he doesn't lose his favorite pet. Billy's challenges seem bite-sized to us grown-ups but seem giant-sized to a kid barely four feet tall. And I like that a lot, because those little daily problems (such as your sister ruining a school project or reciting a poem in front of the whole school) are what life is chock full of for kids. 

What I don't love about this book: I think his parents help him too much. It's his super-hip artist dad that helps him redesign his school project after his sister douses it in glitter. And it's his always-patient mother who rescues him at the climax of the story, smack dab in the biggest small problem of his whole life. I love books where the kids have the total spotlight and the parents are in the background--I love watching kids solve their own problems, even if they create some problems of their own, too. 

But despite my misgivings, I enjoyed watching Billy grow over the course of the year, and this is a great one to read this summer with your soon-to-be second grader, or a book to let that kiddo read by him/herself.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Frindle by Andrew Clements

Frindle by Andrew Clements
Atheneum Books for Young Readers 

Rating: 5 stars

After Lorelei begged me to read this for nearly half a year, I finally picked it up and read it in the crazy-busy last week of school. Much to the delight of the clutter in my kitchen, I'm never too busy to read! Lorelei is right--the book is hilarious and very worthy the praise it's received over the years.

(Frindle is a short chapter book and fine for kids to read on their own, but fun to read aloud with them.) 

Is Nick Allen a troublemaker? Not really. He just wants to make the time spent in his school a little more interesting, and when his usual pranks don't work with his new teacher, he has to get creative. Inspired by his teacher's love of words, and her very own explanation that we the English-speaking populace give credence to the definition of words, Nick invents a new word: "frindle." It means pen.

In just days the word spreads through the school, in weeks it goes beyond the school, and soon enough the word "frindle" is the next Big Thing in the country. It's hilarious to watch the debate between clever Nick and his teacher about whether he should get in trouble for this or not. I'm happy to report that relationships between the kids and grown ups in Frindle are respected though boundaries are pushed a an age-appropriate and above-average very funny way. Oh, and the ending is surprisingly tender-hearted. 

Without a doubt this is one of the best middle grade books I have read--so funny, so clever, so sweet! I continue to search for well-written books that feature great story lines and clever humor rather than cheap humor and yucky sarcasm. Some of the recent middle grade books that Lorelei and Ben have read in the past school year are just...not so awesome in my humble opinion. Yet Frindle is definitely in the category of Great Summer Read. Can't recommend this book enough for your summer reading list!

(And if you like it, Andrew Clements is known for mastering the middle school voice and has written dozens of chapter books about elementary and middle school! Click HERE for a list of his books.)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl

Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl

Rating: 5 stars

Well, it's a fact: My childhood was a snooze-fest compared to Roald Dahl's exciting one. Then again, perhaps I should count my lucky stars that I wasn't one of a huge brood, that I didn't get shipped off to boarding school a little too young, that I didn't get beaten for tiny infractions, and that I didn't grow up in a world stricter than strict!

I've wanted to know more about Roald Dahl for a long time, and this autobiography of his youth was incredibly satisfying. It was also a riot! I loved it--laughed out loud several times while reading it, not caring if I looked like a loon while laughing in public at a beat-up library book that is probably meant for children. 

As a child I read a lot of Roald Dahl books, and I remember vividly my mother reading The Witches out loud to me--and having it be creepy and hilarious at the same time. That's quintessential Dahl for you... This would be a fun book to read out loud with kids, too, but also a fine one for them to read on their own. Either way, I think it's most appreciated after you or your child read a few Roald Dahl books. 

In Boy, Dahl writes about the part of his life where the idea for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory  came from (at boarding school Cadbury would give chocolate bars to boys and ask them to test them, and Dahl realized that the chocolate creators, those inventors of all things sweet and rich and chocolatey, took their jobs very, very seriously...). Also, it's clear from the horribly funny run-ins with The Matron at his boarding school where the inspiration of the headmistress in Matilda came from! 

An early chapter reader might enjoy The Enormous Crocodile or a other short stories. Lorelei read James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Danny Champion of the World several times on her own when she was six or seven. I won't let her read The Witches--I want to read it out loud to her, like my mom did! When I was telling her about Boy: Tales of Childhood, I love that she was annoyed with me: "Mom, why did you return it without giving it to me?!" 

Yup, this book is good enough to pass around from one generation to another. Enjoy chuckling at a childhood far more entertaining than my own!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker

Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker, illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss
Henry Holt & Company

Rating: 4 stars

Several months ago I came across a middle grade nonfiction book on a publisher's website that I just had to read. Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak is the story of a bear adopted by the 2nd Polish Corps during World War II. I was fascinated to learn how a group of soldiers fell in love with a bear, and it became a contributing, participating part of their unit. (Read my Goodreads review here.)

