March 30, 2015
Lulu’s Mysterious Mission
by Judith Viorst
illustrated by Kevin Cornell
If you’re looking for a chapter book with a spunky heroine, Lulu is the character for you. In fact, she’s spunky to the point that she’s a spoiled brat, or, in the words of her babysitter, “an especially difficult child.”
Lulu’s parents decide to take a much-needed break from their little darling but don’t tell her until the day before they plan to leave on vacation. Lulu is insulted that they have planned to go without her and immediately sets out to ruin their plans.
Fortunately, they have hired the very best. Lulu has met her match and then some in combat boot wearing Sonia Sofia Solinsky, known by the code name of Triple S. Not only does Ms. Solinsky keep Lulu from spoiling her parents’ vacation, she actually gets Lulu to cooperate. Only by cooperating does Lulu get lessons on spy craft.
Lulu learns to repair, to infiltrate and to disguise. She also gets a mysterious mission complete with a trail of rhyming clues and a prize at the end. Lulu has such a great time with Ms. Solinsky that she’s actually looking forward to being baby-sat again and getting to go on more missions. But when Mom and Dad get home, they’ve missed her so much that they swear they will never again leave without her.
Lulu’s next mission? To convince them that they can and they will.
I’ll admit it — it took me a while to warm up to this story. Lulu is, in short, a huge brat. That said, the story is both fun and funny. Lulu is disguised as a teen boy, a middle-aged woman and even a cow. She has to see through Ms. Solinsky’s disguises and her mistakes in this area are too funny.
Readers will also enjoy hearing directly from the author. In this series, Viorst makes a habit of speaking directly to the reader, peppering the reader with both warnings and encouragement to go on.
Cornell’s pencil and water color illustrations do a great job of bringing the characters to life and building on the humor. I especially enjoyed the reunion scene at the end, between Lulu and her parents.
This book is an excellent format for a reluctant reader. It is hard cover like a “big kids book” but the font size is fairly large which limits the amount of text per page. Each page and each chapter becomes something they can easily conquer. This book would also make a fun read aloud leading to discussions of what might happen next.
March 26, 2015
Separate is Never Equal:
Sylvia Mendez and her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
Written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams Books for Young Readers
The first day of school doesn’t go as Sylvia hoped. Instead of being greeted by new friends, she is told to go away. “Go back to the Mexican school where you belong!”
When we discuss race and segregation in the US, we think of it as a black vs white issue. We tend to forget that there were a lot of different people here all experiencing similar things and fighting similar fights.
Sylvia and her family move to Santa Ana. When time comes to start school, they are in for a surprise. Her light-skinned cousins are welcome to enroll in the school closest to home, but not Sylvia and her siblings. They are too dark, too Mexican.
Unlike the spacious, clean school near home, the Mexican school is in the middle of a cow-filled pasture. The teachers weren’t very concerned about educating their young charges. Why bother? They’d all drop out by the 8th grade to join their parents in the fields.
But Sylvia’s family demands more and they go to court to get it.
I have to admit that this is a story I didn’t know. I suspected it was out there but I didn’t know the when or the who. I’m in debt to Duncan Tonatiuh for bringing it to my attention.
This isn’t a book for preschoolers but early grade school with a slightly older, fact-filled text. The illustrations were hand drawn before being digitally colored and collaged. The detail that grabbed me? The characters’ ears. It is clear that Tonatiuh draws inspiration from ancient Mexican art. And why not? This is an amazing Mexican-American story, a story that needs to be told.
Add this to your classroom library and bring it out when discussing desegregation with older readers.
March 23, 2015
Wolfie the Bunny
by Ame Dyckman
illustrated by Zachariah OHora
Little, Brown and Company
When the Bunny family finds a baby wolf bundled up at their front door, Mama and Papa can barely contain their excitement. They swoop him up and take him inside. But not Dot.
“He’s going to eat us all up!” said Dot.
I can’t relate a whole lot about the book without giving too much away and I really do want you to discover this one for yourself. It is a sweet, fun story about siblings. Dot is absolutely certain that bringing Wolfie into the family is the worst mistake ever. There’s no doubt in her mind, he will be the death of them all.
The very best picture books have surprise endings and this one is no different. Danger presents itself but the resolution is surprising and fun.
This book wasn’t an easy sell for me. I hadn’t seen much about the book itself, just the book cover here and there. The cover alone just didn’t grab me. Wolf, bunny costume . . . whatever.
But then I read an interview with Ame Dyckman. She discussed not only what prompted her to write the story but also what pulled it altogether. I love books that make use of a chorus (He’s going to eat us all up!) so I put in a request at my library and I’m glad I did.
Dot has so much personality. She’s a bunny of strong opinions and doesnt’ mind sharing them with those around her.
The art work is acrylic but it reminds me of scratchboard. Although the cover didn’t grab me, I loved the spreads and how OHora brought fairly tale motifs into the story. When you read the book, note Dot’s red jacket and her co-op shopping bag. This is a clear play on Red Riding Hood. But what part will Wolfie play?
This would make a fun story time book but be prepared for shouts of “He’s going to eat us all up!” Face it, the effect just isn’t the same if you don’t shout it.
March 16, 2015
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend
by Dan Santat
Little, Brown and Company
I adore Dan Santat’s work and his offbeat way of looking at the world. Still, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a book about an imaginary friend who decides to take charge and find his boy or girl. I should have known that Santat would break the rules and win doing it.
Write a book and pretty soon, someone will tell you that you have to tell your reader the character’s name up front. Not in this book. When we meet the main character, marshmallow? ghost? with a crown, he is coming into being on the island where imaginary friends are born. But he doesn’t have a name because his name will only come when he is picked by a child and given a name.
But he isn’t picked. The purple octopus is picked. And he isn’t picked although the faceted panda is picked. And still, no one choses him. Perhaps his child is just to busy to fully imagine him?
Our main character works up his nerve and decides to go find the boys and girls who might become his friend. After a long ocean voyage, he wanders into a restaurant. No children and the adults aren’t much fun. Then he tries the subway — even worse! Finally, out on the sidewalk he spots a familiar tail and follows it to a playground.
And kids go.
And finally he sees someone who looks familiar.
Her name is Alice and she names him Beekle. She is Beekle’s first friend.
At the hands of another author, this could become overly sweet. Fortunately, this story is brought to us by the slightly offbeat and always delightful Dan Santat. I’m not going to tell you how it ends because I refuse to spoil it for you.
I love Santats simple but expressive illustrations. I especially enjoyed the variety of imaginary friends who ranged from lizard like to clearly octopus and then . . . Beekle.
This would be a great one for story time or to spark a conversation about imagination and originality. Share this book with the highly unique child in your life!
March 12, 2015
How Martha Saved Her Parents from Green Beans
by David LaRochelle
illustrated by Mark Fearing
Dial Books for Young Readers
With a title like this, I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this book but the cover told me that it was going to be a bit wacky.
Like many of us, Martha’s parents plan dinner on something of a schedule. Every single Tuesday, Martha’s family had green beans. For my son, this would have been a good thing but not for Martha. Martha’s parents assured her that green beans are good for her. They explained that they would make her strong.
Martha wasn’t buying it. Martha knew deep down that green beans were bad.
And then the mean green beans swaggered into town. Muscled, whiskered and more than a little scary they are soon menacing old ladies and taking revenge on each and every person who condoned eating green beans.
They kidnap Martha’s parents and leave a note. At first Martha only sees the positives — she can eat what she wants, she can watch what she wants and bed time? Pfft.
By morning Martha wants her parents back. She tracks them down but how to conquer hundreds of mean beans? There’s only one possible solution and it isn’t going to be pretty.
Ha! You didn’t really think that I reveal the ending, did you? No, you have to read the book.
This one will be a fun read aloud because of the humor and there are a lot of quirky details in the illustrations. Expect to spend some time on the mean bean pages because the beans are the best!
Whether your young reader is squeamish around squash or loathes limas, this book is a lot of fun. Maybe just maybe in the end your child will be willing to take revenge on rogue vegies.
March 9, 2015
Top Secret Files: World War I
by Stephanie Bearce
Why were American soldiers called Doughboys? What were the most frightening weapons of World War I? Find the answers to these questions and more in Bearce’s latest book. Okay, she can’t say exactly why the US men were called Doughboys but I love the fact that she’s forthright with her young readers. She presents several theories but admits that the truth is lost in the dust of history.
And that’s what attracts young readers to books like this — the honesty. She doesn’t sugar coat things. Mustard gas? Terrible and tortuous. Zepplins? Silent and, because of this, utterly terrifying because they carried bombs to drop on civilian populations.
