Jenny Lee puts a canine spin on the value of friendship — or finding your pack — in Elvis and the Underdogs (Balzer + Bray, $16.99). Sure Benji has friends: the doctors and nurses at the hospital where he spends most of his time, the librarian, since he eats alone in the library when he is at school, and his mom, who fiercely watches over him. However, when he has a seizure and his doctor tells him he either has to wear an extraordinarily ugly helmet to school or get a therapy dog, Benji opts for the dog. Upon arrival, the dog, Parker Elvis Pembroke IV, emphatically informs Benji that he was meant to be the President’s dog and there has clearly been a mix-up. Benji can understand Elvis — everyone else hears barking or growling — and Elvis is worth listening to: “Benjamin. I’m not going to eat in the library. Maybe you can eat neatly enough to be allowed to do so, but I cannot. I’m a dog. I eat off the floor, when I think about food, I produce a large quantity of saliva. It’s a physiological response that is Pavlovian and is a long story that I can’t get into right now, especially when I’m hungry”. Elvis is a therapy dog with the personality of Frazier Crane. He’s serious about his duty to protect Benji, but Elvis also knows a little something about the importance of having a pack and he’s determined to help Benji create his own.
The Candy Smash is Jacqueline Davies most recent addition to the Lemonade War series (HMH, $15.99). Like Davies’s previous books (The Lemonade War, The Lemonade Crime, and The Bell Bandit), The Candy Smash contains a central theme around which the plot and chapters are organized. This time it’s writing. As usual, Davies does an excellent job showcasing different perspectives about the theme. Jessie, always pragmatic, is working on writing a newspaper. She approaches her self-assigned editorial job with structured design, following the rules of journalism to the letter. Evan, on the other hand, enjoys the emotions that envelop him during the class’s morning poetry reading. He plays with words, letting them swirl and play freely. This story takes place in February so the looming prospect of Valentine’s Day is wrecking a bit of havoc on their fourth grade classroom. When Jessie decides to investigate class crushes, she dances dangerously close to exposing too much and unwittingly embarrassing her classmates. Evan does intercede — thankfully because I was really starting to get worried. Although he protects his classmates, his own dabbling in poetry teaches him to take a few emotional risks of his own. Another incredibly satisfying book by Davies. Kids and 4th grade teachers will eat this one up.
Today’s recommendation continues with The Lemonade War series. The Bell Bandit is a good chapter book for kids who appreciate mysteries (HMH, $15.99, paperback due in May 2013). The mystery within the book isn’t particularly exciting or adventurous, but as usual, Jessie approaches the question of the missing bell like the detectives she reads about. Kids who like mysteries will appreciate the recognizable tropes of the genre. The Bell Bandit takes Jessie and her brother Evan away from school and this story focuses more on the family dynamics. The kids and their mother always spend the winter holidays with their grandmother, but this year things are different. First, Grandma is in the hospital. Second, part of her house has been burned. The two are related. Grandma turned on the kettle and then forgot about it and went on a long walk. Grandma forgets a lot of things these days, including important things like Evan’s name or that he’s her grandson. She remembers the bell though, the one that sits on the hill near her house. According to tradition, the neighbors gather at the bell on New Year’s Eve. The oldest and the youngest people present at the festivities ring the bell together. When Jessie realizes that the bell is missing, she sets out to solve the crime and find the bandit with her new friend, Maxwell.
Stories that only teach are boring. Stories that only entertain feel like a waste of time. Davies’s books excellently mix engaging stories and life lessons. Her books teach by example rather than forcing the lesson. Maxwell is different. The reader knows that even though the text never says exactly why or how. Instead, the text describes his actions, his mannerisms, and the way he interacts (or doesn’t interact) with others. Jessie, who has never been very good at reading people, appreciates his matter-of-fact approach even though she gets frustrated with having to explain social conventions to him, the way her brother had to explain them to her. Davies is excellent at conveying both Maxwell’s and Jessie’s characters, without limiting either of them to labels and diagnosis. Some young readers will make the connection themselves, perhaps with Evan’s help, since he’s more of a nuanced reader of people than Jessie is. Other readers might not fully understand Maxwell’s character, and that’s a good thing, too. It means there will be opportunities for them to engage in conversations about varying abilities. Likewise, not all readers will fully comprehend what is happening with Grandma, as the words dementia and alzheimer’s are never used in the story. Even so, kids ages 9-11, who like realistic stories will feel for Evan as he struggles to communicate with her in the ways she can understand and the ones who want to know more will ask.
I discussed The Lemonade War in a recent post and was so taken with the book that I couldn’t wait to read the rest of the series. Although Jacqueline Davies’s books do comprise a series, each one is so different that I will continue to review them separately. They are all excellent in their own right and I’m impressed with how she has developed the books. At the end of The Lemonade War, Evan discovers that Jessie and Megan’s hard-earned money has been stolen from his shorts, while he was swimming at a friend’s house. In The Lemonade Crime (HMH, $6.99), when school starts a few days later, Scott Spenser, who had left the pool party rather abruptly, starts boasting about his new gaming center. Jessie and Evan know that Scott has to be the culprit and Jessie sets out to prove it by putting him on trial. She organizes the whole 4th grade class into witnesses, judge, jury, and audience. As the prosecutor, she represents Evan. Scott, the defense, declines to be represented by a girl — the only classmates left since most of the boys are witnesses from the party. The class conducts a secret, no-adults trial on the playground and Jessie, despite her extensive preparation, discovers that courtrooms can be emotional, no matter how hard you try to stay objective. What an excellent introduction to the justice system! And I particularly appreciated Megan’s desire to act as Scott’s public defender. Megan, Jessie, and Evan all eventually accept that in the judicial system not everything turns out the way you want it to, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fair.
I buy my god-baby books for her birthday. Fortunately she still enjoys reading, so I have not yet become ‘the worst god-mother ever’ as predicted by one of my non-reading friends. My god-baby is actually 9 so not technically a baby, but I like the title. As much fun as it can be to buy books you’ve read and loved, doing so can sometimes put too much pressure on the recipient so this year I decided to buy books I hadn’t read, books I picked out specifically for her. My boss recommended A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban (Sandpiper, $6.99). Zoe, the main character, has musical aspirations, and I thought that would be good choice since the god-baby’s mother plays the clarinet and the god-baby in question takes piano lessons. (Sidebar: maybe some time I should write about all the times I spent at band and orchestra rehearsals in high school despite the fact that I wasn’t ever in the band or an orchestra — the things we do for our friends.) Although I never heard the final pronouncement, A Crooked Kind of Perfect was the first of her birthday books that the god-baby started reading and her initial reaction was enthusiastic — melodramatic, but enthusiastic: “I looooooooved the books you picked out! Thank you soooooooooo much!” kids. gotta love ’em. gotta not take ’em too seriously.
So now it’s my turn to read the books and yes, I did a great job picking them out (with help, of course), because A Crooked Kind of Perfect is kind of delightful. Zoe wants to be a pianist, more specifically she’d like to be a child prodigy on the piano. What she gets is an organ, more specifically the The Perfectone D-60. Pianists play at Carnegie Hall. Organists compete at the Peform-O-Rama organ competition. Zoe wants her two parents to be at her first competition. Zoe has a workaholic mother and an agoraphobic father. Zoe wants her best friend to remember that they are best friends and not spend so much time with Joella. Zoe gets Wheeler Diggs following her home after school. Zoe wants perfection. She finds a crooked kind of perfect.
Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine (Hyperion, $5.99) is by far my favorite character from an early reader series. She’s spunky and resourceful, with a sense of humor. She gets into trouble a lot, mostly for not paying attention, but she is paying attention, just not always to her teacher. Nevertheless, she has quirky relationship with her teachers and principal, and ultimately they seem to understand that Clementine always has the best of intentions. Her parents encourage her uniqueness and gently remind her how much she is loved. Marla Frazee’s illustrations are perfectly paired with the text and bring out the subtle humor in this story. The image of Clementine talking to the principal is priceless! The fifth book in this series, Clementine and the Family Meeting, has recently been released in paperback. Luckily there are two more Clementine books to come before the series ends.
Sunny Holiday, by Coleen Paratore, has become a recent favorite (Scholastic, $5.99). Sunny is more assertive and confident than Clementine, and is not afraid to speak her mind. Sunny and her best friend Jazzy live in an apartment building filled with strong, independent women who gather together for a monthly dance party. Surrounded by these role models, Sunny decides to create a Kid’s Day, and in the process learns how much influence kids really can have. The second book in the series, Sweet and Sunny, is still in hardcover. Sunny has a lot more to say, so here’s hoping we see more of this series.