I Really Dig Pizza!: An Early Reader Review

I Really Dig Pizza! by Candy JamesWhat could be luckier than finding a gift-wrapped pizza in the forest? Archie certainly doesn’t know. Thrilled with his luck, the quick-thinking fox grabs a nearby digger and buries the pizza to keep it safe until dinner.

Unfortunately right when Archie is ready to dig in, Reddie announces that she is solving a mystery. A mystery involving a new pile of dirt and digger tracks.

Reddie is undeterred by Archie’s efforts to derail the investigation. But will following the clues end with a solved mystery and a shared dinner? And who lost the pizza in the first place in I Really Dig Pizza! (2021) by Candy James.

Find it on Bookshop.

I Really Dig Pizza! is the first book in a new early reader series by the wife-and-husband team of Candy (illustrator) and James (author). The characters are inspired by their daughter’s real life plush toys which saw her through many adventures.

This book straddles the line between early reader and graphic novel. The story includes full-page and double page spreads as well as smaller (comic book style) panels to showcase different scenes and add motion to the illustrations. The page design and a color palette featuring orange, yellow , white, and peach add interest to the book and give I Really Dig Pizza! a unique feel. The color scheme is also a fun reference to the fact that both characters are foxes although I admit Archie looks more feline to me.

The text in the story is all dialog presented in speech bubbles (white for Archie and orange for Reddie) making the style reminiscent to Willem’s Elephant and Piggie series. While there is some conflict in the story as Archie tries to distract Reddie from her investigation, all is resolved by the end when (spoiler) readers learn that Reddie had bought the pizza for Archie only to lose it before she could add a gift card.

Panels with Archie asking readers questions and breaking the fourth wall of the story to draw them in add an interactive element to this book as do Archie’s attempted diversions as he explains to Reddie that the digger noises must be a storm, the digger tracks are actually snake tracks, and so on.

I Really Dig Pizza! is a fun early reader with fast friends and plenty of humor (and pizza) that’s sure to garner a few laughs from young readers.

*An advance e-copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Bunbun and Bonbon: Fancy Friends: An Early Reader Review

Bunbun and Bonbon: Fancy Friends by Jess KeatingBunbun has it all: a delightful bunbun nose, a bunbun smile, bunbun ears, and even a fluffy bunbun tail.

What Bunbun does not have is a friend.

All of that changes when an unassuming rock turns out to be … Bonbon.

Bonbon has a purple candy shell, a sugary candy body, and two sparkling candy eyes.

Together, this unlikely pair becomes fancy friends as they don bowties and top hats, eat fancy foods, and prepare for a fancy party in Bunbun and Bonbon: Fancy Friends (2020) by Jess Keating.

Find it on Bookshop.

Bunbun and Bonbon: Fancy Friends is the first book in a new series of graphic novels perfect for the youngest comics fans and early readers. Large panels and bold text for the story and speech bubbles make the story sequencing easy to follow whether being read aloud or independently.

Keating’s illustrations are bold and colorful bringing Bunbun and Bonbon’s fancy world to life with clean backgrounds that convey the setting without cluttering the panels. A limited vocabulary also makes the story easy to follow while introducing new words (notably bonbon among others) throughout. The story broken into chapters that can be read as self-contained stories or all at once.

Bunbun and Bonbon: Fancy Friends is everything I never knew I always wanted in a story. Bright artwork, clever dialog, and gentle stories come together to make this series a standout for readers of any age. Perfect for fans of Elephant and Piggie, Toon Books, and Geisel award winners.

Ivy and Bean: A (younger) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie BlackallBean does not want to be friends with Ivy. Her mother keeps telling her that Ivy seems like a very nice girl, but Bean knows what that means. Nice means prim and proper and sitting quietly reading big books. Nice means boring.

At least, Bean thought Ivy was boring. When she plays a trick on her big sister and Ivy offers a quick hiding place, Bean isn’t so sure. Nice is supposed to be boring. And Ivy does seem nice. But she’s also training to be a witch. Besides, how nice can anyone be who has a vast supply of face paint, her own wand, and a spell that involves lots of worms?

Bean and Ivy didn’t plan to be friends, but they might be a perfect match in Ivy and Bean (2006) by Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall (illustrator).

Ivy and Bean is the first book in the series which is very popular with younger readers. The text is not as advanced as the Clementine or Ramona books but the characters all have similar qualities that will appeal to readers looking for girls with spunk. This story was not as compelling, for me, as the Clementine series but it was a fun fast read that will work for young readers and reluctant readers. Blackall’s illustrations add a lot of appeal with her delightfully horrifying pictures of Bean’s horrible older sister and Ivy’s wonderfully scary witch attire.

There are some surprisingly vocal negative reviews (seen on Amazon) accusing the book of promoting everything from bad behavior to witchcraft. To such concerns all I can say is books don’t make ill-behaved children anymore than guns kill people all on their own. At its core Ivy and Bean is nothing more and nothing less than a sharp book about two singularly creative girls who are ready and willing to make their own fun be it with pranks or a new friendship.

Dessert First: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

Dessert First by Hallie Durand, illustrated by Christine DavenierDessert Schneider doesn’t know what to think on the first day of third grade when her teacher introduces herself as Mrs. Howdy Doody and starts marching around in fluffy white slippers. But then Mrs. Howdy Doody tells the class that they should all find their own personal style and march to their very own drummers. And Dessert kind of likes that idea because it means she might have a chance to eat dessert first (before dinner) once in a while–if she marches just right.

Dessert comes from a family of foodies. Her younger sister Charlie and brothers Wolfie and Mushy all love food. And her parents own Fondue Paris, a very cool restaurant specializing in all things fondue. Coming from this background, it is no surpise that Dessert signs her name with a Maraschino cherry anymore than she believes that cherry is all you need in life, along with something to put the cherry on of course.

The problem with belonging to a food family, though, is that sometimes food–especially sweet chocolately foods–can be really distracting. When Dessert discovers an off limit box of special Double-Decker Bars at home, she knows she has to try just one. At least, it was supposed to be just one. Sometimes, without Dessert meaning to, things get out of hand because she spends too much time getting into trouble and not enough time thinking about how to avoid it.

Dessert First by Hallie Durand (with illustrations by Christine Davenier) is the first book about Dessert Schneider and her family. While not as good as the first Clementine book (possibly because it’s just plain shorter), I saw a lot of similarities between the two books. Dessert is a really likable eight-year-old with a fascinating family.

The illustrations add a lot to the story as well. Sometimes I find myself dissappointed, after seeing the colorful cover, to discover that a book has black-and-white illustrations but Davenier’s are done with thick lines and bold geometric patterns (mostly on Dessert’s dresses) that really make them work.

That said, some aspects of the plot did bother me. I was never a eat-dessert-first kind of kid so I found Dessert’s singular interest in the matter to be . . . interersting. An eight-year-old sneaking not one but twelve brownies without anyone noticing was also interesting. It set up a chance to learn an important lesson, but it was also just strange because Dessert didn’t seem to have any self control. I get it in terms of the story but I wonder if it could happen in the real world. Finally, I had issues with the Doody Drive at the end of the story where all of the elementary school is asked to give up something they love for two weeks to pledge money to build a tree house. It just seemed bizarre and not entirely appropriate for a grade school to me. Maybe that’s just me. . . .

Weird bits aside, I see big things in Dessert’s future and hope that Dessert First leads to bigger and better installments about the Schneider family.

Clementine’s Letter: A Chick Lit Wednesday review

Clementine's Letter by Sarah Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla FrazeeSince her introduction, Clementine has colored both her and best friend Margaret’s heads with permanent markers, saved her school talent show from catastrophe, and been sent to the principal’s office so many times that she knows the way pretty much by heart. In Clementine’s Letter (2008) by Sara Pennypacker (with the ever-lovely illustrations by Marla Frazee), Clementine is actually hoping for some catastrophe.

Find it on Bookshop.

Clementine is finally getting the hang of third grade with the help of her teacher Mr. D’Matz. But when her class finds out that Mr. D’Matz might be leaving in the middle of the year to go on a research trip to Egypt, Clementine knows she’ll never be able to make it through the rest of the year–especially when she can’t seem to do anything right for her new substitute.

After thinking things through, Clementine decides that Mr. D’Matz needs to keep his promise to teach her and her class for the rest of the year. And he probably doesn’t really want to go to Egypt anyway. So Clementine starts making her own plans to make sure Mr. D’Matz won’t leave. After all, it isn’t really sabotage if he doesn’t want to go, right?

Clemetine’s Letter is all about decisions and thinking things through. What starts as an ill-thought out letter to keep her teacher away from Egypt turns into a lesson that, sometimes, if you really care about someone you have to let them leave.

This story references events from the first two books (Clementine from 2006 and The Talented Clementine from 2007) but stands on its own quite easily. Clementine is as entertaining as ever with her own unique brand of humor, although I still worry about the emphasis on her getting into trouble at school so much (some reviewers posit that Clementine has ADD, I posit that she is a creative type in a school that doesn’t really get her). Margaret’s own ticks about germs and dirt also seemed to be much more prevalent than in the first books.

The story isn’t quite as funny as the first, perhaps because Clementine’s distress over her teacher seems more real and pressing than her issues in the first two books. The ending also felt somewhat more abrupt. Regardless, Clementine remains an effervescent, awesome character good for kids of all ages (even reluctant readers thanks to the brevity of the text and the excellent illustrations).

Starting With Alice: Another Young Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Starting With Alice (2004) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Starting with Alice by Phyllis Reynolds NaylorYou could say that Alice McKinley (not to be confused with Alice MacLeod) has a bit of a cult following at my current place of employ. So maybe it was just a matter of time before I too got sucked in.

A word on the series before I start the review: Phyllis Reynolds Naylor began the Alice series with The Agonies of Alice in 1985. In that book Alice is 11 and starting sixth grade. She has just moved and started at a new school. Since then, Naylor has been writing a new Alice book approximately every year which certain librarians have pointed out has strong addictive qualities. Until about 2002, the books ran linearly. Then Naylor did something different, she wrote three prequel novels talking about Alice as a third, fourth, and fifth grader weaving in stories that Alice had previously reflected on in other books in the series. Starting With Alice (2004) is the first of these prequels (followed by Alice in Blunderland and Lovingly Alice). I like to read linearly whenever possible so, after reading The Agony of Alice and finding out about these prequels I decided to read the series straight through in terms of Alice’s age instead of publication date (the series is supposed to end when Alice turns 18 and is already well-grounded in the Young Adult genre at this point).

Now that that’s settled, let’s talk about the actual book.

Alice, her father, and her older brother have just moved into a new house. Alice’s first friend on the block is Donald Sheavers, her weird neighbor. Along the way, Alice makes other, less weird, friends. And also attracts some unwanted attention from one of the street patrol girls. It’s not always easy being Alice. I can’t say much more about the story without revealing everything. This book is more about Alice’s day-to-day life as she tries to fit in and make friends than about any huge event.

Alice narrates in the first person. As a result, the novel is conversational and pretty mellow. Alice is a cool girl, even though she doesn’t think so, and her narration is endearing. Naylor strikes the perfect balance here. Alice’s voice is consistent with her debut novel, but she does sound younger–without being annonyingly young.

Alice also demonstrates that, although she’s only eight, it’s never to early to develop a strong character. In the novel Alice makes new friends and stands up to bullies among her other wonderfully positive characteristics. I don’t know that children read books about children in search of role models, but if they do Starting With Alice definitely offers up a good one.

In terms of when to read this book, I think it would work either way. I enjoyed reading it already knowing about Donald Sheavers and an unfortunate poem written to the milkman. But readers could definitely read this without knowing anything about Alice and enjoy it just as much.

Clockwork: A Review

Clockwork (1995) by Philip Pullman

Clockwork by Phillip PullmanI have a semi-intense love-hate relationship with Philip Pullman (and perhaps also with hyphens, but that’s another matter). I used to like Pullman unconditionally, reading anything he had written. Then I read The Shadow in the North (the second installment in the Sally Lockheart trilogy) and was burned by the ending. It literally hurt. Philip Pullman made me cry. But I was willing to let it slide because I was also in the midst of His Dark Materials and felt compelled to finish–my mistake. The Amber Spyglass also left me severely burned, and crying again.

