Archive | October, 2013

The Other Bears

30 Oct

Today’s book review is for The Other Bears, by Michael Thompson, published by Star Bright Books. I received an electronic advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

The Other Bears book cover

The Koala family is having a lovely day at the beach, happy to be called “bears”–until the other bears arrive. Mother and Father are suspicious. These other bears are different. The parents complain about the strange clothes, different features, and unusual cultural artifacts. The children, however, are delighted to meet new friends. They revel in new food, music, jokes, games, and stories. Finally, Mother and Father Koala see how happy their children are and decide maybe these visitors aren’t so bad, after all.

Thompson has written a wonderful little story about diversity and acceptance that will resonate with children and adults alike. His language is clear and accessible to his young audience. He repeats the same structural elements so that children can predict what will happen next. There are even occasional alliterative aspects that are fun to read. I think that kids will easily recognize how irrational and ridiculous the grumbling koala parents are being.

His illustrations are even better. Thompson has a lovely style–it’s light, bright, and clean. Images are lively and detailed. Each “bear” is attired in clothing representative of the human cultures that live in the same region of the world as they do. I especially liked the parkas and mukluks on the polar bears, and the bicycles of the sun bears. I just wish that the font selection for the text had better matched the illustration style. It felt a little pasted on.

This would be an excellent selection for a story time focused on tolerance and acceptance. It also provides an opportunity to discuss some of the cultures highlighted in the story. The Other Bears earns 4 out of 5 stars. It’s a great resource for parents or educators and has a wonderful message. I’m even willing to overlook how much it irritates me that people continue to include koalas and pandas on their lists of bears.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.


Grave Images

29 Oct

Today’s book review is for Grave Images, by Jenny Goebel, published by Scholastic. I received an electronic advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Grave Images book cover

Grave Images is a middle grades thriller. Thirteen-year old loner, Bernie, is having a lousy summer. Between her family’s monument business and a clinically depressed mother who hides in her bedroom all the time, Bernie finds it difficult to make friends. However, when her father hires a new artist, Mr. Stein, to make portrait etchings for the headstones, things start to get interesting. Bernie soon discovers that Mr. Stein is etching portraits of people before they die. She becomes determined to figure out whether Mr. Stein is merely predicting the deaths or if he’s causing them.

The novel is written in the first person point of view of Bernie. One of the things that I immediately liked was the stylized voice that Goebel gave to her main character. It has a sort of rural charm to it, and made it easy to imagine the character telling you the story–but it was just subtle enough that it didn’t disrupt the reading process. And through that voice, Goebel really makes Bernie come alive. Bernie is a likable character. She is flawed and hurting and lonely–but she’s also honest, determined, and caring. She has her flares of temper and frustration just like any other girl just starting puberty. So, on top of being likable, she’s also believable.

I also enjoyed that even though the driving plot of the novel is supernatural and spooky, there was a lot more going on in the story. While Bernie is trying to solve the mystery of the etchings, she is also working through family struggles and the confusion of a budding friendship. She is growing into an adolescent and starting to really explore her own identity.

Which isn’t to say that the driving plot isn’t enjoyable. It certainly kept me guessing for a long time. And I liked that it had just the right level of scary for the target audience. Even though there were deaths, there was no gore. There were no graphic descriptions to keep tweens up at night. In fact most of the fear element comes from Bernie getting herself worked up and spooked over her own speculation.

This is a wonderful choice to put middle graders in the Halloween spirit. Or, they can read it anytime they want a good, creepy read. It’s got solid writing and age-appropriate storytelling, for which it earns 4 out of 5 stars.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

Book Review: The Solar System Through Infographics

28 Oct

Today’s book review is for The Solar System Through Infographics, written by Nadia Higgins, illustrated by Lisa Waananen, published by Lerner Publishing Group. It is scheduled to be released on friday, November 1, 2013. I received an electronic copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The first thing that I want to say about this book is that the title is a bit misleading. It would be more appropriately titled “Astronomy Through Infographics”, since it covers a lot of astronomical phenomena that are not found within our solar system. That said, it’s an excellent resource for anyone who is interested in learning more about astronomy.

