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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and:

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

and:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Since it was still experimental, there were some surprises.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Small Talk Books: Star Bright Books

Star Bright Books sent me two upcoming books from their Small Talk Books collection. These are picture books written by Ellen Mayer, an early literacy home visitor. They are unusual in that they seem to be written more for adults than for kids. They are sort of manuals (complete with instruction sections at the end of the books) for talking with preschoolers in a way that will enhance their vocabularies. 

RosasVeryBigJobThe first book is Rosa's Very Big Job, illustrated by Sarah Vonthron-Laver, about a little girl who decides to help her mother by putting away the laundry, and in the process engages in some fantasy play with Grandpa. There's definitely some preschool-friendly humor here, as Rosa is able to put away the (previously folded by Mama) clothes neatly, while the lazier Grandpa struggles. Rosa has to teach Grandpa how to keep a jacket from slipping off the hanger ("Zip it up").

The transition into fantasy mode (when the laundry basket becomes a boat) is seamless, though reality remains in the details (as when they fish for a striped sock, using a hangar for a fishing rod). Rosa is very cute, and demonstrates the classic drive of a preschooler to help Mama. It's a nice bonus that the family is brown-skinned, though no other multicultural details are included. It's also nice, in both books, to see grandparents included as day-to-day caregivers.  

CakeDayThe second book is Cake Day, illustrated by Estelle Corke, about a little boy who helps his grandmother make a cake, which turns out to be for his own birthday. There's a recipe at the end. The tasks undertaken by Grandma, vs. the ones delegated to the boy, are realistic (she measures, he pours, etc.). His sentences are quite short - I suspect that he's younger than Rosa, but Grandma expands on his statements, and explains things to him step-by-step.

The note for parents, grandparents, and caregivers at the end of the book, written by Dr. Betty Bardige, explains Grandma's efforts to build the boy's vocabulary and encourages caregivers to do the same thing. In a nice touch, Bardige notes that it doesn't matter what language you speak when you are talking with your child, just that you keep talking interactively. 

I'm not generally a fan of books that are written for some overt purpose like this. But I do think that there's a place for these particular books. I think that they would be a good fit for doctors' office waiting rooms, and for giveaways by early literacy programs like Reach Out and Read. They would make good new baby gifts for parents not aware of the importance of reading and talking with kids, particularly if handed to those parents by a pediatrician or other trusted adult. 

I did read these two Small Talk Books aloud to my six-year-old, and she liked them reasonably well. I don't think that we'll be re-reading them on a regular basis - they skew a bit young for her interest - but they do have a certain cozy charm. They also show an understanding of things that preschoolers are interested in. Rosa's Very Big Job and Cake Day are worth a look from libraries and literacy organizations. These two books will be published on July 31, 2016. There are two other books in the series that are already available in both English and Spanish board book editions. 

© 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).


6 Back-to-School #PictureBooks from @HarperChildrens

HarperCollins sent me a big box of back-to-school picture books, several of them featuring characters that we already enjoy. Here are some highlights:

Otter Goes to School by Sam Garton. When he learns from Otter Keeper what school is for, Otter decides to set up a school for his stuffed animal friends, who "weren't as clever as they could be." He dresses up as the teacher, and offers math, music, storytime, and lunch, Otter-style. Here's a bit that made me smile: 

"First it was time for math.
I wrote down all the numbers I knew.
No one could work out what to do after that.
So everyone just took turns holding the calculator." 

People who demonstrate proficiency in something (including the teacher himself) are awarded "lots of gold stars". But when one sad student is found not to be much good at anything, Otter needs help from Otter Keeper to figure out what to do. I thought this was the best of the Otter series so far, with a nice mix of humor and warmth. 

Pete the Cat's Got Class by James Dean.  In this new Pete the Cat book, Pete, who likes math, decides to help his friend Tom. Tom is rather math-phobic. Pete's idea for making math fun for Tom is to use cars (which Tom loves) for counting, addition, and subtraction practice.

