Monday, March 30, 2020

45. War Is Over

War Is Over. David Almond. David Almond. Illustrated by David Litchfield.  2018/2020. Candlewick Press. [Source: Review copy] [Children's Book; Historical fiction; world war I; world at war]

First sentence: John first saw Jan, the German boy, on the day of the visit to the munitions factory.

Premise/plot: John, our young hero, barely remembers his father who is away fighting in the Great War (aka World War I). His mother--like many other mothers, many other women--is working at a factory. John's mother is working at a munitions factory. John is told by many different people, many different times that he too is at war though he is but a child. He is being told that he should hate his enemies--the Germans--and pray for their destruction and the end of the war. But John has a hard time putting this into action. Aren't the Germans people too? Don't the German soldiers have little boys and girls at home? Don't the German wives miss their husbands? John isn't the only one questioning the war...others of all ages are protesting too.

My thoughts: The text itself doesn't explicitly say that this is set in England during the first world war--1914-1918. It wasn't until I was reading the summary on GoodReads that it was confirmed that it definitely was World War I. I was hoping that this was the case. Because if it was about the second world war, I would have had MAJOR, MAJOR, MAJOR issues. What we do learn from the text is that the enemy is Germany.

I wouldn't say this is my least favorite war book with the "agenda" that WAR IS BAD and that no war is worth fighting or justifiable. (I'm not pro-war. I'm just not anti-war. I think sometimes war is the last and only solution. In other words, some wars are sometimes mostly justifiable.) Knowing that it is specifically about World War I, helped me calm down from my initial reaction.

“They are German children, children. I have been there. I have seen them. They are children, just like you. They have fathers, they have brothers, they have sisters, they have mothers just like you.” Then he was down on the ground and the papers were scattered and the men were punching and kicking and McTavish was guiding the children away. “There are no monsters!” yelled Gordon in a strangled voice. “There are only lies! There is no need for war!” 

© 2020 Becky Laney of Young Readers

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

44. Casebook of a Private Cat's Eye

Casebook of a Private Cat's Eye. Mary Stolz. Illustrated by Pamela R. Levy. 1999. 128 pages. [Source: Library] [animal fantasy; mystery; children's book]

First sentence: My office, which I opened early in this year of 1912, is in an old West End brownstone, a block from the boardinghouse where I room.

Premise/plot: Eileen O’Kelly, our heroine, is a private detective writing up her cases. This delightful children’s book—an animal fantasy historical mystery chapter book—is a treat. Some cases are solved within a chapter. Others are ongoing investigations that span multiple chapters. Her work introduces her to many interesting folk.

My thoughts: I absolutely love, love, love, crazy love this one! It was a joy to spend time with the characters. Eileen is such a great heroine. The ending was the best; it made me giddy. The illustrations are just as charming as the text.

© 2020 Becky Laney of Young Readers

Monday, March 23, 2020

43. Audrey (cow)

Audrey (Cow) Dan Bar-el. 2014. 240 pages. [Source: Library][animal fantasy; children's book]

First sentence: How would I describe her in a word?

Premise/plot: Audrey is not a milk cow or a work cow. She’s a food cow. But though her so-called destiny is set—the slaughterhouse inevitable—she will not go down without a fight. This poet cow is on a mission to escape and find freedom. But one cow on her own seems doomed to fail, but a cow with friends...well...anything is possible with a community of support and knowledge.

This one is written as a script. It has many, many, many characters. Cows. Sheep. A rooster. Dogs. Deer. A skunk. A pig. Just to name a few...readers also hear from the humans in the story.

My thoughts: I definitely enjoyed this one. I haven’t quite decided if it was love or love, love, love. I would recommend it. It’s a treat to read. But is it as timeless as Charlotte’s Web or Babe?! I am not sure yet. But it’s a great way to spend a few hours.

