Your Pet Train: How to Train a Train

It’s no secret that train books are hugely popular with boys, including the many Thomas the Train titles as well as lots of other great picture books, both fiction and non-fiction.  Here’s a new one that’s unique in perspective, with excellent artwork:

train-a-trainHow to Train a Train, by Jason Eaton (lexile: NA; AR book level: 3.0; 48 pp)

“So you want a pet train?  Well, of course you do!”

So begins the pith-helmeted young narrator of this delightful new picture book, a guide to finding and training your very own pet train!  He starts with suggestions for catching a wild train (offer it some coal), continues with ways to calm a nervous train (a warm bath), help it get to sleep at night (a story or some locomotive music), and teach it tricks.  The suggestions are absurdly funny, but what really makes this book are John Rocco’s outstanding illustrations.  The trains are big, with mechanical faces that give them personality and emotion, and the kids show obvious love for their big iron pets.

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There are plenty of great non-fiction train books for young readers, but here are two in our library that I really like because the photography is so good:

steam-train-rideSteam Train Ride, by Evelyn Clarke Mott (lexile: NA; AR book level: 2.7; 32 pp)

Take a fun trip with preschooler Christopher on a steam train.  Amply illustrated with photos, the story follows Christopher as he meets the engineer, learns a bit about how the engine works and what the signs mean along the track, buys a ticket, and takes a trip through the countryside on the train.

all-aboard-abcAll Aboard ABC, by Doug Magee (lexile: NA; AR book level: NA; 43 pp)

A typical ABC book, with something about trains for each letter of the alphabet.  The excellent photos take up most or all of a page, and portray items from a variety of perspectives.  Young train enthusiasts will especially enjoy the close-ups of mechanical parts like the coupler, springs, and switches.  The text provides simple, clear explanations in an easy-to-read font.  This would be great to read with a child preparing for a train trip or visit to a railway museum.

More than Meets the Eye: What We Found in the Sofa

sofaWhat We Found in the Sofa and How it Saved the World, by Henry Clark (lexile: 730; AR book level: 5.1; 355 pp)

Nothing is quite what it seems.  Certainly not the dark green sofa that River, Freak and Fiona find one morning sitting at their bus stop, in front of the old Underhill mansion.  Nor the odd coin, zucchini-colored crayon, and double-six domino they discover between the sofa’s cushions.  All are keys to a much bigger mystery, involving an evil billionaire bent on taking over the world.

River, Freak, and Fiona are themselves more than they seem, too.  All three are middle-school misfits with difficult circumstances, gradually revealed as the story unfolds.  In fact, theirs are the only three families left living in a section of town nicknamed “Hellsboro” — so called because 12 years ago a chemical plant accidentally (?) set fire to the nearby underground coal seam, and it’s been burning ever since.

The action begins when Fiona (the science/internet genius) discovers online that the zucchini crayon is rare — so rare that someone might pay a lot of money for it.  So they decide to auction it on ebay, and the bidding soars into the thousands!  But what if the sofa — and its contents — actually belonged to old Mr Underhill?  So they try to contact him … and I’ll leave you the fun of discovering the rest.

This is Clark’s first novel (he has previously written for Mad magazine), and it is refreshingly original, clever, funny, action-packed, and very well written.  The plot is certainly a little wacko, but the three main characters are wonderfully-believable and likeable middle-schoolers.  In the end their quirks become their strengths, and their courage does, indeed, save the world.  There are hints of a sequel, which I hope will be just as much fun as this first book.

Three in One: Battle Bunny

Wait … is this a LIBRARY BOOK … that some mischievous kid has defaced with a pencil?  Or is it a unique new picture book that is really three stories in one?

battle-bunnyBattle Bunny, by Jon Scieszka (lexile: NA; AR book level: NA; 32 pp)

“Happy birthday, Alexander!  To my little birthday bunny on his special day.  Love, Gran Gran.”

The words penned inside the front cover suggest the supposed original book, Birthday Bunny, was a present from grandma, well-meaning but clueless.  Alex, the birthday boy, must have decided the story of a sad bunny who thinks everyone has forgotten his birthday was a bit too sappy, so he takes pencil in hand to improve it.  So Birthday Bunny becomes Battle Bunny, complete with rockets, planes, bombs, and an evil plan to take over the world.  Who can stop the wicked Battle Bunny?  Crow, Badger, and Squirrel cannot, and even the Kenji Fighting Force (with their 1,103 fighting styles) are defeated.  Finally the president must call in none other than Alex, whose special birthday powers enable him to save the day.

