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Ellie, Engineer: Jackson Pearce

Book: Ellie, Engineer
Author: Jackson Pearce
Illustrator: Tuesday Mourning
Pages: 192
Age Range: 8-12

EllieEngineerEllie, Engineer is an early middle grade novel by Jackson Pearce, lightly illustrated by Tuesday Mourning, about a girl named Ellie Bell who loves to design and build things. She's a more grown up (~10 years old), more confident version of Rosie Revere, Engineer. Ellie has turned the playhouse portion of her backyard playset into a workshop. She walks around wearing a tool belt. Her prize possession is a small drill. Her best friend, Kit, also likes to build things, though Kit is more interested in things like staying clean and attending beauty pageants than Ellie is. 

Ellie, Engineer begins with Ellie furious because the neighborhood boys refuse to let her play soccer, because she is a girl. She builds a water balloon launcher and uses it to wreak a successful revenge. However, when Kit's birthday present (a French-braiding machine) goes awry, Ellie finds herself needing a to build a new present in secret and on short notice. Her ambitious plans to build a dog house (for the dog that the eavesdropping girls believe that Kit is getting) require help. And that means that Ellie has to reach out to other kids, including one of the dreaded neighborhood boys. 

As a woman who studied engineering in college and graduate school, I, of course, found Ellie irresistible. I liked her parents' free range attitude towards her pursuits, and I liked that even though she was into building things she also liked to wear things like fluffy purple skirts. I loved that she built a balloon launcher, and that she was able to seek out help where her own strengths were not a match (like in decorating the inside of the dog house). I loved this:

"The drill was one of her favorite tools because it was the only electric tool she was allowed to use without her mom and dad watching. She'd written Ellie Bell's Drill across the side in purple paint pen, then drawn some flowers and some dragons, which had mostly rubbed off by now since she used it so much." (Chapter One)

The combination of wanting to build things, but also wanting to decorate a drill with flowers and dragons, felt realistic to me. Contrived, maybe, a tiny bit, but I'll give it a pass because I think that readers will like it. 

I also liked the illustrations, consisting largely of Ellie's designs, drawn on graph paper. Oh, how I loved graph paper when I was young, all through school. The sketch of the balloon launcher, made out of a spare yard sign, two brooms, exercise bands and a funnel, was delightful, especially little instructions like "SOAK BOYS!".

I was not quite as keen on the friendship dynamics of the book. When Ellie started telling unnecessary lies (because of what she thought other people would think about her co-conspirators), I gave a little sigh. The conflicts were resolved rather easily in the end for my taste, though I do think that the book is appropriate to kids in the target age range. I'm interested to test it out on my seven year old daughter. I did laugh out loud at this bit:

"Ellie frowned. This was turning into a big project, with so many people wanting to help. Plus, she wasn't so sure she trusted the neighborhood boys when they were all together like this. Boys, as far as she could tell, were sort of like rabbits. One was fine and maybe even interesting to play with, but a whole bunch of them would just be a lot of jumping and running and smelling." (Chapter Six)

This last quote does suggest a rather direct targeting of Ellie, Engineer toward girls, though I would think that boys would find Ellie's projects interesting, too. 

Parents who want to encourage their girls to be interested in STEM fields should certainly pick up a copy of Ellie, Engineer for their daughters. It's a shame this is releasing in January, instead of in time for Christmas. It would also be a good addition to elementary school library collections. The back matter suggests that this book is the first of a new series, so I expect that we'll see Ellie and her friends in future books. Recommended and entertaining!

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BloomsburyKids)
Publication Date: January 16, 2018
Source of Book: Advanced review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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 Uncanny Express: Kara LaReau + Jen Hill

Book: The Uncanny Express (The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, Book 2)
Author: Kara LaReau
Illustrator: Jen Hill
Pages: 176
Age Range: 7-10

UncannyExpressThe Uncanny Express is the second book in the Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters series, written by Kara LaReau and illustrated by Jen Hill. The Bland sisters, Jaundice and Kale, love on their own in a boring house in Dullsville. In the absence of their parents (who have been gone for years, having adventures), Kale and Jaundice darn people's socks for a living. In The Uncanny Express, however, they are drawn into an adventure involving a train ride, a lady magician named Magique, and a mysterious disappearance. They find themselves co-opted twice as assistants, first to Magique, and then to detective Hugo Fromage. It's quite an adventure for two girls who would prefer to stay home, eat cheese sandwiches, and watch the grass grow. 

