Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Juvie Three by Gordon Korman

Everyone wants a second chance at something. Students like second chances at assignments, teachers like second chances with lessons, and I'd personally like a second chance at Super Bowl XXXII. Unfortunately, second chances are rather hard to come by.

But in The Juvie Three, Gecko, Arjay, and Terrance get their second chance. At life.

Gecko is the forgotten younger brother in his family, the talented, underage getaway driver for his older brother Rueben's crime sprees. When a robbery ends up with a stolen Infiniti on its roof, Gecko is sent to juvie. His family, however, seems only concerned with Rueben. Gecko is basically forgotten.

Arjay is a mammoth fifteen-year-old. Six-foot-five, 260 pounds, and his only crime is not playing football. Taunted mercilessly by the football team to play, Arjay once...once...fights back, by pushing the popular quarterback. The team captain falls, hits his head, and Arjay is convicted of manslaughter. Juvie? Not for kids six-five, 260. Adult prison.

Terrance grew up under the watch of an abusive father and the city streets of Chicago. He knows how to survive - how to play the game of street criminals. He knows, man. (Just ask him.) Given the opportunity to leave his detention facility, he views his second chance only as chance to escape.

All three boys are now under the watchful eye of Douglas Healy, a former juvenile delinquent himself. He has worked tirelessly to set up a second chance for these three boys, a sort of half-way house where they can go to school, work community service, and develop as young men.

Gecko and Arjay recognize the opportunity they’ve been given. Terrence sees opportunity, all right, but not to straighten up. He sees a chance to hit it big in a bigger city than Chicago. New York.

The three boys futures are tied to one another. If one screws up, they’re all back in the system. When an accident sends Healy to the hospital, the boys plan to continue following their schedule without any supervision, thereby creating the illusion of supervision. Each, however, faces temptations that may draw unwanted attention to their situation. Gecko meets a young lady while volunteering at a local hospital. Arjay's musical ability is noticed by a music teacher and New York's underground music scene. Terrance meets DeAndre and is tempted with acceptance into DeAndre's crew.

It's a house of cards getting higher and higher – and more precarious – as time passes following Healy’s accident. Soon the boys realize they need to get their leader back before anyone realizes they have no leader, and another plan develops that could end with all of them back where they started. Or worse.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

After returning home for the school year, Percy Jackson finds himself at Meriwether College Prep, another new school, with a hulking new classmate named Tyson, who, despite his six-foot-three frame, is a big softie. Percy and Tyson are each other’s only friends. Meriwether is a “progressive” school, which simply means, according to Percy, there are beanbag chairs instead of desks and no grades.

The school year seems to be going fine. Seems to be, anyway, until uninvited guests show up for gym class and start firing flaming bronze cannonballs. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you are the son of the sea god - half mortal, half god, and not really part of either world.

After escaping and meeting up with Annabeth, she gives Percy and Tyson the details about events at Camp Half-Blood. Thalia’s tree, part of the magical border that protects Camp Half-Blood, has been poisoned. The tree is dying and along with it, the camp’s magical protection. Percy, Annabeth, and Tyson set off on a quest for the Golden Fleece. The Fleece’s magic powers of healing may just bring health back to Thalia’s tree.

Meanwhile, Percy’s satyr friend, Grover, has set off as a searcher hoping to be the first satyr to find Pan. His search has led him into danger, and only a wedding dress, falsetto voice, and his enemy’s horrible vision and sub-par mental capacity have kept him alive. An empathy link between Grover and Percy is formed, allowing them to communicate over great distances, but it also endangers the other. If one of them is killed, the other will die as well.

Percy’s quest brings him, Annabeth, and Tyson closer to both the Golden Fleece and imprisoned Grover. The quest also takes them directly through the Sea of Monsters. Everything should be against them – Percy’s father and Annabeth’s mother, Poseidon and Athena, dislike one another and Tyson is a Cyclops, and nobody likes Cyclops. But in the end, friendships, both old and new, remain strong, and Tyson proves himself a loyal friend (and more).

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Those Darn Squirrels by Adam Rubin

I always thought squirrels were smarter than your average mammal. They are resourceful, sneaky, and creative. (Never mind that they occasionally forget where they've stashed their winter nuts or knock out the power on my block with ill-advised forays into transformers on the power poles.) They outsmart us humans on a regular basis. Of course, I subscribe to the belief that it's not that squirrels outsmart us, it's that we regularly underestimate the squirrels.

And who gets more frustrated by squirrels than bird feeder owners? It's a birdfeeder, not a squirrel feeder, yet there those grey little monsters are stealing the food. We try everything from hanging the feeders on wires to creating intricate obstacle courses. In Those Darn Squirrels, Old Man Fookwire - a man so grumpy he sneezes dust and hates pie and puppies - tries these very things to stop squirrels from stealing from his one love. His beloved birds.

Does it work? You be the judge:

So the squirrels, now fat and sassy on Old Man Fookwire's birdseed, decide to rub it in. They taunt him, as evidenced in this video taken in the old man's backyard:

Okay, they don't really taunt him. They do the opposite. The squirrels, now that the birds have all migrated south, notice Old Man Fookwire sadly eating his cottage cheese and pepper, missing his beloved birds. They devise a plan to pay back the grumpy old man for their plundered booty. (Squirrels are apparently empathetic too. Who knew?)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bone #2-3 by Jeff Smith

The Great Cow Race (Book #2)

The Spring Fair brings people from far and wide to Barrelhaven, especially for the highly anticipated, and highly wagered, cow races. Gran’ma Ben is the undefeated champion racer. While staying in Barrelhaven, Thorn has another dream that seems to reflect the past – a young girl, a departing loved one, a cave of dragons.

Phoney Bone is plotting his next get rich scheme. By building up a “mystery cow” in the upcoming cow races and spreading the rumor that Gran’ma Ben has lost a step, Phoney plans to clean up on the subsequent wagering. After a near disaster at the Spring Fair, Lucius Down, proprietor of the Barrelhaven Tavern, a burly man who has known Gran’ma Ben for some time, ends up back at Gran’ma Ben’s farm with her, Thorn, and the three Bone cousins.

Eyes of the Storm (Book #3)

Thorn’s mysterious dreams continue, with a now-speaking dragon, a princess, and an ominous hooded figure, and now Fone Bone has started having dreams of his own. Lucius, Smiley, and Phoney head back to Barrelhaven to run the tavern. When Gran’ma Ben hears Fone Bone and Thorn discussing their dreams, she sets off in a fury to confront the red dragon. Wanting to know the reason behind her outrage and why the red dragon is connected to their dreams, Thorn and Fone Bone follow her out into the storm. A mid-storm confrontation with a hoard of rat creatures is avoided when the red dragon Gran’ma Ben was off to meet intervenes. After returning safely home, readers are treated to a history lesson from Gran’ma Ben about a princess, the former kings and queens of Atheia, the Big War, and how all the current signs point to another war.

