12.30.2013

The War with Grandpa by Robert Kimmel Smith, 160 pp, RL 4



My mother taught fourth and fifth grade for almost 20 years before she retired. When she was a kid in school she struggled and was never a strong student or a big reader. Because of this, she brought a depth of understanding and passion to her teaching that endeared her to her students and made her a fantastic teacher. She also read a lot of kid's books during her years as a teacher and The War with Grandpa by Robert Kimmel Smith was one of her favorites that she has enthusiastically recommended to her grandkids. You probably know Kimmel Smith's book Chocolate Fever, his first, and now a classic, that almost all kids seem to read in second grade, about a boy with a love for chocolate that leads him into some sticky situations. In The War with Grandpa, the battle begins when Peter's grandpa moves in with his family, unceremoniously booting him from his beloved bedroom. While this hurts Peter, what hurts him even more is that his parents never asked him how he felt about the situation At the advice of his friends, Peter wages a war with Grandpa that involves escalating sneak attacks and midnight maneuvers.

The War with Grandpa was published in 1984 and it feels a little dated, but I don't think it's anything a young reader today would notice. What I appreciate most about The War with Grandpa is that it's a very straightforward story with Peter narrating and it's on the shorter side, but with a story that will appeal to older readers. In some ways, The War with Grandpa reminds me of Andrew Clements's About Average. Both books are around 150 pages with characters in 5th or 6th grade and present kids trying to figure out how to handle something that's bothering them, but the similarities end there. Clements's book is a layered and nuanced and, while the main character Jordan is being bullied by a classmate while also questioning her self worth, so much of her struggle is internal, revolving around her thoughts. With Peter, his story unfolds in a much more active way. He begins his narrative by explaining, 

This is the true and real story of what happened when Grandpa came to live with us and took my room and how I went to war with him and him with me and what happened after that. I am typing it out on paper without lines on my dad's typewriter because Mrs. Klein, she's my 5th grade English teacher, said that we should write a story about something important that happened to us and to tell it 'true and real' and put in words that people said if we can and remember to put quote marks around them and everything.

Somehow, Peter's life seems a lot less complicated than Jordan's and I like that, especially since I think it's getting harder to find books like Kimmel Smith's - the kind of book that reluctant readers will read - these days. I hate to divide readership along gender lines, but I feel pretty confident that About Average, with the cover image of the main character pensively staring out the window, will attract fewer boy readers than The War with Grandpa, which makes me glad there are books out there like this one.

Playing the board game Risk with his buddies and talking about how frustrated he is by the way his parents moved his grandpa, who has a bad leg, into his bedroom on the second floor, bumping Peter to the attic room, without even discussing it with him, they convince him that he needs to declare war on his grandfather. It starts with a written declaration of war that opens up a conversation. Grandpa tries to convince Peter that wars are about power and greed, not a disagreement or a dispute, which is how he sees the situation. But Peter insists that he needs to stand up for his rights and that his peaceful methods of solving this dispute have not worked. One thing I especially like about The War with Grandpa is the way that Peter and Grandpa continue to discuss the war even as the attacks escalate, and yet the attacks continue to escalate. Peter hides Grandpa's watch and Grandpa hides Peter's school books - and shoelaces - inside various pieces of unused luggage, almost making him late for school. Grandpa slaps Peter, not out of anger but to make a point about what war really is. Peter is stunned, but it does make him think. The war with Grandpa finally ends when, after taking something of Grandpa's that he is especially attached to, Peter sees Grandpa in a different light. And Grandpa sees his situation in a different light as well, coming up with a brilliant solution to Peter's anger over his displacement. The resolution is realistic and satisfying and to the point. Interestingly enough, the bulk of the story and dialogue is between Peter and his Grandpa without much input or interaction from his parents, the people who technically caused the disruption in the first place. However, this feels completely realistic in the setting of the story.

I can see how, 10 or 20 years ago when my mother was teaching, The War with Grandpa stood out on the bookshelf. It's a great book, but this was also a time before Harry Potter and the exponential explosion of kid's books that followed. It's easy for books like Kimmel Smith's to get lost in the crowd today, but they haven't. They are still read and still found on the shelves of that rare place, a bookstore. His books also fill a small but important niche. While  would recommend The War with Grandpa to almost any young reader, I would definitely recommend it to a reluctant reader, especially if that reader is a boy.
Source: Purchased Audio Book

12.27.2013

Escape from Silverstreet Farm by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Katharine McEwen, 65 pp, RL 2





