The Notebook of Doom: Subject - Chomp of the Meat-Eating Vegetables by Troy Cummings, 90 pp, RL 2

The Notebook of Doom by Troy Cummings is part of a new line of books (seven series and counting) from Scholastic called Branches that has been selling like hotcakes at the bookstore where I work. The books in the Branches imprint are exactly what I have been looking for all these years of helping customers and my own children make that leap from leveled readers to chapter books. Now, with the Branches books, this developmental step doesn't have to be a leap.   As their mission statement reads, the goal of the Branches books is to nurture independent readers by "bridging the gap between leveled readers and traditional chapter books." Having read a book in each of the new series, I can guarantee you that they are definitely bridging this gap. 

The Notebook of Doom is the perfect mix of silly and scary (one review of this series used the word "horrorlarity") that kids at this age seem to love. When Alexander Bopp, son of a dentist, moves with his dad to the town of Stermont, he discovers an abandoned notebook filled with disturbing information on creatures like the Rhinoceraptor and the Forkupine. Happily, pages from this notebook show up as two-page spreads in this series, letting readers see what Alexander is seeing when he opens his own Notebook of Doom. The town of Stermont with its three cemeteries, abandoned glue factory and crumbling elementary school, seems perfectly suited as a home for the odd creatures that Alexander finds in the pages of the notebook. 

One of the great quirks in The Notebook of Doom is the fact that the monsters in the abandoned notebook are created from everyday objects, which means that Alexander begins to see monsters everywhere he goes and, as each book in the series proves, while he may tussle with a coatrack from time to time, he's not always seeing things... Alexander arrives in town just in time for the school renovation and discovers that he and his classmates are temporarily attending class in an old hospital, with Alexander's grade meeting in the old morgue. Worse, though, his new teacher gives him the nickname "Salamander Snott." But, things aren't too bad. Alexander is befriended by Nikki, a seemingly normal girl who is also a Jampire - she has fangs, can see in the dark, sunburns easily and will only eat red and juicy foods, and Rip Bonkowski, a brusque little tough guy with a soft heart - at least when it comes to gophers. Together, these three friends make up the S.S.M.P. - the Super Secret Monster Patrol, a group of kids sworn to protect Stermont from monsters. 

In The Notebook of Doom: Subject - Chomp of the Man-Eating Vegetables, Alexander, Nikki and Rip are surprised to arrive at school and find it freezing inside. On top of that, pie and ice cream are being served in the cafeteria and squishy green balls are being used for dodgeball in PE. With the big Chili Supper fundraiser at the site of the unfinished new school on the horizon, Alexander and his friends are turning to the Notebook of Doom left and right trying to figure out what's going on and what monsters are at the heart of the strange happenings. The climactic scene is pretty epic, with Alexander, Nikki and Rip (who has been imprisoned in the shell of a giant pumpkin) fight off the monsters high atop the new glass greenhouse where all the food for the cafeteria will be grown.  In a moment of genius, Alexander saves the day with the help of a giant windmill, defeating the monsters and providing bushels of chopped vegetables to go in the vegetarian chili being made for the Chili Supper.

I included the image above, which is not from The Notebook of Doom: Subject - Chomp of the Man-Eating Vegetables, to give you a good idea of the average text-to-illustration ratio in this series. I think that the word count in The Notebook of Doom series could be close to that of an average Magic Tree House book, but the fonts are bigger and, with more illustrations, the words are less densely packed. As a children's bookseller (and parent) I have seen the look on an emerging reader's face over and over when they crack open a book that has small font and few illustrations - it's an almost instant rejection that usually stops short of an actual turning-up-of-the nose. I guarantee you that this WILL NOT happen when you open up The Notebook of Doom or any of the Branches books. Also, this series is almost guaranteed to inspire a loyal and enthusiastic readership. If you buy one, you will most likely be buying them all!

Source: Review Copy


Breathe by Scott Magoon

I have been a fan of Scott Magoon's illustrations for several years now and I was excited by the title of his newest book, Breathe, and especially by the fact that he is both author and illustrator. When I finally had the book in my hands I had to take a moment to breathe myself. Breathe has to be the loveliest, most peaceful, beautiful, quiet book I have read in quite a while. It is also a bit of a change in illustration style for Magoon, which is exciting. Breathe introduces a more painterly style that blends wonderfully with the setting of Breathe and  his playful characters.

What I love most about Breathe, beyond the enchanting illustrations of the crisp Arctic landscape and the captivating baby beluga whale (a nod to Raffi and his Baby Beluga here, a sweet song and picture book that all three of my kids and I enjoyed) is the fact that the very act of reading this book automatically causes us to notice our own breath and maybe take deeper breaths and slow down and relax and be in the moment. If you are really lucky, this is a moment with some little person you love in your lap or a roomful of little people you are thrilled to be entertaining by reading out loud to. As someone who once was able to make time to meditate (now I just make excuses) I embrace anything in my day that invites me to slow down. And, not only does Breathe encourage us to slow down, the story itself, told as much through the illustrations as the text, is one of connection, safety and love and joy.

Breathe begins, "Breathe, little whale!" A smiling baby beluga, supported by her or his mother, spouts water near the surface of the ocean. The pages that follow encourage the whale to "play all day"and "swim, swim, swim." And breathe. And explore. And sing. This little whale has an immense playground to roam around and Magoon does a wonderful job of encompassing it in the pages of a picture book. The scenario changes, from the dark depths to the snowy shores, with the reminder to breathe, mama beluga always nearby, baby beluga always with a grin.

Magoon ends this playful day and his endearing book with the illustration seen below, the penultimate page of Breathe, which reads, "Most of all, love and be loved." I'm not sure what these words will mean to the three-year-old in your lap, but the illustration will definitely speak to her or him. And for us, the adults reading Breathe, it's nice to be reminded of this - to love and be loved - and also to breathe. Thank you, Scott Magoon, for these reminders, and thank you especially for Breathe.

Books illustrated by Scott Magoon with links to my reviews:

Big Mean Mike by Michelle Knudsen

Mostly Monsterly by Tammi Sauer has been on my Best of Halloween Picture Books list for years now.

If Waffles Were Like Boys by Charice Mericle Harper

Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and the follow-up, Chopsticks.

Books written and illustrated by Scott Magoon:

Books by Kara La Reau, illustrated by Scott Magoon:

More books illustrated by Scott Magoon!!

Source: Review Copy


The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff, 430 pp, RL TEEN

The Undertaking of Lily Chen is the newest graphic novel from Danica Novgorodoff, artist, writer, graphic designer, horse wrangler and marathon runner. While The Undertaking of Lily Chen is visually stunning, the brief excerpt from an article in The Economist from 2007 that inspired this book is equally stunning. The article detailed "ghost marriages," a strange custom started in the year 208 AD by the warlord Cao Cao, reappearing in rural China that was also accounting for a burgeoning market in female corpses. If a man died unmarried, sometimes his parents would procure the body of a woman, hold a "wedding," then bury the couple together so that the man would not have to go alone into the afterlife. While marriage brokers were most often called on to find corpse brides, hospital mortuaries, funeral parlors, body snatchers and murderers were also hired...

The Undertaking of Lily Chen begins with a prologue set on a military base in China with a fight between Deshi, a guard, and his belligerent brother. A fight breaks out and, without intending to, Deshi watches as his brother is hit and killed by a jeep. When Deshi returns home to tell his parents of Wei's death, it's clear that he was the favored, first born son. In tears, Deshi's mother hands him a sack of money and tells him to find a bride for Wei. He packs up their donkey with supplies as she begins to cut and sew the red bridal gown. What I most love about The Undertaking of Lily Chen, besides the superb illustrations accented with occasionally gorgeous watercolors that make you pause as well as intricate spot art at the start of each chapter, is the idea that this story of the search for a corpse bride in contemporary China could have played out in so many different ways.

We first see Lily, and only child, at home with her parents watching a soap opera on television as they learn that they are about to lose their land to the Dragon Head Mining Company. Deshi, having no luck with the matchmaker, has hired a "special projects" man to find him a corpse bride and they are in a remote spot, digging up a grave. Things go wrong for both Deshi and Lily and they find themselves on the run and running into each other.

As a character, Lily fluctuates between being a pain in the ass and a badass. Convinced that a better life awaits her in Beijing, she attaches herself to Deshi, who has a knife behind his back and had been contemplating her death. The two travel toward their destinations, Deshi on the lookout for a corpse in every possible place along the way, more than once returning to the idea murdering Lily.

Convinced that his daughter has been kidnapped, Lily's father rounds up the men of the village and tries to find her. The grave robber, intent on finishing the job he has been paid for, is on the trail of Lily and Deshi as well. Finally, Wei's ghost follows the couple, his presence and request for a wife growing stronger every day. Climactic confrontations with Lily's father and the grave robber lead Deshi and Lily to make a rash decision, spurred on by the cryptic words of a fortune teller they encountered in the countryside. The ending of The Undertaking of Lily Chen is every bit as powerful as the ideas that began the story, leaving the reader contemplating, pondering, and vividly recalling this magnificent graphic novel long after the final page has been read and the covers closed.

Readers who enjoyed The Undertaking of Lily Chen should not miss Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang, who called The Undertaking of Lily Chen, "Beautiful, haunting, and utterly human." Of the graphic novel, Caldecott Award Winner Brian Selznick said, "A vast, dangerous tale . . . Novgorodoff has created a world filled with ghosts, regrets, dreams, and love."

Source: Review Copy


Zoom! Zoom! Sounds of Things That Go in the City by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Tad Carpenter

Zoom! Zoom! Sounds of Things That Go in the City is the newest book from the prolific children's book author Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Tad Carpenter, acclaimed illustrator and designer and lover of Kansas City, MO. I'm sure that there are more cars and trucks and things that go picture books out there than I know of, but I feel like there is always room on the shelf for one more, especially a good one that captures exactly what little listeners are looking for in a book of this nature - action and onomatopoetic text, rhyming optional. And, of course, awesomely frenetic, colorful illustrations packed with details. I'm happy to report that Burleigh and Carpenter deliver on all fronts.

Burleigh's rhyming story takes the reader from sunrise to sunset. Joggers, garbage trucks and "Hustle Bustle Rush-Rush-Rush" gets the city going. There is a time of day for every activity going on in the city, with work time following wake-up and traffic picking up.

Lunch time, schools out and then play time and party time follow, and things never seem to slow down. Carpenter's retro illustrations are in a traditional Lego palette of read, yellow blue and white and all his vehicles have happy faces. More than the typical descriptions of what each vehicle does, Burleigh's text captures the action and movement of the city and the cars, trucks and trains that rush, rumble and roll through it on a daily basis.

As dinner time nears, bicycle riders whirr by on their way home to eat and party time in the city kicks off with some jazzy razzamatazz happening on Broadway. Finally, it's sleepy time and the city that never sleeps winds down. The cars and trucks all close there eyes - for the most part - but we know that there will always be something on the move.

Don't miss Robert Burleigh and Ross MacDonald's fantastic picture book biography of Jack Kerouac and homage to the vast expanses of America, Hit the Road, Jack.

Source: Review Copy


Chickenhare by Chris Grine, 157 pp, RL 3

Chickenhare by Chris Grine was published by Scholastic's Graphix imprint in 2013. It was originally published, in black and white, by Dark Horse Comics in 2006, with Book 2, Fire in the Hole, which you can preview here, coming out in 2008. A third book, Fish & Grymps, was planned but never published.  I'm pretty sure I would have instantly loved Chickenhare in its original form, but the new color edition is FANTASTIC!! Grine's characters are very original but also feel like old friends. I'd be hard pressed to pick my favorite, but think that the ghost of Mr. Buttons would probably be at the top of my list, with Banjo close behind. But, I'm getting ahead of myself...

When we first meet our hero, he and his best friend Abe, a rare bearded turtle, are chained to the back of Barley, trudging through the snow. Out to make a buck, Barley is hoping to sell them to an extremely eccentric, exotic animal collector. Chickenhare and Abe don't seem to distressed and even make a joke or two along the way, although the apparition of a funny-looking goat does give Chickenhare pause.

Mr Klaus, the eccentric, well, who am I kidding, this guy is crazy, collector is actually a taxidermist and things don't look good for Chickenhare and Abe, who find themselves caged along with Meg and Banjo, Mr. Plumms, the executioner/taxidermist on guard. Meanwhile, Mr. Fingerbones, the butler, humors Mr. Klaus, who's thoughts always return to Mr. Buttons, his beloved pet goat who ran away 40 years ago. The oddball quartet manage an escape and find themselves not much better off in the snowy terrain.

And this is where the action really takes off. Chickenhare, following the call of the ghostly Mr. Buttons, wanders away from the group, who end up in the claws of the Shromphs, cute but deadly snow-cave dwelling creatures with razor sharp teeth. And, despite their severely injured states, Mr. Klaus, Plumms, Fingerbones and Beef and Patty, the cooks, take off in a sled after the escapees. There is a climactic battle and a brave and sort of sad sacrifice that isn't technically a sacrifice, ending with a (cringe-worthy) celebration feast. As the four set off, the King of the Shromphs offers the quartet his best boat and first mate Scabby to get them home again. Grine leaves readers with a bit of a cliffhanger, learning that Banjo is a Krampus, but never revealing WHAT exactly it means to be a Krampus... I have read the preview pages at Dark Horse and the next leg of the adventure looks even more exciting! No publication date yet for Book 2 in color, but there is a movie in the works...

Readers who enjoyed Chickenhare should check out
Giants Beware! while waiting for Book 2!

Books 2 & the never-published 3...


The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza by James Kochalka, 110 pp, RL 1.5

The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza is the newest graphic novel for kids from the multi-talented James Kochalka. I reviewed Kolchalka's Dragon Puncher a couple of years ago when my youngest son was on the verge of being reading to move up from leveled readers but not ready for chapter books. We filled the gap, and had a really great time, reading graphic novels, most of which were TOON BOOKS. Kochalka's Dragon Puncher books were a great visit to the land of Absurdia. With The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza, Kochalka is back in fine form. And, what I love most about is books is that, just when it seems like the story is about to go off the deep end, Kochalka has a way of reigning it back in and wrapping things up quite nicely.

The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza will have a lot of familiar elements for young readers, starting with Super Backpack, a talking, battery charged backpack ready for adventure. The Glorkian Warrior, however, is more interested in his two feet...

When the phone rings, the Glorkian Warrior answers it and is surprised to hear someone ordering a pizza, with the strange topping of "pepperoni," no less. He determines that it is HIS DESTINY to deliver this pizza, because the destiny of a Glorkian Warrior is to help those in need! Fortunately, Glork's HYPER FRIDGE contains one and only one item: an almost whole pizza topped with clams and peanut butter. Glork races out the door to the Glorkian Super car, excited to make his delivery and fulfill his destiny. He promptly crashes, emerging from the wreckage with the steering wheel in hand, which he then adds to the pizza as a topping.

This does not thwart Glork, though. He continues on, encountering danger at every turn, from a giant Gonk that wants his pizza to a spaceship that wants the pizza. The pizza itself is laser-blasted and explosion baked along the way, with new toppings of tears and the "spicy spaceship ash" of an exploded foe added for "extra flavor," as Glork says. Along the way, Glork punches himself in the face over and over when he thinks he has lost the pizza and is adopted by an alien hatchling that insists on roosting on his head. When they reach their destination, the impenetrable fortress of the Magic Robot, things don't go so well. Happily, a well-timed joke, yet another explosion and disruption in space and time that makes for a hilarious ending. Kochalka has also created a game, available for iPads and iPhones, TRIALS OF GLORK! You can see the demo below. Reminds me a bit of the old school Atari game Space Invaders I used to play as a kid...

Source: Review Copy