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.”

The Cricket in Times Square

img_7901Book: The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden

To follow up last week’s post on a book I am still unsure was a new or re-read, I have another book from my childhood—one that I can saw with certainty I have read before. How can I be so sure? I can tell you when I read it: in the fall of 1995 as a read aloud in Mrs. Lint’s Fourth Grade class. I was so inspired by the story of Chester Cricket that I insisted on dressing up as him for Halloween that year. My mom had to spray paint some fairy wings black, and I glued a bunch of googly eyes to a mask to make insect compound eyes. I am sure not a single person knew what the costume was supposed to be, but I was so proud of it. Oh the joys of being a weird kid.

Of course, that was many years ago. Obviously it is a book I enjoyed as a kid, but not one that I thought about often. Until recently: last year, it was in a pile of books to discard at the school library, as the cover was damaged and no students had checked it out in several years. I added in onto my bookshelf then, and shortly after discovered that it was among the free audio books I could access through my district online library. At only 134 pages and roughly 2.5 hours audio, this was a nice fit for a long walk on a winter day. My only regret is that the story would have been a better fit for an evening stroll in late summer or fall.

I am not quite going to claim that I loved this story, but I think that it speaks to its appeal for children by the fact that seeing it on a shelf triggered such a detailed and specific memory. I suspect the idea of the friendship between different animals held a high appeal for me. And as an adult, I still think the idea of a cat and mouse becoming friends in New York City is fitting. I did think the ending was a bit sad, with Chester becoming burnt out with something he loved and leaving his new friends to journey home—but the tiniest bit of research led to me the fact that this is the first book in a series! While I do not now feel the need to continue, I imagine that would have been valuable information to my Fourth Grade self.

Even with the somewhat sad ending, I think there is a good message there for kids: sometimes we get tired of the things we like, and we might need a break. Overall, I thought this was an entertaining story with a cozy feel to it, and a good fit reading difficulty and interest wise for middle grades. It is a little dated, having been written in the 60s, but I think it has aged fairly well.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I don’t know if I’m cultured enough to have friends that would be so fun to chase. 3 paws.”

Butts Are Everywhere

img_6759Book: Butts Are Everywhere by Jonathan Stutzman

I first saw this book in an Instagram post from Penguin Publishing, and knew immediately that it was going to be a must have coming into the holiday season. It was in consideration for all the kids on my list—but I decided to mix things up some for the others, and only purchased this one for my siblings’ kids. (Honestly though, this is a gift for my brother just as much as for my nephew, right?) My nephews are 4 and 2; my niece is 3. For them, a butt is just about the funniest thing on the planet. Although none of them are old enough to read, they were delighted to see the butt illustrations on the cover of the book when they opened their gifts.

This gem is an ode to butts everywhere: the small butts, the smooth butts, the large butts, and the furry butts. There are just so many types of butts that can be discussed! Obviously, there is plenty of silliness and laughs abound with the topic of butts. There is some educational information mixed in along the way, with a list of many other names used for butts, as well as some fun facts about the many purposes of butts in both humans and animals. Of course, no book about butts would be complete without mention of toots. Just like butts, there are many different types of toots—and all of them are perfectly normal, even if they do sometimes stink.

In addition to being a book that kids can laugh along to, this could be a good start to a conversation about bodies and body positivity. The book celebrates all types of butts: every size, color, and shape that they come in. The book wraps up with a reminder that even though we sometimes laugh about them, our butts are an important part of us; and you should never forget: Your butt is awesome!

Boris’s Thoughts: “You are so immature.”

Old MacDonald Had A Truck

img_6773Book: Old MacDonald Had A Truck by Steve Goetz

My discovery of this book came out of a bad habit: I often browse the discount section for children’s books that look interesting, and if the price seems right I will buy a few without really thoroughly looking at them. I figure these are great things to have on hand for gifts, and although I would love to personally pick out a book for every occasion, there are times when it’s nice to have something on hand. Knowing that the holidays were coming up, I grabbed this one primarily based on the title and a quick glance at the illustrations.

A few days later, I took a closer look at the books I had picked up to see what might be good fits for Christmas, and gave this one a more careful look—the next day I headed back to the bookstore to pick up another copy. At first glance, this is a play on the familiar “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” song, with most of the text following the pattern of the verses. However, rather than going through a list of animals, the song goes through all the machinery owned by Old MacDonald: an excavator, bulldozer, and many others. Rather than animal noises, each piece of machinery is paired with its function, with a dig dig here or a push push there. It’s great fun for kids interested in vehicles or machines, but also has some other interesting features.

To go along with the different vehicles included, the author occasionally makes a play on the “E-I-E-I-O” part of the song, substituting an appropriate “O” rhyme that matches the equipment. I especially enjoyed the “E-I-E-I-SLOW” to go along with the steamroller. There is also a double story here for those who give more than a cursory glance at the illustrations. As each of the machines are being introduced, we can see that Old MacDonald is working on a construction project on his farm—leading up to the appearance of the truck from the title, which happens to be a racing stunt truck ready for the course that he has built!

Minka’s Thoughts: “Old MacDonald had a… cat? ME-I-ME-I-OW. I am poet!”

City of Ember

img_6662Book: City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

Read: March 2016

One of the kids that I buy books for each Christmas is good about giving me requests. I usually do not even need to ask—he will find me at one of our fall get-togethers to let me know what he is interested in right now, or sometimes even to request a specific book. He started middle school this year, and told me that he is looking for something new. He asked if I knew about any books that are “kind of like Harry Potter, but not really because magic and stuff like that isn’t important.” Sounded like a bit of a tall order to me, but I told him I would think about it.

So, the first step for me was thinking about what is important about Harry Potter when you take out the “magic and stuff”—friendship, choosing your path, fighting for what’s right, working together to make a difference, and, of course, at least a little adventure. Some of these are common elements in much intermediate and young adult fiction, so my challenge was to find an appropriate combination in a story that will grab his interest. Nothing came to mind outright, so I decided to look for inspiration in the substantive children’s section at one of my local bookstores. I found the answer there when I spotted a book from a series that I read a few years ago from my school’s library.

This is the first book in a “trilogy plus prequel” series, but I think works well as a standalone novel as well. The story centers on Lina and Doon, two 12-year-old acquaintances with a vision of saving their struggling city, and to a lesser extent Lina’s younger sister Poppy. I would call this light science fiction and semi-dystopian—the world built here is not tremendously different than our own, although it is in much more unusual circumstances. In Ember, there is no natural light. The city runs on electricity, but the citizens are beginning to have increasing difficulty keeping things running smoothly.

Doon is interested in the generators and finding a way to save the town—Lina is concerned, but not so sure about what can be done. When Lina finds part of a document that appears to be left by the builders of the city, the two begin an investigation that may lead to a solution for their town. Of course, along the way they encounter the number one obstacle of all young protagonists: adults who are concerned with their own agenda, or fear the change that is suggested by the younger generation.

Boris’s Thoughts: “No lights? No sunny spot on the couch to sit in? This is not going to work for me. 1 paw.”