9.27.2008

The Giggler Treatment by Roddy Doyle, pictures by Brian Ajhar 111pp RL 3


This book is all over the place, and I mean that in the best possible way. I was very excited about this book when it first came out and I bought it eight years ago. Roddy Doyle is a fabulous award winning Irish author, his book The Commitments was made into a movie in the 1990s, who has written a handful of children's books. I know that Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler made digression in children's books popular and somewhat entertaining with his Series of Unfortunate Events books, the first of which was published a year before The Giggler Treatment, but I prefer Doyle's brand of digression for its humor and playfulness as opposed to Snicket's intellectualized, cynicism.

The basic plot of revolves around the Gigglers - little creatures who look after children by following them around and making sure that adults are treating them fairly. When children are treated unfairly, they exact revenge on the adults by giving them the Giggler Treatment, or, poo on the shoe, until they stop being mean to the child. The Gigglers obtain the dog poo, for which all dogs are paid, with their poo claw.

So, we are not huge fans of potty humor in this house. Captain Underpants made a very brief visit here when my daughter was seven or so and hasn't been seen since. However, I had (and have) no problem reading the word "poo" out loud over and over again when I read this book to my kids. Perhaps it is because I love all things that hail from Ireland and Great Britain, especially in the form of comedy, I found this book very entertaining. Doyle sprinkles the text with Irish-isms, even including a glossary, and makes the occasional digression to explain them and highlight any humor connected with them. We learned one of our favorite family terms from Doyle, and, although we don't have much occasion to say it now that we only have one bath taker left, all five of us delight in the term, "wet rudies," which I will leave to your imaginations or curiosity. Perhaps you will pick up the book just to find out...

Anyway, the Gigglers target one Mr. Mack, biscuit (cookie, to us) tester, who, for almost the whole book, is about to step in a pile of Giggler treatment. His punishment is in limbo because, it turns out that he only sent Robbie and Jimmy Mack to their rooms for one minute after they broke the kitchen window for the eighth time. When a Giggler is discovered in the Mack back yard waiting to do business with Rover, the Mack's dog, the whole horrible mix-up is discovered. The whole family, with baby Kayla bouncing along on Rover's back, rushes to save Mr Mack.

Every chapter has a different and increasingly hilarious heading, which is sometimes almost a story in and of itself. The illustrations by Brian Ajhar are reminiscent of the work of Chris Riddell, who's work with Paul Stewart I have reviewed in the past, as well as his own work, Ottoline and the Yellow Cat. This book is fun, a nice break from more serious works and a chance to sit around and laugh with your kids. It's one of those books that's a great read out loud but also a treasure to be read alone and repeat back to your parents...

If your kids enjoy The Giggler Treatment, check out the sequel, which is just as silly and has an all new glossary, The Meanwhile Adventures. There was also a holiday book, Rover Saves Christmas, that appears, sadly, to be out of print...



9.22.2008

The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman, 122pp RL 5


As you might have noticed, books written in the fantasy genre are my favorites, however, as I continue to choose books that I have loved and think are important for review, I am surprised by the number of works of historical fiction that are popping up. Among them, The Midwife's Apprentice is one of my favorites. Karen Cushman is remarkably skilled at evoking the colorful, dirty, smelly aspects of life in a medieval village and equally adept at creating strong female characters who face adversity and, through true trial and error, grow to meet their challenges.

The main character of The Midwife's Apprentice is a nameless, ageless and homeless girl, found sleeping in a dung pile for warmth when the story begins. Apprenticed by Jane Sharp, the self-interested, greedy village midwife, who renames her Beetle, after a dung beetle, she learns that midwifery is as much about hard work as it is tonics and spells. Used to being an outsider, Beetle watches the movements of those around her and is caught spying on the midwife's secret tryst with the married baker, which clues her in to the source of all the bread the midwife had been bringing home, but also lets her in for curses and punishment. When the midwife injures her leg, Beetle is sent to the St. Swithin's Day Fair to buy supplies. There, a merchant gives her a wooden comb to make her curls (curls she never knew she had) shine, the first thing she ever owned. Later that day, she acquires a proper name as well when she is mistaken for a girl named Alyce and decides that she is a person with individual qualities who should have the name of a person, not a bug.