And still, I didn't know that Winnie-the-Pooh was inspired by the same type of unit, this time a British, not Polish unit, during World War I. This time a company that included Harry Colebourn who was stationed in Canada at the time. Harry was part of the veterinary corps and saw a little bear on a platform at a train stop. He rushed out to see her, ended up buying her from the hunter who killed the bear's mother before he saw her baby. When Harry rushed back onto the train with a bear cub in his hands, his friends and captain were dumbstruck.
Winnie's favorite game was hide-and-go-seek...

"I had to save her!" Harry protested. And he named her Winnipeg, after their company's hometown. Her name was shortened to Winnie by the time the company reached their destination.

As you'd probably expect, Winnie was a funny little member of their tribe. She played games with the men and diverted their attention from the reality of war they faced. She also got into a lot of trouble by...well, just being a bear. But all the men loved their new mascot.

Winnie traveled with Harry's company when they moved from Canada back to England. But when he received orders to care for horses injured from battle in France, Harry knew that Winnie shouldn't go along. He contacted the London Zoo, which had a brand-new place called the Mappin Terraces built exclusively for bears.

The real Harry with the real Winnie.
After a tearful good-bye, Winnie began her second life at the zoo. "We've never had a friendlier bear as Winnie," the zookeepers said. They even allowed children to ride on the bear!

One day, a man with a young boy visited Winnie at the London Zoo. The boy hugged Winnie and gave him milk. The boy's name was Christopher Robin; his father was A.A. Milne, a well-known author. That evening at bedtime, Christopher Robin wanted to hear stories about his stuffed animal bear, whose name he changed to Winnie-the-Pooh.

And the bear at the London Zoo became a little more famous.

This is one of two picture book biographies of Winnie-the-Pooh published this year--the duplication is no doubt caused by the fact that last year was the 100th anniversary of the birthday of the real bear that inspired Winnie-the-Pooh. I grabbed it off the new book shelf because I realized the bear's history when I saw a soldier hugging the little cub on the cover. And look, we all ended up learning a little more about one very famous little bear.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Adventures of Beekle The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat

The Adventures of Beekle The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat
Little, Brown, and Company

Rating: 5 stars

The Caldecott (and Newbery) awards were announced when we were on vacation back in early February. I checked my phone like crazy to see which books (and their authors and illustrators) won... I'm not the only one who does this, right?!

In case you are more laid-back in your approach to children's literature, I'll fill you in: Here's the winner. Right here. Beekle. And it was a shocker! No one saw it coming. The experts thought Draw! or The Farmer and the Clown or Bad Bye, Good Bye or Three Bears in a Boat. But Beekle? It was a surprise win.

But it's worthy for sure. It took me some months to get my hands on it, because I often think that Caldecott winners have gorgeous art, but their appeal to kids is limited, or the story is just so-so. This year, that's not the case.

Here, they lived and played,
eagerly waiting to be imagined by a real child.
Beekle is an imaginary friend (if you see the title, he and his human believe he's unimaginary, or real) who lives in the imaginary world where imaginary friends live before their humans imagine them and unite with them. While all the other monsters and funny-looking whatevers get beamed up and zipped over to the real world, Beekle remains.

Until he decides to do something about all the waiting and waiting. He "did the unimaginable" and sailed to the real world. (You'll love how dull and drab the real world is compared to the amazingly colorful and exciting unimaginary world. I love, and my kids love, how Beekle is confused why "no kids were eating cake"--just grown-ups. Ha!)

Beekle looks and looks for his friend and climbs up a beautiful big tree to get a better view, but...still can't find the friend. Suddenly, below, a girl starts waving at him. They found each other!

The girl and imaginary friend are two peas in a pod. They laugh at the same jokes no one else gets, they made each other feel confident and comfortable. The book ends with: "Together, they did the unimaginable."
He climbed to the top of the tree and looked out,
wishing and hoping his friend would come.

Isn't the unimaginable possible with the support of one really great friend? I think so.

At the very least, add "Must check out Beekle immediately" to your long end-of-the-year to do list. Or just buy it for your kids or for the next birthday your kid attends. You might end up tucking it away because you just can't part the sweet, bold Beekle.

P.S. This book is SO similar to another recently released book, Marilyn's Monster, that I can't get over it. (Marilyn and her monster also find each other in a tree!) This is such a fun example of how two people could have the same idea, pursue it, and get it published around the same time--it has happened more than once. But if you've read both please comment so I don't feel like I'm the only one on earth chuckling at the coincidence!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Peña

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson
G.P. Putnam's Sons

Rating: 5 stars

Just a few minutes ago I was driving along and had to stop because two big ol' white geese were crossing the road. I stopped and watched them waddle past slowly, not caring how long it took them to get to the other side of the road. These two geese serve as some sort of proof that my kids don't know what it's like to grow up in a city, have a bus be their main (and perhaps only) form of transportation, or experience walking through a constant flow of humanity. The city life is just not my kids' experience.

But I want them to know that there are other experiences out there. I want them to step in other kids' shoes and see what other types of lives are like.

Thanks to Matt De La Peña's latest (and perhaps greatest) book Last Stop on Market Street, my kids can do just that. They can see what city life is like, and what a thoughtful, others-before-me day is like--all in one book.

A young boy named C.J. walks out onto the street, free from an hour of church, yet not yet totally free--this boy is not done with his Sunday routine. C.J. and his grandmother board a bus--Mr. Dennis' bus.  We're not sure where they're going just yet, but the ride gets off to a good start when Mr. Dennis pulls a coin from behind C.J.'s ear.

A scene you don't see often in picture books...
As all kids do, C.J. complains a bit about having to go on this errand when his friends are off playing. But, his grandmother reminds him, his friends "won't know the people he knows. And I'm sorry about that." As he looks around the bus, he sees a great sampling of our great, diverse nation. C.J. sees a tattooed man (he gets no mention, but I like that he exists, in this picture book, with all his tattoos). He talks with a blind man, who says you don't have to have eyes to see.

When C.J. envies two teenagers' iPod, his grandmother points out he's got the real, live version in a guitar-holding passenger across the aisle. She suggests he request a song, and the musician strikes up a diddy just for C.J. The performance earns the coin Mr. Dennis pulled from his ear.

Finally, they arrive to the last stop on Market Street: a soup kitchen.

"Why's it always so dirty here?" C.J. asks.

"Sometimes, when you're surrounded by dirt, C.J., you're a better witness for what is beautiful," his grandmother wisely and patiently replies.

The two greet the men and women at the soup kitchen and take their places to serve them.

I'd like my kids to walk in C.J.'s shoes in more ways than one. As a former volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity and the Peace Corps, I look forward to the days when my kids will take their places to serve others.

Friday, May 8, 2015

You Can Do It, Bert! by Ole Könnecke

You Can Do It, Bert! by Ole Könnecke
Gecko Press

Rating: 5 stars

"They" (those already-published, know-everything children's literature gurus) tell us yet-to-be-published writer wanna-bes to write books that have a definite beginning, middle, and satisfying ending. One that should surprise the reader. With as few words as possible (preferably no more than 500 words). Possibly with a lesson, but not a heavily delivered one. Oh--and make it funny, too.

Sigh. A tall order, for sure.

Yet Ole Könnecke delivers such a perfect, simple little story with such simple, delightful illustrations that I'm left in awe. I'm tempted to just throw in the towel right now! Or be inspired. (I choose the latter.)

Bert is a little bird whose big day is arrived. We see him at the end of a twig. He's trying to muster the courage to jump. He's well prepared, "mentally and physically." (I love that.)

Bert is well prepared, mentally and physically.
We're with him! Trying to help urge him along as he runs then screeches to a stop. He must eat a banana first. Then he'll be ready.

And he is. So he does.

We see him in mid-air. No wings flapping. Looking distressed. Saying "help" in what I'm sure is a pip-squeak of a voice.


And then... Splash! He's actually jumping in water! With three other feathered friends!

You tricked us, Ole Könnecke, in the most delightful way. Bravo!

Marilyn's Monster by Michelle Knudsen

Marilyn's Monster by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press

Rating: 5 stars

There's always a New Thing in kids' lives (and in the social parts of parenting, too, don't you think?). What's it in your child's world: An iPad? A specific brand of shoes? Certain socks? I'm willing to go out on a limb to say there is something that everyone wants, but only some people have in most schools in this country.

In Marilyn's school, that thing is monsters.

Everyone's got one. Whether it's big and scary, tiny and cuddly, toothy and happy, or stylish and snappy. Everyone's got one, that is, except Marilyn. And the thing is, you can't just go buy your monster at a store or find it in the forest. It finds you. So Marilyn's got to be patient while her monster finds her. Or so everyone tells her.
Timmy's monster chose him right in the middle of a history test.

But it's hard to be patient when Franklin's monster surprises him in the library! And Lenny's monster creeps out to scare away the bullies chasing him. Or Rebecca's monster comes along on his own bike while she rides her!

Everyone's got one or is getting one. Except Marilyn. She feels stung by what she doesn't have. Every breath has a tinge of jealousy. Everyone tells her, "Be patient!" and "It'll happen when it's supposed to!" and "Just sit tight and wait."

