Category: Elementary School


fly worm

The Fly by Elise Gravel

The Worm by Elise Gravel

The first and second books in the new Disgusting Critters series of nonfiction picture books, these books take a humorous look at the biology of a specific creature.  The first book deals with flies, specifically the common house fly.  Inside are all sorts of interesting facts like the fly being covered in hair and information on eggs and maggots.  More disgusting aspects are played up, which should appeal to young children, like the diet of flies and how germ filled they are and why.  The second book is about worms and focuses on their unique anatomy, such as having no eyes and no limbs.  There is also a focus on habitat, diet and reproduction.  Throughout both books, humorous asides are offered, making this one of the most playful informational book series around.

Gravel combines both humor and facts in her book.  She keeps the two clearly defined, with the animals themselves making comments that add the funniness to the books.  The facts are presented in large fonts and the design of the book makes the facts clear and well defined.  These books are designed for maximum child appeal and will work well in curriculums or just picked up by a browser in the library.

The art in the books, as you can see by the covers, is cartoonish and cute.  The entire effect is a merry romp alongside these intriguing animals.  I know some people believe that books about science for children should be purely factual, but Gravel’s titles show how well humor and touch of anthropomorphism can work with informational titles.

Information served with plenty of laughs, these science titles will be appreciated by children and teachers.  Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from library copies.

west of the moon

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

Astri lives with her stepmother, stepsisters and younger sister until she is sold to the cruel goat farmer.  He takes her to his home, refuses to ever let her bathe, has her do drudge work, and doesn’t let her ever return to see her sister.  Then Astri discovers another girl kept locked in a storage shed, who spins wool into yarn all day long.  Astri escapes the goat farmer, taking his book of spells and his troll treasure.  She heads off with the other girl to find her younger sister and then all three flee, heading to find their father in America.  But it is a long trip to get to the sea and an even longer trip from Norway to America.  Along the way, the goatman continues to pursue them, they meet both friendly faces and cruel, and the story dances along the well-traveled roads of folk tales.  Astri slowly pieces together her own story and then resolutely builds herself a new one with her sister by her side.

An incredible weaving of the gold of folktales with the wool of everyday life, this book is completely riveting.  Preus has created a story where there are complicated villains, where dreams are folktales and folktales build dreams, where girls have power and courage, and where both evil and kindness come in many forms.  It is a book that is worth lingering over, a place worth staying in from awhile, and a book that you never want to end.

Astri is a superb character.  Armed with no education but plenty of guts and decisiveness, she fights back against those who would keep her down and separate her from her sister.  As the story progresses and she escapes, she becomes all the more daring and free spirited.  Her transformation is both breathtaking and honest.  One roots for Astri throughout the story, fights alongside her and like Astri wills things to happen. 

A wondrously successful and magical story that is interwoven with folktales, this book is a delight.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.

mark of the dragonfly

The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson

Piper survives alone in the house she once shared with her father in Scrap Town #16.  The scrap town is built around an area where meteors crash carrying items from other worlds.  Piper makes the little money she has by salvaging things from the meteors and using her knack with machines to repair them to working order.  Then one day, Piper finds an unconscious girl in a destroyed caravan.  She takes her back to her home, where she discovers that the girl, Anna, has lost her memory but also bears the mark of the king of the Dragonfly Territories, putting her under his protection.  Anna is not alone though, there is a man following her that she calls “The Wolf” and who desperately wants Anna back.  Piper and Anna flee and sneak onto a slow-moving freight train with the help of Piper fooling the alarm systems.  They aren’t able to stay hidden on the train for very long, but Anna’s mark gets them a free ride in luxury.  Still, the train ride is not without risk and the first hurdle is convincing the young head of security that they can be trusted. 

Johnson has created a rich world filled with elements of fantasy, steam-punk and science fiction.  Blended together into one, they work to a certain point but much is left unexplained and unexplored.  Readers will have immediate questions about the meteors but those are quickly left behind as questions about fantastical beasts arise, and still more questions about the steam punk elements. That said, the book does work and there is hope that more of the world will be understood in upcoming books in the series. 