Silver Street Farm is a new series of chapter books from Nicola Davies, zoologist and prolific author, and is illustrated by Katherine McEwen. In the first book in the series, Welcome to Silver Street Farm, meet Meera, Gemma and Karl who bond over their love of farm animals and having a farm of their own when they meet at the toy corner in kindergarten. On the last day of elementary school the trio of friends transform a an old, unused train station and out buildings into an urban farm in the middle of the city of Lonchester. Despite the land owner who wants to raze it and turn it into a parking structure, the activism of the three friends garners community support and wins out in the end. Flora MacDonald, a young farmer from Scotland who aids the children in the transformation the train station into a farm, agrees to run it, never forgetting that the Silver Street Farm is their dream. The signal box becomes a chicken coop, two poodle puppies bought by Karl's aunt turn out to be pedigree Shetland lambs and seemingly rotten eggs that hatch into ducklings are among the animals that Flora and the kids tend to.

When Escape from Silver Street Farm begins, it's December 23, the day before the official opening of the farm to the public, and things aren't going quite as planned. Bitzi and Bobo, the sheep, have gone missing and all the turkeys have escaped. Karl and Flora put a harness around Kenelottle Mossworthy Merridale of Morrayside, otherwise known as Kenny the ram, and hope that he will lead them to the missing ewes. Meanwhile, Gemma and Meera begin investigating the hole in the fence and a nearby tunnel leading to the main street of town, arousing their suspicions that a turkey rustler might be at work. Things get crazy when the ewes wander into a grocery store and the turkeys are found huddled inside of a bounce house shaped like a castle (with a baby inside, knocked out of his stroller and into the bounce house by a freak gale) that is about to go over the Marston Park overflow dam! Used to the hard work of running a farm, Meera, Gemma and Karl work just as hard to bring home their animals, all the while trying to think of the perfect Christmas present for Flora. Welcome to Silver Street Farm ends with Sashi, the young reporter from Cosmic TV saying, "Silver Street magic strikes again! I can't wait to see what next year will bring!" I can't wait either!


Books 1 in the Silver Street Farm Series:





 Silver Street Farm books coming soon . . .





More books by Nicola Davies reviewed at books4yourkids.com:



For the five and under crowd:


Who's Like Me? and What Will I Be?


Who Lives Here ? and What Happens Next?




Outside Your Window : A First Book of Nature



For everyone or seven and up as a read-alone don't miss this series of fantastic non-fiction books, including Just the Right Size and Talk, Talk, Squawk!, reviewed here.











12.23.2013

The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra by Jason Fry, 241 pp, RL: 4




Jason Fry is the author of Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra, a fantastic new book and a rare addition to the underrepresented (in my opinion) genre of science fiction middle grade novels - with brilliant cover art by Tom Lintern. Besides being kind of uncommon in kid's books, science fiction is a a little bit outside of my comfort zone when it comes to reading. But, Treasure Planet is one of my favorite Disney movies and I did review Treasure Island and Silver: Return to Treasure Island last year, so I decided to give Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra, which has a touch of the traditional swashbuckler to it, a try. My decision was cemented when I learned that Jason Fry is author of over twenty books, many of which are part of the canon of Star Wars books, AND that several of Fry's books are part of a genre my sons and I love that could be called "non-fiction fiction." Fry's books like Star Wars: The Clone Wars: The Visual GuideThe Secret Life of Droids and Lego Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary employ a field guide format and/or similar reference book style of presenting fictional people, places and things in a realistic way. With this kind of background and experience, I figured Fry must be the perfect person to write a middle grade science fiction novel like Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra, and he is!


To read the first five chapters of 
Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra click HERE.


The year is 2893 AD and the hero of Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra is Tycho Hashoone (the character names in this book are fantastic), the twelve-year-old midshipman of his family's starship, the Shadow Comet. The Hashoones are natives of the Jovian Union, which declared its independence from Earth in 2590 and has fought several wars with Earth since then. Tycho's mother Diocletia is the captain of the Shadow Comet, his father, Marvy Malone is the first mate and his older brother Carlo and twin sister Yana are also both midshipmen. Then there's Huff Hashoone, former captain of the Comet, father to Diocletia and an old-school pirate with several artificial limbs making him sort of a cyborg Long John Silver. The Hashoones make a living privateering, although Huff considers what they do not too different from being a pirate. While manning the helm in the middle of the night, Tyhco commandeers an Orion starship, a decision that sets in motion a chain of events that leads to an appearance in admiralty court, undercover work for that is just shy of blackmail and a suspenseful fight with a long-lost pirate ship captained by the legendary, supposedly dead, Thoadbone Mox.

