Meet Burt, he’s a ten-lined June (or watermelon) beetle. Burt has feathered antennae, a large body, a sticky abdomen, and can flail his legs when he falls on his back (but needs assistance flipping over). He notices that other insects have special or “super” abilities. A bumblebee is a “super hard worker” and ants can carry heavy loads. So what makes Burt special? Well, he’s trying to figure this out. As Burt meets more insects and learns about their amazing features, he wonders what his “super” ability is. Would winking count? How about hanging out around porch lights? Trying to imitate other insects’ super abilities doesn’t work either and Burt continually ends up on his back.
When Burt discovers a spider web with insects trapped in it, he’s amazed to find that their super abilities cannot free them from the web. As the venomous spider taunts Burt, he realizes he does have some super abilities. Burt’s a hugger and he happens to be sticky, too. Furthermore, he’s big and heavy enough to tear up the spider’s web when he falls on it, saving the other insects–and landing on his back once again. This time he has very grateful friends to help him flip over!
Cheerful and upbeat humor shines in this book. Commenting on his feathery antennae, Burt notes “it’s a style choice.” Gentle quips are exchanged between characters. When the spider, firmly stuck to Burt’s abdomen, asks “is this ever going to end?” Burt replies “I guess you’re stuck with me. Get it?” Exaggerated bodies and expressive faces, especially “bug” eyes, add to the enjoyment.
Spires has created a graphic novel designed for younger readers, especially those new to the graphic novel format. The panels are clean and well organized, without a lot of distractions. The number of characters and speech bubbles in a panel are kept to a minimum and the print is bold and slightly larger than usual. This book is appropriate for independent readers or as a read-aloud for emerging readers.
The book includes some themes which could be used to invite children to discuss character and friendship. Burt’s search for what makes him unique is something children also explore for themselves. Perseverance is a challenge for children, but Burt’s positive “can do” type of behavior in the face of repeated failures may encourage them to keep trying. He takes care of his friends and “doesn’t bite because that’s not how you make friends.”
Lastly, this graphic novel engages children in the natural world around them, weaving in factual information about insects and including “awesome insect super facts” in the back matter. Hopefully, it will inspire children to continue exploring the world of insects and their “super” abilities.
Any reader of Osborne’s beloved Magic Treehouse chapter book series knows that uttering those magical words while holding a book in the Magic Tree House will instantly transport the child back into the time and place of the book and an action-packed adventure.
This first title inthe graphic novel adaptations of the chapter book series, Dinosaurs Before Dark, introduces eight-and-a-half-year-old Jack and his younger sister, Annie, residents of Frog Creek, Pennsylvania. While playing in the wooded area near their home, they discover a tree house filled with books. As they excitedly explore the books, Jack finds a book about dinosaurs. Gazing at one of the illustrations, he wishes he could go there. Suddenly, a giant wind begins to spin the tree house and whoosh! It whisks them away to the Cretaceous Period.
While exploring this new environment, they encounter a few of the period’s dinosaurs without incident until a very large and frightening Tyrannosaurus Rex comes roaring and stomping their way. After some hair-raising attempts to dodge it, they make it back to the tree house. Now they just need to figure out how they can get home in one piece … and in time for dinner!
Laird remains true to the original story and her dialogue, along with the Kellys’ illustrations, propel the storyline. Like the chapter book, the graphic novel is neatly organized into short chapters, each ending on a cliffhanger.
Illustrators Kelly and Nichole Matthews have modeled Jack and Annie after the Sal Murdocca illustrations for the chapter book. The Matthews, who are twin sisters, creatively combine detail, color, and a more complex layout to help interpret the chapter book’s narrative. The panels sequencing the tremendous wind that spins the house back into history include a vivid two-page spread (pp 26-27) that conveys the force of the wind. Another full page is used to dramatize the height of the tree house as Jack and Annie descend from it to a world no humans have ever seen (p. 62).
This graphic novel adaptation is a great introduction to the chapter book series for younger and emerging readers and could actually replace it in popularity since the format is much more vibrant and engaging than the original chapter book series. So while it’s recommended for ages 6-9, I think children as young as five years old would find it an entertaining read.
Check out this YouTube video to hear how Jenny Laird adapted Osborne’s novel. And for more about the Matthews sisters, visit their website. Fans can also check out the Magic Tree House website here.
Award-winning author and illustrator Melanie Watt, well known for herScaredy Squirrel picture book series, has created her first graphic novel, Scaredy Squirrel in a Nutshell, featuring a squirrel beset by many (and often improbable) fears about life outside his beloved nut tree. To his credit, Scaredy Squirrel confronts each challenge with an elaborate and hilarious action plan that’s often doomed to failure. From the potential alien landing to deadly dust bunnies, Scaredy Squirrel not only has a plan but a backup as well (play dead).
Since childhood, Scaredy Squirrel has kept himself and his nut tree safe from dreaded “trespassers” who could damage his tree. Who knows when a mammoth may want to uproot it? Or a cat might scratch it. So Scaredy Squirrel has developed a strategy to protect the tree. He places objects around his tree to distract the trespassers, such as a fake tree for the mammoth to uproot or a scratching post for the cat.
However, there’s a downside to this ambitious plan: these objects get dusty and from the dust springs notorious dust bunnies! So this quick-thinking squirrel comes up with a detailed plan to prevent dust bunnies … vacuum all the decoy objects! All well and good until the vacuum gets clogged and now Scaredy Squirrel must develop a plan to unclog the vacuum cleaner. As you can imagine, more problems emerge which entail more plans and greater chaos. Inevitably (despite playing dead) he finds himself face to face with a real bunny who would like to be his friend. Which of course necessitates a new plan …
Watt’s familiar cartoon-like illustrations go nicely with the graphic novel format. Simple geometric shapes are used to create the characters and setting. Faces are wonderfully expressive. Panels are well organized on the pages with a clean and uncluttered look, making this book perfect for newly independent readers. Witty word plays and expressions such as “going out on a limb” and “dust bunnies,” keep the narrative lively and make this a good read-aloud as well. Delightfully quirky features include a “Nutty (Table of) Contents,” and some silly and interactive features to be taken before it is “safe” to begin the story.
Parents, caregivers, and teachers are sure to appreciate that, despite the zany humor of the book, Scaredy Squirrel manages to demonstrate, in a light-hearted way, how children can face their fears and develop problem-solving skills such as writing down action plans, to face real-life challenges. While the age is listed as 6-9, younger children would certainly enjoy having the story read to them.
Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
Click here and here to read more squirrel stories.
This year choosing books to include in our Recommended Reads for Kids – Black History Month Roundup has been more difficult than ever because there are dozens of excellent ones being published and more on the way. Here is just a small sample of great reads, from picture book to graphic novel to young adult fantasy that are available for kids and teens to enjoy.
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER ★Starred Review – Kirkus
The ABCs of Black History is the kind of inspiring book children and adults will want to return to again and again because there is so much to absorb. In other words, it’s not your mother’s ABC book. Written in uplifting rhyme by Pushcart Prize-nominated poet Rio Cortez, this gorgeous 60-page picture book is at once a look back in time and a look to the future for young Black children. However it is recommended reading for children of all races and their families.
Cortez has shined a lyrical light on places, events and figures familiar and less familiar from Black history with comprehensive back matter going more in depth. Take H for example: “H is for Harlem—those big city streets! / We walked and we danced to our own jazzy beat. / When Louis and Bessie and Duke owned the stage, / and Langston and Zora Neale Hurston, the page.” J is for Juneteenth and S, which gets double coverage, is for scientists and for soul. Adding to the hopeful tone of Cortez’s rhyme are Semmer’s bold and vibrant graphics which jump off the page. The dazzling colors pull you in and the variety of composition keep you hooked.
The ABCs of Black History is a book you’ll want to read together with your young ones and let your older children discover and savor on their own. It’s not only a visual and aural treat, it’s a sweeping celebration and exploration of Black culture and history that is beautiful, compelling, thought provoking and thoroughly unputdownable! • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly
Adapted from the final chapter of Dovey Johnson Roundtree’s autobiography Mighty Justice, We Wait for the Sun is an intimate look at a tender moment in Dovey’s childhood. The book opens with a preface about the main character, Dovey, who grew up to be a legendary figure in the fight for racial equality-all through the influence of her beloved grandmother, Rachel Bryant Graham. Dovey loved to share stories of Grandmother Rachel; this book is the story she loved best.
In “the midsummer night” when it’s “dark and cool,” Dovey and her grandmother walk “through the darkness toward the woods” to pick blackberries. Lyrical language and textural illustrations awaken the senses and draw us into their adventure.
Other women join in and the trip goes deeper still into the forest. Staring at Grandma’s shoes, Dovey is literally following her grandmother’s steps into the darkness. But Grandma Rachel provides comfort and reassurance. “If you wait just a little, your eyes will learn to see, and you can find your way.”
Through such examples of wisdom and encouragement, it’s clear to see why Grandma Rachel was such an inspiration to Dovey and her later work as a civil rights lawyer. As they sit in the forest and listen to its “thousand sounds,” a double page spread shows an aerial view of their meditative moment, immersed in the magic of their surroundings.
And when they reach the berries, they’re every bit worth the wait-plump, juicy, and sweet-like the lush layers of purple, blue, and pink illustrations that display a beautiful berry-colored world as dawn, bit by bit, turns to day. Wrapped in each other’s arms, Grandma and Dovey watch the sun rise in its golden splendor. Grandma’s steadfast waiting for the light, despite the present darkness, is a moving message of hope, resilience, and bravery.
Back matter includes an in-depth note from co-author Katie McCabe chronicling Dovey’s fight against barriers in the law, military, and ministry. For anyone interested in the powerful ways family and history intersect, We Wait for the Sun is a must-have in every library. • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
While white Americans eagerly embarked on carefree car travel around the country, in 1930s Jim Crow America the road was not a safe or welcoming place for Black people. In Opening the Road: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book, Keila V. Dawson explores the entrepreneur Victor Green and his successful The Negro Motorist Green Book which was borne out of dire need.
Young readers will learn about the limitations that were in place restricting the freedoms of Black Americans to have access to the same conveniences whites did due to segregation laws. For instance, a road trip for a Black family meant bringing food, pillows, and even a portable toilet since most establishments along a route were for whites only. The same applied to hotels, service stations, auto-mechanics and even hospitals. And in “Sundown” towns, where Blacks could work but not live, those individuals had to be gone by sunset or risk jail or worse.
In this fascinating 40-page nonfiction picture book, Dawson explains in easy-to-understand prose exactly what obstacles faced Black travelers and why Green, a mail carrier, together with his wife Alma, decided to publish a directory. Inspired by a Kosher guide for Jews who also faced discrimination, Green began collecting information from people on his postal route about where safe places were in New York.
Eventually, with word-of-mouth expanding interest in Green’s book, he began corresponding with mail carriers nationwide to gather more recommendations for The Negro Motorist Green Book on more cities. Soon everyone from day-trippers to celebrities were using the Green Book. Green even made a deal with Standard Oil for the book to be sold in Esso gas stations where it “flew off the shelves.” Harris’s illustrations take readers back in time with colorful, realistic looking scenes of big old cars, uniformed service station attendants and locations in Black communities that opened their doors to Black travelers. Apart from a break during WWII, the book was sold until the need for it finally ended with the last edition in 1966-67.
