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The Wild Robot: Peter Brown

Book: The Wild Robot
Author: Peter Brown
Pages: 288
Age Range: 8-11

My daughter and I are big fans of Peter Brown's picture books, particularly The Curious Garden and Mr. Tiger Goes WildSo when Brown's first middle grade novel turned up, I put it on the top of my to read stack. The Wild Robot is a quirky but lovely little book. It's about a robot who ends up on an island populated only by animals (following the sinking of a container ship). The animals are initially frightened of Roz, but she takes time to learn their language, and eventually makes her way into their hearts. This process is helped by Roz's adoption of an orphaned gosling. 

The action in The Wild Robot is a bit slow-paced, particularly the first 2/3 of the book. But the chapters are brief (sometimes only a page or two), and the illustrations will keep kids turning the pages. Brown's illustration style in The Wild Robot is consistent with the nature-celebrating, slightly stylized look on display in Brown's other books. A few of the images (particularly one in which Roz watches Brightbill head off to migrate) have real pathos. In general, the images are a bit darker in mood than what one sees in Brown's picture books, but they'll feel familiar to kids weaned on The Curious Garden

Brown strikes a nice balance with Roz's character. She has the analytical nature of a robot. And yet, she learns to care about others, particularly her adopted son, Brightbill. She has some miscellaneous facts filed away, but the important things are the things that she learns via observation. Young Brightbill is delightful, as is his best friend Chitchat, a squirrel. 

There's a hint of a message about global warming in The Wild Robot that I didn't think was necessary to the story. But it's subtle enough that young readers won't find it intrusive. Brown mixes humor, wisdom, and even a bit of poetry into the book's text. Like this:

"Oh, it's nothing, you just have to provide the gosling with food and water and shelter, make him feel loved but don't pamper him too much, keep him away from danger, and make sure he learns to walk and talk and swim and fly and get along with others and look after himself. And that's really all there is to motherhood!" (Advice to Roz from a goose about motherhood, page 75)

and the following (as the animals are helping Roz to fertilize her garden):

"I shouldn't be much longer, now," said a smiling turtle as he slowly made his contribution.

As all this was going on, Roz walked around and thanked everyone. "I am not capable of defecating," she explained, "so your droppings are most appreciated." (Page 94)

and (after a harsh winter on the island):

"The wilderness really an be ugly sometimes. But from that ugliness came beauty. You see, those poor dead creatures returned to the earth, their bodies nourished the soil, and they helped create the most dazzling spring bloom the island had ever known." (Page 195)

For anyone interested in animals or robots, or for kids who grew up enjoying Peter Brown's picture books, The Wild Robot has a distinct appeal. The brief chapters, frequent illustrations, and somewhat slow pace make it suitable for kids on the younger end of middle grade. There are deaths and fights, too, but these feel like part of the Circle of Life, rather than anything disturbing for younger readers. I look forward to giving The Wild Robot to my six-year-old daughter in a couple of years, to see what she thinks. Recommended. 

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids) 
Publication Date:  April 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).

Lily and Dunkin: Donna Gephart

Book: Lily and Dunkin
Author: Donna Gephart
Pages: 352
Age Range: 10 and up

I probably would not have picked up Lily and Dunkin if I were not a fan of Donna Gephart's work. Books that overtly tackle sensitive subject make me wary. It's too easy for them to become preachy, or just boring. But Donna Gephart has a real knack for getting at the heart of things, while keeping the characters at the forefront, and adding enough humor. I read the first chapter of Lily and Dunkin, and found that I wanted to keep reading. I ended up reading it in one sitting. The ending even made me a bit teary-eyed. And I feel like I now have a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by both transgender and bipolar kids. 

So, Lily and Dunkin is a dual first-person narrative about a girl named Lily, born into a boy's body, and a boy named Dunkin, struggling with both bipolar disorder and the absence of his father. Lily (aka Tim) has known since she was very small that she wants to be a girl. Her mother and sister are reasonably supportive, but her father and grandmother are having a much difficult time accepting her wishes. She is bullied at school, despite not having yet come out as transgender. Her best friend is pushing her to be herself (wear dresses to school, etc.), but she (and her father) are afraid of the consequences. 

Here's Lily, after her sister shows off some caps she is knitting for premature babies: 

""That's cool," I say. But all I can think about is how the whole boy-girl color code is determined right from birth. The moment a baby comes into the world, someone decides whether the baby gets a pink hat or a blue hat, based on the baby's body. Not brain. Why can't they put a neutral color hat on the baby and wait to see what happens?" (Page 73)

Dunkin (aka Norbert) has just moved to Lily's South Florida neighborhood from New Jersey, and isn't sure how he will fit in. He and his mother are living with his fitness-crazed Jewish grandmother, having fallen on hard times. Dunkin speaks of having left his father in New Jersey, with the gradually revealed implication that is father is in a mental health facility. Dunkin takes medication for his own bipolar disorder, but resists seeing a psychiatrist. His up and down moods are revealed masterfully through his first person viewpoint. 

Here's Dunkin, on his first day a a new school:

"At lunch, I hold the orange plastic tray in a death grip, wishing again that Phineas were here. Mom wouldn't like it if she knew I were thinking that, but I hate navigating this loud, crowed, foul-smelling cafeteria alone. The good energy of feeling a part of everything in math class has completely evaporated." (Page 90)

Although the narrators for the different sections of the book are not identified, I never had any trouble distinguishing Lily's voice from Tim's. That said, this would make a great dual-narrator audiobook, if you could find someone with the right androgynous voice for Lily. 

As in Gephart's Death by Toilet Paper, there's a lot going on in the background here. A bit of environmental activism over a favorite tree, coping with the loss of a grandparent, dealing with bullying, changing oneself in order to fit in, bringing a third person into a best friend relationship, and striving for healthy eating and fitness. There are random acts of quirkiness (decorated plastic flamingos left strategically around the neighborhood), a t-shirt shop that makes chronic and humorous production errors, and a few Yiddish expressions. The mugginess of the Florida setting virtually emanates from the page. But the heart of Lily and Dunkin is the relationships between the various characters, particularly the title characters. 

I think that Lily and Dunkin belongs in all libraries that serve upper middle grade and middle school kids. I believe that this book has the potential to open people's eyes about what it's like to be transgender, and also about what it's like to be mentally struggling in some way. The quirky trappings of the book, and the purity of the first-person perspectives, keep Lily and Dunkin from reading like an "issue book". I also appreciated Gephart's soft touch in the resolution of Lily's bullying - there is no magic wand ending that situation, which I think is realistic, but we do gain a bit of insight into the challenges of the primary bully. Highly recommended, and a book that will certainly stay with me. 

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: May 3, 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).

What If Everyone Understood Child Development?: Rae Pica

Book: What If Everyone Understood Child Development? Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children's Lives
Author: Rae Pica
Pages: 160
Age Range: Adult Nonfiction

What If Everyone Understood Child Development? by Rae Pica is a collected series of essay about education from the perspective of what kids need developmentally. Being more an essay collection than a structured book, it's a little bit repetitive when read straight through, and lacks any overall conclusion. However, the essays make many, many excellent points. I highlighted passage after passage. Rather than attempt to directly quote my many highlights, I'll share some general themes, Pica's points paraphrased into my own words:

  • All kids are unique, and their needs are not served by one-size-fits-all educational standards (particularly when those standards are written by people who have not worked with kids). Kids learn at different rates, and pushing them to learn before they are developmentally ready is counter-productive. This applies in particular to expectations that kids must be reading by the time they leave kindergarten.
  • Kids, especially young kids, learn best through play and when they can be active. When we take away play, and push kids to learn at ever-younger ages, we are taking away their childhood, and negatively impacting the adults who they will become. 
  • Kids need freedom to take risks, and learn what they can and can't to. "Bubble wrapping" them is detrimental. 
  • We should be talking with girls about things that they are interested in and things that they DO, instead of praising them for how cute they are. In general, we should avoid the empty "good job" sort of praise for all kids. 
  • Excessive testing is hurting kids and teachers. Schools should be teaching kids how to learn, rather than trying to just fill them with facts. 
  • Schools should be restoring both gym and recess. Kids need informal time for play and movement, as well as more formal instruction about exercise and fitness. There are academic as well as physical benefits to this. Recess should never be withheld as a punishment.  
  • Homework is not beneficial for elementary school kids, and is in many ways harmful, particularly because it can (and does) turn kids off of reading for pleasure. 

If any of these themes pique your interest, I recommend that you pick up a copy of What If Everyone Understood Child Development? and search the table of contents for the relevant topics. 

I especially like that at the end of each chapter, Pica includes a set of actions that teachers can take in support of that topic as well as a set of links to further information/research. Although this book is clearly written for teachers, a number of the actions, and certainly the references, are relevant for parents, too. The references include quite a few BAM Radio Network articles and interviews, where Pica is an organizer and featured blogger, but many other sources are also included, from TED talks to newspapers to books and blogs, most with URLs. 

What If Everyone Understood Child Development? would be a great book to give to any parent or teacher you know who is uneasy about aspects of our current educational system (excessive testing, lack of play-based or individualized learning, etc.) but having difficulty articulating the problems. Rae Pica has been reading and thinking about these topics as an educational consultant for more than 30 years. She has strong opinions, most of which resonated with me as a parent and as a person who has started reading much more recently in these areas. Pica clearly cares deeply about the welfare of kids. I wish that education policy-makers and school administrators everywhere understood more about these issues, which they would if they would read What If Everyone Understood Child Development?. If only...  

Publisher: Corwin
Publication Date: May 6, 2015
Source of Book: Purchased on Kindle

© 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 Leaving: Tara Altebrando

Book: The Leaving
Author: Tara Altebrando
Pages: 432
Age Range: 12 and up

I was initially a bit unsure about whether or not I wanted to read Tara Altebrando's The Leaving. It begins with the kidnapping of six five-year-olds on their first day of kindergarten. As the parent of a five year old, I feared that it might strike a bit too close to home. But I've been really struggling lately to find books that can hold my attention. The cover blurb on The Leaving, by E. Lockhart called it "a top-speed page-turner", adding "I promise, you will not even look up from the page." So I decided to give it a try. And I'm glad that I did.

The Leaving did succeed in holding my attention. I read most of it in a single sitting, after my husband and daughter left on a father-daughter camping weekend. I found it more intriguing than emotionally wrenching, so the core subject matter of kidnapped kids wasn't a problem. Nearly all of the story takes place eleven years after the kidnapping, when five out of six kids return home with  no memory of their lost time.

The Leaving is told in alternating chapters from the limited third person perspective of three teens: two of the kidnapped children and the younger sister of the one who does not return. The narrative styles of the three are quite different. Scarlett's thoughts include poetic fragments, shared via visual effects like circular words. Lucas's thoughts are darker, and include white on black snippets, like signs: "CAROUSEL OCEAN GOLDEN HORSE TEETH". Avery, the one was was not kidnapped, is the most ordinary, wrestling as much with her doubts about her boyfriend as with worries about the brother that she doesn't even remember anyway. Even Avery wrestles with questions about the nature of memory. 

The Leaving is filled with tiny clues about what might have happened to the kids, set against a backdrop of media frenzy and local suspicion. The reader is not sure who to trust, or whether the outcome might include something supernatural (aliens?). There are also ordinary teen attractions, socioeconomic differences, and conflicts with friends and parents. Altebrando balances it all smoothly, keeping the reader most of all interested in turning the pages. 

Here are a couple of quotes to give a feel for Altebrando's writing:

"Back at home around dinnertime, there were no signs of dinner. Mom was in bed, surrounded by still more tissues. The woman had become a movable flowering tissue tree, dropping fruit wherever she went." (Avery, Pag 110, ARC)


"Normal people don't remember everything.

Normal people forget.

Do normal people ever have just one memory that is so ...

Very ...

Unrelenting/unavoidable/unfathomable?" (Scarlett, Page 146, ARC)

Anyone who enjoys suspenseful books that also make the reader think will enjoy The Leaving. It is well constructed and intriguing, with flawed but likable characters and surprises throughout. Highly recommended.

Publisher:  Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BWKids)
Publication Date: June 7, 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 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).

The Firefly Code: Megan Frazer Blakemore

Book: The Firefly Code
Author: Megan Frazer Blakemore
Pages: 352
Age Range: 8-12

The Firefly Code is set in a utopian settlement outside of Boston called Old Harmonie, some 50 years in the future.  It centers around a group of 12 and 13-year-olds who live on Firefly Lane: narrator Mori; her lifelong best friend Julia; brilliant and geeky Benji; and puzzle-loving Theo. When new girl Ilana moves to their street, her presence creates both tensions and mysteries for the group. 

The combination of Mori's voice and Blakemore's world-building make The Firefly Code an engaging read. I frequently have difficulty staying awake for books these days, but The Firefly Code kept me awake and thinking. Mori is a lovely character, characterized by kindness, a love of nature, and an endearing nervousness. She is unique and three-dimensional, while clearly being a product of her specialized environment. Mori's relationships with Julia and Theo are realistically complex, too. 

Here are a couple of snippets to give you a feel for Mori's voice:

"But those (Mori's differences from Julia) were all just surface things, about as relevant as the color of our hair. What mattered was that we knew each other inside and out, backward and forward, and would be there for each other no matter what. That's what makes a best friend." (Chapter 2, ARC)

"It was the scientists who did all the work of Kria, but I knew that, silly as they sometimes seemed with their fancy suits and tech gadgets, it was the executives who kept everyone's eyes on the big picture of progress. That was one of the biggest differences between inside our Kritopia of Old Harmonie and outside: inside, we never stopped experimenting and innovating, but outside they were just struggling to get by and couldn't work on making the world better." (Chapter 2)

Old Harmonie is a planned community run by an apparently benevolent company called Krita. The children in the community are designer babies, created by varying combinations of natural reproduction and genetic engineering. After each child turns thirteen, he or she has brain surgery to release a special "latency". This releases the child's particular gifts in that area. Parents can also, at various points, request surgery to "dampen" tendencies within their kids that they don't like, and can give their children artificial enhancements (up to a particular limit). It's not possible to tell just by looking at someone how enhanced they might be.

Apart from the genetic engineering aspects of the story, I thought that the future world of Old Harmonie was not all that advanced relative to our own. I believe that we'll see more change in the next 50 years, but I doubt that 10 year old readers will quibble over this aspect of the story (because of course it's difficult to know what that change will entail).  Keeping the trappings of the world recognizable certainly makes for a more accessible read. There are also some interesting undertones about civilizations, progress and inequity, but again, at a level that is accessible for kids. 

Bottom line: The Firefly Code has a perfect combination of intriguing science fiction and realistic tween interaction. I enjoyed every page, and look forward to what promises to be at least one more book set in Mori's world. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books  (@BWKids)
Publication Date: May 3, 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).

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter: Beth Fantaskey

Book: Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter
Author: Beth Fantaskey
Pages: 352
Age Range: 10-12

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter by Beth Fantaskey is set in 1926 Chicago and features a 10-year-old newsgirl who aspires to one day be a crime reporter. When Miss Giddings, a woman who has been kind to Isabel, is accused of murder (with Isabel having been the first on the scene) the intrepid young girl tries to prove Miss Giddings' innocence. In the process, Isabel gets to know a woman she has idolized from afar, Tribune reporter Maude Collier (who is loosely based on an actual historical figure). Isabel also becomes friends with Miss Giddings' son, disabled by polio, and the murdered man's daughter. Largely unsupervised by a mother who works nights, Isabel roams about, stirring things up and annoying the police detective assigned to the case. 

I found Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter to be an enjoyable and absorbing read. I did solve the mystery somewhat before Isabel did, but I've had the benefit of reading a lot more mysteries than she has. Isabel is a strong character. She struggles to bring in income for her broken family (her father died fighting in World War I). She wishes she had been able to continue going to school, but she reads and writes as much as she can. She's too proud to accept charity, and is downright pugnacious when she feels insulted. She is loyal to a fault. Here she is:

"Maude didn't say anything else. She just turned her dark, confident eyes on stone-faced James Culhane, and the second I looked at him, I knew she was going to get her way. He didn't melt like a snowman in August, but his shoulders slumped, just a little. "Fine," he agreed through gritted teeth. "She can stay." (Page 91)


"I was starting to learn that being a reporter meant you couldn't always be kind. That sometimes you had to ask hard questions, even if some kid was under a blanket struggling to breathe.

Could I really do that job?" (Page 93)


"I didn't apologize for mentioning his disease. I felt sorry for Robert, but I didn't understand why people ways pretended they didn't even notice the bad stuff that happened to you. He'd had polio, for crying out loud, and not talking about it wasn't going to change anything. Just like everybody avoiding talking about my dad wouldn't make him any less dead." (Page 98)

Fantaskey offers a nice window into the time period, with enough details to give a sense of Prohibition Chicago (mobsters, speakeasies, Murderess's Row) but not so much as to overwhelm the story. She drops in a couple of direct references to the limited career roles available to women at the time, which I think could provide food for though in family read-alouds, but wondering about these things does feel true to Isabel's character. A brief author's note at the end of the book ties in to actual historical figures and situations. Al Capone is mentioned but doesn't play a direct part in the story (perhaps in a sequel?). 

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter is listed on Amazon as being for 10-12 year olds, and I think this is correct. I think it's a better fit for middle schoolers than for elementary school kids. This is a story that begins, after all, with a 10-year-old coming across a recent gunshot victim. The Chicago setting, while certainly not overdone, is dark and gritty. Which is not to say that there's no humor to this book. The banter between Isabel, Maude, and the police detective is clever and enjoyable. But I think that Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter falls on the more challenging end of the middle grade spectrum. It would pair well with Kate Hannigan's The Detective's Assistant. Fans of mysteries and/or historical fiction about scrappy girls who are ahead of their time will not wan to miss Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter. I hope that Isabel has other adventures.  

Publisher:  HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: March 1, 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).

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!")


"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).

The Terrible Two Get Worse: Mac Barnett, Jory John, and Kevin Cornell

Book: The Terrible Two Get Worse
Author: Mac Barnett and Jory John
Illustrator: Kevin Cornell
Pages: 224
Age Range: 8-12

The Terrible Two Get Worse is, of course, the sequel to The Terrible Two (reviewed here) by Mac Barnett and Jory John, with extensive illustrations by Kevin Cornell.  It handily passed my new litmus test for books, which is: this book has to make me actively want to keep reading, or I will find something else. I read it in a quick single sitting. While I didn't think it was quite as funny as the first book, I thought that The Terrible Two Get Worse had more heart. Believe it or not, I cared about what happened not only to prankster pals Niles and Miles, but also to Principal Barry Barkin (the pranksters' nemesis in the first book). 

As The Terrible Two Get Worse begins, Miles and Niles are having a great time pulling pranks at their school and around their community. Principal Barkin is hapless to stop them. Everything changes, however, when Principal Barkin's father, Former Principal Bertrand Barkin, stages a coup, gets Barry put on "involuntary, indefinite leave of absence" and takes back over. Principal Bertrand Barkin has a way to cut off the pranks, leaving Niles and Miles without a purpose and the school without joy.

This book resonated with me in particular because a whole sub-theme of the book is about how an unenlightened administrator can suck the joy right out of a school. The new (old) principal cancels pajama day, and any other fun events. He stomps on the will of a progressive teacher, changing her from teaching interactive group activities to lectures. Here he is, at his first assembly:

"Today is also School Day. And so is next Monday. In fact, there are 120 School Days remaining this year, and all of them will be the same. You will learn facts, you will learn figures, you will be quizzed, and you will be tested. We will proceed thusly until June, at which point I do not are what you do. Wear a cowboy hat, wear a hideous sweater. That's what summer is for." (Chapter 10)

While Principal Barkin is, of course, a caricature, I do believe that this may strike close to home for some readers as a commentary on modern school systems (though I hope not). 

The other thing that struck me about this book was how the authors, ably assisted by Kevin Cornell, humanized the initial principal, Barry Barkin. Lost without his job to do, Barry undertakes a series of projects, like quilting and nature photography. These are shown in between chapter, full-page illustrations. Attentive readers will notice that no matter what hobby he undertakes, Barry always has a sub-theme of school. For instance, his nature photos include a bird on top of a school bus. A rabbit is hopping along the school running track. And so on. One can't help but see that for all of his foibles, Barry loves the school. 

The authors also do a nice job of continuing to develop the personalities of Niles and Miles. I especially enjoy Niles, who is an adult-pleasing geek as camouflage for his prankster self. Like this:

"Niles knew the tired look Mr. Yeager was giving him right now. It was the look that said, "There's one of these kids at every school. What Niles understood was that people love to put things--songs and books and other people--into categories... Niles didn't want people thinking about him--he believed the best pranksters were invisible. And so every school day, Niles played the kiss-up, the toady, the persnickety twerp." (Chapter 3)

Finally, I think that Barnett and John do a good job of balancing over-the-top humor against ordinary, relatable aspects of school: class photo day, bake sales, assemblies, and fire drills. I think it's not a coincidence that Niles pulls out a copy of Roald Dahl's Matilda near the end of the book. There's definitely a Dahl-esque quality to The Terrible Two. 

In short, The Terrible Two Get Worse is sure to be a hit in both elementary and middle schools. Recommended for home or library purchase. 

