Category Archives: Age: Early Elementary

Substitute Creacher

Have you seen Chris Gall’s books?  They are so striking.  The first time I saw Dear Fish (2006) at the library it practically reached out and yanked me over to it.  It’s a wacky book that has been compared to Tuesday by David Wiesner (you know, the floating frogs on a random Tuesday night).  Looking on his website I see he gets lots of commissions for posters, magazine covers etc.  Another title I admire is There’s Nothing To Do on Mars (2008).

           Substitute Creacher (2011) tells the story behind a green cyclops with lots of snake-like feet.  The story starts off a bit like the classic Miss Nelson is Missing.  It’s almost Halloween and the regular teacher has had it with an out-of-control class.  She leaves a note that she has a “rather special” sub coming in.  Turns out the substitute “creacher” was once a boy himself who stole candy from other kids.  He sets the class straight with his cautionary tales.  The book has all sorts of split pages like a comic.  You’re probably wondering about Gall’s art medium and so I investigated on the title page.  “The artwork was created using bat wings, toad juice, and the bundled whiskers of a black cat.”

Substitute Creacher even squeezes a happy ending out at the last page.

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Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Middle Grade, Age: Preschool, Holidays: Halloween, Picture Books, Reviews

Halloween books are waiting for you!

Ack!   Shivers down my back—is that a black widow going on a stroll on my tingling neck?!  Oh no, it’s just happy shivers because it’s the month of Halloween.  It’s a time that brings out some wonderful picture books, some creepy and some just wacky fun.

From the Patterson Picks archives, don’t forget about The Halloween Kid and Dying to Meet You in the 43     series.The Hallo-Wiener is a family favorite by Dav Pilkey of Captain Underpants fame. Oscar, a dachshund, is dressed up by his mom as a giant hot dog in a bun.  His mom is so excited about the costume he doesn’t have the heart to say no to this awful getup.  So his friends tease him on Halloween night.  Worse yet, he can’t keep up with them in his cumbersome costume.  But then a hideous black monster with a pumpkin head chases all his dog friends into a lake.  Naturally Oscar saves the day.  I can’t tell you the ending.  But suffice it to say a couple sneaky cats are brought to justice.

Ready to move around?  It’s time to Shake Dem Halloween Bones!  This is a 1997 Scholastic paperback written oh-so-infectiously by W. Nikola-Lisa and illustrated in big, bright oils by Mike Reed.  It seemed like a nice book in my 2nd grade classroom, but it got a life of its own being read aloud at home.   The refrain goes

Shake, shake,

Shake dem bones now.

Shake, shake,

Shake dem bones now.

Shake, shake,

Shake dem bones

At the hip-hop Halloween ball.

A whole cast of characters parade through like “Li’l Red” (Little Red Riding Hood), Tom Thumb and Goldilocks.

The rhythm and drive of it is irresistible.  Excuse me, I have some shaking to do!

Have you ever been to a doctor’s or dentist’s office?  If so, you’ve probably seen the little hardcover Popcorn with tear-out cards inside to buy books in the series.  In fact our copy says on the cover

WAITING ROOM COPY

PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE

It’s a 1979 book and I’m happy to say we acquired our copy by honest means.  Popcorn is subtitled A Frank Asch Bear Story.  Sam the Bear on the cover is dressed in his Indian Halloween costume, a headband with a feather.  Behind him is a huge kettle overflowing with popcorn.  His parents have left him alone on Halloween night (remember it’s 1979) and he has a costume party of his own.  Turns out everyone brings popcorn. I’ve read this countless times and I pledge to you it’s still fun when the popcorn fills up every cubic centimeter in the house.  What can you do but chow down?

The illustrations are super simple.  All the better to survey the popcorn spilling off the pages.  The gag at the end is obvious but perfect.

What kind of Halloween season would it be without a mutant pumpkin as big as a truck hurtling downhill and mowing down anything in its path?  Fortunately we have The Runaway Pumpkin (2003) written with fiendishly catchy rhythm by Kevin Lewis and illustrated in exhilarating cartoon style by S. D. Schindler.

Somehow at the top of a hill two kids manage to budge it.  And then it just builds up speed.  Listen:

“Round and ‘round across the ground

Makin’ a thumpin’ bumpin’ sound

Came that thumpety bumpety thumpin’ bumpin’

Round and roll-y RUNAWAY PUMPKIN!

As it knocks down fences and pigsties, the adults stand frozen watching, thinking of pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread.  Some visual highlights are pigs and squirrels hanging from tree branches and a chicken flattened and sticking to the pumpkin.  Don’t worry, she’ll be fine.  And so will you if you pick up The Runaway Pumpkin.

The Pumpkin Man is an unassuming little beginning reader from 1998 written in a pleasant rhyming style by Judith Moffatt.  Moffatt illustrates the text with bright cut paper scenes  with a nice sense of shadow and depth.  It’s a nice little narrative that tells how to make a pumpkin man with a pumpkin head and old clothes and boots you stuff with leaves.  Through absolutely no initiative on my part it has inspired pumpkin men on our front porch several different Halloweens.

