Review of Mitchell’s License, by Hallie Durand and Tony Fucile

Mitchell’s License

by Hallie Durand
illustrated by Tony Fucile

Candlewick Press, 2011. 40 pages.
Starred Review

Here is an absolutely perfect choice for Father’s Day for fathers of small children. How I wish the creators had written it about 15 years earlier when my son was small and nuts about anything related to cars. Now I will have to settle for reading it in storytime, but what this book really needs is a father ready to act it out. Big thanks to Twenty By Jenny for bringing this book to my attention.

The book begins telling us about a typical three-year-old, but then a twist is added that creates all the fun:

“Mitchell never ever EVER wanted to go to bed. Until his dad finally said he could drive there.

“Mitchell was three years, nine months, and five days old when he got his license.”

The picture there shows Mitchell proudly holding his “Remote-Control Dad Driver’s License.”

Mitchell drives Dad as so many children do — sitting on his shoulders and steering with the ears. They have a whole lot of fun with it, with Mitchell inspecting the tires, checking the engine, and cleaning the windshield first. There’s a delightful surprise when Mitchell starts out by driving his car right into a wall!

“The next night, Mitchell remembered to stop and look both ways.
He also learned how to beep the horn.
He liked the way it sounded . . . a lot!”

You can probably guess what the picture to go with beeping the horn looks like, but wait until you see the vigor with which Mitchell pounds on his Dad’s nose!

We get to see a few different bedtimes, with Mitchell becoming a skilled driver and adding fun riffs on the theme, like braking to avoid a collision with Mom and adding oil.

But when Mitchell comes up with a scheme to drive the car to the Gas Station (Cookie Jar), his car malfunctions, and drives him to bed.

Part of what makes this book so absolutely brilliant are the illustrations. Tony Fucile is an animator, with credits such as The Lion King and Finding Nemo, and it shows. You almost feel like you’re watching a movie as you flip through the pages, with plenty of emotion showing on the characters’ faces and plenty of motion in the characters’ actions. When I saw the picture of Mitchell’s Dad’s face after he bonked into the wall, I could almost hear a theater full of kids burst out laughing.

This book is perfect in so many ways. The artwork is not gorgeous, elaborate paintings, but it is absolutely perfect for this story. I hope it will get some Caldecott attention. I notice clever details as I read it again — like Mitchell’s pajamas each night having a car theme, and his room decorated with cars. Mom’s walking by with a laptop, and there’s a cordless phone in a docking station. This is a modern home but fully in the wonderful tradition of books-as-games along with the classic Pete’s a Pizza. Makes me wish I had a toddler to share it with, but meanwhile it brings back wonderful memories of my husband playing with our boys.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Minding Frankie, by Maeve Binchy

Minding Frankie

by Maeve Binchy

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011. 383 pages.
Starred Review

Maeve Binchy’s books always end up keeping me reading until the small hours of the morning. Why, oh why, didn’t I know better than to start reading this book late at night, thinking I could stop after only one chapter? It’s not that the plot is exciting or action-packed, but you definitely get to caring about these people and want to find out what happens to them.

I do love the way she brings characters we’ve already seen in her other books. You don’t by any means have to have read the other books, but you have the sense that these are old friends. Everybody has a story in Maeve Binchy’s books, and in each book she focuses on a set of intertwined lives and the beautiful way they get through.

Minding Frankie is about the birth of a little girl.

Josie and Charles Lynch live in 23 St. Jarlath’s Crescent with their son Noel. They had always hoped Noel would be a priest, and set aside money early on for that purpose. Noel, however, was definitely not interested.

“Not so definite, however, was what he actually would like to do. Noel was vague about this, except to say he might like to run an office. Not work in an office, but run one. He showed no interest in studying office management or bookkeeping or accounting or in any areas where the careers department tried to direct him. He liked art, he said, but he didn’t want to paint. If pushed, he would say that he liked looking at paintings and thinking about them. He was good at drawing; he always had a notebook and a pencil with him and he was often to be found curled up in a corner sketching a face or an animal. This did not, of course, lead to any career path, but Noel had never expected it to. He did his homework at the kitchen table, sighing now and then, but rarely ever excited or enthusiastic. At the parent-teacher meetings Josie and Charles had inquired about this. They wondered, Does anything at school fire him up? Anything at all?”

Later, Noel got an office job instead of continuing his schooling.

“He met his work colleagues but without any great enthusiasm. They would not be his friends and companions any more than his fellow students at the Brothers had become mates. He didn’t want to be alone all the time, but it was often easier….

“He took to coming home later and later. He also took to visiting Casey’s pub on the journey home — a big barn of a place, both comforting and anonymous at the same time. It was familiar because everyone knew his name.”

Meanwhile, Noel’s parents aren’t sure what to do with the money they had saved to train Noel for the priesthood. And then Charles Lynch is told they don’t want him at his job any longer.

Into this home comes a woman from America, Charles Lynch’s niece Emily. Emily’s father moved to America years ago, and never kept in touch with his family. The family isn’t sure what to expect, but Emily is the sort of person who changes people’s lives by getting to know who they truly are.

She helps Charles and Josie realize what they really want to do is build a statue to St. Jarlath. And she helps Noel realize that he’s an alcoholic and needs help.

But then Noel gets a life-changing phone call. A woman he knew once and spent a drinking weekend with wants him to visit her in the hospital. She tells him she’s pregnant, and he’s the father. And she’s about to die of cancer.

So the book is about Noel trying to get his life together and be a father. The social worker assigned to his case doesn’t think he can do it. But thanks to Emily, there is a community of people around St. Jarlath’s Crescent who care and who help him with minding the little girl, Frankie.

That description doesn’t sound like a book that would keep me up reading through the night. But Maeve Binchy’s books are about Community. The characters are quirky, and some are powerfully flawed, but as we watch them working together, helping each other, working out problems, making mistakes, being wonderfully kind, we get hooked into their stories.

Another uplifting and life-affirming book by Maeve Binchy. I highly recommend getting to know the wonderful people who live in her books.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu

by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Scholastic Press, New York, 2011. 312 pages.
Starred Review

Full disclosure: I met Wendy Shang at KidLitCon09 and liked her very much. She’s also a local author, a member of the awesome DC KidLit Book Club, and a volunteer for Fairfax County Public Library — so an all-round wonderful person! Anyway, I was definitely predisposed to like her book, but I confess I didn’t expect to love it like I did. In fact, I checked it out as soon as I saw the library had ordered it, but I found myself putting off reading it. I expected some sort of problem-novel book about being Chinese in America.

I decided I really should read my friend’s book, and chose it as my first choice for the 2011 48-Hour Book Challenge. And I was completely delighted with it! Yes, okay, it does have issues about a sixth-grader being Chinese in America. But mostly, it’s a great story about an American kid whose sixth-grade year does not turn out as she expects it to.

Lucy Wu has been looking forward for ages to the day when her older sister Regina, the one everyone thinks is so perfect, moves out of their shared bedroom and goes to college. But Lucy’s hopes come crashing down when she learns that her grandmother’s long-lost younger sister, Yi Po, is going to come visit for several months. And the only place where she can sleep is that bed Regina vacated in Lucy’s room.

Then Talent Chang tells Lucy’s mother that her mother is starting Chinese school on Saturday mornings. Never mind that Lucy has basketball practice at that time. Her parents see this as her chance to learn how to communicate better with Yi Po. Lucy loves basketball. She lives and breathes basketball.

“When I tell people that I play basketball, I usually get two kinds of reactions. The first is an awkward pause while my entire height of four-foot-nothing gets examined up one side and down the other, followed by something like, “O-kaaaay. What other sports do you like?” The second, while more positive, is really not any better. It’s a big fishy grin, followed by, “Oh! Just like Yao Ming!” Like I have anything in common with a seven-and-ahalf-foot-tall male basketball player, other than the fact that we’re both Chinese.

“But I love basketball. The day I got the hang of dribbling the ball through my legs counts as one of the best days of my life, and that feeling I get when I know the ball’s going in because everything has lined up perfectly is the greatest rush. To me, getting the ball to an open teammate on a no-look pass is a thing of beauty. And tell me there’s something more exciting than the last few seconds of a tied-up basketball game where tenths of a second count.”

So when they announce there’s going to be a basketball game this year between the teachers and the sixth-graders, and the Captain of the sixth grade team will be chosen by who can shoot the most free throws, well of course Lucy wants to be Captain, and her best friend Madison is sure she’ll win. But then she learns that Sloane Connors wants to be Captain.

“She’s the head of a little group that Madison and I secretly call the Amazons, and they can make your life miserable in a thousand different ways.”

Lucy does not want to cross Sloane, but unfortunately Sloane already found out that Lucy was planning to try out for Captain. Lucy wishes Madison would let her be a coward and give up, but Madison is adamant that Lucy will win and lead the team to victory.

I was going to just dip into this book while I was focusing on writing reviews, but I found myself reading it eagerly. And when I finished, I had a big smile on my face. This is a lovely, well-crafted book. Lucy comes across as a very real American kid. Yeah, she complains a bit much about having her great-aunt move into her room — but honestly, what American kid wouldn’t? There’s a boy she likes, and you won’t believe what happens when she gets a chance to have a good conversation with him. (This was beautiful, in a catastrophic way, but I won’t give it away.)

All the elements are woven together expertly — Lucy’s passion for basketball, her relationships with her family members, her birthday party plans, Chinese school and the girl Talent Chang who is annoyingly perfect but wants to be friends, school and the mean girls going after her, embarrassment over the ways she and her family are different, and even some cross-cultural awareness as to what Yi Po went through during the Cultural Revolution. It’s all in there and told in an engaging, warm, and delightful way.

And it’s all woven together with the story of a Chinese idiom that illustrates that things often turn out quite different than you expect. Bad things often turn out to be good, and good things often turn out to be bad.

Well, with this book, I was predisposed to like it, and it turned out to be delightful beyond my expectations. I wonder if there is an idiom for that?

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Review of The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred, by Samantha R. Vamos

The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred

by Samantha R. Vamos
illustrated by Rafael Lopez

Charlesbridge, 2011. 32 pages.
Starred Review

What an exuberant book! And a beautiful and joyous way to easily learn some Spanish words. Fun to read out loud, too.

The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred riffs off the idea of “The House That Jack Built” with a cumulative story of making rice pudding, arroz con leche. This one, however, adds the innovative idea of introducing the items and animals in English, but then once you know what they are, using the Spanish words in later recitations.

For example, a couple steps in:

“This is the goat
that churned the cream
to make the MANTEQUILLA
that went into the CAZUELA that the farm maiden stirred.

“This is the cow
that made the fresh milk
while teaching the CABRA
that churned the CREMA
to make the MANTEQUILLA
that went into the CAZUELA that the farm maiden stirred.”

As you can hear, the Spanish words inserted are fun to say, and the chant takes on a musical feel. This book makes you want to read it aloud, and I found myself doing that even as I just read the book to myself to review it. How much more fun it would be to read to a roomful of children or a child on my lap.

But the plot does get more interesting than just the simple cumulative story. After all the ingredients are in the CAZUELA,

“the CABRA gave out spoons,
the GALLINA sang a tune,
the PATO beat a TAMBOR,
the BURRO plucked a banjo,
the VACA shook a MARACA,
and the CAMPESINO and the farm maiden danced . . .

“. . . and no one watched the CAZUELA that the farm maiden stirred.”

Don’t worry! They do get their delicious dish, and the recipe is provided at the back of the book (as well as a glossary and pronunciation guide).

What makes this book absolutely perfect and completely irresistible is the pictures. The best words I can use to describe them are exuberant and joyous. The colors are bright. And the people and animals are happy and completely given over to celebration.

So this book has it all: Something educational, something traditional, a little bit of plot, great fun for the ear, and delightful to the eye. A winner in every way!

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of The End of the Line, by Angela Cerrito

The End of the Line

by Angela Cerrito

Holiday House, New York, 2011. 213 pages.
Starred Review

Full disclosure: Angela Cerrito is my friend, and was a member of the Writer’s Critique Group I was in at Sembach Base Library in Germany. In fact, I was very happy on the last page of the book to discover acknowledgements that included my name and our other friends from the writer’s group, and even my dear co-worker at the library, Elfriede Moehlenbrock. (And then I remembered that Angela had asked me how to spell her name — but it takes a long time after writing the acknowledgements for the book to actually appear in print.) I don’t think I actually helped with this particular book, but like Angela, I am sure that when I get published some day, I will need to thank the many writers who critiqued and encouraged me along the way.

Before the main text of the book opens, we see these words:

“If you kill someone, you are a piece of murdering scum. When I saw his body all twisted and still, I knew . . . I knew my life was worthless. It didn’t matter what Dad said or how hard Mom cried. There was nothing they could do.

“It didn’t matter that my teachers tried to pretend nothing had changed when I went back to school. ‘Nice to see you,’ they cooed. But I could tell by the way their voices got squeaky that they didn’t believe a word from their own lips. I could tell by the way their eyes swept over me quick. They looked at my feet or over the top of my head, because they didn’t want to look into the eyes of a murderer.”

Then, as the book begins, Robbie says, “They call this place Great Oaks School, but it must be a prison.” Normally, I’d think a kid was exaggerating if they said that, but Robbie definitely has a point.

“I guess my parents have finally given up on me. They’ve locked me up. I’ve been trapped in this room for hours, just me and a school desk with a stack of paper. That’s all, except a yellow pencil making a blister on my finger.”

A school official, Mr. Lester, comes in and tells Robbie to make a list telling who he is. When Robbie’s list doesn’t come up to Mr. Lester’s standards, Robbie doesn’t get any food.

Then the next short chapter takes us back in time to River Falls, the day Ryan, the new kid, showed up. He spent the first day actually under the desk next to Robbie. And then he followed Robbie home and ate dinner with his family.

The chapters alternate between Robbie’s time in Great Oaks School or Prison with chapters about Robbie’s normal life in River Falls. Great Oaks is the end of the line — the school that will take kids no one else wants to deal with.

So what happened to get Robbie to this point? Angela Cerrito does a masterful job of weaving the two stories together. Mr. Lester wants Robbie to talk with the other kids at Great Oaks about what happened, and Robbie doesn’t want to. Meanwhile, Robbie has what seems like a pretty normal life. Sure, Ryan does some strange things, but the more Robbie gets to know him, the more understandable it seems. And Ryan is great with Robbie’s mom’s daycare kids. And he even gets some of their classmates to come to Robbie’s races.

In some ways, I was sorry I read this one so close to Okay for Now, by Gary B. Schmidt, because the two books felt very much alike. But instead of being historical, instead of having a close relative injured in the Vietnam War, Robbie has a close relative injured in the Iraq War, which feels much more immediate. Both books have a horribly unfair teacher, (So unfair, it makes me wonder if Angela drew him from life — because that particular unfair bias just seems too bizarre to be anything but real!) but in The End of the Line, that teacher never does come around.

Another difference is that in Okay for Now, we know what Doug Swieteck’s up against right from the start. We — along with the whole town — expect him to be a delinquent. In The End of the Line, Robbie seems like a great kid. What in the world happened to get him in this mess? Did he really murder someone? And why? As the book goes on, we feel like we understand more and more the anger and despair that are eating at Robbie.

I do love Angela’s website, which dovetails nicely with the book. Since writing lists becomes important for Robbie, Angela offers readers a chance to submit their own lists. Who are you? Answer with a list.

Here’s Robbie’s list:

I am…
I am a person
I am hungry
I am a boy
I am 13 years old
I am a son, a grandson, a nephew
I am sick of this place
I am angry
I am thirsty
I am skinny
I am a runner
I am a killer murderer

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Review of Chalk, by Bill Thomson


by Bill Thomson

Marshall Cavendish Children, 2010, 42 pages.
2010 Cybils Picture Books Shortlist
Starred Review

Chalk is absolutely brilliant. Many of us were hoping it would win the 2011 Caldecott Medal. It came to my attention when it was listed on the Cybils Picture Books Shortlist, so I read it at the start of January. I will be very surprised if it is not my Number One Sonderbooks Stand-out for Picture Books for 2011. Though you never know what the year will bring, Chalk raises the bar very high.

Chalk is a wordless picture book. The pictures are photorealistic, and at first glance you think they’re done by a computer, but a note at the back says Bill Thomson hand-painted all the pictures, which makes the book all the more amazing.

The story is simple, but a knock-out winner. Three children (of three different ethnicities) come to a playground on a rainy day. They find a bag hanging on a bouncy dinosaur ride. The bag contains some sidewalk chalk. The first girl draws a sun shining — and immediately the rain stops and the sun comes out. The second girl draws butterflies, which pop off the pavement and fly away.

Then the boy takes a piece of green chalk and gets a gleam in his eye. He draws a tyrannosaurus rex.

Eventually, his quick-thinking saves them. He does still have a piece of chalk.

The children leave the bag of chalk where they found it, but we see the boy looking back.

You really need to check out or buy this book for yourself and see the pictures yourself. The story is compelling by itself, but the pictures make it brilliant. I don’t think any two pictures are painted from the same perspective. The unique angles on the action, the looks on the children’s faces — so many things make this a book you can read over and over and discover new details each time.

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Review of Keeper, by Kathi Appelt


by Kathi Appelt

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2010. 399 pages.
Starred Review
2011 School Library Journal Battle of the Kids’ Book Finalist

In honor of the finishing of School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, I’m plannning to review the remaining books that competed, but which I hadn’t yet reviewed. It seems fitting to next tackle Keeper, which made it all the way to the Big Kahuna Round, defeating three excellent books along the way.

I read Keeper at the start of the year, after hearing great things about it on the Heavy Medal blog, where people discuss possible Newbery winners. I would have liked to have seen it win an Honor, because this is a truly beautiful book.

This time, I’ll start by giving some highlights from the Battle of the Books judges:

In the first round, Susan Patron eloquently told us why Keeper is so powerful:

“Keeper is heir to the oral tradition; the narrator’s voice is powerful and always present, creating an exquisite tension between what we know is fiction and our urge to hand over our hearts to it anyway. And this narrative switches easily from the points of view of a girl, a couple of dogs, a cat, a seagull, an elderly gay French grandfatherish neighbor, a young stuttering war-veteran surf-shop owner, and more; it shifts from past to present tense, from lyrical to earthy. As ten-year-old Keeper gets deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation, all the characters’ back stories and the setting itself enrich the drama and give it texture. Keeper’s wish, her desperate need, is to find her mother and, under a blue moon, she does—though it’s not the mother she expected. All three of us, my inner librarian, my inner writer, and my inner tween savored every word, and the many surprises that were gradually revealed.”

In the second round, Naomi Shihab Nye also waxed eloquent about Keeper:

“Keeper is resident of a motley, miniature community down on the Texas Gulf coast. She loves her dog BD and her pet seagull Captain who adores watermelon. Her alleged “mermaid mother” Meggie Marie abandoned her 7 years prior to a mid-western escapee called Signe who is only 25 herself. I kept doing the math…Their neighbors, the stuttering Dogie who rents surfboards and the elderly Mr. Beauchamp, still longing for his young love Jack from France, as he waits for his night-blooming cyrus flowers to pop open, create a sleepy, somewhat surreal swoon of neighborhood texture for a little girl to wander dreamily through. Keeper waxes surfboards for Dogie, saves her money, watches the waves and tides closely, lives in a rich drift of fantastic thinking. She wants to see her mother again. And she’s ready to make it happen on the rare night of the “blue moon.” This is a gumbo-rich brew of magical farfetched wishing – spells – plans and lists – melodrama launched in a small rowboat…chapter 55, about all the oceans of the world being connected, is a gem-like poem shining at the heart.”

Have you noticed all these judges are lyrical in describing Kathi Appelt’s lyrical language? In Round Three, Grace Lin was no different:

“When I read the book, suddenly the magic became apparent. I loved the slow unveiling of each story, the way the back and forth narratives seemed to echo the motion of the ocean waves that rocked Keeper’s boat. I found the fantasy elements of Yemaya and Jacque der Mer enchanting and I could feel the heartbreak of each character. Even the animals—the dog BD and the crow Captain had fully-realized personalities.

“The blurring of myth and reality was seamless and the writing was poetic, yet always accessible. But most of all, the theme of the story—that love of all kinds, even the untraditional, are worth keeping— and how it was conveyed was just beautiful.”

Even Richard Peck, the judge of the Final Round, who didn’t choose Keeper, was impressive in its praise:

“To cope with this maternal absence and abandonment, Keeper has recast her mother as a mermaid who has swum away. By this childhood logic, Keeper herself has merblood and the borrowed lineage of “Signa and Lorelie, the siren, the ningyo, and the rusalka and the Meerfrau,” all the mystic mother figures of the deep.

“Kathi Appelt’s story captures that time at the outer edge of childhood when the fantasies that have always kept you safe no longer work. Keeper’s fantasy folds all in a single action-packed twenty-four-hour period (though it feels longer), the night of the blue moon. Keeper’s belief in her aquatic DNA leads her into a series of descending missteps. She frees clamoring crabs meant for the gumbo, and before she knows it she’s literally out of her depth, in pursuit of a mermaid mother.

“This book is a keeper for its gentle tone in chronicling that jarring moment when you can no longer afford to be as young as you’ve been. Every book for the young is the story of a step, and in these pages a girl takes a big one. Where it will lead her, we’re less sure. But that’s what sequels are for.”

My own reaction to Keeper was that it was very slow-moving. In the middle, I almost stopped. Another thing that Grace Lin said pertains:

“Keeper is a book that needs you to be present to appreciate it. It’s not a story that can be half listened to or quickly skimmed, because then you miss the wonder. Appelt reveals the story like ocean waves lapping away bits of sand on a beach until a treasure is uncovered. And it’s the serene watching of the waves, not the sparkling pearl, that creates the book’s charm.”

I did stick with it, and by the time I finished, I was completely enchanted and caught into that world with lots of love and a touch of magic.

Truly a beautiful book. I’m glad it’s gotten the attention of being a Finalist in the Battle of the Books.

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Review of Clementine, Friend of the Week, by Sara Pennypacker

Clementine, Friend of the Week

by Sara Pennypacker
pictures by Marla Frazee

Disney Hyperion Books, New York, 2010. 161 pages.
Starred Review

I love Clementine! By reading Clementine, Friend of the Week, I’ve finally caught up to read the most recent brilliant addition to the books about Clementine. I enjoyed this one very much. The books, besides being clever and funny, are gaining in some depth. There were several plot threads, all related to friendship, that all twined together in this book, even though the storyline is quite simple.

These books are shortish chapter books with plenty of pictures, but there’s so much there. Clementine reveals so much in her speeches, and the wonderful pictures give you a more realistic — and funny — perspective on what’s going on. Taken together, this book is an absolute delight.

Right at the start of the book, Clementine announces that she’s been chosen for Friend of the Week. Margaret, who’s a whole year older, knows all about that, and has plenty of ideas for getting people to write nice things in Clementine’s booklet. The trouble is, when Clementine goes to Margaret’s apartment to see her booklet, something happens that makes Margaret mad, and all of sudden they aren’t friends any more.

Clementine spends the whole week trying to think of ideas, but then her kitten, Moisturizer (Clementine names pets from words she finds in the bathroom.), gets lost and she can’t think of anything else. The story threads get woven together and Clementine finds out what true friendship is all about.

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Review of Bink & Gollie, by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee

Bink & Gollie

by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee

illustrated by Tony Fucile

Candlewick Press, 2010. 82 pages.
2011 Geisel Award Winner
Starred Review

In the tradition of Frog and Toad, George and Martha, and Elephant and Piggie, here’s another easy-to-read book about two friends who are very different, but who have a great time together.

This one’s a beginning chapter book, with 82 pages, rather than a traditional easy reader format. But much of the story is told in the exuberant pictures and there are not a lot of words on each page. Readers will feel they have accomplished something when they finish this book with three chapters.

Bink is short and a little wild, with yellow hair going in every direction. Gollie is tall and calm, and likes things just so. You can see all that from the picture of them rollerskating on the front cover.

The first chapter brings a conflict in their personality types:

“‘Bink,’ said Gollie, ‘the brightness of those socks pains me. I beg you not to purchase them.’

‘I can’t wait to put them on,’ said Bink.”

After some conflict over the socks, the two friends come up with a compromise bonanza.

The book goes on in the classic tradition of friendship tales — with simple situations that test the friendship, but allow the friendship to come out strong and shining. The illustrations in this book tell much of the story and convey much of the emotion behind the words. And it’s fun to read one of these tales where we see cordless phones and a laptop computer in the illustrations. The book is classic — but modern.

This week I had a couple different people ask about chapter books that are not too difficult, but for a child who wants something beyond the traditional easy reader. Bink and Gollie will fill the bill. There are lots of big words: “outrageous socks,” “marvelous companion,” “remarkable fish,” and “extraordinary accomplishment.” But there is not a lot of text on each page, and many of the big words are repeated throughout the book. Children who read it themselves will realize that they have achieved an extraordinary accomplishment.

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Review of The Off Season, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

The Off Season

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
read by Natalie Moore

Listening Library, 2007. 5 CDs. 6 hours
Starred Review

After listening to Dairy Queen, I simply had to find out what happened next. I very much liked the narrator, Natalie Moore, and I could easily imagine her voice as DJ’s voice. (I was disappointed when the library didn’t have the third book in audiobook version.)

In The Off Season, DJ gets injured badly enough that she decides she’d better stop playing football in order to stay healthy for her true sport, basketball. But that’s only the beginning. She breaks up with Brian. Her brother Win has a devastating injury.

In the middle of this book, it seemed like everything that could possibly go wrong was going wrong for DJ and her family. I almost didn’t want to keep listening, because I was hurting for DJ.

Later, when I heard the author speak, I learned that she used to be a screenwriter, so she purposely used the three-act structure where everything looks black in the second act. And believe me, everything looks black in the middle of this book.

However, the author really pulls off a happy ending. DJ tackles her problems with the same fighting spirit that motivated her to play football in the first book — only now the stakes are much higher. By the end, you’re definitely cheering for her.

I have to say that, even though I didn’t like it when DJ broke up with Brian, because I liked him and had fallen for him with DJ — I was very proud of her. She broke up with him because he was ashamed to be seen with her. He never introduced her to his friends or his parents. And DJ figured out that she wanted to be with someone who was proud of her, who wanted the world to know that they were together. I loved it that she did that. I loved it that she figured out that was a dealbreaker. How often do you see that in books for teens? It was one more thing that made this book great — as well as heart-wrenching.

This review may be unnecessary. Those who read the first book, will, like me, be sure to want to read the second and third. But writing it gives me an excuse to again loudly cheer for DJ Schenk. She’s a high school girl with weaknesses and world-sized problems — but she ends up as an inspiration.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.