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Posts from December 2012

Book Love: Help Your Child Grow from Reluctant to Enthusiastic Reader: Melissa Taylor

Book: Book Love: Help Your Child Grow from Reluctant to Enthusiastic Reader (Kindle edition)
Author: Melissa Taylor
Pages: n/a 
Age Range: Adult nonfiction

On a recent trip, I read two books aimed at helping parents to raise readers. The first was Book Love: Help Your Child Grow from Reluctant to Enthusiastic Reader by my blog/Twitter friend Melissa Taylor from Imagination Soup. Book Love is written from Melissa's perspective as an elementary school teacher and as a book-loving parent who found herself with two children who didn't enjoy reading. While there are certainly nuggets in the book that will apply to any parent of young children, Book Love is directed towards parents who have kids who, for one reason or another, don't enjoy reading. Taylor proposes four general reasons why kids dislike reading, and then explores them each in detail. The reasons are:

  1. Too boring (because "either the reading level is too hard, or your child hasn't found the right book or subject that gets him hooked.")
  2. Too blurry (because "vision, learning difficulties, and the ability (or inability) to pay attention" get in the way)
  3. Too tricky (because reading is a hard thing to learn to do)
  4. Too "sitty" (because some kids don't like to sit still and read)

Taylor starts with some brief, down to earth guidelines for "setting your child up for success as you help him learn to love reading". These include "Don't push him. Please", and a quick warning about limiting television.

The tone of Book Love is as if your child's very committed teacher sat down with you for coffee, and gave you one-on-one advice for helping your child with reading. There's a very personal, colloquial feel to the book, with plenty of short, declarative sentences ("Reading is important. Make time for it"). Here's an example:

"Engage in Grown-Up Reading

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, right? Kids copy what we do.

Here's your change to read that book you've been wanting to read. So read a book. Or two. Or ten. Show your child how you choose your books. Talk about the ones you want to read. Demonstrate how you make time for reading, even a little bit, every day."

Book Love is highly approachable, and not at all intimidating. It's a relatively quick read, a plus for busy parents. There are user-friendly lists of questions to ask your child to help diagnose the above-described reasons for not liking reading. There are lists of the child's favorite interests for the parent to fill in (and book lists to support those interests). There are carefully chosen pictures throughout. There are less common tips, like this:

"skip buying a reading lamp. Buy a headlamp--the light is brighter and covers a wider area. Then kids can also read in the car at night (including during longer trips where it's tempting to let them overdose on video games or movies), in a tent or in a cabin at camp, or when staying over with friends of relatives."

There are bulleted lists, and references to the most cutting edge technology (eBook readers, etc.). There are steps listed for assessments that parents can perform to understand their own children's reading issues (and references to where to find help in advocating for the child). There are literacy-themed games and activities. Book Love has a lot of useful information in a contemporary and user-friendly package.

I do think that readers who have already read canons of the literacy field (such as The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease) may find Book Love a bit ... informal. There are relatively few references to other books or to research studies. There are a fair number of links to online material, but these tend to be somewhat casually sourced (e.g a reference to Betsy Bird's list of top 100 children's books that doesn't actually mention Betsy or her blog, A Fuse #8 Production, by name; there's a reference to Daniel Pennac's The Rights of the Reader poster, but one has to click through to see the list itself, etc.).

I think that this informality stems from a) the fact that Book Love is self-published (it's harder for an individual author to go through the hoops of requesting permission to just include things like The Rights of the Reader poster) and b) the fact that Book Love was inspired by a blog. Just linking to something, rather than including it, is common blog practice. And it works well. When people are reading online, it's easy enough to click through to the original source, and is actually courteous on the part of the referring author (since traffic is sent to the original source). However, when one is reading a book (particularly a print book, but even an eBook on a device), having to click through to see something is more disruptive. This may be an artifact of where we are in the evolution of books (20 years from now we may be reading everything online, and so used to cross-linking that one would barely notice). Book Love is clearly on the cutting edge, in the sense of being a book-formed offshoot of content developed on a blog.

