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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).


Beyond Measure: Vicki Abeles

Book: Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation
Author: Vicki Abeles
Pages: 304
Age Range: Adult Nonfiction

Beyond Measure is a new book by Vicki Abeles, a mom and former Wall Street lawyer who created a documentary called The Race to Nowhere, about problems with the educational system in the US. In this new book (there is also a new movie called Beyond Measure), Abeles shares ideas and solutions for parents and educators that she has distilled from talking with people around the country (including at community showings of Race to Nowhere). The idea is to build something of a grassroots movement to fix problems in the system, such as excessive homework, excessive testing, and hyper-competitive college application processes. 

For me, Beyond Measure was the right book at the right time. Over the past couple of years I've read a number of books that Abeles references (Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Excellent Sheep, Mindset), and others that touch on similar issues (Why Don't Students Like School, The Me, Me, Me Epidemic and How to Raise an Adult). I've been giving a lot of thought to how children learn and become capable adults.

I've also been struggling with the fact that my five-year-old daughter, one trimester into kindergarten, is already complaining about certain aspects of school. I know that some degree of complaining about school is normal and inevitable, of course, but I wasn't expecting it to be quite so soon. 

I've also been in need of a new direction for my blog, and had already decided to try to put more of a focus on the joy of learning. Beyond Measure was the first book that I read after deciding on this path, so I flagged a lot of passages. It is basically a call to arms to remake, in ways small and large, the US educational system, to turn out kids who are creative problem-solvers, rather than robots who can spit out rote answers. It's also a defense against school and community pressures that are making kids sick from stress.

Rather than attempt to review this book, what I'll do is summarize, and share some of the passages that I highlighted from each chapter. I hope that these passages will inspire some of you to pick up the book yourselves.

Chapter 1: Sicker, Not Smarter (on how academic stress is making kids sick, and how kids need positive environments and novelty for proper brain development)

 "So, by emphasizing quantity over quality, and content over mastery of complex skills, our traditional educational model is missing crucial opportunities to enhance brain maturation at a critical time."

"We have, without really meaning to, transmitted to young people the idea that academic achievement is the most important way to measure their value as people, and that success in school exclusively assures success in life. Yet the Novel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has decisively put that notion to rest. Analyzing thirty-five years of data that chronicled children's lives from preschool into adulthood, Heckman and colleagues demonstrated that character makes more difference than IQ for economic and social success." 

Chapter 2: It's About Time (on how necessary it is to give your kids unstructured time, and not give in to community pressures for overscheduling)

 "We forget in the push for productivity that much of what is lost is what happens below the surface of free time. Building a fort, daydreaming, or inventing a game might seem like dreamy luxuries--but these idylls of childhood are far from idle. It's in these unstructured moments that children develop essential capacities for reflective thought, creativity, social skills, and self-control."

"To survive as an underscheduler in an always-busy world, you have to keep faith in the value of space and time, of allowing a child to explore the new interests to which an unplanned afternoon may lead."

Chapter 3: Homework: Take Back Our Nights (on how excessive amounts of homework, starting in elementary school, leave kids with too little time for play and family - Abeles is quite vehement on this subject)

"This supposedly wholesome practice--which has spiraled to such extremes that it shreds family life, steals children's chances to explore and play, and deprives growing minds and bodies of essential rest--does not even help students learn."

"As Race to Nowhere screened in communities across the country, parent after parent stood up and identified homework as one of the most malignant aspects of the race. They worried about how to get their teens to go to bed before one a.m., or grew heartsick watching the spark of curiosity fade from their kindergarteners' eyes."

"For those who want to truly reinforce learning, the best practice is to prescribe as little as possible--only occasional, personalized assignments that involve experiences that can't happen at school--and to allow the student's brain ample time to explore fresh ideas and absorb and process what it has learned that day."

"Finally, and perhaps saddest of all, I have seen over and over again that homework overload steals from young minds the desire to learn."

