Monday, August 31, 2009

Ottoline Goes to School - a fun, quirky graphic novel (win a free copy!)

My daughters love, love, love graphic novels. I've been exploring stories that are written as novels, but have lots of illustrations - a blend between usual fiction and comic strips. My kids love the way the pictures help develop the story; they love how visual these books are, how you can read them again and again, discovering something new each time.

Their favorite book this summer was Ottoline Goes to School, by Chris Riddell, the second in the Ottoline series. It's a great book for kids who like something a little quirky, a little mysterious, a little out of the ordinary. Best yet, the kind folks at HarperCollins have offered a free copy of Ottoline Goes to School - see below for details.
Ottoline Goes to School
by Chris Riddell
NY: HarperCollins, 2009. 176 pages
ages 7 - 10
Ottoline is an independent young girl who likes solving mysteries and exploring the world. One day, Ottoline meets a new friend, Cecily Forbes-Lawrence III. Both of the girls spend a lot of time on their own - in fact, they are basically orphans since their parents are so busy with their own lives. Ottoline admires Cecily tremendously - she's so confident and self-assured. So Ottoline sends her parents a letter asking if she can go to Cecily's school. At the Alice B. Smith School for the Differently Gifted, a mystery unfolds: it soon becomes clear that the school is haunted. Ottoline isn't fazed by the bizarre events, and she starts to investigate the source of the hauntings.
Ottoline reminds me of the characters in Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, which kids love. She's confident, and figures things out for herself because she really can't rely on anyone else. There's a certain quirkiness to both of these series as well. They give kids a sense that they can solve problems on their own, that they are smart in ways that grown-ups are not. It would be great to talk with children about the gifts they think they would discover for themselves at the Alice B. Smith School for the Differently Gifted.

Above and beyond the story, Chris Riddell's drawings fascinated my daughters. They loved the intricate nature of his illustrations, the hidden surprises in the pictures. When I told my 8-year old that there are eight ghosts hidden in the drawings, she had to read the book all over again! My 10-year old liked Riddell's style so much that she started reading the Far-Flung Adventure Series (a series of novels written by Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart) (PS: Amazon is running a Bargain Price discount on one of these right now).

If you're tempted by this, look at HarperCollin's website. You can look at the first two chapters in full.

Does this sound like something your child would like? Enter to win a free copy of Ottoline Goes to School. Leave a message, and let me know what other graphic novels or illustrated novels your child has fun reading. For an extra entry, become a follower (or let me know that you already follow) of Great Kid Books. For another extra entry, share the word - you can email friends with the link, post it on your Facebook account, or Twitter about it. Contest deadline: Saturday, September 12th.

The review copy was provided by HarperCollins. You can find this at your local public library or at Amazon.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Good Question - early readers with children of color

I've been searching for some good books for early readers that have children of color as the main characters. Our wonderful librarian Dawn, at the Claremont Branch of the Berkeley Public Library, helped me find a few. Here are some great suggestions. These are for very early readers. I'll do a post later with books for slightly more advanced readers.
Hamster Chase (Easy-to-Read, Puffin)
by Anastasia Suen
illustrations by Allan Eitzen
NY: Puffin Books, 2001
ages 4 - 7
When Peter takes his class hamster out of the cage, the little guy escapes! Peter and his friends Archie and Annie search the classroom for Mikey the hamster, but every time they get close Mikey escapes. Children love pets and this story will hook them from the beginning. How will they be able to get the hamster back to his cage? The illustrations are full of color, realistic and engaging. They help the children read the text and pull them into the story. Hamster Chase is a Level 2 Puffin reader. Here's the text from the first page:
Peter took the hamster
out of his cage.
"I'm going to miss you
next week, Mikey," he said.
"Why?" asked Archie.
"It will be Amy's turn
to take care of him," said Peter.
My 5 year old daughter loved Hamster Chase - she wanted me to read it to her three times the first night! This is part of a series of early readers called Peter's Neighborhood, based on the beloved characters created by Ezra Jack Keats. Other titles include: The Loose Tooth and The Clubhouse. If you like this, be sure to check out Anastasia Suen's blogs: Picture Book of the Day and 5 Great Books. She's the author of over 100 books for children.
Get The Ball, Slim
a Real Kids Reader, Level 1
by Marcia Leonard
photographs by Dorothy Handelman
CT: The Millbrook Press, 1998.
ages 4 - 7
Get the Ball, Slim is a great book for very beginning readers. Tim and his twin Jim are two real kids who want to play ball with their dog Slim. When they hit their ball too far, Slim has to chase it down and find it. I love the photographs that are in this book - they are vivid, clear, full of emotion and so real.

Part of me asks, what crazy family calls their kids Tim and Jim, and their dog Slim? But this is important for kids who are working on reading certain patterns. The text contains short, easy words - both with phonics patterns and site words. Here's the text from the first 10 pages - it's spread out with lots of pictures, and is easier for new readers to tackle.
I am Tim.
My twin is Jim.
We play ball with our dog Slim.
I get my mitt, the ball and bat. I get the dog....
Jim gets his hat.
This is a great series that shows children of today. I really want to see Best Friends. Here's what School Library Journal says about it: "Best Friends, the most successful title, includes two girls who describe their differences and similarities, concluding with a statement of strong friendship."

A series that I would like to read is the Just For You! series by Scholastic. They are early readers that feature African-American children. Has anyone read these? I'm tracking them down. Here are a few titles: Low-down Bad-day BluesThree's A Crowd

I'd like to finish with a thought. No matter our race or background, we need to share with our children books with all people of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds. Our books at home and in our schools need to reflect all our kids. I loved the way the illustrator Jesse Joshua Watson said it recently, "When someone reads a story with a black character and begins to empathize with them and crawl into their skin and their problems, major construction has been done in the heart of the reader." See his interview on Writers Against Racism.

These books came from my local public library. Find them at your local public library on Worldcat or at Amazon.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Tess's Tree - a sweet book about losing something you love

While we want to protect our young children from grief, we need to find ways to help them deal with losing something or someone they love. Tess's Tree is a wonderful, beautiful new book that does just this is a sweet, gentle way.
Tess's Tree
written by Jess M. Brallier
illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
NY: HarperCollins, 2009
ages 4 - 8
Tess loved her tree with all her heart. She looked out at her tree from her bedroom window. She swung its sturdy branches and read stories in its shade. But after losing branches in a big storm, the tree had to be cut down. Oh, how Tess was angry. Sad. Despondent. She cried for a long time, but then she decided to have a funeral for her tree - to celebrate the life of her tree.

Brallier was inspired to write this story after a friend's daughter held a funeral for a tree. “I think it’s difficult for kids to deal with loss,” he says. “It can be scary and lonely. They watch trusted adults being sad. I thought a tree was a softer way to explore that.” (Publisher's Weekly) Reynold's illustrations are perfect - bringing out all of Tess's emotions. I also love the multicultural community that she lives in - it helps us see ourselves in her story. This is a truly gentle book - it's one that will help children feel connected to the earth around us, and to people, pets and things they love.

My daughters have really liked Tess's Tree. My 5 year old listened with complete attention, with little smiles, frowns and sighs at the happy and sad places. The feelings came through so well in this book. My 8 year old said, "It's such a sweet book. But sad, too. It makes me think of Grandpa." She went on to talk about how she wished she could have gone to her grandfather's funeral (it was too far away) so she could have met some of the people who knew him when he was younger. It was a very touching moment, to have her recall her grandfather. His passing had a huge impact on her.

An interesting back story to this book: Tess's Tree started as an on-line book on the website FunBrain. You can now read the whole book online at the FunBrain site. Peter Reynold's company Fablevision created a TeleFable (FableVision's signature on-line book format). If you like reading books online, check out their site - they have great stuff!

Tess's Tree is available at your local independent bookstore or at Amazon.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Purple Heart, by Patricia McCormick

It's impossible for a civilian to really understand what it's like to fight in a war, but we need to try to put ourselves in the shoes of young soldiers. Policy-makers declare war and set strategy based on global politics, but these decisions affect the lives of ordinary young people. Stories we read can help us understand what soldiers go through. I will always remember reading Heart of Darkness and watching Apocalypse Now in high school. Young adults want to read about lives far away from their own. Purple Heart, by Patricia McCormick, is a new novel that explores the impact the Iraqi War has on a young American soldier. I highly recommend it for middle school students.
Purple Heart
by Patricia McCormick
NY: Harper Collins, 2009
ages 12 and up
When Private Matt Duffy wakes up in an army hospital in Iraq, he's honored with a Purple Heart - the army's medal for those wounded in battle. But he doesn't feel like a hero. He can't quite remember what happened in the Baghdad alley where he was hurt. Matt has suffered a traumatic brain injury and must slowly work to recover his memory and his ability to function. He wants to get back to his squad in the field. The first half of the book is not action packed, but pulls you into a soldier's struggles. The second half of the book follows Matt as he returns to his squad to patrol the streets of Baghdad.

I was pulled into this story by Matt's likable character and how McCormick reveals his thoughts about his squad. While Matt recovered in the hospital, he thought about his squad a lot. One time, Wolf (a buddy) got a care package with Silly String in it and "the whole squad ran around the barracks, hiding and ambushing one another." What really struck me was Matt's thoughts about his buddies:
As he (Matt) watched Wolf squirt Silly String down the back of Figueroa's shirt, he remembered thinking, This is what war is all about. It wasn't about fighting the enemy. It wasn't about politics or oil or even about terrorists. It was about your buddies; it was about fighting for the guy next to you. And knowing he was fighting for you. (p. 53 ARC)
This novel clearly shows that war is not full of easy answers, that soldiers struggle with their conscience and each person has to decide how they're going to deal with it. It would be a great novel to read with your middle school children - either as a read aloud, or each of you reading it.

Publisher's Weekly gives Purple Heart a starred review: "McCormick raises moral questions without judgment and will have readers examining not only this conflict but the nature of heroism and war."

Would you like to read some of Purple Heart? Harper Collins, the publisher, has put the first 40 pages on their web site - go take a look!

This review copy was provided by Harper Collins in ARC form (Advance Readers Copy). Purple Heart goes on sale on September 1st. Order your copy now from your local independent bookstore or Amazon.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Books for early readers

What do you look for in a book for an early reader? I look for short sentences and simple vocabulary, but I also look for humor, stories and illustrations that grab readers. One of the problem that many parents talk about is that their children love listening to much longer, more compelling stories than they can read. This seems particularly true of 1st and 2nd graders who are working hard on decoding.

Dinosaur Hunt (Max Spaniel) is a fun book that really does work for 1st graders. It is funny and silly, and the pictures make you want to keep reading. There are only one or two sentences on each page. The winners of my contest have just been notified: Erika, Marie, Carol, Taralazar and Dawn will receive copies from the publisher soon! Thanks to everyone who entered!

Some other great books for early readers that come to mind are:

Elephant and Piggie series, by Mo Willems. Are You Ready to Play Outside? makes us laugh every time. Mo Willems creates such fun characters, and packs so many emotions into very few words. He's a true genius. Here, Piggie becomes despondent when she wants to play outside and rain threatens to ruin her plans. Her true friend Elephant tries to help her, but it's really two little worms who show her how much fun playing in the rain can be. Every time I read this it makes me laugh.

Henry and Mudge series, by Cynthia Rylant. I love reading about this friendship between Henry and his big dog Mudge. It is so real, so comforting, so funny in a gentle way. We've had fun reading about sleepovers, camping trips, visiting relatives - all through these books. Henry and Mudge books have more text than the Elephant and Piggie books. They have about 4 sentences per page, and four chapters per book. I also really enjoy Cynthia Rylant's Mr. Putter and Tabby series, about the friendship between an older man and his cat. If you're looking for a book for an earlier reader, try the Puppy Mudge books, also by Cynthia Rylant.

Do you have other early readers that you love? One of my biggest frustrations is finding early readers that feature children of color and multicultural schools. I would love any suggestions you have.

Best wishes for the start of school!

Monday, August 24, 2009

I am one who...

A poem for the start of the year - a little about me:

I am one who loves to help children find books that excite them, engage them and inspire them.

I am one who loves to explore new worlds in books, in pictures, and in person.

I am one who loves to stay up late, late, late getting caught up in a great story that I can't put down.