But getting back to the book itself (rather than musing on the nature of books), Book Love contains lists and lists of book suggestions, and also suggestions for products to help with literacy learning. I can't speak for the content of the product lists (though I do very much like the idea of helping parents find phonics tools and the like with which to help struggling young readers). But I found the book lists to be quite comprehensive. Taylor is well in the loop and up on both current and classic literature. The lists aren't blurbed (books or products), however, so to find out whether or not a particular book or item might be interesting and relevant to your child's age, one must click through. The lack of blurbs for book lists is common, of course, and would be prohibitive in this case (since Taylor suggests so many book). But I personally find lists that also tell me something about the book to be a bit more useful (like the Cybils shortlists). Still, the range of suggested books (and the many themes for the lists) is quite impressive.

The nicest thing about Book Love, I think, is that it is directly aimed at parents of children who are struggling with reading in one way or another (or disinterested in reading). For such parents, Book Love offers a real (and non-judgmental) lifeline. The tips for what to do are clear, concrete, and contemporary. There are tons of ideas, book suggestions, and product recommendations. Readers who like concise, practical advice, as from magazine articles and blog posts, will appreciate Book Love's format and tone. It's definitely a new era book, though, with a different feel from that of books by Jim Trelease and Mem Fox. Readers who expect a lot of references and research studies, and don't want to be clicking back and forth to the web when they read, may not find Book Love a good fit. But that's ok. As Taylor indicates herself in Book Love, the trick is finding the right book for the right reader at the right time. That goes for books about growing bookworms, too. Later, I'll have a review of a book that takes a more traditional approach.

Publisher: Imagination Soup, LLC (@ImaginationSoup)
Publication Date: November 5, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you). 

Growing Bookworms Newsletter: December 11


Today I will be sending out the new issue of the Growing Bookworms email newsletter. (If you would like to subscribe, you can find a sign-up form here.) The Growing Bookworms newsletter contains content from my blog focused on children's and young adult books and raising readers. There are 1627 subscribers. Currently I am sending the newsletter out once every three weeks.

Newsletter Update: In this issue I somehow have ten book reviews (six picture books, three middle grade, and one young adult title). I also have one post about my views on nonfiction ebook reading, and one post with links that I shared on Twitter

Reading Update: In the past 3 weeks, I finished 2 novels for middle grade readers, 3 novels for young adults, and four titles (fiction and nonfiction) for adults. What can I say? I had a lot of travel. I read:  

I've just started my annual holiday re-read of Let It Snow, by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle. I especially love the first novella, by Maureen Johnson. I'm listening to The Black Box by Michael Connelly (a Harry Bosch novel). I have lots of other titles queued up on my Kindle, but am holding off on those for a bit. 

And of course I'm reading lots and lots of books to Baby Bookworm. She's currently enamoured with the Pigeon books by Mo Willems. She has the app, and I think this is one case where playing with the app has made her more interested in the books themselves. She talks back to the book now (as Willems surely intended), after hearing the kids in the app talk back. She is also enjoying Fa La La by Leslie Patricelli, The Christmas Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood and Renata Liwska, and Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton. 

How about you? What have you and your kids been reading and enjoying? Will your family be receiving books for the holidays?

Thanks for reading the newsletter, and for growing bookworms. I wish you all a wonderful holiday season, surrounded by people you love. 

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man's Canyon: S. S. Taylor

Book: The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man's Canyon
Author: S. S. Taylor
Illustrator: Katherine Roy
Pages: 320
Age Range: 10 and up

The Expeditioners by S. S. Taylor (illustrated by Katherine Roy) is the first middle grade novel published by McSweeney's McMullens. It's a middle grade adventure / steampunk / alt-history / dystopia, with frequent full-page illustrations. The premise is that in a future world in which computers have turned on society and been outlawed, technological innovation relies on steampunk types of devices (clockwork hands, steamcycles and gliders).

In this world, a series of government sanctioned (and government controlled) Explorers have discovered various lands previously unknown by the rest of humanity (hidden by a glitch in the now-defunct computer systems). Zander, Kit, and M.K. are the recently orphaned children of one such Explorer, struggling to survive on their own. When a cryptic message arrives from their father, the children end up becoming Explorers (or Expeditioners, as their father called it) on their own (picking up a helpful friend or two along the way).

Once I got through a bit of dense world-building at the start of the book, I found The Expeditioners to be an egaging romp, full of just the sort of devices that keeps kids reading (including lost gold, dirigibles, a complete lack of adult supervision, a genetically engineered and dangerous parrot, and plenty of maps!). Like this:

"It was brand-new, which would have tipped me off that it belonged ot the government even if it hadn't had the red BNDL logo imprinted on its side. The fancy steam-powered dirigibles were amazing things: egg-shaped lightweight Gryluminum balloons with gondolas below, and sealed, super-efficient steam engines that allowed them to travel nearly as fast as gliders." (Chapter Two)

I thought that the plot in The Expeditioners relied a little too much on conveniences. For example, the children all inherit vests that contain things to help get them through tight spots - they tend to try out these things at exactly the right time. Like this:

"I checked my own vest. Aside from the shining brass compass embedded in the animal hide on the front, there was also a small pocket on the inside that contained a sextant, just like the little tool Dad had used for navigation. I opened another inside pocket and found a brass spyglass. "Look at this," I told them. "It has ten degrees of magnification, like a really powerful set of binoculars!" (Chapter Nineteen)

There are also a couple of very timely rescues. I also found that Taylor occasionally slipped into telling instead of showing when it came to the children's personalities. But neither of these things kept me from thoroughly enjoying the book - they're basically attributes of the type of book that it is (over the top adventure/fantasy). Certainly I shall look forward to the next book in what promises to be a series.

Roy's illustrations definitely added to my appreciation of the book. They have a certain dark, melodramtic tone that suits the style of the book perfectly, and helps flesh out a mental picture of the characters. They also give The Expeditioners a hint of a graphic novel feel, which I think will broaden the book's appeal. 

If you know any 10-year-olds who like adventure stories and/or steampunk-type elements, The Expeditioners should be right on the mark. There is enough heft to the text to be satisfying, but not the overpowering length of some fantasies. Enourage the kids to plow through slightly dense world-building at the start of the book, because The Expeditioners reads much more quickly once you are a few chapters in. It's a fast-paced book full of creative details, a book that strong readers will enjoy. Recommended.

Publisher: McSweeney's McMullens (@McSweeneys)
Publication Date: December 11, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you). 

Deadwood: Kell Andrews

Book: Deadwood
Author: Kell Andrews
Pages: 250
Age Range: 9-12

Deadwood is an early offering by new small publisher Pugalicious Press. Written by Kell Andrews, Deadwood is the story of a cursed tree that has drained the luck from the small town of Lower Brynwood. 12-year-old Martin Cruz, new to Lower Brynwood, finds himself in reluctant partnership with schoolmate Hannah Vaughan. The two try to remove the curse, saving the tree and the town. 

The characterization in Deadwood is quite strong (at least for the protagonists). Martin and Hannah are both three-dimensional, and their conflicted relationship rings true. Hannah's relationship with her long-time best friend Waverly gives Andrews a chance to explore the way that friendships grow and change during adolescence. The adult characters are less nuanced. Martin's mean-spirited Aunt Michelle, who he is living with while his soldier mother is deployed, is a bit over the top, as is a former football hero who becomes a nemesis for the kids (and the tree). But this works ok - the plot itself is also over-the-top, and these adult characters fit right in with that. 

Deadwood feels more like magical realism than fantasy. There are unquestionably fantastical elements (the tree communicates with the children, even sending them text messages). And certain events are not strictly realistic (the political structure of the town, the rapid progression of the curse). But the relationships between Martin and Hannah (and Hannah and Waverly) and the kids' day-to-day challenges with school and family life, still make Deadwood read more like realistic fiction than fantasy. Like this:

"When she became friends with Waverly in second grade, Hannah realized she had a lot to learn about being a girl. It seemed like Waverly had been born knowing how to layer T-shirts, pair shoes with jeans, apply lip gloss, and toss her head so that her hair caught the light." (Page 60)

"... but Waverly was more tentative, and that made Hannah nervous. The two of them had never kept secrets from each other before, but Hannah had to admit that she had started it. She had introduced the space between them, allowing Libby to squeeze her way into the gap. Libby had might sharp elbows." (Page 165)

Deadwood is a fairly quick read (much less dense than many of the fantasy tomes crowding the market today). There's a nice mix of heart and humor, and plenty of attention paid to interpersonal dynamics. I thought that the culmination of the plot wrapped up a bit quickly (and I personally saw the bad guy coming from a long way off). But I still found it an enjoyable read. Give this one to middle grade readers who enjoy magical realism, or to anyone for whom the idea of talking with an ancient, enormous tree is irresistible. 

Publisher: Pugalicious Press (@PugaliciousPres)
Publication Date: November 15, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you). 

Love and Other Perishable Items: Laura Buzo

Book: Love and Other Perishable Items
Author: Laura Buzo
Pages: 256
Age Range: 14 and up

I really enjoyed Laura Buzo's Love and Other Perishable Items, an new US release of a book previously published in Australia. This is a book that I immediately wanted to recommend to friends like Liz, Leila, and Kelly (and then saw that Kelly had already reviewed it and loved it). Love and Other Perishable Items is realistic young adult fiction. So realistic, in fact, that it's sometimes a bit painful to read. Painful in the sense that you know the main character is going to get hurt, and you care about her so much that you can hardly bear to watch. 

Love and Other Perishable Items is the story of Amelia and Chris, two co-workers at a Coles supermarket. The book starts out from Amelia's first-person perspective, and then later shifts to Chris' view, and back again. Amelia is fifteen and Chris is twenty-two. The two are friends. However, Amelia also has an enormous crush on Chris. A crush that seems hopeless because of the seven year age difference (Chris is in college) and because Chris is so much cooler than she is. But you can't help you love. Chris' feelings are less clear (even when we hear from him directly), but there's no question that the two share a strong connection. 

The thing that stands out the most for me about Love and Other Perishable Items is the strength of the characterization. I don't know that I've ever met protagonists more three dimensional than Amelia and Chris. I feel like I know them. There were times when I felt like I was Amelia. Amelia's family dynamics are also painfully real. Buzo never takes the easy way out. Amelia's mother is beaten down from working full time and taking care of the household. Amelia resents the father who, when he's there, doesn't help at all. But you can also see that Amelia's parents love each other. It's not the pat situation where the Mom is staying there for the kids, or whatever. It's real life. It's complex. Even the secondary characters are distinct, with quirks that make them stand out as individuals. 

Here's what I mean:

"I don't really have a feel for him (Stuart) as he has never said a word to me or even made eye contact. He only ever comes down to the front end of the store to talk to Kathy. There is sometimes a curt nod toward Chris, Ed or Bianca. He is generally unsmiling and a bit formidable, but incredibly self-assured. From the little I know of him, he is the complete opposite of Chris. Chris is inclusive, extremely social, and his speech is so laden with in-jokes, self-deprecation and sarcasm you have to learn to decode it. Stuart seems like of minimal. He is a large guy, broad across the shoulders, attractive if you like cruel-looking men. And people do. Liza did once. (Chapter: Lonely Days Begone)

Stuart is a very minor character, but Amelia's keen observations make him interesting here. This passage also shows, of course, how Amelia views everything in relation to Chris. The whole social structure of the Coles supermarket workers is well-done, and I think it will appeal to teen readers.

I do want to add that Love and Other Perishable Items is definitely a book for high schoolers, rather than middle school kids. (Ms. Yingling thinks so, too.) There is a lot of swearing (in the sections told from Chris' perspective). There are many references to drinking, some to drugs, and some to sex. I think that teens will enjoy this, but I personally found the initial switch from Amelia's perspective to Chris' quite jarring in this respect. 

Apart from that initial abruptness, however (the fact that their voices are so different), the dual perspective format works well for Love and Other Perishable Items. The reader can understand nuances of Chris' behavior that are a mystery to Amelia. The reader sees Chris' positive view of Amelia, even when she is down about herself. There's one neat instance in which they each (silently) think about being nostalgic for something that "hasn't even finished yet." A concept which I totally get, and think is quite insightful. 

I also liked that Love and Other Perishable Items is set in Australia. There's enough local detail to let the reader know that they are visiting another country, but not so many local references as to make the book inaccessible. It's hot at Christmastime, for example. Going to the pub after work is a regular thing (and the drinking age is lower than in the US). And so on. 

In short, I recommend Love and Other Perishable Items for high school readers (and adults) who enjoy realistic fiction. Although the relationship between Amelia and Chris is at the core of the book, this is far from being a conventional love story. The social dynamics at Amelia and Chris's homes, schools, and their mutual workplace are all fully realized, too, as are the other characters. I will say, as an adult reader, that this book made me glad not to be fifteen again. But I think that if I was reading it at fifteen, I would be fascinated. Highly recommended.

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: December 11, 2012
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
See also: Stacked review by Kelly Jensen, Ms. Yingling Reads review 

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you). 

Links I Shared on Twitter Recently: December 7

I was traveling for work last week, and the week before that was Thanksgiving, so it's been a while since I compiled my literacy and reading-related Twitter links. Here are a few that I hope you will find useful, organized into three categories.

