1,146 posts categorized "Reviews" Feed

The Way Back from Broken: Amber J. Keyser

Book: The Way Back from Broken
Author: Amber J. Keyser
Pages: 216
Age Range: 13 and up

The Way Back from Broken by Amber J. Keyser is a young adult novel about recovering from grief, with generous helpings of interpersonal relationships, diversity, and outdoor adventure. 15-year-old Rakmen, a city kid from North Portland (OR) is struggling 10 months after the death of his baby sister. He's not doing well in school, doesn't care about playing basketball with his friends anymore, and fears that his parents' marriage is breaking up. As things deteriorate further, Rakmen's parents end up sending him to the Canadian wilderness for the summer with Leah, who has recently lost a baby, and her 9-year-old daughter Jacey. There, the three mis-matched lost souls have an adventure, and also start to form a new sort of family. 

The Way Back from Broken is most suitable to young adults (and adults), with a bit of language and references to suicide. The grief of the characters is often searing, and I think it would be a bit much for younger kids. At the start of the book I wondered "why would I put myself through reading this?". But Rakmen's voice (limited third person perspective) pulled me in. And I'm glad that it did. The Way Back from Broken is powerful and unflinching but ultimately hopeful. 

Keyser does a nice job of incorporating diversity organically in The Way Back from Broken. Rakmen's dad is (apparently) black, his mother is Mexican. The grief counseling center that Rakmen and his mom visit groups them together with black and white families from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, their shared grief building bridges that would otherwise be unlikely. The tentatively developing friendship between Rakmen and a white girl named Molly is handled in a way that felt realistic to me. There's awkwardness when Rakmen's friend teases him about Molly, and even more awkwardness when she and her parents attend a cookout at Rakmen's home. None of this diversity is what the book is about - but it renders the interpersonal relationships more layered and interesting. 

Keyser's prose is descriptive, using all of the senses, yet without slowing the pace of the book. Here are a couple of the passages that I flagged:

"Rakmen breathed in the summer evening--the bite of diesel in the air, garden dirt, and burgers cooking next door. This was what he knew, but it no longer felt like home. He was a runaway truck with burned out brakes. The ache that filled Rakmen pulsed in his bones, white-cold and penetratingly deep. With leaden arms, he hoisted his duffel into the trunk." (Page 60)

"As he picked up the paddle and thrust the canoe into deeper water, his open blister burned against the wooden shaft, and every muscle in his arms and torso screamed in protest. Au large was the perfect torture, he though. When you can't walk anymore, you paddle. When your hands are about to fall off, you hike. And every single part of your body ends up hurting." (Page 123)

The later part of the book is suspenseful. I read The Way Back from Broken in just about one sitting, engaged because of the action that takes place, but also because I cared about the characters. The relationship between Rakmen and Jacey is particularly well-done, built slowly and steadily over the course of the book. The Way Back from Broken is a book that will stay with me. Highly recommended for teen and adult readers. 

Publisher: Carolrhoda Lab 
Publication Date: October 1, 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).


Tulip and Rex Write a Story: Alyssa Satin Capucilli and Sarah Massini

Book: Tulip and Rex Write a Story
Author: Alyssa Satin Capucilli
Illustrator: Sarah Massini
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-8

Tulip and Rex Write a Story is the sequel to Tulip Loves Rex, written by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illustrated by Sarah Massini. In Tulip and Rex Write a Story, young Tulip plans to spend the day with her beloved and unusual dog Rex. When a package arrives from Grandma containing a pretty notebook for Tulip and a new leash for Rex, they decide to head out for a walk / neighborhood exploration. As Tulip and Rex notice the "wonderful" words that mark their experiences, Tulip starts jotting the words down in her notebook. Eventually, she realizes that she can transform the words, and her experiences, into a story. Readers get a glimpse into Tulip and Rex's story before the book ends with a cheerful family picnic. 