Scieszka is a man-on-a-mission to write stuff that boys will love to read, and he’s certainly hit another home run with Battle Bunny.  Boys who think they’re too old for picture books, or that picture books are dumb, are sure to love the premise of taking a boring story and transforming it into an outrageous battle with ninjas, robot killer bees, and mind-control helmets.  They’ll want to read both stories — the original one, still visible under the scratched out words, and all of Alex’s clever changes and additions.

Scieszka’s technique could also serve as a springboard for helping kids with creative writing.  Starting with Battle Bunny as an example, take a worn-out, dull picture book (perhaps weeded from a library, or cheaply obtained at a garage sale), and give a kid PERMISSION to mark it up (!), turning it into his own story.

Marker + Imagination: Journey

I’m a huge fan of well-crafted wordless picture books.  With an engaging story that even a pre-reader can “read” aloud, they stimulate imagination, and teach children how books work and stories unfold.  (See my review of Chalk for a great example.)  Here is another of my new favorites in that genre.

Journey_by_Aaron_BeckerJourney, by Aaron Becker (lexile: NA; AR book level: NA; 40 pp)

Aaron Becker’s debut book Journey is a captivating story of a bored girl who can’t get anyone in her family to play with her.  So, red marker in hand, she draws a door … and the door leads to an intricate fantasy world of adventure, a daring rescue, and even a new friend.

As children pore over Becker’s detailed images, they can be encouraged to tell the story that they see.  What is this city like which she has found?  Who are the people she encounters?  What are they doing and why?  How do her actions change the story?  And when you get to the end, you’ll want to go back to the beginning and look for the details you missed the first time through.

Even older children who can read (and adults!) will enjoy Journey.  In fact, the story might be too complex and even a bit threatening at one point for young preschoolers.  Though not necessary to appreciate the story, readers familiar with classic children’s literature may also find reference to a character from another book with a purple marker (or is it a crayon?).

Each year the American Library Association awards the Caldecott Medal to the artist of the best American picture book of the previous year.  I think we’ll find Journey on that list in January.

Creepy and More: Doll Bones

It’s October, when more kids than usual come into the library asking for “something scary.”   Here’s a new one that is quietly creepy, but also a superbly written tale with much more to offer than just chills.

doll bonesDoll Bones, by Holly Black (lexile: 840; AR book level: 5.4; 244 pp)

Twelve-year-olds Zach, Alice, and Poppy have been friends for most of their lives, and for years they’ve been playing The Game — a never-ending tale of adventure they make up as they go along.  The characters are an array of old dolls and action figures that become pirates, mermaids, warriors, and thieves.  And ruling over all is the one they call The Great Queen, represented by an antique bone-china doll belonging to Poppy’s mother, locked away in a glass cabinet.

Zach is the narrator of the story, and he loves the game — it’s almost like he’s “accessing some other world, one that felt real as anything.”  But he’s also on the basketball team at school now, and would hate for any of the other guys to know he still plays with action figures.  He’s at that awkward stage when he’d love to stay a kid for a while longer, and fears the changes that growing up will bring.

Then one night Poppy takes the Queen from the cabinet.  Soon she begins to have dreams, haunted by a girl named Eleanor who says the doll is made from her bones.  Eleanor promises she will make their lives miserable unless they properly bury the doll in her grave in Ohio.

Is Poppy just making this up so they can have one real adventure together?  Zach and Alice aren’t sure, but finally Zach decides that “anything was better than no magic at all.”  So in the middle of the night they set out on a quest, guided (perhaps) by the ghost of a long-dead girl.

Several elements make Doll Bones a cut above most ghost stories.  First, the creepiness is subtle.  There are no big, over-the-top, scream-worthy moments, just the strange occurrences that leave the characters and the reader wondering, “Could it be?” Second is the gradually-revealed mystery of the doll’s origins and Eleanor’s story.  And finally this is more than a scary story — it’s also a tale about imagination, and growing up, navigating the inevitable changes that come with moving from childhood into adolescence.

