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The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island: Dana Alison Levy

Book: The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island
Author: Dana Alison Levy
Pages: 272
Age Range: 9-12

FamilyFletcherRockIslandThe Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island is the sequel to The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher (my review). Both books feature a family with two dads, four adopted sons (two brown-skinned and two white-skinned), two cats, and dog. This installment is set on a small island off the coast of New England, where the family is spending the month of August in a long-beloved cottage. The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island is an episodic story, with viewpoint shifts between the four boys and an entertaining mix of adventure and chaos. They're a bit like a more diverse, and more male, Penderwick family, off to Point Mouette

Although members of the family have been visiting the island since Papa was a boy, this summer things are a bit different. The old lighthouse located next to the family's cottage is fenced off, pending possible sale and/or repairs. A weird artist guy is prowling around making mysterious phone calls. The big house nearby that is usually empty is now occupied, and two teenage girls promise to be annoying. And the boys are discovering that as they get older, their divergent interests can lead to moments of isolation, even in the place that they look forward to visiting all year. 

The plot thread surrounding the looming fate of the lighthouse lends a helpful degree of narrative interest to The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island. While there are plenty of diversions around kayaking, picnics, and trying to teach a cat to swim (who knew that this was even possible?), Levy ties the story together around the lighthouse. A lemonade stand fundraiser for lighthouse repairs goes comically awry, and a common interest brings the boys together with their new neighbors. Through it all, Papa and Dad guide the boys with light hands, sympathetic shoulders, and occasional bouts of exasperation.

One thing I especially liked about The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island is that the family's status as a two-dad household is treated completely without comment. I've long been a fan of "incidental diversity" in children's literature, and I like to think that having read about the Fletchers would make kids equally blasé on meeting a new friend's same-sex parents. The book does take a direct look at racism, however. There's a scene in which second son Jax is presumed by a visitor to be a pickpocket, at least in part because of the color of his skin. This leads to discussions between Jax and his parents, and with an African-American uncle who can speak more from personal experience than can Jax's dads. Levy treats these discussions with a soft touch, not letting them overwhelm the book, and also not dismissing the fact of racism. Like this:

"Jackson," Dad repeated. "There are more good ones than bad. More Captain Jims and Officer Levees and Natalia Galindos and Elon Reynoldses than there are Sheldons. I wish there there were none of him. Seriously, if I could have one wish that would probably be it."

"I would wish for an invisibility cloak," Eli interrupted. He was sitting behind them, listening. "Think of how we could get back at Sheldon if we had that! Poison ivy leaves rubbed on the inside of his clothes. Burrs stuck in his hair." (Page 252)

And the topic moves on. The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island is most of all about the joys of summer, the outdoors and family. Like this:

Jax agreed, and then, since they had caught up to the others, the boys all had to listen to Frog sing his special ice cream truck song again and again until Jax threatened to gag him with his dirty sweat sock. And so they tumbled back to the Nugget, loud and laughing. The sun was low and warm in th esky, and the breeze had picked up, rustling and shivering the tall grass so that it looked like rippling water. The smell of the sea was stronger now, and Jax couldn't wait to head to the beach." (Page 22)

Spending a month in a small cottage with four boys, two cats, and a dog would send me over the edge, but reading about the experience for a couple of hours was quite enjoyable. Of course I'm not the target audience anyway. Kids who enjoy realistic fiction, about families and doing fun things outdoors are sure to enjoy The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island. There's such wish fulfillment in the idea of spending a month of summer in a beloved cottage on an island, with an ice cream truck stopping by regularly, and a puzzle to solve. Levy also includes quite a bit of mapcap, kid-friendly humor (particularly a memorable scene involving flying butter). In short, The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island is not to be missed. Highly recommended. 

