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Breakfast With Bigfoot

23 Jan

Today’s book review is for Breakfast With Bigfoot, written by Amelia Cotter, illustrated by Charles Swinford, published by Black Oak Media. I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Breakfast With Bigfoot book cover

While young Gretchen is on a camping trip with her family, she decides to go for a short walk in the woods. She notices that the sun is getting low and starts to head back to camp–only to find that she’s lost. She does not, however, lose her wits. Instead, she thinks back to lessons from nature camp and decides to wait until someone finds her. She just never expected that it would be Bigfoot who finds her! This humorous story offers young children sound advice for basic outdoors skills.

This is one of those cases where I’m actually shocked that the publisher printed the book as it exists in this edition. The writing is sound. The illustrations are nice. The book design, however, is terrible. The paper is of such low quality that the text shows through to the other side of the page–which sometimes muddies up the illustrations. The font selection is pretty tacky. And for a target audience of 3-6 year old kids, there is far too much text on each page. At one point, I was tempted to just scan the illustrations and re-design the book for myself. The good news on this front is that a revised edition is in the works. I’ve been told that it will be printed on higher quality paper and will feature some layout changes.

When I started reading the book to my daughter, she was interested in the story. As a parent, I found that the text was fairly easy to read aloud and had a kid-friendly tone. There were a few moments where it felt like narrator asides were talking down to the audience a little. “Oh no! Gretchen is lost!” is one such example. We’ve just heard that she doesn’t think she’s on the right path–the target audience should be able to deduce that she’s lost without it being spelled out. There are other places where the prose could be tightened up a bit. Overall, though, the story flows smoothly and has a good balance of humor and teachable moments.

Swinford’s pencil and watercolor illustrations are fun. I really enjoyed the facial expressions and body language of both Gretchen and Bigfoot. The pictures complemented the text nicely. They made it easier to understand what was happening in the story. My primary complaint with the illustrations was that I wished there had been a few more. For the age group of the target audience, the visual element is important. There were no full-page illustrations–but there were full pages of text. The text and imagery balance was way off for a picture book.

This has been an incredibly difficult book for me to evaluate. Poor design is one of the biggest hurdles for me to get past when reviewing a book. I feel like the book itself earns 2 stars, while the content merits 3 stars. But I’ve got high hopes for the revised edition. I love that Cotter is working to teach young kids basic survival skills–stay calm, stay in one place, don’t eat strange foods. As a parent who already takes her daughter hiking and plans to take her camping soon, too, it’s nice to have a resource like this available. Cotter’s onto a great idea; now she just needs the editorial guidance to help her shine.

You can find more information about this book at Goodreads.


Jungle of Bones

21 Jan

Today’s book review is for Jungle of Bones, by Ben Mikaelsen, published by Scholastic. It is scheduled for release on January 28, 2014. I received a free electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Jungle of Bones book cover

Dylan Barstow has a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas. Ever since his father died, he keeps getting in trouble. But when he steals a car from the junkyard to spin donuts in a field, his mother gives him an ultimatum: spend the summer before 8th grade in lockup or spend it with ex-Marine Uncle Todd. Reluctantly Dylan chooses Uncle Todd. Soon he discovers that Uncle Todd has bigger plans for the summer than early morning jogs–they’re going to take a trip to Papua New Guinea to join a team of 3 other people in search of the wreckage of WWII bomber Second Ace. When Dylan gets lost in the jungle, he finally has to confront the realization that he is not the center of the universe. If he wants to survive, he’s going to have to abandon his assumptions and anger.

Recently I realized that I’d need to push myself to read outside of my “comfort genres” in order to better serve my audience. The synopsis for this title sounded interesting, so I decided to give it a try. It turned out that the story was so engaging, I stayed up well past my bedtime to finish the book in one sitting.

It was the descriptions of Papua New Guinea, the jungle and the struggle for survival that really hooked me in. They were skillfully written. I could imagine the smells and the oppressive humidity. I could picture the shanties and villages. Everything felt so vivid, alive and alien. That sort of powerful description can be hard to master. Some writers over-do it, using purple prose and redundant adjectives. Mikaelsen nails it, though.

