When A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo opens, the main character, Michael, is an old man trying to discover the place in Belgium where his grandfather died during World War I. As he wanders the peaceful countryside where a battle once raged, he thinks back to his childhood in London and the events that led him to this spot.
Called “Poodle” by his classmates due to his curly hair and his French mother, Michael quickly discovers ways to deal with the taunts and prejudices that he encounters throughout his childhood.
Although his father died when Michael was a baby, his mother stays in touch with his father’s family, which consists of two rather eccentric, elderly aunts. Michael wonders about his father and wants to know more about him, but no one is willing to tell him much. However, one day, Michael receives a package from one of the aunts that contains a small notebook that reveals secrets about his father and grandfather that he could have never imagined.
Morpurgo is a masterful storyteller whose past work includes the best-seller War Horse, and he is at his best when writing historical fiction. His plot for A Medal for Leroy is loosely based on the life of Walter Tull, the first black officer in the British Army. This book is a rare one for me: Not only was it suspenseful and poignant, but I could not put it down, and I read it in one sitting.
Walk down the toy aisles at your local store and you will see that the aisles are divided into two categories. The aisles with shelves lined in pink that contain the soft, sweet, nurturing toys are obviously marketed toward girls. Those blue shelves with the rough-and-tumble, mechanical looking toys built for speed and smashing things, well, that’s where the boys should shop. But what if your child doesn’t conform to society’s gender norms? Then perhaps you may enjoy Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman, illustrated by Chris Case.
Jacob loves to play dress-up at school with his best friend, Emily. Although most boys in his class want to dress as a knight, fireman or dragon, Jacob is much happier when he puts on a pretty dress and imagines that he is a princess. Even though he is being teased by some of his classmates, Jacob musters up the courage to ask his mom if he can wear a regular dress, not just a playtime dress, to school. While his parents don’t immediately embrace the idea, Jacob’s mom helps him sew a dress to wear to school. With the support of his parents (“Well, it’s not what I would wear, but you look great” – Jacob’s Father) and his teacher (“I think Jacob wears what he’s comfortable in. Just like you do. Not very long ago little girls couldn’t wear pants. Can you imagine that?”), Jacob shows everyone that there is more than one way to be a boy.
Case’s soft, moving illustrations help set the mood of the story while the Hoffmans’ text conveys far more than a singular lesson. This story is great for teaching children about diversity, acceptance and self-confidence. The authors’ note at the end of the book helps to explain how all adults who play a role in raising, nurturing and educating children can make a difference in the lives of those children who do not conform to typical gender roles.
Tedd Arnold, author and illustrator of The New York Times bestselling Fly Guy series, has come out with a new book, Fix This Mess! In this new beginning reader, Arnold plays with words and the importance of meaning what you say.
Jake orders a robug through the mail that he intends to use to clean his filthy mess of a house. When he asks the robug to “Fix this mess,” the robug proceeds to move one mess to another area. This makes Jake frustrated. Will Jake ever get the robug to fix the mess? Well, not unless he changes his tactic.
Jake isn’t the only messy dog in town. Bad Dog, by award winning author and illustrator David McPhail, is a realistic fiction work about another messy dog, but unlike Jake, this one doesn’t have opposable thumbs to help clean his own messes.
Bad Dog is a beginning reader about a little boy with a bad dog named Tom. Tom does everything from destroying the family’s TV to digging through the garbage. One day, the boy’s parents get so fed up that they are ready to find Tom a new home, but then an unexpected event changes their perspective, at least for the time being.
While Arnold uses bright and busy illustrations, McPhail utilizes more subtle hues and contained illustrations. Both of these books have just one or two sentences to a page, making them great books for your beginning reader.
Want to share your love of Downton Abbey with your little one? Look no further than Mouseton Abbey: The Missing Diamond by Nick Page. This estate, populated by mice and presided over by Roquefort, the present Lord Mouseton, has an impressive history — it was originally a monastery and even survived the War of the Fondues!
At Mouseton Abbey, it's Cheesemas, and Roquefort has misplaced the Great Big Cheesy Diamond, which is a tradition for the family’s Cheesemas banquet. Lady Brie, the Countess of Mouseton, is well acquainted with her husband’s habit of losing things and even tried buying him a planner at one point (which he lost). Soon, everyone at Mouseton Abbey from Roquefort and Lady Brie’s three daughters to the household staff is on a search for the diamond. But with last-minute banquet preparations underway, Roquefort is causing more disorder and housekeeping angst as he tears apart rooms and upsets cooking preparations in search of the treasure. Will the family find the diamond and be able to keep their Cheesemas tradition?
