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Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

The Gardener

by Sarah Stewart and David Small 38 pages / 1997 Lydia Grace Finch's family has fallen on hard times. So their little girl is being sent off to the big city to live with her baker uncle Jim to help him around the shop. The story is told via Lydia's short letters home, where she updates the family on her efforts at making her somber uncle smile. She's also, as the title indicates, quite the gardener, an interest she shares with her grandma back home. One of the care packages from her grandma even contains little plants that amazingly survive the postal trip. Though she's living in her uncle's apartment, Lydia fills everything she can with plants, and finds room on the roof to create her own secret garden. Will all her flowery beauty manage to prompt a smile from her uncle? This is a sweet story, and the art fills every corner of every page. Two thumbs way up! If you liked this, you'll also enjoy three others by David Small. One Cool Friend is about a boy, Elliot, and his father visiting the aquarium. When the boy spots a penguin exhibit, he asks his dear old dad for one. Dad thinks he means a stuffed one, and says yes. But Elliot did not. The confusion continues as Elliot takes a smallish one home in his backpack and turns his room into an antarctic setting. Fun throughout, with a twist at the end just for parents (as I don't know that kids will catch this last joke). In Imogene's Antlers, a girl is surprised to wake up one morning with a set of antlers on her head. It doesn't phase her, though, and she runs with it, using them to dry laundry and hang donuts. It's her optimistic outlook that makes this such fun. In the sequel, Imogene Comes Back, her antlers are gone, but now she has a giraffe neck, and the next day an elephant nose... and she's still as upbeat as ever!...

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Don’t let the Pigeon drive the bus!

by Mo Willems 2003 / 40 pages Pigeon desperately wants to drive the bus. But the bus driver, who has to leave for a little while, tells readers before he goes, “Remember, don’t let the pigeon drive the bus!” Pigeon isn’t going to make it that easy though – for the rest of the book he asks, begs, pleads, whines, and sulks about wanting to drive the bus. The drawings are pretty simple cartoons, but the artist lets us see all Pigeon’s emotions in his body language. Pigeon uses every excuse you’ve ever heard a child use: “I never get to do anything!” “What’s the big deal?” “I’ll be your best friend!” “No fair!” “I bet your mom would let me.” That, of course, is the point of the book, that no matter how inventive a child’s questioning – his whining – might become, no is still going to be no. That’s an important lesson for any child to learn, and this is a fun way for them to learn it. Parents will enjoy reading the book out loud, mimicking Pigeon’s angst and frustration, and kids will enjoy just how silly Pigeon acts. And it will only take a little prodding from mom or dad to have junior realize that sometimes he acts silly too, just like Pigeon. I’d recommend getting the hardcover version of this book because I think your children will ask you to read it again and again. And that’s not too bad, because it is a fast read – there are only about 175 words in the whole story, which means this review is actually a bit longer than the book! There are also seven sequels, and with that abundance comes a warning. While Mo Willems' Elephant & Piggie series can be enjoyed with or without mom and dad's involvement, there is a real sense in which these Pigeon books should be rated PG for Parental Guidance. A somewhat bratty bird in a very limited dose is one thing, but with repeated readings, and with 8 books in total, parents will need to make sure their kids understand we are actually laughing at Pigeon’s ridiculous behavior, and shouldn't be looking to copy it. The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! (2004) – The Pigeon finds a hotdog but also meets a Duckling who has never had a hotdog. What's a self-absorbed, but not utterly selfish Pigeon to do? Don’t let the Pigeon stay up late! (2006) – Parents will love this for how it gives them a term for their kids can't-we-stay-up-5-more-minutes? pleas. “That’s enough guys,” I’ll tell them, “You’re being pigeons and it is time to stop.” The Pigeon wants a puppy! (2008) – This could be inspiration for parents who wonder if their kids really want a pet and the responsibility that comes with it. Pigeon gets a brief test drive with a puppy and changes his mind (now he wants a walrus). The Duckling gets a cookie!? (2012) – The Duckling reappears, this time to ask us, the readers, to give him a cookie. Pigeon wonders why Duckling gets one, and doesn't. The main message kids will get is that Pigeon has never asked... at least, not politely. The Pigeon needs a bath! (2014) – Pigeon hates bathes but once he runs out of excuses he gets to have some wonderful wet fun. The Pigeon has to go to school! (2019) – Pigeon shares his worries – in his usual bombastic way – about going to school for the first time. Reading this with a child who has their own concerns could be a great conversation starter. The Pigeon will ride the roller coaster! (2022) – Pigeon imagines the roller coaster will be exciting... but it only sort of is. This one struck me as only okay, and I'd ranked it 8th out of 8. ...

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Hippopotamister

by John Patrick Green 88 pages / 2016 Hippopotamister isn't strictly a comic or a picture book – it is as much the one as the other – but regardless, it sure is fun. Hippo and Red Panda live in the City Zoo, which is falling down around them. Not only are the gates and habitats falling apart, the lion's mane "wasn't very regal" and "the walrus's smile wasn't very bright." So Red Panda decides to leave the zoo and get a job among the humans. And every now and again he comes back to the zoo to tell Hippo that "Life outside the zoo is great!" An observant child is going to notice that while Red Panda is always enthused, he's also always holding a different job whenever he reports back. It turns out, as we learn when Hippo finally decides to join him on the outside, that Red Panda is great at lining up new jobs, but not so great at holding on to them. So every day it's a new job and a new hat, and a new and funny way for Red Panda to mess up and get himself and Hippo fired once again. Hippo, though, turns out to be quite skilled at all sorts of jobs, and after trying on all sorts of hats, realizes that he might be just what his failing zoo is looking for. Maybe he can run it! The story concludes happily, bringing Red Panda back home, too, with a job that suits his own unique talents. CAUTION The only possible caution I can think of is that at one point Red Panda, instead of catching fish, ends up with a mermaid that may or may not be topless - we can't tell because she has her arms strategically and tightly crossed (see the picture). This is the only picture that is even mildly risqué. CONCLUSION Hippopotamister is a sweet funny story that any child in the early grades will enjoy, and it might be just the thing for a reluctant reader. RELATED REVIEWS: more picture book/comic book crossovers A great riff off of Abbot and Costello's famous routine Who's on First? I don't know anyone who doesn't enjoy the Elephant and Piggie series Mo Willems has another fun one with Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus ...

Articles, Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Keiko Kasza: All about cartoon critters

Author and illustrator Keiko Kasza was born in Japan and moved to the US for college only to meet and marry an American and then become American herself. On her website she shares the fun factoid that while her last name sounds Japanese, it actually comes from her husband, whose family has Hungarian roots. Kasza loves to people her stories with adorable furry and feathered friends, and illustrates in a somewhat cartoonish style, coloring characters in bright colors and surrounding them with plenty of bright white space. There's often a gentle moral shared, and of the sort that'd we'd appreciate, like: adoption is good, try to be brave, grandparents have lessons to share, and sometimes two disagreeing friends may discover they have both been a little wrong and a little right. There's a sense of playfulness to her work, perhaps because some of her books come off a little like a joke, the build-up leading to a satisfying punchline. And, at 32 pages each (and shorter for the board book), they are all pretty quick reads, which means you can share two or three at a time with your little ones. Sadly, some of her titles aren't readily available, so I've noted the ones that are easier to get by including a cover picture. But all twelve of the recommendations are worth putting in some effort to track down. RECOMMENDED (12) Silly Goose's Big Story (2012) Goose is so good at making up stories, his friends always ask him for more. But when the roles get handed out, his friends start noticing that Goose always gets the hero role. And they want a turn too. Goose isn't about to do that. Then a wolf interrupts things, swoops up Goose, and tells him, "So you're the hero, huh? More like a hero sandwich to me!" Goose can't get away. But he can tell a story. So Goose tells the most outlandish story about a wolf-eating monster that lives in the area. And who should be coming through the woods right then, but the monster himself! Wolf runs off, and we discover the monster is nothing more than Goose's three friends stacked atop each other. Goose gives them thanks, and notes that they are the real heroes! It's a sweet story, where friends fight, but figure it out... with some help from a wolf. :) Ready for Anything! (2009) Duck wants to go on a picnic, but Raccoon wonders, what if killer bees, or a terrible storm, or even a ferocious dragon make an appearance? In contrast, Duck is a glass-half-full kind of guy, and has his own what ifs to share: what if butterflies pass by, and what if the weather is warm and the breeze just strong enough to blow a kite? Raccoon agrees to go, but brings loads of gear – he’s ready for anything! – and actually saves the day when Duck forgets to bring their food. I loved that both friends learn a lesson: Raccoon learns not to obsess about the bad, and Duck learns that it’s not crazy to prepare for bad stuff, because it does sometimes happen. The Dog Who Cried Wolf (2005) When Moka's owner reads a book about wolves, Moka starts getting jealous. He wishes he could be a wolf. So the next day he takes off for the mountains. The only caution for the book concerns his celebration: "He ran. He jumped. He danced. And he peed where he wanted." That is, however, the only bit of potty humor. And soon after celebrating his freedom Moka realizes it isn't all that it is cracked up to be. He is soon very hungry, and he can't catch his dinner. Then, when he meets a pack of real wolves, Moka realizes that he never understood how good he had it back home. When he runs back, he's met at the gate by his master, her arms wide open to hug him – this could have been titled "The Prodigal Dog"! The Mightiest (2003) A lion, bear, and elephant happen upon a crown with an inscription that says it is for the mightiest. To figure out how should get it, they take turns trying to scare an old lady. Each, in turn, manages to "scare the daylights out of" the old lady. But then the three of them get scared themselves when a giant comes along and scoops them all up. "Help!" they all cry, and who should rescue them but the little old lady. She is the giant's mama, and since he's sure scared to disobey her, isn't she the mightiest of this whole lot? My Lucky Day (2003) A hungry wolf thinks it must be his lucky day when a delicious piglet, looking for his friend rabbit, knocks on the door. But as the wolf’s dinner prep begins, the piglet notes “I’m filthy. Shouldn’t you wash me first?” And so the wolf sets out to collect wood, start a fire, draw the water and give the piglet a wonderful scrub. As they head back to the kitchen the piglet notes, he’s quite small, and wouldn’t he be more delicious if the wolf fattened him up. Yes, the wolf agrees, and he picks tomatoes, cooks spaghetti, bakes cookies, etc. Piglet ends up having such a wonderful time that he thinks it must be his lucky day. And the wolf gets so tuckered, the piglet easily makes his escape. There is a sequel, My Lucky Birthday (2013), that's almost its match, marred by one use of “gosh.” Don’t Laugh, Joe! (1997) Joe is a young possum who can’t help but giggle. That’s fun for all his friends, but his mom is worried that it might give him away when danger comes – after all, possums evade danger by playing dead, and no predator is going to believe a laughing possum is dead. But with a little help from a grumpy bear, he figures it out… and helps the grumpy bear see the funny side of things too. A Mother for Choco (1996) A little bird looking for a mother finds a giraffe that’s the right color… but she doesn’t have wings. A penguin mother has wings, but doesn’t have Choco’s round cheeks. And so the hunt goes on. Finally she meets mother bear, who looks nothing like Choco, but wants to hug and kiss her like a mom would. And they decide that’s what matters. Choco heads home with the bear, and discovers she has other children that also don’t look like her: a pig, a crocodile, and a hippo. I think the point of this is to celebrate adoption, and it does a good job (though I would have liked it more if dad bear had shown up). Grandpa Toad’s Secrets (1995) On a walk in the forest, Grandpa toad shares with his little grandson three secrets to dealing with danger. The first is to be brave, and when a snake jumps out to eat them, Grandpa puts his advice into action. He puffs himself up, until he’s twice his normal size and shoos the snake away. His second piece of advice? Be smart! When a huge snapping turtle tries to eat them, Grandpa tells the turtle about an even tastier snack that just slithered by only moments before. Before he can give his third piece of advice, a monster grabs him. Thankfully, little grandson has been listening, and uses the first two tips to mount a very brave and very smart rescue of his dear ol’ grandpappy. A very fun story! When the Elephant Walks (1990) A scared elephant scares a bear, who in turn scares a crocodile, and so on, until we have a running raccoon accidentally scaring a mouse. Will it all stop with the mouse? Who would be scared by a mouse? Well... an elephant of course! So round we go once more. This board book is clever, but it is very short, taking just a minute to read. The Pig’s Picnic (1988) Mr. Pig wants to ask Miss Pig out for a picnic, and on the way to her house, he meets three friends, who all want to help him look his very best. Fox loans the pig his bushy tail, while Lion gives his hair, and Zebra shares his stripes. But with Mr. Pig now looking so very different, Miss Pig slams the door on him. And when he comes back looking like himself, she is happy to go on a picnic with him, and eager to tell him about the ugly monster that had visited that morning. The moral of the story is to be yourself, not someone else. The Wolf’s Chicken Stew (1987) A wolf anticipates eating a wonderful chicken stew. But before pouncing on the chicken, he leaves gifts of 100 pancakes, followed by 100 doughnuts, then a 100-pound cake, all in an effort to fatten the chicken up. When he finally thinks it’s time to pounce, he goes to her house only to discover a grateful brood of 100 chicks who have been enjoying his cooking. The newly minted “Uncle Wolf” gratefully receives their 100 kisses. TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT (1) Badger’s Fancy Meal (2007) Badger has plenty to eat in his hole, but wants something fancy. So he goes after a mole, rat, and rabbit, all of them escaping in turn by diving into the hole he just left…where they find what, in their eyes at least, is a fancy feast just waiting for them. When the Badger finally returns to his den he finds his food gone. All that’s left is a note, signed by three critters: “Sorry for dropping by uninvited. A nasty badger was chasing us and we had nowhere else to hide. The apples, worms and roots were delicious.” The bad guy gets what he deserves, which is good. But the reason I didn’t rate this higher is because as parents we also need to teach our children that we should be thankful that God is not giving us what we deserve. DON’T BOTHER (3) Finders, Keepers! (2015) A little squirrel in a bright red hat finds a big acorn and celebrates with a shout of “Finders Keepers.” He buries it for later, marking the spot with his hat, which is later found by a bird, who thinks it would make for a great nest and takes his turn at declaring “Finders Keepers.” And on it goes. This is a light-hearted tale but only because it completely ignores that finders keeping leads to losers weeping. We don't want our kids living out the moral of this story: instead of being keepers, finders should try to be returners. Dorothy and Mikey (2000) Two hippopotamus best friends share three stories here, all three of which center around fights. In the second, Dorothy pulls a trick on Mikey because he's being all braggadocios about how much better he is at their contests. She challenges him to a contest of standing on one leg with eyes closed to see who can do it longer. But once they start, she goes home and enjoys a nice cool lemonade while Mike continues standing on one leg in the hot sun for hours, thinking she is there too. This is just returning evil for evil, which God doesn't want us to do (1 Pet. 3:9). The Rat and the Tiger (1993) A little rat is best friends with a big tiger who isn’t always looking out for his little friend. For example, when they play cowboys, Tiger always gets to be the good guy, and Rat has to be the bad guy. After a lot of this, Rat gets fed up and won’t be friends with Tiger until Tiger gets a taste of his own treatment. But while Tiger was thoughtless, Rat treats Tiger badly on purpose. This is one to give a miss because as much as the world preaches it, we don’t want our kids to ever believe two wrongs make a right.  ...

Articles, Book Reviews, Children’s picture books, Graphic novels

Mo Willems' "Elephant & Piggie"

