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The Orchid and the Dandelion: W. Thomas Boyce, M.D.

Book: The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive
Author: W. Thomas Boyce, M.D.
Pages: 304
Age Range: Adult nonfiction, especially relevant for parents and teachers

OrchidAndDandelionI found The Orchid and the Dandelion, by W. Thomas Boyce, to be an informative read. The premise of this adult nonfiction title is that there’s a normal distribution of kids in terms of sensitivity / reactivity to their environment. Boyce, a longtime researcher and professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, classifies the 20% who are most reactive as orchids and the rest as dandelions. His research, and that of others, suggests that the dandelions are relatively impervious to things that happen to them. They can thrive good or bad situations. They are resilient. They bounce back. The orchids on the other hand, can do extremely well when nurtured properly. They are “unusually vital, creative, and successful within supportive, nurturing environments.” But in the presence of adversity, they tend to do poorly. They get sick more often (especially respiratory illnesses) and can veer towards mental illness, anxiety, addiction, and other negative behaviors.

It’s not completely clear what causes orchids, but Boyce thinks there’s a strong genetic component and that it was selected for in evolution. The orchids were early warning systems when things were bad, and then high-achievers when things were stable, and both aspects were thus beneficial. He also thinks that there’s a strong epigenetic component – that how people genes end up expressing as orchids is affected by their environments, from natal to childhood. Boyce identifies the orchids primarily by testing kids’ stress responses (fight-or-flight and cortisol responses to challenges).

I found this book fascinating. It’s a challenging read, covering a lot of science, and definitely requires a high level of concentration from the reader. Boyce helps make it more accessible, however, by sharing his personal story of his orchid sister who failed to thrive and eventually committed suicide. He also shares lots of examples of actual (names changed) kids who he has treated, studied, or known over the years. Finally, he includes incisive little biographies of the people he works with over the years that humanize what could have been a dry recounting of research. Here's one example: “Growing up, he had been a rebellious, recalcitrant, and generally annoying adolescent, forever in trouble by virtue of his impulsivity and an intellect that well outstripped his school’s and family’s capacities for containing and challenging it.” (Page 108 of the ARC)

I did have a couple of issues with the book:

  1. Boyce says that 15-20% of kids have most of the health problems found within a population of children over time (and account for the majority of health care dollars spent). He also says that 20% of the population are orchids. Then he says that some of the orchids thrive and have unusually good health. So is it just coincidence that for each orchid that does thrive there’s a dandelion who for whatever reason does not, such that the percentages match up? This is not unreasonable, but I felt that this could have been addressed more directly. Perhaps it was, and I missed it.
  2. He’s somewhat absolute throughout much of the book about the orchid children vs. the dandelion children. However, this whole classification is based on a normal distribution of behavior. I kept thinking: wouldn’t it be more a spectrum, with some kids tending more towards orchids and some tending towards dandelions? He does state this about the spectrum clearly late in the book, and I get that he’s trying to make an already complex story more comprehensible, but as a person who understand variability, this bothered me as I was reading.

Those issues aside, I did find the book engaging thought-provoking. It made me think about my own development and my daughter’s, and about things that might help some of the people around me. I highlighted many passages and learned a variety of things. Here are a few of my (many) notes:

  • When Boyce started studying the correlation between adversity and propensity toward childhood illness, he found that while childhood adversity was predictive, the associations were not nearly as strong as expected. This is the data from which he and others started to see that for some kids adversity wasn’t highly predictive of illness, but for other kids it was. (Chapter 2, page 29, ARC)
  • Studies that looked at kids’ stress reactivity, social environments, and susceptibility to respiratory illness followed, resulting in the graph in Chapter 3 (page 47 of the ARC) that is the heart of the book. The kids identified as dandelions show only a slight increase in their respiratory illness rates as the stress in their social environments increases. The kids identified as orchids show much lower illness rates in low stress environments, but much higher illness rates in high stress environments (a line with a much steeper slope). The researchers’ conclusion/epiphany was that the orchid children “were more open, more permeable, more tender to the powerful influences, both bad and good, of the context in which they were living and growing.” (Page 48, ARC)
  • Chapter 7 is about “The Kindness and Cruelty of Children” and how dominance structures in preschool and later classrooms can disproportionately affect the orchid children, who may end up bullied or isolated. He talks about “the unsung valor of the kindergarten teacher”, saying “Preschool and kindergarten teachers earn the very smallest paychecks of those who staff our national system of education, and yet they are the educators most likely to profoundly shape young minds and lives, during the most neurobiologically formative period of early learning.” (Page 151, ARC)
  • Chapter 8 is about what you can do as a parent to help orchid children, distilled from his years of researching and treating orchid children, and watching his sister, his orchid daughter, and others. Here's a summary quote about these recommendations, which are well worth a look in full: “These then are the potent secrets of raising, teaching, or shepherding a happy and healthy, if delicate, orchid boy or girl: the power of sameness and routine, the gifts of attentiveness and love, the celebration of human differences, the affirmation of a true and genuine self, the balance between protection and emboldening challenge, and the beneficence of play.” (Page 172, end of Chapter 8, ARC)
  • In Chapter 10 he does get to the nature of the spectrum of orchid to dandelion. After describing on of his own childhood experiences he says: “Looking back on it now, it is one last reminder of an essential point: orchids and dandelions aren’t a binary division cutting humanity into two categories. The two flowers are powerful metaphors, or a vivid shorthand, for what is actually a spectrum.” (Page 220, ARC) I agree with this, but think he could have made the point a bit clearer earlier.
  • In the Conclusion, Boyce gets into what he thinks we should be doing as a society to protect orchid children. Using an analogy to legal protections for lead (which especially help certain kids who are the most sensitive to lead poisoning), he posits that making the social improvements that would help orchid kids would also help all kids. Even more compelling, he notes, "this same subgroup of orchid kids, most sensitive to the developmental and health effects of poverty, violence, and despair, are the same group that is most likely to dramatically benefit from exposure to supportive, nurturant, and encouraging social contexts." (Page 232, ARC, Conclusion)

If any of these tidbits catch your eye, then you should give The Orchid and the Dandelion, released last week, a look. It does take some time and mental focus to read it all the way through, but I think you'll find this investment worthwhile. I know I did. I learned a lot. Recommended!

Publisher:  Knopf
Publication Date: January 29, 2019 
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Please note that quotes are from the ARC, and may differ from the final printed book, particularly in regards to page numbers. 

© 2019 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage. 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).


How to Properly Dispose of Planet Earth: Paul Noth

Book: How to Properly Dispose of Planet Earth
Author: Paul Noth
Pages: 192
Age Range: 8-12

HowToProperlyDisposeHow to Properly Dispose of Planet Earth is the sequel to Paul Noth's How to Sell Your Family to the Aliens (reviewed here). At least one more book will certainly be forthcoming, as this book ends on something of a cliffhanger. This wacky science fiction series features a middle school-age boy named Happy (Hap) Conklin, Jr. and his highly unusual family members. In this installment, Hap and his future-path-seeing sister Kayla try to save the world from being sucked into a black hole, a punishment from an alien race battling the Nolan's power-hungry grandmother. They do have help in the form of clues provided by a time and space traveling lizard named Squeep! Saving the world is almost as difficult for Hap as asking new girl Nevada to be his lab partner. 

Like the first book in the series, How to Properly Dispose of Planet Earth is chock-full of smart cartoon-like illustrations, self-deprecating humor, and intriguing science references. Hap spends considerable time trying to decipher clues from Squeep!, and a code-breaking dimension to the book. The tribulations of middle school (bullies, geeky potential friends, mean girls, and buffoonish security guards, for example) are sprinkled throughout with a light touch. Here are a couple of snippets to give you a feel:

"She's funny, I thought. You're funny too. You should ask her to be your lab partner.

So I walked up to her to introduce myself.

Then I walked past her.

I ended up in the back of the room sharpening a pencil.

(Picture of a pencil with callout "It was already sharp" pointing to the tip. 

and:

"Dad had been right about one thing. Just because I'd been in extra dimensional space-time didn't mean I understood it. And "fear of the unknown" is a picnic compared to the terror or the incomprehensible." (Chapter 12, ARC).

How to Properly Dispose of Planet Earth was a quick, humorous read. I think I would have enjoyed it more had I read it right after reading the first book, when the details and characters were fresh in my mind. But I still quite enjoyed the interplay between family dynamics, middle school, and over-the-top science fiction adventure. I look forward to the next book! Fans of How to Sell Your Family to the Aliens will definitely not want to miss this one. And for those who haven't read the first book, but enjoy over-the-top illustrated humor, this series is well worth a look, a great fit for elementary or middle school libraries. Recommended!

Publisher: Bloomsbury Children's Books
Publication Date: January 15, 2019
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


Santa Bruce: Ryan T. Higgins

Book: Santa Bruce
Author: Ryan T. Higgins
Pages: 48
Age Range: 4-8

SantaBruceSanta Bruce is the fourth installment of the Ryan T. Higgins series that started with Mother Bruce (my review). There's also a new board book about Bruce, briefly discussed below. Bruce, I must say, is one of my favorite picture book characters. He is a consistently grumpy bear who is first (in Mother Bruce) roped into becoming the parent of four geese and later (in Hotel Bruce) expands his household to add three ridiculously determined mice. 

In Santa Bruce, Bruce is forced to stay awake through the holidays, because his family is excited to celebrate. Because he is cold, he puts on some (red) long underwear and a warm hat. This leads to (you can guess) "A case of mistaken identity." Young animals start showing up on the doorstep, wanting to tell Santa Bruce about their Christmas wishes. Left to himself, Bruce would send these pests away ("I don't want all their dirty little feet in my ..."). The mice, naturally, feel otherwise. Despite his determined resistance, Bruce finds himself out with a sleigh delivering gifts on Christmas Eve. 

The beauty of this book is that Bruce never brightens his expression. He grumbles and complains. He grits his teeth. He is put upon. And yet, he does what is asked of him, even when it is difficult. Picture a bear climbing a too-small tree to drop a package into a knothole, or a bear dressed like Santa losing his balance as he steps on a train set, and you get the idea. The primary text is always deadpan about Bruce's responses. Like this:

"Bruce decided to ignore the problem until it went away.

It did not.

It got worse."

And

"And with that, the parents left, shouting out with glee.

Bruce did not like glee."

This is augmented by dialog bubbles that add more detail, and give some of the supporting characters personality. These also give the adult reader more scope to add expression in reading aloud. This is a fabulous book for a parent and child to read together (though my daughter was too eager to wait for me, and read it on her own). 

The other thing that makes Santa Bruce fun (and fun for adult readers, too, not just for kids) is the sly humor that Higgins throws in. My favorite scene in Santa Bruce shows  Mama Bunny and Papa Bunny sitting by the wood-stove in their cozy den. Four baby bunnies are nestled in bed. The last room of the den contains "Grown-up Bunny who still lives with his parents" and is typing away on a computer, wearing headphones. This made me laugh out loud. The scenes with young animals sitting on Bruce's lap are also priceless, especially the porcupine who wants "ninety-nine red balloons." It's just a top-notch combination of text and illustration, centered around a strong, sympathetic main character. 

It is possible that my love for Bruce is enhanced by the fact that I am sometimes grumpy (especially when someone is keeping me from getting my sleep). Nevertheless, I predict that Santa Bruce is going to be one of my family's favorite reads over the coming Christmas holiday. I think that any family in which Bruce is already a favorite (and where Christmas is celebrated) will want to add Santa Bruce to family holiday reading. Libraries will certainly want to add this one to their shelves. 

1GrumpyBruceOh, and if you are looking to introduce a younger child to Bruce, I also recommend the new board book: 1 Grumpy Bruce: A Counting Book. Each page spread features a count of something, from "2 uninvited skunks" (scent wafting from their tails) to "9 porcupines wanting hugs" to "10 woodchucks chucking wood".  Of course we end with "still 1 grumpy bear." The board book features simpler illustrations, but totally captures Bruce's grumpiness and Higgin's keen sense of absurdity. It is well worth a look! 

You don't necessarily need to have read Hotel Bruce and Bruce's Big Move (which I actually haven't read) to appreciate Santa Bruce, but I would recommend reading the first book, Mother Bruce, for context. I highly recommend both Santa Bruce and 1 Grumpy Bruce for families and libraries everywhere. 

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion 
Publication Date: September 4, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


Two Problems for Sophia: Jim Averbeck & Yasmeen Ismail

Book: Two Problems for Sophia
Author: Jim Averbeck
Illustrator: Yasmeen Ismail
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

TwoProblemsForSophiaTwo Problems for Sophia is the sequel to One Word for Sophia, both picture books written by Jim Averbeck and illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail. In the first book, Sophia worked to convince her four adults (mother, father, uncle, and grandmother) to grant her greatest desire: receipt of a pet giraffe for her birthday. In this new book, Sophia has (spoiler!) brought the giraffe, Noodle, into the family. But if Noodle is going to be able to stay, Sophia has to solve two problems: sloppy giraffe kisses (long tongue) and super-loud giraffe snores (long neck). 

Continuing a theme from the first book, Sophia's adults each speak to her differently depending on their situations. For instance, Mother is a judge. So we have:

"Mother rendered her verdict at breakfast.

"Noodle is guilty of robbing this family," she said, "of sleep! I hereby order you to find a perdurable solution to his problems."

In Two Problems for Sophia, Sophia is able to bring in an expert to help: Ms. Canticle, an acoustical engineer. But in the end, Sophia herself comes up with a complex blueprint for an invention to mute the snoring. Supplies needed include:

"Father's briefcase, Mother's gavel, some crepe paper bunting, two rolls of duct tape, Grand-mama's girdle, and a spare flugelhorn from Ms. Canticle." 

Super-fun seeing Sophia come up with an engineering solution to her problem. Other nice touches:

  • The inside front cover has a detailed list of "Giraffacts" (printed sideways, because the accompanying illustration of a giraffe fits better that way).
  • The inside back cover includes a glossary of big words introduced in the story (though most are made clear from context). 
  • Sophia's family is mixed race (Father and Uncle Conrad are white, Mother and Grand-mama are black, and Sophia and Ms. Canticle have skin in different shades of brown). This requires no direct comment whatsoever - it just is. Bonus that the family members have varying, and strong, occupations. 
  • There are strong vocabulary words like "chomping" and "perpetual", and interesting phrases to read aloud like "You'd better muzzle that nuzzle." 
  • Ismail's illustrations are busy and joyful. I especially like the stubble that Uncle Conrad exhibits in the morning, and Grand-mama's grouchy expressions. Despite the over-the-top nature of the story, they also come across as a real family, drinking coffee in the mornings, and dragging when they don't get enough sleep. 

