Saturday, April 27, 2019


Written by Seth Fishman

Illustrated by Isabel Greenberg

(Greenwillow Books, 2017)

Prepare to have your mind blown. Big numbers have a tendency to do just that. Sometimes they cause a panic. Like in math class. In that case, I draw a dollar sign in front of the number. Imagining that it’s money—your money—always makes it more palatable.

Or stars. Don’t big numbers become more fascinating when we imagine them as stars in the sky? The titular quantity (100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) of stars is only the first number Fishman presents. Indeed most of the numbers in this book are gargantuan—the trees on Earth, all of the ants, the number of children (“or smallish snakes”) it would take to stretch from Earth to the moon. Some numbers don’t seem so large until one considers the context. Most alarming for me: Fishman tells us the average human consumes 70 pounds of bugs in a lifetime. (From now on, I shall be more selective about opening my mouth!)

A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars is absolutely mesmerizing. The facts are relatable to kids and Greenberg’s colorful illustrations depict diverse people. Even better, the book has one of the most useful Author’s Notes I’ve read. (What a great way to introduce kids to this oft-ignored component of a book!) In it, Fishman talks about how the numbers in the book are estimates and that the numbers will constantly change. (Mind boggling for kids!) “We can get very near the correct number on many things,” Fishman says, “near enough for us to understand how big they are—especially in comparison to the world around us.” The Note also breaks down place value to the billion trillions (or sextillions), enough to stretch everyone’s mind.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019


By Mo Willems

(Hyperion Books for Children, 2018)

When you're young, losing a tooth is a big deal. I forgot that until I became a principal. Then I'd see kindergarteners and first graders come down to the office with a buddy, tooth in the palm of their hand, proudly telling the school secretary they lost their tooth. While I'd ham it up--"Oh, dear! Where'd you lose it? We should do a search!"--the school administrative assistant would reach in a cupboard to get a plastic tooth holder for the tooth-lite person to take home the little white nugget. Smiles all around.

I Lost My Tooth! is one of Willems' easy readers, a hefty 85-page book that is a quick page turner for the most part. The bulk of the book is taken up by the "BIG Story" about a bunch of squirrels fretting over Zoom Squirrel's lost tooth. And it's as silly as you'd expect.

     ZOOM SQUIRREL:     The tooth was loose.
     FLINK SQUIRREL:     Aha!
     ZOWIE SQUIRREL:    You should not let a tooth go loose, Zoom Squirrel.
     WINK SQUIRREL:      Teeth have no sense of direction.
     FLINK SQUIRREL:     You should have used a leash.

These squirrels are as corny--or as Willems would say, acorn-y--as I am.

The reading level is slightly higher than Elephant and Piggie books so it may require more support and it may not generate as many encore readings. Kids will like bonus features like the Emot-acorns in the bottom corner of pages and the Acorn-y jokes that appear after the main story. I Lost My Tooth! also includes nonfiction information at the end of the book, explaining what teeth are made of and comparing numbers and sets of teeth in squirrels, bears and sharks. (I also like the fact that this book has a table of contents which Willems intentionally points out to readers.) As is often the case with factual material, the reading level goes up a couple notches with vocabulary such as enamel, research and theory. This part of the book will require extra support. Still, it's refreshing to get the real scoop about squirrel teeth after all the zany fun.

I Lost My Tooth! doesn't have quite the charm factor of the Pigeon books or the Elephant and Piggie series but it will still be an entertaining experience for young readers, another memorable notch on their reading journey.

Monday, April 22, 2019


By William Joyce

(Antheneum Books for Young Readers, 2015)

Admittedly, I'm torn when I see books like this. Boogers, captains in underpants, farting dogs...not my thing. But then again, I wasn't the kind of kid who chugged root beer on a quest for the biggest belch. This book isn't for me.

And that's okay. It has an audience. I can see boys doing a double-take when they see the title. Did Mrs. Read really get this book for our library?! Yes, BILLY'S BOOGER will be one of the popular books in circulation. Because boogers are gross and hysterical (and apparently tasty according to four finger-active classmates).