Although it is a short book, much happens over the course of the story. Alyce makes a friend, helps a cow birth twin calves and helps the bailiff's wife with a breech birth when the midwife abandons her to help the lady of the manor, who pays in silver, through her labor. Alyce watches and learns from the midwife but also learns methods, such as yelling and slapping, that she does not want to adopt. When the bailiff's sister asks specifically for Alyce to deliver her child, Alyce she faces a challenge that she cannot meet and runs away in shame and sadness. She finds a job at a nearby inn and is taught to read and write by the local Magister. One day, Alyce overhears the midwife, who is visiting the inn, say that she didn't need an apprentice who gives up, she needs one who can try and risk and fail and try again and not give up. Babies don't stop being born and a midwife can quit trying to help them into this world. A well written turn of events leads Alyce back to the midwife's door, only to be turned away. But, remembering the words of the midwife, Alyce knocks on the door again and vows to do so until she is let in.

I am still amazed by how much content Cushman packs into this short novel. The character development of the nameless girl who becomes Alyce is amazing and, in the subtle way that I admire most, a wonderful example life's lessons is learned through her experiences. The affair between the baker and Jane Sharp takes up a few lines in the beginning of the book, and while it might concern some parents, I think it is written in a way that will go over most reader's heads. The scenes that involve childbirth are not graphic either, although Cushman does not hesitate to describe the moans and howls that (naturally) laboring women make. Understandably, this book isn't for every reader. However, it is so uniquely special and Alyce is such a strong, persevering character that she should not be missed.

If your child likes this, suggest Matilda Bone, by Karen Cushman, Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi. For older readers (12 and up) I suggest Sea of Trolls and the sequel, The Land of Silver Apples, by Nancy Farmer and, all by Cynthia Voigt, Elske, another all-time historical fiction favorite of mine, Jackaroo, and On Fortune's Wheel.

9.19.2008

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency story and pictures by Daniel Pinkwater 84pp RL3

Daniel Pinkwater is a very funny guy. He makes frequent appearances on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday to discuss children's books with the host Scott Simon. I have discovered many a great story time book thanks to Mr Pinkwater. Sometimes Pinkwater and Simon will even read the books out loud, which is great. And, of course, he has written over 100 children's books. If you never read another one of his books, please make sure you read his picture book Big Orange Splot. Otherwise, check out what he can do for a 266 pound chicken named Henrietta.

Arthur Bobowicz is sent out to find a turkey for the family's Thanksgiving dinner, even though no one really likes it. While he has no luck finding any poultry, he does find a card for Professor Mazzocchi, Inventor of the Chicken System. For a mere sixteen dollars he takes the enormous Henrietta home with him and promptly becomes enamored of her. Arthur's parents don't mind keeping her as a pet at first, but when she causes a neighborhood disturbance he is forced to return her. The Professor offers to trade her for a rectangular goldfish, another creation of his, but Arthur leaves sad and empty handed. The next day, the Henrietta is loose on the streets of Hoboken and the Professor is hightailing it out of town.

The citizens of Hoboken consider themselves terrorized and demand the mayor take action. He hires Anthony DePalma, Chicken Hunter from Henfanger, Florida, who deploys his sure fire chicken attractor, Frankie. Frankie, a robot chicken, made from styrofoam cups, a car battery and a black wig, looks suspiciously like Mr De Palma. When his trap attracts only a few cats, dogs and an old man named Meehan, he flees in the mayor's limousine. Next up is Dr Hsu Ting Feng, formerly the teacher of Mr DePalma. Dr Hsu's approach to chickens is a bit different and, when he insists that the whole city agree to love Henrietta rather than fear her, things turn around for everyone.

It's no wonder that Henrietta makes a guest appearance in Jon Scieszka's Time Warp Trio book Summer Reading is Killing Me. Pinkwater is clearly an influence on his writing, which is silly and antic and a little bit absurd. This book makes for a very fun read aloud, but is also a great book for boys who are just becoming solid readers.


The Shrinking of Treehorn by Florence Parry Heide, drawings by Edward Gorey 64 pp RL 3


I am a fan of Edward Gorey's and I remember when the Treehorn Trilogy was reissued in 2006, but didn't rush out to buy it since it was shelved in the Cartoonist/Humorist section of the bookstore and not the children's section. Sadly, it went out of print in the blink of an eye, which is too bad since the trilogy (which I bought used recently) is printed on gorgeous, thick paper, the quality of the illustrations is superb and, of course, it is small - a bit bigger and a bit thinner than a brick! I decided to hunt down the book and review it when it kept popping up on websites of kid's book authors I like and when I discovered that the first book, The Shrinking of Treehorn, is available in paperback.