The beginning of the school year is a special time - a time for sharing, for getting to know one another, for discovering new friends and new teachers. Wishing every child and family a great start to the new year.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Reading in the dark

We've just returned from a camping trip, and I'm already missing sleeping outside under the stars. But here's a great idea from Nora Gaydos, the author of the Now I'm Reading Series: try reading in the dark!

Want to add some zing to your new reader's reading practice? Try taping some words your child is learning to read on the wall next to their bed. Then use a flashlight to spot them in the dark. See if your child can shine the light on a word and then read it. You can play games like spotting different words that go to a story you're telling, or make up a story including the words as they spot them. What fun - your little one will be searching to FIND and READ the words!

Bring the sense of cuddling up under the stars by reading your bedtime story in the dark - cuddle together in bed with a flashlight and read your story together. This bonding time is so important -- give a special sense to the time we share reading stories.

Older children love reading by flashlight. My 10 year old loves creating a nest in her closet by bringing in blankets and pillows, closing the closet door, and hiding from the rest of the world with her flashlight and book. This is actually a great way to help children tune out the rest of the world and become completely engrossed in the book.

As Nora says, "Sometimes a little novelty goes a long way." You're helping your child realize that reading can be fun. You're also actually helping them focus on the words by shining a light on the words in the dark. Have fun!

Want more tips for early readers? Check out Nora's website and blog: Now I'm Reading Thanks, Nora, for the fun suggestions!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Reading Around the World: stories about surviving the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia

I have always loved being able to travel to other parts of the world through my reading. Whether it's through historical fiction or realistic fiction, stories have transported me to another place. I am participating in One Shot World Tour, a challenge to reviewers to read books set in South East Asia, and really enjoyed the challenge.

I read several books set in SE Asia, but the two that really stuck with me were historical fiction set during the terror of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, trying to see how two children survived this horror. A Song for Cambodia is a picture book that introduces the story of Cambodia and what happened to ordinary families when the Khmer Rouge soldiers took over. The Stone Goddess is a powerful young adult novel that develops a similar story further, following a young girl, Nakri, as she and her brother and sister end up in a labor camp.
A Song for Cambodia
written by Michelle Lord
illustrated by Shiino Arihara
NY: Lee & Low Books, 2008.
ages 10 - 14
A Song for Cambodia is the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond's survival of the Khmer Rough work camps. Arn's early life in rural Cambodia "was filled with the sweet sounds of music and laughter." But in 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, finally reaching Arn's village. He was taken from his family and put into a children's labor camp, forced to work in the rice paddies. One day, the soldiers asked for volunteers to play music and Arn raised his hand. He survived the camp by learning to play the khim, a traditional Cambodian instrument. Eventually, Arn escaped to Vietnam and was adopted by an American priest who brought him to the U.S. This is a simple, but powerful introduction to the horrors of the war. The illustrations are clear and convey the emotions of the story, without being graphic or overly violent. I highly recommend this picture book as an introduction for middle school students (age 10 and up) learning about this cruel period of history. To learn more about Arn Chorn-Pond's story, see his story on You-Tube.
The Stone Goddess
by Minfong Ho
NY: Scholastic, 2003
ages 12 - 16
The Stone Goddess also follows a child sent to labor camps by the Khmer Rouge, but this story follows Nakri, a 12-year old living in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Nakri's family fled the city when the soldiers invade, going to live with her grandparents in a small village. But they were still not safe. She was forced to go to a labor camp with her older sister and brother. Nakri's sister was trained in classical Cambodian dance, and this beautiful, almost spiritual dance provided an emotional rock for Nakri.

The story is riveting, and at times horrifying as you watch the soldiers threatening Nakri's sister and brother, and you realize how many children were dying. Eventually, Nakri and her brother reunited with their parents and emigrated to the United States. But Nakri struggled. "I should have felt happy with this new life, but there was an air of unreality to it all, as if my eyes were floating above me, and watching me go through the motions of living hero."

The author of The Stone Goddess, Minfong Ho, was born in Burma and grew up in Thailand, working in 1980 in refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border. It is clear through her novel that she empathizes deeply with Khmer refugees like Nakri. It's a powerful story that would captivate tweens and teens (grades 5 and above) who want to know more about this hard period of history and how one family struggled to survive.

This book review is part of the One Shot World Tour: SE Asia, sponsored by Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray. The idea of this World Tour is to read and review one book either written by an author from the South East Asia region or set in that part of the world. For the purposes of this tour, Southeast Asia consists of the following countries: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. For some more great ideas, head over to Chasing Ray.

Both of these copies came from my local library. Find them at your local public library, an independent bookstore or at Amazon.

Great games to play

We love playing games on vacation. This past vacation we discovered two new great games, one for older kids (age 8 and up) and one for new readers (age 4 & 5).
Rhyming War (Now I'm Reading!)
by Nora Gaydos
Innovative Kids, 2008
ages 4 - 6
My 5 year old is just learning to read, and she LOVES Rhyming War. It is published by Innovative Kids, the same publishers who publish the series Now I'm Reading! They combine a solid understanding of how kids read and great graphics that make kids laugh. Rhyming War is a card game that can either be played like the classic War or like a matching game. It reinforces both number counting and reading. Each card has is part of a rhyming set that reinforces early readers developing a sense of phonics. The story was a little weak, but the game had my daughter hooked. I love how we can play a few rounds of this right before bed - having fun together and adding giving her a great boost of confidence in reading.
by Bananagrams LLC
ages 7 and up
I loved playing Scrabble when I was a kid, but it just didn't click with my kids (they're 8 & 10). We just bought Bananagrams before this last vacation and they LOVED it. It works like Scrabble, in that you build connecting crosswords from a pile of letters. But it's all about creatively building words, rather than competing for points. Each person creates their own individual crossword, and you can rearrange the words as you get other letters in your pile. My 10 year old started seeing how many 10 letter words she could put into her puzzle. It was great fun. The "winner" is simply the person who uses up all the tiles - you don't keep individual scores, so it's much less competitive. You also go at your own pace, which worked well with two different aged kids. Bananagrams received several awards when it first came out, and they're well deserved. It really is worth getting!

We received Rhyming War as a review copy from the publishers, and bought Bananagrams at our local game store, Games of Berkeley. Both are available on Amazon and at local stores.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Dinosaur Hunt - a silly & fun early reader - win a FREE book!

What makes a great book for new readers? These books need simple sentences and words, yes, but most of all they need a story (and pictures) that makes kids laugh. Are you in search of a great book for your new reader? Check out Dinosaur Hunt, a great early reader. Do you have kids in kindergarten and 1st grade who are now reading full sentences? Or maybe a preschooler who loves silly stories? Read on to find out how to win a FREE copy of this charming book!
Dinosaur Hunt (Max Spaniel)
by David Catrow
Orchard Books, 2009.
ages 4 - 7
Max is not your typical dog. He is a hunter, a skilled and persistent hunter. He will track down the biggest beast of them all - a dinosaur. So Max tracks down the head, and then the body. But as all kids know, you can build a dinosaur out of anything. Below you see the early results of Max's search:

The illustrations in David Catrow's book are wonderful. Zany and silly, they draw you right in. This is perfect for kids who want a silly story. Catrow is the illustrator of many books, but this is his first as both author and illustrator - you can tell that he loves dogs.

This is a fun book - I'd love to share it. We have 5 FREE copies to give away, thanks to the publisher. Contest rules:

1) Leave a comment below or email me at Make sure you leave your email address so I can get in touch with you.

2) In your comment, let us know the favorite early reader books (simple sentences, good stories) that your children enjoy.

For an extra entry:

** Spread the word of the contest using your blog, twitter, Facebook or simply emailing 10 friends with the link. One entry for each way you spread the word.

** For another entry, follow Great Kid Books either subscribing using the email link above, adding it to your RSS blog reader, or following on Facebook's Networked Blogs.

** For a final bonus, convince a friend to follow Great Kid Books and both of you can earn an extra entry!

Contest ends on Saturday, August 22nd.

The review copy was provided by the publisher. For another review, see Young Readers: "I love Max. I just LOVE him. I find his silliness charming. And his enthusiasm. And his determination. I can't help myself. I just do."