Cat helps boy overcome dyslexia

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by Alan Armstrong
written for ages 9-12 | recommended
published in 2006 (2005) | Yearling | 208 pages

Bernie has a soft spot for unwanted animals. His barn teems with an assortment of birds, rodents and even horses. Just the same, there is order in the building. A duck, known as the Lady, oversees the residents. When she decides that the mangy cat Whittington should join the family, everyone agrees. Well, nearly everyone. The rats are not happy. Whittington is descended from a long line of skilled ratters, and only a precarious truce gains their concession.

Bernie's grandchildren, Abby and Ben, love to help feed the animals. The children confide to them that Ben has trouble reading. The Lady decides that the animals must help him. Abby promises to give Ben reading lessons in the barn everyday under their supervision. When Ben becomes especially frustrated, the Lady invites Whittington to explain his family history, for the cat can claim as his own ancestor the cat of the famous Dick Whittington. Dick's trials and adventures, along with the affection… click here to read whole article and make comments



Educating character through fables

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Peace Tales from Asia
by Chandrani Warnasuriya
written for all ages | recommended
published in 2011 | Eloquent Books | 146 pages

This book of fables presents stories from various Asian countries. The tales are organized according to the virtue they exemplify. These include unity, forgiveness, sobriety, wisdom, justice and perseverance, among others. Each story is simple enough for younger children to understand. Although they come from a wide variety of countries, their message is universal. Each fable could be used as a starting point for discussions about personal responsibility, charity and understanding. Proverbs at the end of each story provide food for thought. The author includes background information about the fables, examples of similar stories and suggestions as to how to use them as part of a lesson on character.

Jennifer Minicus is a full-time wife and mother currently living in Ridgewood, NJ.

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Friendship does not always require words

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The Farmer and the Clown
by Marlee Frazee
written for ages 2-7 | recommended
published in 2014 | Beach Lane Books | 32 pages

Surprise often brings color to an otherwise dull life. This is exactly what happens to a grumpy, old farmer when a young clown falls off a passing train and lands in his field. Reluctantly he takes the child home and cares for him. The farmer teaches the youngster his trade and the child shows this "old dog" a few tricks.

Marlee Frazee's brown and gray drawings, which tell her story without words, capture the lackluster routine of the farmer. The splash of color that the clown and his troupe add to the book accentuates the loneliness of the farmer. Although the clown is returned to the circus, the reader knows that their friendship will last.

Jennifer Minicus is a full-time wife and mother currently living in Ridgewood, NJ.

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Groundhog predicts six more weeks of winter

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Mr. Popper's Penguins
by Richard and Florence Atwater
written for ages 7-10 | highly recommended
published in 1992 (1938) | Perfection Learning | 139 pages

Mr. Popper is ready to settle down to a quiet winter when he finishes his last painting job of the season. He loves those cold months when he has plenty of time to read about his favorite subject: the Poles. Mrs. Popper, his fastidious wife, finds this time of year trying. It is hard to keep the house clean with a man underfoot. Little does she know that her husband will be the least of her worries.

Mr. Popper has unwittingly caught the attention of an arctic explorer who sends him a penguin as a pet. Immediately the penguin, whom they name Captain Cook, captures the heart of the entire Popper family. They acquire a second penguin from the zoo and in a few weeks there is an entire rookery in the little Popper home. Keeping these unusual pets cool and well fed becomes a full-time job for Mr. Popper.

After over 75 years, this absurd but entertaining classic continues… click here to read whole article and make comments



Soccer player solves murder mystery

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Down the Rabbit Hole
by Peter Abrahams
written for ages 11-14 | acceptable
published in 2005 | HarperCollins | 448 pages

Ingrid hates going to the orthodontist, especially when it makes her late for soccer practice. When neither her mother nor her father arrives on time at the office, she decides to walk to the field. While Ingrid loves mysteries and is an avid Sherlock Holmes fan, her own powers of observation are not so fine-tuned. In spite of living in Echo Falls all her life, she heads off in the wrong direction and only makes it to practice thanks to the help of an eccentric woman named Katie.

Ingrid does not give the incident much thought until she learns that Katie is found murdered soon thereafter and that the police are looking for any possible witnesses. Ingrid does not see the need to tell anyone that she was probably the last person to see Katie alive - until she remembers that she left her red soccer cleats at Katie's apartment. Caught between a sense of justice and the fear of… click here to read whole article and make comments



A series for readers not ready for Harry Potter

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The Secrets of Droon Series
by Tony Abbott
written for ages 7-10 | acceptable
published in 1999 | Scholastic

Eric is a typical grade school boy who would rather play ball than do his chores. Cleaning the basement becomes an adventure, though, when he discovers a hidden, magical staircase in a storage closet. With his friends Julie and Neal, Eric explores the land of Droon which the wicked Lord Sparr seeks to control. There they meet Princess Keeah and a wizard, Galen, whom they assist in this battle between good and evil.

Beginning readers who like the Magic Tree House books will enjoy the very similar Secrets of Droon series. While the characters are superficial and dialogue simplistic, these books are fast-paced and numerous, making them a good option for avid readers not ready for more substantial literature.

Jennifer Minicus is a full-time wife and mother living in Ridgewood, NJ.

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Children learn patience in large families

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Christopher's Busy Day
by Tammy Waech, Illustrated by Cate Virmich
written for ages 2-7 | acceptable
published in 2014 | CreateSpace | 38 pages

In the field of children's literature there are plenty of simple picture books featuring families that have one or two siblings or one character, but not as many feature up to six siblings in one family as does Christopher’s Busy Day.

Christopher’s Busy Day is the story of the youngest boy in a family of six siblings. He goes about his day with one thing at the top of his list - the desire to play with his train set. However, his Mum repeatedly tells him: “Not now Christopher. Today we have a busy day!” Christopher has to wait through doctor's appointments, sibling school drop-offs, soccer practice for his brother, and then finally he falls asleep, too tired to play. The story has a very family-oriented ending.

The positive of the message is that the children don't wander around in the story bored, with little staying power, materialistically seeking out the next amusement as we so… click here to read whole article and make comments



Fighting the war at home

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The Curse of the Buttons
by Anne Ylvisaker
written for ages 9-12 | highly recommended
published in 2014 | Candlewick | 240 pages

Ike Button has his heart set on joining the Union Army. What does it matter that he is only eleven? His brothers, father, uncles and cousins are all going, and at the very least they will need a drummer. Ike loves his country as much as they do, and besides, who wants to get stuck home with the women? Ike's parents have other ideas, however, and before he knows it the steamer carrying the newly enlisted Iowa troops has sailed.

Ike feels smothered by femininity: a mother who is worried sick about her husband and sons; well-meaning aunts who indulge his appetite but still do not understand; little sisters wanting attention. The only person whose company he can tolerate is his trusted friend Albirdie, daughter of the abolitionist Reverend Woolley. She comes to him for advice, but Ike is initially too distracted by his own agenda to listen to her. Then a chance meeting with a run-away slave brings him… click here to read whole article and make comments



Children facing starvation

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The Garbage King
by Elizabeth Laird
written for ages 13-16 | recommended
published in 2003 | Barron's Educational Series | 336 pages

Mamo, a poor orphan, and Dani, a runaway, form an unexpected alliance while each is sleeping on the streets, and together they join a gang of streetboys, begging but not stealing. They each offer different talents to the group, which has a strict code of sharing whatever they get hold of. Mamo becomes the Garbage King, expert at finding treasures on rubbish heaps; Dani writes stories which the others sell for a few coins. Each becomes more and more accustomed to this way of life until Dani's father finds him. Tiggist, Mamo's older sister, becomes both an assistant in Mrs Faridah's shop and a nursemaid to her daughter Yasmin. However, this causes Mrs Faridah to become jealous of her, so when a local lad shows an interest in her and promises to marry her once he has established himself with an electronics shop she accepts enthusiastically.

The story manages to blend the harsh situation of those forced to live and… click here to read whole article and make comments



Dystopia with a conscience

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by Joel Ohman
written for ages 13-16 | recommended with reservations
published in 2014 | CreateSpace | 226 pages

Charley has resented the System ever since his Down Syndrome brother was taken away. Anyone with a score lower than 100 is removed by the regime that rules Meritropolis and thrown outside the city walls. No one survives outside the walls. The predatorial creatures that have developed after “the Event” are too powerful and hungry. Unfortunately the only way to ensure that the city's population does not go hungry is to limit its size. With his exceptionally high score for intelligence and strength, Charley is confident that he can infiltrate the government and avenge his brother's death. Charley soon learns, however, that he is not the only person trying to beat the System, and that the other subversives have their own agenda.

A fairly typical dystopian novel, Meritropolis presents a desperate society willing to sacrifice its soul to survive. Government mandated euthanasia and forced abortion keep its citizens in constant fear. To avoid retribution, otherwise honorable people remain silent in… click here to read whole article and make comments


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Reading Matters is MercatorNet’s blog about children’s literature. Our goal is to enable parents and educators to find quality books for young people. For an explanation of our evaluation system, click here. We welcome reader input and new reviewers. We love comments on the book reviews. Write to us at

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