Though a bit lesson-y, I do think that the idea of making math relevant to someone's particular interests is a good one. This book also features removable math flashcards, stickers, and a fold-out poster. My six year old is in heaven. And Dean's bright illustrations are enough to make any kid have a positive attitude about math. 

Frank and Lucky Get Schooled by Lynne Rae Perkins. This is a detailed picture book about a boy and his dog, and the learning that they do together. Basically, Lucky (the dog) wonders about things out in nature, observing and asking himself questions. He's then able to help Frank learn about things, too. Perkins uses this format to fill the book with interesting tidbits of and about knowledge. For instance, after Lucky wonders about skunks, the two use an experiment to learn what kind of bath will work to change the smell molecules. The reader learns about science, botany, astronomy, entymology, and more. 

Frank and Lucky Get Schooled is a picture book for older (six and up, I would say) and/or more patient kids. It is dense and sprinkled liberally with technical terms. But it's wonderful, a celebration of both friendship and scientific inquiry, full of outdoor adventures. This is a book that belongs in libraries and homes everywhere.

Rappy Goes to School by Dan Gutman and Tim Bowers is the sequel to Rappy the Raptor, about a young raptor who, after a bump on the head as an infant, only speaks in rap. In this installment, Rappy goes to school for the first time. His parents warn him not create a disruption with his rapping. However, when a big kid in his class makes fun of a boy who is clearly shy, Rappy steps in, offering rap as a distraction. Then, when rappy has trouble with spelling, the shy boy is able to help him. The bully gets his comeuppance, and Rappy concludes:

"Tomorrow I'll go back to school.
Learning stuff is really cool.
Now I know that in the end
all you need is one good friend."

So, ok, a bit lesson-y at the end. I think to some extent that's the nature of back to school books - they exist to show kids how to behave and not to be scared.  But I also think that kids about to start school will appreciate Rappy's joyous songs. Like the first book, Rappy Goes to School is not a book that can be appreciated when read silently to oneself. It's necessary to read it aloud, applying plenty of rhythm to the rapping.  I challenge you not to get this part stuck in your head (in a good way):

"I'm Rappy the Raptor
and I'd like to say
I may not talk in the usual way
I'm rappin' and snappin' all of the time.
I just can't help but talk in rhyme."

Ruby Rose: Off to School She Goes by Rob Sanders and Debbie Ridpath Ohi is about a little girl who lives to dance and her transition to a kindergarten class in which there is no time for dancing. Throughout the first day of school, Ruby Rose hip-hops and hula dances between activities. When her classmates line up after lunch, she gets them all line dancing. Her inability to sit still is frowned upon with increasing firmness throughout the day. But then an accident finds even the teacher dancing about. 

I always love Debbie Ridpath Ohi's illustrations, and this book is no exception. I suspect that Ohi is going to be the next illustrator whose pictures my daughter recognizes on sight. Ruby Rose's joyful movement comes across on every page. Her classmates are realistically multicultural and delightfully cheerful. And her wide-eyed mom, after receiving a surprise on the last page, is priceless.  

Ruby Rose: Off to School She Goes will please any kid who likes to dance. Kids who have difficulty sitting still, or fitting into the routines of school in general, will also relate to Ruby Rose's plight, and smile at her irrepressible spirit.

Winne & Waldorf: Disobedience School by Kati Hites is the sequel to Winnie & Waldorf, a book about a girl and the awkward dog who is her best friend. In this installment, Winnie decides that Waldorf has been behaving particularly poorly, and needs to go to school. She sets up Winnie's Disobedience School in her home, putting Waldorf through subjects like reading, addition, naptime, and art. But when the pair go outside for gym class, Waldorf's disobedience takes over and then (as in the first book) ends up saving the day. 

Hites' gentle illustrations lend humor to the book, and reinforce the strong bond between Winnie and Waldorf. During reading time, books scattered on the floor include: How To Tie Your Shoes by A. Shumaker. During art class, Waldorf wears a beret and a taped-on mustache, and works simultaneously with paint, crayons, and pencil (using mouth and paws). 

Like Winnie, kids about to start Kindergarten will enjoy this warm and quirky introduction to school activities. 