Sometimes it is hard for me to get into a book when I don’t really like the main character. And I did not like Dylan very much. That said, I knew him (because he was so much like other young men I’ve met in my life) and I cared about him. He was completely self-absorbed, disrespectful, and a real pain in the behind–but I could also recognize the pain underlying his behaviors and wanted for him to heal and move on with his life.

I could have done with a little less of the heavy-handed jingoism, though. The military history in the story was wonderful. In particular, I found the journal entries in the journal of Dylan’s grandfather to be well-done and informative. I also liked when they visited a veteran in a nursing home and got to hear his story. However, there was also a tone of military worship to the book, and a bit too much “The USA is the savior of everyone” attitude (as though Dylan’s uncle forgot that there were other countries fighting alongside the United States in World War II).

In the final assessment, though, I was able to get passes my discomforts and enjoy a well-crafted story. I liked how it encouraged inter-generational relationships, emotional healing, a respect for history, and valuing cultures that are vastly different from one’s own. It’s a great book for young people who enjoy the genres of adventure and survival. It might also be a good selection for young people who are lashing out at the world after dealing with a traumatic life event. I’m giving the book 4 stars.

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

Mommy and Me Start Cooking

20 Jan

Today’s book review is for Mommy and Me Start Cooking from Dorling Kindersley. I received a free electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.

Mommy and Me Start Cooking book cover

Mommy and Me Start Cooking is a wonderful first cookbook for school aged children. In addition to introducing children to basic cooking techniques, it also includes detailed information on a number of ingredients. The bold design and use of infographics make for a book that is sure to engage children and get them excited about being in the kitchen.

The first thing that I noticed about this book was the great design. It’s quite visually appealing. Text is presented in fun, kid-friendly fonts that are still easy to read. Illustrations combine elements from photography, clipart and traditional illustration to create a lively visual environment. Most of all, though, I was drawn to the infographics. Infographics such as charts and diagrams make it easier for kids to process new information. Instructions are provided in text, with accompanying photos so children can understand the actions described. There are even warning triangles to indicate steps that should be done either by an adult, or under adult supervision. I was really impressed by how thoughtful the designers were in putting the book together.

The recipes cover all three meals of the day, as well as snacks and desserts. I appreciated the range provided. As a vegetarian, I also appreciated that efforts were made to suggest alternatives to meat in some of the recipes. I was most intrigued by the recipes for star cookies, blueberry sponge, and pea houmous. The star cookies incorporate ginger and orange zest to make them special. Using peas to make houmous was a novel and appealing idea. My only real complaint about the recipes is that I wish they incorporated more vegetables. Getting children to eat vegetables can be a challenge for some parents–but I think if they were encouraged to help in their preparation it might help.

This cookbook offers ample opportunities for teaching moments. There are asides about various ingredients that explain where they come from, how they are harvested, etc. Measuring ingredients for the recipes helps kids develop math skills. For an extra challenge, you could figure out how to double a recipe to serve more people. After observing how ingredients combine and transform, children could read about different aspects of food chemistry. A child interested in geography could research where various crops originated. Or you can simply enjoy learning the basic life skills of food preparation, and enjoy consuming the fruits of your labor.

Mommy and Me Start Cooking is sure to engage children and teach them to appreciate home-cooked food. With great design, fun variety, and age-appropriate content, this book earns 4 stars. And the recipes are simple enough that even parents who lack culinary savvy should be able to execute the recipes with their kids.

You can find more information about this book on Goodreads.

Netta and Her Plant

16 Jan

Happy Tu B’Shevat! Today’s book review is for Netta and Her Plant, written by Ellie B. Gellman, illustrated by Natascia Ugliano, published by Kar-Ben Publishing. I purchased a copy of this book for my daughter’s library.

Netta and her Plant book cover

One Tu B’Shevat (the Jewish New Year for the trees), little Netta plants a seedling at her pre-school. She brings the plant home and cares for it with love and devotion. A seasons pass, Netta and her plant grow up together. This is a touching story about nurture and growth that celebrates the life cycle.

I’ve been working to add more books with Jewish themes to my daughter’s library, to keep her connected to her heritage. When I saw this book while searching on Amazon, I was immediately drawn to it. The cover art was beautiful and the story would give me opportunity to introduce my daughter to a new holiday.

The narrative prose is gentle and easy to read aloud. There’s a nice structure to the writing, too. The story is told in an episodic structure, with a repeated refrain of “The plant grew. Netta grew.” The structure helps to reinforce the idea of the seasonal cycle, growth, and renewal. Word choices are age appropriate and sentence structures are varied. I appreciate that it doesn’t talk down to children.

I fell in love with the illustrations. Initially I had some reservations about the style, but each time I read with my daughter, I find myself liking the pictures more and more. The images look to be drawn in pencil and then colored with heavily textured colored pencil. There are many beautifully rendered hand-drawn patterns on the clothing of various characters. The characters’ wide-set eyes give the impression of kindness and friendliness. Despite their simple facial features, Ugliano manages to convey great emotional depth on her characters.

This book is a wonderful choice for Jewish parents who want to help their children stay connected to their culture and traditions. It’s also a great choice for other parents who want to expose their children to other cultures. At the end of the book there is a small glossary of Hebrew words used in the text, as well as a short explanation of Tu B’Shevat. It’s also a great way to encourage children to value and feel a deeper connection to the natural world. I’m giving the book 5 stars. It’s a beautifully executed work that can be enjoyed by both parent and child.

You can find more information about this book on Goodreads.

Dream Birthday

15 Jan

Today’s book review is for Dream Birthday, by Ruby Ann Phillips, published by Picture Window Books (an imprint of Capstone Young Readers. This book is scheduled for release on February 1, 2014. I received a free electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Dream Birthday book cover

Krystal Ball is a fairly typical fourth grader, except for one thing. She’s a fortune teller. She’s great at predicting the future, but she’s not always so good at interpreting her visions. Her birthday is coming up and she’s ready to have an amazing party. The problem is, she keeps having horrible nightmares. In this installment of a new series for 6-8 year olds, Krystal will learn that even things look grim, there can still be a silver lining.

Phillips does an excellent job in her first person narration of capturing the voice of a nine-year old girl. Initially, I was unsure about whether I liked the narrative style–but as I read more, I realized that it was perfect for the target audience. The voice was believable, friendly and inviting. It is crafted in such a way as to engage young readers and draw them into the mysteries of the story.

I enjoy that Krystal has solid relationships not just with her parents, but also with her grandmother. The multi-generational aspect of the story was nice. Even though Krystal has a special gift, she needs the guidance of her grandmother to understand how to use it. I also like that even though her parents don’t have any psychic abilities, they are understanding of their daughter and encourage her to spend time with her grandmother.

For an early chapter book, I actually found the plot pretty engaging. As a reader you get to see the visions that Krystal has. Which means that you also have the opportunity to try to puzzle out what they mean. Even when you suspect the answer, chances are it’s not going to be quite what you thought.

This is exactly the sort of book that I think I would have enjoyed as a young girl. I remember being fascinated with fortune telling and astrology at that age. And Krystal is such a likable character. I could easily see her being someone’s go-to “book friend.” I’m going to give Dream Birthday 4 stars for fun concept, engaging plot, and appropriateness for target audience.

If you’re still not sure, check out the book trailer:

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

My Grandfather’s Masbaha

14 Jan

Today’s book review is for My Grandfather’s Masbaha, written by Susan Daniel Fayad, illustrated by Avery Liell-Kok, self-published through Author House. I received a free paperback copy of this book through a First Reads giveaway on Goodreads, with the expectation that I would post an honest review.

My Grandfather's Masbaha book cover

My Grandfather’s Masbaha begins with a little boy, Adam, throwing a temper tantrum when his friends all go home and he’s left with nothing to do. As his hyperbole grows, his Jidoo (grandfather) starts to laugh. Then he pulls out a string of prayer beads known as a masbaha to help Adam count his blessings. At first he is reluctant to share his grandfather’s perspective, but by the end he is able to understand.

