The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin, 215 pp, RL 4

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin, a puzzlemaster who's work is often seen in the pages of the New York Times, is a very unique book indeed.  On the surface, it's not too different from a Hardy Boys mystery, but just crack the spine and you'll see how special it is.  Berlin has included eighteen puzzles (and their solutions) within the book, weaving them into the plot in many different ways.  By my best guess, I think that a 10 year old child with a bit of experience at puzzling can work these out alone.  Younger children or those without puzzling experience will most likely need help from an adult. I know I did. The puzzles range from pattern puzzles (wrapping paper and pizza toppings) to number puzzles (1111121 - turn this sequence of numbers into a correct equation using any math symbols you like) and, of course, word puzzles.  There are word scrambles, word finds and a couple of variations on crossword puzzles.  Some of the puzzles are made up by Winston and his friends, some are given to him by his math teacher, a curio shop owner and Winston's college-age cousin, as well as the puzzles that are part of the mystery in the book.  The puzzles can be solved by writing in the book, but Mr Berlin has graciously included downloads of the puzzles from both books on his website so kids (and adults) can work them outside of the book.  Click here for the downloads.  I could not help thinking of Ellen Raskin's Newbery winner and childhood favorite of mine, The Westing Game, but with less detailed characters and more detailed puzzles!  There's no one like Sydelle Pulaski in this book, but Berlin's puzzles out puzzle Sam Westing's any day.  Main character Winston Breen is a master puzzle solver (and creator) and it is this skill that ultimately proves dangerous for him and his family.

Set in the charming, planned community of Glenville - there is a map at the start of the book - the characters experience a sense of freedom that is a bit of a throwback to the 1950s but also completely necessary in most kid's books, a mystery especially. The story begins with the tenth birthday of Katie, Winston's little sister. Winston has given her a carved wooden box that he bought at Penrose's Curio Shop in town.  Winston loves walking up and down the aisles of the store which are filled with antiques and remnants from estate sales, but he loves swapping puzzles with Mr Penrose even more.  Starting with word searches as a six year old, the progressing on to crossword puzzles and other mind benders, Winston sees puzzles (and solves puzzles) in everything, even the patter on a piece of wrapping paper.  When Katie discovers that the box, which came from the estate of Livia Fredericks, the elderly daughter of Walter Fredericks, founder and planner of Glenville, has a false bottom, the mystery begins.  Four pieces of wood with words engraved on them prove to be the start of a treasure hunt that turns dangerous pretty quickly.

As the story unfolds, Winston, Mal, Jake and Katie learn that Mrs Lewis, the town librarian, is the last living descendant of Walter Fredericks, a puzzle lover who left behind one last puzzle that he hoped would bring his four squabbling children together after his death - which was over 25 years ago.  Mrs Lewis is also in possession of four puzzle pieces but, after being harassed by treasure hunters and an unknown burglar who is making threatening phone calls, the sight of Winston and his (and Katie's) puzzle pieces sends her over the edge.  This outburst also brings two other treasure hunters out of the woodwork.  The two remaining sets of puzzle pieces are now in the possession of David North and Mickey Glowacka, both unsavory in their own ways, and each man approaches Winston separately about combining resources and working together on the puzzle before Winston even knows that the pieces are clues to a hidden treasure.  Once she has calmed down, Mrs Lewis and her neighbor Ray Marietta, a retired police officer who is very protective of Mrs Lewis, meet with Winston to explain the history of the pieces and share their plan for working together, all four holders of the clues, to solve the mystery.

Hoping they can get to the bottom of the puzzle in one day, the group meets at the library and quickly begins to solve the puzzle, Winston doing the bulk of the work.  The first set of clues leaves to another set, which is in the possession of Mr Rosetti, long time proprietor of the sole pizza parlor in Glenville.  This set of clues leads to another long time resident of Glenville, but this is where steam runs out for the group.  The next holder of the third set of clues only has three envelopes to pass on and three is not enough to lead to the location of the treasure.  Deflated and defeated, Winston and Katie return home to join their mother for dinner.  However, things take a serious turn when people involved with the treasure hunt turn out to be not quite who they say they are and  they take Winston hostage in an attempt to get the treasure for themselves.  The climax is heart stopping at times and wholly believable and the resolution to the mystery is satisfying.  