In short, Two Problems for Sophia is a welcome addition to a series that I hope will continue to grow in the future. Highly recommended, and a great addition to home or library bookshelves everywhere. 

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (@SimonKids)
Publication Date: June 12, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


Lights! Camera! Alice!: Mara Rockliff & Simona Ciraolo

Book: Lights! Camera! Alice!: The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker
Author: Mara Rockliff
Illustrator: Simona Ciraolo
Pages: 60
Age Range: 6-9

LightsCameraAliceLights! Camera! Alice! is a picture book biography of Alice Guy-Blaché, a woman who made some of the earliest (and most exciting) films of the late 19th and early 20th century. Mara Rockliff and Simona Ciraolo's introduction to Alice's life starts with her as a relatively privileged little girl who "lived on stories". After a series of tragedies, however, Alice is forced to seek work. She ends up working at a camera company, where gets in on the ground floor of moving pictures. Here Alice taps her love of story and applies it to the new medium, becoming a quite successful filmmaker. The book traces Alice's ups and downs as she travels from France to America, and eventually back to France, raising a family, and making movies.

The book is constructed as a series of discrete scenes, with title pages in between them, just like they used to have in old movies. "A Terrible Catastrophe", "Starting Something", "Imagination", etc. I found this a nice homage to the film theme. Rockliff's writing has a breathless, old movie style quality, too, with lots of exclamations and italics (some of the exclamations in French). Like this:

"The inventors turned a crank, and a picture appeared--a moving picture! Soon, the camera company was selling the new cameras. They were a sensation. 

Imagine! Anything that happened could be caught on film to see again... 

and again...

and again..."

It's fun to read aloud. Alice is an appealing heroine, although her story ends on a quiet note.  

What what took this book over the top for me were Ciraolo's illustrations. Alice is simply adorable as wide-eyed, book-loving child with a bow in her hair. And she retains that sweetness and enthusiasm all through the book, even as she ages. Just look at her up there on the cover. You'll see. She just looks like someone you would want to spend time with. Ciraolo uses a mix of perspectives and colors, some pages busy and others full of white space. Although the book is long at 60 pages, it flies by.

I think this is a book more for elementary school kids than for preschoolers, requiring a certain attention span. But this makes it a perfect choice for elementary school libraries, particularly those seeking more books about interesting historical women (and who doesn't want more of that?). My eight-year-old read it herself, and then we read it together, and we both enjoyed it very much. Highly recommended, especially for those who appreciate stories in their many forms. 

Publisher: Chronicle Kids (@ChronicleKids
Publication Date: September 11, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Little White Lies (Debutantes): Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Book: Little White Lies (Debutantes, #1)
Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Pages: 400
Age Range: 12 and up

LittleWhiteLiesLittle White Lies is the first of the new Debutantes series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. The protagonist of Little White Lies is Sawyer Taft, an 18-year-old girl who was raised above a bar by her less than reliable single mother. Sawyer's life changes forever on the day she first meets her wealthy grandmother, Lillian Taft. Lillian gives Sawyer an offer she can't refuse. Live with Lillian for nine months, participating in a debutante season, and receive half a million dollars in trust for college. Also, have the chance to investigate to figure out who her unknown father might be. 

Little White Lies actually begins as an inexperienced police office named Mackie is left to cope with the presence of four white-gloved debutantes, clearly from wealth, in a holding cell. As Mackie tries to figure out their story, the action flashes back nine months to Sawyer's meeting with Lillian. The primary action moves forward in jumps, narrated from Sawyer's first person viewpoint, interspersed with brief scenes with Mackie in the jail cell. This technique allows Barnes to build suspense, and foreshadow certain aspects of Sawyer's story. 

And what a story it is: full of suspense, secrets, and yes, lies. I found Little White Lies to be compulsively readable. Although it's fairly lengthy, I devoured most of it in a single afternoon. [Luckily I have turned my 8-year-old into a bookworm. She understood and mostly let me be.] The characters aren't all particularly likable, but Sawyer is. And Lillian grows on you. The posh setting of the debutantes (country clubs, balls, charity auctions, spa days, and pearl necklaces) is nicely counter-balanced by Sawyer's much less polished manners. Here's Sawyer interacting with a man in a bike shop (where she works pre-Lillian):

"It's times like this," I told him, "that you have to ask yourself: is it wise to sexually harass someone who has both wire cutters and access to your brake lines?" (Chapter 1)

And here she is interacting with her new-found relatives:

"If there was one thing I'd learned growing up bar-adjacent, it was that sometimes, the best way to keep someone talking was to say nothing at all." (Chapter 10)

"For the record," I told my cousin, "any lock-picking ability I may or may not have acquired growing up has less to do with where I lived and more to do with the fact that I was a very weird, very obsessive little kid."

