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It looks like Billy Miller might have a rough year.  After all, right before he’s set to begin the school year an accident causes him to bang his head.  Now, he not only has to start the year with a big bump on his head, but he’s worried that maybe his brains have been knocked around.  What if he isn’t smart enough for the second grade?  It turns out, of course, that Billy’s brain is just fine – but that doesn’t mean second grade is a breeze.  Navigating school, family, and friends is tough and Billy doesn’t always have all the right answers.  But with help from the people who love him, Billy finds that he can tackle it all.

The Year of Billy Miller


Parents, children, and educators may be most familiar with Kevin Henkes for his work on adorable picture books like Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse and Owen.  In The Year of Billy Miller, Henkes creates a main character equally endearing, though decidedly less saccharine than his famous talking mice.  Billy Miller is not a groundbreaking read – but what it lacks in originality it makes up for in authenticity.  Billy Miller’s year is full of familiar elementary school concerns.  Cancelled sleepovers, sibling rivalries, and the dreaded school diorama project will be familiar to parents and children alike; and Henkes treats them all with a lighthearted humor that still manages to acknowledge the seriousness with which youngsters take these issues.  Billy is easy to like, and his family feels real enough to be believable, but quirky enough to be entertaining.   The book is divided into four easy-to-digest sections with plentiful black-and-white art for those who are just starting to tackle chapter books, but Henkes doesn’t shy away from large vocabulary words that may daunt some hesitant readers.  Henkes has once again provided an effort that proves to be a success, and one can’t help but wonder if we’ll see Billy Miller take on the third grade some day.

School Library Journal recommends this book for students in grades 1-3.

Publication Information:  The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes.  Greenwillow Books, September 2013.  ISBN: 978-0062268129.

The above review is of an Advanced Reader’s Edition of this book sent to me by the publisher; artwork was not final and changes may have been made to the final text.  I received no compensation for this review.


Are you looking for some unabashed silliness to add to this school year’s read-aloud list?  Look no further than the fun-filled offering by Kent Redeker and Bob Staake, Don’t Squish the Sasquatch!

don't squish the sasquatch

Senor Sasquatch is looking forward to a pleasant ride on the bus, and he makes sure to tell the bus driver, “I hope it doesn’t get too crowded.  I do not  like to get squished!”  The bus driver keeps this in mind at every stop – cheerfully giving each new passenger very good advice: “Don’t squish the sasquatch!”  But as more and more enormous (and ridiculous) creatures board the bus – including Mr. Octo-Rhino and Miss Loch-Ness-Monster-Space-Alien –  the sasquatch in the back of the bus finds himself increasingly squished; and increasingly agitated.  So what happens when you aggravate a sasquatch?  And how do you calm him down?  Little readers will be more than happy to find out!

This book is out-and-out silliness, in the best possible way.  The colorful, cartoon quality of the artwork, coupled with a great 4-page fold-out spread in the middle (depicting the sasquatch’s ultimate reaction to being squished) make for a visual feast.  Background art features such varied locations as a downtown bank, a fairy-tale style castle, a friendly red barn, and a spooky haunted house – leading to fun speculation about where exactly this bus route goes.  Meanwhile, the variety of hybrid mythological creatures riding the bus are sheer fantastical fun, and the simple, repetitive text will make this a storytime hit.  And when Senor Sasquatch’s fellow bus riders decide that the best way to make up for squishing the sasquatch is to smooch him, the book ends on a pleasing note. positive note.

I can’t wait to try this one out in our preschool groups and I’d recommend it to any parent or teacher looking to add a little silly whimsy to read-aloud time!

Publication Information:  Don’t Squish the Sasquatch! by Kent Redeker and Bob Staake.  Disney/Hyperion, June 2012.  ISBN: 1423152328.


Every four years in the town of Gavaldon, two children disappear.  They’re snatched by the mysterious School Master, never to be seen again.

Or, almost never.

