Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath, 150pp RL 4

Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath is the winner of the 2002 Newbery Honor. I loved this book the minute I opened it, probably because it had a recipe - a recipe a 9 or 10 year old kid could actually make - at the end of each chapter. Of course, I also admired the stoicism and practicality of the wonderfully crafted narrator, 11 year old Primrose Squarp.

Everything on a Waffle reads almost as if John Irving had honed down one of his weighty tomes into a young adult novel. The characters have great names and quirks like Miss Perfidy, who leaves the room mid-conversation, abuses moth balls and is over 100 years old, and Miss Bowzer who runs the Girl on a Red Swing restaurant where everything, including swordfish, salad and shepherd's pie, is served on a waffle. And, things that should be horrible but somehow come out crazy and funny happen to the characters, especially Primrose. Some of my favorite chapter titles are, "I Lose a Toe," "I Set Fire to a Guinea Pig," and "I lost Another Digit." I suspect, if another author had written this book and had a boy as the main character, these chapter titles would bode much worse outcomes than what actually happens in Horvath's superbly written story.

The story begins in the fishing village of Coal Harbour, British Columbia when a typhoon blows up. Primrose's father is out on his fishing boat and her mother heads off in her skiff to find him after leaving Primrose with Miss Perfidy. The book follows Primrose as she moves in with her distracted but likable Uncle Jack, who has returned to Coal Harbour to care for her. The book also explores Primrose's steadfast conviction that her parents have not perished at sea, despite the teasing from her classmates and frustration and borderline malice from the closest-thing-to-a psychiatrist the town has, Miss Honeycut.

Primrose finds a sympathetic yet pragmatic listener in Miss Bowzer after she ducks into the kithcen of the Girl on a Red Swing one day while fleeing her tormentors. Miss Bowzer puts Primrose to work and teaches her how to cook all the while complaining about her Uncle Jack, who has turned himself into a real estate developer and is trying to buy out half the town, including Miss Bowzer and her low-brow restaurant. After losing two digits, Primrose is sent to live with a foster family, the middle-aged, hilariously unique Evie and Bert (and their cockapoo, Quincehead.) Disaster continues to follow her to almost the end of the book, but I believe that there is not a single reader who does not also share Primrose's convictions about her parents and never once doubts that Everything on a Waffle will have a happy ending.

Also by Polly Horvath is My One Hundred Adventures, which is an amazing work in miniature detail about Jane, who, during the summer of her twelfth year, decides that she is going to have one hundred adventures. The characters are a bit less wacky than in Everything on a Waffle and, while Jane's family life seems a bit less precarious despite the fact that she does not know who her father is, or the father(s) of her three siblings and one of the father's just might have disappeared at sea as Jane helplessly watched on, her experiences and interior life seem a bit more serious and her happiness a bit more at stake.

If your reader liked Everything on a Waffle and has read everything by Polly Horvath, try:

Savvy by Ingrid Law
The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patrton

Mr Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater, illustrations by Robert Lawson 138 pp RL3

Written in 1938 and winner of the Newbery Honor, Mr Popper's Penguins remains a uniquely wonderful book. Mr Popper, husband to Mrs Popper and father to Janie and Bill, is a house painter with a passion for the Arctic and Antarctic. His living room is hung with pictures from National Geographic Magazine and he is always checking books out of the library on the subject. When Mr Popper sends a letter of admiration to Admiral Drake, the great explorer, he receives more than a friendly letter in return. He receives a large, wooden box containing a penguin that says, "Ork," and whom he names Captain Cook. The Atwater's descriptions of Captain Cook's behavior and the matter-of-fact way that the Poppers attend to him is brilliant, as are the crisp, expressive illustrations by Robert Lawson, author and illustrator of Rabbit Hill.

Captain Cook builds himself a rookery out of various odd objects found around the Popper house then begins a rapid decline as he pines for a love. Desperate to save him, Mr Popper writes another letter and that is how Greta comes to live with the Poppers. Captain Cook and Greta set up house in the icebox of the Popper's refrigerator, which causes Mrs Popper to complain, but soon winter comes and Bill and Janie are throwing open the windows and sledding in the house with the penguins. Of course, baby penguins follow as does Mr Popper's very creative solution to his shrinking income.

