Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon, 372 pp, RL 4

Castle Hangnail is the special treat that we get from Ursula Vernon that comes between the ending of her fantastic  Dragonbreath series and the start of her eagerly anticipated new series, Hamster Princess, featuring Harriet, a an extraordinary princess who excels at checkers and fractions, despite the curse that a wicked fairy god mouse cast, leaving her looking toward a Sleeping Beauty-like curse that will plunge her into a deep sleep when she turns twelve, but also leaves her invincible (and unable to die) until then. Princess Harriet makes the most of this, fighting Ogre-cats and cliff-diving with her faithful friend Mumfrey, a quail. While Hamster Princess promises to continue Vernon's awesome combination of graphic novel panels and traditional chapter book, Castle Hangnail offers a bigger bite for readers sink their teeth into.

Castle Hangnail reminds me very much of the novels of one of my favorite authors, sorely underrepresented here, Eva Ibottson. Ibottson, who began her career decades before J.K. Rowling, was a master of writing spooky fantasy novels rich with witches, wizards, ghosts and other creatures and made special by equal dollops of humor and humanity. In this post-Harry Potter world, finding fantasy for young readers that is not dark or violent is a challenge. I created the label Good Fantasy - Harmless Bad Guys to address this, and Ibbotson and Vernon are definitely the leaders in this category. Castle Hangnail introduces us to Molly, an usurping witch who is wicked, but not evil, and just wants to be the twelve-year-old resident Wicked Witch of Castle Hangnail. The minions of the castle, characters you will immediately adore, are in a difficult situation. The Board of Magic is on the verge of "de-magicking" and selling Castle Hangnail since it has been without a master for so long. It seems that magic is, "a lot like water, and if there isn't a fit Master in charge it'll puddle up everywhere, the basement will flood, and weird things will start laying eggs." This is a prime example of Vernon's special talent - she can be creative, funny and a little creepy all in one sentence.
When Molly arrives at the door of the castle with her letter letter of introduction (stolen from mean girl and classmate Eudaimonia) the minions of Castle Hangnail accept this "plump girl with a round face, a stubborn chin, and frizzy brown hair," hesitantly. While she does have serious black boots with purple shoelaces and metal caps on the toes that look like "they could kick a hole in a stone wall and have fun doing it," Molly just doesn't seem like the right person for the job. Molly has to prove herself as a witch AND win over the minions of the castle - a truly amazing cast of characters. There is the Igor-ish guardian, renamed Majordomo by Molly, and Edward, the ghost in knight's armor. Then there is Cook, a minotaur who has an ex-husband that results in her hatred - and banning - of the letter Q. Pins, a gifted tailor, is a doll made of burlap with pins stuck in his head who is NOT a voodoo doll. He shares his small living quarters with a talking goldfish who is "intensely neurotic and convinced that she is always sickening for something." He takes "tender care of the fish" and knits her a "very small waterproof scarf." Finally, there is Serenissima, child of a djinn - a spirit of immortal fire - and a shopkeeper who unknowingly had a distant ancestor who was a mermaid. This combination of fire and water resulted in steam, and Serenissima spent her time in a teakettle when she wasn't steam-cleaning the castle.

I don't think that Castle Hangnail is intended to be a series, but another visit to the castle and its kooky-creepy inhabitants would definitely be a welcome


Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones, illustrated by Katie Kath, 216 pp. RL 4

I absolutely LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones with perfect illustrations by Katie Kath! First, it is an epistolary novel, one of my favorite kinds of books. Next, in Sophie Brown, Jones has created an ethnic character who speaks matter-of-factly about being discriminated against because of the color of her skin. I am always thrilled to find culturally diverse characters in books and I especially appreciate it when an author can write about race in a way that is present, sensitive and comprehensible for young readers. Finally, with her unusual chickens, Jones has created a truly fantastic cast of characters that gives Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer a quintessential touch of magic (along with a ghost or two) that makes it truly memorable, as you can see in the image below.

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer begins with Sophie's letter to Redwood Farm Supply in Gravenstein, CA, requesting a catalog with more information about their unusual chickens. Sophie, her mother and father, have moved from Los Angeles to this rural town north of San Francisco after her father inherits his Uncle Jim's farm. Sophie's dad is unemployed, her mother is a freelance writer, money is tight and is seems that Uncle Jim was a hoarder. However, Sophie has all summer to sort through his piles and piles of stuff. Dad is white, but brown-skinned Sophie and her mother are occasionally taken for migrant workers in this small farming town. All these details, and more, unfold as Sophie, lonely and a little sad at the loss of her beloved abuela, Mariposa Garcia González, writes letters to her, Great-Uncle Jim and Redwood Farm, all delivered by Gregory, the friendly, knowing mailman. While Abuelita and Great-Uncle Jim don't write back, after Sophie discovers a small, angry white chicken she names Henrietta, she does get a few mysterious, typo-ridden missives from Agnes of Redwood Farm.

Kath's illustrations for Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer are absolutely perfect - playfully humorous and and detailed when needed, like for the Beginning Poultry Course that Agnes instructs Sophie to find in the file cabinet in the crowded barn. This portion of the novel actually includes real lessons on how to care for chickens and is quite interesting. However, Sophie quickly learns that Great-Uncle Jim's chickens from Redwood Farm are unusual in more than just appearance when she spots Henrietta, who lays glass eggs and has a way with latches and locks, levitates her empty water jar. As more curious chickens arrive and a neighbor begins snooping around, Sophie comes to understand why Agnes instructed her not to tell anyone about the unusual chicken.

Although told all in letters, Jones creates a complete world and a rich story for Sophie and her chickens. There is a friendly librarian, a friendly feed store employee and a neighbor with chickens of his own. After realizing the magical qualities of her unusual chickens, Sophie discovers that Ms. Griegson, the neighbor who has been trying to poach them, has an unusual chicken of her own - one that can turn into from a Rhode Island Red to a red-tailed hawk at will. Worried for the well being and safety of her unusual chickens, Sophie goes to some desperate lengths, although the tension and danger never gets too intense and the presence of caring adults, ghosts or otherwise, is felt throughout the story. Jones, who worked as a children's librarian and bookseller and has her own flock of chickens, does a wonderful job of including real books that feature chickens - like Pinkwater's The Hoboken Chicken Emergency and Prairie Evers by Ellen Airgood, along with facts about chickens and a great recipe for migas, a Mexcian breakfast dish with tortillas, eggs, salsa and more that is THE BEST! I can't wait to see what Kelly Jones cooks (or clucks?) up next!

Source: Review Copy


William and the Missing Masterpiece by Helen Hancocks

William and the Missing Masterpiece is the second picture book from Helen Hanckocks. Her first book, Penguin in Peril, was the biggest selling picture book in the UK last year! Hancocks has a fantastic, wry sense of humor that expresses itself perfectly through her cat and penguin main characters as well as the plots and illustrations of her books. Crime seems to be a theme in Hancocks's books as well! In Penguin in Peril,  cats kidnap a penguin from the zoo, convinced it can get them all the fish that they want. With William and the Missing Masterpiece, fine art, cheese and very devious rodents are involved.

William and the Missing Masterpiece begins, "William, international cat of mystery, was planning a vacation when he was interrupted by a telephone call." Monsieur Gruyère was calling from Paris to say that the Mona Cheesa (in this version, Lisa has an array of cheese spread before her) had been stolen from his museum! And what's worse, it's National Cheese Week! William heads to Paris and begins looking for clues right away.

Part of the fun of William and the Missing Masterpiece are the art jokes that Hancocks makes in her illustrations. Manet, Munch, Rousseau, Magritte, Dalí and Seurat and Mattise. In fact, Hancocks tucks Mattise (and a touch of Picasso in the blue and white striped shirt) in the form of Henri Roquefort, into the story itself. Along with his friend, Fifi Le Brie, who has a chunk of red hair and blue skin right out of a Matisse painting, the two help William solve the crime, and just in time!

William's prowl through the city on the trail of the thief is great fun and his unmasking of the thief at the Homage to Fromage Annual Art Gala is truly a treat. Best of all, William and the Missing Masterpiece ends with William at poolside, somewhere sunny!