Here are a couple of snippets, to give you a feel for the girls:

"I don't like train stations," Kale decided. "There's too much hustle. Not to mention bustle." (Page 19, ARC)

and:

"Well, this is the mother of all plans," said Magique. "This time, my act is even bigger, even more astonishing than it was before! And it all starts with the very thing the audience hated so much last time: mind reading. Would you like to see a little bit of it?"

"As long as we can keep eating," Jaundice said, taking another bite of her croque madame. Once she scraped off the fried egg on top and removed the ham inside, it almost tasted like a cheese sandwich from home." (Page 39, ARC)

Although this will go over the heads of new readers, I enjoyed the way the book spoofs Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot with Hugo Fromage. His prior cases included "The Mysterious Affair at Kyle's" and "The Murder of Roger Adenoid." Magique is also something of a spoof of stage magicians, admitting outright that everything she does is an illusion (though a hint of actual magic does appear, too). In fact, all of the characters fill locked room mystery stereotypes of one sort or another (jaded reporter, limping ex-military officer, ditzy rich blonde, etc.). This would make a great read for an 7-year-old who has recently discovered the joys of playing Clue, and appreciates the joys of the Fluffernutter (marshmallow fluff plays a surprisingly important role in the story). 

Kara LaReau sprinkles light humor throughout the book. Like this:

"Just remember, mademoiselles, the key to being a good detective is to be observant," said the great detective.

"'Observant?'" repeated Kale. On these occasions, she sorely missed her dictionary.

"It means we must pay close attention to everyone and everything," Hugo Fromage explained.

"Sorry, what did you say?" asked Jaundice, still considering the clipboard.

The great detective sighed." (Page 65, ARC)

It made me laugh. Jen Hill's black and white sketches also add to understanding of the story for new readers, particularly a schematic of the train labeled with occupants of the various compartments. Little quotes from the books that the girls are reading begin each chapter, adding humor and/or insight, depending on the chapter. 

All in all, The Uncanny Express is a worthy successor to The Jolly Regina. This one is a quirky, fun book, perfect for introducing newer readers to the joys of mysteries. Kale and Jaundice are unusual heroines, in their desire for sameness and stability, but this makes then stand out compared to the various plucky heroines typical to most children's books. In The Uncanny Express the two sisters do experience personal growth, but they do so without changing their basic natures. There's also a setup to Book 3, which is sure to be welcome. Recommended! 

Publisher: Amulet Books 
Publication Date: January 9, 2018
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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).


Bug Blonsky and His Very Long List of Don'ts: E. S. Redmond

Book: Bug Blonsky and His Very Long List of Don'ts
Author: E. S. Redmond
Pages: 80
Age Range: 6-9

BugBlonskyBug Blonsky and His Very Long List of Don'ts is a full-color early chapter book by E. S. Redmond about a boy who is the ultimate annoying little brother. Benjamin is called Bug by all, either because he is super-wiggly like a bug or because he is super-annoying like a bug, depending on who you ask. He is the bane of his older sister Winnie's existence. The book consists of Bug's list of things not to do, learned from a series of painfully bad choices. For example:

"#19 DON'T tell Dylan Farkler that Winnie wrote his name with hearts all around it in her diary.

Because if you do, Dylan will look like someone just punched him hard in the stomach and his best friend, Billy Butcher, will laugh and make kissy-face sounds the whole way home.

And Winnie will wonder later why Dylan has suddenly stopped talking to her."

Each of 21 don'ts makes up a short chapter with multiple illustrations. Redmond's illustrations add humor throughout. For instance, Bug's grouchy teacher is shown sitting at a desk with stacked books titled: "Silence is Golden", "Coloring Inside the Lines", and "The Joyless Classroom", She's sipping from an "I Love Cats" mug and staring into space. Where love (or like) is in the air, there are hearts shown above the relevant child. Sometimes the hearts are broken. 

I will say that I didn't love the way that Redmond draws women. Bug's mom has ginormous hips, and his teacher has prominently sagging breasts. If a man had drawn them, I would have said that they were misogynistic. The recess monitor, Mrs. Killjoy, is also cartoonish, with a large torso and very thin legs. I suppose kids will find these illustrations funny. For me, they were a distraction (though I was less bothered by Bug's dad's beer gut). 

Overall, though, I think that Bug Blonsky and His Very Long List of Don'ts is super boy-friendly, from the early sketch of Bug as "Bug-Boy with the Power to Annoy" (complete with "two sets of armpits for twice as many fart sounds") to the classroom's unabashed glee when Bug produces fart sounds as Ms. Munster bends over. Bug is a boy whose dad calls him "impulsive and distractible", and who can make his sister literally cry with rage. He makes mistakes, but is capable of learning, as when he says the wrong thing to the principal and recalls his mother telling him "THINK it, DON'T say it!". 

Bug's concerns and mishaps are age-appropriate and relevant for first and second graders, as is the book's vocabulary. The font is nice and large, and the color illustrations will be sure to draw in young readers. Adults might find Bug Blonsky a bit annoying, but luckily, this is a book perfectly suited for kids to read on their own. And kids, especially boys, are going to love it. Bug Blonsky and His Very Long List of Don'ts is well worth a look for home or library purchase. 

Publisher: Candlewick (@Candlewick)
Publication Date: January 2, 2018
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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).


Valensteins: Ethan Long

Book: Valensteins
Author: Ethan Long
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3-6

ValensteinsValensteins is a sequel to Ethan Long's Fright Club, featuring a not-so-scary group of young creatures (vampire, ghost, mummy, bunny, butterfly, etc) who hang out in a cool club house. In this installment, the other creatures take note of Fran K. Stein, who is cutting out a pink paper heart. They mis-identify is as various things like a rounded bat or a big pink nose. They are baffled and revolted when Bunny tells them what it is, and why you would give someone a heart for Valentine's Day. As for Fran, he quietly goes about his own business, goes outside, and finds the person he had in mind all along. The overtly sappy message about the true meaning of love is leavened by the response of the majority of the Fright Club members, who think that Fran and his lady friend are just "Weirdos". 

Valentsteins is humorous through and through, full if entertaining details. For instance, when the creatures don't know what "LOVE" is, Vlad looks it up in a dictionary. When Bunny speaks of a fluttering like butterflies, the actual butterfly says "Don't drag ME into this." When Ghost says that love "is making my skin crawl" the butterfly points out "Ummm, you don't have any skin." And the the universal horror when Bunny says that people in love sometimes "KISS ON THE LIPS!!" is a delight to behold, particularly set against Bunny's clear delight in the concept.

 Long (or the book's producers) uses large fonts for emphasis when needed ("EEEEWWW!" for example), while various text bubbles give the book an early graphic-novel type feel. This is a book to read aloud to an individual or a classroom. Valenstines is pure fun, perfect for the sensibilities of preschoolers and kindergartners who are utterly grossed out by love and kissing (or at least who pretend to be). Recommended!

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's (@BloomsburyKids)
Publication Date: December 19, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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).


Polaris: Michael Northrop

Book: Polaris
Author: Michael Northrop
Pages: 288
Age Range: 9-12

PolarisPolaris by Michael Northrop is historical science fiction, both creepy and suspenseful. In the 1830's, somewhere off the coast of Brazil, a ship (the Polaris) awaits the return of a boat that has gone ashore to explore. When the boat returns, however, part of the crew is missing, and one returning crew member is infected. Following mutiny and abandonment by crew members, a collection of six boys is left to handle the ship, and the mysterious danger that now lurks below decks. 

This story of young kids striving to sail a ship on their own would have been a compelling survival story in any event. The addition of a frightening creature that lurks below decks ratchets up the suspense. Northrop juggles the different personalities of the six young crew members skillfully. There is conflict between them, but they do eventually form a team, fighting a common enemy. The perspective of Polaris shifts between several of the quite different personalities, particularly those of Owen, chief cabin boy and nephew of the ship's one-time captain, and Henry, apprentice to the ship's botanist. Owen is strong and relatively skilled for his age, but, well, not terribly clever. Henry is an extremely poor sailor, but quite clever. As any reader will expect, the strengths of each boy come into play as the story progresses. 

Polaris conveys many details of old-time ships, from rigging to navigation to food to maintenance. Young readers interested in Columbus' voyage will definitely want to give Polaris a look. The supernatural elements have a Michael Crichton-like feel, with a basis in science. Any kid looking for science-based science fiction will also want to check out Polaris. While the science fiction elements give Polaris  a different feel from some of Northop's other books, there's no question that Polaris is a compelling and suspenseful read. Recommended, and well worth a look for libraries serving elementary and middle school readers. 

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: October 31, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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).


Groundhug Day: Anne Marie Pace & Christopher Denise

Book: Groundhug Day
Author: Anne Marie Pace
Illustrator: Christopher Denise
Pages: 48
Age Range: 4-8

GroundhugDayGroundhug Day, by Anne Marie Pace and Christopher Denise, is a charming story about holidays and friendship. It's February 1st, and Moose, with the help of his friends Bunny, Porcupine, and Squirrel, is planning a Valentine's Day party. The animals want their friend Groundhog to be able to attend. They worry, however, that he will see his shadow in the morning and go back inside for six more weeks. As they fight over various schemes for keeping Groundhog from seeing his shadow, they end up too late. But they nonetheless make a valiant effort to convince Groundhog to stay aboveground and to learn not to be afraid of shadows. Although things don't turn out quite the way the animals wanted, they do end up with groundhugs all around, and the chance to celebrate other holidays going forward. 

The bickering between the four well-intentioned friends follows a pattern throughout the book, sure to be reassuring to young listeners. Groundhug Day strikes me as more of a book to be read aloud to a child than for the child to read himself, with words like "silhouette" and "thundered". It would be fun for a parent or librarian to read aloud, doing distinct voices for the various animals. Here's a snippet to show the different voices:

""But you're not afraid of shadows
anymore," Moose protested.
"Now you don't have to miss my
Valentine's Day party."

"I may not be afraid,"
Groundhog said,
"but it is cold up here."

"But there aren't any balloons in your hole," said Squirrel.
"Or Valentine cards!" said Bunny.
"Or Valentine hugs!" said Porcupine pointedly."

Little snicker at: "Porcupine said pointedly." One can see that Anne Marie Pace (author of the Vampirina books) has put care into every work. I also like that she doesn't overly spell out details about Groundhog Day or the other holidays. She lets the details flow from the text, or from whatever auldt is reading the book aloud to young listeners.

Christopher Denise's digitally created illustrations lend both warmth and humor to the story. Each animal's personality comes through via details of their representation, with the paternalistic Moose wearing a sweater and glasses, and Porcupine thoroughly pouting when he laments the lack of hugs. When Groundhog emerges from his den in a St. Patrick's Day outfit near the end of the book, he's practically a different animal from the one who wasn't really ready to face the winter in early February. 

Groundhug Day is a fun addition to the ranks of holiday picture books - covering Groundhog Day, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, and even Easter. It would be a nice selection for any library serving preschoolers. My seven-year-old read it on her own and pronounced it a book that I had to write about. And so I have. Recommended!

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion (@DisneyHyperion)
Publication Date: December 5, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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 Little Girl Who Didn't Want to Go to Bed: Dave Engledow

Book: The Little Girl Who Didn't Want to Go to Bed
Author: David Engledow
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

LittleGirlDidntWantThe Little Girl Who Didn't Want to Go to Bed is the first picture book by photographer David Engledow. The story itself is pretty straightforward picture book fare: little girl doesn't want to go to sleep because she feels like she is missing something. She ends up staying up all night, and is so tired the next day that she misses the real fun that she could have had. And so she decides that she will sleep at night after all.

What makes the book much more than that storyline, however, are Engledow's over-the-top illustrations, digitally manipulated photographs full of kid- and parent-friendly details. These are juxtaposed against text that is generally much more ordinary. For example: 

"Every night, she'd make up excuse after excuse...

"Just one more story. PLEEEEEEEEEASE?""

We see a picture of the little girl perched atop a teetering stack of picture books, surrounded by other stacks, and clutching a copy of "War and Peace." Small alphabet blocks spell out "ONE MORE STORY."

The blocks, as well as the girl's pink stuffed animal (in matching pajamas to her own) are in many of the illustrations, with the blocks spelling out key phrases. Then there are the parents. 

"Even after the lights were out, the little girl would lie awake imagining all the fun that must have been going on without her."

Here we see the parents, dressed up in fancy clothes, mom wearing a pink and white tiara, doing fun things like piñata, jigsaw puzzles, and bobbing for apples. At the very end of the book, when the girl is finally asleep in her own bed, there's a tiny hint that maybe that is the sort of thing the parents do.

But my favorite illustration is one where the girl sneaks out of her room at night and hides in the kitchen trash, banana peel on her head, apple in her mouth. The ones where she is tired and does things like put her arms through her pants are also pretty cute.

My seven year old thought that this book was hilarious. As for me, I thought at first that it would be a bit too gimmicky for me. But I have to say that The Little Girl Who Didn't Want to Go to Bed won me over through a combination of entertaining plot and humorous details. This would make a fun baby shower gift, in that it speaks as much to parents as to kids. It's definitely worth a look. Recommended. 

Publisher: HarperCollins  (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: October 17, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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).


Red Again: Barbara Lehman

Book: Red Again
Author: Barbara Lehman
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-7

RedAgainRed Again is a new wordless picture book by Barbara Lehman. Like her other books (see my reviews of Rainstorm and Trainstop), Red Again offers quirky delights that celebrate friendship and make kids think. In Red Again, a boy on a bike (shown on the cover) finds a red book. When he takes it home and reads it, he discovers that the book is about a boy in a boat who also finds a red book. As the first boy reads his book, he see images of the boy in the book seeing images of him. So we have boy 1 looking at a picture of boy 2 looking at a picture of boy 1 looking at a picture of boy 2, and so on. It's fascinating and brilliant. As Red Again progresses, the boys find a way to meet in person, and the red book, cast aside, is found by a girl. Lehman doesn't have to show us what will happen next. 

I would have recognized the illustrations as Lehman's work anywhere. The first boy lives in a house in a city, along the waterfront. He travels up regular stairs, circular stairs, and a ladder to get to a glass cupola, where he reads his book (and from where he can eventually spot the boy in the boat). His setting reminded me very much of the settings in Rainstorm. It's not enough for Lehman to make the basic story intriguing, she also adds cool details like a glass cupola, and a telescope. The only red to be seen in most of the illustrations is the book itself, small compared to city- and seascapes, but visible throughout. 

As an added bonus, the first boy is African-American. The second boy is white, and from a much more rural environment. But of course no cosmetic differences matter once these two meet under such wondrous circumstances. 

Barbara Lehman's work just keeps getting better. Red Again is fabulous, and a book that I expect to keep for the long term. It will make kids think and make them smile. Highly recommended!

Publisher:  HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: November 7, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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).


Who Killed Darius Drake?: Rodman Philbrick

Book: Who Killed Darius Drake?
Author: Rodman Philbrick
Pages: 192
Age Range: 8-12

DariusDrakeWho Killed Darius Drake? by Rodman Philbrick is a rare realistic middle grade mystery that involves a potential murder. Narrator Arthur Bash (aka Bash Man) is a misunderstood bully who hires himself out for candy bars. When orphaned genius geek Darius Drake hires Arthur to help with a quest, the two become incongruous friends. With a bit of help from Arthur's wealthy, put-together stepsister, the boys end up involved with multiple ex-cons, searching for a long-missing diamond necklace. 

Arthur is a great character, with a much more sensitive soul than anyone seeing his large body and scowling face would imagine. Here are a couple of quotes to show you his personality:

"I knew about the home (for orphans)--everybody does, all the kids--but this is my first time inside it. No surprise, the place creeps me out a little. Not because it's spooky or scary, nothing like that. It's actually kind of cheerful, in a sad-but-trying way. But it made me think, what if it was me? What if both my parents died and nobody wanted me? Like that." (Chapter Three)

"The air smells of leather and old books. I must be some kind of weirdo, because to me that's a good smell." (Chapter Nine)

"Silence. If only I could melt into the flood, or turn invisible, or maybe go deaf. Because hearing them talk around each other is like getting poked with a sharp stick. It hurts in familiar places, even though I'm not an orphan like Darius, or a felon like Winston Brooks..." (Chapter Nineteen)

Darius is also interesting. He's bright and prickly and socially awkward, and determined to figure things out using inductive reasoning. His awkwardness around the attractive Deirdre is disarming. The way he gradually comes to appreciate Arthur for more than his bulk feels realistic. 

The plot of Who Killed Darius Drake? is suspenseful and fast-paced. There's an old-fashioned feel to the book, with the boys doing library research and scrolling through microfiche, despite the presence of modern trappings like a GoPro camera. This is either because the seeds of the mystery lie in the past or because of Philbrick's writing style. Some modern details aside, Who Killed Darius Drake? feels like a book that I would have gobbled down when I was ten years old. I do expect it to be a hit with today's kids, too. 

Any kid (or adult) who enjoys quest-type mysteries, with clues gradually revealed through research, will enjoy Who Killed Darius Drake? Although this is clearly a standalone novel, I personally would be more than happy to run across Arthur, Darius, and Deirdre again in the future. Recommended!

Publisher: The Blue Sky Press (@Scholastic
Publication Date: September 26, 2017
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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).


Snappsy the Alligator and His Best Friend Forever! (Probably): Julie Falatko & Tim Miller

Book: Snappsy the Alligator and His Best Friend Forever! (Probably)
Author: Julie Falatko
Illustrator: Tim Miller
Pages: 32
Age Range: 5-8

SnappsyAndFriendSnappsy the Alligator and His Best Friend Forever! (Probably), written by Julie Falatko and illustrated by Tim Miller, is the sequel to Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book). This installment is narrated by a Bert, a chicken who has declared himself to be Snappsy's best friend. Snappsy, who clearly values his alone time, looks askance at Bert. The dialog and illustrations reveal the disconnect between what Bert wants to be true and what actually is true. Like this:

"(Narrator:) We met at a party. And now we do everything together. 

(Dialog bubble from Snappsy:) Actually I'm going into town. To run errands. By myself!"

When Bert plans a "Best Friends Sleepover", Snappsy says: "I prefer quiet evenings. Alone." 

Bert persists through a shopping expedition, party planning, and best friend t-shirts, despite Snappsy's attempts at polite deterrence. Eventually, he drives Snappsy to lash out and kick Bert out of the house: ("All the other guests went home WEEKS AGO. And you're still here.")

But when Snappsy gets his quiet alone time back, he discovers that life without Bert is a bit TOO quiet. 

Personally, I found the ending of this book unrealistic. I would have been THRILLED to get rid of Bert, and doubt that I would have missed him at all. But, you know, it's a children's book, and it is quite entertaining throughout. My daughter found the very end of the book confusing - I had to go in and explain it to her. I think that the disconnect between what Bert has to say as the narrator and what is actually happening requires a bit of a leap in understanding. I think that Snappsy the Alligator and His Best Friend Forever! (Probably) is more suited to elementary than preschool readers, though the vocabulary is not particularly advanced. 

Tim Miller's brush and ink and "computer hocus-pocus" illustrations are in graphic novel format, with colorful panels and lots of text bubbles (with occasional narrator-generated text shown above the panels). This format would make the book work well as an early reader, though kids might need some explanation of the concept of the unreliable narrator. I love how grouchy and/or baffled Snappsy looks for most of the book, and the visual fun of the chaos wrought by Bert. 

Fans of the first book about Snappsy will certainly want to snap this one up (sorry!). It would make a good introduction to the concept of friends having different needs regarding alone time. As an introvert, I especially related to Snappsy, myself, but I think that many kids will love Bert. Recommended, and an especially good fit for elementary school classroom libraries. 

Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers (@PenguinKids) 
Publication Date: October 3, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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).


One Mixed-Up Night: Catherine Newman

Book: One Mixed-Up Night
Author: Catherine Newman
Pages: 208
Age Range: 8-12

OneMixedUpNightAs a long-time fan of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I found the premise of Catherine Newman's One Mixed-Up Night irresistible. Two friends sneak off and spend a night creating their own adventures in an Ikea store. What I found when I read the book was that Newman absolutely captures the fun of being somewhere cool that one is not supposed to be, while also making the book about something more substantive (grief). 

Frankie (a girl) basically comes up with the scheme as a way to try to shake up her best friend, Walter, after Walter suffers a loss. As Frankie tells readers in the very first paragraph, these are not bad kids getting into trouble. Rather, these are "dorky geeks" who are more than a bit obsessed with Ikea, and are in need of a serious distraction. While the plot of One Mixed-Up Night requires some suspension of disbelief for the adult reader, I think that middle grade readers will have no trouble at all. What kid wouldn't want to spend the night in a huge store full of furniture and other cool things, able to jump on couches and have pillow rights and race shopping carts, with no adult supervision?  

Here's Frankie's description of Walter:

"He's hard to describe, Walter, because he's kind of bubbling over with energy, but then he's also so chill. And some people assume he's going to be good at sports because he's black--or his mom is, so technically he's mixed race--and he's um, not good at sports. One of our favorite things (it's still magneted to Walter's refrigerator) is this end-of-year report he got from our gym teacher when we were in first grade. We loved this teacher, who wrote on Walter's report: "Walter is one of the finest students I have had the pleasure of teaching. He's a model of sportsmanship, good nature, and serious effort. That said, his athletic abilities will continue to develop as he works on the following:"--we especially love that colon--"Running. Jumping. Throwing balls. Catching balls. Passing. Receiving. Strength. Coordination. Balance." (Page 21)

Meanwhile, Frankie is working on carving out a modicum of independence from her "pretty great", but very involved, parents. Like this:

"And now, in sixth grade? I was starting to realize that I didn't have to (tell her mother everything). That I could have this private part of my life inside my own head, and I could share it or not. And if I didn't, nobody would even know about it. It was kind of strange--like discovering that there was a hole in the floor underneath your bed, filled with jewels and gold coins, and you could just go ahead and not mention it to anybody." (Page 24)

What a great depiction of starting to grow up! One more, then you can go read this yourself:

"Do you know how you can just feel completely strange in the world sometimes? Like everyone's one way and you're another? Or like there's some translator chip that someone forgot to program you with, and other kids joke about stuff and you don't know what they're talking about? (Page 71)

Again, pitch-perfect, without being overly introspective. 

One Mixed-Up Night is a super-fun book about two kids who scheme to spend the night in an Ikea store. But it's much more than that, too. It's about growing up, being loyal to a friend, coping with grief, and taking responsibility. And yes, it's about the cool kitchen items that you can find in an Ikea store, and what you might pack for a sleepover. This is a book that definitely belongs in all libraries serving middle grade readers. Highly recommended, and one of my favorite new releases of the year. 

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: September 5, 2017
Source of Book: Purchased it.

© 2017 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).


Black Moon Rising (The Library, Book 2): D. J. MacHale

Book: Black Moon Rising (The Library, Book 2)
Author: D. J. MacHale
Pages: 304
Age Range: 8-12

BlackMoonRisingBlack Moon Rising is the second book in D. J. MacHale's The Library series, following Curse of the Boggin. The events in Black Moon Rising begin just a week after middle schooler Marcus has become an agent of the magical Library and had his first adventure. The Library is a place out of space and time in which uncountable numbers of stories reside. The stories are written by ghosts who track mysterious events throughout the world. The agents enter into certain stories and try to help. In Black Moon Rising, Marcus is asked to travel through the Library to a Massachusetts middle school where strange mishaps have been occurring and escalating. Marcus and his two best friends, Theo and Lu, find themselves confronting witchcraft. 

The plot in Black Moon Rising is creepy and has high stakes, but moves along too quickly for the book to be overwhelmingly scary or dark. At one point Marcus is in grave peril and is accidentally rescued by troublemakers randomly lighting off fireworks. Overall, it's a nice balance for middle grade readers. MacHale touches on other middle grade / middle school issues, like bullying and parents pushing kids to sign up for more activities. None of the characterization is especially deep, but it's sufficient for one to pull for the various characters. There's a bit of diversity, though not a lot. Heres the relevant passage:

"My two best buddies don't always get along. If not for me, I doubt they'd even be friends. Annabella Lu is driven by emotion. She's a real "seat of the pants" kind of girl who always starts out in third gear. Theo McLean, on the other hand, is a thinker. An overthinking, actually. By the time he analyzes a problem and looks at every possible solution from multiple angles, it's usually the next day and nobody can remember what the problem was in the first place...

Lu is Asian American, Theo is African American, and I'm Caucasian Euro-mutt-American. Together we look like the cast of some racially diverse kids' TV show." (Page 11)

I like the way that MacHale basically acknowledges that this is surface diversity, but that at least he's trying. There are a couple of references later to how Theo feels as an African American (he opens up to connect with a shy girl in the Massachusetts school). And we hear a bit about the academic pressure that Lu's parents put on her. 

The writing style in Black Moon Rising is interesting. Most of the book is told from Marcus' first person perspective. This is interspersed with passages from the Library volume that the ghosts are writing about the story, as it occurs. This allows the author to directly share actions that occur when Marcus is busy somewhere else. Late in the book, this narration switching accelerates, and definitely helps keep readers turning the pages. The print book uses a distinctive font for the Library entries - I'm not sure how this is handled in the audio version. 

Here's one more passage, to give you a feel for Marcus' voice:

"I was in Massa-freaking-chusetts. I had stepped out of the Library and been transported to another state. Another state of mind too. It's tough enough figuring out where you belong in your own school. I was now in alien territory with no friends to rely on. I didn't belong there. At some point a teacher was bound to corner me." (Page 39)

And here's a passage from the Library book:

"Some thought the school was jinxed. Others felt it was nothing more than a run of incredibly bad luck. None could deny that a nefarious black cloud had drifted over the school, one that was producing impossible waves of serious misfortune." 

Yes, definitely distinct from Marcus' voice. 

I'll tell you something that I especially liked about Black Moon Rising. I'm a fast reader, and I read a fair number of books each year (~150). When I'm reading a series as it is published, I often find that I struggle when I start the second (and third, and so on) book, because I haven't retained enough of the plot, and I don't know what's going on. This did NOT happen with Black Moon Rising. I think this was due to a combination of factors: not too many core characters to keep track of; interesting premise around the Library and how it works; and sufficient backstory provided by the author at the start of Book 2. So, kudos to D.J. MacHale there. I will certainly keep an eye out for the next book in the series. 

In short, I think this is a must-purchase series for libraries serving middle grade and early middle school readers. Those who enjoyed the first book, Curse of the Boggin, will not be disappointed by Book 2. If anything, this is where MacHale really hits his stride, with the library setup already in place, and the chance to explore a whole new (yet ancient) supernatural phenomenon. Highly recommended, and one that I will keep for my daughter. 

Publisher:  Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: October 3, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 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).