Piper is a wonderful protagonist.  I enjoyed reading a book where a girl is the one who can handle machinery better than anyone else.  She is also incredibly brave and has a huge heart that is quick to embrace new people.  Her personality shines in the book.  The pacing of the novel will keep young readers engaged in the story.  It is near breakneck speed, rushing headlong into the next part of the adventure. 

Rich and delightful, get this book into the hands of young steampunk fans who are looking for a new adventure.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

day my father became a bush

The Day My Father Became a Bush by Joke van Leeuwen

Toda lives with her father and grandmother.  Her mother left them years earlier and went to a neighboring country.  Now Toda’s father has gone to be a soldier in a war.  Toda discovers that he has learned how to become a bush, so that he will not be shot.  At first Toda stays with her grandmother in their family bakery, but that soon becomes too dangerous.  Her grandmother sends her off to her mother, but Toda must make a dangerous journey with strangers to cross the border.  Though her grandmother has made plans, they go awry along the way and Toda must navigate much of the border crossing on her own.  Even once she is across the border, she doesn’t know where her mother is and how she will ever locate her.  This is a story told from a child’s view of war and being a refugee.

With such an unusual title, I wasn’t sure what this book was going to be about.  It was surprising to find myself in a book about war.  Even more amazing to find that it was a book filled with humor.  Van Leeuwen has written a book with a wild sense of humor but even more importantly a very unique point of view.  Toda sees the world in her own special way, often misunderstanding what adults around her are trying to say.  This gets her into all sorts of adventures along the way. 

With such a grim subject of a child refugee separated from all those who love her and continuing forward on her own, one would expect it to be frightening.  It certainly is at times, yet the grim reality is held at bay much of the time through Toda’s optimism about what is going to happen to her.  There are still moments where the reader is unsure of what is going to happen next and whether Toda is going to be severely injured if not killed.  Those moments are handled with the same frank and open attitude as the more silly moments.  Together they form the fabric of the story, one that is harrowing but also incredible.

Completely unique, this book features a fresh and noteworthy point of view that comes from a young survivor who has no idea how very brave she is.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Gecko Press.

children of the king

The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett

Along with their mother, Cecily and Jeremy are sent from London to the English countryside during the bombings of World War II.  Seeing other children who don’t have parents or family with them, Cecily decides that her family should take in one of the young refugees.  So she picks out May, a girl who looks just the right age to be a friend but also still young enough that Cecily can be in charge.  But May won’t be contained by Cecily, and soon is out exploring the countryside on her own.  She is the one who first discovers the two boys hiding in the ruins of Snow Castle.  Cecily joins May and the two of them meet the boys who are dressed in old-fashioned clothing.  Meanwhile in the evenings, Cecily and Jeremy’s uncle Peregrine tells the story of Richard III and his nephews.  The two stories weave together, two levels of history intertwined into one gorgeous tale.

Hartnett does so much in this book without ever losing sight of the heart of the story.  Her story telling is phenomenal.  She shares details of life during the Blitz and creates a warm and rich world of safety in the country.  Within the World War II setting, she manages to have a character tell of another historical period with its own harrowing historical details.  So often in a book with a story within a story, one is better than the other.  Here they are both beautifully done and complement each other nicely.

Throughout the book, Hartnett uses imagery and beautiful prose.  Her writing is rich and dazzling, painting pictures of the countryside, the city, Heron Hall, and England for readers.  Here is how the study in Heron Hall is described for readers on page 35.  This is just part of the lush writing that sets the stage:

Underfoot were flattened rugs, and a fire karate-chopped at the throat of the chimney.  There was a good smell of cigarette smoke mixed with toast and dog; this room was a den, the lair of Heron Hall’s owner.  Here, rather than in any of the grander rooms, was there the house’s living was done.

