We’re back to school, folks! That means my book review posts may be slightly less frequent as I focus time on my teaching and steal away a bit for writing and submitting. However, I carved out a bit of time this weekend to read some fabulous new books– most out within the past few months! There’s a thread of similarity running through them as they all have to do with relationships, emotions and fitting in– highly appropriate themes for back to school! Enjoy!
Title: Maximillian Villainous
Author: Margaret Chiu Greanias
Illustrator: Lesley Breen Withrow
Publisher/Date: Running Press Kids (August 28, 2018)
The “gist”: Maximillian’s family is ready to disown him for not being mean enough, especially since he has a new pet bunny. How can he prove he really is a “Villainous”?
My favorite part: I love that I guessed the ending/solution only a split second before it was revealed. That’s always a great feeling.
My response as a reader: I have a son named Max (albeit Maxwell, not Maximilian), so I have a soft spot for characters with that name, but even so, this book is pretty adorable. It’s fun to root for the main character, and his “villain” family has just the right touch of villainy without being cruel. I would have bought this for my two boys in a heartbeat.
My “take-away” as a writer: Great mentor text here for a character solving their own problem by working through various attempts. There’s a twist in the ending and there is a bit of a lesson in being yourself, but it’s not heavy handed– the plot is mostly about solving a problem.
Title: Grumpy Monkey
Author: Suzanne Lang
Illustrator: Max Lang
Publisher/Date: Random House Books for Young Readers (May 15, 2018)
The “gist”: Everyone tries to provide reasons why Grumpy Monkey is grumpy, but in the end he just needs some “me” time.
My favorite part: I loved it when Norman the Gorilla (could this possibly be an homage to Tara Lazar’s awesome Normal Norman???) came to join the monkey after he’d been stuck by porcupine quills. We see that being Grumpy doesn’t make you uncaring, it just means you’re in a bad mood!
My response as a reader: I’ll admit: at first I thought this book was just a rip off of Jeremy Tankard’s Grumpy Bird. It also has some elements of I’m Sad (Michael Ian Black and Debbie Ridpath Ohi), in which the main character ultimately realizes his emotions don’t need to be “fixed,” but all three stories are very different. In Tankard’s story, Bird’s friends don’t try to fix him and he ultimately snaps out of his funk. In I’m Sad, the flamingo knows he’s sad from the beginning, while the monkey just needs to be left alone to figure things out.
My “take-away” as a writer: “It’s all been done,” right? I think that a lot. But only you can tell your story, and if you’re setting out to do it, there must be a reason. That doesn’t mean to take a story you love and copy it, but it does mean not to get discouraged if there are other books out there similar to yours. Dealing with being grumpy is an important enough task to warrant a few books, especially one this cute.
Title: Attack of the 50-Foot Fluffy
Author/Illustrator: Mike Boldt
Publisher/Date: Margaret K. McElderry Books (August 7, 2018)
The “gist”: Claire and her super special stuffed animal Fluffy are inseparable. But Fluffy’s temper tantrums can do a lot of damage!
My favorite part: Like a teakettle slowly coming to a boil, we can see Claire gradually get more and more frustrated in the story, which is captured both in the illustrations and in the text with gentle encouragement such as “Don’t worry, Claire, we can fix that later.”
My response as a reader: This is a fun story and would be a great story to help kids in therapy with anger management issues. Personally, I’m just pedantic enough to be bothered by the supernatural aspect (Wait, is Fluffy really alive? What will happen to all the damaged playground equipment? Will Fluffy go to jail? etc….) But given the awesome 50s sci-fi style cover, that seems like a silly quibble.
My “take-away” as a writer: As I mentioned above, this book has a great way of building tension in the story and foreshadowing. I mean, really, we know there’s going to be a 50 Foot Fluffy at some point, right? So how do you keep the reader interested until that happens? Short sentences, repetition and just a few key changes advance the plot nicely until the big reveal!
Author/Illustrator: Shanda McCloskey
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (May 1, 2018)
The “gist”: Charlotte is an extremely creative and tech-immersed kid who receives a doll as a gift and decides she can improve it.
My favorite part: Charlotte is super practical: I adored the dialog when Charlotte first gets the doll and it says “Mama.” Her response is along the lines “I’m not your Mama. I’m just a kid!”
My response as a reader: So many great details in the illustrations! I even spotted the popular kids tech toy “Makey-Makey”! I also loved the other little allusions and references such as the dog, Bluetooth. Books confirming the importance of STEM and problem-solving for girls are vitally important…though a part of me wonders if Charlotte might have found a way to play with the doll using her imagination and not just technology. There IS room for both play styles in a kid’s life!
My “take-away” as a writer: This book has a great playful combination of dialog (told in speech bubbles) and narration. I think it’s probably easier to achieve that as an author/illustrator because one otherwise ends up with a lot of illustrator’s notes. Either that, or your starting manuscript ends up looking very different from the version the illustrator comes up with. In any case McCloskey strikes a good balance here.
*As a side note, when I went to Amazon to find out more about this book, it was categorized under “Children’s Books > Growing Up and Facts of Life” — there really are no “Facts of life” in this book unless Charlotte’s somewhat “Frankenstein” remodeling of her doll lead to uncomfortable questions about the origin of life?
Title: We DON’T eat our Classmates!
Author/Illustrator: Ryan T. Higgins
Publisher/Date: Disney-Hyperion (June 19, 2018)
The “gist”: Penelope Rex is ready for her first day of school, but her class is full of humans, and humans are delicious! What is a girl to do?
My favorite part: I loved the deft way Ryan handled the fact that Penelope actually eats classmates, but no one actually gets hurt — I mean, she swallows the entire class and then is able to spit them back out. If she never ate anyone, her character arc would be non-existent, and yet eating them “for real,” just can’t work either.
My response as a reader: Penelope’s nerves at the beginning make this a perfect “beginning of school” book. I love the way her parents help prepare her with all the same things human parents do: a new backpack, lunch box, etc. It’s significant that Ryan goes out of his way to help sooth the reader’s nerves as well by noting right on the title page that they should not be afraid of being eaten by a T. Rex since they’re extinct!
My “take-away” as a writer: Penelope’s dilemma is solved in an unexpected way. While a story ending shouldn’t be completely out of nowhere, this book reminded me to push myself not to take the “easy” ending. I’m wondering if one of those manuscripts I’m stuck on just needs a little kick in the T.Rex…