In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The early reluctant reader: non-graphic novels

Dear Annie,
What an excellent entry on graphic novels for the reluctant reader.  Graphic novels for kids have exploded in the past few years in such a satisfying way.

Jean said a few things about Casey that made me want to offer a few more possibilities.

She's not a fan of anything with princesses or those kind of stories (unless, perhaps, if the princess is wielding a sword).

Can't get past that sentence without offering a brand new book: 
The Princess in Black
by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale: the team that brought us Rapunzel's Revenge.  I have mixed feelings about the illustrations by LeUyen Pham -- a little too cute -- but it's a fun book.  Princess Magnolia is living a Clark Kent existence, serving tea and being prim and pink and proper, when her magic ring, well, rings -- and she makes a polite exit:

The secret of course is that she's the masked Princess in Black.  Her prancing unicorn Frimplepants gets the alarm from his magic horseshoe, sheds his horn and sparkly mane and tail and emerges as Blacky, the princess's faithful pony.  They race off to answer the call from Duff the goat boy whose flock is about to be eaten by a large blue monster:

The battle continues for the next two pages with lots of sound effects.  The princess manages to keep her identity secret from all, although it's clear the goat boy is going to figure her out and become The Goat Avenger and her loyal sidekick.  The type is big and sparse, but the book is 89 pages.  Feels kind of Mercy Watson reading level.

Another book around that level is the energetic and definitely non-princessy Lulu and the Brontosaurus.  It feels like a chapter book, but the type is big, the page-turning is frequent.  And it's a riot.  You described it wonderfully here.

Jean says Casey likes a good battle, and that she'll read anything with cats.  Has their family discovered the Warriors series yet, by Erin Hunter?  The official site is, appropriately, at  They're chapter books that are definitely more advanced than Casey's Magic Tree House level -- but it seems to me they could be right up her alley.  The books are about cats who live in the wild and have created clans with codes of honor and warfare.  Some of their members are house cats who have escaped to the wild and joined them.  This is a  series in which the animals are definitely anthropomorphized, but they still act like cats, and have issues about surviving in the wilderness.  Right now there are five different six-book series which follow the clans and characters.  Whenever a new one comes out, a couple of kids will show up within a day or two looking for it -- a sure sign that it's a series with legs.

I just discovered from wikipedia tonight that Erin Hunter exists in name only.  The books are written by five different authors, including your pal Tui, who writes middle grade fantasy books which Eleanor has loved under her own name as well.

And coming back to your wonderful post, there's also a series of graphic novels based on the Warriors characters.  Here's a bit of Tigerstar & Sasha: Into the Woods:

The books are better than the manga, but there's still the feel of the Warrior world.  Publishers are doing more graphic novels of longer books these days.  The goal is to hook kids on the easier-to-read comic books, then transition them to the longer ones.  Could this be a plan for Casey?


Aunt Debbie

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Graphic novels for the reluctant early reader

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Though I never went through a horse phase myself, and so far my kids haven't caught that bug, your horse book recommendations may be the beginning of a new interest in our house. I've requested a few from the library, and the way Eleanor is burning through books these days, I'm pretty sure I'll be requesting more.

Today's reader question comes from Jean, the mom of Eleanor's good friend Casey. During a recent playdate, Jean and I got to talking about our kids' experiences with reading. Casey (also in 2nd grade) is reading some, but it's been a bit of a struggle for her, and she doesn't generally pick up books on her own. Here's Jean:

I think she's resistant to reading on her own for a couple of reasons. 1) You've known Casey since she was 2. She is a very energetic kid. Running around and playing active games is when she is happiest. So she's not a natural bookworm....2) Something you said at your house really resonated with me and it makes sense for Casey: she LOVES when we read to her, which we do every day. And we'll read The Wizard of Oz, or Harry Potter, Magic Treehouse, Jenny and the Cat Club. Books that are (with the exception of maybe the Magic Treehouse books) well beyond her level. She likes a good story, but can't read at the level of a good story yet.

Jean would like to find books that Casey really wants to read:

She loves a good battle, especially when the good guy pulls through at the end. She loves adventures and mystery. She's not a fan of anything with princesses or those kind of stories (unless, perhaps, if the princess is wielding a sword). But she loves magic. And cats, as you know. Anything with cats....We are trying not to force it too much because she'll come into it in her own time. But it would be great to have books around that she may just want to pick up on her own!

