Monday, October 28, 2013

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo, Illustrated by K.G. Campbell

Image from Candlewick.com
Candlewick Press, 2013
9780763660406

SUMMARY
Flora Belle Buckman, a self-described cynic, has a life that was far from extraordinary until the day she sees a squirrel get sucked up by a vacuum cleaner. Holy bagumba! But the vacuum, the Ulysses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 2000X, does something to the small squirrel. He doesn’t just get sucked up, he manages to pull himself out and throw the vacuum! Flora, who has spent her entire life reading about superheroes in The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto! knows that this is no ordinary squirrel. This squirrel has superpowers! Holy unanticipated occurences! And it’s true, Ulysses (named after that fateful machine), has super strength, the ability to fly, communicate with humans, and even type poetry! With the help of a cast of quirky, but loveable characters, the two friends rely on one another to get out of sticky situations, escape the clutches of the arch-nemesis, and ultimately find their places in the world.

This hybrid chapter book/graphic novel explores different types of friendship and love as the two main characters try to figure out where they belong. Each of the characters is remarkable and unique, making for humorous dialogue and situations. Flora herself is an introspective, sensitive child who doesn’t often get to express her thoughts and feelings to the adults in her life. Written in third person, the text and illustrations allow readers into the minds of both Flora and Ulysses. The text and illustrations are seamlessly interwoven; both are needed to tell the full story. Campbell’s pencil illustrations, presented in comic book-ish panels, help to push the plot forward with visual humor. They also provide context and make clever use of speech and thought bubbles. The plot is interwoven with symbolism and foreshadowing, that allows DiCamillo to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion through a series of coincidences (or are they?). Using a wide and varied vocabulary the story is divided into very short chapters, each one leaving the reader hanging and yearning for more.

Check out the cool and classy book trailer or read the first few pages of the book.

CONNECTIONS
*Talk about the elements of a superhero and an arch-nemisis. Have kids imagine what it would be like to have a pet with superpowers. Have them write and illustrate their description.

*Have kids write a list poem, as Ulysses does in the story.

*Read more about the back story of this book.

*More books by DiCamillo:

*Readalikes:
After Iris by Natasha Farrant
Boom by Mark Haddon

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 8+ / Grade 3+

-Amy

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes


Image from KevinHenkes.com
Greenwillow Books, 2013
9780062268129

SUMMARY
It’s time for Billy Miller to start 2nd grade. He’s excited to be in Room 2, but worried that he might not be smart enough to please his teacher Ms. Silver. He’s looking forward to sitting at the desk right next to his best friend Ned, but Ms. Silver assigns seats and the annoying know-it-all Emma Sparks gets his seat! And that’s just the first day! From creating dioramas to writing poetry, from learning about volcanoes to Chinese New Year, Billy’s year is full of new, wonderful, sad, strange, and beautiful experiences. What a crazy and wonderful year! Good thing Mama, Papa, and his little sister Sal are there to love and support him no matter what.

This sweet and funny story is divided into four parts, each one focusing on a special person in Billy’s life (Teacher, Father, Sister, Mother). Written in third person, short chronological chapters explore the small moments that make up a 2nd graders life. Young readers will easily identify with Billy’s daily dilemmas at school and at home. Billy is a likeable protagonist who sometimes acts and speaks without thinking things through. But he also has the ability to reflect on the impact of his actions and words and then to do his best to do the right thing. The members of Billy’s family are unique and fully developed from his artist father to his college professor mother. Like Billy, they have good and bad days, and Henkes expertly weaves this into the story. A variety of vocabulary words are introduced throughout (habitat, mesmerized, enveloped). Henkes is careful to define these words through context, but without patronizing the reader. A great recommendation for a reader transitioning to chapter books or a family read aloud.

Read the a bit of the book and find yourself intrigued by what the year has to hold for Billy Miller.

CONNECTIONS
*Have kids write a poem about a family member, as Billy does in the book. If possible, provide an opportunity for kids to read their poems in front of an audience.

*Create habitat dioramas, like Billy and Ned, or more abstract pieces of art, like Papa. A great way to get rid of all those shoe boxes you’ve been saving!

*Check out the author study and activity guide provided on the author’s website.