Publisher: Delacorte Press (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: May 10, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Simon Thorn and the Viper's Pit: Aimée Carter

Book: Simon Thorn and the Viper's Pit
Author: Aimée Carter 
Pages: 304
Age Range: 8-12

SimonThornVipersPitSimon Thorn and the Viper's Pit is the second book in Aimée Carter's Simon Thorn / Animalgam series, featuring a race of people, hidden in plain sight, who can turn into animals. This review does contain spoilers for the first book. Simon, as introduced in Simon Thorn and the Wolf's Den, has discovered that he is the grandson of two ruthless, competing Animalgam leaders from different kingdoms.

After growing up in seclusion, Simon is now living in the L.A.I.R, a hidden school located beneath Central Park Zoo in New York City. He's living with an uncle who he's not sure about and his newly discovered twin brother. But his real loyalty is to his group of three Animalgam friends (and a friendly mouse). In Simon Thorn and the Viper's Pit, Simon and his friends set out on a road trip hoping to rescue Simon's kidnapped mother and keep an important artifact from his grandparents. 

This second book is full of relationship strife: particularly between Simon and his newly discovered family members and (sometimes) between Simon and his friends. Simon and his friend Winter are both Hybreds, children born of parents from different animal kingdoms (e.g. bird and mammal, in Simon's case). With conflict rampant between the kingdoms, their situations are inherently conflict-ridden. Winter, in particular, struggles with the rejection from the bird-Animalgams who raised her, after learning that she transforms into a reptile, not a bird. Simon is never quite sure who to trust. 

Carter also explores the discovery by the Animalgam kids of skills that go along with their animal transformations. For example, Simon's friend Jam turns into a dolphin, and has a remarkable sense of direction. For Simon, this is more complex than for most, because of a secret regarding his own transformations. A secret that he doesn't even share with his close friends. For all of the kids, learning to work with and gain strength from their dual natures becomes part of the process of growing up, a proxy for other adolescent growing pains. For example:

"Jam straightened and pulled his padlock from the pocket in his jeans, fiddling with the lock pick still stuck inside. "The general planned my whole life for me," he said. "I've had a daily schedule since I could walk. That's just how we do things underwater--if you leave no room for error, there won't be any. But there's no room for fun, either, or figuring things out on your own, and that's what I like to do. I like swimming off in the wrong direction to explore a cave I've never seen before, and I like having an hour or two when I can do anything I want. But our kingdom is so big that if everyone did their own thing, nothing would ever get done, so I always feel like I'm stuck in a routine I can't stand." (Page 143, ARC)

Occasionally the growing up messages imparted to the kids by the adults (or by each other) are a bit more overt than I might personally choose, but  I don't think that this dominates the story. Carter has taken a premise that most kids find fascinating (what if I could turn into an animal) and built a fully-realized, conflict-laden world around that. In Simon Thorn and the Viper's Den she introduces readers to the luxurious citadel of the reptile branch of the Animalgams. Other branches are sure to follow in future books. 

The Simon Thorn books are recommended for kids who enjoy reading about fantasy worlds hidden within our own, and for anyone who has ever wished they could transform into an animal. I look forward to reading about Simon and his friends' future adventures. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (@KidsBloomsbury) 
Publication Date: February 7, 2017
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).


Little Big Girl: Claire Keane

Book: Little Big Girl
Author: Claire Keane
Pages: 32 
Age Range: 3-5

LittleBigGirlLittle Big Girl by Claire Keane is a particular take on what happens when a one-time only child becomes a big sister. We see various vignettes of "Little Matisse" as she scoots up onto the counter to "brush her little teeth" and puts on her "little shoes", shown as small compared to those of her parents. When she travels in the back of her parents' car, we see how little she is, compared to the big city. But when Matisse meets her baby brother, she has an instantaneous shift in perspective. Suddenly her clothes and shoes and fingers are big, in comparison to those of the baby. Keane tells us about this perspective shift in words, but she also shows us in pictures, with Matisse growing larger relative to the background in many of the later images. 

Two things make Little Big Girl stand out for me in the sea of new sibling books. The first is the use of the perspective shift, as described above. When else in life does someone go from being small to being big overnight? Keane's bold illustrations capture this beautifully. The second this is the sheer joy that Matisse shows in her every interaction with her brother, and his clear fascination with her. While I think that it's useful to have books in which the new sibling cries a lot and is annoying and takes away attention, I found Little Big Girl's pure focus on a positive to be rather a joy. 

Like this: 

"He slept in a little bed, and wore the clothes Matisse was now too big for.

Suddenly, Matisse realized that she wasn't actually little at all.

She was big."

The first line of this quote is accompanies by a tender image of Matisse kissing the sleeping baby in his cradle. The second shows her putting on his tiny little shoes. We see her medium-size shoes, still small compare to the surrounding shows of mom. And with "She was big" we see Matisse looking at herself in the mirror, a stylish preschooler with hands on hips, self-confident and growing more so before our very eyes. 

Little Big Girl is not a complex book, but it's a nice, positive spin on what happens when someone becomes a big sister or a big brother. The illustrations are heart-warming (just look at that cover above), and the minimal text will keep the attention of even the youngest of big sisters. Little Big Girl would make a great gift for anyone you know who is expecting a second child. Recommended!

Publisher: Dial Books (@PenguinKids) 
Publication Date: November 8, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


The Princess and the Frogs: Veronica Bartles & Sara Palacios

Book: The Princess and the Frogs
Author: Veronica Bartles
Pages: Sara Palacios
Age Range: 4-8

PrincessAndTheFrogsThe Princess and the Frogs is a reinvention of the classic Frog Prince story featuring a princess who wants a pet frog, but who has no interest whatsoever in princes. Princess Cassandra has everything she could ever want, except for a best friend. She decides that what she needs is a pet who matches her favorite green dress and will play with her all day. The Royal Pet Handler eventually brings her a frog. She has a great time playing with the frog, right up until she loves the frog so much that she kisses him on the head and he turns into a prince. He wants to marry her, but she just wants a pet frog, and so sends him off to work in the kitchens. This happens again, and again, until a solution is found. 

Who knew that ALL frogs were princes in disguise? Hopefully this is just in Cassandra's kingdom, because otherwise, things could get a bit awkward. I just love that Cassandra, confronted by prince after prince, keeps saying: "Princes aren't pets. I want a frog!" She's a delightful heroine, with a big smile, round glasses, and a determination to play and read. Who wouldn't like her? 

My favorite page is one in which Cassandra has sent all of the princes away and is attempting to prove to herself that she doesn't need anyone. We have:

"Cassandra played in the empty courtyard and read books in the silent library.

But even her favorite green dress didn't make her happy. And she still didn't have a friend."

This is accompanied by images of Cassandra jumping rope, while two bored servants turn the rope for her, and having a sad tea party with a real cake and a stuffed rabbit. Finally, she sits dejectedly in a hopscotch grid. The bored servants cracked me up. And perhaps I thought of my own only child, constantly begging for playdates (though never with frogs). But I do quite like the way that Sara Palacios brings Cassandra to life. 

The Princess and Frogs is an engaging story featuring a non-traditional princess with a refreshing twist on happily ever after. It will make kids, especially girls, laugh. Recommended for home or storytime use. 

Publisher: Balzer + Bray (@HarperChildrens)
Publication Date: November 15, 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).


Charles Darwin's Around-the-World Adventure: Jennifer Thermes

Book: Charles Darwin's Around the World Adventure
Author: Jennifer Thermes
Pages: 48
Age Range: 5-8

CharlesDarwinAroundTheWorldCharles Darwin's Around the World Adventure by Jennifer Thermes is a nonfiction picture book focused on a five-year voyage that Charles Darwin took as a young man that strongly influenced his scientific discoveries. Charles, chosen to be the naturalist aboard a ship mapping measurements of South America in 1831, writes about his wondrous findings and collects various natural specimens. The book describes some of Charles' key discoveries at various points along his voyage, while rendering Charles as a real, accessible person to young readers. We learn about Charles' sea-sickness, for example, and how he felt when he experienced his first earthquake. 

