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Swing Sideways: Nanci Turner Steveson

Book: Swing Sideways
Author: Nanci Turner Steveson
Pages: 288
Age Range: 8-12

Swing Sideways is about an anxious girl named Annie who has been promised a summer of freedom, and her developing friendship with the much more down to earth California. Annie has been having panic attacks, and is worrisomely thin because her throat closes up when she tries to eat. Her extremely tightly wrapped, schedule-obsessed mother is trying to give her freedom, as her therapist has recommended, but is struggling. Annie's more low-key father mediates.

The family, clearly well-off, is summering at their vacation home at some unspecified lakefront community outside of New York City. California is spending the summer at her grandfather's farm nearby, and the two girls, though from very different backgrounds, become close friends. Annie is able to put aside her own insecurities to help California uncover a long-buried family mystery, and accomplish an emotionally important quest. 

Steveson delves deeply into all of the relationships in the story, keeping things moving with the mystery of California's family, as well as a parade of summer hijinks. There is a tree-climbing, sneaking out at night, and secret pet that has to be fed. As the book progresses, the reader also begins to suspect that this is going to be deep sadness by the end of the book. This, I feel I should warn prospective readers, is correct. There is humor and adventure and personal growth in Swing Sideways, but also sadness. 

Here are a couple of quotes, to give you a feel for the book: 

"At the top of the driveway stood a red mailbox. No name, only a crooked, black number seven. I resisted the urge to straighten it. Spindly lilacs lined a gravel driveway, and a jumble of what-type stuff covered what used to be a yard. Peering around the corner of the barn, I squinted and studied the place I'd coveted for so long, listening for the sound of someone lurking nearby. Silence. No sign of a human." (Page 16)

I like how Steveson slipped in the bit about how hard it was for Annie to resist straightening the crooked number. Even by page 16, one knows that her mother would probably find resisting impossible. I also like the use of the word "lurking", setting the tone of hiding and secrets, even as Annie is just looking at a farm. 

"When she came up, we laughed like we'd known each other forever. Like she'd been my best friend since nursery school and not Jessica Braverman, who ditched me last fall when the panic attacks started. Jessica had traded our friendship for contact lenses, a nose job, and her first crush, while I hid in the school bathroom every day, gasping for air. The blooming connection between California and me made my heart lift. It was a powerful feeling." (Page 55-56)

This is a trope of tween lit that always hooks me - the girl who isn't ready to grow up as quickly as her friends are, and ends up having to figure herself out and find new friends. The fact that Annie has had panic attacks and has some sort of eating disorder raises the stakes, and her declared interest in all things country personalizes it, but I think that many tweens will be able to relate. For sure the adults will. I have to say that I think Swing Sideways is a book that adult readers are going to enjoy, but I think kids will, too. Annie's struggles will particularly ring true for those kids who are over-scheduled and struggling with excessive parental expectations. 

Swing Sideways made me laugh, nod in recognition, and cringe in different places, and it brought tears to my eyes at the end. Give this one to kids who like books about summer outdoor adventures (there are chickens!), and to kids who like sad books. Annie and California (and the adults in their lives) will stay with me, I think. Recommended. 

Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: May 3, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


Mister Cleghorn's Seal: Judith Kerr

Book: Mister Cleghorn's Seal
Author: Judith Kerr
Pages: 96
Age Range: 7-10

Mister Cleghorn's Seal is a new illustrated chapter book by Judith Kerr (who wrote the very first book that we read aloud to my daughter after she was born: One Night in the Zoo). Mister Cleghorn's Seal is a quick and lovely read, set in a time when cigarettes are "newfangled". I think it would make pretty much a perfect first chapter book to read aloud to a preschooler, with a short length, no chapter breaks, and Kerr's black-and-white illustrations on just about every page. 

Mister Cleghorn's Seal is about a retired shop-owner who, while visiting his cousin's family by the sea, ends up adopting an orphaned sea cub. While it is not common that children's books have an adult protagonist (and even a quiet romance), children will know from the earliest pages of the book that Mister Cleghorn is a kindred spirit. He plays with his cousin's children. And when the seal is refusing to eat, he holds it like a baby, with no concern at all for appearances or anything else. He tricks the narrow-minded janitor in his building. He is wonderful. 

