Tag Archives: children’s books

Chapter Books – Babymouse: The Musical

Babymouse, adorable heroine of the comic book series, is back for another series of misadventures. This time around her school is going to be performing a musical. Long-time fans of the series will appreciate that the subject of the musical has to do with cupcakes. Babymouse is delighted when new student Henry Higgins encourages her to audition, but dismayed when the malicious Petunia gets the lead role, while she, Babymouse, is only the understudy. But when Petunia gets a hairball at the last minute, all eyes are on Babymouse….

All of the books in this series are charming, and this one is especially so. Anyone who is a fan of musicals will not help but be amused by the many references and spoofs of famous songs. From “Stupid Fractions” sung to the tune of “Summer Lovin’” from Grease to Annie’s Hard Knock Life changed to showcase the hard life of an understudy, the book rockets from one show to another with pizazz and flair. As always, Babymouse is her own unique self throughout it all.

I would recommend this book to fans of graphic novels (particularly girls, although I suspect that boys who can get past the bright pink cover might secretly enjoy them as well). Even if you’ve never read a graphic novel in your life, if you like musicals, then run out and get this, because it’s hilarious.

Pictures Books – Spoon

Spoon is….a spoon. He is a happy guy, and mostly content. But lately he has started feeling envious of his friends. Knife can cut, and fork is useful for so many tasks, and Chopsticks are cool and exotic. Spoon feels dowdy and plain. But secretly, all of the friends are envious of Spoon! He can be silly, and measure things, and go places by himself. Plus, of course, he gets to dive head first into ice cream!

The message that we are all unique and special in our own ways is strong, but not so didactic that kids will feel like they’re being hit over the head with the moral of the story. The book is fun first, message-laden second. Amy Krouse Rosenthal has written other books that invite the reader to rethink ordinary assumptions, and her experience shows, creating a book that is both sweet and funny. There are a few subtle puns, which are a coordination of illustration and text – such as when his parents invite him to snuggle, and the picture shows them “spooning”. Other humorous highlights include a famous relative that eloped with a dish and a comment that the slightly bent Spoon looks blue and “out of shape”.

The illustrations by Scott Magoon are spot on. The illustration of the Spoon family, with every type of spoon you could possibly think of, from measuring spoons (where the mothering Tablespoon is cuddling what looks like a baby 1/4 of a teaspoon) to a spork that looks like he’s not sure he belongs in the picture. The tea bag that Spoon is relaxing with in another illustration looks like he’s high, but I doubt that kids will pick up on such a subtle image, so I’m not worried about the book being challenged.

Overall, a fun, pleasing choice that is sure to be a hit with kids and parents both.

Chapter Books – Ava Tree and the Wishes Three

Everyone makes a wish on their birthday, but most of us don’t get to see that wish come true. For Ava Tree, her birthday suddenly gets a dash of excitement when she realizes that her wishes DO come true. Three wishes a day, in fact. But will the wishes last? And are there some things that are just too big to wish for?

Ava Tree was an engaging and likable character in a warm and friendly early chapter book. She is sweet, and her relationship with her friend Priscilla and much older brother Jack are charming. She seems like a real child, with likes and dislikes that are not simply plot-driven.

The one sour note is Priscilla’s mother, Mother Puhrfect. The name, and the personality to go with it, is just too over-the-top in a book that, aside from the fantastical wishing element, treats its characters with seriousness and respect. The “bad wishes will rebound back on you” was also slightly trite, but it is such a standard part of the wishing/magical powers genre that I was not surprised to see its inclusion, and the book refreshingly avoids the cliched scene of wishing for lots of material things only to learn the special lesson that material possessions aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Some of Ava’s wishes are selfish – as is only realistic – but not in the “mine, mine, mine” consumerism that it could be so easy to be lazy and use.

Ava’s grief for her parents – killed an unnamed number of years ago – seems very real both in its intensity and also in the ways in which she and Jack have accommodated and adapted to life on their own. She clearly misses her parents, and her multiple attempts to wish them back to life show that she would do almost anything to have them back. But while she is clearly sad, she has also reached the point in her life where she can move forward, able to have a birthday party or go diving and not be overwhelmed by the fact that her parents are not there to share these experiences with her.

Although I can find nothing online to indicate that there will be a sequel, I hope that there will be more books forthcoming about Ava Tree and her remarkable ability to wish for what she wants.

Picture Books – Tushy Book

Everybody has a tushy – and it’s a good thing they do. Tushies are useful for cushioning bumps, fitting into laps, and riding on sleds. This book is a celebration of tushies of all sizes and their many uses.