Sometimes, the kidnapped children appear as daring knights, kind-hearted princesses, or evil villains in the illustrations of the fairy tale  books that arrive – unasked for – at the town book shop.  No one is quite sure what this means; except for town beauty, Sophie, that is.  Although Sophie’s best friend – ugly, shy Agatha – tries to convince Sophie to do as the other children are doing and hide herself away on the evening of the School Master’s arrival, Sophie believes she knows her fate.  Her beauty means she’s destined to be a fairy-tale princess, and she’s determined to be picked by the School Master and whisked away to live her destiny – even if it means hanging out the window in her best pink dress with homemade cookies as an offering.  But when Sophie and Agatha both find themselves kidnapped and deposited at the School for Good and Evil to train for their fairy-tale debut, Sophie must learn that hard way that not every fairy-tale has a happy ending.
school-for-good-and-evil-book-cover

I can’t resist a school story for the back-to-school season, and The School for Good and Evil does not disappoint when it comes to boarding school high-jinx, cool classes, and good old-fashioned school rivalry.  Where it does disappoint is in its pacing and repetition; the first half of the book is more than a little frustrating as Sophie and Agatha tackle the same challenge again, and again, and again…until they finally, every so slowly, realize what the reader has understood for chapters already; that Good and Evil are not black and white.  The secondary characters – classmates and teachers alike – appear to be equally dim-witted about the realities of what beauty and ugliness really mean, and readers may start to wonder how the School for Good and Evil has managed to stay in business.   However, readers who stick with the girls and make it through the first half are rewarded with all the excitement you’d expect a semester at magic fairy-tale school to entail; including magic competitions, back-stabbing villains, romantic entanglements, an epic final battle, and a surprise, cliff-hanger ending.  For some, Chainani’s action-packed ending may not be enough to make up for a slow and frustrating introduction, but there are plenty of readers (myself included) who are willing to forgive the disappointing beginning in favor of the unique, magical story the author finally unfolds.  Fans of fairy-tale retellings, lovers of fantasy, champions of strong female leads, and readers who wish they could return to that other magic boarding school will likely find themselves satisfied with Chainani’s offering, and cautiously optimistic about the April release of the book’s sequel, A World Without Princes.

School Library Journal recommends this book for students in grades 5-8.

Publication Information:  The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani.  HarperCollins, May 2013.  ISBN: 978-0062104892.

The above review is of an Advanced Reader’s Edition of this book sent to me by the publisher; artwork was not final and changes may have been made to the final text.  I received no compensation for this review.


We don’t often review board books on our Friday Book Review – mostly because there isn’t usually a lot to say.  A good board book is extraordinarily simple: short words, clear pictures, few pages.  But one thing that can take a great board book and turn it into a book you hesitate to hand over to your baby or toddler is novelty factors; we’re talking flaps to be lifted, tabs to be pulled, and those dreaded little felt pieces on ribbons that stick to the pages with Velcro.  There’s no denying that kids love these kinds of extra features, but for parents and librarians they can be a nightmare when they end up ripped or broken after only a few readings.  This is why I was so pleased to see Spoonful! by Benoit Marchon and Soledad Bravi – it has all the best features of a great board book, with a novelty factor that won’t make adults want to cry.

spoonful

Spoonful is a brightly colored, simply-worded board book with fun illustrations and nice, repetitive text.  The first page shows a toddler at his little red table, with a bowl and spoon and the text “Open wide, it’s time to eat!”  Each subsequent page features a different person or animal for whom there is a spoonful: “A spoonful for Daddy,” “A spoonful for Mommy,” “A spoonful for the dinosaur,” “A spoonful for the fairy princess,” and so on.  The catch?  A die-cut that runs through every page shows baby’s head (actually illustrated on the final page of the book) on each character’s body.  Baby’s face, with wide open mouth, appears on the bird and the astronaut, the worm and the witch.  On the final page, baby is back at his little red table and the text reads “Hooray!  You ate it all!”

In the world of board books, this one is a clear winner.  Not only are the illustrations bright, simple, and absolutely adorable, but the repetitive text is a perfect fit for the intended age group and the mystery of seeing who gets a spoonful next will keep little ones interested.  The novelty of the die-cut is one that kids will love (but fortunately, not one they can destory!), and parents may find this a great way to get reluctant eaters to finish up dinner – one spoonful at a time!

Publication Information:  Spoonful by Benoit Marchon and Soledad Bravi.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2013.  ISBN: 978-0547893136.


If there’s a kid in your life who loves transportation, you probably can’t get your hands on enough books about buses, trains, and automobiles.  At the library we have a few kids who’ve been through all of our transportation books a dozen times, so I’m always on the lookout for something new and different.  Imagine my delight when a donation copy of Christophe Merlin’s Under the Hood came across my desk!

uth

Something’s wrong with Mr. Bear’s car, and he intends to find out what the problem is.  Luckily for Mr. Bear, he owns a garage and he’s got plenty of friends that can help him out – or so he thinks.  Mr. Bear soon discovers that wrangling his friends might be harder than he expected; and although his car is eventually ready for a test drive, he cautiously brings his toolbox along.  Fortunately for Mr. Bear, his friends have learned their lesson and when he finds himself in need, his buddies come to the rescue!

This lift-the-flap books is extraordinarily simple, and that’s what makes it so much fun.  Coming in at just 12 pages (13, if you count the spread that is an entire lift-the-flap itself) with only a sentence or two per page, its great for car-obsessed little ones with short attention spans.  Instead of getting bogged down with a complicated plot, Merlin places most of the emphasis on retro-inspired illustrations with flaps that lift to reveal all kinds of hidden gems.  Little readers will be able to open Mr. Bear’s garage doors, then find a flap underneath that allows them to lift the cover off the car, and find yet another flap that opens the car door for a peek inside.  Flaps will also allow readers to check under the hood, look in the trunk, explore the compartments of Mr. Bear’s toolbox, sneak a look at who’s riding in the police van, and find all of Mouse’s favorite spots for napping.  Those looking for a good story will be disappointed by the short, simple nature of the text.  But those looking for a book that kids will want to flip through again and again will be thrilled to find the kind of picture book that can truly be explored.

Though some parents may be hesitant to put a lift-the-flap in little hands, this one is just too much fun to miss!

Publication Information:  Under the Hood by Christophe Merlin.  Candlewick, October 2011.  ISBN: 076365535X.


Anyone who knows anything about anything knows that Jedi Master Yoda knows absolutely everything.  So its no surprise that author Tom Angleberger’s middle grade novel features a pint-sized paper-folded version of the all-knowing Jedi.

Yoda

Something strange is going on in the 6th grade.  When dorky Dwight starts carrying around an origami Yoda finger puppet, everyone just assumes its another example of how strange the kid is. But Dwight insists that his origami Yoda has powers – and when Yoda starts predicting the future, catching petty thieves, and handing out good advice, a great debate begins in the 6th grade.  Are Yoda’s powers real?  Should his advice be followed?  Tommy launches a scientific investigation to find out.  Each student who has had encounters with Origami Yoda writes his or her own story – and shares his or her own opinion as to whether Yoda’s powers are real, or whether Dwight is making it all up.

Angleberger’s novel is a spot-on representation of the kind of fads that really can truly occupy the 6th grade mind for weeks at a time.  Maybe its cootie catchers, maybe its M.A.S.H. games…maybe its origami finger puppets shaped like Star Wars characters.  With authentic-sounding middle school voices, laugh-out-loud humor, and classic 6th grade situations, Origami Yoda is a fun read that’s bound to be a hit with the upper-elementary school set.  The book’s look – with handwriting-style fonts, doodles in the margins, and pages designed to look like crumpled paper – will gain added points with fans of diary books like Wimpy Kid and Popularity Papers, and included instructions for folding your own origami Yoda make a nice bonus for parents or teachers trying to tie in a hands-on activity.  For big fans, sequels abound – Darth Paper Strikes Back, The Secret of the Fortune Wookie, and an activity book titled Art2-D2’s Guide to Folding and Doodling.

School Library Journal recommends this book for students in grades 3-6.

Publication Information:  The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger.  Abrams, March 2010.  ISBN: 978-0810984257.