© 2020 Becky Laney of Young Readers

Thursday, March 19, 2020

42. Orphan Train Girl

Orphan Train Girl. Christina Baker Kline. 2017. 234 pages. [Source: Library] [Children's Adaptation of an Adult Book; j fiction; j historical fiction; j realistic fiction]

First sentence: “Well,” Jack’s mom says from the driver’s seat. “This is it.”

Premise/plot: Molly, our contemporary heroine, is in foster care. She’s a young teen girl with defenses in place, a definite “bad” attitude as far as most adults are concerned. But Vivian, our senior heroine, isn’t most adults. She knows what it’s like to be an orphan, to be bounced around from home to home, unwanted and easily blamed, prone to being misunderstood. She came with her family from Ireland. Her family perished in a fire. She soon found herself on a west bound orphan train heading to the Midwest. Both stories unfold as the two clean up an attic.

My thoughts: At first I was impatient with this one. I fell so hard for Niamh-Dorothy-Vivian’s story that I didn’t want to be bothered with the contemporary story. Then I realized that some things haven’t changed all that much. Molly’s experiences in foster care aren’t all that different from Vivian’s on the orphan train and perhaps more importantly Molly’s story realistically represents some modern foster kids. There certainly isn’t one universal experience for the foster care experience, but some kids do get bounced around, moved around, rejected, face criticism, bullying, and even abuse. Some kids are wanted and adopted. Some find the happily ever after dream with a caring family. But many don’t. Holding onto hope when you could just as easily age up out of the system without experiencing unconditional love and a sense of belonging can be tough. Everyone needs to feel seen, loved, known. Molly isn’t—at least at the start of this one. Vivian and Molly connecting felt magical.

© 2020 Becky Laney of Young Readers

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

41. The Explorer on Barkham Street

The Explorer of Barkham Street. Mary Stolz. 1985. 179 pages. [Source: Library] [j realistic fiction; realistic fiction; friendship; school]

First sentence: Martin Hastings trudged home through the cold early dark laying plans for the future.

Premise/plot: This one sees Martin Hastings making friends and having adventures. Some adventures are in his imagination. He’s fascinated with reading about polar explorers. Other adventures happen in his neighborhood. Martin becomes a responsible babysitter. He is actually really good at it. The adventures are ordinary, but for Martin who has never had friends, never hung out with friends, they are extraordinary.

My thoughts: I enjoyed this one. I absolutely loved seeing Martin as a babysitter. I loved him flaws and all as he continues to grow as a human being. He is on the way to becoming quite an extraordinary human being. Sensitive, self-aware, observant, thoughtful, kind. 

© 2020 Becky Laney of Young Readers

Monday, March 16, 2020

40. The Bully of Barkham Street

The Bully of Barkham Street. Mary Stolz. 1963. 208 pages. [Source: Library] [j realistic fiction; realistic fiction; friendship; school; bullying]

First sentence: Martin Hastings wriggled at his desk.

Premise/plot: Readers perhaps first met Martin Hastings in Stolz’s The Dog on Barkham Street. The Bully of Barkham Street is a companion novel told from a different character’s point of view.

Martin is an unhappy boy who is constantly being picked on by teachers, his sister, his parents. Everyone has a problem with him. Everyone thinks he’s the problem. And that’s a problem. He’s caught in a pattern, a cycle. He doesn’t like it, but doesn’t know how to end it.

Edward Frost, the boy next door, teases him, calls him names, insults him every single time they see each other. There’s no getting away from it. Why can’t Eddie just stop.

Martin hates everything about his life. He decides quite wisely that he can only change himself. He cannot make other people see him differently, treat him differently....but he can change his own behavior and attitude and hope that someone will eventually see that he’s changed.

My thoughts: I loved this one. I just loved it. It made me love Martin. I liked seeing him redeemed. I liked seeing his view of some of the same events. I wanted to yell at his parents a few times, more than a few times. But the truth is, all the characters are human. It would not be much of a stretch to believe that there are reasons they behave the way they do. They may be just as unhappy in their cycle of yelling, fussing, being stressed and frustrated. Perhaps they want to run away from themselves too.