Originally published in 1971, the adults in this book act and look the era. The jacket flap of the trilogy describes Treehorn as a clever but repeatedly ignored boy. While this might sound horrible, any of you who were kids in the 70s might remember that is was also a pretty good set up, being ignored by parents who had adult lives of their own. I know I got to do a lot of stuff I would never let my kids do today... Some of you may find this scenario disturbing, some may find if humorous, but what really matters is what kids think of it, and I think kids will enjoy it.

The Shrinking of Treehorn is at it's heart, a really simple story. Treehorn wakes up, realizes he is shrinking and gets no support and almost no concern from the adults in his life, from his parents to his teachers to the principle. By accident, Treehorn discovers that one of the many cereal-box giveaways that he loves to send off for is the reason for his diminishing size and he sets things back in order. His interactions with adults, their disinterestedness and the way they talk in circles, will be funny for older children. I'd say that this book reminds me most of Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz's Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, both for they way the illustrations make it evident when it was written and the way that the parents interact with the children. While Alexander's parents are a little bit more involved than Treehorn's, it still reminds me a bit of my own childhood.

9.17.2008

I Was a Rat! by Philip Pullman picutres by Kevin Hawkes 164pp RL 4

One of my favorite new genres in kid's books and in adult literature is the exploration of the back stories of already famous works. Gregory Maguire, most famous for Wicked, the life story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West from L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, has done the same for the stories of Snow White, Cinderella. Most recently, his book for kids, What the Dickens, follows the life of a rogue tooth fairy. In teen fiction, Frank Beddor is following in Maguire's footsteps with his series Looking Glass Wars. This series follows Alyss Heart as she is cast out of Wonderland at age ten by her vicious Aunt Redd, adopted into a new family, befriended by Lewis Carroll and, at age twenty, returns to Wonderland to battle her aunt.

Philip Pullman follows a similar path in his bookfor kid's published in 1999, I Was A Rat! The first page of the book is an article from the tabloid of the day, The Daily Scourge, detailing the Prince's new found love, Lady Aurelia Ashington. Pages from The Daily Scourge are scattered throughout the book, providing sensational perspectives on the story of the rat who was turned into a boy in order to serve on Mary Jane's (Princess Aurelia's/Cinderella's) (pumpkin) coach. The brilliance of Pullman's book is that he takes the story of the boy who was a rat and makes it part adventure as we follow him through the grimy streets of a London-like town where he is taken advantage of by a group of young boys who provide "removal service" to the wealthy, an opportunist showman, Professor Tapscrew, who declares him a freak and puts him on display, allowing the audience to feed him garbage for a small extra fee. And, Pullman makes it part philosophical exercise as the rat boy is captured and given a trial to determine whether he should be exterminated like a vermin or cared for like a human being. And, through all this, in true fairy tale fashion, he is cared for and loved by a childless old couple, a laundress and her cobbler husband, who try to do their best for him by sending him to school, then to an interview with the Royal Philosopher and end up chasing all over town in an effort to bring him back home.

This is a great book, both for its intelligence and humor. The word play is wonderful, especially the names of the characters. The rat boy's gradual understanding of the human world and how it functions, as well as the habits and yearnings he carries with him from his life as a rat are very entertaining. But, it is the excerpts from The Daily Scourge and the way they manipulate and influence the public as well as the over arching question of what makes us human, make this book unique among its peers.

If you and your kids enjoy picture books, check out Susan Meddaugh's take on the rat tale in Cinderella's Rat.

If your child enjoyed this book (and is a girl) suggest The Princess Tales by Gail Carson Levine, Volumes I and II, available in paperback. In hardcover, this same collection is sold in one volume as Fairy's Return and other Princess Tales. The author of the magnificent Ella Enchanted takes well known and obscure fairy tales and turns them on their heads. In this book, Cinderella appears as the boy who loves to invent things, Cinderellis with two mean brothers. If your child loves fairy tales this book is worth the cost of the hard cover edition.

9.13.2008

Poppleton by Cynthia Rylant, pictures by Mark Teague 48pp RL2

I always knew that Cynthia Rylant was a prolific writer, but I never realized how many books by her I had read until I began writing reviews. And, again, I get to review a book with pictures by another one of my favorite illustrators. Mark Teague, who may be best known for illustrating the "How Do Dinosaurs" books by Jane Yolen, is a wonderful picture book author/illustrator in his own right. However, my all-time favorites are the books he did with Audrey Wood, The Flying Dragon Room and Sweet Dream Pie. The stories and illustrations are brilliantly imaginative and perfectly creatively matched. Don't forget, picture books are still appealing to and great reads for 2nd and even 3rd grade readers. Just because they are shorter than a 70 page chapter book doesn't mean they aren't worth reading.



