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The Christmas Selfie Contest by Rosie Greening, illustrated by Clare Fennell

Source: Purchased from school book fair
Paperback, 32 pgs.
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The Christmas Selfie Contest by Rosie Greening, illustrated by Clare Fennell, teaches Alfie the elf and kids about teamwork. Alfie loves to be the best at everything and boasts about his accomplishments, but he also loves to win. When he learns that Santa is hosting a selfie contest with a special prize he wants to win very badly.  To that end, he ditches his toy making duties to find the best selfie to win the contest.

My daughter read this book on her own as well, with very little help from me. This makes reading all of these 400 minutes per month with her worthwhile. When she looks to me to correct her and say she got it right, she smiles right away. One thing that did trip her up a couple times was the name of the elf, Alfie, and the word “selfie.”

The Christmas Selfie Contest by Rosie Greening, illustrated by Clare Fennell, is a delightful read about teamwork and its importance, as well as a colorfully illustrated book. My daughter laughed at Alfie’s struggles, but she also felt bad for him when he gave up on winning and went back to work in the toy shop. But while she felt bad for him, she noted that his return to the workshop meant he learned something important.

RATING: Quatrain

How to Catch Santa by Jean Reagan, illustrated by Lee Wildish

Source: Purchased school book fair
Paperback, 32 pgs.
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How to Catch Santa by Jean Reagan, illustrated by Lee Wildish, is a delightful book for kids this Christmas season. It’s easy enough for them to read on their own if they are early readers and offers a few more challenging words for older readers. The book offers tips to children on how to catch Santa and involve their entire family. It advises that children be clever but gentle in their efforts. Kids should even ask their parents for what tricks they used to try and catch Santa.

Be warned that your child may want to try some of these out and one of them includes an envelope full of glitter so you can track Santa’s movements throughout the house.

I was delighted to see my daughter read this one on her own and sound out the harder words on her own as well.  She loved the colorful pictures of Santa behind piles of letters and so much more. Even Rudolph makes an appearance. How to Catch Santa by Jean Reagan, illustrated by Lee Wildish, is a warm story for kids who want to keep Christmas adventurous.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author and Illustrator:

Jean Reagan was born in Alabama but spent most of her childhood in Japan. She now lives in Salt Lake City with her husband. In the summers, they serve as backcountry volunteers in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. To learn more about Jean and her books, please visit JeanReagan.com.

Lee Wildish became interested in art at a very young age. He is the illustrator of many acclaimed children’s books, and he has also worked in advertising and greeting card design. Lee lives in Nottinghamshire, England. Visit him on the Web at WildishIllustration.com.

But Seriously by John McEnroe (audio)

Source: Purchased from Audible
Audiobook, 8+ hours
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But Seriously by John McEnroe, narrated by the former tennis star, is a look at his life as a tennis commentator and in television, among other things. This is his second memoir, and I caution that I have not read the first one, You Cannot Be Serious. The introduction to this memoir from his current wife, Patty Smyth, is delightful, and I almost wanted more of her.

I thoroughly enjoyed his recaps of his rivalry with Bjorn Borg and his perspective on some of tennis’ current greats, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, as well as Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Pete Sampras. He does talk about the Williams sisters but not as in depth. The tennis aspects of the story are melded (sometimes not well) with his adventures in television and outside the tennis world — including his own talk show. It was also fascinating to learn about his stint as an art dealer and buyer.

Because the narrative jumps around quite a bit, McEnroe’s memoir feels like it could have used some editing, particularly when he repeats things previously said in other chapters. It is clear from this memoir that he clearly still loves the game of tennis, and even though he’s no longer playing competitively, he still gets out on the court from time to time for charity or to just play around. His love of the game is apparent, especially when he comments on major tournaments.

But Seriously by John McEnroe still loves being the center of attention and commands that attention when he’s on the sidelines, in the commentator’s box, or even in charity events. His temper may have mellowed, but he’s still passionate about the sport and a number of other things. The memoir just suffered a bit from his inability to stay on one track or at least connect his train of thought better.