Given my kids' recent reading history, it should come as no surprise to anyone that I recommended Casey and Jean check out some graphic novels. Graphic novels have bridged a gap for us, allowing for a variety of different kinds of reading. For both Isabel (who can read very few words, but will pore over pictures for hours on her own) and Eleanor (who reads all the words and doesn't dwell as much on the pictures, but enjoys them), they encourage an independent reading experience, while still making room for reading together.

With this in mind, I scoured our posts and created a new page to add over there on the right: a list of all the graphic novels we've discussed on the blog, by theme and by appropriate age range.

Here are a few I think Casey would love, many with links to previous blogs we've written about them:

Rapunzel's Revenge, by Shannon and Dean Hale. This is the present we've bought for Casey's upcoming birthday: Rapunzel reimagined as an active, braid-whipping heroine. She's awesome and has a sense of humor, and the way the Hales play with the original story is great fun.

Zita the Spacegirl, by Ben Hatke. Zita is a girl from earth whose curiosity and impulsiveness cause first her best friend (a quiet boy named Joseph) and then Zita herself to shoot off to another galaxy. Zita has to find and rescue Joseph, teaming up with a ragtag bunch of aliens and robots. There's a real emotional punch here, too. Sequels Legends of Zita the Spacegirl and The Return of Zita the Spacegirl are also excellent.

Dragon Girl: The Secret Valley, by Jeff Weigel. Alanna, the 11-year-old heroine, finds and protects a nest of baby dragons, dressing up as a dragon herself so that they won't become accustomed to humans and be in later danger. Alanna is another active, strong heroine -- I think Casey would like her. There are clearly more Dragon Girl books coming, but this is the only one out so far.

Ottoline and the Yellow Cat (and other Ottoline books), by Chris Riddell. Though the yellow cat in the first title turns out to be a bit of a villain (sorry, Casey!), these books are quirky and tremendous fun. They contain terrific characters, both human and animal, and each has a not-scary mystery as a central part of the plot. Strictly speaking, I suppose they are only half graphic novel -- many of the pages contain typed text as well as comic book-style illustration.

Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye, by Colleen AF Venable and Stephanie Yue. All the characters here are animals who live in a pet shop, where Sasspants (the guinea pig of the title) and her sidekick, Hamisher the hamster, solve mild, funny mysteries. In Book #5, Raining Cats and Detectives, the plot involves the disappearance of a large, sleepy cat. Bonus: if Casey likes these, there are a bunch of them.

This week, we discovered Cleopatra in Space, by Mike Maihack. The premise: 15-year-old Cleopatra, who will grow up to be ruler of Egypt, touches a magic tablet and is zapped into the space-age future. It turns out that the future is governed by highly intelligent talking cats (!), who tell her the galaxy is in great danger, and a prophesy says that Cleopatra will come to save them all. In this telling, Cleopatra is uninterested in schoolwork, but highly energetic and a terrific fighter. Like many of the other heroines mentioned here, she is impulsive and stubborn, but ultimately good-hearted. There's not as much emotional depth here as in Zita the Spacegirl or Dragon Girl, and some of the vocabulary in the expository parts feels a little dry/advanced for kids, but overall it's a fun read.

For an early-reader taste of several of the big names in contemporary graphic novels, try Comics Squad: Recess! This is an anthology of eight stories, each centered around something that happens at school recess. It includes a story from Gene Luen Yang (whose American Born Chinese is awesome but won't be appropriate reading for our kids for several years); a story starring Babymouse, by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm; a story starring Lunch Lady, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka; a story by Raina Telgemeier (whose Smile and Drama will be accessible to our kids in just a few years), and more.

Both of the previous books, along with Dragon Girl, were recommended to us by Holly, frequent guest blogger and mom of Eleanor's best friend Ian. Another of Ian's favorites which has become a hit in our house is the odd little series Tiny Titans, by Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani. In it, DC Comics characters appear as elementary school-age kids, with appropriately kid-friendly plots. Perhaps "plots" is too strong a word: most of the stories are 2-4 pages long, short sketches, often with punchlines. I'll confess I'm not captivated by them, but Ian, Eleanor, and Isabel certainly are.