Equality both on and off the road was the ultimate goal for Black Americans. That may have improved somewhat from when the first Green Book was published in 1936, but Victor did not live to see the Civil Rights Act of 1964 enacted, having passed away in 1960. However there is still a long road ahead because, unlike Victor’s Green Book, racism has not disappeared and being Black while driving can still be dangerous, even deadly.
Dawson dives into this in her five pages of back matter that include a clever roadway timeline graphic from the beginning of Green’s life in 1892 until the Green Book ceased publication. This is a helpful, thoughtfully written book to share with children to discuss racism, and a good way to begin a discussion about self-advocacy, ingenuity, and how to treat one another with respect. It’s also a welcome example of how Green channeled his frustration and dissatisfaction into a guide that ultimately changed people’s lives for the better. Click herefor an essential Educator’s Guide. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Kadir Nelson, in his interesting introduction to James Otis Smith’s graphic novel Black Heroes of the Wild Westpoints out that cowboys, ranchers, homesteaders and other people from the Old West (west of the Mississippi River “during and after the American Civil War”) were historically portrayed in books, movies and TV through a white lens. In reality up to “a third of the settler population was African American.” I couldn’t wait to find out more about Mary Fields, known as “Stagecoach Mary” in her day, Bass Reeves, the first black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi, and “mustanger” Bob Lemmons, perhaps the original Texas horse whisperer.
All three individuals were forces to be reckoned with. First there’s Mary Fields, born into slavery in Tennessee. In her lifetime, she maintained fierce loyalty to friends, loved children, was generous to a fault, and had strength and energy second to none. She’s most noted, however, for her reputation as a banjo strumming, card playing, first African American female stagecoach driver who never missed a delivery and was not easily thwarted by wolves or bad weather.
I was blown away learning about Bass Reeves’s bravery in outwitting some murderous outlaws on the Most Wanted List. In the account Smith shares, Reeves single-handedly put himself into a dangerous situation by turning up as an impoverished loner looking for any kind of work to earn his keep. By cleverly offering up his services to the mother of the villains, earning her trust, and ultimately that of the bad guys too, he was able to capture them completely off guard. This plus thousands of other arrests cemented his place in history. The best part was how Smith’s illustrations conveyed Reeves in the particular scenario of capturing the outlaws by surprise which in turn surprised and satisfied me immensely.
Last but definitely not least is Bob Lemmons who was hired to corral wild mustangs and whose humane technique was not deadly to any of the horses, something other mustangers had not been able to manage. Smith takes readers on a journey of the senses along with Lemmons as he follows a group of mustangs he intends to wrangle, and details in both art and text how eventually Lemmons becomes one with the stallion leading the “manada” (mares and colts). “Bob knew their habits, their body language, their sounds. Like them, he flared his nostrils sniffing for danger.” You don’t have to be a horse lover to be impressed how Bob’s slow and steady approach made the mustangs think he was one of them.
Eight comprehensive pages of fascinating back matter round off this excellent middle grade read that will no doubt have tweens eager to find out more about these and other Black heroes. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
★Starred Review – Booklist A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
The Gilded Ones is book one of a West African-inspired epic fantasy series that will grab you from its first page. When girls turn sixteen, they must undergo The Ritual of Purity where they are bled to see if they can become a member of their village. However, if a girl’s blood runs gold, then she’s found impure and faces a fate worse than death. If Deka’s father had the money, he would have sent her to the House of Purity the year before the ritual, keeping her protected from sharp objects. Instead, Deka must be careful while she worries and prepares.
When Deka fails, she’s tortured until a mysterious woman she names White Hands offers an option out. The empire’s being attacked by seemingly invincible Deathshriek creatures. Deka becomes an alkali soldier fighting alongside other girls like her with powers that make them nearly immortal.
Namina Forna says, “The Gilded Ones is a book about my anger at being a woman. Sierra Leone was is very patriarchal. There were things I was expected to do as a girl because I was a girl.” This emotion is harnessed into the story, revealing societal inequities in an intricately woven plot that will surprise and enflame you.
Deka has the best “sidekick” ever—a shapeshifter called Ixa. Though there are elements of romance, it’s strong females who rule the plot. This book provides a fresh look at the “gods and goddesses” trope. The Gilded Ones is fierce, brutal, and relevant. Read it. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com
Click here to read another Black History Month review. e
This seven-book roundup covers wickedly wonderful Halloween season reads. From a gentle book about the fall season to spooky ghouls, goblin-witches, ghosts, vampires, a witch’s hut, and a haunted house, we’ve got you covered.
With whimsical art in blacks, whites, and grays offset with oranges and foil accents, The Little Kittenembodies the spirit of autumn. Leaves blow across the pages, bringing movement that propels Ollie on her adventure. As promised by the title, there is a little kitten, but also Ollie’s cat, Pumpkin. Nicola Killen’s art and storyline
beautifully convey the playful, loving spirit of this book. It’s a pleasure to see a gentle story that’s engaging and fulfilling—it even has a surprise ending, shh!
I’m a sucker for a great book title and just had to read Marcus Ewert’s She Wanted to Be Haunted—plus, what a great idea! As promised, Clarissa, an “adorable and pink” cottage finds herself disappointed with her appearance. Her father is a castle and her mother a witch’s hut, but Clarissa got the short end of the broomstick with her undeniable cuteness. “Daisies grew around her, / squirrels scampered on her lawn. / Life was just delightful! / —and it made Clarissa yawn.”
