My Bus by Byron Barton

I have yet to review a book by Byron Barton here, but he takes up quite a bit of shelf space in the board book section with his fantastic, mostly transportation themed, books. Brightly colorful, with bold, blocky illustrations, Barton has a way with simplicity that is attractive to toddlers. In My Bus, Barton hits a grand slam with several forms of vehicles making an appearance AND a bus filled with furry passengers, giving listeners the chance to add animal sounds! He also throws in some counting practice for good measure.

 Joe drives his bus around town (Sam drives in the companion book, My Car) and picks up passengers and takes them to the boat, the train and the plane. The illustrations of the cats and dogs looking out the windows of the various transports is pretty funny.

At the end of the day, Joe parks his bus and he and his dog head home in his car and the moon shines down on his empty bus. It's hard to convey how wonderful a simple book like My Bus is in a written review. Really, you have to park a toddler in your lap and read  My Bus out loud to fully appreciate what a joyful experience it is connecting in this way.

More books by Byron Barton!

Source: Review Copy


The Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli

The Watermelon Seed, Greg Pizzoli's debut picture book, is also the winner of the Theodore Seuss Geisel Award, and honor that often goes to Mo Willems's dynamic, neurotic duo, Elephant & Piggie. This is apt, as Pizzoli's melon-munching-crocodile is every bit as expressive and engaging as Willems's characters and his illustration style, while equally simplistic, is more elegant in execution and color palette. 

The story begins with the croc expressing a deep, constant love for watermelon, including a "big salty slab for dinner" and of course, watermelon for dessert. 

When the crocodile accidentally swallows a seed, the love story turns into a pint-sized horror story as he imagines all the possible things that can happen now. However, a grumbling tummy and an enormous burp that is sure to get laughs, turn things around again - mostly.

Pizzoli's crocodile expresses the anxieties and fears natural in all little watermelon eaters in a gentle and humorous way without being dismissive of this concern, which is fantastic. However, what I find most memorable and exciting about The Watermelon Seed is Pizzoli's graphic style of illustration and attention to details that give depth to this delightful debut! And, I just have to mention it again, the out of the ordinary, cool palette of colors that Pizzoli uses.

The book trailer for The Watermelon Seed is a MUST WATCH. It's short, features a few scenes not in the book and, best of all, doesn't give away the ending like I did . . . 

Source: Review Copy


Judy Moody and Stink: The Big Bad Blackout, 130 pp, RL 3


It's been so long since I read (and reviewed) a Judy Moody or Stink book (6 years!) that I forgot how much I love both of these characters - especially when their series cross paths. Double rare! Megan McDonald and Peter H. Reynolds have created truly memorable characters in these siblings. On top of that, way back in 2005, five years after the debut of the first Judy Moody, McDonald was THE FIRST  author to write a chapter book for beginning readers at a slightly lower level than a traditional chapter book like Magic Tree House and Junie B Jones.  Last year, other publishers finally caught on to the immense need for this kind of book and now there are enough of them on the shelves for me to create the label Bridge Chapter Books. Judy Moody and Stink: The Big Bad Blackout is written more at the level of a  Judy Moody book, but I have no doubt that fans of Stink will want to stretch their reading muscles to get in on the fun. Another thing that makes the joint Judy Moody-Stink books so worth reading are the full color illustrations - both series normally only have black and white interior art. Reynolds's style perfectly captures all that is comfortably familiar and slightly kooky about the Moody family. And all that comes together under one roof in Judy Moody and Stink: The Big Bad Blackout! When Hurricane Elmer hits it's time to batten down the hatches and stock up on supplies. Judy and Stink spend the first morning of the storm happily listening to the school closures for the day, then waiting for mom to make it back from the market and Grandma Lou to make it to their house on higher ground. When Grandma Lou finally does arrive, she brings games, stories and activities that will come in very hand when the power cuts out, along with Gertrude, Milo and Candy Cane. Gertrude is Lou's kayak, which plays a very cool part in the end of the story, and Milo and Candy Cane are her neighbor's ferret and corn snake, respectively.

While there are only a handful of books that feature a loss of electrical power as a plot point (be sure not to miss John Rocco's Caldecott Honor winner, Blackout) they do all seem to embody the happy theme of a lost creativity and togetherness returning in the face of a seeming hardship. And I never get tired of the story playing out this way! Even though I know it's the right thing to do, I need a frequent reminder to disengage from isolating devices and spend time together. The superb thing about Judy Moody and Stink: The Big Bad Blackout is that it encourages this kind of disengaging and coming together while at the same time giving kids and parents some really great ideas of things to do!

