Monday, March 30, 2015

Middle Grade Reviews: The Best Friend Battle & The Mean Girl Meltdown by Lindsay Eyre (ARCs)

The Best Friend Battle
by Lindsay Eyre
2015. Scholastic.
ISBN: 9780545620284

The Mean Girl Meltdown
by Lindsay Eyre
2015. Scholastic.
Sylvie Scruggs - the star of a brand-new Scholastic series by debut author Lindsay Eyre - is sassy, spirited, and sporty. In The Best Friend Battle, she finds herself feeling jealous of her best friend Miranda's new friendship with Georgie, a boy in the neighborhood who teases Sylvie on the baseball field. Frustrated with having to share Miranda's attention, she puts herself in competition with Georgie to give Miranda the best birthday present imaginable, leading her to accidentally steal Georgie's ferret, which she believes he intends to give to Miranda. In the second book, The Mean Girl Meltdown, Sylvie joins a hockey team, where she finds a steeper learning curve than she expected. She begins to see star player Jamie Redmond as a rival, to the point that she automatically blames Jamie for pranks being done against members of the team.

Both of these stories represent a much-needed addition to the lower end of the middle grade spectrum. For one thing, Sylvie is a girl who plays sports, a character type that is not that widely represented. Girls who are on sports teams will enjoy reading about Sylvie's athletic strengths and weaknesses, and boys will also appreciate the action of the sports scenes. It's also nice to have a middle grade story to recommend that involves hockey. In 2015, there just aren't that many kids who want to read The Chicken Doesn't Skate, no matter how much librarians try to talk it up. The Mean Girl Meltdown will be a great addition to library collections for that reason alone.

Also refreshing is the fact that, instead of dwelling on stereotypical girl drama, Eyre focuses on the very realistic flaws in Sylvie's personality and the mistakes she sometimes makes as a result of innocence and inexperience. Rather than condemning Sylvie for her occasional poor judgment, Eyre constructs a story that allows Sylvie to work through her difficulties and come out stronger, more self-aware, and more empathetic to the people around her. The solutions Sylvie comes up with are always age-appropriate and believable, and each story ends with an effort at making amends with those she has hurt. There is also a lot of humor and gentle suspense involved in each story, which helps kids connect easily with Sylvie's experiences and want to keep reading. Sylvie will be welcomed warmly into the imaginations of readers in grades 2 to 4 - and parents will love her too!

On her website, Lindsay Eyre lists Sara Pennypacker and Hilary McKay as two of her favorite authors, and indeed their books - Pennypacker's Clementine series and McKay's Lulu's series  - are the perfect read-alikes for Eyre's own books. Others include the Ivy and Bean books, Kate the Great (Except When She's Not) by Suzy Becker, and Quinny and Hopper by Adriana Brad Schanen.

I received digital ARCs of The Best Friend Battle and The Mean Girl Meltdown from Scholastic via Edelweiss. The Best Friend Battle is out tomorrow, March 31, 2015. The Mean Girl Meltdown will be available on August 25, 2015.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Old School Sunday: Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman (1994) (Reading Through History Review 13 of 52)

To close out the 13th century, I have come back to Europe for a bit to spend some time in medieval England. Catherine, Called Birdy is the first of five books I will review involving this setting. The year 1290 is Catherine's fourteenth year, and the year in which she has promised her brother Edward she will write an account of her days. Her diary, which marks time according to Saints' feast days, tells of her contentious relationship with her father, her worries for her mother's health, her observations as friends and relatives marry and bear children, and her disgust for Shaggy Beard, the man to whom her father wishes to marry her off.

There is one thing that bothers me about this book, which is that it shows a young girl self-aware enough to flout the feminine conventions of her day. While Catherine's antics are funny and give the story a definite sense of "girl power" they come across as inauthentic because they are so unlikely. During this time period, a woman in Catherine's position - the daughter of a powerful man with a fierce temper - would likely do as she was told because there was no other option. She would not have role models to show her that anything happening in her life was unfair or wrong, and she would likely not have the luxury of talking back to adult authority figures. Maybe that wouldn't make as interesting a story, but it bothers me that the author seems to be incorporating contemporary values into a society that could not even begin to comprehend them.

That said, this book does include a lot of secondary details about the time period that are utterly realistic. Simple things like tooth decay and childbirth are handled in ways that to contemporary Americans seem bizarre and terrifying. The idea that Catherine's father would have a vein opened under his tongue to let out the "bad humors" supposedly causing his toothache made me wince, not just because it would be so terribly painful, but because advances in science have shown how ridiculous an approach this would be. I almost couldn't even read the sections talking about what happens to Catherine's mother after her baby is born. It makes me thankful to live in a time where babies can be born in hospitals, and infections can be treated with drugs.

Another thing I really loved about this book was all the information about religious practices. As a practicing Catholic, I love to see the Church represented respectfully in fiction, and it can be difficult to find books that are both well-informed on the subject and well-written. This book is both (which is especially pleasing to see given the poor treatment of religion in another of the author's books.) I enjoyed Catherine's description of the Saint for each day, and I liked the details about going to Mass and observing Lent.

Catherine, Called Birdy is a good choice for kids who have a hard time contextualizing history lessons, as it humanizes this time period and keeps a fairly light-hearted tone despite many dark moments. While it would  not be a sufficient study on the Middle Ages all on its own, the story makes a nice jumping-off point for teaching about day-to-day medieval living.

I borrowed the ebook edition of Catherine Called Birdy from my local public library.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Picture Book Review: Humpty Dumpty Flip-Side Rhymes by Christopher Harbo and Danny Chatzikonstantinou (ARC)

Humpty Dumpty Flip-Side Rhymes
by Christopher Harbo and
Danny Chatzikonstantinou

Quick Booktalk 

This new picture book tells the traditional nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty on one side, and the same story from a new perspective on the other.

About the Illustrations

Unfortunately, I only have a digital ARC of this book so I can't try it out on my toddler (we don't do e-books with her), but the brightly colored, cheerful illustrations are definitely perfect for that age group. Even though both sides of the story essentially end with the death of Humpty Dumpty, the pictures set a light-hearted tone that allows kids to appreciate the story as silly rather than scary or sad. Even the font used to print the words contributes to the mood of the book, by combining old-fashioned swirls and frills with child-like printing. Visually, this book is very striking, and likely to stand out on a library display.

Story Time Possibilities

This is a large book (Amazon lists the dimensions as 0.5 x 10.2 x 10.2 inches), so it is perfect for story time audiences of all sizes. Though toddlers are the target audience, they are probably not yet familiar enough with nursery rhymes to appreciate the fractured version on the flip side of the book. For a group that young, I might read only the traditional rhyme. As kids approach ages three and four, they can begin to appreciate funny retellings of familiar tales, so preschool story time is probably the best place to share both sides of the book. The rhyme and rhythm of the newly-written rhyme are perfect, and the joke at the end - that Humpty Dumpty becomes scrambled eggs - will get a chuckle out of adults as well as kids. In terms of themes, the obvious one is nursery rhymes, but this book could also work for story times about eggs, soldiers, and being silly.

Readers Advisory 

Other fractured fairy tale and nursery rhyme picture books  include Mary Had a Little Lamp, Old MacDonald Had a Woodshop, and Truckery Rhymes. For other ideas for sharing nursery rhymes at story time and beyond, check out my list of Ten Creative Ways to Share Nursery Rhymes at Story Time.


I received a digital ARC of  Humpty Dumpty Flip-Side Rhymes from Capstone via NetGalley.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

10 Alphabet Songs You May Not Know

Do you ever get tired of singing the ABCs? Breathe new life into your efforts to teach your children the alphabet with these lesser-known ABC songs.
  • "Alphabet Medley" by Sharon Lois and Bram
    This song appears on the Sing A to Z album. The track begins with the traditional alphabet song, but the second part of the medley is a totally different -  and very catchy! - tune. Because Sharon, Lois, and Bram are Canadian, they sing "zed" instead of "zee" for  the final letter, which might confuse some US listeners, but you could always learn the tune and sing the song your own way.
  • "Nursery Rhyme Rap" from The Bilingual Book of Rhymes, Songs, Stories, and Fingerplays by Pam Schiller, Rafael Lara-Alecio, and Beverly J. Irby
    The chorus of this song is the letters of the alphabet, and the verses are different nursery rhymes. Everything is sung to the tune of 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.
  • "ABCD Medley" by the Laurie Berkner Band
    In this song, Laurie Berkner gives the traditional alphabet song a bouncy new rhythm and intersperses it with other favorite children's songs, including Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Row, Row, Row Your Boat.
  • "African Alphabet"
    This beautiful song from Sesame Street teaches the names of the letters and their corresponding sounds by describing a simple scene from an African jungle. It is sung by Kermit the Frog and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
  • "ABC-DEF-GHI"Also from Sesame Street, this song plays with letter sounds as Big Bird attempts to pronounce ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ as one word.
  • "A You’re Adorable
    This is an old song from the 1940's, a hit version of which was recorded by Perry Como. It has also been heard on Sesame Street and recorded by Sharon, Lois, and Bram and John Lithgow. Martha Alexander also did a really sweet board book version, published in 1994.
  • "Marching Around the Alphabet" by Hap Palmer
    Hap Palmer turns the alphabet into a physical game, where kids march around a set of letters lying on the floor, and stop periodically to identify the nearest letter. See this song in action on YouTube.
  • "ABC Chant" by Barbara Milne
    This song is a list of the letters just like the original song, but it has a slightly different, gentler tune, which can easily be learned on a guitar or ukulele.
  • "El Abecedario" by Jose Luis Orozco
    Jose Luis Orozco is well-known for his Spanish language children's songs. This is his alphabet song, focusing on the letters of the Spanish alphabet. (It is followed by the traditional English alphabet song.)
  • "Swinging the Alphabet" by The Three Stooges
    This silly song was featured in a 1938 Three Stooges film called  Violent Is the Word for Curly. According to Wikipedia, it was written even earlier, in 1875, under the title "The Spelling Bee." In the 1980s, it was recorded by Joanie Bartels on Sillytime Magic as simply "The Alphabet Song."
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