Category Archives: Fiction

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

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

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

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

Penny Lee and Her TV

I try not to live in the past, even though it had some really good parts.  But recently the three members of my nuclear family each commanded me to review a book on this blog.  Each one an old book, as it happens.  So here we go, to 2002, then to 1996 and 1965.

Since my wife is the technical brains behind Patterson Picks, I think she deserves for me to do her book first.  It’s a 2002 book I found subbing at Ventura Park Elementary a few weeks ago.  And it got big laughs from the almost-seven-year-old, the almost-ten-year-old and both of the adults in this house.

Penny Lee and Her TV , written and illustrated by Glenn McCoy, introduces us to only two living characters:  Penny Lee and her dog, Mr. Barkley.  And it is pretttty boring to be Mr. Barkley.  Here’s why:  “Penny Lee didn’t have any friends.  She didn’t need any.  The TV was her best friend.”  She even sleeps on top of it and dreams commercials.

Poor Mr. Barkley tries everything his dog brain can think of to get a little attention.  Even when he puts ramps on both sides of the TV and rides his motorcycle through a flaming hoop mounted on the TV, Penny doesn’t even notice.  (But the readers do.  We all cracked up at the dog with his giant nose and American flag motorcycle helmet.)

Then one morning Penny wakes to a cold, dark TV screen.  She’s hysterical ‘til Mr. Barkley shows her a TV repair ad in the newspaper.  They set off rolling their TV down the sidewalk, and Penny can’t get over how bright and colorful the real world is.  And she’s flummoxed by how she can’t use her remote control to switch the “channel” she is walking through.  Would you believe they have fun on the way to the shop?  They go for rides on the TV down steep hills, use the cord for a jump rope, and play hide and seek at the park.  (Penny is easy to find because she has to hide by the big TV.)

It’s a quick, satisfying story replete with sight gags like when Penny and Mr. Barkley do chalk drawing on the sidewalk.  Penny draws her favorite TV superhero and her TV; Mr. Barkley draws a bone, a tree and a fire hydrant.  They have so much fun on the way to the shop that it’s closed by the time they get there.  And Penny isn’t even mad!

After Penny goes to sleep in her own bed for a change, we find that Mr. Barkley has a little secret that ends the story perfectly.

Next time, a trip to 1996.  Don’t change that blog channel…

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

Hereville!

Why to read the graphic novel Hereville:  How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch (2010):

Teaser on cover:  “Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl”

Terrific story-telling centering on Mirka and her little brother.  Reads itself!

Yiddish words with definitions at the bottom of the page.

Great characters like her stepmother Fruma who loves to argue an intellectual point.  If you agree with her she’ll start arguing the other side!

Varied page layouts that keep your eyes entertained.

A big, unforgiving pig who talks.

Memorable witch dispensing advice.

Homely, beautifully-weird troll.

Can our hero out-knit the troll so he doesn’t eat her? Summary:  winner.

Look for  brand new sequel:  Hereville:  How Mirka Met a Meteorite.

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

Brownie Groundhog and the February Fox

Time for a cozy, comfy, winter read.  Brownie Groundhog and the February Fox is a 2011 gem written by Oregon’s Susan Blackaby and painted by Carmen Segovia of Barcelona, Spain.  Before this great pairing,Segovia had simple, charming paintings of this fox and groundhog that needed to have a book.  An American editor found Blackaby to write the story, the readers’ good fortune.

Brownie Groundhog has a problem.  “A small, scrawny fox heard Brownie grousing.  His ears twitched.  He licked his chops and crouched to pounce.”  The fox appears outside her door and announces he will try to eat her for breakfast.  Fortunately Brownie Groundhog is a clever one.  As Brownie finds ways to put off Fox’s meal, they have a great time together in the snow.

 The book is a sure-footed combo of Segovia’s fun snow scenes and Blackaby’s brisk, effortless storytelling.  Can Brownie Groundhog keep the February Fox from eating her?  I can’t tell you what does get eaten, but I can assure you this book is a tasty snack for the reader.

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