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Best New Books for Back-to-School 2021

10 BACK-TO-SCHOOL BOOKS

∼A ROUNDUP FOR 2021∼

 

 

backtoschool pencil clipart

 

 

Back-to school this year is not only the start of a new school year, for many it’s also a return to in-person learning in over a year. For others, it’s really the first time ever to attend daycare, preschool, or elementary school. This selection of ten assorted books highlights all the things that returning to school means for kids.

 

 

MEET YOUR SCHOOL!: An All About Me Book
Written by Cindy Jin

Illustrated by Melissa Crowton
(Little Simon; $7.99, Ages 1-5)

Cindy Jin’s upbeat 12-page school-shaped board book, Meet Your School!: An All About Me Book, features a variety of animals making their way through a school day. A nice overview is given of what kids can expect, from the main classrooms to the art room, gym, cafeteria, library, and music room. The rhyming couplets reinforce what can be found in each area: “The library is filled with books of all kinds / to teach and inspire bright, young minds.”

The illustrations by Melissa Crowton depict cute, colorful animals interacting happily in various situations. Each page has fun lift-the-flaps for further exploration. Overall, this book has a lot to discover while also providing a positive message as to what school is all about. – Review by Christine Van Zandt

 

HowtobeKindinKindergarten cvrHOW TO BE KIND IN KINDERGARTEN:
A Book For Your Backpack
Written by D.J. Steinberg
Illustrated by Ruth Hammond
(Grosset & Dunlap; $8.99; Ages 3-5)

 My eyes were instantly attracted to the colorful book cover illustration of an apple being shared on the school playground with a new friend, while classmates throw balls and glide down the slide, introducing readers to acts of kindness in How To Be Kind in Kindergarten: A Book for Your Backpack.

A book for your backpack is a perfect subtitle for this small hardcover book that reads rhythmically, teaching hidden lessons to kids first entering the new world of school. The fun-to-read story includes a diverse mix of abilities, races, and genders. Kids should have no problem finding themselves in one of Hammond’s realistic drawings.

Steinberg opens the story with the question, “Are you in kindergarten? Is that really true? How in the world did you get so big? So smart and funny, too!” The story moves into the classroom with posters of 1, 2, 3, and ABC so a child sees what a kindergarten classroom looks like. Kindness is threaded through each page as Steinberg points out, ‘Cause you’re the kind of kid who always shows you care.

This book shows kids what an impact they can make in their new school, whether cheering up a sad new friend or including a shy friend in a game. This truly is an ideal backpack book and should be read on the first day of school, the middle of the school year, and at the end of the school year because kindness is needed year-round. – Review by Ronda Einbinder

 

whats in dragons backpack coverWHAT’S IN DRAGON’S BACKPACK?
Written by Joan Holub

Illustrated by Christopher Lee
(Little Simon; $8.99, Ages 3-5)

The eye-catching cover of Joan Holub’s, What’s in Dragon’s Backpack? gleams with metallic dragon scales and the backpack-shaped 14-page board book has a cut-out handle just the right size for small hands. Inside, the fun rhyming couplets give us a glimpse of what Dragon’s got in there: “Stickers, charms, a message, and some homework that he fried. Oops!”

Each page has lift-the-flaps for further exploration adorned with Christopher Lee’s adorable art. The faces on his dragons, such as on the mock A Dragon’s Tale book, are top-notch. I also really like the subtle math lessons showing three flames equals one on-fire number three. Other teaching elements include groups of shapes that, once you peek beneath the flap, combine to make a sword.

Educational, interactive, and fun, this engaging book is sure to be a hit with kids who are starting school and donning backpacks. It can also be a conversation starter about what should be inside your child’s backpack to make school days a success. – Review by Christine Van Zandt

 

ISABEL AND HER COLORES GO TO SCHOOL
Written by Alexandra Alessandri
Illustrated by Courtney Dawson
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

It’s the first day of school, an English-speaking school, but Isabel only speaks Spanish. Isabel is a charming and irresistible main character and I cared about how she felt going into unknown territory, alone. Her reluctance is understandable. She doesn’t know English and is scared of what it will be like. Isabel sees things in gorgeous colors and through art and doesn’t realize how quickly she will pick up the new language. “English sounded wrong, like stormy blues and blizzard whites.” Isabel preferred the warm, cheerful colors of Spanish.

Ultimately her language learning is facilitated by one good friend but her limited grasp of English initially gets in the way. Isabel’s thoughtful art saves the day and new friendship blossoms. The interplay between Alessandri’s beautiful prose and Dawson’s flowing art makes every page a delight to behold. This cleverly presented bilingual picture book also includes Spanish to English translations in the back matter but for English speakers, most of the Spanish words can be understood in the context of the story. – Review by Ronna Mandel

 

My School Stinks! coverMY SCHOOL STINKS!
Written by Becky Scharnhorst
Illustrated by Julia Patton
(Philomel; $17.99; Ages 4-8)

School really does stink when one classmate is a skunk and the teacher is unBEARable. So, when little Stuart tells Mom his classmates are wild animals she says all kids are wild animals in debut author Becky Scharnhorst’s hysterical read-aloud with drawings by Julia Patton.

The originality of this story told in diary form starting on the first day of school and ending at Open House, when Mom and Dad realize they have sent their young child, Stuart, to a school full of animals, takes the reader through the first seventeen days of school. Stuart attempts to play along with his classmates when the monkeys hang him upside down. He’s then caught by Patricia the Porcupine pricking him with her many quills. Stuart journals P.S. The deep breaths still aren’t working. P.P.S. Neither are the happy thoughts P.P.P.S. I’m not going back tomorrow!