Eyes of the Storm is where readers learn there is much more to Bone than cute little displaced cousins and a host of well-constucted, strong-willed characters. There is an entire history of the Kingdom of Atheia, the valley, the warring factions, and the lingering ill will between them. Readers won’t learn more until later books, but at the end of Book #3, Gran’ma Ben informs Thorn and Fone Bone that the “situation down south has changed,” a hooded person is “gathering an army in the eastern mountains,” and “large numbers of rat creatures are headed this way.” No, readers don't get too many details about the valley's political situation, but readers do get plenty of incentive to continue reading.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bone by Jeff Smith

The Bone books are a nine book series following the life of Fone Bone and his two cousins, Smiley Bone and Phoncible P. (Phoney) Bone, after being exiled from their hometown of Boneville. Fone Bone is the good-hearted main character, trying to do what’s right despite his cousins. Appropriately named Smiley Bone agrees without much thought and thoroughly enjoys life because of it. And Phoney Bone? Well, the mayor of Boneville actually declared a school holiday in his honor … just so kids could come out and throw rocks at the town’s ex-richest resident.

Book #1 - Out from Boneville

Fone Bone, Smiley Bone, and Phoney Bone find themselves lost in the wilderness after being kicked out of Boneville. In this introduction to the saga, a swarm of locusts separates Fone Bone from his cousins. He quickly meets many major characters: a mysterious red dragon, pint-sized bug Ted, two bickering yet menacing rat creatures, and Miz Possum’s three mischievous kids. Finally he meets the beautiful Thorn who takes in the still lost, still freezing Fone Bone to her and Gran’ma Ben’s house.

Meanwhile, Phoney meets back up with Fone Bone – after meeting many of the same characters – at Thorn and Gran’ma Ben’s house. Somehow Smiley has made his way to Barrelhaven, the small village up the way, and is working at the local tavern. Kingdok, leader of the rat creatures, is introduced, and readers learn of the rat creatures’ search for Phoney Bone. All three cousins eventually meet in Barrelhaven for the annual Spring Fair.

There's more to the story, much more, but Book #1 basically serves to get readers familiar with the characters and setting, and Author Jeff Smith shows readers the peaceful life lived by the valley's residents, but gives clues to its forthcoming end. The comic book style allows readers to see the glowing eyes watching from the shadowed corners of the forest, feel the sudden onset of winter (WHUMP!), hear Gran'ma pull rat creatures through the wall (CRASSSH SPLINTER K-K-R-R-K-K-K-K CRUNCH), and understand the difference between, "CAN YOU HEAR ME?!!" and "OHMYGOSH."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

When Claudia runs away from home, she does so with careful preparation, even to the point of making sure she's not "running away" but "running to" somewhere. She saves her allowance, chooses her brother, Jamie, to accompany her, and identifies her destination, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. (If you're going to run away, might as well go somewhere large, comfortable, indoor, and preferably beautiful.)

Claudia plans to return as soon as everyone has learned a lesson in Claudia appreciation and certain sibling injustices have been corrected. And, as Claudia learns later, she is tired of being boring, straight-A's Claudia Kincaid.

Claudia and Jamie's meticulous plan goes off without a hitch: supplies in their instrument cases, days in the museum, meals at the snack bar, and nights sleeping in a canopied sixteenth-century bed. Kids. Hiding out in a high security museum.

It isn't until Angel, a twenty-four inch marble statue, arrives that the learning, and the mystery, really begins. As museum officials seek to determine whether Italian artist Michelangelo is Angel's creator, Claudia and Jamie try to solve the mystery themselves and, for Claudia anyway, discover someone other than her boring, straight A's self.

When the all but forgotten race to find two missing children leads closer to Claudia and Jamie, the children are led to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the all but forgotten narrator of the story, and her mixed-up files. Given one hour to discover the truth, Claudia and Jamie devour the files as behind the scenes, their own mystery is unraveled.

(Special thanks goes out to the two girls in my class who told me that this is one of the best books they've ever read and who, in doing so, reminded me that E. L. Konigsburg's classic deserved inclusion on the site. Thanks, ladies!)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Madam President by Lane Smith

“A president has many duties,” begins Madam President. What follows is a day in the life of the president, illustrated through the life of a typical elementary school girl.

From giving executive orders to attending state funerals, this young president is just as busy as the actual president. Just because her executive order has to do with waffles and the state funeral is for Froggy, doesn’t mean she’s not busy. Do you think negotiating a peace treaty between Cat and Dog is easy?

Every president must choose a capable cabinet. If you’re president, I guess you are allowed to personalize your cabinet as well. Sure, there’s the Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of Education. But why not add a Secretary of Pizza and Secretary of Soccer? And just for good measure, why not choose Mr. Potato Head as Secretary of Agriculture?

Madam President has dark shaded secret service agents and press conferences and disasters to tackle and the wonderfully wonderful power to veto. Tuna casserole for lunch? “Veto!” Little House on the Prairie the Musical? “Veto!” (This kid’s earning my vote.)

At first I wondered if Lane Smith’s book would be an anything-boys-can-do-girls-can-do-better kind of book. It’s not. Not in the least. Madam President simply explains the responsibilities of the president through the eyes of a kid. And the kid happens to be a girl. The boys in my class as well as the girls craned their necks to find the secret service agent in the illustrations and to check out the Secretary of the Interior.

And every one of them knew exactly what it’s like to deal with a not-so-secret communication declaring their room a disaster area.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Holly Joliday by Megan McDonald

Being from Wisconsin, and having shoveled four times already, with another shoveling forecast for the near future, it's hard for me to understand not having snow at Christmas. But I can use my imagination. Christmas without snow...

It just ain't right.

And Stink Moody knows it. Even thought he's from Virginia, and even though Judy says there's a billion-to-one chance of it actually happening, Stink wants a white Christmas.

The new mailman, Mr. Frost, first name Jack, says there's a chance. The low-pressure system moving in could bring cold temperatures by the weekend. Stink is so consumed with the idea of it snowing on Christmas that it's the only thing on his Christmas list! Snow! (Imagine, a second grader with a one-item Christmas list: Snow.)

Stink is supposed to be a mouse for the 10th Annual Holly Jolly Holiday Happening, a mouse that's not even stirring. But - Surprise! - Stink makes his grand entrance as a stellar dendrite, which, as his class has learned, is a type of snowflake.

Stink's hope leads him to bet Judy that it will snow - it will! - before Christmas. So on Christmas Eve, they decide to stay up until midnight to see who wins the bet. But as most second graders will, Stink tuckers out about two hours shy. Judy makes it within three minutes of midnight, however, and she uses that time to do all she can to make sure Stink is not disappointed come Christmas morning.

As Judy would say, Mele Kalikimaka!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Two Perspectives on Little Kids - New Column

After writing this column I had two thoughts. First, this boy (and others like him) are on their way into our classrooms in the not to distant future. Second, why should this worry me? Aren't all little ones like this?

Oh, and I just had a third thought: This young boy's mother is a teacher. Yeah, I'm smiling to myself.

Toddler creates interesting church service

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

One False Note (The 39 Clues) by Gordon Korman

Picking up immediately where The Maze of Bones left off, Amy and Dan Cahill, their au pair, Nellie, and Grace’s fastidious feline, Saladan, are in pursuit of the second of the 39 clues. Having successfully and secretly swiped clue #1 from the rest of the Cahill clan, the music of Mozart has now placed them on a train to Vienna, Austria.

Within pages, the action continues in One False Note. Amy, Dan, and Nellie are accosted by the Holt family and tailed by the Kabras. They follow Jonah Wizard and get double crossed by Irina Spasky. Uncle Alistair, however, has flown under the radar and managed a slight lead. Too bad the Starling triplets couldn’t join the rest of the Cahill Clan on their European Vacation.

The hunt for the next clue leads them to Mozart’s sister, Nannerl. Amy and Dan discover that she was equally as gifted as her brother, maybe moreso, but received no recognition because she was female in a male world. Nannerl’s diary, or more accurately, the diary’s missing pages, lead them to two major clues-to-the-clues, from Grace Cahill herself: The words that cost her life, minus the music and D>HIC.

Going into book two, I was curious to see if the tone of the first book would continue through the change in authors. Rick Riordan’s characters have now been adopted by Gordon Korman, eventually to be passed on to eight additional authors in the ten book series. Mr. Korman discussed this in a Scholastic webcast, explaining how he was able to layer additional information on to already developed characters. Dan is still a stinker, always ready for an adventure – breaking into a hotel room and jumping out a window, for example – and Amy still has an aggressive, quick-thinking side hidden not-so-deeply beneath her shy, bookworm exterior. Would a simple bookworm blackmail an adversary, a room full of them, no less, by aiming a tube of liquid red paint at a priceless portrait?

At times I wondered how in the world other Cahills always beat Dan and Amy to the next location. How many clues-to-the-clues are there, anyway, and how do the others find them so quickly? And if there are so many of these clues out there, how has this secret stayed hidden for so long? Then I remind myself to stop being such a grown-up. Who cares? Irina Spasky is at the door! Do I care how she got there? NO! I just want to know if she’s going to use her poisonous finger nail needles to kill someone.

Background knowledge and more background knowledge will be needed to fully appreciate the story. How many kids will really see Vienna or Venice in their imagination? But then again, is it necessary to understand how amazing it would be to discover unknown works by Rembrandt, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Warhol to truly enjoy the story?

Probably not. Just buckle up and enjoy One False Note as it moves along like Nellie driving on the Autobahn. And get reading! Book three is due on March 3, 2009! Amy and Dan are already headed east in pursuit.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Knuffle Bunny - Classroom Activities

Knuffle Bunny and its sequel, Knuffle Bunny Too, work great for a mini lesson on predicting. Begin by reading Knuffle Bunny, stopping to model predicting. My first planned prediction was at "Trixie realized something." What did she realize? Then, as they progress home with Trixie trying to explain with her "Aggle flaggle klabble!" and "Wumby flappy?!" my plan was to predict some more. What would she be so panicked about?

My fourth graders noticed immediately, however, that Knuffle Bunny was in the laundry basket and then in the washer. When they pointed that out, I did an unplanned prediction. I mentioned my favorite Oscar the Grouch from childhood and we discussed the blankets or pillows or stuffed animals everyone had (eh-hem, have) and what it would be like to leave it behind. That got them talking immediately. I predicted a Trixie meltdown.

So, now back to my plan, I paused again at "But Knuffle Bunny was nowhere to be found...." and opened up the discussion to student predictions. What do moms and dads do when a favorite toy is lost and the child is giving the puppy dog eyes and quivering frown? Get a new bunny? Tear the place apart? They seemed to be in agreement that Knuffle Bunny, whatever the cost, would be found.

We then progressed on to Knuffle Bunny Too. Trixie is now older, quite a talker, and headed to Pre-K. She has great plans to show Knuffle Bunny to Ms. Greengrove and all her friends. Our first prediction was when "Trixie saw Sonja." What would cause Trixie to have those big eyes and shocked expression? What's up with Sonja?

After continuing through their conflict, including an argument over the correct pronunciation of Knuffle ("Kuh-nuffle," says Trixie. "Nuffle," says Sonja.), Ms. Greengrove takes away the two instigating bunnies, exiling them to the top of the cabinets. The rest of the day progresses nicely until the middle of the night when "Trixie realized something." Prediction time...what did Trixie realize?

Then Trixie marches into her parents' room and announces, "That is not my bunny." The next page, which I didn't show, says, "Trixie's daddy tried to explain what '2:30 a.m.' means." This is where I stopped and sent the class back to their seats to predict what would happen.

Hmmm, I wondered aloud...
  • How do parents feel about being woken up at 2:30 a.m.?
  • How do kids feel about not having their bunny?
  • How parent feel about kids who don't have their bunny?

Many kids predicted a late night solution of some kind. Some even predicted that Trixie and Sonja would become friends. No one, however, predicted that they would intentionally trade bunnies the very next day. This allowed us to discuss the fact that good predictions, based on prior knowledge and information from the book, are not always right. Or, to put it more positively, was your prediction correct or did the author surprise you?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems

All kids have a blanky or stuffed animal or a woobie (see below), so all kids can relate to Knuffle Bunny. (I had an Oscar the Grouch who helped me take on a tonsillectomy.) Trixie accompanies Daddy to the laundromat, Knuffle Bunny securely under her arm. But as the title says, this is a cautionary tale. Children, take heed! When helping Daddy with the laundry, or when doing any other necessary activity accompanied by Knuffle Bunny (or your personal equivalent), don't become distracted.

Trixie becomes distracted. As she assists Daddy with the dirty clothes by flinging them haphazardly around the laundromat, Knuffle Bunny is temporarily forgotten. Watch the illustrations closely and you'll see the result before Trixie realizes it.

Thank you, Trixie, for allowing children everywhere to learn from your unfortunate experience.

Half way home, Trixie realizes Knuffle Bunny is not with them. She tries to tell Daddy. "Aggle flaggle klabble!" she says. "Blaggle plabble! Wumby flappy?!" she explains. When her explanations don't work, she's left with no choice. She bawls. She goes boneless.

Mom recognizes the problem as soon as they get home. After a frenzied retracing of steps, Knuffle Bunny is rescued, and Trixie surprisingly speaks her first words.

And the sequel, Knuffle Bunny Too, shows readers that Trixie isn't quite ready to give up her woobie...I mean Knuffle Bunny. (Hey, not many of us are.)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Red Ranger Came Calling by Berkeley Breathed

Any Christmas story that’s true, guaranteed true, especially, better deliver with A. a good story and B. proof of its truth. Red Ranger Came Calling does both.

Berkeley Breathed tells the story of his father as a nine-year-old and the events surrounding Christmas in 1939. His father, Red, was sent to stay with Aunt Vy on Vashon Island. Red emulated the famous movie hero of the time, Buck Tweed, Red Ranger of Mars, Protector of the 23rd Century and Savior of Grateful Princesses. It was Buck Tweed that instilled in Red a desire for the ultimate Christmas gift: an official Buck Tweed Two-Speed Crime-Stopper Star-Hopper Bicycle.

Unfortunately, at this time in history, “dreams were unaffordable.” The best his Aunt Vy could do was a Buck Tweed space uniform which, upon further inspection, turned out to be last year’s pajamas, dyed red, and creatively altered.

A sour-faced little boy, Red never gave much thought to the feelings of others, Aunt Vy and her creativity amidst the circumstances included. In bed that evening, Red remembers local resident Saunder Clos, the recluse some locals believe to actually be the Santa Claus, and the mysterious pointy-eared man he saw headed towards Clos’s house.

So Red does what any respectable Red Ranger of Mars would do. Investigate. Normally cynical and disbelieving, a glimmer of hope now flickers within Red. He sneaks out his window. Ignoring the broken toys littering the walk to the Point Robinson lighthouse and the sign which reads, “Visitors Not Received With Zesty Jolliness at the Moment,” Red makes his way inside where he accosts the miserable miser. “Go home,” the man says. “I’m 435 years old, which makes me … very tired.”

So Red shot him with his disintegrator ray gun. Pop! Suction cup dart on the forehead.

But Red ignites something in the old man. Can he still make a reindeer fly? Can he still fulfill wishes, even those of boy not usually inclined to wish? Saunder Clos decides to try. And so does Red. The events of the evening persuade him to wish, despite his mind’s expectation of another disappointment.

He wishes, hoping his wish won’t fall on deaf ears, even though the old man’s ears are, nearly, literally, deaf.

“An Official Buck Tweed Two-Speed Crime-Stopper Star-Hopper bicycle,” he says.

Or, more simply, “I’d like a Tweed bicycle.”

And Christmas morning brings … nothing. No surprise. No sadness or self-pity. Not even disappointment. Nothing. Except anger. Red had allowed the old phony to trick him into the unthinkable. Faith in grown-ups.

And the old man was gonna hear about it. But upon arrival, Red discovers something much more important, a gift he gives to the old man. Red also discovers that Saunder Clos (or is it Santa Claus?) did indeed deliver on the promised bicycle. Exactly as he heard Red wish it.

Oh yeah. The proof. Here it is. Don’t believe me? Don’t believe Mr. Breathed? Do your own Google search. Here, I’ll save you the time: Vashon Island Bicycle Tree.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

I must admit only a passing interest in Greek mythology in, what was it, sophomore English? Okay, I get it. There are references to it in real life. There was a Zephyr filling station on the west side, out of business and in disrepair, but by golly, I recognized the reference to Greek mythology.

Of course there are others, and I recognize most of them (except the ones I don’t recognize, which means maybe don’t recognize most of them, but then again…yeah, whatever.) Get to the point.

Here’s the point: My passing interest is now alive and growing. The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan brought back a lot of the stories I (vaguely) remember and gave them a whole new life. Perceus – Percy – Jackson is a kid who, due to a combination of ADHD and dyslexia and family history, gets himself kicked out of schools. Six of them in six years. In chapter one readers meet Percy, his gimpy best friend Grover, and a teacher, Mr. Brunner, who constantly pushes Percy to learn his Latin and Greek mythology.

Continuing chapter one, on a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, another teacher, Mrs. Dodds, transforms to a “shriveled bat with wings and claws and a mouth full of yellow fangs” and is about to kill Percy beside the marble frieze of Greek gods. Mr. Brunner appears, tosses Percy a pen which amazingly becomes a sword, and after the former Mrs. Dodds says, “Die, honey!” Percy does the only thing he can do. Slice her through the middle. She vaporizes, the sword is a pen again, and nobody else even has a clue what happened.

Uh, what?

Mysteries are eventually explained as readers, and Percy, learn he is a half-blood, son of a god and a human. There are attacks from monsters, introductions to the gods and other mythical characters and locations, an explanation of how these characters continue to escape notice from humans, and even mythologically accurate swearing (“Oh, Styx!”). Mount Olympus is up 600 floors in the Empire State Building, and Hades is beneath Los Angeles. (Well, how about that? The City of Angels. Hades. Seems appropriate, yet ironic.)

Upon arriving at Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp for demigods, Percy learns that Zeus’s master lightning bolt has been stolen. Other gods are accused, including Percy’s father, schemes form, and an all-out war between the gods seems imminent if Zeus’s bolt is not returned by the summer solstice. Percy is sent on a quest with Grover, now known to be a satyr, and Annabeth, daughter of Athena, to find and return the stolen bolt.

There are currently four books in the Olympians series, with a fifth one planned for spring of 2009. Having only finished one and a half, I can’t fully comment on the series as a whole. I can say, however, that if all the books have the same excitement and adventure, this is a series that will continue to absorb readers.

Finally, thanks to Anonymous for recommending the books in his/her comments.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Busy Day for the Bald Guy

Living nearly halfway between Oshkosh, Wisconsin and St. Paul, Minnesota, yesterday's decision was heavily debated in the household. Should we go to Oshkosh to see Jan Brett or visit St. Paul to hear Tomie dePaola? Two nearby author visits on the same day. Ah, shucks. One or the other.

Tomie dePaola and St. Paul, we decided. Minnesota is our old stomping grounds, and a visit to the Red Balloon Bookshop is always a bonus.

Mr. dePaola talked about his new book, Brava, Strega Nona! and gave some interesting insight into how a pop-up book gets made. He shared how one spread just wasn't working, Big Anthony and the flood of pasta, until he shared one word with the pop-up creators. Tsunami. Now Big Anthony practically lands in your lap as pasta spills off the page. Did you know pop-up books were put together by hand? (Me neither.)

We then headed to the Mall of America for lunch and some shopping. When we got off the elevator in front of the Barnes and Noble, we were greeted by a sign promoting a visit from Jan Brett. Apparently, after a visit in Oshkosh, she headed over to St. Paul! Our decision was well made...or just lucky.

Mrs. Brett shared information about her newest book, Gingerbread Friends. The rooster that pulls Gingerbread Baby's sleigh is actually one of her chickens, and the mouse that Gingerbread Baby meets in the bakery is the same visitor to a basket of gingerbread cookies at her home.

She also gave everyone a great art lesson about creating three dimensions and how draw reflecting light.

Both authors were incredibly entertaining, gracious, and patient, and while our day ended a lot later than initially expected, it was well worth it. Thanks to Tomie dePaola and Jan Brett from me and the entire family.

Oh yeah. Hedgie was cool too.

Friday, November 14, 2008

New Column and Happy Thanksgiving

It might be a bit early to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving, but then again, Christmas decorations were out before the Halloween candy was put away. By that standard, two weeks isn't early at all.

Here's a link to my latest newspaper column...and Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Life's Blessings Aren't Always the Obvious

Monday, November 10, 2008

Big Plans by Bob Shea & Lane Smith

I like this kid. Not that I see anything familiar in him or anything. Just because he's sitting in the corner of his classroom at 3:01 and the chalk board is covered with his assigned "I will not..." sentences, doesn't mean I immediately recognize something familiar or that I flashback to any one particular incident. Oh, no … a-hem … nothing like that. I just like him.

He's got big plans.

“Plans so big I’ll need Dad’s shiniest tie and fanciest shoes. Then I’ll climb atop the highest hill in town and shout, ‘I GOT BIG PLANS! BIG PLANS, I SAY!’”

As he spends more time in his corner of the world, he comes up with more plans that will affect the entire world. “I GOT BIG PLANS! BIG PLANS, I SAY!”

What does a young man with big plans need?
  1. A Yes-Man – He meets an agreeable mynah bird.
  2. Power – Local big shots, bigwigs, and muckety-mucks support his big plans.
  3. Prestige – He scores the winning touchdown for the home team.
  4. Position – He becomes mayor and president president (as opposed to assistant president).
  5. A Great Hat – Even Davy Crockett would be envious of his skunk-skin cap.

Now, fully supplied, the boy finds a way to pronounce to the whole world, “I GOT BIG PLANS! BIG PLANS, I SAY!"

What else is a boy sitting in the corner after school supposed to do? Throughout the history of schools there have been a whole lot of kids in corners thinking, “Someday, when I get older, you’ll see. I’ll show you!” and this young man is making some seriously big plans to do just that.

Students will read along with teachers. “I GOT BIG PLANS! BIG PLANS, I SAY!” they’ll announce together with our protagonist. (Or antagonist, depending on your perspective.) They’ll even continue announcing it. “I GOT BIG PLANS! BIG PLANS, I SAY!” you’ll hear from the hallway and the playground.

On subsequent readings, take a close look at the pictures. Lane Smith includes hilarious details. Check out the Idaho potato space suit and the Pennsylvania rocket ship. Notice the humble look on the mynah bird’s face when he realizes the president will answer to him, and how Mr. Bird takes over the president’s official seal. There’s even a phone number on the boy’s cell phone. (Go ahead. Give it a call.)

“I GOT BIG PLANS! BIG PLANS, I SAY!” Everybody should! Right now my plans include using Bob Shea's book in the classroom.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

It's Not Fair! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal & Tom Lichtenheld

“It’s Not Fair!” A phrase so unique it can be statement of perceived fact, an expression of outrage, and a demand for justice. Three simple words that, when put together, have as many meanings as kids who whisper, whine, or scream them.

Or it could just mean your sister got the bigger half of the cookie.

Declarations of faulty fairness start with more recognizable complaints, things like that smaller cookie and not getting your desired pet. “Why can’t I have curly locks?” asks a straight haired girl. “Why can’t I have my own box?” asks a boy standing enviously next to a pony-tailed girl peeking out of her own box. “Why now, chicken pox?” asks the birthday girl as her party continues in the yard, sans birthday girl.

“It’s not fair,” is the only appropriate response to all three situations.

Apparently the phrase is more universal that originally thought. A spider complains that a neighbor gets more flies. A little green alien complains about his red friend having more eyes. Planets complain about all Saturn’s rings. After every rhyming litany of complaints, kids will join with the characters in demanding, “It’s not fair!”

Pay close attention to the end pages. There’s a lawsuit. The plaintiff, Sibling No. 1, seeks judgment against the defendant, Sibling No. 2 for causing “grievous emotional trauma and malnourishment” by deliberately giving a smaller half of the cookie despite a promise to break the cookie equally and distribute said cookie properly.

The best “It’s not fair!” comes at the end of the book, and it’s something I’ve wondered myself: “Why can’t books go on and on? No more endings, only Once Upons…”

“It’s not fair,” whisper the books from their shelf.

I agree.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Maze of Bones (The 39 Clues) by Rick Riordan

Ignore, for a moment, the fact that there are trading cards and websites and games and prizes all associated with The 39 Clues. Pay no mind to the kids who might spend as much time, if not more time, studying the cards and entering and deciphering codes and wondering what the heck is up with Nessie Lives (look closely at the copyright page).

Okay, just kidding. Don't ignore that stuff. First of all, when the cards, game, prizes, website, and $100,000 are all mentioned on the front and back covers, you can't ignore them. But second, and I'll admit it here, but only in small font: that stuff is kinda cool. And I'm not saying it again. It sounds sort of blasphemous to a reading teacher. But facts is facts.

The Maze of Bones follows Amy and Dan Cahill, members of the most power family in world history. Every important event in world history has been orchestrated by someone from one of the four branches of the Cahill Clan. When Grace Cahill dies, her will dictates that 40 family members may take $1 million or participate in a contest to track down 39 clues and become the most powerful Cahill ever. Despite no financial resources and no adult assistance, Amy and Dan burn up their $1 million checks and start the competition ... by nearly dying in a house fire. (Unrelated to their burning checks. Just saying.)

Their quest takes them to the library (of course), Philadelphia, Paris, another library (woo-hoo!), and underground. They nearly die (this is just top-of-the-head recall, now) three times - in the aforementioned house fire, getting lost underground, and being buried in wet cement. Wait! Four times! There's a bomb too. There's probably more, but I'm moving on.

Amy and Dan encounter invisible ink, maps, codes, anagrams, diagrams, and signs in foreign languages. They are instructed to trust no one. Non-stop action, near death experiences and narrow escapes, puzzles and codes (one even hidden in the page numbers) all will draw readers into the book and, indeed, the series. One student of mine hasn't finished the book yet, but he's already registered at The 39 Clues website, has all his cards entered, and has obtained exclusive online cards as well.