With the power out and the Moody's gathered around the fire, it's not long before Stink is proclaiming his boredom. Grandma Lou's offer to teach the kids to knit zombies falls flat and Stink vetoes all of Judy's board game suggestions until Grandma Lou comes up with the idea of Musical Board Games. The battery-operated boom box is pulled out and the challenge begins. I am definitely trying this with my kids in the near future! A round of story telling follows, with Grandma Lou and Mom and Dad contributing very entertaining stories of how hurricanes affected there lives. In between, dinner is cooked over the fire (in the fireplace) and lots of laughs are had. Ghost stories are told and Grandma Lou scares Stink and Judy more than a little. This, in turn, results in a pretty great prank the two play on Grandma. School is cancelled again and, when the Moody's wake in the morning, the storm is over but the backyard is flooded. This is where Gertrude comes into the story, along with a promise on the part of Stink, Judy and Grandma Lou to make sure there is more unplugged time in the very near future. And hopefully another special edition!

Other Judy Moody & Stink special editions:

Source: Review Copy

Judy Moody and Friends: Jessica Finch in Pig Trouble by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Erwin Madrid, 60 pp, RL 2

Jessica Finch in Pig Trouble is the first of two books in a new beginning reader series featuring some old favorites, Judy Moody and Friends! The Judy Moody series, which is roughly a 3rd grade reading level, debuted in 2000 and Stink, the series featuring Judy's little brother, written at a low 2nd grade level, appeared in 2005. Good books written at a 3rd grade reading level are hard to come by, and chapter books like Stink that are a bit of an easier read than Magic Tree House were double rare until last year. Now, McDonald is bringing her beloved cast of characters to newly independent readers in this new series.

Jessica Finch loves pigs and, with her birthday approaching, she is desperate to know if her parents have purchased that pot bellied pig she has been asking for. Jessica invites Judy over to her house to help search for presents but the girls only turn up a board game with pigs that they end up opening and playing. But, a few twists and turns, some Pig Latin and UN-friendings later, Jessica gets her surprise and finds out that Judy was in on it all along. Jessica's pig is named and a new club as Jessica A. Finch finds herself in pig heaven.

McDonald's story is sweet and simple, perfect for new readers. The Pig Latin and handful of made up words and names may give readers pause, but Jessica Finch in Pig Trouble is worth the effort. In a time when it seems like t.v. and movie tie-ins are clogging the shelves for emerging readers, it is nice to see new books that are thoughtful and well written. Erwin Madrid's illustrations are a wonderful, colorful compliment to those of Peter H. Reynolds, who illustrates the Judy Moody and Stink series.

The Judy Moody and Friends Series

Source: Review Copy


Lizzy Bennet's Diary by Marcia Williams, inspired by Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, 112 pp, RL: 4

I was familiar with the fantastic books of Marcia Williams when I discovered Lizzy Bennet's Diary and honestly would not have even opened this book if it had been written by almost anyone else. Curious about the origins of Lizzy Bennet's Diary, which is somewhat different from Williams's other books (see below) I turned immediately to the "Dear Reader" pages at the end of the book. There Williams shares that she was inspired to create Lizzy Bennet's Diary "after reading Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice for about the tenth time!" Knowing that creating this scrapbook diary was personal passion for Williams and that the quality in content and illustration and playfulness that she brings to her adaptations of other famous works as well as her original inspirations decided it for me. While I am still not entirely sure of the young audience for Lizzy Bennet's Diary, I do think that this is a book worth calling attention to. 

Twenty-something years ago when I was pregnant with my first child, I began reading and rereading the works of Jane Austen (and even toyed with the idea of naming my daughter Jane Austen.) A few years after that, the wave of movie and mini-series adaptations of Austen's works began rolling out, followed by the literary continuations, adaptations, updates and occasional desecrations of Austen's novels and characters. With enough distance between past readings (and viewings) I recently began listening to the audio versions of Austen's works and had just finished Pride and Prejudice when I picked up Lizzy Bennet's Diary, feeling prepared to read closely and critically, if needed.

While Williams stays true to Austen's story, her Lizzy as narrator has a girlish voice that is appropriate for young readers, especially when she is expressing the delights she finds in nature as well as literature and the tiresome aspects of some of the rituals of the day. Despite this, the theme of marriage remains central to the story. While the fates of Jane and Mr. Bingley, Charlotte and Mr. Collins, Lydia and Wickham and of course, Mr. Darcy drive the story, Williams includes details that enhance the diary format of the book and give a rich feel for the historical time period. Lizzy includes sketches and paintings of a "rain-drenched Song Thrush outside my window," a self-portrait and a portrait of Jane, as well as examples of the button-hole embroidery designs that she is adding to her Papa's waistcoat. There are also fabric samples, pressed flowers and leaves,  locks of hair and ribbons that are represented by photographs. Add to this the many letters and invitations that fold out from the pages of the diary and, adult or child, Austen fan or not, you will find yourself engrossed in Lizzy Bennet's Diary for hours.

Upon my recent revisiting of Pride and Prejudice, I was struck by aspects of Elizabeth Bennet's character and observations that I had forgotten or overlooked on previous readings and am impressed that Williams incorporates them into her version of Lizzy's diary. Her comments on the vast differences between her father and mother's personalities, the lack of sense and propriety in Lydia appear, as is expected, in this diary form and are tempered by Williams's lively sketches in the margins of the diary pages of cats chasing mice, dogs chewing shoes, birds on wing and pigs and sheep on the run, in addition to borders of leaves, flowers, hearts and tea cups. 

If all this is not enough to convince you, despite everything I knew about Marcia Williams when I opened Lizzy Bennet's Diary, it took the enthusiastic embracing of the book by two adult Jane Austen aficionados (ages 70 and 84) to convince me that this is indeed a book worth sharing with you here.

Other books by Marcia Williams - 
all available in paperback!

 Source: Review Copy


The Story of Buildings by Patrick Dillon, illustrated by Stephen Biesty, 96 pp, RL 4

For those of you not familiar with the amazing work of Stephen Biesty, be sure to read my review ofInto the Unknown: How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea and Air, written by Stewart Ross. Sadly, most of Biesty's cross section books are now out of print, but his work shines even brighter when he pairs with other authors, as in Into the Unknown, and now The Story of Buildings, written by Patrick Dillon. On writing The Story of Buildings, Dillon says, "My two favorite things are stories and buildings. Telling stories about buildings is as good as it gets." Dillon begins The Story of Buildings with building a house, writing, "How people left caves and learned to make places like your home is the story of buildings." From a stick shelter to the various kinds of brickwork (English, Flemish and American) to igloos, teepees, tents and a Musgum hut, Dillon takes readers on a journey through time that provides a solid overview for the more detailed information to come. To this, Biesty adds his expertise. Of his work on The Story of Buildings, he said, "I wanted each cross section to be a unique hand-drawn dissection that reveals and explains the structure of a famous building and shows how people live inside it in miniature detail." Added to this, there is also a timeline and index at the back of the book.

While The Story of Buildings kicks off with the Pyramid of Djoser, Dillon and Biesty take readers on a tour that mostly focuses on Greater European landmarks like the Parthenon, Notre Dame, Villa Rotonda, Vaux-le-Vicomte, Melk Abbey, the Crystal Palace, the Bauhaus and the Pompidou Center. But he also features Hagia Sofia, the Taj Mahal, the Forbidden City, the Chrysler Building and the Sydney Opera House. Two page spreads featuring individual buildings have one or two half-page gatefolds that add to the information, focusing on building styles, terminology and interesting facts.  

The chapters featuring buildings are interspersed with chapters that cover the historical, cultural and social aspects of various time periods that gives an overview of the movements and thinking that resulted in each unique building. The Greeks and the Romans are featured along with chapters on the Renaissance and the Baroque in Europe. There are also chapters on "Living in the Past," "Modern Buildings," "The International Style" and a final chapter on the Straw Bale House with the title, "Think Before You Build" that is a wonderful conclusion to the vast scope of architecture presented. With a gentle hand, Dillon points out that, while we are still asking the same questions that the first builders asked when they set out to create a shelter, today we "have to ask some new questions as well" and learn to "make buildings that harm the earth less."

The Story of Buildings is a magnificent book, both for the overview of information collected within as well as Dillon's straightforward presentation and ability to focus on what will appeal to young readers most, but it is Biesty's intricate, crisp illustrations that will draw readers - even those who are not year able to read the text - to this wonderful book and hook them!

