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.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Game-players, large and small

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Your list of early chapter books to help a fairly new reader ramp up step by step is inspiring -- thank you for this one! I have a feeling that Isabel, as she begins to do more independent reading, may follow this trajectory as well.

With the new year came new teacher consulting work for me, and the last couple of weeks have found me scrambling to keep on top of everything. Apologies for the brief hiatus.

While my blogging has paused, reading in our house continues unabated, and since Christmas we've been helped monumentally by your excellent finds for all three kids. Today I thought I'd highlight three, all playful reads, all new to me, which have become immediate favorites.

For Eleanor, in the middle-grade range: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, by Chris Grabenstein. This is a book for book-lovers, game-players, and decoders, which makes it an excellent fit. Twelve 12-year-olds are invited to the grand opening of a huge, state-of-the-art library designed by eccentric game-making genius Luigi Lemoncello. They're locked in for an overnight party, and the next morning discover that the game will go on: anyone who chooses to stay has 24 hours to find their way out, using clues and puzzles hidden around the library.

Our hero is a video and board game-playing whiz named Kyle Keeley, who starts out less interested in books than some of the other players involved. He's a good guy, and teams up with three of the other players: Akimi, Miguel, and Sierra (sneaking in some ethnic diversity in the supporting characters, there). On the flipside, our antihero Charles Chiltington is a spoiled, rich kid who will stop at nothing to win. He teams up with a cheerleader who's smarter than she looks, and a whiny kid.

The book is packed with references to other books -- mostly children's literature, but some adult novels and stories as well. If you think this all sounds a little like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, well, that comparison is made directly by the characters involved. There's fun in the identification of famous quotes and titles, but you don't need wildly extensive book knowledge to appreciate the story. Grabenstein includes a few small puzzles that a reader can try to work out as well. Eleanor whipped through the book in less than a day, and has declared it's one of the books she wants to use as a project choice for her 2nd grade reading portfolio. I'm reading it now (slower than my daughter), and enjoying it very much.

Isabel, the girl who only wants to read books with pictures, is now in love with The Book With No Pictures, by B.J. Novak. (Yes, that B.J. Novak -- writer and director of The Office fame.)

It's a meta-book, the kind that declares up front that it's a book, and then plays with the concept -- much like our old favorites Press Here and We Are in a Book! Novak's conceit is that he's writing to convince kids that books without pictures can be fun. He starts out:

This is a book with 
no pictures.

It might seem like no 
fun to have someone 
read you a book with 
no pictures.

It probably seems 


Here is how books work:

Everything the words
say, the person reading
the book has to say.

No matter what.

The book goes on to make the reader say all kinds of nonsense words, with little side comments ("Wait -- what? That doesn't even mean anything"). With the right adult reading the book aloud -- it begs for over-acting -- the kid listening gets the experience of making the reader look and sound ridiculous. Isabel's favorite page reads: "My only friend in the whole wide world is a hippo named BOO BOO BUTT."

There are visuals -- changes in font, font size, and font color to liven things up. But at heart, the book is an exploration of the effect words can have -- pretty thrilling for a five-year-old.

Back in the land of picture books that do have pictures, Will is crazy about A Visit to Dr. Duck, by our beloved Rosemary Wells. It looks like it's being marketed as a Don't be afraid of going to the doctor book, which it sort of is, but the joy in this little board book is in Wells's lovely quirky use of language, and her utterly appealing animal drawings.

It begins: 

At bedtime Felix ate too many chocolate blimpies and stayed up way too late.

Felix's mama tries sugared prunes ("You'll feel perkier with the prunes") and sending Felix outside to play ("Fresh air will give you a boost.") When none of this works, she takes him to see Dr. Duck, a squat little guy who stands on his desk to greet them while Felix hides under the back of his mama's coat (Will finds this very funny). Dr. Duck lets Felix's mama stay in the room for the examination, then gives him "two spoonfuls of Happy Tummy" and sends him home. Felix sleeps, and feels like himself again. The book ends with a page of "Dr. Duck's Tips for Staying Perky" (eat fruits and vegetables, get good sleep, play outside, etc.) Will loves it so much, he has me read all the advice every time.

Thank you again for this bounty. More soon!

Love, Annie

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