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.


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


“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.

“The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (ages 8 and up) is a novel in words and pictures, an intriguing mystery set in 1930s Paris about an orphan, a salvaged clockwork invention, and a celebrated filmmaker.  It takes the illustrated novel to a whole new level.  Or it puts a spin on the current resurgence of graphic novels.  I’m not sure exactly which one.  Not that it matters because it’s a bit of a quiet masterpiece.

Once you open this book, you”ll understand how it can become addictive.  You want to pick it up over and over, paging back and forth, studying the illustrations, scanning the details and searching the character’s faces.

It’s the story of orphan boy, clock keeper, and thief named Hugo who lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the station, Hugo’s undercover life and his most precious secret are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.

The result is somewhat similar to a graphic novel, but experiencing its mix of silvery pencil drawings and narrative interludes is ultimately more akin to watching a silent film.  This hybrid creation, which also includes movie stills and archival photographs, is unexpected and often poignant.

It’s no surprise that movie titan Martin Scorsese is directing the film adaptation to be released next year.  Please don’t tell Mr. Scorsese that I said this, but I sort of doubt even he can do cinematic justice to this fanciful tale.   Either which way, please please please read the book before you see the film.

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth” by Jeff Kinney

Wimpy kids unite!  Again.  Actually, uh, for the fifth time.  …Not that I’m counting.

This fifth book in the incredibly popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” illustrated novel series, “The Ugly Truth,” is due in stores nationwide today.  Woo-hoo.

Because it was so highly anticipated, Scholastic even allowed kids to pre-order it directly from them which means that scads of third and fourth grade teachers across the nation will be handing out freshly pressed copies to their eager little readers today.

The “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series by Jeff Kinney focuses on a sixth-grade boy dealing with the various hurdles of childhood and tweenhood.  In this newest book, he faces the pressures of (gasp!) boy-girl parties, among other things.

This past March, the popular series was turned into a (incredibly mediocre) live-action film creatively titled “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”

For those of you who just can’t get enough, go to  Sadly, this will surely include my own household.

“Loser” by Jerry Spinelli

The Arabic Cover. Yes, you can get it in English too, if you must

Poor Donald Zinkoff. He’s such a loser — messy, clumsy, slow. And he’s giggly — an all-purpose laugher, whether it’s appropriate or not. Sad really.  He can’t win for losing.  And everybody knows it.

Everybody except Donald.

With regard to his exuberance for life, his second-grade teacher writes on the back of his report card, Donald “is one happy child! And he certainly does love school!”  Donald, it seems, loves everything; he’s a sunshine bottle.  Using a present-tense, omniscient narrative voice, Spinelli charts Donald’s star-crossed course, from his troubled first day of school to an act of heroism that arguably earns him acceptance in sixth grade.

It’s impossible to dislike sunny, sweet-spirited Donald, and readers will doubtlessly be pleased by his victory.  I also applaud Spinelli for choosing to make Donald’s parents a compassionate and accepting pair when it comes to their misfit but utterly earnest son.

The British Cover

Nevertheless, Spinelli creates no idealistic ending here; instead, with a near tragedy, the author demonstrates the differences between those who can continue to see with the compassion of child-like eyes, and those who lose sight of what is truly important. An endearing tale with heart to spare.  If you’re a big person who sometimes likes small person books, do not miss this one.

“Evil Genius” by Catherine Jinks

Who doesn’t love a great anti-hero?  Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks (11 and up) introduces us to the notorious but lonely Cadel Piggott who could easily be pals with Artemis Fowl or Draco Malfoy.

At age seven child, prodigy Cadel finds himself in a shrink’s office for illegal computer hacking.  Child psychologist Thaddeus Roth privately delivers startling counsel, “Next time, don’t get caught.”

As it turns out, Thaddeus is actually an agent of Cadel’s real father,Dr. Phineas Darkkon, a brilliant criminal mastermind who’s been imprisoned for years.  Darkkon arranges to place Cadel at the secret “Axis Institute for World Domination” founded by himself and run by Thaddeus.

By age  fourteen, Cadel, along with a colorful cast of evil comic-book-like fellow student, are studying for their World Domination degree, taking classes in embezzlement, forgery, and infiltration at the institute.

Although Cadel may be intellectually advanced beyond his years, at heart he’s a lonely kid who doesn’t fit in with his peers.  When he falls for the mysterious, brilliant and beautiful Kay-Lee, he begins to question the moral implications of his nefarious studies.

But the question remains is it too late to stop his own father, Dr. Darkkon, from carrying out his evil plot?

Young comic-book fans ready for something a little more substantial will enjoy the school’s aspiring villains including one who floors foes with deadly B.O. Cadel’s moral turnabout is convincingly hampered by his difficulty recognizing appropriate outlets for rage.

Over-the-top evil fun with just enough heart to make anyone anyone root for young Cadel.

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