© 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

 


First Grade, Here I Come!: D.J. Steinberg + Tracy Bishop

Book: First Grade, Here I Come!
Author: D. J. Steinberg
Illustrator: Tracy Bishop
Pages: 32
Age Range: 5-7

FirstGradeHereIComeFirst Grade, Here I Come! by D. J. Steinberg is a book of poems dedicated to experiences that kids are likely to have as they begin first grade, like visiting the library, waiting for snack time, going on a field trip, having pajama day, etc. I found the details early in the book to be fairly accurate regarding the difference that we're expecting as my daughter goes from kindergarten to first grade, like:

"Big-time backpacks on our backs,
skinny pencils, books in stacks,
desks to call our very own,
recess in the big-kid zone..."

Some of the other ideas could have been equally applicable to kindergarten or to higher grades, but of course there's going to be a range of experiences in every classroom. 

Steinberg includes nice touches of realistic humor throughout the book. For instance, the solution to a math problem of adding up different color candies is "ZERO, 'cause I ate all EIGHT!". A girl wears pajamas to school a week early for pajama day, to much embarrassment. The kids have their best field trip ever when the bus breaks down, and they end up hanging around and then getting ice cream at a mall. There's a poem about a kid who makes armpit noises. It's all quite kid-friendly. 

I thought that Tracy Bishop's illustrations, full of multi-cultural kids with huge, cartoonish smiles, were a bit cute for my own taste. But they certainly serve the book's purpose of making first grade activities seem accessible and non-threatening to younger kids. My favorite set of illustrations are the vignettes that illustrate the poem BFF (one picture per couplet):

"Monday, Kim's my BFF.
Tuesday, I'm through with her.

Wednesday, we'll never be friends again ever,
and sorry we ever were!

Thursday, we kind of forget why we're mad
and how we started this war.

Friday, Kim's my BFF--
my best friend forever once more."

The girls' varying moods are conveyed through posture and facial expressions, and they aren't (for once) smiling in every image. 

First Grade, Here I Come! is a solid addition to the ranks of books about starting school. I like that it covers activities throughout the year, rather than being only about overcoming fears on the first day (as are many in this niche). I also like the use of poetry to explore first grade events and activities, the kid-friendly humor, and the range of racial backgrounds conveyed by the illustrations. Libraries serving rising first graders will want to give this one a look. 

Publisher: Grosset & Dunlap (@PenguinKids) 
Publication Date: June 28, 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).


It Came in the Mail: Ben Clanton

Book: It Came in the Mail
Author: Ben Clanton
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

ItCameintheMailIt Came in the Mail by Ben Clanton is about a boy named Liam who desperately wants to receive some mail. One day, he write a letter to his mailbox, asking to get something in the mail. Something big. And lo and behold! A dragon comes out of the mailbox. After that, Liam gets a bit greedy, and asks for more and more stuff. Only when things get out of control does he find a better solution. Not to worry, though. He keeps the rather adorable dragon.

Ben Clanton displays a nice, quirky humor in It Came in the Mail. My favorite page is this one:

"But then, on a day much like any other,
an idea struck Liam.

BONK!"

The picture shows a winged lightbulb bonking Liam on the head, invisible to his nearby friend (who is busy thinking about a horse). 

The other illustrations are entertaining, too. When Liam is "met by a blast of fire" on the arrival of the dragon, the illustration is shown on the back of an envelope with the corner burned off. When the mailbox is creating stuff, there are lots of satisfying sound effects (KRINK, TOOT!, etc.) as well as a kind of visual, colorful confetti strewn across the page. Liam is a wide-eyed, freckle-faced every-kid with tousled hair. His letter to the mailbox are shown on lined paper, in kid-style print, with occasional cross-outs. They reminded me of my own daughter's letters to the Tooth Fairy. 

Liam is a bit inconsiderate to his friend, Jamel, and to his dragon. But he grows over the course of the book, and the ending is quite satisfying. Though there's a hint of messages about friendship and greed, It Came in the Mail is primarily pure, kid-friendly fun. Libraries will definitely want to give this one a look. I think it would be excellent for library or classroom storytimes. Recommended!

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (@SimonKids) 
Publication Date: June 21, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


Agatha Parrot and the Odd Street School Ghost

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

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

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

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

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

and:

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

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

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

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

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


Serafina and the Twisted Staff: Robert Beatty

Book: Serafina and the Twisted Staff
Author: Robert Beatty
Pages: 384
Age Range: 9-12

Serafina and the Twisted Staff is the sequel to Serafina and the Black Clock (which I listened to on audio last year and enjoyed but did not review). If you have not read the first Serafina book, please beware. There will be spoilers here for that book. My recommendation is that if you like reading about mysterious, supernatural creatures and dangerous situations, and you are intrigued by the idea of a girl growing up hidden in the basements of the vast Biltmore Estates around the turn of the 20th century, then you should stop reading this review, and just go out and get both books.

If you have read the first Serafina book, then you will not find Serafina and the Twisted Staff disappointing. This sequel takes place three weeks after Serafina and her friends have defeated the Man in the Black Cloak. Though Serafina's presence at the Biltmore Estate is now generally known, and her friendship with Braeden Vanderbilt accepted by his aunt and uncle, Serafina remains uncertain about her place in the world. She feels torn between the adoptive father who raised her in secret and the catamount mother who she has just met. Unlike her mother, and despite her odd physical traits, Serafina is unable to change into a mountain lion. 

As the story begins, Serafina again encounters a mysterious danger in the woods. When this danger extends into the Biltmore Estate, Serafina doesn't know where to turn, or how to help her family and friends. In Serafina and the Twisted Staff, Serafina must confront both her enemies and her insecurities. As in the first book, these quests are set against the fascinating backdrop of the secret-passage-studded Biltmore Estate and the treacherous forest that surrounds it. Real-life landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead also plays a role in the story. 

I read Serafina and the Twisted Staff in a single sitting, only hesitating to continue at one point near the middle, when it felt like too many circumstances were conspiring against Serafina. But I'm glad that I persisted, because Serafina is a heroine to be reckoned with, and rooted for. Here is Serafina:

"She jumped gullies and climbed hills. She took shortcuts, taking advantage of the road's meandering path. Her chest began to heave as she pulled in great gupls of air. Despite the trepidation she had felt moments before, the challenge of keeping up with the horses made her smile and then made her laugh, which made it all the more difficult to breathe when she was trying to run. Leaping and darting, she loved the thrill of the chase." (Chapter 2, ARC). 

And here's her pa:

"Look," her pa said, taking her by the shoulders and looking into her eyes. "You're alive, ain't ya? So toughen up. Bless the Lord and get on with things. In your entire life, has the master of the house ever demanded your presence upstairs? No, he has not. So, yes, ma'am, if the master wants you there, you're gonna be there. Will bells on."

"Bells?" she asked in horror. "Why do I have to wear bells?"" (Chapter 9)

And here's a description of Mr. George Vanderbilt, which I suspect is based on historical descriptions of this real-life figure:

"Mr. Vanderbilt had welcomed all sorts of guest to entertain themselves in the magnificent mansion he had built for that purpose, but he himself had a tendency to withdraw from revelry. He often sat in a quiet room by himself and read rather than imbibe with others. He was a man of his own spirit." (Chapter 13)

I'm pretty sure I would have liked this fellow introvert. I know that I would have liked his house.

Serafina and the Twisted Staff is a book that I would have found impossible to resist as a 10-year-old, and that I found difficult to resist even now, as an adult. It's a nice combination of creepy supernatural mystery and coming of age story, with bravery and battles set against musings on what makes up friendship and family. Fans of Serafina and the Black Cloak will certainly not want to miss this sequel. And I look forward to reading about Serafina and Braeden's future adventures. Recommended!