From about three years old and up, my daughters and I have all loved Elephant and Piggie and their whole 25 book series. When I'd bring a new one home from the library often times my littlest would squeal with delight – before having kids I always thought that was just an expression but now I know better. They are great books for preschoolers and also very fun for first graders just learning to read, and even for third and fourth graders to act out. Piggie is the more expressive of the two friends, but Gerald the Elephant can get bouncy and loud too. It's one adventure after another for two very good friends who are thoughtful, fun-loving, curious and most definitely loud (it's no coincidence that nearly every book title is capped off with an exclamation mark!). My daughter loves the stories because the drawings and the characters are just so energized! The plots are simple enough for her to follow, and bring up situations that she understands like dealing with a friend breaking a toy, learning to throw a ball, and cheering up a sad elephant. All of the books are full of silly fun, and most of them teach simple moral lessons without being obvious about it. For example, in Listen to My Trumpet, Piggie's performance is so bad, Elephant doesn't know quite how to tell her. So he praises her for what he can: her trumpet is shiny, and she can play it loud, and she holds it very well. But when Piggie insists on hearing his opinion of her playing, he is honest. Fortunately, it turns out that Piggie wasn't trying to play music, but was instead trying to sound like an elephant, so it all works out in the end. What a great lesson in, and example of, honesty and tactfulness! Another feature I appreciate is that the stories are generally limited to two characters. That makes it a bit simpler to handle giving them different voices. I can go with a high voice for the girl Piggie, and low for Elephant, and that's pretty much the limit of my vocal ability - if a third character shows up they are stuck with my normal voice. And I love that there are 25 of these. When I would eventually get tired of one book (long before my daughters) I could bring home another one from the library, to her squealing delight! They are recommended for 3-9, but nostalgia has even our older kids looking at them now and again. The following are short reviews of each title, by publication date (2007 to when he stopped in 2016). in alphabetical order. These come in durable hardcovers, with each story at 50+ pages, and the whole series has now been collected in 5 "biggie" books for a pretty thrifty price. Today I Will Fly! You may think pigs can't fly, but when Elephant tells Piggie that, it doesn't discourage her in the least. And, with a little help from a friend, she does get off the ground! My Friend is Sad When Elephant is sad Piggie decides to cheer him up by dressing up as a cowboy, then a clown and finally a robot. But he still doesn't cheer up. Why not? Because he is sad that Piggie wasn't there to see them too! One caution: parents may want to note that while friends are a blessing, they are not everything. I Am Invited to a Party! When Piggie is invited to a party, she turns to Elephant to figure out what to wear because "he knows parties!" Good clean silly fun! There Is a Bird On Your Head! Piggie gives the moment-by-moment commentary as first one bird, and then two, land on Elephant's head, build a nest, and have eggs that soon hatch. Complete nonsense, and lots of fun. I Love My New Toy! Piggie has a new toy she really wants to show Elephant. But when she shows it to him, he accidentally breaks it. Piggie does not deal with this very well, even though Elephant is very sorry. But when it turns out the toy isn't really broken after all, Elephant shows Piggie where her priorities should have been: "Friends are more fun than toys." I Will Surprise My Friend! After Piggie and Elephant see two squirrels having fun jumping out and surprising each other they decide to try it too. They agree to meet at a the big rock. But when they both arrive on opposite sides of the rock, and thus don't see the other, each begins to wonder what happened to the other. The humor here comes in the contrast: Gerald wonders if Piggie might have fallen off a cliff, or been abducted by a giant bird, or whether she might be fighting a scary, scary monster right now while Piggie wonders if Gerald might have gone for lunch. Funny, but Gerald's wondering made this a bit borderline for my three-year-old, making this the only book in the series I wouldn't read her right before bedtime. Are You Ready to Play Outside? Piggie want to play outside. She really wants to play outside. But then it starts to rain. What's a pig to do? Maybe a change of attitude, and a good friend, can help her have fun no matter what the weather. Watch Me Throw the Ball! Elephant is very good at throwing a ball. Piggie... not so much. But she sure has fun trying! A caution I might add for this one is on boasting. All of it is done in fun, but there sure is a lot of it here! Parents will want to point out that boasting in our strength, if we actually mean it, is disgraceful (Prov. 11.:2). Elephants Cannot Dance! Elephants cannot dance – it even says so in a book! But as Piggie reminds her friend, that doesn't mean you can't try! And while Elephant is not very good at doing most dances, he can do a very good rendition of "the Elephant dance." This is a title that, with some parental guidance, can be used to teach children that while they will not be good at everything, they can still try to improve, and they have their own unique talents and abilities. Pigs Make Me Sneeze! Is Elephant allergic to Piggie? Could his best friend be making him sneeze? Or might there be another reason for why Elephant is sneezing all the time? More silly fun! I Am Going! Piggie is going, and Elephant is having a hard time dealing with it. I was hoping this one could be used to teach my daughter how to deal with the "It's time to go home now" situation, this title would just exasperate the drama. Elephant just cannot stand being apart from Piggie, and, it seems, he never has to be. Though I love the series, this is one isn't all that good. Can I Play Too? Elephant and Piggie are going to play catch, but then Snake asks if he can play too. But Snake does not have arms, so how can he play catch? After a few misadventures Piggie, Elephant and Snake figure out how to play the game so then can include everyone. With a little commentary from mom or dad, this is could be a great way to teach kids about thinking of others, and include others in what they do. We Are in a Book! Piggie and Elephant discover that they are in a book. They then have great fun when they realize they can get the reader to say whatever they want (and they really want the reader to say "Banana"). But when Elephant discovers that, like all books, this one is going to end, he and Piggie figure out a way for the fun to continue - they ask the reader to read the book again! This is an inventive book, but a tad taxing if daddy wanted to read just one more book. I Broke My Trunk! This is a laugh-out-loud story for both parent and child. How did Elephant break his trunk? Did balancing a hippo and rhinoceroses on it have anything to do with it? Nope. Or at least, not directly. This is my favorite in the whole series. Should I Share My Ice Cream? Elephant wants to be a generous soul. But share ice cream? It's so yummy! Elephant spends so much time wrestling back and forth that by the time he finally decides to share, his ice cream has melted! But don't worry – Piggie sees that her friend is sad, so, to cheer him up, she offers to share her ice cream. Happy Pig Day! It's "Oinky Oink Oink!" (that's pig for "Happy Pig Day!") and Elephant feels left out – he doesn't have a snout, or hooves, and he is not pink! But then Piggie explains that "Happy Pig Day!" isn't just for pigs; it is for anyone show loves pigs! So that certainly includes Elephant! Listen to My Trumpet! When Elephant hears Piggie playing her new trumpet he has to figure out a nice way to say she is very, very, very, very, very bad! He does a good job, which makes this a fun and instructive book. Let's Go for a Drive! Elephant wants to go for a drive. And if you are going to go for a drive you need lots of stuff, like maps, sunglasses, umbrellas and luggage to carry it all. Fortunately his friend Piggie has everything they need. Or does he? Lots of fun repetition in this one that your child will catch on to quickly and be able to shout out along with you. A Big Guy Took My Ball! Elephant is incensed at the injustice of it all when Piggie comes to him for help, because "a big guy took my ball!" But then he finds out the big guy is really big – he's a blue whale! Fortunately he's a gentle giant, just looking for a friend. I'm a Frog! When Piggie says he's a frog, a surprised Elephant believes him... only to find out that Piggie is just pretending. When this was written in 2013, there was no transgender angle, but now it could be used to highlight how, just as Piggie was never actually a frog, other sorts of pretending also don't make it so. My New Friend Is So Fun! When Piggie makes a new friend, Elephant gets a more than a little insecure. But Elephant eventually realizes he can make new friends himself and still be best friends with Piggie. Waiting Is Not Easy! Piggie has a surprise for Elephant... but he has to wait for it. A looooooooong time. And Elephant is not so good at waiting. Fortunately, the surprise really is worth the wait. I Will Take a Nap! In one of the more surreal episodes, Elephant takes a nap... and dreams about taking a nap. I Really Like Slop! Piggie's slop does not look good. But he likes it a lot, and want Gerald to give it a try. Gerald finds the flys a little off-putting, but after some persistent encouragement from Piggie he gives it a tiny try. And lives to tell the tale. Oh, the things we do for our friends! The Thank You Book In their last book, Piggie wants to be sure to thank everyone who's been involved in the series. But he almost forgets one very big thank-you. Thankfully Elephant is there to help....

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction

Medallion

by Dawn L. Watkins 1985 / 213 pages This will be a fun one for Grade 4/5 boys. Young Trave plans to be king one day, but in the meantime, the current king of Gadalla, his uncle, won't even let him learn to ride a horse. Trave's life takes a turn when a rider comes to warn his uncle of an impending war, and tries to recruit him as an ally against the "Dark Alliance." His uncle dismisses the warning but allows Trave to head off with the departing rider, happy to be done with this annoying boy. But why does the rider have any interest in Trave? Because the rider turns out to be the king of the neighboring nation of Kapnos, and he knew Trave's father back when he was the fighting king of Gadalla. This King Gris is eager to help Trave become the king not simply that Trave wants to be, but that the neighboring nations need him to be, to stop the Dark Alliance. And while Trave appreciates being rescued from his uncle, he doesn't like being treated like a schoolboy in need of lessons. He mistakenly believes that being a king means fighting and giving orders, rather than serving. And that makes him susceptible to the flattery of the Dark Alliance's leader, who wants Trave on his side. This is a quick tale, that has some depth to it, because of the three kingly lessons that Trave needs to know, not just by heart, but in his bones. He finds out, the hard way, that a king needs: to learn what is true to believe what is true to act on what is true While the author is Christian, that's more notable in the lack of any new age or woke weirdness, rather than the presence of any spiritual dimension to the book. The only diety-mention of any kind is that the bad guys worship and are also terrified of owls. Boys will love the story, and appreciate the twenty or so great pictures, including one of the evil king riding what looks like a miniature (yet still large) T-rex. That's a reason to get the book all on its own! Another highlight is the curious creature Nog, who lives under a bog, and his every line, is always spoken in rhyme. While this is a little too simple for teens, it's one that'll really appeal to the 9-12 set, and younger even, if Dad is reading it as a bedtime book. This works well as a stand-alone, but I was initially excited to learn there is both a sequel and a prequel. However, the sequel, Arrow struck me as having too many characters to keep track of, and there was an added mystical dimension thrown in, where a queen and princess used a mirrored portal to unexplainedly travel to another realm. Mysterious can be good when the mystery is eventually revealed, but this magical turn is left unexplained, and that bothered both me and my oldest daughter too when she read it. The original was good enough that I still checked out the prequel, Shield, and while it might have also suffered from too many characters, it was much more like the original. Good, if not quite as great. So I'd recommend just the two - Medallion and Shield – while noting that the content in Arrow is "safe" enough (there's nothing problematic) for any child who wants to complete the series....

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Maker Comics: Draw a comic

by JP Coovert 2019 / 124 pages Cartooning was a fascination as a kid, so I've read a few different books on how to do it, and I think this might be the best overall introduction I've seen. One of its strengths is the way it teaches - via a comic adventure! Our guide Maggie, and her dog Rex, are trying to fulfill her grandfather's dream of having a comic library, but the villain of the piece, Dr. Stephens wants to turn the building into a parking lot. How can they stop him? A discovered treasure map might lead to just what they need to buy the building. Alongside their treasure quest, readers are given 6 projects to complete: Learning the parts of a comic Planning a comic strip Drawing your comic strip Making a one-sheet, 8-page comic Printing your one-sheet comic Make a bigger comic book There's piles of information here, but kids only have to use the bare bones of it – just a pencil and a sheet of paper – to start making their own mini-comic books. And if they get into it, then they can dive back into the book to learn more about the different pencils, pens, brushes, and techniques they can use to get better. There isn't a lot of help offered for actual drawing techniques – kids will have to turn elsewhere to find more on that. What this book is about is equipping kids to get a running start in presenting their story or joke in a polished and yet still easy-to-do manner, even while their art skills might be at the stick figure level. They can get excited about starting and completing an actual comic. The only caution is a minor one, a passing mention made in one of the comic captions about dinosaurs living 65 millions years ago. My 10-year-old daughter and I have read another in this "Maker Comics" series and found Build a Robot a lot harder to get off and running with – you need to have a spare small motor lying around. That said, Draw a Comic does have us interested in checking out others, like Grow a Garden and Bake Like a Pro. We did discover though, that like many books published after 2020, one of the later additions to this series bent their knee to the LGBT lobby: the kid in 2021's Conduct a Science Experiment has two moms. ...

Articles, Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

7 (or is it 8?) great board books!

If you want to foster a love for reading in your children, it's never too early to start reading to them. Even newborns will tune in when a parent cracks open a book – a baby doesn't need to understand the story to appreciate mom or dad's calming voice. And if they get to hold the book in their chubby little hands, all the better! The ingredients for a good board book are pretty simple. The most important is probably that it have no sharp corners and be printed with lead-free paper because this is going to be as much a food item as anything else. Eat books, we are told, and babies do! Next, it should be a book parents won't mind paging through again and again. It's on this point that repetitious "classics" like Goodnight Moon and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom have been disqualified. Loved by children though they may be, I know I'm not the only dad to begrudge even one more reading (strangely, I've yet to meet a mom who has the same strong feelings). On a more serious note, board books have become the latest front for our cultural war, with Anti-Racist Baby, Woke Baby, A is for Activist and Feminist Baby in the mix on your local bookstore's board book section. On the other side of the political spectrum, conservative commentator Matt Walsh decided that he'd also entered the board book marketplace. His Johnny is a Walrus is about: a kid who "identifies" as a walrus, the mother who takes him way too seriously, and the doctor who suggests a surgery that turns "feet into fins." Walrus is a satiric take on transgender nonsense, and, in what might be a demonstration of our Sovereign God's sense of humor, it actually ended up on the top of Amazon.com's LGBTQ bestseller list. Really! But whether it be left or rightwing, the point is, politics have invaded even the board book section, so be sure to read before you buy. And, fortunately, with board books that'll only take you a minute. Now let's return to children's fare. The 7 suggestions below are arranged by age, with the first ones best for the very young, and the later ones with material that older sorts can enjoy. Peak-a-boo! by Janet and Allan Ahlberg 1997 / 32 pages The setting is England, and it appears to be right around World War II (judging from the daddy's uniform). The "plot" is very simple – the story starts with a baby in his crib, waking up in the morning and looking around to see what he can see. We follow him through the day, always seeing through his eyes, until his day ends and he heads to bed. It's the book's construction that fascinated my daughter. On the first two-page spread the baby is in her crib on the left-hand side, and the right page is all white, but with a large round hole cut through it so that we (and the baby) can "peek" to see what is on the next page. Once we are done peeking, we can turn the page, and look at a full page of activity – illustrator Janet Ahlberg fills her pictures with layers of detail. There is so much to see Daddy doesn't even mind paging through it again and again and again! Readers get to play peek-a-boo five times, peering through each hole to see what comes next. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle 1969 / 22 pages It's over 50 years old and as popular as ever. The plot is summed up by the book's title: it is about a very hungry caterpillar who eats and eats and eats for a week, and then builds a cocoon and turns into a beautiful butterfly. There are two different aspects of this book that made it one of my daughter's favorites: First, the inside pages are very easy for little hands to turn because they vary in width. On Monday the caterpillar eats through one apple, and the page with the apple is only a fifth as wide as the rest of the book; on Tuesday he eats through two pears, and that page is two fifths as wide, and so it continues with three plums (three fifths as wide), four strawberries, and finally five oranges. Second, the page covering what the caterpillar eats on Saturday is a two-page spread of colorful cake, ice cream, cheese, sausage pie, watermelon, and more, and it looks good enough to eat. Our little ones liked to turn to this page first, and flipped back to it again and again and again. But Not The Hippopotamus by Sandra Boynton 1984 / 14 pages Hippo doesn’t seem to be included in much of what her friends are up to. For example, we learn on the very first page of this board book, that “A hog and a frog cavort in the bog… but not the Hippopotamus.” On the next page, it's more of the same: “A cat and two rats are trying on hats… but not the Hippopotamus.” Poor Hippo! She is always being left out. After a few more pages of forlorn Hippo looking wistfully at what others are up to, (and the repeating refrain, “…but not the Hippopotamus”) the rest notice how neglectful they’ve been, and invite Hippo to “come join the lot of us!” Now as we all know invitations are nice, but sometimes people turn them down, even when they really want to go. So we are in suspense as shy Hippo ponders what to do: “She just doesn’t know – Should she stay? Should she go?” So it is with joy that we turn the page to see her exclaim: “BUT YES THE HIPPOPOTAMUS!” That is not, however, the end of the book. One line follows: “…but not the armadillo.” This small creature is staring sadly after Hippo as she joins the group. It is a great end to a remarkable little book. Yes, it is full of fun rhymes, a great rhythm, and has friendly engaging pictures too, but it is this final line that really sets it apart. Here we see that not only should we include others in our groups, but even when we do step outside ourselves, and make that invitation, doing it once, to one person is only a start. There are still others who are being forgotten and could use a friend. And if your son or daughter is in Hippo's position, a different sort of lesson can be taught, to show them that they have to seize opportunities when they come. Poor Hippo would still have been lonely if she had said no. Good Night Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann 1994 / 36 pages When a zookeeper does one last walk-thru before heading for bed himself, he says "good night" to each animal, starting with the gorilla. But as he visits each animal in turn, there is a little gorilla and his mouse friend, trailing behind, and unlocking all the cages. Eventually, a whole train of critters follows the keeper to his house and right into his bedroom. It's only when his wife says "good night " to him in the dark, and gets a chorus of "good night"s from all around the room, that the gorilla's entourage is discovered. But it seems the weary zookeeper has dropped right off to sleep, so it's up to his wife to lead all the animals back to the zoo. Well, not all the animals. As she makes her way back home we see that she has some quiet company – the gorilla, and his little mouse friend, won't be left behind! You Are Special by Max Lucado 2000 / 28 pages Punchinello is a wooden "Wemmick" living in a town of other wooden people. These Wemmicks have made a habit of placing stickers on one another, gold stars for good, gray dots for bad. The pretty ones and talented ones always got stars..." but not poor Punchinello. When he tries to jump or run like the others, he trips. And then the others give him dots. "Then when he would try to explain why he fell, he would say something silly, and the Wemmicks would give him more dots." It gets so bad that he doesn't feel like going outside, and he starts to believe what the other Wemmicks are saying about him, that he deserves these gray dots. Things turn around when Punchinello meets a Wemmick, Lucia, who doesn't have any stars or dots. They just don't stick to her. Punchinello wants to know how he can be like that. Lucia tells him to go visit Eli the woodcarver who tells Punchinello that he matters because Eli, his maker, thinks he matters. And the dots and stars won't stick if Punchinello remembers that. Parents will understand that Eli is to Punchinello as God is to us, but some children may need some help understanding this metaphor. This is a great book that older kids can benefit from, perhaps while reading it to their younger siblings. School can be such a battleground, even at a Christian school, with so many children trying to get ahead by putting others down. Parents will appreciate the impact this book's message could have for their children if they really understand that it doesn't matter what others say about us, because we are God's own children, made in His own Image. The one danger here is that the lesson could be readily misunderstood by a child as countering what others think by elevating the child, rather than countering what others think by elevating the thoughts of God. That's a bit of a fine point, but one that parents can help their children understand. This is available as a board book or a slightly bigger picture book, and it is worth getting the one, and then the other as your child ages. Your Personal Penguin by Sandra Boynton 2006 / 21 pages This is my favorite board book of all, but that might be colored a bit by the fact my wife gave it as a gift when we were dating. But what cemented it as a favorite for our kids is the free sing-a-long song you can download for it. Davy Jones of The Monkees does a fantastic job with this little ditty. The tune is memorable, which meant that even I could do a pretty decent rendition singing it to our kids. It's about a penguin who loves a hippo and has a proposal: I want to be your personal penguin I want to walk right by your side I want to be your personal penguin I want to travel with you far and wide... Sanda Boynton has many other great board books including The Going to Bed Book, Fifteen Animals, and Barnyard Dance and while I haven't run across any that aren't great, I did just notice that she's started listing her personal pronouns as "she/her" which is better than going with "he/zer" but still shows she's bought into this "more than two genders" nonsense. So, again, read before you buy. You can check out the Your Personal Penguin song (and other Boynton hits) here. Goodnight Mr. Darcy by Kate Coombs 2015 / 20 pages This is a gimmick, but so brilliantly done it deserves a spot on this list. As you may have already deduced from the title, this is a mash-up of the board book classic Goodnight Moon and a classic of another sort, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  As stated earlier,  I am not a fan of Margaret Wise Brown's 1947 Goodnight Moon. I could handle it once or twice, but the simple repetitions started driving me a little batty even going on thrice. So when I saw this, in the same coloring, and a similar rhythm, but much more clever, I thought it might be the perfect substitute. And it was! Here's a little taste: In the great ballroom There was a country dance And a well-played tune And Elisabeth Bennet – This really is intended for adults, but the rhythm and rhyme will grab your children's interest too. This is not the only board book version of Pride and Prejudice, but as the others lack the same charm, be sure if you have the right author....