Without much effort, here's some pieces I've stitched together. A code in the book says that Anne Cahill did not drown. On the cards included with the book, Nella Chain is listed as a passenger on the Titanic. Here name is an anagram for Anne Cahill. Another card says that a Titanic expert's prize artifact is a cameo from room B77 on the Titanic. Who stayed in room B77? According to the passenger list on another card, it's Nella Chain.

Another admission: I'm registered on the website too. Don't tell my wife. Or my principal.

Know any kids who would get into this? The second book, One False Note by Gordon Korman, will be released in December 2008, and the third book, The Sword Thief by Peter Lerangis, soon after in March 2009. Book One author, Rick Riordan, has mapped out the ten-book series, but different authors will write each book.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows

Bean lives across the street from Ivy, and she wants nothing to do with her. Ivy seemed like such a nice girl, and to Bean, nice is a synonym for boring. Ivy sits quietly on her front steps, her curly red hair neatly held back by a headband. She always wears a dress and reads big books. Bean is the opposite. She zips around her yard and her short dark hair will hold no headband. Bean wears a dress only at her mother's insistence, and reading makes her jumpy.

So what could possibly cause these two opposites to become friends? Desperation. When Bean faces big trouble with her mother for numerous iniquities (borrowing money, lying, leaving the yard, and wiggling her behind at her sister, Nancy), Ivy gives her great advice. "Hide," she says. Ivy had been watching, amused, as Bean antagonized her sister, and now she was offering Bean a secret place to hide.

Through the great escape and subsequent hiding out, Ivy and Bean's friendship begins. Ivy hopes to cast a witch's invisibility spell, but together they decide a dancing spell would be better, preferably cast on Nancy. Not that would help Bean get out of trouble or anything. "But it would be really funny," explains Bean. Their plan doesn't initially involve a mud pit, an angry neighbor, an entire bucket of worms, or no dessert, but all end up in the plan, and Nancy does indeed end up dancing.

Ivy and Bean's friendship goes from nonexistent at the start of the day to "See you tomorrow!"

"And the day after that."

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Captive by Kathryn Lasky (Guardians of Ga'Hoole Book One)

In her back-of-the-book bio, Kathryn Lasky acknowledges a long fascination with owls and mentions her extensive research for an intended nonfiction book about them. Realizing, however, that photographs of shy, nocturnal birds would be difficult, she instead decided on fantasy.

The Guardians of Ga'Hoole series, recently completed at fifteen books, begins with Soren, a barn owl, and his family awaiting the birth of a new sibling. The first book, The Captive, introduces readers to the owls' world, and Lasky's expert research is immediately apparent. The egg tooth of Soren's new sister breaks through the egg. Soren's brother, Kludd, is about to begin branching, which is the first owl steps toward flight, but must wait another month before his flight feathers come in. Readers learn about owl digestion and owl pellets, as opposed to all other birds who are "wet poopers." There are celebrations as young owls grow - ceremonies of first insect, first fur-on-meat, first bones, and first flight.

Don't let me mislead you. This isn't a textbook. Owl facts are woven into and throughout the history, way of life, and even the differing cultures within all owls.

And there's adventure. One night Soren mysteriously falls from his nest before he can fly. Soren suddenly finds himself facing the same fate of many young owls recently. He's been snatched. He is forcibly taken to St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls, an orphanage in name only. Young owls are stripped of what makes them truly owls. Flying is discouraged or prohibited. Feathers are plucked. Diets are restricted to mainly crickets. Young owls are intentionally moon blinked, a sort of brainwashing when owls are exposed to full moon shine.

Soren meets Gylfie, a small yet bold elf owl, and together they discover the evil secrets of St. Aegolius. With the help of a few friends within the orphanage, and through great sacrifice, they manage to escape, intending to journey to the Great Ga’Hoole Tree in Hoolemere in an attempt to stop the evil entering the Owl kingdoms.

At times The Captive moves slowly, but each time the pace creeps it is to explain another important part of owl history, legend, or culture. It's necessary and creates an incredibly complete setting. I haven't read past book one, but I intend to. Soon. I expect the pacing will quicken as less description is needed.

I also intend to give it to some fourth graders in the near future and get their opinions, which of course carry much more weight than mine.

And finally, thanks to Michelle who recommended the books to me in the first place. It seems her sixth grade son had been fascinated by the series for some time, so I guess I should probably thank him for his recommendation. Thanks!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken by Kate DiCamillo

Attention! Attention, readers who long for adventure. Readers who wish to feel the strong, fresh breeze of the sea. Readers with ideas of challenging pirates, following the the bright lights and loud music of the circus, and leading fellow prisoners to freedom.

And readers whose hearts, at the mere mention of adventure, beat fast within their feathered breast. Here for you, at last, courtesy of Louise the Chicken and author Kate DiCamillo, is true adventure!

Louise is no ordinary chicken. While life on the farm is good - there is a caring farmer and his wife, comfortable living quarters, and feathered friends like curious Monique - Louise sometimes longs to leave the farm, to leave the henhouse, and find true adventure.

Louise faces chicken-eating pirates and shipwrecks, chicken-eating lions and high wire acts. She faces imprisonment in a foreign country with other chickens deprived their inalienable right to peck and scratch. But Louise always makes it home.

After all, even the most adventurous chicken sometimes likes to be safe and warm in the henhouse, nestled deeply into fresh straw, sleeping the "deep and dreamless sleep of the true adventurer."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

2008 Ohio District Educators' Conference

Hello to everyone attending the 2008 Ohio District Educators' Conference. It's an honor to be asked to lead sectionals for your conference. Thanks to everyone in attendance. If anyone has any questions or comments or wants to follow up on something we discussed in any of the three sectionals, send me an email (address in the banner at the top or in the right margin) or leave comments at the bottom of this post.

I hope you leave on Friday with some great books to use with your students (Help Readers Love Reading!), some new ways to show others all the great books your students are reading and what they think about them (Your Opinion Matters, Jimmy! Share it with the World!), and some novel novel ideas to use with your reading and literature students (For Tomorrow Read Chapter 6 and Answer - Yaaawn! - Questions #1-10).

And thanks again for having me come to your conference!

UPDATE 10/25/08: Those of you who attended the Help Readers Love Reading! sectional only got to hear tidbits about some of the books I planned to share. It's too bad our time got cut short. Here's a list of the books I planned on sharing, some with links to more information.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
Flush by Carl Hiaasen
No Talking by Andrew Clements
Mr. Chickee's Funny Money by Christopher Paul Curtis
On the Run (series) by Gordon Korman
Knights of the Lunch Table by Frank Cammuso
The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry

Knights of the Lunch Table by Frank Cammuso

When Artie King and his family move to a new town, that of course means a new school. Camelot Middle School. After missing the bus on the first day, his new science teacher, Mr. Merlyn, points him to a shortcut through the woods. There he hears the ominous howl of a mysterious sewer dwelling beast and meets his first new friend, Percival - just make sure to call him Percy.