What kid hasn’t felt bored when things were mellow and nice? Susie Ghahremani’s hand-painted artwork brings Clarissa to life in (dreaded!) upbeat colors. Inside, on Clarissa’s fuchsia, wallpapered walls, we sneak a peek at her family’s photos and, yes, she’s surely the oddball of the bunch. My favorite scenes involve the surprise ending. If you want to know if Clarissa’s attempts to gloom-down her appearance work, you’ll have to read the book. Trust me, the ending is awesome! Click here for a coloring page.
Scritch Scratch—the title of this middle-grade novel by Lindsay Currie will get under your skin as all good spooky books should. Because, of course, this sound is made by the ghost haunting Claire. Prior to this, science-minded Claire absolutely did not believe in ghosts and found her Dad’s ghost-themed bus tour and book embarrassing. So why did this ghost choose her? Claire’s too afraid to sleep and should have plenty of time to solve this mystery. However, since her BFF’s hanging around with the new girl, Claire may need to figure it out alone.
I’ve never been on a haunted bus tour, but, after reading this book I want to if they’re all as interesting as the one in this story. “Forgotten” facts about Chicago are cleverly woven in—what a great way to sneak in a history lesson! Click here for a discussion guide.
This book opens with a warning from the Embassy that “[b]y signing, you hereby accept all responsibility for any death, dismemberment, or condemnation to the Eternal Void that results from reading.” How irresistible! When Jake Green receives a kind of creepy package in error, a fun adventure ensues dodging bonewulfs and their master Mawkins (a grim reaper). Accompanied by ghosts Stiffkey, Cora, and, an adorable fox named Zorro, the unlikely group tries to avoid being sent into the Eternal Void—a fate worse than death.
Will Mabbitt’s well-developed characters are very likable and Taryn Knight’s art plays up the humor. I appreciate the Embassy of the Dead’snew ideas about ghosts and their companions such as Undoers (someone who helps a ghost trapped on the Earthly Plane move on to the Afterworld). Mabbitt nails a perfectly written ending. I’ll gladly follow Jake and his friends onto the next book in the series. Click here to read a sample chapter.
Fans of the beautifully made Ologies series won’t be disappointed in the latest addition, Ghostology. Packed full of stories, this book will keep you haunting its pages because there’s so much information from psychics and mediums, to fakes and frauds. Want to know what’s in a ghostologist’s field kit (sketchbook, accurate timepiece, and, of course, a ghost-detecting device, just to name a few items), or how to hunt ghosts? You’ve come to the right place. Pay attention to the “Types of Ghosts” chapters.
Beyond reading, the book is a sensory experience with its sealed pages, official documents envelope, flaps, and textures. If there’s such a thing as a coffee table kid’s book, this is it. The icy blue color scheme of the cover is offset by a large faceted red “gem.” Raised letters just beg you to run your hand over them and invite you to look inside. The thought and detail in this book are phantom-astic!
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal
In Aliza Layne’s middle-grade graphic novel, Beetle & the Hollowbones, Beetle is a twelve-year-old goblin-witch being homeschooled by her gran. Beetle, however, would rather hang out with her current BFF Blob Ghost at the old mall (where they are inexplicably trapped). When Beetle’s previous BFF, Kat Hollowbones, returns home after completing her sorcery apprenticeship at a fast-track school, their friendship isn’t the same. Kat’s aunt Marla is the wonderfully drawn skeletal antagonist.
With well-developed characters and plenty of action, this fast-paced book will bewitch you. The struggles of moving through school and friendships falling apart are accurately depicted. The panels, grouped into chapters, capture your attention with their fantastic illustrations, engaging colors, and lively text. I like how Layne includes some concept art at the end, inspiring other artists with a behind-the-scenes peek.
Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite is a YA short story anthology with the goal to “expand on and reinvent traditional tellings.” How awesome is that?? Editrixes Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Porter’s story, “Vampires Never Say Die,” is a suspenseful, modern tale about a teen and vampire who meet online. They also provide the introduction and insightful commentary after each piece, delving into the many areas of the vampire myth. There are so many wonderful things in this collection; I’ll give you a few nibbles to whet your appetite.
“Bestiary” by Laura Ruby is set in a near dystopian future; Jude works at the zoo and has a special connection with animals. This story stood out for me because the reader must piece together the truth. It’s quite a different twist on thirst and the theft of blood and humanity.
“Seven Nights for Dying” by Tessa Gratton opens with the line, “Esmael told me that teenage girls make the best vampires” (because they’re “both highly pissed and highly adaptable, and that’s what it takes to survive the centuries”). We follow Esmael’s chosen girl through a week of uncertainty as she considers joining the undead. This cleverly layered story demands to be reread to truly appreciate Gratton’s well-crafted words.
Weaving in old superstitions, “The Boy and the Bell” by Heidi Heilig expands upon the Victorian tradition of burying their loved ones with a bell (allowing them to call for help if mistakenly buried alive). Set at the turn of the century, Will is a graverobber for all the right reasons—he wants to become a doctor, and “acquiring” freshly buried bodies allows him to trade for a spot at the back of the amphitheater where dissections take place. With only a few glimpses at Will’s thoughts, we find out volumes about his struggles.
This anthology breathes life into the short story and lets readers appreciate the many perspectives and styles from a very talented array of writers. My favorites tend to have unexpected endings. There’s something for everyone. Just read it already!
ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READS FROM RONNA e IT’S HALLOWEEN, LITTLE MONSTER Written by Helen Ketteman Illustrated by Bonnie Leick (Two Lions; $17.99, Ages 3-7) e When I began reading It’s Halloween, Little Monster, one of the Little Monster series of picture books, I thought I was reading about the first time I took my son out trick-or-treating 15 years ago. All he had to do was see one or two kids in scary costumes and he hightailed it home before anyone could say boo! I’m so glad Helen Ketteman wrote this picture book because I’m sure it’s going to help make the first Halloween experience for reluctant little ones a lot easier.
