Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Humor, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

Meet two new middle grade heroines with big imaginations

Ruby Starr, by Deborah Lytton, (Aug. 2017, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), $7.99, ISBN: 9781492645771

Recommended for readers 8-12

Ruby Starr loves getting lost in a good book. She even has a lunchtime book group with her BFFs at school: The Unicorns! Things change when Charlotte, the new girl in school, shows up and starts making big changes: she scoffs at reading and wants to make The Unicorns a drama club, and she’s spending more and more time with Ruby’s best friend, Siri. Ruby needs to dig deep into her imagination to help bring things back to normal again.

Part Secret Life of Walter Mitty, part Dork Diaries, Ruby Starr is a lovable new protagonist for middle grade readers. She daydreams scenarios to help her cope with the everyday frustrations – or imagine exciting outcomes for upcoming events – and zones out while she’s doing it, making for some giggleworthy moments throughout the story. The imagination sequences are illustrated, letting readers in on the joke. The stress of friendship – and losing it – will resonate with middle graders, as will the fear of being the outsider in the group; Ruby handles these challenges with humor and style, even reaching out to her frenemy and offering a helping hand. I loved seeing a nice librarian-student relationship, too; maybe the author can give us a Ruby Starr/Unicorns reading list to promote to our kids!

Ruby Starr is a fun entry into the humorous journal fiction sub-genre. Give this to your Dork Diaries, My Dumb Diary, and Frazzled (by Booki Vivat) readers. Ask them to draw an imaginary scenario for themselves! There’s a reader’s guide on Deborah Lytton’s author webpage, along with an author Q&A and link to her blog.

The Half-True Lies of Cricket Cohen, by Catherine Lloyd Burns, (Aug. 2017, Farrar, Straus & Giroux), $16.99, ISBN: 9780374300418

Recommended for ages 8-12

Cricket Cohen has a big imagination. Sometimes, it gets away from her – especially when she wants to impress someone, or just make a boring autobiography school assignment a little more exciting. After all, it’s fun when she and her grandmother pretend, right? Well… wrong, at least according to her schoolmates, who are tired of her making up stories, and her teacher, who wants her to redo her autobiography assignment with the truth this time. When her parents leave her alone with her grandmother, Dodo, while they go summer house-hunting in the Hamptons, Dodo convinces Cricket that they’re going to run away and have an adventure; Cricket’s all too happy to go. But Dodo starts becoming confused, and Cricket finds herself having to bail herself AND Dodo out of hot water when she’s the only one who knows what’s fact and what’s fantasy.

The Half-True Lies of Cricket Cohen is much more than a novel about a kid who likes to embellish the truth. It’s a story about grandparents and grandchildren, and it’s a story about what happens when children find themselves with the responsibility of caring for an adult: something that today’s kids sometimes find themselves managing.

Cricket finds herself disappearing into her imagination to deal with her boring classmates who prefer talking about clothes, shoes, and crushes to geology and stuffed animal brain surgery, but you can also argue that it’s an attention-seeking response to her parents, who are consumed with their nonprofit fundraising for the city’s public schools. They live above their means, and her mother – a control freak and perfectionist – treats her own mother like an inconvenience. Artsy free spirit Dodo pushes back against her daughter’s rules and regulations, and Cricket embraces her kindred spirit; but Cricket, previously unaware of her grandmother’s health struggles, finds herself in the position of being responsible for herself and her grandmother when her grandmother’s failing memory causes a problem in a department store.

The New York setting is fun – it’s got a touch of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to it. The story handles big issues like family relationships, aging grandparents, and embellishing the truth with a shot of fun and adventure. At the same time, the Dodo is the one character that remains truly likable throughout the story. Cricket and her family may be living above their means, but they are still an upper middle class family, living on New York’s Upper West Side and renting summer homes in the Hamptons. Her parents border on neglectful, putting the welfare of New York City’s public school children ahead of their own daughter’s. Cricket’s actions are understandable in the bigger picture, and she becomes a more sympathetic character as the story progresses.

Have The Half-True Lies of Cricket Cohen available, along with Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart, and There Will Be Bears, by Ryan Gebhart, for readers who may be coping with an aging grandparent. Booktalk it with Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Kay Thompson’s Eloise, Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s Under the Egg, and Nadja Spiegelman’s Lost in NYC graphic novel for a fun New York reading theme.

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Posted in Early Reader, Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Preschool Reads

Surreal graphic novel fun for little ones: Adele in Sandland

Adele in Sandland, by Claude Ponti, (June 2017, TOON Books), $12.95, ISBN: 978-1-943145-16-4

Recommended for readers 3-7

Little Adele’s mother takes her to the park. While Mama chats with a friend, Adele begins to dig and sets off on an adventure with her doll, Stuffy, and Sandy – a creature from her sand pail – where they’re eaten by a sand dragon, she meets a tree of hot dogs, a king who likes to walk, barefoot, on his subjects’ heads, and ventures forth to a tasty dessert island.

Adele in Sand Land is surreal fun for readers who’ve become more comfortable with slightly longer sentences than those introduced in early readers. The book is TOON Level 1, which is about a Kindergarten reading level and corresponds to Guided Reading Levels E-J. TOON includes all of this information in the back of each book, and on their website, which is a great resources for parents and educators alike. The story is a fun storytime selection for younger audiences, too: kids will easily envision themselves on a magical adventure while playing at the park.

The surreal art makes this a great choice when introducing young readers to graphic novels, too. While the overall story is sequential, the dreamlike quality of the art allows kids to let their imaginations run wild. Let your kids draw their own surreal adventure for a fun accompanying activity, or introduce stories like Alice in Wonderland or Harold and the Purple Crayon for more adventures with a touch of the surrealistic. Teacher’s Resources are forthcoming for this title.

Adele in Sand Land received a starred review from Kirkus. An early Adele story, Adele’s Album (1988), is out of print but can be found for varying prices through third party sellers online.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade

Henry and the Chalk Dragon unleashes imagination!

Henry and the Chalk Dragon, by Jennifer Trafton/Illustrated by Benjamin Schipper, (Apr. 2017, Rabbit Room Press), $15.99, ISBN: 9780986381881

Recommended for readers 8-12

Henry Penwhistle is a young boy with an active imagination. He’s an artist and a dreamer who draws his quests in secret, afraid to share his art with anyone – even his best friend, Oscar. His mother used blackboard paint to transform Henry’s door into a canvas; a canvas on which he’s drawn a dragon. A dragon that has managed to escape and wreaks havoc all over Henry’s school! Henry, Oscar, and their classmate Jade – who chronicles the boys’ heroism in epic poetry – try to save their classmates and teachers and bring an end to the dragon’s mischief. What Henry discovers is something far deeper.

This book is so many things. It recognizes the dreamers, the artists, those of us who look at life a little differently. It’s a gentle squeeze, a hug, a reminder to us grownups that we don’t really have to give up our robots and superhero personas, just because we’ve gotten older. And it’s a call to action to readers – grownups and kids alike – to rethink ways of tackling problems. Henry has his own hero’s quest through Henry and the Chalk Dragon, as do – to a slightly lesser degree – his teacher, lunch lady, and principal, and he emerges as a very different boy at the book’s close.

Henry and his friends are stuck in dreary school life, but so are the grownups in that school. His principal, beaten down by the School Bored, tells Henry, “the world doesn’t care about your art… the world only cares about facts and numbers and budgets. I’m sorry, but it is my job to prepare you for the world you’re going to have to live in, Henry: the real world.” His lunch lady is an artist who wails that “everyone wants pizza, and meatloaf, and macaroni and cheese made from a box. A box! How can anything beautiful come from a box?” They’re artists and dreamers who’ve been worn down by the world around them, but Henry is here to show everyone, with a child’s innocence and imagination, that things are so much better than that. Finally, Henry and the Chalk Dragon is about the enduring power of friendship: Henry and Oscar spend the better part of the book working out an argument that took place before the events of the book, and Jade makes sure that Henry and Oscar know that the old boys’ club isn’t a formula that works for her; she’s going to be part of this adventure.

Give this book to your dreamers, artists, and adventurers. Give it to your teachers and your parents that used to be superheroes, and should be again.

Henry and the Chalk Dragon received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Booklist.

Would you like a chance to win your own copy of Henry and the Chalk Dragon? Enter this Rafflecopter giveaway!