Higgins presents the sometimes overwhelming subject of astronomy in language that is accessible and easy to understand. She uses a congenial, relaxed tone to engage her readers and make science cool, rather than intimidating. The information presented was in accordance with what I learned in my astrophysics class at university, so I’d also say that she seems to have done well at presenting accurate information to her audience, as well. The one area where I think she could have done a better job was in distinguishing between weight and mass in the text–particularly because there is a table of weights on different planets in pounds and kilograms–where the SI unit should be Newtons. That said, it’s not a major issue.

It’s Waananen’s graphics that really make the book, though. Her vector art style and bold color choices are eye-catching. And her infographics illustrate important concepts and ideas through timelines, flow charts, tables, graphs, and more. Besides helping kids to understand astronomy better, these graphics also introduce them to various tools that they can use to communicate ideas to others. In this way, the book pulls double duty on the educational value front.

What I love most is the overall design. Before I had even gotten past the front matter I was thinking “this is a cool book!” It’s hip and on-trend. Rather than presenting information linearly, the book is set up so that you can jump around. Information appears in small chunks that can be easily digested before young minds get distracted. By using multiple typefaces, readers can distinguish different types of information on the page, as well. At the end, the book includes a glossary, index, and suggestions for further information (books and websites)–making it not just pretty, but also functional.

Whether you have a child who is fascinated by astronomy or one who is science-phobic, this book is a great choice to nurture an interest in the subject. I think it’s a 5 out of 5 star book–it’s educational, it’s visually appealing, it’s functional, and it engages a variety of learning styles. It would make a great tool in the classroom and an excellent resource for a library.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

Don’t Push the Button

26 Oct

Today’s book review is for Don’t Push the Button, by Bill Cotter, published by Sourcebooks. It is scheduled for release on Friday, November 1, 2013. I received an electronic advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. I am also pleased to announce that I was invited to participate in the blog tour for this book. So, keep reading after the review for a special guest post from Bill Cotter!

Don't Push the Button book cover

Don’t Push the Button is an interactive picture book for pre-school to kindergarten aged children. It features an adorable monster named Larry who has only one rule–do not push the button. Of course, the audience is tempted into pushing the button, and fun ensues.

The thing that struck me immediately about this book is how it encourages kids to interact with the book on a physical level. They are asked to touch and shake and move the book–not because there are flashy gimmicks, pull tabs, or textures to engage with, but because books themselves are objects that can be moved and manipulated. It’s a great way to draw in young children and keep them interested.

The writing is great. It can be hard to follow along with complicated clauses in a read-aloud situation and Cotter understands this. He uses simple sentences, which are perfect for his target audience. His word choices are natural and relaxed. They sound like the sort of language that pre-schoolers might use themselves.

I also enjoyed the illustrations. They’re fairly simple–but that doesn’t mean dull. They’ve got a lot of spunk, with fun colors and patterns. He leaves a lot of white space on the page, which gives the whole book a clean, professional feel. Too much detail can overwhelm younger children–they get distracted easily. So, once again, Cotter demonstrates an understanding of his target audience.

It’s a great book and sure to please kids. I’m giving it 5 out of 5 stars for being visually appealing, fun to read, and wonderfully targeted. It’s nice to see a new author-illustrator who really “gets” his audience.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

I asked Bill Cotter if he could share about how his experiences with teaching and working with young children influenced his writing. The following is a guest post he wrote in response


by Bill Cotter Bill Cotter Headshot

How I came into teaching was somewhat by chance. I graduated from art school, and with no prospects and barely any money, I moved from Baltimore up to New York City. Upon arrival the stock market IMMEDIATELY crashed. Let’s just say it was a frank introduction to the real world. I couldn’t even get a job at Target! Most of the time my roommates and I were cold and broke, but I know I’ll remember those years as being some of my happiest. I was on an excellent adventure with two of my best friends.

I had managed to land an internship in the art department of Rolling Stone, but it was unpaid so I still didn’t have any income. That’s when I came to know that there are a few recession-proof professions, and one of those is babysitting. Yes, it doesn’t matter how bad the economy got, people would always pay top dollar to get away from their kids for a night.

