Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book Reviews: Chapter Books

Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary (1968). Illustrations by Tracy Dockray. 211
I first read Ramona the Pest when I was a beginner reader. I loved the Ramona books, and reading Ramona the Pest a second time, I understand why. Ramona perfectly captures what it is like to be young. She misunderstands her teacher, she tries to be good and has a hard time, and she is excited about losing her first teeth. There is nothing out of the ordinary that happens in Ramona the Pest, but that is what makes it such a compelling story. Cleary’s writing is simple but not boring. My biggest complaint is the illustrations. To my knowledge, they have been added in the most recent additions. It is obvious that they are new to the book. Instead of adding to the text, they seem to be added to make the story look more current by showing pictures of characters in current styles (for example, instead of having a backpack for kindergarten, Ramona wears a messenger bag). The style of these pictures gets a little confused, as well. Some of the illustrations almost look Japanese-inspired. This does not really match the story at all.

My One Hundred Adventures by Polly Horvath (2008). 260 pages.
My One Hundred Adventures was the first book I ever read by Polly Horvath, and it was good enough for me to try and read everything she has written. It is the story of Jane, who decides one summer that she will have one hundred adventures. While she does manage to have a lot of adventures, the story is also about her growing up. Horvath’s descriptions are gentle in their best moments. While a lot of crazy events are happening, nothing seems over the top or too fantastical. I particularly loved how the summer was divided by what berries are ripe—it shows how connected Jane is to her house and the land around her. Overall, this is a beautiful book about growing up.

Superfudge by Judy Blume (1980). 178 pages.
Superfudge is the story of a boy, Peter, who is going through a lot of life changes during fifth and sixth grade. First, his parents tell him that they’re having a new baby. Then, his family decides to leave New York City for a year and live in New Jersey. While the book is called Superfudge, the narrator is actually Fudge’s older brother. Blume’s descriptions of the change in Peter’s life feel very real. To anyone who is growing up, this is a great book to read. Not all changes seem good at first, but Blume shows that sometimes it is good to have a new adjustment to life. My one issue with the book is that because it covers about a year and half of time, it comes across a bit choppy. This could be good for a child reading one chapter at a time, because each chapter can stand alone, but for a longer reading, it is a bit disjointed at times.

Smiles to Go by Jerry Spinnelli (2008). 248 pages.
Smiles to Go is the story of Will. It begins when he learns that protons actually die. It was previously thought that they never expired, and this discovery rocks his world. What I loved about this book is that the reader gets to completely see into Will’s head (who is the narrator). Sometimes Spinnelli uses short, choppy sentences. At other times, he uses run-on sentences. The change in sentence structures allows the reader to understand the different emotions that Will feels instead of Spinelli telling the reader how Will feels.

Holes by Loius Sachar (1998). 233 pages.
I have nothing bad to say about Holes. In fact, it was one of my favorite books for years. What Sachar does best in this story is that he is able to pull seemingly minute details together to form a cohesive story. The fact that Stanley’s last name is his first name backwards is important, as is the fact that a famous outlaw robbed his great-grandfather. Most chapters are short, which is effective in making the reader want to read just one more. Overall, it definitely deserved the Newbery Medal

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (2007). 486 pages.
I loved The Mysterious Benedict Society. With the “Emergency” occurring around the world, only four children can save humanity from being controlled by the evil Mr. Curtain. I love that each child is completely different from one another, but they all need each other in order to “save the day.” 486 pages seems like a long book for a child to read, but Stewart is able to captivate his audience by filling each chapter with plenty of action.

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (1964). 217 pages.
What works really well with The Book of Three is that it is set in its own time and place and never feels outdated. Alexander creates the world of Prydain, which is under attack by a Horned King. Taran, a young assistant pig-keeper, is a boy who has to help save his world from being destroyed. While Alexander creates a complex world, he never adds too many details (like Tolkien) that would make the story too complicated for younger readers. I am sure that many young fantasy-lovers will become engrossed in this series.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950). 189 pages.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a story that many children will cherish. While it invokes strong Christian imagery (such as Aslan’s death and resurrection), the story is much more than that. Talking animals, an evil White Witch, a never ending winter; these are all images that will be remembered. Lewis’ story is timeless; what child wouldn’t want to find an entry to another world? The original illustrations are great; they are fun to look at while reading, but they are not detailed enough to ruin the way the reader pictures Narnia to be.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008). 307 pages.
What if ghosts were real? In The Graveyard Book, ghosts are real, and not all bad. In fact, they help raise the orphan, Nobody Owens as their own. The illustrations go rather well with the story, as they are done in wispy grays and blacks. The biggest issue I have with this book is that it is a bit dark and scary. It even starts off with a big illustration of a knife. This may frighten some children, but the story itself really is age-appropriate and not too gory. Despite its dark feel, The Graveyard Book is a great story overall.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (2000). 224 pages.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 is a great piece of historical fiction about race during the 1960s. What makes this book so great is that many people (no matter their race) can relate to the Watson family. Instead of it being written about the “other,” a poor Black family that is repeatedly tormented because of their race, it is written about the “Weird Watsons,” a middle-class Black family from the North. When the family is confronted by racism, they are surprised as much as the reader. This is a great book for someone who is interested on a different perspective on race during the 1960s.

Book Review : Non-Fiction, Folk Tales, Poetry

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein (1974). 166 pages.
This book was a favorite growing up, and rereading it, I can understand why. Shel Silverstein delivers in writing poetry that children understand. Not all of them make sense, and most of them are quite silly, but no one can deny the fact that these poems are fun. The line drawings that accompany them just add to the fun. For example, in a poem about writing from inside a lion, there is a large drawing of a peaceful-looking lion with a hand coming out of its mouth, attempting to write. The fact that the pages are simple (there is usually only one poem with an illustration per page) enhances each poem’s individual brilliance.

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (1997) 227 pages.
A ten-year-old girl that I know who loves writing poetry has repeatedly told me that this is her favorite book. I now understand why. In her poetry, Hesse both tells the story of a young girl who loves playing the piano and the sad events of the Dust Bowl. This story would not be told as effectively in prose. The continued use of “dust” helps guide the story and show the reader how dust controlled many part of these people’s lives. I also really enjoyed reading about Billie Jo. Her character was very believable and heart breaking. I felt myself rooting for her during the entire story—rooting for her to play the piano despite having burnt hands. Overall, this story in free verse was beautifully told.

Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming (2011). 108 pages.
Amelia Lost is the story of the amazing woman pilot, Amelia Earhart. It is fantastically designed. It goes back and forth between Earhart’s disappearance and her biography. To distinguish between the two, the parts about her disappearance have a gray background and the parts about her life have a white background. What I loved about this book is that even though I know the story about her disappearance, Fleming made Earhart’s story exciting. She often ended each chapter on “cliffhangers,” making me want to read the next chapters to find out what happened next. Another part that I loved about this book is that Fleming provided plenty of photographs and text boxes explaining different technical parts of the story (such as radio communication). This helped clear up any confusing plot parts. Overall, this book does a great job at telling about the life of Amelia Earhart in an exciting manner.

Marching For Freedom by Elizabeth Partridge (2009). 62 pages.
Marching For Freedom tells the story of the March on Montgomery, Alabama for equal voting rights for African Americans. I can honestly say that this story made me a little emotional. Partridge tells the story from the point of view of children—the stories of individual children involved in the march are told along with a broader scope of the events. What really got me emotional was the use of photographs along with the text—as I would read the stories of brave individuals, the photographs included helped give a face to the movement. Some of these photographs were quite stirring—for example, some photographs showed police brutality while others showed African Americans praying together. Overall, both the stories of children and the accompanying photographs helped to make this book both informative and emotional.

The Girl Who Married the Moon by Joseph Bruchac and Gayle Ross (1994). 122 pages.
I absolutely loved this book. The authors took 16 stories from Native American tribes and divide them by region. Reading each story, one can tell that they should be read aloud. I like that Bruchac and Ross really kept the oral tone of the tales, for example, he would start each with some variation of “Let me tell you this story,” which keeps it conversational. I also really appreciated that Bruchac and Ross took one theme (coming of age stories for girls) and picked each story to fit the theme. It allows the reader to see how different tribes respond to the same theme.

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tale by John Scieszka (1992).
Illustrated by Lane Smith. 56 pages.
The Stinky Cheese Man is a fun book to read. Anyone who grows up learning fairy tales and folktales and has a good sense of humor would love this book. Scieszka and Smith take well-known stories and turn them upside down (for example, the Gingerbread Man becomes a Stinky Cheese Man). The illustrations and text are perfect together. The text changes size and shape and illustrations creep into pages. This book’s one negative, however, is that it requires the readers to be “in” on the stories. If someone did not know the traditional stories that Scieska’s stories are based on, she would not get most of the jokes.

Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky (1997). 34 pages.
Paul Zelinsky’s version of Rapunzel is absolutely beautiful. Each illustration looks like its own Renaissance painting, richly illustrated with a lot of pigment in each color. The text is simple and straight to the point. It does not get stuck on giving any more background information than necessary, which is extremely helpful if one were to read it aloud. I also really appreciated that Zelinsky gave detailed source notes, giving the reader insight as to where he found different versions of the Rapunzel story.

Book Reviews: Early Readers

Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel (1970). 64 pages.
Frog and Toad are certainly a dynamic duo. This book contains five short stories of the two best friends’ adventures. Actually, “adventures” is too strong of a word, as Frog and Toad don’t do too much. They lose buttons, try and get out of bed and tell each other stories. Despite the fact that the stories seem like they should be mundane, Frog and Toad are so quirky that the stories become fun. Not only that, Arnold Lobel’s mostly brown and green illustrations enhance each tale. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see what a Toad looks like standing on his head?

We Are in a Book! by Mo Willems (2010). 57 pages.
I really enjoy Willems’s Elephant and Piggie series. They are short, simple books with simple illustrations, but lots of character. In We Are in a Book! Elephant and Piggie become self aware that they are being read. While this can come across contrived, Willems pulls this off with lots of fun. We Are in a Book is a great read-along book. The characters laugh about making the reader say funny words (like “banana”) aloud, making the reader a part of the book experience. Not since Kilgore Trout met Kurt Vonnegut Breakfast of Champions have I enjoyed characters realizing that they, indeed, are in a book.

Little Bear by Else Homelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1957). 67 pages.
Little Bear includes four sweet stories about a young bear. Each story is pretty simple for early readers, yet creative and engaging. One of my favorite parts of the Little Bear stories is that Mother Bear is so loving to her son, yet also has a sense of humor in playing along with his games. Theirs is a sweet, uncomplicated relationship. Sendak’s illustrations definitely add to the stories. The mostly black-and-white illustrations that include a splash of color let the reader into the imagination of the story. For example, the reader gets to see what Little Bear imagines when he believes he is flying to the moon, even though he really just jumped off of a small tree. This is a classic that should be included in early reader collections.

Book Recommendations! Part One: Picture Books

SO I know it's been awhile since the last time I updated with book reviews, but I have the motherload right here! Some of you know that last summer I started a master's program at Simmon's College. Last semester I took a class on children's literature and had to make a reading journal, so here it is!

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963). 48 pages.
There is no doubt in my mind that Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are deserves
the popularity it has received over the past fifty years. Max, a “Wild Thing,” is sent to
bed without his supper, which grows into a forest that brings him on an adventure. While
the text is quite sparse, any more words would take away from Sendak’s imaginative
illustrations. This is the perfect type of book to read aloud to a group pretending to
be “wild things.” Anyone who is the parent of a wild child, or anyone who at one point
was a bit “wild” will appreciate this book,

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson (1955). 64 pages.
Harold and the Purple Crayon is the perfect book to read with an imaginative child.
With sparse illustrations, a child is able to see what can be done with one simple purple
crayon. What is especially enjoyable is that while Harold is creating his adventure, not
even he knows where he is going to end up! As this is a small-sized book, it might be
difficult to read to a large group of children, but can be the perfect fit to read along with a
creative child with an open imagination.

Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag (1928). 32 pages.
This book is a classic for a reason! Wanda Gag’s simple illustrations beautifully
complement the story of an old man looking to find the perfect cat for his lonely wife.
This book is humorous; instead of just picking one cat for his wife, the old man is unable
to choose so brings home millions of cats. Then, still not knowing how to choose, he
leaves it up for the cats to decide, who all fight and end up eating each other. Well, all
except one, a scrawny kitten who did not think he was pretty enough. Although this tale
gets a little violent, Wanda Gag’s illustrations brings the reader away from the darker
side of the story and creates an enjoyable reading and looking experience.

Corduroy by Don Freeman (1968) 32 pages.
Corduroy is the sweet story of a stuffed bear just wanting a home and a little girl who
makes all of his dreams come true. It includes illustrations that have a simple palette—
using variations of reds and greens and browns, but not prime colors. This story really
resonates with a reader who has given a home for a special stuffed animal. Corduroy is
not perfect, he has been in the store for too long and he even has a missing button, but
Freeman shows that even “damaged goods” deserve love. My favorite part of this story
was the ending—a little girl who sees him brings all of her money to give him a home. It
is such a warm ending to a sad story that the reader ends with a good feeling.

Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans (1939). 48 pages.
Madeline is the bravest girl in the old house in Paris, until Miss Clavel wakes up to
her crying from a case of appendicitis. While the story is simple, this book deserves is
Caldecott Honor. The story is very enjoyable to read aloud – most pages have only a
few lines on them, which rhyme. The fact that there is such little text on the page leaves
plenty of space for Bemelmans’ fantastic illustrations. Some pages he only uses black,
white and yellow, which keep the illustrations simple yet recognizable. On other pages
he goes all out in his use of color. On those pages (most notably when Madeline takes an
ambulance to the hospital) one gets lost in the illustrations. Madeline is a fantastic book
that will continue to stay around for years to come.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (2007). 523 pages.
Brian Selznick did an amazing job at seamlessly integrating text and illustrations. At times, I forgot whether I was reading or watching. What really enhanced his use of text and illustrations was that the story continued in illustrations, without the text describing what happens in the pictures. This would be a great book for reluctant readers. It is long yet not overwhelming, since many of the pages are illustrations. Finishing a book like this would be a big accomplishment to children who do not read much, and it could give them a boost in self-confidence to read more.