Book Lists and Book-Related Holiday Shopping Recommendations

Recommended #kidlit reads (2 age groups) from @RIFWEB #bookpeopleunite

Gift idea: @RIFWEB Multicultural Booklist, 40 of the best children’s books that also make great gifts

Give Picture Books to Grown Ups suggests @StaceyLoscalzo #kidlit #picturebooks

Anyone who loves "best of" lists for #kidlit should be following @C_Spaghetti

Holiday book help found here! @StorySnoops compiles their themed book lists for holiday shopping

Holiday Picture Books for Interfaith Kids from @momandkiddo #kidlit

It's that time of year. Check out @MotherReader 's 150 Ways to Give a Book. Great stuff! #kidlit

7th annual gifts for #literacy geeks now available @ChoiceLiteracy

Nontraditional #Literacy Gift Ideas – Holiday Edition from @ReadingTub

#Literacy Lalapalooza #2 from @readingtub - Gifts & Tips December • Family Bookshelf

2012 100 Best #kidlit titles as selected by Kirkus Book Reviews via @tashrow

From the #Cybils blog: The Holidays Are Coming--Shop Cybils!

Suggestions for Growing Bookworms

I like this new Read for My School program to encourage kids' #literacy in Britain via @tashrow #litrdup

The Other Buddy: How Reading Partnership Programs Help Older Readers, too by Shari Frost @ChoiceLiteracy #litrdup

RT @ReadTogether: Tip for #Parents: Talk to your #child all day long. Describing the weather or what you're cooking will help your child learn words and ideas

RT @ReachOutAndRead: Early-learning activities prepare children for success in school: #reading #literacy

RT @ReadingTub: @JensBookPage - from your home town Talk! Read! Succeed early #literacy program

Useful resource: Chillin’ Activities, a @rifweb downloadable activity sheet to keep kids happy + reading over holidays

Miscelleneous Tidbits from the Kidlitosphere

Introducing……Full STEaM Ahead! a new initiative by @thereadingzone #kidlit

EFF's Annual E-Book Buyer’s Guide to Privacy via @tashrow

Some "rules" to good endings that mysteries should strive for from @kidlitmysteries #kidlit #yalit

The November 2012 Carnival of Children's Literature is up @the1stdaughter Celebrate #kidlit !

That's all for today. But you can follow me @JensBookPage for #literacy and #kidlit links as they arise. Hope everyone has a great weekend!

This post © 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Some Personal Thoughts on Fiction vs. Nonfiction in eBook Reading

On a recent trip, I read several adult nonfiction titles on my new Kindle Paperwhite, including Book Love by Melissa Taylor and Raising Bookworms by Emma Walton Hamilton (reviews to come). While I adore the Kindle for travel, particularly the backlit Paperwhite version, I have concluded that, as the technology exists today, I don't love using the Kindle to read non-fiction.

First of all, while it's easy to highlight passages, I find it cumbersome to go back and review the highlights. They are in a separate document, and while it's easy enough to skim through all of the highlighted text, it's awkward to go back and see the whole page from which the highlight was pulled. There's no easy way to see at a glance how many highlights there are (as with a "porcupine book" like The Book Whisperer that I have littered with post-it flags). This makes it much harder to review the book (this also holds for me when reviewing fiction).

A bigger part of this highlighting issue, and the one that applies more directly to nonfiction for me, is that I think the digital format will make me less likely in the future to refer back to the book (vs. if I had a printed copy on my shelf, post-its still intact). For fiction this is not such a big deal. I'm much more likely later in life to go back to find, say, a reading tip, than to find a particular passage out of the latest Lee Child novel. It would be easier if the highlights document (called Clippings on the Kindle) could hyperlink back to the original document (or be part of the original document). But even that would be more awkward than just flipping back through post-it flags in a printed book. This may change in the future, of course, as eBook readers improve, and other eBook readers may do a better job of this. But it will still be hard to improve upon the convenience of just taking the book down from the shelf.  

Another issue for me right now is that while narrative fiction tends to do fine on the Kindle, formatting issues make some nonfiction harder to read. In the case of Raising Bookworms, Hamilton sprinkles the book with quotes about the joys of reading. I presume that in the printed book, these are set off from the text in some way. But in the eBook version, they just appear within the text. In italic font, sure. I can tell what's happening. But they interrupt the flow of the text more, somehow. In Book Love, placement of images caused gaps in the text (since the images often needed to appear on a fresh page).

