Barbara Park, bestselling author of the beloved Junie B. Jones series, among other children’s books, passed away on Friday at the age of 66 after a long battle with ovarian cancer. The series Park was best known for followed the irrepressible Junie B. and her kindergarten (and later first grade) classmates as they encountered everyday situations that vex the average 5- or 6-year-old. Starting with Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, these books have entertained countless first-time readers. Aside from activity books and other related Junie B. material, Park published 28 Junie B. Jones titles.
Beyond Junie B., Park also excelled at writing other children’s books. Two of her best-known have been contemporary classics since their publication. Skinnybones follows the smallest kid on his baseball team who unfortunately also has the biggest mouth. For older kids, the tragic story Mick Harte Was Here covers the aftermath of a sister coping with the biking death of her brother. Acclaimed author Judy Blume was among the many who, over the weekend, spoke about Park’s enduring legacy, stating that some of Junie B.’s admirers confused the two: "I'd always say, 'I didn't write them, but I wish I had."
Twelve years ago on the day she was born, Cassie Romano’s town was flooded to make way for a new dam and the residents of Old Lower Grange were moved uphill to a brand new town, New Lower Grange. The whole town turned out to celebrate the flooding except for Cassie’s family. They were busy racing to the hospital to deliver Cassie eight weeks earlier than planned. In Meg McKinlay’s children’s novel, Below, Cassie is envious of her family’s memories of a place she will never know and she grows up imagining a mysterious town underneath the still waters of the manmade lake. Fascinated with the past, she has spent hours studying old pictures, maps and historic documents and knows where every oak tree stood and where every road leads.
When a summertime drought causes the water levels in the lake to recede dramatically, Cassie and her friend Liam stumble on a long kept secret, a secret that was submerged under 200 of water. Despite their own physical limitations, they work together to solve the mystery below the water.
Below is based on the author’s own experience as a teenager standing next to a drowned town and wondering what remained underneath the water and the mud.
Nick and Maxine are off on another adventure with their babysitter in Mrs. Noodlekugel and Four Blind Mice by Daniel Pinkwater. In this delightful sequel to Mrs. Noodlekugel, the four mice friends make a terrible mess at tea-time, causing Mrs. Noodlekugel to realize that it is time to have them checked by an eye doctor. Nick and Maxine keep Mrs. Noodlekugel and Mr. Fuzzface, her talking cat, company on the bus trip to the oculist’s office. It is a story loaded with whimsy (talking cats), eccentricities (the mice can’t talk, but they do need glasses), and a little bit of mystery. The absurdity of a monkey waiter, mice riding on hats and eye doctors who treat mice will make the reader giggle. An unexpected family reunion ties the story together and provides a neat conclusion.
The charming narrative is broken up into easy-to-manage chapters with large print, making this series a perfect choice for the new chapter book reader. Engaging illustrations by Adam Stower add to the overall appeal. Reminiscent of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, but without the character building lessons, the Mrs. Noodlekugel series is pure fun.
In Sharon Creech’s latest book, The Boy on the Porch, a young couple find a boy asleep on their front porch one day and decide to take him in. The child has a note in his pocket stating: “Plees tak kair of Jacob. He is a good boy. Wil be bak wen we can.” With that little bit of information, John and Marta begin to care for the boy who does not speak, yet communicates to them by tapping and painting pictures such as they’ve never seen before. As the bond between the three of them grows stronger, they all realize that any day someone may take Jacob away from them and tear apart their newly formed family.
Newbery Medal winner Creech effectively uses short chapters and sparse descriptions to draw a wonderfully fleshed out story and characters that are quirky yet totally believable. Jacob stands in for the child that John and Marta never had, but he is also able to bond with the animals on the farm better than the couple ever could. As the story unfolds, all three main characters go through changes that are heartwarming yet never maudlin. The different ways that Jacob is able to share his innermost thoughts and feelings without ever saying a word is both inspirational and eye-opening.
