Sunday, September 28, 2008

Baron von Baddie and the Ice Ray Incident by George McClements

On page one we learn that Baron von Baddie was a genius. And if page two didn't flat out tell us so, we'd quickly figure out he's no ordinary genius. He's an evil genius. (While it's written EVIL in the book, it's impossible not to read it as Eeeee-ville.) The man's building a giant robot that swipes ice cream from the Good Humor man, for crying out loud! That's like evil (I mean, Eeeee-ville) to the core for a children's picture book!

But look! What's this? Could it be? Why, I believe it is, coming to save the day. It's Captain Kapow! Just like always, Captain Kapow shows up just in time to save the day, save the ice cream, and put Baron von Baddie where he belongs. In jail.

But as any evil (eh-hem, Eeeee-ville) genius will do, he escapes and immediately begins plotting his next dastardly deed. This time, however, is different. Thanks to an inadvertent yet perfectly timed sneeze, Baron von Baddie's ice ray gives Captain Kapow the big freeze. Now with Captain Goody-Goody out of the way, the Baron is free to do as he pleases.

Building robots, stealing ice cream trucks, eating doughnuts, changing the days of the week, NOTHING is beyond the reach of an evil (sorry again, Eeeee-ville) genius. Creating chaos is EASY (should that be Eeeee-zee?) now, but for some reason, it's not nearly as rewarding without a nemesis. So Baron von Baddie plots his most outrageous scheme that will land him right back where he wants to be. The Bighouse.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cowlick! by Christin Ditchfield

Raise your hand if you know a boy / have a boy / taught a boy / ARE a boy that has a cowlick. There’s probably one in your family. If you’re in a classroom, glance up. There’s two more. (see below)

Sometimes it’s simply bad bed head, nothing that a little water and some extra comb time can’t cure. But other times the cowlick is more…pronounced. Permanent. You can water it, dry it, rub it, comb it, brush it, or cut it, but to no avail.

All because some cow decided to lick it.

So what’s up with the whole cow thing? Christin Ditchfield explains all in Cowlick! With bold illustrations and simple verse, readers learn about a slurping, nocturnal bovine spreading what is apparently nature’s best hair gel one lick at a time.

Special Note for Wisconsin Readers: If you, like me, live in the great state of Wisconsin, here are some statistics that – while they may not frighten you – should cause you some concern. According to the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service (WASS), August 2008, there are 1,252,000 dairy cows in Wisconsin. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006 estimates, there are 1,311,335 Wisconsin residents under the age of eighteen. That’s nearly a 1:1 ratio of cows to kids. Sluuurrpp!

Our state has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, good hair isn’t on the list…if we believe the theory set forth in Cowlick!

Check out this matching pair from my classroom! Impressive.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Fabulous Bouncing Chowder by Peter Brown

Chowder is back, in all his drooly, slobbery greatness. He's dying to attend Twisty's Acrobatic Fanatic Camp, but Twisty doesn't allow it. No dogs. Instead Chowder is on his way to the Fabu Pooch Boot Camp, where beautiful dogs are turned into fabulous dogs.

Dog shows, dog salons, canine chiropractors, hair perms, and ... Chowder? As usual, he doesn’t quite fit in. While his fellow canine campers are primping for the First Annual Fabu Pooch Pageant, Chowder wonders how he can win the one-year supply of Snarf Snacks.

Chowder decides to follow his dreams. Professional kickball player? (No.) Astronaut? (Um…no.) Gourmet chef? (Also no.)

Chowder’s dreams lead him to a trampoline. He visualizes and studies and practices, practices, practices. And slobbers. He flips and flops…and slobbers. He twists and turns…and slobbers. Chowder is, in a word, fabulous.

But do trampolines belong in a Pooch Pageant? Will his newfound greatness be enough to earn The Fabulous Bouncing Chowder the one-year supply of Snarf Snacks? That’s up to the judges. If it was up to readers (and Chowder’s barnyard kickball friends from his first book) however, he’d have more Snarf Snacks than one drooling doggy could snarf.

Visit Chowder at
Visit Peter Brown at

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Van Gogh Cafe by Cynthia Rylant

The Van Gogh Cafe sits in Flowers, Kansas, a town not much more than a speed bump on Interstate 70. It's like any small town cafe - good food, friendly people, and unique quirks. There's the sign above the register that says BLESS ALL DOGS and a porcelain hen on the pie carousel and a phonograph that plays "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To."

