Starla Jean – Which Came First: The Chicken or the Friendship?is the first in a new early chapter book series by author Elana K. Arnold. Divided into four chapters and written in first-person, the book begins with Starla Jean and her father going to the park where Starla Jean happens upon a chicken. Her father tells her, “If you can catch it, you can keep it” not believing that she actually will. But Starla Jean can do anything she sets her mind to! So, of course, she does catch the chicken and they take it home. She names her Opal Egg, so the chicken will feel more comfortable and know they don’t want to eat her “because you don’t give a name to your dinner.” Back home Mom is not too pleased although baby sister Willa eventually benefits from Opal Egg.
However, the big question remains: if Starla Jean found a chicken, does that mean someone lost a chicken? The family puts up ‘Found’ signs to locate her owner but when the chicken’s owner does show up, does that mean Starla Jean will have to say goodbye to her new friend?
A. N. Kang’sillustrations are crisp and plentiful on every page, encouraging early readers who are attempting to read this book on their own. Humor is also abundant in each picture, whether it’s showing a chicken taking a dust bath or Opal Egg wearing one of Willa’s diapers, an idea Starla Jean has to satisfy her mother’s complaint against her.
Robin Newman’s third early chapter book in the wonderful Wilcox & Griswold Mystery series takes us to Ed’s farm as the mini-sized MFIs (Mouse Food Investigators), along with readers, try to solve The Case of The Bad Apples. For kids who crave seeing justice being served, the MFI’s motto, found on the opening end papers, is a rhyming reassurance: “Whatever the food, whatever the crime, we make the bad guys do the time.”
Fans of fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek detective-style fiction will find all they’re looking for in this latest installment featuring Detective Wilcox, a policemouse, and Captain Griswold. Porcini the pig has been poisoned and he believes it’s from the mysterious case of apples anonymously delivered to him. Of course, he finished most of the fruit, but his hefty appetite is nothing new, and likely not the reason he’s so green about the gills (or snout). Surely someone’s out to get him.
Following standard MFI procedure and employing all the relevant vocabulary (defined in notebook paper style spot art) over the course of five chapters, the rodent pair conduct their investigation leaving no pigsty, truck, or stone unturned. To find the culprit, the MFI team must study all the clues and interview a few farm residents whose names arise as suspects. First, there’s Sweet Pea, the piglet next door. Then there’s Herman the rat, and finally, there’s Hot Dog who may provide a missing link to all the evidence. A few red herrings (or apples) thrown into the mix add to the rising tension. Who, the mice wonder, would want to harm Porcini? Could it be any of the animals who Porcini’s accused of stealing his food?
As Wilcox and Griswold collect the evidence they also rely on a cast of characters such as Dr. Alberta Einswine (the best name ever) from Whole Hog Emergency Care, Fowler the Owl, Yogi the Goatee, and in forensics, Dr. Phil, the groundhog. Newman uses wordplay so well that young readers will LOL as they follow the case looking forward to reading whatever clever dialogue or description may appear on the page.
Zemke’sillustrations add to the humor and suspense. There are maps, diversions and, clues aplenty for wannabe Poirots and Marples including me, and yet I still fell for the satisfying surprise ending. The art clearly depicts the action which can help newly independent readers discern the context.
Each book in the Wilcox & Griswold Mystery series can be read as a standalone, but once a child reads one they are going to want to read the other two. Just the facts. I recommend The Case of The Bad Apples for beginning readers, reluctant readers, and for anyone who wants a fun, pun-filled farm and food-focused caper that will keep them on their toes (or hooves).
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Fergus and Zeke and the Field Day Challenge is the third in Kate Messner’s series of two beloved class pets in Miss Maxwell’s class. As fans of the earlier volumes know, these two mice enthusiastically join their human counterparts in all school activities from science experiments to sculpting with clay with humorous and adorable results.
When Miss Maxwell announces the upcoming, school-wide Field Day, the excitement is electric and captured in both Messner’s narrative and the diverse faces in Ross’s expressive illustrations. Who will jump the highest and run the fastest? Who will win the limbo contest or the sack race? The children-and the mice-excitedly prep for the event.
On the morning of the competition, the two mice secretly hitch a ride in a student’s backpack as the children eagerly set out to the field. The first content is the limbo. “How low can you go?” the students ask each other. Well, it turns out mice can go pretty low and Fergus and Zeke handily win that contest. However, as they join the other competitions, Fergus and Zeke quickly realize they have a much bigger challenge on their hands … um paws … they’re too small to compete with the much bigger students! The hula hoops are too big, they fear being trampled in the 50 yard dash, water balloons are too heavy to toss, and let’s not even consider kickball. However, soon they figure out how to bring kids size sports down to mouse size players.
Readers will be delighted (and relieved) to see how Fergus and Zeke rise to this field day challenge and find substitutes for equipment that’s much too big for them: acorns instead of water balloons, a high jump bar constructed from twigs, a discarded plastic bag for the parachute games, and a lost bracelet for the hula hoop contest. The two have so much fun that they fail to notice the class has returned to school without them. How will they get back to their second story classroom? And what will happen if the students notice they’re gone? Well, the pair demonstrate their ingenuity once again, finding that a plastic bag may be useful for more than just a parachute game.
Messner, winner of the 2012Golden Kite Award(andmany others), has written an upbeat, straightforward, and engaging story. The vocabulary is action packed and accessible. The books’ themes of friendship, school days, sports, and pets are appealing for 5-8 year-old readers who are done with early readers but not yet ready for chapter books. Caregivers and teachers may want to point out the story’s positive images of friendly competition and how the two mice problem solve and collaborate to overcome challenges.
Ross’sdigitally-created and cheerful illustrations support the light-hearted narrative and provide visual clues for young readers transitioning to chapter books. Fergus and Zeke and the Field Day Challenge is a charming addition for families and libraries looking for more offerings in a transitional chapter book format.
On Saturday mornings the beloved characters of this series, Houndsley the dog, Catina the cat, and Bert the big white bird, meet and walk to the library together. At the library, Houndsley assists students learning to read, Catina participates in a yoga class, and Bert is a library volunteer who helps reshelve books. After their visit, they return to Houndsley’s house for tea and fresh baked muffins.
On this occasion, they notice that Trixie, the librarian, seems unlike her usual upbeat self and the friends become concerned. Soon they find out that Trixie plans to retire to pursue her dream of performing in a circus. “it is never too late to try something new,” she tells the friends. However, since there is no one able to replace her, the library will have to close. The trio are shocked and saddened, but quickly busy themselves with creating a “special” gift for Trixie’s retirement party. Houndsley and Catina have no problem coming up with an idea for Trixie’s gift. Gay’s homey watercolors depict Houndsley pouring over a recipe book with a steaming cup of tea and Catina strolling through a quaint small town to pick up supplies. However, Bert is unable to think of anything and wonders what he could bring Trixie “… for all the happy Saturday mornings she had given him.”
On the day of the party, the three friends meet at Houndsley’s house. He has baked delicious muffins: pumpkin chocolate chip, blueberry buttermilk, cranberry orange, and more. Oh what a feast! Catrina brings a special circus outfit that she has made for Trixie’s next career. Poor Bert still has not thought of a gift. However, just as he leaves his house, he suddenly realizes what he can bring. What special gift could he get at the last minute? Why himself, of course! Inspired by Trixie’s belief that anyone can learn something new, Bert decides to attend library school so he can take Trixie’s spot and keep the library open. Everyone gives a big cheer (perhaps even bigger than the cheers for Houndsley and Catina’s gifts). Soon the closing sign on the library door is changed to read: “This library will not be closing.”
This is the sixth in a series of touching friendship stories with gentle life lessons woven in. I love how this story draws on library values of bringing people together and creating a community while weaving in concepts of caring and supporting people. Howe’s story also introduces retirement, new careers, and adult education, life changes even young children are likely to see in their families.
The three short chapters listed in the table of contents give this transitional reader the feel of a chapter book. Vocabulary and concepts are more advanced, but appropriate and accessible for children who are almost ready for full length chapter books.
Adding to the book’s appeal are Gay’s whimsical and endearing illustrations. The bright and homey watercolors, packed with intricate details, perfectly fit the story’s quiet and charming tone. Children will be so busy pouring over the details in Houndsley’s messy kitchen, the visit to Trixie’s backyard, or Catina’s adorable red-trimmed house, that they might forget to read the story! But, no matter, they’ll want to return to this lovely neighborhood again and again.
As a librarian I was touched by Howe’s dedication. He writes: “in memory of Winnifred Genung, my first librarian – and to all librarians past, present, and future. Where would we be without you?”
Thanks James and Marie! Authors and illustrators like you make our job of promoting reading and literature to children so easy!
PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE Written by Laura Amy Schlitz Illustrated by Brian Floca (Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
★Starred Reviews- Booklist, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal
Princess Cora and the Crocodile is an 80-page illustrated early chapter book about a princess who must always be a “good girl.” When Princess Cora’s Fairy Godmother answers her wish for a pet, instead of the “great, furry, golden dog” of her dreams, the princess receives a headstrong crocodile. He tries to give Cora a day off and, because the three adults in charge of the princess’s rigorous schedule barely glance at the girl, the crocodile’s disguise initially succeeds.
The ensuing mischief will tickle children—they are insiders on silliness being played on the rigid, demanding authority figures. The crocodile tries to not swat anyone with his tail or bite them, but succumbs when instigated. Kids will laugh as he rips the King’s trousers and chews on his rear end. Meanwhile, instead of bathing, studying, and skipping rope, Princess Cora relaxes in nature. After the crocodile’s overzealous intervention, Princess Cora returns to set things right. The adults finally register the girl’s dissatisfaction and recognize other ways to properly raise a princess.
Floca’s ink, watercolor, and gouache images capture the humor as both the crocodile (dressed in a frock and mop wig) and the princess come undone. The crocodile’s antics cleverly contrast against Princess Cora’s quiet day.
A skilled storyteller, Schlitz satisfies her audience utilizing a child’s universal wishes. Princess Cora and the Crocodilewill delight early readers as well as younger children. The heart of this princess and animal tale shows a kid needing a break from adult-imposed overscheduling—a message with modern appeal.
Annie and Simon: The Sneeze and Other Stories by Catharine O’Neill is reviewed by Dornel Cerro.
Starred Review – Kirkus
Cheerful and talkative Annie, and her big brother Simon are back for another adventure in Annie and Simon: The Sneeze and Other Stories written and illustrated by Catharine O’Neill (Candlewick Press, $15.99, Ages 3-8). Each of the four short stories in this second volume focuses on the two very different, yet loving, siblings, delivering gentle messages about relationships, perspective, caring, and sharing.
“Living Things” is a perfect introduction to both characters. The wise-beyond-his years Simon uses his binoculars to observe nature at the lake, while Annie draws what she sees – or thinks she sees. Her scribbly drawings are not always accurate and what she believes she knows isn’t necessarily true. An exchange about frogs is humorous and telling:
“Knees? Frogs with knees? Oh, Simon. Tee-hee. Tee-hee. Tee-hee.”
“Good grief,” said Simon. (p. 5).
Under Simon’s patient tutelage, Annie begins to understand more of the world around her than just what she sees or thinks she knows.
In “The Sneeze,” Annie wants to take care of a sick Simon, but needs his help to do so.
Annie loves cats because they purr and tries to teach her dog Hazel to purr in “Hazel, Hazel, Hazel.” However, when she spies something dangling from a cat’s mouth, a horrified Annie decides that Hazel should just be a dog.
In “Horse Chestnuts,” Annie and Simon find a squirrel has taken made off with their chestnuts. When Annie learns from Simon that the squirrel will need the chestnuts for the winter, she agrees to share.
The quietly-paced stories reveal the strong bond between Annie and Simon despite their differences. O’Neill’s soft and colorful watercolor illustrations are endearing and perfectly complement the warm and inviting stories. Use this as a read aloud for preschoolers, share it with siblings who don’t get along, and give it to beginning readers who are fans of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series and James Howe’s Houndsley and Catina series (also published by Candlewick). Visit the publisher’s page for more information on this book and links to other books by Catharine O’Neill.
Today, reviewer MaryAnne Locher weighs in on Wedding Wings by Kiki Thorpe.
Believing in magic and fairies from the bottom of your heart can make extraordinary things happen. So, get out your fairy wings and fairy wands and get ready for an enchanting adventure!
The Never Girls are Gabby, Mia, Kate, and Lainey – four ordinary girls who have found their way into the magical realm of Never Land. In Disney Never Girls #5: Wedding Wings by Kiki Thorpe with illustrations by Jana Christy (Random House Books for Young Readers; paperback, 5.99; Ages 6-9) the fifth book in Disney’s Tinker Bell and Fairies series, Gabby has been asked to be the flower girl in her babysitter Julia’s wedding.
Gabby’s bubbling over with excitement so she puts on her dress-up fairy wings, breaks the pact she has with the other girls to never go alone into Never Land, and visits her fairy friends Tink, Prilla, Rosetta, Dulcie, and Bess to tell them her big news. The fairies are curious about what a flower girl does and what a wedding looks like. Gabby demonstrates how she’ll be throwing flower petals, but the fairies are less than impressed. Tink gives Gabby a thimble-full of fairy dust to take to the wedding so the petals will flutter and float to the ground. Gabby wants the fairies to come to the wedding so they can see her walk down the aisle, but the fairies haven’t been formally invited, so they decline. Bess can’t think of anything else she would rather do than go to the wedding. She sneaks out of Never Land and into Gabby’s room on the day of the big event. Gabby is delighted to see her, but knows she must hide her in her flower basket so no one else sees her.