This is not to say that I think either author/publisher should have done a better job with the translation. More that there's an inherent issue with eBooks, the loss of the fixed formatting of the printed books, which I find more distracting when reading (some) nonfiction than when reading fiction. This was less of an issue for me when reading SuperFreakonomics, which is more narrative in form. I know that there are other formats, like PDF, which make this less of a problem - but I love the portability of the Kindle, so I'm a bit stuck. 

In light of these issues, I believe that, at least for now, when I am reading nonfiction, particularly nonfiction that I expect to review and/or refer back to, I will be more likely to go ahead and purchase the print copy, rather than take the slightly easier (immediate download, no books to pack up), lighter, and (usually) cheaper solution of buying a Kindle book. For fiction, particularly fiction that I wouldn't expect to re-read or review (such as mysteries published for adults), Kindle will continue to be the winner for me for travel (I wish my library had more books available for Kindle, but that's a topic for another day).

This post © 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Charlie and the Christmas Kitty: Ree Drummond & Diane deGroat

Book: Charlie and the Christmas Kitty
Author: Ree Drummond
Illustrator: Diane deGroat
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8 

Last year I reviewed Ree Drummond's Charlie the Ranch Dog. The sequel, Charlie and the Christmas Kitty, is very similar. In fact, the "Christmas" part of the story is almost incidental. Charlie and the Christmas Kitty is about the reaction of Charlie, a somewhat lazy and set in his ways ranch dog (not that he sees himself that way) to the arrival of a new kitten. Primarily, it's a character study of Charlie, a beguiling basset hound with a fondness for naps.

Charlie is fun. Astute young readers will see the disconnect between Charlie's words ("I'm such a hard worker, some people even call me King of the Ranch") and his actions (heading over for a snooze, while the younger ranch dog actually does help with the Christmas decorations). Kids are also likely to be amused by the fact that Charlie doesn't even realize that the kitten is a kitten at first, thinking that the tiny, ribbon-bedecked bundle is a rabbit. I liked his deadpan response on this realization (accompanied by sad basset eyes):

"I have to say, I really wasn't expecting this development."

Drummond maintains a light touch at the end of the book, avoiding sentimentality. Even as Charlie is coming to, grudgingly, accept the kitty, a new, wriggly present arrives with his name on it. 

deGroat's illustrations are warm and detailed. Charlie and the kitten are rendered with particular affection, while the human characters remain, as they should, in the background. The early scenes of Charlie and the Christmas Kitty do convey a Christmas feel, with ornaments and stockings and brightly wrapped packages. A number of the later scenes take place outside, on the porch of the snowy ranch. 

2 1/2 year old Baby Bookworm gave this book her top endorsement, immediately demanding "Read it again!" after our first read. Fans of Charlie and the Ranch Dog will be pleased with Charlie's re-appearance in Charlie and the Christmas Kitty. While the story itself is only incidentally about the holidays (the kitten is a Christmas gift), the cozy feel of the book, and the illustrations, suit the tone of the season nicely. 

Publisher: HarperCollins (@HarperChildrens)
Publication Date: September 25, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

Two Holiday Books from the "How Do Dinosaurs" Series: Jane Yolen & Mark Teague

Book: How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? and How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas?
Author: Jane Yolen
Illustrator: Mark Teague
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8 

I'm not a huge fan of Yolen and Teague's "How Do Dinosaurs ..." series (though I think that they are both very talented). It's just that I don't tend to favor books that use a fictionalized format to so overtly teach something to kids (in this case, proper behavior). However, I did like How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah? and How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? more than the other books in the series. Perhaps a bit of sentimentality on my part in reference to the holidays.

In each of these two books, Yolen and Teague introduce various holiday traditions through the misbehavior of assorted young dinosaurs. Like this:

"And the very next day
does he grab up
the gelt,

squeezing the
candy coins
till they all


"Does he eat all the cookies
left out for
Saint Nick,

giving each candy cane
one sloppy lick?" 

These first parts of the book are humorous. Teague's dinosaurs cavort about the house, gleefully misbehaving, even as distressed parents race to stop the madness. These sections of the books are also educational about holiday traditions without feeling didactic. It's only in the last part of each book, where the dinosaurs behave properly, that the books start to feel a bit too sugary for me. But it's hard for a Christmas book about dinosaurs to be too sugary.

