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  • Children's book reviews by Jennifer Sykes

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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.

 

Holiday Gift Guide: Board Books & Picture Books

guideWhy, yes!  The clock is ticking.  Hanukkah begins on Wednesday night, and Christmas is right around the corner.  If you are still hunting down the perfect gift for a toddler, preschooler, emerging reader, or anyone who enjoys picture books, you have come to the right place!  Forget trying to figure out which Lego set or which character toys they already have (hint: they don’t need more Elsas).  No need to know sizes.  Do they already have every toy and game known to mankind?  Well, it’s impossible to have too many books for children to enjoy.   Here are eight wonderful board books and picture books that any child (and family) will love… and, of course, everything listed is currently available via Amazon Prime to make your shopping quick and easy.  Tuesday, I’ll share a gift guide of chapter books for school-aged children.  Get your pretty wrapping paper ready!

 

 

 

thegiftofnothingThe Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell

I do indeed note the irony of including this book in a gift guide, but bear with me.  The Gift of Nothing is a great book with a great moral and features Mooch and Earl, animals from the Mutts comic strip.  Mooch struggles to find the perfect gift for Earl, who needs nothing.  McDonnell enjoys playing with the concept of “nothing” as a gift, sending Mooch on a search for nothing and discovering that nothing isn’t something you can buy.  He does eventually wrap nothing up for his dearest friend.  The book is very charming and simple and not at all preachy or overbearing, but it packs a wallop of a message that all kids and grownups need to hear.

Perfect for:  Kids 5-10, especially, but enjoyable for all.

 

thedaythecrayonsquitThe Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt

Is there anything funnier than anthropomorphic letter-writing?  The answer is, “No.”  Have you ever wondered what a crayon on strike would say?  Surely we all have!  In The Day the Crayons Quit, you can see for yourself how the black crayon feels typecast, how the oft-ignored crayons feel about being in the shadow of popular colors, and how certain colors are rivals.  They air their grievances in letters and drawings.  It’s a Crayola soap opera, and it’s hilarious.  Main character Duncan has to solve the problem of appeasing all the crayons (and making them feel understood and valued) so that he can enjoy coloring once more.

Perfect for: Kids 4-8; families who celebrate Festivus; adults who like to color.

 

thedarkThe Dark by Lemony Snicket

It’s an almost-scientific fact that 94% of children are afraid of the dark to some degree.  Lazslo is among that group, but in The Dark, he meets… The Dark.  The Dark is a character who speaks to him and encourages him on a journey through the creaky house into the dark basement.  There, The Dark instructs Lazslo to open a dresser drawer, where he makes a discovery that gives him calm and teaches him to trust and coexist with that murky, lurking darkness.  This is definitely not a book for children who are going to be too scared to get to the end — it’s not a scary book, but there is a bit of suspense that might overwhelm truly dark-phobic kids.  There is a happy, peaceful ending that’s a great payoff for those with a typical childhood fear.  Jon Klassen’s wonderful illustrations pay respect to how children really feel about the dark — it’s big and heavy and absolute — but does so without making the story scary or ominous.

Perfect for: Kids 3-8; anyone who loves an unconventional bedtime story.

 

outsideOutside by Deirdre Gill

Winter is a time when many of us feel housebound and limited by the weather, but Outside offers a different perspective.  A boy is bored and is told to go outside and play.  Yes, in the winter.  Yes, when it’s snowy and freezing.  What he finds before him is a truly blank, quiet canvas of winter.  He has a new perspective, his imagination gets to work, and he has many wonderful moments outside.  The illustrations are really the star of this book.  You feel the chill, the warmth of the house, the excitement of the little boy as he steps outside and experiences the wonder of winter.  It’s a seasonally appropriate reminder of the joys of simply going outside.

Perfect for: Kids 3-8; kids who need encouragement to go outdoors to play.

 

fantasticflyingbooksThe Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce

Joyce’s text was created after the award-winning short film of the same name, but that doesn’t make it any less fantastic.  We meet Mr. Morris Lessmore [puns!], who is writing his own memoir while sitting on a balcony when a storm hits and sends all the pages of his life story flying away.  How he recovers from that great loss and the upending storm is a story filled with magic, love for books, and references to great literature.  The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore will fill children with wonder and delight, and grownups who love books will appreciate every moment, as well.

Perfect for: Anyone of any age who loves books, reading, and writing.

