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Rabbit & Bear: Rabbit’s Bad Habits by Julian Gough and Jim Field

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Hardcover, 112 pgs.
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Rabbit & Bear: Rabbit’s Bad Habits by Julian Gough and Jim Field is an illustrated transition book from beginning readers as move from picture books to chapter books. Bear is a kind animal who is woken up from hibernation, but Rabbit is a disgruntled creature who has some bad habits, like eating his poo.

When the characters are introduced, you expect to see who robbed bear of her food, since the robber supposedly stood on her nose, but the robber seems to vanish in thin air. The illustrations in this story are gorgeous, right down to the wisps of snow falling. Bear calmly handles Rabbit’s cranky retorts and doesn’t even blink at being called “Idiot.” Personally, this household shies away from those words because they are hurtful and can have long-lasting effects, but kids in my daughter’s school and at her age certainly do use that word and others that are far worse. While I don’t like the use of it, I can see how it mirrors a child’s reality on the playground — only here the kids are animals and the playground is the forest.

My daughter reached for this book the moment it entered the house and started reading while eating breakfast. She didn’t eat much before school that morning. She was too absorbed in the story and she easily read the first pages on her own. Because it still has pictures, it helped keep her engaged with the story.

Talk of gravity and digestion, as well as how to build the best snowman, pepper the pages. Kids will learn something while laughing at the antics of these animals, and they’ll be thankful they did as they find Rabbit is later in peril.

Despite a few initial bumps, Rabbit & Bear: Rabbit’s Bad Habits by Julian Gough and Jim Field ended up being a good story about overcoming initial differences and finding a friendship based on caring and giving.

RATING: Quatrain

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (audio and print)

Source: Purchased
Paperback and Audible, 447 pgs. or 14+ hours
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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which was a book club pick from last year and took me more than the month allotted to read, is a look at Chicago’s endeavor to build a World’s Fair to rival that of Paris. Larson attempts to contrast the beauty of the white city created by some architectural greats with the dark serial killings of  H. H. Holmes. The story is one of a city growing up and expanding, which generally brings with it the darker elements of crime. As women began to seek out jobs and not marriage, many were preyed upon by criminals, including Holmes. These comparisons are easy to see, but the main bulk of this book is focused on the political issues of the 1893 World’s Fair and its construction.

“Jane Addams, the urban reformer who founded Chicago’s Hull House, wrote, ‘Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs.'” (pg. 11)

“To women as yet unaware of his private obsessions, it was an appealing delicacy. He broke prevailing rules of casual intimacy. He stood too close, stared too hard, touched too much and long. And women adored him for it.” (pg. 36)

Like the previous book I read by Larson, the narrative is big on detail — too much detail in some places — and this often bogs down the narrative and leaves the reader wondering if the book is about the fair or the serial killer. To finish this pick, I ended up reading along with the audiobook to keep my attention focused, as I found it wandered too much just listening to the audio and too much when reading the book — I started scanning pages rather than reading them.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were those short chapters about Holmes, and it makes me wonder if Larson had a hard time finding enough about him and his crimes to write about him alone — hence the need for the World’s Fair and its comparison with the darker side of Chicago. This was less boring than the previous Larson book I read, which isn’t saying much.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson was a mixed bag for me. The World’s Fair parts of the book were interesting but too long winded, while the parts about Holmes are too little throughout the book until the end. Saving the show-stopper for last is a detriment for this book. These subjects are not really related to one another, and the only thread holding them together is Larson’s slight juxtaposition of them and the fact that they both occurred around the same time. It would make readers wonder if Holmes would have been as successful as a serial killer if the World’s Fair had not distracted the police, officials, the government, and tourists alike.

