Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads by Bob Shea and Lane Smith

The book clarifies this on page two, so I’ll jump right in so everybody understands. Yes, Drywater Gulch had a problem with toads, but not the croaking, hopping kind. No. Drywater Gulch had a different sort of Toad problem. The Toad brothers.

“Why, those Toad brothers would steal your gold, kiss your cattle, and insult your chili. Hootin’, hollarin’, and cussin all the while.”

Now that’s a problem. The mayor was at a loss. Until … until …

Hope rode into town. Slowly. A boy, wearing white, riding a tortoise, and declaring himself the new sheriff. After all, he knows a lot about dinosaurs.

Okay, okay, I hear you. You were interested in the whole wild west thing, bad guys kissin’ cattle and all, and then you read about the tortoise and the dinosaurs and you were like, “Seems a bit sketchy to me. I don’t get it.”

Trust me. Kid Sheriff might not handle a shooting iron, ride a horse, know any rope tricks, or stay up past eight, but he makes a spectacular sheriff. When the bank gets robbed, the mayor suspects the Toad Brothers, and rightfully so. But Kid Sheriff declares it to be the work of T. rex. The stagecoach must be the Toad Brothers, right? Nope. Velociraptors.

Then the Toad Brothers themselves show up in town bragging - or trying to brag - about their antics, but Kid Sheriff has the real explanations. Cattle kissin’? Triceratops. Shoplifting at the mercantile? Allosaurus. And the chili insultin’ varmint was none other than Stegosaurus.

Now the Toad brothers are at a loss. How’s a nasty, gun-slingin’ gang supposed to get credit for their nefarious ways if gold stealin’, cattle kissin’, and chili insultin’ ain’t enough, dadgummit?!?

While you might not see a connection between a tortoise, dinosaurs, and the criminal old west, if you are already familiar with Bob Shea and Lane Smith’s work, you know a collaboration between these two author/illustrators will be something special. Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads delivers a goofy story, dastardly villains, a clever hero, and a hilarious and satisfying conclusion in all its absurd glory.

Cowboys. Dinosaurs. Heroes. Villains. What’s not to like?

Not a dad-burned thing. Consarnit.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Leroy Ninker Saddles Up by Kate DiCamillo

Sometimes technology is pretty cool. I was listening to a third grader read Mercy Watson Fights Crime and mentioned that Leroy Ninker, the book’s not-so-hardened criminal, was featured in a new book. “Really?” she asked, putting me on the spot. Hoping my memory was treating me kindly, I pulled out my phone and looked it up. Sure enough, there was Leroy Ninker Saddles Up. We put it in my shopping cart and placed the order.

“We should have it in about a week. I’ll bring it to you first.”

Her eyes lit up, she smiled, and I added another item to the list of why I love teaching.

Then she kept my book! I checked in with her each day to see how the reading was going (fine), was the story good (hilarious), did she finish (yep!), and can I get the book back now (umm…). She wasn’t going to give it back and kept it at home to make sure I couldn’t swipe it!

Do you need any more recommendation than that?

Okay, I think she was just messing with me, but had I said, “Ah, don’t worry about it. You can keep it,” she would NOT have said, “Oh, are you sure Mr. W? It really is your book.” It would have been more like, “Letmethinkaboutitokay.”

Leroy Ninker Saddles Up is Volume One of the new Tales from Deckawoo Drive series. The reading level is stepped up a bit from the original Mercy Watson books making it a great next step for Mercy Watson fans. But far be it from me to recommend a book strictly based on its reading level. Leroy Ninker, now gainfully employed in the concession stand at the local drive-in theater, loves the movies, especially Wednesday nights when the Bijou runs a Western double-feature. He dreams of being a real and true cowboy, but a coworker, Beatrice Leapaleoni, reminds Leroy that being a cowboy is more than a hat, boots, lasso, and tracking ability. What Leroy lacks is a horse.

Until Leroy finds Maybelline. “You are my horse,” says Leroy. “For me, you shine brighter than every star and every planet. You shine brighter than all the universe’s moons and suns. There are not enough yippie-i-ohs to describe you, Maybelline. I love you.” Leroy has a lot to learn about owning a horse, let alone being a cowboy, but his reformed heart is in the right place. Leroy’s affection only grows stronger after a storm separates him from Maybelline, but all is made right after a determined search and a visit to Deckawoo Drive (where toast with a great deal of butter on it and some familiar characters make an appearance).