I'll close with recommendations for two long, intense series, and another great web resource.

Everything you say about Casey's love of a good battle, magic, and princesses only if they are sword-wielding makes me think she might love Jeff Smith's Bone books. This is the series that completely obsessed Isabel for several months. They are wild, wonderful books, which our entire family ended up reading several times through. Fair warning: the action, especially in the last couple of books, gets violent, and a few characters you come to care about deeply don't survive (though all the main ones do). Characters include the Bone cousins (strange rounded little white people), the sweet and ultimately fighting awesome secret princess Thorn, her tough cow-racing Gran'ma Ben, and a couple of rat creatures whose attempts to chase Fone Bone down are a fabulous excuse for slapstick. Try the first book: Out from Boneville.

The Amulet series, by Kazu Kibuishi, is another captivating read. Where Bone starts on the mellow side and gets progressively darker, Amulet leads with what I find to be its darkest episode.

In Book One: The Stonekeeper, Emily and Navin's father is killed in a car accident from which Emily and her mother escape. Mom, Emily, and Navin move to an old creepy family house, which turns out to contain all kinds of secrets left by Emily's great-grandfather. The greatest of these is the stone bequeathed to Emily: she becomes a Stonekeeper, possessed of great power but unsure whether the force animating the stone is good or bad. As if their father's death wasn't bad enough, Mom is kidnapped by a scary alien thing, and Emily and Navin set out into another world to rescue her.

The ensuing story (which covers six books so far, and isn't over yet) contains a wide variety of animal and robot characters, elves, both good and evil, and people who seem to be real but turn out to be animated by magic. The visuals are spectacular.

Finally, if this isn't enough for you, check out the graphic novel recommendations at A Mighty Girl (which is a pretty great website for other kinds of books, too).

And to think, back in my day we subsisted on Archie comics! Times have changed for the better.

Love, Annie

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Horse books for kids

Dear Annie,

Early chapter books: we've got such a good list of them.  It's a wonderful step in a child's reading progression.

I thought I'd take up another of our reader questions, this one from guest blogger Faith.  She asked four questions, but I'm just going to start with one.  For her four girls, she wants:
 Horse books that are somewhere between Marguerite Henry and easy readers.
Billy and Blaze, getting to know each other.

I've amassed a small pile, starting with picture books, then non-fiction, and finally some early chapter books.  We've posted on this blog 632 times, so sometimes when I start writing, I just check to see if we've mentioned a particular book before.  We do have an entry about the first picture books I was going to recommend to Faith: the Billy and Blaze books, written between 1936 and 1970.  Turns out that it was a guest blog, written by none other than our own Faith.  So we have an expert here.  I'll try to find some lesser-known books.

Next there's
Fritz and the Beautiful Horses
by Jan Brett.  The people in a medieval city don't let Fritz within its walls  because they don't consider him beautiful enough.  Fritz seems little and Jan Brett-cute to me, buy hey, that's the story.  Fritz ends up saving a group of children and becoming the most popular horse in town.  Lots of nice horse pictures.

And on the more obscure end of the spectrum, Rosie's Magic Horse by the great Russell Hoban, illustrated by the equally great  Quentin Blake.  Rosie collects popsicle sticks.  When she adds a new one to her collection, it wants more from life:
"I could be something." [said the new stick]
"What?" said the old stick.
"Maybe a horse," said the new stick.
"In your dreams," said the old stick.
"We'd like to be a horse, too," said some of the other sticks.
They become a horse (named Stickerino), galloping into Rosie's dreams.  They all go off to find treasure to pay Rosie's parents' bills.  The mission is a success, and Rosie's dad wakes to find a chest of gold on the dining room table.  Lovely.

On to  chapter books, starting with
Horse Crazy
  by Alison Lester, illustrated by Roland Harvey (in the tradition of Quentin Blake).  It's a four book early-chapter series from Australia.  Two girls have adventures with different horses in each book: they're very nicely done, with much attention to horse personalities.  The books have a website with profiles of each of the horses.   The first book, The Silver Horse Switch, tells the story of a dissatisfied domestic horse trading places with a brumby -- the Australian term for a wild horse.

Another series, Horse Diaries, is up to at least 11 books now.  They're illustrated chapter books by a variety of authors, each a diary from the point of view of a horse in a different historical period.  The first is set in Iceland in 1000 A.D.   There's Vermont in the 1850s,  Austria in 1938, Nevada 1950, etc.

And then there are True Horse Stories, a Canadian series of slightly fictionalized biographies of real horses by Judy Andrekson.  Most of them are horses who have been through some form of adversity but because of a strong relationship with a human being they go on to become skilled show horses.  In
Little Squire
a very small horse and a kinda short guy both grow up separately in Ireland and come to America.  They find each other, establish a delightful man/horse friendship, and participate in jumping exhibitions around the country.  The horse has a very nice sense of humor.

I Wonder Why Horses Wear Shoes
Finishing off with two non-fiction books. There are number of this genre, at many reading levels.  They give a little history, some cautionary information about how much work goes into owning a horse, and lots of information about horses today. 
I Wonder Why Horses Wear Shoes is the reading level of a advanced early reader.  It answers 31 questions, including: Why do horses need grooming? How many kinds of horses are there? Whose horse had eight legs? (Eleanor and Isabel?) Which horses do cowhands ride?  Who sits in a sulky?  What is a chukka? I learned a few things reading it.
Eye Wonder Horses and Ponies

DK, a publisher that gets lots of mileage out of an excellent photo library, has a non-fiction series aimed at kids in the early grades called Eye Wonder.  The reading level is a little tougher than the I Wonder Why series, and the layout is excellent.  All their books open anywhere on a self-contained two-page spread  giving lots of information on whatever the topic is.  They've got one called Eye Wonder Horses and Ponies.

It does the usual topics, plus things like horse whispering, different styles of holding the reins, and feral horses -- it even devotes a paragraph to brumbies.

So there are a few horse books.  I hope some of these are new to you and the girls, Faith.  And when will they be getting horses of their own?



Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Animals and magic in the great early chapter books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your breadth of book knowledge makes me so happy. Now I'm excited to read more of the books you recommended for 13-year-old Jack!

Today I'm responding to another reader request. Chloe, a friend from college and mother of Jackson, writes:

Jackson (nearly 5) has finally been showing interest in beginning chapter books -- we've been reading Winnie the Pooh (which he seems to tolerate) and at school they just finished Charlotte's Web (which he loved). What are the great early chapter books -- that have ZERO Ninja Turtles in them -- that we can read to him? He can't read yet on his own. He is that classic boy-kid who loves superheroes as much as he loves animals...ok, maybe superheroes a little more.

Chloe, you're at a fabulous point!

Our pages of book lists (over there on the right) are a good place to start. Check out Early chapter books and the sections on "Diaper bag books" and "Short chapter books" on the Learning to read books page.

Aunt Debbie has already pointed you to My Father's Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett, and some thoughts on the transition to chapter books, with its possible pitfalls (the Stuart Little problem!).

Knowing the intense love of animals going on in your house, a few specific recommendations:

The Doctor Dolittle series, by Hugh Lofting. The veterinarian Doctor Dolittle can speak and understand animal languages -- not through any kind of magic, but because he pays attention, bonds with the animals, and is open to learning from his parrot, Polynesia. Some books are narrated by 9-year-old Tommy Stubbins, who becomes Doctor Dolittle's apprentice. Bonus: chapters are short, and the animal characters are all well-drawn.

Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. The version we love is slightly abridged, but gorgeously illustrated by Inga Moore -- pictures on almost every page. Mole, Water Rat, Mr. Badger, and the indomitable Toad of Toad Hall are vivid companions.  Right now the girls and I are reading Inga Moore's version of The Secret Garden (first time for Isabel, a re-read for Eleanor). Moore's illustrations break open books that would otherwise be inaccessible to most 5-year-olds.

The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden, might also be a hit. The animal characters are wonderful, and, like Doctor Dolittle, it has a nice young boy as protagonist. (Also like Doctor Dolittle, there's some unfortunate racial stereotyping -- see blog posts linked above.)

