Friday, August 29, 2014

Chapter Book Review: Ivy and Bean Take the Case by Annie Barrows

Ivy and Bean Take the Case
by Annie Barrows.
2013. Chronicle Books.
ISBN: 9781452106991
In the final installment in the Ivy & Bean series, Bean’s mother asks her to watch a noir film that she always loved, hoping that Bean will appreciate the finer points of the storyline. Instead, Bean picks up the detective main character’s somewhat rude slang and a nose for solving crime. She and Ivy begin sleuthing around the neighborhood, looking for a case to solve. Eventually, after alienating most of the kids they know with their antics, they find an actual mystery: a strange piece of string seems to be taking over the neighborhood, growing longer each night. The other kids are counting on Ivy and Bean to stake things out, but it proves difficult to stay up all night on the lookout.

This series hit a real high with its penultimate book, Ivy and Bean Make the Rules, whose praises I sang quite loudly during the 2012 CYBILS season. I also thought the eighth book, No News is Good News, represented quality, kid-friendly writing, great humor, and unique style. Because these two books were so exceptional, I expected nothing less from Ivy and Bean Take the Case. I was counting on Annie Barrows to end this beloved series with a strong, satisfying conclusion that would reward long-time fans and hook new ones. I am so disappointed to admit that this book just did not live up to my hopes.

From the very beginning, this book felt different. It didn’t feel like part of the same series as the nine books that came before it. Instead of focusing on the interplay between the two best friends, the story mainly focuses on Bean, who spearheads the detecting project and mostly just drags loyal Ivy along for the ride. Ivy participates marginally in most of the plot, but she is not the active player she has normally been in the girls’ other adventures. This lack of involvement from Ivy is compounded by the fact that pretty much every supporting character who has ever appeared in the series is somehow involved in Bean’s plan to solve a mystery. In each chapter, Ivy and Bean are nearly crowded out of their own book by the other kids who live in their neighborhood. Perhaps this was the author’s attempt to say goodbye to the characters in one fell swoop, and I can understand making that effort, but there were many moments where I felt like I was drowning in names and dialogue.

Another major flaw in this book is the handling of the mystery itself. Kids love mysteries, and I think they would have enjoyed seeing their favorite characters tracking down clues and drawing conclusions. I was looking forward to finding out the reason for that bizarre string that suddenly appears overnight. Unfortunately, Barrows opts not to solve the mystery. She spends the entire book setting us up to anticipate a solution and then simply does not deliver it. I trust the author enough to assume that she did this intentionally - maybe to provide the reader imaginative opportunities beyond the cover of the books, maybe as a commentary that the answer doesn’t matter - but there was a small part of me that also wondered if she left us hanging because she didn’t know the answer to the mystery herself. It’s hard to say whether kids will be disappointed - maybe they will react the same way as Ivy and Bean do, and just move on - but for me, this was not the way I wanted a favorite series to end, and I truly wish the author had made a different choice.

When the writing in this book is good, it’s really good, but once it derails, it never quite recovers. There are moments of great description, especially early on, but sadly, everything is overshadowed by the unresolved ending, and the strange departure in both style and substance from the qualities that have made this series so popular. I can only hope that kids won’t be as critical and that this final Ivy and Bean story will resonate more strongly with its target audience.

I borrowed Ivy and Bean Take the Case from my local public library. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat

Thursday, August 28, 2014

5 Hints for Planning Themed Story Times

Themes are a great way to organize a story time, keep variety in your repertoire, and draw in audiences. I don’t believe every story time should have a theme, but sometimes it’s fun to bring together like elements in one session. Here are some hints for maintaining high quality in a themed story time.
  • Choose a theme based on available materials.
    Planning a themed story time is similar to selecting a research topic. Before you begin, you’ll want to know if there are enough quality materials related to your selected theme. You never want to choose something to share in story time based only on the fact that it fits your theme. If you wouldn’t ordinarily read that book, sing that song, or chant that rhyme in a regular story time, then you shouldn’t do so simply to fill a themed session. 
  • Keep it general.
    To avoid painting yourself into a corner and forcing yourself to use poorly written materials, it’s best to stick with general themes. If you can’t find enough books about trucks, try vehicles with wheels. If you’re still not satisfied with what’s available, consider focusing on all modes of transportation. Every book fits some theme if you think broadly enough, and the more general the theme, the better the selection of quality books and activities. 
  • Don’t become a slave to the theme.
    Even after you’ve chosen a theme and found a great set of materials to use, there is still no reason that every single activity in the story time has to adhere to the theme. I’ve done story times where the books share a common thread, but the fingerplays, action rhymes and songs are unrelated. I’ve also done story times where the first half of story time is themed and the second half is a collection of unrelated items. Sometimes you will have a complete roster of great activities on the same topic, but it’s okay if that’s not the norm. 
  • It’s okay to keep the theme to yourself.
    In my experience, themes are most useful to the story time presenter and not as important to the children. I went through a phase where all my story times in a given week were on the same theme. This was so that I could systematically request books from other branches all at once, get everything out of them that I could and then send them back. On rare occasions, I told my audiences what a story time session was going to focus on, but as a general rule, I didn’t bother. Sometimes kids would notice a connection and point it out, but otherwise, they were just interested in hearing what I had to share, regardless of the subject. The themes were for me, and sometimes only discernible by me. 
  • Themes are not for everyone.
    My core belief about story time has always been that every presenter should do what works best for him or her. For some people, themed story times provide needed boundaries and structure; for others, they may be too restrictive. There is nothing inherently wrong with story times centered on themes, just as there is nothing wrong with selecting a variety of unrelated materials and sharing them in a logical order. The important thing is to choose well-written books, kid-friendly songs, and rhymes with strong rhythm and wise word choice.
You can browse my themed story times here.

Do you use themes at story time? Why or why not? What are some of your favorites? Please share in comments!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Middle Grade Review: Double Reverse by Fred Bowen (ARC)

Double Reverse.
by Fred Bowen.
2014. Peachtree Publishers
ISBN: 9781561458141
Ninth grader Jesse has never seen himself as a quarterback. That position belongs to his older brother, Jay, who looks the part. When Jay is not named quarterback on his college team, however, Jesse begins to question whether players should be pigeonholed and takes on the challenge of playing quarterback for his own freshman team, while also encouraging a female classmate to join the team as kicker.

Fred Bowen writes a regular sports column for children in The Washington Post, and his background in newspaper writing definitely shows in his fiction. The writing in this book is concise, easy to read, and never dull. Bowen has a knack for moving scenes along using dialogue, and for moving quickly through long periods of time without making the reader feel rushed. Jesse's story spans an entire football season, but Bowen only writes what is absolutely necessary. Very few words are spared for details like setting and physical descriptions of characters; instead, most of the text focuses on football itself, with plenty of scenes from games, and including only those other events which enable the characters to play or watch the game.

Though the main character is a teenager, this is very clearly a middle grade book, and one that could be read by kids as young as 7 or 8. The relationships in the book are all very supportive and healthy - even the ones between characters who may be rivals - and Savannah, the would-be kicker, is treated quite fairly by her teammates, and by the author, who does not exploit her character as a token girl in any way. (See my review of Joy in Mudville to understand why this is worth mentioning.) The story conveys a clear lesson, as does the historical content provided at the back of the book, which highlights various famous sports figures who were hugely successful despite not always looking the part.

Fred Bowen is to this generation what Matt Christopher was to children of previous generations: a reliably talented teller of sports tales that will appeal to reluctant readers who like sports as well as sports-lovers who like to read. Bowen has written two other titles about football: Quarterback Season and Touchdown Trouble. A full list of his books, arranged by sport, is available on his website.

I received an ARC of Double Reverse from Peachtree Publishing as a prize for my participation in Armchair BEA 2014. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.