I love how this captures the importance of caring– good to remember as teachers, parents, and friends. Lynda Mullaly Hunt does this with her friends and may not know it!

Nerdy Book Club

A published author writing about herself as a child reader? Well, here’s some honest irony.

As a kid, I was a non-reader.

Having had no exposure to books prior to kindergarten, I started behind. I was placed in the lowest reading group and remained there until the middle of sixth grade.

Now, let me say that I may have been a bit of a conundrum to my teachers. When my turn came during reading group to answer a question, I rarely had an reply. (Because I’d have been playing “letter games” like putting words in alphabetical order rather than…you know…actually reading the sentences.) They’d smile as if to pat me on the head. My silence coupled with the fact that I was often a reserved, messy kid? Well, I suppose I seemed like a child whom they shouldn’t expect much from. I knew they thought I was dumb and, for…

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Please Mind the Gap

I’m always on the hunt for well done early middle grade books.   Perhaps you know a young lady or gentleman who fits the following criteria:

-S/he is between seven and nine years of age.

-S/he has a great sight word vocabulary and can attack longer words with reasonable success.

-S/he has conquered a few easy reader series, such as the Mudge books.

-And all this allows said child to focus more on comprehension so as to enjoy richer plots.

The beloved Henry and Mudge books usher many children into independently reading.

You know someone like this, right?  Well, if you’re an elementary librarian, you’re talking about a quarter of your clientele.  Do you feel my pain of trying to find books to match this reading level?  Good books?  Books that completely hook them and leave them jonesing for more?  Do you nod your head in agreement when I ask the heavens, why aren’t publishers putting out more of these books?  This is a great market!  These kids can plow through series at heart-stopping speed.  That means lots of sales, publishers!  And step on it, before we lose them all to apps and gaming forever, for crying out loud.

Breathe.

There is a developmental staircase in reading, and to go from Frog and Toad All Year to The Witches would be fun, but also would skip some steps. Go ahead and use the “sneak peek” at Amazon to note the difference in these two books.  Many more words per sentence and per page, more pages per chapter, a huge shift upward in vocabulary, and more complicated plotting.  The switch would be akin to throwing a kid into the English Channel as a reward for finishing the Guppy level at the YMCA.

Dahl’s “The Witches” is deliciously wicked and appeals to many early middle grade readers (7 to 9-year-olds), but the text is too challenging for many.

Of course, it’s not like children will drown if they jump to harder books.  No, the result is more troubling (speaking metaphorically, anyway).  When I mistakenly put a child into a book she isn’t ready for, I get, “Yeah, I didn’t like it.”  I know sometimes it may be just that.  But when a child says he didn’t like a universally beloved novel like Charlotte’s Web, really what you’re probably hearing is that he couldn’t decode the text at a rate that allowed him to fall into the story.  Can’t you see him edging towards his Mario Cart or iPad?

Research indicates that if students skip a step in reading development altogether, weaknesses show up in fluency and comprehension later, like in middle school, when the reading is often assigned and in text books.  So, I find I’ve become that prissy lady in glasses crying out (into the darkness), “No skipping stairs, please!  One step at a time!” When I do, I’m often trampled by a surge of third graders running for copies of Twilight.  And as parents, once our kids are reading, it’s hard not to push them towards harder and harder books.  Hey, a lot of the books for older kids are just more alluring.  Who doesn’t want to read Percy Jackson or Harry Potter over, well, I will let you fill in the blanks here.  Emotionally, kids are ready for rollicking fun adventure stories.

Besides, kids love skipping steps. There is nothing particularly glamorous about the taking of stairs one at a time, especially if the books at that level seem babyish.   I can rattle off the names of three second graders who snickered at me when I suggested they’d enjoy The Hunger Games even more a few years from now.  Second graders.

Kids’ reading develops best with a steady climb, with lots of reading at each level.  The tricky part is that it is equally important for children to feel excited about the book they’ve read.  Cool, even.  I suggest reading aloud the fancier books, while otherwise keeping them in books that will nourish their “nutritional” needs, if you will.

It’s a complex game.  So when I spot a chapter book well done, with the promise of snagging eight-year-olds who insist they just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you can be  very sure I’m sharing them with you.

Spread the word on this great new series, in the name of good nutrition!

The Trouble with Chickens, A J.J. Tully Mystery (Harper Collins/Balzer&Bray, 2011)

by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Kevin Cornell

ImageTully, a hard-bitten search and rescue dog accustomed to death-defying missions and living in an ongoing adrenalin rush, finds himself retired at a country farm house, surrounded by chickens.  The chickens call on Tully to help find and rescue a missing sibling.  The little chick has been kidnapped, it is believed, by Vince the Funnel, a spookily enigmatic indoor dog who wears a post-op cone around his neck.  Tully describes the mother chicken as having eyes “tiny and black, set so close together they practically touched.  I’d be surprised if the right eye could report back seeing anything other than the left eye.  Chickens make me nervous.”

Cronin describes the mood she creates as “film noire,” and Tully as Humphrey Bogart.  If you can recall some of those Looney Tunes episodes with Bugs Bunny in a trench coat, you get the tenor of the book.  Clipped dialog, mystery, and characters we aren’t sure we can trust are woven together with plenty of belly laughs and great illustrations.

Cronin’s book trailer says it all:

The Deliciousness of a Summertime Adventure

The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester

A bullfrog.  A nosy neighbor.  An incredible secret.

Owen Jester tiptoed across the gleaming linoleum floor and slipped the frog into the soup.

Is this not a contender for Best Opening Line in a Children’s Book Ever?  It makes me want to invent the award.  I love watching kids’ faces when I read it to them.  First, their eyebrows pinch together in question, then, they look at their classmates and the giggling erupts.  Thus the journey into a wonderful middle grade book begins– because, really, nobody’s stopping there.

Barbara O’Connor takes us to the south, to a place with barn lofts and creaky porches, ponds with bullfrogs, and  summer nights that smell like “pine and grass and honeysuckle.”  It’s a place that lacks the buzz of technology but is full of sounds– musical sounds that conjure memories of summers gone by for adult readers like you and me.  The ploink of rocks dropping into water, the chug chug of sprinklers, the songs of crickets, and then, one night when the train rolls by, a mysterious thud.  “A crack of wood, and a tumble tumble tumble sound.”

What fell off the train?  We wonder with Owen.  Where is it?  The suspended success of his search nearly kills readers, and they can’t stop reading until they find out just what made the thud.  Yes, I’m talking about delayed gratification– something on the brink of extinction.  O’Connor gets twenty-first century children to experience it.  It’s delicious!

Don’t even think I’m telling you what Owen finds.

I will say that it’s the eponymous secret, a secret thing.  For a boy like Owen– a boy who works for a month to catch the biggest bullfrog in his pond and then uses it to scare his grandfather’s cranky nurse– it’s a secret thing so fantastic that he is compelled to risk his friendship with the guys. If he’s going to get the thing to work, he’ll need to enlist Viola.  Viola is nosy.  She’s a know-it-all.  She’s a girl.  But she’s got what it takes to get the secret thing up and running.  A clandestine partnership ensues.  Can they pull off their plot without being discovered by grown-ups?  Are they breaking the law?  Are they risking their lives?  It’s all just dangerous enough to keep the tension high for 168 pages and close with a satisfying “r-u-u-u-m-m-m of the bullfrogs down in the pond.”

O’Connor is one of those rare writers who uses just enough words to spin a great story, create rich characters, and build images that rattle around your brain long after you’ve finished reading.  But not one word more.  Themes of friendship, tolerance, honesty, and respect for wild animals sneak their way into the story like water bugs through lily pads, but there is no moralizing here.  If the fantastic secret is a gift to Owen, this book is a fantastic gift to kids gaining mastery over longer books.  Reading ability aside it’s a great read for any 8-12-year-old.  I also highly recommend it as a read aloud.

To see the numerous kudos Barbara O’Connor received for the book, and to check out her other works, visit her site http://www.barboconnor.com/.

Blogs, Boggs, Blueberries, and Frogs

We painted to music to "uncork" our muses. (I kinda think they were already out of the bottle.)

A Writing Retreat is a heavenly thing.  This weekend, I co-hosted with my two dear writing friends, Julie Kingsley and Meg Wilson, the first annual SCBWI Blueberry Fields Writing Retreat.  Longing for time with other children’s writers and capitalizing on the fact we live on the coast of Maine, we started planning a weekend of writing, laughing, eating, swimming, hot tubbing, and blueberry picking a few months ago.  It turned out better than our wildest dreams.  Ten women, a lot of wildlife, and  more than a touch of good ju-ju in the air.  Many have blogged about it already.  Check them out.  Liz, Kim, and Julie capture it well.

http://www.lizgouletdubois.com/blog/?p=1810

http://kimsavage.me/2011/08/08/first-annual-blueberry-fields-retreat/

http://julietruekingsley.com/

Silly, serious, psychic, splendiferous.   I am now full of inspiration and determination to make it all happen again next August.

Sunday was drizzly, adding that atmosphere writers love. Meg provided Boggs and boots for all.

I do have one story from the weekend that is uniquely mine to tell, and that is the story of the man-frog in Meg’s pool.

World's Biggest Bullfrog, dubbed Farius, after the man-frog villain in my book.

Just take a look at that sucker.  Behold the beef on those forearms.  He’s the size of a cantaloupe.  A flipping CANTALOUPE.  I have some experience with frogs.  In the early 90s, I nannied a boy named Stephen, and we spent many a summer day frogging on a pond in lower Fairfield County, Connecticut.  Upon moving to Maine, where, in general, all wildlife is on a bigger scale, I began looking for frogs with my kids on their grammy’s pond in Nequassett, near Bath.  This one here is by far the biggest frog I’ve ever seen. A frog the size of my face.  And don’t think that fact was lost on me in the moments described below.

It happened like this.  It’s early Sunday morning, and not all the soul sisters are awake yet, so I decide to take a hot tub before breakfast.  It’s drizzly, but how often can I take a hot tub before breakfast?  As I step awkwardly into the steamy water, something catches my eye, perched on the stairs of the pool several yards away.  A big maple leaf, I wonder?  No worries.  I sink into hot tub and sip my dark roast coffee. By this time Monday morning I’ll be back to my bottomless pile of laundry.  I close my eyes.

I luxuriate among the hot water jets for a long spell, until I hear the soft commotion of plates and conversation coming from the kitchen.  I force myself to leave the bubbles and cross the patio to retrieve my towel.  That’s when I realize we have something to rival The Creature from the Black Lagoon on the pool steps.

No tough chick response from me, let me assure you. Instead, girly screams and a few trucker swears break the morning quiet as I alert the group to our intruder.  “Save it, save it!” I hear from the kitchen.  Oh, sure, save it, you say, inside eating your warm cinnamon rolls and slurping your organic blueberry smoothies.  How the BLEEP am I going to catch that monster?

But here’s the thing.  The villain in my middle grade fantasy novel, SPARK, is a giant man-frog named Farius.  Is it some kind of sign?  Even though Farius is a villain in my story, I don’t want this froggy to fall victim to pool chemicals. It might mean the death of hope for my novel– not to mention the death of one of the biggest frogs of all time.  So, I grab the pool skimmer and tiptoe to the steps where Farius sits, Zen-like in his calmness.

One of the ways Farius fights off his enemies in my book is by thumping them with his powerful frog legs.  Have you looked at frog legs up close?  They look like a person’s.  No joke.  A green person’s.  They have  femurs.  Femurs with quads.  And  knees.  I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to find words to describe green man-frog legs recently.  And here I am, face to face with a frog whose drumsticks are substantial enough to grace a Thanksgiving plate. It’s all kind of surreal.

When I sweep the net toward his backside, he explodes toward the deep end.  From above, he looks like a green version of Michael Phelps.  Big shoulders, no ass, and completely hydrodynamic.  The chase is on.

That fox spied on us all weekend-- I'm sure he saw my stealth operation. (click to enlarge)

Dang nabbit, he’s fast.  An amphibious torpedo, for crying out loud.  I run to the deep end, he swims to the opposite side of the pool.  I dash around to the other side, he crosses back.  I sneak around the shallow end, out of his field of vision, I think, and drop the skimmer in an inch from his butt.  He catapults himself to the pool floor, twelve feet down.  I push the skimmer as far down as it will go, but, alas, it’s only about nine feet long.  Defeated, I lay the skimmer aside and retreat to the kitchen.

I try to enjoy my cinnamon roll and the conversation, but I can’t stop thinking about Farius.  I can’t let him die in there!  Every minute or two I peek out at the pool to see if he’s re-emerged. Finally, I see him bobbing along the surface near the diving board.  I bolt out the door and tiptoe to the skimmer.  He sees me, of course.  His eyes are globes– he’s got panoramic vision.  Some sprinting and Olympic level swimming ensues, but at the shallow end…After a lot of woo-wooing, a photo op, and a victory lap around the pool area, Farius was released into the wild.  I saved the frog, which must mean publication is imminent, right?

Well, only the Tarot cards know the answer to that question.  But, if you normally come to my blog for book suggestions, I won’t disappoint.  One of my favorite summer reads, which will appeal to boys especially, is Barbara O’Connor’s THE FANTASTIC SECRET OF OWEN JESTER, which features a big bullfrog with a red, heart-shaped birthmark on its head.  I’ll give it the description it well deserves next post.  Meanwhile, thanks to the ladies, especially our lovely and brilliant mentor, Mary Lee Donovan, for making the debut Blueberry Fields a smashing success..

A perfect combination of suspense, rivalry, and long summer days.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda: Read it you must.

There are directions for folding Origami Yoda at the end of the book. Took me a few tries, but behold!

Yes, I made that Yoda finger puppet myself.  And, yes, you can, too.  Really!

While I understand that you, presumably a grown-up, may have no desire to do so, I can assure you that anyone between the ages of 8-12 is in on making Origami Yoda.  So in.  They are also so in to reading Tom Angleberger’s book, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, a comic romp through the absurd and profound that is middle school.  You know how sometimes the fact that a blockbuster movie is a blockbuster somehow cheapens it?  Well, this book is a bestseller.  Let’s say my expectations for its literary value were moderate. Let’s also say I knew my summer book club boys wouldn’t care a lick (or should I say, an i-yoda?) about literary value.  Just the cover and the title by themselves are a no-brainer for a teacher like me, trying to hook a bunch of pre-adolescents on the brink of middle school themselves.  If the book was a little scant on substance, so be it.

How can anyone resist this?

And then, I read it.  I was anticipating it would be hilarious, and it is.  I knew the format would be engaging, like the Wimpy Kid and Big Nate series, and indeed that is true, also. There are funny, kid-like doodles on all the pages, and each page looks like a crumpled paper that has done time in a backpack. What was less predictable was the  great characterization.  And even less predictable, it has depth.  It has depth!  The fact is that at its heart, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda raises radical questions for kids.  Is that nerdy loner you all think is a total loser really smarter than anyone in school?  No, smarter is the wrong word.  Smart in and of itself doesn’t hold much cache in middle school. Is that kid wiser?  Is it possible that that kid is not oblivious to middle school norms, but rather quite aware and simply doesn’t care?  In other words, is it possible that middle school norms are bull poop?

Whoa.

The narrator, named Tommy, outlines the mystery gripping his circle of friends at vdms:  Is Dwight’s origami finger puppet of Yoda magically spouting words of wisdom, or is it just Dwight?  Dwight, resident goober of the sixth grade, seems incapable of the kind of psychic, Zen-like advice given by Origami Yoda.  This is a guy who generally appears to self-sabotage any chance of winning respect among his peers.  He uses his straw to eat hamburgers.  He wears a vomit green sweater vest with an orange reindeer on it.  He spends a lot of time standing in a hole he dug in his backyard. Yet, when Dwight’s finger puppet of Yoda gives advice, in a rather pathetic imitation of  Yoda’s voice, it’s spot on, causing Tommy and his friends to ponder their presuppositions about Dwight.  Tommy has particular urgency in getting to the bottom of it all, as he needs some advice about his love interest Sara, and nothing less than his dignity is riding on whether or not Origami Yoda is for real.  Hence, Tommy tells us, he has assembled a “case file” of first-hand accounts, gathered from classmates who have benefitted from Origami Yoda’s advice, so as to weigh out the evidence.

What follows is a series of scenarios in which Angleberger expertly captures all that is embarrassing, funny, silly, honest, and guarded about that unique time in life known as sixth grade.  In Origami Yoda and the Embarrassing Stain, Kellen spills water on his pants so it looks like he’s peed his pants seconds before he has to enter his homeroom.  Yoda’s advice:  All of pants you must wet. Tommy splashes water over the rest of his pants, thus avoiding total humiliation (enduring the discomfort is no sweat by comparison).  Quavando, plagued by his school-wide nickname “Cheeto Hog” because of an unfortunate choice he made in a vending machine incident, is told by Origami Yoda, Cheetos for everyone you must buy.  Indeed, it works.  Origami Yoda also correctly predicts who will get kicked off American Idol even though Dwight doesn’t watch TV.

My readers flip-flopped their opinions with each “case,” weighing the evidence and formulating their own theories.  There’s a part in most of us, I suspect, that wants Origami Yoda to be magic.  But then, there’s another part that wants Dwight to be a genius, too.  In the end, Harvey, the cynical tough guy throughout, is hung out to dry.  Dwight wins the girl.  So does Tommy!  And he’s learned to accept Dwight for who he is, in all his eccentric glory.  True, the mystery about Origami Yoda remains unresolved.  My book clubbers are so glad!  Otherwise, there wouldn’t be need for the sequel, which comes out this fall:  Darth Paper Strikes Back.

Uh-oh. He looks a little more complicated.

I wonder if I’ll be able to make the Origami Darth Paper.

A Midsummer Night’s Read

Charlotte autographs her THE ACCIDENTAL ADVENTURES OF INDIA McALLISTER for the girls.

My friends, I have had a long hibernation from blogging, but it is not because I haven’t been reading.  In fact it’s midsummer, which means I’m midway through teaching my summer reading groups, which means, of course, that I’ve got a slew of new books for your favorite 8-12’s.  I’m most excited to share The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister, by Charlotte Agell, for a whole bunch of reasons.  One of them is that when I contacted Charlotte to let her know who I was and told her I had thirteen girls reading her book, she said she’d love to meet them in person.  And she did!  (See photos.)  Meeting or no, let me tell you why I love this book:  it is so honest.  It is honest about life, it is honest about age ten, it is honest about the way adventures are usually accidental, not planned.

The character India McAllister is a plucky, adventure-seeking fourth grader growing up in a quiet Maine town.  Her family situation is anything but conventional.  She is adopted from China (not India), and wishes she knew more Chinese people– heck, any Chinese people.   Her mom is an artist who is loving but flakey, sometimes forgetting to make dinner, and proudly displaying a plaster cast of her breast in the living room.  India’s parents are divorced, and her father now lives with Richard.  Richard is just in the way, as far as India is concerned, and takes up too much of her father’s attention.  India’s best friend is a boy, and some kids at school think this is weird.

Okay, people, I know at least one alarm went off in your head in reading that description.  If not an alarm, then at least the popping up of your eyebrows.  If it weren’t for the masterful handling of the content– completely un-exploitive and utterly, well, honest– I could understand that.  But this book made the ALA Top Ten Rainbow List for 2011 as well as the Bank Street College of Education’s 2011 Best Children’s Books List for a reason, and my guess on that reason?  India McAllister deals with difficult realities facing children today without overdramatizing them.

Let’s talk about Richard.  To India, a fourth grader, it is not foremost in her mind that her dad lives with a man.  The thing that bugs her about Richard is the same thing that bugs lots of kids about their parents’ love interests.  This person is an intruder and potential rival.  A ten-year-old doesn’t think sexually, so the fact Richard is male is unimportant.  Jealousy is an all-inclusive emotion.  India wouldn’t be any more or less jealous if her father’s lover was female.  I’d wager any of India’s readers who are themselves children of divorce can relate to her feelings.  In this way, Charlotte Agell quietly promotes tolerance by getting at the universal root  emotion, rather than getting hung up on who is what gender.  Other readers may connect more immediately, having gay parents themselves.  Still more may just recognize a friend or classmate’s family in India’s situation.  Same-sex couples are no longer invisible, and I love that Charlotte lets fiction reflect this reality in a politically neutral way.  The children can make up their own minds.  Or, they may not even pick up on it!  I’m not sure my own daughter did, but that may be because she has known same-sex parents and just thinks this is one more kind of family.  A brave new world.

Shall I discuss the breast?  I cracked right up when I read this part of the story.  It comes when India is longing for a mom with a more traditional job, citing the breast on the living room shelf as a reason.  The why behind the breast? India’s mom is a breast cancer survivor, and she made the cast right before the surgery– as a sort of homage to loss and strength.  Honest.  Charlotte brings up something sad that kids hear about.  Three out of thirteen of my students shared stories of moms, grandmothers they’d never met, and aunts who’d had breast cancer.  Who else writes about this in middle grade fiction and manages not to have it be a major plot point?  It’s brilliant.

And, children adopted by parents of different ethnic backgrounds, Charlotte is thinking of you, too.  Giving you a voice without making your other-ness define you (or define the plot of this book).  When one student of Asian descent (not adopted) told Charlotte at our meeting she could relate to how India wished for more people who looked like her in her town, a little round of applause sounded in my heart.

Yet, somehow, The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister is not an issues book.  It is a delightful story of a girl searching for adventure and never quite finding it.  A failed UFO sighting attempt.  A trumped-up whodunnit mystery around a purse that was simply lost.  A mysterious stranger playing a saxophone who turned out to be…a stranger playing a saxophone.  And then the accidental adventure itself, where India gets lost in the woods.  This book is not tightly plotted, and to me that’s what made it the most honest of all.  Being ten doesn’t have rising action, a climax, and resolution.  It’s just a series of adventures, large and small.  I cannot wait to read more of India’s.  Book Two is on the way (release date TBA).  Meanwhile, India has a blog of her own.

Charlotte explains she includes sad things in her books so kids who experience them in real life don't feel so alone.

A reader comments on India's spying tree, where she hides to eavesdrop on a pesky classmate.

Charlotte shows us her drawing pen of choice, inspiring us with its simplicity.

Topics in the story prompt the readers to share their own experiences.


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.

Toys Go Out: Timeless Theme, Original Cast

Toys Go Out taps into a classic childhood fantasy:  What do my  toys do when I’m not looking?  Winnie the Pooh, The Velveteen Rabbit, Pinocchio, Corduroy, Raggedy Ann and Andy are fixtures in the children’s lit canon for a good reason.  To the child at a certain point in development, it’s more unimaginable that the toys aren’t alive than that they are.  The “Pink Bear” my eight-year-old daughter has been dragging around since toddlerhood is much more to her than the now dishwater-gray polyester pile of flattened plush my husband and I see.

Emily Jenkins masterfully taps into that magical childhood mindspace and brings to life toys in the very same way a child does.  As promised on the cover, the book chronicles the adventures of a stuffed stingray, a “toughy little buffalo” named Lumphy, and “someone called Plastic.”  The book is organized into six stand-alone chapters.  But, reading them consecutively guarantees you fall in love with the hodgepodge cast.

Stingray is neurotic and overcompensates by being a know-it-all whose facts are questionable.  In the first chapter, when the principals are stuffed in their little girl’s backpack and don’t know where they are going, Stingray becomes convinced they are headed for the dump  (kind of like Stuart Little).  From that single assumption, she spirals to, “We’ll be tossed in a pile of old green beans and sour milk cartons…it will be full of garbage-eating sharks, and it will smell like throw-up.”  Stingray is the character who voices the fears that pop into the minds of most of us, but we’re too sensible or embarrassed to utter them.  She cracks third graders up.

Lumphy the buffalo, meanwhile, is a rugged cowboy with a vulnerable side.  He’s plagued by the fear that he’s not a real buffalo, and is given to aggression towards Stingray.  Why does Stingray get to sleep on the High Bed with the Little Girl while the rest of the toys are stuck on the floor?  In the chapter “How Lumphy Got on the Big High Bed and Lost Something Rather Good-looking,” he confronts Stingray but loses his tail as a result.

Plastic– the ball– has a total identity crisis.  What is a plastic, anyway?  Readers aren’t sure either, as she is not identified by anymore than her name.  Plastic can read, but the dictionary definition is inscrutable and the poor thing panics until the wise old bathroom towel Tuk Tuk sheds light on the situation.  “Plastic is just your name…It’s obvious, to anyone who knows anything, precisely what you are.”

Plastic:  “It is?”

Tuk Tuk: “I’ve seen balls before you, I’ll see balls after you.  A ball is what you are.  Tell me, do you bounce?”

Plastic: “Yes! I do?”

Tuk Tuk: “And do you roll?”

Plastic: “Yes!”  (She rolls around the bathroom until she smashes into the base of the toilet.)

Tuk Tuk: “And have you got front legs and back legs?”

Plastic: “Um, not exactly.”

Tuk Tuk: “And no fur whatsoever?”

Plastic: “No.”

Tuk Tuk: “That’s normal for a ball, you know.”

Plastic: “What about how I don’t have very much nose?”

Tuk Tuk: “You mean, how you don’t have any nose?”

Plastic: “Um . . . yes.”

Tuk Tuk:  “I have been around a long time.  I have never seen a ball with fur, or legs, or a nose.  You’re a ball, Plastic.  Don’t let anyone tell you different.”

Plastic:  “I’m a ball!  A ball, ball, ball!”

Jenkins’ storytelling is tender.

Absurd.

Perfectly childlike.

If you know me at all, you know I hold nothing against potty humor or slacker middle-school boys in books.  If those things get more youthful eyes scanning text, bring ’em on.  But there is something to be said for a good, old-fashioned story well told.  Something to be cherished, like an old, gray Pink Bear.

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.

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