Publisher:  Harry N. Abrams (@AbramsKids)
Publication Date: January 12, 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).

How to Capture an Invisible Cat (Genius Factor): Paul Tobin

Book: How to Capture an Invisible Cat (The Genius Factor, Book 1)
Author: Paul Tobin
Illustrator: Thierry Lafontaine
Pages: 272
Age Range: 8-12

How to Capture an Invisible Cat is the first book in a new five book series by Paul Tobin (lightly illustrated by Thierry Lafontaine). My only regret after reading this first book is that the entire series is not yet available. Because How to Capture an Invisible Cat is pure, kid-friendly fun. How to Capture an Invisible Cat is told from the first-person viewpoint of Delphine Cooper, a sixth grade girl who has a number of friends, and whose impulsive behavior frequently lands her in hot water. When Delphine becomes friends with Nate Bannister, a genius inventor who is in her class at school, she quickly finds herself drawn in to an over-the-top adventure involving a gigantic invisible cat, a talking dog, and a dangerous secret society. 

The publisher's description of the book likens it to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. This is why I try not to read marketing materials - because now I can't get that comparison out of my head. It is apt (a comparison to the movie, that is). How to Capture an Invisible Cat is filled with crazy inventions and madcap adventures, with slightly cartoonish bad guys, and a geeky inventor hero. But because it's a novel (vs. a movie, or a picture book), there are other layers to the story, too. Delphine is not a genius, and she doesn't always understand what Nate is doing. Delphine's gift, in strong contrast to Nate's is friendship. I believe that we'll see Delphine's gift coming more and more to the foreground in future books.

What I love most about How to Capture an Invisible Cat is Delphine's breezy, funny, run-on voice. I was snorting and flagging passages by page two. Here are just a few examples:

"These tests took place a couple of weeks back, after school, in our sixth grade classroom. I'd stayed late to sweep the floor, since Ms. Talbot uses cleaning duty as a punishment for misbehaving children, among which I am numbered." (Page 2)

"...Plus, I have to pay for my cell phone by myself, and I'm also saving up for when my friend Liz Morris and I start traveling the world as a mysterious due of carefree adventurers. Sadly, from the looks of my savings, that will probably have to wait until at least seventh grade." (Page 3-4)

"I watched Bosper run across the dog park, completely in the opposite direction of where the balloon was going, running right past the poor screaming girl who had lost her balloon and who was now on her back rolling all over the ground, which is not something I'd recommend in a dog park." (Page 6)

"Simple," I said. It was not what I meant. I noticed he was reading a Nancy Drew mystery. I liked him for that. Most boys don't like girl detectives." (Page 7)

I could go on and on. Delphine is just pitch-perfect. While Nate is in many ways the hero of the story, I don't think it would have worked nearly so well had he been the narrator. He's brilliant, but somewhat lacking in social skills . He works much better as a foil for Delphine's humor. Like this:

""Here's some lemonade," Nate said. "I put out some cookies. That was a good move, right? They're chocolate chip cookies. I have some ice cream, too. It's also chocolate chip. Oh. That wasn't smart, was it? I was trying for a chocolate chip theme, but I only had two items of chocolate chip nature, so that's not really a theme, more a lack of variety."" (Page 35)

I do love reading about a character who is really smart yet still works to keep stretching and improving himself. Nate has been able to expand his dog's brain, so that the dog can talk. He can predict where Delphine is going to be, using a complex series of mental mathematical models, and can leave her notes along her path (not as creepy as it sounds, because he's both brilliant and hapless). He loves questions, saying "Asking questions is like bodybuilding for the brain."

So as I think I've made clear, I really love the characters, and the voice, and the humor, of How to Capture an Invisible Cat. But the plotting is also well done, featuring a quest for clues which Nate has hidden from himself (long story), with setbacks caused by Nate's evil nemesis. How to Capture an Invisible Cat will certainly  keep readers turning the pages. There are hints of "boy-girl stuff" in here for tweens. There's a kiss, even. But this is all quite secondary to the plot, and not sufficient to be off-putting to younger readers.

How to Capture an Invisible Cat is one of my very favorite new middle grade novels. It's creative, suspenseful, celebrates intellect, and is funny, funny, funny. It's everything a middle grade fantasy should be. I can't wait for future books in the series, and highly recommend that parents, teachers, and librarians all give it a look. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BWKids)
Publication Date: March 1, 2016
Source of Book: Advanced 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).

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).