Planet Kindergarten by Sue Ganz-Schmitt, illustrated by Shane Prigmore
Told in the first person by a little boy, this picture book mixes science fiction, space exploration and Kindergarten into one awesome picture book. The boy has been training for this day for some time. He has gotten supplies, been checked by a doctor, and the countdown to lift off has begun. He arrives at the Kindergarten door and his parents leave, returning to their own planet. He joins a classroom filled with aliens from across the galaxies. The commander gives them the day’s flight plan and then they start activities in the capsule, get to explore the planet’s surface for a bit, and even eat space food. By the end of the day, it is Mission Accomplished! And then time to get ready to do it all again.
Ganz-Schmitt nicely ties in science fiction touches throughout the book. The boy’s parents say goodbye with a Vulcan salute! She also focuses on NASA and space flight, pulling these two related but distinct subjects together seamlessly. Children who are fans of either will be right at home here, giggling along with the puns and the idea of school being a space capsule. Her humor is right on, offering just enough to be funny but not too much to lose the concept of it being a Kindergarten book.
Prigmore’s illustrations have a great zany quality that suits the subject matter. I love the other little boy with the hood so that you only see his nose and mouth as well as the other children who look like aliens but you can also see the person in there too. He plays along the line of making it about space but also allowing readers to see the human school underneath too.
Funny and filled with action and adventure, this book will get even the most nervous Kindergarten astronaut giggling about their new mission. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.
Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
The author of A Tangle of Knots returns with a brilliant new protagonist in her new novel. Albie doesn’t get good grades, in fact he was asked to leave his private school and is going to be starting public school instead. Albie isn’t the best artist. He isn’t the best at anything at all. Except maybe at eating doughnuts for breakfast. But when he changes schools, things start to change for Albie. It could be the great new babysitter he gets, since his parents are very busy. Calista is an artist and she thinks it’s OK that Albie reads Captain Underpants books even though he’s in 5th grade and that he sometimes needs a break from school. It could be math club, that starts each day with a joke and sneaks math in when Albie isn’t paying attention. It could be a new best friend, Betsy, someone he can talk to and joke with and who doesn’t get mad when Albie gets confused. But things aren’t all great. Albie’s other best friend is appearing on a reality TV show and suddenly Albie gets popular at school, risking his friendship with Betsy. Albie has a lot to figure out before he knows exactly what he’s good at.
Graff’s writing here is stellar. She writes with an ease that makes for a breezy read, yet it deals with deep issues along the way. Thanks to her light touch, the book reads quickly, never bogging down into the issues for too long before lightening again. Still, it is the presence of those deep issues that make this such a compelling read. The fact that the book deals with so much yet never feels overwhelmed by any of them is a wonder and a feat.
Throughout the entire book the real hero is Albie. He is a character that is ordinary, every-day and yet is still a delight to read about. His perspective is down to earth, often confused, and he walks right into every social trap there is. He is a character you simply have to root for, a regular boy who is also a hero. He shows that simply making it through each day being yourself is heroic, and a win. The world is filled with Albies and this book shows why they should be celebrated. He’s a delight.
A book with at least four starred reviews, this is a standout novel this year. Get your hands on it and share it with kids. It’s a unique and surprising read, just like Albie himself. Appropriate for ages 8-11.
Reviewed from library copy.
Comics Squad: Recess!
Released July 8, 2014.
Join your favorite children’s graphic novel authors as they romp together in a celebration of recess! This graphic novel has been contributed to by authors like Jennifer and Matthew Holm, Jarrett Krosoczka, Dan Santat, Gene Luen Yang, and Raina Telgemeier. Favorite characters like Lunch Lady and Babymouse make an appearance in their own stories as well as appearing throughout the book with a little commentary. In other stories, new characters make their first appearance which will delight young fans.
It’s hard to be too enthusiastic about this title, since young readers are sure to adore it. The release in mid-summer is ideal since this will make great summer reading, though it will also be a great addition to any school library or classroom. Put together cleverly, the book has a nice flow to it and a brisk pace that will have even reluctant readers eagerly turning the pages.
Get multiple copies of this one, since it’s sure to be a hit! Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Random House and Edelweiss.
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh
Explore an early battle for desegregation of the California public schools in this picture book. In a court battle that took place seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her family fought the system. Having been placed in a Mexican school rather than a “whites only” one due to her Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage, Sylvia and her family realized that she was being given a second-class education because the facilities and teachers were much better in the white school. After appealing the school placement, the full extent of the racism of the system was revealed as the school proceeded to inform Sylvia who spoke perfect English that the other school would help her learn English better. Sylvia’s parents took the battle to court and also organized the Hispanic community to find other students who were being clearly discriminated against. This is a book where people took on a fight for what was right and managed to get things changed.