As an adult reader, I found this book to be a bit too contrived, as Tulip putters about putting words like "butterfly" into her journal. But I think that kids who are just learning to read themselves will enjoy it, and might even be inspired to think about making up their own stories. Here's a snippet of the word-finding:

"Just then, a butterfly landed atop Rex's nose!
"Butterflies flutter, Rex. Flutter, flutter.
Flutter is a lovely word, don't you think?

Rex wagged his tail. Flutter
was a lovely word; it tickled, too!
Into the notebook it went!

And butterfly, too."

Here "Flutter" and "butterfly" are shown in a large, orange font (not quite the same color shown here), clearly standing out from the rest of the text. Later, when some of the words from the notebook make their way into Tulip's story, they are colored also. Sort of a vocabulary recap. Like this:

"But wait! There came a 
feather floating from the sky.
It was no ordinary feature; why,
it seemed to dance! King Rex
grasped the magical feather and
held it aloft and, as if he had the
wings of a butterfly, Kind Rex
sailed across the moat and--"

The story within the story isn't finished - leaving kids to imagine for themselves how it might end. 

I also do quite like Massini's illustrations. The joy of both Tulip and Rex comes through, with the dog a large, benign presence on every page. I also like how, in both text and illustrations, the authors make the parents recede to the background. If you were just reading the text, you might think that Tulip and Rex are out exploring on their own for most of the book. But Massini shows the parents periodically, always in the background, barely visible, but present. Adults reading this book to children can reassure anxious kids that yes, Mommy and Daddy are nearby. 

Fans of Tulip Loves Rex will certainly want to give Tulip and Rex Write a Story a look. While it doesn't have the same emphasis that the first book does on dance, it does convey the same joyful exuberance of the characters. I think this book will also work for kids just on the cusp of being readers and writers, who are intrigued by words. It would pair well with Rocket Writes a Story by Tad Hills, and could make an interesting (if slightly lengthy) classroom read-aloud. 

Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: September 1, 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).


Austin, Lost in America: Jef Czekaj

Book: Austin, Lost in America: A Geography Adventure
Author: Jef Czekaj
Pages: 40
Age Range: 6-9 (picture book for older kids)

Austin, Lost in America: A Geography Adventure is a picture book that seems best suited to first through third-graders. Austin is a dog in search of a home. He breaks out of his pet shop and embarks up on a criss-cross country journey through all 50 states, looking for the one that feels best. As he visits each state (usually over less than a page), author Jef Czekaj shares tidbits about that state. Each spread also includes a small map of the state with the capitol labeled. 

The tidbits about each state are quirky things that kids are likely to find amusing or interesting, like: "Every year, Brattleboro, Vermont hosts the Strolling of the Heifers, a parade of cows down its main street." Austin is displayed in some scene that matches the tidbit (e.g marching down the street ahead of a pack of cows, waving a baton). 

There's also an over-the-top narrative tying together the facts about each state and indicating why that state isn't the right one for Austin. Like this:

"Florida had to be it! It was warm. It was sunny. Austin ate oranges. He sunbathed. He swam with manatees. This would be the perfect place to live. (Image of Austin with sunglasses on a beach)

He even got invite to a dinner party. (Image of an alligator opening the door for Austin)

But when he discovered that he was to be the main course, he knew it was time to go." (Image of Austin lying on a dining room table, surrounded by alligators and crocodiles)

Austin, Lost in America is vividly illustrated and full of unusual and or amusing facts. It is, however, rather lengthy for a picture book. I can't imagine that preschoolers would have the patience for it. I myself was a bit daunted at the idea of reading about each and every state, with only a minimal thread tying the different sections together. But I do think that for first to third graders who are interested in learning more about the United States, Austin, Lost in America offers a plethora of facts in a non-intimidating context. It's probably more a book to dip into occasionally than a book to read through, cover to cover. But it is a fun and informative ride across the country. 

Publisher: Balzer + Bray (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: September 1, 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).


The Night Before Christmas: Clement Moore and David Ercolini

Book: The Night Before Christmas
Author: Clement C. Moore
Illustrator: David Ercolini
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3-6

If asked, I probably would have said that a new illustrated version of The Night Before Christmas, with the classic text by Clement C. Moore, was unnecessary. I would have been wrong. David Ercolini's brand-new version of this tale is hilarious, and offers great fun for preschool and kindergarten-age readers. 

The text is the straight-up traditional version. But in Ercolini's vision of the story, the narrator is Christmas-decoration-obsessed. His house has decorations on every imaginable surface. His roof features a giant Santa statue (shown on the cover with Santa's reindeer treating it as a tourist attraction). Even his truck sports reindeer antlers and a wreath. He's like a quirkier, more charming, Clark Griswold. When he hears the clatter, he is reading in bed to the light of a Christmas candle (headboard and footboard bedecked with ornaments), deep in a copy of "Home Decor: Christmas Issue". 

The house is paradise for Santa. There's a welcome sign on the chimney, and a welcome mat in the fireplace. Instead of the usual plate of cookies, there is an entire buffet of desserts, complete with a giant bowl of eggnog. You can tell that Santa considers this house a highlight of his journey.

There are other fun details, too. The mouse may not be stirring, but we can see him living in the partially eaten gingerbread house.  The cat, the dog, and mouse share their wish lists with Santa. The mouse gets a remote-control car, which Santa helps him drive. And all kinds of decorations have wide, round eyes which open when something is surprising. The sugarplums not only dance, they basically have a party. One of the reindeer wears a football helmet for some reason (all of them are unusual). In short, this is a book in which young readers will find something new and entertaining on every read. 

David Ercolini's version of The Night Before Christmas is fun and inventive, the perfect book to keep your preschooler occupied in the run-up towards Christmas. Beware, however, of it giving your kids ideas. My daughter now wants us to bake a cake for Santa. And if she could, I'm sure she'd have a mouse come to live in our gingerbread house. Highly recommended! This would be a great addition to library or home holiday collections. 

Publisher: Orchard Books (@Scholastic
Publication Date: September 29, 2015
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).


West Meadows Detectives: The Case of the Snack Snatcher: Liam O'Donnell

Book: West Meadows Detectives: The Case of the Snack Snatcher
Author: Liam O'Donnell
Illustrator: Aurelie Grand
Pages: 128
Age Range: 7-10 (illustrated early chapter book)

The Case of the Snack Snatcher is the first book in the new West Meadows Detectives early chapter book series from Owl Kids. The Case of the Snack Snatcher is told from the perspective of Myron, who is starting as a new third grade student at West Meadows Elementary. Myron, who is autistic, spends his mornings in a special class, Room 15, though he is in a regular class in the afternoons.

On his very first day, Myron, who fancies himself a detective, sets out to solve a mystery involving the theft of the morning's snacks. He is soon joined in mystery-solving by fellow Room 15 denizen Hajrah (there because she "bounce(s) around too much"). Myron and Hajrah look for clues and experience intimidation by a couple of school bullies. They are supported and encouraged by the school's staff, particularly their teacher, Mr. Harpel.

Myron's voice works well. He clearly thinks in a different way than other kids do, but not in such a different way that young readers will find him hard to connect with. Some of his particular autistic traits serve him well as a detective (such as keen senses of smell and hearing). I was reminded of The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd, but The Case of the Snack Snatcher is more accessible for young readers. Like this:

 ""Stop digging your heels into the sidewalk," Mom said. "Let's go!"

I wasn't really digging my heels into the sidewalk. That would be impossible. The sidewalk is made of concrete. My heels are made of skin, bone, muscles, and blood. And I only had running shoes on. It was an expression. I don't like expressions, either." (Page 8)

And:

"I was also too busy thinking about the Meadows Fireballs.

Apparently, they are a big soccer team in town. I didn't know anything about them. I'm not a big soccer fan. I'm not a big any-sports fan. I don't see the point in kicking a ball across a field. It would be much easier to pick it up and carry it." (Page 94)

Hajrah is simply delightful, buoyant and impervious to rejection, she is the perfect foil for Myron. Like this: 

"Hajrah didn't walk down the corridor--she zipped. She had one speed: fast. She did not zip in a straight line. She carved high-speed curves down the hallway, like a downhill skier. And she talked the whole way." (Page 35)

I did think that the adults in The Case of the Snack Snatcher were implausibly slow on the uptake at times, but I don't think that will be a negative with the book's target audience. The mystery itself, while not complex, was not obvious, either. The Case of the Snack Snatcher has a nice mix of action and character development for the target age range. Aurelie Grand's occasional black and white illustrations help by highlighting Myron's somewhat fussy personality, as well as the diversity of the other characters. 

So we have a literal-minded kid who sets himself up as a detective. We have another kid who can't sit still (and, bonus, comes from an ethnically diverse background). These characters are set against a cozy elementary school setting. And there's a mystery involving the theft of snacks. Who doesn't love snacks? The Case of the Snack Snatcher is total kid-friendly fare. I look forward to seeing future books in the West Meadows Detectives series. This title is well worth a look for library purchase, or for home use by mystery-loving newer readers.  

Publisher: Owl Kids (@OwldKids) 
Publication Date: October 13, 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).


Who Done It?: Olivier Tallec

Book: Who Done It?
Author: Olivier Tallec
Pages: 32
Age Range: 3-5

Who Done It? is an interactive book by Olivier Tallec, perfect for preschoolers. It has extra-thick covers, and is designed to be held horizontally. Each page spread features a question that starts with "Who". For example: "Who didn't get enough sleep?" and "Who played with the mean cat?" Beneath the question are a series of simple illustrations of characters, animal and human, one of which matches with the question (well, two of them match in one case). 

My daughter, at five, was able to pick most of the solutions out pretty quickly. On a couple she needed more time, but she only needed help with one of the dozen questions. Younger children will likely need more help - some are obvious, but others are more subtle. The funniest spread asked: "Who couldn't hold it?", with a picture of a sheepish animal standing in a yellow puddle. But all of the questions feature topics that will resonate with preschoolers. A tiny guide at the end of the book shows the solutions. 

Tallec's illustrations are not realistic, but they are fun. All of the characters (kids and animals) have huge heads and found eyes with tiny dot pupils. Tallec manages, despite the minimalist drawings, to convey emotions through mouths and eyes, and sometimes posture. A large, blue bear sits, leg crossed and hands folded, on a bench, expression solemn. A blonde girl has bangs that cover her eyes. A boy in love blushes bright pink. 

I would have liked to see a bit more diversity in the skin tones of the children, but that's my only complaint. The animals demonstrate a wide range of fur colors, and perhaps this was a deliberate way of making it easier to separate out the kids from the animals. 

Overall, though, I think that Who Done It? is a great choice for preschoolers. It's interactive without feeling contrived, and gives young listeners a chance to feel observant. Because the illustrations are relatively small, I think it lends itself more to one-on-one reading with a parent than to classroom or storytime use. I'm gong to try it with my preschool-age nephew when he visits. Recommended!

Publisher: Chronicle Books (@ChronicleKids
Publication Date: October 13, 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).


Orbiting Jupiter: Gary D. Schmidt

Book: Orbiting Jupiter
Author: Gary D. Schmidt
Pages: 192
Age Range: 12 and up

Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now is one of my favorite YA novels. I've also read and enjoyed several of his other books. So I was pleased to get my hands on an advance copy of Schmidt's upcoming YA novel, Orbiting Jupiter. It's a slim book with (in the ARC anyway) plenty of white space - a very quick read. But wow, does Orbiting Jupiter pack a punch. 

