The Boy of a Thousand Faces

img_8077At 48 pages, this is not quite a children’s picture book, but not quite a novel either. Something in between: perhaps a children’s novella? I am a big fan of Brian Selznik. I love the style of his novels and the way he combines words with illustrations to tell a story. This is a little different than his longer works, in that he uses the pictures to supplement this story rather than to continue driving the plot. However, the pictures are no less essential here than in his novels.

Being born on Halloween, it is no surprise that Alonzo has a fascination with monsters. His love is fueled by the late-night horror film show hosted by Mr. Shadow, where he discovers the greatness of Lon Cheney. Alonzo is inspired by the films, which turns into a dream to become the “boy of a thousand faces.” I love that his character has a dream that is outside of what might be considered normal. Alonzo goes beyond “I want to be a movie star” to actually working on and creating something new. His goal is not to be famous, but in the creation of something to be enjoyed by others.

The reciprocal relationship between Alonzo and Mr. Shadow is interesting as well. Alonzo is inspired by Mr. Shadow and his show, reaching out to him when he is beginning to feel disillusioned with his dream. At the same time, Mr. Shadow believed that nobody was interested when his show ended, but was inspired by Alonzo to “bring back” something that he loved in a new way.

I love this as a tribute to traditional horror films, special effects, and Lon Cheney. I think it is also a great introduction to the horror genre. It is a bit creepy, but not something that would truly scare most children. It’s perfect for kids who might have an interest in things that are a bit dark seeming, that might seem a little weird to others.

Boris’s thoughts: “Hmmm… dark and weird… I approve. 3 paws.”

First Day Jitters

img_7982Two weeks ago, I shared a book that is a favorite beginning of the year read aloud from one of my librarian friends from work (Miss Smith’s Incredible Storybook). I decided that I would ask the same of the librarian from the other school where I work, and she introduced me to this book. While it’s a little late in the school year for the first day, I think everyone can relate a bit with the First Day Jitters.

This is a fun little story about Sarah Jane Hartwell, who needs to get up for her first day at her new school. There is an ensuing argument between Mr. Hartwell, who is understanding but insistent, and Sarah Jane, who is imagining the horrors of her new school: “I don’t know anybody, and it will be hard, and… I just hate it.” It’s certainly a feeling that everyone can relate to at some point! Sarah Jane is pushed through her morning routine and taken to school, where her new principal swoops in to welcome her. This leads up to the twist at the end, where we discover, of course, that Sarah Jane Hartwell is the new teacher.

I suppose it could be argued that the plot line is a bit cliche, but we are talking about a children’s book here. I love the idea behind it, and definitely relive those first day jitters with the start of every school year. Since many younger students already have a hard time realizing that their teachers do not actually live at the school, I think it’s a fun way to share with them that they are not alone in their worries at the beginning of the school year.

My favorite thing about this one? The illustrations. They are fun, and also add to the story. Throughout the story, Mr. Hartwell and the family dog attempt to move Sarah Jane along in her preparations for the day. All the while, Sarah Jane and her faithful cat are adamant in their refusals. The dog attempts to pull the blankets off her head, while the cat bunkers down for a fight. Perfect.

Boris’s thoughts: “I had no idea there was a book about you. 4 paws.”

Miss Smith’s Incredible Storybook

img_7899This book is a fairly recent discovery for me, within the last few years. I saw it for the first time when it arrived as a new book in our school library. It’s a fun story, and the illustrations are awesome. This one is a bit higher reading level than many of the other children’s books that I have posted, but makes a great read aloud across elementary grades.

It begins, unfortunately, how many stories begin: with a student bored at school. However, then enters the new teacher: Miss Smith, with her spiky red hair, leather jacket, and wild dresses. The day goes on as expected, until story time, when Miss Smith takes out her storybook, which has the power to truly bring stories to life. As a total book nerd and a psychologist, I love this: the teacher who can make reading interesting and come alive… but in this case, by actually making the storybook characters come alive. Suddenly school is interesting! Who wouldn’t want to come to school every day to be pulled into a new an exciting world? Of course, at some point, this all has to go terribly wrong. Things go awry when the principal steps in, resulting in storybook characters escaping and wreaking havoc until Miss Smith returns to save the day.

