Thursday, October 29, 2015

Get Into the Spirit of Things

Here's the Sci-Fi, Paranormal & Fantasy You've Been Looking For

The Trap
By Steven Arntson
Best For, Boys: Ages 9 - 12
Rated 3.75 (ghosts, first crush, peril)

          Mystery, fantasy and paranormal adventures make this a good book for the Halloween season and beyond. Set in 1963 Farro, Idaho, this story covers friendship, civil rights, metaphysics and first crushes with an introspective and engaging narration. The story follows friends Henry, Helen, Alan and Nikki as the set out to find Alan’s older brother, who has been missing for several days. It's a haunting adventure that actually, in part, takes place in a cemetery. From out-of-body experiences to ghostly conversations The Trap keeps readers guessing about what will happen next.

What’s good: Believable middle school characters and a suspense-filled story.
What’s bad: The plotting is a little slow in the beginning, but picks up about midway though.

The Watchmen of Port Fayt
By Conrad Mason
Best For, Boys: Ages 8 - 12

Rated: 3.75 (pirates, fantasy creatures, violence)
          The Watchmen is a magical pirate-style adventure with echoes of Treasure Island and Harry Potter mixed into the fantasy soup. Set in the fantastical Carribean-like town of Port Fayt, the reader will find men and mythical creatures such as ogres, trolls, goblins and fairies walking the streets and doing business together. The Watchmen predominatley follows two main characters – Tabitha, the youngest member of the titular private police force; and Grubb, an orphaned half-goblin tavern boy who stumbles into a mysterious plot. This rollicking adventure pits them against corrupt militiamen, pirates, a weak governor and a very powerful witch who wants to destroy Port Fayt by raising the maw. As it happens, the Maw is a great and powerful sea beast worthy of an epic final battle. Get ready for a frenetically paced middle-grade fantasy that pirate fans should see as a winner.

What’s good: Pirates, magic fantasy and fast-paced adventure. Who could ask for more?
What’s bad: Sometimes difficult to follow due to the variety of characters and voices leading the reader through the story.

By Pam Munoz Ryan
Best For: Ages 10 - 14

Rated: 4.0 (intolerance, war, music)

          Echo is unlike any fairytale most young readers have read. Told through interconnected stories, it follows the journey of a magical harmonica into the hands of three young heroes. Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California each come into contact with the same instrument. Set just before and during WWII, the tale is more about the young heroes’ embodiment of bravery, tolerance and kindness as they stand up to injustice, rather than the harmonica. But the harmonic plays a key role as everything comes together in the final climactic section where Friedrich, Mike and Ivy attempt to write their own happy ending through the power of music.

What’s good: A great blend of storytelling – magic, mystery and history.
What’s bad: Slowly paced. Plus some preteens may balk at reading a fairytale.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Here Be Monsters!

Looking for fun and spooky books?

“Leo: A Ghost Story”
By Mac Barnett
Illustrated by Christian Robinson
Best For: Ages 3 - 5
Rated: 3.00 (Friendship, Ghosts, Imagination)

To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy being a ghost. Leo has been alone a long time and all he really wants is a friend. But it’s difficult to make friends when you’re a ghost. When a new family moves into his house, Leo tries to be friendly, but the family wants nothing to do with him. So Leo sets out into the city in search of a friend. He wanders until he meets Jane, who has a big imagination and a very open heart. The two develop a close friendship as they play pretend. 
 Robinson adds emotion to the tale with simple yet powerful acrylic and pencil illustrations in somber tones. The retro-illustration style fits well with Mac Barnett’s honest and whimsical text. This is a well-constructed story of friendship and acceptance. Plus, it’s a fun way to ease children’s fears of the unknown.

What’s good: A strong message of open-mindedness and acceptance.
What’s bad: May lead to questions about life and death.

“Serafina and the Black Cloak”
By Robert Beatty
Best For, Girls: Ages 8 - 12
Rated: 3.5 (Mystery, Friendship, Paranormal, Biltmore Estate)

            Set on the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, this creepy fantasy-adventure draws you in and keeps you on the edge of your seat from one page to the next. It’s 1899 and although Serafina’s dad is a custodian on the estate, he and his daughter are seldom seen or heard. They keep to themselves, living secretly in the mansion’s basement. Serafina has unique golden eyes and an uncanny ability to stalk and catch rats. Her father is very loving but never allows her to be seen by the Vanderbilt family and continually warns her to stay out of the forest surrounding the grounds. 
            Things change when a figure in a dark cloak begins kidnapping children who are visiting the estate. Serafina defies her father and befriends Braeden, the Vanderbilt’s nephew. Together, they set out to solve this dark and enchanting mystery. Strangely, each clue also brings her closer to discovering the truth about herself. Fans of spooky tales and mysteries will find satisfaction between the covers Serafina and the Black Cloak.

