FRIDAY, 2 MAY 2014

Simplicity is hard to find

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by John Burningham
written for ages 2-7 | recommended
published in 2014 (2013) | Candlewick Press | 32 pages

A simple bedtime book about "boy" and "girl" who make a picnic. Simplicity in picture books is a valuable and sometimes hard to find commodity these days. Small children see things in terms of black and white, simple and straightforward, and that is why I like this book. It would lend itself well to a read-aloud session with a small group because it is simple and has large enough illustrations.

The scene becomes amusing when pig, sheep and duck join in, dressed in smart casual. Lovely dappled colors and splotched ink effects give a light summery feel to the book. Drama, that necessary ingredient in successful read-aloud stories is present when bull romps into the double page spread. A hide-and-seek element is then introduced as the characters all seek to hide from the bull. Opportunities for reader interaction are plentiful as we are prompted to find various elements in the illustrations. This "Can you find...?" element offers reassuring repetition for… click here to read whole article and make comments



Got a problem?

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Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things
by Cynthia Voigt
written for ages 9-12 | highly recommended
published in 2013 | Knopf Books for Young Readers | 400 pages

Max Starling's father and mother love acting. They even turn a simple breakfast into a theatrical scene as they assume roles and await cues. For the most part, Max humors them. He may sometimes grow impatient with their dramatics, but his world revolves around his beloved parents. Thus, when they are invited to go on an acting tour of India, he is excited to learn that he will be able to accompany them, helping with sets, props and other minor tasks.

Max arrives at the dock to meet Mr. and Mrs. Starling on the Flower of Kashmir nearly an hour before the ship's scheduled departure. The harbormaster tells him that no such ship has been berthed at this port, but gives Max a mysterious note from his father. Max heads to his grandmother's house in utter confusion. How could his parents leave him? Why doesn't his father's message seem genuine? Max and Grammie suspect foul play, but decide not to… click here to read whole article and make comments



An author the NY Times called a genius

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The Year of Billy Miller
by Kevin Henkes
written for ages 9-12 | recommended
published in 2013 | Greenwillow Books | 240 pages

Billy overhears his mother worrying about a fall Billy had, and how it may cause him to forget things or not be able to cope with his grade 2 level work at school. Boys this age have big ears and take to heart things said about them! How this is resolved makes for an interesting story.

How does a typical grade two boy find the words to compose a poem for school, and how does he choose between a "haiku", "limerick" or "acrostic"? Billy's first effort is amusing but falls short. How does a quiet boy tell his father he doesn't want to call him "Papa" anymore? The other boys might think he's babyish, but Billy's father takes the news a lot better than Billy expected. With a father-son discussion, he gently shows Billy that he will always be his papa, even if Billy no longer uses the word.

The book is divided into four chapters each highlighting a special… click here to read whole article and make comments



A lost opportunity

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Just Ella
by Margaret Peterson Haddix
written for ages 11-14 | not recommended
published in 2007 (1999) | Simon Pulse | 240 pages

Margaret Peterson Haddix clearly wants to impress young girls with a sense of what really matters in relationships in her version of "happily ever after". Unfortunately, her message gets lost in this poorly constructed novel. (Cinder) Ella finds Prince Charming irresistible, until she arrives at the castle. Smothered by protocol and superficiality, Ella discovers that love cannot survive if physical attraction is the only basis of a commitment. She tries to break off the engagement, but the royal family will not permit such an embarrassing rejection to be made public. Ella's resourcefulness saves her in the end, but not before her lack of personal virtue becomes evident.

Unlike characters in Haddix's other books, all personages in this fable are caricatures. Prince Charming is exceptionally handsome and unbelievably dumb. He is incapable of any independent thought and does not realize that he is constantly manipulated by the castle staff. Ella, however, does not represent a model heroine either. She herself… click here to read whole article and make comments



It’s a dog’s life

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by Diana Wynne Jones
written for ages 9-12 | recommended
published in 2012 (1975) | Firebird | 288 pages

Sirius, the personification of the Dogstar, is exiled to Earth and given the lifespan of a dog to discover the whereabouts of the Zoi, a celestial tool of immense power which was allegedly used by him to destroy another Luminary. He has the limitations of his canine body but slowly remembers the task for which he was exiled. At the same time he is drawn to help and comfort his owner Kathleen who has troubles of her own. He befriends the house cats, other dogs, other humans, and Sol, the celestial being of this solar system. Finally he encounters a mysterious hunter, a child of Earth, who has possession of the Zoi.

The author deftly weaves the different levels of storytelling with each other, with Sirius at their centre. While still a dog, and driven by doggy instincts, he recalls little by little the powerful being that he was and the task he has been given. Getting that balance right… click here to read whole article and make comments



Books make bedtime easier

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Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
by Jerry Pinkney
written for ages 2-7 | recommended
published in 2011 | Little, Brown Books for Young Readers | 40 pages

Jerry Pinkney does it again with his delightful illustrations to this familiar children's song. A young chipmunk, dressed in a sailor's suit, spends the night gazing at the stars while traveling through the sky in a toy boat. Like those in his Caldecott winning The Lion and the Mouse Pinkney's drawings have a gentle, dreamlike look, deep colors and wonderful details. This book would make wonderful bedtime reading.

Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher living in Ridgewood, NJ.

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Britain bans use of technology

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The Changes Trilogy
by Peter Dickinson
written for ages 11-14 | recommended
published in 1991 (1968) | Dell

One day, without warning, the whole of Britain turns superstitiously against technology and millions of people flee the country leaving the cities and much of the countryside deserted. Those who remain sink deeper into a primitive mindset: anything technological is attacked as witchcraft and certain individuals are gifted with the power to manipulate the weather so Britain enjoys perfect summers, rich harvests and crisp winters.

The rest of the world is unaffected but is unable to take any action: any agents they send in are attacked as witches or go native, succumbing to the same hatred of technology as the remaining islanders. The Britons who remain become more and more isolated in small communities, lacking anything more modern than a horse and cart to take them further afield. At the same time, certain people are less affected and are ready to use the technology which lies rusting and unused around them, although risking being accused of witchcraft.

The three stories… click here to read whole article and make comments



The “weaker sex”?

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A Lantern in Her Hand
by Bess Streeter Aldrich
written for ages 11-14 | highly recommended
published in 1997 (1928) | Puffin Classics | 256 pages

Since her childhood, Abbie Deal always dreamt of becoming a refined lady of the arts. A proposal from Dr. Matthews son, Ed, would provide her with the opportunity. As a young doctor himself, Ed could afford voice and painting lessons as well as stylish clothes. Deep down, however, Abbie, knows that she really loves quiet, loyal Will Deal. When Will returns from fighting in the Civil War, Abbie knows she must follow her heart. Before she has time to catch her breath, Abbie is married with one child and another on the way, riding in a covered wagon across the prairie to Nebraska. Only her love for Will can lighten the pain of leaving family and friends behind.

Will and Abbie struggle to work the land that he is confident will yield a living. Other homesteaders abandon their farms when the going gets tough, but the Deals and their closest neighbors, the Lutz and Reinmueller Families, stick it out. Although… click here to read whole article and make comments



Happy as a pig in mud

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Mercy Watson to the Rescue
by Kate DiCamillo
written for ages 7-10 | recommended
published in 2009 (2005) | Candlewick press | 80 pages

Newbery award winner Kate DiCamillo is the author of this lovely series for beginner readers. The bright illustrations first attracted me to this book: they are shiny and happy and really jump out at with exuberance in a loveable retro style. Light streams out of windows, the kitchen presents a cosy domestic scene and the garden is bathed in moonlight as the pig ventures out in search of sugar cookies.

The polite Mr. and Mrs. Watson are the main characters and owners of a pet pig called Mercy, and they do their best to provide a happy home for their pig. In this adventure, Mercy decides she prefers the comfort of their bed, and this spells disaster for both the bed and the Watsons.

Younger pre-readers will be able to piece together the story from the pictures and will ask for someone to read it to them. The loveable pet pig called Mercy is guilty of several misdemeanours, such as… click here to read whole article and make comments



A book that became a TV series

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Devil in the Fog
by Leon Garfield
written for ages 9-12 | recommended
published in 2002 (1966) | Oxford University Press | 183 pages

Fourteen-year-old George is the oldest of the seven Treet children who, together with their father, are touring thespians, forever on the edge of poverty, but forever cheerful. Their lives are shadowed by the twice yearly arrival of "the Stranger" who hands Mr Treet a sum of money and disappears. When George is fourteen, the Stranger appears for the last time, and Mr Treet reveals to George that he is actually the son of a nobleman, Sir John Dexter. The Treet family returns George to his father's home, but when he arrives there is some doubt as to his identity. This is overcome, and a fondness seems to grow up between Sir John and George.

Sir John's black sheep brother, Richard, is hiding out nearby, having escaped from Newgate, while George's cousins and aunt are housed with the Dexters. It is clear that somebody is trying to kill George, but the only obvious culprit, Richard Dexter, protests his innocence. Eventually it… 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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