As Stuart continues to journal he also begins to make friends. Charlie the Crocodile apologizes for biting his fingers and becomes Stuart’s new best bud. This sweet story can be read for school storytime or by a parent before bed. I laughed on entry September 15 when Scharnhorst writes P.S. Mom doesn’t understand how a skunk got in the storage closet. I guess she’ll find out at Open House. I was anxious for Open House to find out how Mom and Dad would react to realizing they sent their child to the wrong school, but Stuart repeats what they told him on the first day of school Mom and Dad told me to take deep breaths and THINK HAPPY THOUGHTS. This was a great lesson for his parents. I just hope they let him stay friends with a crocodile! Patton’s detailed artwork adds to the whimsy with letters written on notebook paper and characters drawn with big teeth and round glasses. The P.S. notes were a fabulous extra touch. – Review by Ronda Einbinder

 

WE WANT TO GO TO SCHOOL:
The Fight for Disability Rights
Written by Maryann Cocca-Leffler + Janine Leffler
Illustrated by Maryann Cocca-Leffler

(Albert Whitman; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

Oh, how I’d love for this nonfiction picture book to be required reading in all schools! I could not believe as I read it that prior to President Ford signing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975 with its Individualized Education Plan (IEP), children with disabilities did not have the right to a free, appropriate, public education. But the book really focuses on the lawsuit in 1971 called Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia, the District Court ruling in 1972 that led to this important act being implemented, and the seven school-aged children and their families who made it happen.

We Want to Go to School is narrated by author-illustrator Cocca-Leffler’s daughter, author Janine Leffler, whose own inclusive experience as a student with Cerebral Palsy (CP) receiving various special assistance in school contrasts to what students prior to her would have experienced.  She explains how prior to the ’70s, students with disabilities either didn’t go to school, stayed in hospitals, or were sent to special schools at a huge expense to families. If they were allowed into some schools, these children were segregated in separate classrooms. There was little chance to interact with mainstream students. That is until Peter Mills, Janice King, Jerome James, Michael Williams, George Liddell, Jr., Steven Gaston and Duane Blacksheare decided they’d had enough of being left out. Of course, the schools objected, finding reason after reason why students with disabilities should not be able to attend. Their parents were having déjà vu.

Wasn’t public school supposed to be for everyone? Wasn’t that the lesson learned in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 when segregation because of the color one’s skin was the issue. So the families fought back. They began to meet others facing the same school challenges and there was power in numbers. The news of the lawsuit spread so that pretty soon “more families joined the lawsuit.” It then became a class action suit. “18,000 students from the Washington, D.C. area were also not receiving a public education because of their disabilities.” Would the judge presiding over the case agree? YES! And the positive outcome of this lawsuit led to big changes for students with disabilities with “federal laws guaranteeing public education for all children.

I loved the energy of Cocca-Leffler’s art, especially the spread where she’s filled the page with faces of 1,000 kids and tells readers to imagine those 18,000 DC students, and the 8 million US students denied an education because they had disabilities. Powerful! Five pages of back matter include information on Disability Education Rights, a timeline, Author Notes, and an enlightening Note from Paul R. Dimond, Plaintiffs’ Attorney in the Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia. I’m grateful for these change-makers. They paved the way for future students with disabilities who continue to benefit from their commitment to equal rights in education for all. – Review by Ronna Mandel

 

TheNightBaaforetheFirstDayofSchool coverTHE NIGHT BAAFORE THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
Written by Dawn Young
Illustrated by Pablo Pino
(WorthyKids; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

The Night Baafore The First Day of School blends the counting element, the rhyme and hilarity of Sandra Boynton’s Hippos Go Berserk with the irresistible art of Mark Teague’s Pigsty. As the main character Bo—the star of two previous books I haven’t yet read—attempts unsuccessfully to fall asleep due to day-before-school-starts jitters, he calls on sheep to help. The catch is they make it more difficult to sleep with the ruckus they create. Poor Bo, aware of the hours slipping away, is desperate. He offers them a snack if they’ll stop, but when that doesn’t work he calls an emergency meeting. Only then a mysterious shadow of a monster appears further exacerbating the chaos. 

There’s as much for readers to enjoy in Young’s wild storyline as there is in Pino’s zany and action-packed illustrations. The counting of sheep from 1 to 10 as they get up to no good adds an engaging layer to the book. Then, reversing that to eventually count back down as it gets later and later, is such fun and a great way to involve young readers. I love how the 10 sheep all wear number necklaces to identify themselves. Kids may want to study each spread more closer upon further reads to see what each individual sheep is doing with the supplies Bo has prepared for his backpack. The massive mess is mighty fun to look at. Tension builds with each page turn as we wonder if Bo will get any shut-eye and manage to catch the bus to school. And the humor surrounding every sheep-filled episode encroaching on Bo’s time to sleep is a delight in this rhyming romp of a read-aloud. – Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

NORMAN’S FIRST DAY AT DINO DAY CARE
Written and illustrated by Sean Julian
(NorthSouth Books; $17.95, Ages 4-8)

Norman, a very small, almost invisible dinosaur compared to all the other dinos at Mrs. Beak’s play group, is shy. This may resonate with young readers experiencing a similar emotion when just starting school and being away from home. Julian’s rich artwork is charming in how it depicts Norman hiding (except his tail always adorably sticking out) in various situations where the text also states “he was very good at hiding.” In the beginning, before Norman makes friends, parents can ask children to see if they can spot him in the illustrations as he avoids interaction.

My favorite part of the picture book is when Norman confides in Mrs. Beak that he really wants to join the other dinos but feels shy. “It’s okay to be shy,” Mrs. Beak replied. “It’s a special part of who you are.” When she asks the dinos to perform in pairs, Norman teams up with big, loud Jake who despite his size, admits he’s rather nervous too. The two share a laugh and come up with a magical performance that not only satisfies (and perhaps comforts) children but provides the perfect conversation starter for parents and teachers to discuss shyness. I’m not sure it was deliberate, but I appreciated Mrs. Beak’s rainbow door and her rainbow mug, another welcoming feature to this warm and reassuring read. – Review by Ronna Mandel

 

SCHOOL IS COOL! (A Hello!Lucky Book)
Written by Sabrina Moyle
Illustrated by Eunice Moyle
(Abrams Appleseed; $16.99; Ages 5-9)

School Is Cool was written and illustrated by sisters Sabrina Moyle and Eunice Moyle founders of Hello!Lucky, their award-winning letterpress greeting card and design studio.

Targeting the child who has already had some school experience, this story begins on the beach where the rhinoceros, dog, and platypus are chilling out until they realize Tomorrow’s the first day of school! The expressive drawings tell it all when the dog almost drops his ice cream cone and the rhino jumps from his floatation device. The friends are worried kids won’t like your hair. Or how they talk. Or what they wear.

Eunice Moyle’s bold, captivating illustrations depict all sorts of animals arriving for their first day by school bus and bikes. They line up awaiting a handshake from the animal teacher, in popping bright greens and oranges and a happy yellow sun, a perfect complement to the welcome the smiling animals.

This book expresses the true feelings many kids have when it’s time to say goodbye to Mom and home now replaced by an unfamiliar teacher and classroom where they must learn the new rules. What if your teacher calls on you—and the answer is five, but you said … 2. It’s ok to say “I don’t know.” Everyone is here to grow.”

The back flap states that the Moyle sisters use their creativity and humor to inspire kindness, empathy, self-awareness, and service and in doing so dedicate this book to teachers everywhere. You are the coolest! Thank you for all you do! – Review by Ronda Einbinder

 

TWINS VS. TRIPLETS #1:
Back-to-School Blitz

Written by Jennifer Torres
Illustrated by Vanessa Flores
(Harper Chapters; HC $15.99, Paperback $5.99, Ages 6-10)

It looks like it’s going to be three times the trouble at school for David Suárez. With new neighbors, the Benitez triplets adding to what’s already an annoying presence by his other neighbors, the Romero twins, David must navigate third grade and not lose his cool. His goal after all is to be captain of the Globetrotters, the geography club, and that requires an uncluttered mind. Except the Benitez triplets and Romero twins are messing with him and everyone else.

When David is tasked with monitoring the playground (trouble maker prime turf), he fears it may be made off-limits for everyone if the five tricksters continue getting up to no good. And that is looking more and more likely when both sets of mischief-makers aim to rule recess with their pranks and pushy personalities.

This early chapter book, filled with humorous black-and-white illustrations, works well with its mix of Spanish words and expressions along with comments at the end of most chapters noting a reader’s progress. I like how Back-to-School Blitz includes a diverse group of students and some interesting geography information (David’s favorite subject) that ends up playing an important part in keeping the bullies in check. A couple of things jumped out at me like having the triplets together in one class which I thought wasn’t typically done. Another time, after causing a distraction, the triplets sneak out of class early without the teacher, Mr. Kim, noticing. But I’m an adult and if the kids reading this first book in a new series don’t mind, that’s great because as the book ends, there’s some unusual digging going on in the sandbox, and surely more pranks to come in book #2. – Review by Ronna Mandel

 

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Dinosaurs Before Dark Graphic Novel – Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House Series

DINOSAURS BEFORE DARK GRAPHIC NOVEL

Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series

Written by Jenny Laird

Illustrated by Kelly and Nichole Matthews

(Random House BYR; $16.99, Ages 6-9)

 

DinosaursBeforeDark MTH graphicnovel cover

 

 

“I wish I could go there…”

 

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.

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Dinosaurs Before Dark GN Int1
Interior art from Dinosaurs Before Dark Graphic Novel, Mary Pope Osborne’s The Magic Tree House series illustrated by Kelly Matthews and Nichole Matthews and adapted by Jenny Laird, Random House BYR ©2021.

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This first title in the 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!

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Dinosaurs Before Dark GN Int2
Interior art from Dinosaurs Before Dark Graphic Novel, Mary Pope Osborne’s The Magic Tree House series illustrated by Kelly Matthews and Nichole Matthews and adapted by Jenny Laird, Random House BYR ©2021.

 

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).

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Dinosaurs Before Dark GN Int3
Interior art from Dinosaurs Before Dark Graphic Novel, Mary Pope Osborne’s The Magic Tree House series illustrated by Kelly Matthews and Nichole Matthews and adapted by Jenny Laird, Random House BYR ©2021.

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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.

  •  Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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Five New Halloween Books for Kids – A Roundup Part 2

BEST NEW KIDS BOOKS FOR HALLOWEEN

∼ A ROUNDUP ∼

PART 2

 

 

 

Beneath the Bed coverMISTER SHIVERS: BENEATH THE BED AND OTHER SCARY STORIES
Written by Max Brallier
Illustrated by Letizia Rubegni
(Acorn/Scholastic; $4.99, Ages 5-7)

Acorn books, designed for early readers, brings five scary stories to children in this Mister Shivers series. Beneath the Bed and Other Scary Stories has 64 pages packed with full-color artwork while some other Acorn books have 48 pages. Either way, there’s something for every new reader seeking “relatable characters and experiences” written and illustrated by some of the best known names in children’s literature.

Beneath the Bed and Other Scary Stories opens with a letter from Mister Shivers about a mysterious box delivered to him in which he found items pertaining to each story and a promise to share the stories in the book. Like all the stories in this book, evocative, muted illustrations help reinforce the easy-to-read text of these fast paced short stories. That’s certainly the case in “Beneath the Bed” about a boy dared by kids at school to visit the local haunted house. Upon entering the house with his sister who he brought along for courage, the pair discover a sinister doll with glowing eyes under a bed in the attic bedroom.

“A Hair Down to My Stomach” as the title implies, is equal parts gross and unsettling, with just the type of visuals accompanying it to make it succeed. “The Statue” will have kids talking back to the book as they turn the pages and tell the mom in the story as her son tries to do, “Don’t buy the statue!” Of course, she does. What follows is the reason why Mr. Shivers’ mysterious box contained a piece of quilty. He never mentioned if it was smelly like the quilt in “The Statue.” All I know is the young boy should have listened to the statue’s owner when she warned the buyers not to remove the quilt. The same goes for Oliver in “A Dark and Stormy Night” who should have done as his parents’ wished and brought his toys inside. Instead, they were left out in the rain to be ruined by the elements. Toys don’t like being forgotten and seek their revenge when that happens. Poor Oliver! And as for the scraping sound in “The Noise at the Window,” I know this well. Only I’ve been fortunate to find a tree outside where I heard the clawing coming from a branch. The little girl in this tale wasn’t so fortunate!

Okay spine, start tingling because these five stories are guaranteed to make you keep the lights on.

The Okay Witch book coverTHE OKAY WITCH
Written and illustrated by Emma Steinkellner
(Aladdin; $12.99, Ages 8-12)

Get ready to be caught under the spell of Emma Steinkellner’s The Okay Witch, a terrific debut middle grade graphic novel.

Tween readers will be charmed by the main character Moth Hush, who at 13 learns she is part witch with special powers, something she had only dreamed of up until that point. Living above her single mom Calendula’s second hand store, Moth has never felt the warm and fuzzies from her classmates in her Massachusetts hometown of Founder’s Bluff nor in the community at large. She soon learns there’s a good reason why and goes exploring back in time via her mother’s diary.

In 1692 a group of women suspected of being witches, her grandmother Sarah being one of them, was run out of town. They were indeed witches but good ones and many townspeople secretly went to them to avail of magic to help them. When ousted, Sarah led the women to a timeless land she created called Hecate, but Calendula refused to live there. She returned to Founder’s Bluff to live a normal non-witch life for herself having fallen in love with a human. Sadly, Sarah cast a spell to make this man have no memory of Calendula. Pregnant, the brokenhearted, Calendula raised Moth alone with no magic.

In school Moth befriends another fish-out-of-water named Charlie who is new to Founder’s Bluff. Little does Moth know that there’s a connection between her family and Charlie’s that could test their friendship. I got a kick out of the magical cat, Mr. Laszlo, the spirit of Keeper’s Secondhand Store who had taken Calendula in and, when he passed away, left the store to her. The talking feline’s speech is peppered with Yiddish and in my head I heard Billy Crystal doing the dialogue.

Steinkellner must have had such fun writing and illustrating this story which reads quickly and nicely ties all the loose threads together at the end. The artwork wonderfully and convincingly conveys the moments when Moth experiences the power of magic. I especially liked the historical scenes and when Moth visits Hecate, but to be honest, all the illustrations brought the story alive. The novel is filled with humor, sarcasm, action, fantasy, pride and most of all, love as evidenced by Moth’s efforts to navigate the magical world of her grandmother and the real world in which Calendula has chosen to raise her. She’s new to the witch world and she’s far from perfect, making her The Okay Witch we care about and want to see happy and at home with her mom.

Graphic novel fans will quickly be swept up into Moth’s witchy world of time travel, timelessness, tween curiosity and relationships as Moth tries to learn more about herself. Will the way in which her family’s life intersects with that of Founder’s Bluff  be a reason to stay or retreat to Hecate? The fun’s in the finding out in this enchanting, recommended read that’s definitely not just for Halloween.

Ghoulia and the Mysterious Vistor cvrGHOULIA AND THE MYSTERIOUS VISITOR (Book #2)
Written and illustrated by Barbara Cantini
Translated from Italian by Anna Golding
(Amulet Books; $9.99, Ages 6-8)

You don’t need to have read Book#1 in order to enjoy Ghoulia and the Mysterious Visitor (Book #2), a chapter book series about a friendly zombie called Ghoulia and the dead and not-so-dead inhabitants of Crumbling Manor. Billed as Clue meets Little Shop of Horrors, this full-color illustrated book is sure to get young readers in a Halloween mood.

The story opens with Ghoulia feeling bored. When cranky cousin Dilbert arrives unexpectedly, Ghoulia looks for her Auntie Departed to explain why this relative she’d never even heard of got invited to Crumbling Manor. But her Chatterbox-Ivy-obsessed aunt is nowhere to be found. Ghoulia thinks it’s odd when more friends turn up, each with an invitation to a surprise dinner the young vampire knows nothing about.

As Ghoulia and her pals search Crumbling Manor for Auntie Departed, a friend Theresa also goes missing. Something weird is happening so the remaining guests split up to find those who’ve disappeared while trying to help Ghoulia figure out who sent the invitations.

This delightful chapter book will hook confident young readers ages 6 to 8 who still love beautifully illustrated stories that aren’t scary yet have an air of mystery about them. I’m not sure kids will recognize famous individuals such as Hitchcock and Poe in framed pictures on Crumbling Manor’s walls, but they’re certainly a treat for adult readers. In fact every illustration is a treat and worthy of a thorough scanning to see what special things Cantini has hung up on the walls or placed in each room. Her prose and pictures provide the perfect foreshadowing for kids quick to pick up clues. At the end there are bonus activities including how to write an invitation and fill out an envelope, how to start a garden and how to make Dilbert’s special pumpkin juice (minus the spiders’ eggs)! Watch out for Ghoulia and the Ghost With No Name (Book #3) coming soon!

THE CURSE OF THE WERE PENGUIN
Written by Allan Woodrow
Illustrated by Scott Brown
(Viking BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

Described by Chris Grabenstein, #1 New York Times bestselling author, as “Young Frankenstein meets The Princess Bride in the most hysterically hilarious book I’ve read in years,” and I could not agree more. I smiled my whole way through The Curse of the Werepenguin, a clever, funny and original story within a story. I read it over two days and could not wait to see how author Allan Woodrow would end it. As I suspected, it’s TO BE CONTINUED so now I have to find out where he takes this wild and feathery tale of an orphan boy named Bolt.

Meet Humboldt Wattle (aka Bolt), a twelve-year-old boy abandoned as a baby at The Oak Wilt Home for Unwanted Boys. There’s little about him that makes him stand out except a large bird-shaped birthmark on his neck. When suddenly his life changes overnight, Bolt’s unusual marking will take on tremendous significance in his life. He’s been summoned to the distant land of Brugaria by a wealthy baron who no one wishes to disobey. Could this mean the family he’s been hoping for is finally ready to reunite with him?

The catch is that Baron Chordata is not only a cruel person feared by most inhabitants of Brugaria, he looks like he’s the same age as Bolt. On top of that, he dresses in tuxedos even at home, and consumes massive quantities of fish, every kind imaginable, including live goldfish. Woodraw’s descriptions of eating seafood have to be some of the funniest and disgusting ones I’ve ever read and I lapped up every slimy, slithery sentence. I also may never look at fish sticks the same way again!

In a trance from his first experience playing video games, Bolt unknowingly agrees to a request by Baron Chordata. This eventually leads to his being bitten on the neck. The result? Bolt turns partially into half boy, half penguin or werepenguin, so maybe a quarter … Anyway, after three days the full effect of the transformation will be complete. When the full moon shines, which is every night in Brugaria, the change in Bolt occurs. His feet turn webbed and orange, he sprouts wild tufts of hair, wings, an enormous nose and has cravings for seafood. Then he, along with all the other werepenguins including the baron, bark, wreak havoc and steal fish whenever possible.

Fortunately or unfortunately for Bolt, a girl named Annika who tried to rob and kidnap him because she’s “the world’s great bandit,” becomes an ally (or not) in trying to help Bolt escape the baron’s wicked clutches and rid himself of the werepenguin curse. The curse is not the only thing Bolt’s dealing with. He’s got this wacky, whale-loving cult leader named Günter determined to destroy him. Günter’s weapon of choice, a loaf of French bread! Plus Bolt’s learned that the werepenguins, led by power and fish hungry werepenguin-in-chief, Baron Chordata, are orchestrating a takeover of Brugaria the same day the curse on Bolt goes into full force. Someone has to do something and Bolt realizes it’s him. What that something is, he’s not totally sure, but still …

You’ll LOL at the Cloris Leachman-like “lowly housekeeper” called Frau Farfenugen, a greenish, warty and miserable woman who is not what she seems, Blazenda, a fortune-telling witch whose cackles drive Bolt crazy, but who may hold the key (or tooth) to Bolt’s freedom, and a cast of colorful characters, some of whom scream and faint whenever the name Baron Chordata is said aloud, that will entertain you and have you sitting on the edge of your seat or wherever it is that you read fantastic books.

Ultimately, Bolt has to decide what real family is. Is it Annika and her bandit dad and his buddies or is it the rook of penguins that, we learn in the novel’s prologue, should never be split up? I’m not going to spoil it by telling you, but I will say that joining Bolt on his journey is something you’ll love doing. So start cooking some fish sticks, grab a baguette and get reading!

Ghost book coverGHOST: THIRTEEN HAUNTING TALES TO TELL
A Collection by Illustrátus
(Chronicle Books; $21.99, Ages 9-12)
Starred Reviews – Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal

I made sure I read this book when my husband was home because I’m a big chicken. When I did read Ghost, I realized the stories are not only fantastic ghost stories for Halloween, but also ones to commit to memory to share around a campfire. You could also bring the book along but you many not want the hauntingly illustrated, white embossed cover to get dirty. “Contributors to this chilling collection include authors Blaise Hemingway and Jesse Reffsin, and illustrators Chris Sasaki and Jeff Turley,” and Kit Turley, and they’ve done a fantastic job of scaring me although, as I said above, I do scare easily.

As I settled down to read each of the thirteen eerie tales, an owl hooted from my back yard adding to spooky feeling the stories exude. The tales, brief but powerfully creepy, are ideal for tweens who love to feel the hair on their necks stand up. The subjects range from a girl getting a tap tap tap from her mirror and then being imprisoned in it by her evil reflection, to two boys going ice fishing who disregard a shopkeeper’s advice to avoid the north of Point Whitney. The reasonit’s haunted by the ghost of Max Whitney, the former owner of the bait and tackle shop. Do the boys catch a lot of fish? Yep. Do they return safely home to share their experience? I’m not telling. There’s another one that takes place by a pond. Suffice it to say that, unlike the main character in this tale, a boy named Samuel who hears his drowned sister call out to him and follows her cries, I would never go out of my house in the middle of the night with a lantern by myself. The artwork throughout Ghost has a spare quality about it with a very limited palette which is appropriate for the collection. And though created digitally, all the illustrations resemble wood block prints and imbue every tale with as frightening an effect as the words themselves.

The tale that particularly resonated with me was about a girl who finally gets a room of her own away from her younger sister. Now alone in her new bedroom, the girl is terrified of the ghostly night noises but thinks if she just huddles under the covers and keeps her eyes tightly closed, everything will be okay. And it is, but how long can she keep her eyes shut? Did I mention that as a child I had my dad install a lock on my bedroom closet door? I will not easily forget the story of the young boy, Michael Alvey deep sea diving to a WWII sub wreck in search of the bodies of his deceased parents. They died just after their last communication was, “Please! Help! They’re coming.” When I found out who “they” were, I was shocked and readers will be, too. I caution young readers to avoid basements, elevators, hiking or making a trip after midnight to a cemetery right after reading Ghost.

Some stories unhinged me more than others, “The Descent” being one of them. That’s not to say they weren’t all good because they were, but certain stories played off of my deepest fears more than others. That being said, it might be best to read this book with a cat curled up on your lap or with a big dog nearby during the day!

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Read another Halloween Books roundup here.

 

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Ivy and Bean are Back in One Big Happy Family (book 11)

IVY + BEAN:
ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY (BOOK 11)

Written by Annie Barrows
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
(Chronicle Books; $14.99, Ages 6-9)

 

cover illustration fron Ivy and Bean One Big Happy Family

The wait is over because Ivy and Bean are back! In Ivy + Bean: One Big Happy Family (the eleventh book of the critically acclaimed series), second-grade teacher Ms. Aruba-Tate has the class draw the Important People in their lives. This leads Ivy to wonder whether she’s spoiled because she’s an only child. After the BFFs try various things to test whether this is true, Ivy realizes the “cure” is to get a sister!

 

int artwork and text from Ivy and Bean One Big Happy Family
Interior spread from Ivy and Bean: One Big Happy Family (Book 11) written by Annie Barrows and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, Chronicle Books ©2018.

 

As usual, misdirection and mayhem unfold as the girls conjure up creative ways to obtain a sibling. They discover baby sisters are almost as bad as big sisters, leaving only one solution: twins. Although One Big Happy Family tackles a somewhat common premise, the story line goes to unexpected places. Other books involve siblings issues, but Annie Barrows finds new ground in which to grow this story. She continues the series with the humor we expect from adorable troublemakers, Ivy and Bean. Fans and new readers alike will enjoy spending some time with these girls as they traverse their Pancake Court neighborhood, taking life by storm.

Sophie Blackall’s illustrations on each two-page spread convey hilarious facial expressions and silly predicaments. Images and text interweave, boosting these chapter books to something better than each half alone. Carefully placed details add depth beyond the humor. The girls tackle real-life issues but do so in a way only Ivy and Bean can. Their escapades, while outrageous at moments, also work out issues in kid-relatable ways, demonstrating why this series continues to be a hit at home and in the classroom.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of the Wizard of Oz by Michael Morpurgo

TOTO: THE DOG-GONE AMAZING STORY
OF THE WIZARD OF OZ
Written by Michael Morpurgo
Illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark
(HarperCollins Children’s Books; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

 

cvr image Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of The Wizard of Oz

 

The beautifully illustrated middle-grade chapter book, Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of the Wizard of Oz  gives voice to Toto, providing an interesting and refreshing viewpoint. Each chapter orients the reader to current day as Papa Toto recounts his adventures to seven sleepy puppies; only Tiny Toto always stays awake until the tale’s end. Kids will enjoy Papa Toto’s sausage cravings—delicious food is scarce on that long yellow brick road.

int image Toto shoe Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of The Wizard of OzMore than 250 full-color drawings by Emma Chichester Clark create vivid, engaging scenes; Papa Toto is Chichester Clark’s recognizable black scruffy dog. Both artist and writer are masters at their craft. A former Children’s Laureate, Morpurgo has published over 130 books. His novel, War Horse, was successfully adapted into a Tony Award-winning Broadway play and a Golden Globe-nominated film by Steven Spielberg.

 

Int image Lion Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of The Wizard of OzMorpurgo, an expert storyteller, introduces new generations to the timeless Wizard of Oz. Whenever Dorothy says, “Home is home, and home is best,” Toto woofs, “You’re so dog-gone right.” A gentle reminder to appreciate life before a twister strikes.

As the story progresses it becomes clear that Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion possess what they seek; they just don’t know it. The surprise, of course, is believing in an all-powerful wizard who proves to be “nothing but a humbug, a low-down trickster, a miserable fraudster.” However, with some “upside-down thinking,” the way home is within reach.

 

Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of The Wizard of Oz Text copyright © 2017 by Michael Morpurgo.
Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Emma Chichester Clark. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, HarperCollins Children’s Books.

 

 

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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A Giveaway to Celebrate 10 Years of Stink Moody

 

HAPPY 10th ANNIVERSARY, STINK MOODY! 
It’s Children’s Book Week and We’re Celebrating.

We’re delighted to get all Stinky with it as the Stink series marks ten years on the scene. And what better way to celebrate Judy Moody’s hilarious and curious younger brother than with a generous giveaway of books courtesy of Candlewick Press! We’ll be following up this giveaway with an in-depth interview with author Megan McDonald so please watch this space.

If you’ve read or heard of the popular Judy Moody series of books by Megan McDonald, then you’ll also be familiar with Judy’s younger brother, Stink. The last decade has seen Stink get his own book series (he’s got more than nine titles now if you count his Stink-O-Pedias) while growing in popularity, so much so that he’s even getting his own celebration from publisher Candlewick Press. The best thing about the Stink series is how McDonald weaves STEM into every plot, whether it’s about the solar system, sharks and guinea pigs or sneaker sniffing, and makes it fun. There are fascinating facts along with Reynolds’ funny cartoons included in every book so children learn while laughing. Sure to pull in reluctant readers, these chapter books are filled with just the right amount of illustrations, Stink-y humor, and lovable characters to keep kids coming back for more.

SharkSleepovercvr.jpgIn honor of this super sniffer, letter S loving “spotlight stealer,” we’re singing Stink’s praises and giving away three books including a brand new illustrated first chapter book and two new paperback releases. All books are perfect for adding to your child’s collection or for giving away to a fun-loving fan or school library.

Stink and the Shark Sleepover by Megan McDonald with illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds (Candlewick; $4.99, Ages 6-9)

When a first chapter is called There Will Be Sharks you just have to read on! The Moodys have won an overnight trip to the aquarium and everyone’s going to be there including Stink’s best buddy Webster, that oh-so-annoying classmate, Riley Rottenberger, and sharks, lots of ’em. But there’s just one catch, after an evening full of activities, Stink’s heard a scary story about Bloody Mary and he’s creeped out so much that he can’t fall asleep. A ghostly red glow and mysterious noise coming from a door nearby doesn’t help matters. Stink might have to pull a prank, or two, because Judy is sleeping a little too peacefully in the presence of sharks.

Click here to read a sample chapter.
Click here to download an activity kit.
Click here for a teacher’s guide.

MasterofDisastercvr.jpgJudy Moody and Friends: Stink Moody in Master of Disaster by Megan McDonald with illustrations by Erwin Madrid (Candlewick; $12.99, Ages 4-6)
Geared for “newly independent readers,” the Judy Moody and Friends series will breed a whole new flock of Judy and Stink fans. There are just a few chapters, large print, colorful illustrations and an engaging storyline. As this story begins, Judy and Stink are sleeping out in the backyard in the hopes of seeing comet P/2015OZ4, also known as the Sherman-Holm comet. Or in Stink’s case, the Sherlock-Holmes comet. The space theme is carried through when Stink, convinced that a giant asteroid is speeding toward Earth, decides to build an asteroid-proof bunker in the basement, transforming into Asteroid Boy to save the day.

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Interior artwork from Stink Moody in Master of Disaster by Megan McDonald with illustrations by Erwin Madrid, Candlewick Press ©2015.

TheBigBadBlackoutcvr.jpgJudy Moody & Stink: The Big Bad Blackout by Megan McDonald with illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds (Candlewick; $6.99, Ages 6-9)

With its cool glow-in-the-dark title on the cover, this paperback edition of Judy Moody & Stink: The Big Bad Blackout is certain to entice some nighttime reading under the covers by flashlight. A big storm, a blackout and time off from school – what could get more exciting than that? Add Grandma Lou visiting with a host of her pets to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for fun family time together. And some great stories to boot. Speaking of boots, Judy and Stink are going to be needing them with the amount of rain that’s in store.  But there are double rainbows at the end plus tips on what things kids can do during a blackout (reading books by candlelight, flashlight or headlamp is one of ’em) making this book a must-have for any home library.

 

 

TheBigBadBlackout.int.3
Interior artwork from Judy Moody & Stink: The Big Bad Blackout by Megan McDonald with illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds, Candlewick Press ©2015.

Visit www.stinkmoody.com to learn more about the character and his super series of books.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

GIVEAWAY BONUS: Follow us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/goodreadswithronna, then let us know and we’ll give you an extra two entries in the giveaway! Valid, too, if you’re already a fan. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, Retold.

The Snow Queen
Retold by Sarah Lowes and illustrated by Miss Clara
Barefoot Books; $9.99; Chapter book for ages 8 and up

The Snow Queen
Translated by Anthea Bell and illustrated by Yana Sedova
Minedition; $19.99; Picture book for ages 5 and up

To those in the USA who are busy surviving snow storms and blizzards, winter might seem like a curse. For those who are stifling under drought conditions, snow must seem like a fleeting, magical element. The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen combines the danger and wonder of snow in an imaginative tale. When a shard of an evil mirror pierces his eye, Kay sees only the bad in the world. This makes him easy prey for the Snow Queen, who kidnaps him. Kay’s best friend Gerda decides to rescue him. To do so, she must set out on a long and arduous journey where she encounters talking birds and animals, magical flowers, an enchantress, a robber girl, and a princess. Gerda’s love for her friend is her greatest help, and she battles the bitter cold to reach the Snow Queen’s icy palace. There, Gerda frees Kay from his frozen heart and the Snow Queen’s grasp.

It’s little wonder that this fantastical story continues to be retold, even 171 years after its original publication. Here are two retellings of this tale of friendship and courage.

The Snow Queenthesnowqueen_pb_w
Retold by Sarah Lowes and illustrated by Miss Clara
Barefoot Books: Step Inside A Story; $9.99

With “accelerated vocabulary and complex sentence structure for the confident reader,” Barefoot Books presents its adapted version as a chapter book for ages eight and up. At 64 pages within seven chapters, the book is a good length for that age group. Here’s a taste of this exciting story:

The bags of provisions were taken and Gerda was dragged from the saddle. Her arms were pinned behind her, and a bony robber with bristling eyebrows and a hairy chin prodded and poked at her new clothes. “Quite the little lady…” he murmured as he drew his sharp dagger and held it to her throat.

“No!” shouted a clear, commanding young voice.

What I greatly enjoyed about this version was the evocative art by French artist, Miss Clara. Whimsical illustrations produce an ethereal sense of people and places. The jacket description states that Miss Clara first creates maquettes (scale models of unfinished sculptures), which she then photographs. Next, she works on those images digitally. The results are simply beautiful and captivating. I also enjoyed the tangible feel of the book. The cover is made of thicker paper than most chapter books, as are the pages. This made the book in its own way feel more appropriate for chapter book readers, as if they are being recognized as older and entrusted with weightier books. In addition, Barefoot Books states that “we source paper from sustainably managed forests,” which adds to the appeal.

TheSnowQueenBB-Int.jpg
Interior spread from The Snow Queen retold by Sarah Lowes with illustrations by Miss Clara, Barefoot Books, ©2011.

 

 

The Snow Queen
TheSnowQueen.jpg
Translated by Anthea Bell and illustrated by Yana Sedova
Minedition; $19.99

Minedition presents its version of The Snow Queen as a picture book for ages 5 and up. Also 64 pages, this edition features large print for easy reading. Here’s the same sample as above:

They seized the horses, killed the coachman, footman and outriders, and dragged Gerda out of the carriage. “Oh, doesn’t she look tender and plump,” said the old robber woman who had a beard and bristly eyebrows. “This little girl will taste good!” And she brought out a sharp, shiny knife. But then she screamed, “Ouch!”… “Oh no, you don’t,” said the little robber girl.

Again, the art work is a huge draw for the book. The icy tones of the multiple shades of blue, silver, and green capture the feel of the cold and the iciness of the Snow Queen’s heart. The illustrations seem delicate and powerful at the same time.

The Snow Queen is a classic, and both versions are excellent versions that will fascinate children.

– Reviewed by Rita Zobayan

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The Exceptional Matilda Turns 25!

Long before I was a parent I got a taste of Roald Dahl’s humor in the early ’70s via the popular film Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. Then, in London some thirty years later, I heard The Magic Finger audio book. Now that I’ve read an actual book and seen Quentin Blake’s spot-on illustrations for Matilda (Puffin, $6.99, ages 7 and up), I am eager to see the acclaimed Broadway musical. It seems that Dahl’s work is brilliantly entertaining in any form presented.

9780142410370H

 

Roald Dahl, also known for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, had a wonderful and wild imagination with a wit to match.  And though celebrating its 25th anniversary, the book remains as popular with readers today as it was when first published.

Matilda put a smile on my face and introduced me to one of the most OTT characters I’ve seen in print in a long time. If the name Miss Trunchbull doesn’t conjure up images of a walking, talking mega-sized Medieval torture machine (AKA the Headmistress), I don’t know what will!! Matilda is a child prodigy. Yet, unlike the children whose parents gush over their real or perceived little Einsteins, Matilda’s parents do absolutely NOTHING to nurture their four-year-old daughter. In fact, they barely treat her with indifference being so caught up in their own lunacy.

Hungry for knowledge to feed her growing mind, Matilda makes her way to the local library. There the librarian, Mrs. Phelps helps the youngster find books she’d like. Eventually Matilda takes home books to travel the world from the comfort of her bedroom while avoiding the dishonesty and rudeness of her family. A second-hand car dealer, Matilda’s father, Mr. Wormwood, boasts of tricking his customers and profiting from his deviousness. Readers will thoroughly love all the practical jokes Matilda plays on her dad as a way of getting back at him for his misdeeds.  Blake’s pen and ink artwork perfectly captures all the hijinks in the book, especially those occurring at Crunchem Hall Primary School, and enhance what is already a rollicking good read.

Fortunately for Matilda, school takes her away from her unpleasant parents and there she finds compassion from her teacher, aptly named Miss Honey. Miss Honey is in awe of Matilda’s genius and provides the young girl with the attention and nurturing she’s missed at home. Unfortunately Miss Honey is so very poor and suffering due to the unfortunate loss of income and housing at the hands of a cruel aunt who just happens to be Miss Trunchbull. Now that Matilda has an ally in Miss Honey, she’s emboldened to fight back at the horrendous Headmistress and by doing so discovers a magical power that will help her achieve her goal. The pleasure kids get from Matilda’s success is why this book continues to be in demand. A happy ending that assures the Trunchbull’s comeuppance, restores Miss Honey’s inheritance and Matilda’s future well-being.

I realize that, having had children attend primary school in London,  I am partial to Dahl’s language and exaggerated style but there is simply no denying his gift for great storytelling. The book is certain to engage even the most reluctant of readers with its funny characters, crazy plot and satisfying finish.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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