March 16, 2019 § 4 Comments
My daughter received a bigger, bolder, faster bike for Christmas—and her enthusiasm to break it in is matched only by her despair that it only ever seems to rain or snow. As she waits for spring to spring, she has been making do with living vicariously through the heroine of the middle-grade novel, The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle (Ages 9-12), by Christina Uss, which I just finished reading to her. The speed with which we tore through this quirky, funny, heartfelt story—about an unconventional twelve year old, who bicycles by herself from Washington, DC to San Francisco in an effort to prove something to the adults in her life—is a testament to the appeal of the open road. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 14, 2015 § 4 Comments
There’s an undeniable thrill that comes from binge reading a series that has already been published in its entirety. But it can be equally exciting to read through a series in real time, anticipating the next installment for months, then rediscovering characters like old friends. One of our family’s greatest literary pleasures over the past 18 months has been the Three-Ring Rascals series (Ages 7-11, younger if reading aloud), by sister duo Kate Klise (author) and M. Sarah Klise (illustrator). Perhaps you heard our squeals a few weeks ago, when my kids and I walked into our local bookstore and discovered that the fourth installment, Pop Goes the Circus!, was out (with still more on the way!).
What has made this early-chapter book series such a joy in our house is that it has been enjoyed equally and together by my four and seven year old. In fact, it hits every criteria on my Must-Find-Chapter-Book-That-Appeals-to-Both-Hooligans agenda.
As far as early-chapter book series go, Three-Ring Rascals is a big step up in reading level from, say, the ever-popular The Princess in Black—and a smaller step up from another of my favorites, the Arnie the Doughnut series. The lengthy text, challenging vocabulary, and frequent word play make it suited for the most enthusiastic early readers. At the same time, the layout, broken up on every page by contagiously charming black-and-white sketches and speech bubbles, make it equally ideal for the so-called “reluctant” reader. When we first started the series, my son was a budding reader, and we quickly fell into a groove where I would read the main text alone, and he and I would read the speech bubbles together. “It’s like we’re putting on a play!” he announced jubilantly one night.
The best part, especially for those looking for chapter books suited to a pre-reading audience, is that this series reads aloud beautifully. If that doesn’t sound unusual, then you have not tried reading aloud other early-chapter series, like The Magic Tree House. Don’t get me wrong: The Magic Tree House books are perfect for developing readers to enjoy on their own—their fast-paced chapters of time-traveling adventures are highly effective at igniting a love for reading—but God help the parent that tries to stay awake while reading such exclusively plot-driven material.
Allow me to liberate you. Never for one minute think that it is your job to read aloud prose that doesn’t sing, that doesn’t impress you with its inventiveness, that doesn’t cut to the heart of what life should be about, that doesn’t keep you on the edge of your seat or have you erupting in giggles alongside your children. And this, my fellow parents, is exactly what Three-Ring Rascals does.
Three Ring-Rascals is equal parts sweetness and silliness. But don’t be fooled: lurking beneath the glitzy surface are substantial lessons about kindness, loyalty, and forgiveness.
The series is about the (mis)adventures of an eccentric, lovable troupe of circus performers—some animal, some human—under the care of a benevolent old man named Sir Sidney (who longs to retire to his private peanut farm). In the opener, The Show Must Go On! (Book One), we are introduced to an insidious scam artist named Barnabas Brambles (a.k.a. “Big Mean Baddie”), to whom Sir Sidney misguidedly entrusts the operations of his circus. Blinded by greed, Brambles attempts to over-schedule performances and mistreat the animals. As it does in all the books, the cleverness of the animals ultimately wins out, and the story ends with Brambles a reformed and repentant character, now sincerely dedicated to the welfare of the circus.
In The Greatest Star on Earth (Book Two), the peace and harmony of circus life is again compromised, this time by a competition staged by local reporter Polly Pumpkinseed, in which Sir Sidney’s performers try to “out-do” one another (with disastrous results), in an effort to be crowned the “greatest star on earth.” It takes Barnabas Brambles, acting under the tutelage of a pair of wise mice, to show the group that they each play an integral role in making the circus a success. (Everyone just needs to chill out.)
In The Circus Goes to Sea (Book Three), the performers try their hand aboard the S.S. Spaghetti, where they end up saving the cruise ship from sinking (using a giant meatball), while simultaneously befriending the lonely daughter of the ship’s single-mother captain. By the book’s end, the skeptical, unyielding Captain LaPasta falls in love, not just with the unpredictable circus troupe, but with Barnabas Brambles himself (cue wedding bells!).