Once at school, Artie is assigned locker #001XCL. It's the busted locker no one can open. A poem on the door even gives the combination and says that the one who opens the locker "a king to all the students be."

Sound familiar?

Okay, I can't resist one more. Artie meets the lunch ladies. There are three of them, and they speak in rhyme. When Artie first arrives: "Tomato soup ... bananas bunch ... who approaches the ladies' lunch?" After telling them his locker number: "Ham 'n cheese ... and onions ring ... 'tis the locker of the King." And in an effort to get Artie to sample that day's lunch: "True of heart a champion be ... drink of this ... the soup of pea."

Artie leaves quickly.

But your students will stick around. After making enemies with Joe Roman and his bully bunch, The Horde, Percy demands they settle it like creatively. Dodgeball. Except The Horde is the school's champion dodgeball team, and Percy only made the challenge because Artie lied to him saying he was a dodgeball legend at his old school.

Frank Cammuso, as described in his bio, is "a three-time recipient of the Wedgie. He has also received the prestigious Noogie and the Hurtz Donut." Knights of the Lunch Table: The Dodgeball Chronicles is full of similar humor. Students will love the graphic novel format and the potential for more books. As it says on the last page:

The End ... For Now.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Arkansas Reading Recovery & Comprehensive Literacy K-8 Conference

Hello to everyone in Little Rock attending the 2008 Arkansas Reading Recovery & Comprehensive Literacy K-8 Conference!

I'm looking forward to speaking with everyone attending the Books for Content Area Mini-Lessons sectionals on Monday and the Help Readers Love Reading! sectionals on Tuesday. Hopefully you leave the sectionals with some great mini-lesson ideas and, even better, great books you can use in your lessons and classrooms.

I'd love to hear from you. If, after the sectionals, you'd like more information about a specific topic, drop me an email. The address is at the top of this page and in the right margin. If we discussed something in a sectional and you'd like to continue the discussion or you think others would also benefit from additional information, leave a comment at the bottom of this post. Then I can respond, and others can add comments too.

Thanks, everyone, for coming. And thanks for all you do to Help Readers Love Reading!

UPDATE: Some people who attended Books for Content Area Mini-Lessons asked for information about the songs I used. Here's a list of all the songs I mentioned in one sectional or the other:

Song - Artist - Album

C is for Conifers - They Might Be Giants - Here Come the ABCs
E Eats Everything - They Might Be Giants - Here Come the ABCs
Alphabet of Nations - They Might Be Giants - Here Come the ABCs
Why Does the Sun Shine? - They Might Be Giants - Why Does the Sun Shine? EP
Mammals - They Might Be Giants - Apollo 18
Bears - Andrew Peterson & Randall Goodgame - Slugs & Bugs & Lullabies
Post Office - Andrew Peterson & Randall Goodgame - Slugs & Bugs & Lullabies
Crazy ABCs - Barenaked Ladies - Snacktime

(Yeah, about that last one...I'm not the one that gave the band its name. Good thing I said you should only share it with your coworkers and not with your students.)

All songs are available on iTunes. Search the name of the song, artist or album. That allows you to purchase individual songs rather than entire albums.

Knucklehead by Jon Scieszka

My initial thought after reading Knucklehead by Jon Scieszka was that it might be in my best interests to not share it with students. After all, the book could be taken as a how-to manual for wayward boys. Readers would learn how to sell their brother a shirt that already belongs to him, how to trick younger brothers into doing the less desirable household chores, how to make money by charging friends to watch the little brother eat gross non-food items, and just how much pressure it takes to break a clavicle.

And that’s just the family lessons. Readers also learn the finer art of playing war with dirt clods at construction sites. There are chapters about burning things, exploring storm sewers, swearing, puking, and what not to do when the teacher says, “What’s so funny?” There's also a chapter about sword fighting. (Men, you know what I’m talking about. Ladies, read the book. I’m not explaining it here.)

Then I realized that I already knew all this stuff, with a few exceptions, me being an only child. I didn’t read the book when I was a kid, yet somehow I did many of the exact same things as Mr. Scieszka. Which ones, specifically, will remain unnamed, however the truth is the truth: I lived many of the same experiences. Jon Scieszka wrote the book, for crying out loud. He didn’t learn from it!

It was an Hallelujah Chorus moment! I can give this book to any student. The boys already know all of it, and the girls won’t (or can’t…see sword fighting) try any of it. Every boy I know could take at least one of the chapters, change the names and places only, and make it their own personal narrative.

My wife and daughter stared at me every time I laughed out loud. When I shared what was so funny, they both just shook their heads and mumbled something like, “You boys. You‘re such…boys.”

You bet we are! We revel in it. We glory in it. And this book documents it.

Short chapters, mostly hilarious, and all boy friendly will make this book one that doesn’t stay on the shelf for long. Jon Scieszka (or Mr. Ambassador, which he may prefer, as he‘s been named the first National Ambassador for Young People‘s Literature by the Library of Congress) has a classic on his hands, and now your kids can have this classic in their hands too.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Another Newspaper Column

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. More recommended books are on the way shortly. For real. It's not like I haven't been writing anything, however. Here's a link to my latest column in the local paper.

Dad Carries the Load During Fall Family Outing.

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.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little by Peggy Gifford

After Peggy Gifford gives a few introductory Moxy facts – nine years old, starting fourth grade, has big plans – readers of Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little find this short passage (my commentary added):

“Now, Moxy loved to read books.” (Ok. So far, so good.)

“She loved books so much that sometimes she would stay up all night and read.” (Right! I’m liking her more and more.)

“It’s just that Moxy liked to read what she wanted to read and not what someone told her to read.” (Amen! Preach, Sister! Can you see my hands waving?)

And that explains why, on August 23, the day before Moxy Maxwell starts fourth grade, she still has all one hundred forty-four pages left to read of Stuart Little.

It’s not as if she hasn’t spent any time with Stuart Little over the course of the summer. She has! She’s had the book with her all summer just in case of in-between. That is, as Moxy kindly explains to her mother, just in case one thing ends before the next thing begins. It’s not her fault that her in-betweens are always interrupted.

This is the point of the story in which Mrs. Maxwell introduces Moxy to the word “consequences.”

So Moxy heads to her room to read, lest she miss her performance in the “Goodbye to Summer Splash.” But who can read in a room that needs cleaning, and who can clean on an empty stomach? So, while Stuart Little patiently waits, snacks are procured, a peach orchard is planted, a future is planned, and mud (but not Mudd, one of the Maxwell dogs) flies.

