Friday, September 16, 2016

25 Ways to Play With Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Bad days happen to everyone - even kids! Published in 1972, this favorite picture book based on the author's own family is a great way to come to terms with those terrible, horrible days that make us want to move to Australia - and it's also a fun book to use for learning through play. Here are 25 ways to play with the content and themes of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

  1. Create a homemade toy from a cereal box.  
  2. Draw what might be seen from the window of Alexander's carpool. 
  3. Practice singing loudly and softly. 
  4. Count to sixteen without leaving out any numbers. For an added challenge for older readers, count by sixteens! 
  5. Draw invisible pictures, like Alexander's invisible castle, using ink made of water and lemon juice.
  6. Use play food to pack a pretend lunch with all your favorite foods. 
  7. Spend some time in the kitchen making a dessert for your own lunch box - and don't forget to put it in before you leave for school! 
  8. Set up a make-believe dental practice. 
  9.  Pretend to be a shoe salesperson. 
  10. Color a pair of sneakers to suit your style. 
  11. Set up a pretend office like the one Alexander's dad works in. Act out the scene where Alexander visits the office.
  12. Find Australia on a map.
  13. Create an itinerary for traveling to Australia from your house.
  14. Sing Cuddly Koalas, about Australian animals.
  15. Plant a lima bean.
  16. Design a pair of ugly pajamas like the railroad train ones Alexander hates to wear.
  17. Write a sequel where Alexander has a good day. 
  18. Write a story about your own real or imagined bad day. 
  19. Hear Judith Viorst read the book in this video from Barnes and Noble's online story time feature. 
  20. Read Judith Viorst's other books about Alexander: Alexander, Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday (1978), Alexander, Who's Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move (1995), and Alexander, Who's Trying His Best to Be the Best Boy Ever (2014).
  21. Discover some of Judith Viorst's other books
  22. Watch the 2014 film adaptation of the book starring Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner.
  23. Watch the 1990 cartoon musical based on the book on YouTube. (Alexander is played by Danny Tamberelli!)
  24. Act out a skit based on the book using this script
  25. Retell the story using a flannel board set like this one

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Picture Book Review: Journey, Quest, and Return by Aaron Becker

Journey by Aaron Becker. 2013; Candlewick Press. 9780763660536
Quest by Aaron Becker. 2014. Candlewick Press.  9780763665951
Return by Aaron Becker. August 2, 2016; Candlewick Press 9780763677305














The young girl who stars as the central character in this wordless picture book trilogy by Aaron Becker begins Journey feeling bored and left out amidst her busy family's other obligations. After asking each member of the household to spend time with her and being rejected, she, much like Sendak's Max, sets out on a journey. She begins by drawing a doorway into her bedroom wall with a red piece of chalk. The passageway she opens leads her into another world, where she is greeted cheerfully by soldiers, and then witnesses the capture of a beautiful purple bird. When she tries to free the bird, she finds herself caged, but not for long. By the end of the story, she is safely rescued and in the company of a new friend.

The second book, Quest, picks up the two children's adventure just where it leaves off in the first book. The two ride their chalk-made bicycle through the park, where they are approached by the king of the other world the girl has just visited. The king presents the children with a map which will lead them to a piece of chalk for each color of the rainbow. It becomes clear that these chalks are the source of power in the land where the king rules and by tracking them down and returning them to their rightful place, the young girl and boy will restore the king to his full strength. Throughout the book, the two friends work together ingeniously to draw the solutions to the problems presented by various obstacles in their path.

Finally, in the conclusion of the trilogy, Return, the girl once again approaches a family member, her father, with an invitation to spend time together, but is ignored. When she retreats once again to the magical world she helped to save, this time her father follows behind. When he finds his daughter, she refuses to speak to him at first,  but that changes when the king is once again put in danger, and only the girl and her dad are left free to save the day.

I read each of these books independently of the others at the time of their publication. When considering each individual book, the first one, Journey, comes across as the strongest and most compelling. The story is self-contained, with no required prior knowledge and no cliffhangers, so the reader walks away satisfied. The emotions of the story, from the girl's sadness at being excluded by her family, to the exhilaration of saving the bird from danger, to the instant recognition of a new friend at the end, are relatable and they make it easy for the reader to navigate the largely unfamiliar fantasy world. The second and third books, read as isolated stories, don't work as well. Return, especially, requires knowledge of at least the first book, if not the second, to even begin to make sense. When I received my review copy of Return, I immediately needed to reread both Journey and Quest to refresh my memory.