If the third book ends with a wedding, the fourth and newest, Pop Goes the Circus! (Book Four) (which we devoured so quickly we immediately had to start it again), ends with a funeral for someone who isn’t dead. If that sounds bizarre, it is—but only in the irresistibly quirky way that this author-illustrator duo can so seamlessly pull off (their older-reader series, 43 Old Cemetery Road, really showcases their fondness for the macabre). You see, when circus mouse Bert gets carried off by a helium balloon in the book’s early pages, what else are his friends supposed to believe if not the worst? We alone are privy to Bert’s runaway adventures, involving robbers, ventriloquists, and a reunion with the third book’s young heroine, Flora Endora Eliza LaBuena LaPasta (say that five times fast). Of course, all is well that ends well, and Bert finds his way back to the circus just in time to turn his funeral into a popcorn-tastic homecoming party.
With any of these four books, it’s downright impossible on a first reading to grasp every detail embedded on the pages, from the main text to the accompanying graphics (things like ticket stubs, newspaper clippings, text messages, recipes, and song lyrics). Luckily, you won’t mind reading each book a second or third or fourth time, because it’s absurdly good entertainment. Find me another story where a circus train gets stuck atop the St. Louis Arch for a week. Where words like “worried” and “nervous” come together to make “worvous.” And yet, one thing that this series unquestionably shares with so many of the Greats is that good and true hearts always prevail in the end.
Sure, go ahead, wait for number five to be published (it will be titled Secrets of the Circus); wait for any more that might be coming down the pike; and then sit down with your kids and read each book back to back. Personally, that’s not my style. When something is this good, the kids and I just have to jump in before knowing how it all turns out. We might be pulling our hair out for months in between, but that might be the telltale sign of a Perfect Read-Aloud Chapter Book.
Other Favorite Early-Chapter Series That Make Engaging Read-Alouds:
Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett (read my post here)
Toys Go Out and sequels, by Emily Jenkins
Dory Fantasmagory, by Abby Hanlon (the equally awesome sequel comes out this July, woo hoo, read my post about the first one here)
Lulu and the Brontosaurus and sequels, by Judith Viorst & Lane Smith
Mercy Watson to the Rescue and sequels, by Kate DiCamillo & Chris Van Dusen
The Princess in Black, by Shannon Hale & LeUyen Pham (the highly-anticipated sequel comes out in October, read my post about the first one here)
The Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut: Bowling Alley Bandit and sequels, by Laurie Keller (read my post here)
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December 19, 2013 § 5 Comments
Many of us remember the first novels we read, the ones that instilled in us a love of reading (off the top of my head: A Secret Garden, A Wrinkle in Time, anything written by Ruth Chew…). Earlier this year, the prolific writer, Neil Gaiman, wrote a beautiful defense of fiction, which I absolutely love. Fiction, he claims, is not only our best entry into literacy (the what-will-happen-next phenomenon being utterly addictive), but it teaches, above all, the power of empathy:
“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people in it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”
I’ve thought a lot about Gaiman’s words, as my six year old and I have been devouring some of the year’s newest chapter books. I’m hoping some of our favorites will find a way into your bedtime routines as well, beginning with Gaiman’s newest novel, Fortunately, the Milk (Ages 7-10, younger if reading aloud). This fantastically over-the-top book begs to be read aloud and is itself a kind of commentary on the power of storytelling. In an attempt to entertain his rambunctious children during their mother’s business trip, a father spins a fantastical tall tale (think pirates, piranhas, aliens, and singing dinosaurs all in the same breathlessly-paced story) about what happens when he goes to the store for a simple carton of milk. This story, along with the others discussed below, would be gift-worthy in their own right; but all three books benefit from the bonus of illustration. Like the energetic pen-and-ink sketches that Skottie Young did for Fortunately, the Milk, art makes these chapter books accessible to a younger audience (like my JP), while still introducing the child to mature subjects and a rich vocabulary. These books are a gateway, not only to the imagination but—as Gaiman so eloquently reminds us—to opening up our children’s eyes to different perspectives. They take us back in time. They take us around the world. They let us see the world through the eyes of others, be it ambitious mice or misunderstood yetis.
In Richard Peck’s The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail (Ages 9-12, younger if reading aloud), we travel back in history to Queen Victoria’s London, where we are privy not only to the happenings in Buckingham Palace, but also (and most importantly) to Britain’s underground world: a parallel society of mice, engaged in their own hierarchy of power and bound to the same traditions as the British humans surrounding them. Peck is no stranger to fantasy (nor to writing about mice—check out last year’s Secrets at Sea), and his brilliance lies in the sheer detail with which he constructs his imaginative worlds. Consider a world whose very existence is so secretive that you have to hide your intelligence, your ability to speak—heck, you even have to shed your clothes—each time you’re in the presence of a human. At the heart of the story is a young mouse, adopted as a baby, who runs away to find out the truth about himself and his heritage. Amidst harrowing adventures with cats, bats, punch bowls, and the Yeomice of the Guard, our protagonist discovers, not only his courage and intelligence, but also that he’s next in line to the throne! Like any great fantasy, no matter how strange or comical the situations (and some of these had JP and I in stitches), the feelings of the characters are deeply familiar to the reader. “Squeak up,” our young hero is constantly told—only it’s hard to be brave when you’re just a tiny creature living in an adult-centric world! A few months ago, when I was nearly finished reading the book to JP, my husband took a business trip to London. One night he called and asked to be put on speakerphone. “I ran by the Mews this morning! They’re right where the book says they are!” (The Mews are the stables for Buckingham Palace and the place where much of the mice action takes place.) I watched JP’s eyes grow wide like saucers. Later, as I was tucking him into bed, he said: “It really could have happened, you know. I mean, Mommy, if we can’t see the mice, we don’t really know for sure that they aren’t doing those things.” Who can argue with that?
One definitely can’t argue with the convincing premise of Eva Ibbotson’s The Abominables (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), which reveals yetis as some of the kindest, most compassionate, most smiley creatures on earth—and not, in fact, the terrifying, child-eating monsters that most humans assume they are. So when the tourist industry threatens to encroach upon a family of yetis living peacefully in a secret valley of the Himalayas, two human children take it into their hands to smuggle the yetis across Asia and Europe (readers can track their progress on the map inside the cover) to a safer life in Jolly Old England. (For those who don’t know, the late Ibbotson was a hugely successful British children’s author—but one whom I’d not read until now. After reading this extraordinary book, which was published posthumously this year, I must read everything she wrote!) While the children, along with the help of an accomplice “lorry” driver, are the ones transporting the abominable snowmen across continents in a giant crate, it is the big-hearted yetis that emerge the real heroes of the book, offering valuable life lessons at every turn. We are gently schooled on animal rights, on caring for the environment, and on never turning your back on someone who needs help. At times, the outcry against animal cruelty reminded me of the incredibly moving but deeply sad 2013 Newberry-Award winner, The One and Only Ivan (I think I cried for a week). Better suited for a younger audience, The Abominables managed to keep JP and I smiling amidst its powerful message. After all, there is something infinitely charming about enormous, fur-covered creatures, whose faces sport horns and whose toes point backwards, trying to navigate the human world: apologizing to the plants they eat, powdering their faces in hotel suites, or asking to hear another story about “that bear called Winnie” (a.k.a. Winnie the Pooh). But I think what impressed me most about this story is its profound insistence that, quite often, life’s Most Important Work is done by children. It’s children, after all, who possess the innate ability to see past differences, to find hope in the most unlikely places, and to keep on trying against all odds to get their way. Sometimes, it drives us batty. But sometimes, it actually makes the world a better place.
August 1, 2012 § 1 Comment
As previously noted, we recently spent a week on the Canadian side of Lake Erie, where the beach isn’t exactly the soft white expanse of the Caribbean. But there’s an as-of-yet-unmentioned benefit to such dark, coarse, and oily sand if you’re an almost five-year-old boy: when wet, it bears a striking resemblance to poop. Cue hours of enjoyment for my son, and lots of averted trying-to-seem-oblivious glances from me. It never mattered how things began (“Mommy, I’m building a series of canals!”), they always ended at poop (“Mommy, now these canals are full of POOP!”) During the 10 hour drive home at the end of the week, I had a revelation: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Or rather, how could I direct this obsession into something educational? I decided to get my hands on The Truth About Poop, by Susan E. Goodman (Ages 5-10), a mature picture-chapter book packed with biological, zoological, historical, and geographical facts about, yes, poop. There have actually been quite a few expertly executed books on this topic over the past 10 years, and they were always big hits at my shop (“You’re telling me your seven-year-old son isn’t interested in reading? Have you tried giving him a book about poop?”). I figured it was high time to bring one home for JP. And since then–well, let’s just say that my husband and I have actually been fighting over who gets to put JP to bed, because neither of us wants to miss a page of this positively riveting book. Wide eyed and at rapt attention, JP listens as we read chapters like “History of the Toilet,” “The World Before Toilet Paper” (gasp!), “Where Does It Go,” “Waste in Space,” “Useful Poop,” and “Poop as Food” (I dare you to read this last one without uttering “Gross!” at least three times). With a book that’s so jam packed with information, I find it both interesting and amusing to note what sticks in my little guy’s head: the sloth that only poops once a week has left a lasting impression on him, as has the Pilgrims’ use of corn cobs to wipe their bottoms (good timing, with it being corn season and all). Personally, I find the annual Moose Dropping Festival in Alaska a tad disturbing. And then there’s my husband, who is utterly perplexed by the following claim: “on average, people produce about an ounce of poop for each 12 pounds of body weight”; by that calculation, our son should weigh the same as a NFL linebacker! When it comes right down to it, I guess our guy just has poop on the brain. But thanks to this book, he now has the making of a scientist!
Other Favorite Fact-Filled Books About Poop:
Get the Scoop on Animal Poop, by Dawn Cusick (Ages 5-10)
Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable, by Nicola Davies & Neal Layton (Ages 5-10)
Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up, by Sarah Albee & Robert Leighton (Ages 8-12)