Category Archives: Chapter Books

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

Who is Alvin Ho?

Alvin Ho, illustrated by LeUyen Pham Alvin Ho:  Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look is so much fun from the moment you see the front cover it almost doesn’t need a review.  Alvin, a second grade boy, proudly tells us “I come from a long line of farmer-warriors who haven’t had a scaredy bone in their bodies since 714 AD.  In China my ancient grandpas and grandmas fought off leopards and tigers in their gardens the way Calvin and Anibelly and I fight off mosquitoes at Walden Pond.”

Unfortunately, as you know from the title, Alvin is afraid of practically everything.  He lives in historic Concord, Massachusetts, where the American Revolution started.  Fortunately he is not afraid of anything that explodes.  “I was practically born with gunpowder in my blood!”  In the very first chapter he tells us all we need to know about him for starters including all his fears and the fact that he can’t speak a single word at school.  (He doesn’t use the term selective mutism, but we get the idea.)  Lucky for him, his seatmate is his good friend Flea.  As she says, “Alvin can talk with his eyes.”

He’s a narrator with so much zing and gusto that we’re captured from the start.  The ink drawings by LeUyen Pham are cartoon perfect.  They’re so frequent it almost feels like a graphic novel.  You feel like you’re right there in his family by page 3 when you see the picture of big brother Calvin, baby sister Anibelly and his big dog Lucy.

https://i1.wp.com/4.bp.blogspot.com/_c67S34J41nY/TUWMj4kCcdI/AAAAAAAAB5s/JSKmwYBrQCU/s320/alvin+ho.jpgLook employs great, laugh-aloud story-telling all the way through, and like I mentioned, the drawings are amazing.  It’s sheer, 21st century genius to have this Chinese American boy living in this  American cradle of liberty, filling us in on all we need to know.  His “woeful glossary” at the back gives his funny take on everything from Minutemen and Chinese radishes to Beethoven and his brother Calvin.

Alvin Ho is more than belly laughs.  It has great storytelling and lots of heart.  I read it to a 4th and 5th grade class at the start of a year and they loved it.  Fortunately, the first Alvin Ho from 2008 has been followed by Alvin Ho:  Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters and Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects and Other Man-Made Catastrophes.

Alvin’s life is woes and joys and dramas like the human experience.  If I were the Newbery committee, Alvin could proudly wear the Newbery Medal around his neck.  Keep working things out, Alvin.  We’re with you all the way.

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Filed under Age: Middle Grade, Chapter Books, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Robert McCloskey’s Illustrating Masterpiece

Who’s the most wonderful illustrator in the glorious history of children’s books?  My all-time favorite might be Robert McCloskey.  Mom introduced me to him when I was still in nursery school with the Caldecott winner Make Way for Ducklings.  I’ve loved reading our kids One Morning in Maine (a slice of life story in rural Maine that includes a loose tooth) and the very famous Blueberries for Sal, both fabulous picture books.  McCloskey was most active from the ‘40s till the ‘60s although he lived to 2003.

When I was about nine I discovered his wacky, nostalgiac pair of books about a boy in small town Ohio:  Homer Price and Centerburg Tales.  Homer has crazy adventures including when the doughnut machine at his uncle’s diner goes haywire and makes thousands of doughnuts.  I couldn’t get enough of those, although when I look back and re-read I realize I labored through the text and was enchanted by the pictures.

My grandparents took me to their Irvington Branch library in Indianapolis and I asked a kind librarian for more Robert McCloskey chapter books (although I didn’t know that term “chapter book”).  She said there were no more written by him but showed me the Henry Reed books, that he illustrated for Keith Robertson.  Henry is a blogger of his day, keeping a very earnest journal about his life.  Of the four books, I enjoyed Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service the most.  He was pretty  unequipped temperamentally to be a babysitter and it was really funny stuff.

But it wasn’t till 2010 I found what I think may be McCloskey’s illustrating masterpiece: Trigger John’s Son .  (My heart is accelerating as I write this.  I might start a stampede for this obscure book.  In the past I’ve fantasized about buying half a dozen copies off Amazon for all my friends I think should read it. Then I reveal to the world its fabulosity after my raves have driven up the cost of the book dramatically.)

Since you ask (please ask!) here’s how I discovered it.  I have a copy of Homer Price decommissioned from the Prescott School library.  The back of its dust jacket heralds three well-known McCloskey books plus Trigger John’s Son by Tom Robinson.  What the heck was this?  Multnomah County Library didn’t have it.  I used their marvelous interlibrary loan service and got it in a few weeks.  Turns out Trigger John was a 1934 novel that McCloskey must have admired.  So in 1949 a new edition came out with McCloskey’s own illustrations.  The book is profusely illustrated with McCloskey’s incomparable pen and ink drawings.

Where Homer Price and Henry Reed are quirky and entertaining, making a great vehicle for McCloskey pictures, Trigger John’s Son is epic, with this orphan boy coming on the train all the way from Maine to Pennsylvania.  He hops off the train and sneaks into town so he can spy on the couple that wants to adopt him before he makes up his mind.  And he joins up with the Goosetown gang, which is rough and tumble but feels very innocent from a 2012 perspective.  In 1949 Horn Book called it “the best thing of its kind since Tom Sawyer”.

In a just world, it would have won the Newbery award and still be in print and in our consciousness.  In fall of 2010 I was overjoyed to find an old library copy for $10.95 at Powell’s City of Books.  Trigger John’s Son starts off good and only gets better.  Here are the opening lines:

“Trigger John’s son busied himself with searching in his duffel bag for a thing that wasn’t there.  He knew it wasn’t there and if it had been he didn’t want to find it.”

The page one picture is the boy digging in his duffel and secretly looking at the train conductor while the old lady behind him spies on him. Trigger John wants to be left alone.  He may be an orphan but he’s going to control his own destiny.

Find it, enjoy it, help resuscitate this forgotten book!

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

Dying to Meet You

   I first met up with Kate Klise’s writing and her sister M. Sarah Klise’s illustrations in the ‘90s with the delightful novel Regarding the Fountain.  I guess you’d call it an epistolary novel.  It’s a wacky tale told in letters, memos, news clippings and other documents of a school that needs a new drinking fountain.  In Klise’s hands this simple quest becomes absurdly complicated and entertaining.

Now my daughter, who has blossomed as a recreational reader this summer, needs good books!  Series especially.  So I’ve turned her on to the 43 Cemetery Road series and she’s plowed through the first three.  (Mental note:  reserve the fourth one for her from the library.)

Dying to Meet You (2009) is the story of an old writer in a long slump renting an old, dilapidated  house in Ghastly, Illinois.  Ignatius B. Grumply is the author of the (fictional) Ghost Tamer series and he’s many years overdue for the next volume.  Sight unseen he has rented an enormous old Queen Anne that happens to be inhabited by long dead Olive Spence, a frustrated writer herself, and 11-year-old Seymour Hope, a living boy whose parents have ditched him to go do paranormal research in Europe.  The text is preceded by a portrait gallery of people like young Seymour, old and dead Olive, the author Ignatius B. Grumply and the real estate agent Anita Sale.  (Expect lots of clever joke names.)

This series, too,  is full of letters, notes, and news articles from The Ghastly Times.  It’s a great story.  Both my daughter and I have found it to be great story-telling and addictive reading.

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Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Chapter Books, Fiction, Reviews