Friday, August 31, 2012


By Jon Klassen

(Candlewick Press, 2011)
Humor’s a funny thing.  You have to be in the right mood for a joke or it will fall flat, maybe even offend.  Such was the case when I first read this book last year.  I did not like the ending.  Not a bit.  Yep, I was offended in the same way I was when I first read the otherwise worthy book, Some Smug Slug.  I am a hardcore vegetarian and I do not like to think of animals eating animals.  Even if it’s the law of nature, part of the life cycle, yada yada yada.  Berries for all!

A few months ago, a colleague came to me, incredibly excited about a picture book he’d stumbled upon over the weekend.  “Hysterical!” he said.  “I could not stop laughing!  Only I can’t remember the title.  Something about a hat.”  Well, we Googled and, to my surprise, it was this book.

I gave it another try.  Okay,…better.  Still thumbs down to the ending.

Third try today.  (It’s hard to get my hands on a copy of the book.  It is ALWAYS checked out of the library.  In fact, I grabbed the book as it was being reshelved.  Apparently, it’s not just my colleague who finds this book pretty funny.) 

Yes, I see the humor…the whole way through the book.  I reminded myself of what Roald Dahl did to Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde and Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Sometimes we need to be entertained in seeing characters get their comeuppance.

Simple story here in I Want My Hate Back.  A bear wanders the forest asking the other creatures if they’ve seen his hat.  It’s missing.  And, yes, the bear wants it back. 

I do love the simple use of color in the text.  Bear’s parts are in regular black ink.  Each of the other animals speaks in colors that correspond with their own coloring (e.g., green font for the turtle; brown font for the deer).  There is one exception, that being the animal whose words are shown in red.  The color matches not the animal, but the hue of the missing hat which this animal clearly knows something about.  All of this builds to the big ending.

Naturally, I prefer a couple of the parts in the middle of the story.  When the bear asks the turtle, “Have you seen my hat?”, the turtle says, “I haven’t seen anything all day.  I have been trying to climb this rock.”  Poor turtle.  It’s not exactly a colossal rock.  We see the good side of the agitated bear when he says, “Would you like me to lift you on top of it?”  Turtle’s reply:  “Yes, please.”  A day’s work accomplished in a passing gesture!

I also love the bear’s response to the clueless animal—mole?  armadillo?—that says, “What is a hat?”  This is where I laughed out loud.

Klassen’s illustrations are simple and effective.  Each page portrays the featured animals and a minimal background.  This allows the viewer to focus on the animal interactions and the search for the missing red hat.

Kids will indeed love this story.  The whole story.  Check it out if you can get your hands on it.  In most households, however, it would make a worthy purchase.  I have a feeling I Want My Hat Back will warrant many encore performances.  With the different colored fonts, it makes a wonderful two-person read-aloud.

Laugh freely.  As I’ve learned, this is not a book to be taken too seriously.

Monday, August 27, 2012


By David Shannon

(The Blue Sky Press, 2006)

There are many splendidly trained pooches.  Ones that sit, stay, heel and vacuum the living room.  These dogs have never been raised by me.  Or, presumably, by David Shannon.  The author/illustrator of the popular “David” books (e.g., No, David!; David Goes to School) has a West Highland terrier named Fergus who is as challenged by rules and expectations as dear David.

At the outset, Fergus charges out the door, in hot pursuit of a cat.  Fergus can’t get the cat and the owner can’t get Fergus.  Calling and coaxing do not work.

Okay, Fergie, time to go in.  Come here, Ferg.  C’mon boy.  FERGUS, COME!  Here Fergie, Fergie, Fergie!  FERGUS MacLAGGAN!  YOU COME HERE RIGHT NOW!  Please, Ferg.  Come on.  Let’s go, boy!
Whoo boy, you know someone’s going to be in the doghouse.  No treat for you, Ferg.  But, of course, charmer that little Fergus is, he gets the treat and the prime spot on the sofa.  Some dogs just know how to rule rather than follow rules.  Let the “smart” border collies dazzle with their obedience.  And let Good Boy, Fergus! Impress and reassure all the failed dog trainers out there. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Written By Cary Fagan

Illustrated by Luc Melanson

(Groundwood Books, 2010)

I don’t usually go for endearing when I’m picking out books about siblings.  Experience tells me bratty and annoying lead to funnier reads.  But I’ve groaned when reading a few recent books that feature pesky siblings.  Sometimes it’s just too much.  Perhaps that’s part of the reason I kept reading Book of Big Brothers when it became clear from the first pages that the book was a tribute to older siblings rather than a platform to humorously disparage them.  The real reason that I persevered, however, is due to the author.  Cary Fagan wrote one of my all-time favorite picture books, the utterly delightful Thing-Thing.  For me, anything he writes deserves a read. 

There is a sense of nostalgia that comes from reading this book.  I may not have had such endearing moments growing up with my siblings, but it is nice to think Fagan—or anyone—may have.  Jerry Spinelli masterfully evoked nostalgia regarding his childhood in Knots in My Yo-yo String:  The Autobiography of a Kid and Fagan’s Big Brothers ably takes the baton handoff. 

The story begins with the boy narrator relating the story of his arrival home from the hospital after birth.  His two older brothers drop him—not due to being cloddish or evil imbeciles but on account of their excitement to be the first brother to hold the newest member of the family.  The anecdotes of the boys’ growing up together lack incidents of teasing the baby brother.  (Indeed, there is one tale of the youngest having the upper hand on them.)  Fagan’s storytelling is as appealing as ever.  Take this description of when the narrator had to stay home sick on a school day:

At recess time I could hear the kids shouting in the school yard.  The afternoon dragged on and on.  It felt like the whole world had forgotten me.

Yes, it’s a far car from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”.  Endearing, to be sure.

Fagan goes on to portray the big brothers as protectors, entertainers, death-of-a-pet consolers and sparkly-ideas-gone-wrong co-conspirators.  Many a parent will read this book and find it a pure work of fiction.  I can picture a mother or father giving the book a bedtime read, sitting between two siblings and interjecting, “Now why can’t you two be like that?!”  But in most homes, even my own, there are (were) such moments.  Sometimes we just have to jog our memories a little more.

Luc Melanson’s illustrations add to the nostalgic feel with a heavy dose of muted greens, blues and reds.  The humans are simplistically drawn in sharp contrast to some of the realism that pops up in furniture, a shoe tread and a Lego robot.

The text is far longer than most of the current crop of picture books.  I’ve attended conferences and heard agents and editors continue to lower the word count maximum for picture books:  1,000…800…500.  Yes, these limits make the slush pile more manageable, but I am glad that Groundwood Books allowed the author the chance to tell the whole story rather demanding the equivalent to a highlight reel.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


By Ashley Spires

(Kids Can Press, 2012)

While vacationing in Whistler, I spotted a sasquatch!  Not on a trail or overtaking a gondola.  It was in the library, of course, on the cover of a picture book prominently displayed in the children’s section.  Naturally, I had to take a closer look.

Yes, it seems that the sasquatch is no hoax.  Indeed, there is one living sasquatch in the world and he is a laundry-obsessed vegetarian named Larf who lives in a cabin in the woods with his pet rabbit, Eric.  In accordance with legend, he’s extremely tall, extremely hair and has extremely big feet.  (But the legend never spoke of Larf’s flashy red scarf.)

Larf likes his quiet existence.  Just thinking about how he’d become a spectacle if he were ever captured makes him break into a sweat.  He does what he can to avoid too-curious humans. 

But then he comes across a news story about a sasquatch making an appearance in the city of Hunderfitz.  This startles Larf.  Could it be that he is not the only sasquatch?  He travels to the city, as incognito as an extremely tall, extremely hairy, extremely big-footed beast can.  What will happen if and when Larf finally meets another of his kind?

Like The ShyCreatures, this book is another conversation starter about legendary creatures and about being different.  As I came to the double-page spread where Spires shows how the sasquatch appearance is turned into a tacky tourist attraction, complete with vendors selling Bigfoot Burgers and stuffed animal sasquatches, I thought of the Dionnequintuplets, the Elephant Man and Knut the polar bear.  These would also make worthy research topics to connect with the book.  Why must we turn rarities and natural marvels into shameless roadside attractions?  What actually happens when the fascination fades?  How should these “wonders” be regarded in a way that is respectful?

