Great Chinese New Year Books.

The Year of the Rabbit by Oliver Chin (ages 4- 8 )

This is the sixth in a planned 12-book series that introduces children to the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Oliver Chin introduces young readers to the characteristics of each zodiac animal through lively stories accompanied by exuberant illustrations. The Year of the Rabbit follows the escapades of Rosie, a long-eared hare with a nose for adventure. Along the way, she meets the boy Jai and other animals from the Chinese lunar calendar. By story’s end, Rosie discovers that her unique traits serve her well.

Bring in the New Year by Grace Lin (ages 4 – 8 )  reading level 2

This exuberant story follows a Chinese American family as they prepare for the Lunar New Year. Each member of the family lends a hand as they sweep out the dust of the old year, hang decorations, and make dumplings. Then it’s time to put on new clothes and celebrate with family and friends. There will be fireworks and lion dancers, shining lanterns, and a great, long dragon parade to help bring in the Lunar New Year. And the dragon parade in our book is extra long–on a surprise fold-out page at the end of the story. Grace Lin’s artwork is a bright and gloriously patterned celebration in itself! And her story is tailor-made for reading aloud.

The Great Race: The Story of the Chinese Zodiac by Dawn Casey (Ages 4 – 8 )

And they’re off! Thirteen creatures in China have come to the river to join in the Emperor’s race. Who will win the ultimate honor of naming the first year of the new calendar? And what will happen to the thirteenth animal? Join Rat, Monkey, Dragon and all the others in this exciting race to the finish.

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Kids pick their top 100 books

The National Education Association did an online poll a while back and here’s what kids picked as their favs.

1. Harry Potter (series) by J. K. Rowling

  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – AR 5.5
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – AR 6.7
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – AR 6.7
  4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – AR 6.8
  5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – AR 7.2
  6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – AR generic 7
  7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – AR 6.9

2. Goosebumps (series) by R. L. Stine

Beware, The Snowman by RL Stine
The Haunted School by RL Stine

3. Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
Accelerated Reading level – 1.5

4. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
Accelerated Reading level – 2.1

5. Arthur (series) by Marc Brown

6. Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Accelerated Reading level – 4.4
(read aloud edition)

7. Shiloh (trilogy) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
(boxed set)
Accelerated Reading level – 4.4, 4.8, 4.9

8. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Accelerated Reading level – 5.7

9. Holes by Louis Sachar
Accelerated Reading level – 4.6

10. The Giver by Lois Lowry
Accelerated Reading level – 5.7
by Lois Lowry

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“Chester Cricket’s Tale of the City” by David Ulin

From David Ulin’s LATIMES blog.  January 5, 2011 |  6:00 am.  My mom sent me this review when it was reprinted in the Chicago Tribune. It reminded me how much I love both Cricket in Time Square and Charlotte’s Web by Garth Williams.  It’s a classic that stands the test of time from generation to generation.  Perfect bedtime reading for you and your kidlets.

CrickettimessqMy favorite books for kids are those that start out naturalistically and then go quietly, gently off the rails. “Charlotte’s Web” is a perfect example: E.B. White’s descriptions of New England farm life are so precise, so deftly rendered, that it seems entirely believable when the animals start talking and Charlotte begins to spell out words in her web.

This, of course, is one of the wonders of children’s literature, its sense of the world as mysterious, even magical, its recognition that there is much in daily life beyond our reach. At its best, childhood is like that also, although more often, it can be a landscape of arbitrary rules and inexplicable adult tension, in which too much happens (literally and figuratively) above our heads.

George Selden’s “The Cricket in Times Square,”which celebrated a quiet 50th anniversary in  October, is another book that, like Charlotte’s Web, takes place in a recognizable universe that has been tweaked to make a place for the wondrous alongside the mundane. It hasn’t been overlooked exactly — it won a Newbery in 1961 and was made into a 1973 animated film by Chuck Jones — but somehow, I think, it’s never quite received its due.

Maybe that’s because of its similarities to “Charlotte’s Web” — both are evocatively illustrated byGarth Williams, and both involve, in part, a child developing an intense relationship with a creative insect — or maybe that it takes place in Manhattan, where I grew up. It’s hard, as a kid, to see the miraculous in the familiar, or at least that’s how it seems to me.

