Get Ahead of the Curve! This Lunch Lady Will Be Played By Amy Poehler.

To get in the mood for this post, watch the author’s quick promo for his series.

What crime fighter packs a spork cell phone, fish stick nunchucks, and taco-vision night goggles?  Why, Lunch Lady, of course– “Serving justice and serving lunch!” In this six-book series, Lunch Lady can handle any danger– and we’re not talking runny sloppy joes here.  Fishy characters around Thompson Brook School have no idea what they’re up against. She knows martial arts, she scales buildings, she carries whisk whackers and is not afraid to use them.   James Bond has Q, and Lunch Lady has Betty, another cafeteria worker with a double life.  Betty develops excellent gadgets like hamburger headphones and fancy ketchup packet lasers in their super secret lab housed in the school Boiler Room.  When confronted with shocking revelations, Lunch Lady will exclaim things like, “Green beans!” or “Oh, my tater tots!”  What’s not to love about Lunch Lady?  I ask you.

Krosoczka grounds readers with a healthy dose of the familiar through the characters called “the Breakfast Bunch”– three kids who eat in the cafeteria every morning.  Through them, everyday topics like soccer tryouts and bullies are mixed in with preposterous plots such a cyborg substitute taking over the school. What does their lunch lady do when she isn’t slinging Salisbury steak? the Breakfast Bunch wonders.  With a little sniffing around, Hector, Terrence, and Dee discover their lunch lady’s time off is action-packed.  Lunch Lady and Betty frequently rely on the kids to seal the deal on crime, which is a departure from the classic, untouchable superhero, like say, Batman.  I like how these books empower kids in that way.

Heads up, parents and teachers of reluctant readers!  There’s a lot being written about the value of graphic novels for developing readers out of non-readers these days.  The preponderance of current wisdom says, YES!  Give kids graphic novels to encourage literacy (make sure they’re age appropriate, of course).  Series like Krosoczka’s Lunch Lady get kids in books.  The librarian where I teach says she can’t keep them on the shelves. Hooray for the Lunch Lady!  Apparently, Amy Poehler agrees. She’s has an interest in the series, and plans to star in the upcoming movie.  I bet that makes real life lunch ladies everywhere smile.

Dear Max: Who Doesn’t Love to Read Other People’s Mail?

There are at least three things I love about Dear Max, by Sally Grindley.

1.  First and foremost, because I’m a teacher and all, I love that the format sucks readers right into the book. Dear Max is a story  told entirely in letters between Max (almost ten) and his favorite author, D.J. Lucas.  Who doesn’t love to read other people’s mail?  Max writes a fan letter, D.J. writes back, and a friendship begins. Max and D.J.’s letters are short, funny, honest, and touching in a way that makes the need for further narrative superfluous.  For kids, the short and funny thing can lead to a great sense of accomplishment.  Just today I used Dear Max with a reluctant reader I tutor.  He didn’t really want to read it, but in 45 minutes he’d read me 35 pages!  That’s great for reading self-esteem.  As for the honest and touching business, well, that’s a bonus for us grown-ups.

2.  This book nurtures a love for writing stories and is chockfull of great pointers for fledgling authors.  The relationship between Max and D.J. gains momentum when Max, duly inspired by D.J.’s myriad bestsellers, decides to write a story and asks for her help.  D.J. is under deadline herself, and invites Max to write his story while she writes her new book.  I love when D.J. admits she often spends hours staring at the white page and that her ideas take quite some time to “brew.”  The story Max writes about Grizzle, a bear too small to catch fish like he’s supposed to, and Chomp, the crocodile that bullies him, mirrors Max’s own struggles in school.  Max is small and bullied by a thug named Hugo Broadbent– nicknamed Broadbottom by Max.  The parallels are there, but D.J. and Grindley never connect the dots for readers.  Which brings me to the third thing I love.

