I adore the work of Brian Selznick. If you and your kids haven’t read The Invention of Hugo Cabret or Wonderstruck, stop what you’re doing immediately and head to the library.
In my library classes, reading about Hugo and his automaton is a rite of passage. I’ve read it to every third grade class I’ve taught since it was published in 2007. I’ve read The Houdini Boxand The Boy of a Thousand Facesto various classes. I’ve given Wonderstruckas a gift, to friends and students. I keep an eye out for The Robot Kingin every used bookstore (somehow discovering it seems more appropriate than buying it used from Amazon). Sometimes my students rush up to me with the library’s copies of Ann M. Martin’s The Doll Peopleseries or Andrew Clements’ Frindleand excitedly show me who the illustrator was. His work speaks to me dearly, and I love sharing it with kids.
So when Scholastic invited me to a special preview of his newest illustrated novel, The Marvels, it was like being asked to prom. It’s been four years since Mr. Selznick’s last book (Wonderstruck), and I couldn’t wait.
The Marvels is about several generations in a family of London actors, and it is also about a house. Mr. Selznick gave an emotional presentation on his inspirations for the book (including the splendid Dennis Severs’ House). He showed us the first 60 or so pages, all illustrations, which had the entire audience at New York City’s Hudson Theatre in tears.
Mr. Selznick walked us through his process, including photos from the 3 months he and his husband lived in London doing research for this book. He showed us the thumbnail drawings he did for the book before moving on to the full-size illustrations. Which is, in itself, the most incredible thing to see.
He explained that there were hundreds more illustrations, followed by 200 pages of written text. He signed some ARCs of the book, and he also had a surprise for us: small versions of the book’s illustrations put together from all of those thumbnails.
It’s his most ambitious book, and I think it will be his most beautiful. It’s next on my to-read pile, and I’ll be writing a review of it for the book’s release on September 15.
GeekMom received an advanced reader copy of The Marvels.
My son is always asking if we can read stories on the iPad. I personally prefer the look and feel of an actual book, but the digital format gives us the opportunity to sample a lot of really good bedtime adventures.
Recently, I got to peek at a pair of bedtime stories that specifically deal with the moon—but in two very different ways, by different authors. Justin Gloe’s Little and the Moon and Bella Woodfield’s The Girl and the Moon are short, sweet stories designed for young adventurers right before they blast off to dreamland.
Even better, both of these books were self-published, via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform for eBooks and CreateSpace for the print. It’s nice to be able to explore new these stories, all while supporting someone else’s dream.
Little and the Moon is a short story about Little, a tabbit who lives a lonely life and longs for a friend to share adventures with. Apparently, a tabbit is a little creature that lives in the forest, and was a something inspired by Gloe’s rural Missouri upbringing. The artwork is cute and the story is even cuter, as Little goes about his travels. It’s short, but just the right amount of time for a bedtime story. Even better, the outcome should leave your little with a big smile right before bedtime.
Even shorter, The Girl and the Moon follows one girl’s quest to find out what the moon would taste like. It’s an interesting plotline, but how “feet” isn’t an option, I don’t know. The story involves the girl trying various ways to reach the moon, in search of a little sample. This one has a bit more color, but just a few words per page. It’s not exactly Goodnight Moon and won’t be very satisfying if it’s the only story in your bedtime routine. That said, it’s a cute concept and a quick, fun read.
Both of the above books are fictional, so don’t expect to end the night on an educational note. We especially loved Little and the Moon, because of the style, length, and the creative main character. The Girl and the Moon would be best for a beginner reader, although it’s certainly a sweet way to squeeze in an extra story at the end of the night.
I had believed the Choose Your Own Adventure books were as interactive as it got. But what about a book where the book itself is a character? And the reader has to help out to move the story along? Yeah, that blew the mind of my five-year-old niece, too.
That’s exactly what happens in This Book Just Ate My Dog! by Richard Byrne. He got all meta on himself with this picture book. Brightly illustrated with adorable-looking characters, it’s a quick read and very, very silly. Both my nieces enjoyed it, the younger one especially. When has your child been asked to shake a book sideways by a character?
The main character here is Bella. She was innocently walking her dog across the page when the book ate her dog (it disappears into the crease). Her friend Ben walks by and is eaten too, then an ambulance, and finally Bella! It’s up to the reader to sort it all out and save the day. Though, things aren’t sorted out perfectly in the end…
Interactive and funny, I recommend This Book Just Ate My Dog! for preschool and up. GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.
“Why, those Toad brothers would steal your gold, kiss your cattle, and insult your chili.” This book made me giggle—and that was while reading it all alone. Sharing it with my nieces made it so much more fun.
“Why I bet it were some crazy diney-o-saur what jumped my claim and stole my gold.”
Written by Bob Shea, a veteran comedy writer for both kids and adults, he packs in the jokes for everyone. I enjoyed the little details like how the mayor loves his cumin, to the overall plot: the Toads, a band of outlaws, are terrorizing the old west town of Drywater Gulch. A young boy sheriff, expert on dinosaurs, tricks the outlaws to save the day.
Lane Smith, an award-winning illustrator, stylizes the tale with vintage tones and patterns. The expressions on the outlaws are hilarious, and look for the hidden designs within the landscapes.
When my daughter was young, she was one of those dino-obsessed kids, throwing random facts around, just like the Sheriff in the book:
“A hole this big means one thing- T.rex,” said the Sheriff.
“Or dynamite,” said the Mayor.
“T.rex don’t need no dynamite. Largest predator of the cretaceous period,” said the Sheriff.
“Wow, you’re good,” said the Mayor.
But in this book, those facts will save the town. My niece thought the tortoise part was pretty darn funny. Get Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads, grab a kid (or giggle by yourself), and you’ll understand why.
“I like how it got all the plot points across, but kept it kid-friendly.”
This was my son’s comment after reading The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth by Ian Lendler and Zack Giallongo. He recently took a Shakespeare course, and Macbeth was one of the plays studied, so I was curious about his take on this graphic novel. My son gave it a thumbs up.
The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review Presents Macbeth is a First Second offering for this fall that will appeal to Shakespeare fans of all ages, but especially the younger set just meeting the Bard. This version is full of animals, food, and humor.
The story takes place in a zoo, where the animals put on shows for each other after the human crowds go home. The audience is as much fun as the cast, with silly-to-witty commentary throughout. I particularly liked the little aside from the vultures with their opera glasses:
“Ooh! I love the witches look!”
“They say warts are the new black.”
Macbeth is played by a lion who thinks he loves food more than anything until he meets the witches, and realizes he’s really hungry for power! However, he would have to eat the king to become king himself. He talks to his wife, Lady Macbeth the leopard (out damn spot… hee-hee!), who hands him a cookbook, “100 Ways To Cook A King,” suggesting they saute in lemon-butter sauce.
“But still, Macbeth refused. Eating someone just didn’t seem polite.”
He finally relents and eats the king: “What follows was horrible and gruesome and definitely the best scene in the whole play…” But of course, we don’t see it because the elephant shows up right then to see the play and blocks the whole stage.
And so the silliness continues in this amusing version of classic theater. The artwork bounds through the pages, with the dialogue and narration clear, but with a kid-friendly twist. Like the best animated movies, the jokes are on a couple of levels, so parents reading this to their children will find it just as fun.
Today is his stop with GeekMom and he has shared a few leafy and literate trolls. Who are they?
Trolls: Pictured above from left to right: river troll, hill troll, and Mountain King. River trolls (also called bridge trolls) frequently live quietly outside villages and always near running water. They have a bad reputation as eaters of livestock, mostly due to one particular story of dubious veracity involving three goats. Most river trolls find this story to be offensive and one-sided. Anyway, they prefer fish. Hill trolls, on the other hand, are wilder. They inhabit high pasture land and forests and mostly make their dens in dry caves. They eat sheep whenever they can. Mountain kings are the largest kind of troll, but they are rarely seen. They inhabit rocky highlands and are known to nestle in among boulders and can sleep for hundreds of years.
A Note from Ben: Only the river troll and the hill troll appear in Julia’s House. They are old friends and they are really interested in poetry and music (not all trolls are uncultured). The river troll develops a bit of a crush on the mermaid.
The story focus on Nick and Molly, twins who receive tennis racquets on their eighth birthday. Both are so excited, they sleep with the racquets that very night—which is exactly something my 8-year-old would do. (This has caused us to lose quite a few Lego bricks and other items to the crevice between the wall and the bed, by the way.)
However, once the two fall asleep, they are whisked away, as those magical racquets take them on a journey to the four Grand Slam tournaments—something Gould knows a lot about, as a former competitor.