About the Author

Jennifer Trafton is the author of The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic (Dial, 2010) which received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal and was a nominee for Tennessee’s Volunteer State Book Award and the National Homeschool Book Award. Henry and the Chalk Dragon arose from her lifelong love of drawing and her personal quest for the courage to be an artist. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where, in addition to pursuing her love of art and illustration, she teaches writing classes, workshops, and summer camps in a variety of schools, libraries, and homeschool groups in the Nashville area, as well as online classes to kids around the world. To learn more, and to download free materials, visit jennifertrafton.com.

Praise for HENRY AND THE CHALK DRAGON:

★“A delicious face-off between forces of conformity and creativity run amok, spiced with offbeat names as well as insights expressed with eloquent simplicity.” —Booklist (starred review)

★“A perfect title to hand to young readers looking for laughs along with a wild and crazy adventure.”

—School Library Journal (starred review)

Posted in Early Reader, Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Intermediate, Preschool Reads

Have visual vocabulary fun with Wordplay!

Wordplay, by Ivan Brunetti, (May 2017, TOON Books), $12.95, ISBN: 978-1-943145-17-1

Recommended for readers 3-8

Kids learn about compound words – two words that come together to form a whole new word, like housework – in this visual feast for the eyes. Ever see a house vaccuming? A moon in an easy chair, reading under a bright light? You will here, as the kids in the story think up and visualize compound words that will make kids (and you) laugh and think.

This book is made for classrooms and programs. Ask your kids what compound words they can come up with – then draw it! Make a bookmark for one of the easiest compound words: Bookworm! The fun, bold art leaps off the page, and bright white word balloons make for dialogue that you can ask kids to read out loud, turning the book into a performance. Display Wordplay with other fun word books, like Lynne Truss’ younger readers’ version of Eats, Shoots and Leaves and Patricia Byers’ One Sheep, Two Sheep: A Book of Collective Nouns. Wordplay is a TOON Level 1; Levels E-J in Guided Reading. Teachers’ Resources are forthcoming.

Wordplay received a starred review from Kirkus.

 

Posted in Preschool Reads

Sam Usher’s Rain explores patience and celebrates imagination

Rain, Sam Usher, (March 2017, Candlewick), $16.99, ISBN: 978-0-7636-9296-4

Recommended for readers 3-7

It’s raining out – and the young boy sitting inside can’t wait to go outside and have an adventure! Grandpa suggests they wait for the rain to stop, and putters around the home while the boy fidgets and waits for the weather to let up. When the rain finally lets up, Grandpa and grandson go out to mail a letter, and have their own adventure together.

I adore the quiet adventure of Rain: it’s got a soothing repetition while pulsing with the excited impatience a child knows all too well when waiting for an adult to give him or her the go-ahead to do something fun. The boy tries to talk his grandfather into heading outside by talking about things one can do in the rain (catch raindrops splash in puddles) and expressing a desire to go on adventures, like voyaging with sea monsters or visit a floating city. Grandpa, unruffled, continues to tell the boy to wait for the rain to stop. We feel the boy’s impatience when he repeats, “But did the rain stop? NO!” When it’s finally time to venture out, the excursion is every bit as exhilarating as the boy expected. When they return home, grandfather and grandson sit together, with warm socks and hot chocolate, sharing a perfect moment together, complete with the dispensing of grandfatherly wisdom: “…the very best things are always worth waiting for”.

Sam Usher’s art reminds me of some of my favorite British illustrators, Tony Ross and Quentin Blake. His use of watercolor makes grandfather’s home warm and cozy, and the rain outside looks almost dewy and real as seen from the boy’s window. His rainy scene spreads are properly gray and stormy, with sparks of imagination wandering into the picture to prepare readers for what’s coming: a prow of a boat here, an upturned umbrella there. The endpapers extend the story, with puddles and birds, and a cameo by the penguin from Usher’s previous book, Snow.

This is the second in a four-part celebration of the seasons. Snow (2015) saw the boy trying to get Grandpa out of bed to adventure in the snow. I can’t wait to see what Mr. Usher has in store for the next two seasons.

This is a great read-aloud for toddlers and preschoolers alike, and a wonderful companion to nonfiction books about weather and the seasons. Ask the kids what their adventure in the rain would look like; talk about what to wear in the rain (raincoats, boots), and let them decorate their own umbrellas. I really like this one from MamaJenn that incorporates glue raindrops.

Posted in Early Reader, Fiction, Preschool Reads

Little Blue Chair: the power of sharing, the power of home

Little Blue Chair, by Cary Fagan/Illustrated by Madeline Kloepper, (Jan. 2017, Tundra Books), $16.99, ISBN: 978-1-77049-755-9

Recommended for readers 3-7

A little boy outgrows his favorite blue chair, so his mother puts it on the curb with a sign reading, “Please take me”. From there, Little Blue Chair follows the chair as it’s passed from hand to hand: it’s used as a replacement seat on a plant stand; a ferris wheel; a bird feeder; a throne, and a chair for elephant rides. It travels to amusement parks, houseboats, and beaches, ultimately coming full-circle as it arrives back where it began. It’s a sweet story about a favorite belonging – it could easily be a toy, as in Kate DiCamillo’s The Mysterious Journey of Edward Tulane – and the power of home, but it’s also a story about the permanence of objects. The chair is never thrown in the trash; it’s used again and again, serving different purposes for different people, all of whom love the chair while they have it. It’s a journey home.

Madeline Kloepper’s ink and pencil illustrations, finished digitally, a soft and gentle, calming to the reader. The palette of opaque greens, reds, dark yellows, and gray-blues gives the story almost dreamlike feel; a child’s imagination realized, from one boy using the chair as a tent, to another using it as a throne, his stuffed toys as subjects. Everything in this world has a story; everything has a value. Read this with your little ones and talk about the stories their toys hold. If you’re in a school, talk about the desks: what stories could they tell?

courtesy of Madeline Kloepper’s website

I’d love to pair this with Mirielle Messier’s The Branch and compare the two stories. They’re both books about reusing and repurposing; one, a child’s chair; the other, a branch from a favorite tree.

Cary Fagan is an award-winning children’s author. See more of Madeline Kloepper’s illustration at her website.

Posted in Animal Fiction, Early Reader, Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Intermediate

Narwhal & Jelly: Besties under the sea!

narwhalNarwhal: Unicorn of the Sea, by Ben Clanton, (Dec. 2016, Tundra Books), $7.99, ISBN: 9781101918715

Recommended for ages 5-8

Narwhal is a happy-go-lucky narwhal is a wild imagination. Jelly is… not. That’s okay by Narwhal, they both bond over a mutual love of waffles, parties, and having adventures! Together, the two friends recruit other sea friends into their own little group and read the best book ever – so what if it doesn’t have words or pictures? They have imagination!

This hybrid intermediate novel/graphic novel is perfect for beginning readers (psst… and grown-ups) who love silly jokes, adorable art, and fun. Kids will enjoy this Odd Couple under the sea, and learn that friends don’t have to enjoy all of the same things to get along. The art is squeal-worthy adorable, and the dialogue between the two friends is light and fun. Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea has hit it big with readers, too: the book has received multiple awards and praise, including a starred Kirkus review, designation as the Best of the Year in 2016 by both Amazon and Kirkus, and was put on the Texas 2×2 Reading List.

 

If you lovsupernarwhaled Narwhal’s first book, get ready: Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt (May 2017, Tundra, $12.99, ISBN: 9781101919194) is coming in May! In their second outing, the two best friends become super heroes – now, if they could just figure out what their powers are… As with the first book, Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt features three short stories connected by the overall plot thread: in this case, being a superhero and a friend. Friendship, imagination, and self-esteem are enduring themes.

Ben Clanton has some fun extras available online. His website links to his Instagram, if you want to see even more of his art as he posts it; the site hosts his blog, which spotlights even more of his artwork, including this awesome “Jellin'” piece:

jellin

There’s also a Narwhal and Jelly site, with comics, printables, jokes, and early art mock-ups. This is a super-fun set to add to your graphic novels and intermediate books, and you can display with the veritable plethora of narwhal-related books coming out, like Jessie Sima’s Not Quite Narwhal and Wendell the Narwhal by Emily Dove. Make a display and feature some non-fiction narwhal and jellyfish-related books, or get a whole sea life shelf up, featuring fiction and nonfiction for some related reads.