Hartnett’s characters are done with an ear for tone.  Jeremy and Cecily have a mother who is mostly absent though she is right there all the time.  She is disengaged from their days and even when they are out in town together she is separate and withdrawn.  Cecily too is a rather unlikeable character.  And what a risk that is, to create a story primarily about a little girl who is pushy, bossy and whiny.  Yet it is Cecily who makes the book work, the character who brings the responses, the action, and keeps it from being overly sweet or convenient. 

Gorgeously written with a complex storyline and interesting characters, this is one incredible piece of historical fiction.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Candlewick Press.

home for mr emerson

A Home for Mr. Emerson by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

Ralph Waldo Emerson grew up in Boston where he moved often with his family.  He dreamed of living out in the country near fields and woods.  After college Emerson moved to the small town of Concord, Massachusetts where he bought a farmhouse.  He brought along a bride and an extensive personal library.  He quickly found that he wanted friends to fill up his house and set off throughout Concord to meet his neighbors.  Emerson now had all that he wanted, a family, woods, fields, an orchard and many books and friends.  He began to travel extensively and lecture which brought even more people to his home, people from around the world.  Then one day, Emerson’s beloved home caught on fire and it was his way of life that saves him in the end.

The creative team that did The Extraordinary Mark Twain and What to Do about Alice? return with another dynamic picture book biography.  Kerley manages to both introduce Emerson to elementary-aged children and also to delve deeply into his personal life and the way that his writings reflected that lifestyle as well.  More details about Emerson and his life are available at the end of the book along with inspiration for young people to build their own worlds around what they love. 

Fotheringham’s illustrations are fresh and whimsical.  He has created a world of vivid colors against which the black and white figure of Emerson pops out.  Nature is celebrated in the images, reflecting Emerson’s connection to it and the Concord community spirit is shown as well.

Another exceptional picture book biography from an amazing team, this is a great pick for young readers who don’t know Emerson but will appreciate his sentiments.   Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic.

grandfather gandhi

Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Evan Turk

When Arun went to stay at his grandfather Mahatma Gandhi’s village, he worried that he would not be able to live up to his famous name.  Arun walked all the way from the station to the village and made his grandfather proud, but he continued to fret that he would not do the right thing the next time.  The village was very different from where he lived before.  Arun had to share his grandfather’s attention with 350 followers who lived there as well.  Arun struggled with his studies and the other kids teased him as well.  He found the meditation and prayers difficult too.  His grandfather urged him to give it time, that peace would come.  However, Arun just found it more and more frustrating.  When Arun finally lost his temper with another boy, he had to tell his grandfather about it, worried that he would be told that he would never live up to his name.  How will Mahatma Gandhi react to this angry young man?

Gandhi relates his own memories of his grandfather, offering his honest young reactions to this amazing yet also formidable man.  The book resulted from Arun recounting childhood stories aloud.  Hegedus emailed him afterwards and asked to work on a book with him, though she felt very unworthy of such a project.  The book is beautifully written and speaks to everyone who has felt that electric anger surge through them too.  Hegedus sets the stage very nicely for the lesson, allowing time for Arun’s anger to build even as she shows the lifestyle of the village and Mahatma Gandhi himself.  It is a book that is crafted for the most impact, building to that moment of truth.

Turk’s illustrations add much to the book.  Using mixed media, he offers oranges, purples, deep pinks and more that show the heat not only of the climate but of Arun’s anger.  Throughout, he also uses fabrics for the clothing, creating three-dimensional depth to the paintings.  When Arun’s emotions flare, the illustrations show that with tangles of black thread that all bring readers back to the image of Gandhi spinning neat white thread.  The contrast is subtle and profound.

Personal and noteworthy, this is a picture book about Gandhi that is entirely unique and special.  Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from library copy.

aviary wonders

Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual by Kate Samworth

Birds are steadily going extinct, but Aviary Wonders Inc. has the solution.  Ever since 2031, they have been providing a fun and engaging way to create your own avian companion.  Each bird is made up of high-quality parts that you can put together in unique ways that never existed in nature.  You can keep your bird or set it free.  Teach it to sing and fly.  Assembly is as easy as putting together a book case.  To get started, just select the body type that you want to start with.  After that, you can pick out the beak, tail, legs, feet, wings and crests.  Assembly instructions are included in the book as are directions for feeding and caring for your pet bird.  This clever and creepy look at a potential future for birds serves as a warning for all.

