See the Cat – Metafiction as a Primer

Lynn: I learned to read from the Dick and Jane primers and I remember Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot to this day! We have come a long way since then, folks! I know that most of you out there came along after Dick and Jane but I know that David Rochelle’s new book, See the Cat (Candlewick, 2020), a delightful spoof of the classic primers will please all generations, most importantly the current crop of beginning readers.

This three-chapter book opens with our hero, Max the dog, responding to the text, “See the Cat.” “I am not a cat,” responds Max, indignantly. Each page juxtaposes a Dick and Jane type statement and an illustration of  Max, reacting to the statements which get progressively sillier. As in any good beginning reader, there is ample repetition of the words and illustrations to assist in understanding. What sets this excellent book apart is the clever humor that works so well for the audience. Mike Wohnoutka takes the joke and extends it wonderfully. Readers will be giggling through the entire book as each page-turn offers another riff on the on-going joke.

Kids will read this adorable book over and over and start on the path to being happy lifelong readers. “Hurray for David, Mike, and Max,” said Lynn.

Cindy: With Covid quarantining and social distancing, it has become harder for Lynn and me to exchange books to review so we’ve had more solo posts than usual (my committee reading and birding obsession may have contributed to those increased solos as well) but we recently risked infection to share this delightful book. I need funny books right now and this beginner reader made me laugh out loud. I can sympathize with Max in the third story as he is denied a nap, but it is a new grandpuppy that is keeping me from my naps.  At any rate, Mike Wohnoutka’s comic illustrations add to the fun text and will delight the adults who are helping the young readers who are finding their way to the magic of reading. Great job, guys. You deserve treats…but I’ve run out while trying to keep my shoes from being chewed.

 

2020 Just Won’t Let Up…Grim Books

Cindy and Lynn: You’ve got to be kidding? We’re in the middle of a pandemic, economic depression, and an unprecedented post-presidential election transition and you should see the books the publishers are sending us to read! We understand that reading builds empathy and provides survival and coping strategies, but we need cuddly puppies, comfort food, and beach reads since we can’t travel to beaches. Instead, take a look at the depressing topics the authors and publishers are offering up:

Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s Most Infamous Prison (Amulet, 2020)

“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Yes, it’s a graphic novel, but that just makes it all the more depressing to think about reading since it illustrates in words AND pictures the horrors that happened at this prison. Important stories, to be sure, and about a subject most of us know little about, but hardly the beach read that the picture postcard-inspired cover promises.

The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party by Allan Wolf (Candlewick, 2020)

Narrated by Hunger, the tragic story of the men and women and children who end up stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with nothing to eat but their dead does make our toilet paper shortages of 2020 seem lame, but really? Is this the book you want to read NOW?

Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown by Ann E. Burg (Scholastic, 2020)

As if the natural disasters the world has been facing all year aren’t enough, let’s revisit one of the most horrific manmade disasters, which at its root was due to class divides and social injustice.

The Candy Mafia by Lavie Tidhar (Peachtree, 2020)

You know things are bad in the reading world when even the promise of sweet candy leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Welcome to the world of black market candy rings…

Good grief! This list looks like the Goodreads account for Count Olaf! What books have you seen that you just can’t pick up right now? Or, please….tell us what you are reading that is bringing you comfort!!!

Canyon’s Edge – a Literal Cliff-Hanger for Tweens

Lynn: My introduction to Dusti Bowling’s writing was with the wonderful Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (Sterling, 2017) and I have enjoyed her books and desert country settings ever since. Her new book, Canyon’s Edge (Little, Brown, 2020) has just recently published and if ever there was a book guaranteed to hold a reader’s attention, it is this one!

It has been a year since the random shooting in a restaurant killed Nora’s mother. Both Nora and her father are suffering from PTSD and terrible grief and have pulled back from the world. Today is the first step back to attempting normal. Father and daughter are heading to the desert to rock climb and hike—a pastime the family has loved in the past. When a flash flood sweeps Nora’s father away along with her backpack and supplies, Nora is left to survive on her own in the aftermath. Determined to find her father and discovering a deep desire to live, Nora has to use all her skills, knowledge of the desert, and grit to survive.

The story is told partly in prose and partly in verse and it is quite literally a cliff-hanger! This short book was almost impossible to put down and it is going to make a terrific book talk. Nora’s journey to find her father is also a journey through the grief and anxiety that have been paralyzing her and this internal battle plays out starkly alongside her physical fight to survive. The setting is vividly portrayed and is almost a character as Nora battles the intensity of sun, harsh landscape, snakes, scorpions, the brutal conditions, and the “Beast” in her mind. Young readers will be rooting for her every step of the way.