Like many self-published works, this book would have benefited from an extra round of editing. There were numerous typographical errors, however, it was the writing style itself which I felt could use refining. First of all, the descriptive language has a lot of redundancy–“more and more”, “redder and redder”, etc. These sorts of repetitions don’t add to the story, especially since there is still plenty of other descriptive language. Next, I found a lot of the dialogue to feel stunted and unnatural. In particular, I thought that the lack of contractions in the first couple of pages felt awkward–it made me think of Data in Star Trek. Finally, a lot of the dialogue tags were also poorly written. In an attempt to add variety to her language, the author sometimes made odd word choices such as “chimed Adam.” I think of bells as chiming, but not so much children.

The illustrations were servicable. They were a bit flat and amateurish, but they did accompany the story well. I just wish there had been more dimension to them. The black outline and flat color style just didn’t work for me. Jidoo was depicted with some pretty good facial expressions, but in contrast, Adam’s seemed lacking.

What I did like about the book was that it gives children exposure to Lebanese culture. I enjoyed learning more about the masbaha and how different people use it for different purposes. There is even a page at the end that provides more information about the masbaha. I also liked how the story focused on learning to recognize one’s blessings.

Overall the book had a nice concept, but the execution was lacking. With stronger editorial oversight, higher quality illustrations, and professional design, this could be a great book. As it stands, though, it was a mediocre book whose biggest appeal is unusual content. I’m giving it 2 stars. Kids will probably like the story alright and enjoy being exposed to a new culture, but I don’t think it’s worth the money to purchase it.

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

Because I Stubbed My Toe

13 Jan

Today’s book review is for Because I Stubbed My Toe, by Shawn Byous, published by Capstone Young Readers. It is scheduled to be released on February 1, 2014. I received a free electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Because I Stubbed My Toe book cover

Because I Stubbed My Toe is a hilarious take on the butterfly effect theory for the 5-7 year old set. One morning a boy stubs his toe, which sets in motion a wild chain of events including a bike dash, an elephant dash and more. By the end, the boy has a sore toe, a treat, and one heck of a story to tell.

The writing style is a lot of fun. Each page leaves you hanging with a lead-in to the next part of the chain reaction. It’s a great way to draw kids into the story and keep their interest. I think that it’s a particularly effective technique in this book, because the events that transpire grow increasingly ridiculous. The language used is direct and age appropriate, with a nice variety of verbs.

The illustrations add a lot to the story. My favorite part about them is that the background is presented in muted grey tones, while the primary action for each page is vibrantly colored. It creates a greater sense of depth and dimension in the illustrations, without detracting attention from the focal point. The overall style is cartoonish, which complements the action and absurdity of the story. Drawings were hand rendered, and then digitally colored. Original sketch lines were not fully erased, which creates a sense of movement within each image.

This a great book to introduce kids to ideas like cause-and-effect or chain reactions. It might also be used to explore unintended consequences–sometimes we don’t mean to do something, but our reactions still result in that outcome. On the other hand, it’s also a book that can just be enjoyed as solid entertainment. It’s a great choice for a reluctant reader with a great sense of humor, too. I’m giving the book 4 stars for entertaining story, lively illustrations, and solid book design.

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

The In-Between

9 Jan

Today’s book review is for The In-Between, by Barbara Stewart, published by St. Martin’s Press. I received a free electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

The In-Between book cover

Elanor Moss is a 14-year old girl moving to a new town with her parents for a fresh start after a suicide attempt. On the way she’s in a terrible car accident that nearly ends her life once more. Her near death experience opens a door to a world inhabited by bold and beautiful Madeline Torus. Madeline is everything Elanor has wanted in a best friend–and most of all, Madeline needs Elanor just as much as Elanor needs her. But Madeline isn’t like other girls and if Elanor talks about her, she could be labeled as crazy. Soon, Elanor finds her life spinning out of control. Is she having a paranormal experience, or is her damaged brain having a psychotic break?