Orbiting Jupiter is told from the perspective of 12-year-old Jack, who lives with his parents on a small dairy farm in Maine, during the winter that Jack's family fosters a youth named Joseph. Joseph has an intimidating history. He took some sort of drug in school and, not in his right mind, tried to kill a teacher. He was sent to a juvenile facility called Stone Mountain. And, at 14 years old, he has a three month old daughter. All of this is revealed in the first chapter of Orbiting Jupiter, though Jack and the reader don't come to understand the details of Joseph's story until much later. 

Joseph is a damaged, complex character. But the cows like him, so Jack and his parents are more than ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. So are a couple of teachers at Jack's middle school, though most shun Joseph and/or consider him a trouble-maker. Personally, I was reeled in by the first chapter, unable to put Orbiting Jupiter down until I had finished it. I had to know what would happen to Joseph. My heart ached for him, and broke for him. 

Schmidt's writing style is spare - not every detail is captured. For example, we never learn why Jack's family decided to take in a foster child. Schmidt just launches into the specifics about Joseph. But this makes the 12 year old narrator more convincing, I think. Jack tells us about what he thinks is important, at the level that he's able to understand and talk things. Like this (a confrontation between Jack's father and Joseph's father):

"My father put his glasses back on and they looked at each other for a while. Then Joseph's father said a few words I'm not allowed to say, and he looked at me. When my father took a step toward him, he said a few more words I'm not allowed to say, and left.

Dahlia was watching the whole time. If Joseph's father had come within range, you know he'd have limped out of that barn.

Like I said, you can tell a whole lot about someone from the way cows are around him." (Chapter 2)

Other things to like about Orbiting Jupiter:

  • Jack's parents are great. Supportive but taking no nonsense, expecting both boys to work, and teaching them how, but also encouraging fun. They're the kind of people who, in the least didactic way possible, make you just want to be a better person. 
  • The small town setting is convincing. The suspicion that people display towards Joseph feels realistic. The Maine weather plays a significant role. 
  • There's a completely timeless quality to Orbiting Jupiter. No cell phones. No instant messages. Nothing like that. Just pure story. 

There is some mature content in Orbiting Jupiter. We know that Joseph has had sex, and it's clear pretty early on that he has been physically and possibly sexually abused. But these things (particularly the sexual abuse) are alluded to, rather than being directly addressed. Kids who aren't ready for them could, I think, gloss over them to some extent. Still, it's clearly YA and not middle grade, despite the middle school setting.  

I think that Orbiting Jupiter would make a wonderful pick for reluctant teen readers. High school libraries simply must stock it. But the combination of compelling characters, realistic suspense, and taut writing makes Orbiting Jupiter a book that should please any discerning reader (12 and up). Highly recommended, and a book that I will not forget. 

Publisher: Clarion Books (@HMHKids) 
Publication Date: October 6, 2015
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).


Mr. Putter & Tabby Smell the Roses: Cynthia Rylant and Arthur Howard

Book: Mr. Putter & Tabby Smell the Roses
Author: Cynthia Rylant
Illustrator: Arthur Howard
Pages: 40
Age Range: 5-8 (early reader)

Mr. Putter & Tabby Smell the Roses is the 24th book in this early reader series written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Arthur Howard. In this installment, Mrs. Teaberry celebrates a birthday. Mr. Putter, her long-time best friend, wants to do something different and special for her this year. After much reflection over cups of cocoa, Mr. Putter decides to take his plant-loving friend, together with their respective pets, to the local Conservatory. Even after Mrs. Teaberry's dog, Zeke, causes a bit of chaos, the friends have a wonderful day together. 

There are amusing moments in Mr. Putter & Tabby Smell the Roses, like when Zeke is able to behave himself "for five minutes" and when Mrs. Teaberry ends up with "a head full of leaves". The book also displays quiet heart. My favorite passage was this one (right after entering the Conservatory):

"Mr. Putter sniffed the air.
It smelled all wet and flowery.
It reminded him of going outside
in the rain when he was a boy.
It smelled so green."

Lovely! Howard's illustrations share the same mix of warmth and humor, from Mrs. Teaberry smiling on receiving a compliment on her appearance to Tabby's rear end visible from the heights of a lemon tree.

