Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Max Disaster #1 Alien Eraser to the Rescue by Marissa Moss

Meet Max. He's a disaster who likes scientific experiments. When his marshmallow experiment in the microwave explodes into "Godzilla Puffs," mom is not pleased with the gooey mess. (The godzilla puffs illustrations are pretty funny.) As Max moves on to other experiments such as a mud volcano, getting into his brother's room by serving irresistible treats, and mixing water with food coloring, we discover that family life is not so hunky-dory. Mom and dad are fighting. Lots. Max deals with it by experimenting, drawing alien eraser comics (DUN, DUN, dun), and talking to his brother. The result is an explosion of fun with an emotional pull that leaves the reader satisfied - if not a little hungry.

Max is a boy's version of the Amelia's Notebook series. Take note you Diary of a Wimpy Kid fans - before Jeff Kinney there was Marissa Moss blurring the lines between images and text. The reading flips from text to pictures to speech bubbles and you need to pay attention to all to follow the storyline. On one page I missed the picture of Mr. Cabrillo and the speech bubble and the following text didn't make sense because Ms. Blodge was speaking in the text before. While it sounds confusing, it isn't. Just take your time and look at the details. Maybe I'm showing my age by not having grown up with graphic novels. What I love about this visual-text style novel is that I have a story I wrote when I was 10 with text, speech bubbles, and pictures.

Max goes to school and has a best friend, Omar, that he writes a comic strip with about alien erasers. The alien eraser idea overflowed during a lava experiment in Ms. Blodge's class where the two decided the alien erasers had to flee or be burned. Ms. Blodge confiscated the erasers and an ongoing joke continues throughout the book as well as the story-within-a-story comic strip of the alien erasers. The cyclops eraser named "Lublip Fooza" was my personal favorite.

There is plenty of kid humor with nose-picking and farting to name a few. This is not a thick book and is good for the grade 5 student. It has themes such as parents separating as the family adjusts to painful circumstances. While Moss shows the uncertainty and fear of divorce from a child's point of view, it is balanced with more humor and hope than sadness. This is one of those books that isn't heavy on text and is not going to overwhelm the reader who doesn't like thick chapter books. I have parents ask how to get their child from reading only graphic novels to text and this is one I'll definitely recommend.

Reading Level 4.5

4 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater

I am a doofus. I don't know what happens to my brain, but it just checks out of reality. Climbs a mountain; hides in the clouds. Take for instance this morning. I'm at church. I have to go to the bathroom really bad so I run out, use the stall, only to emerge and see men at the sink. Ahhh! What a doofus! I went in the men's bathroom. And I confess, this isn't the first time this has happened.

Mr. Popper is an absentminded doofus too. When his penguins yank him down three flights of stairs, I'm thinking, uh-huh, that would happen to me. When he loses control of 12 penguins who invade an orchestra pit I recall teaching Sunday school and having 9 boys hanging from the trees outside (I thought it would be fun to have the lesson outside). AND when Mr. Popper's wife says that it is so much easier to clean with him not around, I look down at the piles around my chair of Nooks, books, and notepads and wonder if my husband would like to send me to the North Pole on an expedition. Speaking of my husband, he's been reading this book to his first graders for 18 years. Hmmm... I think the read is cathartic. He loves me. But I know I'm a challenge at times.

But, back to Mr. Popper. What makes this book so lovable? It is completely unbelievable. Why can that be annoying in some books and totally charming in others? I think the charm is the appeal of the characters from the penguins to Mr. Popper and the imaginative, unpredictable plot. Add in a nice dose of true facts about penguins and you have a charming marble cake. (I really want something sweet to eat right now.)

Right off the bat we learn that Mr. Popper is a dreamer. He dreams of not being a painter and instead exploring far-away countries. When Mr. Popper gets a penguin in the mail from Sir Admiral Drake who is exploring the South Pole, he is delighted. Mrs. Popper isn't so sure about a penguin as a pet but falls in love with it consenting to it living with her and their two children, Bill and Janie. Mr. Popper begins converting his refrigerator into a nest for the penguin named Captain Cook. When Captain Cook becomes ill the Poppers get Greta, a female penguin; thus causing a host of new issues Mr. Popper must tackle.

The first issue was that the two penguins didn't fit in the refrigerator. With the winter season beginning, Mr. Popper decided the two penguins could nest in the living room, so he opened the windows to let in falling snow that quickly piled into drifts. The penguins used the drifts as toboggan runs and Mr. Popper iced the floor so the runs were even faster. Janie and Bill had fun playing with the penguins until it became obvious that Greta was going to have babies. Mr. Popper then moved the furnace upstairs and installed a freezing plant in the basement where a bundle of penguin chicks were born.