Here's a snippet, to give you a feel for Thermes' writing:

"Charles dug up bones of ancient sloth-like creatures, including a giant Megatherium, buried on the beach. How many of these huge creatures once roamed the earth? Why had they disappeared? 

He studied the rocks and tried to figure out how steep cliffs and flat plains were formed. Was it possible that the shape of the land affected the animals' survival?" 

Thermes' illustrations are detailed, with labeled maps interspersed between images of Charles and his experiences. A map on the book's end pages shows Charles' journey as a whole, with an accompanying timeline. Although the main text is fairly detailed in and of itself, there are also end notes, sources, fun facts, and recommendations for further reading. There is a LOT here to keep an interested elementary-schooler reading and studying. My six-year-old was utterly engaged in Charles' story, though we did not pore over map in detail. 

Charles Darwin's Around the World Adventure is top-quality narrative non-fiction, featuring a likable historical figure, interesting plant and animal facts, and well-mapped journey. This is a book that belongs in libraries and classrooms severing first through third graders, everywhere. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Harry N. Abrams (@AbramsKids)
Publication Date: October 4, 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).


Hap-pea All Year: Keith Baker

Book: Hap-pea All Year
Author: Keith Baker
Pages: 40
Age Range: 3-6

Hap-peaAllYearHap-pea All Year is the fourth book in Keith Baker's The Peas series (which started with LMNO Peas). These are basically concept books featuring cute little pea-characters doing their thing in a world of large letters and numbers. Hap-pea All Year introduces preschoolers to the twelve months of the year, and their associated seasons and holidays. Each page spread shows the month written out in giant letters, with the tiny peas cavorting in seasonally appropriate ways, and brief rhyming text that highlights something about that month. For example:

"Hap-pea February! Deliver valentines.
Count to twenty-eight -- or leap to twenty-nine." 

This example may require explanation from a parent for younger listeners, though my six-year-old understood it just fine. My personal favorite text accompanies August:

"Hap-pea August! Bait a fishing hook.
Nap in cool shade, reread your favorite book."

But of course it's the illustrations that make Hap-pea All Year fun. In all cases, Baker uses colors and tone appropriate to the month in question (e.g. yellow for the sunny August). The letters are shown as lightly textured, with the subtle patterns containing extra hints about the month in question. The sky looms large in all of the page spreads, too, particularly July, with a star-filled sky. And the peas covert in endless, joyful ways, from sledding and skiing in January to camping in July to raking leaves and wearing Halloween costumes in October. One of the peas holds a little sign indicating the month number each month, and I'm sure there are other details that I missed on my first couple of reads through the book. 

Fans of The Peas series, and libraries serving preschoolers everywhere, will definitely and to add Hap-pea All Year to their collections. It's a book that offers mild-age appropriate educational facts, keeping things fun all the while. This is a book that simply made my daughter and I happier from reading it. Recommended!

Publisher: Beach Lane Books (@SimonKids)
Publication Date: November 1, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


Penguin Problems: Jory John and Lane Smith

Book: Penguin Problems
Author: Jory John
Illustrator: Lane Smith
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3-7

PenguinProblemsPenguin Problems, written by Jory John and illustrated by Lane Smith, is the story of a cranky little penguin who complains about everything. When a mature walrus shares some perspective, the penguin considers whether or not a better attitude is warranted. But overall, his personality remains fairly consistent throughout the story. He's like a preschool-age, penguin-shaped version of Alexander of Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day fame. 

The text in Penguin Problems is written in short, punch text, and the problems are those that preschoolers will be able to understand, even in cases where they may not directly relate. Like this (over four pages:

"It snowed some more last night,
and I don't even like the snow.

It's too bright out here.

I'm hungry.
I'd like a fish.
Where are all the fish?!

HEY!
FISH!
GET OUT HERE!

I'm not buoyant enough.
I sink like a dumb rock."

Buoyant is about as tough as Penguin Problems gets, vocabulary-wise. But can't you just hear the penguin's tone, alternating between whiny and belligerent? 

Lane Smith's illustrations show the penguin as sleepy in his earliest cranky moments of the story. He's also identical-looking to all of the other penguins. This is one of his complaints. The funniest illustration is one in which the penguin laments looking silly when he waddles. There's a page split into four panel. The first three show the penguin tilting in one direction, then another. In the last panel he stands there and says "See?". I snorted with laughter. There's also a funny bit in which he's looking for his parents, but can't find them because all of the penguins look the same. Near the end, when the penguin rails against his many problems, and the fact that "nobody even cares", his slumping posture will be recognized by parents everywhere. 

It's a fact that at least ought to be self-evident that kids like books about penguins. The little unnamed penguin in Penguin Problems has particular appeal, by virtue of his delightfully cranky behavior. And I love the fact that he is NOT, in fact, reformed instantly after being shown the error of his ways. Jory John and Lane Smith make a good team - the interplay between text and illustrations is both seamless and humorous. Penguin Problems belongs in libraries and preschool / kindergarten classrooms everywhere. Recommended!

Publisher:  Random House Children's Books (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: September 27, 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).


Christmas in the Barn: Margaret Wise Brown & Anna Dewdney

Book: Christmas in the Barn
Author: Margaret Wise Brown
Illustrator: Anna Dewdney
Pages: 40
Age Range: 3-8

ChristmasInTheBarnChristmas in the Barn is a picture book featuring text written by Margaret Wise Brown in 1952 paired with new illustrations by Anna Dewdney (of Llama, Llama fame). This book debuted shortly after Anna Dewdney's death in September, lending a certain poignancy to its release. In any event, Christmas in the Barn is a perfect pairing of Margaret Wise Brown's rhythmic text and Dewdney's gentle illustrations. 

Christmas in the Barn tells the story of the nativity, but with a strong focus on the animals in the barn, and the lightest possible touch on the religious aspects of the story. Like this:

"And there they were all safe and warm
All together in that ancient barn

When hail--the first wail of a newborn babe reached the night
Where one great star was burning bright

And shepherds with their sheep
Are come to watch him sleep."

While there's no overt naming of names (God, Jesus, etc.), Brown includes classic references like "Because there was no room at the inn" and "Away in a manger, no crib for his bed." Dewdney, while giving the animals distinct personalities, and often keeping the humans in shadow, gives the star pride of place, and casts a soft glow around the family as the shepherds arrive. The words and pictures are equally lovely and full of quiet joy. 

There is just enough rhyme to encourage repeat read-alouds, but not so much as to be sing-songy, or to take away from the importance of the book's topic. Christmas in the Barn would be a perfect bedtime book to read on Christmas Eve. The text and illustrations are reverent, warm, and soothing. Highly recommended, and definitely going on our "keep" shelf. 

Publisher: HarperCollins (@HarperChildrens)
Publication Date: September 20, 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).


Beautiful Blue World: Suzanne LaFleur

Book: Beautiful Blue World
Author: Suzanne LaFleur
Pages: 224
Age Range: 8-12

BeautifulBlueWorldBeautiful Blue World by Suzanne LaFleur is a lovely middle grade novel about the power of love and the abilities of children in the face of war. Sofarende is a country in an alternate world that is at war with its two recently united southern neighbors. People are hungry and scared and many of the men have gone off to fight. Bombs are falling on the city in which 12-year-old Mathilde lives with her parents and two younger sisters. Mathilde's greatest solace in the face of uncertainty is her life-long friendship with another girl, Megs. As things look more and more bleak for Sofarende, the government issues a call for children age 12 to 14. A test will be given, and those selected will be sent away to do unspecified work for the war effort, their families well-compensated. This test changes everything for Mathilde and Megs. 

Technically, Beautiful Blue World is a fantasy, since the set of countries and war in the story are made up. However, there are no magical elements. Sofarende feels a lot like a small European town, circa World War I. There are trains and factories, but I didn't notice cars. Certainly there are no cell phones or other aspects of modern technology. Focusing on an alternate world, rather than on, say, World War I Europe, allows the author to maintain suspense about the outcome of the war, and even the causes and motivations of the invading armies. 

Mathilde is an interesting character. Although this is a first person narrative, the reader will come to understand Mathilde's unique strengths, even as she considers herself ordinary. LaFleur's writing is spare but moving. I didn't flag very many passages as I was reading, because I was so caught up on wondering what was going to happen next. Caught up not by a fast-moving plot but by characters that I quickly came to care about. Here are the two passages that I did flag. The first is Mathilde's thoughts as she is about to separate from Megs:

"I tried not to use words. I tried not to picture.

Hundreds of walks to school, and almost as many back home. Hundreds of summer days. Splashing in the stream. Snowball fights and forts. Braids that had started chin-length and had grown past shoulders. Shared lunches. Snacks. Stories. Smiles. Secrets. Whispers. Walks. Today. 

Eyes still closed, I found the girl sitting across from me. Felt her out." (page 72, ARC)

The second is Mathilde's thoughts as she is being separated from her mother:

"Then Mother's thinner arms clung to me. She moved a hand from my back to my head, pressing me against her chest. I could hear her heart beating; I closed my eyes, remembering it deep within me as the first sound I'd ever heard." (Page 78)

This second scene brought a few tears to my eyes, as did other scenes throughout this book. Although there is quite a bit of tension, as well as sadness, Beautiful Blue World also has small moments of humor. The book ends on a cliffhanger, and I certainly hope that a sequel will be forthcoming soon. I wasn't expecting a cliffhanger ending, and I did find the conclusion of the book to feel a bit rushed. But I remained captivated throughout. While I do think that this a book that adult gatekeepers (librarians, etc.) are going to love, I think that Beautiful Blue World has enough suspense to appeal very much to middle grade readers, too. Highly recommended, and a book that I would not be surprised to hear about come award season. 

Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books  
Publication Date: September 13, 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).


The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina: Kara LaReau + Jen Hill

Book: The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina
Author: Kara LaReau
Illustrator: Jen Hill
Pages: 176
Age Range: 8-12

BlandSistersThe Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina is the first of a new apparent series of illustrated chapter books written by Kara LaReau and illustrated by Jen Hill. I hope it's a series, anyway, because it's a fun book featuring unusual characters. 

The Bland sisters, Jaundice and Kale, live on their own in Dullsville. They lead a very quiet, predictable life, eating the same food every day and reading from a single book. Their parents left on an "errand" several years earlier and have not returned. But the girls, who only dimly remember their parents, are managing just fine. Right up until the day that a female pirate comes to the door and kidnaps them. Kale and Jaundice end up dragged along on an adventure that is not at all comfortable or predictable, but that young readers are sure to find entertaining.

The tone of The Jolly Regina reminds me a bit of Maryrose Wood's Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, in which a relatively prim person is surprised to find herself in the midst of unlikely and dangerous circumstances. I found the Bland sisters also to be a sort of fun house image of Pippi Longstocking. Like Pippi, they are self-sufficient and happy to live alone without a parent. Unlike Pippi, they are utterly dull and not even a little bit brave. When something seems perilous, they simply close their eyes and (never successfully) wish the situation away. Here's a snippet:

"Jaundice and Kale pride themselves on their exacting routine. After breakfast (plain oatmeal with skim milk, a cup of weak, tepid tea on the side) they tend to their business of darning other people's socks, which takes the better part of the day. Each allows herself one ten-minute brea, during which she eats a cheese sandwich on day-old break and drinks a glass of flat soda while gazing out the window, watching the grass grow.

