Thursday, September 20, 2012


By Ashley Spires

(Kids Can Press, 2009)

I live in a rural area that has a healthy population of coyotes and bears.  There is a tendency for pet owners to keep their furry ones inside.  But how would an animal rate its existence if it were permanently house-bound?  Binky is such a pet.  To be sure, he loves his humans—one big, one small—and his good friend Ted, a stuffed mouse toy.  Life is good.

But adventure calls.  Binky feels the need to travel to outer space.  Binky receives a package from F.U.R.S.T. (Felines of the Universe Ready for Space Travel).  Included in the contents is his official Space Cat Certified badge. 

To Binky, outer space is not the moon, Jupiter and a gazillion stars.  It is outside space—everything on the other side of the windows and doors that confine him.  He yearns to fend off aliens, aka flies, and lay claim to distant lands.  He must train for the mission and ready his outer space gear.  The time has come.

Binky the Space Cat is a 64-page easy reader graphic novel, a good pick for students in grades two and three, a rapid read for grade fours.  It took me awhile to view Spires’ main character as a cat.  The ears never really looked like ears to me, especially when the character is shown from the side or the back.  Eventually I just had to go with it.  The black and white blobby is a kitty.  The other characters and illustrated backgrounds are clear and appealing.

The story’s structure and humorous tone bear a strong resemblance to Mélanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel series by the same publisher.  Perhaps too strong.  This is essentially Scaredy Squirrel as a graphic novel instead of a picture book.  In the Scaredy series, a squirrel fears leaving the safety of his tree; in Binky, a cat longs to stray from the comforts of his home.  Kids won’t mind the similarities.  In fact, this is a great book to recommend to young readers who love Scaredy Squirrel. 

We know that one way readers strengthen comprehension is by making connections to what they read.  Kids easily make personal connections text, but it is harder to get them to make book-to-book connections.  The pairing of Scaredy Squirrel with Binky the Space Cat would support students in thinking this way.

If nothing else, reading this book will prompt you to take your pet for an immediate outdoor excursion.  If you don’t lead this endeavor, who knows what plans your pet will come up with on its own?!

Sunday, September 16, 2012


By Jonny Duddle

(Templar Books, 2009)
There’s an edginess in the air.  I always sense it before the big holidays.  Thanksgiving.  Christmas.  International Talk Like a Pirate Day.  Yes, mateys, the day is creeping up on us—September 19. Tick, tick,... And, if you’re like me, all you’ve got in your talking treasure chest is, “ARRRR!”  Makes a strong initial impact, but you’ve got to have something as a follow-up.  How about a book?

Last year, in a last-minute ITLAPD rush, I dug through the children’s library shelves and came up disappointed...nothing but fool’s gold.  Perhaps someone had already pillaged the collection because I found a couple of cutesy titles that failed to capture the pirate spirit and a few older text-heavy books that lacked the visual appeal for today’s youth.  This year, I began my search in August and sailed away with The Pirate Cruncher.  A worthy find, indeed!

The story starts with a bone thin old fiddler who wanders into Port Royal and captures the attention of the pirates at the Thirsty Parrot.  I’m guessing it’s more the lyrics, than the tune:

I was sailing one day and what did I see?
An island of gold in the scurvy sea!
With a fiddle-de-dee,
There’ll be treasure for me.
Fiddle-de-dee, across the sea.

Immediately the motley crew dream of bags of, rubies, gold.  (Only Captain Purplebeard’s faithful macaw strays from the revelry:  “I’d rather have a bag of peanuts.”)  The pirates hastily down their last pints of grog and board their ship, the ominously named Black Hole.  (Arrr!  Methinks this may be a springboard to foreshadowing.)

The fiddler adds another verse to his chantey.  Seems the island vanishes and no pirate has ever returned. Pirates, of course, are a hardy lot.  But when the fiddler sings on about a pirate-crunching monster, the crew members begin to quiver (“I forgot:  it’s the Parrot’s Point picnic today.”).  Nonetheless, no one can keep Purplebeard from his golden opportunity. 

I shan’t reveal more.  But do take a peek at the ending before sharing with children.