A Magical Racquet Ride has cute illustrations by Mark Brayer and a rhyme-y flow to it. I think it could have rhymed a bit better in some spots, but my son didn’t seem to care all that much. In fact, he was very interested in the tennis terms, as well as the whole adventure. What fun it would be to fall asleep and visit New York City for the U.S. Open, London for Wimbledon, Paris for the French Open, and Melbourne for the Australian Open. That sounds like a few of my dreams, too.
It would have been nice to have a glossary at the back of the book for reviewing some of the tennis terms featured. However, all of those words do appear in italics throughout the book, so you won’t miss any of them. Also, it’s great that the book touches upon some traditions (mmm… strawberries and cream), as well as a few tourist attractions in each area.
Vikings are garsh darn cute. Cute vikings? Impossible, you say! Check out this new picture book by Adam Auerbach and you will agree that Vikings can indeed be quite adorable.
Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School is about trying something new, even if you’re nervous. Finding friends means venturing out into unfamiliar territory, doing things you may not be good at, and putting your true self out there. In the end, it’s being who you are that attracts real friendship.
Edda is the youngest Valkyrie in the magical world of Asgard (home of the gods). She can do whatever she wants there, but has no one her age to play with. Her Papa takes her to Earth school to meet friends. She is worried, but he assures her that Valkyries are very brave. Her first day of school isn’t very welcoming, with the kids mostly ignoring her, and she has to sit at a desk, and write when she’d rather draw.
She is determined to make it work, though, so she starts writing about her adventures in Asgard, and shares them with the class. What makes her different makes her special, and she finds a friend.
Adam Auerbach shares this message in a sweet and funny story. (As a homeschooler, I feel for the poor Valkyrie having to sit at a desk all day just to meet a friend!) But it’s the illustrations that make this book stand out. Each page is wide and welcoming to your eyes, and the character’s faces are simple yet expressive.
The ending is the best part, but I won’t spoil it for you. Young kids will really enjoy this book, and want to find out more about Norse mythology afterwards!
Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School is available in June. GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.
When I was 11, I spent the bulk of my time geeking out over mere glimpses of MTV, marveling over E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and secretly hoping I would some day be asked to become the sixth member of The Go-Go’s. I like to think I was a fairly typical 11-year-old. Walter Levin is a totally different story.
After completing his first 10K at the age of 8, Walter went on to become a black belt in Taekwondo, a drummer, and a unicyclist. At 11, he published his first book, The Kid Who Went to the Moon. He’s certainly not the youngest to ever author a book, but he may be the youngest who can call Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, co-creator of Phineas & Ferb, a fan of his work.
“I’m so impressed with the imagination and storytelling ability of this young man! His tale would make a perfect Phineas & Ferb adventure,” says Marsh. “If we’re still around in a few years, I’d happily give him a job. (Heck, let’s be honest, I’ll probably be asking him for a job).”
If his book is any indication of Walter’s future plans, the kid may be a little busy. The Kid Who Went to the Moon is the fun tale of 12-year-old James Gibson, a boy who dreams of going to the Moon. Of course, the title of the book may be a bit of a spoiler. However, it’s really about the crazy lengths that James goes through to make his dream become a reality.
The lengths are indeed crazy—unbelievable, in fact. However, to the book’s target audience, does it really matter how a kid spends his $2 million prize from a combination poetry/baseball contest? That and pretty much everything else that James does to pull off his plan is downright hilarious. At least that’s what I assumed from all of my 7-year-old son’s giggles.
The book does have an occasional fart joke here and a puke reference there. It was written by a kid and will appeal to kids. That said, it also includes a lot of love for NASA and space travel. How can you go wrong with that?
My son and I read this book together, but it’s definitely one that he could have tackled all on his own. Even though there’s less than a handful of illustrations in this book, at just 60 pages, it’s an incredibly easy read for kids. He was certainly riveted—but really, the adventures of anyone remotely close to his age will do that. The bodily functions, the baseball, and the blasting off into space didn’t hurt, either. However, I could easily see The Kid Who Went to the Moon appealing to readers all the way up to the age of 15. This young author knows how to grab the attention of his audience, with creative ideas and pop culture references aplenty.
I read the final book in the Zita trilogy with excitement and a little sadness. Zita the Spacegirl is one of my favorite graphic novels out there: The main character is a girl who is full of courage and kindness, the story brings in such an array of different personalities in both friends and enemies, the plot moves at a great pace, and the artwork and dialogue make my kids and me giggle.
