101 posts categorized "Early Elementary School" Feed

Piper Green and the Fairy Tree: The Sea Pony by Ellen Potter + Qin Leng

Book: Piper Green and the Fairy Tree: The Sea Pony (Book 3)
Author: Ellen Potter
Illustrator: Qin Leng
Pages: 128
Age Range: 7-9

SeaPony

The Sea Pony is the third book in the Piper Green and the Fairy Tree early chapter book series. (See my review of Books 1 and 2 here.) Piper is a seven-year-old girl who lives on a small island off the coast of Maine. Her island is so small that the younger kids take a lobster boat every morning to another island to attend school. Piper's older brother attends high school on the mainland, and can only come home on weekends. The other thing that's noteworthy about Piper is that she has a Fairy Tree in her front yard. She leaves small gifts for the fairies inside the tree, and they sometimes leave gifts for her. These gifts are mysterious at first, but generally turn out to be exactly what Piper needed.

In The Sea Pony, Piper finds a necklace in the tree. I won't spoil the surprise, but the necklace leads directly to Piper's discovery of the Sea Pony, as well as to the recovery of a lost family item. I'm never 100% clear on whether the Fairy Tree actually is magic, or whether a kindly neighbor might be intervening. But the sequence of events in The Sea Pony certainly have a magical quality to them. There's also a horse, and the chance for Piper to show up her nemesis. Seven-year-old readers will love it!

I quite like Piper. She's independent and resourceful, but with realistic capabilities and shortcomings. She tries to make a special meal for her brother and the result is something of a fiasco. But (living on a small island) she can go to the store by herself and get a missing ingredient. She helps her dad on his lobster boat. She's savvy enough to request payment, but young enough to think that at 10 cents a bait bag she'll earn enough to buy a horse in no time. She reminded me of my daughter in her optimism, willingness to work, and unrealistic larger expectations. Here are a couple of snippets:

"I'd never had a fancy necklace before. The only necklace I owned was made out of folded-up potato chip bags. My best friend, Ruby, made it for me." (Chapter 2)

and:

(On learning that a surprise will be arriving on the ferry) "I wondered what it could be. A candy-vending machine, maybe? Or a gigantic turtle?

Then I thought of something.

"I'll bet it's a CIRCUS!!" I said in my whistle language." (Chapter 3)

Isn't Piper perfect? I also like Ellen Potter's occasional use of Maine lingo. The title of Chapter 7 is: "A Wicked Bad Gullywhumper" (a big storm). 

Qn Leng's black and white illustrations (one per chapter, a mix of whole and half-page pictures) convey Piper's movement and enthusiasm, as well as the coziness of the island. The expression on Piper's face as she stuffs smelly fish into a bait bag in Chapter 7 is priceless. 

The Piper Green and the Fairy Tree series, and The Sea Pony in particular, has a nice mix of "stuff kids think are cool" (living on a small island, taking boats, a Fairy Tree) and realistic family/community/kid dynamics. Piper's family is not the most well-off on the island, and her father doesn't hesitate to take her to task when she uses bait injudiciously. But the island also acquires a horse! The Sea Pony strikes a nice balance, I think. I'm happy to see this series continuing strong. I think it's a perfect fit for kids just starting to be ready for chapter books. Recommended, and definitely a nice addition for libraries serving new readers. 

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: August 16, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Snoop Troop: It Came from Beneath the Playground: Kirk Scroggs

Book: Snoop Troop: It Came from Beneath the Playground
Author: Kirk Scroggs
Pages: 176
Age Range: 7-10

SnoopTroop1It Came from Beneath the Playground is the first book in the Snoop Troop series of mysteries for early elementary school kids. I found it to be highly entertaining, with kid-friendly humor and a non-obvious mystery. When sources of fun (including a local merry-go-round and the school playground) start disappearing, a mystery-obsessed girl named Logan Lang races to help. In the face of inept adult investigators, Logan reluctantly joins forces with a police-obsessed boy named Gustavo Muchomacho (previously her "arch-nuisance"). The two each bring complementary mystery-solving skills to the table, and their differences lend humor along the way. 

It Came from Beneath the Playground is a heavily illustrated  chapter book, with multiple pictures on every page, much of the information conveyed in text bubbles, and seek-and-find type activities throughout. There are also bonus puzzles and visual games included at the end of the book. It reads like a graphic novel, but does include some narrative text, too. The narrator talks directly to Logan from time to time, and readers are directly encouraged to find clues along the way.

Despite the many illustrations, I would place It Came from Beneath the Playground as more a book for second graders and up than for first graders. It's relatively long, and many of the illustrations are small and detailed. Readers hoping to solve the mystery will need to keep track of hints from different parts of the book. There are also some strong vocabulary words, as well as puns that I don't think the newest readers will get. (e.g. an amusement park owner named "Izzy Hurling"). And there are ransom notes in the form of word jumbles. 

But for kids who are ready for it, It Came from Beneath the Playground is a lot of fun. I laughed out loud several times while reading it. Like this:

Narrator: "That's fourth-grader Logan Lang sitting in the dark, dank library, just like she does every day after school, surrounded by her friends...

And when I say "friends," I mean mystery books, crime novels, and twisted tales of suspense...

They're all she has in this cold, lonely world." 

Logan (via text bubble): "Okay, I think they get it. I'm a little too into mystery books."

and:

Police detective (via text bubble, at the amusement park crime scene): "You again? I've warned you about trespassing on crime scenes. This place is crawling with stuffed animals, candy, and arcade games--it's no place for a kid!" 

and:

Narrator: "Gustavo jumps onto one end of the seesaw to save Bobby Bing, but for some reason, Bobby goes sailing into the air without even saying good-bye."

Gustavo (via text bubble): "Wait! Don't go. I'm trying to rescue you!"

Gustavo is not too bright, but he does mean well. He has a bunch of gadget-enhanced mustaches, which are pretty funny. Logan has a combination police scanner/lunchbox. Her office is a retired ice cream truck. 

Snoop Scoop: It Came from Beneath the Playground is perfect for kids who enjoy the Lunch Lady series and are ready for something a little bit more challenging. It's highly interactive and dynamic, and a great introduction to how to solve mysteries. Recommended for library or home purchase, with a slight plus for home purchase because kids may want to write in the puzzle and game section at the end. 

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids)
Publication Date: September 9, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the author (via my friend Miles)

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Truth About My Unbelievable Summer: Davide Cali and Benjamin Chaud

Book: The Truth About My Unbelievable Summer ...
Author: Davide Cali
Illustrator: Benjamin Chaud
Pages: 44
Age Range: 6-9

A couple of years ago I reviewed I Didn't Do My Homework Because ... by Davide Cali and Benjamin Chaud, saying that I thought that it was fun, but wasn't sure if it would hold up to repeat reads. I didn't review the second book in the series, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School.... But I have to say that my six-year-old daughter and I both really enjoyed the newest book in this series: The Truth About My Unbelievable Summer... It is a perfect book for elementary school kids to dig into over summer vacation. 

In The Truth About My Unbelievable Summer..., a teacher asks a suit-clad boy "what did you do this summer?" The boy launches into a lengthy story  about how he found a message in a bottle containing a treasure map, which was stolen out of his hand by a magpie, launching him on a world-wide quest to find the magpie, and follow the map to the treasure. There are pirates, sea serpents, balloons, and bookstores, among other scenes. The boy visits countries like India and China, and travels via everything from skis to jetpacks, always accompanied by his dog. 

Cali's text is minimal, but descriptive and fun to read aloud. Like this (across three pages):

"At just the right moment, my uncle passed by in his latest invention.

Since it was still experimental, there were some surprises.

My uncle dropped me off on a deserted island, where the magpie stole my map again." 

