Oliver and the Seawigs: Not-So-Impossible Tale by Philip Reeve

An army of sea monkeys. A boy villain named Stacey de Lacey. A nearsighted mermaid. Rambling Isles that walk/swim around the ocean. Sarcastic seaweed. A talking albatross named Mr. Culpepper. And a beach optician. Not in that order.

The author of this stew of ridiculous is the same Phillip Reeve who wrote a dark Arthurian saga called Here Lies Arthur and won the Carnegie Medal for it in 2008. Oliver and the Seawigs is not dark, not Arthurian, and not a saga—and contrary to the series title (yes, there’s a series of at least two books so far), not very possible. But then again, who cares about possible when you’re reading something that reads as if it were an exercise in six impossible things before breakfast?

Ten year old Oliver Crisp is the son of explorers who met on the top of Mount Everest. They’re finally ready to settle down in a house by the sea, having explored all there is to explore, but when they arrive at their house of dreams (for Oliver who’s tired of exploring), there are some new islands in Deepwater Bay just off the coast. Oliver’s parents are compelled by their exploring nature to go explore, but then it’s Oliver who must rescue them when they don’t return in time for supper.

Only 193 pages with lots of pictures, this rollicking adventure would be just the thing to suggest to the third or fourth grader with a silly sense of humor (or one who needs some silly in his life). The next book in the series, Cakes in Space, features Astra and some scary-looking cakes. In a spaceship.

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This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Alvin Ho: Allergic to the Great Wall, The Forbidden Palace, and Other Tourist Attractions by Lenore Look

Alvin Ho is back again, kind of like his namesake, the chipmunk. (Actually, the two have nothing to do with one another. I just was reminded of Alvin the Chipmunk for some reason and wanted to post a picture. Maybe because both Alvins have a penchant for getting into lovable trouble.)

This time Alvin Ho goes on a trip at Christmas time to China with his family to visit his relations who live in a tall scary apartment building. And Alvin has to fly across the ocean in an airplane, aka tin can, to get there. And there are maybe a billion people in China who could squash you. And you might have to use a squat toilet or be stuck all over with acupuncture needles like a pincushion. Scary, right?

Those are only a few of the dangers Alvin faces as he explores, or tries to keep from exploring, a new country. I’m getting a little jaded on Alvin, but I think this book might be just as funny and just as comforting to the average second or third grader as were Alvin’s previous adventures.

I did especially like chapter 15, You Can Make a Friend Anywhere, where Alvin does something very generous and kind in spite of all of his fears and phobias. The rest is standard Alvin Ho fare, although it provides a good introduction to the tourist attractions and interesting aspects of a visit to China. I felt sorry for Alvin’s dad, though, who is forced to be very, very patient and forgiving with Alvin’s childish anxieties and careless misdeeds.

Read this one if you’re a fan or if you want a painless introduction to China or if you have yet to meet the inimitable Alvin Ho.

Wanderville by Wendy McClure

Inspired by The Boxcar Children books, Wanderville is a story of unwanted children making a place for themselves in spite of uncaring and inattentive adults. The believability factor in this story for younger middle grade readers is low, but it is a good adventure.

A group of orphans are sent west to Kansas on the Orphan Train. They escape before they are sent to a sugar beet farm to work as practical slaves, and they create their own (partly imaginary) town of Wanderville, a town that is “open to any child in need of freedom. No matter who they are.” It’s historical fiction with some near-fantasy elements. All of the events in the book could happen, but some of them are highly unlikely.

The story is very anti-adult, but it is the adults who unwittingly provide the food that the children “liberate” and who clumsily participate in the successful rescue effort toward the end of the book. Perhaps the author was taking a polite jab at the oft-repeated convention in children’s book that has children taking care of themselves without any adult intervention or help. Or maybe she was trying to “empower” children to take control of their own destinies. Whatever the author’s intentions, the adults in the story range from incompetent to slow-witted to downright cruel, with not a helpful adult in sight. Maybe that aspect will improve over the course of the series.

