Negative Cat

img_1530Book: Negative Cat by Sophie Blackall

A couple weeks ago I made my way into a bookstore to start looking for Christmas gift ideas—of course, I ended up coming home with just as many books for myself, including this new picture book. It was on a table of new releases, and had a cover I could not resist picking up. After reading through it, I knew it had to come home with me.

We start with a boy who is willing to make just about any deal with his parents to get a cat: cat care, extra chores, and reading every night—even though he does not really like to read. He goes to the shelter and picks out his perfect cat, but things are less than perfect once he gets him home. Max the cat is a bit naughty. He gets himself into trouble and doesn’t really get along with anyone. Max is a negative cat, and Mom and Dad are about ready to send him back to the shelter. When it comes time for Max to leave, his boy is not going to let him go! He hides in his room, and discovers the secret to winning over Max: reading.

Although not a true story, parts of the story were inspired by real events at an animal shelter in Pennsylvania, where children are invited to come in to read to the cats. In addition to helping children practice and build confidence in their reading, the interaction helps to socialize cats and has lead to some matching with forever homes!

Along with the sweet story here, I really loved the illustrations. They had a little bit of a retro feel to them that reminded me of some of the older picture books I read as a kid. I liked how some of the story was told through text and some through speech bubbles, with some text mixed in with the layout of the page. My favorite were the pages with all the cats at the shelter, each with a fun name and showing a little kitty personality.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Definitive proof that there should be more reading and less other things. Except snacks. More reading, more snacks! 4 paws.”

Room on the Broom

img_1229Book: Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson; Illustrated by Axel Scheffler

Just in time for Halloween, I have another spooky picture book to share before spooky season comes to a close. This one is an especially kid friendly type of spooky, starring a witch but without the usual scares.

As is typical, our witch has a broom, a cat, and a big black witchy hat. She likes to fly in the wind, but has some trouble holding on to her belongs. As she drops items along her journey, she is helped by a variety of new animal friends who then join her for a ride on the broom. After a crash landing and encounter with a hungry dragon, the witch gets a little unexpected help from her new friends. There’s a few good conversation tie ins here—the animals and witch helping each other, being nice to others coming back around to you, or even just that it’s good to have friends (even if you are a witch).

The story is told in rhyming verses, with some nice illustrations to go along. I liked that some of the pages had a single dominant picture, but that there were also some pages with a few frames of pictures, or intermingled pictures and text. The text itself is probably easy enough for early readers, but the rhyming also creates a nice rhythm for a read aloud. Bonus points for being a Halloween themed book that can still be enjoyed by little ones who may be a little too easily spooked!

Boris’s Thoughts: “I don’t think I believe you when you say this is the last of the spooky books.”

The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything

Book: The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams; Illustrated by Megan Lloyd

Today is the first day of fall, and do you know what that means? The official start of spooky season! Fall is definitely my favorite season, both for the spooky fun leading up to Halloween and the cozy feeling that comes after when we start to hunker down before winter. To kick off spooky season, I wanted to start with a Halloween classic that I just added to my home library.

Meet the Little Old Lady: she is independent and brave, and perhaps a little witchy looking. She lives in a cottage in the woods, and goes out collecting things in the forest. On her way home, she meets some spooky things: clothes that move and have their own sound effects. She becomes increasingly nervous, but never afraid. Although there is a scary pumpkin head that spooks her a bit, in the end she is able to stand up and say, “I am not afraid of you!” This, of course, leads into a fun and happy ending for all involved.

I always love looking for the lesson that can be found in a children’s story—themes like friendship, being yourself, and general life advice. Even when it’s couched in silliness, there’s always something to draw out. While it’s perhaps not quite overt, I love the presentation of bravery here. The Little Old Lady is not afraid of anything—she immediately stands up to the clothes items and says that she is not afraid. Then, the pumpkin head comes along and sends her running with a loud “Boo!” But she bounces back: bravery is not about never being afraid, it’s about moving forward even when things get scary.

Including the sound effects for each item she encounters on her journey gives this some good opportunities to make this into a fun read aloud. With a relatively small amount of dialogue, it’s also an easy occasion to add in a funny voice. There’s also a nice chance for a surprise when getting to the pumpkin head’s “Boo!” near the end of the book. The story structure also makes this a good one for early readers. There are some nice repetitive elements, with the listing of each item she finds and then begins following her home.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I am the Little Kitty Who is Not Afraid of Anything. Except the vacuum—that thing is just freaky. 3 paws.”

Crenshaw

img_0425Book: Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Date Read: August 8 to 12, 2021

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This was my Unread Shelf Project pick for the month of August: a book bought from an independent bookstore. This was another category that was a little broad for me. For several years, I have been making a strong, pretty consistent effort to “shop local” as much as possible. It helps that I have a pretty phenomenal independent bookstore in my city. With a to read list as long as mine, it would be nearly impossible for me to determine the purchase location of all my books—but I would bet that 80% of those acquired in the past 5 years have been from independent bookstores. To make things easy though, I decided to pick from a specific collection: a book acquired from a store on my “Michigan Booksellers” tote bag (I cannot remember if I have written about this before, but have a post planned for the end of this month with more information!).

This qualifier narrowed my list down quite a bit, and I decided to pick the book that I thought would be a quick, light read. I was only half right there: quick, but definitely heavier than I had anticipated. This one definitely packs a punch. This is what I get for not revisiting the summary blurb on the back before making a decision.

Jackson is an interesting kid—a bit particular, a bit too old for his age. He is contrasted by Crenshaw, the large imaginary cat that he has not seen for several years. Jackson battles with himself over Crenshaw, while also trying to deal with some serious issues in his family: hunger, illness, and possible homelessness. There are many aspects of this book that I can praise. Jackson’s voice reads really well as a kid, albeit a kid who has had to grow up a little too fast. It is a well-written narrative that deals excellently with some really tough subject matter. Yet… I wanted something a little more from it.

I think where this fell short for me was with the character of Crenshaw. I kept hoping for something to happen with him, but for the most part, his role in the book was just to exist. While I can see that perhaps his mere existence being important is part of the point, I still think there was some missed potential for this story.

Boris’s Thoughts: “A giant imaginary cat might be nice, but not nearly as nice as a giant real cat like me. 3 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for August

  • Books Read: 4
  • Books Acquired: 2
  • Total Unread Books: 278

Curious Critters Michigan

Book: Curious Critters Michigan by David FitzSimmons

I picked up this fun board book at the Ann Arbor Street Fair this year. The photographer and author had a booth that included several of his striking prints, along with a nice selection of children’s books. He had a lovely Curious Critters picture book with more lengthy text, as well as several varieties of board books like this one. Each of the board books featured animals that can be found in different states around the US.

Although a fairly simple concept, these books are well put together and a nice representation of wildlife in Michigan. The focus is on “critters” versus all animals, which I think makes the animal selection more interesting. While there are other notable animals in the state, these are the creatures that you might see in your backyard or around town. The Michigan book includes a variety of birds and insects, along with a few other small animals like turtles, opossums, and snakes.

Each creature has a short kind-friendly description, usually with a distinctive behavior or sound associated with the animals. The real stand out here though is the photographs. The photos are fully colored and detailed, with most of them either life-size or larger. In our first read-through, my niece was fascinated by the bugs—things she sees regularly, but would rarely have the opportunity to inspect up close in real life.

Minka’s Thoughts: “They included some of my favorites, but left out the most important curious critter of all: ME. 2 paws.”

Little Feminists

img_9808Book: Little Feminist Books by Emily Kleinman, Illustrated by Lydia Ortiz

Being a wide-ranging bookworm can be a funny thing. My shelves are filled with such a variety of books that pretty much anything seems fair game. So, despite being a full-blown adult with cats instead of children, I was thrilled to get these Little Feminist baby books for my birthday this year.

This is a boxed set of Little Feminist books from Mudpuppy Books, including four board books with individual themes: Artists, Leader, Activists, and Pioneers. Each book features four women, with a kid-friendly explanation of their accomplishments and impact. There is also a cartoon illustration of each woman, all with bright colors and some distinctive accessories related to their inclusion.