I also liked the overall message (delivered in a non-didactic way) that a) the way to celebrate someone's birthday is to think about what they like and b) that what's most important is just being together with your favorite people (or animals). Reading this book to my not-quite-reading-on-her-own daughter, it was enough for us to slide into a discussion about what our own family members might want to do to celebrate their birthdays. 

Of course, Mr. Putter & Tabby Smell the Roses is meant to be read by new readers on their own (perhaps with a bit of help for words like "Conservatory". Rylant is expert at keeping her sentences short and vocabulary accessible, while making the story interesting. Mr. Putter & Tabby Smell the Roses is another fine installment to this long-running series. A must- purchase for libraries serving new readers, this particular title would also make a nice birthday gift for a five or six year old. Recommended. 

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: September 15, 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).


The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party

Book: The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party
Author: Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
Illustrator: LeUyen Pham
Pages: 96
Age Range: 5-8

The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party is the second book in the Princess in Black series, by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale with illustrations by LeUyen Pham. This second book is even better than the first. My daughter and I both hope that there will be many more. 

The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party is an early chapter book with frequent color illustrations. It is perfect for newer readers, but also works well as a read-aloud. As this installment begins, "prim and perfect Princess Magnolia" is about to host her own birthday party. She is interrupted, however, by a ring of her "glitter-stone ring", indicating that her presence, as the top-secret Princess in Black, is needed to fight monsters. As the story progresses, the calls keep coming, and the poor princess wonders if she will ever be able to open her birthday presents. 

I read this to my daughter in a single sitting. She had enjoyed the first book, The Princess in Black, but this one she found hilarious. She was simply choking with laughter as the glitter-stone ring kept interrupting Princess Magnolia's party. She was sitting up in bed, tapping on the pages, saying things like: "Another monster!! This one is pink!". She was completely engaged. [This proved to be a less than perfect book for bedtime reading because she was so excited that she wouldn't settle down. But these are the risks we take.]

There's a passage late in the book which emphasizes the repeated nature of the interruptions. Several, but not all, of the sentences are followed by "Again." My daughter chimed in after every sentence with "Again." As soon as we finished the book she wanted to read it again, with Daddy. I was concerned when reading the beginning of the book that it was going to be too much like the first Princess in Black book. Little did I know that this repetitive structure was part of the story, the part that would make my own small child giggle uncontrollably. It's brilliant.

What I especially liked about The Perfect Princess Party was the extensive, though not overwhelming, use (as hinted by the title) of alliteration. This makes The Perfect Princess Party a delight to read aloud, though one might not notice so much if reading silently. Magnolia has a "favorite fluffy dress". She "slid down the secret chute." The "ballon bobbed." And so on. The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party is in any case sprinkled with enjoyable words to read aloud. Like "faithful steed" and "Frimplepants." The princesses who attend Magnolia's birthday party have fun names like Princess Euphoria and Princess Sneezewort.

As in the first book, LeUyen Pham's bright illustrations add humor and drama to the story. Young readers will especially enjoy watching Magnolia become increasingly disheveled after fighting a sequence of monsters. The visiting princesses are a multicultural lot, compete with the trappings of various cultures (dragon, giraffe, etc.). The party-related illustrations are generally pink and frothy, while the monster fight scenes are more bold and comic book-like. The drama of the fight scenes prompted an "Oh my!" from my own young listener. 

The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party has everything a young reader (or listener) could ask for: a butt-kicking heroine in black, a lovely party with pink cupcakes and a beautiful young hostess, party games, and monster defeats. This second installment is a bit more pink than the first, which could turn off male readers. But I hope it doesn't. Because Princess Magnolia's struggles to do her duty, despite the pain of denying herself presents, should resonate with all kids. As should the laugh-out-loud humor and rich vocabulary in The Princess in Black and Perfect Princess Party. This party is not to be missed, and would make a pitch-perfect fifth birthday gift for any child. Highly recommended, and a must-have for libraries. 

