Friday, October 9, 2015

Early Chapter Books: Panel Reviews

Thank you for everyone who joined us last Friday for the Early Chapter Books Materials Review. We're posting the notes in a few installments . . starting with short reviews for all the books discussed that are below. Next up we'll add notes from Doug Wilhelm's discussion of writing Treasure Town.

Goofy Humor:

The 13 Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths (series): We needed to defer to some younger readers for parts of this review. . . "It's exactly what it looks like" according to Carrie - and her kids love it while she does not. It's about brothers who live in a treehouse and write books. As you might imagine from being 13 stories high, the treehouse has many elaborate features like a bowling alley, a marshmallow machine and dangerous "burp gas-bubblegum bubbles." It works well for reluctant readers, is funny, and does inspire readers to imagine their own fantastic treehouses and books to write.

The Yeti Files - Meet the Bigfeet by Kevin Sherry (Series): Along the same lines as the Treehouse series, the Yeti series is a funny book for reluctant readers. The premise for the first book in the series is that the Yeti is going to a family reunion with the cryptids - creatures that live alone and have sworn that they can never be seen by humans. It's heavy on illustrations, in a very simple cartooning style. Like the Treehouse series, these books have the potential to inspire otherwise reluctant readers / writers to start both reading and thinking up their own stories.

Bowling Alley Bandit: Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut by Laurie Keller (Series): Arnie is a doughnut, bought from the best bakery in town, not realizing that doughnuts are for eating. But he convinces the man who bought him to keep him as a pet instead. He happily goes bowling with his new owner. When something is amiss at the bowling alley, Arnie enlists Peezo, his best buddy (who happens to be a slice of pizza) to help him investigate. Illustrations play a big role in telling this story. It's most similar to Bad Kitty in style. It may be goofball comedy, but it's also smart, as Keller is known for her clever use of wordplay.

Quirky Humor:

Milo Speck: Accidental Agent by Linda Urban: One day, Milo is grabbed by his clothes dryer and sucked into the land of Ogregon filled with ogres that eat children. Milo discovers that his father, who he thought was a fence salesman, is really a secret agent in Ogregon. Now Milo has to foil the ogres' plot against children and he isn't sure he's the hero for the job. Jane describes this as zany, Roald Dahl-esque humor. Linda Urban is coming to Bear Pond Books with Melissa Guerrette on November 7th at 11:00 am to teach a workshop on revision - details are found here. Also, Linda has an upcoming series of early chapter books called "Weekends with Max and his Dad" that will be published in spring of 2016.

Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon (Series): Harriet is a princess (also, a hamster) who finds palace life rather dull. She is also under a curse --at age 12 she will prick her finger and fall into a deep sleep. . . except what happens is that she pricks her finger and everyone else falls into a deep sleep and now she needs to find a Prince who will kiss a whole palace to wake them up. There are some big vocabulary words, but the story is funny enough that they're worth it, or skippable. Jane describes this hamster princess book as having a "sophisticated wit." If she was allowed to say she loved two books the best, this would the best (but as things stood, she only got one and it's Dory).

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon: Another in the quirky, spunky kid category, but Jane says this book really does rise above the rest. Dory is a kid who has populated her world with elaborate imaginary friends. She drives everyone around her crazy. Her older siblings think she's too much of a baby to play with and they invent the story of Mrs. Gobblegracker who will come for her if she doesn't leave them alone - and so of course this new imaginary being joins Dory's world. Very clever and funny. If Jane is going to choose one book as her favorite, this one was it.

Extraordinary Warren: A Super Chicken by Sarah Dillard (Series): Warren, a little chick, is learning how to fly and he's searching for his inner super chicken. The author uses a graphic novel style in her chapter book, making it a good picture book / chapter book crossover. Jane says the medium works very well. There are two Extraordinary Warren books out in the series. The author and illustrator lives in Waitsfield.

Charming Books:

The Kingdom of Wrenly by Jordan Quinn (Series): A book that is easy to read, light, good for sensitive children as "nothing alarming happens and it wraps up neatly in a bow." The stories follow the Prince and a seamstress' daughter as they explore the Kingdom of Wrenly. Carrie says that it's "innocent and sweet and not very well written." But, she notes, the writing is not so far off the mark that kids are likely to care.

Piper Green and the Fairy Tree by Ellen Potter (Series) A "lovely" (per Carrie) book in the tradition of the Clementine series. Piper Green lives on an island in Maine. She is struggling because she misses her brother, who left for boarding school, and she doesn't get along with her new teacher. It's a funny book but also deals with real issue. Well written. There are two books in the series so far.

Cody and the Fountain of Happiness by Tricia Springstubb (Series): It's the first day of summer vacation and while not much is happening in Cody's house, she's enthusiastic about inventing her own entertainment. The story is very Ramona Quimby-like. Cody's mother is feeling stress about a new job, her father is gone for long stretches as a truck driver, her teenage brother is moping over a girl, and there's a new kid in town staying with his grandmother and missing his parents. It's not wildly inventive but it's also perfectly enjoyable, which is just fine.

The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng (Series): It's a "quiet, book lover's book" according to Jane. The protagonist, Anna, is the child of Chinese immigrants. She's having trouble navigating her social life. She's embarrassed by her mother's efforts to introduce Chinese culture into her daughter's American life. Anna decides that it's easier to find her friends in books, not people. She slowly learns to deal with friendships.

Princess Pistachio by Marie-Louse Gay (Series): Pistachio believes she is a princess, and when a mysterious crown arrives for her birthday she becomes truly convinced. Ramping up the spolied princess act isn't exactly popular with everyone around her. Jane found that, unlike other books where the main character drives the people around her crazy while being entertaining on the page, Pistachio was not. The words "sassy and entitled" were used, and not in a complimentary way. Jane recommends the author's picture books instead.  

Mystery Books:

The Diamond Mystery by Martin Widmark (Series): Two kids open a detective agency and this is their first case, of diamonds missing from a jewelry store. It's a classic whodunit structure: a client presents a mystery, there is a defined set of suspects each with reasons why they might have been the ones, and after a brief investigation of each person the real thief is revealed. Helen wonders if something was lost in the translation from the original Swedish - the language can read a bit like a vocabulary lesson. Also, she is disappointed that the publisher didn't work with the author and illustrator to convey more of Sweden in the book. The only geographical reference implies that the book is taking place in an American suburban town.

Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11 by N. Griffin (Series): When the classroom hamster goes missing, Smashie (who didn't really like the hamster in the first place) decides to solve the mystery. This is a good book for problem solving and vocabulary building. It's also a good reading aloud book. The author is coming to Bear Pond Books on October 24th at 11:00 am to do a workshop on teaching problem solving skills. The workshop details are here.

Books with Clear Teaching Tie Ins (History, Science)

Tales from Maple Ridge: Logan Pryce Makes a Mess by Grace Gilmore and Petra Brown (Series): This series tells the story of a farm in 1892. The father needs to take a job off the farm because it is struggling, and the young son, Logan, is looking for ways help keep the farm going. It's very relatable and would appeal to Little House on the Prairie fans. There are two books in the series currently available, with two more slated for publication.

Ranger in Time by Kate Messner (Series): This series follows a search and rescue dog who failed his exam by chasing a squirrel. Through a little magic Ranger is transported back in time to the Oregon trail where a young girl has gone missing. The writing is solid and the conceit of the series lets history lessons be folded into the narrative. The author is local and has led workshops at Bear Pond before. We wrote an article on writing exercises based on Kate's workshops "New Ideas - Creative Jumpstarts that Work in the Classroom"

Frank Einstein by Jon Scieszka (Series): The first in a series, this book follows a familiar plot line of a genius scientist with a brilliant creation (an antimatter motor), stolen by a bad guy, and in need of being re-acquired. This book builds from ideas in science that are entryways to pretty sophisticated stuff (self-teaching artificial intelligence or the large hadron collider for example) but are presented in the context of madcap adventure and goofy humor. The book hits the gold standard of conveying that reading is A. fun and B. full of big ideas that change your understanding of the world. It wasn't Helen's sort of storyline, but that's personal preference, and her one "I love this book" went to Frank Einstein.

Totally True Adventures: The Race Around the World by Nancy Castaldo (Series): This book tells the story of reporter and adventurer Nellie Bly in simple language suitable for a classroom with children at different reading levels. It's neither creative nor fun, but it's probably useful - combining history, biography, and reading skills. The book promises additional materials online that connect to the classroom and common core but Helen gave up on finding them after a fair amount of searching. When she finally tracks down these promised materials, they'll appear here. For now we're giving up. This book is part of a series of Totally True Adventures.

Strong Read Alouds:

Emma and the Blue Genie by Cornelia Funke: Emma frees a very small blue genie who needs help getting his nose ring back so he can have his powers restored. It's a stand alone book. The reading level is on the challenging end of early chapter books. This author has many solid books, including Inkheart, The Pirate Pig and the soon-to-be-published Ruffleclaw.  

Appleblossom the Possum by Holly Goldberg Sloan: A book by the author of the DCF-nominated Counting by 7's. Carries summarizes this book as "delightful imaginings of what possum family culture would look like." Appleblossom goes out into the world and falls down a chimney into a human home, and her brothers launch a rescue mission. The story is enjoyable for both kids and grown ups.

Firefly Hollow by Alison McGhee: Carrie was allowed only one book to say she "loved" and this was it. The book chronicles the firefly who dreams of flying to the moon, cricket who dreams of being Yogi Berra, Vole who is the last of his kind and dreams of sailing his father's ship (but there is no one to teach him) and Peter who is a Miniature Giant who will grow up to be a Big Giant. The book plates are beautiful. It's a good read aloud for any age.

Diva and Flea by Mo Willems & Tony DiTerlizzi: A Lady and the Tramp-esque story of a dog and cat in Paris. Diva is a dog who has never ventured into the big world of Paris, but who meets Flea, a streetwise cat "flaneuring" about the alleys of Paris. This book has a lovely classic feel and tremendously vibrant line drawings.

Books You Might Have Missed:

Some great series have been around for a while, but are still being newly discovered. Here are a few:
  • Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke - Anna lives in Africa and these books are a good introduction to new cultures. Jane (who is a big fan) describes them as "sweet as the day is long". They can be hard to find but call the Children's Room and Jane will track them down.
  • Matter of Fact Magic by Ruth Chew - These books are now being reprinted. They're a collection of stand alone stories about kids and magic. You can read the books' summaries on
  • Tashi by Anna and Barbara Fienberg - An Australian series, filled with the tall tales of a gnome-like imaginary friend named Tashi. Always popular during the holidays.

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