Poppleton is one of my all-time favorite characters, a pig I think I could be friends with. I would say his nearest literary relatives would have to be the inscrutable Frog and Toad, created by Arnold Lobel. While Frog and Toad play off each other, Poppleton can hold his own, despite his wonderful assortment of friends, Cherry Sue the llama, Filmore the goat and Hudson the mouse.

There are seven books in the series, each one having three chapters, although some of them are no longer in print. Each book begins with a map of the small town Poppleton lives in, and in every book the map and the characters on the map are different depending on the season. Most of the stories are about Poppleton and his relationships with his friends, although there are several about Poppleton and his habits and interests he pursues when he is alone. One of my favorite stories is "The Library," in which we follow Poppleton on his his weekly library visit which is always on Monday. We see him as he finds the right table, selects his books then unpacks his bag in preparation for a day of reading. He always brings his eyeglasses, his tissues, for sad stories, his lip balm, for dry parts, his pocket watch, and his book marker.

For economic reasons, buying beginning reader books isn't a good investment. Kids read them quickly and only a handful of times. However, kids are reading at this level for a period ranging from six months to a year, so you want to make sure they are interested in what they are reading and don't get burned out. Even though the word content is readability is of utmost importance during this stage, you don't always have to sacrifice a quality story and illustrations to meet those needs. The Poppleton books, along with all of Arnold Lobel's books, are great examples of interesting, thoughtful, entertaining stories in a beginning to read format. And that is the true sign of a gifted author - like a poet, they manage to convey a well crafted story with a minimum of words.

9.08.2008

Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess, Page transcribed by Richard Platt, illuminated by Chris Riddell 128 pp RL 3

Of course I was drawn to this book because of Chris Riddell's excellent illustrations, as well as the fact that my favorite kid's book publisher, Candlewick Press, released it. But, I discovered that, aside from being a really interesting read, it is unique among kid's chapter books. There are a handful of great books set during the medieval time period, Crispin by Avi, Matilda Bone, The Midwife's Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, Elske, Jackaroo and On Fortune's Wheel by Cynthia Voigt, and the superb Quest for a Maid by Francis Hendry, which could almost be a companion to Castle Diary, to name a few, but none that detail so intimately the daily life of a medieval child.

Tobias Burgess is eleven when, after two years of waiting, his mother finally agrees that he can spend the next twelvemonth as a page at the castle of his father's elder brother. The writing style is faux-medieval and there will be some names and words specific to the period that readers may have difficulty with, however, the abundance of pictures and diagrams make it appealing, and the book also includes notes for the reader and a glossary and index. In a privileged position because of his birth, Tobias does not participate in menial or hard labor, however he is expected to serve his aunt and is schooled along with the other pages and his young cousins. Over the course of a year he writes of his lessons, his punishments, including the finger pillory, riding on the hunt and learning longshanks (stilts.) He details a joust as well as the knighting of his cousin. He also writes of domestic issues, such as the baking of bread and the effect of a dry, hot summer on the garderobes (latrines) and the plight of a man caught poaching from his uncle's river. In August, Tobias falls ill and a physician is called in to bleed him. The book ends with a Christmas celebration and the arrival of Tobias' father to take him home.

This book will definitely appeal to fiction and non-fiction loving readers alike. There is enough of a story to keep the reader interested, but really the book is all about the depiction of life in medieval times. This book was originally published in a large, color, picture book format (see first illustration above) that suits Chris Riddell's illustrations perfectly. The smaller format is great because it now looks like a chapter book and will have greater appeal to kid's reading at this level. Also, this format knocks about $15 off the price. The downside to this is that the other book by Platt and Riddell, Pirate Diary: The Journal of Jake Carpenter is not available in this format. However, Pirate Diary is available in a picture book paperback size for $7.99. And, there is also Egyptian Diary: The Journal of Nahkt and Roman Diary, which are illustrated in a style very similar to Riddell's, by David Parkins, available only in the hardback, picture book format.
Roman Diary by Platt Platt: Book Cover


9.06.2008

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little by Peggy Gifford 92pp RL 3


*******polemic warning*******
*feel free to skip to the review*
This is a very difficult review for me to write because, while I love the title and subject of this book, I don't think I really like the book itself. In general, I do not like books that have precocious girls as the main characters. By precocious I mean girls with attitude. I appreciate the "girl power" and individuality and creativity that these girls possess, but their bossiness, big ideas, proclivity for trouble, and sometimes incorrect use of the English language rubs me the wrong way. I really want to like these books because I think that they are trying to speak to kids/girls on their own level about their own experiences. But ultimately, I think that the real life experiences of 8,9 and 10 year olds are on the whole pretty boring and not book worthy and the authors supplement this with antics that don't ring totally true for me. That being said, I feel awful revealing my true feelings because, while I dislike most of the books I highlighted in my Precocious Girls as Protagonists post, I know that millions of girls love these characters and consider them to be personal friends, and I know that these characters probably aren't the bad influences that I sneakingly suspect them of being and I absolutely DO NOT want to prevent a book from making it's way into a child's hand if it means the child will actually read it and be a book lover someday. I know, I know, sometimes you can and should read for fun, it doesn't always have to be high minded literature with a capital L that one reads. And, really, the only real danger in letting your daughter read one of these books is if the series turns into a 30 book juggernaut like the Junie B Jones Series and you are stuck with a 5th grader who still wants to read 2nd grade level books, which is rare. So, please take what I say with a grain of salt and, if you have any concerns about the influences a character in a book might have on your daughter, I strongly suggest you read the book first. But I think you should try to read most of what your kids read anyway...

****
With Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little, Peggy Gifford mines a very rich vein when it comes to character flaws - procrastination. Moxy is nine and going to enter fouth grade on August 24. The book takes place on August 23rd as she attempts to finish Stuart Little, her assigned summer reading. The story follows Moxy as she procrastinates her way through the day, despite the consequences her mother has outlined for her, culminating with missing the Great Daisy Routine that she and seven other girls are performing at the "End of the Summer Splash" at the community pool. Her avoidance, along with her increasingly crazy ideas and plans, escalates as the hours pass. She is joined by as cast of characters that includes her twin brother Mark, who is teaching himself photography (having read Stuart Little on the first day of vacation) and his pictures of the events of the day are scattered throughout the book. There is also little sister Pansy, best friend/neighbor/minion to Moxy, the six year old Sam, as well as the dogs Rosie and Mudd.

As a parent, I admire Gifford's depiction of Moxy's mother. I found her to be very human as she struggled with disciplining, threatening and cajoling this child into reading the book. The photo of Martha Maxwell after discovering the destruction of her prized dahlia garden due to one of Moxy's schemes and delegation of the work to others is very read lookling. I am sure I've seen this woman at the grocery store or out infront of the school. I found Moxy to be sometimes funny and sometimes over the top. Her relationship with Sam and the way he did whatever she told him to, while also keeping track of her, and the fact that he was only six was a little strange to me. Also, it really bothered me that, as a nine year old, Moxy had a cell phone that she used for things other than emergencies. Aside from the photographs of documenting Moxy's day, which are pretty unique in the world of chapter books, are the chapters themselves. Each one is titled and no more than 3 -4 pages long, sometimes only one page, and the titles are often repeated in the first lines of the chapter. Chpater 7, which is titled, "In Which Moxy's Mother Says No," consists of the word, "No." This is entertaining for a while, but it got old pretty fast for me.

This series continues with Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Writing Thank-you Notes and will soon be joined by Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love PRacticing the Piano.

9.03.2008

The Invention of Hugo Cabret written and illustrated by Brain Selznick 533pp RL4



Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a groundbreaking children's book for so many reasons. It is the fist chapterbook to ever win the Caldecott Medal which recognizes children's picture books for achievements in illustration. Selznick, who also won a Caldecott Honor Award for illustrating the non-fiction picture book, The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, won this award because this is, in a sense, truly a picture book at heart. Over half the pages are full-page, double spread illustrations, some of which go on for eight or more pages at a time. The nature of the illustrations suit the subject of the book perfectly, which ultimately is the lifework of the French filmaker, Georges Melies, who made the first ever science fiction film, A Trip to the Moon, which you can watch on Brian Selznick's website. As you follow the illustrations, chunks of which are interspersed with the text, your eye follows the pictures like a camera panning across a movie set and the story unfolds, both visually and texturally.