Kerr's gentle illustrations bring Mister Cleghorn, the seal, and the time period to life. My favorite is a page spread in which Mister Cleghorn is sitting in the luggage compartment of a train, bringing the seal home, holding onto his hat, and clearly wondering how he got into this mess. But one could look at any illustration on any page to get a sense of the tone of Mister Cleghorn's Seal. 

Mister Cleghorn's Seal is the perfect next step to read-aloud to kids who enjoy picture books, and have the attention to handle a bit more text. It is a book that will make the reader, and the listener, happy. I'm going to try it with my daughter soon. Recommended!

Publisher: Harper Collins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens)
Publication Date: June 7, 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).


Field Guide to the Grumpasaurus: Edward Hemingway

Book: Field Guide to the Grumpasaurus
Author: Edward Hemingway
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-7

Field Guide to the Grumpasaurus by Edward Hemingway is an engaging little picture book about a grumpy little monster. Adult readers will anticipate the ending (in which the monster is turned by the power of a smile into a little boy), but my six-year-old seemed to take the story literally. The Grumpasaurus pouts and stomps about, scaring away the cat and occasionally roaring. 

I feel like this may be a book that will appeal more to parents of toddlers than to kids themselves. But I think there's a humor in it for older siblings, too, who will recognize the grumpy behaviors of others, even if they deny ever behaving like that themselves. 

Hemingway's dry humor worked for me. Like this:

"Sometimes called Grumpelstiltskin or the Great Grumpsby, the Grumpasaurus can live anywhere, and is most often seen sulking around the room after a great tragedy or mishap. Such as... 

... a broken toy."

This passage shows the Grumpasaurus, arms folded, mouth turned down, watched apprehensively by the cat, while on the facing page, a teddy bear's arm dangles by a thread. The Grumpasuarus's posture will be familiar to parents everywhere. (And although not stated, I believe that the cat may be responsible for the broken teddy bear.)

Field Guide to the Grumpasaurus sticks to the field guide theme. The inside pages are lightly lined, like a notebook, with faux-spiral visible in the middle. The opening illustration of the Grumpasaurus features call-outs pointing to various features, like "Its angry eyes don't blink" and "Not sure why, but it's got a tail!". Later in the book there is a yellow warning signal, when the Grumpasaurus is forced to do something it doesn't want to do (following storm clouds over a bathtub). 

Field Guide to the Grumpasaurus is cute and funny and true to the moods of a grumpy toddler. While kids will likely not recognize themselves in the Grumpasaurus, parents and older siblings will find much to chuckle about. I could also see this book inspiring kids to create their own field notebooks, making it a potentially good book for classroom use. This is one that we'll be keeping to read again at home. 

Publisher: Clarion Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids) 
Publication Date: June 7, 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).


Links I Shared on Twitter this Week: June 3: #eBooks, #SummerReading, #teaching + more

TwitterLinksHere are highlights from the links that I shared on Twitter this week @JensBookPage. It's a bit of a light week this week because of the holiday, but I do have links for you about #DiverseBooks, #EdTech, #GrowingBookworms, #SummerReading, beginning readers, classroom libraries, funny books, mysteries, play, testing, ebooks, and teaching.

Book Lists + Awards

Review Round-Up from @mrskatiefitz : Books for Beginning Readers (Easy Readers + Chapter Books), May 2016 http://ow.ly/FLLg300JAt9 

23 Entertaining Books For Kids Who Like Diary of a @wimpykid http://ow.ly/xlCv300JAly  A @momandkiddo #BookList #kidlit

RA RA Read: Recommended Middle Grade #Mysteries (standalone + series) chosen by Jennifer Wharton http://ow.ly/rpVE300JAdR  #kidlit

2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards Announced (inc. video presentation) http://ow.ly/wfKb300Rkp4  #kidlit @HornBook

2016 #Diverse #SummerReading Lists Grades PreK-8 from @LEEandLOW https://t.co/eyxH8MVRvW

Diversity

When is #Reading a Mirror, a Window or Neither? http://ow.ly/cv0m300MaKS  @medinger reflects on #DiverseBooks #kidlit

We Need Diverse #eBooks Too, Y’know says @fuseeight lamenting the small selection of choices  #DiverseBooks http://ow.ly/aXBf300Oxnh 

#EdTech + eBooks

Ed tech purchasing decisions | @DTWillingham questions some  intuitions regarding #EdTech http://ow.ly/3uxS300Mb2I 

#Reading Digitally vs. on Paper | @Larryferlazzo shares responses  http://ow.ly/kJTw300OuU3  @DTWillingham  @KristinZiemke  @lester_laminack

