Friday, September 30, 2011

Book Review: Wiley & Grampa's Creature Features, by Kirk Scroggs (Little, Brown, 2006)

 Recommended for ages 8-12

The Wiley & Grampa books take the sting out of scary books for kids by making them hilarious and gross. They got in early on the 'potty humor makes boys read' trend that I have seen time and again, but author Kirk Scroggs gets it, and he writes well.

The stories revolve around young Wiley, a boy who lives with his grandmother and grandfather, in what appears to be "good ole boy country". Wiley and his grandfather loves Pork Cracklins and monster trucks, and his grandmother is always after them to finish chores. Somehow, Wiley and Grampa always end up in trouble with the supernatural.

In the first book, Dracula vs. Grampa at the Monster Truck Spectacular, Wiley and Grampa sneak out to go to a monster truck show, despite Gramma's telling them that with the storm coming, no one is going any where. They meet Dracula himself, and get the sneaking suspicion that Dracula's very interested in Gramma, who just happens to resemble Drac's dead wife. If that isn't enough to entice readers, there are monster trucks. That run on blood.

In Grampa's Zombie BBQ, Wiley, Grampa and Gramma are having barbecue and Gramma's making her famous honey paprika barbecue sauce. When a horde of zombies shows up and shows an appetite for Gramma's food, all is fine - until the food runs out, leaving Wiley and his grandparents to fend for themselves. But can the lunch lady and her toxic beet borscht save the day?
The books are great for younger readers who are still getting into the swing of chapter books, for readers who want a good laugh, or readers who want their monsters a little less threatening. Wiley and his family are funny, and they are never really in any danger, giving more skittish readers reassurance. The books are illustrated with blackand white sketches on every page and the characters are drawn as exaggerated, caricature-like people.

There are ten Wiley & Grampa books available, the last of which came out in 2009. Kirk Scroggs' website does not shy away from this series at all; rather, they are front and center on the page. Mr. Scroggs has links to each of the books and features a sneak peak of each of them, and he also links to his Picasa album so visitors can view pictures from his author appearances. A Fun & Games area of the website offers games, printables (including "Crackpot Snapshot", also featured at the end of each book, where the reader has to find the differences between two versions of the same picture), and wallpaper.  

Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Review: Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So Popular Party Girl by Rachel Renee Russell (Aladdin, 2010)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Popular Party Girl has been hailed as "Wimpy Kid for girls", and I'm inclined to agree. The book is writtten in similar format - a middle-schooler's journal - and is complete with illustrations and "OMG!" moments in a pre-teen's life. Nikki, the protagonist, is not the slacker that Wimpy Kid Greg is, but is definitely not in the cool crowd. She and her friends Chloe and Zoey wish they could be in the CCP (Cute, Cool and Popular) crowd, but Nikki's nemesis, Mackenzie - a spoiled, rich, mean girl - will do anything and everything to ruin Nikki's life - including canceling the school Halloween dance just to make Nikki look bad. Nikki and her friends need to pull together to make it happen, and Nikki hopes to get the attention of her crush, Brandon Roberts. The only trouble is, Mackenzie has her sights set on Brandon, too.

The book is fun. Nikki is a vibrant narrator, who speaks fluent middle-school - girls will love her. She writes from a very female point of view, as opposed to the more gender-friendly Wimpy Kid, so I don't know if boys will get on board with the series (especially as this book has a purple cover). The black and white drawings make you believe you are looking at a 'tween girl's diary, as do the script and handwriting fonts. All around, a fun book with a spunky heroine that girls will enjoy - and grown-up girls will laugh along with the more cringe-worthy memories of their own middle school years.

The Dork Diaries website features information on the Dork Diaries books and has a countdown clock for the next book's release. There is a link to the music inspired by the book, and the Nikki has a blog where she recaps memories (from the books), links fan videos, and features fun contests and printables. There is additional content if you link through to Nikki's Facebook page.

