Welcome, fellow members of the VFD and other esteemed colleagues of Lemony Snicket. You are apologetically invited to endure the somber account of a celebrated member’s decidedly inauspicious apprenticeship: Who Could That Be at This Hour? All other readers are invited to stop reading right now.
Oh, all right, tag along if you absolutely must.
By his own account, Lemony Snicket’s education was an unusual one. Just how unusual? Well, that would certainly be the wrong question, but since you’re new at this, we’ll indulge your overdeveloped sense of curiosity – a phrase which here is the polite substitution for "nosiness". Suffice to say that Snicket’s education supplied him with the skills necessary to escape drugging by tea; send secret messages through library loans; free-fall, and other similarly uncomfortable exploits encountered in this book.
What strange sort of book is this? Call it a prequel to unfortunate events, call it a nod to the noir; whatever the classification, Snicket’s latest is most certainly a restorative. Who Could That Be at This Hour? is the first in the intended four-volume series, All the Wrong Questions. Chronicling the latter days of his uncommonly strange childhood and early career, the authorized autobiography of the dear and drear Snicket is at turns gloomy and startling, but always entertaining. Readers who have enjoyed A Series of Unfortunate Events will not be disappointed. Staples of Snicket’s style – clever wordplay and melancholic narration – are abundant in this new venture, accompanied by superb woodcut illustrations.
Real life doesn’t always have a happily ever after. Kids may want to try these two well–written books for stories of real life with real endings. After a violent episode of abuse by her mother and stepfather, twelve-year-old Carley Connors is sent to her first foster home where she is welcomed by Mrs. Murphy, herself a first-timer. In One for the Murphys, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Carley tries to survive in a strange new environment while being haunted by broken pieces of memory from that horrible night. New clothes, home-cooked meals and a return to school is a lot of adjustment for this tough, neglected girl from Las Vegas. A less-than-warm welcome from her foster brother and foster father adds to her anxiety. Hunt displays a deft touch with serious issues, showing Carley’s discomfort and distrust of the kindness shown to her without hitting the reader over the head with her angst. Her characters feel genuine with real emotions and concerns. Carley learns a lot about herself and about love while staying with the Murphys.
First published in 1978, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson is another foster child story with similar themes of finding family and finding yourself. Gilly Hopkins is an eleven year old girl bouncing from foster home to foster home until her beautiful mother, Courtney, can come claim her. The book tells the tale of her stay with Maime Trotter, her foster son William Ernest and family friend, blind Mr. Randolph. Gilly is independent, strong-willed and blunt with her opinions, particularly about the “freaks” she has been stuck with. Gilly’s crude language and bad behavior makes her particularly unlikable at first. The reader begins to cheer for this unhappy creature as the details of her life emerge and as she grows to care for her foster family. The winner of numerous awards, including the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor, The Great Gilly Hopkins still resonates with children today.
Two of last year’s most critically acclaimed picture books happen to be titles featuring headwear. Naoko Stoop’s Red Knit Cap Girl is a gentle, imaginative tale of a young girl who wants to get close enough to the moon to have a conversation. Following the sage advice of Mr. Owl, she enlists the help of her woodland animal friends to send a signal. Bunny, bear, squirrel and hedgehog assist in the hanging of Red Knit Cap Girl’s paper lanterns, made for a special full moon celebration. They sing together, but Moon is absent from the party. Then Red Knit Cap Girl has an epiphany—a quiet, dark forest is most inviting. Stoop’s charmingly old-fashioned illustrations are rendered in pencil, ink and acrylic on plywood. The wood grain adds an appropriately naturalistic element, each page’s background carefully selected to enhance the overall effect. Stoop is also a master at conveying darkness and light, and the subtle shades between.
The minnow protagonist of Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat introduces himself to the reader by boldly announcing that his newly acquired chapeau is stolen property. In fact, he himself is the one who snatched it. Rich digital illustrations enhanced by Chinese ink portray a deep black ocean, rife with various hues of brown sea plants. The pictures here tell a story that contradicts the text, leaving observant readers to delight in the thought of what might come next when the hat’s owner, an enormous, no-nonsense fish, discovers it missing. Much like Klassen’s enormously popular I Want my Hat Back, this picture book is driven by wry humor and the power of inference.
Newbery Medal winner Rebecca Stead is back with another gem for the middle grade crowd in Liar & Spy. Georges has a lot going on, not the least of which is his name. Yes, his parents named him Georges (silent s) after their favorite painter, pointillist Georges Seurat. Needless to say, this only gives the bullies at school more ammunition in their relentless torment. His former best friend is now ensconced in the cool crowd. Georges has had to move from the only home he knew following his father’s job loss. And his mother is working double shifts as a nurse at the hospital to get some much needed extra cash.
