Gift Guide 2018: An Early Reader to Celebrate

December 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

For the next few weeks (or until I keel over), I’ll be running a series of daily mini-posts, each highlighting a different book from 2018 which I love, which has mad gift potential, and which I have not had occasion to write about…yet. A range of ages and interests and formats. Be sure to subscribe with your email address if you want to be guaranteed to see each one. Otherwise, take your chances on Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) or Twitter (@thebookmommy); I kindly implore you to “like” as many posts as you can to increase the chances that others see them.

“EVERY SINGLE EARLY READER BOOK IS BORING! NOT ONE OF THEM IS FUNNY!” my daughter blurted out in the middle of a (completely unrelated) dinner conversation two years ago. For months, she had been reluctant to practice reading and even more reluctant to talk about her reluctance. (True story: it wasn’t until her soul sister, Dory Fantasmagory, started going through a similar struggle that my Emily began to find words for hers.)

Never underestimate the power of humor to captivate a budding reader. I credit Mo Willems’ “Elephant and Piggie” series with kindling my older son’s desire to learn to read, but its seduction was largely lost on my daughter, who by the time it was her turn had been hearing those books read aloud (by her brother) for years. Thankfully, Willems went on to create an imprint of similarly-toned readers; and funny, offbeat stories by the likes of Laurie Keller, Charise Mericle Harper, and Dan Santat did bring a novel respite to my daughter’s gripes.

When I received a copy of Sergio Ruzzier’s Fox and Chick: The Party and Other Stories (Ages 5-7) earlier this year, my daughter—now a mature and prolific reader—snatched it up and announced, “Where was this book when I was learning to read? Mommy, do you remember how I told you there were NO funny early readers?” Yes, honey. Yes, I do.

As an early reader masquerading as a picture book, Fox and Chick has just about everything going for it: three short stories are illustrated as comic strips with occasional double-page spreads; the text is delivered entirely through speech bubbles; the vocabulary is largely phonetic; there’s sufficient repetition; and, best of all, it’s ripe with dry humor. (I would recommend it for a child who has been learning to read for a little while, but isn’t ready to move into early chapter books.) It also stars a pair of anthropomorphized animals every bit as quirky and different from one another as some of children’s literature most memorable duos (after all, before there were Elephant and Piggie, there were Frog and Toad and George and Martha).

The first story, “The Party,” serves as a perfect introduction to Fox and Chick’s personalities, best showcased when played off one another. Fox—restrained, meticulous, and borderline cantankerous—is less than thrilled when his book reading is interrupted by Chick’s incessant knocking. Chick—exuberant, impulsive, and stater of the obvious (“How can you be reading that book if you are talking to me?”)—is merely asking if he can use the bathroom. “Of course you may.” “Thank you, Fox. Very kind of you.”

Fox attempts to lose himself in his reading once again, though he can’t help but notice the ticking of the clock: Chick has been in the bathroom for some time. “Chick, are you okay?…Chick, I am coming in!” Fox is horrified by the chaos he finds on the other side of the door. It turns out “May I use your bathroom?” meant “May I use your bathroom to have a party with my friends?” “In my bathroom?!” roars Fox. Chick responds, “Oh, I see…,” and he and his pals quickly exit stage left.

Though he may play the part of the party pooper, later stories reveal Fox has a wonderfully droll sense of humor. My favorite story has to be “Good Soup,” where Chick follows Fox around his garden as the latter collects vegetables for soup. Fox’s vegetarianism offends Chick’s world order. “Fox, foxes are supposed to eat field mice, not carrots!” To which Fox responds, “I don’t like to eat field mice.”

The more exotic the vegetable, the more adamant Chick’s protests become, until he walks himself straight into the trap which a clever reader will have been anticipating all along: “And they’re supposed to eat squirrels…lizards…and little birds.” “Little birds?” says Fox (is that a sly grin?). “Yes, Fox, little bir…Uh-oh.” Later, the two sit down to enjoy Fox’s soup. “I’m glad you don’t like to eat little birds, Fox.” To which Fox responds, “At least not today.”