As a middle grade student, paranormal and psychological thrillers were a staple of my literary diet. Hauntings, mediums, astral projection, dissociative personalities–I couldn’t get enough of this stuff. Reading The In-Between felt like a return to those roots. It was a wonderful reminder of how gripping a well-written thriller can be. Once I got into the story, I couldn’t stop reading.

Stewart does an amazing job at keeping her writing ambiguous. There is always the question of whether Madeline is a ghost or a construction of a damaged mind. This question builds amazing tension throughout the book. Even when you’ve convinced yourself that one answer is true, something will happen which throws all your assumptions into question. It’s surprising to discover, that with this amount of skill, this is Stewart’s writing debut.

Probably my favorite part of the book, though, was the narrative discourse and structure. I loved that it was written as though it were Elanor’s journals. This lent itself well to a variety of chapter lengths, including one-liners or the obsessive repetition of Madeline’s name. It felt authentic as a result. It reminded me a little of my own journal-writing as a teenager–the reflection, the self-absorption, the addressing of an imagined audience. I liked how it gave such rich psychological insight to the protagonist.

I’m giving this book 4 stars. It was creepy and captivating. One star is held in reserve because I wanted the “in-between” to be developed a bit more clearly. Still, that’s a pretty minor quibble. This is a great book for teens who like paranormal fiction or thrillers. It’s also excellent for anyone who has felt like an outcast, who has questioned their sanity, or is curious about what it might feel like. Since the book does discuss suicide, sleeping pill abuse, and self-harm, it is recommended for mature readers.

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

Dragon Defender

8 Jan

Today’s book review is part of a blog tour. I received a free electronic copy of the book from the publisher, through NetGalley, prior to signing up for the blog tour.

About the Book

Dragon Defender by J.A. BlackburnTitle: Dragon Defender (Dragon Defense League, Book #1)

Author: J.A. Blackburn

Publication Date: October 19, 2013

Publisher: Pip & Grey

Number of pages: 242

Recommended age: 10+


Summary (Amazon):

For over a thousand years dragons have existed in secret . . .

Peter Clark can build a robot from scratch and pick a lock in two minutes or less. But he can’t figure out why his mother left or why his grandma refuses to talk about her. When Uncle Dominick shows up on Peter’s twelfth birthday with a letter that hints at answers and an incredible story about dragons, Peter follows him, determined to find out the truth about his mother’s disappearance.

What he finds is a reality far different from what he ever could have imagined – where dragons live in hiding, hunted by poachers for their magical parts, and a small group of men and women work tirelessly to protect them. These are the Dragon Defenders. Peter’s uncle is one. So was his mother. Now it’s Peter’s turn.

* Finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association 2013 Literary Contest *

My Review

Middle grade fiction is best when you start reading and before you know it a couple of hours have gone by and you’re surprised that the book is already over. And that’s basically what happened to me while I was reading this book. It starts off with a pretty cool concept: dragons are real and 12-year old Peter Clark is part of a long line of dragon defenders. This melding of a high fantasy concept with an otherwise realistic present-day world made for fun reading. Rather than spend a lot of time engaged in world building, the author is able to thrust her readers into the action pretty quickly.

The biggest sticking point for me happened pretty early in the book. The issue was that I was a bit skeptical as to how Peter’s non-custodial uncle was able to get him through the border crossing, with seemingly no passport or other documentation. It is mentioned that uncle Dominick has some sort of paperwork–but I don’t see how he could have had anything for Peter. After all, Peter’s legal guardian, his grandmother, didn’t even know he’d left at that point. All of that said, I was able to move past it to enjoy the story.

I would have liked a little more character development in the story. Peter has a fairly well fleshed-out personality, complete with specific talents, interests, and flaws. However, all of the other characters seem pretty one-dimensional. Uncle Dominick is the mysterious, cool grown-up. Xana is the over-enthusiastic girl who acts without thinking. Mario is the poor Mexican orphan who acts as a guide. Even though we spend a lot of time with the latter two as companions to Peter on his adventure, they never get fleshed out much. And they don’t really grow or change during the story.