If subsequent volumes in Kate DiCamillo’s new Tales from Deckawoo Drive series deliver like Leroy Ninker and Maybelline, even more readers will be saying, “Yippee-i-oh!”

Sunday, November 30, 2014

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snicket

As a fan of Encyclopedia Brown growing up - and to be honest, I never solved the crime before reading the solution in the back of the book - I was pleasantly surprised when I realized that Lemony Snicket’s new addition to the All the Wrong Questions series was cut from the same mold. To be sure, Mr. Snicket has made the product his own using the characters, settings, and dry humor found in the other books in the AtWQ series, but the book format remains unchanged. Start with a short story. Include a crime to be solved or question to be answered. Reveal clues throughout the story. Give the solution in the back of the book. Repeat.

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents includes the same cast of characters from All the Wrong Questions. In the two previous books, young Lemony Snicket has earned a reputation in Stain’d-by-the-Sea as someone who can solve problems, and with the town’s population dwindling, there is a distinct lack of such people in town. Stain’d-by-the-Sea’s residents start requesting Snicket’s help with their problems.

There’s stolen gold, a missing newt, and a car out for a joyride. There’s a person who eats too many muffins, broken windows, drifters, and numerous other mysteries to be solved by careful readers … or if you need to turn to the back of the book, there are solutions to be revealed to the not-so-careful readers.

As always with a Lemony Snicket book, there’s more here than one first realizes. Will you catch the clues to the larger All the Wrong Questions storyline? Will you remember the nuggets of information revealed about some of the main characters? Will you find the information hidden in plain view in the solutions? And who will get the last word? (The last word being “_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ .” as shown on the last page.)

With thirteen short mysteries, 13 Suspicious Incidents will appeal to readers who like everything to get wrapped up quickly. Thankfully, at least for this reader, solving the crimes before reading the solutions is optional.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett

President Taft did indeed get stuck in the bath. Maybe. He was a big man - this is undeniable. When one looks into some additional facts (all listed in the back of the book), however, one could understandably draw the conclusion that he did get stuck. President Taft had a tub that was seven feet long and three-and-a-half feet wide installed in the White House. Taft had a giant tub on his private yacht. Another giant tub was installed in his residence after leaving office.

Are these the actions of a man who simply likes to stretch while bathing or those of a man who once found himself stuck in a tub and decided once was enough?

You decide - and have fun with the debate.

If I was an American history or civics teacher, I’d want a book that included people like the president, vice president, secretary of state, secretary of agriculture, secretary of war (why is he not called the secretary of defense?), the secretaries of the navy, treasury, and interior, and the chief justice of the supreme court. That’s a who’s who of the executive and judicial branches of the federal government.

So what if they’re all present to help the president get unstuck from the bath?

But ask yourself (or your civics class): Why is the vice president ready to be sworn in? Why does the secretary of state seek a diplomatic solution? Why does the secretary of agriculture offer a solution involving butter? Why does TNT enter into the secretary of war’s plan? The secretary of the navy wants to send deep-sea divers into the tub, the secretary of the treasure wants to throw money at the problem, the secretary of the interior insists, “The answer is inside you.” Why?

Finally, isn’t it interesting that the successful solution requires all of them to work together? Could the president being wedged into his tub be a microcosm of how government works effectively?

One shudders to think.

Mac Barnett has taken an absurd piece of American history and crafted a story that could be used (at least in the eyes of this teacher) from kindergarten through high school. Chris Van Dusen’s illustrations include preposterous situations, emotional and expressive characters, a fair amount of red, white, and blue and White House decor, and many well-placed splashes and bubbles around President Taft.

Use President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath with students however you wish. Or not. But do let students read it, even if the only lesson they learn is that books can be hysterically fun.

Isn’t that the most important lesson of all?

The bathtub that President Taft insisted was not installed in the White House.
Photo from President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett


There are horrible children’s books. 

Seriously.

These books are sickly sweet and predictable, sometimes with happy (sappy?) lessons spelled out for readers too dense (no we're not!) to figure them out themselves. These tales often include fuzzy woodland creatures like Birthday Bunny who wakes up on his special day worried that all his woodland friends - Crow, Badger, Squirrel, Bear, and Turtle - have forgotten his special day. These tales might include crying, a Special Thinking Place, and overuse of the word special. (Exhibit A, left)

There’s only one man who can fix a story like this: Alex.



Of course you did Alex. And what a masterpiece you have created. But you have to admit, authors Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett and illustrator Matthew Myers helped some, didn’t they?