The lock popped open." (Chapter 17)

But really, I could have picked any of dozens of passages. Sawyer has a strong personality. Her rough edges are set against the knife in velvet glove mannerisms of the society set, where women cut one another down by saying sugary things that could be taken as compliments. The makes the book pleasurable to read. The twisty plot, with clues false and real planted throughout, makes it compelling.

Although Sawyer's mother's teen pregnancy is a major plot point, and there are references to teen drinking, there's no overt sex in the book. There is a blog that plays a part in the story on which someone is posting secrets written on intimate (but not too intimate) parts of her body (her face hidden). The fact that Sawyer is out of high school (via GED), and the importance of various adults to the story, makes this a book that I think will work well for adults as well as teens. 

My only complaint, really, is that I'm sure it will be at least a year until the next Debutantes book comes out. I highly recommend Little White Lies, and expect it to be a hit with teens and adults. 

Publisher: Freeform (Disney)  
Publication Date: November 6, 2018
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


House: 5 First Words Board Books: Michael Slack

Book: House: 5 First Words Board Books
Author: Michael Slack
Pages: 14 pages each
Age Range: 3-5

HouseBoardBookI don't normally review board books. But my daughter and I both thought that House: 5 First Words Board Books, illustrated by Michael Slack, was exceptional. It arrives as a box, hinged on the left-hand side, so that you can open it like a book. The outside of the box displays the exterior of a house, with a cut-out for the upstairs window. Inside, five little chunky board books are laid out face up, representing five locations in a house (and matching what you see on the cover of the box, like you are now peeking inside). The rooms consist of living room and bedroom upstairs, and bathroom, kitchen, and garage downstairs. 

The living room is the largest room (twice the width of the others) and drew us in first. Each page contains a simple labelled illustration of something that you might find in the living room: sofa, coffee table, computer, art, window, etc. The final page spread shows all of the items assembled together in a view of the whole room, with the text "living room". The other books follow the same general pattern. The bedroom is, as you would expect, a child's bedroom, so the illustrations include things like an easel and crayons. The kitchen has a high chair. The garage has a tricycle. It's definitely a family home. 

Although not specifically mentioned, a black cat makes a cameo in the final spread of each book. The cat is somewhat mischievous, hiding in a drawer, flushing the toilet, and getting behind the wheel of the car. My daughter and I found the presence of the cat a nice detail, and something to guess about as we read each book ("What will the cat be doing here?"). 

Slack's illustrations have a graphic design quality to them, with bold colors and simple shapes, and a robust two-dimensionality. The couch, for instance, is a flat shape with thick black lines delineating the seat, sides of the arms, and cushion divider. There's some texture to the green shape and the black lines, but it's more an abstract representation of a couch than anything else. I think this works in terms of being kid-friendly. You can tell what everything is, and the illustrations are highly accessible. I see this as a book that will make preschoolers want to try their hand at drawing household objects. Or perhaps they'll try abstract art, because the art in the living room is delightful. 

The whole package of House is simply satisfying. The way the books fit together in the box and the way the interior and exterior of the box reflect and augment what's going on in the book, works. The labels of the objects are simple and appropriate, and the illustrations are cheerful and straightforward, with just a hint of whimsical detail. My daughter would have flat-out adored these books when she was about three, and even at eight she was utterly charmed. We are at the stage of giving away a lot of books, but this one is already dear to our hearts, and going on our keep shelf. Highly recommended! This would be a wonderful gift for any preschooler. 

Publisher:  Chronicle Books (@ChronicleKids
Publication Date: September 11, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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 Third Mushroom: Jennifer L. Holm

Book: The Third Mushroom
Author: Jennifer L. Holm
Pages: 240
Age Range: 8-12

ThirdMushroomThe Third Mushroom is a sequel to Jennifer Holm's The Fourteenth Goldfish (which I read at some point but apparently did not review). Both books feature a girl named Ellie and her scientist grandfather, Melvin. As The Third Mushroom begins Ellie is navigating middle school reasonably well. She's become best friends with kindred spirit Raj, and has reached a cordial state with her childhood best friend, Brianna.

Then Melvin shows up for a visit. Melvin, as the result of a previous science experiment, is an older, highly educated man who now has the body of a fourteen-year-old. Together, Melvin and Ellie undertake a project for the science fair, even as Ellie and Raj set out to understand the line between friendship and dating. The Third Mushroom is about family relationships, scientific experimentation, and trying new things, all with Jennifer Holm's pitch-perfect eye for what it's like to be in middle school. I especially admire her ability to share profound observations in a light-hearted way. 