Art by Jeff Nentrup


Fry adds layers to Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra through the backstory of the Hashoones, which I suspect will evolve in subsequent novels in this five, possibly six, book series. The pirate way means that Diocletia will choose the next captain of the Shadow Comet from among her three children just as her father did some eleven years earlier when he stepped down as captain. Besides the fact that there's a story behind how Diocletia became captain, Tycho, Yana and Carlos are growing up under constant scrutiny from their captain as she watches their skills develop and calculates which of her three children will make the best future captain. All three want the position badly and all three have different skills. What makes Tycho an interesting character is the fact that, despite his desire to be captain, he knows his weaknesses and he knows when to rely on his siblings and their superior skills in certain areas. He and his twin Yana make an especially good team with Yana thinking outside the box and taking risks where Tycho is a steady hand, learning to trust himself and grow his confidence. Of his protagonist Fry says, "Tycho isn't fated to save the solar system or discover some kind of hidden secret of his birth. I'm more interested in exploring what I think is a more typical hero's journey - as he grows older, Tycho will wonder if the goals of his childhood and his family traditions are really right for him. He'll become obsessed with solving things that might be better left alone. And he'll wind up in a very different place, and look back with some surprise a the journey he's been on." We see glimmers of this future in  Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra and I can't wait to see how Tycho grows across the series.

Art by Jeff Nentrup

Fry's world building is so immediate and descriptively thorough that, with the help of having seen a few sci-fi movies and read a few sci-fi "non-fiction fiction" books, images of everything described in Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra came to my mind instantly. In addition to Fry's skill as a writer, the book begins with a schematic of the Shadow Comet and a map of Jupiter and its moons and ends with an index - two things I absolutely love in a book. One detail I love in this Jovian world is that, instead of flying a Jolly Roger or other flag, the ships in Fry's space have transponders that signal their purpose to other ships, transponders that can broadcast false identities. Fry's descriptions of the locales the Hashoones visit are also memorable, like that of the family's homestead on the moon of Callisto, built around the mine shaft that made them wealthy over four centuries ago when they first settled there after leaving Earth. Then there's High Port, which Fry describes as a:

cluster of habitation modules orbiting Ganymede. The space station's largest dome had been converted to a luxurious reception hall for the Jovian Union's notable visitors. One side of the hall was dominated by the massive radiation-shielded windows that looked out over the cratered surface of the moon below and beyond to Jupiter. The gas giant had rotated so that huge storm known as the Great Red Spot was visible. It stared out at them like a baleful eye, churning through Jupiter's upper atmosphere as it had for more than a thousand years. 

The surface of Ceres is described as a "maze of tunnels and pressure domes filled with merchant warehouses, provisioning yards, hydroponic greenhouses, repair shops, kips, eateries, and grog houses, advertising their wares with everything from 3D holographic displays to ancient neon tubes." And the starships, for the most part, are described using traditional language (stern, mast, cuddy, bilge, all of which are defined in the index) although they do have, "bulky, long-range fuel tanks" that are left high in orbit while ships are in port, meaning that "every planet in the solar system wore a permanent necklace made up of bulbous tanks, lumbering fuel tankers, and gunboats on patrol." That's some pretty cool imagery!

Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra has been described as a "space-opera in the classic style,"  "Ranger's Apprentice meets Ender's Game," and "Star Wars meets Treasure Island," all of which are apt. However you choose to describe it, Jason Fry has kicked of a great new series that I know will grab the attention of starship-loads of readers!


To read the first five chapters of 
Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra click HERE.





Jason Fry, immortalized in Star Wars: The Essential Atlas, which he cowrote with Daniel Wallace.


Source: Review Copy

12.21.2013

Here Where the Sunbeams are Green by Helen Phillips, 291 pp, RL 5

Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green
 is now in paperback!




Here Where the Sunbeams are Green is author Helen Phillips' stand-out debut novel. And, while this is not strictly a work of fantasy, this book is filled with magic. There are so many out of the ordinary things about this wonderful novel that I almost don't know where to start, but I think that sisters Madeline and Ruby (Mad and Roo) are a good place to begin. I have read a lot of books since I started this blog, and I one trend that I noticed is the predominant presence of a boy and a girl as the main characters, as if authors want to cover all the bases and make sure their book appeals to the widest audience. And I completely understand this - if I wrote a book I would do everything I could to make sure it is read. In light of that, I always admire a book immensely when the author has the courage to write main characters who are the same gender, especially two girls. Everyone knows that girls will read "boy" books (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) but that boys will never read a book with girls as the main characters (The Penderwicks.) And, while there is a great boy character in this book, as I said above, this story is really about the sisters and Phillips does a fantastic job creating the characters of Mad and Roo and giving depth to them and their relationship. The other amazingly wonderful, out of the ordinary aspect of Here Where the Sunbeams are Green is the jungle where the story takes place, but I'll get to that in a minute. The fantastic cover art was created by Jennifer Bricking and the title was hand lettered by Sarah Hoy.