Oh, and the magic.

Marc has owned the cafe for seven years. He and his daughter, Clara, open the cafe at six every morning. Clara, being ten, believes that anything may happen, and very often it does. The Van Gogh Cafe was once a theater, and everyone knows that magic happens whenever actors take the stage. Some of that magic must have seeped into the walls. The Van Gogh Cafe benefits from that leftover magic, magic that oozes back into the lives of people who might need a meal or good company, or just coffee, thanks.

One day a possum shows up and hangs from a tree outside the cafe. Okay, is that magical? What if people who don't get along suddenly find themselves next to one another looking at a possum, then find themselves shaking hands and heading inside for some pie? Hmmm...

Other normal events happen. A seagull arrives. A famous movie star stops by. A woman leaves two candy muffins. Lightening strikes. Odd, maybe, but certainly within the realm of possibility. But should poems predict the future? Should food cook itself? Should blizzard-stranded school bus riders find the perfect medicine in the fridge? Should a cat fall in love...with the seagull?

Sometimes the extraordinary happens thanks to the ordinary. It helps when there's "magic."

The Van Gogh Cafe feels like a old quilt on a rainy day. It's warm and comfortable and feels just right. There's enough to make you wonder if impossible events really are magically happening or if it's simply unlikely events courtesy of a few coincidences.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Another Perfect Day by Ross MacDonald

So it's time for Another Perfect Day, a day where everything goes exactly as you'd want it. What does it include? A human rocket launch? Alligator tickling? Piloting your personal, open cockpit jet on your commute from the circus to your job as Chief Flavor Tester at the ice cream factory? Saving the world from alien invasion?

Yeah, me too. And Jack. Jack's got a Clark Kent look to him, but I think he's a bit more wholesome. Up with the sun, impeccably dressed, always willing to help...he's living the dream. Literally.

But perfect days don't last. What's this? A tutu? A baby rattle? Clown shoes, tricycle, and baby bonnet? "But I don't get it!" Jack exclaims. "Why are all these terrible things happening? What happened to my perfect day?"

Thanks to the advice of a young man who made his first appearance when Jack BASHed a monster robot that morning, Jack is able to straighten things out and end his nightmare day. All it takes is sunshine, birds singing, and some toast.

Great picture books contain illustrations that reveal more each time the book is opened. Look carefully at Jack's pajamas. Look familiar? When Jack's Perfect/Nightmare Day ends, all of his daily adventures make a second appearance, just in a bit different context. Reading the story the first time is hilarious. What's not to like about Jack getting his exercise by tickling an alligator, saying, "Gitchee! Gitchee!"? Taking the time to look carefully at the illustrations a second (third, fourth, fifth...) time makes the story all the more enjoyable.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-you Notes by Peggy Gifford

Sometimes kids work amazingly hard – incredibly, astonishingly, extraordinarily hard – at avoiding work. The tactics children take to avoid work! And simple stuff too! They’d rather expend three times the energy in their efforts to avoid a job than simply do the job.

(The fact that adults are strikingly similar, myself included, is a fact that I willingly acknowledge, but intentionally omit at this point. If you’d like me to expend three times the energy in explaining why, email me.)

So that brings us to Moxy Maxwell, the girl who can plan and begin her future in peaches by planting an orchard rather than read a book. Now it’s just after Christmas and thank-you notes are in order. Moxy has 13 things to do before tomorrow, the day she leaves for Hollywood with Mark to visit their father, and numbers 1 through 12 are to write 12 thank-you notes.

(Another fact I intentionally omit at this point is that I don’t like writing thank-you notes either. If I could just type them, and post them on a thank-you blog, and send invites to the recipients…)

To be fair, there are a lot of distractions to Moxy’s effort. He sister is a turtle, her brother is a realist, her mother is shopping, her uncle has a turkey to cook, and somehow HANK has been spray painted on the living room wall.

(You ever stop and think how good Rice Krispie Treats are? I mean, really. I just had two of them and watched a little of the Notre Dame vs. Michigan football game. So where were we? Oh yeah, distractions…)

So Moxy decides that it would be much easier to write a generic template, make copies on her stepfather, Ajax’s, brand-new, Christmas present, nobody-not-named-Ajax-may-touch photocopier, and fill in the spaces with the appropriate information. It’s a good plan, except for the fact that nobody knows how to run the thing. Too many numbers get punched, Ajax’s easy chair gets broken, a turtle is buried. Mom comes home. None of it, of course, is Moxy’s fault.