I thought the author did a great job of choosing women from diverse backgrounds for inclusion. Some more traditionally known women like Amelia Earhart and Rosa Parks were included along with less familiar names like Malala Yousafzai, Billie Jean King, and Indira Gandhi. While I am definitely planning to hold on to this set for myself, I think this is one that I will have to gift to a few people in the future!

Boris’s Thoughts: “Boys should be feminists too. Girl power! 4 paws.”

The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig

Book: The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas

I am sure I have talked about this before, but I have a fascination with fairy tales. Of course, I feel I need to say that I am by no means an expert or even particularly well read when it comes to fairy tales—which is actually part of what I find so intriguing. There are hundreds of these stories that “everyone knows,” but there are so many different versions of each that not everyone really knows the story in the same way. It’s easy to say that the originals have the fairest claim to legitimacy, and while there is truth to that, I am not wholly convinced. Where do you draw the line when an interpretation of a story becomes more popular or well known than its source?

That is quite the lead in for a fairy tale adaptation that is neither well known nor anything like the original story. This is a book left on the shelf at my parents’ house from a Scholastic Book Fair long ago. I have a vague memory of it being read aloud to one of my elementary school classes. Really, I had not thought about it in a very long time until my cousin’s daughter pulled it off that shelf at a family party a few years ago and asked me to read it to her. From what I remember, we both enjoyed it, sitting on the landing upstairs while the party continued on below without us. It was returned to the shelf again until recently, when I stopped to look it over while visiting. A few days before that, I had been reading something online about non-traditional adaptations of fairy tales. It seemed a serendipitous moment, as I had not yet chosen a picture book for this month. I snatched the book up to read at home with the kitties.

I think this one even pushes the limits of being a non-traditional adaptation. The original tale of The Three Little Pigs seems like a familiar one, but not one that I can recall a specific source for. While I am sure that I had it in a story collection at some point, no particular storybook comes to mind. I did a little Google research to find that the most commonly known version may come from a Disney short, but that there are differences in that story from the generally agreed upon original from the mid-1800s. I’m sure you are shocked. While certainly a stretch from either story, this version takes elements from both. As I am sure you have inferred from the title, the tables are turned a bit here, with some cuddly little Wolves being picked on my a big bully of a Pig.

The story starts similarly to the original Pigs tale, with the Wolves being sent off by their mother to build a home of their own. Continuing along those lines, they begin to create houses from building materials they get from several other animals that they happen upon. Luckily for the Wolves, these are rather more sturdy materials than those of the Little Pigs: the first house built by the Little Wolves is made of brick. When the Big Bad Pig comes along, he threatens the Wolves and claims he will huff and puff and blow their house in. Of course, we all learned from the original tale that huffing and puffing is not effective against bricks. Unfortunately for the Little Wolves, the Pig also owns a sledgehammer. We have veered off course from the story you were expecting, perhaps?

The story continues with escalating building materials and destruction, coming to something of a twist ending—I do not want to give too much away, but I will say at least that everyone has the chance to live happily ever after. Overall, this is a cute story that will definitely get some laughs out of both children and adults. As I said above, this works well as a read aloud. I can see this being a great addition to a school unit on fairy tales, at any age. However, I think the ideal age group for this one would be middle elementary, around 7 or 8. Although I think younger children would still enjoy the story, I am not sure that they would fully appreciate the “twisted fairy tale” aspect.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I don’t know if I fully appreciate the twisted fairytale aspect. These animals are crazy.”

Stuart Little

img_5956Book: Stuart Little by E.B. White

Date Read: April 12 to 13, 2021

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

Back in September 2020, I wrote some about audio books, sharing that I have decided the format is a good fit for revisiting books that I know I have read. I have mostly been accessing these through the free library at my job, as I do not want to invest much in purchasing audio versions of books I already own. I tore through many of the books last summer, and things have fallen off some during 2021. While I am exploring other options for access to audio, I have only picked up a few remaining titles I can still access for free. In April this year, I decided that I needed a little something to listen to while going for a walk. I decided on Stuart Little, as it is one that I know I read long ago, but could remember very little about.