© 2020 Becky Laney of Young Readers

Friday, March 13, 2020

39. Ducks

Ducks! Deborah Underwood. Illustrated by T.L. McBeth. 2020. 40 pages. [Source: Library] [picture book]

First sentence: Ducks!

Premise/plot: This is the story of a distracted duck that loses his family. (He’s distracted by a butterfly). Will this duck find his family? How will he find his family? Will it end in a delightful duck reunion?

My thoughts: I love, love, love this delightfully simple picture book by Deborah Underwood. It’s told in few words, but it doesn’t lack story. The story is familiar and universal. Who cannot relate to this cute, adorable duck?! The story is largely told through the illustrations by T.L. McBeth.

Text: 5/5
Total: 10/10

© 2020 Becky Laney of Young Readers

Thursday, March 12, 2020

38. A Dog on Barkharm Street

A Dog on Barkham Street. Mary Stolz. 1960. 192 pages. [Source: Library][j fiction; j realistic ficton; dogs; bullying; friendship; school]

First sentence: Edward Frost, who had his share of problems, didn’t see how he’d ever solve the biggest one. This was Martin Hastings, the bully of Barkham Street. Martin was two years older than Edward, and there was no solution for this. Martin would continue to be two years older until he was a hundred and Edward was ninety-eight. Edward had a feeling that even then he might not be entirely safe.

Premise/plot: Edward, our hero, has two big “problems.” The first is that he is the primary target of the school bully. The two are not in the same class, but they live next door to each other. Martin, the “bully” has been held back once, possibly twice. (Edward jokes that Martin is so dumb he probably can’t even read.) The second is that his “mean” parents won’t let him get a dog. To Edward and his best, best friend Rod, having a dog is the most important thing in the world.

Edward wants to a) avoid Martin at school and home, b) convince his parents to let him have a dog, c) magically become good at being responsible without practicing responsibility. He’ll get a few opportunities when his uncle, a “hobo” or “tramp” comes to stay for a few weeks. He brings with him a stray dog that has joined him in his wandering.

My thoughts: This was originally published in 1960. It deals with two universals. A boy needing, wanting, having to have a DOG. A boy being picked on by a bully.

The writing is excellent. I loved, loved, loved the narrative voice and style. I loved Edward’s relationships with his family and best friend. My favorite chapter may be when he tidied up his room....

The bullying. I think modern readers would recognize that Edward is a bully too. He calls Martin names, he insults him, teases him for being fat, teases him for being held back, etc. Martin no doubt is a bully, physically picking on Edward. But who is starting the conflict? Who is inflaming it? Neither is living by the golden rule. Neither is showing kindness.

I am still not sure what to make of the hobo theme. He is choosing not to stay in any one town and not be tied down by a job or possessions. He glorifies the wandering nomad life—sleeping out under the stars wherever he wants, seeing the world, doing life on his own terms.


“Be sure you soap behind your ears.”
Edward stopped feeling tender. “Mother,” he said, in a firm, patient voice, “this isn’t my night for soap.”
“What do you mean?” she said. “It isn’t your night for soap? Every night is a night for soap. Soap goes with the bath.”
“Not with mine it doesn’t,” Edward explained. “One night soap. Next night no soap. Why do I have to take a bath every night, anyway?” (37)

It was a funny thing, he mused, piling things in the box for the Salvation Army, that lots of times he asked for things not really much wanting them at all. For instance, jigsaw puzzles. He didn’t actually want any, he didn’t even like doing them very much when he got them, but the habit of asking was just one he sort of had. He asked for Good Humors if the Good Humor Man happened to be around, clothes if he happened to be in a store where they sold him, toys if he happened to see them in an advertisement or a shop window. He guessed that one way and another he asked for something or other every single day whether he wanted it or not. Sometimes he got the thing and sometimes he didn’t, but anyone could see that the asking annoyed parents. (28)

© 2020 Becky Laney of Young Readers

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

37. The Willoughbys

The Willoughbys. Lois Lowry. 2008. 174 pages. [Source: Library][j fiction]

First sentence: Once upon a time there was a family named Willoughby: an old-fashioned type of family, with four children.