You can listen to Helen talk about her book and how she created it on Weekend Edition here:

The real William and his book!

Source: Review Copy


Grandma in Blue with Red Hat, written by Scott Menchin and illustrated by Harry Bliss

Building a picture book around actual works of art can be a tricky task. With Grandma in Blue with Red Hat,  Scott Menchin, illustrator of several picture books and author of more than a few, creates a masterpiece. In addition to his work in picture books, Menchin is an award winning illustrator and teacher at the Pratt Institute Graduate School. This makes him very well poised to write a story that takes place, mostly, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is not only about art but about what is art. 

Fortunately, like the narrator of Grandma in Blue with Red Hat, Menchin, and Harry Bliss, picture book illustrator and cartoonist for the New Yorker, have great senses of humor, even making a couple of underwear jokes and including an AARP magazine with R. Crumb on the cover. Grandma in Blue with Red Hat begins with the narrator waving goodbye to his Grandma as he heads into the Met, telling us that Saturday is the best day because that's when he has art class. Ms. Montebello, his teacher, asks the class, "Did you know that anything can be in an art exhibition?" As she says this, the narrator imagines a toilet on a pedestal, signed by the artist F. Lush, being admired. It reminded me of Marcel Duchamp's work, Fountain, which was signed, "R. Mutt." However, while there are recognizable works of art in Grandma in Blue with Red Hat, along with images of the narrator reading (or possessing) books about Georgia O'Keefe and Daumier, along with works that mimic famous pieces, there is no glossary at the back of the book, which actually feels right. If there is any kind of message in Grandma in Blue with Red Hat, it is that anything can be art, so why label stuff?

The class tours the museum, answering Ms. Montebello's question, "Why is this in the museum?" Back at home, discussing his class with his grandmother, the narrator realizes that Grandma has all the same qualities of the works of art his class viewed and decides that his Grandma should be in the museum. With the backing of Ms. Montebello, he takes his idea to the curator, who gently persuades him otherwise, saying, "We do have a rule at the museum. We do not take of grandmas." And this is when an even better idea is born. The narrator decides to put on his own exhibition, filled with paintings and scupltures done in many styles and traditions, all featuring his amazing grandma. Mom, Dad and Grandma host the show, with cupcakes and lots of guests admiring the art.

 A few more fantasitc picture books about art, museums and creativity:

the dot                        The Museum

Museum Trip                         Meet Me at the Museum

Library Mouse: A Museum Adventure          You Can't Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum

Source: Review Copy


Art Lab for Kids AND Art Lab for Little Kids AND 3-D Art Lab for Kids by Susan Schwake, photographs by Rainer Schwake

Susan Schwake is an artist with over two decades worth of experience teaching in a diverse number of educational settings, running her own art school and creating and curating a permanent installation of children's artwork for a new wing of her local library. As a bookseller, I was immediately drawn to her first book, Art Lab for Kids: 52 Creative Adventures in Drawing, Painting, Printmaking, Paper and Mixed Media because well written, visually appealing art books for kids are rare. As the title tells you, Schwake covers a lot of ground in this book. Even more rare are good art books for little kids. Happily, Schwake has also published Art Lab for Little Kids: 52 Playful Projects for Preschoolers. All three of Schwake's books, Art Lab for KidsArt Lab for Little Kids and 3-D Art Lab for Kids are highly readable. From the layout to the photography (done by Schwake's husband) to the text,  these books are very engaging and highly readable. Both books are divided into 6 units, each with 10 "labs," with Unit 1 in both books serving as an introduction. In Art Lab for Kids, Schwake covers "How to use this book and make art with others," which includes a master list of materials needed and how to set the stage for creativity. Her tips on how to make art with others include ones I especially like, "Promote fearlessness," and "Don't worry about wrecking a new paper or canvas. These items can be reused - torn up for collage, primed over with gesso, or printed over." Art Lab for Little Kids also gives great instructions for setting up a creative space that is well stocked and ready for action. The design of Schwake's books are filled with excellent step-by-step photos that show how to create the labs and a superb feature for each lab titled, "Meet the Artist" where a work of art and a bit of biographical information about artists who created works that inspired the labs.  

