Birds of a feather flock together

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Mr. Brown's Fantastic Hat
by Ayano Imai
written for ages 2-7 | recommended
published in 2014 | minedition | 32 pages

Mr. Brown gives the impression that he prefers to be by himself. Armed with his white top hat, he spends his time taking long walks - alone. Deep down, however, this bear is quite lonely. When a woodpecker decides to build its nest in his hat, Mr. Brown grows angry. Other birds join the woodpecker, and the hat expands to make room for them.

This unique story illustrates the importance of companionship. Mr. Brown believes he is self-sufficient and has trouble relating to others. His unwanted visitors teach him that friendship is worth sacrificing some privacy and quiet. Like his hat, Mr. Brown's heart expands as he acquires new "roommates". Ayano Imai's drawings are full of soft colors that accentuate both the bear's timid personality and the gentle presence of his feathered friends.

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

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Tragedy at sea leads to mystery and suspense

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The House of Windjammer
by V.A. Richardson
written for ages 11-14 | recommended
published in 2006 (2003) | Bloomsbury | 352 pages

The Windjammer family business is ruined when their fleet of merchant ships is destroyed, leaving them at the mercy of the bankers and unable to fulfil their obligations to their employees. As Hercules Windjammer dies from the shock of the disaster, Adam becomes head of the family at the age of fifteen and must face up to the greater and greater difficulties which face the business and consequently the family's well-being, including that of his mother and young twin sisters.

A well-paced story with a cast of fleshed-out main characters and some good supporting ones, conveying a taste of what choices were open to a young man of fifteen who has to try to save his family from ruin. The historical detail is well-sketched without being overwhelming.

Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. This review first appeared on his site

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Children seek to avert war in cultural exchange

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Ship of Dolls
by Shirley Parenteau
written for ages 9-12 | recommended with reservations
published in 2014 | Candlewick | 272 pages

Eleven-year-old Lexie wishes more than anything that she could go back to San Francisco to live with her mother. When her father died, her mother remarried and her stepfather now feels that a young girl needs more supervision than two night club singers can provide. Lexie's paternal grandparents are more than happy to take her away from their “flapper” daughter-in-law. Lexie, however, misses the fun and laughter of her beautiful, carefree parent and is determined to find a way home.

The opportunity arises when her class collects money for a Friendship Doll: a doll sent to Japan as part of a cultural exchange between these two nations after the First World War. Lexie's classmates raise the funds for the doll and are challenged to write a letter to introduce the toy to its new owner. Since the author of the best letter will accompany the doll to San Francisco for the grand send-off of over 12,000 Friendship Dolls, Lexie… click here to read whole article and make comments



Orphans uncover kidnapping scheme

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The Orphan and the Mouse
by Martha Freeman
written for ages 9-12 | recommended
published in 2014 | Holiday House | 224 pages

Mary the mouse is truly devoted to her husband, Zelinsky. When he disappears and she is asked to replace him as the mouse community's art thief, she hesitates. Who will take care of her children if something happens to her? Her daughters' encouragement and the inspiration of her idol, Stuart Little, compel Mary to take on the job. Fortunately, a big-hearted orphan in the house where the mice live is nearby when Mary is nearly caught by the resident cat. Who would have thought that a human could be so kind?

Caro is indeed kind. All of the children at The Cherry Street Home for orphans love her and no longer notice her hand, disfigured from severe burns. She looks out for the other children and is always willing to help. Mrs. George, the home's administrator, even entrusts Caro with the responsibility of caring for the abandoned newborn baby whom the police bring to the home. Caro is a bright… click here to read whole article and make comments



Cursed knight rescues damsel in distress

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The Forgotten Knight
by Emilie Ritter
written for ages 11-14 | acceptable
published in 2014 | Outskirts Press | 228 pages

Sir Christopher of Calidore enjoys helping others. This is fortunate, as he has been cursed and forced to travel about doing good deeds with the help of a sorceress named Aurora. Until they discover how to lift the curse, they are bound to each other, following the magic that determines their route and searching for people in need of assistance. After rescuing a head-strong princess, Gwenyth, from Sir Christopher's nemesis, the threesome travel towards young lady's kingdom. Along the way, they save a family from fire and a village from an ogre.

This story, despite its unexpected conclusion, is quite simple, as are its characters. Aurora is a feisty female side-kick who defies her mentor and struggles to control her emotions. Sir Christopher cheerfully accepts his fate without ever seeming pressed to escape it. One trait differentiates him from typical knights of fairy tales: he believes in God and prays, a surprising habit for someone who keeps company with a… click here to read whole article and make comments



Giant rats capture New Yorker

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Gregor the Overlander
by Suzanne Collins
written for ages 9-12 | recommended
published in 2004 (2003) | Scholastic | 320 pages

Gregor really misses his father. Since he disappeared without a trace two years ago, life has not been the same. He accepts the added responsibilities he now has: helping around their New York City apartment and babysitting his two-year-old sister. He just wishes he could be with his father again. Gregor refuses to believe his dad would just abandon their family, but is afraid to dream of the day when he would return.

Although only eleven, Gregor has managed to learn several new skills while his mother is at work, including how to do laundry. He is actually pretty efficient at this task, though it is a challenge to keep an eye on his sister, Boots, at the same time. When she manages to find an open vent in the wall, Gregor tries to prevent her from crawling into it, but a strange mist seems to beckon them, and before he knows it, both he and Boots are tumbling down… click here to read whole article and make comments



The cost of college drives a father to a life of crime

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Full Ride
by Margaret Peterson Haddix
written for ages 13-16 | acceptable
published in 2013 | Simon & Schuster | 352 pages

Becca Jones lived a charmed existence: loving parents, a beautiful home, plenty of clothes and lots of friends. All that came to an abrupt end when her father was convicted of fraud and sentenced to ten years in prison. Now she and her mother can barely make ends meet and have no support from family or friends. It makes perfect sense to accept their lawyer's assistance in moving from Georgia to Ohio and starting fresh. With a name like "Jones" they will surely be able to pass under the radar and begin a new life.

All seems to go well for three years. Becca develops friendships without revealing her family's past, earns exemplary grades and enters her senior year in high school with high hopes of attending a good college. She does not anticipate the complications that come when she fills out applications, however, and quickly loses patience with her mother's trepidation. When she applies for a scholarship without informing… click here to read whole article and make comments



A picture book that teaches logic

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Before After
by Anne-Margot Ramstein & Matthias Aregui
written for ages 2-7 | highly recommended
published in 2014 | Candlewick | 176 pages

Ramstein and Arégui's imaginative picture book without text challenges young readers to use their skills of deduction. Pairs of pictures demonstrate relations or the passage of time. Some combinations are obvious, such as an acorn and an oak tree or a beehive and a honey pot, some require more thought, as in the pumpkin followed by the horse-drawn carriage, but all lend themselves to discussion. Digital images and muted tones give the book the look of an educational text, but many of the pictures are playful and amusing. This is a book that children will enjoy examining many times, and adults will find a useful teaching tool.

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

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Nepotism undermines military strength

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Frontier Wolf
by Rosemary Sutcliff
written for ages 13-16 | recommended
published in 2008 (1980) | Front Street Press | 254 pages

Having an uncle in high places has its advantages. Alexios Flavius Aquila knows that he could never have earned a command of an entire cohort if his mother's half-brother were not governor of Northern Britain. Nepotism does have its down sides, however. Senior officers often resent the quick ascent of a young man with connections, and experienced soldiers have little respect for greenhorns. Worst of all, though, is promotion to a position beyond one's capacity in which one makes a bad decision resulting in the loss of many lives. Will Alexios ever live down his mistake on the German frontier?

Faced with a possible court martial, Alexios again finds himself grateful to Uncle Marius. A second (and perhaps last) chance to prove that he is worthy of his family's great military history, sends Alexios to the Northern Wall in Britain to command the Frontier Scouts, a motley crew of Romans and tribesmen known for their resourcefulness and unconventional ways. Alexios's… click here to read whole article and make comments



A mother’s embrace warms the heart

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The Everlasting Embrace
by Gabrielle Emanuel, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
written for ages 2-7 | highly recommended
published in 2014 | Viking Books for Young Readers | 40 pages

Inspired by the author's working experience in Mali, this picture book depicts the touching relationship between a mother and her toddler. The story, told from the child's perspective strapped to her mother's back, takes the two through a typical day of the work of an African woman. The little girl learns how to grind grain, carry water and shop in the market simply by observing her mother's activities.

Gabrielle Emanuel's first picture book grew from her desire to write stories for African children that display their own country and culture. The importance of the mother-child bond that Emanuel presents demonstrates the affection a mother has for her baby, as well as the powerful role she plays as primary educator. E. B. Lewis's watercolor illustrations fill the book with earth tones and lively hues that reflect the warmth of the sun and a mother's heart.

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

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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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