Publisher: Candlewick 
Publication Date: October 13, 2015
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).


Upside-Down Magic: Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins

Book: Upside-Down Magic
Author: Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins
Pages: 208
Age Range: 8-12

Upside-Down Magic is the first of a new middle grade series by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins. After attending an ordinary elementary school, ten-year-old Nory applies to start fifth grade at the prestigious magical academy that her brother and sister attend, and where her father is principal. Unfortunately, Nory's magic, though strong, is a bit, well, wonky. Nory ends up being sent away to live with her aunt, and attend a special Upside-Down Magic class. Missing her family, Nory is determined to fix herself, so that she can go home. But, of course, things are not quite so simple when your magic is Upside-Down. 

The Upside-Down Magic class reminded me a bit of the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The magic for the kids in the class works backwards or differently from what people expect. While it's normal for Flares to be able to control fire, Elliott can't help freezing things instead. And poor Andres has to be attached to a leash, otherwise he will simply float away. As for Nory, she can't seem to shift into one animal at a time - she ends up turning into creatures like a beaver-kitten that eats everything in sight. 

On thing I like about this book is that, despite the fact that everyone has some sort of magical ability (or disability), Upside-Down Magic is in many ways an ordinary school story. There is a caring, if quirky, teacher. There are friendships to be made, humiliations to be suffered, and bullies to be confronted. Nory is homesick, but learns to appreciate the lax rules in her aunt's household. The book's central conflict doesn't involve saving the world, but rather, whether or not Nory will find a way to graduate from Upside-Down Magic class. This makes Upside-Down Magic a great book for younger readers who like the idea of reading about magic, but aren't ready for complex world-building or epic crises. 

One other nice thing about this book is the authors' treatment of diversity. One learns part-way through the book, in matter-of-fact manner, that Nory's dad is black, while her (deceased) mom was white. Hence she looks black, but is living with her white aunt. Whenever any character is introduced, Nory notes the person's skin color and (sometimes) ethnicity. Even if the character is white. There's no judgement about this one way or the other. Nory notes people's appearances just as she notes their likely magical classification (Flare, Flyer, etc.). I found it quite refreshing. Here's an example:

"Elliott tapped his big-hair head at a boy a few years away, floating in the air. He was brown, probably Latino, Nory thought. He had shaggy hair and wore a stripy shirt. He was a Flyer, obviously, but he was much higher up than any beginner flyer Nory had seen."Every so often his body jerked forward. He flailed his arms. Around one ankle was a red rope. An older girl held the other end and chatted with her friends." (Page 52)

Upside-Down Magic is a quick, accessible read, perfect for elementary-age kids, with a direct take on diversity, and a surprisingly realistic setting. It should particularly appeal to those kids (most kids?) who have fantasized about being able to fly, change shapes, or talk to animals. I look forward to reading future titles in this fun new series. 

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic
Publication Date: September 29, 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).


Stay!: A Top Dog Story: Alex Latimer

Book: Stay! A Top Dog Story
Author: Alex Latimer
Pages: 32
Age Range: 5-8

Stay! A Top Dog Story is about the love between a boy named Ben and his ill-trained dog, Buster. After a previous bad experience, Ben's parents refuse to take Buster on vacation with the family. Buster is left with Grampa. Ben spends enormous amounts of time, both before and during the trip, writing out instructions for Grampa to help him care for Buster. Stay! consists mainly of Ben's illustrated lists, bracketed by various real-world experiences of Ben and Buster. 

Stay! is a bit tricky to read aloud, because of the large number of lists and notes, some of which overlap one another and aren't actually readable in detail. It's more a book for young readers to pore over on their own. The things that come across are:

  • How well Ben knows Buster's likes and dislikes, and how much Ben adores Buster.
  • How spoiled Buster is. For example: "Dog biscuits (2 if he's been good, only 1 if he's been bad."
  • How patient Grampa is. (He is far and away my favorite character in the book.)