How the story that begins with Hugo, orphan, theif and clock keeper living behind the walls of a Paris train station, and ends up with the resurrection of the career of Melies is part of the magic of Selznick's story telling. Hugo, abused and overworked by the irresponsible uncle who looks after him, spends all of his spare time trying to mend an automaton, a kind of clock-work mechanical moving doll, that his father, an horologist, died while trying to restore. Through a series of coincidences and accidents, Hugo finds people who can help him and learns more about the mystery of the automaton while also making friends, learning to trust people again and ultimately finding a new home, a new family and a new passion.




There is quite a bit of esoteric historical information about George Melies and the work that he did woven into the story, which makes is even more interesting knowing, as with Selznick's,The Houdini Boxthat the story is a fictionalized account of the lives of real figures from history. The last two lines of the book are my favorites, maybe in all of children's literature, "In that moment, the machinery of the world lined up. Somewhere a clock struck midnight, and Hugo's future seemed to fall perfectly in place." This sentence can also be used to describe the seemingly disparate ideas, characters and plots that fall into place to make up the wonderous, wonderful book that is The Invention of Hugo Cabret.


And, as of April 2010, it seems as though Martin Scorsese will be bringing The Invention of Hugo Cabret to the big screen in 3D this December!



The Firework-Maker's Daughter by Philip Pullman, illustrations by S. Saelig Gallagher 97pp RL 4


Philip Pullman is best known for his trilogy, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, three of the finest books written for children, fantasy or otherwise. But he is also the author of several other books, including the entertaining Sally Lockhart Series for teens, set in 1872 London, and this wonderful fairy tale-like gem.

"A thousand miles ago, in a country east of the jungle and south of the mountains, there lived a firework-maker called Lalchand and his daughter, Lila," is how the story begins. Motherless, Lila grows up in her father's workshop and naturally learns his trade. But, when she wants to learn his art and be considered an equal, she is met with her father's dismay. Despite her skill and talent, he had always assumed that she would marry when she came of age. Pullman writes, "Each of them had quite the wrong idea about things, and they were both alarmed to find it out." Furious with her father, Lila seeks the company of her friend Chulak, who is the personal servant of the King's white elephant, Hamlet. Hamlet also happens to be able to speak, but only for Chulak and Lila. It is Chulak who leads Lalchand to tell him the final secret of firework-making that Lila so desperately wants to know.

Through trickery and misfortune, Lila, Chulak and Lalchand all end up in very dangerous circumstances. Along the way they encounter a very funny pirate king, taxi boat driver, chicken farmer, restauranteur, minstrel, named Rambashi, who also turns out to be Chulak's Uncle. They also come face to face with a benevolent Goddess of the Lake and her cousin, Razvani the great fire-fiend. The story culminates with a fireworks competition that could cost Lalchand his life. Pitted against Dr. Puffenflasch, Signor Scorcini and Colonel Sparkington, Lila is not hopeful. But she and Lalchand work tirelessly to prepare and invent a few new fireworks that just might help them to win.

Pullman does well in creating strong, intelligent, fearless female characters in his books and Lila is no exception. The descriptions of the landscape of "a thousand miles ago" are rich with detail and a few British phrases and words thrown in here and there for a touch of colonialism. If your child likes this book, suggest Scarecrow and His Servant and Count Karlstein by Philip Pullman. They are both about 60 pages longer than The Firework-Maker's Daughter, but worth it.

Here is cover art for other versions of this book, which has also been adapted for the stage!

The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman, illustrations by Peter Sis 88pp RL3

"The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat. Not even black cats would cross his path," is how the Newbery Winner, The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman, begins. If this doesn't catch your child's attention, I'm not sure what will.

Jemmy, the whipping boy of the title, receives the corporal punishment meant for Prince Horace, since it not permitted to strike a royal. But, Jemmy never howls when he is hit and the Prince is furious and continually threatens to send Jemmy back to the streets in the rags he came in with. Instead, after a year, the Prince runs away and forces Jemmy to come along as his manservant. Almost immediately, they are captured by the ruffians Hold-Your-Nose-Billy and Cutwater. The prince stupidly reveals his true identity, and blunders into further trouble when he is forced to write his own ransom note and cannot even spell his name. The ruffians begin to suspect that Jemmy, who can write, is the real Prince Horace and the ignorant fellow is the whipping boy. Jemmy writes the note and the scoundrels proposes they send Prince Horace/the whipping boy, to the castle to deliver the note.