But it's the illustrations that really bring the boy's story to life. We see that the "invention" is a kind of spaceship, and that the uncle picks up boy and dog using hooks on ropes. We see the boy, led along a rooftop by a costumed actress. We see him fall from a bookstore ladder, with books flying. It's all just pure, kid-friendly fun. 

This book is aimed at six to nine year olds. It's sort of a cross between a picture book and an early reader. It's shaped like a hardcover early reader, but features full-page illustrations with a single sentence (usually at the bottom) on each page, like a picture book. The Truth About My Unbelievable Summer... would work as a read-aloud to a six-year-old, or as a book for a slightly more advanced reader to enjoy on her own. 

There was only one part that my daughter had trouble following, when the boy says that he traveled back in time, but it was really just some people making a movie. Both of us loved a twist at the end. 

In short, I think that The Truth About My Unbelievable Summer... is the best installment so far of this quirky series. Recommended for any six to eight year old kid who likes reading about travel and pirates and adventure in general. This would, of course, make a fun summer read. 

Publisher: Chronicle Kids (@ChronicleKids)
Publication Date: July 5, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Agatha Parrot and the Odd Street School Ghost

Book: Agatha Parrot and the Odd Street School Ghost
Author: Kjartan Poskitt
Illustrator: Wes Hargis
Pages: 160
Age Range: 7-10

AgathaParrotAndGhostThe Agatha Parrot books by Kjartan Poskitt are illustrated (by Wes Hargis) early chapter books originally published in the UK, and now being issued in hardcover in the US by Clarion Books. The first book, Agatha Parrot and the Odd Street School Ghost, is a humorous and only very slightly scary ghost story involving an excessively ringing school clocktower, a mysterious glowing face, a spunky narrator, and a quirky cast of characters.

Agatha Jane Parrot lives on Odd Street, close to her school. She has a competent mother, a hapless father, and two siblings. Her friends are helpfully drawn and captioned at the front in the book, and soon introduced by Agatha as she rates each of their lunches with points out of ten for "interestingness." All of them are odd. One of them doesn't even make sense most of the time, and one of them is unrepentantly "big and hearty" (with a running joke about how much she eats). When the friends start hearing the school clock ringing and ringing during the night, and then see a strange glowing face in the window, they decide to investigate. Hijinks, including a late-night school ghost watch organized by the principal, ensue.

Agatha's narrative style is unconventional and kid-friendly. She speaks directly to the reader, and uses a lot of asides, exclamation points, and capital letters. Like this:

"My name is Agatha Jane Parrot and I live on house number 5, which has a red front door if you want to color it in." (Page 2)

and:

"Good old clock. No wonder I went straight back to sleep with a smile on my face. (Although I couldn't see the smile, of course, because I was asleep.) (And it was dark.) (And it was my own face and I didn't have a mirror, so I couldn't have seen it anyway.) (This is getting silly -- ha ha!) (Sausage pie.) (Just thought I'd put that in for no reason!) (I bet the printers take it out.) (The meanies." (Page 10)

The book overall has a bit of an over-the-top Dahl-esque feel, with one teacher who imposes ridiculous contradictory rules, a kid who can climb anything, and a disgusting cereal called Fish Popz. Hargis's illustrations, full of exaggerated and sometime unpleasant characters, contribute to this feel. This over-the-top feel also helps keep the book from being too scary for young readers. Even when scary things are happening, Poskitt regularly lightens the mood. 

Agatha Parrot and the Odd Street School Ghost gives kids an entertaining narrator and ghostly mystery to solve. It stands out from more ordinary  chapter book series, while maintaining a school and home setting. I think it will be a welcome addition to the ranks of chapter books here in the US. Libraries serving 7-10 year olds will definitely want to give this one a look.

Publisher: Clarion Books (@HMHKids) 
Publication Date: July 5, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Mister Cleghorn's Seal: Judith Kerr

Book: Mister Cleghorn's Seal
Author: Judith Kerr
Pages: 96
Age Range: 7-10

Mister Cleghorn's Seal is a new illustrated chapter book by Judith Kerr (who wrote the very first book that we read aloud to my daughter after she was born: One Night in the Zoo). Mister Cleghorn's Seal is a quick and lovely read, set in a time when cigarettes are "newfangled". I think it would make pretty much a perfect first chapter book to read aloud to a preschooler, with a short length, no chapter breaks, and Kerr's black-and-white illustrations on just about every page. 