Sir Sidney runs a very unusual circus. Children are admitted free, everyone is given complimentary popcorn and lemonade, and he manages to keep his ticket prices to $1 for adults. While this may seem like an odd business model to adults, children will be delighted by The Show Must Go On!, the first book in the Three-Ring Rascals series by Kate Klise. Klise and her sister M. Sarah Klise, who draws the whimsical illustrations, have collaborated on other children’s books including Letters from Camp and Regarding the Fountain and their teamwork makes for a fast-paced story with plenty of pictures.
Sir Sidney loves his circus, but he decides he needs to take a break and advertises for someone to take over for him. Enter Barnabas Brambles, a somewhat shady character who presents his certificate from the University of Piccadilly Circus in London, England to prove he is a “certified lion tamer.” The wary Sir Sidney decides to let Brambles take over the circus for a week on a trial basis. Soon it becomes apparent that Brambles is up to no good, and the plucky performers must act quickly to save their beloved circus. Children who love animals and circuses will find plenty to like, even adults will enjoy the silly humor that is a trademark of the Klise sisters.
Roald Dahl is arguably the most popular children’s author of all time and with good reason. His books stand the test of time and continue to delight children around the globe. The multitude of adaptations in a wide variety of arenas is a testament to the enduring appeal of the magic of Dahl. Two of his most popular works are celebrating milestone anniversaries this year.
One of Dahl’s darker titles, The Witches, was first published 30 years ago and is the story of a young boy, his Norwegian grandmother and a whole lot of witches bent on eliminating the children of the world. This story won Dahl the prestigious Whitbread Award (now the Costa Book of the Year) for “Best Children’s Literature.” In 1990, the year of Dahl’s death, the book was adapted into a film starring Anjelica Huston and Rowan Atkinson. More recently, the book was transformed into an opera. Actress Miranda Richardson spectacularly narrates a recent audio version of this remarkable story that makes a great family listen.
Matilda, the story of Matilda Wormwood, a genius with awful parents, marks its 25th anniversary of publication. With illustrations by Dahl’s friend, Quentin Blake, this story captures the imagination of readers who can empathize with the main character and the nasty adults wreaking havoc in her world. The novel was adapted as a film in 1996 and a London musical in 2011. The musical premiered in the U.S. earlier this year and has set box office records. A recently released audio version narrated by Kate Winslet, capturing the essence of this tale, is garnering rave reviews. For a taste of the fabulous Ms. Winslet’s splendiferous performance, listen here.
Zombies and vampires have been all the rage lately, but not like this. Zombies who eat brains? Okay, sure. Vampires who suck blood? Makes sense. But vampires and zombies in tutus? Huh? Authors Kristyn Crow and Anne Marie Pace bring to life two adorably spooky characters with wonderfully supportive families.
Zombelina has a love of dance that she just can’t contain. She twirls through the house from one dance to the next. To her pleasant surprise, her mother says it’s time that she becomes a true ballerina. She takes her shopping for all of the ballet accoutrement and even signs her up for lessons. When she begins her class, it’s plain to see that Zombelina may be a little different from the other girls, but she practices hard and gains praise for her unique spin on ballet. Will the practice pay off for her big recital? Crow uses rhyming in combination with Molly Idle’s illustrations to create a story wholly unique. This book is a clear choice for any young reader with a passion for dance or who is looking for something to get them in spooky spirits.
Another book to go with the theme is Anne Marie Pace’s second installment of Vampirina Ballerina, titled Vampirina Ballerina Hosts a Sleepover. In this story, Vampirina shows just what to do to create the very best sleepover. It’s not all about work, though, as the little girls come over and frolic in this uncharacteristic house filled with mummies, monsters and spiders, oh my. Not everyone enjoys the slumber party when one little girl is spooked by an unexpected mummy appearance. Will Vampirina be able to save the party she worked so hard to plan?
