Norman’s owner, the story’s narrator, is proud of his talented fish and wants “everyone to know it,” so it’s no surprise that he enters the upcoming Pet-O-Rama where he can demonstrate how truly awesome Norman is.
Kids will love all the cool tricks that Norman can perform on command including swimming in circles, blowing bubbles and a flip through a hoop that’s pretty impressive. But the pièce de résistance is how, when Norman’s owner plays a particular song on the tuba, Norman can sing and dance to it. This goldfish has got the moves and the Pet-O-Rama participants and attendees will be blown away by him. But the competition is fierce with bunnies, dogs, snakes, and lizards all going for glory.
When it’s finally Norman and his owner’s turn in the spotlight, the goldfish appears to freeze up, hide and not respond to his cues. Remembering his nervous feelings from that very morning, Norman’s owner realizes that the goldfish is experiencing stage fright. With a welcome whisper of encouragement and a performance tip to turn the tide from his human friend, Norman not only completes the practiced routine, he wows the crowd and judges to capture the prize.
Bennett’s story about helping a friend in a time of need and lifting their spirits offers a wonderful opportunity for parents to discuss what a friendship encompasses. It’s also a gentle exposure to stage fright or speaking in front of a class—fears many young children might have—and how a compassionate friend can make all the difference in conquering that fear. Coupled with Jones’s vibrant, deeply saturated cartoon-like art, Bennett’s funny and sweet look at friendship through the eyes of a child and his pet goldfish, is a definite winner.
In The Great Pet Heist, when elderly Mrs. Food slips on some dog barf and ends up too injured to return possibly ever, her pets must fend for themselves. Walt (don’t call me Lucretia) is an Oriental shorthair and the sly female lead. Her sidekick is lovable but slow at times Butterbean, a male long-haired wiener dog, whose claim to fame is his nostril-probe lick. The main crew is comprised of Oscar the smart mynah bird, and the amiable rats Marco and Polo. e
A girl from their building named Madison comes by to take care of the basics, but the pets know it’s hasta la vista soon. Their situation seems dire until they stumble upon a possible criminal in their building who may have enough gold coins to give the animals riches to care for themselves. Once the heist is launched, a series of funny antics will keep you wondering whether these characters will succeed, or if it’s off to the pound.
Throughout, Dave Mottram’s art is beautifully done, adding another layer of humor to Ecton’s story. Though Walt was my favorite character, I fell for Chad the octopus once I saw him rising out of toilet bowls and tripping up the villain. Take a close look at the image next to the title page of The Great Pet Heist to find Chad.
Make room on your bookshelves for The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter, the middle grade novel debut by Aaron Reynolds. Sixth-grader Rex Dexter always wanted a dog. A chocolate Labrador to be exact. For his birthday, Rex’s parents give him a chocolate cake shaped like a Lab with chocolate ice cream and—finally!—his gift is in a box with air holes so it must be . . . a chicken?! When Rex complains that a chicken isn’t a pet, it’s a Happy Meal, he’s told this is his practice pet. So he does what any kid would: puts a leash on his chicken and heads out with his best friend, Darvish, to buy pet supplies. Then the strangeness begins.
With a nod to the Tom Hanks movie, Big, Rex finds a vintage carnival game called the Grim Reaper. Thanks to some chicken pee, Rex loses the game and receives a cryptic curse. But, it may be worse news for the chicken who, in Rex’s care for about an hour, has a run-in with a steamroller; the steamroller wins. Rex failed to keep his practice pet safe but, no worries, Rex will have plenty of time to make amends when the squashed, “ghostly fritter” of a chicken returns to haunt him—though the chicken believes their besties and wants to just chill. The now-named Drumstick is merely the first dead animal to accompany Rex through this hilarious story.
Aaron Reynolds is a master at comedy and this middle-grade novel is no exception. He had me at the title. If you like a mysterious ghost story that’s not very spooky, then this is the book for you. Kids will enjoy trying to figure out “who done it” as endangered animals in the zoo start meeting their demise and showing up in Rex’s bedroom as ghostly nuisances. More than two dozen black-and-white images scattered throughout add to the humor.