When the Poppers started running out of money they decided to teach the penguins to act and join the theater. The Poppers Performing Penguins were a smash hit and Bill and Janie got to miss school so the show could travel around the United States. How can a young reader not love all that? Sledding in the living room, having pet penguins, traveling in a theater show, missing school. The penguins are the brains of this book. They are quite good at manipulating the adults and from their hilarious pranks to Mr. Popper's wildly imaginative problem-solving, this is a fun ride.

A great read aloud.

Reading Level 4.9
5 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Fox on Wheels by Edward Marshall

I read this to 2nd graders and they loved the character of Fox. He is annoyed with his younger sister that he has to babysit, has to deal with his fear of heights, and makes a bad choice by racing in the supermarket with his friends. This tied in nicely with the start of the year and talking to students about appropriate places to run and not run. My huge library is prime ground for sprinting youngsters. Fox is a distinct character with high energy, talks back, shows he's annoyed with younger sister while at the same time showing that he cares about her as well. He's mischievous and likeable.

This transitional book has repetition, slang, and plenty of action to keep students engaged. The author has surprising elements that balance well with the predictability of Fox's actions. For instance, when Louise hurts herself Fox feels guilty and gets her anything she wants. She gets more outrageous with her requests and while she asks Fox for things, he replies, "Of course" meaning of course he will get her what she wants. It isn't until her friends show up and she pops out of bed that Fox realizes she is taking advantage of his attention. There is a depth to how the characters act that allowed for some good discussions with students and laughter to-boot.

This is a level three book with greater frequency of compound and complex sentences and the pictures function more as decoration versus explanation. Although the illustrations do help with understanding some sections and words such as when Louise climbs a ladder and falls off while Fox watches TV. The students like the ending that shows Fox being punished by using a push mower and his other friends being punished as well by washing the car and using a push mower. Many students didn't know what a push mower was but they got the idea that it wasn't as fun as skateboarding which is what Fox is trying to do throughout the entire story. The other phrase they didn't understand was "hold your horses" and laughed when I explained it.

The first page of Fox on Wheels draws readers in with Fox wanting to skateboard with his friends and his mom telling him he has to babysit his younger sister. There's nothing like not getting your own way that pulls a reader into a story. I inevitably have someone blurt out, "I have to watch my sister too!" They are sympathetic toward Fox immediately and drawn by the fun of skateboarding. The three chapters are episodic with the action beginning at the start of the chapter and a resolution happening at the end.

Reading Level 1.9
5 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Troll With No Heart in His Body and other Tales of Trolls, from Norway by Lise Lunge-Larsen

There's nothing like a creepy, hairy, enormous monster to scare the bejeebers out of a reader. Trolls were the monster of choice in my home with our Norwegian-American heritage. Trolls were ferocious and liked to eat children. They could have multiple heads, but that didn't equate into more brain power. More like brain drain. They argued with each other until they gave each other headaches. According to the folk tales, they liked to kidnap princesses and hold them captive so they would rub their sore heads after arguing with each other. And boy -oh boy- are they loud. When they yell, such as in the three Billy Goats Gruff, "Who's that stepping on my bridge?" the ground rumbles and every person and animal quakes in fear.

Nine stories about trolls in Scandinavia are presented in this novel. They are written for the reader to tell as stories out loud with repetition and short moral tales. The author's note explains the themes that are covered and each story explains the origins and modifications of some so that they are more appropriate for younger children. For instance, one story has the narrator-child cutting off the head of a troll child in the classic story. The author modified it so that the troll child is pushed in the stew and eaten by the unknowing troll parents by the clever child. Another story has an eating competition where the child pretends to make a hole in his stomach so he can eat more than the troll. He has hidden a sack in his clothes and slips the food in it. The troll, not wanting to lose the competition but being full, decides to make a hole in his own stomach like the boy. He stabs himself and dies by turning into stone. While the stories are toned down for younger readers, they are still violent - some more than others.  

The stories usually surround a child who is disobedient and ends up with a troll who is going to eat them. The child has to rely on his or her own wits to get out of the predicament. The trolls nature is contradictory to human nature and it is a clear foil to the child hero. The lessons deal with how actions have consequences, it is important to never give up, to believe in yourself, and more. This is a good book for the storyteller looking for short stories to present to an audience.

Reading Level 5.6
3 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

What a master of plot twists! Stead can take seemingly unrelated events and weave them into a surprising, unpredictable story with kooky and engaging characters. Seventh grader Georges has just moved, his dad has lost his job, and his best friend has decided to hang with the cool kids. Georges deals with it in his own way and starts to make new friends at school and in his new home at an apartment building in New York. His dad is an architect who writes in perfectly even block letters which they teach in architecture school. I laughed hard at that. My dad and brother are architects and write in perfectly even block letters. I tried to copy them but could never eliminate my loopy letters. They are perfect and I'm loopy. But I digress. 

For Georges nothing is quite as it seems. Safer, a boy he meets in the apartment who is his age, likes to live on the edge, sneaking into other peoples apartments, spying on neighbors, and watching parrots nesting. Candy looks like she's 7-years-old, but she doesn't sound like one. Pigeon, the older brother, is hated by Safer for going to school instead of being home-schooled with Safer and Candy.The teacher's are idiots who seem to know what they are doing with students. They aren't so great at controlling bullies however. Dallas has pegged Georges as his victim to bully. When Georges discovers the lies that surround him, he has to decide if he should confront the hidden truths.

The beginning uses changing relationships, as well as, Georges parents moving and losing a job to add tension. Stead does a great job painting tension with conciseness and descriptive language, I'm hearing a sound. It's a funny, high-pitched buzzing that I think maybe I've been hearing for a while, without noticing. There should be a word for that, when you hear something and simultaneously realize that its been swimming in your brain for five minutes without your permission. This takes on a whole different meaning by the end of the story when George decides to face the truth. Stead is one of the few authors that I read and want to turn around and reread the book immediately so I can see the clues I missed the first time around. 

The humor in the story is sprinkled throughout from the Seurat painting that Georges calls Sir-Ott to Candy who is addicted to candy. She tells Georges she is going to marry someone who likes orange candy, because she hates it, and that way her partner will eat only the orange candy and she'll get the rest. Speaking of Sir-Ott, I have had funny conversations with 5th graders reminiscing about words they mixed up when they were younger. One thought her brother was going to See Attel versus Seattle. Which brings me to my next point. When I read as an adult sometimes I can interfere with the joy of the story. Take for instance, Candy. I found myself annoyed because Georges said she was about 7-years-old but she never sounded like one. And being a putz at details I thought he said she was 7-years-old. She was using words beyond a 1st graders vocabulary such as "seasonal" or "human being" and I was surprised that Stead, who is so brilliant with details, could miss this fact. I wrote in my reading journal to Get Over It because Candy is a fun character and I much prefer her in the story sounding too old than not in it at all (and kids are not going to notice the vocabulary as high). So I moved on. Then, I get to page 95 and Candy tells Georges shes 10-years-old. Ha! Jokes on me. Count on Stead to create a character who is not what she seems.

I did think some of the tension dribbles slightly in the middle part of the story, such as when Georges and Safer are staring at the screen of the front lobby. It ties in with the end and is necessary to the plot but I did lose my focus a tad. (I am somewhat hyper.)The story ends with a bang so if you are an impatient reader, stick with it, because it is a winner.

No reading level
5 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Wild Culpepper Cruise by Gary Paulsen

Mystery, action, humor. A simple plot  for older students that is a fun and a quick read. Calm Dunc is friends with the quirky, hyper Amos. When Amos wins a trip on a cruise ship, he brings Dunc along with his parents. Only problem is that Amos's parents are just as lost as him. When Amos picks up the wrong suitcase and his parents miss the cruise ship, Dunc and Amos have a fun time unchaperoned. Or I should say Dunc has fun. Amos has a series of disasters, the first being the discovery of the wrong suitcase that holds something two thugs want so much that they chase Dunc and Amos while on the ship. See what happens to the two in this exciting book.

The characters are likable with Amos being Dunc's sidekick. He might be too geeky for some but I laughed at some of the situations especially the dance on the ship. The dialogue is well done and the boys sound like 5th graders. Amos is in love with a girl at school who doesn't even know he exists and there are many jokes surrounding his love life or lack of it. Dunc is the brains. Neither one changes internally and the tension comes from them being chased by the bad guys.

The plot is simple and predictable. I did wonder what cruise lines do when someone misses a ship, especially if it involves minors.  The mystery is not complex and can be figured out quickly. I wondered why Amos and Dunc didn't notify an adult right away when they figured out what the thugs wanted, but then if they did there would be no story line - just ignore that question and go with the action. An enjoyable read.

Reading Level 4.5

3 out of 5 Smileys

Hailey Twitch is Not a Snitch by Lauren Barnholt

Capturing the character and voice of a second grader can be tricky. Oftentimes the adult voice sifts through and for the most part Lauren Barnholt's Hailey sounds like a second grader. She reminds me a little of the bossy, troublemaker, Junie B. Jones, and the imaginative don't-mean-to-get-in-trouble-but-do Clementine. Hailey Twitch is learning how to make friends and work with different students at school. When the teacher assigns her to partner with Addie Jokobeck for a school project, Hailey is not happy. Addie loves rules and for Hailey that spells, "No fun."