Chapter 4: Testing: Learning Beyond the Bubble (on the drive toward ever-increasing numbers of standardized tests, and the amount of classroom time that is spent preparing for them, with comparisons to Finland)

 "America now faces a choice. We can break the chains of standardization and embrace a kind of education that nourishes the creative thinkers and compassionate leaders of tomorrow. Or we can keep insisting on the same outmoded protocol, trying to quantify all knowledge and churn out "educated youth" like uniform items on an assembly line."

Chapter 5: College Admissions: Break Free from The Frenzy (on the levels to which students and families go in the quest for admission to a small set of elite colleges, and the role that colleges could play in improving things)

"A good life does not depend on a brand-name alma mater, nor is one guaranteed by an Ivy League acceptance letter. Either way, we're losing too much in its pursuit... The college admissions process is a Darwinian and soul-bruising contest that represents nothing of the great leap toward autonomy, independence, and adventure that it should."

"College professors widely report that too many freshmen arrive on their campuses profoundly averse to risk, not daring to try new subjects or endeavors that they can't be sure to ace. The traditional treadmill has stripped them of their spark."

"The greatest myth of all is that only a tiny handful of colleges are worth attending. And once you stop believing that, you can also stop believing that you have to kill yourself to get there--because the vast majority of schools out there truly want a diverse set of students, including interesting kids with Bs and Cs." (This point is also made, extensively, in How to Raise an Adult.)

Chapter 6: Teaching and Learning: This Way Up (on small-scale ways that schools could be--and are being--changed to better prioritize kids' health and learning)

"What would the ideal school look like? A kind of school that goes deep instead of wide, that capitalizes on children's particular strengths and tends to their weaknesses rather than putting them all through the same paces, and that asks every student to cultivate truly original ideas instead of mere right answers?.. Ultimately, a school focused on learning through vigorous, genuine inquiry would grow the kind of inventive thinkers and keen communicators that our children's futures will demand."

Chapter 7: First, Be Well (on higher level ways that school policies could be changed to better serve the overall wellness of students, such as later start times for high school, more in-school advisors, and less reliance on technology)

"(Palo Alto school board member Ken) Dauber advocates loudly for reduced homework, and also wants to see the schools change their schedules, complete finals before winter break, provide lessons in social and emotional skills, and more closely align the standard curriculum to individual students' needs." 

"I have come to see that this problem (maintaining balance), like every problem we've examined in this book, stems from twin plagues: our twisted vision of success and, related, a culture of busyness that has become synonymous with success itself... As we being to redefine success--for our kids and for ourselves--we must place wellness at its core... As parents, it is also time we reclaim the definition of successful parenting with wellness ranking first. "

Chapter 8: Action: How You Can Replace the Race to Nowhere (basically a summary of actions to take at home and in one's community to deter the "race to nowhere". If in a hurry, one could probably just read this chapter and get a lot of the meat of the book. It is a bit repetitive having just read the of the book.)

"Prioritize kids' social time. Time with friends--play for younger children, and hanging out for teens--is as essential to healthy growth as food and water. Protect social time from the myriad other "productive" obligations that would crowd it out."

"You, along with your fellow parents, students, educators, and community members, are the advocates the next generation needs." 

There are lots of examples in the book of individual schools and educators that have had success with various changes, such as eliminating homework at least some of the time, grouping kids of different ages in classrooms, and giving kids project-based assessments rather than focusing on tests. For me, things that I would like to work on at home that were reinforced by this book (these are generally things I already wanted to do -- that's how taking advice works, I think):

  • I want to protect my daughter's unstructured time as much as I can, including pushing back on busywork-type homework if this becomes necessary in later grades, and limiting her number of scheduled activities.
  • I want to try to keep my family off of the elite college application process rat race as much as I can. 
  • I want to support ways that my daughter can keep her spark of learning alive, by helping her to research the things that she's interested in, by potentially keeping her out of standardized testing if it becomes a problem, and by paying attention. 

I am sure that I will be talking about these issues, and others, as I go forward with my blog's new Growing Joyful Learners direction. I also plan to go back and share notes from some of the other books mentioned above, which I've been reading over the past couple of years. 

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: October 6, 2015
Source of Book: Purchased

© 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).


Be A Friend: Salina Yoon

Book: Be A Friend
Author: Salina Yoon
Pages: 40
Age Range: 3-7

Be A Friend is a new picture book from the prolific Salina Yoon. It's about being true to yourself, as well as the sense of validation that comes when you find that friend who understands you, just as you are. I think that it's lovely, and would make a great companion book to The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig and Patrice Barton or Leo: A Ghost Story, by Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson. 

Dennis is "an ordinary boy", except that he dresses himself up every day as a mime, and doesn't speak. His closet shows a picture of Marcel Marceau. He only acts, performing scenes to express himself to others. The other kids seem to leave him be, but he does find that he's sometimes lonely. Until, that is, he meets a girl appropriately named Joy, who is prepared to act things out right along with him. 

Dennis (AKA Mime Boy) is shown throughout with white-painted face and striped shift. Yoon highlights the scenes that Dennis is acting out by using a dashed red line to provide clues for the reader. So we see Dennis standing with legs bent, sweat beading his forehead, sitting atop the red dashed outline of a bicycle. The text never explains these miniature acts - it doesn't need to. I think that preschoolers will love identifying the action in each vignette. 

The minimal text in Be A Friend would make it work either as a read-aloud for preschoolers or as an independent read for new readers. There are a few more difficult words, like "extraordinary", but most of the text is quite direct. Like this (over two page spreads):

"They saw the world the SAME way.

Dennis and Joy didn't speak a WORD,
because FRIENDS don't have to."

Be A Friend is heartwarming and reassuring without being particularly sad. While it might be implausible that a kid like Dennis wouldn't be picked on in school, I read this as more of a parable than a literal tale. But the particular device of Dennis acting out scenes (and the reader being able to guess what they are) makes this book extra-fun for preschoolers. And the messages, like Dennis' acts, are mainly hinted at, left to the reader to infer. Be A Friend is going on our keep shelf, a new favorite for me. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's (@BWKids)
Publication Date: January 5, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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


The Tiara on the Terrace: Kristen Kittscher

Book: The Tiara on the Terrace
Author: Kristen Kittscher
Pages: 400
Age Range: 8-12

The Tiara on the Terrace is the sequel to Kristen Kittscher's middle grade mystery The Wig in the Window. Both feature best friends and twelve-year-old sleuths Sophie Young and Grace Yang. As The Tiara on the Terrace begins, the girls' town of Luna Vista is getting ready for the 125th annual Winter Sun Festival, a tradition involving a parade and a "royal court" of teen girls. Sophie and Grace are helping with the floats. When the Festival president dies under mysterious circumstances, Grace convinces Sophie and their friend Trista to apply to be royal pages, so that they can investigate more closely. A mixture of investigation and festival preparation follows. 

Trista plays a larger role in The Tiara on the Terrace than she did in the first book, which I think is a plus. (I noted in my review of the first book that I liked her better than I did Grace.) Trista is big and awkward and unrepentantly an engineer. Trista and Sophie would have been unlikely to be selected as pages were they not "town heroes" following the events of the first book. Grace, on the other hand, fits right in with the older, more fashion-focused members of the Royal Court.