Read together, however, these books are truly beautiful. The trilogy reads like one cohesive story with a strong beginning, an exciting middle, and an ending which happily resolves the tension between the young girl and her dad. The illustrations in all three books are distinctive, filled with interesting uses of color and light and unique changes in perspective that show both the large-scale terrain of Becker's world, and the small details within it. Though there are no words at all in any of the books, the reader easily begins to grasp the politics of the fantasy world of the story, and to understand the danger the young characters are in as they try to rescue the chalks ahead of the bad guys because of the many details Becker includes. (Among my favorites are the petroglyphs discovered by the girl and her dad in Return, which provide pictorial backstory.) There is also perfect continuity from book to book, as the bicycle which appears on the final page of Journey is the first image of Quest, and the crown which the king places on the girl's head at the conclusion of Quest is still present on the opening page of Return.

Return is a fitting conclusion to this trilogy, and the perfect stopping point for the story arc. The final moment, especially, is subtle, but powerful, and it leaves the reader smiling and nodding that all will be well for our young heroine from now on. Because this trilogy is wordless, it can be enjoyed by children and adults at different levels. Little Miss Muffet found quite a bit to talk about in the illustrations at the tender age of two, and I'm sure her reading will only deepen as she grows. These books are a wonderful addition to any picture book collection, and I look forward to discovering whatever Aaron Becker publishes next.

I own a copy of Journey. I borrowed Quest from my local public library. I received a finished review copy of Return from Candlewick.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Old School Sunday: Twisted Summer by Willo Davis Roberts (1997)

Twisted Summer
by Willo Davis Roberts
1997. Simon Pulse.
9780689804595
Cici and her family have traditionally spent every summer at Crystal Lake, with her mother's family, and many friends who also visit every year. Last year, they skipped the lake for another vacation opportunity, and when they return, nothing is the same. As they quickly learn in whispered conversations with their closest friends, what they missed was a murder. Cici is horrified to learn that not only was a girl named Zoe killed, but that Brody, the older brother of her closest friend, Jack, has been convicted of the crime. Certain that this can't be right, Cici begins collecting clues to exonerate Brody, only to find troubling evidence right in her own backyard.

I went through a serious Willo Davis Roberts phase when I was in middle school, and had this book been available then, I would have been all over it. Roberts just has a strong knack for writing compelling and believable novels about kids who solve crime. Though it is not likely that the average teenage girl will ever solve a murder mystery in her lifetime, Roberts makes it feel possible and plausible. 

From the very first page, the setting of this book comes alive. Through Cici's memories of previous summers and her description of how different the lake feels to her now, the reader easily gains the full picture of how much this place means to Cici, and how it feels to have her favorite vacation spot forever tainted by the image of a girl being killed there. Roberts also does a nice job of making the reader feel uneasy from the outset. When Cici eventually becomes suspicious of people in her own household, the reader almost feels relieved, as there is a sense of foreboding surrounding each of the suspects from the first time they appear in the book. Cici's relationship with Jack is also very well-described, and it will easily remind readers of their own feelings for those kids they have grown up with over the years.

This book skews a little older than some of Roberts's other books, and there is talk of sex (as a possible motive for the murder) and other mature themes, including a description of how Zoe is killed and an incident in which Cici is nearly shot. Because of that, I would probably classify the book as young adult and recommend it to young teens rather than elementary students. (My library has it in the children's section, but it was given the Edgar Award in the Young Adult category, so that is probably a better fit.) 

I borrowed Twisted Summer from my local public library.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Recent Library Reads: Series and Sequels

Here's another set of reviews of series books and sequels for beginning readers which I borrowed from the library.

The Great Pet Escape
by Victoria Jamieson
February 2016; Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
9781627791052

This newest book from Newbery Honor graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson is a fantasy story about what might happen if classroom pets suddenly decided to escape. George Washington, or GW, is the hamster in a second grade classroom. When he manages to get out of his cage, he tries to round up some of the other class pets, but finds that many of them have bonded with their captors and would prefer to stay put. As he tries to convince them to join him in his freedom, GW also discovers that Harriet, the rat belonging to the fourth grade class, is up to no good. I am not big on talking animals, but the writing in this is pretty clever, and the artwork does a nice job of revealing the animal characters' personalities. It's also nice to see a class pet story that does something different, and does not just conform to the usual "pet gets lost" or "pet dies while visiting a student's home" plot lines. Telling the story from the animals' point of view is definitely more engaging, and it makes this book a nice read-alike for 8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = Chaos by Vivian Vande Velde.

The New Arrival 
by Anna Alter
January 2016; Knopf Books for Young Readers
9780385755634

The New Arrival is the second book of the Sprout Street Neighbors series. Mili has just moved from Hawaii, and all of the Sprout Street neighbors are eager to meet her. Each chapter covers a different character's budding friendship with Mili, and finally, Mili has her own chapter where she comes to embrace her new community while still maintaining her Hawaiian roots. I love this series, and this second book is nearly as good as the first. Kids will relate to the neighbors' excitement over a new friend, as they often become excited themselves when new students join their classes in school or move into nearby houses. Readers who enjoyed the first book will also be pleased to learn more about the original characters they already know. I do have to admit that the writing style skews a little young for many beginning chapter book readers, who might be as old as 8 or 9 years old, but as a read-aloud for a preschooler, I can't think of a better recently published book. These books are as gentle as the Frog and Toad series, and as wholesome and clever as the Mercy Watson books.

When Andy Met Sandy
by Tomie dePaola, with Jim Lewis
March 2016; Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
9781481441551

When Andy Met Sandy is Tomie dePaola's new foray into books for beginning readers. I like the artwork, but I have to confess that the writing feels stilted. The plot is essentially the same as what happens in Yo! Yes? - two kids who don't look alike meet and become friends after realizing what they have in common - but the text is not nearly as controlled or artful. Because dePaola is such a household name, and because his artistic style is instantly recognizable by kids and adults alike, this series will find an audience, but there are certainly better-written easy readers out there. As a book to practice reading, it's functional and visually appealing, but as a pleasure read, it's a bit too preachy and contrived. Honestly, I think dePaola's best writing is in the Fairmount Avenue books, and I wish he would write more chapter books!

The Dragonsitter's Castle
by Josh Lacey 
April 2016; Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
9780316382403


The Dragonsitter's Castle is the third book of the series, and probably the last one I will read. The writing is consistently clever and funny, and the stories are appropriately formulaic fo a series for this reading level, but for an adult reader, it does become tedious after a while to read about the same dragon antics in book after book. I am thrilled that there is such a series about dragons, however, as they are a commonly requested topic and there just are not enough books out there at this level. I would continue to recommend this series to first and second graders who read at an advanced level, and for older readers who still like a lot of illustrations and enjoy the notebook novel format.

Princess Posey and the Crazy, Lazy Vacationby Stephanie Greene
February 2016; G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
9780399169632

In Princess Posey and the Crazy, Lazy Vacation, Posey is disappointed that her family is staying home for Spring Break while everyone else seems to be traveling somewhere. It turns out, though, that plenty of exciting things happen at home, including losing a tooth and learning to ride a two-wheeler! Often, series books seem to diminish in quality as volumes are added to the series, but that has never been the case with these books. Stephanie Greene continues to pinpoint the precise things that matter to first graders and she turns them into thoughtful, comforting stories that show true empathy for the child reader. This is another well-written and engaging story about a very realistic and likable little girl.

On the Road with Mallory
by Laurie Friedman
January 2016; Darby Creek Publishing
9781467750295

On the Road with Mallory is the 25th book in the Mallory series. In this installment, fourth grade is over, and Mallory is on a family trip with her parents, her brother, Max, and their cousin, Kate, who comes across as a snobby know-it-all. For much of the book, Mallory is her usual whiny self, complaining about Kate ruining her vacation, but somewhere along the line she does develop some empathy and figures out a way to make friends with her difficult cousin. I do think Mallory is showing some growth in these newer volumes, which is why I can't seem to quit the series even though I have said a few times that I probably don't need to read anymore. I will be curious to see how she does in fifth grade, and where and how the author eventually chooses to end her story.

I borrowed all books mentioned in this post from my local public libraries.
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