Adorable knitted mouse characters set in delightfully sketched rooms make this a fun and enchanting story, and the humor and mice misadventures will be appreciated by both adults and children. There is even a character chart in the beginning of the book with names and titles (Lady Gouda, in dress and demeanor, bears more than a passing resemblance to Downton’s Lady Violet). With the mice’s names — Wensleydale, Ricotta, Fontina — it could be a lesson in cheeses as well as aristocratic country estates!
Scooby-Dooby-Doo! Now young readers can join the gang and help them solve mysteries in the new series You Choose, Scooby-Doo! by multiple authors. With 10 or more possible endings in each book, the reader can help Fred, Velma, Daphne, Shaggy and Scooby solve The Mystery of the Maze Monster, The Secret of the Sea Creature, The Terror of the Bigfoot Beast and The Case of the Cheese Thief. Only one path takes the reader to the mastermind behind it all, but each story is suspenseful and fun – perfect for the new chapter reader. Bonus material includes a glossary and a “You Choose the Punchline” page of jokes.
For fans of the American Girl doll franchise, find your “inner star” with the Innerstar University series of books. The reader joins the girls at boarding school and chooses how to deal with “tweenage” issues. Do you stand up to the bully? Do you stick with your friends? What do you do when you are scared? Encouraging the reader to make tough realistic choices, Innerstar University makes the reader the star of the book. With at least 20 different endings in each book, the reader can choose which way to take the story. The latest in the series, Second Chances, forces the reader to make choices about how to deal with a difficult friend. For a more interactive experience, one path will lead the reader to the Innerstar University website for the conclusion, as well as some additional games and activities.
Harlem in the early 20th century was home to some of the most successful African-Americans in the country. In Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood, Carole Boston Weatherford (born and raised in Baltimore!) takes readers inside a remarkable part of Harlem and introduces its famous residents. Weatherford’s energetic rhymes are perfect for reading aloud and R. Gregory Christie’s bold illustrations capture the excitement of this dynamic community. Single lines of text encapsulate the contributions of the men and women who contributed so much in such an array of fields. Artists, musicians, entertainers, civil rights leaders and lawyers are all represented, including Faith Ringgold, Miles Davis, W.E.B. DuBois and Thurgood Marshall. Biographical blurbs offer further information, but this is really a tribute to an influential community that cherished its artists, dreamers and leaders.
Kristy Dempsey imagines the life of one young Harlem resident in A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream. This lyrical tale told in powerful free verse is narrated by a young girl growing up in 1950s Harlem. Her mother works tirelessly as a seamstress at the Metropolitan Opera House, and while waiting for her to finish up, the narrator dances in the wings. She attracts the attention of the Ballet Master, who invites her to join his class. But this lively little girl still wonders, “Could a colored girl like me / ever become / a prima ballerina?" When she attends the debut performance of Janet Collins, the first African-American prima ballerina, at the Met on November 13, 1951 the young girl realizes her dream can come true. Coretta Scott King Award-winning illustrator Floyd Cooper sumptuously illustrates this story of hope and inspiration and vividly brings to life one young Harlem girl.
Billy Miller is about to start second grade and is very worried. He hit his head in a fall over the summer and is worried he won't be smart enough for school. Reassuring him, his father tells him this will be The Year of Billy Miller. Follow Billy through his second grade year in this charming novel by Kevin Henkes. Broken into four parts, Billy’s school year is told through his relationships with his teacher, sister, father and mother. Realistically portraying the worries of a 7-year-old, The Year of Billy Miller touches on a little bit of everything.
Does his teacher like him? When Billy thinks he has offended his new teacher he worries and wonders how to fix it. Can his little sister fill in for his best friend when a planned sleepover is cancelled? He really wants to stay up all night. Is he really too old to call his father “Papa?" That’s what the know-it-all Emma says. Will he be able to recite the poem for his mother in front of everybody? Will his mother like it?