Some tension between Grace and Sophie is evident from the book's start, as the former is more ready to grow up than the latter (a great dynamic to explore in a book aimed at tweens). Sophie, on the other hand, is the one who has a (completely PG) crush. Like this:

"Hey there," a voice called out behind us. My heart skipped a beat as I turned to see Rod Zimball. He put down his flower bucket and gave a little save. White petals were caught in the crests of his dark curls like whitecaps, and his hazel eyes shone. The only way he could have looked any cuter is if he were cradling a baby panda." (Page 20, ARC)

Once there's a mystery to solve, though, all three girls, with a small amount of assistance from Rod, are all in with investigating. They come up with a secret code for identifying meeting spots, and rap out messages on the walls between their rooms. There's even a late-night escapade involving a stolen golf cart. 

The book's setting, in which just about every scene is associated with the festival in some way, feels fresh. The girls spend a weekend in the Festival Mansion as part of their duties as pages, which gets them away from parental supervision, and gives them plenty of opportunities to sneak about, spying. Here's Sophie on being away from home:

"I was scared, too. Scared everyone would think I was a loser, like Ms. Sparrow had though. Scared of spending every minute with all these older girls--these cooler girls who expected us to serve their every need. But it wasn't just that. I hated the idea of being away from my family for a whole weekend. No playing Uno with Grandpa after finishing my homework. No trying to do the crossword puzzle in the morning with my mom. No listening to dad's totally exaggerated stories about work crises. No Jake being Jake." (Page 128, ARC)

Sophie does make one mistake (a betrayal of Grace) that I found cringe-worthy, but I enjoyed The Tiara on the Terrace otherwise. It's good to see a middle grade mystery with real stakes (an actual dead body), but that remains buoyant overall. I think that the mix of tween angst, cosseted "royals", and murder investigation will work well for kids who are just developing an interest in mysteries (and/or just thinking about having an interest in "more than friend" relationships. There's even a bit of diversity (in Grace and Trista's backgrounds), kept mostly incidental to the story, but good to see.

I would recommend The Tiara on the Terrace for elementary or middle school libraries, or for individual purchase for middle grade mystery fans. I think it's better than the first book, and that fans of The Wig in the Window will definitely want to take a look. If you haven't read The Wig in the Window, it would be better to start with that one, as there are spoilers for the first book. 

Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: January 5, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

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


It's an Orange Aardvark!: Michael Hall

Book: It's an Orange Aardvark!
Author: Michael Hall
Pages: 40
Age Range: 3-6

It's an Orange Aardvark! by Michael Hall is about a group of five carpenter ants who live inside a hollow stump. One day a bold, yellow-helmeted ant decides to drill a hole in the stump, so that they "can see what's outside." Another ant, one with an orange helmet, worries that the hole maybe a problem because:

"What if there's an aardvark out there?
Aardvarks are gray and sneaky ...

and they have long tongues
that are perfect for eating carpenter ants"

When the ants glimpse something orange through the hole, a new dispute arises about whether or not aardvarks can be orange. Other holes drilled in the stump reveal other colors, but the fears about the aardvark continue and build upon one another (It's an orange aardvark "wearing blue pajamas!", etc.). Eventually, the brave, yellow-helmeted ant ventures outside, and finds a pleasant surprise (though his most fearful companion is never convinced). 

It's an Orange Aardvark is an entertaining celebration of colors as well as fears. There are holes in the pages, through which readers can glimpse the same colors that the ants do. Hall colors concentric circles around the inside of each hole, showing the color glowing right through the holes and into the darkness of the hollow stump. The colors of the helmets are used to illustrate the personalities of the ants: the yellow one is adventurous, the blue ones are easily led, and the reddish orange one is downright paranoid. 

I like It's an Orange Aardvark because it celebrates the ridiculous, both in the premise as a whole, and in the ways that the orange-helmeted ant works the various colors into his warnings ("gecko-guiding, dozer driving", etc.). Sure, one could infer a message about not jumping to conclusions in the presence of insufficient information, but this isn't necessary to enjoy the book. The peeking through holes bit lends additional visual interest to the book, and makes it, in my opinon, more a book for preschoolers than for older kids. It would make a fun storytime read-aloud. 

Publisher: Greenwillow Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: April 22, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon and iBooks 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).


Brimsby's Hats: Andrew Prahin

Book: Brimsby's Hats
Author: Andrew Prahin
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

Brimsby's Hats by Andrew Prahin is about a little green guy (some sort of unidentifiable animal character) who makes beautiful hats. HIs best friend helps him by making "the most wonderful tea" and assisting in packing up the hats for shipping. But most importantly, the two friends have "the most wonderful conversations." When Brimsby's friend decides to move away, to fulfill a lifelong desire to be a sea captain, Brimsby is very lonely. Eventually, however, Brimsby uses his hat-making skills to help him to make some new friends. The book concludes on a happy note, with Brimsby and his new friends visiting the old sea captain friend, and all of them talking about "hats and shovels and ships and how wonderful it was that they had all been lucky enough to meet one another."

OK, when I read my own description of this book, it sounds a bit saccharine. But it doesn't read that way. I think this is because of Prahin's matter-of-fact tone. Like this:

"The hat maker worked for many quiet days after that, and had many quiet cups of tea.
(They weren't nearly as wonderful as the tea his friend used to make.)
It was quiet.
Very quiet.
Too quiet.
One day the hat maker realized he had become awfully lonely."

The above text is spread out across a series of panels, each showing Brimsby by himself at a table for two, making his lonely hats and drinking his lonely tea, as the seasons change outside his window, and winter comes. 

Prahin's Adobe Illustrator-generated pictures use the pure white backdrop of the snow to accentuate Brimsby's loneliness. But there's humor, too. Brimsby encounters a group of birds, all nesting in a tree, keeping warm with little stoves as they sweep the snow out of their nests. There's a graphic artist feel to the illustrations - they are a bit stylized - and I think this helps keep the book from feeling too sentimental, too. There's an early sequence in which Brimsby and his friend are talking, and the author shows the things that they talk about as images in text bubbles: the two friends dressed as pirates, fighting dragons and a giant purple octopus. 

Brimsby's Hats is a book that makes me happy when I read it. I think that young readers will enjoy it, too. Although it is technically about the importance of finding friends, Prahin steers well away from the didactic by focusing on the efforts and experiences of one quirky little hat maker. Recommended for home or library use. 

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (@SimonKids)
Publication Date: December 31, 2013
Source of Book: Library copy

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon and iBooks 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).


Toys Meet Snow: Emily Jenkins and Paul O. Zelinsky

Book: Toys Meet Snow: Being the Wintertime Adventures of a Curious Stuffed Buffalo, a Sensitive Plush Stingray, and a Book-loving Rubber Ball 
Author: Emily Jenkins
Illustrator: Paul O. Zelinsky
Pages: 40
Age Range: 3-7

Toys Meet Snow brings the world of Toys Go Out and sequels (chapter books by Emily Jenkins and Paul O. Zelinsky) to picture book format. The result is a treat for picture book readers of all ages. In this simple celebration of winter, three toys are left at home while Little Girl is away on vacation. Curious about the snow they see outside the window, Lumphy, StingRay, and Plastic venture out of doors. They make a snowman and snow angels and have a fun-filled day, before heading inside at sunset. 

It is not necessary to have read the Toys Go Out books to appreciate Toys Meet Snow. The personalities of the three toys are crystal clear, without any previous context. Lumphy (a stuffed buffalo) is the one asking questions like "Why does it decide to snow." StingRay (a plush stingray) "is more poetic than factual", coming up with answers like "Because the clouds are sad and happy at the same time". Plastic (a round rubber ball, inaccurately named) stays focused on the facts (most of the time).  

The events of the story strike a nice balance between being toy-specific and being universal to child readers. The snow angels that they make reflect their unique shapes (Plastic's is especially humorous, a grouping of circles where she has bounced around). And the page in which the three toys have to work together to open the outside door, shown in a series of panels, is hilarious. 

The details of the story are also well-balanced, between factual ("it's what rain becomes when the temperature is freezing" and poetic (sunset is "strawberry syrup pouring over the world to make it sweet before nightfall." In the end, the more poetic side wins out, and even pragmatic Plastic is taken by the strawberry syrup sunset. 

Zelinsky's digitally rendered illustrations draw the reader completely into the story, somehow managing to give us a toy's sense of perspective on the big, snowy world. The sunset images are particularly lovely and warm. Jenkins' text is spare, leaving the pictures to convey much of the story. It could have been a tricky transition, from the more text-dense chapter book format to a picture book, but she handles it beautifully. 

Toys Meet Snow is the perfect book with which to curl up with a child on a cold winter's night. It's also a nice introduction for younger readers to this kid-friendly series. Highly recommended. This book was my nomination for the 2015 Cybils Awards in Fiction Picture Books.  

Publisher: Schwartz & Wade (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: September 22, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


Paul Meets Bernadette: Rosy Lamb

Book: Paul Meets Bernadette
Author: Rosy Lamb
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

Paul Meets Bernadette by Rosy Lamb is one of those books that I didn't fully appreciate until I read it with my child. Paul is a goldfish who spends his time swimming around in circles. He doesn't have anything else to do. One day, Bernadette is dropped into his bowl, however, and changes his whole world. Instead of just swimming around the goldfish bowl, Bernadette takes note of the things she can see outside of the bowl. She identifies these things to Paul, though her knowledge proves to be somewhat lacking. Still, Paul is utterly charmed, and by the end of the book, he's not going around in circles, he's going around Bernadette, the new center of his world. 

The part that my daughter loves about this book is the way that Bernadette mis-identifies things. She sees a banana and thinks that it's a boat. She sees a pair of glasses and declares it "a lunetta butterfly". A teapot becomes an elephant. And so on. These mix-ups make my daughter peal with laughter. Identifying the objects correctly makes her feel smart. All in all, these things make this a very interactive picture book. 

What my daughter doesn't really notice, at four, is the way that Bernadette's misconceptions always expand the world in which she and Paul live. She doesn't see two fried eggs, she sees "the sun and the moon." She doesn't see milk and orange juice containers, she sees the city of "Milkwaukee." (A joke that will be over the head of most kids, but pleased me.) Bernadette takes what could be a dull, circumscribed existence and makes it ever-interesting. Paul gets this. After she identifies the sun and the moon he thinks: "And you, Bernadette, are my star." 

Lamb's use of oil paints for the illustrations is a good choice. She's able to use swirls of colors to show the movement of the goldfish in the water, and to lend a textured appearance to everything that the fish see. 

As with the objects on Paul and Bernadette's table, there's more to Paul Meets Bernadette than initially meets the eye. Paul Meets Bernadette is entertaining for kids, and gorgeous to look at, but also has a subtle, integral message about how people can make, and break free of, their own prisons. A standout picture book, recommended for home or library purchase. 

Publisher: Candlewick (@Candlewick)
Publication Date: December 10, 2013
Source of Book: Library copy, checked out for Round 1 Cybils consideration in Fiction Picture Books. All opinions are my own. 

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon and iBooks 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).


A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina's Dream: Kristy Dempsey & Floyd Cooper

Book: A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina's Dream
Author: Kristy Dempsey
Illustrator: Floyd Cooper
Pages: 32
Age Range: 5-8

A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina's Dream, by Kristy Dempsey and Floyd Cooper, is about a little African American girl in the 1950's who hardly dares to dream of being a ballerina. Her mother works as a seamstress for a Harlem ballet school, where the Ballet Master allows the little girl "to join lessons each day from the back of the room, even though (she) can't perform onstage with white girls." But when her mother takes her to see "Miss Janet Collins ... first colored prima ballerina" to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House, the girl feels hope that her own dream might one day come true. 

A Dance Like Starlight is a moving story that gives modern children a window into the segregation of African American children in the 1950s. The girl wonders "Could a colored girl like me ever become a prima ballerina?" This seems, until she learns of Miss Collins, more like a wish than something with any reasonable hope of occurring.

This book is fairly text-heavy, and more suited to older children than preschoolers. Here's a snippet (all from one page):

"It takes
three
different
buses
to get where we're going.
I keep checking Mama's watch
and straining my neck to see how far we've gone.
But in this crowded bus from our place in the back
all I can see are sidewalks and storefronts.
It makes it hard to see the tops of high-rises,
landmarks that would let me know we're close,
ones I would recognize
from wishing on a skyline every single night."

Cooper's mixed media illustrations have a sepia tone that reflects both the dark skin of the main characters and what may be a nod to old-fashioned photos from 60+ years ago. The people and settings are depicted realistically. One image, of the girl's anguished face in the hands of the Ballet Master, makes her so real that I felt like I knew her. 

A Dance Like Starlight is not going to be for everyone - there's a lot of text, and the illustrations, while lovely, have a serious feel. But for kids who love dance, or who scarcely dare to dream that they can become something big, A Dance Like Starlight will really hit home. And it's of course nice to see a picture book on the new books shelf that shows a brown-skinned girl lost in the joy of dance. Recommended, especially for library purchase. 

Publisher: Philomel Books (@PenguinKids) 
Publication Date: January 2, 2014
Source of Book: Library copy, checked out for Round 1 Cybils consideration in Fiction Picture Books. All opinions are my own. 

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon and iBooks 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 Big Ideas of Buster Bickles: Dave Wasson

Book: The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles
Author: Dave Wasson
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles by Dave Wasson is an over-the-top picture book that celebrates creativity and following your own path. Buster Bickles is a kid who is full of ideas, like making robots out of cardboard and making "EGGS-ray" vision goggles out of bacon and eggs. But when he takes his inventions to school for show and tell, the other kids laugh at him. 

Fortunately, Buster just happens to have an uncle who is an inventor (bearing a strong resemblance to Doc Brown from the Back to the Future movies). Uncle Roswell (heh) just happens to have invented a "What-If Machine", but he's lacking in big ideas to use to test it out. Needless to say, Buster is up for the challenge. He starts small, imagining "What if I had a giant mustache?", but then his ideas get bigger and bigger, until near-disaster. In the end, the What-If Machine makes a cameo at school for show and tell, and Buster is utterly vindicated.

So, not the most realistic book about invention that one might run across. (At one point the entire planet turns into ice cream). Despite the science-fiction nature of the story, however, Buster himself is relatable for any kid who has ever wanted to build things or felt like other people didn't understand. When he is initially laughed at during show and tell, the reader can see Buster droop, even though he is inside his robot costume. When he sadly says: "No one seems to like my ideas, Mom", the reader's heart hurts for him. And when his uncle asks if he has any big ideas for the machine, his joy positively radiates from the page. Although the what-ifs are entertaining (raining guinea pigs!), it's this realistic emotion that made The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles stand out for me.  

The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles is a fun romp that is sure to make kids giggle. Wasson's digitally-generated illustrations are quirky and detailed. The use of varied fonts adds points for read-aloud emphasis. But The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles also has heart, and delivers a subtle encouragement to dream big. That makes it a keeper in my book. Recommended for home or classroom settings.  

Publisher: HarperCollins (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: April 28, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


Death by Toilet Paper: Donna Gephart

Book: Death by Toilet Paper
Author: Donna Gephart
Pages: 272
Age Range: 9-12

Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart is a quick and humorous read that manages to cover quite a bit of ground. 7th grader Benjamin and his mother are suffering financially following the death of Benjamin's father the previous year. Although his mother is close to completing her CPA certification (and thus improving their fortunes), they are at risk of being evicted from their apartment in the meantime.

Benjamin tries to help raise money by entering a variety of contests, including one involving toilet paper. He also sets up a small business selling candy at school. This stressful time becomes more complicated when Benjamin's grandfather arrives unexpectedly on their doorstep, and appears to be having memory problems.  

Although there's a lot going on in this book, and some of it is serious stuff, the overall tone of Death by Toilet Paper is, as you would expect from the title and the cover, reasonably light. Definitely middle grade friendly. There's a series of letters included throughout the story between Benjamin and an executive from the Royal-T Toilet Paper Company. And there are toilet-related facts included at the start of each chapter. Like:

"Toilet paper for the average person was invented by an American, Joseph Gayetty, in 1857 but didn't catch on for a while. In those days, housewives had to ask the grocer for every item, and many were too embarrassed to ask for toilet paper." (Page 35)

One thing that particularly stands out in Death by Toilet Paper is the direct way that Gephart addresses money. Benjamin knows exactly what the rent is each month, and what his mother makes in her temporary waitressing job, and how much his mother gets for Benjamin from social security (following the death of his father). There are little math examples where he adds and subtracts these numbers to understand how much they owe vs. how much they have. His mother is, of necessity, completely open with him about their situation. I find that young readers are rarely exposed to this level of detail about finances, and I think that this makes a real contribution. [Only once of twice did the dialog regarding the finances feel forced to me - by and large it worked well.] 

In addition to socioeconomic diversity, Death by Toilet Paper also incorporates religious diversity. Benjamin and his family are Jewish. His grandfather, Zeyde, drops Yiddish expressions regularly - not so much as to make the book impenetrable, but enough to give readers a flavor for the Jewish culture. There are references to Jewish holiday, mourning and burial traditions, included quite organically within the text (see an example below). There is a brief glossary of Yiddish terms included at the end of the book. 

Benjamin's best friend, Toothpick, lives with his divorced father and only sees his mother occasionally. The relationship between the two boys is nicely-done, with realistic degrees of conflict, but ultimate loyalty. Toothpick's passion is shooting his own horror movies, and especially working on the makeup for these movies, which I found quirky and interesting. The relationships between Benjamin and Toothpick's dad, and between Toothpick and Benjamin's mom are believable, too. Even though both boys come from fractured families, they are also functional families with caring parents (and one grandparent, flawed but loving). 

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

"I grab a few crackers and chow down, pretending they're hot, gooey slices of Kirk's Pizza--my favorite kind. Unfortunately, when it comes to pretending food is something it isn't, my imagination is weak. 

And my imagination is apparenty weak when it comes to creating grand-prize-winning ideas, too. Royal-T, from the finest tree, makes you clean and happy. Awful. Use Royal-T and you'll see it's the best there can be. Hopeless." (Page 21)

and:

"I know he's joking, because every time Zeyde visits, he always goes into my room to say hello to Barkley. And last Chanukah, he bought Barkley a castle to go inside his tank. Dad died shortly before Chanukah. I remember feeling miserable that Dad didn't get to see Barkley's new castle. Or light the candles with us. Or eat latkes with applesauce--his favorite dish." Page 67)

Benjamin is moody, sometimes sad, and frequently self-doubting. But he's hopeful and determined, too. I enjoyed reading about him. Death by Toilet Paper is more serious than one would expect based on the title and cover. But the presence of toilet humor, zombie makeup, and an over-the-top grandfather help to keep things light. It's rare to see family finances addressed so directly in a middle grade book, particularly in a book that is so multi-dimensional overall. For this reason, and because of the mix of humor and heart, I think that Death by Toilet Paper would be an excellent choice for elementary and middle school libraries. Recommended for readers of all ages. 

Publisher: Yearling Books (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: July 28, 2015 (paperback edition)
Source of Book: Personal copy (purchased). The author does read my blog. I have emailed with her on many occasions, though we have not met in person. She did not ask me to review the book, nor did we have any discussions specific to the book. 

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