The Magic School Bus by Joanna Cole hearkens back to my own childhood. I remember spending many lazy summer afternoons watching the PBS series with my little brother. There are 52 TV episodes over 4 seasons (46 of which can be found on the MagicSchoolBusClips YouTube channel). When it comes to the books, though you can find the original series of twelve, sixty-five other picture books, as well as twenty chapter books featuring the frizzy-haired teacher and her inquisitive students.
My kids’ particular favorites are In the Time of the Dinosaur and Inside a Beehive. The original books include all sorts of interesting notes, experiments, and other tidbits of information on the side panes of the pages, which with a preschooler and toddler, we usually skip over for brevity’s sake, but which can provide more scientific information for older readers.
Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger
Finishing School series #1
Pub: Feb 2013
4 of 5 stars
When Sophronia is sent off to an exclusive finishing school, she finds that the school has a unique, ulterior purpose: training spies.
Are those glass baubles decorative or deadly? They are rather knifelike. Can one call a chandelier sinister?
This YA steampunk is precisely everything YA steampunk should be… equal parts elegant and absurd, with a mix of clockwork and gaslamps. Even Sophronia’s new school — a finishing school on a dirigible, where they are taught how to be a lady and how to be a spy — is both clever and ridiculous all at the same time. It uses the same ‘world’ as her adult series, but doesn’t include all of the sexual aspects and is quite a bit less violent.
Some readers may not appreciate that much of this book revolves around world-building and describing things both Victorian and mechanical. After an initial burst of excitement, the plot really doesn’t progress a lot until the final chapters.
Coming in November!
Curtsies & Conspiracies
Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner is the latest obsession of my kiddos (“Jimmy John Jones” to the preschooler and just “John” to the toddler). This spunky kitty-boy who thinks he’s a Chihuahua goes on all sorts of imaginative adventures in his closet, which, depending on the day, might be ancient Egypt, a circus big top, or the surface of Mars (which, did you know, is red because it’s covered in chili powder?). On his journeys, he takes on the persona of Skippito, the great Spanish swordfighter, and meets up with a crazy group of Chihuahuas who go by the name Los Chimichangos.
It’s cute, silly fun if you don’t mind the Dora-the-Explorer-like spattering of Spanish vocabulary (including a few made-up words where the author just adds “-ito” onto the end of an English word), and the illustrations are very well-done.
A few months ago, I had the privilege of reviewing Cozy Classics’ adorable adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and absolutely loved it! So when the opportunity presented itself to check out another one of their classics-turned-board-books, I jumped at it.
Fans of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, or the recent musical movie based on it are sure to love this sweet little board book that depicts the story from Jean Valjean’s poor beginnings (“poor” being the sole word on the first page) all the way to the final scene in which Valjean, Cosette, and Marius are all reunited together again (“together” being the word displayed on the final page).
Heads up… although the single-word pages and absolutely “awwwwwww”-inspiring feltwork are what makes this little book so quaint, without a prior knowledge of the story, it’d be difficult to understand how they go together.
“God loved us so much he wanted us to always be with him too. That’s why God knew he’d need to give us Easter.”
The fluffy little polar bear and her family are back to explain another aspect of God’s love using object lessons and pictures from her natural forest surroundings. Fans of God Gave Us Easter will likely enjoy this book as well, as it follows a very similar pattern, and even indirectly refers back to it when explaining that the Easter Bunny is like Santa, who “reminds us of gifts and happy surprises in the morning.”
As with the Christmas book, my biggest concern with this one is that the analogies used may be a bit complex for young children. Although talking about eggs makes sense in an Easter story, some of the other comparisons baffled me a bit — Noah’s Ark was brought up, but seemed strangely tangential. The Root of Jesse would have been perfectly suited for a Christmas story, but for Easter, wouldn’t it have made more sense to talk about the wood/tree used to make the cross? In fact, through this whole book, the cross isn’t mentioned at all!
Also, the end of the book took another tangent in which Papa talks about how he talks to Jesus and how Jesus “whispers in my heart” to tell him things and encourages Little Cub to listen for God’s whisper voice, yet never brings up how God speaks to us clearly about His love in the Bible.
Overall: Warm, cute, but misses the mark.
The Obsidian Dagger by Brad A LaMar
3 of 5 stars
Brendan and Lizzie O’Neal think that their father’s research trip to Ireland will be rather ordinary, until they find themselves on a dangerous quest to save the king of the Leprechauns from an evil witch.
The moat at the castle’s base was alive with slithering creatures craving an unsuspecting caller or perhaps a girl scout with a wagon full of cookies.
This book includes so many things that I love about middle grade novels — a fast-moving plot that jumps from dangerous situation to dangerous situation; brave heroes that rise to the occasion with courage and bravery; and fantastical creatures that excite the imagination.
There definitely is some predictability to the story, and the villain seems to be evil just for the purpose of being evil. Also, there are a few rather silly poop/fart-type jokes, but overall, it’s a pretty fun story.
Overall: A fast-paced middle grade adventure novel full of magic, danger, and humor.
NEW on shelves tomorrow!
A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff
4 of 5 stars
In a world where each person has one special Talent, a group of people — including a cranky old man, an orphan girl, a loving family, and a mute woman — are brought together by fate to find the things that they have lost.
The Owner didn’t know it then, but in just one short week, all eight rooms would be filled. Some would be occupied by people with great Talents, others would not… But every last person would have something in common.
In just one short week, every last one of them would have lost the thing they treasured most in the world.
You gotta love any book that starts out with a recipe for cake. This sugary-sweet Middle-Grade novel lives up to its name as the connections between the characters get entangled, ensnared, and entwined. I loved how some of the connections were obvious right away, whereas others needed time to work through. The slightly-magical world where Talents are as unique as the characters themselves and fit each person perfectly was refreshing — a single, subtle change from our own world that makes a major difference.
Young readers may initially have trouble following each character — I know I had a couple confused in the first chapters myself — but it’s worth sticking with it to see how everything ties in together at the end. Another disadvantage might be that this book makes the reader want to eat copious amounts of cake…
for instance… The Owner’s Peanut Butter Cake With Peanut Butter Frosting which was absolutely fabulous
Overall: Clever, imaginative, and sweet; this is the perfect novel for a middle-grade reader looking for a bit of whimsy.
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
4 of 5 stars
An artistic gorilla living in a circus-themed mall hatches a plan to save Ruby, a baby elephant, from life in a cage.
“Time to earn your keep, Picasso,” he mutters.
I wonder who this Picasso is. Does he have a tire swing like me? Does he ever eat his crayons?
I picked up this book as soon as I heard the announcement that The One and Only Ivan received the 2013 Newbery Medal.
The story starts out with the random musings of a large, patient, fairly-contented gorilla as he describes what his life is like in the circus-themed mall. The free-verse narration makes this a quick read, and shows Ivan’s personality well. I’m not a huge fan of gorillas, personally, but I enjoyed seeing the world through Ivan’s eyes; his observations of humans were at times humorous, at times insightful, and I learned a bit about gorillas in the process as well.
Ivan’s tale plays out like a modernized version of Charlotte’s Web. I’m not sure how intentional the similarities were, but they were there. It was, however a darker version E.B. White’s tale, with the violence against animals described more vividly and humans as the obvious ‘enemy,’ making it somewhat depressing and politically charged — perhaps too much so for some very young children.
Overall: Though the tale has been told before, seeing the world through the eyes of a gorilla is what makes this book a unique and clever story.
The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman
4 of 5 stars
“Antsy” Bonano befriends Calvin Schwa, a boy who is “functionally invisible”; Old Man Crawley, an elderly recluse; and Crawley’s granddaughter, Lexie, who — although blind — sees more than most people.
“It’s like he’s functionally invisible.”
“The proper term is ‘observationally challenged,” Howie says.
“Whadaya mean ‘proper term’? How can there be a proper term for it when I just made it up?”
“Well, if you”re gonna make something up, make up the proper term.”
One of the things I enjoy most about Neal Shusterman’s writing is how he creates a unique, yet totally believable voice for each of his first-person narrators (which is why Bruiser, featuring four first-person narrators, is one of my favorite books). This book pulls the reader into the mind of Anthony “Antsy” Bonano with narration that makes you feel like you’re talking to a good friend about these crazy things that happened to him. The casual, slightly cynical, and humorous tone works perfectly for this Brooklyn teenager. The story itself is a spunky tale of identify and our perception of people that at times reminded me a bit of Holes.
It is obviously intended for a slightly younger audience than many of Shusterman’s other books, and if you’re only going to read one of his books, this isn’t the one I’d pick. However, but if you’re already a fan of his writing style, it’s definitely worth the read.
Overall: A fun, easy read with a witty narrator and unique premise.
NEW this week…
Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli
4 of 5 stars
In a childhood fantasy world without any grownups, things begin to take strange changes in the life of one of the biggest kids, Jack.
With the runt squirming in his hands, LaJo recites: “Never pass a puddle without stomping in it. Never go to sleep until the last minute. Never go near Forbidden Hut. Never kiss a girl. OK, go.”
William the runt runs screaming after the puppies.
Jerry Spinelli creates a fantastic childhood fantasy world where bicycles are really wild horses, dolls grow out of the ground like farm vegetables, and the Hokey Pokey man comes with slushies in every flavor imaginable at exactly high noon. This is a magical world where kids run wild and enjoy all the things that make up a childhood. As Jack begins to change, this fun free-for-all story of a lost bike turns into a touching coming-of-age novel that captures the boy’s thoughts as he becomes disillusioned with the childhood games, takes on greater responsibilities, and learns that girls aren’t all “pimplebrain” “watermelonheads” like he thought.
While this was a fun story, I don’t know that I would recommend it to middle grade students, as it’s being marketed for. The kids make up their own terms and language, which makes it hard to understand what they’re talking about until you get into the story — something that younger readers are likely to find frustrating. Also, I don’t know how many middle-grade kids could really understand or appreciate what actually is happening to Jack, as it’s all really one extended metaphor that may very well go over the heads of 8-12 year olds. For somewhat more mature readers, though, who may enjoy reminiscing about their days as “Snotsippers and Sillynillies and Gappergums”… this is a book for you.
Overall: A fun and silly twist on the “coming of age” novel, that delves into the imaginative world of children.