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Middle Grade Book Review – New Kids & Underdogs

NEW KIDS & UNDERDOGS

Written by Margaret Finnegan

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

 

New Kids and Underdogs cover dog doing agility training

 

 

In Margaret Finnegan’s third middle-grade novel, New Kids & Underdogs, she once again convincingly captures the voice of the 10-year-old protagonist, in this case, fifth grader, Robyn Kellen.

Robyn, whose parents are divorced, has moved around a lot because of her mother’s university teaching positions. Now in San Luis Obispo which, according to Robyn’s mom, is going to be the last move, Robyn must yet again learn to navigate a new town, new school, and hopefully new friendships. To do so, she relies upon her handy list of rules for a new kid.

At school, Robyn has initially blended in with two classmates (rule #1 ), Marshan and Lulu, and feels thankful for that. But when Robyn decides to pursue agility training for her beloved dogs Sundae (anxious, and needy of Fudge) and Fudge (almost blind, deaf, and definitely intelligent), it ends up connecting her with kids at school who just might make her break her rules in the best possible way. However, before doing so, she must learn that life experiences do not always fit neatly into a set of rules. And to find true friends, she must stop the rules from taking over.

Early on in the book, Robyn negotiates a trade with cancer survivor, Nestor, and his cousin, Jonathan,  together with “the Grape,” passionate purple wearer and grade-four-skipping, Alejandra. Tutoring and snacks for agility training. The thing is, Robyn ends up enjoying the time she spends with these kids who Marshan and Lulu consider to be sad outsiders.

After Nestor starts successfully teaching Sundae and Fudge to handle an agility, or what he, the most experienced in the group, dubs an “ability” course, Robyn worries she is spending too much time with these kids. If Marshan and Lulu think the agility kids are all sad outsiders, the negative label could stick to her by association. So, Robyn builds an invisible wall to keep her school friends separate from the dog training group and never the twain shall meet.

Eventually this protective wall leads to the kids who meet for agility to stop pursuing a friendship with Robyn when she does not return their interest. But when she changes her mind at Halloween it proves too little too late. Clearly remaining safe behind her wall is what her list dictates. Will Robyn get another chance to befriend the pack of agility training kids and rewrite or even discard those limiting rules?

Readers see that people, like the dogs in this story, are so much more than their abilities or disabilities. They are a whole package, a whole book. And Finnegan has a gift for presenting “underdogs” and empowering them so any kid reading this story will also feel empowered. The challenges Robyn has had to deal with being a new kid time and again ultimately reach a breaking point. “What other people think is their problem, not yours,” Alejandra wisely says near the end. Pretty darn insightful, I’d say.  When Robyn realizes that the underdogs get her and she is one of them, she understands she cannot judge anyone by just one chapter.

This fantastic novel about being seen and accepting one’s worth of true friendship is my recommended read for kids who may be facing friendship issues of their own. It’s a novel I’d have felt comfortable suggesting to my own kids when they were in those often trying middle-school years.

Click here for a discussion guide.

Read my interview with Margaret about her second novel, Susie B. Won’t Back Down here.

  • Review by Ronna Mandel
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Children’s Picture Book Review – My Dog Banana

MY DOG BANANA

Written by Roxane Brouillard

Illustrated by Giulia Sagramola

Translated by Simon de Jocas and Paula Ayer

(Greystone Kids; $17.95; Ages 4-8)

 

My Dog Banana Cover

 

When neighbors question a boy walking with a banana attached to a red leash, the child confidently explains that he is walking his dog Banana in Roxanne Brouillard’s debut picture book,  My Dog Banana, with charming artwork by Giulia Sagramola, in her first picture book as well.

The cover instantly grabbed my attention because, well, how often have you seen a boy walking a banana on a leash? The boy’s mouth is drawn as a big smile, while the neighbors surrounding him have mouths agape. Even the Lhasa Apso is confused! Sagramola draws a black line directed at each person speaking giving the art a graphic novel feel. “What are you doing?” the boy with the backward green baseball cap asks pointing at the banana. “I’m walking my dog,” the dark-haired boy responds with hand on hip.

 

My Dog Banana IntImage 1
Interior spread from My Dog Banana written by Roxane Brouillard and illustrated by Giulia Sagramola, Greystone Kids ©2021.

 

Faded green trees are drawn in the background so the reader’s attention is on the latest neighbor introduced with each page turn. We see the confusion with question marks above heads and raised eyebrows. The boy just doesn’t understand why the neighbors don’t see Banana the dog. The people try their best to see what the boy sees, but with each question asked to the boy he has a logical answer in return. “It isn’t moving,the woman returning from a Farmer’s Market says with fruit in her bag. “She is very tired today,” with emphasis on the She, not the It.

 

My Dog Banana IntImage 2
Interior spread from My Dog Banana written by Roxane Brouillard and illustrated by Giulia Sagramola, Greystone Kids ©2021.

 

Turning each page, more neighbors appear with confused faces. Sagramola’s drawings of hands in the air and pointed fingers add to the humor of Brouillard’s words. The Lhasa Apso goes nose-to-nose with the banana to see if she can get a reaction but no luck. The boy has an answer for everything until the neighbors stop asking questions and begin to laugh. He remains true to himself and doesn’t give in to their laughter. When the boy and Banana finally give up and walk away from the adults and children’s hysterics on the last page, the Banana speaks and says, “Woof! Woof!”

This light-hearted sweet story, with an assortment of diverse characters, will bring laughter to the reader and allow them to question what is real and not real. Did Banana really Woof? Only your imagination can answer that question.

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

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Picture Book Blog Tour for Perdu

PERDU

Written and illustrated by Richard Jones

(Peachtree Publishing; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Perdu cover

 

INTRO:

Good Reads With Ronna is delighted to appear on day three (see schedule below) of the Perdu Blog Tour! I hope you’ll take the time to not only read the book review, but to also watch all the fantastic videos that Peachtree Publishing has shared with us.

 

REVIEW:

Richard Jones makes his welcome debut as both author and illustrator with this tale of a lost (perdu in French) dog seeking a forever family. And may I just add here that Perdu is precious! Both the main character and the story itself. With his sweet face gracing the book’s cover, it’s easy to be captivated by his faraway, lonely look.

While we never learn where Perdu has come from because he certainly didn’t tie the neck scarf himself, it’s easy to let that mystery go in favor of the bigger mystery at the heart of this moving story—will he ever find a loving home?

 

Perdu interior 1
Interior spread from Perdu written and illustrated by Richard Jones, Peachtree Publishing ©2021.

 

Readers first glimpse Perdu on the title page, head down, red scarf around his neck, and walking through a field. As he carries on his journey, he notes that, unlike a nearby fallen leaf, he has no place to be. Poor Perdu!

He wanders over a bridge on the outskirts of town where he’s noticed by a little girl sporting a distinct red knit pom-pomed hat. Determined to find his “somewhere,” like everyone else, the sweet lost little dog continues his search and wanders into the big, anonymous city. 

 

Perdu Interior 2
Interior spread from Perdu written and illustrated by Richard Jones, Peachtree Publishing ©2021.

 

At the same time as Perdu, intimidated by the city size and its throngs of people, the little girl continues her day out with her mother. I love how, at this point in the book, Jones has zoomed in on the girl whose path keeps crossing that of Perdu’s. She is perhaps outside a library or other notable building with a massive lion statue (a nod to The Snow Lion) while Perdu stands at the top of the statue. I wonder if parents or kids will spy him first.

My favorite illustration is the one when the child spots Perdu sitting outside an expansive cafe window where she and her mom are dining. He’s hungry now and tired and cannot resist the temptation of an open door. Inside he wreaks havoc and is reprimanded by patrons. It’s a demoralizing experience for Perdu yet at the same time things probably cannot get much worse.

