You have your backpack, freshly sharpened pencils, shiny new crayons and all the other items on the school supply list. But are you really ready for the first day of school? That’s what Patrick is worried about in Monstergarten by Daniel J. Mahoney. A first-grader told him that he had to be scary for his first day of monstergarten. Teaming up with his friend Kevin, Patrick practices making scary faces, his fearsome roars and showing his claws. But even after all his practice, Patrick is worried that he will not be scary enough. Fortunately, his monster mommy gives him the best advice – just be yourself. Children will be able to relate to Patrick in this brightly illustrated picture book.
Sometimes it is hard to just be yourself, especially someone else is telling you what they think is best. That’s what Penelope, a hippo, faces in You’re Wearing That to School?! by Lynn Plourde. Tiny, a mouse, means well and is trying the help his eccentric best friend Penelope fit in for her first day of school. From what to wear to what to bring to show-and-tell, Tiny wants to make sure that Penelope’s first day will be a success. Will Penelope heed Tiny’s advice? Or will she stay true to herself and prove that being unique is the best way to have a successful first day of school? Parents will also enjoy sharing with their kids the “Tips for a Hippo Happy First Day of School” that can be found at the end of the book.
Nearly every small child has a special stuffed animal, and two recent picture books take a look at these imaginative friendships. In No Fits, Nilson!, written and illustrated by Zachariah OHora, the title character is depicted as a towering blue gorilla who dwarfs his constant companion, a young girl named Amelia. With his black porkpie hat, tennis shoes and collection of six wristwatches, Nilson exudes cool, although he is prone to temper tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. Throughout the story, Amelia must remind him to stay calm. Acrylic paintings in a muted pastel palette done on printmaking paper lend a retro quality to this gentle, sweet book that speaks to patience, sharing and working past minor setbacks.
Paul Schmid’s Oliver and His Alligator takes a look at a small boy’s apprehensions about the first day of school. Pastel pencils combine with soft digital colors to bring to life tousle-haired Oliver and his alligator, whom he brings to class “in case things got rough.” And when Oliver feels immediately shy and unsure, with a “munch, munch!” his alligator swallows a woman who greets him, and then his classmates in quick succession. Children will enjoy the humor of the situation, possibly wishing they had an alligator of their own to vanquish anxiety. But Oliver soon comes around to thinking that he may be missing out on something by sitting quietly by himself. Oliver and His Alligator makes for a welcome addition to the canon of books that address first day jitters.
Clever photography and appealing foot facts make Best Foot Forward: Exploring Feet, Flippers, and Claws, by German author Ingo Arndt, a pleasure to read. Using the structure of a two-page spread close-up of an animal foot and the question “Whose foot is this?, the answer appears on the next page along with other animals’ feet that have similar purposes or capabilities. Some of the categories include feet that are best suited to digging (tortoises), climbing (chimpanzees) and swimming (seals). Facts about each of the featured appendages are included to whet the interest of young readers to further explore the lives of the animal.
The close-up photography of the feet is the most fascinating aspect of the book. Whether it be counting the individual tortoise scales and claws, or seeing a mole foot up close, many of these are feet that people rarely notice. The more commonly seen webbed feet of ducks and gripping toes of a gecko are enlarged to see all the detail that make those feet perfect for the animals’ habitats. The most amazing foot featured is that of the kangaroo. Modified for jumping, this long, spring-loaded lever is a sight to behold when shown out of context. This book encourages animal-lovers to look beyond faces and other more obvious features to examine all facets of the creatures who share our environment. A final whimsy is the author’s biography photo – of his foot!
Sugar is a spunky 10-year-old living on the Wills’ River Road Plantation in Reconstruction Mississippi. She is named after the cane she toils in and despises. Her father was sold when she was a baby, and her mother died two years earlier after years of brutal labor finally took its toll. It is 1870, and while slavery has been abolished for five years, questions and economic concerns remain for these freed men, women and children. Coretta Scott King Honor Winner Jewell Parker Rhodes brings this tenuous time to life in Sugar.
The Beales, fellow sugar workers, have become her surrogate grandparents, and the other workers are protective of Sugar as the only child in their midst, yet barely tolerant of her rambunctious ways. As the community dwindles in number, Mr. Wills, the owner, needs more help and brings laborers in from China which initially concerns Sugar and her friends. But Sugar is quickly intrigued by these men and longs to make new friends from a foreign land outside of River Road.
As Sugar develops friendships with Billy Wills, the owner’s son, and the Chinese workers, she is exposed to worlds far different from her own. Billy lives a life of luxury, but is just a boy looking for adventures and a friend in Sugar. The Chinese men work hard but also share their traditional tales, food and toys. Rhodes deftly describes all of Sugar’s sensory experiences, while offering a realistic portrait of her hard realities and the unique cross-cultural community created for a time on this Mississippi plantation. Sugar is a most appealing and memorable heroine who manages to muster enough courage to step away from the only world she’s ever known in an effort to live her mother’s dying words of: Do. See. Feel.
Most people count sheep to fall asleep. Dani counts happy thoughts. My Happy Life by Rose Lagercrantz tells the tale of a little girl just starting school as she deals with first day of school jitters, making friends, losing friends, getting hurt, hurting others and all the other ups and downs in the life of a child.
Dani is a wonderfully realistic character who demonstrates resilience in the face of sadness. She is both excited and nervous about the first day of school, but she soldiers on and starts to have fun. Quickly making a best friend in Ella, Dani is happier than ever. Disaster strikes when Dani learns that Ella is moving away. Her sadness is heartbreaking. After a few rough days, and a few missteps, Dani slowly finds ways to be happy again.
Manageable chapters with limited text and plenty of delightful illustrations by award winning illustrator Eva Eriksson, make this book excellent for beginning readers. Through the combination of words and illustration, Lagercrantz and Eriksson perfectly capture the essence of a little girl’s life. My Happy Life is a very sweet, honest story suitable for both independent reading and reading aloud. This charming story is refreshingly free from “cuteness” and serves as a great example for children in how to handle hard knocks.
Could a simple mistake ruin the future of a 7th grade student? In Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills, it looks as if Sierra Shepard is going to pay a heavy price for picking up the wrong lunch bag on her way to school. Sierra has always been the model student: straight A’s, honors classes and a member of the Leadership Club. However, one day she hurriedly picks up her Mom’s lunch bag instead of her own and discovers a paring knife inside to cut up an apple. When Sierra sees the “weapon” in her bag at lunch time, she immediately alerts the cafeteria monitor of the mistake. Despite her good intentions, Sierra’s principal is bent on having her expelled for violating the school’s “zero tolerance” policy on weapons.
Her father, a high-powered attorney, is determined to keep her in school, even if it costs her principal his job. As the hearing to decide Sierra’s fate looms before her, she begins to discover that not everything in life is as black and white as she always believed it to be. Sierra must decide what is really important to her. Are the other “bad kids” serving in-school suspension as guilty as she always believed them to be? Are her friends on her side, or are they just enjoying her publicity? Does making a mistake mean that it’s okay to do something she knows is wrong to prove her innocence? These questions and others not only cause Sierra to re-evaluate her life, but they make good talking points to share with young people about some very touchy subjects.
Picture books are not just for children; in fact, many of the best examples of the format prove entertaining for all ages, while some feel decidedly more adult. Kitty & Dino, by Sara Richard, begins with a child’s discovery of an unusual egg. This nearly wordless story unfolds as the Siamese cat of the household checks out the egg as it’s in the process of hatching. Much to Kitty’s distress, the new arrival is an attention-seeking baby dinosaur. Rendered in illustrations heavily influenced by the Japanese style of ink painting known as sumi-e, the panels that make up the story radiate an energy that keeps this story flowing. The characters of Kitty and Dino are depicted in a naturalistic way, with their postures and behaviors bringing this captivating story to life. Kitty slowly warms up to her housemate, teaching him about mealtime, grooming and play. As the pages turn, Dino grows older (and much bigger) and the unlikely friends’ bond grows deeper. Charming, funny and superbly illustrated, Kitty & Dino is a book for everyone.
Author/illustrator Dan Krall comes to picture books by way of a rich career in both TV and film animation. His beyond unusual story, The Great Lollipop Caper, has a quirky grownup sensibility. Leaning heavily on pun, the titular caper is both a character and the crime he commits. Yes, the protagonist is a tiny pickled caper berry who wants children to appreciate his “complex flavor.” Would caper-flavored lollipops help to expand his fan base to the very young? Wide-eyed cartoony character illustrations and speech bubbles lend to the offbeat humor that may be best appreciated by a hipster adult reader.
