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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

Elevation by Stephen King

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 160 pgs.
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Elevation by Stephen King is a novella in which Scott Carey finds something strange is going on with his weight but he doesn’t want to go to a doctor or hospital to be prodded and tested.

“Not a wind, not even a high, exactly, but an elevation. A sense you had gone beyond yourself and could go farther still.” (pg. 94)

The story is relatively benign compared to some of King’s other more sinister fare, but it does raise questions about mortality and what we want to leave behind. Carey is an average, overweight, white male, in a rural touristy town reliant on outsiders for its economy for the most part, and in many ways they are cloistered from the realities of the outside communities.

Their bubble is easily burst by the up-and-coming vegan eatery run by a married gay couple, who the townsfolk consider interlopers and have not been kind to since their arrival. As one member of the town puts it, they could have just laid low and things would have been fine but one of them had to introduce the other as her wife. That was too much  “in-your-face.” While we’d love to say that this a cliche of conservatives in rural areas, it isn’t very much and it’s clear that King has seen these people in action first hand. Is his take on Deidre and Missy cliche? It just may be.

Elevation by Stephen King is a breezy read about how to leave your mark and how sometimes even good intentions can be misunderstood and often are. People who have shied away from his novels before may want to pick this up. Nothing gory, bloody, or too dangerous here, but there is a fantastical story about a man striving to be more than he has been as his condition takes control.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Stephen King is the author of more than fifty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. His recent work includes Doctor Sleep and Under the Dome, now a major TV miniseries on CBS. His novel 11/22/63 was named a top ten book of 2011 by The New York Times Book Review and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller as well as the Best Hardcover Book Award from the International Thriller Writers Association. He is the recipient of the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.

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.

The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 128 pgs.
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The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins covers a range of emotion, mirroring the title of the collection with the beauty of Portugal and the sadness of the gloomy rain. Some poems are ripe with his characteristic wit, while others (particularly the one about Seamus Heaney) are elegiac. My favorite poems are those in which delightful moments of observation (anticipated or already known) emerge for the reader.

Such as the opening poem, “1960,” where the narrator is listening to an old jazz album, anticipating the moment when a man’s laugh is heard like a discordant note because the album was recorded live in a club. There is that sense of surprise and familiarity because we’ve all had those moments where someone outside of our group is loud enough to be heard over the hum of conversation or the blare of horns. What has happened to this intruder now that time has passed? And yet, it doesn’t much matter because the moment brings you back to a time you remember fondly.

from "Basho in Ireland" (pg. 12)

I am not exactly like him
because I am not Japanese
and I have no idea what Kyoto is like.

But once, while walking around
the Irish town of Ballyvaughan
I caught myself longing to be in Ballyvaughan.

The sensation of being homesick
for a place that is not my home
while being right in the middle of it.

Collins’ poems are nostalgic and questioning, allowing the reader to see how the ordinary can become extraordinary. How do you become homesick for a place you are visiting at that moment and is not your home? As if something has shifted since your arrival that you can’t quite put your finger on. Isn’t that the mystery of existence?

from "Bravura" (pg. 54)

I will never forget the stunner
modestly titled 'Still Life with Roses,'
which featured so many decanters and mirrors
the result was a corridor of echoing replications.

“Sirens” is another poem that has an unexpected turn, but that little gem you’ll have to discover on your own. Collins is examining notions of being present and how one knows when they are there, in that moment and how long does that last? When do you know it has passed? Do you hold on or let it go? What happens if you do one or the other? Themes like these are strongest in “The Present” and “Bags of Time,” but they recur in each poem throughout the collection, leaving readers with much to consider.

The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins is beautifully rendered with so much to ponder about how time passes even when we’re not paying attention, and how little attention we pay to the things that pass before us and around us. What would happen if we paid a little more attention? Would we get lost in the infinite possibilities? Don’t miss this collection.

RATING: Quatrain

Other Reviews:

About the Poet:

Billy Collins, is an American poet, appointed as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. In 2016, Collins retired from his position as a Distinguished Professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York after teaching there almost 50 years.

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

Pete the Cat’s 12 Groovy Days of Christmas by Kimberly Dean and James Dean

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 48 pgs.
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Pete the Cat’s 12 Groovy Days of Christmas by Kimberly and James Dean as you might have guessed is a reworked version of the “12 Days of Christmas” song. In Pete’s version, his groovy gift giving begins with the grand road trip to the sea. The text in this song is fun and easy to read for young readers, though I’m not sure what is supposed to be “groovy” about it, unless you find fuzzy gloves and cupcakes groovy.  For kids, this may be the case. Or perhaps it was the use of “far-out” to describe surfboards.

The pictures are what I come to expect from these books with basic designs and colors, animals and shapes to attract children to the page. Many of the animal characters from the previous book make an appearance in this one, and kids will like seeing them in action with their gifts. As the song is really about the extravagance of gift giving, it is kind of appropriate that some of the gifts Pete gives are a bit weird, like sloths. However, I’m not sure that kids will pick up on those nuances as much as adults will, and that should prompt a conversation about Christmas and what it means (i.e. not about getting gifts). The last page of the book should help with that since the friends are all at the beach enjoying their company. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating for any preaching here in Pete the Cat.

Pete the Cat’s 12 Groovy Days of Christmas by Kimberly and James Dean is a fun rendition of a classic carol that will have younger readers singing along with different lyrics if they already know  the song. In our case, it was mom why are you saying the lines like that and I had to explain there was a song with different lyrics.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author and Illustrator:

James Dean’s art has sold in more than ninety galleries and shops across the United States. He has devoted his paintings to Pete the Cat for ten years and has turned his natural love for cats into his life’s work. James published his first adult book, The Misadventures of Pete the Cat, a history of his art work, in 2006. He illustrated his first self-published children’s book, Pete the Cat I Love my White Shoes, written by Eric Litwin, in 2008, and the follow-up book, Pete the Cat: Rocking In My School Shoes, in 2011. James lives in Savannah, Georgia with his wife, Kimberly.

In 2004, Kimberly & James Dean sat down at their kitchen table to work on a children’s book together. Their dream has finally become a reality with the release of this new Pete the Cat book, Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses. Both left corporate jobs in the late nineties (James was an electrical engineer, Kimberly worked in the press office of the governor of Georgia) to pursue their passion for art, and they have experienced a life made up of strange and wonderful coincidences ever since. Pete the Cat has brought magic into their lives. They work in side-by-side studios, sharing their home with five cats and Emma the pug.

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.

The Poetry of Us edited by J. Patrick Lewis

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Hardcover, 192 pgs.
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The Poetry of US edited by J. Patrick Lewis is a compilation of poetry representing a number of aspects of our country. Broken down by region, the poems speak to New England, the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Midwest, Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, Pacific Coast, and the U.S. Territories. Former U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate J Patrick Lewis chose more than 200 poems for the collection to demonstrate the diversity not only of our country, but the poets themselves. The color photos from the National Geographic archives are gorgeous and full bleed in most cases, ensuring this collection packs a visual punch as well.

Reading the poems in the New England section was like coming home, particularly when reading David Elliott’s “Boston Baked Beans: A Recipe,” which includes some wonderful unique speech that Boston is known for, even if not everyone speaks dropping their r’s.

This collection also includes some of my very favorite poems from Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg, and other classic poets, but there are also contemporary poets throughout, including Ted Kooser, Jane Yolen, Lewis himself, Naomi Shihab Nye, and more.

The Poetry of US edited by J. Patrick Lewis is a wonderful introduction to our country for younger readers, providing them with just a sprinkling of our geographic diversity and a heap of cultural diversity. From the immigrants who come to our shores seeking a home to those who have lived here since the country was born, these poems and images seek to remind us of who we hope to be — a melting pot of diversity. Heartwarming photos of children being embraced in the nation’s capital, sweeping photos of Niagara Falls and mountains of majesty, the collection brings home the unity we can find together if we put our hearts and minds to it.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Editor:

Former Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis grew up in Gary, Indiana and earned a BA at Saint Joseph’s College, an MA at Indiana University, and a PhD in economics at the Ohio State University. Lewis taught in the department of Business, Accounting and Economics at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, until 1998 when he became a full-time writer.

Lewis is the author of more than fifty books of poetry for children, which find their shape in both free and formal verse and engage a wide range of subjects from history to mathematics, Russian folklore to the animal kingdom. His books for children include Spot the Plot: A Riddle Book of Book Riddles (2009, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger); New York Times Best Illustrated Book The Last Resort (2002, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti and translated into more than a dozen languages); The Shoe Tree of Chagrin (2001, illustrated by Chris Sheban), which won the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators’ Golden Kite Award; and A Hippopotamusn’t: And Other Animal Poems (1990, illustrated by Victoria Chess). His collaborations with other children’s poets have yielded several collections, including Castles: Old Stone Poems (2006, with Rebecca Dotlich, illustrated by Dan Burr) and Birds on a Wire: A Renga ‘Round the Town (2008, with Paul Janeczko, illustrated by Gary Lippincott).

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 Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds, Illustrated by Peter Brown

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 32 pgs.
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Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown, is the latest addition to the Jasper Rabbit series and, of course, my daughter had to get this from Scholastic. In this book, Jasper is obsessed with eating wild carrots he finds in the field on his way to and from school. He cannot help but pull them up and gobble them down. In true Jasper style, he begins to sense that something is wrong — could the carrots be following him?

Even as he thinks he sees those carrots from the field, he turns and finds that they are just orange shampoo bottles, etc. Jasper begins to think his imagination is taking over.  His mother and father reassure him that the creepy carrots don’t exist, but in true Jasper fashion, he comes up with his own solution.

Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown, is another winner in our house, and my daughter loves that she can read these on her own now. I doubt the two books will be sitting on the shelves until next Halloween.

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.