Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Unicorn Rescue Society: Creature of the Pines, by Adam Gidwitz: a new fun, short, engaging mystery series (ages 7-10)

Unicorns are pretty awesome! So are Sasquatch, the Minotaur and all sorts of other mythical creatures--magical, powerful and hard to find. I know kids love reading fantasy series, yet when it comes to recommending books for developing readers there just aren't many fantastic fantasy series out there.

Adam Gidwitz's new series Unicorn Rescue Society is perfectly aimed at readers transitioning from short chapter books and moving up toward longer stories. Hand this to kids who have read all the Magic Tree House and Secrets of Droon books but aren't quite ready for Percy Jackson or Harry Potter.
Creature of the Pines, Unicorn Rescue Society #1
by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly
Dutton / Penguin, 2018
Amazon / your local library / preview chapters 1-3
ages 7-10
*best new book*
Elliot's first day at a new school turns out to be full of adventure. Chapter One opens as Elliot stares down the long aisle of the school bus. It's his first day of school, and his class is taking a field trip. Gidwitz brings the reader right into this uncomfortable situation, as Elliot struggles to make a new friend. While I totally relate to Elliot, I love Uchenna -- the Nigerian American girl who befriends Elliot. Uchenna looks "like the lead singer in a punk rock band." She's got style, confidence and a sense of adventure.

Before we even find out where Elliot and Uchenna's class is going on their field trip, we meet their teacher Miss Vole and their special guest, the intimidating and mysterious Professor Fauna. He informs the class that they will be going to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, where many dangerous things haunt the forrest.
Professor Fauna, Elliot, Uchenna and Jersey
When they get to the Pine Barrens, Uchenna wanders off the path to investigate a noise she hears. Elliot follows, and they discover a blue-furred magical creature that looks like “a tiny dragon.” This creature, the mythical Jersey Devil, takes an immediate liking to the pair, following them back to the school bus. A hide-and-seek chase ensues as Elliot and Uchenna try to protect the Jersey Devil.

The book closes as Professor Fauna invites Uchenna and Elliot to join his secret organization that is committed to protecting mythical creatures. You'll have fun showing this video to kids, as Elliot and Uchenna explain what the Unicorn Rescue Society does.

Gidwitz has hit a great balance between short, engaging chapters and a mystery that makes you want to learn more. Hatem Aly's illustrations keep readers grounded, helping them create the movie in their heads. The fantasy and humor elements are engaging, but never overwhelm the straight-forward storyline. Hand this new series to 2nd & 3rd graders who have moved beyond Magic Treehouse, but still want a story that moves quickly.

I'm particularly excited to see how this series unfolds. Elliot and Uchenna will rescue mythical animals from different cultures and places, bringing young readers traveling the globe with them. Gidwitz is partnering with authors from different cultures, so that they bring their experiences and cultural knowledge to the series. Gidwitz describes upcoming installments in his Nerdy Book Club post:
"Joseph Bruchac and I are writing about the Native American legend of Sasquatch. Emma Otheguy and I will travel to Cuba to rescue the madre de aguas. David Bowles and I will scour both banks of the Rio Grande to find, and protect, the chupacabras. And Hena Khan and I will write about the mythical creatures of Pakistan. These are the first members of The Unicorn Rescue Society."
I love how intentionally inclusive Adam Gidwitz is with his storytelling. When I was at the launch for this book at the Brooklyn Public Library, a young Black girl asked Adam where he got the inspiration for creating the character of Uchenna. He explained that Uchenna and Eliot are based on students from his teaching days in Brooklyn. Uchenna was one of his students, and is now in college (I think). This representation matters to young people.

It's no secret that I have loved Adam's writing since I first read A Tale Dark & Grimm, and my book club Skyped with him. Those kids are now in high school, and they still talk about how awesome that experience was.

I want to end with Adam's mission statement, as it were, that he shared in the Nerdy Book Club post.
"I’ve always believed that kids books should be ambitious. They should challenge children. Stretch their vocabularies. Or their courage. Stretch them emotionally and psychologically. Or stretch their imaginations. Maybe stretch their moral imaginations. But I have also always believed that ambition in kids books (in any book) is useless unless kids are actually reading the book. You can have the genius of James Joyce, but if you write like James Joyce, the kids will never get to experience your genius. The first priority is to get kids turning the pages. All the pages. All the way to the end. The second priority is to make it worth turning the pages.

"The Unicorn Rescue Society is pretty darn fun. When I write it, I generally find myself cackling like an idiot.

"But The Unicorn Rescue Society is also, I hope, worthwhile.

"Oh, and we rescue unicorns."
My job as a librarian isn't to share books I love, but to help kids discover books they like -- books that get them excited to read. Like Adam, I also believe that books have the potential to challenge, stretch and connect with kids. But I also know very clearly that this will never happen unless kids get hooked on a story, that they want to read the book in front of them.

Illustration copyright ©2017 Hatem Aly and the Mixtape Club founders Jesse Casey and Chris Lenox Smith. The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Dutton Books for Young Readers / Penguin Publishing Group. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2018 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Humor Hooks Readers: book recommendations from the Bay Area Book Fest (ages 6-10)

We had a terrific time at the Bay Area Book Fest this weekend, and I want to share the book recommendations for funny books. Megan McDonald, Travis Nichols and LeUyen Pham were all so funny, thoughtful and kind. I was honored to facilitate this conversation.
Funny books! (click to enlarge) (printable PDF here)
Funny picture books
The Bear Who Wasn't There, by LeUyen Pham
Betty's Burgled Bakery, by Travis Nichols
Disgusting Critters series, by Elise Gravel
Niño Wrestles the World, by Yuyi Morales

Funny chapter books
Dory Fantasmagory, by Abby Hanlon
Judy Moody Was In a Mood, by Megan McDonald
Princess in Black, by Shannon Hale & LeUyen Pham
Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid, by Megan McDonald
Unicorn Rescue Society, by Adam Gidwitz

Funny graphic novels
Astronaut Academy, by Dave Roman
Babymouse, by Jennifer Holm
Bird & Squirrel, by James Burks
Phoebe & Her Unicorn, by Dana Simpson
Travis and Uyen both started drawing from a very early age, using pictures to tell stories. Drawing was really important to both of them as they tried to find their place in the world. Uyen talked about how she was very shy and realized that her classmates really liked the drawings she could do. She even started selling her drawings of popular movie characters to classmates!

I especially loved how Megan talked about the humor in Judy Moody stemming from how readers can relate to Judy. Megan read aloud the very beginning of Judy Moody Was In a Mood, and talked about how everyone knows how awful it is to be in a bad mood. But we can also laugh at how grumpy Judy gets. So while we're empathizing with her, we're also laughing at ourselves in a safe and gentle way.

A large part of humor is in the timing. With picture books, illustrators really work at using the page turn to create tension and set up the punchline. They also really play with kids' expectations and then turning the tables. We had a blast listening to some of the kids' jokes!
Listening to kids tell jokes.
Cracking up with the punchline!
(photo credit: Armin Arethna)
I also loved how they all agreed on the importance of pictures in creating the humor that hooks kids. Uyen emphasized how reading the pictures and seeing the funny setups there was just as important as reading the words. She read some of The Itchy Book!, her newest book that's part of the Elephant & Piggie Like Reading series. That's a really important message to share with young kids who are struggling with decoding. They bring so much to the story by figuring out what's happening in the pictures!

Travis talked about how his newest book Betty's Burgled Bakery started from a failure. He was struggling with the followup to Foul Play, trying to focus the story on idioms, when it came to him how alliteration might be funnier and easier for kids to get. This makes me think about the way Uyen described incorporating her mistakes in artwork. She really likes doing artwork by hand and not just the computer, because the mistakes make her more creative and bring even more out of her drawings.

Many thanks to Travis, Uyen and Megan for their time, humor and kind spirits. Many thanks to the publishers for sponsoring their time, and to the Bay Area Book Festival for inviting us all to speak with kids and families. And many thanks to my friends and family who came out to support me! If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2018 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Putting the FUN in Reading! at the Bay Area Book Festival, April 28th (ages 7-10)

We all like doing the things we have fun with. Psychoanalysts might call this the "Pleasure Principle," but I call it common sense. So how do we help our kids discover the fun in reading? Come join me in conversation with four terrific authors/illustrators at the Bay Area Book Festival this weekend.
Join me in hearing from LeUyen Pham, Megan McDonald, Travis Nichols and Judd Winnick about how they make reading fun for kids. It's sure to be a great session, with stories about Judy Moody, Hilo, crime-fighting princesses and wordplay in the bakery.
These authors and illustrators bring their sense of fun to picture books, short chapter books, and graphic novels. I'm looking forward to asking them about how they focus on the fun in reading. Comedy is truly an art form! Come enjoy a laugh with us and learn about the magic ingredients in their storytelling.
Putting the FUN in Reading! 
with LeUyen Pham, Megan McDonald, Travis Nichols
Bay Area Book Festival
The Marsh Arts Center, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA
Sunday, April 29, 11:45am - 1:00 pm
LeUyen Pham illustrates the Princess in Black series with Shannon Hale, as well as the terrific graphic novel Real Friends. She's also the author of several picture books. Megan McDonald writes the Judy Moody and Stink books, bringing shenanigans and hijinks, along with real life struggles, to every chapter. Travis Nichols combines word play, comic book panels and crisp, clever capers into punchy picture books like Betty's Burgled Bakery. And Judd Winick is the author of our favorite Hilo graphic novels.

Everyone loves a good joke. We're going to put them to the test and ask each of them to share a joke. And then we'll turn the tables, to ask the audience to come up with a few jokes.

We'll also look at why visual comedy is so important for kids. You'll notice that all of these books use pictures to pack a punch. How do illustrations add to the reading experience for kids?

Finally, we'll brainstorm together ways to keep reading fun. Bring your kids and let them join the creative fun we'll have together! Hope to see you on Sunday in Berkeley!

©2018 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Tackling Issues: Katherine Applegate & Jen Petro-Roy at the Bay Area Book Festival, April 28th (ages 9-14)

Great books for young readers don’t shy away from tough issues. While parents and teachers sometimes worry that kids aren't ready for difficult subjects, many children want to explore these topics in the safe space provided by fiction.

Come join me in conversation with Katherine Applegate and debut novelist Jen Petro-Roy at the Bay Area Book Festival this weekend. Here are the details:
Tackling Issues, with Katherine Applegate & Jen Petro-Roy
Bay Area Book Festival
The Marsh Arts Center, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA
Saturday, April 28th at 3:15 p.m.
Katherine Applegate is one of my students' favorite authors. Her books include Home of the Brave (read in all of Berkeley's 5th grade classes) and last year's Mock Newbery title Wishtree. Katherine won the Newbery Award for The One and Only Ivan. Katherine balances imagination, whimsy, empathy and hope, but she also recognizes children's ability to think about difficult issues.
a few of Katherine Applegate's many novels
Home of the Brave centers around refugee experiences, as Kek resettles in America after losing much of his family. One New York Times reviewer called Wishtree “the most moving commentary I’ve read on the anti-immigration movement.” In The One and Only Ivan, children think deeply about the impact of zoos and animal treatment.

Jen Petro-Roy is a vital new voice for young readers; her novel P.S. I Miss You has garnered national attention for centering on young same-sex love and an older sister's teenage pregnancy. Jen was inspired by middle grade authors such as Beverly Cleary, Sharon Creech and Kate Messner.

Come hear how fiction can empower kids and make them feel less alone, and how reading can start a conversation around difficult subjects that kids engage with every day. Remember, anyone under age 18 is let in free—no wristbands necessary!

If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2018 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Mommy's Khimar, by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and Ebony Glenn -- full of love, sunshine and imagination (ages 4-8)

Mommy's Khimar is a delightful new picture book that is full of love, sunshine and imagination. A young Muslim girl plays dress up with her mother's khimar, or Islamic headscarf. When she wraps it around herself, she feels her mother's love surrounding her and she imagines all of the things she can be. The bright, warm illustrations convey all of this love and draw young readers to this story.
Mommy's Khimar
by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and Ebony Glenn
Salaam Reads / Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2018
Amazon / your local library
ages 4-8
*best new book*
I especially appreciate how this picture book is both specific to this young girl's African American Muslim culture and universal. Many of my students will recognize themselves in this story. Some wear a headscarf every day and will see their family's love and heritage in this story. Others will recognize the joy in playing with their mother's clothes.
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow
I am honored to have Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow as my guest here today. My questions are in red below, followed by her answers.

What planted the seeds for writing Mommy's Khimar?
Wearing a khimar or an Islamic headscarf is part of my everyday life but I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to focus on that in writing kidlit with Muslim characters. I remember thinking people always make this piece of cloth so serious but as a kid I didn’t really see it that way. Khimars were soft, silky scarves I borrowed from my mother when it was time to pray or wrapped around myself to create pretend dresses and gowns. So, I guess I ended up telling a story about how four-year-old me saw the khimar.
"A khimar is a flowing scarf that my mommy wears."
What ran through your head the first time you saw the delightful illustrations by Ebony Glenn?
I was just so giddy! I loved the main character’s facial expressions. She’s very adorable. The scene when she is playing in the closet with all of the khimars is magical every time I look at it. And--this may sound strange--but I loved that the characters have dark skin. In the rare stories about Muslims, I rarely if ever see Black Muslims depicted. It was nice to have more diversity.
"Some have tassels. Some have beads.
Some have sparkly things all over."
I'd love to learn more about why you wear a khimar. Can you tell me a little about this tradition and what it means to you?
I was 14 years old when I decided to wear full hijab. Full hijab is the khimar/head covering and clothing that covers everything except the face and hands. I started exploring my faith more around that time and I saw this as a way to demonstrate my faith in God. I also liked and continue to like the way it identifies me as Muslim. Although I am a religious minority, I get to feel connected to other Muslims who are also identifiably Muslim--even strangers on the street. This wasn’t actually a tradition of my family though. My father is a convert to Islam and although my mother grew up in a Muslim culture, she didn’t regularly wear a khimar when I was growing up unless she was going to the mosque.
"When I wear Mommy's khimar, I am a mama bird.
I spread my golden wings and shield my baby
brother as he sleeps in his nest."
I'm curious about your family heritage. I love the diverse families included in your story. Can you tell us a little about your family?
My family is bicultural. My mother is from Guinea, which is in West Africa and she is from the Mandinka ethnic group which has been predominantly Muslim for centuries. My father is a Black American, descended from the Africans who were brought here through the transatlantic slave trade. He was raised as a Christian but became Muslim as a young man. On his side of the family there are Christians, atheists, and Buddhists. My husband is also a Black American convert to Islam, and so my kids have Christian and Muslim grandparents. My oldest immediately recognized Mom-mom in Mommy’s Khimar as being just like his own Mom-mom or grandmother who often exclaims, “Sweet Jesus!”

I see you're a program director for Mighty Writers--I love the sound of this! Can you tell us a little about your work there?
The mission of Mighty Writers is to teach kids to think and write with clarity. We are a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that provides writing instruction in after school, evening, weekend, summer, and mentorship programs to youth ages 2 to 18 and we provide all of that instruction for free. My work is to create writing programs, teach writing programs, and engage volunteers in doing that work too.

What are some other favorite picture books you like to read with your students at Mighty Writers?
There are so many! In recent months, I have enjoyed reading It’s Okay to be Different by Todd Parr, The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi, and Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena. I think the kids and I have had the most fun reading Say Hello! by Rachel Isadora.

Thank you so much, Jamilah. Your book has already brought my students and me so much happiness. Much luck to your continued writing.

Illustrations copyright ©2017 Ebony Glenn, shared by permission of the publisher. The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Simon Schuster. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2018 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Sports books for young players! (ages 4-8)

Whether you play sports with your kids or love watching games together, sports books can be a great hook for young kids. They enjoy seeing their favorite games as part of their stories, and they're fascinated by real-life stories in picture book biographies. Here are some of my favorites to share with kids ages 4 to 8 years old.
(click to enlarge)
The Banana-Leaf Ball: How Play Can Change the World, by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Shane W. Evans. A powerful, hopeful picture book for older readers inspired by real events. Fleeing war in Burundi, young Deo ends up at a refugee camp, without his family and surrounded by bullies. He finally finds friendship when he shares his homemade soccer ball, discovering trust and community.

Baseball: Then to Wow!, by the editors of Sports Illustrated Kids. Whether it’s looking at changes in equipment or comparing playing styles then and now, this high-interest book provides opportunities for fans to analyze different aspects of the game. Great layout, photographs and illustrations engage kids and help them see the progression of the game over the past 150 years.

Don't Throw It to Mo!, by David Adler. As the youngest and smallest kid on his team, Mo has to work extra hard. He gets teased by the opponents, but his coach has a plan to turn Mo's small size into a big advantage. A great short book for beginning readers.

Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery, by Sandra Neil Wallace, illustrated by Bryan Collier. Although his athletic skills brought Ernie Barnes success as a professional football player, his true passion was art. He would quickly sketch scenes as he sat on the bench between plays. Barnes pursued his dreams, eventually becoming the official artist for the American Football League.

The Field, by Baptiste Paul, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara. "Vini! Come! The field calls!" cries a girl as she races to play soccer with her brother and friends. Basing this joyful story on his Caribbean childhood, Paul mingles Creole alongside English. Vibrant, dynamic illustrations capture the enthusiasm and infectious joy of the game, rain or shine.

Girl Running: Bobbi Gibb and the Boston Marathon, by Annette Bay Pimentel, illustrated by Micha Archer. In 1966, Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, even though the authorities would not recognize her efforts. Despite the authorities’ rejection, she decides to run alongside the registered racers, determined to prove that the rules were wrong. An inspiring picture book biography of defying the odds.

H.O.R.S.E.: A Game of Basketball and Imagination, by Christopher Myer. Two kids start playing a game of H.O.R.S.E., matching each other's basketball shots and trash-talking all the way. The first to miss five is "giddy-up, you're out." I love the way these two friends keep one-upping each other, and the humor that Myers brings. on a city basketball court start a game of matching each other’s shots. Don't miss this!

Pedro's Big Goal, by Fran Manushkin, illustrated by Tammie Lyon. First grader Pedro LOVES playing soccer with his friends and dreams of playing goalie. Will he make it as his team’s goalie, or is he too small? Beginning readers will enjoy this fun, accessible series -- perfect for 1st and 2nd graders.

If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2018 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books