Book Review: The Time Warp Trio: Knights of the Kitchen Table, by Jon Scieszka (illustrated by Lane Smith) (Viking Penguin, 1991)

Recommended for ages 8-12

Knights of the Round Table is the first book in the hugely popular Time Warp Trio series, by Caldecott award-winning author Jon Scieszka. Knights introduces us to Joe Arthur and his friends Sam and Fred. Joe, an amateur magician, receives a magical book (later known as The Book), from his magician uncle, Joe the Magnificent, for his ninth birthday. The Book has magical powers that Joe the Magnificent was unable to unlock, but Joe and his friends manage to transport through time, ending up in King Arthur's Camelot, where they save the land from a fire-breathing dragon and a damsel-eating giant.

The successful author-illustrator teamwork between Scieszka and Lane Smith is here, and Smith's black and white drawings bring the characters hilarioiusly alive throughout the book. Jon Scieszka's fast-paced dialogue will keep the attention of boys and girls alike. Scieszka's Time Warp Trio books inspired the animated series on Discovery Kids Network and has spawned an additional book series based on the show. His initiative, Guys Read, is committed to increasing literacy and the love of books in boys. There are 16 books in the original Time Warp Trio series, all running between 50-75 pages - a great length for a resistant reader or a reader interested in a fun, short story.

Book Review: Among the Hidden, by Margaret Peterson Haddix (Simon & Schuster, 2000)

Recommended for ages 9-14

Luke has never had a friend from school come to visit - he has never been to school. He has never had a birthday party. He is a Shadow Child, an illegal third child in a society that allows families to have only two children. If the Population Police discover him, they will arrest his parents and kill him.

When the government seizes part of his father's farmland for a housing development for the wealthy Barons, Luke loses what little freedom he had. Completely relegated to the indoors, Luke is unable to even eat at the same table with his family, for fear of someone seeing him at the table. He spends his days in his hidden attic room, daring to look out the window every now and then, and one day, discovers that he is not the only Shadow Child in the area. Luke befriends Jen, a Shadow Child of a government official, who uses the Web to connect with other Shadow Children; together, they are planning to rally in front of the President's house and demand to be taken out of the shadows. When she invites Luke to come, he finds himself faced with a choice: continue living in the shadows or risk his life to be free?

Among the Hidden is the first in the seven-book Shadow Children series and has one numerous awards, including selection as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, YALSA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, and ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. It is a strong piece of post-apocalyptic fiction that will keep young teens riveted. I was amazed at where Haddix went in places - the people living in this world have a difficult life and she never shies away from it and yet, makes this universe a little too uncomfortably real. She speaks to her readers like they are young adults, never pandering to them and illustrating that life is rife with tough choices.

There is a discussion guide for Among the Hidden featured on the author's website at Visitors to the site can also find out more about the author and her appearances, and for anyone interested in writing a report about her, she offers a "report help" section where she also takes the time to thank her readers for the honor.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Book Review: Aliens Ate My Homework, by Bruce Coville (Aladdin, 1993)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Sixth-grader Rod Albright, better known as Rod the Clod among his classmates, is a target for the two bullies at school and the go-to babysitter for his toddler twin brother and sister at home. One day, while working on a science project for school, a miniature alien spaceship crashes into his window, and Rod is commandeered into helping the alien crew in their search for BKR, an intergalactic criminal infamous for his cruelty - and who just happens to be hiding out in Rod's neighborhood. Can Rod, who is incapable of lying, keep his alien visitors a secret and help them succeed in their mission while getting his science project done on time?

Told from Rod's point of view, Aliens Ate My Homework is a fun read for kids ages 9-12. As the first book in a four-book series, Coville sets up the story line and introduces the reader to a full cast of characters: Rod, Thing One and Thing Two, the toddler twins, their mother, the crew of the Ferkel, and BKR, the intergalactic villian. The crew of the Ferkel is a diverse group of aliens, illustrating that diversity is welcome in all parts of the universe; Grakker, the Ferkel's captain, is a borderline hostile military man, but the crew and Rod all learn how to work with him - and vice versa. BKR, the criminal wanted across the galaxy, is guilty of cruelty. As Madame Pong, the ambassador on the Ferkel, says, "Millions have wept." There are lessons to be learned within Coville's bright narrative - different personalities and people and capable of working together; cruelty is wrong; and every being, no matter how powerful or how small, needs help.

Aliens Ate My Homework is the first in Bruce Coville's 4-book series, Rod Albright's Alien Adventures; the other books in the series are I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X; The Search for Snout; and Aliens Stole My Body. The author's webpage has a section devoted to the series at Coville's website also offers printable door hangers and bookmarks, crossword puzzles, and information about all of Coville's books.

Book Review: Fred & Anthony Escape from the Netherworld and Fred & Anthony Meet the Heine Goblins from the Black Lagoon, by Elise Primavera (Hyperion, 2007 & 2008)

Recommended for ages 9-12

I'm combining these two into one book review because they are from the same series by the same author.

Fred and Anthony are two kids whose only wish is to find someone to make money for them so that they can relax, eat Chex Mix and Pez, and watch horror movies. In their first adventure, Escape from the Netherworld, they decide to make some money so that they can afford to pay someone to do their schoolwork; because they already have a reputation for botched and unfinished jobs in their own neighborhood, they strike out for a new neighborhood, and end up falling through to the Netherworld by way of a bathroom. Luckily, Fred has the foresight to grab a Guide to the Netherworld, which helps them navigate their way past evil dentists, deceptively dressed werewolves, and Count Dracula himself. They make their way back home only to discover that a ghost has followed them - so they hire him as a ghost writer (get it?) to write about their adventures. Their get rich quick plan is under way!

Their third adventure, Fred & Anthony Meet the Heinie Goblins from the Black Lagoon, catches readers up on the first two books, so it is not detrimental to readers if they skip any in the series. In Heinie Goblins, Fred and Anthony go to summer camp, sent by grandmothers and parents who have the best of intentions for their summer. Naturally, it's all a ruse, and the camp, run by two Wise Guy types named Carmine and Vinnie, is a dump serving cold Hot Pockets with warm water, forcing them to have recreation time in leaky canoes on the questionable Lake Gitchie Lagoonie, and haunting them by dressing up as The Burnt Marshmallow Mummy and The Lone Short-Sheeting Stranger. While out on Lake Gitchie Lagoonie, the boys' canoe capsizes and they end up back in The Netherworld for a brief time, until their escape from the Creature from the Black Lagoon leads them back up to the Camp.

The boys decide that they can make money by charging kids for trips to The Netherworld, and start running tours. Once back in The Netherworld, they meet the Heinie Goblins - cute little batlike creatures with bare backsides. Despite the Guide to the Netherworld's warning about the goblins being "a pain in the butt", the boys allow a goblin to accompany them back to the camp. Naturally, the goblin brings friends along, who start menacing all the kids in the camp. When Carmine and Vinnie show up to terrorize the campers as the Lone Short-Sheeting Stranger and the Burnt Marshmallow Mummy, the goblins become jealous of losing the audience's attention - the book is, after all, named for them - and attack, leaving the boys to figure out a way to make things right.

The books are written with the lower end of the age range or the reluctant reader in mind, with black and white illustrations on every page and a mixture of graphic novel/chapter book format. Gross humor will appeal to boys (or girls!) who giggle at a good bathroom joke. The books are slightly more than 100 pages in length, making them easy and quick reads for younger children.

The author and illustrator, Elise Primavera, "ghost wrote" these books under the name Esile Arevamirp. There are four Fred & Anthony titles, but was surprised that the author's website had no mention of them; I even attempted to find a website for her alter ego but found nothing. Turning to YouTube, discovered Rat Chat Reviews, an animated video review site for children's books; the rats posted an interview with Fred and Anthony on the cancellation of their series. Regardless of whether or not there are any more Fred & Anthony books in the future, the series is still a fun set of books for a younger or reluctant reader.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Review: A Boy and His Bot, by Daniel H.Wilson (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Recommended for ages 9-12

On a class trip to a Mek Mound, an ancient Oklahoman Indian mound of land that resembles the Egyptian pyramids, sixth grader Code Lightfall discovers Mekhos, a manufactured, experimental world inhabited by robots and long forgotten by humans. The world is under the grip of the evil tyrant Immortalis, bent on the world's destruction; it falls to Code and Gary, an atomic slaughterbot brought to life by Code's imagination and Mekhos technology, to find the Robonomicon and save the day.

I notice that the heroes in books geared toward boys more often than not come from dysfunctional families, and Code is no exception. A shy boy, picked on by some classmates, ignored by others, Code is grieving the disappearance of his grandfather John a year prior. His parents are not in the picture. The only positive female force in the book is Peep, the little robotic probe that befriends him and leads him to the world of Mekhos. Gary the Slaughterbot plays the part of the big, dumb protector with the heart of gold. It's a journey to Oz tale of sorts for a more modern age, complete with beautiful but deadly surroundings like the Toparian Wyldes, kept beautiful by a race of robots whose job it is to trim and sculpt everything in front of them. Instead of the benevolent and powerful Oz, Boy and His Bot has Immortalis, the evil overlord who pushes all robots to the day of The Great Disassembly, when all of Mekhos will be undone. Code's main objective is to stop The Great Disassembly and get home.

I wonder why it is that young male characters' families are so flawed in YA literature. Is this an accurate reflection of the state of families today, or is this the newest hook to keep young boys reading? Is it a way to reach out to young boys that may be in crisis and refuse to speak?

Daniel H. Wilson, Ph.D. is the author of How to Survive a Robot Uprising, Where's My Jetpack, and How to Build a Robot Army. A Boy and His Bot is his first YA novel, but he has also written Bro-Jitsu: The Martial Art of Sibling Smackdown, and his Robot books are popular with older tweens and teens. He maintains a blog and Twitter feed.

Book Review: Middle School - The Worst Years of My Life, by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts (Little, Brown, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10-14

Rafe Katchadorian is having a tough year: his mom is working double shifts at her diner job in order to support him, his sister, and her lazy, unemployed fiance, and he's already attracted the attention of the school bully during his first week of middle school. What's a kid to do? Make a name for himself, of course!

With some prodding by his best friend, Leonardo the Silent, Rafe decides that he's going to break every single rule in the middle school code of conduct. There are guidelines to follow, though - he's got to have witnesses every time he breaks a rule; he's got three "lives" - he loses one if he passes up an opportunity to break a rule - and finally, he can't hurt anyone in his quest to break the rules. How bad can a good kid get, and how far is Rafe willing to go to break all the rules? Will he end up breaking his own rules in the end?

I started this book expecting a light, humorous story, and was amazed at the punch Patterson and Tibbett packed into this middle school story. Rafe's family issues aside, there are a multitude of issues going on in his life - he is a truly at-risk tween, and as I read the story, I saw a need for this boy to have a more supportive group of adults in his life. There are two major plot developments that will take readers by surprise, but it is good for tweens and young teens to have this kind of storyteller bringing these stories to light - children with similar life stories will likely be grateful to have a literary figure they can relate to, and other readers will have a glimpse into another kid's world - and maybe start a dialogue among themselves, or even develop a sensitivity that may not have previously been there.

Chris Tebbetts is a YA author whose love of books and libraries began as a child. His website suggests links for writerw and readers, and provides a list of Good Reads for young readers and teens.

James Patterson is best known for his Alex Cross mystery series, but he is a Children's Choice Award-winning author, receiving the award in 2010 for his book Max, one of the books in his popular Maximum Ride series. His Daniel X series has been praised by Good Morning America as being some of the best books for boys, and the first book in his Witch & Wizard series spent five weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Patterson's website, ReadKiddoRead, is dedicated to getting kids reading and suggests titles for all ages and interests.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Young Person's Guide to Grown-Ups, by Monte Montgomery, illustrated by Patricia Storms (Bloomsbury, 2012)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Being a kid is tough. What if there were some sort of guide to figuring out the grown-ups in their lives? Monte Montgomery and Patricia Storms have created a field guide to the average grown-up to help children navigate these strange people who seem to hold so much sway over them.

The book examines grown-ups from a basic description of similarities and differences between adults and kids. Adults have stopped growing taller but may still be growing wider, for instance, but have never stopped feeling like the kid they used to be, providing kids with an entry point to relate.

Set up like a Grown-Ups for Dummies book, complete with "Tactics" call-out boxes and line drawings throughout, Young Person's Guide takes kids through everything they need to know about grown-ups at home, at school, and "in the wild". There are descriptions of various adults in each of these settings and an FAQs at the end of each chapter. Montgomery imparts three Universal Truths that adults and kids alike need to know, and provides an in-depth, illustrated guide on various classes of adults, like atheletes, dentists, police officers and millionaires (complete with illustrated Donald Trump caricature).

Young Person's Guide is a fun book that will help younger children feel like they have some handle on why grown-ups say and do the things they do, while helping them understand that adults and kids have much more in common than they may think. It is a fun book that can start conversations both at home and in the classroom.

Monte Montgomery's webpage and Patricia Storms' webpage are as fun as their books. Infused with bright graphics and personal information, the reader can see that the author and illustrator take the message of Young Person's Guide to heart and keep in touch with the kid that used to look back at them in the mirror. Montgomery and his wife Claire have a section on "wheels", with pictures of giant unicycles, paddle boat wheels, and other wheels they have seen on their travels. Both author and illustrator have links to information about school visits.

Book Review: Villain School: Good Curses Evil, by Stephanie Sanders (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Recommended for ages 9-12

What do you do when your parents are some of the baddest bad guys in history, and you just don't match up? You get sent to Master Dreadthorn's School for Wayward Villains. Dracula's daughter, Jezebel, is there - she prefers hot chocolate to blood. The Big Bad Wolf's son, Wolf, is in there, too - he saved a human child from drowning. The Green Giant's son was expelled when they realized that his dad was just some green guy trying to get kids to eat their vegetables.

Rune Drexler, Master Dreadthorn's son, is at villain school, too, but he's not getting any preferred treatment - quite the opposite; he can't seem to do anything right in his father's eyes. When his father calls him to his office and gives him a Plot - a dangerous and evil test to achieve his next EVil (Educational Villain Levels) level, Rune sees his chance to be the villain his father wants him to be. But can he and his two friends carry out the Plot without ending up being heroes?

The story takes a little bit of time to get started; Sanders concentrates on exposition early on in the story. Once the Plot is under way, though, the story becomes a fun read with just enough of a twist to take the reader by surprise. I did not feel cheated by the book's end - I wanted to know what Rune was going to do next. Middle grade readers will enjoy the good-natured jabs that the characters throw at one another, and the idea of being good while you're trying to be evil will show younger readers that there is something good in even the baddest of villains.

There is a Villain School website where readers can read the first two chapters of Villain School and play a trivia game; there are author events and information available, along with a link to Sanders' home page and Villain School's Facebook page.

How They Croaked: The Awful Deaths of the Awfully Famous, by Georgia Bragg; illustrated by Kevin O'Malley (Walker Books for Young Readers, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10-13

Most school-aged kids know who King Tut, George Washington, and Napoleon were, but what they may not know is how they died. How They Croaked delivers the full-on details of how these historic figures and 16 others met their makers in gloriously gory detail.

Along the way, Bragg dispels famous myths - Cleopatra did not meet her doom at the fangs of an asp - and provides insight on how modern medicine may have saved a few of these famous lives. George Washington, for instance, could have survived if only he had access to antibiotics.

Bragg provides morality in her profiles. We learn that Pocahontas was exploited from the minute she saved Captain John Smith from the axe, and that Robert Carter, the "explorer" who discovered King Tut's tomb, wasn't much more than a grave robber on a grander scale. We also learn some amusing details along the way, including famous last words, what cupping was all about, and some gross information about Marie Antoinette's three-foot hairdo.

Kevin O'Malley, writer and illustrator of children's books such as Animal Crackers Fly the Coop! and Mount Olympus Basketball, gives the reader his macabre best while still keeping it on a level that younger readers won't shy away from, including a a distended Henry VIII and a shrieking Julius Caesar.

For reluctant readers and kids (or grownups!) who just want a fun read that makes you squeal with squeamish delight, How They Croaked is a perfect addition to your history library.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Book Review: Ellie McDoodle: New Kid in School by Ruth McNally Barshaw (Bloomsbury, 2008)

Recommended for ages 8-12

Ellie McDoodle is the nickname for Eleanor McDougal, a sixth grader who doodles in her sketch journals. She draws the people around her, her family, and journals her own daily happenings.

When Ellie's parents announce that they're moving, Ellie is crushed. She will be leaving her friends, her school, and her home. She creates a journal to document the move, insisting that "there won't be much to keep track of... because this is the END of everything good."

Or is it? Despite some rough patches, like discovering the "New Kid Bingo" card some of her classmates are circulating at school, and the teachers not remembering her name, Ellie learns that being the new kid may not be so bad after all. She makes friends, manages to get her own room in the attic, and organizes a protest against long lunch lines in the cafeteria. Being the new kid may end up being sort of fun after all.

Ruth McNally Barshaw's Ellie McDoodle has been described by Student Library Journal as "reminiscent of Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid", and it is, in that both stories have a vibrant narrator who tells his and her tale in the first person, accompanied by line drawings. To think of the Ellie McDoodle books only in terms of a feminine Wimpy Kid is selling the book short, however. Ellie McDoodle is not a Wimpy Kid clone; it is a smart, sensitive book with a character that both boys and girls can relate to: she has a crabby older sister, a clown for an older brother, and a toddler brother that gets into everything.

Ellie's family is as realistic and provides a role model for families: they eat their meals together at the same table; her older brother Josh makes punny jokes; and they play pranks on one another, like hiding a spooky-looking Mrs. Santa Claus figure all around the house to take family members off guard.

Readers will enjoy the first-person narrative and line drawings and see Ellie as a positive role model. Rather than succumb to her sadness, Ellie seeks ways to make the best of her situation. She heads to the local library and befriends a librarian. She meets neighborhood children and goes out to play with them, and makes friends; this helps her cope with the insensitive schoolmates who find "New Kid Bingo" more fun than reaching out to make a new friend. She uses her talent in art to help make a difference in her school, and organizes a peaceful protest that gets the principal's notice, and the notice of a local television station.

Ruth McNally Barshaw's website offers information on all of the Ellie McDoodle books and links to more of McNally Barshaw's art. Readers can find out where she'll be appearing and read her blog, and create Ellie mini-books and stationery. She offers teens advice on writing their own graphic novels, and has teaching guides available for educators.

The Ilsley Public Library in Vermont created a book trailer for New Kid in School, viewable below.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Book Review: Cal and the Amazing Anti-Gravity Machine, by Richard Hamilton (illustrated by Sam Hearn) (Bloomsbury, 2006)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Cal lives with his family, including Frankie, a talking dog that only he can understand, next door to a very loud neighbor. Mr. Frout regularly wakes the neighborhood with clanging and banging in the early hours of the morning. He's not a very friendly neighbor, so curious Cal decides to spy on him to see what all the commotion is about and discovers Mr. Frout, in a suit of armor, hovering in the air. His experiment goes awry and Cal rescues him, which makes Mr. Frout a little more friendly and Cal learns that Mr. Frout is making an anti-gravity machine. Inevitably, things get out of hand and it's left to Cal to save the day.

The book skews toward the younger end of the reading range, as it is a chapter book with lots of black and white line drawings that will keep younger readers interested. The characters are well-described, and have just enough reality to them that kids can identify with them, while being fantastic enough to make the story fun. I appreciated that the parents weren't drawn as hopeless dimbulbs, as often happens in children's books - I particularly liked a section of the book where Cal's mother gets angry at him for befriending a stranger (Mr. Frout), despite Cal's assertions that he is friendly. It was a smart way to take advantage of a teachable moment on stranger danger.

Richard Hamilton and Sam Hearn are an British writer-illustrator team who have worked on four books together. Their website offers information on these books, biographies on the author and illustrator, and coloring sheets and printable posters on their books.