What’s good: Serafina is an engaging and intriguing heroine that makes you want to know more.
What’s bad: The kidnappings may be a little too graphic for some readers.

By Ronald L. Smith
Best For, Boys: Ages 9 – 13
Rated: 3.5 (Deep South, Witchcraft, Race, Friendship) 

This spiritually-charged, Southern gothic tale has it all – mystery, first love, magic, action, fantasy and horror. Set in 1930s Alabama, this tale is told in the distinctive voice of the titular character, Hoodoo Hatcher. He’s a 12-year-old boy that lives with his grandmother, because both his mother and father have passed away. 
Witchcraft is commonplace in Hoodoo's neck of the woods. But odd things get even odder when a fortune teller warns him about a stranger. She tells Hoodoo that only he can save himself and his people. 
Hints of racial hardships are blended with religion and family values. Somehow it all seems to mingle well with mojo bags and magical potions. Hoodoo is a mystical battle of good and evil that is definitely worth reading during the Halloween season.

What’s good: Great voice and style that makes you want to keep reading.
What’s bad: Some small pacing issues, but they’re easy to look past.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Read Aloud. Read Often.

Consider these new books for your next story time.

“There’s No Such Thing as Little”
By LeUyen Pham
Best For: Ages 4 - 8
Rated: 3.00 (Inspiration, Children, Positivity)
Best-selling illustrator of Freckleface Strawberry, LeUyen Pham sets an optimistic tone from the first page of her book, There’s No Such thing as Little. Using the simple die-cut circle technique in every other set of illustrations, Pham is able to show one perception then reveal the truth in the very next illustration. I particularly like the reading/writing pages that say, “A little letter? No, an important letter.” I also like the trip to the museum with, “A little line? No, and inspiring line.” Pham’s positive message is enhanced by the contingent of smiling children smattered throughout the pages.

What’s good: Nice message  focuses on finding joy in life's simple pleasures . 
What’s bad: Very little. This book would be great for kindergarten story time.

“Home Tweet Home”
By Courtney Dicmas
Best For: Ages 3 – 7
Rated: 2.75 (Family, Home, Animals)

Home Tweet Home follows a traditional story telling technique that even young readers will recognize from books such as The Grouchy Ladybug and Are You My Mother? Big brother and sister cave swallow are getting bigger and older. Now they’re tired of sharing a crowded nest with their large family. So they go in search of a better place to live. What they find – a kangaroo’s pouch, the coils of snake, and many other uncomfortable animal backs – leaves them wondering why no place feels like home. I’m sure you can guess where they end up.

What’s good: The vibrant illustrations are great for picture walks with early readers.
What’s bad:
It doesn’t make sense that all of the nest's locations involve the backs of other animals.

“Use your Words, Sophie!
By Rosemary Wells
Best For, Girls: Ages 3 - 7
Rated: 2.5 (New Baby, Language, Jealousy)

If you’re familiar with Rosemary Wells, this book will seem familiar. It is her third featuring Sophie. Use your Words, Sophie! follows Sophie as she tries to cope with a new baby in the family. She draws attention to herself by making up her own language. Using made-up words causes her parents more consternation than necessary – especially when the new baby begins crying. Granny helps Sophie become the family hero by show her how the made-up words are just the remedy for crying fits. Sophie calms the baby and decides the baby's name before the story ends. Young readers will enjoy the humor and the comfortable illustrations.

What’s good: Humor and emotions that are easy for young readers to understand.
What’s bad: This is a tried and true subject matter and Wells doesn’t add much beyond what is already out there.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

New Picture Books Focus on Friends

Little Elliot, Big City
            By Mike Curato
            Best for, Girls: Ages 4 - 8
            Rated: 2.75 (Friendship, Feelings of inadequacy)

            Fans of Melrose and Croc will find some similarities in Little Elliot, Big City. Both stories focus on anthropomorphic animals living alongside humans. In this case, Elliot is a small polka dotted elephant living in 1940’s New York City. He feels alone and left out until he meets a small white mouse. They form a fast friendship and work together to accomplish everything they felt they were too small to do when they were alone. This tale is a pretty straight-forward message of friendship and adventure in a big city. Children will relate to feeling different from those around them and the safety they feel among friends.

What’s good: The illustrations are sophisticated without losing their childish appeal.
What’s bad: Boys may find this book a little too sweet for their tastes.

Izzy & Oscar
By Allison Estes and Dan Stark
Illustrated by Tracy Dockray
Best For: Ages 4 – 8
Rated: 3 (Friendship, Imagination, Pets)

This summer adventure opens as Izzy and her friends embark on a pirate treasure hunt. Izzy is the captain of the surly crew, but some of her friends wonder how she can be a good pirate captain without a pet. Every pirate has a pet and as Izzy and her crew find the spot marked with an X they also find Izzy’s pet. It’s a purple octopus named Oscar. It’s certainly an unorthodox pet which adds to the humor when he sits on her shoulder or they go for a walk. As Oscar grows Izzy knows it would be best if her Octopus were back in the sea. But before they can get to the ocean they find a far better place for Oscar – as the lifeguard in their community pool. It’s a ridiculous tale of friendship, pets and great adventure – perfect for the last days of summer.

What’s good: Filled with humorous situations and likable illustrations.
What’s bad:
Children should understand the absurdity of an octopus as a pet, but who knows?

Orion and the Dark
By Emma Yarlett
Best For: Ages 4 - 8
Rated: 3.5 (Fears, Imagination, Friendship)

Some kids find the dark a scary thing, while others look at it as a big adventure. Orion and the Dark gives readers a bit of both philosophies. Although Orion’s parents tell him there is nothing to be afraid of, he sees the world as full of frightening things. The dark is at the top of the list until one night when Dark pays Orion a little visit. This friendly-ish looking creature takes Orion an adventure in the night – bouncing on beds and flying through space. Dark explains how sounds that seem scary in the night are easily explained in the light. By the end of their adventure Orion understands that Dark can be his friend and he’s not afraid of friends. It’s a great tale for children a little shy of the dark.

What’s good: Wonderful illustrations that will keep children and their parents staring at the pages.
What’s bad: Even with its friendly form, the idea that the dark can come to life may be off-putting to some children.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

New Book Reviews Are Coming!

It has been nearly two years since my last post. Not my last review - just my last post. I've been reviewing books for monthly magazines and city newspapers the entire time. I'm finally ready to begin updating my blog again. Look for new reviews in the coming weeks. I've got a lot ready to post.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

New Site Under Construction

Please browse through the archived reviews, articles and author interviews. Keep your eyes open for a new site. In the meantime, look for new reviews in print or online at Kansas City Parent magazine, Upstate Parent magazine,  Lowcountry Parent magazine and the Post and Courier newspaper.

Thank you for your patience,

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Winter's Tale

New rules, laws and regulations state that I have to make it clear on each review whether the book was supplied free of charge by the publisher, author or illustrator. (The mention on my home page isn't enough.) With the cold snap I began thinking about a book I reviewed for my monthly magazine column. It was not provided as a review copy. As a matter of fact, I read it while I spent a couple hours doing research at a local bookstore. I hope you enjoy.
"Black Dog"
By  Levi Pinfold
For Ages 4 - 8
              What is your biggest fear and how do you face it? In Levi Pinfold’s, "Black Dog" the Hope family’s fears are embodied in a black dog a large, scary black dog. The cover hides any dark side and offers only a beautifully illustrated house tucked into a wintry wood. Turning the pages to see what comes next is only natural.
             When Mr. Hope spots a black dog in the yard he is struck by its large size. As each family member describes what they see, the dog grows larger and larger. It begins as the size of a tiger. Then grows to the size of an elephant. Finally it becomes as large as a Big Jeffy – whatever that is.
             But this story is about confronting fears, not watching them prowl around your yard. Although it’s a little expected (some might say trite) little Small Hope, the baby of the family, decides to see what all the fuss is about. She marches out to the dog and they play chase. As they run, all the "big" fears become silly little concerns that are "nothing to be afraid of." By the time Small returns to the house the big, bad dog is just a lovable little hound.
             The rich color illustrations and black-and-white thumbnail sketches add multiple layers to this imaginative tale. There's only one possible complaint for this great story-time pick. Be sure your children understand not to wander away from their families and confront strange dangers lurking outside their homes.