This book is a great read aloud, but is also one of the few great books written at this reading level and thus a good choice for a read alone.

Riding Freedom by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick 138pp RL4

Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan is a fantastic book. Based on the life of Charlotte "Charley" Darkey Parkhurst, a woman born in 1812 who lived her life disguised as a man, Riding Freedom is the story of how this amazing woman came to be. Orphaned when she is two, Charlotte ends up the only girl at a orphanage for boys. Not much more than a kitchen maid and never allowed to be adopted, Charlotte finds her joy in the stables, talking with Vern, a freed slave and helping with and learning how to ride the horses. When Mr Milkshark, the head of the orphanage, finds a reason to keep Charlotte from riding the horses and her only friend Hayward is adopted the same day, Charlotte decides to run away.

With the help of Vern, she cuts her hair, dresses in boy's clothes and catches the stagecoach tothe end of the line, Concord, Massachusetts. When she helps the stage driver bed the horses in their stable for the night, she ends up sleeping there. She hides out as long as she can, cleaning the stalls, which are in poor shape, when no one is there. Finally, she is discovered by Mr Ebenezer Balch, owner of the stagecoach company. Recognizing her work ethic and way with horses, he hires her on, but tells her he will soon move his business to Providence, Rhode Island and won't need her help there. Through a turn of events, Charlotte ends up being trained to drive a stagecoach and moving to Providence with Mr Balch.

The story follows Charlotte as she becomes a successful stage driver, exacts revenge on Mr Milkshark six years after running away. After becoming a successful stage driver, Charlotte is convinced by her fellow drivers to try her luck in California. She makes out out there, by way of Panama, and takes up driving again, still posing as a man. She loses sight in one eye while shoeing a horse but convinces the rest of the men that she can still drive. Eventually, she saves enough money to purchase her own land - a privilege allowed only to men at the time. The book ends with her voting in the 1868 Presidential election and reuniting with Mr Balch.

The life of Charlotte Parkhurst is truly an amazing one, and Ryan does a superb job of fitting it into a relatively short book. She creates warm and caring characters in the people of Mr Balch and Hayward and keeps the story moving at a gallop. She ends the book beautifully, with the difficult birth of twin horses, a boy and a girl.

There are two pages of historical information on the life of Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst at the end of the book.

Readers who enjoyed this book might also like Clara Gillow Clark's about another girl who dresses as a boy and does a man's job. Hill Hawk Hattie is the first in what is now three books about Hattie, who's story begins in 1883 in New York.


Stink and the Incredible Super-Galactic Jawbreaker by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Peter H Reynolds, 118pp, RL2

If you read my review of Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid, you know how that I am newly and very pleasantly surprised by Megan McDonald, a well loved author who has definitely left her mark on the world of children's books with her Judy Moody series. But what I will remember and value her for most is the brilliance of the her Stink series, which is will appeal to boys and is superlative among books written at this reading level, a level for emerging readers that serves as a bridge between leveled readers and traditional chapter books.

My favorite parts of Stink and the Incredible Super-Galactic Jawbreaker involve idioms, which are being taught to Stink by his 2nd grade teacher Ms. Dempster, and the power of letter writing, the formal structure of which is also being taught in school. As I mentioned in my review of Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid, the kids in Ms. Dempster's class are always writing, which I think is fantastic! When he purchases what he considers to be a faulty jawbreaker, Stink writes a letter of complaint to the candy manufacturer. To his great joy and surprise, the company sends him a complimentary ten pound box of 21,280 jawbreakers for his trouble. This immediately inspires Stink to write several more hilarious letters of complaint that net him even more candy, toys and other assorted goodies.

McDonald has a few other plot threads working, one of which involves glow-in-the-dark bacon and egg pajamas, a misplaced birthday party invitation, an accidental punch in the head to Stink's best friend Webster, and a really excellent use for all the swag Stink accumulates. As usual, McDonald does some great classroom story telling, this time involving the coolest pajama day ever. I have seen a few pajama days in my time, usually in kindergarten, but never one that, in addition to the usual stuffed animals and parades, included a spooky story time with drums.