We hear it all the time.  Kids today – they just don’t know how to use their imaginations.  They’re digitized, they’re desensitized, and they just don’t know how to pretend!  Now, whether you believe this to be true or not (I myself see imagination abound in the kids I work with every day), I think what we all can agree upon is that imagination and pretend play are important.  With this in mind, I was delighted to come across Kathryn White’s 2010 picture book Ruby’s School Walk, which follows one very imaginative little girl.

ruby's school walk

Ruby and her mom are on their way to school in the morning, but Ruby knows that all is not as it seems.  Ruby’s mom insists that the things they see on their walk are ordinary; trees in the park, a stray tabby cat, an empty house for sale.  But Ruby knows better.  She recognizes the forest full of beasts, the tiger hiding behind the wall, the haunted house full of ghosts and witches, and all the other perils waiting for her as she makes her way to school.  Fortunately, Ruby is equal to all of these challenges, rushing bravely at the “danger” she finds in her path.  But when Ruby and her mom finally make it to school, brave and bold Ruby suddenly becomes unsure.  Is a day at school away from her mother the one challenge Ruby doesn’t feel bold enough to tackle?  Not to fear – Mom assures Ruby that her adventures will continue in the classroom, and with one last hug Ruby is on her way!

ruby in the forest

This rhyming picture book celebrates a little girl’s imagination with engaging text and bright, bold illustrations done my Miriam Latimer.  Ruby – adorable in red rain boots and puffy pigtails – darts across the pages in illustrations that depict her chasing a “lion,” dancing in the sun to make a shadow that scares off the “crocodiles,” and doing her “magic hop-a-long” to ward off bats and witches.  White’s rhyming text doesn’t quite live up to Latimer’s fun and energetic pictures – the rhymes, particularly those written in Ruby’s mother’s voice, are sometimes awkward and don’t quite fit together.  Parents or educators looking to read this one aloud would do well to read it through a few times in advance if they’re looking to give it a nice rhythm.  However, Ruby’s repeated response to her mother’s assurances – “But she was wrong / I must be brave, I mus be strong” – is a nice affirmation for little ones, and it appears often enough to give the book the repetition that so many kids enjoy.

ruby at school

Overall, Ruby’s School Walk is the best literary celebration of imagination for this age group that I’ve seen in a while, and it would also serve well as a reassuring text for kids who are nervous about spending the day at school away from a parent.  Three cheers for brave and strong Ruby!

School Library Journal recommends this book for students in grades K-1.

Publication Information:  Ruby’s School Walk by Kathryn White.  Illustrations by Miriam Latimer.  Barefoot Books, July 2010.  ISBN: 978-1846862755.


There’s no denying it – we are in the very dead of winter.  And even here in New Jersey, where admittedly it doesn’t get that cold, there’s a chill in all of our bones that no amount of hot cocoa can chase away.  Unfortunately, hopping on a plane bound for warmer weather isn’t an option for me, so I had to settle for escaping the cold with a good book instead, and Sara Pennypacker’s Summer of the Gypsy Moths was just what I needed for a little mental vacation from the cold.

Image

11-year-old Stella is living on Cape Cod with her Great-aunt Louise, and she loves it.  She loves that Louise is neat and organized, she loves that Louise has rules and routines, and most of all she loves that Louise lives a stable life taking care of the Linger Longer Cottage Colony, a cluster of vacation rental cottages right in Louise’s backyard.  There are only two things about living with Louise that Stella doesn’t love: that she’s been separated from her mother, and that she’s been thrown together with Louise’s other foster child, Angel.  Stella dreams that when her mother “finds herself” (and gets approval from Child and Family Services) the two will be reunited and live like a real family in Cape Cod.  But tragedy strikes just as the summer begins, and Angel’s mother keeps getting farther and farther away.  Suddenly, Stella and Angel find themselves working together, doing things they’d never imagined – and wondering how long they can really get away with it.

Pennypacker’s middle-grade novel looks like a light beach read.  And in some ways, it is.  Stella’s descriptions of long afternoons reading in the sand and of the quaint vacation cottages that see renters come and go will have readers smelling the salt air and feeling the sand between their toes.  But Stella and Angel’s story has an unexpected, and very serious, side to it.  As the girls struggle with their placement in the foster care system and the memories of the reasons why they wound up there, the tragedy of Louise’s sudden death finds them deciding whether to reenter the system or take on the world together.  Their morbid decision and all that it entails will surprise many, but Pennypacker doesn’t shy away from infusing her serious themes with lightheartedness and humor, which keeps this novel from becoming just another “issues” book.  Though the girls’ big secret may leave readers cringing, their determination, sense of humor, and delicate friendship will have every reader rooting for them to succeed. Stella’s narration makes her sound just a little too mature to be your average 11-year-old.  On page 2 she tells the reader, “Discovering one of these ties feels so good – as if I’m settling more safely into the earth, as if my bones are made of iron and my blood is melted lead.”  But Stella’s a likeable enough character that most readers won’t mind, and her narration makes for beautiful reading (something that can be rare for middle-grade novels).

