The Mystery of the Missing Lion by Alexander McCall Smith, illustrated by Iain McIntosh, 90 pp, RL 2

The Mystery of the Missing Lion is the third book in Alexander McCall Smith's, brilliant chapter book series featuring the childhood incarnation of his adult novel heroine and owner of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Precious Ramotswe. The books are marvelously illustrated by Iain McIntosh and are unique when it comes to chapter books for so many reasons - girl detective, set in Botswana, non-white characters, African animals and amazing illustrations.

Before The Mystery of the Missing Lion is even on chapter two, McCall Smith has packed this chapter book full of fascinating information as we learn about Precious's favorite Aunty Bee who lives right up at the top of the country in the Okavango Delta where she finds amazing things to send Precious for her birthday presents. One year, Aunty Bee collected the quills from a porcupine and made a hat out of them for Precious! Another year she sent her a lucky bracelet made from rare elephant hairs purchased from a very skinny man who some said had been sat on  by an elephant. Aunty Bee also writes Precious letters telling her what is happening in the Delta. In her most recent letter, she invites Precious to spend part of her school holidays with her at Eagle Island Camp, telling her something very exciting is about to happen.

Her first day at Eagle Island Camp Precious learns that a movie crew is making a film in the Delta. She also meets Khumo (pronounced KOO- MOO.) As with all the books in this series, McCall Smith provides phonetic pronunciations for the trickier words, which is exceptional, as many beginning reader books have characters with tricky names like "Biscuit." Khumo explains hippos to Precious and introduces her to the "actor lion" the crew has brought in for the movie. Khumo and Precious make themselves useful to the film crew, even helping with Teddy, the actor lion, earning themselves sweet treats and eventually envelopes of money. Then Teddy disappears. Aunty Bee agrees to let Precious and Khumo take her canoe and go looking for Teddy, as long as they promise to be very careful. It's Precious's strong sense of right and wrong and her ability to do a spot-on guinea fowl impression, along with her sharp detective skills, that lead her to the missing actor lion and a happy ending.

I know I am repeating myself, but I feel like I can't say often enough what out of the ordinary plots, characters and settings McCall Smith brings to the frequently bland world of chapter books, and how happy this makes me. His plots are straightforward, the vocabulary is relatively easy and he has a great sense of playfulness in his writing. And, he has the inscrutable Precious.

More books in the series:

And coming soon . . . 

Source: Review Copy


Princess in Black by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham, 89 pp, RL: 2

I did not want to like The Princess in Black by Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham. I am tired of princesses and equally tired of princess backlash. I am weary from trying to excavate and explain the potential of a princess in a plot (see my review of A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett) and I am wary of mash-ups that have the air of a Disney enterprise. However, I adore the illustrations of Pham and, even more, I am always on the look out for what I call a Bridge Chapter Book - a growing niche of chapter books that are a step up from leveled readers (in content and appearnce) but not as difficult as Magic Tree House of Junie B Jones. And, my proclivities and prejudices aside, The Princess in Black is just plain great!

Princess Magnolia is the titular character of The Princess in Black and she is leading the secret double life of a super hero. When we first meet Magnolia, she is entertaining the snooty and snoopy Duchess Wigtower. The Hales do a fine job naming the characters in this book, not going too far over the top and sticking to compound words that emerging readers shouldn't have too much trouble decoding. My favorite name and character is Frimplepants, Magnolia's "unicorn," who also leads a double life. When Princess Magnolia's glitter-stone ring rings, she and Frimplepants spring into action and a clothing change. For Magnolia, this means black garb, but for Frimplepants, horn, sparkly mane and tail and golden horseshoes (one of which also includes the ringing glitter-stone) must be shed before she becomes the sleek, black beauty that he truly is.

And what evil lurks in Princess Magnolia's kingdom? Monsters! Pham's illustrations perfectly bring to life the characters in The Princess in Black, human or otherwise, monsters especially so. Monster Land, which exists underneath the kingdom. There happens to be a hole in Monster Land that allows the (delicious to monsters) smell of plump goats to waft downward, causing serious drool and occasional attempts at goat swiping. Duff, a goat boy (he was not "part goat and part boy. That would have been interesting.") appreciates the help of the Princess in Black and enjoys settling back to watch her ninja skills (and notice the similarities she shares with Princess Magnolia) as she fights them off. All of this is done, in text and illustrations, with gentle, almost cuddly humor.

Magnolia manages to hog-tie the monster, while Duff nibbles popcorn and waits for the part when he cheers, while Duchess Wigtower searches the castle for secrets. And Duff gets and idea - and idea that leads to the birth of Goat Avenger, costume and all, a potential sidekick for the Princess in Black in what I desperately hope will be the sequel to this first book!

Source: Review Copy