In The Return of Zita the Spacegirl, our young heroine is a prisoner in chains, being charged with “crimes” she did (but for the right reasons…?), persecuted by a corrupt government. Her beloved Mouse is going to be executed. A hooded figure appears, friend or foe? But before anyone can save her, she is stripped of her Strong Strong star, and chucked into a dungeon with only a pile of rags and a skeleton in the corner.
A children’s book? Absolutely! The artwork makes even the nastiest of villains kinda cute, and there is no doubt that Zita will triumph somehow. And that pile of rags and skeleton? Her newest friends! The pile of rags has been in that dungeon so long it evolved into a very nice life form, and the skeleton is more than happy to chat with someone new and offer its fingers and toes as keys to escape. In fact, those two characters develop and change during this story to become a duo my son and I found compelling and sweet.
That’s what this series is all about: You never know what to expect, and Zita doesn’t either. Yet, she knows that friends don’t give up on each other, and everyone should help the helpless, and her conviction changes the universe and every adorable creature she meets.
I’m sad the series is coming to a close, but can’t wait to read what Ben Hatke has in the works next. Plus, my nieces are finally old enough to be introduced to Zita! I get to start from the beginning and share the story of this strong girl facing the silly and unexpected with strength and love.
The Return of Zita will be available in May from First Second. GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.
The art is a treat! Bright colors with dancing swirls and paper cut-out patterns are the heart of this fable. Every page shows the main action, but there are details everywhere to keep children going back and discovering more (kind of like savoring the multiple flavors in a cup of tea). I wish I could read Chinese characters because every person in this story has one drawn on their ear and I want to know what they mean! I’ll have to ask a friend. There is even a game within the book to find hidden (English) words; enter them online at the site to unlock more fun. Plus, there’s a unique tea blend that goes with the book.
In this fable the hero must overcome three problems to save the day. We start off in Master Davey’s tea shop, which I totally want to visit. Master Davey encourages the main character, Hopper, to explore the complex and imaginative flavors of the teas he serves.
“What do you smell Hopper? What do you smell?”
“A bouquet of flowers…and a summer breeze…”
One brew, Blue Tiger Tea, is the most precious of teas and will be lost to the world forever due to pest problems in the one field where it grows in China. Through the magic of tea, Hopper is able to travel to China where he meets Camellia, whose family has no more seeds to plant. Together they travel to magical places where Hopper uses his courage to finally meet the Blue Tiger and get more seeds, helping Camellia’s family replant the special tea.
I enjoyed reading this book to my two young nieces. My only issue was gender. Stereotypically, the most powerful characters in the story are male (Hopper and the Blue Tiger), and the legend that is repeated several times is, “a boy that will save the Blue Tiger Tea.” While reading it to them, I changed “boy” to “child” so my listeners could at least imagine themselves as heroes in this story.
They were captivated by the art, and the phrase, “two leaves and a bud”—reference to the parts of the tea plant Hopper and Camellia help pick—stuck in my four-year-old niece’s head. Afterwards, my nieces and I picked our own tea (several mints, lemon balm, and lime-basil from my garden) and my littlest niece skipped along with a basket repeating her phrase over and over happily. We all went inside and had a tea party, revisiting our favorite pages of this lovely book.
Master Davey and the Magic Tea House will be available September 1, 2013.
Speakaboos is a digital story subscription service aiming to promote the love of reading to children. Their constantly expanding digital library currently offers 150 stories written or adapted by Speakaboos writers, narrated by voice actors and celebrities, and jazzed up for the digital medium by GeekMom’s own Amy Kraft who answers to the title of executive interactive content producer at Speakaboos.
The service offers content access online on their website or on the iPad through the Speakaboos app. The website offers stories mostly in the form of narrated videos, along with songs, games, and printable worksheets. Meanwhile, the app offers stories and songs in three modes: “Read To Me,” “Read & Play,” and “Read It Myself.”
I’m usually not a fan of the read-along feature on the digital book apps. With their flashy animation, they feel more like television shows than books. However, most of the “Read To Me” stories in the Speakaboos app highlight the words as the narrators reads them, something I have not seen many children’s digital books do. The “Read & Play” mode allows time to explore extra features on each page, like hidden actions and dialogues. The “Read It Myself” mode—though obviously missing the narrator, as expected—does allow the user to click on a word to have it read aloud to them. A great feature for early readers!
GeekMom Sarah and I both gave the service and the new app a try. Here’s what Sarah had to say about her experience:
“My four-year-old has been a bit of an iPad addict ever since we let him use it on a trans-Atlantic flight last year. We limit his time on it, so that he knows it is a well deserved treat.
“Speakaboos fits our lifestyle. He has options in themes, we have options in story length. The stories we have viewed so far have been very different than the app story format we are used to. In Speakaboos, we are led through the story by an almost movie-like screen, rolling pictures, expanding pictures, etc. He has a hard time not swiping his finger across the screen to turn the page! It’s a learning curve. We all enjoy having a collection of good quality stories in one place.
“My son is less distracted by the Toca Boca icons when we don’t have to leave the program to pick a new story. We are about to take our annual flight to England and I see Speakaboos coming in very handy while we wait in Logan airport!”
Interestingly enough, we have the opposite dynamic in our house. Our 3-year-old has unlimited access to the iPad as long as she’s playing games or reading digital books, and she doesn’t choose to take advantage of that access very often. The Speakaboos app kept her intrigued for a long time during our few sessions with it.
I love (love, love, love!) that it doesn’t have any advertisements. Since it’s an all-inclusive service, they don’t need to sell you the next digital book or app in the series. With most children’s apps, my daughter always ends up clicking on a button that takes her to a purchasing menu, if not out of the app into the app store all together. With Speakaboos, she can browse the app to her heart’s content without hearing me burst out, “No, don’t click on that!” continuously. It’s incredibly refreshing!
I also agree with Sarah that it’ll be a very handy tool while traveling. We have put in quite a bit of air and car time this summer and it doesn’t take long before our active preschooler gets bored watching back to back movies. Speakaboos offers a good, more interactive alternative.
Now for the more technical details…
The first time a story is selected, it does take a little bit of time for it to download. Once it’s downloaded though, it resides on your iPad and can be accessed even offline. While offline, icons for previously downloaded stories will show up in full colors and the unavailable content will be appear shaded to show it’s disabled. There is a setting option to remove downloaded content from your iPad, in case your iPad gets near capacity and you wish to unload the stories your child is done with. You can always download the content again later.
While Speakaboos’ iPad app is brand new, their online service has been available since 2010. It has gained valuable momentum since then, accumulating awards like the Scholastic Teacher’s Choice Award. The Speakaboos team is hard at work continuously generating new content, usually at the rate of 1-2 new stories per week, while also revamping the website to offer all the same great, interactive content made available in the new iPad app. An Android app is also in the works and expected to be available in the fall.
Subscriptions to Speakaboos start at $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year. You can try Speakaboos by downloading the app, which is free and comes with three stories for you to keep. You can also try Speakaboos on their website, which allows you free access to 25 stories. A subscription unlocks the entire Speakaboos library.
A word of warning: The app requires iOS 6.0 and above. At home our 3-year-old uses an old original iPad while my husband and I share an iPad 2 which she isn’t usually allowed to touch (ironically, ours is the one that ended up with a cracked screen). As I found out while trying to download this app on “her” iPad, the original iPad is no longer supported by iOS upgrades and therefore stuck Speakaboos-less in 5.0 land.
Ahmet Zappa is probably best known for his famous surname — and for being the only one of the Zappa children with a semi-normal first name. However, he’s also a pretty darn good writer.
His famous father was best known for his political statements and creative music, as well as lyrics such as, “There is no hell. There is only France.” However, Ahmet is more about family fare. He wrote the film The Odd Life of Timothy Green, he’s working on a big-screen version of Fraggle Rock, and he just released his second children’s book.
How many of the following does your preschooler find appealing: robots, zombies, monsters, pirates, superheroes, pie? The more of those you say “Yes” to, the more you should take a look at Robot Zombie Frankenstein! Watch the preview video, which shows you how the first few pages go:
Robot Zombie Frankenstein! is a very simple story of one-upmanship between two robots who have a great costume box. The pictures are made from basic shapes and colors, which give you a little bit more to talk about with a small child. What color is that robot’s eye patch? What shape is his body?
The entire book is a conversation between the robots, which means it can be a lot of fun for you and your pre-schooler (or two of your kids) to each be a robot and take turns reading lines. Because each robot’s line is additive and based on his costume change, after just a few reads, even a younger child who can’t read the words can look at the pictures and participate. Bedtime for my three- and six-year-old now sounds like this:
You get the idea. And I promise — the robot buddies work things out in the end.
At author Annette Simon’s website, you can download the Robot Zombie Frankenstein! Fun Kit, which includes 16 pages of activities to print. My favorite is the Bot Builder, which lets you cut out all the robot parts to build your own.