Articles, Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

David Wiesner: weird and wonderful

Super creative? Ultra creative? Mega creative? Every good picture book author is imaginative, but somehow David Wiesner (1956- ) manages to be all the more so. His living clouds, flying frogs, and artistic lizards always provide a surprise – a reader starting one of Wiesner's stories will never be able to predict how it is going to end. That's a joy for parents to experience right along with their kids: a children's story that isn't predictable! And since several of Wiesner's works are wordless, they can also be great books for reluctant readers to tackle alongside mom or dad. Wordless doesn't mean it's an easy "read" but together parent and child can put their detective skills to work to figure out all that's going on! What follows are my family's recommendations – our favorites – and then a few that we've read but which for this reason or that, I'm not going to recommend like the rest. Finally, there are three that really aren't worth bothering with. RECOMMENDED Free Fall 1988 / 32 pages A little boy falls asleep and we get to come along in his dream. As dreams often are, this is wordless throughout, one page streaming into the next as the boy goes from meeting a dragon to growing giant-sized, to flying home on a leaf. It makes sense only in the ways that dreams do. But the smart-eyed reader will be able to spot on the last page, when the boy wakes up, all the objects in the room that inspired the different parts of his dream. This is one to “read” slowly and enjoy every picture. Hurricane 1990 / 32 pages Two brothers are worried about a coming hurricane. But when the lights go out, and the family is still together, the boys realize it's not so bad after all. It even gets quite good the next day, when they discover a huge fallen tree in their neighbor’s yard. In the days that follow the huge trunk becomes their spaceship, and the branches a jungle, and the both of them together a pirate-hunting sailboat. Tuesday 1991 / 32 pages The only words we see tell us the time, and that it is a Tuesday. For reasons that are left entirely mysterious, at around 8 pm, a swarm of frogs suddenly starts flying (or is it their lily-pads that are doing the levitating?). They flock into town, chase some birds for fun, watch a little telly, and then, just as they are heading back, dawn breaks, and the sun's rays seem to sap their flying powers. That leaves the whole lot of them hopping back to their pond. This is silly nonsense and kids are sure to love it. Sector 7 1999 / 48 pages A boy on a field trip to the Empire State Building meets a rambunctious cloud (he discovers that clouds are people!) who takes him back to “Sector 7” high up in the sky where the clouds get their orders about what shape of cloud they should be. But the clouds seem a bit bored with these shapes and appear to ask the boy to draw them up some alternatives. And what fun to see clouds mimicking the sea creatures he draws! Eventually, the rambunctious cloud returns the boy to the Empire State Building, but his visit to Sector 7 might have some lasting impact, as the clouds quite like being fish-shaped. This is another of Wiesner’s wordless books and another one that parent and child will have pouring over to see all that the pictures have to say. The Three Pigs 2001 / 40 pages When our middle daughter discovered this one she just had to share it with her younger sister right there and then. This is a creative spin on the old tale as the Big Bad Wolf blows the pigs right out of the story and into some others (including Wiesner's own The Loathsome Dragon). As they travel from storybook to storybook the pigs decide there is no place like home, but also decide to bring along a guest from another story – a dragon! – to give this pesky wolf quite the surprise. Art & Max 2010 / 40 pages This might be my favorite picture book. It involves just two characters, which makes this one easy to read out loud to the kids, and there’s so much energy on each page that performing it becomes so easy to do. Art knows how to paint, and Max desperately wants to learn. (Both are lizards, but aside from the fun way they look, that doesn't really matter.) But who should Max paint? When Aurthur suggests himself, Max literally starts to throw paint on Art. And that’s when it gets wacky! As Max tries to clean the paint off Art, he starts to clean all the color off him. Art is see-through; he’s just lines! Then, when that line starts to unravel, Art becomes just a scribble. Fortunately, his friend Max is on it, and proves, as he turns that scribble into a work of Art, that he has some mad skills too. I Got It! 2018 / 32 pages Once again David Wiesner lets the pictures do (almost) all the talking, When a long flyball is hit into the outfield, a boy declares, “I’ve got it!” which are the only words in the story. But does he really have it? One dropped ball is followed by another, and it’s almost like there are obstacles (getting bigger and bigger) just reaching out to trip him up. His repeated drops have his teammates moving in closer to catch it for him, since he can’t. But then, in one last stretching leap, our boy in red jumps past the obstacles and beats his teammates to the ball for a wonderful game-winning catch. This is a very fun story, but I could see some kids needing a little help to understand what’s going on. But hey, reading together is fantastic! TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT The Loathsome Dragon 1987 / 32 pages An evil queen/stepmother casts a spell which turns a princess into a loathsome dragon. Along comes a brave prince who has to kiss the dragon three times to break the spell. The only twist in this tale is that the brave prince is her brother, and not a husband-to-be, but that’s not enough to make this seem fresh. I should add that while I was unimpressed, my girls liked this a lot more than I did. June 29, 1999 1992 / 32 pages A young girl, Holly, sends vegetable seedlings into the ionosphere for her science project just to see what might happen. Soon after giant vegetables – house-sized and bigger! – start floating down from the sky. But wait! Some of these vegetables are not the sorts that she sent up. So where did those come from? At book’s end we discover the giant vegetables came from a giant alien chef accidentally losing his ingredients while flying above Earth. Very fun to see the giant vegetables all over the landscape but I think it would have been better without the aliens tacked on at the end. Flotsam 2006 / 40 pages When a boy discovers an old-style underwater camera washed up on the beach, he brings the film in to be developed. There he discovers pictures, seemingly taken by underwater creatures themselves, and the world that they live in when we aren’t looking is certainly something to behold: little mermaids and mermen, robotic fish, giant turtles carrying shell cities on their backs, and even what looks like aliens taking rides on the guppies. Done without any text at all, each picture is another discovery. The very last snapshot is of a girl holding up a picture. And in that picture is a boy holding a picture of a girl holding a picture of a boy. A look through a magnifying picture shows this goes deeper still, and further back in time. The boy’s microscope reveals more still layers to the photo. This is inventive and fun, with the only cautions being that the young target audience may have to be informed that though the photos look quite realistic, the aliens and mermen are fantasy, not fact. DON'T BOTHER Mr. Wuffles Tiny tiny aliens have landed, but unfortunately for them, their ship attracts the attention of Mr. Wuffles, who thinks it’s one of his cat toys. To repair their ship the little aliens recruit help from ants and bugs – their treasure trove of lost marbles, pencils, loose change, and paperclips turn out to be just what the aliens need to fix things up. There's some vague religious-type imagery written by the bugs on the house walls that, along with the aliens, makes this one I'd rather just skip. Fish Girl Wiesner’s only graphic novel is the story of a mermaid girl kept captive in an aquarium by the owner who she believes is the god Neptune. It’s odd all the way around, and that she is swimming around topless for most of its 192 pages (though always with strategically placed hair, or fishes) makes this another good one to skip.  Robobaby Robots get their babies in a box, with some assembly required. This story has its quirky charm, but when Mom and Dad, Uncle Manny, and even the Robobaby tech service can’t assemble Junior properly, but the child amongst them knows just what to do, this become just one more adults-are-dumb-and-kids-know-everything story that we can really do without (Prov. 20:29, 22:15). CAUTIONS David Wiesner is an incredibly imaginative picture book author, which makes him very fun to read, but it's that same active imagination that seems to lead him into a bit of over-the-top weirdness now and again. I couldn't figure out what Wiesner's worldview/philosophy is, and it'd be a bit much to conclude he must not be Christian just because he features aliens on occasion, though aliens (at least the intelligent sort) would seem to be incompatible with Christianity (but demons masquerading as aliens would not be). However, there's nothing in his books that would give us reason to conclude he must be Christian. In lieu of evidence one way or the other, that's good reason for parents to approach his future output with some caution. CONCLUSION If you have a creative kid, Wiesner's best could be just the spark they need to think bigger and bolder. And if you have a not-particularly-creative kid, Wiesner might be an inspiration for them too, showing them how there are all sorts of possibilities to explore and fresh ways of looking at things. Finally, if you have a reluctant reader, Wiesner's wordless books – Freefall, Tuesday, Sector 7, and I Got it! – might be an encouragement for them to page through, especially if mom or dad comes alongside....