This is the first of a few stories featuring Miss Smith and her storybook. All follow a similar theme: stories coming to life, with varying adventures and interactions with known and not-so-known fictional characters. One of the things I appreciate in these books is the detail in the illustrations. Unlike some recurring children’s characters, Miss Smith and her students are not always wearing the same clothes, and things vary from day to day. I also love the relatively small detail of the buttons that Miss Smith wears on her jacket– in this first book, she has a button for The Clash, but this changes in the other stories. While it seems like a minor thing, I love when there are small things like that to look for in a book.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Short and fun? I suppose I can get behind that. 4 paws.”

Elephant and Piggie

img_7573It feels a bit like cheating to have two children’s books from the same author in short succession. But this is my blog, and I make the rules, so I am going to do it anyway.

Piggie is a free spirit. She has an imagination and likes an adventure. Elephant Gerald is more practical, and a bit more cautious. He doesn’t see the world in quite the way that Piggie does, but they are still best friends.

These books are super fun, and great for beginning readers. They are set up in a comic book like style, relying on pictures and speech bubbles to tell the story. There are many Elephant and Piggie books, and I have not come close to reading them all. However, I enjoyed all those that I have come across. Many of them have a theme of friendship or lesson to learn, but there are also some that are simply fun. In some, the characters speak not just to each other, but also directly to the reader.

The book pictured, Today I Will Fly, was the first of these published. Piggie has decided that she is going to fly. Gerald, of course, knows that pigs cannot fly. Ridiculous! So Piggie knows she is going to need some help. I read this book to a classroom for First and Second Grade students this spring as part of our Reading Month celebration. The kids went wild for it.

Boris’s thoughts: “At least this one did not come with that creepy mascot thing. 4 paws.”

Dragon’s Fat Cat

img_6116Dav Pilkey has become quite popular with several of his characters (Captain Underpants, Dog Man, etc.), but I don’t think there will ever be one that I love quite as much as Dragon.

This is one of five books chronicling the (mis)adventures of Dragon. Whether he is learning how to take care of a new pet, celebrating a holiday, or just trying to get by in his daily life, Dragon has a way of getting things a bit mixed up. He is a little too easily spooked for Halloween, buys too much food at the grocery store to fit into his car, and is really not sure what can be done about the smelly yellow puddle problem that comes along with having a pet. However, he always knows where to turn to get a little help with his problems, and things end up working out for him in the end. He is a fun, silly character that has a few laughs for both kids and the adults that are reading with them.

Of course, I may be biased because we are both obviously cat people.

These are great for early readers–they have the feel of a chapter book, but the fun of a picture book. Each book is also broken up into shorter stories, but text is lower level and there are tons of great illustrations. I love the little “extras” that get added in to the story through the pictures.

As is my habit, I realize that I have again reviewed a whole series rather than an individual book. However, I’m going to stand by this as fair. As children’s books, these all go together fairly seamlessly. I certainly would have a hard time recommending one over the others. While I could probably narrow down a favorite story in each book, differentiating from there would be difficult. The four books that I have read each have a specific focus (Dragon’s Fat Cat, Dragon Gets By, Dragon’s Halloween, and Dragon’s Christmas), and each of the four books that I have read fit so well with their unique subject.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Are you trying to imply something? I’m not fat, I’m big boned! I’ll give a little credit though, since I guess that one cat does look a bit like me. 2 paws.”

One Crazy Summer

Date Read: March 1, 2018 to March 8, 2018img_5861

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This was the selection for the “One Book, One City” program in Grand Rapids for 2018. Grand Rapids Public Schools and Grand Rapids Public Library partner on the project that provides a copy of the book to all 5th grade students in the city, as well as classroom resources for teachers and an online community for students to participate in. It is an incredible project, and one that I have seen students truly take off with. This year, students were encouraged to participate in an online classroom and blog project, where they answered questions posted throughout the month and had opportunities to interact with students from other schools. Several schools that were active with the online resources were invited to an event to meet the author and talk about her book. Being a part of the schools in Grand Rapids (albeit not a classroom teacher), I often find myself compelled to read the books I see becoming popular with students. While the 5th graders in my city were reading and marking up their personal copies of this book, I decided to took advantage of my access to the school library.