I had some mixed feelings on this one. I think it started with a fine concept for a children’s story, and thought that there were some really cute and engaging chapters. Each chapter seems to function as its own little short story, with the chapters then connected together to tell an overarching story of Stuart’s life. Many of these were fun or silly, most with an element of adventure as well. However, there were a few that fell short for me, especially later in the book after Stuart leaves home. I felt like there was some potential in some of the stories, but was ultimately unsatisfied with how things played out.

For me, the biggest issue is that the story feels incomplete. It does not have a wrapped up ending, the book just stops in the middle of what it seems should be Stuart’s greatest adventure. Stuart is driving north—he is in search of his friend, but has no ideas of where to look or really a clear idea of how he might find her. He stops to have a conversation with a man about the direction he is heading, and then the book is over. Perhaps a vague and open ending like that might be viewed as hopeful in a book for adults, but it really does not fit with the rest of the book; any deeper meaning would certainly go over the heads of children in the glossed over final interaction.

Minka’s Thoughts: “What a mean cat that was! I may be a troublemaker, but at least I’m not MEAN. This book gives a bad name to all cats! Who would write such terrible things? 1 paw!”

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

img_9120Book: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett, Illustrated by Ron Barrett

I had not yet picked out a book for this month, when I happened upon a children’s literature puzzle in a bookish group on Facebook. The post was a Children’s Book Emoji Pictionary, which included many popular or classic books. While it appeared that most people did not have much trouble with most of the titles, it struck me that there were a few that consistently gave people a hard time. One of them was Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (represented by clouds, an umbrella, and a plate of spaghetti). The consensus in the comments seemed to be that most knew of the movie, but did not realize that it was inspired by a book.

With that in mind, I had to pull it off my shelf to revisit. This is one of those books that I remember loving when I was younger, but did not have my own copy of until I picked it up as an adult. I remember this as one of the highly sought-after books in my elementary school library. The book is set up to look a bit like a comic book, with the text in boxes and some pages showcasing multiple panels of pictures. The story is set up as a tall-tale told by a grandfather after a messy pancake incident over breakfast. While obviously intended to be silly, the story itself is fairly straightforward. It is complemented perfectly by the illustrations, which add an extra layer of comedy to the already goofy story.

The reading level of this one is a bit on the high end for a picture book, with an official recommendation on the back cover for ages 9-11. I think this is a good fit both for difficulty and for content. While I think there is a silliness to the story that could be appreciated by some younger children, I think some of the story might be lost on kids that were much younger than that target range. Still, I think this could be good as a read aloud for perhaps 3rd-5th grade students, and could possibly be a good format for discussion on text features with students who are a little older.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Did someone say meatballs? You have my attention. 4 paws.”

Bad Kitty

img_7749Book: Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel

This unique take on an alphabet book is great fun for all—cat lovers and deniers alike. (I refuse to believe that anyone cat really be a cat hater, they just have not found their right cat yet!) Unlike some books that fall into the “alphabet book” category, this one has a reasonable story to go along with it, and embeds several alphabetical lists into Kitty’s story. This is definitely one of my top picks for alphabet themed books.

Anyone who has known a cat personally can understand where things began to go downhill, when Kitty’s owners ran out of food and only had an alphabetical list of healthy foods to offer her. She then took her revenge on the world in her own little romp through the alphabet. Luckily, her people came through with some more appropriate alliterative alphabetical food offerings that put Kitty back on the path to be a good girl.

This book probably works best as a read aloud, as the alphabet book concept is more appealing to a younger age group, but some of the silly things listed push the required reading level up a bit. The story, especially the alphabet lists, includes a nice combination of text and pictures to make the lettered items stand out. Personally, I love the cat reaction pictures that are included along with the alphabetical food lists—they are exactly how I imagine one of mine would react if we could hold a conversation about what was for dinner!

Minka’s Thoughts: “Is this how I am supposed to do it?”