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Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock

by Eric A. Kimmel 32 pages / 1988 Things begin with Anansi (uh·naan·see) the spider making quite the discovery: a strange moss-covered rock that somehow knocks you out if you say "Isn't this a strange moss-covered rock!" It takes Anansi a couple of goes – along with a couple of hours of unconscious time, lying on his back – to figure this out, but once he does, he knows just how he's going to use this magical rock. He starts bringing his friends to come see it, and encourages them to comment on it. Once they do, and are lying on their back taking an unintended one-hour nap, Anansi goes to their house and takes their food. He begins with Lion, then Elephant, Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus, and goes on and on.  The careful reader will notice that there is another animal watching all these goings-on. Somewhere behind the bushes, on most every page, is the little Bush Deer. He decides to make things right by pulling a trick on the trickster. When Anansi invites him to go look at the rock, Bush Deer goes but he doesn't comment on the rock. He even pretends he can't see it. In frustration, Anansi ends up spouting the troublesome phrase himself...and down he goes! That allows the Bush Deer a whole hour to clear out Anansi's house and return his ill-gotten gains Cautions There are no cautions for this book, but parents should be aware that Anansi the trickster is a folktale from Africa, who, in some versions, isn't simply a spider but is a god in the form of a spider. So the only caution would be not to presume, if you are buying another author's Anansi stories, that they will simply be morality tales with animals standing in for people, as is happening here. Conclusion This is a fun animals-as-people folktale that rewards the observant child (even the pre-reader) who spots the bush deer long before he makes his first "official" appearance. On the first go, a child might need some encouragement from mom or dad to look closely, but once they spot the deer once, they'll love finding him the next times. That's what makes this a book kids will look through repeatedly....

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Owly: The Way Home & The Bittersweet Summer

by Andy Runton 2004 / 160 pages This is two stories in one, and at about 80 pages each, they have room for some real fun. In the first, we get introduced to Owly, who, as you may have guessed, is an owl. The forest creatures are afraid of him because, well, he’s an owl, and they know that typically owls eat creatures like them. But not Owly. He’s a kinder gentler owl, and all he wants to do is feed his fellow birds seeds. Sadly, no one trusts him, and Owly is all alone… until the night of the big storm! Then Owly finds a worm, half-drowned, and nurses it back to health. Worm, realizing he hadn’t been eaten, trusts and befriends Owly, which is the start of something beautiful. It’s never really explained what Owly does eat, but we can be certain that it isn’t cute little worms! In the second story, Owly and Worm meet a couple of hummingbirds and have a great time until the little speedsters have to head south for the winter. But don’t worry, they’ll be back come Spring! It’d be more accurate to call these “talkless” rather than “wordless” because, even as the dialogue between Owly and his worm friend is limited to symbols and punctuation marks – a question mark when one of them is puzzled and an exclamation mark when they are excited – there’s the occasional shop sign or even a whole encyclopedia page entry on hummingbirds that does require the reader to be able to actually read. If you’re considering getting this for your school library, you’ll be interested to know there are two editions of this story, the first in black and white with this symbol-based dialogue, and the second, now titled simply Owly: The Way Home (2020) that is in full-color and adds in a minimal bit of verbiage between the characters. While I really like the original near-wordless version, it was sometimes a bit hard to decipher what Owly and his pal were saying to each other, so the second editions are probably the best way to go. Everything in this series seems to be gentle and kind including Just a Little Blue (1st edition 2005 /2nd edition 2020, 130 pages), Flying Lessons (2005/2021, 144 pages), A Time To Be Brave (2007/2022, 132 pages), and Tiny Tales (2008, 172 pages)....

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. ...

Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Kitten Construction Company: meet the house kittens

by John Patrick Green 70 pages / 2018 The author of Hippopotamister is back with another charming treat for early readers. The story begins with "the city of Mewburg preparing for a big project..." They are building a new mansion for the mayor, and to get it started the city planner has to find the right architect. He has a few candidates to chose from, and the first up has a brilliant design. But there is a problem: the architect is a cute kitten! "Sorry," he tells little Marmalade, "I regret that you are just too adorable to be taken seriously." When Marmalade goes off to drown his sorrows in a saucer of warm milk, he meets another kitten dealing with the very same problem: no one is giving him a chance, because he's just so cute. The two decide that maybe they can team up. When they get hired on to help at a big construction project, they think that maybe their luck has turned. But they soon realize that they aren't being given actual work - just busy-work projects. That's when they decided that if no one else will take them seriously, they'll go out on their own. And that's how the Kitten Construction Company is born! The kittens get to show their talents when the official mayor's mansion falls to pieces, and they can then take the media and their mayor to see their own, gorgeous, and fully upright, version. That's when everyone has to acknowledge that cute isn't the opposite of capable. While most of the book's intended audience won't realize it, the author is kindly and gently poking fun at discrimination. He's making the lesson gentle, by making the source of discrimination "cuteness" rather than skin color or gender but what comes through is that treating people based on how they look rather than what they can do is ridiculous. He's also not hammering kids over the head with the lesson, feeling free to divert from the lesson to bring in some funny cat jokes. The sequel deals with a similar anti-discrimination theme when the kittens get the call to design and build a bridge. As everyone knows, cats don't like water, so they'll need some help with this job. And standing ready are...the Demo Doggos. Dogs? Marmalade isn't sure. Will that be, as the title asks, A Bridge Too Fur? ...

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction

In Grandma’s Attic         

by Arleta Richardson 144 pages / 1974 When Arleta was a little girl she would visit her grandma, where she’d play up in the attic. There Arleta would find old treasures that she’d bring to her grandma, who would share stories about them, and about when she was young. The first story is about how Mabel (Grandma) and her friend Sarah-Jane got into trouble with hoop skirts. They wanted to wear the wiry hoops to make all their friends jealous of them, but they were not old enough yet. Then Sarah Jane finds out that her cousin, who can wear hoop skirts, has two old ones that she is going to give up.  Sarah-Jane’s mom says that they can wear them for play, but Sarah-Jane thinks it is a good opportunity to make a big entrance at church. And that Mabel can wear one of the hoop skirts too! The one thing that they don’t know is how to sit down with hoops. When they walk down the aisle and sit in the front seat, the hoopskirts spring up, which made their dresses fling up onto their faces! That is super funny! This was embarrassing for the girls but they also learned a lesson, how pride can go before the fall. All of the stories are funny and also teach the reader the lessons that the mischievous girls gained while growing up. This book is great for readers who are comfortable with reading chapter books. And if you like these stories there are three more books in the series....

Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Yellow & Pink

by William Steig 1984 / 32 pages Sometimes one encounters a work of art, a poem, piece of music, figurine or painting which is so simple yet so perfect. Simplicity, you see, takes more talent, not less, to bring about. Sometimes these works come from unlikely sources too. Yet the masterpiece can be appreciated for what it is, rather than for who the artist is. Most people would not consider children’s literature to represent works of art, but of course, there are exceptions, and one such exception is a story called Yellow & Pink by William Steig. This story is so simple, the illustrations so charming, the whole so pregnant with meaning, that it merits the attention not only of children but also of their discriminating elders. The story involves two recently assembled wooden puppets laid out in the yard to allow their paint to dry. Suddenly aware of themselves and of their surroundings, they begin to speculate on where they came from. Pink declares that somebody must have made them. Yellow rejects this idea although he notes that they are “so intricate, so perfect.” He proposes time and chance as the preferred explanation: “With enough time – a thousand, a million, maybe two and a half million years – lots of unusual things could happen. Why not us?” Pink, however, declares that idea to be “preposterous.” Thus the puppets engage in dialogue. Yellow proposes hypotheses involving “natural processes” while Pink expresses skepticism in the form of further probing questions. The discerning reader will notice that Yellow’s hypotheses deal only with shape (form). They never deal with function or even the intricacies of form such as joints. Yellow continues his appeal to time and chance with speculations which become more and more improbable. Finally, he bogs down and appeals to mystery. This puppet is content, in the end, to say we may never know the answer, but he refuses to consider Pink’s suggested alternative. In the end, a man (whose drawing bears a striking resemblance to the book’s author and illustrator) comes along, checks the puppets’ paint and carries them away. Neither puppet recognizes that this is their maker. This simple story, illustrated with elegant line drawings colored pink and yellow, is an obvious analogy to evolutionary speculations. The appeals to time and chance to explain highly improbable events (such as hailstones of the right size falling repeatedly only in the eye sockets) have an all too familiar ring. This is like using time and chance to explain how a particular orchid flower ever came to resemble a particular female bee in appearance, texture, and smell. The author of this little story was a most interesting man. An artist by training, he had provided cartoon-like illustrations for The New Yorker magazine for almost forty years, when at the age of sixty he undertook to write and illustrate children’s books. Thus in 1968, Mr. Steig began a new, highly successful career, that would span a further twenty years. He favored stories that encouraged children to think. One device was to sprinkle big words into the text and another was to espouse unusual ideas. For example, in Shrek, he encourages his readers to value strength of character rather than conventionally attractive personal appearance. Thus it is in Yellow and Pink that he turns his attention to Darwinian speculations. Perhaps he wanted to encourage critical thinking. Whatever the author’s reasons may have been for writing this book, it conveys an important idea by means of an elegant and non-confrontational device – a children’s story. Buy the book because it is a discussion starter, or as a collector’s item, or just because it is fun to read....