I’ll admit that babysitting had its pride-swallowing moments, but I really tried to look at it as a situation where I could learn about my target audience. At the time I knew a lot about how to make art, but I knew nothing about the people I intended to make it for. Besides for the fact that most of the job is getting paid to watch tv, I also got a glimpse into the lives of the New York elite; the decorating choices of a famous graphic designer, the book collection of a MoMA artist. And getting paid in cold hard cash wasn’t too bad either.

While I was making money as a “manny”, my roommate was working in the office of a school in Tribeca called the Church Street School of Music & Art. He let me know that an art teacher position was opening up, and with a combination of an art background and child-care experience I was offered the job. I was ecstatic to have a job where I could still get to know my audience while working in a super-creative environment.

This place isn’t your normal school. Church Street School is a local institution. For over 20 years, it has served as lower Manhattan’s non-profit arts center that offers a wide array of classes. The school hosts anything from mommy and toddler fingerpainting classes in the morning to figure drawing at night. They’re known for an amazing Pre-K class, a huge afterschool program as well as Carnegie Hall level performers teaching piano lessons to celebrities’ kids somewhere in between. It is truly an amazing place and was my second home from most of my time in New York.

The class I liked to be a part of most was Pre-K. Depending on the day, the class consisted of 2-3 year olds or 3-4 year olds. I think this age is so much fun to be around. All the students are just coming into their personalities, learning to talk, learning to socialize. They are so young that we teachers could always see an amazing amount of growth in just one semester.

My favorite part about teaching this class was that at any free moment we were reading a picture book to them. If we needed something for them to concentrate on during snack time, when they were waiting for others to finish washing hands after art, if a parent or sitter was late picking them up. I found myself reading several books on a daily basis. It was extremely beneficial to be able to sit down with kids and observe first hand how they reacted to different kinds of stories, characters, colors, textures, you name it. “Don’t Push the Button” came from me taking in this information and trying to come up with a book that I thought would be the most fun to read with my students.

The interactive part of the book was very much inspired by the way they teach kids at the school. Being physically engaged with the activity is crucial for a child that young. Every song that they learn has accompanying hand gestures. The gestures help them learn the words and vice versa. In art class we are constantly making the student verbalize the different materials and textures they encounter. I feel like the experience is better solidified in the child’s mind if multiple senses are being engaged.

I definitely considered all these things when making the book. “Don’t Push the Button” is a combination of a few elements that I knew would engage a young kid: bright colors, a catch phrase, a character talking directly at them, and a way to physically interact with the story.

I feel like the best proof that this works is this video:

Thanks to the author and publisher for inviting me to be a part of this blog tour.

Shadow of Atlantis Blog Tour and Giveaway

25 Oct

Today’s book review is for the Shadow of Atlantis, from the Shadows of the Past series by Wendy Leighton-Porter, published by Mauve Square Publishing. I received an electronic copy of the book from Renee at Mother Daughter Book Reviews, so I could participate in the blog tour. Keep reading after the review for more information about the tour–and to enter the giveaway!

Shadow of Atlantis Cover

The Shadow of Atlantis is a fantasy adventure story for middle grade readers. The parents of 10-year old twins Jemima and Joe disappeared under mysterious circumstances. When the twins decide to check out their parents’ treasured book one rainy afternoon, they discover something amazing–the book is able to transport them through time and space. Joe, Jemima, their friend Charlie, and their cat Max end up traveling to Atlantis. They befriend a girl and her family, and soon decide that they must warn the Atlanteans that their island home is doomed to fall into the sea. Then, while trying to help organize an exodus, the twins discover that their parents had been to Atlantis as well–and that not all residents of the island are friendly to guests. Can they save their new friends and escape back to their own world in time?

Leighton-Porter has crafted a creative tale with this book. I enjoyed the way that it melded elements of pure fantasy with historical research. The magical book, key, and translation charms were all clever plot devices–although I do hope that we’ll learn more about what they are and where they came from in future books. But I was willing to overlook their convenience, because of window they offered on history. Even though there has never been any evidence that Atlantis was a real place, Leighton-Porter draws on real artifacts and history from the region and period to give children insight into what life would have been like in Ancient Greek civilization. From lack of indoor plumbing to animal sacrifice, she brings the past to life for her readers.

One of the biggest flaws with the book is that it gets off to a weak start. The writing in the opening is plodding and clunky. The sentences have too many clauses. There are too many modifiers. It’s hard to adjust to the constantly shifting point of view–because while I’m used to reading third person narration, I’m less used to being able to read the internal monologue of every character in a story. Worst of all, the first chapter has no real story or plot. The whole thing is exposition! And most of that exposition is comprehensive introductions to all of the major characters.

If you can make it past the first chapter, though, things get better. That’s when the story really begins–and it’s a fun one. It’s got adventure and fantasy and history and mystery all wrapped up together, in a way that I think will engage young readers. I liked that the protagonists were brother and sister, because it provides an “in” to both boys and girls. The more I read, the more I wanted to know what was going to happen. There were plenty of questions to keep me turning the pages.

Ultimately, I give the book 3 out of 5 stars. I liked it. But I would have liked it more if it had pulled me in from the beginning and if the main characters were a little more fleshed out. I recognize it’s fairly typical for genre fiction to focus on plot and sometimes neglect character development–but there are writers who manage to do both. Still, I think that kids will enjoy the magic and adventure. They’ll probably like the talking cat, too.

The Shadow of Atlantis Blog Tour Button

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The Weird! Series

22 Oct

Today’s book review is for all three books in the Weird! series: Weird!, Dare!, and Tough!, written by Erin Frankel, illustrated by Paula Heaphy, published by Free Spirit Publishing. I received electronic copies of these books from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. I am also pleased to announce that I was invited to participate in the blog tour for this series, which was scheduled to coincide with Bullying Prevention Month. So, keep reading after the review for a special guest post from author Erin Frankel!

Weird! book coverDare! book coverTough! book cover

The Weird! series tells the story of bullying from three different perspectives: Luisa, the victim, narrates Weird!, Jayla, the bystander, in Dare!, and Sam, the bully, in Tough!. Each of the third grade girls struggles to understand her identity and how to express it. However, when they find a supportive and encouraging adult to help them, each girl is able to overcome her problems and grow into a better person.

Bullying has long been a problem in schools, which means it has also inspired a multitude of books on the subject. In that sea of literature, Frankel’s voice is a breath of fresh air. She is able to get inside the heads of each girl and narrates in voices that feel fresh, honest, and real. At the same time, she doesn’t sacrifice literary style–the language is thoughtful and has a natural, easy flow. I was also impressed that each of her main characters are cool and likable in their own way–there are no pathetic outcast whiners or giant ignorant oafs in these books, just three girls with vibrant personalities. And it was great to see that the girls were guided through their issues by competent adults. Too many books leave children to figure out problems on their own, but Frankel recognizes that bullying can be complicated, and sometimes kids need help solving big problems.

To make things even better, the series has gorgeous illustration. There’s no bland, generic stock illustration here. Instead, Heaphy’s pictures are graphic and hip. She has an excellent eye for design. She uses repeating patterns and motifs throughout each book to create a sense of mood and identity. I also loved the way that she applies color sparingly–being unafraid to leave most of the page in black and white. Her images bring the books to life and provide a sense of unity between the three stories.

At the end of each book there are a series of discussion points and activities to use with children in the classroom, or at home. They provide great opportunities for extension projects and are a great resource for busy teachers. For me, these final touches also reveal just how much thought went into crafting these books. While they are engaging stories on their own, they are also great teaching tools. For everything from design to thoughtful story telling, these books earn 5 out of 5 stars.

You can find more information about these books, including other reviews, at Goodreads.


Helping Kids Stop Bullying
Tips for Using the Weird Series in the Classroom

By Erin Frankel

When I wrote the Weird series, I knew it was important to bring the role of the caring adult into the spotlight. It is a role too often left out of picture books on bullying in which child characters are left to find solutions on their own. The reality is that most children will need help when it comes to putting an end to bullying, and they will turn to the adults in their lives to help guide and support them.

