Cress Watercress: A Perfect Read-Aloud–Make Note!

Lynn: I Cress watercressam a skeptical audience for animal fantasies. Some I love and some I dislike intensely. I may be the only person on the planet to loathe Watership Down but I adored the Brian Jacques books. I also am a fan of Gregory Maguire’s adult fantasies and was unsure how his sharp clever style would translate into a middle-grade book. After a bit of a slow start in his new book, Cress Watercress (Candlewick, 2022), Maguire settles into a masterful style and pace that brings something new to the genre and is perfectly attuned to the young audience.

Cress Watercress and her hardworking mother and baby brother must leave their home for new quarters after her Papa fails to come home from a honey-gathering trip. The Broken Arms apartment is small and crowded and Cress grieves her father and misses her home and friends. Her contrary feelings are exacerbated by a leap into adolescence and her mood is as if she “ate thorns for breakfast.” Real dangers, a very sick little brother, and a mix of new friends— both good and bad—add to Cress’s struggles and her path forward is skillfully woven into the adventure. Cress yearns to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance and as she learns to handle her grief, she also begins to discover what home and family are. She also learns a lot about her own strength. Never saccharine, this rabbit’s tale is beautifully told.

The book is illuminated by David Litchfield’s glowing digital illustrations that make the book a visual treat. The book production by this Candlewick team is absolutely outstanding!!

This is a perfect choice for a bedtime or a classroom read-aloud!! Make note!

Cindy: There are at least two people who aren’t fans of Watership Down. You’re not alone, Lynn. What I am a fan of is intelligent stories that are as fun for the adult reading them aloud as for the child listening to them. This one has great characters, like a skunk named Lady Agatha Cabbage dressed for the opera peering through a lorgnette and uttering phrases like “Oh, my pearls and pistols.” Independent readers ready for interesting vocabulary and humor will enjoy reading this story, too. For instance, when Cress and Finny are headed over a waterfall on their raft, Cress hangs on by “strength of will and overbite.” Many unexpected little gems had me chuckling aloud. At other times, as when Cress’s mother uses the waxing and waning of the moon as an analogy for grief that comes and goes but is always there, the storytelling left me brushing away some tears.

Room for Everyone: A Wild Inclusive Ride

Lynn:room for everyone In Zanzibar on a day “hotter than peppers”, Musa and his sister get aboard the daladala for an excursion to the beach. In the delightful Room for Everyone (S&S/Atheneum, 2021) by Naaz Khan, the bus keeps stopping and each stop adds more and more hilarious passengers. Musa is sure they will be squished.  First, there is a boy and his goats, then an old man and his bicycle, and a diving team and all their equipment! With each addition, Musa gets more and more worried but his sister assures him there always room for everyone. And of course, she is right. By the time they arrive at the beach, Musa, too, is joining the bouncy refrain that there is always room for everyone.

Joyful and buoyant repeating verse makes this cumulative tale a delight to read aloud. Merce Lopez’s vibrant illustrations are brightly colored and exuberant with lots of humorous touches that will delight young readers. Giggles abound!

Always Room for One More by Sorche Nic LeodhasCindy: This story is a fun twist on the Scottish folktale, Always Room for One More, perhaps best remembered in the version by Sorche Nic Leodhas, which won the 1966 Caldecott Medal for Nonny Hogrogrian’s wonderful illustrations.

In this East African spin on the motif, each additional set of riders (from one to ten) adds an element of culture, arts, sports, food, or occupation to the bus painting a community as colorful and energetic as the mixed-media illustrations. The theme of including all is especially appreciated. A short glossary of Swahili and Arabic terms is included as well as an author’s note about her own book-inspiring fun ride on a daladala. Don’t miss this literary ride!

Help Mom Work From Home!

Help Mom Work From Home by Diana MurrayCindy: Almost two years into the pandemic and many families may have set up work and school areas at home and figured out technology needs and apps, but it really hasn’t gotten any easier and the novelty has definitely worn off. Help Mom Work from Home (Little, Brown, 2021) by Diana Murray is just the humorous look at the situation that might ease some stress.

With Dad and baby out of the house, Mom sits down to work with help from her toddler “boss.” After fixing mom’s hair and organizing her office supplies—crayons and glitter can’t be ignored—mom’s helper mimics her work and provides snacks and yoga breaks. It’s a looooong day but the evening together with the whole family, and some takeout pizza to let mom relax, is as good as a paycheck. The jaunty rhymes and fun illustrations by Cori Doerrfeld work well together.