Okay, okay. I won’t push the issue. This doesn’t need to come down to you vs. me.



Now, really. Name calling, Alex? Don’t you think if it really came down to a competition between the two of us it should be determined by wits or skill or strength? Not name calling. What do you think?



I can see this is getting nowhere. Can I just finish this book review?


Well, while you’re thinking, Alex, let me share some great things about your book.

Birthday Bunny was given to Alex by his Gran Gran on his special day. But Alex, being bored with sweet woodland creatures who cry in their Secret Thinking Place, takes matters into his own hands and creates:


But it’s not just the cover. The entire story changes, both the text and pictures. Hopping becomes chopping, carrot juice becomes brain juice, and a tediously dull story about Birthday Bunny’s friends forgetting his special day becomes Battle Bunny’s evil plot to take over the world. Not only that, but Alex himself becomes the story's hero, penciled in by the man himself. Way to go, Alex.

Way much cooler.

Alex’s use of eraser, pencil, and imagination is a tactic that should be replicated by kids around the world. As a teacher, I look forward to having kids duplicate the activity with $5.00 worth of books from the second-hand shop. You can even print a copy of the original Birthday Bunny at mybirthdaybunny.com and make your own version.

Of course teachers can come up with all sorts of creative ways to use Alex’s story, but don’t let classroom use get in the way of the pure enjoyment of Battle Bunny. Let kids read it. Let kids laugh. Let them be kids.

And then keep a close eye on your own books from Gran Gran. Some creative kid might get ahold of it and make it … better.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown

This conversation happened when I read Mr. Tiger Goes Wild aloud to two kindergartners:

Kindergartner 1: “He’s naked!”
Kindergartner 2: “But he’s a tiger!”
Kindergartners 1 & 2: [contemplative silence]

Yes, a character who normally wears clothing exits a city fountain sans clothing. So, by definition, he is naked. One can’t argue. At the same time, animals generally are naked, and tigers are animals. So is “He’s naked!” a statement of fact or an exclamation of shock?

To better understand this kindergarten conundrum, let’s step back to the beginning of the book. Mr. Tiger is a proper gentleman (top hat, bow tie, overcoat) in a city of proper ladies and gentlemen. But Mr. Tiger was bored with always being so proper. All of this “Good day” and “Lovely weather we are having” and “Indeed.” Boring.

Mr. Tiger wanted to loosen up, have fun, and be wild. So he did one of the wildest things this proper city had seen in some time. He walked on all four legs. This led to running and chasing and climbing and roaring. “And then Mr. Tiger went a little too far.”

He dove in the city fountain and exited au naturale. “Mr. Tiger!” shouted Ms. Elephant. “If you must act wild, kindly do so in the WILDERNESS!”

So he did.

Then this conversation happened with my two kindergartners:

Me: “What do you think is going to happen next?”
Kindergartner 1: “He’s alone.”
Kindergartner 2: “Yeah. He’s lonely.”
Me, turning the page and reading: “But Mr. Tiger was lonely.”

What should Mr. Tiger do? Don his top hat, bow tie, and overcoat and stroll two-legged back into that proper city? Or remain in the wilderness living the wild life? Could there be a middle ground?

After all, shouldn’t Mr. Tiger feel free to be himself? Shouldn’t we all?

I won’t give away Mr. Tiger’s decision or how the story turns out, but I will share that there are lessons to be learned in Peter Brown’s book. Be yourself. Respect others despite the differences. Don’t conform only to please others.

And maybe you should just stay out of the city fountain altogether.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

My Teacher is a Monster by Peter Brown

Teachers. Monsters. Not all monsters are teachers, but all teachers have the potential to be monsters … at least in the eyes of their students.

Or in the eyes of specific students like Bobby, the paper airplane-throwing, chair-tipping, slowpoke main character in My Teacher is a Monster. “No recess for children who throw airplanes in class.” There’s only one kind of teacher who would say something like that, and Mrs. Kirby is that kind of teacher.

She’s a monster. Undeniably.

Author and illustrator Peter Brown quickly sets the stage for conflict between everykid Bobby and his teacher, Mrs. Kirby. Then he moves the story from the classroom to a Saturday in the park. What happens when Bobby and his monster end up on the same park bench?

“Bobby wanted to run! He wanted to hide! But he knew that would only make things worse.”

So he raised his hand. “Robert, you don’t need to raise your hand out here.”

It’s not the greatest start to a Saturday in the park sort of conversation, but it is a start. And where that conversation leads them, neither could have predicted.