Tonatiuh emphasizes the small and poor vs. large government and wealth throughout this book. He makes sure that young readers understand the extent of the racism against Hispanics and the reality of the policies that they were living under. The issue is complex, but he keeps it clear and concise, offering a solid view of the courage that it took for the Mendez family to fight the system and also making it clear why they were able to fight back when others could not.
Tonatiuh’s stylized illustrations pay homage as always to folk art. His characters have glossy hair in different colors that are cut-outs of photographs. The same is true of the fabric of clothes and other objects. This is paired with a flat paint and clear black outlines making a combination that is modern and ageless.
An important addition to the civil rights history of the United States, this nonfiction picture book tells a story of courage and determination. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Abrams.
Little Red Writing by Joan Holub, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
This is a fresh version of Little Red Riding Hood. Here Little Red is a pencil and her assignment in school is to write a story, even though it can be quite dangerous. Her teacher gives her a basket of words to use in case of an emergency, but also warns her to stick to her basic story so that she doesn’t get lost. Little Red starts writing but soon tries to add more excitement to her story. Before she knows it, she has bounced right off of the page and into a forest. It’s a forest full of description, but that’s also something that can bog down a story. Little Red has to use a word from her basket to get free. More perils follow with sentences that run on, abandoned punctuation, and a growling voice and twirly tail that lead right to the principal’s office. It is up to Little Red to both be a hero and finish her story.
Holub has written a very engaging new version of Little Red Riding Hood. She successfully ties in tips on writing, not allowing them to force her to leave the basic story path. Her writing is entirely engaging, the format of the story writing works well and she weaves the classic elements of the tale into this one so that it is different but still recognizable.
Sweet’s illustrations are done in her signature combination of cut paper and drawings. Her bright colors add much to the liveliness of the book. She uses the cut paper to good effect throughout, allowing them to set aside important parts of the book as well as using fonts of various styles to really make the book stand out.
A great pick for writing units, this is one of the best changed-up Red Riding Hoods that I’ve seen. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.
Picture Day Perfection by Deborah Diesen, illustrated by Dan Santat
Picture Day is a day when you want to take the perfect picture. That doesn’t come easily! In fact, the boy in this book has been planning his Picture Day for months. But nothing seems to be going well at all. First is the bedhead hair that makes his brother laugh, then his favorite shirt is stained and smelly, and that all leads into the incident with the syrup at breakfast. The day continues this way and when he gets to school he starts to get into trouble with how he is acting. He won’t practice his smile, choosing instead to stick out his tongue. He sends paint flying during art. He doesn’t get a comb to fix his hair. In the end though, it all comes off just like he planned, or does it?
Diesen has a wonderful kid-like sense of humor that is very evident throughout this book. Her timing is great, the story will have everyone laughing. Readers will figure out what is really happening in this book just as the author decides to reveal it. Then the entire book still makes sense, but in a different way. It makes for a great read.
Add in Santat’s vibrant and equally funny art and you have a real winner. Santat captures the funniest moments in the text with great style. The image of the syrup incident is my favorite but I also love the picture taken at the end of the book.
Funny, pure silliness and just right for the start of a new school year. Try this one out with older elementary students since they will love the humor too. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Abrams Books for Young Readers.
Oliver and His Alligator by Paul Schmid
Oliver sometimes isn’t as brave as he’d like to be, and that is especially true on the first day of school. So he headed to the swamp and picked up an alligator, “just in case things got rough.” When Oliver got to school a woman who was not his mother greeted him and asked his name. In his panic, Oliver couldn’t remember his name, but he could say “munch, munch!” and the alligator ate the lady. A similar thing happened when a little girl in the class asked Oliver what he loved. Oliver wanted to answer and even had a great reply, but he found that he could only say “munch, munch!” and the alligator ate the girl. As Oliver steadily had his alligator munch his classmates, the classroom got much quieter and lonelier. But what is a boy to do when everyone has been eaten?
Schmid tells this story with a wonderful matter-of-fact tone that leaves readers shocked at first but then delighting in this clever answer to the worries of the first day of school. I guarantee a wonderful stunned moment if you share this book aloud, and then a rush of nervous but genuine glee at it all.
The book is cleanly designed with very simple lines that allow the humor of the situation to really shine. The simplicity is beautiful and entirely modern thanks to Oliver’s oversized sweater and mop of hair.
Beautiful, clever and a joy to share aloud, this book is riotously funny and oh so true. A great addition to starting-school shelves. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
The Life of Ty: Penguin Problems by Lauren Myracle, illustrated by Jed Henry
Ty is seven years old and has a pretty complicated life. He has a new baby sister who is taking all of his mom’s time and attention. His older sisters won’t walk him into school like his mom used to, insisting that he can do it all on his own. His best friend is in the hospital battling cancer, and Ty’s other friends can be confusing and even alarming. Ty keeps getting into trouble at home for things like chasing the cat with a Dustbuster. Then on the school trip to the aquarium, Ty takes a baby penguin home with him. This is one wild boy who is also big hearted and caring, just not sure how best to show it.
Myracle, who writes teen books primarily, has created a truly exceptional book for younger readers. Ty is a character who is easily relatable, even when he does some extremely unusual things, like stealing a penguin. His home life will be familiar to many children, who will have older siblings and babies in their families too. Add to that the universal feelings of being asked to do big-kid things too early and also being treated like a baby, and you get a book that is universally appealing.
Myracle’s writing has an outstanding humor throughout. In the more dramatic moments, children will understand that things will be alright in the end. The black and white illustrations by Henry convey that humor and lightness as well.
Perfect for both reading aloud and for a child reading on their own, this book will be enjoyed by fans of the Stink series as well as those who like Clementine. This book would pair well with The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Dutton.
The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes
After getting a big lump on his head from a fall during their family vacation, Billy is worried that he’s not going to be smart enough for 2nd grade. And when he starts 2nd grade, he still has a lump on his head! The year doesn’t start easily with Billy accidentally insulting his new teacher on the very first day. He has to figure out how to fix the misunderstanding before she gets the wrong idea about him. Then Billy’s father who is a stay-at-home dad and an artist is trying to find his next breakthrough in his art. It is Billy who has to learn how to deal with a grumpy father but along the way he also serves as inspiration for his dad. When his parents go to his father’s gallery show, Billy tries to stay up all night, keeping his little sister up with him for as long as he can. Finally, he selects his mother as the person he wants to write a poem about. But it’s not that easy, since he has to make sure he doesn’t insult anyone with his choice and then has to read his poem aloud in front of an audience. Along the way, Billy learns a lot about how to act in a family, how to support one another but mostly how to love each other.
Henkes has written a book about a boy that will be perfect for fans of Clementine and Ramona. Happily, he does not resort to grossness, bodily functions, farting or any of the other plot devices so often used in books about boys. Here instead we have a real boy, one who makes mistakes but also tries to do what is right for his family. Broken into chapters that are focused on a single relationship: teacher, father, sister, and mother, this book is welcoming to young readers thanks to its logical structure and clear focus.
The black and white art in the book is done by Henkes. Unfortunately, the digital galley I read did not include much of the art. What was in the galley adds much to the book, nicely breaking the text into more manageable parts.
A tip top chapter book, this one is destined to be a classic. I’d think that sharing it would be a great way to start any 2nd grade school year. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Greenwillow Books.
Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks
Released May 7, 2013.
Nate and Charlie are friends, but mostly it’s about sharing a ride to school. Then when the cheerleaders threaten Nate’s robotics competition, Charlie is caught up in the middle of the conflict. Nate decides to run for Student Body President and Charlie’s cheerleader ex-girlfriend forces him to run against Nate. Things quickly get out of control in this jocks against the geeks sort of storyline that ends with both groups stripped of their school funding. Now the only way forward is to work together to fund and build a robot that can win the robot death match. And of course, just like with all plans, nothing can possibly go wrong.
The storyline could have been cliché, but it steps away from that fairly quickly and into much more intriguing collaborative efforts. Shen and Hicks have created a great gang of characters here. Nate is laid back and really the normal one of the group. Charlie is alpha-geek, neurotic, ballsy and intellectual. Mix in the cheerleaders who are clearly at the top of the popular food chain, and this is regular high school on steroids. While some of the characters are left as stereotypes, Charlie and Nate are well developed and interesting.
The art is hip and fun. Done in black and white, the images play up the funny moments beautifully and often the dance of words and image is sheer perfection. It’s hard to believe that it was done by two people rather than just one.
Geeks and jocks alike will enjoy this one, after all who doesn’t love to see a robot death match! Appropriate for ages 13-15.
Reviewed from copy received from First Second.