Category Archives: Children’s Books

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Children can be cruel, especially middle school age kids. It’s the reason that most teachers choose to work at elementary or high school, they can’t deal with the angst involved with the hormonal surges of pre-teenagers. It takes a special breed to actually enjoy that age group, children who once they find a weakness in their peers have no qualms in exploiting that fact, whether real or imaginary. “Your nose is too big”, “Your hair is greasy”, “You’re too fat”, “You’re too thin”, “You smell”, You’re stupid”, “You’re smart” . . . Now imagine that you really do have a physical “abnormality” which is front and center and impossible to ignore? Wonder by R. J. Palacio explores the reaction of a private school community to August Pullman, a ten year old boy with a rare congenital defect which has distorted his facial features.

August was home schooled, both due to the recovery periods from his twenty seven surgeries and also to shield him from the reactions of his peers. However, by the time he was ready to start fifth grade, his mother wondered if it wasn’t time to consider a school setting, Beecher Prep, a private school in New York City with a “limited” population. August is leery, but he agrees to check it out. Three of his incoming classmates are chosen to show him around prior to the start of the school year. While Jack and Charlotte seem nice, Julian is outright nasty. After much discussion, August decides to give it a go. The whole experience is not an easy one, neither for August, his parents, or his older sister Olivia Pullman. The adjustment involves not just August, but his classmates, as everyone learns to deal with one another – a process fraught with tension, not just from the kids but also from some of the parents. It’s a time of growth for all, and August develops from a spoiled child into a self assured young man over the course of the year despite or perhaps because of the challenges thrown his way.

What I really liked about this well written, age appropriate children’s book (which should also be read by adults) is the narrative approach Palacio uses to tell August’s story. While it was Auggie’s tale to tell, his life also affected others so we get to hear the point of view of various events from his sister Via, her “best” girlfriend Miranda and boyfriend Justin, a couple of August’s friends – Jackalope and Summer, and even his nemesis – Julian Albany. While we mainly hear August’s voice, it was also important to get the perspective of the people who surrounded him.

Even if you go into this book feeling aloof, eventually the uplifting message grabs you and pulls at your heartstrings. While some might question the happy ending, remember that there was a lot of cruelty along the way. I can only imagine what a tear jerker the movie version evokes. I also appreciate how the educators were cast in a positive, supportive light – they even impart some knowledge on the reader. The additional chapter from Justin’s point of view is a good counterbalance with a surprise revelation which creates a positive outcome for all concerned. Although a little lengthy, it’s still a perfect book for fifth grade ELA! Five stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

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Diary of Anna the Girl Witch: Foundling Witch by Max Candee, illustrated by Raquel Barros

Of all the genres, the one which is the most difficult to master is the creation of a satisfying children’s book. Unfortunately, Max Candee, the Swedish author, has not quite found that sweet spot of success with his book, The Diary of Anna the Girl Witch: Foundling Witch. It’s not that his story is lacking since I enjoyed the engaging tale of the orphan Anna discovered as ammbabe amongst the Bears in Siberia by a kindly fur trapper. Upon reaching the age of six, her Uncle Mischa brings her to an orphanage in Switzerland and the story opens at the private boarding school which Anna attends due to a generous trust fund (gotta love those Swiss Bank accounts) that will provide her with the financial security necessary to support her on any quest which crosses her path. Add in some evil doers and the fact Anna has special powers, and you potentially have the start of something great.

The issue then is the delivery. Candee decided to create a book which is part diary, part first person narrative using simple text which doesn’t fit the age of the characters. Anna is an intelligent thirteen, not eight or even ten. In addition, children have become quite sophisticated in their reading material, note another book about witchcraft – Rowling’s Harry Potter series – which is a lot darker and more sophisticated than this story. Or examine the higher level of text in the malicious Series of Unfortunate Events. So the question is: “Who is the audience?” Not YA or even middle school, but perhaps those in the elementary grades (yet not too young). Despite the numerous kid friendly illustrations by Spanish artist Raquel Barros, which are a huge positive for this publication, this is definitely not a picture book.

Yet I’m sure this new series would please the average child especially if it were presented in a different format. Do away with the diary and narration, taking the exact same story, and change it into a graphic novel. Viola! Perfecto! The possibilities are endless. Barros is more than capable of extending her delightful drawings into a pictorial description of Anna’s adventures. The author has the imagination and talents to redraft this saga into something quite exceptional. Graphic novels are also a popular emerging genre, especially those written specifically for children, having already been embraced by middle and high school students. The Anna the Girl Witch series could be one of those ground breaking books which would delight a much broader audience.

Problem solved. So when Anna receives the bizarre gifts from her unknown mother on her thirteenth birthday and slowly discovers she is a witch with an affinity for the moon, we will visually experience her awe and power as she fights the lurking evil which threatens her friends at the school she attends. A female teen protagonist who saves the day is just the sort of role model young girls need to read about as a means of their own empowerment.

So there it is. Right story, great illustrations, wrong format.

A thank you to Netgalley and Helvetic House for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. Two and a half stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Timmy Failure: The Book You Are Not Supposed to Have By Stephan Pastis (Timmy Failure, #5)

Timmy Failure is a child detective, or he was until his mother forbad him to continue his agency, at least until the end of the school year. Who knew the teachers would go on strike and the school year would be extended with substitutes filling the vacancies. This all meant that Timmy would have to surreptitiously run his business and find another place to have his office so his mother doesn’t find out and ground him. He discovers the perfect location to run his operation after a visit to Home Despot – one of the sheds for sale in the store parking lot. Complications ensue – his partner is eating up the profits by snarfing down $1.00 hot dogs, his mother decides he needs piano lessons, his mode of transportation is a tricycle with a banner proclaiming “Bras For Sale”, he has to share a bedroom with two “loons” (his female cousins on a protracted visit), and his mom is getting married to Doorman Dave. When his best friend disappears and is presumed dead, Timmy must use his wiles to discover which of his many enemies did the deed. With the help of new assistant, Molly, Timmy goes undercover to examine each of the potential murderers.

Timmy Failure: The Book You Are Not Supposed to Have is the fifth book in the Timmy Failure series by Stephan Pastis, author of the syndicated cartoon Pearls Before Swine. This book is along the vein of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, not quite a graphic novel, but full of Pastis illustrations using his unique trademark style. There is quite a bit of subtle humor such as Timmy’s roly poly best friend whose last name is Tookus, and some not so subtle plot events where Timmy tears apart the orthodontist’s gift stuffed tooth looking for a microphone (Timmy dodges a bullet there because he is too young for braces). This book is sure to delight the middle schooler as they relate to Timmy’s misadventures and actions which can only be described as stupid or ridiculous. Timmy’s over the top behaviors and the adult responses to his actions are sure to tickle the funny bone of the typical preteen. However, as an adult, it was too many groans and “oh, no – you didn’t” responses to find the plot of this book truly enjoyable. I guess there is a tipping point for some where childish humor is no longer appreciated. Of course, there are many who love this sort of ridiculousness at any age and those are the fans who need to read this series.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley for a copy of this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Sandwich Thief by Andre Marois, illustrated by Patrick Doyon

Marin has a problem, the special sandwiches his mom puts in his school lunchbox have gone missing. Besides going hungry in the cafeteria, he is angry that someone has invaded his personal property, but who to blame. He looks at each of his classmates determining the likely suspects. There are many, but the next day when he rigs his lunchbox with a bell, his school chums are all sitting in the classroom when the culprit strikes once again. Marin then starts suspecting one of the adults, even the haggard principal who promises to get to the bottom of the matter. Finally he tells his parents about his dilemma, and mom, famous for her homemade mayonnaise and unusual sandwich fixings, decides to boobytrap the next lunchtime treat. Chemistry set in hand she creates a combo sure to locate the guilty party. The suspect, caught in the middle of his dastardly deed, is taken off to receive the proper punishment, after rinsing out a mouthful of, shall we say, not very appetizing tastes. Marin, now a hero, can once again enjoy his hand crafted lunches in peace.

The Sandwich Thief by Andre Marois had potential, but fell short. Instead of a cute little tale, it was an angry accusatory story which portrayed all the characters in a less than positive light. Cliched stereotypes included Poor Cindy who was poverty stricken and Big Bobby who never saw a snack he didn’t like. The adults were less than admirable, included the messy, overworked principal (another suspect) who ate less than appetizing store-bought items for his lunch (which he generously offered to Marin to compensate for his missing food). Part of the problem were the illustrations by Patrick Doyon. Despite Doyon’s talent as an artist, his drawings were in a simplistic, comic book style instead of being cute and endearing. Some of the adults were actually kind of scary looking in a Frankenstein sort of way. Perhaps it’s the fact that both author and illustrator are from Montreal, Canada and this “picture book” was originally written in French, only recently being translated into English. While heralded as an early reading book, the vocabulary is not “kid-friendly” for that age group, and despite the numerous illustrations, it is too long to be considered a picture book. It actually would appeal better to the middle school crowd who are already distrustful of adults and would find Marois’ attempts at humor more appealing. Perhaps the author wanted to emulate the Wimpy Kid series, but unfortunately it just didn’t capture the appeal of Jeff Kinney’s works.

Since I didn’t like the portrayal of characters or the entire tone of the story, I am tempted to give this book a rating of one and a half, but I’m sure there are some who will appreciate the warped humor so I reluctantly rate this two stars.

This ARC was received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Seven Dead Pirates by Linda Bailey

An unusual coming of age story where eleven year old Lewis Dearborn is forced to develop an inner strength in order to deal with seven very lively and very dead ghostly pirates. These seven mates are the legacy from his great grandfather who grew too old to assist them with their mission of retaking the ship on display at the local maritime museum and sailing to Libertalia, a utopia for pirates. Once great grandpa dies, the family inherits the old ramshackle Shornoway, and Lewis takes over the tower room overlooking the sea which houses the seven trespassing ghosts. Now it’s up to Lewis to find a way to deal with this motley bunch. Yet Lewis has troubles of his own. His shyness makes him the target of the class bully. He is also embarrassed by his parents and scared to speak up in class. By remaining mute, he becomes a further magnet for ridicule by his classmates. When new girl, Anna, shows up in class, Lewis expects her to receive the same treatment, but surprisingly, she is accepted despite her odd behaviors. Unlike the others, Anna reaches out to Lewis who finally has someone with whom he can share his secrets, bizarre as they may be. With the help of the pirates as well as his new found friendship, Lewis discovers an inner courage and a sense of adventure hidden behind his fear of life.

Seven Dead Pirates by Linda Bailey stretches the realms of reality, especially in the book’s conclusion, but since this is a ghost tale, all scientific principles are suspended. The reader roots for Lewis and laughs at the misadventures of his pirate friends. The old historic house from the mid 1800’s along the East Coast is a perfect setting for a “spirited” tale. Middle schoolers will love this adventure, perfect for those hard to please tween boys. 4 stars.

And a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.