I think that fans of the series will enjoy these two holiday-themed installments. The end pages alone (showing the different types of dinosaurs in their holiday gear) make it worth checking out the books.

Publisher: Blue Sky Press (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: September 1, 2012
Source of Book: Review copies from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

The Fire Chronicle (Books of Beginning): John Stephens

Book: The Fire Chronicle (Books of Beginning, Book 2)
Author: John Stephens
Pages: 448
Age Range: 9 - 12

The Fire Chronicle is the second book of John Stephens' Books of Beginning series. I thought that it was better than the first book, last year's The Emerald Atlas. Unlike many middle books of trilogies, which seem to exist mainly to mark time until the final book, The Fire Chronicle is a nice combination of a solid story with its own merits and lead-up to the final volume. 

The Fire Chronicle finds Kate, Michael, and Emma, children destined to bring together three world-changing books, marking time in an orphanage. The peace only lasts a few pages, however. Before the reader knows it, the siblings are separated. Kate, keeper of the book that manipulates time, finds herself trapped in New York City, a few days before the start of the 20th century. Michael and Emma travel in our own time with, and then without, Dr. Pym, on a quest for the second Book of Beginning. 

Although the action shifts frequently between the two time periods, The Fire Chronicle is primarily Michael's book. He is the eldest of the children in Kate's absence, and the one destined to be keeper of the second book, a book that has power over life itself. I thought that Stephens did an excellent job of character development with Michael, who bore aspects of Edmund Pevensie from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in The Emerald Atlas. Michael comes a long way in The Fire Chronicle, pulled along by the book, and by his love for his sisters.

Kate's story, while less pivotal to this particular book, is also intriguing, as she comes into contact with a boy whose destiny appears tied to her own. Stephens also presents an appealing alternate history for New York City. The premise is that magical beings once existed out in the open (dwarves, elves, witches, etc.). However, after years of persecution from ordinary humans, the magical folk created a "separation" (at the turn of the 20th century), going into hiding and altering people's memories about them. This makes Kate's scenes an interesting balance between what New York City was like 100+ years ago and what the world might be like with magical beings living in the open next door to regular folk.  

Stephens uses the dual narratives effectively in keeping the reader turning the pages, switching over at various cliffhangers. Even when he doesn't switch narratives, he still uses cliffhangers at the end of most chapters. Like this:

"The cry of a Screecher echoed up the tower, and they heard boots pounding on the stairs, growing closer and louder. The children backed away from the door.

Michael heard Emma shout his name.

What was he supposed to do? What could he do?

Then the door flew open, revealing the dark, ragged form of a Screecher, and at that same moment, a pair of hands seized the children from behind." (Page 25)

Though there is a lot of danger and drama in The Fire Chronicle, Stephens does give the children small moments of happiness, too, like when Emma sees a penguin for the first time and marvels "That's the best thing I ever saw. Ever." Or this:

"... and as crowded and loud and smoky as the restaurant was, and though she was constantly being bumped and jostled, or feeling cold air against her neck when someone pushed through the rugs by the door, somehow it was all wonderful. It was as if Kate had managed to leave outside everything she carried with her on a daily basis, her thoughts of her parents, the need to find them, her constant worry about her brother and sister." (Page 197)

There are some parallels between the Books of Beginning series and the Harry Potter books. Both feature an evil wizard who was partially vanquished, but is now trying to come back to life, to take over the world. Both feature a kindly, not always forthright, elderly wizard who guides the orphan(s) trying to save the world. Both have the magical world existing next to, but rarely interacting with, the real world. And so on. But the Books of Beginning have more of a high fantasy feel to them than the Potter books do, with large swaths of the books taking place in settings like tunnels below ground, elven communities up in the trees, and so on. There's also more of a tie-in with actual historical events in the Books of Beginning series, which is a nice touch. 

The Books of Beginning series isn't as humorous as the Harry Potter series, though Stephens does present a pretty funny view of vain elves in The Fire Chronicle. But Stepehens' choice to make the three protagonists siblings, rather than friends, gives a certain emotional heft to the books. 

The Fire Chronicle is a strong second book in a solid middle grade fantasy series. The plotting is fast-paced, and the narrative structure pulls the reader forward. I enjoyed seeing Michael's character development throughout this book, and look forward to something similar when youngest sibling Emma takes center stage (presumably) in the next book. The Fire Chronicle is highly recommended for middle grade fantasy fans (but read The Emerald Atlas first). 

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: October 9, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).