Selected Reviews from Children's Choices 2011 and 2012

Lauren Aimonette Liang with Jacinda Bachus, Mercedes Barica, Raven Cromwell, Natalie Delphenich, Kaylie Heier, Lisa Johnson, and Adrienne Lowe

Every year over 10,000 children from across the country participate in selecting the top 100 children's books for the International Reading Association's annual “Children's Choices” reading lists. Newly published books donated by U.S. publishers are distributed to regional teams of children, Grades K-6, who read and vote for their favorites. Votes are tallied, and IRA releases the official Children's Choices lists in the fall, with downloadable bookmarks and annotated bibliographies posted on the IRA's website at http://www.reading.org/resouces/Booklists.aspx.

This list reflects one of the most purely “child-selected” children's literature awards in the United States. Unlike many state children's book awards involving child voting, the Children's Choices books are not pre-screened by an adult committee to present a limited number of candidates.

The Children's Choices program began in 1974 and was followed in 1987 by the Young Adults' Choices project (grades 7-12), a similar program involving 4,500 students who select 30 titles annually. Shortly thereafter, teachers wanted to participate, and thus IRA began the Teachers' Choices program. Regional teams of teachers, librarians and reading specialists pick their top favorites of the year for students ages 5-15, settling on a list of approximately 30 titles each year. As one can imagine, there is some overlap between the lists, but each program does result in unique choices.

Students from Dr. Lauren Liang's graduate children's literature classes at the University of Utah recently explored titles on the 2011 and 2012 Children's Choices lists. These elementary and middle school teachers selected books from the list to review in more depth as they considered them for possible classroom use.

Editor's note:  More reviews were submitted than we could publish in one issue. So we grouped the reviewed books by themes to divide between this and the following issue. Reviews included here are of books related to the theme friends—a critical aspect of any child's experience.

Laminack, Lester L. Three Hens and a Peacock. Illustrated by Henry Cole. Peachtree,  2011.

Have you ever wanted to trade places with someone?  Three Hens and a Peacock is a beautiful book in which pictures and words come together to create a story with a moral that warns the reader against envying others. Laminack tells a story of a peacock whose sole job is to stand beautifully at the corner of a farm to lure customers—who wish to take pictures of the beautiful peacock—to buy eggs. The hens are upset that the peacock receives all the attention when they are the ones who lay the eggs. As far as they are concerned, their job is much more difficult. The story takes a twist when the hens decide to trade roles with the peacock for the day. Predictably neither the hens nor the peacock is successful at performing the other's role. The author leaves the reader with the inspiring message that everyone has an important role in life and cannot easily be replaced.

The illustrations and the text enhance each other in creating an exceptional story experience. Laminack narrates using the third person so that the readers feel like they are overhearing the animals' conversation. The chaotic tone of the story is intensified by the illustrations. The outline style of the pictures is created by watercolor, ink, and colored pencil. The text is as simple as the artwork; however, the word choice provides a rich vocabulary for young readers. The words appear both above and below the pictures so that the reader must pause briefly to appreciate the beautiful art. Words are also italicized and creatively placed around the illustrations to help in reading this book with emotion. Three Hens and a Peacock is a beautifully written and illustrated book that will help readers understand that their occupation in life is significant and that they cannot easily be replaced. Reviewed by Jacinda Bachus

Dewdney, Anna. Roly Poly Pangolin. Viking, 2010.

Even the most tightly rolled up little students will enjoy the rhythmic rhymes of Anna Dewdney's book Roly Poly Pangolin. Like some young readers, Roly Poly is just discovering the big world around her. The unknown can be a very scary place, especially for endangered animals such as the unusual pangolin, a real rare animal that is a cross between anteater and armadillo. Many students, especially those new to a classroom, can identify with Roly Poly's feelings and experience.

Everything is new to little Roly Poly, from the sounds in the forest around her to the ants and slugs she is to eat for dinner. When she wanders too far from her mother one day, she is alone and very frightened. Roly Poly discovers she can roll up into a safe ball. She “hears a call” throughout the book, but is too scared to uncoil. When she finally gets the nerve to come out of her ball, she sees another pangolin staring right back at her. They begin to play together, along with another friend from the forest, happy and fearing nothing at all because “Sometimes new things can be fun when you're not the only one.”

For all those Roly Polys in the classroom who don't like new things at all, this story has a simple, straightforward lesson: It is easy to fear the unknown, especially when your imagination can sometimes take you to very scary places. But with help from friends, things can seem a little less scary.

Students familiar with Dewdney's Llama Llama series may recognize the author's easy-to-follow rhyming patterns and illustrations. The cartoonish Roly Poly is texturized on each page, making her the focal point so readers can literally “feel” Roly Poly and identify with her unease. Words such as "Oh no!" and "Go, Go, Go" are highlighted to illustrate Roly Poly's inner monologue as well as guiding the reader's intonation. The repetition of text will have timid developing readers chiming in as Roly Poly discovers two is always better than one. Reviewed by Mercedes Barica

DiPucchio, Kelly. Illustrated by Scott Campbell. Zombie in Love. Atheneum, 2011.

Mortimer's body may be dead, but his heart is alive and well in this tale of a zombie who is looking for love. Mortimer is an average (dead) guy who needs a date to the dance. He tries all the stereotypical moves such as walking his dog and working out at the gym except, the illustrations let us know, with an undead twist. Finally, in desperation Mortimer places a personal ad in the newspaper and decides to wait at Cupid's Ball for his true love. As DiPucchio did in Clink and Gilbert Goldfish Wants a Pet, she once again touches on the theme that everyone, even misfits, can find the perfect friend.

The coffinesque shape of the book and the use of dark, muddy watercolors set the undead scene. Colors leak outside the lines as though Mortimer himself, who lacks fine motor skills, attempted to color them. Characteristically, Campbell's illustrations require the readers to spend more time on each page as they search through each picture for hilarious details. Readers can see the dead-themed products on Mortimer's shelves, spy the various activities of the friendly worms, and pick out the characters' delighted or upset faces in the background. Even if readers only have half a brain, they will find this book charming and witty. Reviewed by Raven Cromwell

Scillian, Devin. Memoirs of a Goldfish. Illustrated by Tim Bowers. Sleeping Bear Press, 2010.

A content yet monotonous goldfish fills his days swimming in circles. When a few unexpected intruders splash into his life, his monotony turns to neurotic territorialism. His routine of swimming around the bowl once and swimming around the bowl twice has been replaced with untangling Mr. Bubbles from the plants that need watering, making sure sunscreen is applied to Cha-Cha, the fish from L.A., and hoping none of his fins are snapped off by the crab!  Unsure of how to deal with the growing population in his once private abode, the newly cantankerous goldfish finds himself hollering at his bowl-mates, “The whole bowl is my side of the bowl!”   Just when he can't take another second, he is whisked away and placed in a clean, quiet, and solitary bowl. The initial thrill of having his own space back is quickly washed away when tides of worry roll in. What are all the other fish doing without him?  Won't they need his help?  Do they even miss him?

This story, with bold cartoon style illustrations that enhance the text, teaches us to be kind and accepting friends. Line is important to the complementary nature of text and illustrations. It allows us to see where the bowl's inhabitants have been swimming, and gives readers an understanding of how crowded the bowl becomes. The simple language picks up speed as it mirrors the fish's elevated emotions. While young readers will identify with our overcrowded goldfish as he tries to navigate an increasingly murky social scene, all readers can learn from the message of this book:  Be friendly to everyone so that your friendships don't go belly up!  Reviewed by Adrienne Lowe

Wilson, Karma. Illustrated by Jane Chapman. Bear's Loose Tooth. McElderry, 2011.