*More chapter books by Henkes:

*Readalikes:
Clementine by Sara Pennypacker
The Ramona books by Beverly Cleary
The Year ofthe Dog by Grace Lin


RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 6+ / Grade 1+

-Amy

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Surviving the Applewhites by Stephanie S. Tolan


Image from Books4YourKids.com
HarperCollins, 2002
0066236029

SUMMARY
E.D. Applewhite can’t believe it. Not only does she have to deal with being the untalented member of the endlessly talented, dedicated, and artistic Applewhite family, she also has to deal with a known juvenile delinquent! Along with E.D. and her siblings, he’ll be a student of the Creative Academy, the homeschool the Applewhite’s have created to allow their children complete artistic freedom. 13 year old Jake Semple doesn’t want to be there either, but he has no other choice. He’s been kicked out school after school and his family just wants to be rid of him. But soon, no matter how hard E.D. and Jake resist, Jake is absorbed into the Applewhite way of life and living. Over the course of just a few months, the two reluctant schoolmates find themselves raising butterflies, herding rampant goats, learning to meditate, and putting their hearts and souls into an untraditionally wonderful production of The Sound of Music. Jake and E.D. might manage to survive the Applewhites, but they’ll never be the same!

Named a Newbery Honor book, this fast paced story is written in third person. The narrative alternates between Jake and E.D.’s perspectives, allowing the reader to understand the motivations of the two protagonists. The Applewhite family and their extended family are eccentric characters that brim with artistic passion and temperament. Although they are larger than life in many ways, Tolan is able to ground the story in reality. Tackling life with passion is a major theme. Jake begins his stay with the Applewhites with absolutely no interest in anything in life. By the end of the book, he not only sees the passion of those around him, but resolves to live his life with the same vigor. Jake’s gradual transformation, the result of introspection, is reflected in his outward appearance and behaviors. A great recommendation for intelligent and creative readers who have read a lot and are looking for lesser known, but equally stellar, books.

As someone who was homeschooled K-12, I’m always looking for realistic depictions of homeschoolers in children’s literature. The benefits of artistic freedom, independence, and creativity that often come with homeschooling are demonstrated, however Tolan’s tone never becomes didactic or holier-than-thou. It's refreshing to find a story that doesn't involve a homeschooler learning about regular schooling.

On a side note, I’m a former stage manager. So it thrilled me to bits to find E.D, a literary character who shares my love for organization and order and puts those talents to use as a stage manager!

Read the first chapter and get pulled in by the wonderfully eccentric Applewhite family.

CONNECTIONS
*The musical The Sound of Music, is a major plot point in the book. Take a break about halfway through reading the book to watch the movie. Bonus points if you can take your kids to see a live performance. This would be a great book to read if your local high school or community theatre is putting on the show.

*Check out the discussion guide provided by Scholastic.

*Read more about Jake and the Applewhites in the sequel:

*More middle grade books by Tolan:

*Readalikes:
After Iris by Natasha Farrant
Casson Family Series by Hilary McKay
Savvy by Ingrid Law

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 10+ / Grade 5+

-Amy

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke, Illustrated by Lauren Tobia


Image from Walker.co.uk
Kane Miller, 2010
9781935279730

SUMMARY
“Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa.” Anna lives with there in a big house with her African father, Canadian mother, twin baby brothers (Double and Trouble), paternal grandparents, and countless uncles, aunties, and cousins. Her wishes, dreams, curiosities, worries, and triumphs are told in a series of short stories. Whether it’s dreaming of snow, a visit from Auntie Comfort, or a vacation at the beach, you can count on Anna Hisbiscus to make the most of the situation!

This short book features a rambunctious and inquisitive protagonist. Anna doesn’t just observe, she makes mistakes, tries new things, and learns lessons about the world outside her familly’s compound. Each chapter is an episodic story full of cultural markers that evoke “Amazing Africa”, including foods, cultural customs, and clothing. The text and images illustrate how Anna’s culture is a mix of old and new, traditional and modern. Her family wears traditional clothing to church on Sundays. Everyone’s clothing is cut from “the one same cloth” to show they are “one same family.” On the other hand, Anna’s mother shows her how to send a text message to her Auntie Comfort in America. Tobia’s greyscale illustrations are playful and lively, using many different angles to bring Anna’s bustling world to life. Atinuke is an international storyteller who grew up in Nigeria. So it is no surprise that this book is a great read aloud. A good recommendation for a parent looking for a read aloud for the whole family. It’s also a great book for readers transitioning into chapter books. Although the stories are in chronological order, they could easily stand alone.

Read a chapter of the book to get an idea of Atinuke’s storytelling style (click on “sneak preview”).

CONNECTIONS
*Check out the author’s blog to learn more about her travels and her storytelling.

*More books with stories about Anna Hibiscus and her family:

*Readalikes:
Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look 
Year of the Dog by Grace Lin

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 6+ / Grade 1+

-Amy