BILLY'S BOOGER: A MEMOIR portrays Billy (author William Joyce's younger, fourth-grade self) as a creative boy who makes mashed potato-pea towers on his plate and does best with "invented" sports at school. The accompanying '50s-retro illustration shows a focused Billy, wearing flippers, a golf bag and holding a ping pong paddle in his mouth, ready to swing an oversized racket at a pitched pineapple. It doesn't jive with his P.E. teacher.

Things are worse with other subjects. Math is a special challenge. When the school announces a book contest, Billy gets excited. Here's a chance to channel his imagination. At this point, Joyce creates a smaller book within the book, younger Billy's booger book, complete with more primitive comic-style drawing, hand-print font and invented spelling. (Personally, I'd have called the book "Billy's Boogers" and given larger roles to other boogers. Why not go big?)

SPOILER ALERT: Billy's book doesn't win. Not even close. But, when the librarian puts the entries into library circulation, Billy's is most popular.

This echoes what I felt as a kid. The books with award stickers were the ones to avoid. They were the ones the librarians oohed and aahed over, the ones that made me restless with boredom. The really good books--the ones my boy group clustered around--never had silver-ribbon stickers.

So let a new generation of boys revel in BILLY'S BOOGER. Let them snicker as they take turns checking it out. Let them be amused when they take it home and proudly show it to tsk-tsking parents. Yes, it's a book and it's reading. Go with it.

Saturday, April 20, 2019


Written by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts

Illustrated by Laura Park

(Little, Brown and Company, 2014)

I'll admit to Patterson-envy. It's one thing that his name is a constant on the adult fiction bestseller charts, but he has a solid stake in the middle grade list as well. Always another book, always another hit.

Oh, to be James Patterson!

This is the sixth book in the Middle School series, centered on Rafe Khatchadorian, a young comics artist with a knack for getting into trouble. The story begins with the news that the arts school Rafe planned to attend in the fall has closed. Thus, he is faced with going back to Hills Village Middle School. Reentry is not exactly a no-brainer since Rafe was previously expelled from HVMS. Moreover, Vice Principal Ida P. Stricker is now the principal and her equally rule-thirsty sister, Charlotte P. Stonecase, is the new VP. Rafe cannot return to HVMS unless he successfully completes a week-long intensive wilderness survival program prior to the start of school. And so Rafe, his mom, his grandmother and his sister Georgia head off  to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. As his car-mates sing a robust version of "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain," Rafe stews over his predicament, changing the lyrics:

     You'll be miles from civilization when you come!
     You'll be fighting dehydration when you come!
     You'll be riding on the river,
     Maybe eat some raccoon's liver,
     And you can't bring e-lec-tron-ics when you come!

Under the stern leadership of Sergeants Fish and Pittman, Rafe and seven other troubled (or in trouble) kids have to work through a series of nine challenges, from tower climbing to fire building to white water rafting, all of which require teamwork and grit. Participants must earn a certain number of reward tags at various points during the week in order to continue on the tortuous quest.  

The story sets the perfect tone and pace for middle grade readers with lots of humor tossed in. The comics which can take up part of a page or run across several pages complement  the narrative and are usually even funnier than the main story.  They portray chronically unfortunate Rafe, sometimes under the name Loozer, as he encounters his nemeses, be it Principal Stricker, Sergeant Fish or serpent-transforming Carmen. Kids could find great satisfaction just from skipping to all the comic sections--and surely some will do just that--but it's worthwhile to read the entire book, taking in the comics as text breaks.

My one quibble is it's a challenge to distinguish the seven other campers without most of them being single-trait caricatures. Veronica is the quiet talker, Burp is the pathological liar. Only Rafe's frequent task partner, Carmen, gets to become a fleshed out character and, even then, the information is limited. This really is The Rafe Show.

And an entertaining show it is. It's easy to see why Rafe Khatchadorian helms an eleven-book series. Kids will relate to the trials and humiliations of Rafe as he goes from one book setting to the next. Gosh darn it, Patterson--with a hand from Tebbetts and Park--knows what he's doing! 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019


Written by Julia Denos

Illustrated by E.B. Goodale

(Candlewick Press, 2017)

This is a picture book that oozes with quiet charm. It follows a young boy at dusk, heading out from his home to walk the family dog through his neighborhood in Somerville, Massachusetts.  The boy appears to be of that age where he finally has some independence in roaming the local streets and, as the title suggests, the experience allows him to notice the simultaneous goings-on through a variety of windows of other houses and multi-family dwellings. It’s a simple, captivating book, imploring the reader to be more observant of his/her surroundings during local outings while also appreciating that warm feeling of returning home once again.