When we first meet our narrator, Madeline, almost thirteen, is on a small plane headed into the jungles of Central America with her little sister Ruby, her mom and the annoying, odd Kenneth Candy, referred to as Ken/Neth by Mad who refuses to go along with his presence in their lives. Seven months earlier, their father, the renowned bird watcher Dr James Wade, was invited by La Lava Resort and Spa, a green, environmentally friendly vacation spot for the rich and famous, to track and help preserve the habitats of the birds around them. As the months pass and the trip keeps getting extended, the girls and their mother hear less and less often from him and when they do his conversations are odd and his letters are strange and unlike the father they know. When Ken Candy shows up in Denver to treat Dr Wade's family to what seem increasingly like diversionary activities more than perks of Dr Wade's job, Madeline grows increasingly suspicious and openly rude to Ken/Neth, especially since it seems like he is moving in on her mother. One aspect of Here Where the Sunbeams are Green that I think Phillips handles so well as an author is the delicate development of Madeline's personality. She is on the cusp of being a teenager, too old to be cute and get the cuddles that Ruby does and just worldly enough to know that there is something not right about Ken Candy's goofy jokes, shoulder rubs and pockets filled with mini-Snickers. She is also just old enough to notice the golden eyes of a boy and think vaguely romantic thoughts about him. I usually flinch when romance comes into a middle grade novel. I feel like it opens up a can of worms that are better left for teen books. However, I am the first to admit that girls think about boys and I always admire when an author can write innocently about relationships of this nature, which Phillips does remarkably well. Madeline's observations about Kyle, the teenage boy in the story are chaste and thoughtful enough that I think I would feel comfortable with a certain ten-year-old I know reading this book.

Mad and Roo are not polar opposites, but they are different and Madeline is aware enough and comfortable enough with this that she knows when to step back and let Roo have the stage. She also knows when to turn to Roo. Madeline is cautious and thoughtful and has taken up the project of writing one poem every night before bed. She observes the world around her and knows that something is definitely not right and is especially sensitive to the changes she sees in both of her parents over the course of the story, referring to it in her impeccably tween way as "The Weirdness." Ruby is boisterous, brave and always moving forward and, while she doesn't see the world the way Mad does, she has her own ideas about things not being right and pores over the last letter from her father, convinced there is a hidden message in it. Madeline refers to this letter as "The Very Strange and Incredibly Creepy Letter" and refuses to look at it because it is so unlike her father that it upsets her just to see it. Madeline fluctuates between being just a little bit jealous of Ruby, who, miraculously has picked up Spanish so much faster and more fluently than Mad, is suspicious of no one and makes friends instantly, and being grateful that Ruby is who she is. Together the two make a great team.

Add to this team Kyle Nelson Villalobos, native of Ohio who spends the summers at his grandparents' lodge. Kyle is also an avid bird watcher and fan of Dr Wade's. A bit warily at first, he and Madeline establish a friendship with Roo as their bond. Like Kyle, Roo is a bird watcher, learning everything she knows from outings with her dad. Once in the jungle, the story unfolds quickly with the girls learning that the Lava-Throated Volcano trogon, a species declared extinct four years earlier, is actually a Lazarus species - one that seems to have come back from the dead. Dr Wade is tracking the bird but, as the girls learn about the history of the bird and the volcano that it is named for, they soon suspect that their father might be doing something illegal for La Lava, or even worse, maybe La Lava is forcing him to do something illegal be threatening his wife and children. What was meant to be a relaxing vacation and visit with their father quickly becomes a race against time to save their father, the Lava-Throated Volcano trogon and the people living at the base of the volcano, as well as all the visitors to the sumptuous La Lava. Phillips' writing about the jungle is magical and she creates a vivid picture with her words. As I mentioned above, this really isn't a work of fantasy, but Phillips's weaves magical aspects into her story, mostly in the form of the flora and fauna of the jungle. One of my favorite scenes finds Roo waking up one morning after having been on a secret trek through the forest, with delicate yellow flowers growing from her toes. Even better, these flowers prove to be more than decorative as Roo instinctively uses them at a crucial moment in the story. Phillips also creates a believable local folk tale surrounding the volcano, the birds and the villagers, that plays out in a somewhat magical way in Here Where the Sunbeams are Green. Phillips also invents (I'm assuming these were inventions) magical flowers that, when plucked just the right way, inflate and act as umbrellas as well as an orange flower that blooms and wilts almost instantly only after La Lluvia, the torrential rain that happens at almost the same time every day.

As I said at the start of this review, Here Where the Sunbeams are Green is a stand-out novel for many reasons. If nothing else, I honestly can't think of another middle grade novel I have read in the last four years that is like Here Where the Sunbeams are Green. However, there are a few books I can think of that have elements that are similar to Phillips' wonderful debut novel.


drizzle by Kathleen Van Cleve. Mystery and magical plants.



Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson.
Mystery and suspense on the Amazon, set in 1910.  


Fern Verdant and the Silver Rose by Diana Leszczynski. 
Magical plants and a girl who can communicate with them.


Operation Redwood by S Terrell French. 
A group of kids who band together to save a stand of old growth redwoods in Norther California.



Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle. 
The universe in a tree. A society of tiny people living on a tree, one faction fighting the other in an effort to conserve the precious natural resources that make up their living home.







12.20.2013

Cheese Belongs to You, written by Alexis Deacon and illustrated by Viviane Schwarz


CHEESE BELONGS TO YOU! is the newest collaboration from Alexis Deacon and Viviane Schwarz. Their first picture book, A Place to Call Home,  is about a brave band of (hamster) brothers looking for a new home. This duo clearly loves rodents as rats, referred to in one review as the most "unnerving yet gleefully entertaining" rats since Ratatouille, are the main characters of this new book. And, as Schwarz says, "they have something to teach you: Rat Law," and, Rat Law has "basically one rule: Cheese belongs to you."


Of course, there Rat Law also has exceptions...


 


Things escalate and bigger, stronger, hairier, dirtier rats emerge to claim the cheese. Of Rat Law, Schwarz says "You'll get the hang of it. But who gets the cheese? Buy book, find out!"


Just in case you were worried, community and civility does win out in the end. Schwarz's soft, pencil drawings and the photo of a wedge of Swiss cheese are balanced and bolstered by the bold face type of Deacon's text. The tension builds, the adjectives mount and the rat population increases in a way that kids will LOVE. I guarantee this is a great read-out-loud! Also, be sure to keep your eye on the first little rat with the bow-tie on her tail!



Also by Deacon and Schwarz:

A Place to Call Home, written by Alexis Deacon






Viviane Schwarz's other amazing, fantastic books you should read!!






12.19.2013

Amy's Three Best Thing by Philippa Pearce, illustrated by Helen Craig




Amy's Three Best Things is by Philippa Pearce, the author of the classic British children's novel, Tom's Midnight Garden, first published in 1957. Pearce, who wrote Amy's Three Best Things in 2003, died in 2006. Illustrator Helen Craig is best known for illustrating the original Angelina Ballerina series of books written by Katherine Holabird. Pearce and Craig teamed up on the chapter book, A Finder's MagicAmy's Three Best Things is a sweetly subtle book about a child finding ways to cope with missing her family while staying over at Grandma's house, perfectly illustrated in Craig's cozy style.


Amy's Three Best Things begins, "One day Amy said, 'I'd like to go and see Grandma soon. I'd like to go all by myself, and I'd like to stay the night." Her mother questions her because Amy has never been away from home by herself before. Amy replies. "Of course I'm sure. In fact, I'll stay two nights. No, I'll stay three."


Amy packs her bag with everything she needs, then she puts in three more things - one thing from the floor by her bed, one thing from the mantel in her bedroom and one from the rack over the bathtub. "Those are my three best things for a visit," Amy thinks to herself. As they are heading for the car, Amy asks her mother what she and Bill and Bonzo, her baby brother and dog, will do while she is at Grandma's. At Grandma's house there are lots of things to do, from cleaning out the toy cupboard to having a picnic lunch at the part to baking a cake. But at night after she goes to sleep, Amy wakes up missing home. And each night, she takes out one of her three best things and it magically carries her back home where she looks in the windows to see what her family is doing and reassure herself. Pearce ends her book with an especially lovely image and message. Amy, her family and Grandma all go to the fair where Amy decides to ride the merry-go-round, Pearce ending Amy's Three Best Things with these words, "Around and around went the merry-go-round with Amy on her dragon, and sometimes she saw her family and sometimes she didn't. But they were always there." What I especially like is that Pearce leaves readers to make the final connection themselves.


Philippa Pearce's classic...





The original Angelina Ballerina series of books illustrated by Helen Craigthe first of which was published in 1983. And, if you are a fan of Angelina Ballerina, be sure to read this article, How We Made the Children's Favourite Angelina Ballerina in which Holabird and Craig talk about their influences, from daughters who danced to growing up during the war years in a cottage without electricity or running water!