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The Storm in the Barn
By Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 9780763636180
Grades 5-7
In Stores





Also reviewed by A Fuse #8 Production, Becky’s Book Reviews, educating alice.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.

Comics created using Bitstrips.


How to Get Rich on the Oregon Trail
By Tod Olson
Illustrated by Scott Allred & Gregory Proch
National Geographic
ISBN: 9781426304125
Grades 5-7
In Stores
Review copy provided by publisher



The rise of the journal format has been swift and, by my estimation, successful. Taking a story and telling it in the form of a hand-written account makes sense for two reasons:

1. It takes said story into the first person, adding an immediacy that draws readers in.

2. Journals provide an opportunity to add richness to the text through illustrations, photographs, and other bits of non-text miscellanea.

The reasons above also explain why the journal format is a perfect fit for nonfiction. Following the wagon-wheel ruts of 2008’s How to Get Rich in the California Gold Rush, How to Get Rich on the Oregon Trail takes an historical event and gives it the journal treatment. If your nonfiction section is in need of an Oregon Trail update (and, really, is there one that isn’t?), this is a title you will want to seek out.

While the facts are accurate, the characters are fictional. In April of 1852 the young William Reed sets out with his family for the land and opportunity of the West. William, an aspiring writer, arranges to send his accounts of the trip back home to be published in the newspaper. Plans are set, finances are in order, supplies are acquired. The journey begins and the hardships the Reed family has heard about become reality. Scarce food and water, disease, and treacherous terrain combine to make the going tough. It isn’t long before their financial situation is looking grim. When their oxen are stolen, William and his older brother create the “Reed Brothers Ferry” and quickly learn that there is money to be made on the trail if you’ve got the will to seek it out. Four months after beginning, William and his family arrive in Portland, eager to settle in and begin life anew.

As laid out in the table of contents, each two-page spread is dedicated to a stop on the journey. These chunks prove quite manageable and will work well for young readers.

The way I see it, you can go two ways with this format  – you can keep things ultra authentic, or you can make it modern. Oregon Trail goes the latter route. Presented as a current-day publication of an original journal, the overall look does not smack of 1852. While original photographs and maps are in the mix, the illustrations and layout provide an updated feel.

Engaging in format and boasting enough detail to give a sense of the journey that so many families made, How to Get Rich on the Oregon Trail should satisfy young history buffs and student fact finders alike.

Check out the Nonfiction Monday roundup at the outstanding Bookends blog.


Also reviewed by Kidliterate, Great Kids Reads.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.


Constance and the Great Escape (Constance #2)
By Pierre Le Gall
Illustrated by Éric Héliot
ISBN: 9781402766497
Grades 1-3
In Stores
Review copy provided by publisher


It’s fairly rare in children’s literature to run across an unlikeable character with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Sure Junie B. Jones breaks some rules, Max is difficult, and Pigeon can be self-centered, but all of those characters provoke sympathy from the reader.

Not Constance.

Rude and manipulative, her over-the-top behavior will come as a bit of a shock to those used to warmer, friendlier characters. In Constance and the Great Escape, Le Gall presents a personality that is completely disagreeable, yet difficult to stop reading about. An easy reader series worth checking out.

After pushing her parents, teacher, and principal to the breaking point with her wild behavior, Constance is sent to the ironically named Jolly Boarding School, in hopes that the strict rules and regulations will change her ways. Alone and missing her huge, unruly cat Tiny, Constance hatches a plan – if she’s there to correct her behavior, what if it doesn’t need fixing? Constance “shapes up” in a hurry, fooling her boarding school headmasters and earning a ticket home to continue her misbehaving ways.

The story is told from the perspective of Constance, and she is the quintessential unreliable narrator. On every page, the text tells her side of things, while the pen and ink illustrations tell the truth. When she says her teachers are bad, the artwork shows Constance shooting a fire extinguisher into the principal’s office. When she states that her parents don’t want her to be happy, the page shows Constance demolishing the house.

Don’t underestimate the intelligence of young readers. While there will likely be some folks who say this sort of book is setting a bad example, I disagree. Her bad behavior and attitude of denial is where the fun lies. Kids know that Constance isn’t a role model, but will enjoy her mischievous exploits.

You don’t often see these two sentences next to each other, but here goes:

A character with no appeal. A book many young readers will enjoy.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.

Show Off
By Sarah Hines Stephens and Bethany Mann
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 9780763645991
Grades 4-7
In Stores Sept. 22, 2009
Review copy provided by publisher



A Step-by-Step Review


Step 1 – Get your hands on this book.

You might check it out from a library, you might find it in a book store, maybe you see it at a friend’s house – no matter the avenue, you should take a look.


Step 2 – Find out what’s inside.

Open it up, check out the table of contents. Highly visual step-by-step guides to more activities than you can shake a stick at. Contemplating a fake tatoo? Page 114. Considering boogie boarding? You’re covered. You’ll likely find a whole new batch of thing you want to try.


Step 3 – Learn how to use it.

Since words are at a minimum, symbols, images, and icons do much of the talking. Show Off begins with a guide to describe how to make sense of it all.


Step 4 – Examine the illustrations.

The artwork is bright and modern. Page layouts are varied, adding visual interest. They clearly show, so fewer words are needed to tell.


Step 5 – Dive in.

Broken into broad sections with titles like Amaze, Create, and Explore, there is plenty to learn. The difficulty level of the activities covered  – from the simplicity of shadow puppets to the more advanced “cereal box speakers”, is nicely varied.


Step 7 – Burn the receipt (if purchased).

You ain’t gonna need it. Add to your collection and alert reluctant readers accordingly.

Check out the Nonfiction Monday roundup at SimplyScience Blog.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.


Binky the Space Cat
By Ashley Spires
Kids Can Press
ISBN: 9781554533091
Grades 2-4
In Stores
Review copy provided by publisher


The pet who thinks it knows better than its owner is a mainstay protagonist in children’s literature and popular culture in general. From Mark Teague’s LaRue books to Garfield, young readers enjoy animals who believe themselves to be the brains of the operation. In Binky the Space Cat, Ashley Spires takes a feline who thinks he knows better than his humans, adds deadpan humor and a gently off-beat storyline to craft a pleasingly quirky graphic novel that should make the rounds quite nicely.

He doesn’t know it, but Binky is a bit confused. Outer space and aliens? Couldn’t be farther from the truth. “Outer space” is actually the world outside the house he lives in. “Aliens” are the bugs that pester him and his owners. In order to stop an alien invasion Binky becomes Space Cat qualified and builds a rocket to take him into the great unknown. He trains hard for the big day. When the countdown begins Binky realizes that there is one thing he can’t leave behind – two things actually. The big human and the small human he protects.

Muted tones dominate the ink and watercolor illustrations, nicely juxtaposing the outlandish ideas of our hero. Everything is not as calm as it may seem.


A graphic novel for younger readers that has plenty going for it, Binky the Space Cat makes for a solid addition to your collection.

Also reviewed by Young Readers, Good Comics for Kids.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.


Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally)
By Lisa Yee
Illustrated by Dan Santat
Arthur A. Levine Books
ISBN: 9780545055925
Grades 2-4
In Stores Sept. 1, 2009
Review copy borrowed


In a climate where you can’t throw a dinner roll without hitting five or six new series, Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) is a middle grade school story (and first in a series) that stands out with humor, believability, and a subtle touch.

4th grade is about to begin and Bobby Ellis-Chan is feeling uneasy. Third grade was a disaster, his friend Holly Harper has started hanging around with girlie-girl Jillian Zarr, and his ex-pro football player father (a.k.a. “The Freezer”) is having a tough time with the domestic duties of being a stay at home dad. To add insult to injury, his allergies are so bad that a pet dog is completely out of the question. As the school year begins and Bobby unintentionally stokes a boys vs. girls feud, the election for student council representative between he and Holly takes on heightened importance. If only Bobby could avoid embarrassing himself, he might have a shot. That goes down the tubes due to an unfortunate case of static cling.

While a fair share of craziness ensues, the friendship between Bobby and Holly is well executed. Yee doesn’t suddenly throw a love/hate switch on the two main characters, but treats the relationship as one that is slowly strained. A touch of subtlety that is nice to see.

Speaking of subtlety, just about every character in Bobby vs. Girls is thoughtfully round. This avoidance of stereotypes results in some believable and memorable characters. Young readers will likely want to learn more about Bobby’s unusual family and his friend Chess.

The illustrations (which were only in draft form in the uncorrected proof I read) look promising. Modern and bold, they should be a nice addition.

Interesting characters, funny situations, and an old fashioned boys vs. girls throw-down. Middle grade done right.

Also reviewed by Kids Lit.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.


Just the Right Size: Why Big Animals Are Big and Little Animals Are Little
By Nicola Davies
Illustrated by Neal Layton
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 9780763639242
Grades 3-6
In Stores
Review copy provided by publisher



Is it just me, or does it seem that more and more, nonfiction books are trying to be all things to all readers? A mile wide and an inch deep, these collections of facts are no doubt fun to read (I’ve read, enjoyed, and reviewed a few of them in these here pages), but don’t delve too deep into any one topic. Just the Right Size not only picks a topic and gets into the nuts and bolts, but the topic chosen is one that I don’t recall getting much play anywhere else. For the right child (or for classroom use), Just the Right Size ably delivers.

Why can’t people lift 10 times their body weight like ants can? How come I can’t crawl on my ceiling like a gecko? As Biggie Smalls (never) said: “Mo’ mass, mo’ problems”. Most of the information in Just the Right Size is based on a scientific rule (they call it The BTLT Rule) that is explained early on:

If you double the length of something, its surface area and cross section go up four times, while its volume and weight go up EIGHT times!

This exponential increase in weight is to blame for our species’ inability to walk on water and crawl on the ceiling. Over the course of 60 pages, Nicola Davies and Neal Layton (Extreme Animals) apply The BTLT Rule to explain the dietary, migratory, and evolutionary differences between large and small animals. Of special interest to many young readers will be the section that, in gleeful detail, explains why giant humans and spiders can’t exist. In short? They would be so heavy their legs would break. Indeed, there is a certain segment of scientific-minded youngsters who will eat this up.

