Monday, September 1, 2014

Middle Grade Review: Kate the Great Except When She's Not by Suzy Becker (ARC)

Kate the Great
Except When She's Not

by Suzy Becker
2014. Random House
ISBN: 9780385387422
Kate is nearly ten years old, and has just begun her fifth grade year. Though she already has a best friend, her mother wants her to show an interest in her fellow Junior Guides member, Nora, who has trouble making friends. Though Kate tries her hardest to befriend her, Nora makes it difficult by keeping to herself and behaving oddly.

There are so many middle grade novels written in diary format that another one seems superfluous, but if there must be more, they all ought to be like Kate the Great Except When She's Not. Kate's voice is engaging, with the right mix of sarcasm and and sincerity for her age and worldview. She is neither cruel and opportunistic like Greg Heffley nor sweet and innocent like the title character in the Just Grace series. Rather, she is a healthy mix of flaws and strengths that most readers will find relatable. Her observations of adult behavior are especially insightful, and they critique some of the injustices of childhood without making the adults into inept fools, which is refreshing. The friendship storyline is also given new life in this book. Nora is an especially well-developed secondary character whose involvement in the story deviates from the usual "outsider who is bullied" trope.

Based on its cover alone, Kate the Great will appeal to readers who have enjoyed Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries. It is also actually a nice alternative to those books for kids who don't want to read about dating, romance, or catty backstabbing. In that sense, its closest readlikes are the Aldo Zelnick and Amelia Rules series.

I received a digital ARC of Kate the Great Except When She's Not from Random House via NetGalley.

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Old School Sunday: The Orphelines in the Enchanted Castle by Natalie Savage Carlson (1964)

The Orphelines in the
Enchanted Castle

by Natalie Savage Carlson
1964. HarperCollins
ISBN: 9780060210465
The Orphelines are thrilled to be moving to their new orphanage. The building looks like a castle, and the girls are convinced that the boys joining them there will be just like knights. Unfortunately, the boys are not as thrilled about sharing space with girls, and they welcome the orphelines with a series of mean pranks.

Each book of this series is completely charming, and this one is no exception. The personalities of the girls - especially Brigitte and Josine  - clash perfectly with the boys' rougher, street-wise attitudes, making for a series of truly humorous episodes at the castle. Kids as young as five will understand the girls' indignation over the boys' mean jokes, as well as the impish boys' desire to rebel against their imposed knighthood. Readers will also appreciate the clever "magic" by which the adults ultimately reform the boys' behavior while still allowing them to feel in control of their fate.

Of the three books in this series that I have read, this is the only one not illustrated by Garth Williams, and though Adrianna Savozzi's pictures are fine, I did miss Williams's characteristic style. Pictures aside, however, this book is a cheerful tale with a happy ending from which readers can walk away feeling utterly satisfied. I can't wait to share this series with my daughter in a few years!

I own a copy of The Orphelines in the Enchanted Castle.

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Picture Book Review: Tap Tap Boom Boom

Tap Tap Boom Boom
by Elizabeth Bluemle, illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Quick Booktalk

As a storm descends upon the city, people seek shelter in the subway, making friends with strangers while they wait out the rain.

About the Illustrations

From the opening page of the story, well-known illustrator G. Brian Karas sets the scene for a rainstorm. The gathering clouds and thick raindrops on the first spread of the book warn of the heavier rain and thunder to follow. The people in the pictures are young and old, and from various backgrounds, which is just right for the urban setting. Though the text sometimes suggests who should appear in the illustrations, there are many more characters who are completely Karas's creation and whose actions silently contribute to the urgency and coziness people feel when they are caught in a storm. I also really like the way Karas places his cartoonish figures against realistic-looking backgrounds of subway staircases and skyscrapers. It is reminiscent of the style used by Mo Willems in the Knuffle Bunny books, which might increase the book's overall child appeal.

Story Time Possibilities

I had a hard time getting the rhythm right the first time I read this book. I had to read it aloud a few times before I started to understand which words to emphasize to make the rhymes match up in the right way. This problem is partly a result of the short sentences author Elizabeth Bluemle uses in some places. Some of these fragments do not have any articles (a, the, etc.) in them, which makes them sound stilted and strange. I think the text is meant to be poetry, so it's fine that she chose to exclude these words. It just might take some practice before a presenter is ready to share this with a group. Need for preparation aside, however, this would be a good choice for an elementary school read-aloud, or for a small group of attentive preschoolers. It suits a rain theme (one of my favorites), as well as a sound theme, or a water theme. The repeated "Tap TAP BOOM BOOM" refrain also lends itself well to audience participation. The kids can say the refrain when prompted, and/or do simple hand gestures along with it. The ending - where a rainbow appears - is a predictable cliche, but it will only annoy adults, not kids.

Reader’s Advisory

Tap Tap Boom Boom will certainly appeal to teachers who do a weather unit, but they might need a little guidance in order to find it, since the title sounds like it could be a construction book. It's also a good opportunity for learning about onomatopoeia and for learning how to interpret simple poetry. Read-alikes include BOOM!: Big, Big Thunder & One Small Dog by Mary Lyn Ray, Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey, and The Storm Book by Charlotte Zolotow.

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