If the success of series like Elephant and Piggie are any indication, there’s huge appeal in early reader texts that make use of conversational banter to tell their story. Kids like knowing that the hard-earned words coming out of their mouth have entertainment, even comedic, value. Now add in Ruzzier’s always charming, expressive illustrations, and I say, thank goodness Fox and Chick are only getting started.


Review copy by Chronicle Books. All opinions are my own. affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Sequel Roundup: From Rebels to Robots

November 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

"The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party" by Shannon & Dale HaleIs there anything sweeter than watching your child’s face light up like the Fourth of July when he or she discovers a sequel to a beloved book? I don’t typically devote much space on this blog to reviewing sequels, but the past weeks have delivered so many much-anticipated sequels (that is, much-anticipated in our house!), that I found myself lying awake the other night, worrying that perhaps you didn’t know about them. We need to change that.

Last month—cue high-pitched hysteria—saw the release of the sequel to Shannon Hale, Dean Hale, and LeUyen Pham’s wildly popular The Princess in Black. If I had a penny for every message I’ve received asking me to recommend an early chapter book as captivating as The Princess in Black, I would be a rich Book Mommy. Sadly, little comes close. PIB seems to have revolutionized the early chapter book market overnight (wait, an early reader can be this engrossing, this humorous, and this exquisitely illustrated?). I’m not ashamed to admit that I waited in line for hours to get an advance copy of the sequel last May.


In The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party (Ages 5-9), our rebel princess—prim and pink one minute and bad-ass superhero the next—is trying to enjoy her lavishly festive birthday party at the castle. Except that her monster alarm (via a glitter-stone ring) keeps going off, sending Princess Magnolia into a flurry of secret wardrobe changes and monster battles out in goat pastures, with the help of her unicorn-turned-stallion, Blackie. Fans of the first book will be delighted by the array of new monsters, as well as by the princess’s new moves (“Scepter Spank!” “Pasture Dash!” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Smash!”).

But the real draw here will be the introduction to Magnolia’s friends: a dazzling display of fellow princesses from around the world, each dressed in traditional clothing and riding on the backs of dragons, elephants, tigers, and the like. Can Princess Magnolia keep her friends entertained while successfully concealing her secret identity? More than one close encounter has us biting our nails.

"Arnie the Doughbut & The Spinny Icky Showdown" by Laurie KellerFrequent challenges also abound for our favorite talking doughnut—although that doesn’t stop him from putting his best (sprinkle-clad) foot forward. We may have had to wait almost two years for the publication of the third book in the pun-tastic, speech-bubble-bursting chapter series, Arnie the Doughnut, but there was never any doubt that Laurie Keller would deliver.

Following his (mis)adventures in the bowling alley and in outer space, our lovable heroic Arnie now tries his luck on the TV game show, The Spinny Icky Showdown (Ages 6-11), alongside his slice-of-pepperoni-pizza-BFF, Peezo. It’s not the giant obstacle course (modeled after Wipeout) that initially has the doughy duo nervous:  it’s their muscly fellow contestant and trash talker, Nick Pumpernickel (or, as he likes to refer to himself, the Pumperlicious Pumpernator). Through alliterative challenges, like the Pesky Pickle Pogo Stick, which positively beg to be read aloud, Arnie and Peezo ultimately realize that it takes more than sheer strength to come out on top. Not only that, but winning isn’t everything if it can’t be done with integrity.

"Frank Einstein and the Brain Turbo" by Jon Scieszka & Brian BiggsSpeaking of arch-nemeses, Jon Scieszka’s kid scientist Frank Einstein is back for the win against resident bully T. Edison, in not one but two sequels: Frank Einstein and the Electro-Finger and Frank Einstein and the Brain Turbo (Ages 10-14). As in the first installment, much of the science here continues to be over my head, but that didn’t stop my husband and son from having some serious bonding while reading these two newest titles aloud. In the words of the hubs: “it’s the perennial struggle between the Makers and the Takers, only in this case it’s a kid who’s trying to use science to make the world a better place, versus corporate greed that’s out for world domination.” (It’s possible this hits a little too close to home for him).