The brightly colored doodle illustrations serve the text well, illustrating the concepts presented in a style that young readers will be able to grasp. However, I can’t help but envision this one getting passed over due to the overall presentation. The dimensions, cover, and interior illustrations of Just the Right Size may give kids on the upper end of this book’s intended constituency (5th-6th grade) the impression that it is for a younger audience than it really is. That would be a shame, as the content is well-suited for that age group.

Here’s hoping Just the Right Size is able to find it’s audience, be it kid or classroom. An engaging, understandable, refreshingly focused look at a topic every child has considered.

Check out the Nonfiction Monday roundup at MotherReader.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.


Road to Revolution! (The Cartoon Chronicles of America)
By Stan Mack and Susan Champlin
Bloomsbury Children’s Books
ISBN: 9781599900131
Grades 4-7
In Stores
Review copy provided by publisher



Quality graphic novels based on historical events are hard to find. And there have been many attempts. You’ve probably seen ’em while flipping through a catalog full of nonfiction:

Your reluctant readers are going to love I Am Not a Crook, the Watergate graphic novel!

The problem? Many of these titles employ the following formula:

1. Take important elements of historical event

2. Draw some stiff panels depicting these events

3. Pack the caption boxes to the point of bursting

4. Add brief, awkward dialog

5. Run the presses

The result? A dull series of tableau-esqe panels that don’t do much to actually increase kid appeal. Road to Revolution! is not one of these. By adding “fictional characters who get caught up with real-life people and events”, cartoonist Stan Mack and writer/editor Susan Champlin skillfully inject life into the American Revolution. The first in a planned four book series focusing on American history, Road to Revolution! is a success.

Main characters Nick and Penny did not actually exist, but they could have. Penny is the spirited daughter of a Boston tavern owner. Nick is a quick-witted orphan, living on the streets. When Penny saves Nick from capture, the two strike up a friendship based on the building tension between the 13 Colonies and England. As the build-up to war continues, the pair help the revolutionary forces, eventually spying and fighting for the freedom of America.

After the prologue, which explains the sources of resentment between the two sides, the action is brisk. Humor plays a part as well, lightening the mood at various points in the story. Given the fiction/nonfiction format of Road to Revolution!, I was glad to see that the authors included an epilogue that describes where artistic liberties were taken.

The style of artwork may be a drawback in terms of attracting readers. While the cartoonish illustrations are colorful and  lively, they lack the level of hipness that many comics-loving graphic novel fans are used to. This will likely be more of a factor for readers on the older end of this book’s target audience (6th-7th graders). I’m not sure if this is going to be a sure thing for fans of, say, Amulet or Into the Volcano, but it may also serve to attract a different audience.

Overall, an entertaining and informative affair. If you’re going to be stocking graphic novels based on historical events, you’ll be doing the right thing by adding Road to Revolution!

Check out the Nonfiction Monday roundup at Write About Now.

Also reviewed by Reading Rumpus, Many a Quaint and Curious Volume,

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.


Dying to Meet You: 43 Old Cemetery Road: Book 1
By Kate Klise
Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise
ISBN: 9780152057275
Grades 3-5
In Stores









Also reviewed by emilyreads, Muddy Puddle Musings, Westbury Kids, TheHappyNappyBookseller.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.


Sergio Saves the Game!
By Edel Rodriguez
Little, Brown
ISBN: 9780316066174
Grades K-2
In Stores


What is it about Sergio books that move me to make confessions? In my review of the stellar Sergio Makes a Splash last year, I admitted to being a nose-plug swimmer. This time around, in considering Sergio Saves the Game!, I am feeling it necessary to admit my bias toward the sport featured in the story: soccer. I love soccer. I played from my youth through college. Great sport. Any chilren’s book showcasing the beautiful game is bound to get a bit more attention from your humble reviewer. This measured excitement often leads to disappointment. Not this time. While it doesn’t quite match the highs of its predecessor in terms of tension and resolution, Sergio Saves the Game! comes pretty close.

Sergio dreams of being a soccer star. In real life, the penguin is not as athletic as he would like. With the biggest game of the year approaching (against the imposing Seagulls), Sergio continues to improve as goaltender. When the game comes down to the final penalty shot, Sergio uses all his talents to save the win for his team. It may not be the way he planned it, but Sergio (and the reader) will be pleased with the unexpected resolution.

The woodblock print and digital media illustrations have a vibrantly retro feel, which makes sense given the old/new techniques Rodriguez used to create them. As in the first Sergio installment, the color palate is limited, employing orange and teal. This time out, a touch of red also joins the mix. The bright illustrations will stand out nicely during read-aloud time.


Wonderful artwork, humor, and a storyline that will hold readers right up to the end – Sergio Saves the Game! is a title that deserves to be in your picture book collection.

Watch an interview with author/illustrator Edel Rodriguez:

Also reviewed by Thing 1 and Thing 2.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.

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