Source: Review Copy


The Qwikpick Papers: Poop Fountain! by Tom Angleberger, 134 pp, RL 3

Of course any book with the word "poop" in the title is going to catch my attention - and that of most young readers. But the fact that  a book with the word "poop" in the title is authored by the fantastic Tom Angleberger makes it a MUST READ. Originally published in 2007 by Dial Books as The Qwikpick Adventure Society by Sam Riddleburger and now out of print, Abrams Amulet has republished it with a new title, new cover art (by the awesome Jen Wang, who illustrated Fake Mustache) and without the pseudonym. Having not read the original, I can't comment on further differences. The QwickPick Papers: Poop Fountain! by Tom Angleberger is the first in a series and I can't wait to read more!

First, the plot, then I'll extoll on the talents of the author himself. Angleberger begins The QwickPick Papers: Poop Fountain! with a note to the reader, sharing the origins of this story. Working as a newspaper reporter early in his career as a writer, Angleberger covered a story about the expansion of a sewage treatment plant in Virginia in 2000. Recently, Tom was contacted by a guy who found a "big stack of really weird papers" in the storage room of an old Qwikpick gas station, including his old newspaper story. The papers turned out to be really interesting and Angleberger decided to publish their "official report." He spends the rest of the note to the reader explaining what life was like in 2000 before the internet was the source of all forms of entertainment from music to television to movies and games, not to mention social networks. Tom writes, "I'm having trouble remembering what we DID use computers for back then, actually . . ." and wraps it up with, 

All of this meant that if you lived in a pretty boring town, you couldn't just go online and find something cool to do. You had to try to find something cool in the real world. And that's what these kids had been trying to do.

The "official report" looks kid created - from the taped in Polaroid photos to the "unofficial personal notes" added from time to time by Lyle Hertzog, owner of an electric typewriter, a misguided Christmas gift from his dad. Lyle's mom is the assistant manager of the Qwikpick gas station and convenience store in the small, dull town of Crickenberg. Lyle's dad has been working there since he lost his job at a factory seven years ago and the family lives in the Crab Creek Estates trailer park behind the Qwikpick. They both work Christmas day for the double time pay, leaving Lyle without much to do. Lyle's friends, Marilla, a new resident of Crab Creek after her father had to quit his job for health reasons and sell their townhouse, doesn't celebrate Christmas because her family is Jehovah's Witnesses, and Dave, who's family is Jewish, also find themselves without much to do on December 25th. Upon realizing they have this in common, the Qwickpick Adventure Society is born. The trio hang out and make their plans in the break room of the convenience store, thus their name, with a nod to Charles Dickens (and Daniel Pinkwater and Lynda Barry, among other greats) in the dedication. After several meetings, an article read by a classmate for a current affairs assignment mentioning an upgrade at the local sewage plant and the replacement of the "antiquated sludge fountain" gives the Society their first adventure.

The rest of the "official report" is taken up with the plans the trio makes for their Christmas Day trek to the sewage plan to see the "poop fountain" gurgling for the last time. And they do have a realistically genuine adventure once they get there, along with serious descriptions of the smell (expressed in haiku) and a diagram describing what the plant does and how it actually works. What makes  The QwickPick Papers: Poop Fountain! truly worth reading is the story that Angleberger weaves into the adventure, mostly as told to us by Lyle in his "unofficial personal notes" and the handwritten additions to his typed text. We learn how Lyle, Marilla and Dave became friends, a side note telling us that Lyle has a crush on Marilla. We also learn that Lyle is sensitive about how much money his parents spend on him, especially when his dad has one of his "big things" about how they will never pay off the credit cards and student loans from college, which he didn't finish. Lyle also talks about being friends with Dave, who comes from a family that is financially secure. Dave doesn't brag about having more money than Lyle and Marilla, it's more like he is completely unaware of what not having money means for Lyle and Marilla. 

Class differences is not a topic that comes up too often in kid's books, and in Lyle Angleberger has created a character who talks about it with empathy and thoughtfulness, even in light of his father, who has stronger opinions about the upper class. And, at a crucial moment in the story, Lyle decides to reach into the poop fountain to rescue Marilla's new camera, "not to try to impress her or to make her like me, although those would have been nice," but because he can see that she is about to cry and he knows that her parents bought it for her as a present, even though they really couldn't afford it. These diverse aspects - a Jehovah's Witness, a Jewish kid, a kid who is not white (but not identified as anything else), kids who live in a trailer park - are all just aspects of the story but not THE story, as they might be in any other kid's book.  The QwickPick Papers: Poop Fountain! is just a book about three kids and their journey to see a giant, bubbling pool of human waste. Happily for us, these kids are also funny, interesting, observant and intrepid!

The original book!

Source: Review Copy

Other great books  by Tom Angleberger: