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.
Where would you take an injured baby dragon? To the imaginary veterinary if you are lucky enough to have one in town. The Sasquatch Escape is the first book in the Imaginary Veterinary series by Suzanne Selfors. In it, two 10-year-olds, Ben and Pearl, find themselves living in what could be the most boring town in the world, Buttonville. The Button factory has long been closed down when Ben moves in with his grandfather while his parents work out some “issues.” Pearl has lived there her whole life and is well-known as a troublemaker…so much so that she has been banned from the bookstore and other children are not allowed to play with her! When Ben’s cat catches a baby dragon, Ben and Pearl take the dragon to the only animal doctor in town, Dr. Woo of Dr. Woo’s Worm Hospital, located inside the old button factory. All is not as it seems at the Worm Hospital, as the children discover when a Sasquatch is let loose on the town!
Book two in the series, The Lonely Lake Monster, continues Ben and Pearl’s adventures as apprentices at the Worm Hospital. Tasked with trimming the Sasquatch’s toenails on the first day, they quickly become distracted by an enormous lake monster and a leprechaun with a head cold. When the lonely lake monster catches Ben for a pet, it is up to Pearl to save him (ideally without being caught breaking the rules, again!)
The Imaginary Veterinary series is filled with delightful characters from both the real world and the imaginary world. Underlying themes of loyalty and resilience add to the rich plotline. Selfors alternates points of view for each book, with book one being told from Ben’s point of view, and book two being told from Pearl’s. She adds some enrichment activities to the end of each book challenging the reader to use their imaginations with some writing, art and science activities. She also adds some background to the mythical creatures described in each book. This is an excellent adventure series for children who enjoy a little bit of fantasy. The third book, The Rain Dragon Rescue, is due out in January 2014.
Two new books are designed for young readers and on the shelf just in time for Halloween. With Frankenflies and witches these books seem made for this time of year, but are designed to celebrate the season without too much of a scare.
Tedd Arnold is the author of the bestselling series Fly Guy. Fly Guy and the Frankenfly is his spooky new installment. This book is a beginning reader with short manageable chapters for those young readers who are starting to read on their own.
After a night of crafting monster costumes, Buzz is lying in bed and before he drifts off to sleep he sees Fly Guy working away at the desk. As Buzz falls asleep he begins to dream that Fly Guy is Dr. Frankenstein in fly form and creates a Frankenfly. This Frankenfly is huge and Buzz is understandably frightened. Pick up this installment of Fly Guy to see how Buzz handles Frankenfly.
A Very Witchy Spelling Bee is written by George Shannon and illustrated by Mark Fearing. This picture book follows Cordelia, a young witch with a penchant for spelling. Not only does she spell words, but with the flick of her wrist and the addition of a letter she can turn a cow into a crow. She does these spells to pass the time, so when the Witches’ Double Spelling Bee is advertised, Cordelia can’t contain her excitement.
Cordelia feels she has been practicing for this very thing for her whole life. What she doesn’t know is that the long running champ Beulah Divine is a fiend who will stop at nothing to win. Beulah is even looking forward to winning against a child. How will Cordelia handle the pressures of competing with someone who is not only ruthless, but much older and more experienced as well?
This picture book is a combination of entertainment and education. The plot mixed with adorable illustrations create an entertaining story, and the subject of the book allows for the opportunity to practice spelling with your young reader.
Two new Halloween books are sure to capture the imagination of the youngest readers. Nighty Night, Little Green Monster by Ed Emberley is the perfect bedtime book for the season. A colorful young monster’s features are described with simple adjectives as each turn of the die-cut page builds his face. Once the reader sees this silly rather than scary character, the refrain “nighty night” repeats as page-turning slowly makes him disappear. Emerging readers will enjoy paging through the book on their own as the visual clues help tell the story. Go Away, Big Green Monster, now a modern childhood classic, was published by the same Caldecott-winning author/illustrator in 1992.
Whatever could be inside graphic designer/author Mark Gonyea’s The Spooky Box? The narrator speculates that the simply depicted black box could be filled with any number of creepy things, from bats to rats to spiders. Each page is more visually exciting than the last, as Gonyea skillfully builds suspense. Breaking down the fourth wall, he orders the reader to open the box to reveal its contents. Noises are now coming from within, and the speculation continues. This is a book that children and adults will enjoy equally; its surprise ending provides an opportunity for plenty of what-if discussions that will last long after the book is over. Gonyea dedicates his striking orange and black picture book to “everyone who loves thinking of endless possibilities.”
The bestselling author that brought you The Hunger Games series is showing her versatility with Year of the Jungle, a picture book about Suzanne Collins as a little girl whose dad serves in the Vietnam War. Collins collaborates with illustrator James Proimos to bring this touching picture book to young readers.
This book follows young Suzy as she sees her dad off to Vietnam without truly understanding the ramifications of his going away. While he is gone she looks forward to his postcards and feels the loss more deeply than she is able to express. Days go by and turn into months as holidays and seasons pass without her father. She can’t understand the concept of a year and has to just keep waiting for his return with no idea as to how long she will have to wait.
Collins seeks to capture the impact that serving in the military can have on the children of those brave soldiers. She reached back to remember how she felt as a 6-year-old coping with the loss of her father. Collins talks in this short video about her experience writing Year of the Jungle. This picture book is honest and heartfelt, though not too graphic or intense for young readers, especially if they have a loved one serving in the military.
Noted film director (Home Alone, Harry Potter) Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini serve up an action-packed adventure in House of Secrets. The Walker children, Cordelia, Brendan and Eleanor, have enjoyed a privileged childhood, but following an “incident” at the hospital where their father worked, the family has fallen on challenging times. Forced to relocate to San Francisco, the family happens upon a house that seems too good to be true. A grand old Victorian once owned by a famous author, the Kristoff House is offered at a fraction of its value. Enchanted, the Walkers quickly take up residence – but not for long.
The day of the move, a mysterious neighbor visits the household. Dahlia, the daughter of author Denver Kristoff, the original owner, seems friendly and harmless enough, but her exterior conceals the truly villainous nature of the Wind Witch. Soon enough, she has separated the children from their parents and cast them into the fantastical worlds of Kristoff’s books.
Left to fend for themselves in the mysterious realms of Kristoff’s fiction, Cordelia, Brendan and Eleanor must band together to make sense of their banishment and find a way to defeat the Wind Witch who has trapped them within the pages of her father’s works. Along the way, the children are alternately helped, hindered and betrayed by the characters they encounter.
This is a decidedly action-driven story and the precocious Walker children seldom experience a dull moment from the first time they lay eyes on the mysterious Kristoff House. Readers will find themselves similarly swept along for the ride. Though the cultural references in the dialogue may date the story before its time, today's kids will particularly enjoy the number of mentions of current popular media and electronic devices.
Recommended for upper middle grade or young adult readers for somewhat mature content, House of Secrets will hold particular appeal for fans of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.