In Bear's Loose Tooth, Wilson has brought back the loveable fantasy characters Bear and his forest friends from her previous Bear series books (Bear Sleeps On; Bear Wants More) as they deal with Bear's loose tooth. While eating lunch one day, Bear worriedly notices something wiggling and wobbling in his mouth--a loose tooth. His friends all empathetically seek to assure Bear and offer to help him in removing this irritation. What follows is an engaging series of events in which Bear's friends try to help pull the tooth out, with little success. Readers are not really surprised when Bear finally uses his tongue to pull out his own tooth and is rewarded that night with a blueberry gift from a visiting fairy. The plot comes full circle on the final page of the book when Bear notices another loose tooth, leading the reader to contemplate what might happen with this new development in Bear's life.

Broad, feather-like strokes of acrylic paint create cartoonish illustrations on full-bleed pages that spread over the expanse of the middle spine of the book. These engage the reader and provide details into each character's actions and feelings throughout the story. In addition, the large-print text allows for small and large group readings, and the somewhat patterned and rhyming text focused on the developmental milestone of losing a tooth allow even the youngest of readers to be engaged in this book. Reviewed by Lisa Johnson

Willems, Mo. City Dog, Country Frog. Illustrated by Jon J Muth. Hyperion, 2010.

City Dog, Country Frog is a tender story about a dog's first adventure in the country and “off the leash.” He meets a frog sitting on a rock. The two quickly form a unique friendship, sharing special experiences in each of the different seasons. As the seasons change, they both learn lessons about the journey of friendship, and by winter they experience the sadness that accompanies loss. As spring returns, so does the hope that comes with new beginnings.

Acclaimed author Willems and illustrator Muth combine their talents beautifully. In both words and pictures they magically connect these two characters to nature's life cycles. Willems, who usually illustrates his own books, has created meaningful text that blends with Muth's art to make City Dog and Country Frog endearing characters for readers of all ages.

The loose watercolor style used in the backgrounds contrasts with the vivid detail of the main characters in the illustrations. The color palate changes with the seasons and the mood of the storyline. With spring, bright greens and yellows portray the beginning of friendship between City Dog and Country Frog. By winter, the colors cool with the temperature to blues and purples, reflecting the emotions of loss and sadness.

City Dog, Country Frog is a wonderful read for addressing the issues of loss. It also allows readers to see how friendships may be enriched by getting to know and learning something new from someone who is different from oneself. The characters highlight loyalty, companionship and love to which we can all relate. Reviewed by Natalie Delphenich

Young, Judy. Illustrated by Andrea Wesson. A Pet for Miss Wright. Sleeping Bear Press, 2011.

When you are a writer you may have many adventures on your computer screen as your characters face challenges and discover themselves, but typing alone in your office can be rather dull. It is in this dilemma that Miss Wright finds herself in Young's A Pet for Miss Wright. Her solution?  To get a pet!  However, what pet would be best?  Will it be the hamster, the fish, or maybe the monkey?  Miss Wright sets off eagerly to find out. However, just when she thinks she's found the animal for her, it manages to derail her writing and must be returned for something new. Readers will be captivated as they follow Miss Wright on her humorous experiment in trial-and-error to find the perfect pet. And a surprising twist in the end confirms that Miss Wright truly makes the very best decision.

Young's language is simple, yet rich with detail, perfectly describing Miss Wright's wish for companionship mingled with her frustration as she continually fails to find the right pet. Andrea Wesson's drawings, inspired by art nouveau, dance across the pages and are as charming yet quirky as our heroine and her menagerie of animals. Readers cannot help but become jealous of Miss Wright as they gaze at her Victorian beach house and are delighted by a pane of period wallpaper which boarders every other page.

A Pet for Miss Wright is a delightful tale to read for enjoyment or to enhance learning. Teachers will appreciate the opportunities for prediction, problem solving, and insights into the writing and publication processes. Young readers will appreciate the unexpected problems that arise from simply acquiring a pet. There is truly something for readers of all ages in A Pet for Miss Wright. Reviewed by Kaylie Heier