The Bland Sisters look forward most to the evenings, when they entertain themselves by reading the dictionary to each other, then staring at the wallpaper until they fall asleep." (Page 3, ARC)

The vocabulary in The Jolly Regina is quite advanced for what a book with short, heavily illustrated chapters.  I'd put this one more in the middle grade than early chapter book camp. Each chapter begins with the definition (and a short sketch) of a word that will be used in the chapter, such as "paraphernalia", "vehemence", and "anthropology". Other rich words, like "fiasco" are used in the text but not necessarily defined. 

There's also a fair bit of wordplay that almost borders on inappropriate - I think that it will make young readers giggle and feel mature. For instance, a pirate ship manned by men is called the Testoroso, while the female-crewed ship is the Jolly Regina. There are a lot of references to "booty" in the context of the male/female battle (of words and swords) between the two ships. We learn that "the crew of the Jolly Regina were not only pillagers and plunderers. They were also ruthless depantsers" and that "Cap'n Ann had the biggest booty ye ever laid eyes on! The Bland Sisters tried to imagine this, with mixed results."  

It is, of course, nice to see that the strong characters in this book (pirate captains and such) are all female, without the book having any hint of sparkly pink that could turn off male readers. This is a book featuring rat stew and pirates marooning people on deserted islands, albeit with the added humor of a singing ship's cook, and puns like "Captain Ann Tennille".

Also worth noting are various hints that the sisters are (or at least Kale is) on the autism spectrum and/or have OCD. Here are a couple of hints:

""Hmm," Kale said. "I seem to recall crying whenever our mother tried to coax us into venturing outside. The sun always felt so harsh and the flowers seemed too fragrant, and the laughter of other children hurt my ears."" (Page 46, ARC)

and

"Kale sighed. She was enjoying counting sand, as it gave her the same feeling she had when she watched the grass grow at home. She felt peaceful, almost sleepy, as if she were not really thinking, or using her brain at all." (Page 131, ARC)

 

I think it's a triumph that LaReau was able to create two heroines who are smart but also intellectually quirky, and who are determinedly NOT interesting, without making the book itself the least bit boring. I especially appreciated the Bland Sisters' choice at the end of the book. 

 

The illustrations in the advance copy that I read were not complete, but there's enough to suggest that they add humor and action to the story. I flagged quite a number of passages and illustrations as I went through, and certainly laughed aloud on more than one occasion. I think that The Jolly Regina is a fun addition to the ranks of not-so-realistic (in a good way) illustrated fiction for middle grade readers. I hope to see future books in the series. Recommended!

Publisher: Amulet Books (@AbramsKids) 
Publication Date: January 10, 2017
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).


A Well-Mannered Young Wolf: Jean Leroy + Matthieu Maudet

Book: A Well-Mannered Young Wolf
Author: Jean Leroy
Illustrator: Matthieu Maudet
Pages: 30
Age Range: 4-8

Well-ManneredWolfA Well-Mannered Young Wolf, written by Jean Leroy and illustrated by Matthieu Maudet, is a darkly humorous tale with an ending that Jon Klassen fans should appreciate. While technically it is a book about the benefits that can come from using proper manners, the deadpan delivery makes it far more entertaining than didactic. The story begins:

"A young wolf, whose parents had taught him good manners, went hunting alone in the forest for the first time."

The wolf catches a rabbit, but is polite enough to offer the rabbit a last request. When the rabbit's request requires the wolf to leave for a time, the rabbit promises to stay put in order to be eaten later. But, of course, when the wolf returns, the rabbit is gone. The frustrated, but still polite, young wolf goes through a similar process with a chicken. But when a young boy is polite enough to keep his word to the wolf, the wolf finds that he wants to reward the boy. In the end, characters get what they deserve (in the sense that polite = deserving). 

Leroy's narration is pitch-perfect for the story. Like this: "Furious, the hunter resumed his search for more prey to devour" and "At the idea of having to return home a third time, the young hunter exploded with rage." 