It also won’t be Moxy’s fault if she’s unable to go to Hollywood.

Peggy Gifford’s second Moxy Maxwell book is just as entertaining as the first, but the second offering gives us more information about Moxy and Mark, and their relationship with their father. And it makes readers like her all the more.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Some Other New Writing

It's the start of the school year, things are happening ninety minutes to the hour, and the book posts are coming fewer and farther between. I've got a stack of books I've read...just no reviews written. They're coming.

In the meantime you may want to read my latest column for the newspaper: Parents suffer, too, when kids are injured.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big by Berkeley Breathed

Edwurd Fudwupper is the king of liars, or, as his sister Fanny explains, “From a long list of liars, there’s none higher upper than my fibbing big brother, the Edwurd Fudwupper.” He cooks them up big, and he cooks them up bold. Last week, matter of fact, he told Mabel Dill that she’d been voted queen of Brazil and that the Brazilians respectfully requested her presence – presumably for a coronation. Oh, and she was supposed to bring ten bikinis.

Mabel Dill hasn’t been seen since.

Many younger brothers and sisters look up to their older siblings and are, in fact, able to overlook numerous trespasses. Fanny is the same. Almost. She’d forgive Edwurd’s fibs “if only he liked me, or noticed I live.”

One morning Edwurd, due to a regrettable confluence of baseball, bat, and ceramic pig, must conjure up another lie to cover his actions. Oh, what a whopper it is. Alien, lovesick pigs, cruising the solar system, spotted Mom’s pig and fell deeply in love. When that porker puckered, over went the pig, shattering not only the ceramic pig but the alien pig’s love struck heart as well.

But when eavesdropping neighbor Lorna-Mae Loon overhears, she connects the alien pigs to Mabel Dill’s disappearance. The authorities are called. Planes arrive. And tanks and high ranking military men who demand into the depths of space, “Now listen out there! We’ll shoot! Yes, we will! Come back here at once – AND BRING MABEL DILL!!”

Unfortunately, a one eyed, purple and green, ginormous creature from two galaxies over arrives, and he’s a bit perturbed (to put it lightly) that his slumber has been interrupted. He demands to know who is responsible for all the hullabaloo, threatening, “Show him to me and I’ll swat him down flat!” Just when Edwurd is about to finally face the music for his fabulous fibs, a surprise savior comes to his rescue.


Younger siblings are always watching and listening…and learning. She’s learned from the best. While her fib doesn’t save the day, her love of her brother does.

Berkeley Breathed’s illustrations are as big and bold as Mabel Dill herself. Take the time to read and enjoy the story, but don’t miss the pictures. Take a second (third, fourth, fifth…) look. You’ll notice more each time. (And yes, the fate of poor Mabel Dill is revealed too.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

My Little Sister Ate One Hare by Bill Grossman

There are certain things that get children's attention, especially in books. In the first few pages of My Little Sister Ate One Hare, Bill Grossman gives readers a number of them: eating gross objects, throw up, snakes, underpants, and smelly feet. (Ok, no one actually throws up in the first few pages, but the snakes and underpants are real, and the socks and shoes are stinky.)

The narrator's little sister has an appetite of unparalleled proportions, spanning the widest variety, not foods exactly, but a wide variety of stuff anyway. She eats one hare. She eats two snakes. She eats three ants (and their underpants).

Each time she eats something new, the narrator comments (hopes?), “We thought she’d throw up then and there.”

Only do be disappointed. “But she didn’t.”

Students will soon catch on to these repeated lines and quickly join in. Their participation will grow in volume and excitement – she’s gotta lose it one of these times! – after each new meal. Maybe it’ll be the bats. Or the frogs. No? Then surely the lizards. C’mon lizards!

Finally, yes finally, patient students are rewarded with a page full of everything she ate during the course of the book. What food could possibly have caused this gastric eruption of massive proportions? (Like I’m telling here! Ha!)

The rhyme and rhythm of each page is flawless. Reading aloud books written in rhyming verse can sometimes be a gamble, but My Little Sister Ate One Hare is exactly as it should be. Readers don’t need to spend time deciphering rhymes, and there are no speed bumps in the rhythm. Read alouds of My Little Sister Ate One Hare can be fast and furious, matching the anticipation of whether or not the little sister will throw up as she eats more and more-er of the strange and stranger.

That’s all I got, folks. I’m off to get a snack.