I’m predicting Newbery winners again this year (hey, I got one right last year!), and I think Doll Bones will end up a Newbery honor book.  (I’ve already decided Navigating Early should win, and I’m REALLY hoping What Came from the Stars will be on the honor list.  Now wouldn’t it be cool if I got them ALL right?)

Saying Goodbye: Kindred Souls

“Do you have a book to help my child deal with the death of …?”

Whether concerning the death of a pet, relative, or friend, we get that question so often in the library that we’ve developed an annotated list of relevant titles.  Most are stories.  Yes, there are non-fiction books that may explain death medically or theologically, but when dealing with life’s difficult transitions, children (and perhaps adults) often benefit most from stories.

Stories can help children understand, express, and process their emotions, or even empathize with a friend’s loss.  Here is a recent short chapter book, sensitively-written, about the passing of a beloved grandfather.

kindred soulsKindred Souls, by Patricia MacLachlan (lexile: NA; AR book level: 3.0; 128 pp)

There are few things ten-year-old Jake loves more than daily walks with his 88-year-old grandfather, Billy, around their Kansas farm.  Billy and Jake are, as Billy says, “kindred souls.”

Billy often shares with Jake memories of growing up on that very farm.  And when they stop by the remnants of the sod house where Billy was born, Billy remarks “I loved that sod house.”

When Billy gets sick and is hospitalized, Jake decides he will build Billy his sod house once again to “make him well.”  The whole family helps to make the house just right for Billy’s return home.  It is the perfect gift.

Jake expects Billy to live forever; Billy knows better, and the sod house seems a kind of fulfillment for him, bringing him back to where he began.  He tells Jake he is happy, and that he loves him.  And somehow that is enough.

This is a simple, beautiful story of a loving family, the bond between grandfather and grandson, and the grace to let go when the time comes.

P.S.  I found a superb blog called Books that Heal Kids, written by an elementary school counselor.  She reviews hundreds of children’s fiction titles, both picture books and chapter books, that address various behavioral or life issues that affect kids.  There’s an excellent index to search for particular topics, everything from death to adoption to forgiveness to cliques.

Wimpy Kid for Dogs: Stick Dog

stick_dogStick Dog, by Tom Watson (lexile: NA; AR book level: 4.5; 189 pp)

Subtitle: “…a really GOOD story with kind of BAD drawings”

The hero of the tale, Stick Dog, is not called that because he likes sticks.  (Though, as the author observes, all dogs like sticks.)  He is called that because the author is, by his own admission, not very good at drawing.  As long as you agree not to hassle him about his drawings, he will get on with telling you the story of Stick Dog.

Stick Dog lives in a nice dry empty pipe under Highway 16, complete with an old couch cushion to sleep on and lots of cast-off tennis balls to chew.  He has four good friends who often come to visit: Poo-Poo, Stripes, Karen, and Mutt.  (Poo-Poo is NOT named after you-know-what — he’s called that because he’s a poodle.)  It’s a good life.  But Stick Dog is always on the look-out for something even more important than a home and friends:  FOOD!

So when summer comes, it means one thing to Stick Dog and his friends: humans grilling hamburgers.  When one afternoon that meaty scent comes wafting over from a nearby park, the dogs decide they MUST have hamburgers.  But of course humans are not just going to GIVE them hamburgers, are they?  The dogs will need a PLAN.

And so begins the Quest for Hamburgers.  There are distractions along the way (including an evil squirrel), and outrageous schemes suggested by the dogs (driving a car?  jumping off a cliff?)  In the end, nothing happens quite as planned, but everyone is happy (including the picnicking humans).

The story is cute and funny, and the dog’s dialogue and thinking seem perfectly, well, doggy.  Some adult reviewers bemoan the simplicity of the plot, but kids love it.  And Stick Dog is an admirable character.  He’s loyal and patient with his friends, a good leader and team-builder.

The text resembles a kid’s school notebook with lined paper, amply illustrated with lots of the author’s kind-of-bad drawings (jumping on the ever-popular Wimpy-Kid-format bandwagon).  It may just inspire would-be young authors into thinking,  “Hey, I can draw better than that!  Maybe I’ll write a story ….”  And don’t let the page count scare away readers wanting something shorter; the large font and pictures make this more the equivalent of a 90-page chapter book.

stick dog hot dogThe sequel, Stick Dog Wants a Hot Dog, came out October 8 — I loved it, too!