 

Perdue Interior 3
Interior spread from Perdu written and illustrated by Richard Jones, Peachtree Publishing ©2021.

 

In a lovely park scene, where both the girl and Perdu have ended up following the restaurant ruckus, the child approaches the dog. She’s holding Perdu’s signature red neck scarf which he lost when he dashed away during the cafe commotion.

Not a lot of words are needed when the simple act of giving back the scarf to the lost dog speaks volumes about the girl’s empathy and Perdu’s trust. It’s a gentle, loving moment that bonds the pair and fills readers’ hearts with hope. 

 

Perdu Interior 4
Interior spread from Perdu written and illustrated by Richard Jones, Peachtree Publishing ©2021.

 

Jones has given young readers a feel-good story about friendship, trust, kindness, and belonging highlighted by the beautiful, inviting art that solidifies the tale. Jones achieves this warm look with paintings he then edits in Adobe Photoshop. I came away from the story feeling happy for both Perdu and the red-hatted girl knowing that they had both truly found each other for all the right reasons.

 

 

Perdu Author Illustrator Richard Jones

ABOUT RICHARD JONES + HIS SOCIAL MEDIA:


Click here to read an Author Q + A.

Website: www.paintedmouse.com/

Twitter: @apaintedmouse

Instagram: @apaintedmouse

 

LEARNING:

Draw Perdu with Richard by watching this video.

Click here for excellent activity sheets.

Find out about Richard’s inspiration for the story and the progression of the book’s illustrations here.

Get hooked! Read an excerpt from Perdu here.

 

BLOG TOUR PARTICIPANTS:

Monday (4/12): Unpacking the Power of Picture Books

Tuesday (4/13): Mom Read It

Wednesday (4/14): You’re here now at Good Reads With Ronna ! Thank you!

Thursday (4/15):  Literacious

 

 

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Picture Book Review – Hound Won’t Go

HOUND WON’T GO

Written by Lisa Rogers

Illustrated by Meg Ishihara

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

 

Hound Won't Go cover

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Hound Won’t Go, written by Lisa Rogers and illustrated by Meg Ishihara, tells the story of a stubborn basset hound who calls all the shots during a walk with his human. When he lies down in the crosswalk, she can’t get him out of the intersection, not even with a treat or a tug on the leash. As horns blare, she is worried, while Hound is adorably if smuglysatisfied. Finally, a storm breaks with terrifying claps of thunder. Hound changes his mind and drags his human all the way home, double-time. 

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Hound Won't Go int5
Interior spread from Hound Won’t Go written by Lisa Rogers and illustrated by Meg Ishihara, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2020.

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I love this book, and not just because I love basset hounds. The writing is crisp, with one or two rhyming sentences per page. The diction can be understood by the youngest listeners but is still interesting and specific. “Light flashes/Hound dashes,” the text begins, as Hound and his human enter the crosswalk. Soon, though, “Traffic delay/Hound’s in the way.” Rogers conveys a lot of personality in few words: 

Time to go.

Hound says no.

Drivers frown.

Hound lies down. 

Anyone who has cared for a strong-willed but amiable dog recognizes the frustration and even embarrassment that the human feels. But all readers will feel calm, safe, warm, and happy by the time the contretemps resolves with, “Rain puddles./Hound cuddles.” 

While the text makes a good case for how adorable this obstinate fellow is, Meg Ishihara’s art makes it impossible not to love him. She uses Hound’s eyes, mouth, and posture to show all his moods, ranging from playfully defiant to rub-my-belly relaxed. Working in Photoshop and Procreate, Ishihara paints Hound using digital brushes with lots of texture to emulate real paint strokes. He has long velvety ears, short legs, and a rich tri-color coat. Black outlines lend him a cartoony feel, although in some illustrations the definition comes from contrast between bold colors rather than actual outlines. In the first half of the story, there are vibrantly colorful cars, bicycles, and clothing, but the backdrop is gray and white. When the thunderclap sets Hound in motion, however, the background comes to life, too. Hound bolts through a park full of greenery and flowers to reach his home furnished in warm welcoming colors. 

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Hound Won't Go int7
Interior art from Hound Won’t Go written by Lisa Rogers and illustrated by Meg Ishihara, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2020.

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I recommend this book for all ages, and especially, but not exclusively, to dog lovers. I shared Hound Won’t Go with my favorite three-year-old, and she loved completing the rhymes, for some odd reason putting the most gusto into anticipating the word “No.” She has requested the book several times since, even over video chat. Just what the doctor … or vet? … ordered: a picture book that both the reader and the listener can enjoy, over and over.

Click here for an activity kit. On Rogers’ website there’s also a fun hound craft for kids.

•Reviewed by Mary Malhotra

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Kids Picture Book Review – Anxious Charlie to the Rescue

ANXIOUS CHARLIE TO THE RESCUE

Written and illustrated by Terry Milne

(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 4-6)

 

Anxious Charlie book cover

 

Every day Charlie kept his routine the same, fearful that something bad would happen if it changed. Anxious Charlie to the Rescue, written and illustrated by Terry Milne, tells the story of Charlie, the little dachshund, who forgets his own fears when his friend Hans needs his help.

 

int spread 2 from Anxious Charlie to the Rescue by Terry Milne
ANXIOUS CHARLIE TO THE RESCUE. Copyright © 2018 by Terry Milne. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

“Change is a difficult thing Charlie,” Big Bruce, the large pup with floppy ears, tells Charlie in the opening page as Milne illustrates a shaky Charlie. Milne escorts the reader through Charlie’s day beginning every morning with hopping out of bed, “One, two, three … hop like a flea” to walking once around the fire hydrant on his way to the market and continuing as he walks on the same side of the oak tree.

In the illustrations the little brown dog with the large eyes is surrounded by fire hydrants and soft colored trees set on white paper. His fear continues at night as he checks under the bed and behind the curtains, arranging his toys in a neat row. The picture bubbles depict Charlie’s thoughts as he memorizes what he did today, so he can repeat them tomorrow because today “things turned out ok!”

 

anxious charlie.int.3
ANXIOUS CHARLIE TO THE RESCUE. Copyright © 2018 by Terry Milne. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

“Early one morning the phone rang. It was Duck. Their friend Hans was stuck.” Charlie was in such a hurry to save his friend that he and Duck rushed past the fire hydrant and went the wrong way around the old oak tree. Charlie wanted to start all over again, but his friend needed him. He had no time to worry! Charlie’s friends had tried everything to free Hans (who had chosen a pipe to hide in during their game of hide-and-seek), but it was Charlie who had the successful idea.

“On his way home, Charlie felt so happy that he didn’t think about which way he passed the old oak tree.” Charlie collapsed onto his bed and thought “I forgot everything today, but things turned out ok.”

Milne’s colorful drawings and sweet expressions on the animals’ faces draw the reader into this charming friendship circle. And the rhyming prose provide an upbeat rhythm as well as giggles for the reader. The feeling of satisfaction Charlie experiences after helping his friend proves to be greater than his need for routine. This time Charlie realized that “nothing bad would happen and maybe what did happen would be wonderful!” That positive self-talk message is so important.

Anxious Charlie to the Rescue is a helpful read for parents who watch their own young children struggle with anxiety and obsessive compulsive behaviors, and for children to see they are not alone with these thoughts. It can also lead to meaningful discussions. The idea for this story came from Milne’s own daughter who struggles with anxiety and repetitive behavior. Both children with anxiety, and those who may have a friend or sibling with anxiety, will see that as hard as it is to change behaviors it can turn out okay. Everyone has some fears and Charlie shows young readers that when you let go of those fears wonderful things can happen.

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

Read a review about facing fears here.

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