I’m a big fan of Reynolds’s books and read his releases hot-off-the-press. My favorite book of his had been (picture book) A Creepy Pair of Underwear but The Dead Pets of Rex Dexter is now tied for that spot.
Click hereto order a copy of The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter or visit your local indie bookstore. e Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks!
(Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
You Don’t Want a Dragon!, written by Ame Dyckman and illustrated by Liz Climo, is a follow-up to You Don’t Want a Unicorn!, which I haven’t been able to get my hands on during the pandemic. However, as an Ame Dyckman fan, I feel confident recommending both. You Don’t Want a Dragon! is a conversation between the narrator and a child who has just successfully wished for a dragon. And even if you haven’t read the first book, it is quickly clear that this same kid previously wished for a unicorn, and it didn’t go so well. Apparently, the unicorn multiplied until there were many glittery, colorful copies (who make cameo appearances in this book). There also may have been some unicorn poop, which seems to be cupcakes! Now the kid has wished an adorable dragon into his life.
Dyckman’s books are always fun to read aloud. I called the book a “conversation,” but in fact, the youngster in the book doesn’t say anything. Using second person, the narrator addresses, and engages, the main character: “NOW you’ve done it! I TOLD YOU not to wish for a dragon!,” while the boy in the illustrations answers with action. He plays with his new pet through several happy spreads until the dragon starts behaving like a troublesome canine. The narrator warns that he’s also becoming “GINORMOUS … You just don’t have the space for a dragon. In your heart, yes. But in your house … no.”
Climo is a comic artist for The Simpsons and also wrote and illustrated several books before collaborating with Dyckman on You Don’t Want a Unicorn! and You Don’t Want a Dragon!. The kid’s world is drawn in thin outlines filled with gentle colors; the dragon is a soft green with a purple tummy and wings. And don’t forget to note the child’s t-shirt in the cover art. While the illustrations show their kinship with The Simpsons, they are more comfortable than wacky, reminiscent of the Clifford the Big Red Dog books but with more attention to detail and scale.
I expected to enjoy this book and was not disappointed. There’s lots of Dyckman’s trademark humor, and it fits so well with Climo’s art. For example, Dyckman writes that stories about dragons “never mention … WHERE charcoal comes from. DON’T mention this at your next barbeque.” Climo’s drawing? The dragon sports a toilet-paper-roll bracelet and a proud grin while the kid, wide-eyed, stands next to a grill with flaming briquettes piled high.
Eventually, the narrator convinces the kid to wish the dragon away. Kids aren’t meant to have magical creatures for pets. “It’s for the best.” You might wonder what the kid will wish for next, except there’s a twist: he finds a completely ordinary pet.
When Zack’s four legged best friend JoJo gets old, sick and dies, he is left heartbroken until his friend Emily explains that “an invisible leash connects our hearts to each other. Forever.” Author Patrice Karst, and illustrator Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, of the bestselling The Invisible String, tell a heartwarming story about permanent loss in the companion book The Invisible Leash, that pulls on the heartstrings of all ages.
The rich colors of the book’s main characters contrast wonderfully throughout the story with the soft almost translucent colors of their deceased pets depicted alongside them. This succeeds in showing the reader that the pets are always with them as the two friends take an enlightened journey through their neighborhood. Zack’s multicultural parents try to comfort him, but “Zack stomped off and when his bedroom door slammed, it shook the whole house with sad.” Such a strong emotion conveyed with just one evocative sentence.
Lew-Vriethoff shows Zack folding his arms in disbelief listening to Emily explain, “But Zack, don’t you believe in the wind? Even if you can’t see the Invisible Leash, you can feel it.” Zack listens with annoyance coming up with reasons the invisible leash theory could not be true. Emily’s excitement is shown in the illustrations as she stretches her arms wide and tells him that, “when you love an animal and they love you back, that gives the Invisible Leash the magic power of infinity to stretch from here all the way to the beyond.” Zack wants to believe his beloved dog JoJo is close by. “I wish I could believe, Emily. I wish that so much.”
Karst’s writing takes the reader on a poetic journey as she writes, “Warm winds swirled around the two friends gazing at the evening sky. Frogs croaked and crickets started chirping as the stars began to gather. Soon, a smile widened across Zack’s face.”