Other picture books to celebrate the spooky season are Bone Soup by Cambria Evans and Gibbus Moony Wants to Bite You! by Leslie Muir.
From Newbery Award-winner Patricia MacLachlan comes The Truth of Me, a new classic delivered in a deceptively simplistic format. Robbie — he hates to be called Robert — is the only child of two brilliant but distant musicians. He knows his parents care for him, but also that the music has and always will come first. Fortunately, Robbie is also the beloved grandchild of one very quirky lady...who just may have a special gift when it comes to communicating with wild animals.
Maddy may be a little unconventional as grandmothers go — she’s even been known to serve donuts for dinner — but to Robbie there could be none better. More than a grandmother, Maddy is Robbie’s best friend — well, apart from his dog, Ellie — and he always looks forward to the time they spend together. During the summer that his parents’ quartet is touring in Europe, Robbie’s stay with Maddy will open his eyes to new truths; about his grandmother, about his family and even about himself.
A poignant tale and understated to a fault, The Truth of Me is a story of the little truths about ourselves that help us see the big picture. On its surface, it's a simple portrait of a young boy, his grandmother and his dog. At its heart, it's a story of self-actualization and love. Recommended for thoughtful young readers and anyone who enjoys gentle teaching tales. Fans of Kevin Henkes’ Junonia, in particular, may be drawn to The Truth of Me.
Two very different cats play lead roles in new largely wordless books for young readers. International feline superstar Hello Kitty makes her graphic novel debut in Hello Kitty: Here We Go! by Jacob Chabot. After a quick introduction to her friends and family, HK’s global adventures begin. Making her way through locations real and imaginary, the jet-setting cat finds new friends, exciting places to explore and strange new creatures to assist her along her path. Each short vignette features Hello Kitty charming her way to adventure, fun and happiness.
Multiple Caldecott-winning author/illustrator David Wiesner’s new picture book centers on a tuxedo cat with the completely opposite mood from Hello Kitty. The amusingly misnamed black-and-white feline Mr. Wuffles! is a curmudgeonly creature with no interest in the toys that his owner brings him. Until suddenly, a new toy appears in Mr. Wuffles’ world – that of a small spaceship commanded by a group of tiny green aliens. Wiesner’s ability to realistically illustrate the movements of a lazy cat who suddenly becomes interested in the visitors is remarkable. The aliens’ ship is in need of repair after being batted around and chomped by Mr. Wuffles. They receive aid from an unexpected group of under-the-radiator insects who have also been terrified by the cat. Ant, ladybug and alien “speak” to each other through art to assist each in mystifying their feline tormentor and concocting an escape for the otherworldly creatures. In this short video, David Wiesner introduces Mr. Wuffles! and his artistic process.
Lovable each in their own way, these two furry, whiskered cats bring their adventures in paneled, graphic novel format, introducing young readers to visual literacy and expanding their imaginations.
In Neil Gaiman’s latest children’s book, Fortunately, The Milk, a father goes through an incredible series of side adventures as he tries to return home with a bottle of milk from the local store. In fact, it seems as if this hapless man encounters every sort of being from children’s literature: aliens, dinosaurs, pirates, vampires (which Gaiman calls ‘wumpires’), ponies and human-sacrificing islanders. After the father is late coming home with milk for his children’s cereal, he relates a tale that is both fantastic and silly about travelling through time with a very intelligent Stegosaurus. Naturally, his children don’t believe a word he says, but a twist at the end makes them wonder if there was any truth in his alibi.
Gaiman, whose past books include Coraline and The Graveyard Book, shares a story that could easily be turned into a Tim Burton film. Burton and Gaiman have collaborated in the past and it feels as if this book was written with a movie deal in mind. The pen and ink illustrations by Skottie Young add to the humor and give a definite comic book flavor to the tale. For youngsters who enjoy a fast-paced read with plenty of pictures, Fortunately, The Milk delivers in barely more than 100 pages.