Before all of that happened, Pullman wrote some shorter, happier works. I can’t recapture my early excitement about Pullman, especially after reading about his “Frederick must die” rule, but I can almost appreciate his works without remembering the grief he caused me.

Clockwork (1995) is a novella length story. At 107 pages, the narrative is too short to include any deaths of beloved characters or annoyingly impossible loves. Pettiness aside, I have to say that’s a relief.

The story is set in a German town once upon a time when time still ran according to clockwork timepieces–none of that electronic nonsense. Karl, the clockmaker’s apprentice, is sulking in the local pub while his friend Fritz prepares to tell the town his newest story.

Things begin to go wrong when a mysterious visitor arrives at the pub after Fritz has wound up his story but before he has a chance to wind it down again. That’s well and good for readers but not so good for the characters, especially Karl and Gretl, the daughter of the pub’s owner.

Clockwork is grim only in the way a children’s book can be. There is death and gore and talk of devils taking souls, but none of that is conceptualized in a way that actually touches readers. It’s sort of like they way I was able to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas as a girl without being creeped out even though I don’t understand how that is possible when I watch it now.

The narrative reads very much like a story. Not like a book, but like an actual story told in the oral tradition. This technique is not often used outside of the realm of fairy tales, but Pullman works the style aptly. It works especially well with the edition I read which includes black and white illustrations by Leonid Gore. The illustrations kind of suggest what Edward Gorey would have drawn if he didn’t work in such outline oriented ways for anyone who was wondering.

This novella (I can’t bring myself to call it a novel) also received tons of accolades in the 1990s when it came out. It was winner of the 1997 Silver Medal Smarties Prize, A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year for 1998, and a NYPL Best Book of the Year also for 1998. I mostly agree with this praise. The story is a little thin on character development, but given its length that’s to be expected. Considering it in terms of being a tiny book, the story is really tight and well-put-together.

For more about the “Frederick Must Die” Rule see also: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/26/051226fa_fact?currentPage=all

The Talented Clementine: Another young-ish Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Talented Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla FrazeeWriter Sarah Pennypacker and illustrator Marla Frazee join forces once again to continue exploring the adventures of Clementine, a very unique third grader with a very big problem in The Talented Clementine (2007) (the second book in the Clementine series).

Find it on Bookshop.

In order to raise money for the school, Clementine’s class is going to have a talent show where every student is expected to take part. That’s all well and good if you have a talent, but Clementine doesn’t seem to have any. Every other kid (literally) in the class is doing cartwheels. Her best friend, lovably-snooty Margaret the fourth grader, is going to explain how to dress fashionably. Everyone seems to have a great act. Except for Clementine.

In her search for a talent, Clementine discovers a lot of things she can do like math in her head better than her own father or Margaret’s brother (who is not, Clementine is quick to point out, her boyfriend). But you can’t do math in a talent show. Margaret tries to pass one of her numerous, and alphabetized, talents to Clementine. But after an ill-advised encounter with beer bottle caps, glue, and a pair of sneakers that seems like maybe not the best idea.

Just as Clementine is at the end of the rope, sure she has nothing to offer to the show–her school’s principal realizes something Clementine had missed bringing everyone’s new favorite third grader out on top.

I really loved the first installment in this series (Clementine) and was thrilled to find that The Talented Clementine is just as good. Pennypacker keeps all of the good things from the first book while expanding the characters here. This book spends more time at Clementine’s school and with Clementine’s very cool, very likable mom and dad.

I also like that the book has some real drama as Clementine struggles to find a talent without getting too sad. By the end of the story everything is okay and, more importantly perhaps, Clementine and readers realize that everyone does have a talent (even if it’s not always something you can perform on stage).

Frazee’s illustrations continue to add to the prose making Clementine and her world even more vibrant than the text already does. The continuity is also admirable. It is clear from the illustrations of Margaret that her hair is growing out. Which, believe it or not, brings me to the next point: While the stories do work together, this book can stand alone. It would, of course, be better to read the series in order but not vital.

I dare say “The Talented Clementine” is as good as its predecessor Clementine and am anxiously awaiting the third installment in the series (Clementine’s Letter is scheduled to release this April). I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Clementine is a vivid, independent character who has the capacity to make reading fun for readers of all ages.

“Can we be done now?” (A CLW review of “Clementine”)

Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla FrazeeIt might seem odd to call Clementine (2006) by Sara Pennypacker (with illustrations by Marla Frazee) a chick lit book. Chick lit does not conventionally refer to children’s literature, it barely makes it into the young adult genre. But, when I say chick lit I don’t mean a romantic comedy book. Instead I am referring to a novel written by a woman with an empowered female protagonist. Using this modern definition of chick lit, Clementine definitely fits the bill.

Find it on Bookshop.

When the book starts, third-grader Clementine is having a not-so-good day at school. Okay, fine. It’s more like a not-so-good week. Really, it might be a downright bad week. (Incidentally, the story style here might remind readers of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” a picture book, written by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Ray Cruz, in which a boy slightly younger than Clementine works his way through a lousy day of his own.) It starts when Clementine has to miss out on recess to catch up on writing in her journal (she hates her journal) and only gets worse when she tries to help her best-friend Margaret, a girly fourth-grader, get gum out of her hair.

Clementine is used to getting in trouble and spending time with the principal of her school though so she tries to make the best of the situation, which in the fine tradition of children’s literature eventually brings Clementine out on top. The whole “trouble” aspect of the book is the only thing that bothers me about this series. Other reviewers often refer to Clementine as a child with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or similar problems, which I find irritating because it is not accurate and is, frankly, merely the problem-du-jour that drug companies are using as excuse to medicate children. The anarchist in me also rankles at the idea of a child as young as Clementine being sent to the principal for asking questions and being otherwise engaged with her surroundings. (I noticed that this aspect of plot was already mellowed in the second book in the series The Talented Clementine which leads me to believe I am not alone in my criticism).

Here’s what Clementine is really like: an exuberant, imaginative, creative child. Clementine’s teachers often accuse her of not paying attention, but as Clementine points out she notices lots of things that no on else even thinks to watch for. That’s on top of her great ideas that just pop into her head.

If you aren’t in love with this little girl yet, you will be once you start the book. The story is what I would consider a lower-level chapter book. The chapters are a few pages, but the print is large and broken up by Frazee’s wonderful illustrations that really bring Clementine and her family to life making this book ideal for a child to try to read themselves or to work through with a grown up.

Pennypacker does a great job here of capturing a real authenticity in Clementine’s narration. Her prose is child-like with a keen sense of perception and, even better, empathy and humor (readers never learn the name of Clementine’s baby brother because she insists on calling him names like “Rutabega” because it’s the only thing worse than being named after a fruit). Comparisons have been made between Clementine and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona. I am inclined to agree with the comparison and hope that Clementine will have the same staying power that Ramona has been lucky enough to enjoy.

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency: A brief review

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency (1977) by Daniel Pinkwater, illustrated by Tony Auth (find it on Bookshop)

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency by Daniel PinkwaterI wasn’t sure about the book when it was foisted upon me by one of the children’s librarians. Chickens . . . they don’t seem that interesting. This is not the case for 266 pound chickens like Henrietta.

Arthur brings Henrietta home on Thanksgiving having failed to procure a turkey (or duck, or normal sized chicken) for his family’s holiday dinner. But, upon meeting Henrietta, the family decides she might be more pet than poultry. Chaos ensues, however, when Henrietta gets loose.

It’s a cute story and a quick read. The characters created by Daniel Pinkwater (and illustrated by his wife Jill) are memorable and lots of fun. I also really liked the message of the story, which overtly is that “Chickens need love too” but is also just a call for tolerance–something that can never be stated enough. Pinkwater originally wrote this book in the 1970s and I’m pretty confident it will continue to be a favorite for years to come.