Of course, the two robots—self-assembled artificial intelligence entities Klink and Klank—in all their helpful unhelpfulness, don’t hurt the entertainment factor. It’s hard not to smile when reading the dialogue of robots. Electro-magnetism and neuroscience have never been more fun.

"Dory and the Real True Friend" by Abby HanonFinally, speaking of SHEER FUN, I feel like I need to point out ONE MORE TIME that the sequel to Abby Hanlon’s Dory Fantasmagory came out this past summer. What, you’re tired of my talking about Dory and the Real True Friend (Ages 5-8)? You think you’ve heard enough about children’s literature’s most imaginative, spirited, and endearing kindergartener to date? Well, I haven’t. My children haven’t. We’re still laughing ourselves silly over here.

After all, worthy sequels make us feel like there’s more joy just around the corner. And that’s what reading is all about.


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Review copy provided by Candlewick, Macmillan, Abrams, and Penguin, respectively. All opinions are my own. affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

New York City From Above & Below

October 15, 2015 § 3 Comments

"Lost in NYC" by Nadja SpiegelmanMy son and I just returned from one of our beloved fall traditions: a long weekend in New York City. I take sublime pleasure in watching JP fall deeper in love with the city of my childhood at every visit: soaking up the street sounds (“I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep without the horns and sirens,” he told me in all seriousness on the night we got home); quickening his walking pace to keep up with the most seasoned striders; and taking an active roll in navigating us through the city streets, both above and below ground.

This last point is in large part owing to two things: first, JP’s recent discovery of the NYC subway map; and secondly, his fondness for the Empire State Building, which we summitted on our previous trip to the city. When he is not rattling off the list of upcoming stops on an uptown train ride, he is looking around him on the street for the landmark against which to measure all landmarks.

We discovered this past weekend (thank you, Books of Wonder) that there is a new children’s book that marries JP’s love of the subway with the Empire State Building. I’m declaring it required reading for natives and tourists alike. Because get this: it is now MY FAVORITE NEW YORK BOOK OF ALL TIME.

Titled Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure (Ages 8-12), this gem is a Toon Graphics book, collaborated on by native New Yorker and children’s comics author, Nadja Spiegelman, and prominent European cartoonist, Sergio Garcia Sanchez. (There is also a Spanish edition.)

This book does what so many others have tried to do: to capture on paper the kinetic buzz of the Big Apple. The architecture, the crowds, the smells, the grit, the swarming sea of colors and patterns and faces—it’s all here. Sanchez’s art is packed with detail, endlessly fascinating, and worthy of repeated viewings. Exactly like the city itself.

Did I mention that the opening endpaper is a reproduction of the NYC subway map? JP and I traced our entire four days from start to finish on this thing. Multiple times.

"Lost in NYC" by Nadja Spiegelman

A quick word about the publishing imprint, Toon Graphics, in case you aren’t familiar with the groundbreaking work they’re doing in children’s books. Self-described as targeting “visual readers,” Toon originally started with short comic books for early readers (the Zig and Wikki titles, by the same author as Lost in NYC, were big hits with JP just last year). If you have an early reader, you owe it to yourself to get your kid’s hands on Levels 1-3 of the Toon readers.

While told through a similar comics lens, Lost in NYC is aimed at a slightly more mature reader. It’s also visually distinct, with a 8” by 10” cover, versus the 7” by 9” trim of the early readers. The story is simple enough: a school class is taking a field trip to the Empire State Building via subway. But the narrative is both layered with information and charged with emotion.