Lynn: Oh the stories!!! From tales from my son and daughter-in-law, to young colleagues at work, I’m convinced that my own frustrations with my spouse pale in comparison! Although why he thinks it’s OK to read his morning newspaper articles with me when I’m deep in trying to write something intelligible at 8am is a mystery to me. But it’s nothing like dealing with a 4-year-old intent on “helping.”

This little one in our story clearly wants to help but as all parents working from home know well, those efforts often create nothing but chaos. Concentrate?? Yeah, right! It’s only when Mom finds tasks the toddler can manage like moving boxes, sticking on labels or assisting in some relaxing yoga stretches that she can get anything done. Nap time anyone???

This is a totally charming story and illustrations and it clearly comes from true experience. The underlying truth is that there are benefits from working from home but productivity may not be one of them. This timely picture will please both grown-ups working remotely and their helpers.

Think You Know the Ending? Try These Picture Books

Lynn and Cindy: We have written before about our conviction that young readers love picture books in which they figure out what piece of wool is being pulled over a character’s eyes before he/she does. We love those too and we especially love it when we THINK that is happening but the story goes on to take a twist we never anticipated. We have two new picture books that do just that and we’re still smiling thinking about them!

Lynn: How to Catch a Clover Thief (Little, Brown, 2021) How to Catch a Clover Thief by Elise Parsleyby Elise Parsley had me laughing from page one. Wait – I think it had me laughing the moment I saw the cover! Roy the Boar has discovered a just-about-ready patch of his favorite meal – clover! All he has to do is lie there patiently and wait for it to be deliciously ready. Enter Jarvis, a suspiciously friendly gopher. He assures Roy he knows this is Roy’s patch and won’t trespass BUT he’s sure Roy will like the cookbook he is bringing, How to Cook with Clover. Roy is wary but he is quickly absorbed by tempting recipes and before readers can shout a warning, Roy is off gathering mushrooms! And of course, when Roy returns to his clover patch, it is noticeably smaller. Enter Jarvis with a new book, this time on camping! It is hilarious and kids will be sure they know that poor Roy is being tricked. But this story goes on to upend readers with a  terrifically unexpected twist. Readers will laugh and cheer! Parsley’s wonderfully goofy illustrations are the perfect addition to this to this clever bait-and-switch. Fabulous fun  and I love that books are key to the ongoing wackiness.

Sheepish by Helen YoonCindy: I have another “wolf in sheep’s clothing” in Helen Yoon’s delightful Sheepish: (Wolf Under Cover) (Candlewick, 2021). The trope of a wolf disguising himself as a sheep to get a good dinner, gets a twist in this picture book that will have children howling at the antics. Wolf is sure that his disguise is so good that the sheep in this rural boarding-school environment will never notice a thing. He’s delusional, of course, as kids will see the nervous and fearful expressions and responses from the sheep when he grabs his breakfast tray and goes through the cafeteria line with them, thoughts of roasted sheep dancing in his head as he picks up okra. In addition to his disguise, he needs to be helpful, friendly, and a team player to lower their suspicions and defenses. All is going according to plan…until it’s not. A few twists send the story in a new direction, to the relief of sheep-lovers….and wolf-lovers. Yoon’s illustrations are full of fun details to explore and are infused in humor…and some love. Don’t miss this gem.

Literary Wardrobes, a Cat, and Kids saying, “Whoa!”

Lynn and Cindy: We LOVE books that get kids talking and there is nothing like time travel or portal travel and ambiguous resolutions to make that happen! If you love that too we have such a treat for you. We have two new books that are wildly different from each other but who share some important connections. Yup – wardrobe portals to other times or places, lots of references to well-loved books in the genre, compulsive plots and endings that are guaranteed to make kids say, “Whoa!”

Lynn:  Da Vinci’s Cat ((Harper/Greenwillow, 2021) by Catherine Gilbert Murdock is an enchanting and intriguing story set in the 1500s and also the present, featuring a noble young hostage to the Pope, a modern young girl just moving into a new house, famous artists a mysterious cat and cabinet that connects them all. Packed with historical figures and backed with terrific research, the details of both settings are vivid and the historical and cultural background necessary for young readers is provided seamlessly. Sympathetic characters are at the heart of this story but the mindblowing aspects of time travel power the plot and enhance the tension. Readers walk with Federico and Bee as they explore the puzzle of the cabinet, sharing in the initial puzzlement, then giddy excitement, and finally in the horrifying realization of the future altering consequences.