We see drawings of JoJo and Emily’s cat Rexie touching paws with invisible leashes circling all the friends. Emily holds her heart in excitement as she realizes that the pets can see the same moon that they see. The pets’ faded images snuggle by their best friends, while the friends look up at the moon and we feel the love they all have for each other.
As the children sleep, dogs, cats, birds, deer and bears that left this world run free throughout the night. “It was the still of night, Zack, Emily and the rest of the world’s children were now fast asleep in their cozy-comfy beds. And as the moon smiled down upon them from high above, it lit up the millions and billions of Invisible Leashes … connecting them ALL.”
The Invisible Leash was given to me at a time when I was mourning the loss of my own beloved dog, Charlie, who left me way too soon. I picked up this book and I cried. I then read it to my adult son and once again I cried (I believe he was also touched). When I picked up the story for a third time I had a smile on my face. I feel my Charlie sitting by my side with his face resting on my leg as I write this review, and feel him connected by his Invisible Leash. Karst explains at the conclusion of the story that this book is dedicated to her precious dog CoCo. She says she always knew the Invisible Leash was real, but now gets to share her news with the whole wide world. Thank you, Patrice Karst, I’m glad you did.
It’s hard to imagine that our 16th President, who faced one of the toughest challenges in American history, was at one time a curious, barefooted boy roaming the “hills and hollows” of his hometown, Knob Creek, Kentucky. In Honey, The Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln, author Shari Swanson and illustrator Chuck Groenink depict a gentle boy whose tenderhearted rescues of vulnerable animals shed light on Abe’s early and strong sense of justice.
To adults like Mr. John Hodgen, the miller, Abe seems irresponsible for “‘fool[ing] [his] time away,’” stopping to right the wrong he sees all around him. But to young Abe the “‘many little foolish things’” are the harm and injustices he must counter: a frog trapped inside a snake’s mouth, a possum stuck “‘in a hollow stump,’” and a honey-colored dog whimpering from a broken leg.
Abe shows kindness for rescuing the dog he befriends and names Honey. Loyal friends, the two become inseparable and share many adventures. One such adventure turns particularly perilous as Abe gets stuck between two boulders inside a cave. Honey returns home alone to get help and leads the search party to the cave. Assisting Abe’s rescue in this way, Honey pays Abe “‘back for mending his broken leg’” confirming the young boy’s belief that Honey will always do “‘good things’” for him.
Accompanying this comforting story is Groenink’s soft and muted color palette. Many illustrations place either Abe or the natural surroundings of the Kentucky woodlands at the center of the page, emphasizing the close relationship between the two. Equally, Swanson’s words engage us readers with the terrain. Mr. Hodgen uses “his cane-pole whistle” to call out to Abe in the cave. We see Abe’s resourcefulness and experience when he uses the “soft bark of a pawpaw bush to wrap around the sticks” that help set Honey’s leg. Undoubtedly, the surrounding wilderness deeply influences young Abe’s character.
A “Timeline of Abraham Lincoln and His Animal Encounters,” an author’s note, and a map of “the area around Hodgen’s Mill where Abe grew up” in the endpapers add fascinating (and funny) details to Abe’s early and later life. We learn further of his fights against animal cruelty and his bringing in many animals into the White House (goats included!). We also learn the author’s source of this story, a book written by J. Rogers Gore who wrote down the many tales Austin Gollaher, Abe’s childhood best friend, shared about his and Abe’s adventures.
Honey, The Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln is a perfect book not only for little ones who love animals and adventures, but also for parents who can learn a thing or two about lending grace and understanding to a most curious child.
Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
Find a fun activity kit and curriculum guide here.
In this heartwarming story about companionship, award-winning author and illustrator Simon Jamesshows readers that you don’t have to be perfect to find your perfect fit. Mr. Scrufftells the story of a large, scruffy dog who had no one until he finds his certain someone, even if it’s someone that may not have been initially considered the perfect match.