What havoc can one little girl and one even tinier fairy create? Well…A LOT! Will they ruin Julia’s wedding day? Or will it be even more magical?
Although this chapter book is intended for early readers, even littler ones would enjoy the magic of having this read to them, too!
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Ronna Mandel discusses the love of words and language with San Francisco Bay Area debut author Sandra V. Feder.
Whoever said there are no new ideas has not spent time blogging about kids’ books!
One of my favorite things about writing on Good Reads With Ronna is getting to meet first time authors and I did just that in Larchmont Village one Saturday earlier this month, when I sat down to speak with Sandra V. Feder, author of Daisy’s Perfect Word from Kids Can Press. After spending a delightful time discussing our mutual love of language, I can honestly say I would read anything Sandra wrote because her enthusiasm was not only contagious, but refreshing and totally genuine! Find out more about Sandra on her website, www.sandravfeder.com. There’s also some information about how parents can continue the discussion about words with their children after they read Daisy’s Perfect Word. Sandra’s also included useful information for teachers and librarians about how to use the book in a school setting.
Daisy is a girl who loves words. She compiles lists of words, and using the right words for the right situations makes all the difference in the world to her. Her best friend Emma appreciates Daisy’s love of language and they both adore Miss Goldner, their teacher. What happens when Daisy and Emma learn that Miss Goldner is going to get married? Will Daisy be able to find just the perfect present that will have meaning for Miss Goldner long after her wedding day? Daisy is determined to give a gift that will bring smiles to her teacher while being both unique and something money cannot buy. Share the delight that Feder’s wonderful words can bring by reading a copy of Daisy’s Perfect Word today!
When did the seed of this story begin growing?
The seed began growing from watching my own children and other people’s children have fun with language. I think a lot of kids go through a phase of experimenting with words. They like the way some of the words feel in their mouth. One of my daughters went through a phase of using the word actually a lot. For example she would say, “actually, mother, I’d like some orange juice,” because it made her sound more grown up than the usual kid language. And I noticed a lot of other children having fun learning new words and putting words together, so the idea of a character that enjoyed words and language was born.
Is this an early reader/chapter book or an MG (middle grade) novel? I ask because the different categories can be confusing for parents. So what is it exactly and what age group do you see it for?
I see it for ages 7-10 and it’s called, by me and the publisher, an early chapter book. It is not an MG novel, which tends to be a bit older and to deal with more mature themes. The early chapter book is not a first reader. It does have some bigger words than kids might find in a first reader. Mine has 11 short chapters. It’s meant for kids ages 7-10 but also is a fun book for parents to read with their kids when they are 5 or 6 years-old. There’s nothing in it that is not age-appropriate.
It’s a nice read. Kids will feel good about themselves after they complete it. It’s nothing too daunting at first glance.
Yes, and the type is a little bigger, and there are a lot of illustrations, more illustrations than typical MG chapter books. There are fun, big illustrations in almost every chapter and then lots of smaller ones as you go along.
And the illustrations were good, too. I really like them. You were lucky.
I am so grateful that the publisher paired me with a wonderful Canadian illustrator, Susan Mitchell. She really created the world that I imagined, and she did it so beautifully. I am very grateful.
The cover, with the purple polka dots, is simply perfect. It’s appealing.
That’s the art director from Kids Can Press, who did the cover design. They are a terrific Canadian publishing group. They are one of the top places to go for early chapter books. They are really interested in this market right now. They put so much care and love into Daisy’s Perfect Word. You can tell by the way it looks and how it was put together. They really did a beautiful job.
So were you a lot like Daisy growing up?
That’s a good question. I definitely have curly hair! I have always enjoyed words and language. I was interested in becoming a children’s book author from about age 9. And the reason is that I had a wonderful elementary school librarian who not only loved introducing us to books but also would bring authors to the school to talk to us. I think when you are a kid and you meet somebody who has created this world that you love and enjoy so much, it’s a magical thing. And I thought, wouldn’t that be about the most wonderful thing in the world to create a world and characters that children would love? And so it was always a part of me, that seed, and I ended up going into journalism as a career and was a newspaper reporter for many years. I had the opportunity to work as a news assistant for the New York Times in Washington, D.C. when I got out of college. And when you write for The New York Timesyou really do see the power words have. This was something that always resonated with me, and I finally have the opportunity to bring that passion of mine to a new generation.
Is this your first book?
It’s my first book, and it’s a series so there will be at least four Daisy books and they all have to do with how we use words and language. In Book 2, Daisy discovers alliteration and has fun putting words together in new ways and in Book 3 she’s going to discover poetry. And Book 4, I haven’t decided on yet, but it will be something fun having to do with words.
Everybody has a Samantha in their life as a classmate, a snooty know-it-all kind of girl or boy in many cases. Do you recommend ignoring girls like that as Daisy did quite successfully?
Sometimes Daisy doesn’t like to be around Samantha because of the way Samantha talks and the words Samantha chooses. Samantha uses words such as “Stop!” “Follow me” and “Mine.” I think it’s an interesting lesson for kids to think about the language they use and how other kids hear them. So I wanted to include this character, Samantha, who uses words in a way that isn’t the way that Daisy likes using words. Daisy doesn’t want to have Samantha’s words stuck in her head. She wants to have happier, more pleasant words in her head.
Daisy is a good role model for girls and is empowering. I like the story because it’s not about purchasing anything. It had nothing to do with electronics. It just had to do with what came inside from Daisy as a person.
Thank you for recognizing that!
Daisy spends a good portion of the book searching for the right gift for her favorite teacher Miss Goldner. And then she decides it’s got to be the perfect word, something Miss Goldner will always remember. What is your perfect word?
One of my favorite words is sunshine because I think sunshine is both something we need in our lives, and I think there are people who spread sunshine, like Daisy. And I really appreciate those people in my own life. I’ve also always loved the word delicious because I have a sweet tooth like Daisy, and I also like the word delicious because I think when you apply it to children it’s cute: “What a delicious little baby!”
Daisy and her best friend Emma are really sweet girls, what do you think are the qualities that make them so appealing?
I think that they are girls who value each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I think Emma appreciates Daisy’s fondness for words and Daisy appreciates Emma’s kindness and her sense of fun. They share a lot together. To me what I like about the friendship is that I don’t see them as having the same personality, I see them as having complementary personalities. And as the series goes along, we’ll see different things in their relationship that come up where they diverge a little bit on at least one thing. Daisy wants to do it one way and Emma, who is equally strong, says, “this is what I want.” I think they complement and balance one another.
Talking about Daisy’s love of words – as a writer you had to come up with this story that grew out of your love of words, yet I wonder, who has the better imagination, you or Daisy?
I like to think we both have good imaginations!
I thought Daisy coming up with the idea of a gift in the form of a word and Samantha even approving was huge!
I think it does happen that writers have a concept for a story, which for me was this idea of playing with words and language, but then you need a real storyline to go with it. So I came up with idea of Daisy wanting to give her teacher a gift and then making that gift a word. That’s what moves the story forward. And I also, as you mentioned, wanted something that wasn’t about going out and buying but was something that a child, any child, could come up with. It’s been so wonderful to see the reactions of children to the book; one little girl in Canada wrote a review in the National Post and she said that she loves that Daisy likes making up words because she likes making up words, too. And she included one of her favorite made up words. We made a little book trailer for Daisy’s Perfect Word and went out and asked children, “What’s your favorite word?” and basically, without missing a beat, every child came up with a word. Some had a particular reason they liked the word, and some just said, “I like the way it sounds.” The video trailer is on my website. I think the idea of having fun with words really does touch a chord with children.
You mentioned earlier that you had written right out of college for The NYT. Do you have a full time job, Sandra?
I am committed now to writing children’s books. I am very excited about this new phase for me and feel very fortunate that Kids Can has put their faith in me for four books. As a new children’s book author, to have a series is really exciting and fun. Once I started expanding the Daisy story and really getting to know Daisy in her world, I felt there were so many great places that I could continue to go with her. And the fact that Kids Can saw that as well and believed in me and Daisy is really wonderful. I am also working on some other children’s book projects that I hope will come to fruition.
Will you go on tour?
Right now it’s meeting interviewers like you when I am in a particular city or over the phone, and I’m doing a lot of speaking around the Bay Area where I live, as well as school visits.
Thank you so much Sandra for sharing your time, experience and love of the English language. I cannot wait to read more of your wonderful words! It’s been belotzi (my son’s made up word for fantastic) spending time with you and learning about Daisy’s Perfect Word.