Duddle’s tale captures the true spirit of pirate adventures and his colorful digital illustrations are pure visual candy.  Hunt down this treasure to make your Talk Like a Pirate Day a rich, successful celebration.

Now I’ve got to get started on taste sampling all that Halloween candy I’ve stashed before sending off my letter to Santa. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Written by Allan Ahlberg

Illustrated by Bruce Ingman

(Candlewick Press, 2008)

Drawing instruments have been book stars of late.  I recently reviewed The Obstinate Pen and now a pencil, a paintbrush and two erasers have prominent roles in The Pencil.  At the outset, a pencil rests on a blank page before discovering its ability to draw squiggles, then objects.  First, a boy.  The boys wants the pencil to draw a dog and the dog, in turn, wants a cat which leads to a predictable chase through areas that the pencil quickly draws.  Each new creation asks the pencil for a name.  The boy becomes Banjo, the dog, Bruce.  There is Mildred the cat and Kitty the paintbrush.  But there be limits to all this naming.  After the pencil draws a ball, this text follows:

“What’s my name?” said the ball.

“Don’t be silly,” said the pencil.

The ball then made a sad face.

“All right, then…Sebastian,” said the pencil.

As everyone knows, sad-faced balls always get their way.  Perhaps only the pencil will go unnamed.

The characters soon want color.  Enter the paintbrush.  All is glorious until an exuberant eraser emerges, threatening to obliterate all that has been created.

This is a quick-paced story, told in succinct sentences that create a rhythm that allows the reader to focus more on the ongoing changes in the illustrations.  Pencil and paintbrush earn a well deserved break by book’s end, at which time the reader will be only too happy to take a blank paper and a few art tools to create his own drawing adventure. 

This is a clever picture book that will captivate an elementary school audience.  To put it in corny terms, readers will be drawn to it.  [Insert groan here…but don’t let my lame humor dissuade you from tracking down this title.]

Sunday, September 9, 2012


By Kate & Jim McMullan

(Joanna Cotler Books, 2006)

I’ve seen it many times.  A boy doesn’t want to look at a book…there’s too much playing to be had.  But then, out comes a book with a race car or construction machinery, someone starts to read and the boy is enthralled.  No doubt, that will occur in many schools and homes as teachers and parents introduce young boys to I’m Dirty.  The picture of a smiling backhoe will lure the boy into the book, but the words will keep him there ‘til the end.  He’ll be hooked from the first page:

Who’s got a BOOM, a dipper stick, and a BUCKET with a row of chompers?  ME!  And that’s just my REAR end.

Honestly, that kind of opening would have been lost on me, but I could get lost in animal books while the Smash Up boys delight in dirt.  The backhoe is the main character of this book, but a mucky muck boy could easily place himself in the vehicle’s wheels. 

The backhoe is tasked with cleaning up an illegal dumping ground and Kate and Jim McMullan create a four-page reverse counting book in the middle of this picture book, with the rig clearing 10 torn-up truck tires…down to 4 cat-clawed couches…and finally 1 wonky washing machine.  For me, it’s a sad statement about how we view so much as being so easily disposable, but little boys will simply be fascinated in imagining the backhoe do its work.

A stump removal is the next focus for the backhoe and the reader is challenged with making realistic machine noises for “Mmmmmmmmmmpuh!” and “TIM-BERRRRRRRRRR!”  After a solid day’s work, the backhoe has a mud bath, emerging plenty dirty.  Good luck convincing little boys to take a bath after finishing the book.  I imagine many listeners will think, If the backhoe can be happy in the dirt, why can’t I? 

I’m just here to point out a few good books.  Sorry, but I’ll leave the rest of the parenting issues to you.

Monday, September 3, 2012


There is so much excitement in elementary schools as a new year begins.  Still, there is also a palpable amount of nervous energy.  What will my teacher be like?  Will I make new friends?  If I put one more pencil in my backpack, will the whole thing explode?

Everyone deserves a fresh start.  I’ve blogged these picture book favorites before, but I am listing them here with links to the original posts for your convenience.

Here’s hoping it’s a great year, with students discovering books that strengthen a love of reading, parents and teachers finding a little downtime to engage in their own reading pursuits and class pets discovering new ways to reuse newsprint.