The story opens in a park setting of fall colored leaves and happy people walking their children and pets. Running ahead on the grassy pathway is a little dog named Polly, with her curly hair and red ribbon on top of her head. We turn the page and see a woman walking Polly in a stroller, who also has curly hair and a red ribbon on top of her head. “She belongs to Molly.” Simon’s illustrations clearly show that these two are visually quite the match.
They say dogs start looking like their owners and that is definitely the case with the dogs we meet. (My own dog Bailey had red hair matching my husband’s!) Eric, hairless, with his nose pointed in the air, is on a leash crossing the street with a hairless man. “He belongs to Derek.”
“But who’s this? It’s Mr. Scruff …” We find the unkempt bottom heavy beige dog with a long face sitting alone inside a cage surrounded by a dog bed, a bowl and a toy ball. The next room shows the vet with a small boy and his small dog.
Page after page of adorable artwork in ink and watercolor with a warm Quentin Blake quality introduces readers to various dogs whose names and features resemble their beloved owners. “But things are looking rough for poor old Mr. Scruff. Wait a minute! Who’s this?”
The seemingly sad story of Mr. Scruff takes a positive turn when an unsuspecting new character is introduced. He is small, not big; black not beige; young not old and his name does not rhyme with Mr. Scruff. But “They seem to like each other.” The boy, Jim, and his parents know Mr. Scruff “needs a place to call his very own and that is what matters.”
This poignant story of companionship is a super fun read with its uplifting rhymes. The drawings and story left me with a smile on my face, demonstrating that we can always find friends that are both similar and not so similar. Teachers and parents alike can share the message that we are surrounded by a whole world of people who may look different than us, but who still may be our most perfect companions. Jim gave Mr. Scruff a chance and together they became an absolutely perfect fit! And what happens to the little dog named Tim and scruffy, old Mr. Gruff? Shhh! You have to read the book to find out …
Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
Read a review of another picture book about friendshiphere.
Award-winning creator Salina Yoon captures your little one’s attention with this adorable children’s board book, Halloween Kitty (A Wag My Tail Book). The orange and white tabby has a sturdy orange felt tail that little hands can easily move by pulling a tab or touching the tail itself. The cute kitty wants to find a friend but the animals she encounters are all too busy. Luckily, her persistence pays off. This 12-page book is suitable for preschoolers on up. Even adults will feel drawn to zen-like pleasure of wagging the tail. Makes a great party gift!
Give Me Back My Bones! reminds me of a modern version of the “Dem Bones” song—you know, “the toe bone’s connected to the heel bone.” However, Kim Norman’s picture book changes the story from a spiritual to a fun romp at the ocean bottom where a stormy night has scattered a skeleton’s bones. Her smart rhyme summons the reader to “Help me find my head bone, / my pillowed-on-the-bed bone, / the pirate’s flag-of-dread bone— / I’m scouting for my skull.”
Kids will unwittingly learn a bone’s name and function as they seek the bones—some are being absconded by various creatures. The lively beat of the lines is fun to read aloud as the skeleton is pieced back together until, once again, ready to set sail.
Bob Kolar’s art expands the playfulness of the book; bones seem to glow against a muted backdrop of ocean water. Sea critters lend a friendly fin, tail, or tentacle. I like how the skeleton, true to pirate fashion, has a peg leg in place of one of its tibia bones.
Don’t forget to peek under the jacket for a full-length “bone-rattling” poster. This extra detail elevates the book from a great read to one you’ll want to buy.
As much as I love Halloween, the classic story of Bunnicula had somehow eluded me. But, a pet rabbit who may be a vampire sounded irresistible and I was not disappointed. The book pulls you right in from the Editor’s Note (explaining how the manuscript was delivered to her door by a “sad-eyed, droopy-eared dog”) to first-person narration by Harold, the Monroe’s family dog. We soon discover that the problem is a new edition to the family: a black and white bunny found in the movie theater showing a Dracula movie.
Harold already shares the household with Chester the cat. Adding another animal takes some adjusting but weird things start happening to vegetables. For example, a tomato turns white and seemingly has teeth marks! As Harold and Chester try to solve this mystery, we discover the true charm of this book is crafty elusion. Is Bunnicula a vampire rabbit? What do you think?