There is plenty of humor provided by the two protagonists’ encounters with each other and with centuries of differences in culture, manners, and clothing. The introduction of the famous art and artists is one of the highlights here – who knew Michelangelo shunned baths! This fascinating item and more will certainly send many young readers to look up the artists and their works involved in the story. Juno, Da Vinci’s cat with an intriguing connection to Schrodinger’s Cat, and the time-traveling closet are such clever devices and Murdock incorporates them into a compelling story in a brilliantly effective way.

Cindy: I’m sorry that we are tempting you with a book that won’t publish until May 25th, but know that we are as eager as you are to see the finished book with “Decorations” by Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky. Federico is based on a boy hostage of Pope Julius II, who, according to the author’s note, in the galley lived in “the papal palace for three years, befriending artists and attending countless banquets.” The story that Murdock spins from this and her research of Raphael and Michelangelo is fascinating but told well for her young audience who may need an introduction to the players and the times. Like her Newbery Medal novel, The Book of Boy, Murdock says this is “fantasy grounded in fact.” And, it’s a fact that this novel is fantastic.

The galley blurb promises that Da Vinci’s Cat is recommended for readers who loved When You Reach Me and A Wrinkle in Time. Coincidentally, David Levithan’s introduction in his new book mentions both of these titles as inspiration for writing his own middle-grade book with fantasy elements.  The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. (as told to his brother)  (Knopf, 2021) is quite different from Murdock’s book, but it’s also quite different from Levithan’s previous books, and not just that it’s written for a younger audience than his previous teen titles.

A tale of two brothers, one of whom disappears, is a page-turner from the very beginning. Lucas’ older brother Aidan just vanishes one day and a police search begins. Six days later he shows up and his answers to questions about where he’s been are hard to believe. The adults all think Aidan is covering, but our narrator, Lucas, is determined to get to the truth. Is there a place with fantastical beasts and green-colored skies? If there is, why does his brother want to return there so badly and leave this world behind? I don’t want to give away much more, it’s more fun to journey with Lucas through his investigation and ponderings while innocent. One thing is sure, David may have changed his target audience and paid tribute to the novels he loved as a tween, but his themes of love and acceptance shine through brightly and aren’t hidden behind any doors, be they on closets or magical wardrobes. I only wish that Levithan could jump into Da Vinci’s time-traveling wardrobe and take a copy of this book back to his 12-year-old self. I’d like that kid to tell adult David to keep writing middle grade books as well as teen and adult.

Lynn: I loved David’s book too! The voice of Lucas, the younger brother and narrator was simply terrific—a thoughtful observer of events and interactions around him, is spot on, believable and compelling. Lucas’ story is the device that raises the issues, spots the inconsistencies and then assesses the reactions. Lucas reports both what he sees and hears but what is also unsaid or remembered—beautifully increasing the feeling of uncertainty and doubt. This is both an urgent, can’t-put-it-down story and a thoughtful set of powerful observations that require a pause to consider—not an easy combination to pull off. What is truth, what is the impact of truth on the listener when what may be the truth is unimaginable? Should the truth always be told and when and why would you alter it?

David skillfully plants seeds of doubt everywhere in Lucas’ narration, leaving the reader always feeling slightly off-center. Often young readers dislike open-ended stories but those stories motivate them to have instant conversations and that is a powerful thing. Some readers of both of these books will race through them and more sophisticated readers are going to discover so much to consider. All readers are going to find that both stories linger long after the pages are finished. And one more terrific quality of both of these books is that they are absolutely perfect read-alouds for classrooms or to use as book club books. Brace yourselves for LOTS of conversations!

Overcoming Fears – New Chapter Books for the First Grade Set

Lynn: I am firmly convinced that writing well for children is extremely difficult and writing well for the K-Gr. 2 set is one of the most difficult challenges of all! My all-too-necessary-in-Michigan stocking hat is off to people that manage to be authentic, engaging, and developmentally appropriate while telling a wonderful story! One of the best is Emily Jenkins, author of one of my favorite chapter book series, The Toys Trilogy. I am delighted to report that Jenkins has a new chapter book that will be published in June, Harry Versus the First Hundred Days of School (Random/Schwartz & Wade, June 2021. I fell in love with 5-year-old Harry Bergen-Murphy on the first page.

Harry doesn’t think he is ready for first grade. He has worries. Will he get lost in the big building? Will his teacher yell? What about mean kids and scary classroom guinea pigs? Not even the new Fluff Monster keychain on his backpack makes Harry feel ready. This absolutely endearing tale chronicles Harry’s experiences with school, the ubiquitous Hundred Days lessons, and how he becomes an expert at, not one, but three things! Jenkins masterfully puts readers right inside Harry’s head as he takes on the challenges of first grade. Funny, sweet, and absolutely dead-on authentic, this book addresses the complicated whirl of a child’s fears, misunderstandings, and confusions as well as the growth, revelations, breakthroughs, and triumphs of that important early school experience.