The best part of this book, besides all the candy -  and who doesn't love creative writing about candy??? - is the page of idioms at the end of the book. McDonald does a great job of weaving them throughout the story and is thoughtful enough to list 37 of them. I was fascinated by idioms as a teenager and tried, feebly, to make my own list (this was before the wealth of information to be found online.) This made me question making them an integral part of a book intended for second graders, but, I am all for throwing concepts like this at kids at an early age because I am all about the written word and where it can take you!

The Stink Series:

Readers who enjoyed this book might also like:

Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon
Sticky Burr by John Lechner
The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman
Stuart Goes to School by Sarah Pennypacker
Soupy Saturdays with the Pain and The Great One by Judy Blume

Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid by Megan McDonald, illustrations by Peter H Reynolds 102 pp RL 2

Megan McDonald has definitely left her mark on the world of children's books with her Judy Moody series, which debuted in 2000 and is now fifteen books strong. But what I will remember and value her for most is the brilliance of the her Stink series, which began in 2005. Stink, aka James Moody, is Judy's younger brother and his series of books is written at a lower reading level. And in this, they have stood out on the shelves of the chapter book section from day one. The format of the Stink series is markedly different from the super popular Junie B Jones and Magic Tree House chapter books. The font is larger, the trim size of the book itself is square rather than the traditional rectangular, the illustrations are more numerous (Stink draws a comic strip that ends each chapter!) and the page count is a bit shorter. This all adds up to what I consider to be the perfect Bridge Chapter Book that will carry your emerging reader from leveled readers to traditional chapter books. 

I enjoyed Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid, the first book in the series, so much that I went on to Stink and the Incredible Super-Galactic Jawbreaker immediately and enjoyed it even more than the first book! The illustrations by Peter H Reynolds, a fabulous children's book author and illustrator in his own right (Sky Color, the dot, and ish) are the perfectly matched with the text, which makes sense since Reynolds illustrates the Judy Moody series. Peter H Reynolds is also the co-owner of The Blue Bunny Bookstore in Dedham, MA. The Blue Bunny publishes the semi-annual Hutch: A Kids' Literary and Art Magazine which features stories, poems and art work by kids as well as contributions by Peter H Reynolds and other guest authors and illustrators. And, as if this wasn't enough, Peter is the president and creative director of FableVision Studios where he produces award-winning children's broadcast programming, educational videos, and multimedia applications.

Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid, short as it may be, is filled with many different plot threads. There is humor and name calling, done mostly by Judy, creating a believable sibling relationship and taking up a little less than half the story. Then there are Stink's school experiences, which, while on the whole were much more exciting and entertaining than anything I remember from my lower elementary school experience - or my kids' - nevertheless rang true. McDonald superbly captures the childhood feeling of "everything is wrong and nothing ever goes right for me," when Stink, who hates being the shortest kid in his class believes that he is shrinking. His teacher even reads a book (a real book - click the title for my review) called The Shrinking of Treehorn, about a boy who is getting smaller. The story swings to the elated feeling that everything is going just right when Stink gets to collect the milk for lunch AND is chosen to take home Newton, the class pet.

One part of the book that I must mention, and I feel like a huge alarmist for doing so, but I must, is when Judy accidentally drops Newton the Newt down the drain of the kitchen sink then, in an effort to have enough light to find him by, accidentally grinds him up in the garbage disposal. Maybe I am just a big baby about (accidental) cruelty to animals, maybe it is because I have been accessory to more than one accidental small animal death in my  years of parenting, maybe it is because I, as an adult know how the garbage disposal really works, but this scene REALLY disturbed me. I was merrily reading along and experienced a bit of concern when I saw the illustration of Newton, mid-air as he slipped from Judy's hands. But, I let out an audible gasp when I turned the page and saw the next illustration showing Judy reaching up and flipping a switch next to the sink and I rarely make audible sounds when reading anything, adult, kid or otherwise. Having flipped the wrong switch many a time, I knew what to expect but could not believe that McDonald would take that path. I went back and re-read the pages to make sure that it didn't really happen. But it did. Then I sped-read to the end of the book because, foolishly, I thought that Newton might not really be dead.

However, much, much much to Megan McDonald's credit, she deals with this event wonderfully. Perhaps because of the humorous tone of the books, as well as the age of the intended reader, Judy does not experience too much remorse for being the Hand of Death. She tells Stink it's part of the cycle of life (thank you, Lion King.) Stink does seem to be a little bit sad, but really, in my experience, most kids do not get that wrapped up in the death of a small pet. My son was practically indifferent when I broke the news to him that one of his two hermit crabs cannibalized the other then died two days later for obvious reasons. 

Getting back to McDonald's brilliant classroom writing, when Stink tells his teacher what happened on Monday morning, she very wisely suggests that they tell the class simply that Newton escaped. Then she has the class write stories about what they imagine Newton is up to now that he is "free in the world..." The kids in Stink's class are always writing, which as we all know is a crucial component of any education, and I love that McDonald is setting this example and making writing seem like the most natural, obvious thing that we as learners and humans can do. I can only hope that my youngest child has a second grade teacher who asks as much of him.

Another lovely component of McDonald's storytelling are the Moody parents, who play a small but important part in the book. Mrs Dempster, Stink's teacher, has begun teaching the class how to write letters. As part of a President's Day project, Stink chooses James Madison, the shortest President of the United States ever, for obvious reasons. As he learns about Madison, Stink is compelled to write a letter to the governor of Virginia to suggest that James Madison be on the state quarter, not ships. To cheer Stink up, his parents throw a surprise President's Day birthday party on the holiday complete with cupcakes and presents as well as a letter from the governor that includes a very special surprise.

I had no idea I had so much to say about this little book. It has made a very good impression on me and I recommend it highly. It would make a great read out loud but, because it is one of the rare, truly well written books at this reading level, encourage your children - boys or girls - to read the rest of the series on their own!

The Stink Series:

Readers who enjoyed this book might also like:

Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon
Sticky Burr by John Lechner
The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman
Stuart Goes to School by Sarah Pennypacker
Soupy Saturdays with the Pain and The Great One by Judy Blume


The Bookstore Mouse by Peggy Christian, illustrated by Gary Lippincott 134pp RL4

The Bookstore Mouse is an entertaining story, sort of a cross between Inkheart, by Conrelia Funke and the Redwall Series by Brain Jacques. Cervantes the mouse lives behind a wall of words, encyclopedias to be exact, in an antiquarian bookstore along with Milo (a nod to The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster?) the cat. When Milo isn't sleeping, he's tormenting Cervantes. Not knowing how to read, he has nothing else to do. When Cervantes isn't fleeing from Milo, he is eating his way through a book of recipes from around the world and reading. One day, Milo succeeds in disrupting Cervantes' world and sends him scampering to a new section of the bookstore where he finds a very special book that he literally falls into.

Once in the story, Cervantes realizes that he is in the middle ages and has fallen into a scriptorium where scribes do their copy work. Cervantes befriends Sigfried, a young man who definitely does not have a way with words, and helps him to decode a mysterious note. The note leads them to borrow a suit of armor and a horse so they help the villagers rescue a group of troubadours from Censor the dragon. Censor is determined to capture all the troubadours, steal their stories of dragon slayers from them and retell all the stories so that the dragon is always victorious.

The wordplay throughout the book is very clever and there is very high vocabulary sprinkled throughout in a playful. You do not always need to know the meanings of the big words to understand the story. The story ends nicely with a truce between Cervantes and Milo that involves the retelling and sharing of stories. Definitely a book for a book lover.

If your child enjoys this book, I suggest The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer and Barrel of Laughs: A Vale of Tears, written and illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Both involve some wickedly funny wordplay as well as wonderful, fairy tale like storytelling. Also, if your daughter enjoyed this book, I suggest The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley, which also involves a story within a story. And, for a fun short read and a gentle introduction to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, I recommend The Mouse of Amherst.

And, similar to Brian Jacques' Redwall books (ie: filled with various rodents in a quasi-medieval setting) is the Mistmantle series by MI McAllister, the first book of which is Urchin of the Riding Stars.