Let's throw in a little magic:

The Amazing World of Stuart, by Sara Pennypacker, was one of Isabel's favorite early chapter books last year. In it, 8-year-old Stuart makes himself a cape out of 100 ties, and suddenly gains superpowers. The catch: he has a different power each day, and doesn't know what it will be.

Half Magic, by Edward Eager. This has become one of my favorite gifts to give kids in the 5-7 age range. Four siblings find a magic coin, which grants wishes -- but, it turns out, only half of what they ask for, so they have to get creative. Eager's writing is totally engaging and terribly funny. If you and Jackson like this one, he has several more in the series.

Isabel's love of superheroes has found a natural extension in the Narnia books and D'Aulaire's Greek Myths and Norse Myths. (As you may have noticed, we're on a real mythology kick over here.) If you're up for some graphic novel action, I can't say enough good things about George O'Connor's Olympians series.

Then there's always Roald Dahl, who tosses in fine sprinklings of magic and makes for a gripping read-aloud, though the undercurrent of misanthropy always turns me off a little.

Finally, two more that don't fall into either the animal or superhero/magic categories, but which we've loved as entry-level chapter books for their depiction of kids:

Jamie and Angus, by Anne Fine, focuses on the relationship between a boy (Jamie) and his stuffed Highland bull (Angus). It is fine and tender, with a nice British flavor.

Anna Hibiscus, by Nigerian storyteller Atinuke, is also wonderfully warm, and provides a window into life in an African city. Lots to enjoy and discuss.

Do let us know if any of these are a hit with Jackson!

Love, Annie

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The middle school boy challenge

Dear Annie,

I love your family's immersion in dragons and gods and goddesses, not to mention half-bloods.  Your description of Dragon Girl inspired me to order it for the store.

We've put out a call for book queries and and received quite a few.  I thought I'd start with a question from our virtual cousin* Helen, for her son Jack.

Finding books for a middle school boy has been challenging.  Choices seem to be limited to dystopian drama, dragons/swords fantasy or sports. . . .
 He complains that there are so many more books "for girls"...He's read all of the Alex Ryder books, The Lorien Legacies (Pitticus Lore), that dragon series (Eragon), Ender's Game, Maze Runner, City of Ember, His Dark Materials, City of Bones etc.
Setting aside the boy/girl debate, I'll list a bunch of books I hope will tickle Jack's fancy.  Jack's list are all popular multi-book series: spy thrillers,  sci-fi, alien invasion, post-apocalyptic worlds, parallel universes, and dragons.   I'll start with a few not-so-usual-suspect series that fall somewhere along those lines:

-- A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, blogged by us here.  It's about a parallel universe, not unlike those in the His Dark Materials Trilogy, by Philip Pullman.  I would stress to Jack the point made in the blog: the cover makes it look like dreamy chicklit -- it's not.  Ignore the cover.  So far there are only two books in the series in the U.S.

-- A darker but well done series is
The Last Apprentice
by Joseph Delaney.  It's set in a medieval world beset by witches, ghouls and other evil beings.  There's a Spook, who's a sort of exterminator of the occult, hired to root out and eliminate evil characters.  12 year-old Tom becomes an apprentice to the Spook, and is thrown into this creepy shadow world.  One of the other characters is an excellently ambiguous one: the reader is never quite sure which side she's on.

-- Annie and I have both loved the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness, which takes place on another planet, but explores the shortcomings of human civilization eloquently.  See our blog entry here

-- I haven't read the
Leviathan trilogy
by Scott Westerfeld: second and third volumes are called Behemoth and Goliath.  One of my indicators of a good series is when the sequels sell almost as well as volume one, which is true with this one.  It's steam punk virtual history:  World War I re-imagined with one side armed with huge and complex machines; the other side has genetically engineered animals (the Leviathan is a flying whale).

-- And for the high-tech spy thriller fan, there's the
I, Q
series by Roland Smith.  Two step siblings traveling with their parents' rock band discover a lot of suspicious behavior, which it turns out is part of a much larger international espionage intrigue.  Each book takes place in different U.S. locations: Philadelphia, the White House, Alcatraz and the Alamo, to name a few.

Okay, so there are some series.  Here's more of Helen's query:
  There are so many YA options for him but he does think they are all the same kind of story and would like to find different kinds of stories. He goes through non-fiction phases but nothing recently. He loves history so I would like to find some biographies and historical non-fiction that was suitable for his age (13).
Hmm.  Jack, what do you mean by "the same kind of story"?  I'll take some guesses here, starting with two YA novels that create a contemporary teenager and put him in a fantastic situation.

by John Corey Whaley is one of ten nominees for the National Book Award this year.  16 year-old Travis was dying of cancer, so he and his family agreed that he would be frozen -- or at least his head would be -- until the technology to revive him is invented.  This turns out to take only five years, so he wakes up as a 16 year-old boy with a new, buff body, his best friend and girlfriend graduating from college, and everything different but not totally new.  It's funny and thoughtful.

-- Every Day by David Levithan is the story of a disembodied personality who wakes up each day in a different body.  Blogged about here.

-- And then there's
, by Mal Peet.  It combines magical realism and soccer, all set in the Brazilian rain forest.  It's beautiful, strange, and definitely different.


- Read anything by Steve Sheinkin, who's a fantastic writer.  I've blogged about his bizarre and amazing Lincoln's Grave Robbers.  His
The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
about resistance to racism in the Navy during World War II is another one on the National Book Award Long List.  Over the summer, I read Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, which won a Newbery Honor last year.  It tells the story of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, but it also has lots of relatively new information which I hadn't known.  The Russians had spies at Los Alamos who were passing the secrets of the bomb as it was being developed: the story of how they did it reads like a spy thriller.

-- No history buff's middle school years are complete without Left for Dead by Pete Nelson.  The atom bomb, torpedoes, sharks, the movie Jaws, and the search for justice spearheaded by a sixth-grade boy.  Here's the blog entry.

-- Another history narrative, written for adults, is Steven Johnson's
The Ghost Map
.  It's about the London cholera epidemic of 1854, which brought about the birth of the science of epidemiology.  It reads like a mystery: we carry it because it was the store owners' son's favorite book when he was in middle school.

And as long as I'm on the subject of adult books, I'll end with two sports books:
--Blood, Sweat and Chalk
by Tim Layden is about the history and current use of football plays.  For the serious football fan.

-- And last, there's
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
by Michael Lewis.  It's the story of Oakland As general manager Billy Beane developing statistical measurements of players' abilities.  It's got good plot, a team of underdogs, math and baseball, all in one book. 
A true sports fan can have fun arguing with some of Lewis's conclusions, but it's a good read.

So there you are, Helen and Jack.  I hope most of these are ones you haven't come across yet.  Let me know if any of them are keepers.



* Our families go way back.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Fabulous Monsters

Dear Aunt Debbie,

First, an invitation to our readers:

Readers! We want to answer your book queries! We are always happy to hear from you, and eager to respond to questions. This month, we are offering a special invitation: put us to work! Is there a void in your reading-with-children life? A type of book you've been looking for, but don't know where to start? Are you starting to think about birthday or holiday gifts for the children close to you? Comment on this blog post and/or email us at annieandaunt[at]gmail[dot]com. We look forward to your ideas!

I was prompted to put out this invitation, Aunt Debbie, by your most excellent response to my friend Eunice's question about audio books for a western road trip, a post which made me want to plan our own long driving trip right now. But as the school year has just begun, and we're still settling into our new house, we'll have to make do with listening in the living room, where our books are still packed away in boxes, awaiting the arrival of new bookshelves.

Isabel's 5th birthday brought a nice little influx of books into the house. There was the fabulous birthday box from you, containing several books I'll write about soon. My brother Michael and sister-in-law Grace gave us four more Olympians graphic novels, which meant we could finally return most of them to the library -- the girls have continued to reread them nonstop since early August. And our wonderful friend and frequent guest blogger Holly came through with a well-curated selection of graphic novels.

As you know from Holly's posts about dragon-themed picture books and dragon-themed chapter books, her son Ian is in love with dragons. It makes sense, then, that Holly would find us the brand-new graphic novel Dragon Girl: The Secret Valley, by Jeff Weigel. It's pretty fantastic.

Dragon Girl is set in a vaguely medieval time, with knights and blacksmiths and dragons who are sometimes spotted roaming the countryside. 11-year-old Alanna and her older brother Hamel are orphans, taking care of themselves since the recent death of their father. Alanna discovers a cave filled with dragon eggs abandoned when their mother was killed by a knight, and takes on the responsibility of caring for the hatching baby dragons. To prevent the dragons from getting acclimated to human contact, which would endanger their lives in the future, Alanna makes herself a dragon costume to wear when she comes to bring the babies food and play with them. There are some very funny scenes of Alanna dancing and singing with the babies -- apparently, dragons like to party.

Of course, complications ensue: One baby dragon hatches at a moment when Alanna's mask is off, imprints on her immediately, and follows her home.

Meanwhile, the dragon-killing knight Sir Cedric is on the prowl, and there's a mysterious flying craft shooting from the sky, piloted by a masked figure. The story culminates in a hidden valley full of dragons, where Sir Cedric's greed and violent nature are set up against the intelligence and curiosity of the dragon-researcher Margolyn.

Alanna is a terrific character: smart, brave, kind, and stubborn in her belief in doing right. Her sibling relationship with Hamel feels realistic, and Margolyn provides a strong adult female presence in the story. There's an environmental push to the narrative -- don't destroy the land in your pursuit of wealth; learn about other creatures rather than killing them blindly -- but it doesn't feel preachy. We were all happy to see the number 1 on the book's spine, and know that there are more Dragon Girl books coming.

Eleanor, meanwhile, has become a huge Percy Jackson fan. After reading The Lightning Thief in one day a couple of weeks ago, she has finished books two and three, and is lobbying me to enroll her in Camp Half Blood next summer (have I mentioned how much I love living in Brooklyn? Role-playing Greek god camp in Prospect Park!)

Camp Half Blood is, of course, the name of the camp in the Percy Jackson series where half-bloods (children of Greek gods and their mortal paramours) spend the summer training to use their powers wisely and prepare for the Olympian battles that might be coming their way. It's a safe haven for these kids, most of whom live in the normal human world during the school year. Once inside the boundaries of Camp Half Blood, young demigods are supposed to be protected from the monsters which are free to come after them in the outside world. Percy is particularly endangered, because he's the son of Poseidon, one of the "big three" gods (along with Zeus and Hades) who promised a while back not to father any more children. Percy's existence is proof that Poseidon broke his word.

You mentioned in a post a couple of years ago that you'd stopped reading The Lightning Thief after two chapters. I think it's worth another try -- I read it last week, and was pleasantly surprised by its intelligence. Yes, as you put it, it's "a very action-action series," full of cliffhangers and bursts of violence. But the violence is tempered with a sort of video game logic. It turns out that the math teacher who turned into a homicidal monster (and made you stop reading) is really a Fury, up from Hades to punish Percy because the gods believe he stole Zeus's lightning bolt. When Percy slashes at her with his magic sword/pen, she bursts into a shower of yellow powder. She's not killed, exactly: all the mythical monsters he defeats in the book are immortal. They can be cut down in the moment, but they're never really dead, and so Percy isn't ultimately a killer.

Riordan knows his mythology, and his books are full of sly references and smart jokes. In one of my favorite scenes, Annabeth, a daughter of Athena and the major female character in the series, explains to Percy how she knows that he's been kicked out of a series of schools:

"How --"

"Diagnosed with dyslexia. Probably ADHD, too."

I tried to swallow my embarrassment. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Taken together, it's almost a sure sign. The letters float off the page when you read, right? That's because your mind is hardwired for ancient Greek. And the ADHD -- you're impulsive, can't sit still in the classroom. That's your battlefield reflexes. In a real fight, they'd keep you alive. As for the attention problems, that's because you see too much Percy, not too little. Your senses are better than a regular mortal's. Of course the teachers want you medicated. Most of them are monsters. They don't want you seeing them for what they really are."

Okay, so there's some anti-teacher bias. (On the teacher appreciation side, Percy's Latin teacher, the wheelchair-bound Mr. Brunner, is awesome, and turns out to be the centaur Chiron in disguise -- his horse body folds up into a hidden box inside the wheelchair.) Still, I love the idea that kids with learning disabilities are secretly just wired for ancient Greek.

Greek god role play! Dragon costumes! I have the feeling we'll be reveling in fantastic creatures for months to come.

Love, Annie