Loosely based on the Cthulhu mythos of legendary author H. P. Lovecraft, Charles Gilman’s new “Tales from Lovecraft Middle School” series begins with the story of Professor Gargoyle. Readers follow 12-year-old Robert Arthur’s first days in the new state-of-the-art Lovecraft Middle School. Sleek, environmentally friendly and boasting a library the size of a gymnasium, Lovecraft Middle is exactly where every student would want to be. Except Robert, that is.
Recently redistricted, Robert isn’t looking forward to being the new kid on the block at Lovecraft. It doesn’t help that the only other kid transferred from his old school is class bully, Glenn Torkells. From his first day, it’s obvious to Robert that something decidedly weird is going on. Dozens of rats leap out of the brand new lockers. His science teacher, Professor Goyle, is beyond bizarre. And apart from a mysterious girl named Karina, the closest friend he’s made at the new school is a polycephalus rat.
Even stranger events are on the horizon, though, and when gateways to another frightening dimension begin to open, Robert must ally with Glenn to unmask the true nature of Professor Goyle and save his new friends and classmates.
The series plot introduced in the first volume segues seamlessly from Professor Gargoyle’s tale to the second tale in the series, The Slither Sisters. After the mysterious disappearance – and sudden reappearance – of twins Sylvia and Sarah Price, Robert, Glenn and Karina begin to suspect that the monstrous forces of the Great Old Ones may be at work. When Sarah announces her candidacy for president of the student council, it’s up to the friends and some trusted teachers to thwart them.
Fans of creepy-yet-funny stories set in middle school, such as the Scary School and “My Teacher Is an Alien” series, will be drawn to Gilman’s “Tales from Lovecraft Middle School” and may find they eagerly await the next monstrous adventure. Each of the first two volumes provide a tantalizing glimpse into the tale to follow. Recommended for middle grade readers, this absorbing, fast-paced series with finely detailed illustrations may hold particular appeal for boys. Readers already familiar with Lovecraft lore may also chuckle at some of the references to the realm that inspired Gilman.
Protesting crayons? What do they have to complain about? Duncan finds out in The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. Duncan reaches for his crayons one day and gets a pack of protest letters instead (except from Green… Green’s pretty happy – just wants Orange and Yellow to stop fighting). Like most protestors, the colors are upset by their treatment – overuse, neglect (Where is Peach’s wrapper?), abuse and misuse. Each color details the unfairness of its life in a personal letter to Duncan. Blue doesn’t want to be the favorite, Grey is always used for the big animals, Red never gets a break and Orange and Yellow aren’t speaking!
Young readers will giggle at the silliness and enjoy learning colors. Older readers will recognize some common toddler traits in the behavior of the crayons. Readers of all ages will laugh out loud with this wonderful book about colors, creativity and compromise. Delightful, childlike illustrations by Oliver Jeffers enhance the story. How will Duncan get the crayons back to work? (And what color SHOULD the Sun be?) Find out in The Day the Crayons Quit.
Three friends find an abandoned sofa at their bus stop one day that not only changes their lives, but saves the lives of everyone they know. In fact, the title What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World by Henry Clark pretty much gives away the plot. Middle school students River, Freak and Fiona live in Hellsboro, Pennsylvania, a fictitious town full of secrets and problems. Hellsboro, so named because of its bleak, Hell-like landscape, has a ‘coal seam fire’ that has been burning under the town for years. When the trio discovers the old sofa, they begin to find unusual items hidden in its cushions, including a very rare and valuable crayon. On a hunch, these tech savvy kids put the crayon on an online auction and are amazed when a bidding war starts. However, crayon collectors aren’t the only ones interested in their findings. Can the three friends outwit a devious billionaire out to control the universe, an eccentric old inventor, an axe-wielding ghost and some bizarre flash mobs in time to save the world?
Clark’s debut novel is full of interesting and quirky characters, dialogue and situations similar to those found in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter or Edward Eager’s Half Magic series. While the friends try to save the world from impending doom, they also deal with issues that many young teens can relate to including peer pressure, not fitting in, dysfunctional family life and discovering who their real friends are. The story is told from River’s point of view, but all three of the main characters have unique voices and are well-drawn. While coal-seam fires are a real issue in parts of Pennsylvania, let's hope that none of them hide the secrets that River, Fiona and Freak uncover.