I listened to this book on audio and the production was excellent.

Graphic Novels for the Beginning Readers

Lynn: Kids love graphic novels and I am always very happy when I find graphic novels written for our youngest readers. We have two fun new GN’s for you today that are perfectly designed for beginning readers.

First up is Donut Feed the Squirrels (Random/RH Graphic, 2020) by Mika Song, a heist story with not one but two tails! Norma and Belly are determined to bring home donuts for everyone. They tried to pay with chestnuts but the human didn’t seem to understand. So now the two squirrels decide to crack open the little red truck and grab a cache for everyone. Easy Peasy, right? They even figure out a getaway driver and a car. No plan could ever be batter! So why is batter everywhere and how DO they get out of the truck?

Mika Song’s adorable drawings and easy to follow panels create a graphic novel that young readers will eat up. Word balloons are large and consist a few words. The simple vocabulary and short sentences easy to decode make this a very appealing choice for primary collections. Jokes abound, both verbal and visual.

Song’s illustrations use simple lines and warm colors. Belly resembles a plump gumdrop and Norma is shaped more sharply with two triangles. The characters are adorable and easy to root for. Five short chapters divide the story into easy sections and the happy resolution will have everyone cheering for a donut party!

Cindy: My graphic mystery takes place on a farm with plenty of suspects. Farm Crimes! Cracking the Case of the Missing Egg (Owlkids, 2020) by Sandra Dumais. Hen raises a ruckus when she finds her egg is missing and begins to accuse the other farm animals of having stolen it. They ring cow’s bell to summon Inspector Billiam Van Hoof World’s #1 Goat Detective. His skills might be legendary, but not for their brilliance. Laughter and puns ensue as the Inspector enlists the help of the animals and the clues pile up to a final happy solution to the “crime.”

The text was translated from the French for this edition and the illustrations range from a few full-page spreads, to single page, to halves and quarters, making it an easy graphic novel for the youngest to follow, even if the text is being read to them. Early chapter book readers will have no problems with the text or following the panels. The brightly colored scenes are full of details for readers to enjoy on multiple reads. I do hope this might be the start of a series and I bet young readers will too!

Frog and Toad Are Friends – Fifty Years of Fun

Lynn: I got a lovely surprise in the mail recently—a wonderful oversize new edition of Frog and Toad Are Friends (Harper, 2020) by Arnold Lobel. Particularly notable to me though is the fact that it is a Fiftieth Anniversary Commemorative Edition! Fifty years! What were you doing fifty years ago? I’m sure many of you weren’t even in this world yet and some of you were very young. I am also sure that no matter your age, you have been touched by Frog and Toad. As an elementary school librarian, I always purchased the Frog and Toad stories and as a mom, I bought them for my boys. And when my grandsons came along, it was a delight to find that they loved them too.

This new edition comes with a special set of bonus pages with archival photographs, sketches, information about Arnold Lobel, his creative process, and more. There is even a reproduction of Lobel’s draft of the first story written by hand on lined notebook paper. Something that made me smile is the tidbit that when the book went on sale in 1970, a hardcover copy with slipcase cost all of $2.50! This is such a sweet treasure of a book!

As Arnold Lobel created his wonderful first story, I was just married and working in my very first full-time library job as a periodicals clerk for the Purdue University Library system. I remember now with amazement that after opening the hundreds of magazines and journals that arrived every day, we recorded each one by hand in our Rolodex system and then in the main catalog. No computers for us yet. How things have changed! Let us know what you were doing fifty years ago or when you first met Frog and Toad.

Cindy: I got the same promotional package, complete with a Frog and Toad bookbag big enough to carry all 70+ titles written and/or illustrated by Arnold. I reread these stories in this new large format and Frog and Toad win my heart every time. In the back matter is a question once posed to Lobel, did he see himself more as Frog than as Toad. His answer? “Both, both. I think everybody is both.” And maybe that’s why these characters are so beloved.

