The League of Beastly Dreadfuls by Holly Grant
Anastasia started her day by attending a funeral alongside her father, a funeral at the compost pile for her father’s dead venus flytrap. Other than that unusual start to the day which ended with her mother bellowing for waffles from her bedroom, Anastasia was an entirely average girl. There was simply nothing special about her at all. But then at school that morning everything changed when she is kidnapped by two old women calling themselves her “great aunties.” She finds herself trapped in an old Victorian house that was once St. Agony’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane. She is fed only Mystery Lumps and no dinner. She is forced to clean the asylum and at night she is locked into her room. Slowly though Anastasia starts to put together the mystery of her great aunties and what is actually going on in the creepy asylum. An escape plan begins to brew when she meets the frightening gardener and his brother, but can they get past the electrified fence and the guard poodles?
Grant has created a marvelous farce of a book that is filled with broad humor. She also manages to combine that humor with real scares, devious villains, and a nearly hopeless situation. Grant’s use of a quite ordinary young woman as a protagonist adds to the fun, making the scares work better even though they are done just as broadly as the humor is. It is that sense of joy in the situation and the delight that Grant writes with that makes this book such fun to read.
Anastasia is an average girl but also a strong heroine. There are moments in the middle part of the book where readers will want to shake her awake and make her realize what is happening, but in once she realizes she is certainly up to investigating the mystery. The other characters are great fun, including the two horrible aunties who are purely awful in the very best way. The two boys arrive later in the story along with other great characters and they add to the twists and turns of the tale.
A great mix of Victorian and modern fantasy, humor and horror, this book will appeal to fans of Roald Dahl. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Random House.
I Don’t Want to Be a Frog by Dev Petty, illustrated by Mike Boldt
A little frog has decided that he doesn’t want to be a frog. He’d much rather be a… cat! Why? Because frogs are too wet. But a bigger frog explains that there is no way he can be a cat, because he’s a frog. Then he decides he wants to be a rabbit, since he can already jump and because frogs are too slimy. But he’s missing the long ears. Maybe a pig? But then you have to eat garbage. How about an owl? Nope, he can’t turn his head all the way around. Finally, a wolf comes along and gives the little frog a perfect reason to be happy to be a frog.
This debut picture book makes for a great read aloud. The two voices of the pair of frogs form the entire story, creating a great dynamic together. The story may be very silly, and it certainly is, but at the heart it is a child questioning if it might be better to be something entirely different, something furry or something that flies. It’s a classic case of identity crisis and one that children will relate to even while they giggle about it.
Boldt’s illustrations play up the humorous aspect of the story. The expressions on the frogs’ faces are well drawn and convey the emotions they are feeling very clearly. The use of speech bubbles and hand lettering makes for a book that has the feel of a comic book. Combined with the silly story, the illustrations make it even more funny.
Get this in the hands of Mo Willems fans who will completely fall for this loud little frog with big ideas. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Doubleday Books for Young Readers.
Geek Girl by Holly Smale
Released January 27, 2015.
This British import is hilarious, geeky and great fun. Harriet Manners knows that she is not a popular person. She shares too many factoids about things, she doesn’t care about fashion to the point that she took wood shop to avoid going to a fashion event, and she even has a list of the people who hate her. So when Nat, her best friend, demands that she come along to the fashion event, Harriet knows that she has to. Nat has dreamed her entire life of being a model, something that Harriet doesn’t even start to understand. She’d much rather be a paleontologist and spend her time watching nature documentaries. But everything goes wrong and it is Harriet who is discovered at the fashion show, and now Harriet starts a series of lies and cover ups to keep both her best friend and her step mother from knowing anything about her being discovered. Modeling is hard when you’ve never walked in heels before, when you don’t know the rules and when you are sitting next to the most gorgeous boy you have ever seen.
Smale has managed to give us a perfect mashup of geek and Next Top Model in this novel. Harriet is an unforgettable heroine, someone who is awkward in the extreme, entirely herself, and uncertain about who she wants to be. She is bullied by a classmate even as she is being discovered as a model. Even as she wants modeling to transform her into someone else, Harriet manages to be a voice for teens who are different, fascinated by facts, think in charts and graphs, and who are different from the rest.
Smale is also deeply funny. Harriet has wonderful asides that reference geeky movies and books. Her father and step mother have the most marvelous arguments, ones that read like a real argument when things stop making sense and have plenty of zinging comments. Best of all, the arguments don’t end their relationship but somehow form a basis for it. The writing throughout is clever and witty, making it a book that is impossible to put down.
The first book in a trilogy, this book came out in the UK in 2013 and was nominated and won several awards. It certainly lives up to the hype with its wit, strong heroine and inherent joy. Appropriate for ages 13-15.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Harper Teen and Edelweiss.
The Terrible Two by Jory John and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Kevin Cornell
Miles is moving to Yawnee Valley along with his parents, a place with larger spaces, bigger lawns, and lots of cows. He had been known in his last school as the prankster, but upon arrival at his first day of school Miles discovers that there is another prankster already at work. That prankster has put the principal’s car at the top of the stairs to the entrance to the school, blocking it so that no one can enter. So Principal Barkin is forced to have each and every kid at school climb through his car to enter the building. Of course, he could also have had them use the back door… Miles is introduced to Niles, a model student who is assigned as his buddy. Niles is immensely annoying, perfect in class, kissing up to the teacher. But NIles is also the prankster who pulled off the car stunt. As the two become rivals, a pranking war begins, one that involves insects, pie, forgeries, and lots of cake. Who will reign supreme at the school and will Principal Barkin survive it?
This book, which I assume is the beginning of a new series, will be adored by kids. It has exactly the right tone and sense of humor. The two rival boys are a delightful contrast to one another, yet equally likeable and one isn’t quite sure who to root for so you end up rooting for the prank to be great. And what pranks they are. Principals may not enjoy the humor here, but it is much more about this one school and a principal who loses his cool regularly than about any real prank being pulled in a real school setting. The pranks are elaborate enough that no one is going to be taking real cues from this book.
Cornell’s illustrations add to the humor. I particularly enjoy the cows, the cow facts done as a list, and the rubber chickens. The book has a wonderful wildness to it, an edginess of a prank about to go wrong, that is also reflected in the zany art. Reluctant readers will enjoy the breaking up of the text into manageable chunks.
Get this into the hands of fans of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and those who are outgrowing Captain Underpants. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from ARC received from Abrams Books.
Goodnight, Already! by Jory John and Benji Davies
Bear is so very tired, all he wants to do is go to sleep. But his next door neighbor, Duck, feels exactly the opposite and has never felt more awake as he reads a book on staying awake and drinks a pot of coffee. As Bear climbs into bed and pulls up his blanket, ready to snooze, Duck comes over for a visit. Duck offers all sorts of ideas of what they could do together, but all Bear wants to do is sleep. Just when Bear is again about to fall asleep, Duck returns with a new idea to bake something. But Bear once again sends him on his way. When Duck comes in for a third time, Bear has had enough! The evening though has time for one final ironic twist by the end of the book, one that will get readers giggling.
John captures both the very essence of being tired and wanting nothing more than to sleep and the zany energy that comes with insomnia. It is that dynamic being thrust together in this picture book that leads to the hilarity. It also helps that John has impeccable comic timing throughout the book, using repeating themes to really make the scenes pop. The pace switches from one character to the next beautifully, the dozy slow of Bear and the yapping zing of Duck.
Davies’ illustrations capture the same shifts in energy and pace. Duck’s entire home is bright yellow while Bear is surrounded by sleepy blues. The silly additions of coffee and a book to stay awake make the situation even funnier. The illustrations are deceptively simple, making this a very approachable book for children, one that conveys its humor right from the cover.
Perfect for kids who both love bedtime and hate it, as well as for their sleepy parents. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Yeti Files: Meet the Bigfeet by Kevin Sherry
The author of I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean and other picture books has released his first book for early readers. It is the story of Blizz Richards, a yeti who lives an isolated life in Nepal. He has a great cave for a house that he’s filled with all sorts of cool gadgets and lots of things to play on. He is a cryptid, and as one he has taken an oath to never be seen by the outside world. So Blizz almost never sees his family. But all that is about to change with the announcement of an upcoming Big Feet Family Reunion. Blizz shares the story of Brian, one of his relatives in Canada who got spotted and had his picture taken and put up on the Internet. It was all because of George Vanquist, a man who continues to seek out cryptids and expose them. Now Blizz has to risk it all to see his family, rescue Brian from his shame of being exposed and avoid George Vanquist along the way.
Sherry has such a great touch for humor. Throughout the book there are moments of hilarity that children will adore. He also manages to create unique characters even in this very simple format. Blizz manages to be a cool character, someone who lives a rich life despite being mostly alone. He does have several clever smaller creatures who live with him and who help out regularly throughout the story. The book moves along at rocket speed, helped by the large number of illustrations which will make it a welcoming read for new readers.
The illustrations have the same clarity as Sherry’s picture books. With simple lines, he creates entire worlds here with characters who express emotions clearly. One of the best parts of this book are the little diagrams throughout, first of what a yeti really is, then showing Blizz’s house, and next explaining cryptids, They are clever, funny and avoid creating large paragraphs of explanation.
Filled with humor and the same distinctive illustration style as his picture books, this early reader will appeal to any child looking for some giggles. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic.
Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters by Oliver Jeffers
This unusual and equally marvelous alphabet book surprises and delights with its 26 short stories, one for each letter of the alphabet. From the very beginning at “A” readers will know they have entered a rather quirky and surreal world. A is for Astronaut, but Edmund is an astronaut whose afraid of heights. Even climbing the ladder to the rocket is a bit much for him. B comes right in afterwards with a tale of a burning bridge where Bob and Bernard cannot get along and so burn the bridge between their houses, but oops, one of them is on the wrong side when he does it. The book continues, one letter after another and one story after another each with funny, intriguing characters and situations that are snapshots of the oddities of this amazing world.
Jeffers has created some of my favorite picture books for children and this new alphabet book completely revolutionizes the sing-song of other alphabet books for children. It’s not exclusively for preschoolers, since elementary-aged children will adore these strange little stories and the quick journeys they take you on. Rather like potato chips, you can’t read just one but find yourself going on and on. Jeffers also ties in previous stories to later ones. You have to be watching, because he does it with subtlety, but it’s a lovely touch. I admit to cheering aloud when the Lumberjack for the Letter L appeared again.
Jeffers’ art has a loose feel that works well here. He also has a quirk to his art that matches the tone of the story very nicely. The line drawings combine with touches of color and watercolor. He also plays at times with the page itself, showing characters turning the page or popping out from behind.
A delight of an alphabet book, Jeffers has revolutionized the genre with his impressive, surprising and funny work. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Philomel.
The Book with No Pictures by B. J. Novak
No pictures? In a picture book? Is it still a picture book? Is it still for preschoolers? The answer is a resounding yes! And even better, this is a book filled with words and no images that preschoolers will delight in. First, the audience is told that the rule with reading a book aloud is that the reader has to say everything that is on the page, whether they like it or not. Even if the words are nonsense, even if they have to be sung, even if they insult themselves. Completely silly, this picture book is filled with funny things the reader has to say aloud and then clever asides about what the reader is thinking to themselves.
Novak understands child humor wonderfully. Reading this book to a group of preschoolers will be a delight, particularly when they realize that the author has you under their control. Play up your dismay at having to be silly and you will have the children rolling with laughter. Novak walks the line perfectly here, never taking the joke too far into being mean, but keeping it just naughty enough to intrigue youngsters to listen closely.
This is one of those picture books that you save to end a story time, since it is guaranteed to keep the attention of the entire group of children. It’s a winner! Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial.
The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents: Macbeth by Ian Lendler, illustrated by Zack Giallongo
When the gates shut at night at The Stratford Zoo, the animals come out to play. They steal the keys from one of the zoo keepers as they leave and all of the cages are unlocked. Vendors walk the aisles selling treats like peanuts and earthworms to the growing crowd. Then on stage, the theater begins with the lion as Macbeth. After meeting with the witches, the question is whether Macbeth will eat the king. Lady Macbeth proposes different preparations to make the king taste better, and Macbeth finally succumbs and eats the king. But then, as with any Shakespearean tragedy, others must be eaten too. This is a wild and wonderful combination of Shakespeare, hungers both human and animal, and plenty of humor.
Lendler takes great liberties with Shakespeare’s Macbeth. He combines all of the moments that people remember in the play, from Lady Macbeth trying to wash out the spots of blood to the visits to the three witches and the way their predictions play out. He also adds in lots of slapstick comedy, plenty of asides from the audience and actors, and also shortens the play substantially.
Giallongo’s art is colorful and dramatic. He plays up the drama of the ketchup stains, the growing stomach of the lion, and the ambitions of Lady Macbeth. Comic moments are captured with plenty of humor visually. This zoo is filled with fur, claws, fun and drama.
A perfect combination of Shakespeare and wild animal humor, this will please those who know Macbeth and people knew to the play alike. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from copy received from First Second.
100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith
Finn is epileptic with seizures that he can’t control. He’s actually not sure he’d want to anyway, because his seizures are beautiful experiences, even though he pees himself during them. Finn also has eyes that are different colors. But those are not the wildest things about Finn. Finn’s mother was killed in the same freak accident that left him with epilepsy, a dead horse fell from a knackery truck passing on a bridge overhead and struck them both. Perhaps even wilder though is Finn’s best friend Cade, who is almost certainly insane but also staggeringly funny. Finn has a theory about his life. His father wrote a book that has a character with many of the same characteristics as Finn who happened to be a murdering alien. Perhaps Finn is caught in that book, or maybe the entire world is just a knackery truck. Then Julia enters Finn’s life and he is suddenly shown that there is much more to life or the knackery than he had ever realized.
Smith has written several acclaimed novels and this one is by far my favorite. He writes with a solid honesty, with teen characters who swear, who have sex, who talk about sex, who love and lust. The book is filled with humor, even the scene where Finn and Cade are accidental heroes is filled with slapstick moments mixed with profound courage. That is the way this book plays, it is humorous but also exceptionally though provoking.
Finn is a deeply flawed character who sees the world in a unique and strange way. He measures time in terms of distance, something that is unsettling at first but then becomes almost a natural way to view time by the end of the book. There is also something wonderfully darkly humorous about a character in a book worrying that he is a character in another book. The novel has layers upon layers and invites readers to look deeply into the story and to find their own way through the knackery of life.
A great teen novel, one of the best of the year, get this into the hands of teens who will enjoy the humor, understand the depth and not be offended by the strong language. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.