For starters, we’ve got the enthusiastic history lessons offered up by the teacher, a disheveled, middle-aged Nutty Professor type. He talks to his students about the Empire State Building (once the world’s tallest building), as well as about the NYC Subway System (once the world’s fastest, with express and local trains running side by side in an unprecedented four-track system). The book’s multi-paged Appendix is packed with more historic details on both subjects, including black-and-white photographs that my son poured over.

"Lost in NYC" by Nadja Spiegelman

Secondly, we’ve got the subway journey itself—originating in the Upper West Side, ending at East 34th Street, and connected via the Red Line. At least, that is the school’s agenda. As you’ve likely gleaned from the book’s title, things don’t go exactly as planned. And that’s where the emotional heart of the story comes into play.

Meet Pablo. It’s his first day at school. Pablo’s family has recently relocated to New York (when asked where he’s from, Pablo repeatedly insists, “Nowhere. My Dad moves a lot for his job.”)  Despite his parents’ effusive send-off, despite the teddy bear in his backpack, Pablo is doing his best to feign total indifference. He doesn’t care about his new school. He doesn’t care about making new friends (what’s the point, if you’re just going to move again?). He’s big on whatevers.

"Lost in NYC" by Nadja Spiegelman

When Pablo betrays his lack of familiarity with the New York subway system, eager red-haired Alicia is quick to take him under her wing. So much so that, once underground in the 96th street subway station, she steers him away from the group, towards the giant subway map on the wall—and then, in the subsequent chaos of trains arriving and crowds of people rushing by, they accidentally get on the WRONG TRAIN. They board the Express at the same time that the rest of their class is boarding the Local.

"Lost in NYC" by Nadja Spiegelman

Luckily, the lost kids know exactly what to do. Get off at the next stop. Only, oops, Pablo and Alicia get off at the next stop and then immediately jump on the Local, just as their frantic teacher is ushering the others off the Local and onto the Express.

Things quickly go from bad to worse, as Pablo and Alicia point fingers at one another and call names, as Alicia tries to get Pablo to admit that he’s lonely and Pablo tries to tell Alicia to bugger off—until, finally, Pablo jumps off the train at 42nd Street and boards a different train line all together, while Alicia begins running up and down Broadway Avenue searching for her lost classmate.

"Lost in NYC" by Nadja Spiegelman

It astonishes me that we can feel so much anxiety, suspense, sadness, and exasperation in a story told exclusively through speech bubbles. My heart breaks for the hurt that Pablo is repressing, for the goodness behind Alicia’s naivete, and for the true nightmarish ordeal in which they find themselves. All this is conveyed in the utter absence of narration.

Here’s the coolest part: ultimately, both kids need saving, but not in the way that they think. Pablo and Alicia prove to be super resourceful. They use maps, they ask for help, and they both find their way to the Empire State Building via completely different routes from each other and from their classmates. Which pretty much had JP convinced that New York City has the best Public Transportation System in the world (duh).

"Lost in NYC" by Nadja Spiegelman

And here’s the tissues-required ending: you’ve never seen two kids happier to see each other in the lobby of a building than Pablo and Alicia. When they both try to take the fall for the other in the face of their irate teacher, you know it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

"Lost in NYC" by Nadja Spiegelman

At least, the reunited class can board one of the Empire State Building’s 72 (!) elevators to the rooftop observation deck that overlooks the city. JP declared it super cool to read about something he has done (even if it was so windy while we were up there that he was convinced we were in the middle of a hurricane and that I was trying to kill him and so agreed to pose for only one fast selfie before running back inside).

"Lost in NYC" by Nadja Spiegelman

After all, you have to admit it’s a pretty great view of a pretty great city. Especially if you have someone special to share it with.


Another Favorite About the New York Subway System:
Subway Story, by Julia Sarcone-Roach (Ages 5-10)

Other great NYC-themed reading can be found at the end of this post.

Did you enjoy this post? Make sure you don’t miss any others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox each week.

All opinions are my own. affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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