Harry is a complete delight. Loaded with Jenkins’ signature wry humor, the book is as insightful in the ways a young child thinks as it is funny. This will be a perfect read-aloud for classrooms, for parents helping prepare a child for that first day of school, or as a solo read for kids tackling chapter books on their own. Kids will delight in finding their First Grade experiences reflected here. Adults will find a heartwarming story of a little boy discovering his strengths, aided by caring teachers and supportive adults. Jenkins includes a terrific Author’s Note that includes comments on the lessons and a list of the many stellar books referenced in the story. I’d also just like to say the “Fluff Monsters” that Harry loves and invented for the story are the next fad waiting to sweep First Grades everywhere! Emily—you need to copyright this now!

I read this in galley which included just a few of the promised illustrations by Pete Oswald and I’m eager to see the finished copy. I can’t think of a better book to use as a first-grade classroom read-aloud or one for a parent to read with a first-grader to be. Absolutely stellar in every way.
Cindy: I have a story about a girl who has tackled and survived first grade, but has many more fears to conquer. Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey (Greenwillow, May 2021) by the talented Erin Entrada Kelly introduces us to 8-year-old Marisol who is afraid of everything. Small, quiet, and timid Marisol Rainey is a main character that many children will relate to, although they may need to be introduced to silent movies and their stars like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Marisol is a fan of those funny movies and how the actors can say so much without saying anything.
Marisol names everything, her stuffed animals, the refrigerator (Buster for Buster Keaton), and the huge scary tree in the back yard, which she named Peppina. She names all of the important things in her life as she says she wouldn’t want to be called “human” or “girl” so why shouldn’t refrigerators and trees have names?
Marisol has a supportive family and a patient best friend, Jada, who all understand Marisol’s fears and let her tackle them when she is ready. She also has mad Claw-Machine skills that have helped to grow her stuffed animal collection, but even then, she uses them to rescue the one-eyed misfit animal in the far corner of the machine. Marisol is kind. She is the kind of friend all first to third graders should get to know.

And Baby Makes Three – With Free Shipping! Picture Book Stories of New Families

Lynn and Cindy: Babies sometimes join families in unusual ways. We love these two recent picture books with stories about two very different babies bringing joy to their new families. One is a sweet story sure to melt reader’s hearts and one is a hilarious look at a truly out-of-this-world family. Both are stories that young readers are sure to love and both present a reassuring of love and acceptance, no matter the method of arrival. Enjoy!

Cindy: First up is a nonfiction adoption story told by father to son.   On the way home from work as he is leaving the NY subway, Danny spots a bundle in the corner and discovers a baby just a few hours old wrapped in a sweatshirt. The police were called, the newspapers covered the story, but Danny wasn’t allowed to visit the baby to check on him because he wasn’t family. Our Subway Baby (Dial, 2020) by Peter Mercurio tells the story of his partner Danny’s first encounter with the baby, a special judge, and the path to their adoption of Kevin so he could have a loving home. These two young fathers experience all the emotions of first-time parents, nervousness, excitement, and love for their new son. The author’s note has family photos including one of college-age Kevin who is studying mathematics and computer science. It also tells of another special event they had with Judge Cooper in addition to their adoption process. It’s a heartwarming story that will make you smile and a nice addition to the dearth of adoption stories for young children considering the adoption numbers in our country.

Lynn: Our second story is about a baby who gets delivered—right to the front porch! The robot family introduces little Cathode (Cathy) to her new baby brother. All he needs is a little assembly since he arrived in a box. Robobaby (Clarion, 2020) by David Wiesner is a 278 lb. bouncing baby robot, but Houston, we have a problem! Apparently, robots don’t read directions any better than we humans, so increasingly disastrous attempts to assemble the new member of the family are hilarious failures. Little Cathy knows just what to do but the grown-ups just won’t listen! This family truly needs a Dr. Spock! Happily, Cathy knows just what to do and little Flange is finally “Brmmming” happily in his crib. But wait! What’s that package on the porch?

Wiesner is the master of space, panels, and subtle visual jokes and each colorful page is a joy to explore carefully. Speech bubbles and lots of sound effects make the book a fun read-aloud but this is best suited as a lap book where the many clever details can be discovered. Kids will love this and their caregivers will too.

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.

 

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!

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!