Premise/plot: Tim, Barnaby A, Barnaby B, and Jane Star in this tongue in cheek tribute to children’s books of yesteryear. Four children realize that they are so old-fashioned that they should really be orphans. Two parents realize that one fairytale had the right idea: Hansel and Gretel. It’s a race of sorts to see who will dispose of the other first.

The parents end up hiring an odious nanny (she’s really a hoot!!!) and taking off on a world wide trip packed with dozens of perilous potentially fatal adventures. They plan to sell the house—leaving their kids homeless. If the house sells, the nanny is instructed to not pack the kids clothes—they could be sold to a secondhand shop. Fortunately the nanny takes a liking to these quirky, devious children.

The book contains their adventures and misadventures.

My thoughts: I absolutely loved it the first time I read it. But the second time was a little less delightful. Some of the humor didn’t hold up to a reread, even though it was twelve years later. I think adults who love, love, love children’s literature, especially older books and series will find it charming and punny. I think children who are a bit precocious in their reading choices—I think MATILDA would have loved it, for example—may find it equally a joy.

Tim, to be fair, is insufferable. The parents are wrong about so very much...but insufferable does sum up their firstborn. 

© 2020 Becky Laney of Young Readers

Monday, March 9, 2020

36. Exile (Keeper of the Lost Cities #2)

Exile. (Keeper of the Lost Cities #2) Shannon Messenger. 2013. 576 pages. [Source: Library][j fantasy; mg fantasy; j fiction; mg fiction; elves; magic]

First sentence: Sophie‘s hands shook as she lifted the tiny green bottle.

Premise/plot: Exile is the second novel in this fantasy series for young readers. Sophie, the heroine elf, has quite a lot going on in her life. Every day brings to light something new: a new gift or talent, a new clue to her past, a new clue to present threats and dangers, a new crisis or disaster. The novel opens with Sophie “discovering” an alicorn. Sophie being Sophie, the two form an unbreakable bond. If anyone can train or tame this magnificent creature, it will be Sophie. Much depends, so readers are told, on this alicorn coming to their Sanctuary. Sophie though new seems to be the one, the key to solving many, many problems that have been damaging or divisive to the community. But can Sophie really be the answer?!

My thoughts: I am pleasantly surprised by how much better this one is to the first book. Don’t get me wrong, you have to suspend your disbelief to read this one. Not just because there are elves, goblins, imps, and feathery dinosaurs—and of course the alicorn. But because of the description of how magic works and feels as you use it or experience it. It can come across as silly or goofy if you take it too seriously. But if you accept it as a purely for entertainment escape from the real world, it’s quite a ride.

I like the characters and relationships. I think my favorite sidekick is Keefe. Followed by Dex. Those two would be my favorites. Fitz wouldn’t be. But at least at this point, it’s just friendships. No crushes admitted aloud, no crushing on awkwardness, no worrying about if so-and-so like-likes me. No obsessing. Just good, solid, foundation building. But if I were to pick a team, at this early stage, it would be Keefe.

© 2020 Becky Laney of Young Readers

35. Snack Attack

Snack Attack. Terry Border. 2019. 32 pages. [Source: Library] [Picture book; humor]

irst sentence: One afternoon, a cheese doodle, a pretzel stick, and a cookie all escaped from their packages, even though they had been warned about the outside world.

Premise/plot: Three friends fight to stay alive in Terry Border’s Snack Attack. Any minute now a monster will appear on the scene: a HUNGRY Monster who has his Monster-Mom’s blessing to eat...a snack before dinner. That puts our three friends (and presumably their families) in grave danger. Can they outsmart the system and break the cycle that is the food chain?!