While Schwake covers familiar ground, which is important, and she also brings interesting methods and media into her projects. Art Lab for Kids has labs like "Dream Animals," where kids are encouraged to create whole families of imaginary animals and"Painting Like a Fauvist," and labs where watercolor and salt and watercolor and plastic are used for technique. In Unit 5, Paper, Schwake has intriguing labs like "Collage Tissue Self-Portriats," "Torn Paper  Landscapes," "Map Collage," and "Text as Texture," which I am going to try out myself!

3-D Art Lab for Kids: 32 Hands on Adventures in Sculpture and Mixed Media continues on with the inventive ideas and excellent step-by-step photos. Instead of "Meet the Artist," we are treated to "Artist Visits," where we get a glimpse into the artist's studio and a Q&A with the artist. Chapters in 3-D Art Lab for Kids cover paper,  clay play, textiles, sculpture and jewelry. Projects range from rain sticks, mood masks, wall pockets and pinch pot birds to soft sculptures, paper merpeople, little worlds and frozen jute sculptures. The chapter on jewelry has projects made from clay, paper and wire that are really fantastic. There is definitely more mess potential with the projects in 3-D Art Lab for Kids, but it is worth the results. 
If you buy any art books for kids, whether it is for use at home with your own children or for use in organized situations like play dates, birthday parties or school environments, Art Lab for KidsArt Lab for Little Kids and 3-D Art Lab for Kids are the books to buy!

Source: Review Copies


The Paper Playhouse: Awesome Art Projects for Kids Using Paper, Boxes and Books by Katrina Rodabaugh

I am SO in LOVE with The Paper Playhouse: Awesome Art Projects for Kids Using Paper, Boxes and Books by Katrina Rodbaugh for SO many reasons. The only thing I don't like about it is that it did not exist 10 years ago when my kids were little and would have loved the projects inside. First, though, I have to commend publisher Quarry Books, creators of "high-end, beautifully designed, visual inspiration and reference books on art, crafts, foods" and more. I have read and reviewed several of their books for children and they are all consistently wonderfully produced and packed with fantastic projects and information.

Before I talk about the fantastic projects in The Paper Playhouse: Awesome Art Projects for Kids Using Paper, Boxes and Books, I want to talk about the penultimate chapter of the book, Gallery: Artists as Inspiration where Rodabaugh features artists who all use paper, books or boxes to make art. By sharing a bit about their art, Rodabaugh hopes to inspire readers to "see the possibilities in these ordinary materials and maybe even encourage you to broaden your definition of what art can be." How can you not love an art & craft book that educates and encourages kids to explore their creativity and be inspired by other artists?

Rodabaugh divides The Paper Playhouse into for parts, the first three covering projects using paper, books and boxes. One thing I especially love about The Paper Playhouse is the way that Rodabaugh's projects use found items like junk mail, file folders, magazines, greeting cards, calendars, old library books, shoe boxes, cereal boxes and other reusable containers.

Another thing I love about The Paper Playhouse is that the projects are very, very doable. I am a pretty handy with an X-acto knife and a hot glue gun, but I have found myself frustrated by my inability to make my creations look like those in the well-staged, visually appealing photos in the books & magazines (like a certain craft maven with the initials MS....)

There are paper play houses to be made in The Paper Playhouse, both large and small, and much more. Projects, like garlands, mobiles, mini-books, a Volkswagen Bus Box and a birdhouse bungalow have excellent step-by-step instructions with step-by-step photographs (and a photo of the supplies needed) along with very clear text instructions to follow. Of course this is a book that requires parental involvement, but this is also a book that is so fun you will enjoy every second of creating with your kids.

Source: Review Copy


Amelia's Middle-School Graduation Yearbook by Marissa Moss (except for words and pictures by Amelia) 80pp. RL 5

Wow! It's hard to believe that Marissa Moss's creation, Amelia and her composition book/diary, first hit the shelves 20 years ago! Amelia was not new to me, having just started as a children's bookseller, and having a daughter and a collection of American Girl dolls. Amelia and her notebooks have had a variety of publishers, starting with Tricycle Press. After publishing an excerpt from the original book in their magazine and getting great reader response, American Girl bought the backlist of four titles and went on to publish 11 more before being bought by Mattel. The Amelia series was then sold to Simon & Schuster. However, Amelia's Middle-School Graduation Yearbook has a very special publisher - Creston Books, founded by Marissa Moss! Creston Books is a brand new publisher of children's books, which is dedicated to publishing a wide range of creative, quality picture books, filling a void left by major publishers.
In 2010, I reviewed Amelia's Notebook, when she was starting 6th grade at a new school, and several other titles in the series, noting that this very successful series, with sales of over 5 million copies and translations in six languages, was a forerunner to books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, and Amy Ignatow's awesome  Popularity Papers, as well as graphic novels. Moss said regretfully in an article in Publishers Weekly that she just didn't think she could "bring Amelia to high school." She went on to say, "It's sad, because she is a real part of me. But at the same time, I've been handwriting these notebooks for 20 years, and that hasn't gotten any easier with time. I draw everything, including the notebook lines and the splotches on the cover, so my hand is very tired!" That said, Amelia's Middle-School Graduation Yearbook a peek at the cover of her new notebook, titled, Amelia's Summer Before High School Notebook.

Being a momentous book, both for graduations and anniversaries, Amelia's Middle-School Graduation Yearbook is both reflective (Amelia is making the same face she made on the cover of the first book, this time with a mortar board on) and filled with the same kind of everyday life problems that (middle class) kids face. And it is actually a yearbook, since Amelia's mom refuses to buy her one, saying yearbooks are an expensive waste of money. Carly, Amelia's best friend since the middle of fourth grade, shakes anxious Amelia's world by telling her that she will be going to a different high school next year. And, when she asks to visit her long-absent father in Chicago (in part to get out of summer school) he surprises her with the hope that she will go to Hebrew school so she can be bat-mitzvahed, even though her mother has not raised her in the religion. In the midst of all this, Amelia and Carly are planning a Graduation BBQ Celebration Extravaganza that Amelia, sweetly and secretly, turns into a going away party for Carly.

Maybe there will be more Amelia in the future, maybe not. Either way, I am grateful to Moss for being a forerunner of what has become a new genre in kid's books - the notebook novel - and for creating her thoughtful, imaginative, funny character, Amelia, a kid you wouldn't mind your own child emulating.

Source: Review Copy


The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake by Robin Newman and illustrated by Deborah Zemke, 38 pp, RL 2

The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake by Robin Newman and illustrated by Deborah Zemke
is a fantastic new book from Creston Books, a homegrown publisher of books printed in America that launched in Fall of 2013. Of course I love a good story, but I also love a beautifully made book and all of Creston's books fit this bill, as you can glimpse in the photo below, and by taking a look inside The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake. When you open the cover, the first page looks just like an open manila folder with a (very funny) case report and paper clip for added detail. The book ends with another folder that includes a carrot cake recipe from the marvelous Mollie Katzen, grand dame of vegetarian cooking and staple of my college years.

The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake is exactly the kind of book kids will love. Detective Wilcox is a policemouse and his boss is Captain Griswold and they are both MFIs - Missing Food Investigators. Their day begins early with call from Miss Rabbit and a "Code 12 - a missing cake," and of course it's a carrot cake. Newman adds many nice touches, like the MFIs grabbing cheese donuts as they rush out to investigate the crime or light traffic in the form of "a couple of chickens crossing the road."
There are lots of suspects and several clues. Everyone from Fowler the Owl to Porcini (the pig with a rap sheet "a mile long for corn robberies but no cake priors") and Hot Dog. The team from MFI conducts some serious surveillance and manages to crack the case and have a little party, with the help of Hot Dog and an extra carrot cake with the added crunch of dog biscuits. Hopefully Newman and Zemke have more cases to crack in the future!

Source: Review Copy