Thank you Ms. Moffatt and  original Pumpkin Man.

Aren’t we just about due for a little vacation getaway?  Why not make it a trip to Monster Town?  Welcome to Monster Town by Ryan Heshka is a 2010 paperback issued by Scholastic, but it might as well have been put out by the Monster Town Chamber of Commerce.  It’s got it all.  The cover is a postcard-style design highlighting friendly skulls, bats and mummies.  At the bottom of the cover, a friendly green boy about age six or seven waves to us.

Things get started when the sun goes down, zombies stumbling to work and green kids hopping on the Ghoul Bus with their lunchboxes.  Each spread is an ingenious scene.  My favorite is “Giant Squid serves the best midnight brunch in town.”  He’s behind a round lunch counter doing it all with seven of his legs, like pouring coffee, flipping a green egg, stirring green slime.

Even if you don’t book a tour to Monster Town read the book for the cheeriest spooky scenes you’ve ever seen.

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Filed under Age: All, Age: Early Elementary, Age: Middle Grade, Age: Preschool, Age: Young Adult, Holidays: Halloween

All Star: Honus Wagner and the Most Famous Baseball Card Ever

Batter up!  Baseball is in full swing.  Isn’t it high time for big, beautiful picture book with a giant helping of Americana?  All Star:  Honus Wagner and the Most Famous Baseball Card Ever (2010) is written by Jane Yolen and illustrated with Jim Burke’s intensively-researched paintings.  The inside flaps are decorated with memorabilia including the Honus Wagner card that sold in 2007 for almost three million dollars.

Yolen is known for her hundreds of books.  In this title, Yolen performs a marvelous feat, condensing his life from being born into a poor German immigrant family in Pennsylvania, working in the coal mines, and then making his way into pro baseball, all in just a few hundred words.  Yolen’s prose is super-efficient, dense with meaning, like a poem.

Even though he had a big nose and large head, his parents thought their fourth son was gorgeous.  His hometown had dark skies from the steel and iron mills. At age 12 Honus was loading two tons of coal a day for seventy-nine cents a day.  He worked six days a week, but fortunately he was off on Sunday and could play baseball.  We read about his  eventual rise into the greatest of shortstops, “with legs like hunting bows”.

Honus Wagner loved kids and didn’t want them using tobacco, so his cards were taken off the market.  Ironically the card’s rarity makes it valuable and helps Wagner be remembered.

All Star is a compelling look at this athlete who was at his peak a century ago.  But Yolen and Burke make Wagner much more than a face on an ancient baseball card.  So dust off your mitt and give old Honus a look.

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Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Non-Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews, Uncategorized

The Wall

One of the most delectable, memorable pictures books I’ve ever seen is The Wall:  Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis.  This 2007 picture book/ memoir/ history lesson joins a remarkable set of childhood memoirs by some of our most distinguished picture book illustrators, all of them American immigrants. (See also my reviews of Ed Young’s The House Baba Built describing a wartime childhood in China, Allen Say’s Drawing From Memory set in Japan,  and Yuri Shulevitz’s How I Learned Geography giving a snapshot of his time as a Holocaust era refugee in what is now Kazakhstan.)

          Sis’s cover is a small boy banging a drum enclosed by a wall on all sides. Inside the book’s text is as simple or detailed as you want it to be.  For the basic story of a boy who loved to draw, Sis ingeniously has a simple one line narrative going at the bottom of most pages.  For the complex world of Communism in Czechoslovakia little captions on the margins describe events.

His wonderful black ink drawings feature color very sparingly, notably red, emphasizing the hold of repression in Czech life.  His babyhood coincided with the Soviets taking control of the country and closing the borders in 1948.  Even as he scrawls a zigzag on his paper in a crib, a red flag hangs in the background.

I doubt this book would much interest elementary students, but what a concise and compelling trip for middle schoolers all the way to adults!  Margin notes define Cold War, Iron Curtain, and Communism.  In one tiny frame happy little Peter brings his parents a red flier and they quietly recoil, afraid to criticize the propaganda.

Like the other amazing memoirs I’ve been pushing, this one is multimedia too.  One spread has notes from childhood journals with a background of his drawings,  childhood photos, and Soviet era propaganda signs and posters.  As a teenager, he begins to question things.  The Beatles, Elvis and the Rolling Stones sounds slip into his world.  He joins a rock band.  The Prague Spring in 1968 brings incredible hope and a taste of freedom.  The center spread is a crazy full-color painting.  He’s banging his guitar in a landscape of wonder, with a yellow submarine flying by.  In two more pages Soviet tanks crush it all.  Back to black and white with red flags on the pages.

And yet there are tiny glimmers of hope.  One page says “The Beach Boys arrived.  America to the rescue!”  The end notes describe him being a disc jockey, interviewing the Beatles and others, and traveling to Czechoslovakia with the Beach Boys. (This reminds me of  the late Czech playwright, dissident, and eventual president Vaclav Havel being inspired in the ‘60s by rock culture like Frank Zappa and Velvet Underground.)

His last spread is the enormous wall falling in 1989 with tiny people chopping it up or standing atop in triumph.  “Sometimes dreams come true.”  Way up in the blue sky is a map of Europe with the political boundaries and all the countries that gained freedom 1989-1991.

So read The Wall, a book for anyone who cares for dreams, art or freedom.  The graphic design is pretty incredible too.

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Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Library Dragon

“Sunrise Elementary School had a BIG problem.  The new librarian, Miss Lotta Scales, was a real dragon.”

So begins Carmen Agra Deedy’s phenomenal 1994 picture book The Library Dragon.

The opening page of the book has a circled want ad for a children’s librarian, and you can see how they inadvertently hired a dragon.  “Our new librarian must be on fire with enthusiasm; no half-baked applicants need apply.”

Miss Lotta Scales is very imposing as drawn by Michael P. White.  Her bright green scaly skin and blood red eyes are complemented by her blue horn-rimmed glasses with the little chains on the sides, and by her lovely yellow dress with a dragonfly pattern on it.

She’s been hired to guard the library and she takes her job seriously.  In fact, the thought of kids “touching her precious books just makes her hot under the collar.”

So unfortunately kids are dreading going to library time and coming back singed.  The author has lots of good groaners for adults reading the book aloud:  The staff gets all worked up about the dysfunctional library and so “the principal fumed,” and the  “teachers were incensed”.

It takes little Molly Brickmeyer wandering in to help Lotta Scales see how a library works.  While the dragon is napping Molly starts reading a book to the other kids.  Miss Scales wakes up and is amazed.  “She’d never seen anything like it:  the children looked like they belonged here.”

Of course Lotta learns how to run a library the right way.  Her scales drop off and little Molly sits in her lap.  She turns nice but still has a list of five rules to help the  books stay  nice including “Treat a book like you treat a friend- you don’t wipe your nose on your friend.”

I still love this book 15 years since first look.  Back at Prescott Elementary School, Patty the Librarian used to use this book at class groups first visit to the library in September.  That got kids fired up about books for the whole year!

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Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Preschool, Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

Olivia, the complex young pig we’ve loved since her debut in 2000, is out with her seventh full-fledged book, Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, by Ian Falconer.  Princesses might sound like a girly theme, but not in the hands of her creator, Ian Falconer.  In fact, my almost-seven-year-old boy loves this one

        Flat on her back on the first page, Olivia is depressed.  Even her dog and cat look concerned.  She’s thinking long and hard about fairy princesses.  Later her mother lathers her hair as she takes a bath and Olivia pronounces, “If everyone’s a princess, then princesses aren’t special anymore!”  She also notices they tend to be generic Disney princesses.  “Why is it always a pink princess?  Why not an Indian princess or a princess from Thailand or an African princess or a princess from China.  There are alternatives.”  (And we see Olivia dressed up as each kind of princess.)

She toys with what she can be when she grows up, considering nursing the sick and elderly or being a reporter and exposing corporate malfeasance.  Finally she decides just the thing for her on the very last page.  (Can’t tell!)

           Olivia books hold up well to many readings.  The humor has a dry side for adults and a wacky side for kids.  Falconer usually has fun super-imposing the characters on a black and white photo or two.  His style is familiar as well from his New Yorker covers.

Lately, we’ve also been enjoying Olivia Goes to Venice.  My daughter says her favorite is still Olivia…and the Missing Toy.  Me too!  But Fairy Princesses is right up there.

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Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Preschool

Andrew Henry’s Meadow

            OK, we’re traveling back in time one more time.  First we went back to 2002 for Penny Lee and Her TV to please my wife.  Then we hit 1996 for Jip set in about 1855 to please my daughter.  And now let’s go back to that great year of 1965 to please my son.

As far as I can tell Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn is an obscure Northwest picture book.  Nevertheless, 48 years later it’s still in print and the Pattersons love it.  I first ran into it at Powell’s just a few years ago.

   Poor Andrew Henry is a middle child who isn’t left alone to make his ingenious inventions around the house like a huge, elaborate, Rube Goldberg-like watering device for one flower or an eagle’s cage in the living room.  Someone in his family is always demanding he stop.  They don’t understand.

One day he gathers his tools and sets off over the hill, through the swamp and the deep woods.  When at last he arrives in a meadow he builds himself a cabin with a roof made of turf.  One by one his friends escape to the meadow too.  First he builds Alice a tree house.  Soon he builds a fishing hut, a castle, a dugout and other structures to suit his friends.  They live in this meadow paradise for a few days until all the parents track them down.  The parents are overjoyed to have their children back.  The reader knows the families will finally give these kids more leeway in building their dreams.DSCF6254

For my son, who is always building forts in the living room with his buddy Jack, this is truly a glorious world Andrew Henry goes and creates.

Hey readers, do you know this book?  It has gotten a special place on our shelf!

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Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Preschool, Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews