Henry Huggins

by Beverly Cleary
First sentence: ”
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Content: It’s really simply written; it could easily be a beginning chapter book these days. It’s in our classic chapter book section.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

I realized last year, when doing my kids summer book club, that part of what drew people to it was the chance to revisit books the parents loved as a kid, and to share them with their kids. So, I decided to revisit one of my favorite authors this year: Beverly Cleary.

Now, I say she was one of my favorite authors, but in all honesty, the only books I ever read by her were the Ramona ones, which I adored. I think my brothers may have read some of the others, but I didn’t. So, I consciously picked the books I hadn’t read for this group. (I missed the Beezus and Ramona week. I am going to have to reread that one on my own time!)

Henry Huggins is living a boring life. That is, until a stray dog finds him. And then, all of a sudden, Henry’s life becomes SO much more adventuresome.

Some  thoughts:

  • It’s very dated. I could tell it was written in the 1950s, not just because of the references (like a bus ride being a nickel, etc.) but because of the attitudes. And that sometimes grated on me. (Like Henry’s disdain of the class play. Get over yourself; it’s not that bad.)
  • The kids at the book group liked it, for the most part. Mostly they liked the dog. I agree. The dog was the best part.
  • It was REALLY simple. If it came out today, it’d be put in the beginning chapter book section. I don’t know if Cleary meant it to be for the 7-9 year olds, or if children’s publishing has gotten more sophisticated. Either way, both I and the kids in the book group noticed.
  • The lack of over-arching plot was also noticeable. I liked the vignettes with Henry and Ribsy, but I also missed a plot with conflict, rather than just a series of events happening.
  • I think the ending was sad, but that’s just me.

I’m glad I took the time to read this one, even if it’s not my favorite.

Real Friends

by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
First sentence:
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s a pretty frank look at friendship and anxiety, and there are some uncomfortable parts. That said, it’s pretty great for 4-6th graders. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I knew, before I even read this, that this was going to be good. It’s Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham, after all. It’s not that they can do no wrong, just varying shades of right.

So, even though this is Shannon’s story (of sorts) of her elementary school years, of trying to figure out friendships and make a space for her in this world, of the ups and downs of anxiety and bullying (both an older sister who was somewhat abusive and with girls at school), this is a story for everyone, really. As the oldest in the family, I found myself focusing in on the older sister character, wondering how my younger siblings saw me. The mother in me wanted to give Shannon a hug and protect her from the awful, even though I know that I can’t. And, yeah, I cried.

Part of the reason I read this (I would have anyway!) is because I had school visits (and a small author event) scheduled with Shannon and LeUyen. And at the small author luncheon, they said something interesting: how this story, maybe because it’s so specific to Shannon, is universal. LeUyen found herself in it, even though her family were Vietnamese immigrants in California and not white Mormons in Utah. And there is a lot of truth to that. Shannon also mentioned that there’s a built-in happy ending: she, obviously, has turned out okay. She is happy, she is healthy, she has friends and a successful career. And, she said, that’s a message of hope to kids: you can, in fact, make it through.

I’ve passed it on to K, who loved it. And to C, who has been going through a rough patch of her own. And I do want to give this to every 4-6th grader I know.

As an aside: Shannon and LeUyen are as fantastic and delightful as I thought they would be.  It was wonderful being able to share them with kids and adults here.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World

squirrelgirlby Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
First sentence: “Doreen Green liked her name.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher
Release date: February 7, 2017
Content: There’s a bit of violence, but it’s mostly cartoonish. There are some complicated words and it’s a bit long for younger readers, but the chapters are short and action-packed and I think reluctant readers will take to it. It will be in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to 6-7th graders as well.

Doreen Green was born with the abilities (and tail) of a squirrel. For her her whole life (all 14 years of it) she’s been home schooled and told to keep her abilities secret. But she and her parents have recently moved to the suburbs in New Jersey, and there are Things that need to be Done, and can only be done by a superhero. And it looks like that Dorreen, with the help of her new BFFAEAE (best fried forever and ever and ever) Ana Sofia and the local squirrel contingent, is the hero her town needs.

I have to admit that it took me a bit to get into the feel of this book. I generally like the Hales’ sense of humor, but for some reason this one felt a bit too over the top for me. But, I settled into it (also: not really the target audience), and they had me laughing by the end. (I especially liked the text conversations with Rocket Raccoon.) I liked that Doreen’s parents were basically good people, and understood the need to get out of their daughter’s way. And even though the book started out slow, it finished exciting.

A lot of fun!

Reread: A Hat Full of Sky

hatfullofskyby Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “The Nac Mac Feegle are the most dangerous of the fairy races, particularly when drunk.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s a bit complex, story-wise for the younger set, but would make a great read-aloud for ages 8 and up. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.
Others in the series: The Wee Free Men

Of course when you read The Wee Free Men, you have to follow it up with reading the rest of the series. I’ve read and reviewed this once before, nearly 8 years ago, and I don’t have much else to add. Except that much of what I remember about Tiffany Aching and this series comes from this book. The bit about being afraid of depths. The definition of what a witch is. The encounter with Death. It’s all here. This is the one (aside from the Nac Mac Feegle, which really shine in the first book) that has stayed with me all these years.

Which makes me wonder: what will I think of the others this time around?

The Matchstick Castle

matchstickby Keif Graff
First sentence: “It was supposed to be the perfect summer.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s a whole lot of silly, and there are some big words, but I’d give it to a precocious 3rd grader and up. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Brian has a good life in Boston. Friends, his family (consisting of Dad and two older brothers), soccer. Then this summer comes along and his dad gets an opportunity to go to Antarctica to look through this awesome telescope (which probably had something to do with his job, but I was never quite sure), and takes it. Brian’s older brothers can either stay with friends or are old enough to stay home alone, but Brian is farmed out to his Uncle and Aunt’s house… in Boring, Illinois. (At least it’s not Ohio or Kansas).

Brian and his cousin Nora are in for the most Boring of Boring summers: Uncle Gary is developing educational software and needs beta testers. He’s obsessively strict about it: “school” starts at 8:45 and goes until 4, and the kids aren’t allowed to leave the yard. (UGH.) But Brian breaks the rules and goes exploring in the woods and finds… this awesomely weird and crazy house with an awesomely weird and crazy kid, Cosmo, with his awesomely weird and crzy family He drags Nora into it (after there’s some grounding and a lot of lying on the part of the kids), and they end up having a couple of Adventures as they search for Cosmo’s missing uncle (turns out he was in the house) and fight against Boring’s Bureaucracy that wants to knock the house — the titular Matchstick Castle — down.

I liked that it was just weird and crazy and not Magical; everything unusual that happened had a rational, realistic explanation while still seeming fantastical.  It did have an old-fashioned feel (it’s interesting to see how authors get around the Modern Dilemma of hovering parents and technology; in fact, one of my favorite bits was the weird and crazy family interacting with computers, which they have avoided for lo these many years) to it, which was fun.

But, I wasn’t super wowed by it either. Uncle Gary was such a caricature of overbearing parents that it was silly. And, aside from Nora, there wasn’t any girls in it at all. (Well, Cosmo’s mom does make an appearance, and Nora does have a mom who kind of hovers in the background). And, honestly, Nora doesn’t do all that much, either. Which was disappointing.

It was fun enough, though, even if it wasn’t brilliant.

Ms. Marvel: Super Famous

msmarvelby G. Willow Wilson, Takeshi Miyazawa, Adrian Alphona, Nico Leon
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Volume 1, Volume 2
Content: There’s some violence, and there are a few more mature themes, but K is interested in this one and I’d let her read them. It’s in the Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

Kamala has a problem. She’s been invited to be a part of the Avengers (not the problem), but between that, school, and home commitments, it’s getting harder and harder to stay on top of things. And so, she doesn’t notice at first when her face appears on the billboard touting a new development in her neighborhood. It’s nothing she signed off on, but it turns out that the development not only plans on destroying her neighborhood, but also is brainwashing all of its tenants. And, with Bruno’s help, hopefully she’ll be able to stop the developers.

That’s the better of the two stories in this latest Ms. Marvel, though the second story (about some clones that Bruno and Kamala make in order to help her get to all of her commitments) isn’t as strong, it does have one of my favorite moments, when Kamala realizes that she can’t do It All. The art — even though I still don’t like the switch between artists and prefer Miyazawa’s rendition best — is fantastic, and I love that the people are really realistically portrayed and diverse!

This series is SO good.

Fish Girl

fishgirlby David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: March 7, 2017
Content: It’s a simple graphic novel, but it has dark undertones. Probably not for the super sensitive souls. It will be in our middle grade graphic novel section.

I usually don’t write about books this far in advance, but the end of the year is nigh, and I couldn’t wait for this one.

I didn’t know I needed a graphic novel from David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli, but this book is a gift. The story is simple: a mermaid living in an aquarium with the fish and her octopus friend, run by the person she believes to be her only family, Neptune. Then she meets a girl, Livia, who — by the fact of her friendship, by some simple questions  — expands the mermaid’s world.

But it’s more than that.  There’s a dark underbelly, as the mermaid — dubbed Mira by Livia — becomes brave enough to explore her world and as she realizes what Neptune has done. There’s themes of friendship and choice and standing up for oneself running through the book, themes that aren’t heavy-handed, but rather subtly employed throughout for those who are looking for them. Napoli is a master writer, and Weisner speaks volumes with his gorgeous (and often fantastical) watercolor drawings.

I didn’t know that a Weisner/Napoli graphic novel was something I wanted in life. Now, I can only hope they team up for another.