Growing Bookworms

#SummerReading: Solid tips for encouraging children to enjoy reading more from @MaryAnnScheuer  http://ow.ly/tkCR300Oy5O 

5 Reasons Kids Need Books in Their Hands...EVERYDAY! (to take home, to be responsible for, to enjoy) http://ow.ly/qKLI300JA8e  #raisingreaders

Are We Expecting Too Much–and Too Little–of #Reading / #Literacy Teachers asks @ShawnaCoppola https://t.co/ChN37EgycW 

Lovely post from @katsok | My Heart is Full: #Reading and My Sons (+ appreciation for @PhilBildner ) http://ow.ly/NNmR300Rnts 

Kidlitosphere

#PoetryFriday -- Call for Roundup Hosts from @MaryLeeHahn http://ow.ly/pE9S300RoFM  #kidlitosphere

Play

Some of the ways #play + storytelling + imaginative recreation stimulate #learning + #literacy http://ow.ly/idZv300Ma06  @TrevorHCairney

Schools and Libraries

Lindgren Award winner @megrosoff condemns UK's exam-focused education policy as an 'assault on childhood' @guardian https://t.co/49rMPC0JaT

Reflections on #Library Service Responsibilities to an apparent #SummerReading Scammer http://ow.ly/EWyO300Mbls  by @mrskatiefitz

"it is not what we got done that matters, it is how we felt doing it" | Take the Time says @pernilleripp https://t.co/vcJISuPwCP

Classroom Libraries Work: Tips from @donalynbooks @Scholastic for maintaining yours http://ow.ly/yvgy300EVsA  #kidlit

Sweat Small Stuff To Find #Teaching Zen |Control over kids is illusion but they can choose to engage http://ow.ly/t9Bz300OwpB  @focus2achieve

© 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


Mother Bruce: Ryan T. Higgins

Book: Mother Bruce
Author: Ryan T. Higgins 
Pages: 48
Age Range: 5-8

Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins is one of my favorite new picture books (published late last November). It's a book that I liked immediately, and that has held up to repeat readings with my daughter. It has humor, warmth, and a delightful grumpiness. 

Bruce is an antisocial black bear who likes to cook and eat eggs. One day, however, something goes wrong with a batch of goose eggs, and Bruce finds himself the surrogate mother for four goslings. Bruce resists, strongly, but the goslings are not to be deterred. Bruce eventually accepts his new role, and does his best, but never without a certain stoic grouchiness. 

Where to begin? Mother Bruce is filled with engaging details that will please adult readers, like the way that Bruce "liked to support local business, you see" (as he pilfers honey from a nearby hive), and the time he asks Mrs. Goose if her eggs are "free-range organic". These both went right over the head of my six-year-old, but she did giggle over the way Bruce uses a shopping cart in the river, where he catches salmon. The geese go from being "annoying baby geese" to "stubborn teenage geese" to "boring adult geese". When Bruce tries to get the geese to migrate he first flaps his arms, and then tries shooting them off via a giant rubber band. It's a dry sort of humor, accentuated by Bruce's relentlessly unsmiling face. For me, all of this comes across as pitch perfect.

And the illustrations! Bruce and the goslings are adorable, in their own different ways. The cover image tells you the story. There's a wonderful image in which Bruce is stomping about, and the geese stomp right along after him. In another, Bruce holds four goslings in a baby carrier strapped to his chest, frowning all the while. Higgins uses a dark palette, but lightens this via friendly details (like the goslings in four high chairs).  

Recently my family watched the movie Fly Away Home, in which a young girl becomes the surrogate mother for a flock of geese. Seeing this phenomenon (geese thinking that whatever moving creature they see first after they hatch is their mother) made my daughter and I both appreciate Mother Bruce that much more. 

Mother Bruce is a pitch perfect read for early elementary school kids and their parents. I could (and will) read it over and over again. Right now, this is my top candidate for next year's Cybils Fiction Picture Book nominations. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion 
Publication Date: November 24, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


With Malice: Eileen Cook

Book: With Malice
Author: Eileen Cook
Pages: 320
Age Range: 12 and up

I picked up With Malice one afternoon, when I needed a little break from work, and simply could not put it down. With Malice begins when 18-year-old Jill wakes up in a hospital. She's been seriously injured in a car accident, and has no memory of the previous six weeks, including what was supposed to have been a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy. She soon learns that she is not the only one who has questions about what happened in Italy, and particularly what led to the car accident. A media frenzy and legal case ensues. 

What follows is a deconstruction of the events as revealed through police interviews, news stories, blog and Facebook posts, interspersed with the experiences (mainly from before the accident) that Jill does remember.  Every piece of information, every revelation about personality or intentions, feels like a tiny clue, as the reader (and Jill) tries to figure out what happened. I read With Malice over about 24 hours, because I simply could not stop until I knew what had happened. 

Eileen Cook's characterization is masterful, particularly of Jill and her best friend, Simone. Jill's roommate from rehab is a delight. Even some of the tertiary characters, revealed mainly through interviews with the policy, come through clearly. But of course it is Jill's experience that is at the heart of the story. She suffered brain damage in the accident, and struggles with aphasia (not being able to come up with the right word when she is talking). Like this (as she is thinking to herself):

"I'd never been in the hospital before. Well, once in second grade. I fell off the -- Dammit. Now I can't think of what they're called. The ladder thing, suspended above the playground. Lion bars? No. Elephant bars. That's not it either, but that's like it. You swing across them. I'd had to get stitches, but I'd never stayed in the hospital before." (Page 6)

Impossible not to empathize with Jill - her perspective is so immediate. I'd like to talk about her more, but I don't want to give anything important away. With Malice is a book about which the less you know ahead of time, the better. Just read it. With Malice is a compelling mystery and a fascinating character study, with a ripped from the headlines subject. It is a pitch perfect summer reading delight! Recommended for teens and adults. 

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHKids)
Publication Date: June 7, 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).


Fortune Falls: Jenny Goebel

Book: Fortune Falls
Author: Jenny Goebel
Pages: 208
Age Range: 8-12

Fortune Falls is an isolated small town in which superstitions become reality. Step on a crack, you really will break your mother's back. Breathe in the air in the cemetery, you'll die. Following a fairly new policy, the young people in the town are sorted after they turn twelve, via a test, into Lucky or Unlucky. Luckies have smooth sailing ahead. Unluckies are sent off to Bane's School for Luckless Adolescents. Sadie is due to turn twelve soon, on Friday the 13th (not a day that is kind to the Unlucky), with her luck exam to follow shortly. If she doesn't pass, she'll be separated from her mother and five-year-old brother, as well as from her long-time best friend (now a Lucky), Cooper. 

I found the premise of Fortune Falls intriguing, though actually following along with what was fact and what was perception and/or self-fulfilling prophecy was a bit tricky sometimes. If you tell someone that they are lucky, and they believe it, they probably will do better in certain areas, after all. But when you have lucky students just randomly guessing correct math answers, or getting every basketball into the hoop, you know that there's something more than perception going on. 

Actually, what I found most implausible in Fortune Falls had nothing to do with luck. It was Sadie's relationship with Cooper. Cooper's parents, and Sadie herself, have tried to keep him away from her, so that her bad luck doesn't rub off. Cooper remains loyal, and continues trying to spend time with Sadie, no matter how poorly she treats him. To me, his persistence didn't quite ring true. 

But that's a minor nit. Overall, I did enjoy Fortune Falls, particularly the later part of the book, when Sadie stops feeling sorry for herself, and starts to take action, even in the face of daunting bad luck. Here are a couple of quotes, to give you a feel for Sadie's voice:

"The Luckies' parents made a huge fuss whenever they thought their fortuitous children were being jeopardized by an Unlucky. Sometimes, even parents of Undetermined kids complained." (Page 8) - Note Sadie's advanced vocabulary. She ends up participating in a couple of spelling bees. 

"I held my breath and barged right in. If a lifetime of mishap and embarrassment had taught me anything, it was the quicker you got the discomfort over with, the better." (Page 10)

"Arriving home to find Cooper on my front lawn was as good as stumbling upon a four-leaf clover. Just one look at his face--his rich brown skin and long dark eyelashes--made me feel happier inside. And, as any hapless person knows, happy is a close brethren to lucky." (Page 30)

Hmm... Makes you consider the connection between the word "hapless" and "happiness", doesn't it? 

Bottom line: if the premise of a place where luck-related superstitions actually come true sounds interesting to you, then you should give Fortune Falls a look. It's a quirky story with a fair bit of heart, as well as emotional growth by the main character. Recommended for 8-12 year olds. 