Publisher:  Disney-Hyperion (@DisneyHyperion) 
Publication Date: July 12, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the author's publicist

© 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 Eureka Key: Secrets of the Seven: Sarah L. Thomson

Book: The Eureka Key: Secrets of the Seven, Book 1
Author: Sarah L. Thomson
Pages: 240
Age Range: 8-12

The Eureka Key is the first of a new quest-driven series by Sarah L. Thomson. It's reminiscent of Kate Messner's Capture the Flag and sequels (see my reviews of Book 1 and Book 2). Both series feature descendants from historical figures uniting to uncover and protect certain secret artifacts. I like Messner's books, but I think I like The Eureka Key, with its strong focus on puzzles and Indiana Jones feel, a bit better. 

The Eureka Key begins with bright troublemaker Sam Solomon pulling off a minor but carefully timed criminal act at school (in service of a wronged friend). He reminded me a bit of Varian Johnson's Jackson Greene in this caper, but is more of a lone wolf. Later that day, Sam receives word that he's won a complex puzzle contest that he entered previously. The prize is a journey of discovery to follow clues around the United Sates over the summer. While it's rather implausible that parents would actually allow a 12 year old (at most) to go by himself on such a quest, this sets up the story nicely.

When he arrives in Las Vegas for a flight to Death Valley, Sam meets his fellow team members, the geeky, history-obsessed Martina and the strong and silent Theo. The action quickly takes off from there, and includes a near-death flight experience, a kidnapping, and the following of clues hidden by none other than Ben Franklin. This activity is not all strictly realistic, perhaps, but it is a lot of fun. 

I also enjoyed the personal dynamics between the three very different kids. Sam is a bit of a wise-ass, and flies by the seat of his pants, though he is extremely good at puzzles. He and the well-prepared, uptight Marty begin bickering almost immediately. Theo's dry sense of humor is more gradually revealed, as is his background. I think Theo is going to be my favorite, actually, though Sam is the primary viewpoint character. The adults in the story are considerably less developed as characters, but this is as it should be.

The Eureka Key offers a fine mix of adventure, history, and puzzles, as well as three distinctive (but not too quirky) and likable protagonists. This is a book that I would have adored as a nine-year-old, and read in a single sitting as an adult. I look forward to future books in the Secrets of the Seven series. Recommended for mystery and adventure loving kids, and the libraries who serve them. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@BloomsburyKids)
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).


Can I Tell You a Secret? by Anna Kang & Christopher Weyant

Book: Can I Tell You a Secret?
Author: Anna Kang
Illustrator: Christopher Weyant
Pages: 40
Age Range: 3-6

CanITellYouASecretMonty the frog has an embarrassing secret, one that he wants to share with the reader in Can I Tell You a Secret? Despite the fact that he's, well, a frog, Monty is afraid of the water. He's spent his childhood forging doctor's notes, ducking raindrops, and avoiding the water in any way he can. He seeks the young reader's advice, and reluctantly, with some false starts, agrees to share his terrible secret with his parents. Who, of course, know already. Monty takes his new friend the reader along as he sets out to learn to swim.   

I loved Anna Kang and Christopher Weyant's earlier collaboration: You Are Not Small, which won the 2015 Geisel Award. Like that one, Can I Tell You a Secret? is a book that simply begs to be read aloud. Like this:

"I have a secret.

Can you keep a secret?
You sure?
Because I don't want anyone else to know.

Do you promise

I challenge any reader not to read that "promise" like a scared four-year-old. 

Weyant's deceptively simple illustrations are perfect, too. We go in for a close-up of Monty's face when he's talking intently to the reader. Any kid who has ever been scared of anything will relate to Monty's anxious expression, and to the sheepish grin he uses when he chicken's out on his confession. His dejected appearance when he confesses (in a tiny font that calls for a tiny read-aloud voice) "I'm afraid of the water" will make any reader ache for him. Just as his simple joy at the end of the book will leave all readers happy.

Can I Tell You a Secret is a delightful picture book, perfect for the three to six-year-old set. It is certainly one that libraries and preschools will want to stock. It should have near-universal appeal for younger kids and their parents. It has plenty of repetition, and would also work as an early reader for slightly older kids. Highly recommended all around!

Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: May 31, 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).


Chicken in Space: Adam Lehrhaupt and Shahar Kober

Book: Chicken in Space
Author: Adam Lehrhaupt
Illustrator: Shahar Kober
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

Chicken in Space is a new picture book about a chicken who is not like the other chickens. Zoey dreams of bigger things, and makes plans accordingly. Her specific dream in this story (one senses that there could be more) is to ravel to outer space. She has a loyal sidekick, a pie-obsessed pig named Sam, and she tries to enlist other animals to accompany she and Sam on their quest. But in the end, Zoey and Sam venture alone into the skies for a great adventure. 

The personalities of the animals come through clearly from Adam Lehrhaupt's dialog-heavy text, particularly for Zoey and Sam. Like this (0ver 3 pages):

"Clara," said Zoey, "come to space with us."

"You don't have a ship," said Clara. "You can't go to space without a ship."

"Not a problem!" said Zoey. "An opportunity!"

"Zoey always finds a way," said Sam.

"Look, Sam! I found a ship!" said Zoey.

"Of course you did," said Sam.  

Of course Shahar Kober's illustrations help to bring the characters to life, too. Zoey is priceless, with her aviator's hat. Sam wears a cute little hat, too, while an apparently timid mouse friend has round wire-rimmed glasses. Later page spreads use tilting perspectives and large colorful fonts to convey particularly dramatic moments. 

Chicken in Space celebrates the power of imagination and the importance of friendship, both in a humorous, kid-friendly way. There is just the right amount of goofiness (and balloons) to keep things fun. Kids will gobble it up, I think, and hope for Zoey and Sam to have other adventures. 

Publisher: HarperCollins (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: May 17, 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).


Sophie's Squash Go To School: Pat Zietlow Miller and Anne Wilsdorf

Book: Sophie's Squash Go To School
Author: Pat Zietlow Miller
Illustrator: Anne Wilsdorf
Pages: 40
Age Range: 3-6

Sophie's Squash is one of my all-time favorite picture books (see my review). So naturally I was thrilled to learn that a sequel would be forthcoming. Sophie's Squash Go To School picks up not long after the end of Sophie's Squash. Readers of the first book will not be surprised to find that when she starts school for the first time, Sophie takes her two best friends, Bonnie and Baxter (the squash children of Bernice). Sophie is not keen on branching out to make any new friends, despite the best efforts of a boy named Steven Green. Eventually, however, the determined Steven is able to break through Sophie's reserve, and she learns that having common interests with someone really can be a basis for friendship.

Sophie's stubborn, loyal personality is, happily, largely unchanged from the first book. Like this:

"Sophie's parents were no help at all.

"Steven sounds adorable," said her mother. "And it's good to have friends."

"Especially human ones," added her father.

Sophie hugged Bonnie and Baxter tightly. "I have all the friends I need."

I just love how determinedly misanthropic she is. When she does start to come around to the other kids, it happens s-l-o-w-l-y. Like this:

"So when Liam showed everyone how do do his loose-tooth dance, Sophie considered joining in.

When Roshni spilled her milk, Sophie almost shared her napkin.

And when Noreen told her favorite banana joke, Sophie laughed--inside her head." 

The latter is accompanied by a picture of Sophie glancing over at the other kids, with the first smile the reader has seen yet on her grouchy face. There's no question that illustrator Anne Wilsdorf understands Sophie. 

My only minor quibble about this book was that I found Steven's persistence in becoming friends with Sophie a bit implausible. But an image of Steven sitting by himself, with only his stuffed frog, at the base of a tree while the other kids play suggests his need to find a single kindred spirit, rather than being part of the larger crowd. The other kids are clearly wilder and more extroverted. So I'm willing to give Steven a pass. 

Sophie's Squash Go To School is a long-ish picture book, but I think that the extra length is needed to give Sophie sufficient room for plausible growth. The nice thing about this book is that it works as a sequel for fans of Sophie's Squash and as a transition to kindergarten / learning to make friends book. I don't think that it quite stands alone - you really have to understand where Bonnie and Baxter came from to fully appreciate Sophie's Squash Go To School. But the two books together would make a great gift for a child starting pre-k or kindergarten. And the sequel is certainly not to be missed by Sophie's many fans. Recommended!

Publisher: Schwartz & Wade (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: June 28, 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).