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.
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GROWING UP GORILLA Written by Clare Hodgson Meeker (Millbrook Press; $31.99 Library Binding, $9.99 Kindle, Ages 8-12)
Good Reads With Ronna is the second to last stop on a month long blog tour comprised of assorted great posts about Growing Up Gorilla. The goal is to help get the word out about this terrific new nonfiction book that will change the way you look at gorillas, their familial bonds and their socialization while you root for baby gorilla Yola and her mother Nadiri.
BOOK SUMMARY: Growing Up Gorilla chronicles the story of Yola, a baby gorilla at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, and what happened after her mother gave birth for the first time and walked away from her. It is also the story of the dedicated zoo staff who found innovative ways to help Yola bond with her mother and with the rest of the family group.
Growing Up Gorilla is a nonfiction chapter book for ages 8-12 that focuses on the social structure of gorilla families and how they learn from each other as well as demonstrating the challenges zookeepers face when helping the animals they love. Filled with great photos, this will be a popular book for animal-lovers of all ages. With a durable library binding, it’s a must for any classroom or library collection.
BOOK REVIEW: As a reviewer I often try to read as little as possible about a book before I set eyes on it so that I can experience it the same way a reader would. Now that I’ve read Growing Up Gorilla I can report that I was hooked from the first page and can’t say enough good things about it.
Recounted chronologically in six chapters with additional info about gorillas plus an author note, a bibliography/further reading, and a glossary in the back matter, this nonfiction book makes for compelling reading. Meeker starts off by introducing readers to Nadiri, a nineteen-year-old gorilla who is about to give birth. The zookeepers and other pros who work with Nadiri are concerned that she will not bond with her baby because she herself was rejected by her birth mother. Nadiri was actually looked after for her first nine months of life by infant-care expert, Harmony Frazier. Eventually a surrogate mother for Nadiri was found, but the early days of mothering hadn’t been modeled for her by another gorilla.
I loved not knowing where the story would take me and found Meeker’s writing kept me turning the pages to see whether newborn Yola and Nadiri would connect right away. I was also eager to find out how the zookeepers and experts would plot their course of action should things go south. It was fascinating to see the commitment and selflessness of the zoo staff pay off. Like me, readers will realize how much they are learning while also being totally engrossed in the story.
As expected, Nadiri showed no interest in her offspring so the plans to win her over were launched. A den for Yola and her carer, Harmony, was made nearby Nadiri’s. This was so she could see the attention being paid to her baby by Harmony 24/7 for the first three days following birth. Perhaps that would spark her own maternal instincts. This also allowed the other gorillas to be introduced to Yola as the newest member of the troop safely from afar.
At first there were small victories like when Nadiri visited the den that Harmony and Yola inhabited. However, once Yola cried after not being held, Nadiri grew anxious and left. Another time she came over and patted the baby’s head and tucked her security blanket around her. That was considered quite a breakthrough moment. Still more was hoped for.
Zookeeper Judy Sievert took charge of Nadiri’s visits in an effort to get her interested in picking up and nursing the newborn before her milk dried up. Although the nursing window quickly passed, Nadiri began responding positively to other actions. The keepers would provide food treats and encouragement that Nadiri did not ignore. One of my favorite anecdotes was when Judy offered Nadiri apple pieces on a spoon. She placed the spoon right beside Yola’s face to lure her close to the baby. Nadiri approached but cleverly tried to grab the fruit with her hand. Judy gestured and said that Nadiri had to use her mouth and offered the spoon again. It worked! “Nadiri leaned in next to the baby’s face and ate the apple.” I was delighted when that happened so I can just imagine how Judy felt.
Many middle grade readers will relate to the tense dynamic between Nadiri and her attention-seeking half-sister, Akenji. I worried that Akenji might hurt Yola as she was more dominant than Nadiri, and perhaps jealous of her baby. Fortunately that never happened. Early on we also meet Leo, the silverback and another member of the troop, because he appears to be intrigued by Yola frequently watching her through a gate. Meeker makes sure to update us on how these relationships fare over the course of the book, too.
In Growing Up Gorilla, Meeker engagingly details the coordinated efforts of everyone at Woodland Park Zoo who was invested in Yola’s and Nadiri’s relationship. So much was at stake in their successful reunification and the emotion behind the efforts was palpable on every page. The fantastic full-color photos make it hard not to fall for baby Yola. Nadiri’s difficult past also invites our compassion. There are helpful sidebars throughout on interesting topics ranging from gorilla dens, gorilla families, gorilla vs. human development and gorilla talk, all designed to further educate us and help us to appreciate the complexity and importance of gorillas who “share 97.7 percent of the same genes” as humans. Since finishing the book, I’ve been sharing the uplifting story with everyone who loves a happy ending. I recommend this for animal lovers, budding zoologists and anyone who cares about the preservation of our primate cousins.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Find links below to Clare Meeker’s website and social media: