Book Reviews

Selected Reviews from Children's Choices 2011 and 2012

Lauren Aiomonette Liang with Jenessa Choate, Ann Davis, Michael Denker, Monica Gomez, Cassidy Kronenberg, Loralie Rafiti, Emily Sell, and Barrie Rosenberg

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.

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. This is the second installment of reviews.

Children's Choices 2011, Reviews of Selected Winners for Grades K-2

Bottner, Barbara.  Miss Brooks Loves Books (and I don't). Illustrated by Michael Emberley. Knopf, 2010.

With the same flare as Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus adventures, Miss Brooks, an over-the-top librarian, is determined to help a reluctant patron find a book she can enjoy. Missy, the reluctant reader, persists in her hatred of books, even with Miss Brooks' efforts to engage her by dressing up as the book characters themselves and instituting book week, a week in which everyone can choose a favorite book to share with the group. 

This painful journey of finding something one loves to read is shown through brilliant cartoon watercolor and pencil illustrations of Missy refusing to participate in book time (defiantly turning the other way), rolling her eyes over the ridiculous idea that she could actually love a book, and asking her mom to move to another town to escape the librarian altogether. 

Missy's war with books is something many children face at one time or another in life, which makes this book popular with and endearing to all readers. Even though Missy calls Miss Brooks' love of books "vexing," her change of heart comes quickly and unexpectedly through her love of warts and snorts. You can never be too sure that a hatred of books will last forever; all you have to do is read about what you love. And that's the "slimy truth." (This title also appeared on the 2011 Teachers' Choices list.)

Reviewed by Emily Sell

Hills, Tad. How Rocket learned to Read. Random House, 2010.

Tad Hills, author-illustrator of New York Times bestselling series Duck & Goose, captures the "wondrous, mighty, gorgeous" spirited illustrations of childhood with How Rocket Learned to Read. Rocket, who resembles an updated Harry from Harry the Dirty Dog but who in truth is Hills' own pet, makes an unlikely pupil. He is won over by a most persistent teacher, a little yellow bird with whom Rocket finds it impossible to argue. Although the pace, prose and text are simple, the lively romp through the yard is portrayed in winsome oil and pencil pages. The appealing illustrations and the familiar process of learning to read -- seeing the alphabet, mastering sound/letter correspondence, and learning to decode and spell -- will resonate with young audiences who will recognize the way they made the leap to becoming readers. (This title also appeared on the 2011 Teachers' Choices list.)

Reviewed by Ann Davis

Walton, Rick. Illustrated by Brad Sneed. Mr. President Goes to School. Peachtree, 2010.

Does that man on the seesaw look familiar? That's right. It's Mr. President. To understand why he has ended up on a playground, we must first back up and take a look at the terrible day he is having. There is that pesky gopher argument, the long-gone ping-pong table, and a resounding threat of war that his secretary of state insists on reminding him about. What Mr. President needs is an escape to a much simpler time and place. Luckily for him, that place exists a mere seven and a half blocks away, at the school he attended as a child. He goes straight to his old classroom and gets to enjoy the day as a typical kindergartener would. Most important, he learns a little something from his old teacher, Mrs. Appletree: that all it takes to solve a conflict is to insist on using manners, allow creativity, and above all, enjoy milk and cookies. With this newfound knowledge, Mr. President is now equipped to solve a problem or two. Could it be that all of us should solve our problems the ways children learn in kindergarten? 

Through his rich language, author Rick Walton establishes a light mood with a theme that encourages people to persevere through their problems. The theme of perseverance is also encouraged with the dynamic characterization of Mr. President. His growth throughout the book exemplifies working hard to conquer one's problems. Part of the excitement in the story is also the unique setting: not every book goes from the White House to an elementary school.

Sneed's engaging cartoon illustrations, created with watercolor and colored pencil on cold press water color paper, display a wonderful use of details that enhance the humor of the text. This hilarious and insightful book will have even the most serious readers contemplating whether the hokey pokey might really be what it's all about.

Reviewed by Cassidy Kronenberg

Children's Choices 2012, Reviews of Selected Winners for Grades K-2

Bliss, Harry. Bailey. Scholastic, 2011.

In Bliss' Bailey, Bailey the dog tells his exciting school day story in first-person narrative. Bailey wakes up in the morning and rushes to catch the bus. He washes (licks) up, picks out his collar from his multicolored collar wardrobe, and runs frantically after the bus full of children, who are yelling and encouraging him to catch up to the bus. Anything that could possibly go wrong happens to Bailey, but he makes the most of his mistakes and has fun with his classmates and teachers. 

The illustrations complement and emphasize the smoothly flowing text, with speech bubbles accompanied by ink and watercolor cartoons. The jacket and book cover design are bold and simple, yet captivating. The engaging story makes the complications of going to school look easy through Bailey's experience. This book would be a perfect model on how to write using voice and think bubbles.

Reviewed by Monica Gomez

Litwin, Eric. Illustrated by James Dean. Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes. Harper, 2011.

Pete the Cat has returned once again to fearlessly strut and sing his way through the first day of school in his bold red shoes. Readers can't help but rock out along with him on the Cat City bus on their way to venture through the school -- feline style. How do cats spend their school days? With its brilliant colorful watercolor illustrations of the daily school schedule, the book provides clever depictions of cats at work in the classroom and the library, along with hilarious details of feline play in the lunchroom and on the playground. This amusing and memorable text offers an aesthetic literary experience for readers of all ages. If you find yourself jamming to Pete's tunes even after the book is finished, search the web for another opportunity to watch and listen to Pete sing the song!

Reviewed by Jenessa Choate

Torrey, Richard. Because. HarperCollins, 2011. 

One word is all you need when you are almost six years old. You don't need a reason for not getting around to cleaning up your room or for making a mess on the kitchen floor. You don't need to explain why you brought everything you own on the family trip to the beach or put your dog in the corner for time out. The only answer necessary is "Because."

This story delights readers, young and old, who can identify with Jack's challenges with everyday life. Just the right amount of explanation is provided to leave the reader examining each colorful, light-hearted cartoon picture intently. The simple line drawings with watercolor complement the straightforward one-liners that make up this picture book. This form of storytelling is sure to engage the young child as he or she searches the picture to formulate the question that was posed to Jack. The day begins with a challenge and ends with a tender moment that only a true best friend can provide. Richard Torrey, author of other one-word-wonders such as Why? and Almost, uses Jack to teach a lesson of life. If anyone asks, just say "Because!" 

Reviewed by Loralie Rafiti

Tullet, Hervé. Press Here. Chronicle, 2011.

For those whose mantra is "less is more," Hervé Tullet's Press Here could easily find its way into the canon.  From the first page, which features an imperfect yellow dot on a plain white background over the words "Press here," it doesn't get much more fancy -- just more fun.

Using nothing but simple directives and a cast of finger-painted dots, the reader immediately realizes that the only way to read the book is to make the book, like a recipe.  On each page the reader is given an easy instruction to follow.  If all instructions are followed correctly, the reader is rewarded upon turning the page with something more than a book.  Someone who is reading Press Here may seem to be sending a text one minute, erasing an Etch-a-Sketch the next, and leading a pep rally after that.

Tullet uses language and images that are informal, natural, and Spartan throughout, yet the joy that comes from reading his book is palpable as it is rare.  After an evolution that literally crescendos to a climax, the last page is -- true to form -- simple and familiar: a yellow dot on a plain white background.  Only this time it asks us if we "want to do it all over again?"  No matter the age of the reader, chances are the answer is "yes."

Reviewed by Michael Denker

Children's Choices 2012, Review of a Selected Winner for Grades 3-4

Bruel, Nick. Bad Kitty Meets the Baby. Roaring Brook Press, 2011.

Bad Kitty is back and throwing regular scheduled temper tantrums in Bad Kitty Meets the Baby. Bruel's wacky sense of humor has readers laughing out loud as Bad Kitty's world is turned upside down. It was bad enough for Bad Kitty when his people brought a dog home, but when they come home with someone who "outstinks" Stinky Kitty, can stare in the mirror longer than Pretty Kitty, and has a babble that reaches all the way to space, Bad Kitty freaks out.

Hidden behind the hilarious antics of Bad Kitty and her friends is a sweet story about family. At first Kitty is jealous of the new baby and unsuccessfully tries to sell her, mail her, and pack her in a suitcase. Bad Kitty eventually learns that she and the baby have much in common. They both like to scratch, chew, and eat. Most importantly, they both need have a warm, safe, and happy place to live. Once Kitty understands they have similar needs, she wholeheartedly accepts baby into her life. Just don't expect her to take a bath!

Bad Kitty Meets Baby is both a chapter book and a graphic novel. It uses a combination of images and dialogue to tell the story. The exaggerated black and white cartoon-like illustrations fill most of the pages. They enhance the narration by including a collection of sound effects and speech. Some pages need no words at all because the pictures effectively tell the story. Similar to other books in Bruel's series, random interludes take the reader away from the core story. "Uncle Murray's Fun Facts" provide insightful explanations of cat behavior, but can be a distraction. The storyline is unpredictable and often interrupted. Though the plot is simple, the narrative may at times be too advanced for some of the intended audience. 

Overall, the book is appealing for both for adults and kids, especially when read together. Ultimately it's the author's clever use of humor, colorful characters, and bizarre twists that keep readers interested and laughing.