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction

Prince Martin wins his sword

by Brandon Hale 52 pages / 2018 At bedtime, my dad reads a lot of books to us – me and my two sisters. One night he read a rhyming book called Prince Martin Wins His Sword, and we all liked it. Prince Martin is a boy who wants to prove to his father the king that he is brave, loyal, and true. So he decides to explore the unknown forest, and while he was there he found four evil hogs who were bullying a baby deer. And there was a dog there too, protecting the fawn. And the dog was a knight, named Sir Ray! Prince Martin was scared, but then he dove right in, fighting side by side with Sir Ray. The rhymes in the book are like this: Should he help or go home, the boy had to decide. And just how much help, could a mere kid provide? It has lots of good pictures, but even without the pictures, the book is super good (I didn’t see the pictures the first time because I was in bed). Also, my little six-year-old sister doesn’t really like tension, and while this one was scary it wasn’t too scary. I think this would be great for kids ages five through ten. ...

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction

The Great Cake Mystery

by Alexander McCall Smith 73 pages / 2012 Precious Ramotswe must rank up there with some of the best-loved fictional detectives of all time, rubbing elbows with Hercules Poirot, Cadfael, and Father Brown. But as beloved as she is among adults, did you know that the star of Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is also popular among children? McCall Smith has written a series of mysteries for children, featuring Precious when she was just eight years old. For those who don't already know, Precious lives in Botswana. In The Great Cake Mystery, Precious doesn't think of herself as a detective yet, but her dad thinks she has it in her. So when a classmate is accused - without any proof – of eating someone else's sandwich, she is upset. Precious, you see, is a kind girl who wants to help others. In this case helping means setting a trap to catch the real snack stealer. SPOILER ALERT: Precious bakes a cake full of glue, covers the whole thing with icing, and places the cake outside the classroom "on the shelf where the children left their bags." And not too long afterward the whole class hears the howling cries of the little thieves - monkeys! Precious has saved her friend from the mean accusations of their classmates. And, this being an old-fashioned sort of book, those classmates are truly sorry for what they thought and said. This is a charming book, made all the more so by the folksy illustrations throughout, at least one on every two-page spread. McCall has written four other children's mysteries starring the young Precious, with The Great Cake Mystery billed as "Precious Ramotswe's very first case." (In a confusing twist, that same billing is shared with at least one edition of another book in the series, Precious and the Monkeys. Whether The Great Cake Mystery is the first or not, it serves as a wonderful introduction to the young detective-to-be.) CAUTION We've read two other "young Precious" mysteries so far, and our daughters have loved both The Mystery of Meerkat Hill and The Mystery of the Missing Lion. I had a slightly different take. While I loved the former, I thought the latter was marred by an insertion at the end where they treat a lion as if he were a person. Precious ends up giving a brief lecture about how all lions should live free, including the missing tame lion they'd just recovered, and all the adults side with the child. It is, on the one hand, no big deal - it is only a few pages in an otherwise enjoyable story. But it rankled me because this childish "feel-good-ism" is rampant in our culture, and I don't think we need to be feeding any of it to our undiscerning children. The fact is, a tame lion would most likely die in the wild and a well-treated tame lion is not an oppressed lion. So what Precious proposes is both completely unnecessary and quite likely very harmful to the very lion she wants to help. We're taught that good intentions are what really matters, but God says otherwise (Prov. 27:14) – if our well-meaning efforts cause damage, then we need to stop doing this well-meant damage! CONCLUSION My wife and I didn't know about this brief lecture until we came across it in the audiobook with the kids listening along. It wasn't objectionable enough to stop listening to the book we were already three-quarters of the way through, but if I was buying this series for a Christian school library I would get The Great Cake Mystery and The Mystery of Meerkat Hill, but give The Mystery of the Missing Lion a pass. There are two others in the series but we have yet to read (or listen to) them.         I should note that the audiobook versions are truly remarkable, with the reader delivering all sorts of wonderful accented voices. Oh, and if your kids like this series, they might also enjoy a five-book series McCall Smith wrote about Akimbo, a boy who lives on a game reserve in Africa. I've reviewed those here. All, in all, these are books that children even as young as 5 may really enjoy listening to, and 9 year-olds and up could really enjoy reading. Our whole family was thoroughly charmed. This review first appeared on ReallyGoodReads.com....

Children’s fiction

BOOK REVIEW: Love That Dog: a novel

by Sharon Creech 2001/ 86 pages A review of a read-aloud book, to be read aloud. ***** As I started reading the very first page of this book, I thought it was dumb. I’ve never been a fan of poetry, particularly if it was the type of poetry that didn’t even rhyme. And that’s what was in this book. But I kept reading and found out, on that very first page, that the author agreed with me! The book is by Jack, a boy in elementary school, who doesn’t like poems either. Each day he writes a journal entry, for his teacher Miss Stretchberry, and there on the very first page, in his first entry, he tells her his thoughts on the poem they have just read in school. He writes: If that is a poem about the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens then any words can be a poem. You’ve just got to make short lines. It was a book of poetry, by a boy poet, who didn’t like poetry! So I kept reading, and I started learning. Jack’s teacher showed his class poems. Some did rhyme, some were by famous writers, and some weren’t very good at all. But I started learning, along with Jack, that poetry doesn’t always have to rhyme, or even have a set rhythm. Sometimes it can just be a different sort of way to express your thoughts, to lay them out, so people understand them better.  Poetry can be easier then teachers sometimes make it. And it can be powerful. And it can make you cry. I started reading this book, about a boy learning about poetry, and making poems, and expressing beautiful thoughts about his beautiful dog, and by the time I got to the end of it I realized it wasn’t dumb at all. Love that book....

Children’s fiction

5 great chapter books

With the start of summer what parents everywhere need are some fantastic reads for their young'uns. The chapter books below come in all shapes and sizes, so no matter what your son or daughter may be interested in, one of these should grab their attention. All would be good for children who have just completed Grades 1, 2 or 3. And if mom or dad are reading, kids as young as 4 might find these exciting too. Akimbo and the Lions by Alexander McCall Smith 1992 / 66 pages The author, Alexander McCall Smith, is best known as the author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency but he does children's books as well. Akimbo is a boy who has access to all the coolest animals in Africa – his dad is one of the rangers in charge of a wild game reserve, which means that from one book to the next Akimbo is having adventures with snakes and baboons and elephants and crocodiles, oh my! In Akimbo and the Lions he accompanies his father to trap a lion harassing a small village. But things don't go as planned – instead they trap a cub and scare the momma away. That means someone needs to take care of this wee little lion, and Akimbo convinces his dad that he is just the boy for the job! McCall does a wonderful job of balancing the tension in the book. There were moments where my 5 and 7-year-old were covering their mouths (and sometimes their eyes) but these moments didn't last too long. This is just a good old-fashioned adventure, perfect for their age group. It is short – a book that can be read in two or three sessions – exciting, sometimes sweet, with gentle humor along the way too. We've tackled the other 4 books in the series and would recommend two of them: Akimbo and the Crocodile Man and Akimbo and the Snakes, though the latter has a passing endorsement of evolution after the story, in the notes. The other two have some more problematic content which you can learn about here. Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter & Kathleen Olmstead 150 pages / 2007 I'm not one for abridged classics – why not just read the original? However, there is an exception to every rule. I recently realized that my little ones could benefit from learning about Pollyanna's "glad game" – like her they need to learn how to look for the positive side of things. But they just weren't old enough yet to sit through the original. Fortunately Sterling Books' "Classic Starts" has a very good abridgment. Half as long as the original, it is the perfect size for my girls’ ages, three through seven. Pollyanna is a poor but lively orphan girl who goes to live with her rich, strait-laced aunt. Hilarity ensues as this somber lady is gradually won over by her cheerful niece. There is one shocking/sad moment that could cause young listeners some distress – Pollyanna gets hurt quite badly. I peeked ahead and made sure that the chapter with the accident was the first one I read that night, and then I kept on reading the next couple chapters so we could finish on a happier note. That helped my audience work through this tense section. Andi’s Pony Trouble by Susan K. Marlow 61 pages / 2010 Andi is 5 going on 6, with dreams of owning her very own horse. Andi lives on a farm in the West in the 1870s, and already has a pony, named Coco. But Coco can only trot, and that not fast enough for Andi's liking. So she wants a horse for her birthday. But as little Andi tries to prove she's big enough for a horse, everything goes wrong. Author Susan Marlow, does a good job of interjecting comedy throughout - at one point Andi ends up with eggs on her head, which had our girls giggling. There are 11 pictures throughout, which helps make it an accessible book for younger children too. The author is Christian, and it shows –Andi also gets into some minor naughtiness, but afterwards asks her mom, and her pony Coco, for forgiveness. The only downside is that while Andi knows she shouldn't say disrespectful things, she still thinks them. Quite a lot. That’s okay in small doses, but it pops up more in other Andi books. I would give Andi’s Pony Trouble two thumbs up, but this internal backtalk is the reason why we’re not going to buy the rest of this series. Though we probably will get them from the library. The Adventures of Lancelot the Great by Gerald Morris 92 pages / 2008 This has all the adventure you’d expect from an Arthurian tale, but way more humor. And maybe the best way to review it is to share one of those jokes. Sir Lancelot wants to be one of King Arthur's knights because "They have the bravest hearts, the noblest souls and the shiniest armor in all the world." Lancelot is a little obsessed with his appearance but on his journey to Camelot, (to introduce himself to the King) he gets caught in a rainstorm, and his armor ends up getting "splashed all over with dirty spots." When at last the rain stopped, Sir Lancelot turns his attention to his spattered appearance. Moving his lance to his left arm, he draws a towel from his saddlebags and begins scrubbing at his armored legs. Soon he is absorbed in the task, paying no attention to where his horse is taking him. When he does finally look up, Lancelot sees a knight bearing down on him. Thinking it one of those roving evil knights and "having no time to shift his lance to his right arm...he met the knight’s charge left-handed, popping his attacker very neatly from his saddle." Almost without pause, another knight attacks him, and then another and another, which gets Lancelot quite annoyed, as this near constant assault really interferes with his cleaning efforts. But he quickly dispatches them one after another. This happens 16 times in all, and after the 16th knight was dispatched, Lancelot hears clapping. It turns out he had wandered into a tournament unawares, and won it quite unintentionally while using his lance left-handed. Then when he finds out the King himself is the host of the tournament and wants the noble knight to join the Round Table, Lancelot is distraught. Why? "Look at me! I'm all covered with mud! And I did want to make a favorable first impression!" The rest of the book is more of the same – my girls were laughing out loud, and I was having a great time too. The only caution would be that other books in this series have some magic and supernatural elements that might be of concern to some parents. But this book is just good silly, feudal fun. This could be enjoyed by kids all the way through Grade 5 and 6. The big goose and the little white duck by Meindert DeJong 169 pages / 1938 It begins with a big boy buying his mother a big goose for her birthday present – she's always wanted one for a pet. But there is just one problem: to buy the goose he had to borrow money from his gruff grandfather. Now the grumpy old man was more than happy to loan the money but only because he misunderstood what the big boy intended. He thought the boy was buying it for his birthday – for his eighty-eighth birthday just a few months away. He thought the big boy was buying it so that grampa could, for the first time in his long life, have a taste of roast goose. So the fun in the story is seeing how this can all conclude with a happy ending! It was a great read-out-loud book to share with my young daughters. The big goose is an excitable character, and the grandfather likes to bellow, which means that I got to get loud too. DeJong won both the Hans Christian Andersen and Newbery awards for children's literature, so the man could write. If mom or dad are reading it, this is good for ages 4 and up. Jon Dykstra and his siblings blog on books at ReallyGoodReads.com....

Book Reviews, Children’s fiction

3 fantastic books/free videos children will love

Dai Hankey has a great voice, and has paired up with a fantastic illustrator for his three books about Eric, and how this little fellow learns to say thanks, please, and sorry. Usually an author's voice isn't all that relevant, but in the three videos below we get to listen in as he reads his books (which can all be found at The Good Book Company). Fun stuff! ERIC SAYS THANKS 32 pages / 2016 In Eric Says Thanks this little boy models some fantastic enthusiasm as he learns Who to give credit to for the goodness he's been giving in his "brecky." https://youtu.be/qiAhf98SpuM ERIC SAYS PLEASE 32 pages / 2017 Eric wants to show he can do it all himself, but the little fellow soon learns that pride goeth before a fall...right out of a tree!  When Eric finally realizes he can't do it on his own, his grandfather points Eric to Who he can go to, to ask for help. https://youtu.be/P3X7uGzCKRI ERIC SAYS SORRY 32 pages / 2016 When Eric messes up he tries all sorts of way to get out of trouble, but lying, shifting blame, and coming up with excuses don't get him anywhere. But when his dad gives him grace - epic grace! - and pays for the broken pot, Eric gets a glimpse at the grace God gives us. We can't earn forgiveness. But we can ask for it. Parents with highly developed "arminian sniff detectors" might detect a hint of this theology in the author's commentary after the book concludes. But if it's there (and I don't know if it is) it certainly isn't anything that children will notice or be impacted by. And it doesn't come up in the book at all. https://youtu.be/yDV9-cUz40s...