The illustrations – done with pencil and transparent inks on vellum – are adorable. The realistic style lends itself to details, so that every page is filled with figures all doing something different. There is a slight chance that the rare parent will take offense at the subject matter (for instance, the “Every tushy has a crack!” page features several children whose buns are peaking out from underpants, diapers, or bathwater), but I suspect most adults will be too busy being amused at the pictures while their children giggle helplessly at the mere mention of the word “tushy”.

The illustrations are excellent in their depiction of the world as well. People of all races and ages are shown, although Asians are underrepresented. It can be unusual to find a picture book that features the elderly in a role other than grandparent, so it is refreshing to see a couple in their sixties alone at the beach, and an old man feeding pigeons on his own. The beach scene is also interesting because while all of the children appear fit and healthy, the adults are a wide range of body types. This whole paragraph might seem like it’s overanalyzing something meant to be fun, and in some ways that’s true. But the subject of allowing every person to see themselves reflected in illustrations is an important one.>

Easy Reader – Pearl and Wagner: One Funny Day

Wagner is not having a good day. First he is late for school, then it turns out to be April Fool’s Day. Everyone else thinks the pranks are hilarious, but gullible Wagner isn’t laughing. His day gets worse when Pearl doesn’t want to be his partner in gym. When Wagner gets sent to the nurse’s office, he comes back with bright green dots all over his body, making the rest of the class very nervous. But Wagner gets to have the last laugh in this early reader.

This book is a Dial Easy-to-Read Level 2 book intended to be a “reading together” book. There are four to six sentences on each page and illustrations on each page. Contractions and dialogue are both used. The story is both cute and plausible.

The illustrations, done in pen, ink, watercolor and colored pencils, are pleasing and amusing. Some pictures have backgrounds, but many are displayed against a white backdrop. The body language of the animals is very clear, and the expressions on their faces are priceless. This book will be an excellent choice for more confident beginning readers, whether or not the month is April.

Early Readers – Thanksgiving Beast Feast

As many families across the United States sit down to their Thanksgiving meals today, we review a book with a holiday theme. Emily and Harry are looking forward to Thanksgiving. They learn about how the first Thanksgiving was giving thanks for all of the food that the Pilgrims were able to grow or hunt. Then they notice that the animals near their house have no food. They decide to create a Thanksgiving Beast Feast so that the birds, squirrels, and chipmunks will have a reason to celebrate as well.

This is a Holiday House Reader Level 2. The book indicates it is a good level for first and second graders, which seems about right. This is a more advanced early reader. There are three short chapters. Most pages have between four and eight sentences on them. While most two-page spreads have words and text on both pages, sometimes there is a picture on one page and the entire opposite page is filled with text.

The illustrations complement the text, reflecting what is going on in the words. While the illustrations do not have the same polish or level of mastery many other books showcase, they are still appealing. I do not think that the outfits the American Indians are wearing in scenes from the past are accurate reflections of the clothing that would have been worn at the first Thanksgiving, which is a shame.

This is a cute story, and one that emphasizes helping others during the holiday season.

Picture Books – Little Rabbit Who Liked to Say Moo

Little Rabbit, disappointed that rabbits have no “big sound” decides to try out the noises of the other animals. When Calf comes along, he wonders why Little Rabbit is mooing, and, when the situation is explained, suggests they trying baaing together. Soon enough Lamb, Piglet, Duckling, and Baby Donkey have joined them, and the farmyard is ringing with animal sounds.

Any book that features lots of loud animal noises is a sure hit during story times. This book is helped along by uncluttered illustrations in Jonathan Allen’s easily identifiable style. The animals are front and center, with only very minimal backgrounds -usually just a green smudge representing grass- reflecting the idea that the center of the story is the animals themselves. While this choice necessarily negates any “background stories” or intricate pictures that provide hours of entertainment in trying to figure out what subtle events are happening in the background, the more direct approach will appeal to many young children. Not everyone is attracted to “busy” backgrounds (witness the massively positive reactions to Mo Willem’s Elephant and Piggy books).

This isn’t a major contribution to the literature. No dogs die or Important Life Lessons are learned. But it succeeds admirably for what it wants to be: a cute, appealing, and highly readable story that will quickly become part of the “Read it again, Mommy” canon.

Early Readers – Lulu and the Witch Baby

Lulu Witch does not like Witch Baby. Witch Baby takes all of attention and messes up Lulu’s things. So one day while Mama Witch is away at the market, Lulu decides to try casting a spell on the Witch Baby. It appears that the spell is successful, and at first Lulu is jubilant. But then she starts to feel bad about how much Mama Witch will be upset. She tries to reverse the spell. Can she do it?