RATING: Tercet

The Gingerbread Man and the Leprechaun Loose at School by Laura Murray, Mike Lowery

Source: School library
Hardcover, 32 pgs.
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The Gingerbread Man and the Leprechaun Loose at School by Laura Murray, illustrated by Mike Lowery, is a book from the series The Gingerbread Man on the Loose, and it pairs the resourceful gingerbread man’s wits with those of a mischievous leprechaun. The leprechaun is on the loose in the school and making big messes. The gingerbread man wants to help his classmates, so he goes on a search for the leprechaun mischief maker with the help of some witty, rhyming notes with clues as to his whereabouts.

My daughter had some challenging words to read in this book like “leprechaun” but for the most part, it was a fun easy read for her. She loved how the gingerbread man trapped the mischief-maker and made him cleanup all those messes. She’s on track to read another 400 minutes this month, and I think she’s getting better the more she practices.

The Gingerbread Man and the Leprechaun Loose at School by Laura Murray, illustrated by Mike Lowery, is just one book in a series, and I think my daughter should find more of these to read as she had so much fun with them.

RATING: Cinquain

Shimmer and Shine: Kitchen Magic

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 64 pgs.
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Shimmer and Shine: Kitchen Magic is a cookbook for younger kids to start learning how to cook simple meals with the help of an adult. The recipes come with a little bit of story from Shimmer and Shine and their friends, as well as an ingredient list and step-by-step instructions. These recipes are easy enough to read that early readers can follow along themselves. Some elements will require help, including pre-heating the oven and taking the items in and out of the oven, etc. I will caution that there are some odd recipes in here for Pizza and ice pops, but they do make for healthy alternatives.

My daughter loves helping in the kitchen with recipes and the Blue Apron boxes (which I have 5 free boxes to give out so if you want one, let me know — you can’t have been a previous customer or previously received a box before).

For her first recipe, she selected Sparkle Cakes from the book, though we did not have the ingredients to make the frosting. We did have some other store-bought frosting, which we used on the cupcakes and improvised with the fruit topping since we also didn’t have raspberries. The recipe for the chocolate cupcakes was easy to follow, though when we added the hot water at the end after everything was mixed, it took a bit to get the right consistency for the mix before putting it into the cupcake pans. Since I’ve baked before, I knew the consistency wasn’t right when we poured it in, so I had to help her mix it more thoroughly. For this recipe, I would have added the water earlier in the recipe.  Otherwise, the cupcakes turned out nice and fluffy and moist.

 

Our second recipe, Cheesy Noodle Flowers, was messy and fun to make, though we had no-bake lasagna noodles, which made it a little harder to roll our flowers up. Eventually we got them rolled up and ready for the oven, even though some noodles cracked and broke.  Despite the messy look of this one, I can tell you it was a big hit in the house and was nearly eaten in one evening with very few leftovers. My daughter was extremely proud of how well it tasted and how much everyone ate.

Shimmer and Shine: Kitchen Magic would make a perfect gift for kids who want to cook with their parents. It makes cooking more of a family activity and helps kids see how things are measured, how long they take to cook, and how much prep time is needed for some recipes. In today’s instant gratification world, kids can learn that taking our time and putting in additional work can lead to some great results.

RATING: Quatrain

The Sun Is Kind of A Big Deal by Nick Seluk

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 40 pgs.
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The Sun Is Kind of a Big Deal by Nick Seluk imagines the sun as a rock star of sorts in the solar system where everyone knows his name and his importance. Even Pluto is in the background of this one. My daughter loves books where she’s learning without realizing it. Nonfiction told in a way that’s fun and engaging will always be a big hit with her. Seluk achieves that for the most part in this book.

The book includes a main dialogue about the sun as well as some sidebars about specific facts on the solar system and space terms like “asteroids.” The pictures are colorful and fun, especially since space can be very black and colorless.  My daughter loved how the planets introduced themselves, with Saturn being the “Hula-Hoop Champion.” And Seluk uses a racetrack to illustrate the rotation of the planets around the sun. Very helpful for younger readers just learning about space. The visuals explaining direct and indirect sunlight and its affect on Earth were helpful as well.