The dragons living among us hook was a good one, though. I thought that the author did a nice job of building the dragon lore. And I am incredibly interested in the Dragon Defense League–its formation, history, work, other members. These things were only touched on a little–but there were hints that we would learn more in future books. Excellent work, Blackburn. When you’re writing a series, you’ve got to give your readers a reason to come back.

I’m giving this book 3 stars. It was an enjoyable bit of escapism. I think that kids who enjoy fantasy and adventure will like this book quite a lot. Despite my criticisms, I see a lot of potential in this series. First books can be challenging to write–especially if you’ve already started to map out the future for the series. How much is too much to reveal and how much is not enough? This book didn’t hit that perfect balance–but it still hooked me in.


Amazon (Print) | Amazon (Kindle)

About the Author: J.A. Blackburn

J.A. Blackburn, Author

J.A. Blackburn

J. A. Blackburn lives in Seattle, Washington in a small white house overlooking the sea with her husband, Jason, her son, Camden, and their dog, Bella. Dragon Defender is her first novel.

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads



* $50 Blog Tour Giveaway *

Amazon $50 Gift Card

Prize: $50 Amazon Gift Card or PayPal cash (winner’s choice)

Contest runs: January 6th to January 31, 11:59 pm, 2014

Open: Internationally

How to enter: Please enter using the Rafflecopter widget below.

Terms and Conditions: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. VOID WHERE PROHIBITED BY LAW. A winner will be randomly drawn through the Rafflecopter widget and will be contacted by email within 48 hours after the giveaway ends. The winner will then have 72 hours to respond. If the winner does not respond within 72 hours, a new draw will take place for a new winner. Odds of winning will vary depending on the number of eligible entries received. This contest is in no way sponsored, endorsed or administered by, or associated with Facebook. This giveaway is sponsored by the author, J.A. Blackburn and is hosted and managed by Renee from Mother Daughter Book Reviews. If you have any additional questions – feel free to send and email to Renee(at)MotherDaughterBookReviews(dot)com.

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Odd, Weird & Little

7 Jan

Today’s book review is for Odd, Weird & Little, by Patrick Jennings, published by Egmont USA. It is scheduled to be released on January 28, 2014. I received a free electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Odd, Weird & Little book cover

Woodrow has always been the outcast in the class, but when a new kid shows up from Quebec, there’s a new target. Toulouse isn’t just new–he’s strange. He wears funny clothes, he’s small, he barely talks, and he carries a briefcase. But Woodrow recognizes a bit of a kindred spirit, and possibly a new friend. Even though Toulouse is a skilled artist, musician and volleyball player, he continues to be a target for bullying. Woodrow decides that it’s time to finally take a stand for Toulouse and himself. Odd, Weird & Little is a heartwarming story about finding friendship and self-confidence.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this novel was how well developed Woodrow, the protagonist, was. He was a kid with a clear and distinct personality. Even though he had a lot of quirks, those quirks weren’t the sole defining characteristics of his personality. We also discovered that he was shy and creative, had a good relationship with his family, and was empathetic. It was easy to see why he might be the target of bullying, and at the same time why he shouldn’t be.

My biggest complaint with the writing was how a lot of the dialogue was handled. When the students in class were all talking, it switched to the format of a play–a name, a colon, and what that person said. It was a strange choice for a middle grade novel. More than that, though, it stripped out any description of other behavioral cues. It also took away opportunities for secondary character development. Worst of all, it actually made it more difficult for me to follow who was saying what, because it became too easy to gloss over the initial tags.

The development of the friendship between Woodrow and Toulouse was nice, though. While it may have initially been motivated by a feeling of sympathy on Woodrow’s side, it quickly found a foundation of shared interests. The only aspect that felt a bit unrealistic was how quickly it happened. It felt almost like insta-friend. I understand Woodrow being desperate for friendship, but inviting someone to your house within a few hours of meeting them seemed a little surprising.

Overall I give the book 3 stars. It was a good story with a great message for middle graders. Learning how to be comfortable with yourself can be challenging, so reading about someone truly different might be reassuring. I also liked that Toulouse really was odd–much more so than people suspect.

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