There's also quite a bit of dialog. And in that dialog are direct references to what is and isn't polite, as taught by the parents of the various characters. A Well-Mannered Young Wolf is a fun text to read aloud. 

Maudet's illustrations have a spare, cartoon-like feel, with a limited color palette. They display a sly sense of humor. For example, the wolf captures the chicken by throwing a book at it. There's a little thundercloud over the wolf's head when he is angry, and we can also tell a lot about what he's feeling from the appearance of his teeth and eyebrows. 

This book was originally published in France, and to me there does seem to be a French sensibility to it, though I'm hard-pressed to express what makes me say that. What I can say is that the ending made me laugh. A Well-Mannered Young Wolf is a quiet title, but one that I think kids with a relatively sophisticated sense of humor will enjoy. Recommended!

Publisher:  Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (@eerdmansbooks)
Publication Date: October 3, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


Noah Webster & His Words: Jeri Chase Ferris + Vincent X. Kirsch

Book: Noah Webster & His Words
Author: Jeri Chase Ferris
Illustrator: Vincent X. Kirsch
Pages: 32
Age Range: 5-8

NoahWebsterNoah Webster & His Words, written by Jeri Chase Ferris and illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch, is a picture book biography of the man who compiled the first American dictionary. We learn that Noah was born in 1758, expected to be the next in a long line of Webster farmers. But Noah wanted to be a scholar, and the world is more literate today thanks to his efforts. 

The book follows Noah through the major events in his life, as he goes to college, becomes a schoolteacher, starts working on his first speller, marries, and so on. I hadn't realized the patriotic underpinnings of Webster's work prior to reading this book, and found reading about Noah's motivations quite uplifting. Here's the first hint:

"In October 1781, King George's soldiers SURRENDERED [verb: gave up] at Yorktown. The war was over at last! America was free and IN-DE-PEN-DENT [adj.: not controlled by others]. THat gave Noah an idea. He would write the schoolbooks for America, beginning with spelling. "I will write the second Declaration of Independence," Noah wrote to a friend. "An American spelling book!"

I quite like the way Jeri Chase Ferris incorporates dictionary-like definitions right into the text. This both reinforces the subject of the book and makes a fairly text-dense book more accessible to new readers. I also like the way she uses a slightly old-fashioned tone to her writing, to suit the time period. Not so much as to make the book inaccessible to modern kids, but just enough to give a flavor, though the use of words like "Alas". The text is rendered in an old-fashioned-looking font, also, furthering this impression. Even the author and illustrator bios at the end of the book follow these conventions, complete with definitions. This made me smile. 

Vincent X. Kirsch's illustrations show somewhat oddly proportioned people (see cover image above), but I think he does capture Noah's scholarly, well-intentioned character. I think that kids will appreciate seeing how Noah ages over time as the book progresses. The muted color scheme also support the historical, bookish feel of the book. The brightest thing on many pages is Noah's blue-backed speller". 

I only had one nit about the text. There's a sentence: "Over the next ten years Noah wrote six more schoolbooks for children and had several children of his own." The "several" seemed imprecise in a biography. I had to consult the end matter to see how many children Noah and his wife did have, to satisfy my own curiosity [8]. I'm guessing that the children arrived over more than those ten years, and this was too complex to explain, but it took me out of the story. This is, however, my only complaint about a solid, interesting, well-written book.  

A handy, illustrated timeline at the end of the book fills in details for those who are interested in extra facts, and should make Noah Webster & His Words a useful reference title for elementary school kids. A bibliography includes both primary and secondary sources [providing a good opportunity to introduce this concept to kids.]

Noah Webster & His Words is a picture book biography done right, from the choice of an important historical figure to the selection of anecdotes and facts to the choice of fonts. It belongs in primary school libraries and classrooms everywhere. As for me, I gained a new appreciation for Noah Webster, and for the importance of dictionaries in making America the distinct country it is today. Highly recommended!

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: October 23, 2012
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).