The puzzles in the book are spaced evenly throughout the story and represent a wide range of challenges, from word based puzzles to number puzzles to pattern puzzles and even a few riddles here and there.  I think that the love of puzzles is most often passed from parent to child.  My husband grew up in a household where his mother and grandmother did the Sunday (which is the hardest) New York Times crossword puzzle in ink, calling each other occasionally when they needed help with a clue.  Subsequently, my husband and his sister love crosswords and even the occasional sudoku or ken ken.  Inspired, I give the Monday and Tuesday NYTimes puzzles a crack when I have the free time, but Wednesday is always a struggle for me.  My daughter and son, however, will try any puzzle - word or number - and I hope they keeps this up.  Whether a child is a puzzle lover or not, The Puzzling World of Winston Breen is a plain old great mystery.  But, this book is also a wonderful opportunity to engage with your child as s/he comes upon the puzzles in the story and try to work them out together.  Puzzling is always more fun when someone is working right alongside you!

Don't miss books 2 & 3, also in paperback!

Readers who enjoyed this book might also like these books, all of which have been reviewed here:

The Brixton Bothers Series by Mac Barnett
The Enola Holmes Series by Nancy Springer
Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach
Blue Balliet's Art Mystery Books
and, of course, The Westing Game!


The Lighthouse Family Series by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Preston McDaniels, 57pp RL 1.5

The Lighthouse Family series of books was among the first that I reviewed when I started my blog in August of 2008.  As much as I loved the books, I reviewed them a bit reluctantly because they weren't all in paperback at the time and it seemed as though they might go out of print, even though Cynthia Rylant (Henry and Mudge, Mr Putter and Tabby, Missing May)is the winner of multiple Newbery and Caldecott awards and honors.  However, I was THRILLED to see a copy of The Eagle show up on my cart of books to be shelved the other day and, after a quick check to make sure the series is still all in print and in paperback, I decided to re-post the review.

Cynthia Rylant's experience and skill show in her series The Lighthouse Family Series. Despite being only 57 pages, a good number of which have illustrations, often full page, Rylant creates a detailed world, rich with images and vocabulary that is also gentle and slow paced. While these books all have exciting events in them, the suspense level is low and the quiet care and concern that the parental figures in the story provide is cozy and complete. Preston McDaniels' warm, cloud-like illustrations enrich the writing wonderfully. The Lighthouse Family series and the Catwings Quartet by Ursula le Guin make up two of the most imaginative, well written, beautifully illustrated sets of books written at this reading level (which is high first grade) that I have encountered.

The Lighthouse Family is made up of Pandora, the lighthouse cat, Seabold, a sheep dog who washed ashore, and three orphaned mice children named Whistler, Lila and Baby Tiny and each book centers around a different creature that the family interacts with. These names may be difficult for some readers, as will some of the vocabulary (biscuit, tentacle, practicing, assumed) but it is writing like this that can stretch a reader's ability and imagination. And the writing is beautiful. At the start of the book The Octopus, the family is out in the garden where Whistler is making a bean trellis in the shape of a cat, which "delights Pandora." Baby Tiny is finally big enough to play in the garden, however, worried that a strong gust of wind might blow him away, Seabold ties him to the clothesline. Lila is making beetle houses out of piles of rocks and Pandora gathers herbs, walking through her garden with "an apron of mint."

These books are a delight to read out loud and, with their gentle themes, make for perfect bedtime stories. Despite the reading level I gave the books, I think The Lighthouse Family series might be a struggle for a child who is not reading at a solid second grade reading level.  And, I would hate to think of a young reader missing out on the beauty of the language and plot in these books while struggling with the vocabulary.  I hope you will seek out these books to read to your children or for them to read on their own.


Just Had to Share This...

Thanks to Travis over at 100 Scope Notes for sharing this amazing site on his blog  - along with the possibility of a real version of Willy Wonka's "Three Course Meal Gum".  Featured on FastCoDesign, the D'Espresso coffee shop in NYC, located a block from the public library and designed by Anurag Nema and his team at nemaworkshop is an incredible, mind bending homage to its neighbor.

The floors, walls and ceilings are covered in tiles that have been printed with sepia toned photos of bookshelves at a local travel bookstore.  The walls are covered in a dark-wood herringbone pattern that looks like a typical floor covering.  And the lighting is affixed horizontally, as if it is hanging from the "ceiling" of this upended library!


Ant and Honey Bee: A Pair of Friends at Halloween written by Megan McDonald, illustrated by G Brian Karas, 48 pp, RL 1.5

Ant and Honey Bee:  A Pair of Friends at Halloween, written by Megan McDonald of Judy Moody, Stink and Sisters Club (all series) and illustrated by  G Brian Karas was originally released in 2005.  The cover has been revamped and and the title has been changed from Ant and Honey Bee:  What a Pair to better reflect the holiday theme of the story. G Brian Karas has illustrated over 90 picture books and I am sure that his work is familiar to most of you.  His illustrations are often cartoon-like but also painterly and his color palette is often quiet and warm, the perfect mix for a playful story.

Halloween is only a few hours away and Ant does not want to be a pilgrim for the third year in a row.  Ant is full of ideas and Honey Bee, content to be a pilgrim again, lets Ant spin her wheels. Ant decides that the two should be a pair of something.  Honey Bee, thinking Ant meant the fruit, suggests Ant be the stem.  

After sorting through several ideas, all of which are wonderfully illustrated, Ant settles on a washer and dryer and begins cutting up cardboard boxes.

Pleased with their costumes, the two friends head out into the night where their costumes are misinterpreted, despite Ant and Honey Bee's excellent skills at acting like a washer and dryer.  Finally, with  their costumes ruined after being rained on and no good candy in their sacks, the friends arrive at Cricket's house a bit down and looking very different from when they set out. 

Cricket answers the door with a huge bag of honey drops in hand, wondering what the two have dressed up as.  The two look at each other and smile.  "She's a - BEEHIVE!" answers Ant.  "And she's an ANTHILL!" answers Honey Bee.  Cricket answers, "Creative! You make a perfect pair!"

Ant and Honey Bee:  A Pair of Friends at Halloween presents readers with yet another winning set of beginning reader buddies.  As always, the different personalities balance each other out.  And, while Ant and Honey Bee do not have the friction between them that some other pairs have, they make for a great read. Although the book is in chapters, it can be read from cover to cover at story time or bed time and finished before eyelids start drooping - the reader's or the listener's!


Half-Minute Horrors, edited by Susan Rich, 131pp. RL 4

Half-Minute Horrors, edited by Susan Rich, is a compilation of over 70 snippets of creepy, gruesome, ghoulish, spine tingling fun with a website the encourages readers to submit their scary stories. I wish I could list every contributor here, but it would take up the whole review. Authors and illustrators are all listed on the back of the jacket and in the brilliant index that lists page numbers for both authors and themes. Everything from animals, basements, beds (under and around) and betrayal to zombies, water, summer camp and siblings has an entry. Best of all, this book is published in partnership with First Book, an organization that provides new books to children in need, addressing one of the most important factors affecting literacy: access to books.

Besides the short stories, including Jenny Nimmo's two sentence entry, "Soup," there are poems, haikus (or "Horroku," as Katherine Applegate titles it) and cartoons. Contributing authors and illustrators include award winning children's literature greats, such as Jerry Spinnelli, MT Anderson, Jon Scieszka and Gail Carson Levine and illustrators like Brian Selznick, Lemony Snicket, Lane Smith Cason Ellis, Brett Helquist, Vladimir Radunsky, Adam Rex and, my favorite among favorites, the three panel cartoon, "The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, as novel as told by Lisa Brown in Fewer than 30 Seconds," which had me laughing out loud. Contributing writers from the world of adult literature, some of whom have crossed over into kid lit once or twice before, include Neil Gaiman, James Patterson, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Francine Prose, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Connelley.

As the title suggests, there are indeed horrific acts and imagery that occur in this book and it obviously is not for the younger, more easily upset readers. Again and again, I felt a bit like I was re-reading the opening to Neil Gaiman's magnificent Newbery winner, The Graveyard Book in which a family is murdered by a knife wielding, supernatural being. Several of the stories have children as the protagonists, which by nature makes them children in peril. However, one of my favorite stories by Kenneth Oppel, author of the wonderful series of books about Shade, the Silverwing bat, is titled, "In Hiding," and is told from the perspective of a son and his father who are waiting silently in a tight, dark space. Are they waiting for a menace to leave without finding them or are they the menace? There are more than a few stories in the collection that make you go back and read them again, trying to unravel the mystery of the tale. Fortunately, it only takes a minute or two to do this!

For parents who would like to preview some of the book, the first 19 pages can be read on the website. You will be treated to stories by Lemony Snicket, Jerry Spinelli and Neil Gaiman as well as the brilliant, one page picture/story by Jon Klassen titled, "The Legend of Alexandra and Rose." The "legend" of the title refers to the map legend in the lower left hand corner of the picture which, with its numbers marking spots on the illustration, tells the story of the sisters and their fight for the best bedroom....


Scream Street Series by Tommy Donbavand, illustrated by Cartoon Saloon, 116 pages

I have to confess, I probably would not have even given this series a second look if it had not been close to Halloween. But, having read the first two books in the Scream Street series, I'm glad I did. While the series name and titles of British author Tommy Donbavand's books (the first two in the series have just released in the States) sound a bit gruesome, the plots rarely are. As Donbavand says of his books, "Imagine if Stephen King had written Scooby Doo," and this definitely rings true. While the blood, fangs and rotting flesh are present but low key, the books are rich with imaginative details and humorous twists on otherwise gory subject matter. When I was a kid, horror stories were the province of adult novels, which Donbavand ended up reading as a kid in order to feed his interests. I was fascinated by ghosts and witches, but their stories made up a small fraction of the books on the shelf in my elementary school library. The great John Bellairs, author of The House with the Clock in its Walls, among many other great gothic novels for young readers, dominated my experience of the supernatural as a child. Even horror movies were not as plentiful when I was a kid. Because of this, I never really developed an appreciation for the genre and it has not been a part of my children's lives. However, vampires, werewolves and mummies are a pretty large part of the current young adult/teen literary world and can no longer be ignored. Also, I think that it is a fairly normal part of childhood to be fascinated by myths, legends and creatures that hover on the edge of reality. Most people, in general, like the thrill of a good scare from time to time, be it from a roller coaster or a suspenseful book or movie, and I think kids crave this as well.

Tommy Donbavand's Scream Street has a very creative premise and, as the plot unfolded in books one and two, I found myself reminded of Michael Buckley's excellent series, Sisters Grimm. Written at approximately a third grade reading level, this series fills a relatively empty niche. For some reason, the bulk of books on the shelf seem to jump from second grade Magic Tree House type books to fourth grade reading level and higher books of 300 pages an more, like the Sisters Grimm series. Scream Street, along with Cornelia Funke's Ghosthunters series and Angie Sage's Araminta Spookie books, make up a tidy triumvirate of creepy, spine tingling stories at this reading level. Scream Street, which is illustrated by the Lilly Bernard of the Irish artistic collective Cartoon Saloon, introduces us to the unusual cast of characters, all of whom are depicted in a "Meet the Residents" picture gallery at the front of each book.

In the first pages of book 1, Fang of the Vampire, the main character, Luke Watson, finds himself and his parents packed up, knocked out and shipped off to a new home on Scream Street by purple clad, masked members of G.H.O.U.L. G.H.O.U.L., which Luke later learns stands for Government Housing of Unusual Lifeforms, has discovered that, ever since his tenth birthday a few months back, Luke has begun to transform into a werewolf, albeit only partially, when he gets angry. Because of this, he and his family are forcibly moved onto the reservation for the un-dead and other assorted creepies. Once there, he and his parents suffer a poltergeist attack as well as a visit from their vampire neighbors, Alston, Bella and Resus Negative. Both incidents seem to be equally upsetting to Mr and Mrs Watson and Luke quickly realizes that his parents have to leave Scream Street soon or possibly be scared to death. Luke quickly befriends Resus, who is actually a "normal" who dyes his hair black and wears fake fangs so that he can fit in with his family and neighbors, and the Egyptian mummy, Cleo Farr, who has almost no pain threshold, perhaps because, as she is fond of pointing out, most of her organs are stored in a jar. Cleo is quite a kick and I look forward to more from her as the series progresses and all the characters, really. Despite the reading level and length of this book, I felt that Donbavand did an excellent job giving depth and humor to Luke, Cleo and Resus. The emotions experienced by Luke when he realizes his parents can't cope with where his condition has taken them and the sense of responsibility that he feels are palpable and purposeful, as are the emotions and the embarrassment of being the "black sheep" in the neighborhood that Resus experiences.

Although the inhabitants of Scream Street are unable to leave due to a spell placed on the neighborhood, Luke, Resus and Cleo learn that Samuel Skipstone, one of the original inhabitants, wrote a book (that he then confined his soul to, upon his death, so that he could continue the research that he loved as well as imbuing the book with magical properties, including the ability to talk and generate 3-dimensional, talking illustrations/ghosts) with the keys to opening a back to the normal world. Luke, Cleo and Resus steal the book from Sir Otto Sneer and his shape-shifting nephew, Dixon. Sneer is the tyrannical overseer of Scream Street who is gradually taking away all of the comforts of the residents, from their personal belongings to their electricity. The three learn what they need to do to open the doorway, which includes finding artifacts from all six of the founding fathers and mothers of Scream Street, and the quest begins. Donbavand has added some very clever and amusing twists to the books. Resus, even though he is not a real vampire, has a magical cape that seems to contain almost all of the things the three need in their adventures. He has also conjured up an unruly gang of goblins who work for Sneer. Led by Squiffer, their greatest defense (and ultimate downfall, thanks to a small, enclosed room and a torch that Resus pulls from his cape) is the noxious, green gas that they expel from their goblin bums. There are faucets that deliver blood to the homes of the vampires (where the blood comes from is too gross to explain) and swarms of vampire rats in the sewers. There are also some very funny and intriguing supporting characters. Although at times it sounds like he is channeling the laid-back turtle dad from Finding Nemo, Doug, the giggling zombie, is hilarious. He pops up from the ground, all scabby and oozing, and says things like, "Far out, little vampire dude!" and will do almost anything for a brain smoothie or spinal fluid. Eefa Everwell, proprietor of Everwell's Emporium, is an enchantingly beautiful witch (due to a spell she cast) who does what she can to help the three emerge victorious. Finally, there is Dixon, the sycophantic nephew and toady to Sir Otto Sneer. His shape shifting ability makes for some surprises and scares for Luke, Resus and Cleo as well as some funny bits.

If your child begs you to read something creepy and a little bit gory, I think that this humorous, inventive, well written series is the one to choose. And, if your kids enjoy it, there are short stories to be read on the Scream Street website. There will be 13 books in this series (naturally)

Scream Street 6: Claw of the Werewolf

Scream Street 5: Skull of the SkeletonScream Street 7: Invasion of the NormalsScream Street 8: Attack of the Trolls


Ghosthunters and the Incredibly Revolting Ghost by Cornelia Funke, 120 pp, RL 3

Cornelia Funke is a diverse writer who began her career as a children's book illustrator and went on to write her own picture books, beginning chapter books and the best selling, epic Inkworld Trilogy as well as the very popular Dragon Rider and Thief Lord books for young readers. The Ghosthunters series represents her foray into the world of chapter books, with the specific intention of enticing boys (and girls, she notes on her website) who are reluctant readers. While RL Stine and his long running Goosebumps Series probably have the market cornered on spooky, spine tingling, suspenseful (and gross) books that might get boys to read, there is always room for more.

