Keeping It Brief #3: Some Great Early Reader & Middle Grade Books

It’s that time again: time for me to catch up on reviews after a few months of binge reading. These books were all acquired at this year’s BEA and BookCon, and I’d recommend all three.

A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStefano. Bloomsbury. 240 pp.

A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStefano. Bloomsbury. 240 pp.

It seems an exaggeration to compare a writer to Neil Gaiman; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done it before. Neil is sort of in a class of his own, because his writing is so gorgeous and chilling and magical. Lauren DeStefano’s writing is strong and magical like his, but it seems a disservice to simply say, “Oh, she’s like Neil.” She’s her own writer, a damn good one at that, and I look forward to getting my hands on some of her other books soon.

I loved Pram’s name and bravery; her eccentric, well-meaning aunts; and her gentle, devoted best friends. The narrative style is perfect: a bit of fantasy, a bit of fairy tale, a bit of dark reality. There is nothing about this book that I didn’t like…well, except for the fact that it didn’t exist when I was in elementary school. I would have adored this book as a child! (I love it now, but there’s something to be said for the love a child holds for her favorite books; it’s a different kind of relationship, I think.)

George by Alex Gino. Scholastic. 240 pp.

George by Alex Gino. Scholastic. 240 pp.

Here’s what I love about this book: it’s recommended for ages 8-12. George is the only book I’m aware of that introduces gender identity in a way that’s geared toward elementary-school-aged kids.

I was dubious of this one at first, because the synopsis sounded remarkably similar to that of Gracefully Grayson, a book I read last year. But after getting my hands on a copy at BEA, I realized that George is its own story entirely. The demographic is different, of course, but so are the writing style and the details of the story.

From the very beginning, George is referred to with female pronouns. She’s always known who she is, and the way that Alex Gino’s narrative is arranged, the reader can’t doubt this either. It’s so matter-of-fact: others see George as a boy, but she’s really a girl. That’s all. (It would be great if it was this simple in the real world, but hopefully, if enough stories are told in this manner, attitudes and prejudices will start to change.) I wonder if young readers will understand this immediately or if they will be confused at the fact that everyone else calls George “he.” Before having kids, I taught high school English; although I have very little experience with young readers, I wish I could observe an elementary school class and hear their responses to this book. We need different kinds of stories in the world, and George fills a gap that I hadn’t previously been aware of. I can’t wait to hear how kids respond to it.

Auggie & Me by R.J. Palacio. Alfred A. Knopf. 304 pp.

Auggie & Me by R.J. Palacio. Alfred A. Knopf. 304 pp.

I remember when The Julian Chapter was released as a Kindle single. I wasn’t buying Kindle books at the time and was sad that there wasn’t another way to get my hands on it. I was thrilled to see this book, a re-release of three Kindle singles all loosely related to August Pullman, the protagonist of R.J. Palacio’s mind-blowing Wonder.

Palacio is a master at putting the reader into someone else’s shoes. The honesty of the three accounts contained in this book is moving; each child is affected differently by knowing Auggie, in ways both good and bad. I felt a sympathy toward each of them, to the initial shock they felt when seeing Auggie’s face, the obligations they felt to be nice to Auggie even though it made them less popular. I never would have thought I’d feel sympathetic to Julian, but his tale reminds the reader that everyone is going through more than meets the eye. This is a beautiful addition to the Wonderverse, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to read it.

Also, Christopher’s mother calls him “Honeyboy,” a term of endearment that I was sure I’d invented. It made me smile.

Picture Book Roundup #7: BEA Edition

Today’s entry consists of three picture books that I got at BEA. I had the opportunity to meet the authors of all three, so I’ll write a bit about that experience along with my reviews.

Turtle and Me by Robie H. Harris, illustrated by Tor Freeman. little bee books. 40 pp.

Turtle and Me by Robie H. Harris, illustrated by Tor Freeman. little bee books. 40 pp.

I stumbled upon this signing line accidentally, and boy am I glad I did! The author was kind, and my only regret is that I hadn’t already read the book, because I would have liked to tell her how much my son and I both enjoyed it. This is a beautiful tale of a boy who brings his stuffed turtle everywhere with him, as is evidenced by Turtle’s many stains and patches. The boy loves his Turtle until at a playdate one day a friend exclaims, “Having Turtle’s a BABY thing!” All of a sudden, Turtle (and his newest — enormous — rip) is relegated to sleeping on the floor. My heart cracked a little bit as I realized that one day my son will start to see himself the way others see him instead of allowing his enthusiasm to run free, loving whatever he wants to love. I hope that he surrounds himself with people who won’t judge him for a favorite stuffed animal (or hobby, or anything). But he will encounter opposition, and I want to help him with that as best I can. The boy’s father deals with the situation in a way that I loved: he says, “You are very big now…but not all big. Not just yet.” And in the end, of course, the boy allows himself a little more time with his beloved Turtle.

The day after I attended BEA, my three-year-old and I snuggled on the couch and read all of the picture books I’d brought home. He requested to read this one twice more that day, once before naptime and once before bedtime. And, perhaps most adorable of all, he asked to bring his stuffed turtle to bed with him that night. (He usually sleeps with the same two favorites, a dog and a monkey, but occasionally adds a visitor or two.) Even though he hasn’t experienced the struggle of being “too old” for a toy yet, my son enjoyed this book and continues to request it. I’m hoping that its message becomes ingrained in him and that he can recall it when and if someone decides to tease him about something being too babyish. It’s a beautiful story, with great illustrations, and I’m thrilled to have it as part of our collection.

Stream Train, Dream Train by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Chronicle Books. 40 pp.

Stream Train, Dream Train by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld. Chronicle Books. 40 pp.

My son is in love with Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site (as are my husband and I), so I was elated to see that both the author and illustrator were signing at BEA this year. (Confession: I didn’t notice this until the day of the expo; I hadn’t recognized the author’s name when scanning the autographing schedule ahead of time. That’s terrible considering the fact that I’ve read that book at least a couple dozen times.) The artwork in Steam Train, Dream Train is very similar to that in GGCS. In fact, some of the cargo on the train was delightfully familiar: the construction vehicles are part of the freight in one of the gondola cars, and my son leapt up in excitement when he recognized them.

The different items being loaded onto the train are great fun for kids, from blocks to balls to ice cream sundaes. The crew is colorful and energetic, and each two-page spread introduces a different type of train car, which is great for train aficionados like my little guy. I prefer the repetitive nature of GGCS, but this one still features some fun rhymes and sound effects. All in all, it’s a great gift book, especially for locomotive lovers. I liked it a lot, just not as much as their construction site project.

Both authors were delightful. I told Sherri how much easier her words had made bedtime for us; she said that her son used to give her a hard time going to bed, too, so she completely understands. (He’s now nine and lets her know when he’s tired, so there is hope for us one day!) I told Tom how breathtaking I find his artwork and confessed that I’m considering buying a second copy of the book just to razor out the illustrations and frame them. He recommended checking Chronicle’s site for prints, which I did, but they’re very limited in selection. I’ll probably be better off with my original plan.

Bulldozer's Big Day by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohman. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 40 pp.

Bulldozer’s Big Day by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohman. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 40 pp.

I don’t have any interesting author tales for this one, mostly because the woman in front of me was a librarian having the book personalized to the children’s department of Fletcher Memorial Library, so her inscription read “FML Kids.” We were all grinning too widely for me to think of anything clever to say.

But now I have something to say: this book is fun to read! The illustrations are simple and bright, the pages uncluttered. Each truck has a different job and repeats this task three times. My son loves this, saying that the cement mixer is “Stirring…stirring…stirring,” etc. And his face lights up every time we get to the part when Bulldozer realizes that his friends haven’t actually forgotten about his “big day.” He claps and, beaming, exclaims, “They did not forget!” Although I’d first recommend Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, this would also be a great gift for a toddler who loves trucks.

All in all: I enjoyed all three of these, though each to a different degree. They’re actually listed in order of preference, with our favorite (Turtle and Me) first. I don’t keep books that I don’t plan to re-visit, but these have all found a home on our shelves.

Picture Book Roundup #6

It’s that time again: time to tell you about the picture books I’ve been enjoying with my toddler. We make frequent use of our local library to take picture books for a test run; if we didn’t try books on for size before buying, my house would be overrun. (I’ve always lived with books piled high in corners of my living space, but my husband doesn’t appreciate this system of storage as much as I do. He’s built me a few extra bookshelves, but we’re still running out of space.) This installment contains three great finds: books that are purchase-worthy and stand up to multiple re-readings.

Little Blue Truck by Alice Shertle, illus. by Jill McElmurry. HMH Books for Young Readers. 32 pp.

Little Blue Truck by Alice Shertle, illus. by Jill McElmurry. HMH Books for Young Readers. 32 pp.

Little Blue Truck Leads the Way by Alice Schertle, illus. by Jill McElmurry. HMH Books for Young Readers. 40 pp.

Little Blue Truck Leads the Way by Alice Schertle, illus. by Jill McElmurry. HMH Books for Young Readers. 40 pp.

We received Little Blue Truck as a gift a year or so ago. My son adored it then and still requests it from time to time. I was impressed by the whimsical illustrations, the catchy rhymes and meter, and the typography (sounds are larger and more brightly-colored, swooping across the pages). It’s a larger board book, ideal for little ones who are ready for longer books but not careful enough with paper pages, and it was such a hit that we added the second book, Little Blue Truck Leads the Way, to our collection as well. Both books deal with parent-pleasing topics such as friendliness, politeness, and manners in the toddler-friendly format of trucks and other vehicles (and, in the case of the first book, farmyard animals).

I'm a Big Brother by Joanna Cole, illus. by Maxie Chambliss. HarperCollins. 32 pp.

I’m a Big Brother by Joanna Cole, illus. by Maxie Chambliss. HarperCollins. 32 pp.

I found a copy of an older edition of I’m a Big Brother at a local library book sale while pregnant with my second child. After flipping through it, I realized that it was the perfect way to introduce my older son to the idea of having a baby in the house. It reminded him that he was once a baby, unable to do lots of things, and that he has more abilities and privileges now that he’s “big.” It gave him a crash course in what to expect with a newborn; crying is covered matter-of-factly and explained, not as a negative behavior, but simply as a means of communication. My favorite thing about this one is that it ends by reminding my firstborn that he is still special and that my husband and I still love him for him. I didn’t want him to feel threatened by the baby, and this book did a great job paving the way for open discussions about what it would mean to have a new little one in our home.

Note: This is the cover for the edition that I purchased. I’ve since spotted this book at Barnes and Noble and flipped through it, and the boys are now much fairer and, if memory serves correctly, blond. I prefer the older edition because these boys look more like my own kids, but the content seems to be the same.

Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss. Random House. 72 pp.

Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss. Random House. 72 pp.

This is one of the most fun children’s books I’ve read…and I’ve read quite a few!

My husband has been all about Dr. Seuss lately, and he loves reading Seuss books to our son, so I grabbed this one when I spotted it at the library since we hadn’t read it yet. (My mom swears she read it to me when I was a kid, and I’m sure she did, but I don’t remember it.)

The tongue twisters in this book are tricky and silly and great fun to read aloud. My two-year-old (and his parents!) giggled all through the first reading — and the second! He enjoyed it so much that we bought a copy to add to our permanent collection. I’ve since read it to him many, many times and there are still a couple of pages where I really have to focus to say the right words. It’s tricky!

This one is so much fun that my husband asked me to read it to him last night…after we’d already put our son to bed! 🙂

Summer Reading List: Miscellaneous, Part Two

Wrapping up my Summer Reading List catch-ups today (phew!). Here goes.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford. Clarion Books. 384 pp.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford. Clarion Books. 384 pp.

This was a Goodreads win that I was more than happy to receive. It has a sort of Westing Game feel, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It’s smart and engrossing, with a fun mystery to solve, a colorful cast of characters, and a bit of holiday charm. I can’t wait to read it to my son when he gets a little older. (There’s no inappropriate subject matter; it’s just that he’s two, and this is middle grade. He’s bright, but not that bright.) The only thing I found disappointing was the weird, all-too-convenient ending. Overall, though, a great book, one that kids and parents can enjoy together.

Black Crow White Lie by Candi Sary. Casperian Books. 160 pp.

Black Crow White Lie by Candi Sary. Casperian Books. 160 pp.

Another Goodreads win, one that sat on my shelf for months before I finally got around to picking it up. It was…so-so. The writing was okay, the plot was okay, and the character development was — you guessed it! — okay. I was tempted to stop reading this one, but I plowed through…and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix. Quirk Books. 243 pp.

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix. Quirk Books. 243 pp.

This one was being given away at BookCon. I love the cover, the way the ghost in the picture frames doesn’t pop out at you immediately but has a sort of time-release fright effect. The story is clever, a sort of ghost-possessed Ikea (except it’s Orsk, not Ikea, because…you know…lawsuit potential!). It’s a quick, easy read with fun-and-eerie product descriptions at the beginning of each chapter. I don’t read much horror, but I found this one to be creepy enough. It’d make a good scary movie.

Rumpelstiltskin, retold by Edith H. Tarcov, illustrated by Edward Gorey. Scholastic. 48 pp.

Rumpelstiltskin, retold by Edith H. Tarcov, illustrated by Edward Gorey. Scholastic. 48 pp.

I grabbed this one at a book sale; I’m a sucker for fairy tales and picked this one up even though it’s yellowed and crumbling. It’s a simple, straightforward retelling, which I enjoyed (although I’m partial to the version in which Rumpelstiltskin splits himself in half at the end of the story…). The illustrations are what you’d expect from Edward Gorey (I mean that in a good way, because I enjoy his style), but I’d prefer them to have been either entirely black and white or to incorporate more colors. (The cover is colorful, but the interior illustrations are black and white with bits of yellow — and only yellow. It seemed like a budget-friendly way to incorporate color, but I didn’t love it.) I try not to keep every book I buy, especially if I think I’ll never read it again, but I’m holding on to this one. I’ll give it a good tape job and read it with my son!

Review: It’s a BUSLOAD of Pigeon Books! by Mo Willems

It's a Busload of Pigeon Books! by Mo Willems. Disney-Hyperion. 120 pp.

It’s a Busload of Pigeon Books! by Mo Willems. Disney-Hyperion. 120 pp.

A family friend gave my son a Barnes and Noble gift card for his birthday. She explained in the card that it was really a gift for me, because she knew how excited I was to share my love for reading with my little boy. And that gift card has proved to be the gift that keeps on giving, because it’s been almost a year and not only do we still have a little bit of money left to spend, but one of the selections has become a family favorite.

My son requests these books constantly; he loves The Pigeon. (That should be capitalized, right? He’s an institution!) My husband and I enjoy these books as well; they’re funny and easy to read aloud. The lines are simple and super-fun to add inflection to, like

Can you believe this guy?!

or

First of all, I’m not even tired.

It’s great fun to witness The Pigeon’s antics, and my son looooves being in charge of whether or not The Pigeon gets to drive the bus. (For once, he’s not the one begging for a privilege!)

These books are much smaller than the regular hardcover editions, which was disappointing at first, but I should have guessed because they’re also much cheaper. As I’ve gotten used to them, they don’t feel overly miniature any more; they’re actually a better size for my almost-two-year-old. The set also comes with an activity poster (one side activities, one side pop-art Pigeon poster) which is small but cute.

All in all: A fun addition to a child’s library. Also great for a gift; the box set nature makes it feel gift-y to me.

Picture Book Roundup #4

Truck Duck by Michael Rex. Putnam Juvenile. 34 pp.

Truck Duck by Michael Rex. Putnam Juvenile. 34 pp.

I stumbled upon Truck Duck via a neighborly sort of accident: I was browsing books by Adam Rex and grabbed this one by Michael Rex instead. But once I saw the cover, I knew it would be perfect for my son: trucks and animals are what he’s all about lately! There are illustrations of animals driving vehicles of all shapes and sizes, from the titular “Truck Duck” to the closing “Caboose Moose.” The rhymes are fun and unexpected and the illustrations are bright, bold, and surprisingly detailed. My little guy likes to sit and run his fingers over the pictures while blurting out the occasional animal sound (or “Vrrrooom!”). It’s such a favorite that he waves his arms in the air every time I ask him if he wants to read it. (In fact, we read it FOUR TIMES over breakfast this morning.) This is wonderfully fun to read, but I’m not sure yet whether it will be a long-lasting favorite or just part of a phase. Either way, it’s delightful.

The Composer Is Dead by Lemony Snicket, illustrations by Carson Ellis and music composed by Nathaniel Stookey. HarperCollins. 40 pp.

The Composer Is Dead by Lemony Snicket, illustrations by Carson Ellis and music composed by Nathaniel Stookey. HarperCollins. 40 pp.

Let’s start with this: I love Daniel Handler and his alter ego, Lemony Snicket. He (or should I say “they”?) is one of my favorites; I can’t help the smile creeping across my face whenever I read something he’s written. I first heard about The Composer Is Dead when it was a stage production performed by a live orchestra and narrated by Lemony himself. It was on the west coast, though, and I live in the east, so I was sadly unable to attend and had to read the book instead. The Composer Is Dead follows the Inspector’s (yes, that’s his name) quest to find the Composer’s murderer. You see,

…last night, the Composer was not muttering. He was not humming. He was not moving, or even breathing.

This is called decomposing.

(I know. I laughed out loud, too.)

The Investigator interrogates every section of the orchestra, but they all have airtight alibis. (Well, most of their alibis hold up…) The instruments’ defenses give readers a glimpse into the sounds they play and what they contribute to the overall effect of the orchestra. This book is written in typical Snicket fashion: smart, quippy, and highbrow. Plus, the illustrations’ content and style are just right for the story.

But that’s not all. The cover advertises a “Free CD Inside!” which there most certainly is. It’s a recording of Snicket masterfully narrating the tale while the instruments being interrogated play Nathaniel Stookey’s compositions. It’s a wonderful addition for anyone who was unable to attend a live performance.

All in all: Both of these are great books, but they will probably demand re-reading. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Bonus picture: Daniel Handler cracking me up at a reading, oh…seven years ago or so. (Every time we tried to take a picture, he would hit some dramatic pose or other, and after a while I just couldn’t keep a straight face any longer.)

Daniel Handler!

It’s Daniel Handler!

Picture Book Roundup #3

The Thankful Book by Todd Park. Little, Brown Books. 32 pp.

The Thankful Book by Todd Park. Little, Brown Books. 32 pp.

The Thankful Book is just what it sounds like: a collection of things to be thankful for. Some are simple and straightforward, but others are unexpectedly humorous. Granted, the illustrations look like they were done in MS Paint, but they’re detailed and colorful enough to make up for it. (Usually I hate it when pictures look like I could have drawn them, but for some reason, these work.) It’s especially appropriate for the Thanksgiving season, but I’d read it year-round. It’s simple enough to read to my one-year-old but will probably work up to preschool age. A couple of my favorite lines to demonstrate the variety of things to be thankful for:

I am thankful for walks because they are special times for just you and me.

and

I am thankful for underwear because I like to wear it on my head.

Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal & Tom Lichtenheld. Scholastic. 56 pp.

Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal & Tom Lichtenheld. Scholastic. 56 pp.

Exclamation Mark is a book about…well…an exclamation mark. He is surrounded by periods and tries his hardest to fit in, but that line on top of his head gives him away every time. He is embarrassed by being different until he meets a question mark who forces him to stand up for himself. Once everyone sees what he can do, he is proud of his special abilities. This is a very versatile book: I’d use it in elementary school to introduce punctuation marks, I’d use it for just about any age to teach a lesson about acceptance in simple terms, and I’ve already read it to my one-year-old. It’s short enough for him to endure, and he was enthralled by all the smiling faces. This was a library book, but I’d consider adding it to my collection.

I Hate Picture Books by Timothy Young. Schiffer Publishing. 32 pp.

I Hate Picture Books by Timothy Young. Schiffer Publishing. 32 pp.

The final book for today’s roundup is I Hate Picture Books. It’s about Max, a boy who decides that picture books are unrealistic and can only get him into trouble — like that time his mom read him Harold and the Purple Crayon. It was okay when Harold did it, but when Max drew on the walls, he got sent to bed without his dinner! What good can come of imagination if it brings such terrible punishments? So Max boxes up his picture books and decides to throw them in the trash. Then a funny thing happens: as Max reiterates his reasons for hating picture books, he experiences an overwhelming urge to read them all again. Could he really love his picture books after all? This is a funny, silly homage to picture books, with nods to many children’s classics. For someone like me, a book about books is really as good as it gets.

I love when I can end things on a good note!