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Tikki Tikki Tembo

retold by Arlene Mosel 1968 / 48 pages My full first name is Jonathan, but long ago I learned there were benefits to using a shorter form. In basketball, for example, if a teammate was streaking up the sidelines and yelled for a pass, by the time he got out all three syllables of Jon--a--than he wasn't open anymore. But "Jon!" would get my attention, and him the ball, much quicker. Tikki Tikki Tembo is about this same lesson but in a very different setting. We are told that long ago Chinese families would honor their firstborn sons with long names, and give their other sons very short names. Our story takes place in a small mountain village where a mother had two sons. The second was simply called Chang while the first was named Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo. If these two played sports we can be sure who'd be making all the great passes and who wouldn't even make the team (try fitting that name on a jersey!). Of course, they didn't have basketball in ancient China, so their names come into play a different way. This is a charming book so I don't want to give away the ending. Let it suffice to say that as in basketball, so too in aquatic events it is better, and less hazardous, to have a shorter name. The story is wonderful, the illustrations fun, but more than anything else this is such a joy to read out loud: Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo is not only a long name, but a lyrical one, and each time it gets repeated in the story it gets funnier. This is a classic for a reason!...

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Ella's big chance: a fairy tale retold

by Shirley Hughes 48 pages / 2003 This unique spin on the story of Cinderella is so good it improves on the original. Some of that is due to Shirley Hughes' artwork, charming as always. Then there is the setting: this is a "Jazz-Age Cinderella" pushing the story forward to the 1920s. Ella and her father run an elegant dress shop, making the finest of clothes. The evil stepmother, in this case, has some business acumen, turning the small shop into an even bigger success. But the greater the demand, the more work there is to do for poor Ella. The story follows along the familiar course of other Cinderella versions, but with pictures all the more stunning, and a twist at the end in which (SPOILER ALERT!) the love-at-first-sight duke finds his Ella but doesn't get the girl! This is really what sets this version both apart and above all others – none of the nonsense about knowing someone for an evening and then getting married when next you meet again. Nope, Ella ends up with the store's delivery boy, who has always been there for her and wanted to be so evermore. While Hughes' artwork is wonderful, the prose is superb as well. It flows so very naturally that, as I read this out loud to my girls, I felt as if I was one of those professional readers. I sounded good! But that is all to Hughes' credit, and not my own - there is a wonderful flow to each page of text. I will add one caution: there is one use made of the term "good heavens," which some view as a substitute oath and too much like a real blasphemy for their liking. Though I don't agree, I do sympathize and wanted to alert readers to its use. I would give this two very enthusiastic thumbs-up, and recommend it highly to anyone who has three- to ten-year-olds. While this is probably far more a girl than a boy book, I really liked it. I think other dads will enjoy reading it too. And if you're looking for another inventive spin on Cinderella, be sure to check out Jan Brett's Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella....

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

The old house

by Pamela Duncan Edwards 2009 / 32 pages This is a sweet picture book about a self-absorbed house who learns to think about others. Why is the house self-absorbed? Well, "no one had lived in it for a long, long time," so it was quite lonely. And when people passed by, they would often say, "Did you ever see such an unhappy old house?" The house does have friends - birds, a squirrel, wildflowers, and a large oak tree - who do their best to encourage it. But it feels so empty inside that when people do come by to see the house would quickly leave again. "The only thing to do with that dump is to knock it down," a man sneered. But then, one day, a family stopped by. They liked the house. They had never lived in a house before. But just as they were considering whether to buy the old house, it let out "one of its big, sorrowful sighs," and the family quickly left. "I think it might have rot," said the father. Poor house! When the family comes back for a second look, the house takes a long look at the family and saw wishful, uncertain, eager faces. "This family needs me," thought the old house... and it shook off its self-absorbed sorrow and stood tall. But the family left once again. I won't tell you how it ends, but I will note that the house's friends – the oak and the squirrel – were encouraged that finally, the house had stopped feeling sorry for itself. That makes this story with a moral that any kid can understand. Both my older daughters, 3 and 5, really enjoyed it....

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

The Bug Zapper: The Ant Arrives!

by Tom Eaton 2018 / 108 pages Bug Zapper is a superhero that fights a bevy of bug-themed villains like Mean Mosquito, Butterfly Bob, and the Black Ant. His powers are the ability to jump really far – I think he's jumping and not flying – and, like his namesake, a nasty jolt of electricity that stops bug villains in their tracks. This is more of a gentle spoof of the superhero genre than a genuine batman or spiderman-type comic. Yes, villains do get zapped, but no one gets really hurt. Artist and author Tom Eaton makes good use of bright colors and simple lines – the drawings strike me as a little Peanut-esque – to create a comic book that'll draw kids in. It's hard to walk by this without picking it up for a peek. There are two books so far – Bug Zapper and Bug Zapper: The Ant Arrives! – and both my Grade Three daughter and I thought the second was the better of the two with just a bit more action and humor. But the first has the Bug Zapper's origin story, which every Bug Zapper fan will want to know. And the first also has an interesting plotline about bias in reporting. Robert, an elementary student who would love to be the Bug Zapper's sidekick, also writes about him for the school newspaper. Amber, the daughter of one of Bug Zapper's archnemeses, also goes to the school and accuses Robert of being biased for writing such a nice piece about a hero while saying nothing nice about villains. Then the teacher gives Robert an assignment to write his next article about a supervillain! But does being unbiased means saying nice things about both sides? That's what Amber thinks. But Robert knows that good journalism is more about being fair, trying to share the truth as accurately as he can. That's some pretty weighty material for a comic that's otherwise just lighthearted fun! And Tom Eaton pulls it off well. I would think this best for Grades One to Three, but the video version will let you gauge how it matches up with your children. You can find another video and color sheets at bugzappercomics.com. ...

Articles, Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

46 children's books to foster the love of reading and learning

We are "People of the Book" so reading should be, and is very important, to us. The goal of all reading is to become readers of the Good Book. It is not enough to teach our children the ability to read; we must also nurture our children to be aware that the content of books should lead us to the author of the Good Book. The following is a treasure trove of books that tries to help with attaining that goal. To make a list of favorite books is a daunting task. No sooner is the list completed and another treasure is found and could be added to the repertoire of great books. I hope you get reacquainted with some of your favorites and that your own list of great books will grow. Almost all of these selections are picture books that preschoolers and children in the early grades will enjoy, but there are several "chapter books" which are intended for children who are in at least Grade One or Two (these exceptions are noted in the reviews that follow). Happy reading with your children! OLDIE GOLDIES Some books are timeless gems. Even though they have been written many years ago, these classics have stood the test of time and continue to appeal to children today. On occasion these classics have been updated - “Disneyfied” - and have lost a lot of their substance, so make sure your read the original version. Make way for the duckling by Robert McCloskey Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are looking for just the right place to raise their brood of duckling in New York City. Caps for sale by Esphyr Slobodkina Some monkeys take on the saying of “Monkey see, monkey do” and get into monkey business with a hat peddler. Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel Help is slow to come for a Chinese boy with a long name who falls into a well. Frog and Toad are friends by Arnold Lobel Get every Frog and Toad book in this series and you will not be disappointed. The story of Ping by Marjorie Flack First published back in 1933, this is the story of a funny duck and his misadventures living on the Yangze River. The world of Pooh by A.A. Milne Watch out for the many Disneyfied versions of this story, as only the classic original retains the author's lyrical charm. This is a chapter book, so it might seem to be something intended for grade school children, but even young children are likely to enjoy it. Joseph had a little overcoat by Simms Taback Joseph’s worn coat becomes smaller pieces of clothing until he makes it into a button that he then loses, but that is not the end for, “You can always make something out of nothing.” Stone soup by Marcia Brown When hungry soldiers come to a town of greedy inhabitants, they set out to make a soup of water and stones and the whole town enjoys the feast. The tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter Mrs. Rabbit tells her bunnies not to go into Mr. McGregor’s garden, but Peter does not listen and gets into all kinds of mischief. BOOKS TO TICKLE THE FUNNY BONE We have all hear it at one time or another: “I don’t like to read.” One way to hook your reluctant reader is to start with humorous books. No one can walk away from a book that makes them laugh and humorous books will then help build bridges to other types of books. A book that tickles the funny bone will help the child who doesn’t like to read become one who loves to read. More parts by Tedd Arnold A hilarious book where a boy fears that the idioms he hears all around him (like "give me a hand") are to be understood literally. Cloudy with a chance of meatballs by Judi Barrett Imagine a town where meals rain from the sky! Disaster strikes when the town is bombarded with massive-sized portions of food. Knuffle bunny: a cautionary tale by Mo Willems A small girl, not yet able to talk, tries to get her father to understand that her beloved bunny has been left behind at the laundromat. The principal’s new clothes by Stephanie Calmenson This is a respectable twist on the Han Christian Andersen fairytale The Emperor’s New Clothes. Hairy Maclary from Donalson’s dairy by Lynley Dodd A rhyming story about a cheeky little dog and his pals who gets into mischief. A FESTIVAL OF THE ARTS Can your child recognize the names: Beethoven, Bach or Brahms? How about Monet or Michelangelo? Even if you are not the artsy type once you read these tales you will have to admit these artists lead colorful lives that make great stories to read. Hallelujah Handel by Douglas Cowling Handel, living in the Charles Dickens era, uses his music to help some of the destitute homeless boys of England. This is 48-page book, so most suitable for children in at least Grade One or Two. Camille and the sunflowers by Laurence Anholt Based on a true story of a boy and the famous painter Vincent van Gogh. Berlioz the bear by Jan Brett A story based on the composer Berlioz and his strange sounding double bass. Linnea in Monet’s garden by Christina Bjork A young girl visits Monet’s garden in Paris. This book contains many pictures of Monet’s paintings, and also quite a bit of text, so it is best read to slightly older children. Katie meets the Impressionists by James Mayhew Katie visits the museum and becomes part of the famous painting of the Impressionists. The Farewell Symphony by Anna Harwell Celenza Here is the story behind Joseph Hayden’s famous Farwell Symphony. This picture book has quite a bit more text than average so it is best suited to grade school children. SNOOZERS It is good to set aside at least one traditional time each day for reading. The best time to read to wiggly children is at night when they are tired and ready to go to bed. The snoozer books in this list deal with the ritual of going to bed and hopefully will help your active child relax and soon drift off to sleep. The napping house by Audrey Wood Grandma takes a nap and her grandchild climb on top of her, and then one thing leads to another, and disaster leads to delight. Goodnight moon by Margret Wise Brown A little rabbit is tucked in bed but he must say goodnight to everything in the room as it grows darker and darker. Llama, llama, red pajama by Anna Dewdney Baby Llama has a hard time sleeping and needs his mama’s assurance that, “She’s always near even if she’s not right there.” The prince won’t go to bed by Dayle Anne Dodds A little prince in a medieval world will not go to bed and nothing will help… except a goodnight kiss. Russell the sheep by Rob Scotton Even sheep count sheep when they can’t sleep. Goodnight, goodnight construction site by Sherri Duskey Even the equipment at the construction site needs to lie down and rest after another day of rough and tough work. Ira sleeps over by Bernard Waber A little boy must decide if he wants to take his teddy bear to a sleepover at his friend’s house. GIRLS WITH SPUNK I like girls with attitude - the right kind of attitude that is. I'm not talking about the kind of attitude that is obsessed with ones' self and with what's popular in the world. No, I mean the sort of attitude that is determined to learn what it means to be an image bearer of God. Here are some of those sort of girls. Fancy Nancy by Jan O’Connor Nancy is a girl who loves everything fancy; even the words that she uses are fancy. The courage of Sarah Nobel by Alice Dagliesh A young girl journeys into the wilderness, in this chapter book, and there overcomes her fears of wolves and savage Indians. Hannah by Gloria Whelan This 64-page chapter book is set in the pioneering days. When the new teacher persuades a family to allow their “poor, blind Hannah” to attend school, the young girl learns how to read and write. The story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles This is the true story of an American six-year-old girl who was the first black to attend an all-white school; it is a story of courage and faith. Ramona by Beverley Cleary There’s never been anyone quite like Ramona, a girl with boundless energy and mischievous antics. My Great-Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston Arizona was a girl who loved to sing, dance, read and dream of visiting faraway places, though she never did travel. Instead she became a teacher who influenced many children. The gardener by Sarah Stewart Set in the Depression era, a young girl is sent to live with her crotchety uncle because her family is struggling financially, and she tries to brighten the world around her. BOYS WILL BE BOYS Readers often make connections to what they are reading. Children will identify with and want to be one of the characters in a story, which thus becomes a role model for the reader. Therefore, what your child is reading is also developing who they are becoming as an adult. A good book should have characters that we wish our children to emulate. Here are some such characters. First flight by George Shea Young Tom Tate has volunteered to try out the Wright brothers’ first flying machine. Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown Stanley becomes flattened when a bulletin board falls on him and he discovers that there are some things only a flat person can do. The Kingfisher book of great boy stories This 160-page anthology includes passages from such stories as Winnie-the-Pooh, Flat Stanley, The Jungle Book and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This is a great way to get a “taste” of children’s classic literature. Zella Zack and Zodiac by Bill Peet A zebra and ostrich help each other survive in this zany tale. ELDERLY HERO AND HEROINES As a doting grandparent I have learned there is a unique bond between the young and the elderly - both understand that the other needs special care and attention, and both are happy to reciprocate. The following books beautifully portray this loving relationship. So grandparents, find a great book, cuddle up with a child, and read. You’ll be surprised what you have in common. When lightning comes in a jar by Patricia Pollacco Grandma’s ritual of catching lightening bugs in a jar will be remembered for generations to come. Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox Young Wilfrid loves his friend from the nursing home because she has a long name like him, and he wants to help her find her lost memory. Grandfather and I by Helen Buckely Family life can be very busy. But Grandfather always has time to walk with his grandson and look around “just as long as they like.” The old woman who named things by Cynthia Rylant An old woman who has outlived all her friends is reluctant to become too attached to anything she might outlive. So when a stray dog starts visiting she certainly won't give it a name - she doesn't want to become attached! However, when it goes missing she has a change of heart... Grandpa’s teeth by Rod Clement It’s a disthasther when grandpa’s false teeth go missing. Mr. Putter and Tabby catch the cold by Cynthia Rylant I smile and chuckle every time I read a Mr. Putter and Tabby book. The Wednesday surprise by Eve Bunting A granddaughter teaches her grandmother to read. Now one foot, now the other by Tomi DePaola Grandpa teaches Bobby to walk when he is young, and later in life when grandpa has a stroke Bobby helps his grandfather....

Articles, Book Reviews

100+ read-aloud suggestions…

I’ve been reading out loud to my girls since they were born, and now that they are older we're still reading, ending each day with a chapter or two of something. That means for years now I've also been on the hunt for that next great book to read, talking to others and searching their bookshelves to find out what their favorites are and what they might recommend. If you're looking for that next book too, or maybe the coronavirus quarantine has you thinking about reading to your kids for the first time, here are some favorites that our family and others have sure loved. Many of these can be checked out electronically from your local library. Otherwise, consider buying the e-book version of one of the chapter books – it's an investment that'll pay off in the hours you and your family can enjoy these stories together. While there are 35+ recommendations below, some are of books series, so the total number of books recommended amounts to well over 100, and all of them fantastic! PICTURE BOOKS All of these have big bright pictures on every page, and the first three are rhymed, which makes it a lot easier for a beginning Dad to get off to a good reading-out-loud start; these will make you sound good! A camping spree with Mr. Magee by Chris Van Dusen – it has 2 great sequels. The Farm Team by Linda Bailey – about a hockey-playing barnyard. Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel  – a favorite of millions for the last 40 years. Charlie The Ranch Dog by Ree Drummond – while the 10 sequels can't quite match the enormous charm of this, the original, your kids will love them too. Don’t Want to Go by Shirley Hughes – Shirley Hughes has dozens of other wonderful read-aloud picture books. The Little Ships by Louise Borden – this is a stirring WWII account suitable for the very young, about the bravery of ordinary folk. James Herriot’s Treasury for Children – a big book with 8 sweet stories for animal-loving children. Mr. Putter and Tabby series by Cynthia Rylant – an old man and his cat, and his wonderful neighbor and her trouble-making dog - 23 books in all. Piggie and Elephant series by Mo Willems – an Abbot and Costello-like duo of Piggie and Elephant getting into all sorts of antics. 29 books, most of which require from the reader only the ability to do just two different voices. BOOKS WITH PICTURES There are pictures in these selections, but not on every page. These are slightly longer, more involved, stories that your children will not be able to read on their own until the later part of Grade 1, or the beginning of Grade 2, but they’ll love to hear them a lot earlier than that. Bruno the Bear by W.G. Van de Hulst – one in a series of 20+ classic books that are impossible to find except here. Winnie the Pooh & The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne – it’s worth getting the big collected treasury to read and reread again and again. The Big Goose and the Little White Duck by Meindert DeJong – a gruff grandpa wants to eat the pet goose! Rikki Tikki Tavi by Rudyard Kipling – the gorgeous Jerry Pinkney adaption is the very best. Prince Martin Wins His Sword by Brandon Hale – epic story, in rhyme - this is just so fun to read out loud, and there are 3 sequels! CHAPTER BOOKS Once the kids are hitting kindergarten or Grade 1 mom and dad can read books they might read for themselves only in Grade 5 or 6, or even as adults. That can make reading aloud more fun for parents, as the stories will be of more interest to them now. The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder – this is not the easiest read aloud – the sentences can be quite choppy – but girls everywhere are big fans, and there are 8 sequels. I will note, there was more tragedy (the pet dog Jack dying, Mary becoming blind, etc.) than I was expecting. Still, our girls really enjoyed their mom reading the whole series to them, even though there was, on occasion, tears flowing. The Bell Mountain series by Lee Duigon – only downside to this 13-book Christian fantasy series is that each title leads into the next; it’s one big story with no clear ending in any of the books. But we've read all 13 so far and are eagerly anticipating #14! The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson – A laugh-out-loud hilarious adventure for older children (maybe Grade 3 and up), with 4 main books, and then a book of short stories too. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien – much more of a children’s tale than Lord of the Rings and shorter too (maybe also best for Grade 3 and up). The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton - the author is Christian though that doesn't come up directly anywhere; it's just good silly fun. Treasures from Grandma's Attic by Arleta Richardson – a clearly Christian grandma talks with her granddaughter, telling stories about way back when she was a little girl. This wouldn't work for boys, but our girls absolutely love it (and there are 3 sequels every bit as good). Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter Mrs. Piggle Wiggle by Arleta Richardson Innocent Heroes by Sigmund Brouwer – Brouwer has collected true stories about the amazing feats different animals managed while working in the trenches of World War I, and then told them as if they all happened in just one Canadian army unit. This is probably my wife's favorite book on this list, and the girls sure liked it too. There were one or two instances where I had to skip a few descriptive words, just to tone down the tension a tad - war stories are not the usual fare for my girls – but with that slight adaptation, this made for great reading even for their 5-9-year-old age group. The Last Archer by S.D. Smith Farmer Giles of Ham by J.R.R. Tolkien Sir Lancelot the Great by Gerald Morris – 3 out of the 4 books in this series are fantastic The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis The Wilderking Trilogy by Jonathan Rogers – Wonderful trilogy covers what would happen if King Saul and David had lived in the American South during feudal times. Brave Ollie Possum by Ethan Nicolle AUDIO PRODUCTIONS Half of the following are multi-voice and with great sound effects, but even the three that are simply being read are spectacularly well done. These are great for long car rides, and would be appreciated by all ages, though I’ve arranged them here by target audience, youngest to oldest. The Great Cake Mystery by Alexander McCall Smith Sir Malcolm and the Missing Prince – Lamplighter Theatre Teddy’s Button – Lamplighter Theatre Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims by Rush Limbaugh Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – the LifeHouse Theater production is just 97 minutes, so quite compacted. But it is very well done, and a great first exposure to this classic for young and old alike The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (as done by Focus on the Family theater) Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (and read by Glenn Close) Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (as done by Focus on the Family theater) Jon Dykstra and his siblings blog on books at www.ReallyGoodReads.com....

Articles

How to get our boys to read

In a 2010 Wall Street Journal article, Thomas Spence argues that the way some “experts” were trying to encourage boys to read was all wrong. Their strategy involved pitching boys books like Goosebumps, Sir Fartsalot, Captain Underpants and The Day My Butt Went Psycho. If we want boys to read, so this line of thinking goes, then let’s give them the potty humor they adore. That’ll make them readers, right? It might get some reading, but what it won’t do is give them any of the benefits that come from reading good books. Thomas Spence insists that instead of “meeting where they are at” we need to aim higher, and he quotes C.S. Lewis: “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.” If we point our sons to what’s disgusting and encourage their interest, how can we expect them to learn and appreciate what is good? How can our boys become men if, instead of training them up in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6), we reinforce their childishness? Instead of the gross, we need to fill our shelves with what’s great. We need to give our boys examples to aspire to, in books like Encyclopedia Brown, Saint George and the Dragon, The Green Ember, The Hobbit, Journey Through the Night, and Wambu: The Chieftain's Son. Of course, it’s one thing to stock our shelves, and another to get our boys to pull books off of them. How do we get them reading? Two tips: start early, and get rid of the distractions. Read to your son from the day he's born. Sure, a newborn won’t understand what’s being read, but he will love the time sitting on mom or dad’s lap. As he gets older, he’ll enjoy board books’ for their soft chewy corners and bright colors. Then simple stories can help him learn colors and numbers and all sorts of other words. A child who never remembers a time when he hasn’t been read to won’t have to be taught to appreciate stories – by the time he hits Grade One it’ll be in his DNA. But like any habit, this one can be broken. In his article Thomas Spence cites the findings of a Dr. Robert Weis, who linked video games in the home with lower academic performance. I’m sure a similar connection could be made between TV viewing and reading ability. The fact is, no matter how good the book, it can't compete with video games and TV shows for a boy’s attention – given a choice he’s going to watch a screen rather than read. If we want to raise readers then we need to limit their access to electronic media – we need to guard them against these distractions, indulging in them only in moderation. This is going to be tough. One of the reasons we parents like TV shows and video games is they can act as effective babysitters. A boy glued to the TV, or busy trying to make it to Level 3, isn’t going to be pulling his little sister’s hair. And if he’s busy then Mom’s probably got at least 20 minutes to hop into the shower, or get breakfast ready, or put away the laundry. A lot can get done when this babysitter is helping out. Now consider that not only does the TV have to be turned off, but mom or dad needs to read to the kidlets for 15, 20, 30 minutes a day, right from babyhood onward. For a busy set of parents this might seem like just another chore to add to all the others. But here’s a bit of encouragement: it isn’t going to be forever, and it does work. A child can read on their own at 6 or 7, and while it’s wonderful to keep reading with them after that, it’s not the same sort of necessity. At that point you can switch up from being the book reader to being the book supplier, pointing them to the very best ones (and I have suggestions on some really good ones here and here). Regular reading might mean you don’t have time to tidy the house, or your lawn isn’t mowed nearly as often as it should be. But are you going to look back and regret the length of your lawn? And will your son reap a real benefit from reading with you each day through Grade One and beyond? Reading daily, for just a half dozen years or so, and you’ll have helped him develop an appreciation of good books that can benefit your son for his lifetime....

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