The only bright light is the Spy Club at his new apartment building led by the homeschooled Safer. He is convinced another tenant, the mysterious Mr. X, is up to nefarious dealings. Safer and Georges begin an intensive spying campaign, and Georges grows closer with Safer’s quirky family, including his appropriately named younger sister, Candy, whose appetite for sweets is insatiable. As the spy game becomes more extreme and Safer becomes more demanding, Georges is forced to question Safer’s honesty and motives all while dealing with a missing mother, who only communicates with Georges via messages on a Scrabble board. Georges avoids visiting his mother at work, and readers soon learn there is more to that situation than meets the eye.
As with Seurat’s paintings, Georges learns to look at the big picture, rather than focus on the small stuff. This is a fascinating coming of age story filled with twists and an appealing and relatable young man. Long after readers finish this book, they will be thinking about the questions posed regarding family, friendship, loyalty, perception, reality and truth.
Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis honors seventeen civil rights heroes in the beautifully illustrated collection, When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders. While Lewis’ poems celebrate well-known leaders such as Coretta Scott King and Mohandas Gandhi, he also uses this as an opportunity to present lesser known heroes to today’s children. These include Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy activist. and Dennis James Banks, Co-founder of the American Indian Movement and Anishinabe political activist. The verses bring to life the spirit of these men and women who impacted the world at large and each is accompanied by a beautiful artwork from four of today’s most celebrated illustrators.
Activism is at the heart of Crow, by adult author Barbara Wright, her first novel for children. It’s the summer of 1898, and Moses Thomas of Wilmington, North Carolina is looking forward to a fabulous summer vacation. But things don’t go as planned when his best friend finds a new pal, his father and grandmother intensify their squabbling, and his mother works long days as a maid for a rich white family. He also grows increasingly aware of the escalating tension between the African American and white communities. Moses’ dad is an alderman in town and works for the African American newspaper. The African American middle class in Wilmington is growing, but not everyone is pleased with the power wielded by this population, and a White Declaration of Independence is issued. Leading African American figures, including Moses’ father, are told to leave town. The resulting riots bring devastation to the community and directly impact Moses’ family and future. Told from the realistic point of view of a courageous young boy, this story combines historic details of the disenfranchisement of the African American community in one town with a moving coming of age story.
Bird & Squirrel on the Run! is the funny new graphic novel from James Burks. Squirrel accidentally loses his winter supply of nuts while trying to rescue Bird from the Cat. Limited by an injured wing, Bird talks Squirrel into walking south with him to survive the winter. Thus begins a wonderful buddy adventure for the younger reader. While Bird is fun-loving and adventurous, Squirrel is very cautious and nervous. As Bird learns a little bit about responsibility and Squirrel learns a little bit about fun, the two new friends contend with angry bees, scary snakes, waterfalls, dire predictions (from a fortune-telling mole!) and one determined cat on their way to warmer lands. Displaying loyalty and fortitude, the pair faces down one last fearsome, flying foe. Will the friends survive their journey?
Burks’ bright colorful illustrations are easy to follow. Using such details as an acorn helmet for the cautious Squirrel and aviator goggles for the adventurous Bird, Burks’ artwork complements the story well. His lesson of a happy medium between being overly-cautious and carelessly adventurous is subtly conveyed. While the text is simple and very manageable, the story is delightfully detailed. This book could serve as a wonderful transition to chapter books for the newly independent reader… and it’s a fun read!
Prolific children’s author Bruce Coville is back with a fresh serving of the deliciously weird. Welcome to Always October, where the weather is always autumnal and monsters abound. It is a world separate from our own, yet woven into the essential fabric of human dreams and fears. Now the links between these worlds are in danger of unraveling, and the fate of each hangs by a thread.
Sixth grader Jake Doolittle isn’t fond of surprises. In the second grade, his best friend Lily nearly mucked up their friendship by proposing to him in front of the entire class (True story!) In the fourth grade, his adored dad disappeared under mysterious circumstances. So when Jake opens the door one stormy night to find a baby swaddled in black on the front porch, he’s more than a little uneasy. A note left with the baby urges the family to protect Little Dumpling until his guardian can return. Jake’s mother falls in love with the baby immediately, and it isn’t long before Jake himself falls for the smiles and gurgles of his new little brother. But when the light of a full moon hits Little Dumpling, it reveals a bright green furry little monster!
Little Dumpling may be a little monster at times, but he’s still Jake’s brother now and he’s determined to protect LD and get to the bottom of the baby’s transformation. Jake turns to Lily and together the two seek to solve the puzzle of Little Dumpling’s transformation, his unusual ancestry, and the curious link between the baby monster and Jake’s father. Alternating point-of-view narration, snappy dialogue, and quirky characters keep readers on their toes as they follow Jake, Lily and Little Dumpling on their adventure.