In this gentle rhyming story, Little Monster heads out for Halloween accompanied by his dad. The reassuring presence of a parent sets the tone. Dad will be right there to calm Little Monster’s fears no matter who or what they encounter. “Don’t fret Little Monster. / See there in the street? / That’s not really a ghost— / it’s a kid in a sheet!” e Together the pair see all kinds of spooky creatures while trick-or-treating, but the dad anticipates what might frighten his child and is always one step ahead. I like how the papa monster not only comments on assorted pirates, witches, and vampires but scary sounds, too. Leick’s muted blue and purple toned palette of the detailed illustrations will only add to the enjoyment of this charming Halloween read. It’s an enjoyable pairing of prose and art. By the time the surprise ending happens, Little Monster’s smiling just like the children having this story read to them. e e
OTHER RECOMMENDED HALLOWEEN SEASON READS: e CHRISTOPHER PUMPKIN by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet with art by Nick East (Board Book for Ages 0-3, Little Brown BYR) e THAT MONSTER ON THE BLOCKby Sue Ganz-Schmitt with art by Luke Flowers (Picture Book Ages 4-8, Two Lions) e THE REVENGE OF THE WEREPENGUINby Allan Woodrow with art by Scott Brown (Middle Grade illustrated novel for Ages 8-12, Viking BYR)
Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks! e Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/26/20
Good Reads With Ronna is delighted to be part of the Dear Justice League blog tour celebrating this week’s launch of a rollicking good read and recommended middle grade graphic novel from DC Zoom.
The premise is a simple yet oh so satisfying one. Fictitious kids from all over America pen Dear Abby-type letters to their fave superheroes and then lo and behold, they get replies. Not what you were expecting, right?
Middle grade readers, reluctant and struggling readers as well as fans of graphic novels will enjoy every single page of Northrop’s and Duarte’s fast and uproarious read. It’s playful and action-packed, and who doesn’t love a story where there’s never a dull moment? Northrup delivers dynamic dialogue that pairs perfectly with Duarte’s art. His hilarious illustrations, full of every facial expression possible, jump off the page and pull you in. They deserve to be looked at multiple times.
I got into the novel quickly, intrigued by the first question posed to none other than my childhood hero, Superman. Wondering if the Man of Steel had ever messed up, the letter writer is shown having botched up his attempt at an invention. And while you’d think heroes are especially busy saving the day in multiple ways with no time for correspondence, Clark Kent’s alter ego surprises young Ben Silsby with an answer. Texting, flying and superhero-ing however do not safely go together leading to a hilarious string of close calls demonstrating that it’s not just Kryptonite that can bring him down.
I especially loved having the chance to meet seven other members of the Justice League, each presented in their own chapter addressing a particular issue raised via email, text or snail mail. Hawkgirl, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Cyborg, and Batman all make appearances and make you want to spend more time with them. The Dear Justice League questions range from silly (does Hawkgirl eat small mammals, does Aquaman smell like fish) to those that will resonate with the targeted age group about bullying, moving to a new school, being perfect, fitting in, friendship and teamwork.
Another aspect of the book that worked well was the thread running through the entire story about an invasion of evil, insect-like Shock Troopers from the planet Molt-On. Here’s where I was first introduced to Hawkgirl and was impressed by her sense of humor though a bit wary of how much soda she seemed to consume. But most of all, I enjoyed seeing the superheros hang out at HQ, chatting together while revealing snippets of their characters. When they ultimately fought off the Shock Troops through a well coordinated team effort, I felt happy and eager to read more about each of them individually and as a league. Next up for me is definitely Superman of Smallville, available 9/3/19.
The start of a new school year is an ideal time to share this graphic novel showing sometimes serious, yet often tongue-in-cheek adventures that demonstrate how even superheroes have the same vulnerabilities kids have. They may fight foes but are far from perfect. So head to your local independent bookseller to buy a copy of Dear Justice League for your kids because these graphic novels are bound to win new DC superhero fans and delight old ones.
Mr. Wolf’s Class: Book #1 The First Day of School by Aron Nels Steinke is not your mother’s back-to-school middle grade chapter book. It’s a smart, funny, insightful look at fourth-grade in graphic novel format and I enjoyed every page. From the realistic, contemporary dialogue to the perfectly captured facial expressions on the diverse line up of teachers and students, Steinke succeeds in helping readers connect with and care about an assorted and appealing cast of characters. And that’s a good thing since this is Book #1 in a new series that is sure to captivate even the most reluctant kid.
In this first book, we’re introduced to Mr. Wolf, a new teacher at Hazelwood Elementary. In fact, even before Chapter One (there are eleven chapters in total), anthropomorphic artwork full of color and movement shows Mr. Wolf conscientiously preparing his classroom followed by frames of each student, with illustration clues, as a quick and clever way to hint at their personality or issue. There’s new-in-town student, Margot, eager to start school but nervous about making friends; there’s Penny, poor, wiped out Penny, whose constantly crying baby sibling is keeping her from getting a good night’s sleep; there’s Aziza, a dedicated student but slightly snarky; and there’s Sampson, who’s brought something special to school to share at show-and-tell.
As an elementary school teacher and parent, Steinke totally gets this age group and the ever-changing dynamic of the classroom. One minute there’s silent reading and the next there’s chaos. All types of conflicts caused by all kinds of kids can occur throughout the day and Steinke’s chosen a few good ones to portray in Mr. Wolf’s Class. He’s included geeks and smart alecks, thoughtful and mean kids. He’s also got bossy and meek ones, tattle tales and show offs. With that kind of composition, anything can and does happen under Mr. Wolf’s supervision including a missing student, show-and-tell, and a burgeoning friendship.
I’d like to emphasize here that this book can be appreciated year round for its wit, its engaging illustrations and the delightful depiction of fourth-grade from multiple perspectives. Join Mr. Wolf and his students to see first-hand what’s happening at Hazelwood Elementary.
ALL’S FAIRE IN MIDDLE SCHOOL Written and illustrated by Victoria Jamieson (Dial BYR; $20.99, Ages 8-12)
★Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly A New York Times Editor’s Choice An Autumn Kids’ Indie Next List top pick
Victoria Jamieson’s graphic novel, All’s Faire in Middle School, provides a much-needed glimpse into alternative lifestyles. Twelve-year-old Imogene has been homeschooled by parents who work at Florida’s Renaissance Faire. When Imogene starts public school for the first time, she faces a very different world than at the faire where she is a knight-in-training.
Each chapter begins with brief synopsis of the brave heroine’s plight, conveyed in somewhat Old English. With much of the book set at the faire, readers gain insight into this medieval reenactment where people choose which role to play. Imogene never wanted to be the princess, but she questions whether she is destined to be a knight—maybe she’s more like Cussie, the hermit. Sometimes, Imogene behaves like the dragon.
The story explores Imogene’s turbulent journey to self-discovery. This is a tale of acceptance, forgiveness, friends, and blossoming sexuality. Imogene is every preteen, learning what it takes to fit in at school. She is teased for wearing thrift-store clothes with the wrong shoes. Imogene’s family becomes an embarrassment to her when they show up still dressed in Elizabethan costume and think nothing of it. Before entering sixth-grade, Imogene hadn’t noticed her family was different and how this is viewed suspiciously.
As with Jamieson’s successful Newbery Honor Book Roller Girl, in All’s Faire, the protagonist is a tough girl struggling with prepubescent emotions. The love of Imogene’s family—including her “faire-mily”—is a constant. Even when at odds with her parents and brother, in the end, Imogene realizes that the bullies and popular kids at school are something to suffer in passing. Her philosophy of what’s important shifts—and that makes all the difference.
Imogene makes unkind choices, acting out against others because of her own frustration. Her journey to finding the right path is a realistically portrayed ongoing battle. In life, there are no easy answers. Family can embarrass us by just being themselves. We all make mistakes, yet, each day, we can choose which character we wish to play. The book concludes with an understanding that, if you believe there are happy endings in sixth-grade, then you haven’t attended middle school—a declaration which will resonate with readers everywhere.
Ever gotten lost on a subway? In New York? I have and I’m from New York! But once you’ve navigated your way around and feel you’ve got the hang of the subway, it’s like you’re on top of the world, not 35 feet underground (like at the 42nd St. Station). You might never take the bus again.
I’ll start this review by pointing out that a purchase of Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure, is like getting multiple books in one! First there’s the graphic novel adventure featuring Pablo, a boy new to both his school and to the city. Alicia, a classmate, volunteers to partner with him on a field trip to the Empire State Building using public transportation. At the uptown Manhattan subway station (96th St.), the pair get separated from their class and have to find their way alone. Eventually even Alicia and Pablo get separated which may seem frightening, but it’s never presented that way. In fact, it’s empowering for kids to see their peers commuting this way successfully. Demonstrating common sense, the two make tracks individually to the Empire State Building, one on foot, the other using a cross town train. Ultimately, across a crowded lobby, Pablo and Alicia are reunited in time to join the tour, running towards each other like in a scene from a film. They’re clearly overjoyed, but Mr. Bartles, their teacher, is not as impressed.
In addition to the adventure, there’s the budding friendship story. As the bungled journey evolves, Pablo eventually comes to appreciate Alicia’s gesture of kindness to buddy up on the field trip which he so vehemently rejected at the beginning of the book.
“I was only trying help.” – Alicia “Help?” – Pablo “What makes you think I need help! I don’t need anything.” – Pablo “I thought maybe you wanted a friend…” – Alicia
It’s through this friendship that Pablo is able to look at New York with new eyes and begin to feel at home.
Another draw is the NYC subway system, like an extra character, with its express and local lines, the colorful maps, and the various stops or stations in the city. I was delighted to see my old subway stop in Queens even made it into the book! Fans of transportation trivia will enjoy the enlightening repartee between Mr. Bartle and his students as he educates them on their subway knowledge. I lived in New York for 30 years and had no idea why the Y and U letters were never used. After reading the fact-filled end pages I learned it’s because the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) worried the public would be confused thinking they sounded too much like “why” and “you.”
Last but not least is the inclusion of archival photographs from old New York taking readers back in time to the 1800s and into the 20th century for a glimpse of what early subway stations and construction on them looked like. There are also more details about the Empire State Building and a Further Reading & Resources for those who, like me, cannot resist finding out more about the Big Apple’s history. Author Spiegelman has packed a plethora of interesting information into this engaging and extremely original book. I had no idea that the Empire State Building, where my uncle once worked, has its own zip code (10118) and had its grand opening on May 1, 1931, 84 years ago today! Lost in NYC closes with Tips for Parents, Teachers, and Librarians to make young readers’ experience of diving into a TOON graphic novel more pleasurable.
I have to give a shout out to the amazingly detailed illustrations by Garcia Sanchez. My favorite is the angled perspective of the Empire State Building as the school children zoom up to the observation deck in one of seventy-three elevators. Early on I noticed a man taking photos in almost every scene, but I didn’t notice the policeman watching him. Sanchez, while on a reconnaissance mission for the book, must have aroused suspicion. In a humorous touch, the artist has cleverly inserted himself and the cop who followed him into the story so be on the lookout! Between the diverse cast of characters, the compelling storyline and the excellent artwork, I have to say I am very happy to have found Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure.
Written and illustrated by James Burks (Scholastic/Graphix; $8.99, Ages 7-10)
I knew I was in for a treat when I picked up James Burks’ most recent Bird & Squirrel graphic novel called Bird & Squirrel on Ice. This second book in the series brings the buddies to the South Pole where they’ve crash-landed, despite Bird’s over-confident insistence on calling it “Another perfect landing!” They immediately encounter spear-wielding Sakari, an absolutely adorable purple-hued penguin who proclaims Bird to be The Chosen One.
“Legend tells of a day when a winged bird will fall from above … And bring peace and prosperity to our penguin village.”
But there’s a catch. Being The Chosen One means battling to free the villagers from the voracious and exhausting appetite of The Great Whale. It doesn’t take long before the honor of becoming The Chosen One goes straight to Bird’s head, annoying the heck out of Squirrel. However, Bird’s antics while soaking up his newly found celebrity, will crack kids up! Burks definitely gets the mix of humor and adventure right in Bird & Squirrel on Ice, and is certain to pull in even reluctant readers. His colorful characters, gallivanting through panels filled with lots of chilly blues, are perfect for the South Pole setting. Scenes of ice and snow are fantastic as are all the ones including the penguin villagers and The Great Whale.
When Squirrel and Sakari learn that Bird is actually going to be sacrificed to appease the whale “for the good of the village,” these two team up and eventually get a rather reluctant Bird on board. The buddies and their penguin pal launch a last-ditch effort to save Bird from being served up as whale food and in doing so demonstrate the bonds of friendship and trust. This fast-paced story with its fantastic artwork and several satisfying plotlines invites multiple reads for those just getting into graphic novels, as well as for those more well-versed in the pleasures of this format.
Last month I met the editor of Lowriders in Space at an SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers an Illustrators) event and her enthusiasm about this new graphic novel was contagious. I couldn’t wait to read it and find out what all the buzz was about. Now I know and intend to spread some serious bajito y suavecito (translation: low and slow) love your way! Lowriders in Space worked for me on so many levels, but I’ll start with Camper’s creative storyline since that’s what will capture kids’ attention and it’s what drives this novel forward.
Middle grade readers will easily get on board with Lupe Impala, El Chavo Flapjack, and Elirio Malaria, the three amiable and unusual main characters whose impressive automobile-related skills help them reach new heights. The trio are eager to leave the used car dealership where they work and in order to do so they decide to enter the Universal Car Competition. With its grand prize haul of “… a carload of cash and a solid gold steering wheel,” winning the UCC would provide the seed money needed to open their own garage. They immediately get started with a broken down shell of a car, ” … so slow it didn’t even go.” Then, utilizing their individual expertise (Lupe’s a self-taught auto-mechanic – YES, she fixes cars like a girl, Elirio’s a detail artist, and Flapjack’s an eight-armed cleaning marvel), they make a plan of action. The three contribute whatever funds they can muster up and find spare rocket parts at an old airplane junkyard. Will the resulting lowrider be special enough to win first place?
Camper’s tale is unique and engaging. It’s obvious she had a blast writing it. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t imagine it with anything but Raul’s original artwork and the impressive interplay between text and illustration. His ballpoint pen illustrations in black, blue and red on a yellowy-beige background are going to grab readers (even the most reluctant ones), pull them in and keep them thoroughly entertained. He’s created a retro feel that joyfully took me back to my youth, when buying comic books with my allowance was a much anticipated weekly outing. This book deserves multiple visits to pick up the many details included, so read, observe and admire.
Another highlight for me was how Camper’s incorporated many Spanish words and phrases for the reader to learn. Whenever there’s an * readers can find the translation below, plus there’s a glossary in the back with Mexican-American slang, car and astronomy terms (oh and don’t miss this section because there’s more to read afterwards and readers can get their appetites whet for Book 2). So, in addition to having a strong Latino female character who repairs cars, Lowriders in Spacealso introduces readers to the culture of lowriders, it mixes in facts about outer space, and is equally accessible to reluctant readers as well as those simply seeking a rollicking ride that’s totally cosmic and caliente. In other words, this lowrider delivers!
Big Nate: Great Minds Think Alike by Lincoln Peirce is reviewed by Dornel Cerro.
That mischievous boy with a winning personality is back in a new compilation of colorful comic strips called Big Nate: Great Minds Think Alike(Amp! Comics for Kids/Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014, $9.99 paperback, Ages 8-12). Nate has a lot of big ideas for fun and achieving greatness and tries his hand at Sudoku, life skills coaching, painting, business, and a world record holder of anything (the only record he holds is for detention).
Big Nate fans will be pleased to see favorite characters from past volumes: his clueless dad; Mrs. Godfrey, his strict teacher; teacher’s pet, Gina; and Nate’s best buddies, Frances and Teddy.
Hilarious vignettes include a planned YouTube video of Nate jumping off a shed onto a trampoline while dunking a basketball into a hoop ends in a flop. Attempting to form his own lawn mowing business, he works during a heat wave and is unable to finish even one lawn. Turning to something less strenuous, Nate offers to cool people off with his water hose for $1.00. Unfortunately, he doesn’t adjust the nozzle spray, creating very unhappy customers.
Nate also tries to propel his friend Frances to greatness by competing against Nate’s archenemy “brainiac” Gina for “Outstanding Scholar” medal (p. 100). Unfortunately for Nate and Frances, Gina is one step ahead of them.
Nate’s instructions to Teddy on how to write a three page report on the Boston Tea Party in just one page are an absolute riot. Many teachers are on to student tricks like these: large font and dragged out sentences and words. Here’s an example: “When King George III received news of the Boston Tea Party, he flew into a rage.” A super-long “ARRRRRRRRRRRRR” fills up three panels of the strip, and of course, several lines on Nate’s paper.“Just call me Dr. Filler’!” quips Nate (p. 72).
Finally, my favorite: Nate’s outburst in the (quiet) library when teased about reading a comic strip popular with the girls catches the attention of the librarian. “The life of a school librarian is never dull, “ she muses stoically ( p. 79). Amen, sister.
Big Nate fans, those who enjoy comic anthologies, and reluctant readers will appreciate this collection. Also steer them to Peirce’s well-illustrated Big Nate novels. Big Nate is a growing hit at my school library and I look forward to putting this book into eager hands. Recommended for ages 8-12.
“WARNING: this book may cause excessive laughter and possible silliness.”
This lively and humorous collection of eight novellas that is Comics Squad: Recess! features comic strip style stories by well-known author and/or illustrators such as Gene Luen Yang, Dav Pilkey, Jarrett J. Krosoczka and Raina Telgemeier. Popular characters like Babymouse and Lunch Lady make their appearance and new characters are introduced. All the stories are tied together by one theme: recess, one of the high points of the school day (second only to dismissal time!).
The stories feature a lively variety of styles, characters and situations from the geeky boy who struggles to join a recess ninja club in Yang’s “Super Secret Ninja Club” to two squirrels who find a rather unusual acorn in Vernon’s “The Magic Acorn.” Pilkey’s “Book ‘em, Dog Man,” features the hero, Dog Man (and lots of invented spelling), who sets out to stop the diabolical Petey from destroying all books in order make the world “supa dumb.” In Telgemeier and Roman’s “The Rainy Day Monitor,” a restless 5th grade class, confined to their classroom on a rainy day, is pleasantly surprised when a “boring” student finds a way to engage her classmates. Two boys struggle to complete an assignment during recess in Santat’s “300 Words” with hilarious and poignant results. Babymouse’s daydreaming makes her late for classes and lands her inside for recess where she takes off on an imaginary quest in the Holms’ “Babymouse: The Quest for Recess.”
Highly recommended for grades 3-6, this anthology serves as a great way to attract new fans and will be enjoyed by those already familiar with the authors’ and/or illustrators’ characters.
GIVEAWAY DETAILS: We’re delighted to be giving away two copies (value $7.99 each) of COMICS SQUAD: RECESS!.
1. Please send an email to Ronna.L.Mandel at gmail.com and write COMICS SQUAD: RECESS! in the subject. Please supply your name and address, too!
2. Be sure to LIKE US on either Facebook and/or Twitter to be eligible and let us know you have. You must be a US or Canadian resident to enter.
3. Contest ends at midnight on August 5, 2014, and (2) winners will be notified on August 6, 2014.
AMERICA’S 16th PRESIDENT, THE CIVIL WAR AND THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS
Abraham Lincoln is probably one of the most recognizable American presidents, and with little wonder. His profile is on the penny, his portrait on the $5 bill, and his legacy is taught in both language arts and history classes at an early age. With today being the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, Maira Kalman’s non-fiction picture book Looking at Lincoln is a perfect introduction (or curriculum supplement) to this venerable leader.
The book features many details about Lincoln, ranging from his birth through his assassination. For example, Lincoln only attended school for a year and a half and was mostly self taught; as a youth, he was kicked in the head by a mule; he always had an apple on his desk; he loved Mozart’s music. These details on the intimacies of his life help humanize Lincoln, so that he seems more of a person as opposed to a figure. Children will be intrigued to know that Lincoln liked to argue a lot and to eat vanilla cake. He stuffed notes in his stovepipe hat.
To her credit, Kalman presents the difficult subjects— slavery, the ensuing Civil War, and, of course, Lincoln’s assassination—delicately but realistically.
Terrible things happen in a war. The Civil War ground on. Lincoln went to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of a big battle. Thousands of soldiers were buried there. Many with just a number on their grave. On that sad land, Lincoln gave one of history’s greatest speeches, The Gettysburg Address. It was short—only 272 words—ending with “…government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The war finally ended in 1865. Almost a million people had been killed or wounded. The North had won.
Cecil Castellucci, an L.A. author, has written everything from picture books to young adult novels. Her latest projects are Odd Duck and Letters for Kids, a bi-monthly subscription program through The Rumpus. In Odd Duck we meet Theodora and Chad, neighbor ducks who both waddle to the beat of a different drum yet actually have tons in common. Although the two become BFFs each one thinks the other is the strange one. Upon overhearing someone call one of them, odd, Theodora and Chad clash over which duck was being referred to. This winning picture book is a salute to individuality and uniqueness, a recurring theme for Castellucci.
How much of you is in Theodora?
I think all of me is in Theodora and Chad. It took a long time for me to figure out that my oddness was also what made me interesting.
Why do you think opposites Theodora and Chad attract?
I have always been a big fan of opposites. Some of my favorite friendships are the ones where we see the world in a similar way but we like radically different things. In Odd Duck, Chad and Theodora might move through the world very differently, but I think fundamentally they feel the same way about things.
Why do people shy away from what they don’t consider “normal”?
It’s hard to be odd. I’m no psychologist, but I think that we tend to gravitate toward groups to feel safer and that is what “normal” means. But I think that being odd is normal to other odd people. So I say, find your odd tribe and you will be “normal”! Because I think really there is no such thing as normal. And I think that everyone on the entire planet is a little odd about something.
Learn more about Cecil Castellucci and her other books at misscecil.com. For info about Letters for Kids and more about Odd Duck, read the extended interview at LAParent.com.
Find the extended interview at LAParent.com and remember to pick up their new May issue.
Click here for the link to my review of Castellucci’s First Day on Earth, a fantastic YA novel from 2011.