Samworth marries a warning about loss of habitat and food for birds with a catalog that hearkens back to turn of the century catalogs and the wonders they contained.  There is definitely a strange and frightening factor on every page.  While the beaks, tails and wings are beautifully drawn, the images of the beakless birds turns it all odd and stomach-twisting.  It is that interplay of disturbing and lovely that makes the book very effective.

The art in the book is a large part of its success.  Samworth honors the variety and beauty of birds while also making them firmly her own with the wild colors, naming of the different styles, and hawking of her “wares.”  The image of the sepia-toned beakless, legless and featherless bird resting on a pillow is profoundly wrong in just the right way. 

Full of black humor, creepy sales pitch jargon and a message of how close we are to truly losing entire types of creatures, this book is beautiful, moving and frightening.  Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

dare the wind

Dare the Wind: The Record-Breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud by Tracey Fern, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully

Ever since she was a little girl, Eleanor Prentiss dreamed of being at sea.  Her father had a trading schooner and though others thought he was a fool, he taught his young daughter how to steer it.  Most importantly though, he also taught her what few sailors and only some captains knew, how to navigate.  Ellen quickly learned how to navigate and started using her new skills on her father’s schooner every chance she got.  As she grew older, Ellen married a captain and served as his navigator.  Then the two of them acquired a clipper, The Flying Cloud.  It was a fast boat, one that could make them bonus money if they could make the trip from New York to San Francisco around Cape Horn in the fastest time ever.  It would be down to the innate speed of the Flying Cloud and to the navigating skills of Eleanor.  Sea journeys are never simple, especially ones done at high speed through stormy waters.  Take an incredible ride with the amazing Eleanor Prentiss, who proved that women can be right at home at sea.

Fern writes with a dynamism that matches this heroine.  She has an exuberant quality to her writing and a tone that invites you along on a wild adventure.  At the same time, she makes sure that young readers understand how unusual Eleanor Prentiss was at the time with the way she was raised and the knowledge she built and life she led.  The book reads like fiction particularly on the journey itself where a series of misfortunes plague their maiden voyage.  Even without the race against time, the journey would be harrowing, add in that pressure and you have a nail-biting read.

McCully’s art ranges in this book.  She captures Ellen both on land and at sea, her body strong against the roll of the waves.  She also paints water with a love for its greens and blues and the depth of color.  The storms are violently dark, the harbors a shining blue, this is water in all of its glory.

I grew up in a house named after the ship Flying Cloud and am so pleased to read a picture book about the ship’s history and learn more about the woman who navigated her.  This is one dynamic and well-told biographical picture book.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Farrar Straus Giroux.

dumbest idea ever

The Dumbest Idea Ever! by Jimmy Gownley

This graphic novel memoir focuses on one idiotic idea that changes comic-creator Gownley’s life forever.  At 13, Gownley was on top of the world.  He was popular, getting great grades, and was top-scorer on the school basketball team.  Then he got chicken pox and he had to miss the championship game.  But that wasn’t the end of his bad luck, he followed the chicken pox with a bout of pneumonia and missed more school.  Soon Jimmy wasn’t a basketball star and his grades were getting bad.  Jimmy did have one thing going for him though, the dumbest idea ever!  It was an idea that would make him money, get him popular again, find him a girlfriend, and even impress a very stern nun.  And let me tell you, it takes one amazingly stupid idea to accomplish all that!

Gownley reveals how he became a cartoonist in this graphic novel.  It is cleverly done with a strong story arc that keeps the entire book sturdily structured.  Gownley has a wonderful self-deprecating humor that works particularly well in comic format.  His humor is smart and very funny, often conveyed with ironic twists of eyebrows or sarcastic facial expressions.  The book is a quick read thanks to the format but also to the fast pacing that will have readers happily turning page after page. 

Get this into the hands of Smile! fans who will appreciate the humor, the honesty and the art.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from library copy.

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