Saturday, April 13, 2019


By Mo Willems

(Hyperion Books for Children, 2015)

Mo Willems is a genius. He takes simple, timeless concepts and makes them fresh and funny. In I Really Like Slop! Willems tackles food differences. Sometimes a certain dish from a foreign culture can make kids (and, yes, adults) cringe. It looks different, it smells different. Trying it is out of the question. Indeed, a strong negative reaction can make the person eating the dish feel pretty awful.

The meal at the center of this amusing book is Piggie’s titular slop and it’s hard to imagine a dish more polarizing. Elephant Gerald is outright repulsed. “YIKES!” he exclaims when seeing Piggie’s bowl of green glop. And then the judgy, “You EAT that!?”

Piggie is unfazed. “Pigs really, really, really, really, really like slop!”

Gerald remains critical. “What about all of those...flies?”

The flies,” Piggie says, “are how you know it is ripe!” 

Ah, but of course.

Gerald doesn’t want to hurt his friend’s feelings when offered a taste. Still, kids will easily relate to Gerald’s reticence. It takes twenty-one pages for Gerald to muster up the courage to try the teensiest, tiniest amount of slop. And, SPOILER ALERT, slop is no green eggs and ham and Gerald is no Sam I Am. Again, this is slop we’re talking about.

Just imagine Gerald’s response when Piggie offers up dessert.

The good news for humans is nothing will ever compare to slop. Not broccoli, not bok choy, not even frog’s legs. (Okay, well maybe frog’s legs!) The wonderful thing about Mo Willems’ series books is that the humor will surely make the dozens and dozens of repeated readings more than tolerable for adult ears. Moreover, how delightful it is to hear a young reader become more and more expressive with his or her oral reading. The added bonus of Piggie and Gerald books is that the dialogue bubbles are color coded, Piggie’s lines in pink, Gerald’s in gray. Adult and child can take turns playing the two characters during shared reads. What an opportunity for early positive reading experiences!

Now pass the slop.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019


By Owen Davey

(Flying Eye Books, 2018)

I expose my bias when I say I have a hard time finding nonfiction books for children to recommend. Part of it is a chronic problem in the publishing industry: books may pack a lot of information but they lack in entertainment. Would a boy pick up this book if he weren’t assigned a project on, say, Brazil or guinea pigs? If he did pick it up for fun, would he actually read it or just peruse the pictures and a few sidebars? A book may have compelling facts, but too often they are not compellingly presented. Too many nonfiction books for young readers make me feel like I need to buy some poster board and start covering it with facts that begin with the phrase, “Did you know...?”

It’s a good thing I didn’t glance at the back cover of Bonkers about Beetles because there it is again: “Did you know...?” (I still can’t read the text that follows.) I’ll confess that I have spent very little time thinking about beetles; to be sure, I’ve never wanted to become a coleopterist (a person who studies these creatures). Perhaps a true test of this book is whether or not I have more interest in beetles after reading it. I’m still not going to change careers, but at least I’ll give beetles a second glance. Success!

The language in the book is fairly simple and clear, providing for smooth reading and comprehension for students in grade five. Owen Davey provides plenty of pictures that support the text. In fact, the book is crawling with brilliantly colored and patterned beetles, so much so that it may be overwhelming. Does the violin beetle, for instance, get its due with a single sentence as compared to the mole beetle? Probably not.

Two beetles—fireflies and ladybugs—are “Featured Creatures” and given double-page spreads, making them stand out. Others getting shorter shrift will be memorable based on how much their trivia facts resonate with the individual reader. For example, I was drawn to the fact that rove beetles resemble army ants and infiltrate ant colonies to eat their young. Gross maybe but clever! Moreover, the iron-clad beetle is well named—its exterior is so hardy, a person could step on it without causing damage.