However, there are some larger words like Condensation, Evaporation, and Precipitation that make an appearance in the water cycle section, which younger readers may stumble over. Challenging words, however, should never be a discouraging thing. My daughter and I made a game out of mispronouncing the word and breaking each down into smaller, more pronounceable parts until she got them right.

One of our favorite parts of the book is the visual of the sun’s roll in the water cycle where the sun is putting raindrops down an enclosed slide for precipitation. It’s cute. At first my daughter thought the book was too challenging until she realized how fun the pictures were and the thought bubbles became amusing to her.

The Sun Is Kind of a Big Deal by Nick Seluk is chock full of facts about the solar system, nature’s cycles, and so much more. The pictures are bright and engaging, and the characterizations of the planets and other elements are amusing for young readers.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Nick Seluk worked as a graphic designer before becoming a full-time illustrator. He is the creator of the popular Awkward Yeti comic and author of the New York Times bestselling Heart and Brain, and its follow-ups Gut Instincts and Body Language. His work has appeared on CBSNews.com, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, reddit, and blogs across the internet. Nick lives in Michigan with his wife, three kids, and a very awkward dog.

Fly With Me by Jane Yolen, Heidi E.Y. Stemple, Adam Stemple, and Jason Stemple

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Hardcover, 192 pgs.
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Fly with Me: A Celebration of Birds Through Pictures, Poems, and Stories by Jane Yolen, Heidi E.Y. Stemple, Adam Stemple, and Jason Stemple is gorgeous. The photographs and reproductions of artwork are stunning, bring each bird to life for young readers. With these colorful pictures, it will be hard for young readers to turn away, and parents will be able to use this as a resource for not only the biology of birds, but also in geography lessons in which state birds are talked about. The giant state bird map is wonderfully detailed, as are the pages about migration, ancient birds, evolution and extinction, and so much more.

I originally wanted to review this book because poetry is included, and Yolen’s poems are always accessible to a number of audiences. I wasn’t wrong about that here, either, as her poems in this book are a great way to introduce young readers to birds. There also are poems from Heidi E.Y. Stemple, which are equally accessible. I loved sharing with my daughter how Stemple’s poem, “Vee,” not only examines the migration of geese but is also shaped like the “V” formation of geese.

Fly with Me: A Celebration of Birds Through Pictures, Poems, and Stories by Jane Yolen, Heidi E.Y. Stemple, Adam Stemple, and Jason Stemple is a collection that the whole family can share. It was big hit for its colorful pages and its poetry, but there is so much more to explore in these pages.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Authors:

JANE YOLEN is an author of children’s books, fantasy, and science fiction, including Owl Moon, The Devil’s Arithmetic, and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? She is also a poet, a teacher of writing and literature, and a reviewer of children’s literature.

HEIDI STEMPLE was 28 years old when she joined the family business, publishing her first short story in a book called Famous Writers and Their Kids Write Spooky Stories. The famous writer was her mom, author Jane Yolen. Since then, she has published 20 books and numerous short stories and poems, mostly for children.
Stemple, her two daughters, her mom, and a couple cats live in Massachusetts on a big old farm with two houses.

JASON STEMPLE is an author and photographer. He lives with his wife and children in Charleston, South Carolina.

ADAM STEMPLE is a novelist and musician. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds, Illustrated by Peter Brown

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 48 pgs.
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Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown, follows big bunny Jasper as he travels to the underwear store with his mother. When he sees a ghoulish, greenish glow on the shelves, he has to have those green underwear! He convinces his mom to buy one pair along with the white ones, and he’s simply enamored with them. Eventually, Jasper’s imagination takes over and the creepy underwear begin to follow him everywhere even when he stuffs them in a drawer.

Reynolds knows just how to make a creepy (Halloween read) story come to life, especially when it comes to kids’ active imaginations that see things bumping in the night when there are none. Jasper is a young bunny looking to be seen as a big bunny, but he even doubts himself when the creepy pair of underwear strike. Maybe he isn’t as big as he thought. I’m sure kids of all ages have this feeling as they grow up, even as they put on a brave face.

My daughter loves this book, and it has become a yearly Halloween read since we purchased it a couple years ago at her school book fair. She loves that the main character is a rabbit — her favorite animal of the moment — and that there are creepy things going on. She’s very into Halloween. The illustrations almost give this a graphic novel feel with a noir atmosphere, which makes that green glow all the more creepy.

Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown, is a household favorite. When October rolls around, we reach for this book with several other creepy reads. Now my daughter can read this one mostly on her own, which makes it all the more of a treat for her.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Aaron Reynolds is a New York Times Bestselling Author of many highly acclaimed books for kids, including Dude!, Creepy Carrots!, Creepy Pair of Underwear!, Nerdy Birdy, and tons more. He frequently visits schools and his highly participatory presentations are a blast for kids and teachers alike. He lives in the Chicago area with his wife, two kids, four cats, and between three and ten fish, depending on the day.

About the Illustrator:

Peter Brown writes and illustrates books for young whippersnappers. He grew up in Hopewell, New Jersey, where he spent his time imagining and drawing silly characters. He studied Life Lessons at the School of Hard Knocks, and then got his B.F.A. in Illustration from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye

Source: Caitlin Hamilton Summie Marketing & Publicity
Paperback, 170 pgs.
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Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye is a slow burn, because like happiness it can take time to see when you actually have it. Pye’s characters are all unique in their experiences from a young man rebelling against his perceptions of his father by looking to a career in skateboarding to an artist who’s big ritual signals an end to his long-fought-for break. These stories explore how long happiness lasts, and in many cases, these characters realize that their happiness happened long ago or that their current happiness may be cut too short.

From “Crying in Italian” (pg. 24)

“The children huddle, deciding if their longing for gelato can be satisfied with limonata instead. That’s the question, isn’t it? she thinks. Can one high, desperate longing be satisfied by something else instead?

From “White Dog” (pg. 36)

“From somewhere behind the house, two gunshots sounded rapidly, one after the other. Dunster flinched and Roxanne steadied him. ‘Enemy’s closer than we thought,’ he mumbled.”

Pye’s intimate portraits of these characters reveal the motivations we all have and the worries we carry about our own happiness. If something looks better in someone else’s life, don’t we covet it and wonder what it would be like to be them? We look and think that their happiness is better than our own and we either strive to emulate that which we see or we destroy what happiness we have in seeking out the “other” happiness. Then there is the internal doubt about our own happiness, the happiness we have in the moment — is it real or imagined? What is the shelf life of happiness? It’s probably different for everyone and some of us achieve more than others in terms of emotional happiness, but what does it even mean to be happy?

Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye offers a variety of stories exploring this idea of happiness and what it means in all of its forms. Some happiness lasts longer than others, and some characters soon realize the thing they thought they needed to be happy is not the happiness they had. Big questions for book clubs to explore and so much more.

RATING: Quatrain

PHOTO: Terry Brown

About the Author:

Virginia Pye is the author of two award-winning novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust, and the forthcoming short story collection, Shelf Life of Happiness. Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in The North American Review, The Baltimore Review, Literary Hub, The New York Times, The Rumpus, Huffington Post and elsewhere. She lived in Richmond, Virginia, for many years and recently returned Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she grew up.

She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied with Allan Gurganus, Joan Silber, and Chuck Wachtel. In college at Wesleyan University she learned from Annie Dillard and F.D. Reeve. After graduate school, she served as assistant to Frances Goldin at her literary agency in New York City. Virginia has taught creative writing and literature at New York University, and later in Philadelphia, at the University of Pennsylvania, in high schools, community centers, and in her home. In Richmond, she helped establish and run James River Writers, a literary non-profit. In Boston, she now teaches at Grub Street Writing Center.

Halloween Review: Goodnight Goon by Michael Rex


Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 32 pgs.
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Goodnight Goon by Michael Rex is a fun little parody of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, which was the first book my daughter was given when she was born. She still reads it to this day and sometimes even takes it home from her school library even though she owns a copy.

This story is chock full of all that’s scary. Invading martians, pots of goo, werewolves, ghouls, and more. The rhymes mirror those in the original but with a horrifying twist. Our favorite part was when the monster was told by the werewolf child to get under the bed. Of course! That’s where monsters belong.

Goodnight Goon by Michael Rex is a dark, twisted take on the children’s bedtime story, but still goofy and fun to keep children from crying out for mom in their sleep.

RATING: Cinquain

Pippa by McKenna Bray

Source: Publisher
Hardcover, 36 pgs.
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Pippa by McKenna Bray is a delightful children’s book about a talented young musician who uses her abilities to touch others and cheer them up when they’re blue or hurt. The story is based on the poem written by Robert Browning, Pippa Passes, and will engage young readers in song.

My daughter’s second grade teacher requires 400 minutes of reading, and after several weeks of arguing about not wanting to read at all, she took to Bray’s book quickly. She loved the rhythm of the verse and nearly sang along as she sounded out the words and followed Pippa through the town as she raised the spirits of others. It would be a great addition if the book came with an audio of the song in the book for young readers to follow along with.

Pippa by McKenna Bray shows young readers that they, too, can make a difference in their communities. Pippa is a strong female character for young readers, and it’s good to see that she wants to use her talents to help others.

RATING: Cinquain

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The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher

Source: Publisher
Hardcover, 374 pgs.
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The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher is historical fiction at its finest, successfully blending historical fact with characterization and fictional characters. Anyone who knows the history of the Kennedy family or has read anything about the family beyond the famous president, JFK, will love seeing Kick Kennedy take center stage in her own story. Kathleen Kennedy was the second oldest daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy and spent some of her years in London when her father was an ambassador for the United States. In Maher’s novel, she comes to life as a faithful Catholic who is slightly more independent than traditional allows for. Despite her rebelliousness, Kick only goes so far against her parents wishes, even as she sees the folly of her father’s stance on Hitler’s movement across Europe.

“Kick had always been expected to perform better than anyone else, but here in England she wasn’t just Rose and Joe Kennedy’s fashionable daughter, eighteen years old and fresh from school, who could keep up with her older brothers when she set her mind to it. She was the daughter of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, the first Irish Catholic ever to be appointed to the coveted post in this most protestant of countries. This time, she had to succeed.” (pg. 4)

Unlike the expectations of their father imposed on his sons, Kick felt a different set of expectations from her mother. Catholic upbringing and being a Kennedy were the first and foremost concerns she must deal with no matter the situation. Under intense pressure to maintain her faith and meet the expectations of her family, Kick struggles when she finds herself loving England a great deal more than expected and her eye catches that of William Cavendish. Her world is thrown into chaos when her father is ousted from his position after Hitler breaks an agreement with England. She must leave with her family even if her heart begs her to stay.

Kick’s Catholic upbringing is a major part of who she is, but like her brothers, she also longs to forge her own path. There’s a more delicate balance she must maintain than her brothers merely because of her gender and the expectations of her family that she makes a good marriage, but her independence is also what makes her a Kennedy. Her relationship with her sisters and brothers make this an even richer story, demonstrating not only internal tension as one sibling becomes more favored by their parents. The roller coaster of her family life is only part of the tension in maher’s novel. The world is again at war, and Kick must make decision about how she will make a difference and assuage the longings of her heart without cutting herself off from the family and faith she feels is part of her identity.

The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher is a look at how war changes the world and the people closest to you, and how faith can heal and tear people apart, as well as become a salve for loss. Maher has done her research well, and her version of Kick Kennedy would fit right in with the Kennedy clan.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

KERRI MAHER is also the author of This Is Not a Writing Manual: Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World under the name Kerri Majors. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and founded YARN, an award-winning literary journal of short-form YA writing. A writing professor for many years, she now writes full-time and lives with her daughter in Massachusetts, where apple picking and long walks in the woods are especially fine.