With my own writing, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about history and war. In spite of this, I always learn something from Bearce’s books. I now know why the German submarines were called U-boats, the truth about the Red Barron, and the disgusting counter measure that soldiers were told to take against chlorine gas (it involves pee). I also learned about many of this heros of the war ranging from the Harlem Hellfighters to the Russian Nightwitches.
As always, Bearce’s books include a hands-on component. This time around readers learn how to create a dazzle paint job and when they might want to use it, how to make a periscope and some of the finer points of blending in so that you can spy. She even includes a recipe for stay-fresh cakes that were baked by the Red Cross to cheer up our boys in the trenches.
Boys and girls both will find something facsinating in this book. Although it is part of a series, the books do not need to be read in order of publication or chronological order. That said, I’d be interested in reading the in chronological order of events (Revolionary War, Civil War, World War I and World War II) just so that I could see how techniques changed over time.
Pick this one up for the young history buff in your life.
March 5, 2015
On a Clear Day
by Walter Dean Myers
Dahlia has always loved math — the numbers and formulas are dependable and help her understand the world even as things fall apart.
The year is 2035. The C-8, eight huge businesses, control everything from food to health care. Not only do they control who has access to what, the profit margin for these companies determines what even comes into being. On the surface, that doesn’t mean much for the wealthy. They live in their suburban gated communities were everyone looks like them (white). They shop, they party and they plan. What very few of them do is see.
Those like Dahlia who aren’t wealthy have no choice but to see. They have to keep their eyes open for the gangs roaming city streets. They also have to watch out for opportunities that are actually traps. The free tablets everyone was so happy to recieve? Once everyone was online and could access classes that way, the government had no reason to keep the schools open. There was simply no profit in it.
Dahlia dreamed of becoming a teacher. She would be able to help kids like herself see the beauty of math. Now, there’s no point. No gater (gated communities) would pay her to teach their children.
Then two boys show up in a van. From the van to their clothing, it is obvious that they have money. They may have money but they see. They see what C-8 is doing around the world — controlling who makes it in government, who has access to health care and who has food to eat. They are going to take on C-8.
They tell Dahlia and that they need her help. They’ve read the paper she published in a math journal. They know she has the computer skills needed to help them predict what is going to happen next. They are putting together a team of young people who believe that they can make a difference and they want Dahlia to be a part of it. Before she can decide if she can make a different, Dahlia has to find the nerve to leave behind all she knows and trust two boys she’s only must met.
This is one of the those books that is almost impossible to do justice in a review. It is rich and it is complicated. It is more gritty than lyrical but teen readers will love it because it is true. Walter Dean Myers was clearly an author who could see the dangers of big business, of the 10% and of the reliance that people place on the Web.
I wouldn’t call this book post-apocolyptic but it is walks up close to the apocolypse and dares the reader to see how far they can see On a Clear Day.
March 2, 2015
Top Secret Files:
The American Revolution
by Stephanie Bearce
I’m a history buff so I read a lot on various periods, both fiction and nonfiction. When an author comes up with things I don’t know about well known figures, it surprises me. Bearce has done it again.
As with the other books in the series, this one is all abou spies, secret missions and facts long hidden. I was a little surprised when she started with George Washington. Seriously? Washington? I may know a lot about ol’ George, but I didn’t know he had worked as a spy for the British.
In addition to giving readers little known information on big names like Washington, Bearce also sets the record straight about a few people that readers may have heard of but actually know very little about. Everyone knows Benedict Arnold traitor, but Bearce fills in the details about how he first fought for the US and then later turned spy. The one that really pulled me in was Paul Revere. Bearce not only fills readers in on the details of the big ride but she also tells a bit more about Revere’s day job as a silver smith. It wasn’t just fancy dishes. Revere also did dental work and had worked as on early forensics investigator.
In addition to well-known figures, Bearce pulls in hereos I had never heard of including Nancy Morgan Hart from Georgia who not only spied but fought hand to hand. Then there was Peter Francisco, a giant of a man who carried a canon on his shouldiers to keep the British from capturing it.
As always, Bearce’s books are peppered with hands on activities from sharp shooting (safe to do indoors) and writing invisible messages.
The information is quirky and fascinating which will help turn young readers on to history. Written in brief chapters, this book is suitable for reluctant readers who will be able to read for a while and then take a break.
Unlike some series, each of these books stands on its own. You can start with the American Revolution since it came first. Or read about World War II if that is a favorite time period. Wherever you start, you are going to want to pick up the other books in the series to see what other authors haven’t been telling you!