Fifty years ago on the “book birthday” Lobel received a very different congratulation notice from his publisher, Ursula Nordstrom, and editor Barbara Borack than authors do today. A yellow Western Union telegram arrived for him at his hotel in Venice, Italy. Fifty years ago I was just a couple years beyond I Can Read books and was devouring another Harper & Row series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I discovered those in my elementary school library where I worked almost every day. I got to see all the new books first and I was able to work as a librarian filing catalog cards (above the rod) for Mrs. Jean Ducey, my mentor. She was a published poet and nature essayist and even authored a few children’s historical fiction books, in addition to being a school librarian. She was everything I aspired to be and we kept in touch until her death a few years ago.  As Lynn requests, please share your connection with Frog and Toad and tell us what you were doing 50 years ago.

Every Good Thing about I Am Every Good Thing

Lynn: The current schism in this country often has me attempting to build a nest of blankets and bury myself in them. The only way to keep moving forward is to search for the good things and focus on them. One of the really bright spots in our dysfunctional culture the last few years has been the movement for diverse and “our own voices” in youth literature. The stories are powerful, heartfelt and important. They are also excellent examples of writing and illustrating. I love seeing these outstanding books that offer kids the chance to see themselves in books and for all of us to see and hear those stories.

This year, in particular, we have a treasure trove of such books and my absolute favorite so far is I Am Every Good Thing (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, 2020) by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James. We loved Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut (Bolden, 2017) by this same duo and I think I love this one even more. There is such joy in this exuberant picture book that celebrates all the good things about young boys of color. Barnes’ lyrical text soars. It is radiantly proud, dynamic and oh so tender. It is reassurance and it is a confident statement that goes straight to the hearts of readers.

Gordon James illustrations are a vibrant emphasis to the text. A rich energetic palette underscores the strength and the humanity of each scene. I would love to frame each and every illustration. I simply cannot say enough about this outstanding and deeply moving picture book. It demands to be read aloud and shared again and again.

Cindy: When I opened this book and saw the first spread of a young, black boy soaring through the air, superhero style, I thought, this should be a poster in every classroom and in every young boy’s bedroom. The words by Derrick Barnes are as powerful as the image painted by Gordon C. James:

I am
a nonstop ball of energy.
Powerful and full of light.
I am a go-getter. A difference maker.
A leader.

Imagine who these young black boys would grow up to be with those words in their heads instead of slurs and demeaning dismissals of their worth? Political yard signs were popping up this fall in West Michigan where we live with the slogan: “Joe and a Hoe, Vote NO.” Is this who we are as a nation? Do we want our young people growing up thinking this is okay? Do we want young people to internalize this message about the first woman Vice President?

What I want is the message on the final page of this book. The rival for a poster for every classroom and kid’s bedroom: A  young black boy smiling, eyes sparkling, hugging himself, with these words:

And without a shadow
of a doubt,
I am worthy
to be loved.

I am worthy
to be loved.

Pair this book with Hey, Black Child (Little, Brown, 2017) by Useni Eugene Perkins for another empowering book that features both boys and girls.

Alphabet Books Never Cease to Amaze Us

Lynn:  If you thought there could be nothing really new in alphabet books, think again! Alphabet books have been some of the very earliest in the history of picture books but authors and illustrators continue to bring their boundless imaginations to this topic. We have two of special note to review today and I’m leading off with an exceptionally original book, The Invisible Alphabet (Penguin/Rise, 2020) by Joshua David Stein.

Here Stein and illustrator Ron Barrett present their fascinating take on an alphabet representing things not seen. A is for Air, C is for Clear, E is for Erased and J is for Just Missed It. This is a conceptual breath of fresh air (B is for Brilliant), a nudge to children’s imaginations, and a unique approach to thinking about the alphabet for kids who have the knowledge solidly acquired.

On solid white backgrounds, Barrett used pen and ink and added bright orange in Photoshop to create fascinating scenes depicting something unseen or actions happening off the page. A drawing of an empty birdcage with an open door and a small orange feather is captioned F is for Freed. An exploding orange balloon illustrates P is for Popped and 2 blank pages represent N is for Nothing.

Each page turn is fascinating, challenging kids to think about this familiar concept in a totally new way. Every scene asks readers to imagine what has already happened. This is absolutely ideal for use as writing prompts or story starters in classrooms of all ages of students.

W is for WOW!

Cindy: ABC Animals (Peter Pauper, Oct. 15, 2020) by Christopher Evans is stunning. Each spread of the books features a letter of the alphabet and an animal whose name starts with that letter. On the left are the large capital letter, the name of the animal, and a silhouette of the animal in what appears to be scaled to size in comparison with each animal in the book. At the top of that page are two sets of upper and lower case letters, one in a serif font and the other in a more modern style. Both sets are positioned on a lined and dashed line space resembling those in a writing practice book. I could see young readers practicing their own letters on the space between the two sets! The Robin and the Quetzel are perched on those lines like wires while the Orangutan swings from them. On the facing page is a digital woodcut of the animal representing the letter. A for Alpaca, B for Badger…H for Hedgehog, etc. until Z for Zebra. What is a digital woodcut, you ask? Good question. Lynn and I aren’t sure we completely understand, but Evans says it is the “modern-day equivalent of wood engravings…images drawn by hand in an illustration software, point by point, and shape by shape.” Whatever they are, we are agreed that they are gorgeous. Each one is presented on a contrasting color background. If I were an early elementary teacher I would buy three copies of this book. One for students to read, and the other two to cut up and post around the perimeter of the classroom or on a bulletin board. Aspiring graphic artists will want a copy of this book as well. Brilliant.

 

Sometimes We Just Need to Laugh – Funny Picture Books

Lynn and Cindy: We don’t really have to say anything about just how tense and depressing things are right now! We have often sought relief and diversion in funny books and we think kids will welcome that escape too. Here are three new picture books that are just what the book doctor ordered! Share and enjoy!

Glory on Ice: A Vampire Hockey Story, by Maureen Fergus (Knopf, 2020)

You read that right. This hockey story features a vampire on blades! A bored, lonely Vlad heads to the local Community Center to find a new hobby. After rejecting dancing, scrapbooking, and water aerobics, he almost gives up but then overhears some young hockey players talking about pounding, crushing, and destroying the other teams Vlad knows he’s found his calling! After buying the “best hockey equipment that treasure plundered from ancient gravesites could buy,” and careful preparation and study of the sport, this vampire learns that ice skating isn’t easy! Mark Fearing’s hilarious illustrations of Vlad’s progress to master the ice and become a gracious loser as part of a team will have young sports fans chuckling along. (We raved here about The Great Thanksgiving Escape written and illustrated by Fearing a few years ago. It’s another fabulous funny book!)

The Staring Contest, by Nicolas Solis (Peter Pauper, 2020)

This hilarious book made us slap our foreheads and ask, “Why didn’t WE think of this?” Talk about the PERFECT funny kid book! The challenger, drawn only with big eyes and impressive eyebrows challenges readers to a staring contest. Each page turn is a new trick to get the reader to blink. The eyes roll up and down, side to side, and even cross. It asks “What is that behind you?” and suggests you might have to go to the bathroom. Kids will be giggling helplessly by this point as the tricks backfire. Everyone is a winner in this delightful picture book. Be prepared for multiple readings! Ready, set, GO!

The Attack of the Underwear Dragon by Scott Rothman. (Random, 2020)

Of course, just the idea of underwear is funny to kids and dragons in underwear is guaranteed to be sidesplitting. This story is far more than just oddly-clad lizards, as funny as that is. Rothman takes on a knightly tale that begins when young Cole writes a letter to his favorite knight, Sir Percival asking to become his assistant. Illustrator Pete Oswald’s comic vignettes of Cole’s training are packed with visual jokes that will keep the giggles going. When the Underwear Dragon attacks, defeating ALL the knights, only Cole is left to protect the kingdom. But never fear—all that training pays off and the dragon is “barely” defeated.  Don’t miss the wonderful before and after 2-page spreads!

 

Scary Stories for Middle Grade

Cindy: I just retired from almost four decades as a middle school librarian and I’ve been reading Mary Downing Hahn books for almost as long—her first book was published in 1979, the year I graduated from high school—and now that I’ve made us both feel old, let’s move on. My students have remained big fans throughout my career. Wait Till Helen Comes has always been a favorite booktalk of mine, and even before the fabulous new cover art it’s gotten in recent years, the book had brisk circulation. Hahn’s new book, The Puppet’s Payback and Other Chilling Tales (Clarion, 2020) is her first collection of short stories and with its arrival, I realized that we’d never blogged one of her books. I was equally surprised to read in her afterword that she was afraid of everything as a child never read scary stories and wouldn’t have gone near WTHC if she’d seen it as a ten-year-old. Certainly, she’s channeled that fear into an ability to bring just-right frights to her young readers. The title story in this collection is a “Monkey’s Paw” tale of a sort for a younger audience. Be careful what you ask for…you may not be able to get rid of it. In this case, though, a toxic teacher eventually gets her due. In some of the ten stories, it is our young protagonists, instead, that are forever cursed by their interactions with the supernatural in these tales. For young writers, in the Afterward, Hahn includes a story she originally wrote in high school. The story eventually was reworked into “Trouble Afoot” for Bruce Coville’s Book of Monsters, and it is reprinted in this book. Her comments about her teacher’s B- grade and then her own later assessment that it should have gotten a C+ made me laugh. “Were adjectives on sale cheap that year?” It will be fun for readers to compare the two stories and maybe they will be inspired to work on their own B- story. Thank you, Mary Downing Hahn, for decades of scary stories; I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to say so. My students and I are grateful.

Lynn: As Cindy says, our middle school students seemed to have an unquenchable thirst for scary (but not too scary) books and Mary Downing Hahn was always our go-to author. But did I mention our readers were always wanting MORE books. So I am happy to say that we have some new offerings to help fill the scary book demand. Thirteens (Penguin/Viking, 2020) by Kate Alice Marshall is a great choice for the kids looking for a shivery read.

Eleanor has just moved to Eden Eld to live with her Aunt Jenny and Uncle Ben. Just about to turn 13, Eleanor has just survived a house fire that seems to have been set by her own mother who then disappeared. Eleanor wants desperately to be normal, to settle in here, and try to forget her past, which includes sightings of strange monsters. Lovely Eden Eld seems like a picture postcard town but Eleanor’s mother had warned her to NEVER go there and right from the start Eleanor senses that something is very wrong.

Eleanor is immediately befriended by two schoolmates, Pip, daughter of her new school’s headmistress, and Otto, who has a love of research, marshaling facts, and logical analysis. But it quickly becomes clear that Eleanor’s new friends can also see the monsters and that something is deeply wrong in Eden Eld.

This is a deliciously scary start to a series. It is packed with all the elements readers will love: Odd sightings, a huge mansion bulging with cleverly planted clues, a menacing stranger, palindromes, and a crisis coming to a head just at Halloween! Be prepared for a gigantic cliff-hanger which will have readers begging for the next installment.

Once Upon a Now: The Longest Night of Charlie Noon

Cindy: I’ll say right off the top that I’m not convinced this book is entirely successful but I admire Christopher Edge for creating a story that is unique and thought-provoking. The Longest Night of Charlie Noon (Delacorte, 2020) starts with an intriguing opening:

Once upon a time doesn’t exist.
This story starts once upon a now.

Friends Charlie and Dizzy and bully Johnny become lost in the woods while trying to decode messages left there, perhaps by a child-eating monster. More dangerous, perhaps, is the woods itself and the night that falls more quickly than usual, the storms that threaten, and the stars that are not in their familiar constellations. As the night wears on and the weather changes impossibly, the children are not only lost in the woods but maybe, lost in time. Forget the monster, it may be the woods that gets them.

Edge plays with Einstein’s special theory of relativity and presents a story that is at once a page-turner creepy adventure and a thoughtful look at friendship, the fluidity of time, and who we choose to be. The book has two starred reviews already, so perhaps it is entirely successful; regardless, it’s a book for those kids who need challenging books without mature content. There’s plenty to think about here.

Lynn: Christopher Edge is doing a lot of things in this slim book. He’s got mystery, suspense and a bit of horror, a story of friendship and bullying, and kids finding their strengths. And he also has time travel. As a lifelong reader of science fiction, I am accustomed to being confused when I tackle time travel. I expect to be confused! Young readers have differing reactions to feeling off-footed by a plot. Some dislike it and others embrace it. Here, Edge helps readers to keep going when time travel adds its slippery effect by giving kids a lot of incentive to keep going. Charlie is in a dire situation and wondering what will happen next is a terrific impetus to keep turning the pages. And then there are the puzzling codes and, oh yes, the possibility of a kid-eating monster! It is cleverly designed to propel kids through what may be for some an off-putting sense of not really knowing what is going on. When they come out of the woods in the morning with the three protagonists, readers will find a lot of rewards. They’ll get a satisfying conclusion to the story, a summary of what happens to the characters when they grow up, and answers to at least some of their questions. Kids are going to want to immediately share and discuss the story, another great feature. Edge provides extensive and interesting back matter in “The Science in the Longest Night of Charlie Noon.” Here he explains the codes, code-breaking, and complicated concepts such as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the speed of light.

Perhaps the biggest reward of all here for young readers is in understanding that being confused for a while in a book can be a really great thing!