There is a fair bit of humor to Ben's lists, and it is humor that I think will please elementary-school kids. For example, one of Buster's "Dislikes" is "cat farts", accompanied by a picture of the rear end of a cat, spewing a noxious green cloud. Or "When should Buster have a bath?" "!) Your eyes sting when you pet him." (picture of Buster with fumes wafting off of him). There are diagnosis charts and maps. There's a funny, if disturbing, image of Mum with a completely green face, after eating a bad hot dog. There is, in short, plenty to keep a seven-year-old entertained for quite some time. 

Stay! is a book that will please dog lovers, particularly those who have struggled with dog training, as well as elementary schoolers with a faintly crude sense of humor. There is heart in Ben's concern for his dog, but more humor in Alex Latimer's execution of the story. Stay! is a fun, irreverent addition to the ranks of pet stories. 

Publisher: Peachtree Publishers (@PeachtreePub)
Publication Date: September 1, 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).


Milo Speck, Accidental Agent: Linda Urban

Book: Milo Speck, Accidental Agent
Author: Linda Urban
Pages: 272
Age Range: 7-10

Milo Speck, Accidental Agent, by Linda Urban, is a lightly illustrated fantasy for early middle grade readers about a boy who is sucked through a clothes dryer into a land of ogres. In Orgrgon, Milo learns that his fencing-salesman father has secrets, and that the long absence of his mother might have a more complex explanation. He finds himself on the run from ogres who want to eat him, or smash him, or both. He meets up with the (human) head of a secret organization, discovers that he has a way with turkeys, and struggles to make a difference as a tiny boy in a very large world.

Milo Speck, Accidental Agent is filled with kid-friendly, humorous details. Author Linda Urban leaves no stone unturned in her world-building. The ogres are greedy, near-sighted, and none too bright. Pun-like spelling errors abound, like the "Out of Odor" signs on a drinking fountain and an elevator, and the "Keep Calm and Carrion" inspirational banner. The local newspaper is called the Ogregonian, with a banner "All the News We Feel Like Printing."

Milo is a relatable character, longing for more attention from his traveling father, insecure about his small size, but with a core of steel when he needs it. His prickly relationship with a human girl he encounters in Ogregon will make readers like him even more, I think. 

Here's an opener sure to pull in young readers:

"Milo had read about magic before. He knew that kids in stories sometimes found magic in secret drawers or hidden away in attics, and he had always hoped that if he were to find magic, it would appear in the form of a mysterious silver coin or a doorway to an enchanted world. But when magic came to Milo Speck, it came in the form of a sock.

"Figures," said Milo."

And right there we see his idealism and his sense of humor. Perfect. 

There's also a bit of a technical bent to the story, involving the way that dryers are constructed. I like it when magic is mixed (or explained by) science, and Urban does a fine job here. As a small bonus, Urban also uses Milo Speck, Accidental Agent to explain what's happened to all of the socks lost in clothes dryers (see Chapter 2).

Mariano Epelbaum's pencil illustrations bring Milo to life, and convey the scale of the story (e.g. a tiny Milo peeking out from between the fingers of a gnarled hand with long, cracked fingernails).  

A note from the author at the end of Milo Speck, Accidental Agent says that Urban was inspired by the works of Roald Dahl and Edward Eager. I could  see the Dahl influence in the over-the-top nastiness of the ogres (for whom a primary delicacy is "boy"), as well as in the setup of a corporate headquarters that included rooms like "the Office of Bragging About Stuff". Eager's influence is more subtle, but there in the way that magic is more complicated than the characters expect, or are prepared for. 

In any event, I think that kids will enjoy Milo Speck, Accidental Agent, and will look forward to Milo's future adventures (one significant mystery remains unsolved - there will surely be at least one more book). And if, as Urban suggests, this book leads them onward to Dahl and Eager, that's a happy outcome, too. Milo Speck would make a fun classroom read-aloud, and is definitely one to look at for elementary school libraries. 

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