Each of the three books in the Weird series, Weird!, Dare!, and Tough!, shows main characters as well as peripheral characters interacting with adults who support and help them in finding solutions to bullying. Placing adults in the books was a leap of faith. I had to believe that if a child reading these books had the courage to reach out to adults about bullying, those adults would respond with compassion and commitment.

When it comes to bullying, teachers, parents, and other caregivers need to be willing and prepared to help. It is my hope that the additional discussion questions, activities, and suggestions outlined in our free leader’s guide (available online here) will help foster a caring community of learners in your classroom, school, and community.

The three books in the Weird series can be read in any order. You may choose to start with Weird!, told from the target’s perspective; Dare!, told from the bystander’s perspective; or Tough!, told from the perspective of the child initiating the bullying. Each book is packed with opportunities for discussion and reflection. I like to begin with Weird!, told from the target’s perspective, because it sets the stage for a powerful question: How did Luisa get back to being herself? No matter which book you choose to start with, I suggest taking your time with each, rather than trying to race through all three books in one reading. There are many ways to integrate the Weird series into your classroom schedule and curriculum. Some ideas include using the series:

  • at the beginning of the school year when working with students to define what will make your classroom a caring community.
  • as a lead-in to National Bullying Prevention Month, No Name-Calling Week, or other national or local anti-bullying initiatives.
  • during character education units on courage, compassion, empathy, kindness, truthfulness, fairness, confidence, self-respect, or tolerance (just to mention a few).
  • when specific instances of bullying have occurred in your classroom or school. Note: Take care not to name participants or single out students.
  • as a reminder throughout the year to choose kindness.

However you use the books, consider revisiting the characters and their challenges throughout the school year to discuss the choices they made. If students have forgotten details, it is often nice to go back and read the books again.

For further ideas about how to use the Weird series in your classroom or community, follow us online at

Erin Frankel is the author of Weird!, Dare!, and Tough!, an acclaimed picture book series on bullying from Free Spirit Publishing.

Adapted from A Leader’s Guide to the Weird Series by Erin Frankel, illustrated by Paula Heaphy, copyright © 2013. Used with permission of Free Spirit Publishing Inc., Minneapolis, MN; 800-735-7323; All rights reserved.

Many thanks to the author and publisher for allowing me to participate in this blog tour. Also, apologies for the late post–technical difficulties and an injury conspired against me, but I persevered.

Here I Am

16 Oct

Today’s review is for Here I Am, story by Patti Kim, illustrations by Sonia Sanchez, published by Capstone Young Readers. I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Here I Am book cover

Here I Am is a wordless book that tells the story of a young boy immigrating to the United States from Asia. The boy is overwhelmed by the new city at first; there are so many strange sights and sounds. He becomes sullen and reserved and spends most of his time staring out at the world from his apartment window. The only thing that brings him hope and joy is a seed that he brought over with him. Then, one day, while he is looking out the window, the boy drops the seed and a little girl picks it up. As a result, the boy ventures out into the city on his own to reclaim the seed. On the way he discovers that his new home is lively and full of great sights, sounds, and people.

To write this story, author Patti Kim drew upon her own experiences of being a child immigrant from Korea. This story isn’t autobiographical, but it she’s still able to call upon the personal to create a strong emotional response. Often in wordless books, we forget to credit the person who wrote the story, since in the end we only see the illustrations. However, it’s important to give credit where credit is due–in this case to Kim who created a story that would be powerful in any medium.

Which is not to say that the art of Sonia Sanchez didn’t elevate the work. To the contrary, it was Sanchez’s ability to capture complex emotions in her art that drew me into the story and kept me engaged. The way that she clusters multiple frames on the page creates such a great sense of mood. It’s a technique I haven’t seen used much, but it’s highly effective. Another touch that is nice is how signs appear to be in jibberish, but as the boy grows more familiar with his new country, they begin to most closely resemble English. Finally, I enjoyed the use of color. Early in the story, most of the colors are in the red and yellow range. But, once the boy ventures out and starts to engage with the world, a lot more greens and blues enter the page. It gives a real sense of the world opening up to him.