Henkes delivers a poignant, realistic portrayal of Billy that is relatable to any elementary school student. Fans of realistic fiction such as the Ramona Quimby series by Beverly Cleary will enjoy this novel. Kevin Henkes is an award-winning author of over 50 picture books as well as numerous novels for children. The Year of Billy Miller is a worthy continuation of his great body of work.
Ava loves words and wordplay, especially palindromes, due in part to her name being a palindrome: A-V-A. So are her sister’s, mother’s and father’s: Pip, Anna and Bob. It’s no wonder that palindromes are an important part of her life, along with writing in her diary and trying to decide what she wants to be when she grows up. In Ava and Pip by Carol Weston, fifth grader Ava uses her diary to share her feelings and thoughts about such critical issues as her sister’s shyness, her parents’ tendency to ignore her and her hope of becoming a writer.
Although Pip is 2 years older, Ava feels responsible for her sister and wants to help her overcome her shyness and be more outgoing. In an odd turn of events, she finds help from a new seventh grader named Bea, who seems to be everything that Pip is not: bold, confident and mature. However, Ava and Bea’s plan to turn Pip from a wallflower to a social butterfly may not be as easy as they believe.
Weston’s book is reminiscent of the Ramona and Beatrice stories by Beverly Cleary, particularly the relationships between the sisters and their parents. The character of Ava is well-drawn even if she does seem unusually precocious at times for a fifth grader. This book would especially appeal to children who are going through the trials and tribulations of middle school, and also those who love playing with words.
Valentine’s Day will be here soon. However, you don’t need the calendar to read February 14 in order to share some heartwarming picture books about love with your little ones. In The Runaway Hug, written by Nick Bland and illustrated by Freya Blackwood, a little girl named Lucy asks her mommy for a hug before bedtime. This hug is special because it’s the very last one that her mommy has and because of that, Lucy promises that she will return the hug back to her. Lucy decides that she must share this very special last hug with everyone else in her family. She shares this last hug with her daddy, the twins and the baby before sharing it with the family dog, Annie. But when Lucy tries to get the hug back from Annie, the dog runs away playfully and takes Mommy’s very last hug with her. Will Lucy be able to keep her promise to return the last hug to her mommy? Bland’s text meshes well with Blackwood’s illustrations, depicting a loving and somewhat chaotic home to which parents will easily relate.
Even though love is not something that you can see or touch, love can be found all around us in Love Is Real, written by Janet Lawler and illustrated by Anna Brown. Using rhyme, Lawler tells a story about how love can be found in simple acts of kindness. Adorable families of forest creatures show how everything they do throughout the day, from helping you get dressed in the morning to putting a bandage on a skinned knee, are examples that love is real.
Another book about love featuring forest animals is Love You More Than Anything by Anna Harber Freeman. Children will love the simple rhyming text and bright, playful illustrations by Jed Henry. Whether it’s ladybugs, playing on the playground or a bubble bath, there is nothing that the chipmunk parents love more than their little kids.
It’s hard work for picture book protagonists to get a decent meal these days. In Buddy and the Bunnies in: Don’t Play with Your Food, our hero is a monster to be reckoned with. All frantic mouth and teeth, wide eyes and pointy claws, Buddy announces his intention to eat a trio of peaceful, checkers-playing white rabbits. But these clever lagomorphs have other ideas for keeping Buddy busy, beginning with playing hide and seek and baking a dozen delicious cupcakes. Each day the horned, orange-striped monster returns for a rabbit repast, and each day there are more bunnies who are too much fun to eat. Children are guaranteed to laugh out loud at Buddy’s wild mood swings, from frightening and frantic to endearing and delighted, broadly depicted by author-illustrator Bob Shea. His bold, bright pastel palette adds to the story’s upbeat, energetic tone. Buddy and the Bunnies demands repeat read-alouds.
The trench-coated fox of Mike Twohy’s Outfoxed makes a midnight run to the chicken coop, mistakenly grabbing a duck in his haste. The two return to his den, where the exhausted predator is all set to cook his prey. But this is no ordinary duck! Thinking on her feet, the fowl proclaims that she is actually a dog. Duck jumps and slobbers and barks, working hard to convince Fox of her worthiness as a canine companion. Twohy, a longtime cartoonist for The New Yorker, uses a brightly inked comic book style to tell this comedy of mistaken identity. Young readers are sure to delight at Duck’s misbehaving dog act, while the book invites a debate of the merits of the old saying “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.” Outfoxed is sure to be a story time favorite.