 

katyandthebigsnow Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton

I feel like wonderful classics often get forgotten when shopping for kids’ books, but Burton’s Katy and the Big Snow is a perfect, timeless book.  Originally published in 1943, this large board book features a big red tractor named Katy who becomes a hero through her care and enduring spirit.  Katy dons a plow in response to cries for help from all of Geoppolis’ city leaders, and she clears the roads so life can resume after a rare snow storm.  The illustrations remain perfectly modern and exciting.   A map offers great details that preschoolers and early readers can enjoy relating to the story, giving the book an added layer of depth and adding a secondary older audience.  And, as usual, I love any book that features a female tractor!  This is a book that shows boys and girls that big machines and heroes are not “boy things.”   Katy and the Big Snow is also available as a paperback and in hardcover, depending on your recipient’s age.

Perfect for: Kids 0-6.

 

goodnightsongsGoodnight Songs by Margaret Wise Brown

There is an amazing story behind Goodnight Songs.  A few generations ago, Brown, author of the ubiquitous Goodnight Moon, died unexpectedly after a routine surgery.   In the 1990s, her family found a trunk stored in an old barn on her property,  Inside were stacks of unpublished stories, poems, and songs.  Publisher Sterling Children’s Books selected twelve of the poems and songs to publish as a lullably, and they recruited twelve award-winning illustrators to provide the visuals for each one.  The result is a remarkable collection of pictures and song, and it feels like a special treasure to read these.  It truly was finding a trunk full of gold, just in literary form.  The book comes with a lovely cd of the poems/songs presented as lullabies.  It’s a beautiful gift for babies, toddlers, young children, and their parents.

Perfect for: Kids 0-8; music lovers; poetry lovers; fans of Margaret Wise Brown.

 

verylittleredridinghood

Very Little Red Riding Hood by Teresa Heapy

I love a new spin on a familiar favorite, and Heapy’s take on the fairy tale is pretty terrific.  Very Little Red Riding Hood is indeed very little — she speaks in toddlerese — but she is brave, stubborn, and feisty.  Big Bad Wolf?  Hardly!  Very Little Red Riding Hood calls him Foxie when she encouters him in the forest, and she is absolutely, totally unafraid of him.  He joins her on a sleepover at her grandmother’s, and we get to see him and the entire family in a whole new light.  The illustrations by Sue Heap (not to be confused with author Teresa Heapy) are sweet and balance tradition and contemporary styles very well.  Very Little Red Riding Hood will become a series with more titles to follow, so you have a great opportunity to be a trendsetter!

Perfect for: Kids 0-6.

One Cool Friend

onecoolfriendOne Cool Friend

by Toni Buzzeo

My daughter and I had the great pleasure of meeting author Toni Buzzeo last week at a Young Authors Festival here in Michigan.  She shared some very useful tips for young writers, and she shared a lot about her own process as an author.  In doing so, we heard the backstory and the evolution of edits that yielded her newest (and wonderful) book One Cool Friend

Elliot is an unusual boy who speaks very formally and wears a tuxedo everywhere he goes.  He doesn’t enjoy the chaos of other children, but when his father suggests they go to Family Fun Day at the aquarium, he is much too polite to tell him he’d rather not.  Off they go, and the adventure begins.  Elliot asks his father if he can have a penguin, and his father hands him $20 to buy what he presumes is a stuffed animal.  Oh no; the only stuffing involved is Elliot fitting the penguin into his backpack.  Once the penguin, whom he names Magellan, is settled at home, Elliot accommodates his penguin needs with some creativity and fun.  It takes a while for Elliot’s father to discover that the penguin Elliot keeps talking about is real and not imaginary or a toy, and when he does, there is a great surprise ending!

This charming story is full of silly laughs for kids, but there’s plenty of wit to amuse parents, too.  This is particularly fun to read aloud with voices we don’t always get to use for little boys and their fathers… and how often does one get to “GROK!” like a penguin?  There are clever bits of foreshadowing and references to geography throughout the story, making it interesting to read multiple times.  I can honestly testify that it’s still lively and fun the 34th time.  It’s also wonderful to see a story featuring a father and son and their time spent together.

Illustrator David Small did a beautiful job with this story.  His scenes are a perfect match for the text.  They are simple and still very detailed; cool and still very comfortable; and refined but still appropriately animated.  There are great little moments everywhere in this book — a penguin wearing a tiny bicycle helmet, the curve of the halls in the aquarium, Magellan gorging himself on seafood from the freezer.  It’s not a surprise at all that this book is a Caldecott Honor winner.  At the festival, Buzzeo shared that the librarian to whom the book is dedicated is featured in the story, and even though David Small had never seen a picture of her, her character looks exactly like the real woman — short red hair, glasses, the works.  Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but it’s clear that Small was really feeling the story.   The text and the pictures work together beautifully to tell a quirky, interesting, and fun tale.

One Cool Friend is a delight for all youngsters from preschool through elementary school.  It would make a lovely gift this holiday season, especially for penguin lovers.  Or anyone who enjoys laughing and surprise endings.  Or those waddling friends who enjoy anchovies.

 

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