Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Codename Zero by Chris Rylander

Most seventh graders believe they live in the most boring town in the world. Ask one. Or maybe they have already offered that information freely. Chances are their middle school qualifies as the nucleus of their ennui. The flat-lined heartbeat of boredom.

So people like Carson Fender do things like release fainting goats on the school’s front lawn or seal every door in the school with glue. You know, ennui-free sort of activities. Sometimes, however, the break to boredom comes from an outside influence.

That’s what happens to Carson. Just as hundreds of fainting goats are dropping on the front lawn, a panicked man in a black business suit hands Carson a nondescript package. “Take this,” he insists. “Guard it with your life; the fate of the world depends on it. And whatever you do, don’t open it!” He tells Carson to deliver it to Mr. Jensen and Mr. Jensen only. Then he rushes off, chased by two gun-toting guys in painted white faces. They stuff him in a black sedan and take off.

After this incredible chain of events, Carson is brought back to reality and sent to the principal’s office on goat-related offenses.

So now Carson must not only navigate his school punishment, but must also decide what to do with the package. But really, is there any question for a middle-schooler? He opens it and activates the LCD screen inside. It immediately starts a 48 hour countdown to self-destruction since Carson is “an unauthorized non-Agency user” according the device’s voice. Forty-eight pressure-packed hours to locate Mr. Jensen and deliver the package.

Carson suddenly finds himself in a world of secret agents, two of whom are teachers, in a secretive, non-government organization known only as the Agency that works against spies and terrorists. Carson accepts a role with the Agency and is given codename Zero. Agent Zero’s role involves classmates, terrorists, other Agents, and the ultimate challenge of keeping everything quiet, all while remaining an unassuming seventh grader.

After a long set-up, the action really gets rolling in Chris Rylander’s follow up to The Fourth Stall Parts I, II, and III. Chock full of everything you’d expect in a novel full of secret agencies, readers will be quickly hooked and ready for the foreshadowed sequel. (Countdown Zero: The Codename Conspiracy releases on February 3, 2015.)

Sunday, December 28, 2014

You Are (Not) Small by Anna Kang and Christopher Weyant

So there’s this fuzzy purple guy and he’s just standing there. And then this taller fuzzy orange guy comes and he’s all like pointing at the purple guy and he says, “You are small.” He even has this pointy-down mean eyebrow look on his face.

Well then the fuzzy purple guy, he denies it. He says, “I am not small.” Then he totally turns it around on that orange guy and says, “You are big.” 

Take that, fuzzy orange guy!

Well then of course the fuzzy orange guy, well, HE denies it with an “I am not big.” Then he gets this smug look on his face like he knows something the purple guy doesn’t know, and he says, “See?” and points behind him. And there’s like four more fuzzy orange guys and they’re just as tall as him!

Hoo boy, that purple guy gets all grumpy but now he’s got like fourteen fuzzy purple guys with him all of a sudden and they’re the same size as he is!

And now I’m totally expecting Dallas Winston to come running in and yell “Don’t you know a rumble ain’t a rumble without me?!?!” and the book to go all The Outsiders on me ‘cause these fuzzy dudes is getting ANGRY! They’re yelling about being big and small and then . . .

Another fuzzy guy shows up. A blue guy, and he’s HUGE. And then there’s more fuzzy guys. Pink guys, and they’re little pipsqueaks. So now the little guys are actually big compared to the pipsqueaks and big guys are mini-fuzzy dudes next to the new blue guy who is so huge you can only see his legs.

Perspective. It sure can change an argument.

Okay, I’m not sure where that review came from, but that is how the book goes. There’s an argument about size, and both sides of the argument are correct until another perspective is presented. Sometimes we are small. Sometimes we are big. It just depends on who you’re standing next to. Isn’t that what makes the world interesting? Variety?

Kids will love the way the argument escalates without ever really becoming threatening to young readers. (These are just fuzzy blue and orange guys, remember.) The text is perfect for partner reading just like the great Elephant and Piggie books or Duck! Rabbit!, and the ending will lead to plenty of discussion.

And possibly (hopefully!) a sequel.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

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

If you haven’t yet read 2013 Newbery Medal winning The One and Only Ivan, you are missing what many consider a modern classic of children’s literature. It’s a powerful story of friendship and protection and identity and freedom and so much more.

Author Katherine Applegate has now added to Ivan’s story, or rather, given readers the true story behind the fictionalized version in Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla. The book starts with the gorilla’s birth “in leafy calm, in gentle arms.” It tells how the gorilla didn’t learn about humans until it was too late, when poachers stole them from their jungle home. The book describes how Ivan, named in a contest, was raised as a human - sleeping in a bed, going to baseball games, and riding a motorcycle. Eventually Ivan grew beyond his owners’ ability to care for him.

Ivan was moved to a cage in a shopping mall where he became an oddity, an attraction, a way to draw customers. After nineteen pages of Ivan’s life before the mall, only six pages are devoted to Ivan’s life at the mall, but readers will clearly understand the bleak existence. He had a tire and a TV. He sometimes finger-painted. Most of his time was spent watching people watch him. The book concludes with eleven pages on his life after the mall.

This lyrical, nonfiction retelling of Ivan’s story is at times touching and heartbreaking and fulfilling. But I can’t get beyond the page breakdown. Twenty-seven years of Ivan’s life can be covered in only six pages? His life before the B & I Shopping Center - two lives, really - gets nineteen pages. Part of it covers a life of hoots, grunts, and chest-beats, a life with wrestling and chasing and swinging. The other part covers his life of diapers and clothes and a human family. Then twenty-seven years fly by in six pages? How miserable those twenty-seven years must have been!

If this book is read as a companion to The One and Only Ivan, this makes sense. Readers will be fully aware of Ivan’s bleak existence at the B & I Shopping Center (or the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade). Devoting the majority of the book to Ivan’s life before and after the mall gives readers a better understanding of his life as a whole.

While I loved this book, it was not the book I expected. I was looking for straight-up nonfiction like dates, timelines, photographs, and comparisons between factual Ivan and fictional Ivan. There are numerous online resources like Ivan's Wikipedia page, the description of Ivan’s life at Zoo Atlanta, background information from Katherine Applegate’s site, a variety of images of Ivan, and even the videos below, and I thought the book would bring all that information together.

Is it possible to be disappointed that a book was not what you expected yet not be disappointed in the book itself?

I’ll settle for online research. That’s fine. I’m glad we have this book. Charts and graphs and diagrams and timelines could never communicate the full range of emotions readers experience from this heart-felt look at Ivan’s life.

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. 


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.


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