This 40th anniversary pocket-sized edition has a plush red velvet cover and an Introduction by James Howe about the story’s origins and various renditions over the past four decades. Throughout, Alan Daniels’s art enlivens the story with humor and detail. At the end, best-selling authors Max Brallier, Holly Black, and Dav Pilkey share their personal experiences about this book. Bunnicula has six popular sequels and a spin-off series Tales from the House of Bunnicula and Bunnicula and Friends.
When I was the target age for a book like The Pigeon HAS to Go to School!, if I scraped my knee or bumped my head, my dad would examine the injury and say, “Oh no. We’re going to have to amputate!” It worked every time, turning my tears to belly laughs. Similarly, in this most recent addition to the popular series kicked off by Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Mo Willems tackles first day of school fears with Pigeon’s slightly subversive wit and my dad’s effective approach: identify the worst-case scenario and demonstrate how silly and ridiculous it is.
Pigeon hints he’s worried even before the title page, ordering the reader, “WAIT! Don’t read that title!” After all, why should Pigeon have to go to school? He already knows everything. Also, he’s not a morning person. And if he learns too much — his head might pop off! Looking and feeling very small on the page, he finally admits he’s scared. “The unknown stresses me out, dude.” What is he worried about? “Why does the alphabet have so many letters … Will FINGER PAINT stick to my feathers?” Or the one that really gets me: “What if the teacher doesn’t like pigeons?”
Like other books in the series, the illustrations are spare, with large blocks of pastel colors. All the words belong to Pigeon and are delivered in prominent speech bubbles in a large hand-lettered Courier-style font. There are opportunities for interaction; I can already picture my favorite two-year-old responding to Pigeon’s command, “Go on — ask me a question. Any question!” and then giggling proudly when the next page shows Pigeon is stumped. Pigeon eventually reasons out why school will be okay, but in a fun finish, he really feels it when he realizes how he’s going to get to school: a bright yellow … bus!
If the music teacher, the art teacher, the school librarian, and even the principal of Maple View School didn’t change the rule to allow pets in class, who did? Author Linda Ashman answers that question in Take Your Pet to School Day, but only after chronicling the rowdy behavior of the animal visitors. The lively, easy-to-read verse can be a fun way to start a conversation about why we need rules at school.
Suzanne Kaufman depicts both the human and animal populations at Maple View in colors that feel vibrant, soft, and warm at the same time. The illustrations are full of variety and detail. Kids will find children of every skin and hair color and enjoy inspecting their clothes in pastel solids and rainbow stripes, their high tops and cowboy boots and sneakers. The pets include the expected cat, dog, and bunny, as well as the unexpected: a turtle, a hedgehog, and even an entire ant farm. It’s an adventure just to find the hamster, who rolls somewhere new in its wheel on each page. I can’t recommend taking your pet horse to school, but I heartily recommend Take Your Pet to School Day.
I’M TRYING TO LOVE MATH Written and illustrated by Bethany Barton (Viking Books for Young Readers; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
As someone who loves math and wants kids to love it, too, I approach I’m Trying to Love Math with caution. Is math going to get a bum rap in this book? The narrator starts off by saying, “If you ask me, math is not very lovable. I know I’m not alone here either. 4 in 10 Americans hate math.” Worried, I study the pie chart right beneath the dreaded “H” word. Sixty percent of the pie is a bright wash of green labeled “YAY MATH!” and adorned with hearts. Forty percent is lemon yellow with “BOO MATH!” above a broken heart. Meanwhile, an adorable purple alien pops up in the corner and asks, “Did you just use math to explain how much you don’t like it?”
What a relief! I can see we’re in good hands here. I’m Trying to Love Math provides a variety of awesome answers to the age-old question: “When will I ever use math in real life?” Baking cookies? Check. Making music? Check. Exploring Earth and other parts of the universe? Check and check. After fun illustrations of ice cream and ships and electric guitars and cash registers—and a whole page of pi—the narrator comes to the conclusion that “math is a part of so many things I already love … I guess I don’t need to try to love it at all. It turns out … I already do.” I recommend this book to all math lovers, especially the ones who think they are haters.