She does all that. And then gets tired of waiting nicely like she's supposed to. She pulls on her hiking boots, packs two sandwiches, and goes out to search for her monster. Hours into the hike, her patience gone and her anger mounting, she shouts, "WHERE ARE YOU???!"

And she hears a tiny voice: "Here."

And then, very softly, she heard a voice say, "Here."
(Enlarge the picture. Look up in the tree, on the right.)
Her monster is up high, stuck in a tree. Her monster's long, lovely wings got tangled up in the branches. She climbs up, goes out on a limb, and rescues it. They share sandwiches in the tree, then her monster flies her back home, where she reports to her family that she and her monster "found each other."

Her big brother is annoyed--it's "not supposed to work that way." She looks at him, her face softens, and she thinks "there were a lot of different ways that things could work."

I love this book. I love the realistic sting of envy in the beginning, the process of waiting she goes through, and the go-get-'em pluck that Marilyn displays by the end when she's too impatient to wait any longer. I just love it all. Michelle Knudsen has written many books over the years, but this is my favorite. By far.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Naked! by Michael Ian Black

Naked! by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Simon & Schuster

Rating: 4 stars

There's really nothing better than running through the house naked. For my kids--KIDS...not the whole family! Truly, streaking is not part of my husband's and my nightly constitution. Promise. But if you want to put a little frosting on that cake of a naked activity, it's yelling out like a crazy person "Naked!" Which you will most certainly do after reading this wonderfully silly book.

The narrator in this book is delighted to run through his house naked. And we readers were delighted to see how illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi cleverly disguised the boy bits we'd prefer not see. Like my boys, the boy in the book loves to run through the house after his bath sans clothes. Through the hall, in his room, down the stairs, with his mom running after him with a towel and the dad protecting the baby from her brother's nakedness.
Look at me, everybody! I'm caped!

Then, the boy does more things and dreams of doing more things:
Eating a cookie totally and complete NAKED!
I could go to school NAKED!
Play on the playground NAKED!
Do the hokey pokey NAKED!

Then our silly hero puts on a cape, and the illustrations get even better.

But then he gets cold. And then he becomes exhausted. And then he is...asleep.

He does put pajamas on during the post-cape, pre-sleeping moments!

Fun, fun book that is guaranteed to make your post-bathtime a little rowdier and a little gigglier.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Extraordinary Warren: A Super Chicken (PIX series) by Sarah Dillard

Extraordinary Warren: A Super Chicken (PIX series) by Sarah Dillard

Rating: 4 stars

Picture book + easy reader + graphic novel + chapter book = Extraordinary Warren 

Did that make any sense to you? Let me add a little text: This book is a fun blend of four different genres. There are big pictures from traditional picture books, long yet easy-ish text from easy readers, comic book-style graphics from graphic novels, and multiple chapters from beginner chapter books.

This is a new-ish format that publishers say is perfect for struggling readers who need easier material but want to have a chapter book in their hands like their reading-on-level classmates. While I believe that to be true, it's also really good for those of us with kids at home who read on different levels. Kiefer, who turns four in less than two weeks, checks out chapter books like his big brother and sister. I don't discourage it--any book in his lap is a good one, and I like how he makes his own choices--but this is one book from one series that has so many pictures that he can figure out what's going on without reading a whole lot. And once he does start reading, it'll be even better.

The PIX series--perfect for third kids everywhere! Okay, and some kids for whom reading isn't at the top of their list of things to do.

But enough about the genre of the book. Let me get to the actual book itself:

Meet Warren. Warren is a chick tired of pecking and peeping all the time. He's meant for bigger things! He desires more in life! He wants to stand out from all the ordinary chicks!

Enter Millard. Millard is a rat tired of eating junk. He's meant for bigger feasts! He desires more scrumptious morsels! He wants to dine on the fanciest of things!

The story, as you might have predicted, revolves around the funny dance between Warren, who wants to be special, and Millard, who wants him to think he's special--his special dinner. There are plenty of puns and opportunities to giggle during the six short chapters. Of course the good guy wins, and Warren ends up realizing his own superhero-ness when he saves all of his ordinary friends from the rat who wants to eat them all.

It's a fine book sure to entertain both boys and girls. More important, it is sure to inspire a little more confidence in those kids who want to read so badly--including third kids like Kiefer. And if you like Extraordinary Warren, there are more in the PIX series--Extraordinary Warren Saves the Day is already out, and I've heard there's a book about a big-toothed beaver coming next year...

P.S. Author Sara Dillard has a fantastic story hour (or rainy day) kit to download HERE.

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...!