George and Martha Series story and illustrations by James Marshall, 46pp RL1

***polemic warning***
*feel free to skip to the review*

I have always thought of the George and Martha series as picture books, but, as I research and write this blog is see the value of looking at old things in new ways. The main purpose of my blog is to introduce parents of emerging readers to great chapter books that they may not know about as well as to discuss theory and practice in the world of reading. As I scour my bookshelves as well as those at work, I am finding that there are alarmingly few chapter books written at or below a 2nd grade reading level. My emphasis is on chapter books because, while I love picture books and could name ten off the top of my head that would be considered 5th grade reading level, after working in the kid's department for 13 years and watching the trends in publishing and purchasing, kids who have just learned how to read usually do not want to be seen reading a picture book. They want chapter books. Not easy reader books. CHAPTER BOOKS. Thus, the dilemma of what to review...

When I post a reading level along with the book title, it is the reading level that I think the book warrants, not necessarily what the publisher lists on the back of the book and rarely what Renaissance Learning a company that makes and sells the "Accelerated Reader" computer tests to schools, attributes to a book. These tests ask the reader a series of multiple choice questions about a book that the child has read (or had read out loud to him/her) to determine comprehension. Both my kids have used this system, and I have tutored second graders in reading skills and worked with them on this system. I both like it and loathe it, but now is not the time or place to debate it. Regardless, if you follow the link to their site you can type in almost any kid's book title and, if they sell a test for it, you can see what reading level Renaissance Learning has decided to give a book. While scrolling their lists, I began to notice that there were almost no chapter books at a lower reading level. Thus, I am rethinking what I consider to be a chapter book and am reviewing George and Martha, which has CHAPTERS!!
Like Arnold Lobel and William Steig, author of Abel's Island, James Marshall is a master at capturing the nuances of relationships in a very straightforward and often humorous way. He does this again and again in his George and Martha books, of which there are seven, each having five chapters. If you can splurge for a hardback, I highly recommend the all-in-one that came out this month for a mere $20.00, George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends. In addition to all the stories, there are appreciations by some of the heavy-hitters in children's literature who cannot say enough good things about James Marshall, including Maurice Sendak, Jon Scieszka, and David Wiesner. Otherwise, all seven are available in paperback.

George and Martha are hippos who do everything together, including playing tricks on each other, going to the beach, and jump, or not, off the high dive at the local pool. In one story, George pours Martha's homemade split pea soup into his loafers when she isn't looking because he can't stand split pea soup and doesn't want to hurt her feelings. In another story, George is trying to read a book in a hammock when Martha asks is she can join him. George ascents and Martha agrees to be quiet, but cannot help fidgeting. George huffily moves to a new spot, away from Martha and reads the first page of his books which say, "It is important to be considerate." Feeling vindicated, he reads on, "Sometimes we are thoughtless without even knowing it." When George stomps back to the hammock but before he can share his new found advice with Martha, she apologizes for disturbing him and reveals that she was lonely. "I never considered that," says George and tells her that he got lonely, too. Then, they sit together and tell stories into the night, without fidgeting.

There is not a lot of description or big vocabulary words in the George and Martha books, but there is such poignancy and truth to what Marshall writes that his succinct style makes you appreciate even more the veracity of his stories.

If your child likes George and Martha, suggest Yummers and Yummers Too, the Second Course, also by James Marshall. Both are "starring" Eugene the Turtle and Emily the Pig and follow them on their gustatory adventures which are driven both by Emily's desire to lose weight and her voracious love of food...


The Littles, by John Peterson, illustrated by Roberta Carter Clark, 80 pp, RL2

I loved The Littles as a child. I never read The Borrowers by Mary Norton, although it has been around longer and is a more complex and well written series, but I gather that the main similarity is that both the Littles and the Borrowers borrow things from humans and repay them in the best ways they know how. Of course, the huge difference between these books is the length and reading levels.
Begun in 1967, The Littles, with more than ten books in the series, uses plain language and simple descriptions to tell the story of this family and their adventures inside and outside of the house they inhabit. The interior illustrations are well done and capture the liveliness of the different characters. These books should appeal to both boys and girls and are a great alternative to the two very popular, powerhouse series written at this reading level - The Magic Tree House and Junie B Jones.

If your child likes The Littles, suggest The Borrowers, RL5 and the Bromeliad Trilogy, RL5.


The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin 80 pp RL2

The Hundred Dresses, written in 1944 and winner of the Newbery Honor, performs the amazing feat of teaching a "life lesson" without being didactic and dull. I put the phrase "life lessons" in quotes because it is  phrase that has been introduced into children's literature in the last generation or so and it rubs me the wrong way sometimes. I'll be honest, I loathe children's books that set out to teach "life lessons." Most celebrity authored picture books, besides the poor writing, are frequently moralistic and teach-y and advertise their "life lessons" right on the cover. While I do think that there is a book (or three) in the world that can address any and every life issue, I think that the value of the book lies in the ability of a book to capture an experience, to craft it into a story and to make you feel and think things that you didn't before you read it. In my experience, children's books that propose to teach a life lesson are devoid of these qualities. 

The Hundred Dresses tells the story of Polish immigrant, Wanda Petronski who wears the same faded but clean dress to school every day and is made fun of when she tells her classmates that she has one hundred dresses in her closet at home. When the winners of the class drawing contest are announced, the children learn that Wanda really did have one hundred dresses - one hundred drawings of dresses - and that she has won the competition. However, she cannot collect her medal because her family has moved to the big city. Mr Petronski sends a note to Miss Mason, the teacher, telling her that in the big city, "No more holler Polack. No more ask why funny name. Plenty of funny names in big city."

Although Wanda is the center of the story, what makes this book work is the fact that it is told through the eyes of Maddie, a conscientious classmate of Wanda's who goes along with the teasing, initiated and driven by her friend Peggy. The thoughtfulness and realizations that Maddie has as the story progresses are simple but powerful. And the ending wraps up the story in a bittersweet but satisfying way.


The Lost Flower Children by Janet Taylor Lisle 122 pp RL3

The Lost Flower Children blends gentle fantasy with tough reality. Olivia and Nellie, who is five and has some very stubborn, particular, complicated traits that most parents will recognize, have lost their mother and are "spending the summer" with elderly Great Aunt Minty. Great Aunt Minty knows almost nothing about children but a lot about gardening and soon the girls are our digging with her. The unearthing of a blue teacup leads to Great Aunty Minty's childhood storybook, which contains the story "The Lost Flower Children," about children at a tea party who are turned into flowers by angry fairies. They can only regain their human form when every piece of missing china has been found hidden or buried in the garden. Adults will realize what is happening as the search brings the girls new friends and interest, but children will find it magical.

The three main characters, Olivia, Nellie and Aunt Minty, are very well drawn and in this short tale, Lisle has created a satisfying story of lost things and people waiting to be found. Along with Abel's Island, The Lost Flower Children, for me represents the ideal in children's literature for the 2nd and 3rd grade reading level. It is a thoughtful story about human relationships, things lost and things gained and it is creative and well written without being condescending, colloquial or simplistic.

Little Wolf's Book of Badness by Ian Whybrow, illustrated by Tony Ross 130pp RL 2

The series of Little Wolf books, there are at least nine as of this writing, are similar to the premise of the Dragon Slayer's Academy in that Little Wolf is sent away to school to learn qualities he doesn't possess. In this story, he is sent to his Uncle Bigbad's Cunning College for Brute Beasts in the Frettnin Forest where he is to learn the nine Rules of Badness, earn his BAD Badge and convince his family that he isn't a "goody-four-paws." Little Wolf's experiences are recounted in letters home to his parents.

There is some boyish humor and lots of illustrations - the book itself is probably less than 70 pages in text alone. The rest of the series follows Little Wolf as he rescues his baby brother - Smellybreff, writes poetry, sails the seas looking for buried treasure, tries to start his own scary school and tries his hand as a forest detective. The books are charming and silly and perfect for a high reading five or six year old. Seven year olds may find it a bit "babyish" despite the reading level.

Dragon Slayer's Academy by Kate McMullan, illustrated by Bill Basso 110pp RL2

The Dragon Slayer's Academy has been around for more than ten years now and fills a nice niche between Magic Tree House and Junie B Jones in the world of 2nd grade reading level series. Originally, the books were about 90 pages each but have recently been reissued with extra pages that include a DSA yearbook with profiles of the students and teachers as well as funny bits about nicknames and deepest secrets.

This series takes place during the tymes of olde, when dragon slaying was the work of brave knights. The hero of this series is Wiglaf, the only scrawny disappointment among the thirteen strapping sons of Fergus and Molwena, and anything but brave. When a wandering minstrel fortells Wiglaf's future as a mighty hero, he leaves home to fulfill his destiny with Daisy, his Pig Latin speaking pig, a length of rope, a map and his lucky rag. As he journeys, he meets the wizard Zelnoc, who gives him a magical, if somewhat rusty, sword to which he has completely forgotten the magical incantation that will activate its power.

From there, it is on to the DSA, where Wiglaf befriends Eric (who is really Princess Erica, daughter of King Ken and Queen Barbie) and Angus and the adventures follow. There are enough bad jokes and icky moments to entertain, as well as a tutorial on how to speak Pig Latin. The illustrations are good, if a little dark, but I guess lots of things were dark in the middle ages...

My favorite title is that of DSA #8, "Countdown to the Year 1000." These books don't offer quite as much historical and scientific information as the Magic Tree House series,but they are funny and fun to read, and at this stage in the game strengthening reading skills and creating a love of books, that's what counts most. The latest book in the DSA series, #19 was published in May of 2007.

If your child likes this series, suggest Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess, Page


Hugo Pepper (Far-Flung Adventures) by Paul Stewart, illustrated by Chris Riddell 252pp RL4

Hugo Pepeper is the third and possibly final book in the Far-Flung Adventures series written by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. And, although the books do not have to be read in any order, there are reoccurring people and places in all of them. As to be expected, these books are packed with interesting characters with quirky traits and impeccable illustrations to go with them!

hugoThis book begins with Harvi and Sarvi Runter-Tun-Tun, reindeer herders and cheesemakers extraordinaire of the great Frozen North and their discovery of a baby on their doorstep one night. When this orphan, Hugo, discovers the wreckage of the aeronautical snow chariot at age ten and a half, he realizes that he has a past that he yearns to know about. Harvi and Sarvi realize this as well and help him to find his way home. When Hugo reaches Harbor Heights, he finds a town both wonderous and wretched. The inhabitants of Firefly square sell the most amazing things, but they are stuck in the evil grip of Elliot de Mille, the new head of the Institute of Travelers' Tales and the secrets he publishes in the Firefly Quarterly.

teaRich with story-collectors, mermaids, snow giants, tea blenders, flying carpet slippers and far more amazing people, places, foods and the usual array of fantastic hats than I can describe here, it makes me a little bit sad to think that this may be the last Far-Flung Adventure. Fortunately, Chris Riddell is striking out on his own with what might become a series about Ottoline, a little girl who is often on her own while her parents travel the world collecting interesting things... Along with her companion, Mr Monroe from Norway (a definite relative of Cousin Itt) Ottoline solves the mystery of the cat burglar. Shorter and at a slightly lower RL than the Far-Flung Adventures, this could be a great addition to the world of children's literature!


Corby Flood and Fergus Crane are the other two books in the series.

Fergus Crane (Far-Flung Adventures) by Paul Stewart, illustrated by Chris Riddell 240 pp RL4

Fergus Crane is the first in the Far-Flung Adventures series written by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. Although the books do not have to be read in order there are reoccurring people and places in all three stories.

Fergus Crane lives with his mother who struggles to make ends meet while working as at Boris Biederbecker's bakery that is conveniently located right next to in the Archduke Ferdinand Apartments where the Cranes live. Nine-year-old Fergus has just begun to attend school aboard the Betty Jean, which, although the teachers seem suspiciously like pirates, offers free schooling. One night, a mysterious mechanical flying box delivers a message to Fergus and his adventure begins. Talking penguins, flying mechanical horses, delicious but rare nuts, beautiful but rare diamonds, a long-lost uncle and a rescue at sea ensue.

As with all of Paul Stewart's books, he is a master of names, which are almost as descriptive as Chris Riddell's brilliant illustrations. The cast of quirky characters and the imaginative settings, along with some wonderously impossible inventions make for a great read. The all- illustrations epilogue wraps up the story in a very satisfying way.

Hugo Pepper and Cory Flood are the other two books in the series.