I hear a bell ringing.  Stay calm and enjoy the ride!


Written by Kay Winters

Illustrated by Renée Andriani

(Dutton Children’s Books, 2010)

This is a great book to get a child or an entire class thinking about their hopes and dreams for the new school year.  It’s one I return to every year.  There is something so wonderful about renewal.  (Click here for the original post.)


By David Shannon

(Blue Sky Press, 1999)

True, some children will wish they were home battling monsters and worse on the videogames, but most are truly happy to be back in the classroom.  David is the kind of student I worry most about.  He’s certainly eager, but all those school rules don’t make much sense to him.  This year, let’s keep David’s spirit intact and find ways to channel all that exuberance!  (Click here for the original post.)


Written by Nicola I. Campbell

Illustrated by Kim LaFave

(Groundwood Books, 2008)

Going back to school wasn’t always a happy time.  Many aboriginal children faced separation from their families, language and culture, spending the year in residential schools.  This beautifully illustrated book is a way to spark critical thinking early in the year.  (Click here for the original post.)


By Rob Scotton

(HarperCollins, 2008)

Poor Splat.  He’s a jittery mess.  What will school be like?  Can he put it off another day?  Forever?  This humorous book may serve as a springboard to talking about what children are nervous about with the start of school.  (Click here for the original post.) 


Written by Troy Wilson

Illustrated by Dean Griffiths

(Orca Book Publishers, 2004)

There once was a superhero known as Perfect Man.  Now he’s a teacher.  He is still saving the world, one child at a time.  This book honors the heroic deeds teachers do every day.  (Click here for the original post.)


Written by Sharon Creech

Illustrated by Harry Bliss

(Joanna Cotler Books, 2001)

If you can’t read this book and think it is about your school, you’ve got a problem.  All year, I am reminded of Principal Keene’s genuine impression of where he works—a fine, fine school with fine, fine students and fine, fine teachers.  And yet Mr. Keene still needs to learn a thing or two.  No matter how wonderful school is, there still needs to be time to pursue other interests.  (Click here for the original post.)

These are my back-to-school picks.  What are yours?  Leave a comment and mention a title or two.  I’d love you to steer me in the direction of other reading treasures!

Sunday, September 2, 2012


Written by Troy Wilson

Illustrated by Dean Griffiths

(Orca Book Publishers, 2004)

Perfect Man is a perfect book to begin the new school year.

Perfect Man is a real superhero who has done many amazing feats to save the world time and time again.  Naturally, he is idolized and there is no bigger fan of Perfect Man than little Michael Maxwell McAllum.  To Michael, Perfect Man rocks!  He rules!  He is the superhero of superheroes! 

But then Perfect Man holds a press conference to announce he is getting out of the superhero biz.  Lots of other able rescuers in masks and capes.  Perfect Man will stick to his human identity.  A reporter asks, “What will you do?”  The reply:  “Oh, I’ll find something.  After all, there’s more than one way to save the world.”

The announcement doesn’t faze Michael Maxwell McAllum.  Perfect Man will be back.  He always returns. 

But time passes and the other superheroes take on all the menacing threats to society.

When school resumes in September, Michael discovers Perfect Man’s new identity.  Yes, he is Mr. Clark, Michael’s new teacher.

Michael didn’t recognize him at first.  He wasn’t wearing his costume anymore.  His hair was thinner.  His stomach was rounder.

Oh, how this book makes me do cartwheels!  In my mind, at least.  I am not a gymnastically gifted superhero.  How wonderful for a teacher to be portrayed as a superhero, saving the world one student, one class at a time!

He saw all the good stuff and helped them bring it out.  He helped them find their super powers.

One of my all-time favorite picture book illustrations appears near the end of the book.  Dean Griffiths provides an aerial view of the classroom, with Michael hovering by Mr. Clark’s desk as the two talk about Michael’s power to write.  The rest of the students have cleared out for recess or for home, but Michael is completely captivated by his teacher’s inspiring words.  Yes, this is how teachers can be “superhuman”, inspiring children to do their own super deeds.

Part “The Incredibles”, part Frindle, this is a book to warm every teacher, to reaffirm why we work so hard in the classroom, in the halls and on the playground.  Enjoy!