Publisher: Scholastic Press (@Scholastic
Publication Date: January 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).


The Big Dark: Rodman Philbrick

Book: The Big Dark
Author: Rodman Philbrick
Pages: 192
Age Range: 8-12

The Big Dark, by Rodman Philbrick, is an apocalyptic survival story for middle grade readers. On New Year's Eve, narrator Charlie Cobb is outside with his family and friends watching for an expected dramatic display of the Northern Lights. Following an enormous flash in the sky, however, the residents of Harmony, NH (population 857) discover that nothing requiring electricity or using a battery works anymore: not cars, not generators, not flashlights. Certainly not central heating or water pumps. As some in the town band together, and others try to take control, Charlie and his sister stack wood and worry about their mom running out of medicine for her diabetes. Charlie ends up on a dangerous quest to try to find medicine, while the school custodian tries to keep things running smoothly in Harmony. 

The Big Dark reminded me a lot of One Second After by William R. Forstchen, an adult novel with a very similar premise (right down to diabetes of a loved one being a factor). The Big Dark is not nearly so bleak as an adult story, but does include enough danger to feel plausible. People die (offscreen) from cold, men with guns threaten Charlie at various points, and there is an instance of arson. Yet most of the people in Harmony, and the people Charlie encounters elsewhere, are fundamentally good. They line up for supplies. They tithe firewood to support the elderly residents. They have town meetings to decide what to do. While this may not all be entirely realistic, it works in this middle grade content. 

Although I love reading about the "what do we do now" kinds of practical questions that follow an apocalyptic event, my favorite part of The Big Dark was Charlie's quest for medicine, for which he skis out of town and into an unfriendly winter landscape. This is the part that I think will really hook young readers who crave adventure. 

The Big Dark is a quick read with short chapters. Charlie's first-person viewpoint lends an immediacy to the story that I think will work well for more reluctant readers. The characterization isn't especially detailed, but Philbrick keeps the action moving, while exploring themes or right and wrong. I didn't flag any passages to quote, because I just wanted to keep reading. And that's my best endorsement of a book these days: it made me want to keep turning the pages. Definitely recommended for library purchase, and a good introduction for middle grade readers to reading about post-apocalyptic landscapes. 

Publisher: Blue Sky Press (@Scholastic
Publication Date: January 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).


This is not a picture book! Sergio Ruzzier

Book: This is not a picture book!
Author: Sergio Ruzzier
Pages: 40
Age Range: 3-6

This is not a picture book! by Sergio Ruzzier is about a yellow duck who is initially outraged to discover a book that doesn't have any picture. His insect friend is baffled (calling the very idea of a book without pictures "wacky"), but asks if Duck is able to read the book. He is! Inside the book he finds words that are funny, sad, wild, and peaceful, among others.

The reader sees the mood that Duck is experiencing on each page through Ruzzier's lovely pen, ink, and watercolor illustrations. My favorite is "and peaceful words", with which we see Duck lounging in a rowboat on a pink sea, with multicolored hills and clouds in the distance. If I had a print of that page, I would think seriously about putting it on my wall, to remind me of calm. The end of the book, where we see that Duck has been in his room the whole time, imagining the various scenes, is one that will resonate with book lovers everywhere. 

This is not a picture book! uses minimal text. My six year old daughter wanted to read the words herself our first time through, though I did offer some commentary. I only had to help her with a couple of less familiar words - this is definitely a book that can function as an early reader. 

The duck in the book bears a strong resemblance to the duck in Ruzzier's Have You Seen My New Blue Socks? (which my daughter and I love). My daughter actually thought that is was the same duck, though the two ducks are different colors. Ruzzier's illustration style is distinct, and perfect for this gentle but profound little book. I love his use of color, and the quirky supporting characters that show up in Duck's imagination. 

This is not a picture book! is one that I doubt librarians or book-loving parents will be able to resist. Ruzzier uses a picture book to convey the wonder of books that are only illustrated inside the reader's imagination. This would be an absolutely perfect book with which to introduce the idea of starting family chapter book read-alouds or audiobook listens. Fans of Ruzzier's work will also want to check this one out. This one is going on our keep shelf. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Chronicle Books (@ChronicleKids
Publication Date: May 3, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


The Wild Robot: Peter Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and (after a harsh winter on the island):

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

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

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids) 
Publication Date:  April 5, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


Lily and Dunkin: Donna Gephart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: May 3, 2016
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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


What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Rae Pica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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