Try as she might, and she tries pretty hard, Moxy can’t escape the pull of Stuart Little. “Why ever did I spend the whole summer avoiding a ride in this little car with the fabulous fenders?” she wonders. Sure, Moxy likes to read what she wants to read, but maybe others have good taste too.

At least she’s a mature enough reader to admit it. It’s just that some of us…pardon me. I mean, some people are more stubborn than others and maybe, possibly, those people…eh-hem…will continue to refuse to admit a book is good all the way into adulthood rather than acknowledge the fact that his sixth grade might have been right when she said he’d enjoy A Wrinkle in Time and maybe…

Sorry. Well, anyway, good for Moxy.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Clementine's Letter by Sara Pennypacker

All we’ve come to love about Clementine is back in Clementine’s Letter. Her visits with Mrs. Rice, her vegetable-named brother, her awesome cool parents, and her creative imagination that produces ideas faster than her logical brain can filter them. But it wasn’t until this book that Sara Pennypacker showed readers the size of Clementine’s heart.

When her teacher, Mr. D’Matz, is named a finalist in the Adventures for Teachers program, Clementine shows how much she cares for her teacher…by trying to prevent him from winning. Then he won’t have to leave and thereby break his promise to be their teacher, and she won’t lose him.

Clementine helps her father start his book, The Building Manager. She keeps his writing on track when he strays off with something about “extremely handsome” and “the strength of ten oxen.” When her impulsive actions appear in the plot line, the focus of her father’s book moves from handsome building manager to love, apology, and forgiveness.

Clementine, thanks to another imaginative yet unfiltered idea, gives her mom a gift so wonderfully cool that Mom makes that ‘Wow! I must be dreaming!’ face and can’t finish her sentences.

Clementine helps Margaret and Mitchell deal with the disappointment of their father’s cancelled visit by finding them a substitute.

Clementine finds her brother some new vegetable names.

And in the end, baby-bird Clementine, after a gentle nudge from the nest by Mr. D’Matz, spreads her wings and does all she can to help him succeed.

(Now, that’d be a great place to stop, but I need to be sure everyone knows it’s still Clementine we’re talking about here. She names her brother Bok Choy and Bamboo Shoots. She plays Beat the Clock in class. She confesses her love of bricks. She reminds readers that when she has a boyfriend, which will be never, he will be like Mitchell. She writes reminders on her arms. See? Same old Clementine! It’s just that now we know she has an XXL heart inside her S body.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Talented Clementine by Sara Pennypacker

In The Talented Clementine, the second book in Sara Pennypacker's Clementine series, I’m immediately reminded why I like this little girl so much. She notices things. “I have noticed that teachers get exciting confused with boring a lot. But when my teacher said, ‘Class, we have an exciting project to talk about,’ I listened anyway.”

Then Clementine noticed another interesting truth. She gave her teacher a wonderful suggestion, “But he ignored me, which is called Getting on with the Day when a teacher does it, and Being Inconsiderate when a kid does it.”

When she asked Mrs. Rice the difference between smashed and crashed, Mrs. Rice handed her a dictionary. “And then suddenly I didn’t want to know anymore! That is the miracle about dictionaries!” How many of us teachers never realized that exact truth with our students? (C’mon, I don’t see very many hands up. I know you’re out there…)

Clementine also notices that she has no talents. The third and fourth grades are putting on a talent show – Talent-Palooza, Night of the Stars (thank you, Margaret) – and she’s got nothing to offer. No singing. No dancing. No musical instruments. Not even hopping. Her father gave her some good suggestions – she’s good at math, she has new ideas, she won the Great Pigeon War, she’s empathetic. Unfortunately she can’t do those things on a stage.

Clementine’s attempts to discover a hidden talent include beer bottles, Elvis, new shoes, and a leash on her brother, Spinach. None work. In the end, however, it’s Clementine’s unique talent that saves the entire talent show. Even Mrs. Rice acknowledges that without Clementine, there would have been no show at all.

(By the way, just in case you were wondering, Clementine noticed one more thing. The difference between smashed and crashed? Crashed is easier to clean up.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Overlord Protocol by Mark Walden

After an in-flight explosion sends Otto Malpense sailing chaotically through the night sky and plummeting toward the earth at breakneck speed, Otto tries desperately to slow his descent. Due to the pitch blackness, illuminated only by burning debris, Otto must completely rely on his instruments and calculations to hit his drop zone accurately, knowing one mistake means imminent death and that he’ll never learn who is responsible for the murder of his best friend, Wing Fanchu.

Well, there’s your prologue. But don’t worry, the pace picks up after that.

Chapter 1 then introduces a new character, Cypher, a mysterious masked supervillain (what supervillain isn’t mysterious?) at a meeting of the Global League of Villainous Enterprises, or G.L.O.V.E., also attended by Dr. Nero, H.I.V.E.’s headmaster. Cypher openly challenges Dr. Nero’s authority at H.I.V.E., and there is an attempt on Dr. Nero’s life after the meeting.

Chapter 2 then flashes back to one week earlier. It is now 6 months into Otto’s first year at the Higher Institute of Villainous Education. After their unsuccessful escape in book one, Otto, Shelby, Laura, and Wing are still enrolled, learning the ins and outs of villainy. When Wing learns of the death of his father, he is excused to attend the funeral and is allowed to take a friend – Otto. Suddenly they are allowed to leave H.I.V.E. and the protection it provides.

Readers are also introduced to events from 15 years earlier. Dr. Nero was working on Project Overlord, a highly sophisticated computer, one with evolutionary capabilities. Despite all attempts to prevent it, within seconds the computer evolves into a higher intelligence, shuts down the laboratory, and threatens the lives of all present. Overlord doesn’t succeed, and all...remnants...are...destroyed.

Which brings us back to Otto’s midnight dive through the night sky. Yes, he successfully lands beneath the earth’s surface (I’ll let you figure that one out) and yes, he encounters Wing’s murderer. He also discovers mercilessly trained and tireless assassins, twelve-foot murdering robots, an ingeniously hidden stronghold, and a plot to overthrow H.I.V.E. and ultimately kill Dr. Nero.

In the end the mystery of Wing’s necklace pendant and his connection to Dr. Nero is solved. (And no, it’s not a “Luke, I am your father” solution either.) Shelby and Laura, Otto and Wing’s classmates from book one, are back. They reaffirm their devotion to their friends and put their incredible talents to good use.

Mark Walden again weaves a story that moves with the speed of Otto’s descent and includes enough explosions, gunfire, double crosses, and near escapes (not to mention the jaw-dropping, you-gotta-be-kidding-me ending) to keep fans eager for book three of the H.I.V.E. series.