Excellent for a summer read or a winter escape, Summer of the Gypsy Moths will warm you up, indeed.

School Library Journal recommends this book for students in grades 4-6.

Publication Information:  Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker.  Balzer + Bray, April 2012.  ISBN: 978-0061964206.


Every now and then, I like to revisit something that’s been sitting on the shelf for a while.  While kids love brand-new books, there are some tried-and-true classics out there that I always like to recommend.  And – though it makes me sad to think that something first published in 1991 might be considered a “classic” – Jon Scieszka’s Time Warp Trio falls squarely into that category.

ImageThe Time Warp Trio is a book series that follows three pretty average kids from Brooklyn on a number of time-traveling adventures.  Aided by a magic book, the boys travel to George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware in Oh Say, I Can’t See, ancient Mexico in Me Oh Maya, and 14 other times and locations.  The adventures feature classic Scieszka silliness.  How, for example, do you rid King Arthur’s Court of a giant and a dragon?  Simply wait for the dragon’s fire to ignite the giant’s noxious belch and – poof – you have an explosion that saves the day!

The adventures are fun, funny, and even a bit educational (imagine that!) and the writing is exactly what you always hope the writing in early chapter books will be.  Scieszka keeps it simple and straightforward with short sentences, short chapters, and overall short books (most between 60 and 80 pages).  What he doesn’t do is dumb down his language or avoid wordplay – making for the kind of book that doesn’t intimidate young readers, but that does demand they utilize their brains.  Lane Smith’s illustrations, meanwhile, are plentiful without overwhelming the text, and their cartoon-like quality enhances the comic appeal of the series.  A mid-2000s cover redesign, meanwhile, doesn’t hurt when it comes to appealing to a new generation, either.

ImageThe age range will vary on these books; School Library Journal recommends them for kids in grades 3-5, but younger and more enthusiastic readers who have zipped their way through the Magic Treehouse series may find these a great next step as well.  As a bonus, kids who love the books will be excited to know that the trio has their own show on Discovery Kids and a very cool interactive website featuring character guides and games.


Up here in the Northeast this time of year, I don’t think there’s anything most adults want to do more than snuggle up under the covers and hibernate until spring.  But if you’re a parent to a young child, you know all too well that no matter what the weather, there are some kids who just hate to go to sleep.  Picture books about little ones who find any excuse to stay awake abound, but the topic is popular enough that we’re always on the lookout for a new book dealing with this topic.  Recently, Caroline Jayne Church’s One More Hug for Madison came across my desk, and I think it provides a delightful addition to bedtime-routine genre.

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Madison is a mouse who thinks she’s ready for bed.  She cleans up her toys, brushes her teeth, “washes her whiskers,” and gets into her PJs.  After a bedtime story, Madison is comfy and cozy in her bed, but once the light goes out and Mommy is gone, she realizes that something is missing.  She calls out “Mom, just one more thing…” and asks for a stuffed animal to keep her company.  When that doesn’t help, she calls out “Mom, just one more thing…” – and that refrain repeats again and again – as Madison asks for a drink, a blanket, a wooly hat.  Nothing helps Madison get to sleep, until she figures out exactly what she needs from Mommy that will finally help her rest.

Church’s book doesn’t touch on any new ground, but Madison is a sweet main character and the cozy collage and paint illustrations feature soothing colors and adorable mice that make this perfect for bedtime reading.  Parents who are looking for a book on this topic, but who are frustrated with other treatments in which characters get up to no good before bedtime (and in turn get your own little one over-excited), will be happy to see that Madison offers up a much calmer and quieter version of this well-known tale.  Parents should note that the books ends on an unusual note – Madison is about to ask for just one more thing when she realizes that Mommy is already fast asleep.  Parents and many children will find this a humorous touch – and some kids will have fun conjecturing about what else Madison might have asked for.  But parents of very sensitive children, who may worry about whether Madison ever gets to sleep, should be aware of this unresolved ending.

Publication Information

One More Hug for Madison by Caroline Jane Church.  Orchard Books, January 2010.  ISBN: 978-0545161794



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