There is also a strong message about the joy of solitary endeavors and the sometimes competing need for a real connection—companionship—with someone who is like you.  Just like Larf, we all need to discover our own uniqueness while also finding a likeness in others.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Until I’d read MyLife as a Book, I was unaware that some schools require summer reading.  As should be abundantly clear based on the fact I maintain this blog (and I’m an author and I have a masters in Language and Literacy Development), I am a huge advocate of getting kids to read more.  That said, there is a marked difference between imposing reading and inspiring reading.  I think we should be focused on the latter. 

Call me old school about school, but I have always viewed the school year as taking up roughly ten months of the calendar year.  During that time, teachers introduce students to a variety of learning activities, attempt to instill solid work habits, decide what should constitute homework and hope that students leave feeling not just like they survived but they grew as human beings from the range of experiences. 

There is a growing movement against assigning homework.  Some say it does not advance a child’s learning, particularly up until high school.  Many parents feel it infringes on family time during evenings and weekends when a child should pursue other interests or simply learn to appreciate unstructured leisure time.  Still, homework is the norm in most schools and households.  But required summer reading effectively classifies reading during July and August as more homework.

When I was in school, my English grades were good.  As for Woodworking (“Industrial Arts”) and Physical Education, not so much.  I cannot imagine how miserable summer would have been if my wretched Woodworking teacher required that I build 2 birdhouses and a lamppost over the summer.  What if my P.E. teacher had ordered that I climb a rope three days a week, run laps around my neighborhood and learn to finally connect the bat to the ball as peers smirked and whispered putdowns throughout July and August?

The point is, we all have strengths and weaknesses.  We also need to make personal choices about how to spend free time.  As much as I value reading, it should not be incumbent upon me, as a principal or a teacher, to set forth a reading routine for summer.  I am not there to oversee it.  I should not be prescribing how children and families spend a portion of their vacation.

I do understand that many parents struggle with developing a leisure reading habit in their children.  Teachers do their part during the school year, often assigning reading minutes and requiring students to submit monthly reading charts that document books/pages/minutes read.  At some point, educators have to step back and see if there are any fruits of their labor.

I have always felt that reading attitudes are more important than current levels of comprehension and fluency.  There are many “aliterate” readers who can read, but choose not to unless forced.  Yes, I am sure they are one of the targeted groups for required summer reading.  Will their interest grow?  Fat chance.  I know firsthand.  Beginning around the middle school years, I stopped reading.  At least, I stopped reading school-sanctioned works—namely, fiction books—unless there was a test on the book.  I did, however, spend time reading.  I read a great deal in newspapers and magazines.  I devoured Mad magazine and wondered why entertaining parodies were never mentioned in school before high school.  If I had been required to read certain books or a set number of minutes during the summer, I may have shut down altogether.

I never belonged to a public library summer reading program.  Some kids jump on board, but I didn’t want a sticker or certificate.  That would only have cemented my then-unwanted geek status.  Still, I did bike to the local branch from time to time, checking out a few books on hockey or orangutans or how to get rich.  I didn’t have to do it on a set day or time during the week.  It was just an option that I usually tied in with a stop at the convenience store for yummy, unhealthy summer treats—a Fudgsicle, a pack of gum, a soda or, if I’d just been paid for mowing the neighbor’s lawn, all of the above. 

Have we forgotten what summer is about?  Did the people who now prescribe summer reading have miserable vacations when they were growing up or were they the natural readers who didn’t have to be coerced to read Julie of the Wolves and The Borrowers? 

To be clear, I was not a prolific summer reader.  I spent much more time riding my bike, hiking the escarpment, playing marathon sessions of hide and seek, splashing about in our pool and engaging in a great deal of imaginative play.  Yes, I also watched too much television and let many afternoons crawl by with my head six inches away from an A.M. transistor radio.  I am thankful that I had time to be bored and to have to figure out what to do on my own.

I am reminded of one of my favorite picture books, A Fine, Fine School by Sharon Creech.  It is one of the few in which a principal is a main character.  Mr. Keene loves school and his fine students and teachers.  In fact, he so loves seeing how much everyone is learning that he believes more school will make things even finer.  After all, you can never have too much of a good thing.  School on weekends, holidays and, yes, summer!  This wonderful book is always such an entertaining read-aloud.  The students moan and groan—they even yell!—as I keep stopping the reading and pretend to jot down Mr. Keene’s ideas about more school…just the thing our school needs!  It takes a student to (politely) confront the principal to tell him there are other types of learning that cannot happen at school or under a school’s direction.

During any given school year, I hope teachers do everything they can to inspire a love of reading.  I hope they have built classroom libraries with new titles and not just dusty paperbacks with torn covers (although some of the best reads are the ones that have survived mud puddles and spins in the dryer).  I hope teachers have actively been a part of school and public library visits with their classes.  (It surprises and disheartens me when I see that students do not know their way around libraries.  Where are the graphic novels?  Where are the books about pets?  Where is the Guinness Book of Records?) 

I hope that teachers have introduced new types of books through lively, memorable read-alouds and enthusiastic, informed book talks.  I hope that they have spotted the pretend readers during silent reading times and tried to find something—anything!—that will pique their interest.  Calvin & Hobbes?  Book One from BONE or Wimpy Kid?  The sports section of the local newspaper?  Hopefully, we as educators have done our part in planting a seed.  At some point, I think it is up to the learner and his family to take over.

Recommended reading lists make more sense than required reading lists.  To be fair, many parents are not up on what interests today’s ten-year-olds.  As nostalgic as we may be, Encyclopedia Brown (thank you, Mr.Sobol!) may not have the appeal it once did, even with new book covers.  I think much can be gained from talking with the classroom teacher during the school year if a child is not keen to read on his own at home.  Also, visit that public library and talk with the children’s librarian.  If you are lucky enough to live near an independent bookstore with a well-stocked children’s section, drop in and ask what is selling. 

Nothing, however, can replace talking with your own child about reading.  Let him vent if need be about all the boring books he has been subjected to.  Let him tell you what bothers him about reading.  If you haven’t been there along the way in championing reading, in listening to your child read, in reading to your child and in reading at the same time your child reads, you have a steep uphill climb.  Still, don’t give up.  Pull out a book that has been made into a movie and read it to, or with, your child.  I worked with a group of readers that hated their teacher’s “old-fashioned” book choices.  I surveyed the group and downloaded the script from “Despicable Me”, a movie they all said they thought was hysterical.  We did table reads of the screenplay and improved fluency by re-enacting scenes they chose.  The kids loved it.  (Watch how a child focuses on reading with expression when he is trying to emulate a movie character.) 

The year before, I encouraged teachers to poll their students.  Instead of creating a Good for You reading list, why not have the students each nominate a title?  The list that goes home lists the title, author and the student who recommended the book.  Now the book isn’t something Miss Chang suggested, but one that Johnny thinks is good.  (It would also help if students searched online to see which titles are available at the local library.  The titles should be books that are accessible and won’t totally wipe out a kid’s lawn mowing/Fudgsicle fund.)

Will some children go all summer without reading anything more than a cereal box?  Yes.  Will the reading gap grow?  Most definitely.  If we are really concerned about the reading gap over summer, why not change the school calendar?  Same number of days, but make the breaks shorter and over the course of the calendar year.  Many educators don’t want to get into that discussion.  Ironically, they like their extended summers to do what they see fit.

There are some students who genuinely struggle with reading.  Imposing a reading requirement over the summer may only make things worse.  A parent who tries to help the child read may belittle or overcorrect.  The books may be too difficult in the first place.  The child’s self-esteem as a reader plummets further and a negative attitude (i.e., resistance) grows.  If these children truly need to read in the summer, a tutor or summer school may be an option.  These choices may, of course, do more harm as well.

I don’t believe required readings will close the gap or, more importantly, improve a person’s desire to read.  The same kids who don’t do their homework and don’t do the home reading during the school year will be the same ones who don’t do the “required” reading in the summer.  What then happens?  Do they start school in September with a failing reading grade from summer? 