Thinking that this will allow him to be free of Prince Horace, who, by all rights should be pleased to flee the kidnappers and return to the castle, Jemmy is surprised when the Prince will not play along, and even betrays him as he tries to escape. But, escape they do. They meet Betsey, a girl with a dancing bear named Petunia and hitch a ride from Captain Harry Nips, Hot-Potato Man before they are captured once again. The ruffians proceed to punish the whipping boy - Prince Horace - for their escape and Jemmy looks on as the Prince takes his blows in stony silence.

The boys make it to the nearest town where they enjoy the fair and learn that their disappearance has become news. Jemmy and the Prince decide to hide in the sewers where Jemmy used to catch rats to sell and are almost captured by the brutes one last time. After escaping into the daylight, the Prince decides it is time for both of them to return to the castle, despite the fact that the king thinks Jemmy kidnapped the Prince and there is a reward out on his head. Doing the first kind thing ever in his life, Prince Brat convinces Captain Harry and Betsey to return him to the castle and collect the reward. Once there, all is set to right without even one whipping.

Sid Fleischman is a great, diverse writer, often tackling different aspects of history. This is a superb book for its humor and plot as well as its length - it is one of the better books under 100 pages out there and it should appeal to boys and girls.

9.02.2008

The Houdini Box, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick 53pp RL3

I have two say two things right now: Everything Brian Selznick has ever done, especially when he writes and illustrates, fascinates me and I do not understand the allure of Harry Houdini. Despite this and because of it, I love this, Brian Selznick's first book, which is really a long picture book and not a chapter book, but don't tell your kids that.

Despite my lack of interest in Harry Houdini, Brian Selznick's book has a magic, both in the illustrations and the text. And I don't mean wizards and witches kind of magic, or fairies and elves magic, I mean real magic, the magic of childhood. Selznick takes some facts about the man who was Harry Houdini, his given name, the date of his death, the fact that he had once said that on his 100th birthday a box would be opened revealing all of his secrets, and weaves them into a spellbinding story of hopes and dreams and drive and disappointment.

The book begins with a page of information about Houdini, the magician and a wonderful illustration of the man himself. Selznick posits that, in addition to all the adults who were wonderstruck by the magician, children loved him best of all because children want to be able to escape from punishments and make both dinners and parents disappear from time to time.

He goes on to tell the story, with a full page illustration accompanying each page of text, of Victor, who is ten in 1926, and his relentless efforts to perform feats like Houdini. When a chance encounter in a train station puts him face to face with the man, he receives a promise from Houdini that a letter will arrive and he will reveal all of his secrets to Victor. The letter finally arrives, and it is an invitation to visit the master in his home. Victor leaves right away, forgetting entirely that it is Halloween, not even caring about the candy he is missing. When he arrives at Houdini's house, he is met by the beautifully sad face of Beatrice Houdini. It seems that Harry Houdini has died that very day. When Victor explains who he is, she runs upstairs and returns with a box for him.

Victor runs home excitedly, but is dismayed when he sees that the box has the initials E.W. carved on it, rather than H.H. Victor assumes that there must be a mistake and buries the box in a closet and does not think about Houdini again for years. The twist at the end of the book is both bittersweet and surprising, like all good books.

If you don't know Brian Selznick's by name at this point, I am sure you have seen his work and just didn't realize it. He has illustrated numerous book covers, including all of Andrew Clements, as well as The Doll People Trilogy by Ann Martin and Laura Godwin. And, in a first ever feat, his 533 page book, over 200 of which are illustration, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, won the Caldecott Award for excellence in children's book illustration, the first time a chapter and not a picture book has ever done so. His black and white sketches are both realistic and magical, much in the way Chris Van Allsburg's are. They depict a sparse but precise reality and then some, and have a simple way of drawing the reader into the storyand bringing the characters to life instantly.

The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires, illustrated by Claire A Nivola 64pp RL4


This the kind I loved as a child - a book that had creative female characters who lived and learned by their passion, whether it was writing, painting, dancing or fishing. I always loved a character with a sense of purpose and drive, and both Emily and Emmaline of The Mouse of Amherst have drive. Although this is a very short book with poems and line drawings scattered throughout, it is perfectly appropriate, one of the main characters being Emily Dickinson, author of 1, 789 short poems.

The reading level is high due to some of the vocabulary and the comprehensive ability needed to appreciate the poetry of Emily Dickinson that is woven into the plot of the story.

The other main character of the story, Emmaline, is a mouse who takes up residence in the Dickinson home. Her language is straightforward and practical, as befits the time period and the New England setting. Emmaline travels light and does not have much to unpack when she moves into her room behind the baseboards of Emily's room. For Emmaline, her stay at the Dickinson home will be one of self discovery and growth as she watches Emily craft her poetry and face joys and disappointments. We also get a brief sketch of Emily Dickinson's sister, Lavinia, who herself never married, and ran the Dickinson household which also included the sisters' mother and father.

Inspired by a scrap of a poem she has the chance to read, Emmaline begins to write her own poetry and share it with Emily. The two find they are kindred spirits, and the character of the mouse Emmaline serves perfectly as a surrogate for the poet Emily. The small life of Emmaline helps to illustrate the circumscribed life of Emily and illuminates her poetry at the same time.

The poems by Dickinson that are used in the book are accessible to children and the response poems that Emmaline writes are even more accesible. There are a few pages of historical information at the back of the book that readers will find very interesting, especially if they know nothing of Emily Dickinson and the kind of life led by middle class unmarried women in the 1800s. Honestly, this book probably will be of interest to girls only, same with the poetry and life of Emily Dickinson. However, this is no reason not to use this book to introduce the works of a great American Woman Poet to your children.

If your child likes this book, suggest Emily by Michael Bedard, illustrated by Barbara Cooney. Although a picture book, the text is only slightly less than in The Mouse of Amherst, however, the fictionalized encounter between Emily Dickinson and a young neighbor is told with beautiful prose that echoes the poetry of Dickinson. And, as always, Barbara Cooney's illustrations are magnificent.


9.01.2008

BIlly the Bird by Dick King-Smith, 67 pages, RL 2

Sadly, Billy the Bird is no longer in print, but there is a good chance your library will have it since Dick King-Smith, author of Waterhorse and Babe, the Gallant Pig, is well known and prolific, many of his books coming in at under 100 pages. It is such a short and sweet story with a boy as the main character that I will review it anyway. If you can't find this book, please do seek out other Dick King-Smith, all of which involves great animal characters in one way or another.

Mary Bird is eight the summer she discovers her four-year-old brother Billy can fly under the light of a full moon. As Mary says, "he wasn't walking in his sleep, he was floating in it!" After consulting her guinea pig, Mr Keylock, and her cat Lilyleaf, both of whom can talk, Mary figures out when the next full moon will occur and their adventures begin. Billy is mistaken for a UFO and thwarts a cat burglar before a lunar eclipse ends his flying days. The cozy illustrations are a great addition to the story.

If your child likes Billy the Bird, suggest Flat Stanley.


My Father's Dragon Trilogy by Ruth Stiles Gannet, illustrations by Ruth Chrisman Gannett 80pp RL3




















Begun in 1948, Ruth Stiles Gannett's trilogy of books includes, My Father's Dragon, a Newbery Honor book, Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland. As with all books I love, these have a map on the end papers.



























The book begins with the adventurous Elmer Elevator, who yearns to fly, learns (from a wet cat, no less) that there just might be a way to make this happen. The cat tells Elmer of a group of islands, one of which has a captive baby dragon named Boris who is forced to ferry the lazy animals back and forth across the island. Incensed and captivated, Elmer stows away in a bag of cranberries and makes his way to wild island. Elmer uses the contents of his knapsack to get him out of some tight spots, but manages to escape on the back of Boris in the end.


The escapades of the flying duo continue in Elmer and the Dragon as they try to find their way back to Elmer's home in Nevergreen City. After being caught in a storm, they land on a deserted island only to meet Flute, the canary, who enlists Elmer and Boris to help retrieve a treasure, the secret contents of which have been plaguing King Can IX , king of the canaries, and his subjects. After celebrating the discovery, Boris flies Elmer home to his worried parents then sets off to find his own family.


In The Dragons of Blueland, Elmer encounters dangerous humans as he searches for his mother, who is trapped in her cave by hunters, determined to capture dragons for profit. Boris manages to escape unseen and returns to Nevergreen city to ask for the help of his friend Elmer. Along with a steam shovel and a long list of supplies, including horns, Elmer and Boris scare away the hunters and reunite the dragons.


These books have gentle illustrations, the depictions of the animals and dragons being more detailed than those of the humans, as well as simple but evocative descriptions of the terrain and the foods encountered throughout the stories. The vocabulary and plot are simple, making this trilogy a perfect chapter book for a new reader.