I suppose to summarize my thoughts in a sentence: What a great choice of books for this project. There are so many great conversations that can be started from this book: family dynamics, sibling relationships, racism, history, social justice, independence, growing up, poetry, personal identity. I love how many different paths a book can take you in. One difficulty I can see with this, however, comes from a teaching perspective. Because there are so many dynamics, you’re really only scratching the surface of most of it. While I am familiar with the history of the time period, many of the students in the target age range are not. I suppose you could see this as both positive and negative: most students who encounter this book today probably know about as much about the Black Panthers as Delphine and her sisters did when they were on their way to the community center.

I suppose it is worth pointing out the probably cliche, but probably perfect for the story, use of the unattainable: Disneyland. As Delphine and her sisters depart for California, she is saving the money that their Pa had given them, planning to take her younger siblings to Disneyland. Of course, when they arrive in Oakland to meet their mother, one of the first things she does is confiscate their money– to which Delphine protests: they are going to Disneyland! It is the fantasy highlight of their trip. As an adult reader, I can see how unrealistic the expectation of Disneyland truly is. The amount of money given to them surely was not enough, and although in California, Disneyland is nearly 400 miles from Oakland. At least the girls get to see the Golden Gate Bridge, and visit Chinatown. Perhaps though, we have the perfect metaphor for their whole experience. Undoubtedly, the girls were heading to Oakland expected their mother to be their fantasy mother. Cecile falls far short of that, but at the same time, I think in the end they did get something from that relationship– just not what they had been expecting.

Boris’s thoughts: “Black Panthers? I approve. 4 paws.”

Walk Two Moons

img_5767Date Read: February 9 to February 13

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars!

My first encounter with this book was in middle school, when it was relatively new. My best friend absolutely loved it, and told me that I HAD TO READ IT. For some reason, I didn’t listen to her. I wish I had.

Reading this as an adult, this is everything that I want to see in children’s/young adult literature. There’s a sort of adventure, some fun quirky characters, a bit of mystery, some beautiful writing, and the all important moment of self-discovery. Sal is surprisingly introspective, yet closed off at the same time. She has a unique method of coping, which I think is true and relatable for kids– they are still making sense of the world, and are not always ready for what life throws their way.

One of my reading quirks is that often when I read a book that I very much liked, I will go look for its negative reviews. I want to understand what it is that people did not like about something I found great. The two main complaints I found were that: the “twist” in the story is predictable, and that Sal’s friend Phoebe (who is a main character) is annoying and not likable. I actually agree with both of these things, but think these are good for the target demographic of this book. Is it great literature? Maybe not (although I would at least call it good). But it is great children’s literature.

While the “twist” might be obvious to adult or even teenage readers, I think it works for the younger audience. This would be a great book for reading with 4th or 5th grade, even up through middle school. The somewhat vague but hinted at story of Sal’s mother is a good opportunity for less experienced readers to speculate on and make their own predictions. Along the same lines, although Phoebe is rather annoying, she is sympathetic. She may behave badly, but she’s also experiencing something that she really doesn’t know how to deal with. We are certainly not viewing Phoebe at her best. And yet, Sal is still her friend, and she feels for her when the “birds of sadness” begin to circle. I think it’s good to encounter characters that you don’t like, especially when they are in some way relatable. You don’t have to like Phoebe to feel bad for her, which I think is a lesson that many kids need to hear.

I also like to collect quotes from books. There were 8 from this book that I wrote down, which is more than usual. I don’t feel it quite necessary to share them all, but here are a few highlights:

“You can’t keep the birds of sadness from flying over your head, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair.”

“Maybe dying could be normal and terrible.”

“It seems to me that we can’t explain all the truly awful things in the world like war and murder and brain tumors, and we can’t fix these things, so we look at the frightening things that are closer to us and we magnify them until they burst open.”

Boris’s thoughts: “Lightweight, cozy snuggle book. 4 paws.”