3.  There’s so much story between the letters for readers to figure out, it’s captivating! At first, Max is just a 9-year-old fan of an author, but a few letters in we learn, “Christmas is the saddest time of year for my mum and me.”  A few letters more, and we find Max’s father is gone from his life, though we don’t know why.  Later, Max mentions he’s off to yet another boring trip to the hospital, where his doctor examines him as if he were a weird bug.  As for D.J., turns out she’s a motorbike riding, skydiving author who’s fallen in love with a pilot, and who is clearly smitten with Max as well.  Enough so that she takes a break from writing that new book to write a short story about an almost-ten-year-old boy.   Readers finally learn Max’s father has died, but we never do learn what illness takes Max to the hospital and if it’s why he is so much smaller than his peers.  The absence of the label brings to mind how pointless labels can be.  In this way, it’s a book rich for discussion.  And also in the way it models using art/creativity/writing as catharsis.  No wonder it was shortlisted for three different book awards in Grindley’s native U.K.

This is a 3-book series, and the second finds Max ready to write a play at the same moment D.J.’s book is to be made into a movie.  I highly recommend Bravo, Max. In the third book, Relax Max, Max and D.J. take on poetry.  You’ll have a hard time finding it in the U.S., but when my book group wrote to Grindley’s publisher in the U.K., true to form, they sent us six copies free of charge– air mail!  I am a fan.

Clarice Bean– Bridget Jones as a Youth? She’s Not Just for Girls!

You know what the Brits call pigs’ feet?  Trotters.  Are you picturing a bunch of pink pigs trotting around their pen right now?  I am.  I love that term!  It’s perfect.  I learned it reading Clarice Bean. Her stories are told in diary format, and have a sense of humor reminiscent of the Bridget Jones diaries.   “Clarice Bean!  Will you please come back down to Earth this instant!”  That would be British school marm Mrs. Wilberton, teacher of Clarice and possessor of trotters (according to our narrator).  Mrs. Wilberton is exasperated with Clarice yet again and old-school enough to broadcast it to the class every chance she gets.  But don’t worry about Clarice.  She’s a survivor.   In her first book, Utterly Me, Clarice Bean, she’s quite full of moxie indeed, modeling herself after her favorite book character, Ruby Redfort, school girl detective.  But when a book report contest provides an opportunity to win the class prize, Clarice is ready to rise to the challenge.  And though she’s no academic match for her rival, goody-goody Grace Grapelli, Clarice is at the top of her game when the prize trophy vanishes and the mystery needs to be solved.

At their core, the Clarice Bean books are not vastly different from Judy Moody books or Ramona books:  spunky, quirky character faces school daze problems and said spunk/quirkiness carries her through.  But, what was groundbreaking about author/graphic artist Lauren Child’s style, back in ’02, was that she creatively exploited every available feature of the book she presented to her young audience to bring Clarice alive.  That is, well before Dairy of a Wimpy Kid‘s Jeff Kinney brought us pages that have a sixth grader’s doodles in the margins and a font that looks like kid scrawl, Child infused the very print on the page– normal Times New Roman, or whatever– with an expressive quality reflective of Clarice’s unique voice.  Bold print, italics, yeah, but how about swirling print and sideways print, with font size adjusted to match Clarice’s frame of mind?  And using wonderful collage images in unconventional places to illustrate a point?  I wish I could show you an example, because that’s the only way to do Child’s work justice, but, bear with me and picture this page:

I can’t concentrate because I am busy imagining Mrs. Wilberton as a hippopotamus, and I am writing [childlike scrawl font here]: Mrs. Wilberton is a hippipotimis.  Mrs. Wilberton is a hippipotimis. over and over again without really meaning to.  And what I am unaware of is that Mrs. Wilberton is standing behind me, reading it.  She says, “Can anyone here correctly spell the word hippopotamus for Clarice Bean?”  And here, barging in from the right side of the page is a photograph of a hippo with hand-drawn cat glasses, a la Wilberton.  Clarice doesn’t say she pictured this.  She doesn’t have to.  The picture deepens our understanding of who Clarice is. And, personally, I can’t get enough of her.

Book two in the series, Clarice Bean Spells Trouble, won critical acclaim from librarians as well as kids.  In it, there’s a spelling bee, a musical theater rendition of The Sound of Music (alas, our Clarice is stuck playing one of the nuns), and most heartwarming, a blooming friendship between Clarice and the class trouble-maker, Carl Wrenbury.  Only Clarice, with her individualist nature and blatant disregard for authority, is willing to look beyond Karl’s behavior and extend the hand of friendship to a boy in need of understanding.  Fewer illustrations but more heart, it’s a fantastic read.

Monty Python for the Twelve-and-Unders: Cressida Crowell

I know, I know.  You saw the movie.  “It was a little sad,” I hear you say.  “My kid cried,” you say.  I have no idea what happened when  How to Train a Dragon, by Cressida Cowell, was turned into a movie, but something seems to have been lost in translation.  This book is funny.  Monty bloody Python funny.  It’s not sad.  I didn’t see the movie, so I’m not criticizing it, I’m just sayin’, boys LOVE this book.  It definitely will not make them cry, unless they are laughing so hard a few tears spring from their eyes.  Girls like it, too, if you can get them past the overtly male window dressing (Colors of the dragon breed called the Gronkle:  Snot green, bogey beige, pooey brown.) and into the bones of the story.  Because deep down, it’s universally appealing.   Unlikely hero, whose talents fly in the face of popular culture, overcomes bully-ish peers by virtue of said talent, and saves the day.  It reminds me of Python’s Life of Brian, in which Brian is believed by a whole lot of folks to be the Messiah, and feels wholly unfit for the job.  (In case you want to remember, )

Only, nobody believes in Hiccup.

Hiccup is a Viking boy, heir to the royal throne.  His father, the Chief of the Hairy Hooligans, casts a long shadow– he’s a fearsome sword warrior and esteemed leader of a crowd who favors brawn and bulkiness over all else.  Hiccup is more of the introspective, intellectual sort of Viking.  The problem is, of course, there is no such thing as an introspective, intellectual Viking, and most definitely no such thing as an introspective, intellectual Viking chief. Hiccup is routinely ridiculed by fellow tribesman, including his father.  A rite of passage for all Viking boys is to tame a wild dragon to use in battle.  The book opens with the boys being led into a cave to kidnap sleeping baby dragons during their hibernation season.  The popular mode of training a dragon?  Yell at it.  The louder the better.  Hiccup has a wimpy yell, and all his peers know his weakness.  On top of that, he’s captured the smallest of all dragons– and it’s toothless, to boot.  But Hiccup’s strength?  He’s researched and studied, studied and researched, and mastered the Dragonese language.  He’s a dragon whisperer.

What adult doesn’t want his/her child getting the message that brains overpower brawn?  The best part is that it’s camouflaged in kid humor.  The line-up of events at the “Thor’sday Thursday Celebration?”  Hammer-throwing for the Over-60s only; How Many Gulls’ Eggs Can You Eat in One Minute? contest; Ugliest Baby Contest; Axe-fighting Display (“Admire the delicate art of fighting with axes.”).

A whole lot of fun, and just the beginning of a multi-book series.  So forget the movie.  The book is better (she says without having seen the first frame of the film).  Isn’t the book always better?

What? Already finished the “Wimpy Kid” series?

Another Maine author.  It’s a great state, what can I say?  Lincoln Pierce is a cartoonist/author whose comic strip (about–who else?– Big Nate) appears in over 200 US newspapers.   Once your kid spots Big Nate In a Class By Himself on the bookstore or library shelf, you won’t be able to talk him/her out of it.  And why would you? Matter of fact, I challenge you to put it down once you read page one.  Go ahead, try.  Read a sample.

Nate’s a great character, perhaps not one you want your kid to emulate, but definitely someone you’ll remember from your own middle school days. Nate, who tells his story through simple prose and comics, is a sixth grader imprisoned by middle school.  Pierce has the voice of a middle school boy down pat.  “I think we can all agree that substitute teachers are almost always better than real teachers,” Nate pontificates.  “And by ‘better’ I mean ‘more clueless.'”  When describing his dad, Nate notes he’s okay, not as psycho as some he’s seen at Little League games.  But Dad, like many a substitute teacher, is clueless.  “Dad Fact:  Dad handed out rice cakes for Halloween one year.  That was also the year our house get egged.  Connect the dots, Dad.”) Nate is sure he’s destined for better things than middle school is preparing him for.  He read it in a fortune cookie.

Saying more about the book would be overkill.  It’s a quick, hysterical read accessible to kids younger than sixth grade (I’d say third), and there are more Nate books on the horizon.  Also, Pierce, being an artist at heart, maintains a fun, interactive website.  Check it out!

Carl Hiaasen Keeps Them (and Us) White-knuckled

Chapter One is a short story in and of itself.   A brilliant one.  We’re in middle school biology class at a mediocre private day school in Florida, taught by the tyrannical Mrs. Starch– who, Hiaasen alerts us in sentence one, will mysteriously disappear the next day.  But today, she’s twirling her Ticonderoga #2 pencil in a way that inspires fear among her students.  Mrs. Starch is a take-no-prisoners, polyester-pant-suit-clad biology zealot, who “wears her dyed blond hair piled to one side of her head, like a sand dune.”  She takes pleasure in grilling students on assigned reading and humiliating those who fail to answer correctly.  Her target today is Smoke, the Truman School’s taciturn loner who, BTW, has a track record with pyromania. Suffice it to say he hasn’t done the reading, and what ensues is a tension fraught face-off, a bullfight performed in front of an otherwise law abiding class of kids.  The incident, shared with us via the main character Nick, is horrifying both because the teacher finds it so easy to ruthlessly bait a student and because Smoke fumes (excuse the pun) with a dangerous anger unfit for a middle schooler.  I won’t tell how it ends, but I will say I actually gasped I was so surprised. Gasped– no kidding.

Smoke doesn’t show up for the Biology field trip to the Black Vine Swamp the next day.  Mrs. Starch disappears at the end of it.  Was the piercing cry from the woods everyone heard a rare Florida panther, or something more sinister?   Is it Smoke stalking Mrs. Starch?   The half-hearted investigation put forth by Truman’s headmaster turns up nothing. Nick and his friend Marta, unsatisfied with the adults’ handling of the mystery, take it upon themselves to solve it.  It’s a wild ride filled with vivid characters and pierced with heartbreaking realism (Nick’s Iraqi War veteran father, Smoke’s broken home).  Nick and Marta manage not only to find Mrs. Starch and prove Smoke’s innocence, but uncover an illegal oil drilling scheme threatening the Black Vine Swamp and the endangered Florida panther.

Carl Hiaasen has won multiple awards for his books and frequents the NYT Bestseller List, so I may not be introducing you to anything new here.  But if you and your favorite ‘tween don’t know him yet, it’s time.  Hiaasen writes “eco-thrillers”–  books in which empowered kids bring greedy, crooked, defilers of the natural world to justice.  He’s a satirist at heart, and like the best of them he manages to walk the tightrope between the ridiculous and the painfully true, entertaining us all the while. It’s the kind of writing usually reserved for adult audiences.  True, Scat, with its layered, fast-paced plot and multifaceted characters, is best suited to a 10+ audience, but it reminds us of how keen an eye young people have for seeing hypocrisy, and how sometimes it takes clear-eyed, youthful idealism to combat it.

Other books for kids by Hiaasen:  Newbery Award Winner Hoot, and Flush, both highly recommended.

Horrid Henry– Horrid Enough to Hook Reluctant Boys

Horrid Henry is a truly horrid child.  He does all the things grown-ups disdain.  He torments his brother, Perfect Peter.  (“Do you want to be free from the mummy’s curse?” Henry asks Peter after he’s wrapped him in toilet paper.  “Then you must stand still and be quiet for thirty minutes.”)  He ruins the school theater production by being the runaway raindrop.  He strategically plucks the stakes out from all the tents at a family campground.  And yet, something about him is appealing.  Even to grown-ups.  To kids– particularly the target audience of 7-10 year-old boys– he’s so outrageous he’s irresistible.  Just look at him.  I mean, who tricks the Tooth Fairy?  I’ve yet to put my finger on why I like him in spite of his utter lack of conscience, but I suspect it’s the way Simon sets up the situations. Like all comic bad boys, Henry is perfectly contrasted against “straight” characters.  His parents often sigh and wonder why they had children.  Perfect Peter is perfect and therefore loathesome.  His controlling theater teacher is fun to unravel.  In one character Henry’s met his match.  His neighbor Moody Margaret won’t be outdone by Henry.

Horrid Henry is appealing too because each of his twenty (!) books contains four short stories. That’s manageable reading for even a stubborn sort of kid.  Manageable and wicked.  What boy doesn’t love that?  Also, illustrator Tony Ross captures Henry’s mischievous hilarity with wobbly-lined genius.  If  a young someone is particularly resistant to reading stories, there are Horrid Henry joke books.  Simon also has a great website for this series.

Road tested titles include:  Horrid Henry, Horrid Henry and the Mummy’s Curse, Horrid Henry and the Soccer Fiend, and Horrid Henry’s Joke Book.

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