She stomps in the door after school, tells mom she's cranky, and gives herself a time-out in her bedroom so she can prevent a tantrum. In her room she hugs her doll and wishes she was a princess. Ah yes, a princess is rich and can get what she wants - like a different partner at school. Hailey's wish releases a sprite who's been trapped in the doll for 200 years. The sprite, Maybelle is being punished for being a bossy rule monger and thinks if she learns to have fun she won't be so bossy. Hailey thinks Maybelle can use magic to get her a new partner, but Maybelle only gets Hailey in trouble with pranks she thinks are fun. When Hailey becomes friends with Addie she decides to teach her to have fun. Maybelle decides to join in but things go awry. When Maybelle takes something from the teacher's desk, Hailey needs to decide what actions to take to correct the problem.

Hailey act sand sounds like a kid learning to socialize and make friends. She gets jealous when her current friends play with different students and she isn't sure about making new friends. She can be bossy and mean but also kind and caring. Natalie's the mean girl but she doesn't start out that way. She progresses in the story as someone who never learns to make friends. I don't really like how the kids gang-up on her at the end. I would have liked Addie or the other boys stepping-in to show Hailey and Natalie how to put their differences aside and reach out to each other. A few times Hailey sounds adultish such as when she tells the sprite who has put on a glittery gown that she looks like a "whole new woman."

Repetition is used that will help emerging readers acquiring language. Hailey repeats words for emphasis all the time. I thought it was overdone but I don't think young readers will find it annoying. Hailey also defines concepts such as what it means to be bossy or have a tantrum. There are some nice similes and metaphors such as Hailey's shock at seeing a sprite, "I cannot find my voice. It feels like I am trying to talk with a big mouthful of peanut butter sandwich before I've had any milk."

The plot has the sprite's issues mirrored by Addie. I wasn't sure how it moved the plot forward until the end when Hailey makes a decision to help the sprite. This can make for interesting discussions on whether or not Hailey made the right choice. I think the sprite needed more explanation. What is the Department of Magic and how does it fit into Hailey's world? Just when I thought I was going to get some answers, the book ends abruptly. This is a promising book but my biggest complaint is the poor ending. It is supposed to be a cliffhanger but it leaves too much hanging with the teacher having to hand out her punishment and Mr. Tuttle's cryptic message. More needed to be explained. A good addition to your library for grade 2-3 readers.

Reading Level 3.1
3 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Ruby Redfort: Look Into My Eyes by Lauren Child

Lauren Child has several series with strong, likable characters such as Charlie & Lola, and Clarice Bean. Ruby Redfort is a strong character as well, who makes her first appearance in the Clarice Bean series. Ruby is patterned after the hard-boiled detective stories of the past. She's a tough-talking, wise-cracking, sassy, code-breaking genius in middle school who manipulates those around her by lying, cheating, stealing, using her brains, and trying to manage a friendship when solving a mystery involving a potential heist of a jade statue from a museum.

Here's the problem... a hard-boiled detective doesn't translate particularly well into a young adult story. Or maybe it does if you are thirteen years old versus 50. The hard-boiled detective is usually a cynical, single person who has questionable virtues, is rebellious, insubordinate, and thinks the police force is inadequate. I found it hard to connect with Ruby and her disrespect and meanness to other school students, as well as, helping her best friend cheat in school and skipping out of classes. I didn't find her very engaging or likable in sections. I admired her brains and courage -coupled with humor- in the face of death but she doesn't give most people the time of day and thinks of them as lunkheads. This pride along with the other vices made me question the messages being sent to young readers.

Oftentimes if I don't' connect with the character I find the plot usually keeps me going as the story unfolds. This rhythm develops in a mystery plot as one clue exposes some truth that leads to another clue and yet another, with each one presenting new challenges to the detective either personally or as an obstacle to solving the crime. This doesn't always happen in this story where some sections are slow and some clues too obvious such as the notepad. An exciting climax (albeit unbelievable) with fast pacing will please most readers at the end of the book.

Also true to the hard-boiled detective there are plenty of American vernacular words. Ruby has a soft spot for Clancy Crew (play on Nancy Drew - Lauren Child humor) and her own code of conduct that is different than most other teenagers. Readers can live vicariously through this rebel and her rebel clothes. She is surrounded by incompetent adults and has some spy gadgets that I kept expecting to do more. I love gadgets. However, I don't think the author does. She doesn't mention any use of  mobile devices or researching the Internet which made me wonder about the message machine Ruby uses to skip school. Seemed like she should just have a cell phone. It was awkward and stood out. I don't think the author wanted to deal with a cell phone because too many sticky situations would have needed an explanation as to why Ruby didn't make a phone call especially the ending. If you like mysteries and want to be a tough rebel give this book a go.

Other mysteries with genius characters: Stormbreaker & Steel Trapp
Reading Level 5.3
3 out of 5 Smileys