Either way, “The Cricket in Times Square” is a subtle masterpiece, a story that unfolds almost entirely in the Times Square subway station, where a family named Bellini owns a small, beleaguered newsstand. One evening, the Bellinis’ young son Mario hears the chirping of a cricket and makes the displaced insect his pet. We see the development of a bond between them, as well as the growing friendship between the cricket, whose name is Chester, and two other animals who call the station home: Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat. The first time, Chester sees Harry, he is terrified that the cat is after Tucker, but the two city-dwellers set him straight.

“Hello,” said Chester. He was sort of ashamed because of all the fuss he’d made. “I wasn’t scared for myself. But I thought cats and mice were enemies.”

“In the country, maybe,” said Tucker. “But in New York we gave up those old habits long ago. Harry is my oldest friend. He lives with me over in the drain pipe.”

This is my favorite scene in the book, with its understanding of the urban promise, the idea that in the city, we can (must) somehow set our tribalism aside. It’s as hopeful a moment as can be imagined, because if cats and mice can get along, why not human beings?

The same is true of the rest of the book, which is expansive, optimistic, marked by a sense of New York as a place of wonder, “full of the roar of traffic and the hum of human beings,” in which “Times Square were a kind of shell with colors and noises breaking in great waves inside it.”

That’s great writing, concrete enough for kids yet nuanced enough for adults, and each time I read it, I fall in love with Manhattan all over again. How could I not, especially after Chester begins to play arias and pop standards that draw hundreds of customers to the Bellinis’ newsstand? Fifty years later, the message remains consistent: Everything is possible, after all.

— David L. Ulin

Image: A Garth Williams illustration from “The Cricket in Times Square,” in a limited-edition lithograph available from Every Picture Tells a Story. Credit: Used with permission of Every Picture Tells a Story.

Easy Reader Series That Boys Will Love

The question I  get asked the most often is — can you recommend something my 5, 6, 7-year-old boy will actually want to read?

It’s a tough age, for both boys and girls, because they’re used to being read to and frequently haven’t quite gotten into the habit of reading on their own.  Or they want to read, but get frustrated because the material that interests them is too difficult for their reading level.

Here are three different series, each of which has lots of books in the series so if he likes it you can get more.  I’ve included a sample page from each series so you can gauge for yourself if the reading level is appropriate for your little man.

The Fly Guy series by Tedd Arnold is adorable fun with quirky cartoons and zany plots that keeps kids reading and laughing.  In the first book we meet a boy who goes out searching for a smart animal to take to The Amazing Pet Show and bumps into a fly that is intelligent enough to say the child’s name, Buzz. Although his parents and the judges feel at first that a fly is only a pest, not a pet, the insect puts on a performance that astounds them all and wins an award.

Got a little superhero at home?   It doesn’t matter if his favorite crime-fighter is Superman, Batman, Spiderman or even, gulp, Wonder Woman, there are tons of these “I Can Read” books in which good always defeats evil. This series will have them reading without even knowing that it’s good for them.

The P.J. Funnybunny series is a very sweet series that deals with problems that feel relatable to kids.  For example, in this book P.J. thinks that camping is not for girls.  At least, that’s what P.J. and his pals tell Donna and sister Honey Bunny when they want to tag along on a camping trip. But when two mysterious ghosts frighten the boys all the way home, only the girls know the real story.

Next time, I’ll tackle the same topic except we’ll switch genders and talk about girls as emerging readers.

“The Adventures of Nanny Piggins” by R.A. Spratt

Mary Poppins, move over—or get shoved out of the way. Nanny Piggins has arrived!

Why didn’t I come up with this idea?  The Adventures of Nanny Piggins by R.A. Spratt (grades 3 – 6) is irreverent fun that is impossible to resist.  This is a most excellent choice for out loud bedtime reading that I guarantee will have both parent and child giggling.

As the story opens we learn that Nanny Piggens was most recently employed at the circus as the pig shot out of a cannon.   She assumes the title Nanny when she spies a “Help Wanted” sign on the lawn of the Green family.  Mrs. Green is dead, and Mr. Green is so tight-fisted he refuses to pay a human nanny. So when a pig with no criminal record who will work for ten cents an hour applies, Mr. Green is delighted.

The children—Derrick, Samantha, and Michael—promptly fall in love with Nanny Piggins because she lets them eat sweets all day, watch as much TV as possible and stay up quite late.  She also comes up with the most marvelous ideas, like taking a boat to China to get Chinese takeout.

Even when things don’t exactly work out as planned (and they rarely do), the high-jinks and hilarity make them excellent adventures. Stuffing adjectives into this review is as easy as watching Nanny Piggins stuff pies into her mouth. This smart, sly, funny book is marvelously illustrated with drawings that capture Nanny’s sheer pigginess.

Readers may worry that this first novel is so full of stories about Nanny Piggins that there won’t be enough left for sequels. Never fear!  The last line of the book predicts Nanny will be stirring up more adventures, possibly even before breakfast. (synopsis excerpts stolen directly from Booklist)

Why Judy Blume is Still Awesome

We must, we must, we must increase our bust!

It’s true.  Judy Blume is kind of my hero.  I remember stalking the shelves of Arlington Heights public school library when I was in third grade hoping to find “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret” so I could check it out for, like, the twenty-fifth time.  The librarian, seeing what book I was attempting to check out, yet again, would cheerfully suggest other titles that she hoped would inspire me to broaden my literary horizons.  I would listen, smiling and nodding, then thank her for her input and shoved “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret” into my backpack.

Unlike many other beloved titles from a childhood long ago and far away, Judy Blume’s books continue to hold up.  Why?  Other than well-rounded characters and excellent plotting, one might posture that it’s actually because she dares to tackle controversial topics that pique kids’ interest like racism (Iggie’s House), menstruation (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), divorce (It’s Not the End of the WorldJust As Long As We’re Together), bullying (Blubber), masturbation (DeenieThen Again, Maybe I Won’t) and teen sex (Forever).

Ms. Blume has written 21 some novels with sales exceeding 80 million copies that have been translated into 31 languages.  Considering her brave approach to “controversial” topics, it shouldn’t be a surprise that she is one of the most censored authors of all time.  I say good for you, Judy Blume!  In fact, on the list of the top 100 most challenged books between 1990 and 1999 at the American Library Association, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, comes in at number sixty.

This book tells the tale of an eleven year old girl, Margaret Simon, who is growing up with no organized religion (her father is Jewish and her mother Christian).  She, nevertheless, has a close personal relationship with God who she sees as her friend and confidant, someone she talks to when she cannot seem to talk to anyone else about important issues in her life.  When assigned a yearlong independent project at school, Margaret chooses the weighty task of studying people’s beliefs.  Through serious yet sometimes comical situations, the book also deals with several other taboo topics: Margaret having to buy her very first bra; having her first period; jealousy over other girls having more curvaceous figures; and, of course, boys.

Apparently the book lands on the “most censored” list because it deals openly with sexuality and religion.

The Judy Blume books are awesome Christmas gifts.  If you have emerging readers, then start with “Freckle Juice.”  The publishers put together some excellent boxed sets for the holidays for slightly older readers.

Best Boxed Sets Gifts for Readers 4 – 8

If Santa is looking for some gift ideas for good little emerging readers, I have a few suggestions.

1.  What do the Magic Tree House, Junie B. Jones, A to Z Mysteries, Andrew Lost, and Nate the Great series have in common? Not only are the main characters spunky and lovable kids whose exciting adventures have captivated readers for decades—they’re also all found in one place in the Favorite Series Starters boxed set.

This is the first-ever sampler of its kind, introducing young readers to five favorite series through the first book in each. Kids will be clamoring to read more—and will have five different series to pursue—after they’ve read the “favorite firsts” in this collection.

This is an awesome collection for any young reader.

2.  How did four strange teachers get into this little box?

Meet a teacher who eats bonbons, a principal who kisses pigs, a librarian who thinks she’s George Washington, and an art teacher who dresses up in pot holders! They’re all inside this box! They must be getting pretty crowded in My Weird School Collection by Dan Gutman.

3.  Ivy and Bean are two friends who never meant to like each other. This boxed set, Ivy and Bean: books 1 – 3 by Annie Barrows,  is a delightful introduction to these spunky characters. It includes the first three books in the Ivy and Bean series and a secret treasure-hiding box with a surprise inside.

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