Written in short, episodic passages by a boy as a memorial to his beloved friend, Michael Gerard Bauer’s short novel Just a Dog is a contemporary elegy, ably covering a rite of passage that many children must face. Corey’s uncle is a breeder of Dalmatians. The breeder loses track of one of his females, who later has a litter of puppies that are clearly not 100% Dalmatian. Most of the pups are given away to strangers, but 3-year-old Corey chooses and names Mister Mosely. He is a gangly, mostly white puppy with enormous paws, and just a few black patches here and there, including a heart shape on his chest. Each vignette that now 11-year-old Corey writes in his journal describes his memories of incidences with the lovable Moe, the family’s nickname for the dog.
An Australian import, the novel includes some terminology that will have kids learning new Down Under vocabulary, but context clues allow for full understanding. The familiar story of the relationship between a family and a pet is deepened by the serious issues that Corey’s parents must deal with when they become financially strapped. Corey’s little sister Amelia provides comic relief. Her relationship with the enormous yet gentle Mister Mosely includes episodes of dressing him up in various outfits, and using permanent markers to create a constant surprised look on his face.
Corey and the rest of his family face true, difficult emotions at the end of Mister Mosely’s short life. It is unlikely that most readers both young and old will be able to get through the novel without shedding a tear for Mister Mosely, as Bauer concisely and accurately depicts the loyalty, love, and pure heart a beloved pet provides to humans. All told, he's much more than “just a dog”.
Children love a good story, especially when it includes things loud, obnoxious, and inappropriate. Tumford’s Rude Noises, by author/illustrator Nancy Tillman, has both to spare. Tumford Stoutt, a roly-poly black and white cat who lives with his human parents on Sweet Apple Green, is no stranger to trouble. In rhyming, playful style Tumford burps, bangs, clangs, parades, and plays with his food, annoying everyone around him. This only makes him want more attention until he lands a time out. Will Tumford finally learn his lesson? All ages can relate to this tumultuous tale enjoying both the naughty and the nice parts. Readers will be charmed by the engaging photo-collage illustrations in bright primary colors, as well as Tumford’s delightfully expressive face and gestures. As usual, Tumford pushes the limits, but in the end no matter what Tumford does, he knows his parents love him unconditionally.
In rhyme and vibrant style, picture book readers were first introduced to that white-whiskered master of misbehavior in Tumford the Terrible. Bedecked in yellow galoshes and full of mischievous appeal, Tumford tries the patience of his parents and townspeople during the village fair but learns a valuable lesson – love and good manners matter - when he finally and sincerely says, “I’m sorry”. Tillman, who may be best known for her New York Times bestseller, On The Night You Were Born, has a collection of children’s picture books notable for their message and beautiful artwork, with Tumford tops among them.
Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat and this year Santa gets some help from that crazy Pete the Cat! That’s right, the blue fun-loving feline is back in Pete the Cat Saves Christmas, by Eric Litwin and illustrated by James Dean. At Santa’s request, Pete steps in when Santa falls ill with a chill. Pete begins his holiday adventure in typical cool-cat rhyming style - Pete jumped in his minibus and started to roll. “Road trip!” cried Pete. “First stop – the North Pole.” The vividly colored, abstract and energetic illustrations and zany, ear-catching story in rhyme have real kid-appeal. There’s added entertainment value with a free download of the complete story and accompanying song read by the author. Kids can listen or read along, and check out Pete’s reproducible booklet of Christmas activities like a holiday word scramble, connect the dots, and maze. Now that’s “totally groovy!”
Charlie and the Christmas Kitty is a sweet winter time treat for families. Written by Ree Drummond, New York Times bestselling author of The Pioneer Woman Cooks, and featuring her own Basset Hound, Charlie, this down-home story is simple and wholesome, much like her country cooking. As “King of the Ranch”, Charlie oversees the comings and goings of humans and animals on their country spread. Adorably floppy, with his long ears, wrinkly skin, slightly short legs, and penchant for bacon, Charlie settles down for a little shut-eye while the family is busy preparing for Christmas. Imagine his surprise the next day when a new creature is introduced to the mix. Is it a rabbit? No, it’s an unapproved Christmas kitten! Charlie tries his hardest to ignore the little fluff ball, but finally relents after the curious kitten follows him throughout the day. All’s well that ends well, until a snuggly, beribboned Basset pup shows up – not again! Diane deGroat, award-winning children’s book illustrator and author/illustrator of the best-selling picture book series featuring Gilbert the opossum, creates the appealing kid-friendly artwork using watercolor paint over digital art on hot press paper. Animal lovers and families will enjoy this book and can try Charlie’s Favorite Christmas Cookie recipe included at the back.