Here is one of my favorite passages: 

"I'm heading to my first period when I run into Brianna. She's my old best friend from elementary school. We drifted apart when we started middle school. But it's strangely okay now. These days we're move like cousins who see each other at family reunions. We only remember the good times." (Page 27)

I found that passage utterly apt to my own experience. Here are a couple of middle school tidbits:

"By the time lunch rolls around, it's cold and windy. I'm tempted to go fish something out of the Lost and Found box. But then I remember my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Bennett, and how she used to call it the Lice and Found box, and I think better of it." (Page 52)

And: 

"Back in elementary school, gym was fun. We played handball and foursquare. They let us use Hula-Hoops. But gym in middle school is terrible. The teachers are mean and the uniforms stink. Literally. No one takes them home to get washed. 

Most of all, I hate running laps. They're boring, and I'm always one of the last kids to finish." (Page 99)

Yup. I also like Holm's casual, accepting take on Ellie's blended family (divorced parents, new step-dad, Melvin). And I LOVE her positive take regarding scientific experimentation. She slips in various tidbits about actual scientific discoveries (e.g. penicillin), and the benefits of making mistakes, without The Third Mushroom ever feeling didactic. Well, actually Melvin comes across as didactic sometimes, but this is ok, because he's an old man in a young, hormone-laden body, and it's funny. 

Readers will want to read The Fourteen Goldfish prior to reading The Third Mushroom. Even having read the first book several years ago, it took me a little while to orient myself to the story. But once I got settled in, I enjoyed every word, and read the rest of The Third Mushroom in a single sitting. A must-purchase for libraries serving fifth to eighth graders. Highly recommended!

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: September 4, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


Skulduggery Pleasant (Book 1): Derek Landy

Book: Skulduggery Pleasant (Book 1)
Author: Derek Landy
Pages: 384
Age Range: 8-12

Skulduggery1HarperCollins is in the process of reintroducing Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant series here in the US, after the books did much better in Ireland and the UK. As outlined in a May Publisher's Weekly article, they have issued paperbacks of the first three books, which were published earlier in the US, and will be publishing books four to six in the US for the first time this  month. I agreed to take a look at the first book. I read it in a single sitting. I do think that the time is right this time, and that the series is going to be a hit.

Skulduggery Pleasant, Book 1, begins when a horror author named Gordon Edgley dies unexpectedly. Gordon leaves his home and most of his property to his favorite niece, Stephanie. Left alone at Gordon's house through circumstance,  Stephanie, who has always craved adventure, finds herself under attack and drawn into an unexpected world of magic. She is aided by, and becomes something of a sidekick to, Skulduggery Pleasant, a walking, talking skeleton. Together with a cast of not-necessarily trustworthy allies, Stephanie and Skulduggery fight to save the world. 

Though full of dangerous escapes, epic battles, and magical books and artifacts, what I liked most about Skulduggery Pleasant was Landy's lightly ironic voice. The byplay between Stephanie and Skulduggery, and particularly Skulduggery's occasionally world-weary remarks, made the pages fly by. There is a bit of Irish syntax here and there (the hood of the car is a "bonnet", etc.), but nothing that will be difficult for anyone who has read the Harry Potter books. 

Here are a couple of snippets, chosen from early in the books, so as to avoid spoilers. First, a paragraph that gives you a feel for Stephanie:

"There was an extra door in the living room, a door disguised as a bookcase, and when she was younger Stephanie liked to think that no one else knew about this door, not even Gordon himself. It was a secret passageway, like in the stories she'd read and she's make up adventures about haunted houses and smuggled treasure. This secret passageway would always be her escape route, and the imaginary villains in these adventures would be dumfounded by her sudden and mysterious disappearance. But now this door, this secret passageway, stood open, and there was a steady stream of people through it, and she was saddened that this little piece of magic had been taken from her." (Page 3)

She's a great character, stubborn, outside of the mainstream, and a creative problem-solver. And here's Skulduggery:

"Skulduggery put his gloved hands in his pockets and cocked his head. He had no eyeballs so it was hard to tell if he was looking at her or not. "You know, I met your uncle under similar circumstances. Well, kind of similar. But he was drunk. And we were in a bar. And he had vomited on my shoes. So I suppose the actual circumstances aren't overly similar, but both events include a meeting, so... My point is, he was having some trouble and I was there to lend a hand, and we become good friends after that. Good, good friends."" (Page 43)

Skulduggery Pleasant, Book 1, carries a blurb from Rick Riordan, and this is no coincidence. This would make an excellent next series for fans of the the Percy Jackson books. Skulduggery and Stephanie are an unusual pair of heroes, but one that kids will find easy to root for. Highly recommended, and well worth adding to elementary and middle school library collections. 

Publisher:  HarperCollins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: May 1, 2018 (reprint edition, original copyright 2007)
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


How to be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute: KJ Dell'Antonia

Book: How to be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute
Author: KJ Dell'Antonia
Pages: 320
Age Range: Adult Nonfiction (Parenting)

HappierParentI rarely review books for adults on this blog, but KJ Dell'Antonia's new parenting book How to be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute inspired me to say a few words. I've read and enjoyed a number of Dell'Antonia's articles over the years, and so was interested to hear her voice in book form. I've also been on something of a personal quest to be happier in my own parenting, so this book had the potential to be a good fit.

I was not disappointed. It seems that Dell'Antonia, working (journalist) mother of four children, has been on a similar quest for quite a while. She read extensively on parenting, talked to a variety of parents and other experts, and conducted a survey. Her emphasis for the book is on changes that parents can make to their parenting styles, hacks of various sorts, that will make the parent happier. And happier parents will, she believes (as do I) ultimately lead to happier kids. 

Dell'Antonia cites a number of books that I had already read and enjoyed, like How to Raise and Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haimes, It's OK Not to Share by Heather Shumaker, and The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. I felt early on in the book that KJ and I we were philosophically aligned, and I marked a number of other books for future reads. I also got a kick out of the fact that two of the parents she cited were people that I knew (Marjorie Ingall and Jason Kotecki), at least in the sense of having met them in person and shared a meal. 

Anyway, How to Be a Happier Parent consists of chapters dedicated to each of nine parenting areas that Dell'Antonia and the people she talked with have found to particular sources of unhappiness or stress for parents. She starts with getting everyone out of the house in the morning and progresses through things like enforcing chores, mediating between siblings, and monitoring homework.

Her basic approach is guided by a set of ten mantras for happier parents that she explains early in the book and then repeatedly refers back to. For instance: "What you want now isn't always what you want later" (you have to take the long view when doing things like enforcing chores, even when being the fun, easy parent is more appealing in the short run). I especially liked "You do you", as in, you don't have to be the Pinterest-perfect parent, your family can do what your family likes.

I highlighted passages in basically every chapter (except for the one on siblings, which I skipped because my daughter doesn't have siblings). In truth, a lot of the recommendations in the book consist of things that I already believe, like staying as far out of your children's homework assignments as you can and using natural consequences to teach them to pack their backpacks properly (by refusing to bring something to them later). But there's a difference between believing philosophically in doing something and actually doing it. And for me, at least, there's value in repetition and the validation of hearing advice that you in your heart want to hear. (Like "you do you.")

The piece of advice that stood out the most for me, and that I feel like could actually change how I do things, was regarding discipline. The general idea is to treat discipline not so much as enforcement but as teaching kids how to enact certain behaviors. And to remind yourself that it takes kids a long (long, long, long) time to learn things sometimes, so you just have to keep repeating yourself over and over again. You should try to do this without beating yourself up over having failed to get this across in the previous 100 times, which will help in staying calm. Here's a section of the text on this that I highlighted:

"“but you’re not here just to stop him in the moment.” You’re here, she says, to teach your child to make the right choices for himself, so offer that option first, even if it seems as if he should know better by now. Some things take a lot of saying...

That whole sequence of connecting, teaching, and then, if necessary, ending a behavior is one you will repeat again and again, especially with a younger child, so make your words positive ones, even if the behavior is anything but. “If I’m going to say it a hundred times,” says Faber, “I figure it might as well be something I want my child to learn.”...

That kind of repetition is where a lot of us fall down. Consistency is hard, and it’s especially difficult when we’ve become so accustomed to an on-demand world...

When we accept discipline as a long-term teaching process, it gets easier. Instead of thinking, I’ve asked him hundreds of times to do this and he still doesn’t do it, parents who are happier in their disciplinary role think something more along the lines of I’ve asked him a hundred times and I’ll ask him a hundred more and that’s how we get there." (Chapter 7)

I'm going to try to remember this. I think it will help. And really, that's why I read parenting and other self-help type books. I'm looking for those ideas that resonate with my own personal philosophy and that might, if implemented, help in some way. 

So, even as someone who has read a lot of books on related topics, I found How to be a Happier Parent useful. This book is not for the mother who is looking for validation in her quest to get her child into Stanford at all costs, or for the father trying figure out how to push his lazy child to practice more so that he can get that football scholarship. (Though these parents could learn a lot if they did read it.) But if you are a busy parent and you are looking for some tips on taking a deep breath, slowing things down, taking off some of the pressure and enjoying your family more, this is the book for you. Highly recommended! 

Publisher: Avery  
Publication Date: August 21, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


Lyric McKerrigan, Secret Librarian: Jacob Sager Weinstein and Vera Brosgol

Book: Lyric McKerrigan, Secret Librarian
Author: Jacob Sager Weinstein
Illustrator: Vera Brosgol
Pages: 48
Age Range: 4-8

Lyric McKerrigan, Secret Librarian, written by Jacob Sager Weinstein and illustrated by Vera Brosgol, is fabulous. The subtitle tells you all you need to know: "Saving the world with the right book at the right time!". It's basically a graphic novel in picture book format, which perhaps explains the excellent choice of Anya's Ghost and Be Prepared author Brosgol as the illustrator. Perhaps this also explains why my "I only read graphic novels and picture books" daughter adored it. 

An evil genius, Doctor Golckenspiel, escapes from the Depository for the Criminally Naughty. He demands a huge ransom from the world, otherwise his "army of giant moths will eat the world's books!!!". The world's best secret agents are sent in, but fail. It's up to someone "who loves books so much that she would risk her life to save them." 

Lyric McKerrigan, Secret Librarian, using a giant book as a kite/parachute, sneaks in to the evil doctor's lair, bearing a set of books and a backpack full of disguises. She uses these to execute a carefully thought out plan involving distraction, misdirection, and information. For instance, disguised as a jail guard she provides the trapped secret agents with a book about how to pick locks, enabling them to escape. 

The story is told in panels, half page to full spread size, with boxed text from a narrator, and lots of speech bubbles. Like this:

"(Narrator:) But who was that janitor?
Who knew just the right book
to mop away boredom."

and this:

"And now that his plans, like his 
clothes, were in tatters ..."

It's a fun read-aloud, with lots of places to add dramatic emphasis. There's also humor, as when the bored security guard is distracted by a sewing book, and ends up doing embroidery. Brosgol's comic-like illustrations include some ethnic diversity, as well as plenty of multi-size shapes and unusual angles to add movement and drama. The evil doctor looks basically like a clown. Lyric's various costumes are hilarious.

One detail that my daughter noticed that I thought was a nice touch was the use of different colors around the dialog bubbles for the different characters (magenta for Lyric, etc.). This wasn't really necessary to follow the story, but it added something nevertheless. 

Overall, the mix of humor, drama, and celebration of books should make Lyric McKerrigan, Secret Librarian a hit with teachers, librarians, and kids alike. It is certainly destined to be a favorite and a re-read in our house. Highly recommended, and a great addition to school and public library collections. 

Publisher: Clarion Books (@HMHKids) 
Publication Date: September 4, 2018
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).


Imposters: Scott Westerfeld

Book: Imposters
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Pages: 416
Age Range: 12 and up

ImpostersImposters is a new book set in the world of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies/Pretties/Specials/Extras series (links go to my reviews), a generation or so after Tally Youngblood and her friends changed the world. Frey and Rafi are the motherless twin daughters of a powerful, ruthless ruler. Frey, the younger by 20-some minutes, is kept hidden. Only a few trusted advisors know of her existence. Her role is to provide protection for her sister. She is trained to kill enemies, and poses as her sister in riskier public appearances. Rafi is the public face, focused on politics, society, and her appearance. Despite their different roles, the two sisters are close, viewing themselves as two sides of the same knife. 

Imposters is Frey's story, however. When the leader of a rival city asks for a "visit" from Rafi, as a guarantee of safety during a business arrangement, Frey is sent in Rafi's place. Separated from her sister for the first time, and living more publicly (though incognito) than she has before, Frey blossoms. She develops an alliance, and possibly more, with rival scion Col Parafox. Then violence ensues and Frey and Col find themselves in peril and on the run. 

Imposters is the first of a new four-book series, and ends on something of a cliffhanger. The tone of Imposters is similar to that of the Uglies series, though the world has changed significantly in the aftermath of Tally's overthrow of the Pretties regime. Westerfeld explores the fact that freedom isn't the same as utopia. Corrupt leaders can arise. Tensions can flare. Scarce resources can cause conflict.

There are references to the pre-Pretties civilization (Rusties = our world), and there are rebels who long for the return of Tally Youngblood. As in the Uglies books, there are advanced technologies for surgery and generation of food and clothing. There are also advanced technologies for spying, and avoiding being spied upon. There are echoes of the Hunger Games series as well as the Uglies series (calorie blockers, for instance, to allow people to eat to excess).

But the premise of being a hidden twin, who no one knows about, is fresh and compelling. Frey is a strong protagonist, physically and mentally, one who is easy to root for. I found Col a little bit of an enigma, but hope to see his personality fleshed out more in future installments, along with those of some of the supporting characters. 

Imposters is a fast-paced read. I tore through it in a day. I didn't mind the unresolved ending because I was expecting it, but I do look forward to the next book. It's not necessary to re-read the Uglies series first to follow Imposters. Westerfeld provides just enough background to refresh the reader's memory. But it certainly couldn't hurt, for those who like to prepare. It's an engaging world in which to spend time. I am certain that fans of the Uglies series will enjoy Imposters, as will anyone who likes reading about Machiavellian conflicts set in future worlds. Recommended!

Publisher: Scholastic
Publication Date: September 11, 2018
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2018 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).