Mister Cleghorn's Seal is about a retired shop-owner who, while visiting his cousin's family by the sea, ends up adopting an orphaned sea cub. While it is not common that children's books have an adult protagonist (and even a quiet romance), children will know from the earliest pages of the book that Mister Cleghorn is a kindred spirit. He plays with his cousin's children. And when the seal is refusing to eat, he holds it like a baby, with no concern at all for appearances or anything else. He tricks the narrow-minded janitor in his building. He is wonderful. 

Kerr's gentle illustrations bring Mister Cleghorn, the seal, and the time period to life. My favorite is a page spread in which Mister Cleghorn is sitting in the luggage compartment of a train, bringing the seal home, holding onto his hat, and clearly wondering how he got into this mess. But one could look at any illustration on any page to get a sense of the tone of Mister Cleghorn's Seal. 

Mister Cleghorn's Seal is the perfect next step to read-aloud to kids who enjoy picture books, and have the attention to handle a bit more text. It is a book that will make the reader, and the listener, happy. I'm going to try it with my daughter soon. Recommended!

Publisher: Harper Collins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens)
Publication Date: June 7, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Magical Animal Adoption Agency, Book 2: The Enchanted Egg: Kallie George

Book: The Magical Animal Adoption Agency, Book 2: The Enchanted Egg
Author: Kallie George
Illustrator: Alexandra Boiger
Pages: 144
Age Range: 7-10

The Enchanted Egg is the second book in Kallie George's Magical Animal Adoption Agency series of illustrated chapter books, following Clover's Luck. These books are simply perfect for younger elementary age kids who enjoy books about caring for animals, and/or books about magic. In this installment, young Clover is once again left in charge at the Magical Animal Adoption Agency, where she started working three weeks earlier. Her boss, Mr. Jams, has gone off to find any expert who can help them care for whatever comes out of a mysterious large egg. Trouble ensues during Mr. Jams' absence, and Clover fears that as a small, non-magical being, she may not be up for the challenge. Young readers will, of course, know better. 

Clover is an engaging heroine, insecure but determined, and slowly coming to a stronger sense of her own strengths. She has largely absent parents (necessary for this sort of story), but at least there are two of them, and they do make sure to leave her with food.

The book is filled with delightful magical tidbits, like a ghost baker who makes cupcakes so light that they float and a little Leprechaun girl dressed all in rainbow colors. These are lovingly captured by Alexandrea Boiger's pencil illustrations, large and small. One of my favorite details is on page four. The text says: "The back door of the Agency was hidden by dark green vines. The vines gave the door a secret feel, which Clover liked." On this page, a delicate drawing of vines covers the left and top margins. Small drawings bring to life everything from cupcakes to magical animal bathing apparatuses, while full-page illustrations bring the reader into Clover's world. 

Really, what's not to like about a book that starts with this:

"An egg is full of possibilities. Especially an enchanted one. The tiniest egg can hold the most fearsome dragon. The biggest egg, the shiest sea serpent."

and includes a tiny green kitten who can form his tail into the shape of a question mark? The Magical Animal Adoption Agency series belongs in classrooms and libraries everywhere. I look forward to sharing these books with my daughter when she is just the tiniest bit older. Recommended!

Publisher: Disney Hyperion (@DisneyHyperion)
Publication Date: November 3, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Weekends with Max and His Dad: Linda Urban

Book: Weekends with Max and His Dad
Author: Linda Urban
Illustrator: Katie Kath
Pages: 160
Age Range: 6-9

Weekends with Max and His Dad is the first of a new illustrated early chapter book series by Linda Urban. The book is divided into three multi-chapter sections. Each section recounts a weekend that third grader Max spends with his dad in his dad's new apartment (following his parents' separation). In other hands, a book for kids about adjusting to such a new family circumstance could have been didactic. In Linda Urban's hands, Weekends with Max and His Dad is flat out adorable. 