My thoughts: This creative picture book shines when it comes to offering a new, unique, point of view. Plenty of books about snacking, sneaking snacks, etc. But relatively few solely from the perspective of the about to be eaten snack. How would a cookie, a chip, a pretzel view the world? What would it be like to be a snack? Largely this is answered through the illustrations. Yes, the text provides clues and moments of delight. But, the illustrations are what makes this one worth reading. They draw you in, in, in.

I could see teachers using this one in the classroom when talking about writing and storytelling, point of view, etc. I think this could inspire some kid-written spinoffs.


© 2020 Becky Laney of Young Readers

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

34. Bear Came Along

Bear Came Along. Richard T. Morris. Illustrated by LeUyen Pham. 2019. 40 pages. [Source: Library] [Caldecott Honor; picture book]

First sentence: Once there was a river that flowed night and day, but it didn’t know it was a river...until...Bear came along. Bear was just being curious...

Premise/plot: Bear falls into an unexpected adventure...quite literally. He’s in for the ride of a he rides a log down the river. But he’s not alone in the turbulent waters—he’s continually being joined by other animals that soon become friends. What does the river have planned?!

My thoughts: I really loved the story and the illustrations. Especially the illustrations. I would say they are adorable. But that word has connotations for some people. (As does the word precious.) I don’t mean this is a super sticky sweet-sweet read. It’s not unbearable 🤣😂. No, the story is just right as a metaphor for living life.


© 2020 Becky Laney of Young Readers

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

33. 100 Cupboards

100 Cupboards. N.D. Wilson. 2007. 289 pages. [Source: Library] [j fiction, mg fiction, j fantasy, mg fantasy]

First sentence: Henry, Kansas, is a hot town.

Premise/plot: Henry York’s parents are missing—he doesn’t seem overly concerned since they are absent much of the time—and so he has gone to live with his Uncle Frank, Aunt Dotty, and cousins Anastasia, Penny, and Henrietta. His bedroom is in the attic. All the adventures, well, except for the baseball sort, stem from the attic and the cupboards within. For the cupboards are ways or gateways to other places, lands, universes, realities. Henry may not intend to travel to “fantasy lands” and have showdowns with evil—an evil witch to be precise. But the whole family may be in great danger once these cupboards are active.

My thoughts: I really loved this one the first time I read it. Though I never did read the rest of the trilogy. In my defense, I read this one before it was even released let alone the other two books. By the time they released I had forgotten the first book and didn’t work up the energy to reread the first book and properly read the series as a whole.

I didn’t love it quite as much the second time though I still loved the actual writing and narrative. I was confused by having read the prequel. So there were dozens of questions in my mind that probably shouldn’t have been there.

I am going to try to read the other books this year. Maybe my questions will be answered. 

© 2020 Becky Laney of Young Readers

Monday, March 2, 2020

32. The Door Before

The Door Before. N.D. Wilson. 2017. 240 pages. [Source: Library] [j fiction; j fantasy]

First sentence: Every storm will spill a final drop. Every mortal will draw a final breath. Every road will carry a final traveler.

Premise/plot: The Door Before is a prequel to The Hundred Cupboards. I read that one ages ago and don’t remember much. This one stars Hyacinth Smith, a girl who is not a witch, not a spell-caster, but someone who finds herself able to travel between worlds, make ways/doors, bring dead things back to life, etc. Her family notices how special and unique she is. Though they don’t know about traveling between worlds. They feel the need to keep her hidden and out of sight from the Order. But their plans to keep her There is a battle between good and evil coming, and Hyacinth will be right there, front and center.

My thoughts: I read this in one sitting. It was a compelling fantasy to read, and it is full of all the traditional fantasy elements. The book seems to embrace all the elements of well beloved fantasy classics. This one isn’t about being new, edgy, shocking. I did really like this one. Overall it made me want to reread The 100 Cupboards.

© 2020 Becky Laney of Young Readers