Readers won’t see it coming either. There’s a lost hat, ducks, some quacking, some rock climbing, and some fantastic airplanery. Over the course of that Saturday in the park, Bobby learns something important about his teacher. Maybe, despite the roaring and the stomping at school, just maybe, Mrs. Kirby isn’t a monster. Maybe monsters are not always what they seem.

Don’t believe me? Compare the front cover to the back cover. Teachers. Monsters. One and the same? Take a look at what happens between the front and back cover and decide for yourself.

Just like Bobby did.


Friday, October 31, 2014

Hansel & Gretel by Neil Gaiman

My fairy tale history is a little fuzzy. Here’s what I remember about Hansel & Gretel: A boy and a girl are lost in the forest. They find a candy house and try to eat it. The witch gets mad and wants to eat them instead. Kids escape. An oven is involved.

But I knew something must be missing from the version I remembered, especially if Neil Gaiman had put pen to paper to record his version. The author of Coraline and The Graveyard Book certainly wouldn’t publish a saccharine story of lost kids and candy houses.

So I read and learned about the woodcutter and his wife and their two children. How their life was good until war came and food, once plentiful, became scarce. How a mother logically concluded that they will all die unless there were fewer mouths to feed. How a mother could convince her husband to abandon their children in the forest. Twice.

In other words, I finally got to know the real story of Hansel & Gretel.

Readers familiar with Toon Books may be expecting a comic version similar to other Toon Books titles, but Hansel & Gretel is told as a short story like the original Grimm story. The text is broken by fourteen two-page illustrations that alternate pages with the text. The illustrations by Lorenzo Mattotti are done in black ink and reveal more and more each time they are viewed.

No, this is not the story I was told or remember or the one I just chose to remember. It’s better - way better - and thankfully so. It’s a story begging to be read aloud, slowly and quietly in a room dimly lit, to be heard by listeners contemplating abandoned children, sinister old ladies, scorching ovens, and finding a way home. Listeners lost in a tale well told.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen is one of those books where, upon the first read, a grown-up might wonder, “Hmm. So. They dig a hole. And don’t find anything. Then they fall. Ooookay.” It’s on subsequent reads that grown-ups start to notice the little things missed the first time through.

But read it with kids and the magic starts immediately. When Sam and Dave declare they are going to dig a hole and not stop until they find something spectacular, young readers are ready to share the adventure.

At the outset, things don’t look good for our diggers. They just miss a huge diamond, digging straight down, just past it. That certainly would have been spectacular. Sam and Dave’s frustrations persuade them to change tactics. They dig horizontally (and miss something more spectacular). They split up and dig diagonally (missing something even more spectacular-er). When they decide to dig straight down again, they miss the most spectacular-er-est item of all.

Or do they? At the end, Sam and Dave agree that what happened was spectacular, but to me the best discoveries are the ones readers make that get them flipping back through the book.

“Hey, look at their dog! He knows! Was he doing that on the last page?” Flip, flip.

“Wait a second. Didn’t they have an apple tree?” Flip, flip.

“Check out that cat! See how the dog is looking at him?” Flip, flip.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole pulls kids back inside, that won’t let readers turn the last page, and keeps them searching and discovering more.

And that, you have to agree, is pretty spectacular.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Kel Gilligan’s Daredevil Stunt Show by Michael Buckley

Kel Gilligan is the hero of my toddler self. He bravely takes on challenges that I would never have considered at his age. No way.

Broccoli. Yes, all of it and, yes, without complaining. In the end, he’s a bit weaker and greener, but unscathed. Me? Yeah, forget it. Even today.

There’s the potty. Even though it took longer than expected, and with no coloring book to help, he emerged victorious. Ta-Daaa! Me? Ask my mom about my potty experience (I was a two-year-old) the time we toured a house for sale. No victory for me, but thankfully it wasn’t a deal-breaker; we ultimately moved into the house.

Then there’s getting dressed. Kel Gilligan does it by himself. No net, no safety precautions, and no helmet (at least until he’s dressed). Spectators are amazed. Me? Shirt backwards. Shoes on the wrong feet. Fly unzipped.

Kel Gilligan allows Mom to talk on the phone uninterrupted. He takes on bath time with a brave face and comes out scrubbed and squeaky clean. He even takes on bedtime. The darkness, the monsters, no problem, right? Right?

In the end Kel learns an important lesson, despite his heroics. Some stunts are better left to the professionals. (But even professionals appreciate a little help.)

Michael Buckley captures the impossible tasks of childhood through the bravery of one unique, danger-loving adventurer, and Dan Santat’s illustrations support the daredevil vibe wonderfully. Kel dresses in red, white, and blue reminiscent of Evel Knievel. Some stunts are recorded on videotape, complete with battery levels and elapsed time in the corners. (Keep an eye on the time for Kel’s potty stunt.) Even Kel’s portrait on the wall features a scowl, and untamed lock of hair, and a t-shirt that reads “I ♥ DANGER.”

Kids will quickly understand how Kel takes on challenges many of them once faced themselves. With a little encouragement, and a little exaggeration, readers’ own stories might even rival Kel’s adventures.

And bonus points for reading the story in Don LaFontaine’s voice. Just because.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Revolution by Deborah Wiles

People don’t believe me when I tell them that much of what I have learned about history was from fiction. But let’s be clear - I’m talking about well-researched, factually based, historical fiction. Of course, one must carefully filter the fact from the fiction and do additional research where the separation is difficult, but fiction generally engages this reader more than nonfiction, so I’ll take the lessons where they come.

I could (and should) thank many authors, but here’s a heartfelt thank you specifically for Deborah Wiles for the lessons she’s taught me. First it was the Cuban Missile Crisis in Countdown. Now it’s Mississippi in 1964 - Freedom Summer - in her second of three documentary novels, Revolution.

Revolution takes place in Greenwood, Mississippi. Depending on who you ask, the summer of 1964 was when the invaders came from the north or it was Freedom Summer when volunteers worked diligently to help African-American residents to register to vote.

Sunny is caught in the middle of the disagreement. Her grandmother holds strongly to segregation. Her father runs a grocery store that welcomes and employs numerous African-Americans. Her stepmother sees inequality and injustice. But historical fiction would be, well, nonfiction if it didn’t include some fiction. Sunny also struggles with relationships within her new family. Should she trust and respect her stepmother? What about Gillette, her new stepbrother? How does the extended family accept the new family additions, and what factors in the family’s past affect that acceptance?

Again, like in Countdown, scattered throughout the novel are bits of image-dominated nonfiction. Photographs, pamphlets, song lyrics, newspaper excerpts, and signs are found throughout, usually in 5-10 page chunks every few chapters. Some are meant to specifically support the story such as images of volunteers working with unregistered African-Americans, Freedom Schools, and protesters being arrested. Other nonfiction parts help readers understand more about the time in history like “Whites Only” segregation signs, the Beatles, and soldiers in Vietnam.

There’s much to learn about our country from these three months in Greenwood, Mississippi, but know that the most powerful lessons from Revolution come from Sunny. As she wrestles with the changes happening in her family and her world, so do readers. And both come out changed at the end of Freedom Summer.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story by R. J. Palacio

Like most fans of Wonder, I was eager to read The Julian Chapter to see just what was going on in Julian’s head throughout the events of his and Auggie’s fifth grade year. I expected to learn how Julian explained and even justified his actions. Surely I would learn more about how Julian’s actions lead to the events in Wonder.

What I did not expect was to learn something about myself.

Next year will be my 20th year teaching. Most of that time has been spent with students in grades 4, 5, and 6 - Auggie and Julian’s age. There have been many students in that time who have challenged me. Disrespected me. Ignored, provoked, and disregarded me. (And others, of course.) But never once did I have a student who was just, simply, a bad kid. Every child has redeeming qualities. Some students just hide those qualities and make it more challenging for teachers to find them.

Yet after reading Wonder, I was more than happy to leave Julian as the antagonist. The bad kid. The source of all the problems in Auggie’s fifth grade year. As I told my fifth graders, “I’ve never known a fifth grader to be completely evil, yet I accepted without much thought that Julian was exactly that.”

It’s embarrassing. Never once did I wonder why Julian behaved the way he did or said the things he said. Could there be something behind the behavior? Might I be missing something about a character who, up until now, didn’t have a chance to share his perspective?

The Julian Chapter adds another layer to Wonder. On her website author R. J. Palacio has said that “[Julian] has nothing to add to Auggie’s story” and explains in great detail why Julian doesn’t have a section in Wonder. But Julian does have his own story, and readers of Wonder deserve to know it. Julian’s actions are never justified, and The Julian Chapter doesn’t explain away Julian’s atrocious behavior, but I’d be lying if I said I never felt empathy toward Julian.

Julian may not have had anything to add to Auggie’s story, but Julian’s own story is one worth telling, and it’s one readers deserve to know. Don’t miss it.

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