Approximately the same length and reading level as the Goosebumps books, the Ghosthunters series is different in tone. Whereas Goosebumps are written and marketed to come off like watered-down versions of horror movies, Ghosthunters is more along the lines of the movie Ghostbusters. Funke is intent on creating a realistic, likable character in Tom, who is not yet ten and the kind of kid who often has "stumbly, bumbly everything-goes-wrong-days." Tom also has a big sister who is six years older than he is and only happy when she is tormenting him and making his life miserable. In the first book in the series we learn that Tom is deathly afraid of ghosts and unable to convince his family he has seen one in the basement of the apartment building they live in. The only person who will listen to him is his grandmother. Not only does she believe Tom's story, she sends him to talk to her friend and ghost hunter, Hetty Hyssop. Hetty seems like an oddball at first, but we soon learn that her strange ways, like wearing and decorating only in the color red, are really strategies to keep ghosts at bay. Hetty tells Tom how to expel the ghost from his cellar, but he only finds himself more deeply involved in Hetty's business when the ghost, Hugo, tells Tom a sad story about being evicted from his previous haunt and desperately wants to go home.

What follows is a amply detailed story with lots of acronyms, ASG - Averagely Spooky Ghost and IRG - Incredibly Revolting Ghost, the two most frequently used, and long lists of abilities and qualities of each of these types of ghosts as well as lists and tips for ghost hunting in the back of the book. This is all very important information that is needed when trying to capture any ghost. While the IRG who has displaced Hugo (an ASG) is very menacing and threatens to scare Tom and Hetty to death, the suspense of the book is never very intense. The revoltingness promised in the title is never too gross, either. Ghosts leave slime on things, trash furniture and sometimes eat everything in site. I couldn't help thinking of the ghost Slimer from the original Ghostbusters. Although Funke began publishing her Ghosthunters series in Germany in 1993, I didn't find this book dated at all. It was entertaining with just enough twists and quirks to keep me interested. I never doubted the happy ending of the book, which includes revenge on Lola, Tom's big sister. Hugo the ghost was especially entertaining and friendly, which added immensely to the appeal and non-threatening nature of the book.

I would definitely recommend this series to a reader who is interested in ghosts. Funke does present ghosts and the many ways to thwart them in a realistic way, which should appeal to reluctant readers as well as kids who like a good story.

Readers who like this book might enjoy:

The Ink Drinker, by Eric Sanvoisin
Scream Street by Tommy Donbavand
Araminta Spookie by Angie Sage
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Olivia Kidney by Ellen Potter. This is a FABULOUS ghost story. A bit like the movie The Sixth Sense - you don't realize everyone is a ghost until the end. The writing is brilliantly creative and the characters are intriguing. Don't give this twist away to your kids if you are trying to interest them in the book, though.

Araminta Spookie Series by Angie Sage, illustrated by jimmy Pickering, 132 pp, RL 2

Angie Sage, creator of the magnificently magical world of Septimus Heap, book 5 of which was just published, has also authored a series for younger readers. The Araminta Spookie books are perfect for the reader who wants something a little different from the usual Magic Tree House and Junie B Jones. Araminta is brilliant, brave and has a different bedroom for every day of the week! She's not afraid to turn on her Fiendish Stare when necessary and she is a pro at throwing together a kit for any emergency - be it secret passage ways, ambushes, or werewolf trapping.

Araminta, or Minty as her Uncle Drac calls her, lives in Spookie House with her uncle and her Aunt Tabby (Tabitha). Her parents,who were last seen hunting vampires in Transylvania, disappeared when she was young. In My Haunted House, the first book in the series, Araminta is shocked into action when Aunt Tabby, exhausted from taking care of a big old house with a boiler that keeps breaking down, declares that she is putting it up for sale. Araminta loves Spookie House, even Sir Horace, the rusty old suit of armor that keeps getting in her way, and begins to cook up a scheme to keep it from being sold. In the process of plotting and putting Sir Horace back together, Araminta finds a key and a note that leads her to a secret passage and a part of Spookie House she has never visited. With the help of Edmund, former page to Sir Horace and now ghost of Spookie House, Araminta finds the secret balcony that will be the perfect place from which to carry out her plans to ambush prospective buyers.

Edmund the timid ghost is about as spooky and supernatural as My Haunted House gets and the gore factor is even lower. While Araminta does dump the sludge that has accumulated in her goldfish Brian's bowl since his escape many months back onto the head of a realtor, there is none blood, guts or scabby zombie flesh as found in Tommy Donbavand's new Scream Street series written at the same reading level. However, both series do share a great sense of humor. Araminta Spookie is very imaginative when it comes to planning an ambush and her kit can include anything from a box of balloons to a bag of spiders and strawberry Jell-O. Wanda Wizzard, the daughter of prospective buyers who eventually end up sharing the house with Minty, Aunt Tabby and Uncle Drac, also serves as a bit of comic relief. She oinks when she laughs, can turn orange juice blue and is always happy to share a bag of cheese and onion chips from Araminta's Secret Passage Kit. The addition of the Wizzard family to Spookie House makes for some great stories in books 2 - 5 in which Araminta and Wanda plan a surprise 500th birthday party for Sir Horace, search for kidnapped frogs, spy on her cousin Max and eat pizza for the first time every while her aunt and uncle are out of town.

The illustrations for the book by artist Jimmy Pickering are sort of a combination of a 1950s cheery crispness with a Nightmare Before Christmas gothic darkness and are perfectly suited to the text. With vampires and werewolves now taking up so much space on the shelves of the bookstore as well as in our cultural consciousness, trickle-down to kids reading at a second grade level is inevitable. As a parent, if you are comfortable with your child reading fantasy based books, Araminta Spookie is a gentle, thoughtful entertaining place to start. Although there are ghosts, vampires and werewolves in the books, the suspense is light and the actual activities of these supernatural creatures is described in age appropriate ways. There is no great battle between good and evil as seen in fantasy writing at higher reading levels. Instead, Araminta's challenges, while played out in a haunted house, are much more along the lines of those that young children experience in every day life - aversion to change, anxiety over separation from caregivers when they travel, conflicts with friends and siblings and a desire to be independent. On top of all this, Angie Sage adds her imagination and sense of creative detail to what otherwise could have easily been a watered down rehashing of The Addams Family or The Munsters.


Halloween Picture Books

Holiday themed picture books that I am happy to read at story time (at the bookstore or in my own home) are rare. However, these are a few Halloween picture books that I never get tired of reading!

I don't know how I forgot Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler in my list of books last year.  I read it every October at story time and every year my appreciation of Donaldson's masterful rhymes grows.  A witch out for a spin with her cat keeps losing things - her hat, her bow, her wand - and animals help her to find them then hop on the broom for a ride.  The broom finally breaks sending them crashing to the ground except for the witch, who falls into the clutches of a hungry dragon.  The animals band together the rescue her and she rewards them with their own seats on a really cool, new broom.  This book is great anytime of the year!  Don't miss Julia Donaldson's other excellent books, especially The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo's Child, also rhyming and also illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

Mostly Monsterly written byTammi Sauer and illustrated by Scott Magoon takes a familiar theme - how to stand out and fit in at the same time - and gives it a creepy, crawly twist.  Scott Magoon utilizes a gorgeous color palette that is paired perfectly with his cool cast of monsterly characters exhibiting some horrible traits.  Magoon's ability to keep things both simple and detailed at the same time, as exhibited in one of my favorite books by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Spoon, is at work again in this richly illustrated story.
monster6.jpg image by jamesmargaret3rd

Bernadette looks and acts just like a monsters should... except for a few things here and there.

When she goes to Monster Academy her oddities start to really stand out.

She tries to win her classmates over with her specialty - cupcakes with sprinkles - but her monsterly mates don't share her enthusiasm for sweet treats.