This book earns 4 out of 5 stars. It was emotionally resonate and provides a great resource for talking with children about immigrant experiences. My only real issue with the whole thing was that initially, I couldn’t decipher that the seed was a seed. Otherwise, I like that the book addresses the emotional side of immigration, and shows that just because someone is closed off, it doesn’t mean that they are not interested in friends.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

The Snatchabook Blog Tour

14 Oct

Today’s review is for The Snatchabook, written by Helen Docherty, illustrated by Thomas Docherty, published by Sourcebooks. I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. I am also pleased to announce that I was invited to participate in the blog tour for this book. So, keep reading after the review for a special guest post from Helen and Thomas Docherty!

The Snatchabook book cover

The Snatchabook is a whimsical new picture book by husband and wife duo, Helen and Thomas Docherty. Burrow Down is a peaceful forest neighborhood where children are tucked in to bed at night with stories. That is, until someone starts stealing all the books! One little girl, Eliza Brown, decides to get to the bottom of the mystery and discovers the Snatchabook. But by setting firm boundaries and practicing compassion, Eliza comes up with a solution where everyone wins.

This story, told in rhyming verse is a joy to read aloud. It could certainly become a bedtime favorite in many households. The language is playful–and the rhymes flow smoothly. Helen Docherty even manages to make the rhymes feel natural, avoiding the shoe-horned-in feeling so common in rhyming stories. Heroine Eliza Brown is a great character. I love her cleverness and persistence, her desire to solve the mystery, and her creative problem-solving. She’s a great role model for kids.

Thomas Docherty’s illustrations are lovely. They’re cute, but they are also lively. There is a luminous quality to many of them, and his technique creates the feeling that light sources in the images are actually glowing. His cutaway views of the burrows in Burrow Down are some of my favorite elements of the book–I love how they really create a sense of place and setting.

The Snatchabook is a beautifully designed and executed book. Pages are thoughtfully laid out to provide pacing to the text–two page spreads to make you linger, several smaller illustrations on a page to give a sense of frenzied activity. I also appreciate that there’s never too much text on any page. As always, I appreciate the attention paid to such details.

I give this book 4 out of 5 stars for being an engaging new bedtime tale. The Docherty’s have done an excellent job of adding to the realm of fairy tale creatures with their invention of the Snatchabook. Children and their caregivers are sure to love the story and the message that sometimes the bad guy isn’t such a bad guy.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviws, at Goodreads.

Guest Post From Helen and Thomas Docherty
I invited Helen and Thomas to discuss how they came up with the idea for the Snatchabook as a creature. Where did he come from? What could they share about his background? The following is their response.

Helen: I have always been drawn to characters that transgress in some way – characters that are flawed, but not beyond redemption. Dr Seuss’s The Grinch Who Stole Christmas has always been one of my favorite children’s books, and was definitely an influence in the creation of the Snatchabook (although they are, of course, very different characters). I am also interested in outsiders, and how their arrival impacts on a community (a theme also explored in our next book, Abracazebra).

The idea of a book thief who steals children’s bedtime stories popped into my head at the end of a long day of trying (and failing) to think up interesting storylines. A book cruncher? A book snatcher? No, a Snatchabook! Almost immediately, I saw the potential to develop the story as a mystery with plenty of suspense, a brave heroine and a twist in the tale – namely, that the Snatchabook is just a pitiful little creature, whose motivation for stealing all the books is simply that is he is desperate to be read to; to be included in the cozy bedtime world of Burrow Down. So really, the Snatchabook represents any child who has missed out on that experience, for whatever reason. And in a way, all the animals in the community of Burrow Down become his ‘parents’ when they include him in their story times at the end. (As to where he came from originally…that remains a mystery!)

Tom and I had a lot of fun developing the character of the Snatchabook visually. I had an image in my head of a sort of bush baby with long, delicate wings and a long tail, and Tom set to work drawing sketches. He interpreted it so brilliantly that it looked like a creature that already existed.

Here are his earliest sketches:

Several early sketches of the Snatchabook

(click the image to view full size)

Many thanks to the author and publisher for giving me the opportunity to participate in this tour.
You can learn more about Helen at her website:
and Thomas at his website:

Feel Confident!

13 Oct

Today’s book review is for Feel Confident!, written by Cheri J. Meiners, illustrated by Elizabeth Allen, published by Free Spirit Publishing. I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Feel Confident! book cover

Feel Confident! is another installment in the “Being the Best Me!” series. I previously reviewed Be Positive!, which is part of the same series. The series is intended to help children learn character development skills. In this volume, they are guided through building self-confidence.

The text is once again written as a series of first person affirmations. Although this is a picture book, it’s not a story, so much as it’s a self-improvement guide where the advice unfolds over the course of a fictional day. While these “I” statements might feel a little silly to cynical adults, I think they’re much more effective with the target audience of pre-school and early elementary aged children. One thing that bothered me in this volume was the assumption that all children are able-bodied. One of the pages talks about celebrating all that that “my body can do” and then goes on to mention jumping, dancing and running–which are activities that many who use wheelchairs cannot do. While I understand that books aren’t always sensitive to these situations, I had expectations that this one would be, given that it is sensitive to so many other issues.

The illustrations are, once again, pleasant but generic. Children will probably enjoy them though, and connect with the characters depicted on the page. Allen provides thoughtful examples to compliment the text on the page.

The book also includes four pages of extension activities at the end, so that caregivers and educators can reinforce the ideas expressed in the main text. There are discussion questions, vocabulary lists, activities and games to explore.

I’m giving this book 3 out of 5 stars, which is one star less than the volume I previously reviewed. Why? Well, probably if I’d read them in reverse, the ratings would be reversed. The thing is, they just felt too similar to me. Many of the affirmations in Be Positive! could have been used in Feel Confident!, and vice versa. I can’t even fully remember in which of the books some of them did actually appear. They just sort of blend together into one larger book to me. Still, the book provides a good message and would be a great resource in the classroom to encourage character development.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

Book Review: Mishan’s Garden

12 Oct

Today’s book review is for Mishan’s Garden, written by James Vollbracht, illustrated by Janet Brooke, published by Wisdom Publications. I received an electronic copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The book will be released on Tuesday, October 15, 2013.

Mishan’s Garden is the story of a young girl, Mishan, who lives in a small village high in the mountains of Tibet. She is an innkeeper’s daughter and often helps him around the inn. Her father tells her that one day a beautiful garden will bloom behind the inn–and though she is doubtful, she starts to tend the land anyway. She also starts to tell the people who visit the inn what aspect of the garden they are like, such as the strong and mighty tree or the lilacs blowing in the wind. One day she goes out to check on the garden and falls ill. The villagers, who have grown fond of Mishan discover her lying on the ground outside and rush to help care for her. Then, something magical happens. It is a story about hope and seeing the best in people.

I had a couple of problems in reading this story. The first is that it smacked of cultural appropriation–a white man tells a mystical story about a young Asian girl who is wise beyond her years. Since there is no author’s note in the book stating that the story was adapted from a traditional tale, I’m going to assume that it’s purely of Vollbracht’s invention. While I love books that explore multiculturalism, this one just felt like someone constructing a stereotypical “Asian wisdom narrative.”

Which brings me to my second big issue, which is that this felt like a grown-up book disguised as a children’s book. It felt a lot like the stories in the Buddhist canon–the sort of stories that children might be able to understand, but aren’t actually targeted to that audience. Mishan uses rather sophisticated similes when speaking to her father’s customers. Some of the core themes of the book might be a little abstract for the usual picture-book-reading audience. While I don’t think that books should be “dumbed down” for kids, neither do I think they should be inaccessible.

Janet Brooke’s illustrations are a bit bland, as well. Many of them look like they could have been pulled from any picture book retelling of a story from China or Japan that was published in the last half a decade. Then there was the drawing of the garden that looked more like a concept sketch than a finished illustration.

When I request review copies for books, I look for books that I think I’ll enjoy. I wanted to enjoy this one–but I just couldn’t. There was too much that didn’t work. So in the end, I give it 1 out of 5 stars, because I just did not like it.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.