Category Archives: Age: Middle Grade

It’s Beverly Cleary’s 100th birthday!

April 12, 2016

Dear Beverly Cleary,

Happy one hundredth birthday! I hope this letter finds you in good health.

I’ve been your fan for over forty years. It all got started when I was in second grade and Mom checked Beezus and Ramona out of the library to read to me.  I was very skeptical.  It was a thick book with pages crowded with words.  Mom said I might want to start reading these on my own sometime.  Ridiculous.  It looked super hard, like something you’d be able to read in college.

So I humored Mom in this experiment.  Did I get into it the first read aloud session?  I’m not sure, but before long I was hooked.  It was rip-roaring funny.   I couldn’t have told you at the time, but what made the book wonderful were great characters, funny situations, perfect story-telling, and the illustrations by Louis Darling.

That first book set the stage for me to start reading them on my own.  I roared through the books about Ramona and Beezus Quimby and. of course, Henry Huggins.  I just ate it up.  Henry and Beezus were great friends of mine.  Ramona’s antics were so hilarious I couldn’t imagine anyone funnier.  I like how as Ramona gets older, she gets more complicated and sympathetic.  When I first read Ramona the Brave about her first grade year, I was missing the big guffaws from younger Ramona.  Now I see the whole Ramona series as a compelling, utterly real, sometimes uproarious story of growing up.

As an adult, I’ve enjoyed reading your memoirs (Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet) and reading your children’s books to my classes as a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade teacher. My wife Jen and I have read almost every book to our daughter and son.  They’ve loved it all.  My twelve year old recently realized we’d never read Emily’s Runaway Imagination and read it on her own.

When I moved to Oregon from Indiana, I had no clue most of your books were set in Northeast Portland.  It was a pleasant surprise when I got here to find out that Klicktat Street was a real place.  In the mid-‘90s it was a treat to join the hoopla at the unveiling of the statues at Grant Park:  Ramona, Henry, and his good old dog Ribsy.

You continue to be my favorite children’s author.  I read children’s books widely and there’s so much wonderful stuff out there.  But I virtually never find any slice of life fiction for kids with the level of humor, storytelling, and psychological insight that I get from so many of your books including all the Henry Huggins and all the Ramona books.  Often when I finish one of your books, I think, wow, that one must be her very best.

We have about 20 of your books on our shelves.  When my wife was pregnant, she read a big pile of them.  And I suspect when I don’t have anyone around “age-appropriate” to read them to anymore, I’ll just savor reading them to myself.

Congratulations on your staying power!  Since it’s been 66 years since Henry Huggins first came out, may your books be widely popular for another 66 years at least.

With gratitude and good wishes,

Dan Patterson

 

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Filed under Age: Middle Grade, Chapter Books

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

Anastasia Krupnik

I just finished Anastasia Krupnik, Lois Lowry’s first book in the Anastasia series (1979).  I had nifty incentive to read it because Anastasia was my wife’s childhood favorite for a time.  She and our daughter just read this first one out loud together.  I had to catch up on my own.

It’s brilliant!  I’ve read some slice-of-life DOGS in my time about kids.  But this one is good from the start.  Her 4th grade teacher has the kids write poems.  Anastasia is ecstatic- her dad is a poet and lit professor.  How can she miss?  But it turns out the teacher only likes rhyming, sing-song poetry.  Anastasia non-rhyming free verse will be poorly received.  So it’s no wonder when, “Anastasia had begun to feel a little funny, as if she had ginger ale inside her knees”.

Poor Anastasia gets an F and Mrs. Westvessel goes on the bad side of Anastasia’s list of things she loves and hates.  We see the list at the end of each chapter, and it’s undergoing constant change.

It’s a short book filled with birth, life, death, and lots of laughs and empathy.  At the ripe old age of ten she gets a sibling, her little brother who her parents have rashly promised her she can name.

Can’t wait to read the next Anastasia in the series,even if it is my wife’s turf for story-reading with our daughter.

Lois Lowry is one of our most honored living children’s author, and maybe the most versatile.  She’s won two Newbery Medals.  Gotta admit I couldn’t make much sense out of The Giver, but everyone tells me it’s brilliant and profound.  I believe them.

But I did have a ball reading The Willoughbys (2008) with the kids while Jen was gone to Peru.  It’s a super-fun, wacky parody of the apparently-orphaned kids facing one trial after another.  Sounds like A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, but somehow those didn’t tickle me.  After Willoughbys, my daughter and I read the delicious Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken which must have inspired Lowry.

Lowry performs an amazing feat by having it be very tongue-in-cheek, with lots of references to the kids being old-fashioned, deserving kids and comparing their plight to  situations in Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, and James and the Giant Peach while at the same time having it feel real and vivid.  We care about Tim, Barnaby A and B, and Jane. An appendix at the back capsulizes thirteen classics the book touches on.

I loved that Lowry did her own pictures for The Willoughbys.  Its author bio, which she must have written herself, says “Today she is a wizened, reclusive old woman who sits hushed over her desk thinking obsessively about the placement of commas.”  It’s great that Lois Lowry covers so much ground, and that her early heroine still reads so well thirty years later.

So Anastasia, nice to meet you this weekend and hear about your brother Sam, born when you’re already 10.  And Sam Krupnik, maybe I’ll read the series about you sometime.  In fact:  Jen, I hereby reserve that series for reading to our son when the time comes!

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Filed under Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Fiction, Reviews

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

Jip

     I said this blog post would take us back to 1996, but actually it’s a 1996 book that takes us back to 1855.  Jip is a novel by two-time Newbery winner Katherine Paterson set on a poor farm in small town Vermont.  It was a great read-aloud for my daughter and I, and she insists I review for all you good folk.  In the past we read Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, an amazing short novel that can make a tough hombre like me cry.

The story is about a boy who’s come to be known as Jip who fell out of a speeding wagon when he was a little tyke and has lived on the poor farm for the eight years since.  He wonders how his family could not have noticed that they had a boy they lost.  In the meantime Jip has become the most valuable worker on the farm.  He has a way with animals that calms and comforts them.  In fact he even milks the cow because the cow likes him so much more than the mistress.

           Paterson is a marvel.  She has the knack to take us right there to the muddy roads and bland gruel of the poor farm.  Jip is unassuming but amazing, helping Sheldon, who’s simple, be happy and do his work.  And when the lunatic is brought to them, tied up, screaming and filthy,  it is Jip who calms him.  Jip discovers old Put is a great person who, except for his spells, is very sane.

But  a man Jip instinctively dislikes comes to visit and  tells Jip he may know where he came from.  The mystery of Jip’s past haunts us all along.  When the story is still leisurely, we see Jip fall in love with school and his first shot at book learning.

But soon enough we get to the climax of a breathless, life and death adventure.  I won’t say too much and spoil it.  It’s fantastic.

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Filed under Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Fiction, Reviews