In the first section, Max sees his dad's bare, white apartment for the first time. Max is in a spy phase, and he learns about the new neighborhood, and helps out a stranger, while playing spy. All I could think when I was reading this section was how much my spy-obsessed five-year-old daughter would love it. On the second weekend, Max and his dad meet a couple of neighbors, and add a couch to the apartment. On the third weekend, Max's best friend comes for a sleepover, and the boys have to go on a quest to find necessary supplies for a school project. The entire book is filled with kid-relatable issues, sprinkled with Urban's trademark slightly quirky characters.

While many of the illustrations in the advanced copy that I read were still "to come", there were enough to see a light treatment of multi-culturalism. Max and his dad are white, but their turban-wearing neighbor Mrs. Tibbet appears to be dark-skinned, as is Max's best friend, Warren. The denizens of the coffeeshop frequented by Max and dad are realistically varied. The pictures also add plenty of humor, especially in the first section, when Max and dad are wearing spy disguises. There are maps and charts, and a delightful sketch of a porcupine. 

Here's a sample of the text:

"This disguise is so good even I don't know who I am," said Dad.

"That's okay." Max patted Dad's elbow. "I will remind you."

"Thanks, Pal." Dad smiled and his mustache fell off.

"You can't smile, Agent Cheese. You need to remain inconspicuous."

"Inconspicuous, eh?" Dad as careful not to smile with his mouth, but his eyes smiled anyway." (Weekend One, Chapter Two, ARC)

And here's a scene with neighbor Mrs. Tibbet, who is wonderful. Max and his dad have offered to take Mrs. Tibbet's dogs for a walk:

"A caution: These are not greyhounds. Their pace is not swift, and they like an intermission."

"Don't walk too fast and let them rest sometimes?" said Max.

"Exactly." (Weekend Two, Chapter Two, ARC)

All three sections end with scenes that are heartwarming without being cloying. As I finished the first of these I though, "Yep, my daughter is really going to love this book."And did you know that baby porcupines are called "porcupettes"? Linda Urban is the queen of kid-friendly. Max's dad is kind and thoughtful, but uncertain and prone to mistakes, too. He and Max feel real. I look forward to their further adventures. Highly recommended for schools and libraries serving elementary-age kids. 

Publisher:  HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: April 5, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Oodlethunks #1: Oona Finds an Egg: Adele Griffin and Mike Wu

Book: The Oodlethunks #1: Oona Finds an Egg
Author: Adele Griffin
Illustrator: Mike We
Pages: 160
Age Range: 7-10

Oona Finds an Egg is the first book in the new Oodlethunks series of early chapter books, written by Adele Griffin and extensively illustrated by Mike Wu. The Oodlethunks are a cave family living in a time when the oldest in the community can remember seeing dinosaurs. One day, when young Oona gets lots, she finds a large, beautiful egg. She carries the egg home, and tries to care for it, though there's no telling what, if anything might hatch. In parallel she fights with her younger brother, feels jealous of her best friend's new pet, and attends school. 

Oona Finds and Egg is kind of a funny mix of pre-historic and contemporary. Burping is considered normal, even encouraged behavior, and meals are followed by the picking of teeth. Art is produced only on cave walls. But Oona and her brother wear shoes, and have household rules written (in words) on their cave wall. Her mother goes out to work, while her father stays home and cooks ahead-of-his-time cuisine. The shoes really bugged me for some reason. But I doubt that the average seven year old reader will be bothered by this anachronism. 

Oona Finds an Egg is kid-friendly fun for the early elementary school set, with a bullying neighbor, embarrassing school lunches, and the universal desire for a pet. These are set against entertaining details like the fact that each kid has a named club. Wu's sepia-toned illustrations render Oona as a cute, big-eyed kid, at her best when seen showing affection for Egg. There are occasional sequences of panels, like little comic strips, mingled with full and partial page illustrations. 

Oona is a relatable kid, despite her occasional prehistoric behavior. For example:

"Whenever I am feeling my feelings, I yell. Sometimes my feelings are worried. Sometimes my feelings are scared. Sometimes my feelings are just plain mad.

But I always need to let them out." (This is accompanied by a picture of Oona screaming "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!")

and:

"I tried not to care, but my mind made a sad picture of Bonk's hot, embarrassed face. I shouldn't have teased him about his Luvie in front of Erma.

Even if my head felt dinged from where bristle cones had smacked me. It couldn't hurt worse than my mean words.

And I was still the big sister." (Chapter 5)

All in all, I think that the Oodlethunks are a fun addition to the ranks of early chapter book series. The second Oodlethunks book will be published in September. 

Publisher: Scholastic 
Publication Date: January 5, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Literacy Milestone: Reading Her First Elephant and Piggie Book Aloud

LiteracyMilestoneAThe other night I was downstairs while my husband put our daughter to bed. I heard her intermittently yelling, but couldn't tell what she was saying. I finally went up to see what was going on. I found them snuggled together, with my daughter reading aloud from We Are in a Book! by Mo Willems. When I asked about the noise she said: "Well, there's a lot of yelling in the book." What could I say to that? I stayed to listen for a while, and sure enough, she was reading aloud to Daddy about Elephant and Piggie being in a book.

Now, there may have been a bit of memorization going on, because my husband told me later that he had read it aloud to her first. At the end of the book, Gerald asks: "Hello. Will you please read us again?" My husband didn't want to read the same book again, and told her that if she wanted to read it again, she would have to read it herself. So she did. It's not a case where we've read this book aloud to her 50 times, though. We do read the books from this series aloud from time to time, but I've kind of had in mind to save them for her to read them herself, so I've tried not to wear them out.

This is incidentally an example of a "meta" book working to engage kids. Gerald asked her to read the book again, and this made her want to do so. I will also add that having your child read Elephant and Piggie books aloud right before bed is not the best choice, in terms of inducing sleepiness. My daughter got so into the book (hence the yelling) that it took her a while to calm down and go to sleep. But for earlier in the day? Perfection!

There's a reason that books from this series have won various Cybils and Geisel Award mentions over the years. [This title won the Cybils Award in 2010, for example.] I'm going to be very sorry when there are no more new Elephant and Piggie books (alas, soon!). But I'm glad that my daughter still has most of the titles ahead of her to read aloud for the first time. 

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook


Mouse Scouts: Books 1 and 2: Sarah Dillard

Books: Mouse Scouts and Mouse Scouts Make A Difference
Author: Sarah Dillard
Pages: 128 and 144
Age Range: 7-9 (illustrated early chapter books)

When I received the first two books in the new Mouse Scouts series I immediately set them aside to read with my daughter. They were a hit with both of us, but especially with her. My daughter is five (nearly six) and just started in a Girl Scout Daisy Troop, an activity which she flat-out adores. The Mouse Scouts books are aimed directly at my daughter's demographic - kids who are new to being scouts of some sort, and are devoted to it - though I would expect kids reading this on their own to be more in the 7 to 9 range. 

In terms of reading level, they are early chapter books (10 chapters each) with good-sized text and at least a small black and white illustration on every page. They could probably ever so slightly precede the Clementine and Ivy and Bean books. They are less realistic than those series, being about mice vs. humans, but they are cute and kid-friendly, with a nice sprinkling of more advanced vocabulary words. Excerpts from the Mouse Scout Handbook are included after each chapter. The illustrations are well-integrated with the text, and add considerably to the stories for this age range. 

In Book 1, Mouse Scouts, readers meet best friends Violet and Tigerlily, who, with four other mice, have just advanced from Buttercups to Acorns. Their new Acorn leader, Miss Poppy, is rather strict. Timid Violet lives in fear that she will not measure up, and will be sent back to Buttercups, while the more brave and impulsive Tigerlily is less concerned. The other four mice are a bit more two-dimensional (at least so far), but they have sufficiently distinct traits for readers to tell them apart (one who cares about how she looks, one who eats a lot, one who is an allergy-prone bookworm, and one who is a follower).

The bulk of the book is taken up by the scouts' quest to obtain their Sow It and Grow It badge by creating and maintaining a garden over the summer. They have to scavenge for seeds, sow them, take care of them, and cope with unexpected challenges, like other rodents digging into the eventual vegetables. There's a nice mix of mouse-specific detail (e.g. only selecting vegetables that are small enough for them to carry) and concepts that are more generally applicable to readers (working together, Mouse Scout values, relying on each person's strengths, coping with demanding leaders, etc.). 

In Mouse Scouts Make A Difference, the mice are striving for their Make A Difference badge. This one is a bit more overtly message-y, particularly in the Mouse Scout Handbook excerpts. But no more so than the actual Girl Scout material that I've seen, and not so much that the message overwhelms the story. More in this case that the message is a main part of the story. Like this:

"One of the greatest ways that a Mouse Scout can make a difference is to help those in need. Whether you are assisting a neighbor stack a pile of nuts, bringing some cheese to a mouse who is sick, or simply clearing a leaf away from someone's door, your consideration can make another mouse's life easier and brighter." (Mouse Scout Handbook, end of Chapter 9)

What I think makes these books work is that Dillard never loses sight of the mouse-ness of her characters. When they clean up trash in a park they have to work to figure out a way to get the trash into the trash can (too high and smooth to reach). When the park is cleaner, Violet can "imagine mouse families spending happy afternoons building tunnels in the sandbox or napping under the shade of the daisies." There is advice for staying safe from cats, as well as for dealing with specific garden predators. She also never loses sight of the importance to the girls (especially Violet) of being Mouse Scouts, and trying to uphold the values of the troop and the organization. 

The Mouse Scout books are probably not going to work for everyone. But for my daughter and me, they hit just the right note, a fun mix of fantasy (little creatures in a bigger world) and reality (getting scout badges and learning to work together in teams, etc.). I think this will be a nice addition to the ranks of early chapter book series. While the Mouse Scouts are girls, I don't see why you couldn't try them on boys, too. There's not much that's unique to the mice being girls - the books are more about their bravery and determination than their gender. 

The last page of each book includes a table showing 16 Mouse Scout patches, including the ones depicted in the first two books. My daughter is very much hoping that there will be 14 more books in this series. Knowing about publication lead times, I fear that by the time many other books are published, my daughter's interest will have waned. But the Mouse Scout series is going to be a great fit for the next generation of new young scouts. Recommended for home or library purchase. 

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: January 5, 2016
Source of Book: Review copies from the publisher

© 2016 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Austin, Lost in America: Jef Czekaj

Book: Austin, Lost in America: A Geography Adventure
Author: Jef Czekaj
Pages: 40
Age Range: 6-9 (picture book for older kids)

Austin, Lost in America: A Geography Adventure is a picture book that seems best suited to first through third-graders. Austin is a dog in search of a home. He breaks out of his pet shop and embarks up on a criss-cross country journey through all 50 states, looking for the one that feels best. As he visits each state (usually over less than a page), author Jef Czekaj shares tidbits about that state. Each spread also includes a small map of the state with the capitol labeled. 

The tidbits about each state are quirky things that kids are likely to find amusing or interesting, like: "Every year, Brattleboro, Vermont hosts the Strolling of the Heifers, a parade of cows down its main street." Austin is displayed in some scene that matches the tidbit (e.g marching down the street ahead of a pack of cows, waving a baton). 

There's also an over-the-top narrative tying together the facts about each state and indicating why that state isn't the right one for Austin. Like this:

"Florida had to be it! It was warm. It was sunny. Austin ate oranges. He sunbathed. He swam with manatees. This would be the perfect place to live. (Image of Austin with sunglasses on a beach)

He even got invite to a dinner party. (Image of an alligator opening the door for Austin)

But when he discovered that he was to be the main course, he knew it was time to go." (Image of Austin lying on a dining room table, surrounded by alligators and crocodiles)

Austin, Lost in America is vividly illustrated and full of unusual and or amusing facts. It is, however, rather lengthy for a picture book. I can't imagine that preschoolers would have the patience for it. I myself was a bit daunted at the idea of reading about each and every state, with only a minimal thread tying the different sections together. But I do think that for first to third graders who are interested in learning more about the United States, Austin, Lost in America offers a plethora of facts in a non-intimidating context. It's probably more a book to dip into occasionally than a book to read through, cover to cover. But it is a fun and informative ride across the country. 

Publisher: Balzer + Bray (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: September 1, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


West Meadows Detectives: The Case of the Snack Snatcher: Liam O'Donnell

Book: West Meadows Detectives: The Case of the Snack Snatcher
Author: Liam O'Donnell
Illustrator: Aurelie Grand
Pages: 128
Age Range: 7-10 (illustrated early chapter book)

The Case of the Snack Snatcher is the first book in the new West Meadows Detectives early chapter book series from Owl Kids. The Case of the Snack Snatcher is told from the perspective of Myron, who is starting as a new third grade student at West Meadows Elementary. Myron, who is autistic, spends his mornings in a special class, Room 15, though he is in a regular class in the afternoons.

On his very first day, Myron, who fancies himself a detective, sets out to solve a mystery involving the theft of the morning's snacks. He is soon joined in mystery-solving by fellow Room 15 denizen Hajrah (there because she "bounce(s) around too much"). Myron and Hajrah look for clues and experience intimidation by a couple of school bullies. They are supported and encouraged by the school's staff, particularly their teacher, Mr. Harpel.

Myron's voice works well. He clearly thinks in a different way than other kids do, but not in such a different way that young readers will find him hard to connect with. Some of his particular autistic traits serve him well as a detective (such as keen senses of smell and hearing). I was reminded of The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd, but The Case of the Snack Snatcher is more accessible for young readers. Like this:

 ""Stop digging your heels into the sidewalk," Mom said. "Let's go!"

I wasn't really digging my heels into the sidewalk. That would be impossible. The sidewalk is made of concrete. My heels are made of skin, bone, muscles, and blood. And I only had running shoes on. It was an expression. I don't like expressions, either." (Page 8)

And:

"I was also too busy thinking about the Meadows Fireballs.

Apparently, they are a big soccer team in town. I didn't know anything about them. I'm not a big soccer fan. I'm not a big any-sports fan. I don't see the point in kicking a ball across a field. It would be much easier to pick it up and carry it." (Page 94)

Hajrah is simply delightful, buoyant and impervious to rejection, she is the perfect foil for Myron. Like this: 

"Hajrah didn't walk down the corridor--she zipped. She had one speed: fast. She did not zip in a straight line. She carved high-speed curves down the hallway, like a downhill skier. And she talked the whole way." (Page 35)

I did think that the adults in The Case of the Snack Snatcher were implausibly slow on the uptake at times, but I don't think that will be a negative with the book's target audience. The mystery itself, while not complex, was not obvious, either. The Case of the Snack Snatcher has a nice mix of action and character development for the target age range. Aurelie Grand's occasional black and white illustrations help by highlighting Myron's somewhat fussy personality, as well as the diversity of the other characters. 

So we have a literal-minded kid who sets himself up as a detective. We have another kid who can't sit still (and, bonus, comes from an ethnically diverse background). These characters are set against a cozy elementary school setting. And there's a mystery involving the theft of snacks. Who doesn't love snacks? The Case of the Snack Snatcher is total kid-friendly fare. I look forward to seeing future books in the West Meadows Detectives series. This title is well worth a look for library purchase, or for home use by mystery-loving newer readers.  

Publisher: Owl Kids (@OwldKids) 
Publication Date: October 13, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).