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Book Review: Telephone


by Mac Barnett

One of my favorite games to play as a child was the “pass it on” game of Telephone.  You whisper a simple statement to the person sitting next to you, they whisper what they heard to the person sitting next to them, and so on.  The thing you whispered inevitably evolves into something more colorful, often on purpose.  By the time the person at the end of the line blurts out what they heard, which should be what you said, it’s some crazy, messed up version… and instant childhood hilarity.  I remember sitting with anticipation and giggling, just waiting to hear the difference between what I passed on and the end result.  So it was with great nostalgia that I picked up Mac Barnett’s Telephone.

The story is simple.  A bird asks another bird to pass along a message to her son.  As the birds pass the message on to other birds, it gets predictably mangled.  The amazing watercolor illustrations by Jen Corace are truly essential to the story.  There is a real cleverness here that is easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention.  The birds are all sitting on a telephone wire as they unintentionally play a game of Telephone.  Each bird’s very obvious personality and apparel tweak what they hear.  For instance, the initial mistake starts with Peter’s mama bird saying, “Tell Peter: Fly home for dinner,” to a little red cardinal holding a baseball bat, who hears and passes along, “Tell Peter: Hit pop flies and homers.”  There is a suspicious toucan, a nervous turkey, a tidy ostrich, and more.  When the message gets to a big, random, crazy yellow bird wearing a John McEnroe-style sweatband, it goes truly haywire and will have kids laughing.   Each page features one interaction, so each turn of the page brings anticipation and humor, and it mimics the real life Telephone experience.

There is a bit of a surprise ending, and the story goes full circle thanks to a wise, wise owl.  Maybe, just maybe, Peter will indeed get the message that he needs to fly home for dinner.

Telephone is a real charmer, and it offers grownups the chance to introduce an old-fashioned and simple game to kids.  My favorite thing about reading to my children is that it gives me an opportunity to relate to them and share my experiences and my loves, and this book is a prime example of just that.   Yes, it will take some explanation for kids who are unfamiliar with the game of Telephone, but it’s a sweet and silly way to make a fun connection with your kids and teach them something new.



by Obert Skye

Obert Skye’s The Creature from my Closet series features mashups of popular fictional creatures/characters.  There’s Wonkenstein (Willy Wonka/Frankenstein), Pinocula (Pinocchio/Dracula), and Katfish (Katniss/Ariel, the Little Mermaid).  The second book in the series is the Potterwookiee, which is a miniature Chewbacca with Harry Potter’s lightning bolt scar and accessories.  Yes, a small wookiee wizard with a British accent!  Now you’ve heard everything.

The story’s main character and narrator/scribe is Rob.  He’s your normal tween boy.  He perceives every family member as an embarrassing problem.  He is unsure how to handle himself socially.  And now he has a Potterwookiee to deal with, too.  How did he come to have a Potterwookiee?  His dad replaced his closet door with a secondhand one that is suspiciously heavy and is adorned with the face of a bearded fellow.  One day, his mom made him clean his room, and he shoved everything into the closet together and shut that special door.  He suspects that his science kit’s chemicals are all mixing with the books, and presto — we have some crazy hybrid characters walking out.  He calls the Potterwookiee Hairy, which is substantially less fun (but a lot easier) to say than “Potterwookiee.”

Rob wants to impress a girl, Janae, and has a plan to win an Average Chef cooking contest to get her to notice him.  He also struggles with a bike-stealing, hair-ruining bully named Wilt.  His older sister is obnoxious, and his tagalong little brother is always trying to do what he does.  He needs all the help he can get, so a pint-sized hairy wizard may be some extra stress, but it also may just help him out!

The storyline is pretty simple, and that makes it very accessible.  Potterwookiee may appeal to many kinds of readers in the same way that Diary of a Wimpy Kid does.  It’s funny, kids can relate to it, and it has pictures.  Oh, yes, it has pictures.  Unlike Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the illustrations in Potterwookiee don’t dominate the story.  They are smaller and more subtle, but they are there to break up long blocks of words.  The text is sort of deadpan, while the pictures use more playful imagery.  This combination makes for a one-two punch of humor, and that makes for some genuine laughter.

There’s some substance here, though.  It provides a lot of great conversation starters for tweens — family dynamics, romantic attraction (and cluelessness), how to deal with bullies.  It’s also refreshing to see Rob turn to books for answers and inspiration.  We constantly preach to our kids to do just that, but it’s not often that characters do the same.  There is more text than in many books that appeal to reluctant readers and/or tween boys, and that balance with the illustrations makes it very comfortable. Skye’s done a great job appealing to this group, which is often overlooked or talked down to by the publishing industry. At the same time, even kids who love reading will enjoy this book and series.  The pop culture angle keeps things fresh and fun, and it’s a good and low pressure read.  And, of course, the appeal of a title character created from Star Wars and Harry Potter is undeniable to most kids.  My 8 year old girl and power reader insisted we pick this up at the school book fair, and she giggled her way through it in one day.    It definitely has a great range and would make a fun gift for any kid in the 8-12 range.



Holiday Gift Guide: Chapter Books

While the slightly older set may have dreams of gadgets and devices, the gift of a great book cannot be overlooked.  They’ll thank you when they curl up with their new diversion and a cup of hot cocoa.  Here are twelve great texts, ranging from chicken mysteries to comics to survivor fantasy.  I’ve put them in order so that books for the younger kids are first, with books for kids in upper elementary and middle school at the end of the list.  Like with the picture book roundup, all the texts here are available from Amazon Prime, so you’ll get them in plenty of time for your holiday celebratin’.   Happy shopping!

Leroy Ninker Saddles Upleroyninker by Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo is a fabulous and well-known author of chapter books, but this time she brings her talents to an easy-reading chapter book for the k-2nd grade set.  There are strong (and wacky) characters, an engaging story, and all the fun of a western theme.  The illustrations by Chris Van Dusen are energetic and help kids relate to the text.


The Case of the Stolen Sixpencesixpence by Holly Webb

This new series featuring a girl detective named Maisie Hitchins has all the intrigue and suspense we expect from a mystery.  There is a great twist, however, in the setting — it’s in Victorian London.  Anyone who likes a little bit of history sprinkled in with their mysteries will enjoy this great book.


chickensquadThe Chicken Squad: The First Misadventure by Doreen Cronin

Did you know that young readers enjoy lots of weirdness?  Well, they definitely do.  Dudes in underpants, books about possessed teachers, etc., are the kinds of things that make them giggle and howl and love to read.  So this new series featuring the silly adventures of problem-solving chicks will be right up the average kid’s alley.  The illustrations are awesome and add a ton to the story, and the humor and levity will make any kid give this two wings up.


Never Girls #1: In a Blinkthenevergirls by Kiki Thorpe

If you’d rather give yourself 47 papercuts than give your child one more Rainbow Magic fairy book, but you have a kid who loves things mystical and sparkly, here’s a great alternative with more depth and better illustrations.  Four regular girls get magically transported to Pixie Hollow and experience plenty of pixie dust and adventure with Tink and the fairy crew, but it’s a little more demanding and exciting than most series featuring fairies.


Frindlefrindle by Andrew Clements

Clements has created a particularly relevant tale for many a modern kid.  A boy who would be labeled ADHD or a troublemaker in most classrooms tries to annoy his teacher.  He rebrands a typical object with a new name, and an unexpected and interesting drama unfolds.


Cat in the Citycatinthecity by Julie Salamon

One challenge many families of young readers face is finding age-appropriate books that are challenging enough for young, precocious readers. This book is a wonderful answer to the quest for a “just right” text for these kids.  Whether a child is six or 12, this story about city cat life will be sure to engage and delight.  There are higher level concepts like identity, family, and belonging; but there is enough action for younger kids to enjoy and grow as readers, even if they don’t get all the bigger stuff.  This one is begging to be re-read as kids grow.


The Mutts Diariesmuttsdiaries by Patrick McDonnell

It’s the rare kid these days who gets to enjoy laying on the floor with the Sunday comics spread out before him.  But kids love comic strips!  Reluctant readers love comic strips!  Patrick McDonnell has mega kid appeal — animals, silliness, intelligence, wit.   Should we give them at taste of the fun most of us enjoyed as children and inspire them to read?  “Yesh!” says Mooch the cat.


Flora and Ulyssesfloraandulysses by Kate DiCamillo

Yes, another one by Kate DiCamillo in the same list.  But she’s that good.  And this one is that different.  And for a different audience.  So here it is!  This is one of DiCamillo’s most engaging books.  It starts off with a squirrel getting sucked into a vacuum cleaner and goes places you would never expect.  The characters are real and complex.  Nothing is dumbed down in this story.  The layers that the author creates make this a highly enjoyable, very smart read.


The Witch’s Boythewitchesboy by Kelly Barnhill

Kids get bigger, and their stories get a little bit heavier.  In this one, two boys build a raft, set sail, and only one of them survives.  His community treats him like an outcast.   They whisper that the wrong brother died.   He stutters.   He’s shy.  So when he goes on a fantastic adventure, he sees himself in a whole new light.  There’s magic and enchantment in this fantasy novel, and it’s sure to appeal to the crowd who likes Harry Potter or Percy Jackson.


The Fourteenth Goldfishfourtheenthgoldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

A science-infused novel about reverse aging and adolescence?  Say what?  I know.  But this one works.  Holm has crafted a very clever book about a girl named Ellie who realizes the teenager her mother brought home is really her scientist grandfather.   The unexpected, unconventional premise is balanced by the realistic emotional growing pains and evolution of relationships that most tweens and young teens are all too familiar with.  Kids will relate to Ellie’s feelings and find the story intriguing and enlightening.


The Greenglass Housegreenglasshouse by Kate Milford

Who doesn’t love a wintery mystery?  An innkeeper’s son, Milo, is set to enjoy his winter vacation at the quiet inn when a bunch of skeevy folks arrive and start to make him wonder who is there with ill-intent.  Milo partners up with the cook’s daughter, Meddy, to determine who’s legit and who’s not.  There is a lot of action, a couple twists, and a lot of suspense in this novel.


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