I picture my summer birdhouse, too wobbly for any warbler, a woeful creation.  A generous “D” on the first day back in Woodworking.  What a long school year it would be.

I suppose the Twitter version of this blog post about summer reading is inspire, don’t require.

What are your thoughts?  I’d love to hear the success stories as well as the frustrations over school involvement in summer reading.

Friday, August 3, 2012


By James Howe

(Atheneum, 2005)

I have posted many reviews trumpeting books for the typical boy.  Books about trucks and demolition and how baseballs are made.  But not every boy is “typical” and not everyone is okay with that.  I was reminded of this when I logged into Facebook today.  Some of my friends mentioned the long lines they endured in supporting Chick-fil-A; others continued to speak against the corporation, posting such links as a pro-gay Muppet poster.  It got me thinking about the boys who know they are gay or who are questioning their sexuality while having to endure a chicken dinner out with family.  That has got to hurt.

Totally Joe is a middle grade novel that chronicles the seventh grade year of Joe, aka JoDan, Bunch.  At such a young age, many do not have a sense of their sexual orientation, but things are very clear to Joe.  He is gay.  There must be a gay spectrum and Joe is certainly at the far end of it.  There is no opportunity to live part of his life in the closet.  He’s the stereotypical version of gay—like Jack on “Will and Grace” or Kurt on “Glee”.  Joe wore a dress at four, played with a posse of Barbies and never understood spitting/farting/videogame-and-car loving boys.  The key difference between Joe and gay TV characters, of course, is Joe is only twelve.  While questioning boys can look to television portrayals and console themselves that It Gets Better sometime later in life, Joe Bunch is living what they are right now.

Yes, Joe faces relentless bullying from classmate Kevin Hennessey and sidekick Jimmy Lemon.  But he also has a strong circle of friends, The Gang of Five (which intentionally only has four members—it’s a math joke they have).  His friends accept him as he is.  Joe is just Joe.  As the title of the book indicates, he is Totally Joe.

This character is also fortunate to have Aunt Pam who fully accepts him and buys presents like buttons with messages that say CELEBRATE DIVERSITY and BEING WHO YOU ARE ISN’T A CHOICE.  Before his thirteenth birthday, Joe has come out to his family and hung out with his first boy crush, a popular, conflicted guy who finds Joe’s “out”-ness a little too out there.

Joe’s personality is irrepressible and readers will be amused by his take on the world.  Take, for instance, this stream-of-consciousness ramble:   

The worst is on Thanksgiving, when we have all these relatives over and the guy-guys are down in the basement watching the Super Bowl or whatever it is that’s on TV on Thanksgiving (and what a football game has to do with Pilgrims and Native Americans is beyond me) (unless maybe at the first Thanksgiving the turkey got overcooked and the Pilgrims tossed it to the Native Americans and that’s how football was invented)(just a guess), and I’m in the kitchen with my mom and Aunt Pam and all the other female members of the family, and I keep thinking I should be down in the basement watching the game, but I don’t want to because I would shrivel up and die from boredom, and, anyway, I don’t speak the language.  I do, however, speak “kitchen” fluently.

Ah, Joe.  James Howe has certainly created a memorable character.

The story is told in the form of an A-Z journal—an “alphabiography”—that Joe’s teacher makes the students keep during the school year.  Mr. Daly also requires that each entry end with a lesson.  These range from “Just be who you are, okay?” in “B is for Boy” to “Popularity is a win-win for the popular kids and a lose-lose for everybody else” in “P is for Popular (Not).”

Be aware that this title pops up when I did a Google search of its title and “banned books”.  Nonetheless, this is a book that adults who work with middle school kids should read.  Moreover, it would generate lively discussion as a read-aloud or a literature circle choice.  At the very least, it should be an individual reading option in middle school classrooms and libraries.  If the school libraries won’t take a chance, then I sure hope public libraries keep it in stock.  There are guys who are not guy-guys who will be totally comforted and relieved to read that not-so-average Joes exist.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Written by Janet Tashjian

Cartoons by Jake Tashjian

(Henry Holt and Company, 2010)

The cover of this middle grade novel immediately conjured up Diary of a Wimpy Kid and that is exactly what the publisher is striving for, as the back cover includes a quote favorably comparing the two.  Just like many hoping to expand boys’ reading repertoires, I bought a copy but let it sit in a drawer for over a year, feeling stupid for falling for the gimmick.