RATING: Tercet

Other Reviews:

Logan and Luna Find the Magic Tree by Cristina Hanif, illustrated by Murray Stenton

Source: Author
Paperback, 34 pgs.
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Logan and Luna Find the Magic Tree by Cristina Hanif, illustrated by Murray Stenton, is a delightful exploration of imagination for children, and it reminds adults that there is a time to slow down and spend time with their kids. As I did a preliminary edit of Cristina’s manuscript, I’m just going to give you what my daughter thought about the book and what I observed when she was reading it out loud for her homework, rather than my normal review format.

My daughter really carefully looked at each, vivid illustration. She was engaged with the characters and the story. As she read, she did stumble a bit over more challenging words like “original” and “differentiate,” but for the most part, she kept reading. One point she looked up at me and said the illustrations did not look like the family they are modeled on, except for the boys. She also thought the story was a bit long, but I chalked that up to her having to read before dinner and before we headed out for her evening music class. She told me that her favorite part was the gnomes, the library, and the adventure in the woods.

RATING from my daughter: Quatrain

Knock, Knock: The Biggest, Best Joke Book Ever

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 352 pgs.
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Knock, Knock: The Biggest, Best Joke Book Ever from Highlights for Children is a book my daughter received from Santa Claus, and if we are taking a trip in the car, she will take it with her. We started telling her knock, knock jokes a couple years ago, and she told us that we made them all up ourselves. Now that she has this book, she can see that we didn’t, but we were clearly inventors in her eyes for a while.

My favorite one to tell her was the one with the banana, and when she got this book, she insisted I had made it up. Eventually, she found it in the book and was surprised that I hadn’t. I love those little moments.

This book has brought her hours of fun and enjoyment, and if you could hear her read from the book and her grampie tell her knock, knock jokes he remembers, you’d be laughing. They go back and forth for hours sometimes. The pure joy makes this book worth every penny Santa spent.

RATING: Cinquain

Mother Earth’s Lullaby by Terry Pierce, illustrated by Carol Heyer

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Hardcover, 36 pgs.
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Mother Earth’s Lullaby: A Song for Endangered Animals by Terry Pierce, illustrated by Carol Heyer, is a delightful bedtime story read for younger kids. The rhymes make it easy for kids to be lulled into sleepiness. Each page has a cuddly illustration of an endangered animal nestling down with their family or in a cozy den. Each of the endangered animals featured in the book are described in the back pages, providing kids and parents information about where the animals live and how much they weigh, etc., as well as why they have become endangered.

My daughter read this one on her own, which was great to hear. She learned new words along the way, like slumber and wallaby, and she loves the words that mimic sounds, like flutter-flap. The book provides a gentle reminder to kids that they can feel safe falling asleep with their families and that the darkness will not harm them. It would be interesting to have a singer sing this lullaby on an accompanying CD to enrich the experience for kids.

Mother Earth’s Lullaby: A Song for Endangered Animals by Terry Pierce, illustrated by Carol Heyer, is beautifully illustrated and the rhymes were spot on. I liked that it was easy for my daughter to read for the most part, though there are some unfamiliar words that she had to work at.

RATING: Cinquain

If da Vinci Painted a Dinosaur by Amy Newbold, illustrated by Greg Newbold

Source: Media Masters Publicity
Hardcover, 40 pgs.
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If da Vinci Painted a Dinosaur by Amy Newbold, illustrated by Greg Newbold, explores the various styles of painting from a number of masters, including Leonardo da Vinci. In the opening pages, young readers are treated to a step-by-step outline of how to draw a stegosaurus in crayon. Many kids begin drawing with crayons, and this opening page highlights how they can draw their own dinosaur before asking them what it would look like if a famous painter and/or artist used dinosaurs in their paintings.

Through imaginative renderings of famous paintings, the author and illustrator work in tandem to engage young readers in an exploration of artistic styles, famous works of art, and playful pretend games. In one instance, kids are asked to find how many dinosaurs are hidden in Diego Rivera’s painting. This was a great way to introduce my daughter to some famous works of art and she was stunned to learn that a can of soup became a famous piece of art. She asked if she could sell the soup from our pantry to make lots of money, and I told her that art is in the eye of the beholder. So we did have a good discussion about that.

One quibble I had as a parent with a young reader is that there are no pronunciation keys for some of the harder to pronounce names. These could help parents sound out the names with their children. I prefer these in books because it demonstrates that like my daughter, sometimes I need help pronouncing names. This helps her to feel less frustrated.

Not only is drawing explored, but also painting, stamping, and more. Art is what you make it. In If da Vinci Painted a Dinosaur by Amy Newbold, illustrated by Greg Newbold, kids can see how art is transformed with dinosaurs and it will get them thinking about their own art work.

RATING: Quatrain

Parkland Speaks: Survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories by Sarah Lerner

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 192 pgs.
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Parkland Speaks: Survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories edited by Sarah Lerner is deeply moving and filled with passion — a passion for making a difference and a passion for the lives that were cut too short and should be remembered. From students to teachers, these essays, poems, photos, and drawings will make you an emotional mess. Reading through this collection, you can tell how scared these kids were when the shooting occurred on Feb. 14 , 2018. The lives of these unsuspecting students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was upended by one school shooter.

The initial reaction was disbelief because many thought the second fire drill was just routine, but the rapid fire soon became the scariest thing they had ever heard. Many lamented they didn’t stick to their routines and wait for friends, while others wanted to have done more to save their friends. There was the interminable wait for their friends to respond, but the silence was deafening. The heavy weight of sadness was soon wielded as a weapon against those who dare not to talk about gun reform, with many kids marching and lobbying for change still.

From “Can’t You Hear?” by Alyson Sheehy

You can blame what you want, pull on whatever thread
Bully us into silence and treat us like we don’t matter.
However, don’t forget there is no future when all of us are dead
Although it seems that is still not enough for all lives to matter.

Can’t you hear the screams now? Cause they are only growing louder.

The speech from Emma Gonzalez is widely known, but it bears repeating.

From “We Call BS” speech by Emma Gonzalez

“The students at this school have been having debates on guns for what feels like our entire lives. AP Gov had about three debates this year. Some discussions on the subject even occurred during the shooting while students were hiding in closets. The people involved right now, those who were there, those posting, those tweeting, those doing interviews and talking to people, are being listened to for what feels like the very first time on this topic that has come up over 1,000 times in the past four years alone…”

Parkland Speaks: Survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories edited by Sarah Lerner must have been a cathartic experience for the writers, artists, and photographers who participated in sharing their stories, emotions, and trauma with readers. It’s a must read for anyone who does not understand the movement toward gun control. Our world has changed, our children are no longer safe in school, and more guns are not a viable solution.

Rating: Quatrain

Sleepover at the Museum by Karen LeFrak, Illustrated by David Bucs

Source: Publisher
Hardcover, 40 pgs.
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Sleepover at the Museum by Karen LeFrak, illustrated by David Bucs, is a delightful read full of adventure and riddles for young readers to solve. A trio of friends, including the birthday boy Mason, are invited to have a sleepover at the museum. This is an adventure that they will never forget, as it tests their knowledge of history, evolution, and biology. These friends work well together solving the riddles and in the process Mason gets to imagine what it would be like to sleep in each of the rooms at the museum. Which one will he actually pick, is something readers will have to find out for themselves.

This was a book that my daughter and I read together over several days as she did her nightly reading. There were some large words like “biodiversity” and “behemoth” that were a challenge for an early reader, but sounding out smaller chunks helped her get through them. She loved reading the riddles with Mason and his friends and even figured some out on her own. She was very proud that she knew some of the answers. The images are detailed and colorful and will have kids looking at everything all at once.

Sleepover at the Museum by Karen LeFrak, illustrated by David Bucs, will test kids’ imaginations and knowledge, as well as ensure they strengthen their vocabularies. My daughter was thrilled with this book, and enjoyed following Mason on his birthday trek through the various parts of the museum.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Karen LeFrak is a creative and philanthropic New Yorker. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Mt. Holyoke College. Karen continued her education earning an MA in Music History from Hunter College. Her thesis “In Search of the New Classics,” which surveyed the commissioning activity of the New York Philharmonic from 1842-1986, won the Dean’s Award in Arts and Humanities. Karen’s education also includes courses in archival management and historical editing at New York University. In 2010, in recognition of outstanding achievement, the Hunter College Alumni Association elected her to the Hunter College Hall of Fame.

About the Illustrator:

David Bucs studied illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. After working in the animation industry in Los Angeles as an art director and character designer, David moved to Beijing, where he was a designer in a 3D animation studio. He loves to create characters, bringing them to life through strong expression using digital media. David is the illustrator of Sleepover at the Museum by Karen Lefrak (forthcoming from Crown/Penguin Random House). He has also created artwork for Capstone, Highlights magazine, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt leveled readers. David lives with his wife and young son in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where life is sweet. Find him online: @davidbucs / davidbucs.com.

Best Books in 2018

I read fewer books this year, but some of them were fantastic. A lot of the best books I read were poetry. I did read some really great children’s books, too.

I’ve decided to keep the list short this year to only those books that stayed with me long after reading them. This does not mean the other books I rated five stars or four stars were any less fantastic.

Without further ado, here’s my list of the best reads from my year in reading:

1. The Hunger by Alma Katsu is my favorite kind of horror book — based in reality, elements of the supernatural, and deep tension.(my review)

2. Crumb-Sized by Marlena Chertock readers will be immersed in the narrator’s life of debilitating daily pain and how to cope and turn negatives in positives. (my review)

3. Nevertheless, We Persisted, with a foreword by Sen. Amy Klobuchar is a phenomenal collection of essays from those who have endured darkness and seen the light at the end of the tunnel. (my review)

4. Louisiana Catch by Sweta Vikram is fiction that exposes real life dangers that face many of us in the 24/7 social media world we’ve created. From catfishing to abuse, Vikram has developed a multi-layered novel of survival and strength. (my review)

5. Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown is the one children’s book that my daughter reads over and over when she wants to read before bed, during the day, or any time really. Rabbit lead character with an active imagination. (my review)

6. How to Love the Empty Air by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz is a love letter to the past and the passing of a mother. Told beautifully, Aptowicz examines the anxieties we all feel when loved ones do not assuage our fears that they didn’t arrive home safely and explores the empty spaces in between when we say “see you soon” and when it is too late to see them. (my review)

What books are on your best of 2018 lists?

Wild Embers by Nikita Gill

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 160 pgs.
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Wild Embers by Nikita Gill is a collection of poems to empower women to embrace all that they are — wild or not — and to inspire them to love themselves enough not to fall into the deadly traps of wolves.

One of my favorites from this collection was “Multiverse” in which the poet examines the concepts of time and universes — parallel lives in which things are better. I also loved “Your Heart Is Not a Hospital” in which the idea of fixing lovers and friends is explored. “Learned Helplessness” and “The Bones of Trauma” also are fantastic. These poems are personal and examine the roots of abuse and learning to move forward and love oneself.

Gill takes on some fairy-tale characters and goddesses and recharacterizes them in poetic sketches. But these are not as in-depth or as powerful as those persona poems created by other poets. They barely scratch the surface of these characters and sometimes read like a litany of characteristics we learned about in school. While the purpose and intent are sound — empowering women — the execution fell flat for me. I far preferred the first half of the book that was more personal.

Wild Embers by Nikita Gill is a good first collection, even if the second half of the collection falls a bit flat. The beginning poems are worth reading more than once and sharing with others.

RATING: Tercet

About the Poet:

Nikita Gill is a twenty four year old madness who likes to write short stories that are, kind of like her, barely there. She has recently published her first anthology and is now working on her book of poetry.

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.