There’s a conscious attempt to entertain the reader based on how facts are grouped and presented. Page headings include “You Can’t Run, But You Can Hide” and “Dress for Success”. The best of these groupings may be “And the Award Goes to...” with honorees such as the tiger beetle as the fastest (eight feet per second!), the cashew stem girdler as most fashion-minded and the bearded weevil whose “bushy whiskers” give it “the look of a 19th century English gentleman.” (You won’t find that on the Wikipedia page!)

I do have a few quibbles with the book. When labeling the parts of a beetle, numbers are somewhat ambiguously placed beside the particular diagram. A simple line touching the intended part would add clarity to a young reader who may confuse, say, the antennae with the front legs. There is a “Conservation” page about the importance of beetles but there isn’t mention of the destructive nature of some, such as the pine beetle. This would offer some balance. Finally, the index is organized by scientific family rather than simply alphabetically. This makes it more cumbersome to search for the page that mentioned the violin beetle (Family Carabidae) or the horned dung beetle (Family Scarabaeidae). That said, I do think many young readers will be satisfied with Bonkers about Beetles. Mission accomplished.

Saturday, April 6, 2019


By Melanie Watt

(Tundra Books, 2015)

This is another picture book that speaks to the power of the subject matter that can be presented in this format. Watt, the acclaimed author/illustrator of Scaredy Squirrel and Chester books, takes on the five stages of grief as developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross while also chronicling a funny adventure. Actually, there are two stories that play out simultaneously, two examples of loss or change.

First is the titular bug, a housefly that unexpectedly gets sucked up in a vacuum cleaner. The fly goes through denial, bargaining, anger, despair and acceptance as it adjusts to its new environment and a future life seemingly trapped forevermore in the vacuum bag.  But, just before the bug gets sucked in, Napoleon the household dachshund, experiences his own loss, one portrayed throughout the book primarily in the illustrations. The mad vacuumer sucks up Napoleon’s favorite chew toy, a soft little dog stuffie with button eyes. Napoleon navigates this loss, experiencing his own saga of denial, bargaining, anger, despair and acceptance.

I have read this book to classes for its pure entertainment value and it has been a big hit. I do have to specifically point out the fact that the dog’s toy gets sucked up because the kids often miss this piece. It’s a great example of how an audience must “read” the pictures in picture books. Truly outstanding picture books add something extra in the illustrations. 

Watt offers an opportunity for a deeper read, beginning with the first page in which she offers two definitions of the key words in the book’s title: bug and vacuum. 

            Bug:                 an insect; an unexpected glitch
            Vacuum:          a cleaning machine; a void left by a loss
How brilliant that both meanings of each word apply in the book!

Ideally, I’d go through the book a couple of times, on different days. The first reading would be for fun, with some incidental learning of the five stages of loss. (Each stage is specifically introduced on a double-page spread, with the emotion featured as environmental print on a spray can, a box of detergent, a TV dinner box, a book cover and a tissue box.) Before the second reading, I’d invite students to chime in with a retelling of the story. Perhaps one or more of the stages will be mentioned, perhaps they won’t. But the second read allows the reader to stop on each stage and talk about how the bug and the dog are experiencing change or loss. For bargaining, for instance, the fly starts out saying that, clearly, the wrong bug got sucked up. The fly asks to postpone its stay. (“Can I be vacuumed next Monday instead? Tonight’s bowling night with the dung beetles!”) Eventually the fly finds the stub of a pencil and a scrap of paper in the vacuum to write a letter. It makes an offer: Set me free and I’ll be a reformed bug! The dog’s bargaining is simpler. He offers up a doggy treat for the vacuum in exchange for the release of his beloved toy.

A counselor could display the five stages of loss/change and add in examples from the book. It would serve as a great beginning point for talking about kids’ feelings as they deal with loss/change in their own lives (e.g., death of a relative, a friend moving, a change in friendship, news that they have to play inside on a rainy day, a canceled or postponed play-date) or as they try to understand a friend or relative who is experiencing a loss or a change.

I adore Bug in a Vacuum! It’s playful while offering the framework for understanding how we work through some of life’s greatest challenges, disappointments and losses. I hope you’re able to track it down and add it to your personal or professional library.