Summer is a great time, however, for frivolous reading.  Turns out that My Life as a Book is better than I’d expected.  Author Janet Tashjian and I have the same agenda.  She too wants to motivate boys to take up reading in the middle years and sheds light on the issue through main character Derek Fallon, a struggling reader who doesn’t want to read.  (How many of us leap into doing things that are a clear struggle?  I have yet to hook up the cords from my new cable box to the TV downstairs.)

The story opens with Derek looking forward to summer, a time for being a nuisance at the local mall, having “grenade” fights with ripened avocadoes and staring up at clouds with his dog Bodi by his side.  But reading threatens to ruin everything. 

The first sentence of the book sets the tone:  “I DON’T WANT TO READ THIS BOOK!”  It is Derek’s reaction to a library find his mother imposes on him.  I wonder how many boys will respond to this book with the same sentiment.  (Imagine the mind trip.  Hey!  The author just read my mind!)  Derek’s desperate mother tries to bribe him with a chocolate chip for each page read and quickly doubles her offer.  As if reluctant readers can be trained like seals.  Derek temporarily escapes the reading push by climbing onto the roof and seeking refuge in the attic. 

The freedom of summer is further mucked up by his teacher.  She doesn’t just dismiss the class with “Have a good summer.  Wear sunscreen!”  No, she hands each student a required reading list.  Three books!  With reports!!  As anyone who is “reluctant” about something, Derek keeps putting off the reading.  This leaves the assignment hanging over his head for his entire vacation.

Fortunately, there are plenty of distractions.  Most intriguing comes from Derek’s attic retreat.  Tashjian is quick to stir the plot.  On page 3, Derek discovers a ten-year-old newspaper article:  “LOCAL GIRL FOUND DEAD ON BEACH.”  The Fallons live in L.A. and the article is from a Martha’s Vineyard paper.  Intrigue!  His mother’s attempts to dismiss the article only make Derek more determined to dig deeper.  Turns out his family is indeed personally connected to the story.

The story is an easy read.  The margins include quick sketches drawn by the author’s son, Jake.  They are intended to emulate the reading strategy Derek’s reading tutor imposes—creating drawings for new vocabulary to strengthen comprehension.  Perhaps it’s because I am an adult, but I found the drawings distracting.  The illustrated words are often not particularly complicated (e.g., mustache, flattened).  I get the feeling some of the words are featured just because the page needs a drawing.  Indeed some of the illustrations don’t prove helpful; rather, they may only add confusion.

Older readers (i.e., adults) may not like Derek’s character as he comes off a bit snarky, but I think the target audience will relate.  My problem is the boy’s age.  He acts far too young to be twelve, even with impulse control issues.  All through the book, I pictured Derek as a fourth grader.

Many parents will relate to the desperate negotiating tactics Mrs. Fallon tries in order to entice her son to read.  At one point, she even attempts to create excitement by putting a required reading book in an empty pizza box.  That’s bound to backfire and create some serious pepperoni madness.  But there are some practical nuggets for struggling readers, too.  In addition to the vocab draw strategy, one of the Learning Camp leaders—yes, summer fun is further squelched—teaches Derek to visualize while reading.  “Just picture every paragraph like a scene in a movie.  Close your eyes and see the character act out the story in your mind.”  Good advice.  Sadly, this doesn’t come naturally to all readers.  Imagine then what happens to reading when the more mature books reduce or do away with illustrations.

This book is intended for both young and old(er) readers.  The young will enjoy the plot and muse over Derek’s impulsive ideas.  Teachers, librarians and parents may see themselves in the novel and gain insights into what to do and what not to do in trying to creating a reading spark among some of the most resistant. 

My Life as a Book should have a long shelf life.