Nevertheless, Bernadette is nothing if not creative.  She finds a way to express herself and share it with her friends in a way they will understand.  When Bernadette whips up a batch of monsterly greeting cards for her pals, cards that include bits of monster toenails and other icky stuff, her pals go crazy and jump right in to make their own cards.

When a Monster is Born, written by Sean Taylor and illustrated by Nick Sharratt is a great circular story. Imagine Laura Numeroff's If You Give a Mouse a Cookie but with man eating, scary monsters. Published in 2006, When a Monster is Born won the Nestlé Children's Book Prize, the British equivalent of the Caldecott. The book begins, "When a monster is born there are two possibilities- Either it’s a faraway-in-the-forest monster or . . . it’s an under-your-bed monster. If its a faraway-in-the-forest monster that’s that. But if its an under-your-bed monster..."   It goes on from there with some surprising results...

The book is actually in brilliant colors, but the best images I could find were the coloring pages from Sean Taylor's website.  This book is very fun to read, especially for little kids who like things a bit on the scary side.

I never, never get tired of reading Mark Teague's superb tale of of a Halloween gone wrong, One Halloween Night. I have been a fan of Teague's illustrations (which always have a bit of a homey, 1950s feel to them) and books since the late 1990s when he illustrated Sweet Dream Pie and The Flying Dragon Room for Audrey Wood. These are, by far, two of the best, most creative, most engaging picture books in existence and they are both out of print! However, Teague does a great job with his Halloween story, which is available in paperback. Wendell and Floyd, stars of The Secret Short Cut (also superb) team up with Mona, partner since she met up with the boys in Lost and Found, and Floyd's baby sister Alice to tackle embarrassing costumes, scary clowns, crazy candy (Broccoli Chews? Sweet 'n' Sauerkraut?? Eggplant Fizzlers???) and a gaggle of menacing witches to end up safe at home with their candy spread out on the floor, a fire in the fireplace and steaming cups of cocoa. With his latest book, The Doom Machine, Mark Teague writes and illustrates his first chapter book in which aliens visit earth.

It is not Halloween without Dav Pilkey and his Hallo-Wiener.

You can probably guess the main plot points just by reading the title to the book, but it is entertaining nonetheless. Adults will laugh at the many ways Pilkey incorporates the many different names for "hot dog" into this story. Kids love the suspense and the gags. Pilkey's colorful cartoon like illustrations are as playful and cheery as his story.

Don't miss this treat featuring Dragon, the star of Pilkey's hilarious beginning reader series. The three short stories in this book are sweet, silly and only a tiny bit scary, just like Dragon.

Ghosts in the House by Kazuno Kohara (NEW IN PAPERBACK!!) is a great book for the five and under crowd. Told in rhymes and illustrated in black, white and orange, Kohara's story is sweet, simple and fresh. A little witch and her cat move into a new house that is haunted. But not to fear, the little witch rounds up the ghosts, washes them and uses them for tablecloths, curtains and even a blanket! This is a great way to introduce younger children to the imagery and creatures of Halloween without going too deeply into details that may be lost on them.

Emily Gravett is an author and illustrator who's books never disappoint. Her website is pretty cool, too. Gravett often incorporates collages of printed words into her illustrations. Her last book, Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears (which could also be a very appropriate Halloween book...) is about a mouse who chews his way through a self-help book and learns about all the differnt phobias out there. Meerkat Mail, which is interactive, follows a meerkat who goes visiting his extended family all the while documenting his trip with postcards send home to his nuclear family. Orange Pear Apple Bear is brilliant in its simplicity, beauty and engaging nature. I discovered Spells while reading the New York Times Book Review last Sunday and finally got my hands on a copy. As always, her illustrations are both detailed and layered. Spells has an especially funny section with pages that are cut into thirds. The frog keeps trying out spells to turn himself into a prince, but, because the pages of the book are tattered and torn, he keeps mixing himself up into any combination of animals. The text and illustrations can be combined to make hilarious new animals and is very reminiscent of the now out of print book, Por-Gua-Can, some of you may remember.

Por-gua-can (Sara Ball Books)