This I Can Read book appears to be aimed at more advanced beginning readers. The 5-8 sentences on most pages. There are often two-page sections where one page has a picture while the other page is filled completely with text, although most pages have both text and a picture. No contractions are used.The illustrations are well suited to the story. The facial expressions clearly display Lulu’s quick travel through various emotions, and the Witch Baby is just the right balance of wicked baby and adorable baby.

The story is cute, and addresses jealousy issues that many children feel. I think Lulu’s emotional reactions to the Witch Baby, and her subsequent actions appeal to children. Some parents may take issue with the fact that Lulu says she “hates” the baby or that later she justifies not telling her mother that the baby was lost because it was “not really the truth. But it was not really a lie.” This is a situation many children have already experienced however, and those children will surely love this story.

Picture Books – Ping Pong Pig

All of the animals on the farm are hard workers…except for Ping Pong Pig, who is far more interested in learning how to fly. “Pigs can’t fly” the other animals tell him sadly. But his attempts disrupt the farmyard, until the farm animals get together to try to help out Ping Pong Pig.

Reason number one to like this book are the illustrations, done by the author Caroline Jayne Church. The pictures are appealing in their simplicity, filled with strong outlines and simple lines. The bright colors are subtly modified for texture and dimensionality. Pig’s active personality comes through clearly, as he jumps around the page attempting to fly.

If you need a second reason to like the book, there is the plot, and the underlying assumption about helping others. Even if the other animals are working partly in their own self interests (Ping Pong pig has been accidentally destroying the farm yard), it is still kind of the animals to find a distraction for the pig, rather than to, say, build a cage or otherwise punish him. When Ping Pong Pig has “the best time EVER”, he decides he needs to do something nice in exchange, and goes out of his way to do extra farm work for the other animals (and uses his new trampoline to do so, proving that you can do work and have fun a the same time.) Both kids and adults can sometimes lose sight of gratitude; it’s therefore pleasant to see it part of a story in which that gratitude is simply a part of the story rather than an Important Lesson that is heavy-handedly pointed out.

A deceptively simple story with appealing illustrations, Ping Pong Pig is sure to be a hit with young children and their parents.

Chapter Books – Chains

Isabel watched her owner sign the papers before she became sick. The paper that give Isabel and her little sister Ruth their freedom upon the death of their Miss Finch. So she is stunned when, at the funeral, Miss Finch’s nephew refuses to give the sisters their freedom, and instead sells them to the first people he meets. Isabel is horrified to find that she is being carted away from Rhode Island as the property of the Locktons, residents of New York.

The Locktons are Loyalists, a fact that Isabel dismisses as unimportant at first. She is far more concerned with her own freedom than with the theoretical freedom of the colonies. But then the American rebels offer her a chance at freedom if she spies on her owners. The risk is great, but Isabel is desperate. Her epileptic sister makes the already unpredictable Mrs. Lockton even more volatile. But the fate of slaves is a complicated one, for both the rebel army and the Loyalists. What does it mean to be fighting for freedom of your country when there are men and women who are enslaved?

There’s been a lot of buzz about Chains being a contender for the Newbery and other awards, and it is not hard to see why. The historical research done by Laurie Halse Anderson is detailed and wide-reaching. She manages to set the story very firmly in the time period without overwhelming the reader with irrelevant details or bogging down in a display of historical facts. The writing is excellent, the sort of writing that tricks readers into thinking that the writing process was effortless, when I am sure that the author labored hard to find the perfect phrase or word.

The characters are realistic as well. Isabel’s fierce loyalty towards her sister is clear. While I have heard some complaints that parts of the middle of the book are out of character, or that Isabel doesn’t change during these parts, I disagree. For much of these sections Isabel is in a state of stunned disbelief. She remains unchanging not for plot purposes but because it is the only emotional response of which she is capable. Historical fiction is populated with daring slave escapes, which might serve to blind the average reader to the fact that the vast majority of slaves were obviously NOT able to escape. With no way out of the situation, Isabel is essentially forced to turn herself off. The “bees” buzzing in her brain will only cause disaster. If she lets herself feel, she will destroy herself with her rage. It is only in small acts, little things that she repeatedly insists she’s going to stop doing or insists she doesn’t truly care about, that Isabel is able to reach out to the world, and, in doing so, free her own emotional growth.

All readers, both adult and child, will be surprised and appalled at the ways in which slaves were treated by both sides of the conflict. In the author’s note at the end of the book, Ms. Anderson talks about how there it was not a “good guy, bad guy” situation. Both sides did things that were not so wonderful, and we should acknowledge that. The novel as a whole is remarkable in its refusal to give a one-sided portrayal.