For fans of The Boxcar Children series, Joan Lowery Nixon’s Orphan Train Adventures, or even the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Wanderville might be a welcome follow-up. A series of Wanderville books is in the works. Book 2 is Wanderville: On Track for Treasure, due out in October 2014.

Cybils 2013 Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books

I served on the judging panel for this Cybils category two years ago, and I was introduced to some wonderful books and authors for the 8 and under crowd. Here are a few 2013 nomination suggestions for this category:

Odd Duck by Cecil Castllucci. Friendship, weirdness, and ducks. NOMINATED as a Graphic Novel.

All About Ellie (The Critter Club) by Callie Barkley. What does it take to be a star? What does it take to be a friend?

Bowling Alley Bandit (Adventures of Arnie the Doughnut) by Laurie Keller. Talking pizza, break-dancing bowling pins, and a doughnut, Arnie the Doughnut Dog, who sings karaoke.

Squirrels on Skis by J. Hamilton Ray. Reviewed at Becky’s Book Reviews.

A Pet Named Sneaker by Joan Heilbroner. Reviewed at Becky’s Book Reviews.

Dig, Scoop, Ka-boom! Joan Kolub. Reviewed at Becky’s Book Reviews.

Mr. Putter and Tabby Drop the Ball by Cynthia Rylant. Reviewed at Becky’s Book Reviews.

Ten Things I Love About You by Daniel Kirk. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.

White Fur Flying by Patricia MacLachlan. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.

I may add more as I come across them. Go, read, nominate.

Whatever After: Fairest of All by Sarah Mlynowski

Abby and her family have moved to a new town, Smithville, and things in this new place are just not right! For instance:

1. Everyone in Smithville calls Coke, Pepsi, and Orange Crush soda. Pop is a much better name. Pop! Pop! Pop! Coke pops on your tongue. It doesn’t soda on your tongue.
2. The people here do not know how to make a peanut butter and banana sandwich. The right way is to slice the banana up and then press the slices one by one into the peanut butter, preferably in neat and orderly rows. But the kids in my new school mash the bananas, mix a spoonful of peanut butter into the mashed bananas and then spread the whole gloppy mess on their bread. Why oh why would they do that?
3. And now instead of tag they want to play freeze tag, or “Ooo, Let’s All Be Frozen Statues While Abby Runs Around and Around and Around.”

Abby is in need of an escape, and she goes to the library for a dose of fairy tale reality. “No matter how many times you read them, stories always stay the same.” However, maybe not. What if Abby herself causes the fairy tale to change and messes up the happy ending?

This fairy tale reworking is definitely for the younger end of middle grade readers, ages 6 to 10 or so. The narrator, Abby, is ten years old, and a young ten at that. When she and her younger brother Jonah are transported by a magic mirror in the basement of their new house into the fairy tale world, their reactions and plans are definitely childlike. Older readers might scorn these babes in the woods and their rather unsophisticated strategies for “fixing” Snow White’s story, but younger readers could have a lot of fun with Abby and Jonah and their fairy tale adventure. I found the story cute and refreshing after the pseudo-sophistication of so many middle grade fantasies dealing with heavy, heavy themes and events.

There’s a second book in the series due out in January 2013, called Whatever After #2: If the Shoe Fits.

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery and a Very Strange Adventure by Lissa Evans

Stuart Horten moves to a new town and finds out that his great-uncle was a magician, a performing magician who invented and sold magical illusions. But Teeny Tiny Tony Horten was also a real magician who disappeared one day and left a trail of clues for finding his magical workshop to the boy who was “the right sort of boy to have it.”

Everybody loves a treasure hunt with sequential clues to find a secret treasure. And lots of kids go through a magic phase in which they’re interested in learning to do magic tricks, card tricks, and slight of hand. (Some kids never grow out of that “phase” and they become grown-up magicians, I guess.) This book by British author Lissa Evans plays into both of those fascinations.

The book includes more than just magical illusions–there’s time travel magic and wishing-upon-a-threepence magic, too. Stuart meets and gets some help from his next-door neighbors, identical triplets named April, May, and June. There’s also a factory for the manufacture of magic tricks and a book of photographs that is part of the treasure hunt. And the book has a sequel: Horten’s Incredible Illusions: Magic, Mystery and Another Very Strange Adventure..I’m looking forward to adventuring along with Mr. Horten as he explores his inheritance from Great-Uncle Tony.

Earwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones

It’s possible that I kept thinking of Pippi Longstocking when I was reading this book by Diana Wynne Jones, author of Howl’s Moving Castle and many other fantasy favorites, because Paul Zelinsky’s illustrations reminded me of Lauren Child’s pictures of of Pippi. Maybe it’s just the electric pigtails that both Pippi and Earwig share. It’s also possible that Earwig is a cross between Pippi and some random wizard. Someone left Earwig at St. Morwald’s Home for Children with this message pinned to her basket: “Got the other twelve witches all chasing me. I’ll be back for her when I’ve shook them off. It may take years. Her name is Earwig.”

Earwig likes her life at the orphanage, but when she is chosen to go live with Bella Yaga the cruel witch and a terrifying man with horns who doesn’t like being disturbed, Earwig makes herself at home and tries to work a deal: housecleaning help in return for witchcraft lessons. Bella Yaga doesn’t want to teach Earwig anything, though, so Earwig must decide how she’s going to cope with her new life and make it suit her in spite of the lack of cooperation from her foster “parents.”

Earwig and the Witch is an early chapter book, and as such it’s not really too scary or too complicated. The scary parts involve worms and some swirly-smoky demons. The plot has Earwig doing just what she wants to do in spite of those who might try to thwart her desires. The theme seems to be” “If life hands you witches and demons, make lemonade. Or cast spells.” This one is appropriate for beginning readers, unless you don’t care for the whole witches and spell-casting thing. It might have been meant to be the start of a series, but unfortunately, Ms. Jones died last year (2011).

Cold Cereal by Adam Rex

Once upon a time I read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and I became a vegetarian for about two days. Cold Cereal by Adam Rex may convince me to give up breakfast cereal for the duration. I know it’s fantasy, bordering on satire, but the satirical elements are effective. For example, from a footnote about Goodco Cereal Company on page 206:

“[N]atural cereal grains have been almost entirely replaced in Goodco products by vat-grown imitation grain meals such as Gorn, Weet, Noats and Gorn-Free, the Gornless Gorn substitute.”

OK, I know it’s not quite that bad, but I did hear a piece on NPR the other day about how a few farmers are feeding their pigs discarded chocolate scraps and other scraps such as “bread, dough, pastries, even Cap’n Crunch” because the price of corn is so high. Can the adulteration of breakfast cereal be far behind?

To get back to the book, Cold Cereal is the story of three children –Erno Utz, his twin sister Emily Utz, and their friend, Scottish Doe–against an evil cereal corporation, Goodco, that wants to take over the world. The children have allies–a leprechaun (or clurichaun) named Mick, a pooka, a very big guy who may or may not be Bigfoot, and some mostly ineffective adults. The Evil Breakfast Food Corporation also has its own cast of strange employees and supporters, including evil members of a international fraternity that sounds suspiciously like a parody of the Freemasons.

The first half of the book was both funny and absorbing, but somewhere in the second half I lost track of the machinations and plot twists. By the end I was confused about what the “rules” of magic in the book were, who belonged where, and what happened and how the questions raised in the first half were answered. Either I’m a little slow-witted, which is entirely possible, or Mr. Rex tried to incorporate too many strands in his story, too many stories in his novel, and too many permutations to his magical world. In short, I got lost somewhere King Arthur and Intellijuice and the goblins that impersonate Queen Elizabeth.

However, I did enjoy the parts I did understand, and I recommend Cold Cereal to those of you who don’t mind being disillusioned about the ingredients in your breakfast cereal and who can follow a myriad cast of twisted magical characters in a complicated tale of breakfast turmoil.

I think it’s set up for a sequel. Either that, or I missed the tying up of the loose ends of the plot, or Mr. Rex just likes things complex and open-ended.

Giving Books: Mystery Series for Young Readers

The Milo and Jazz Mysteries by Lewis B. Montgomery.
The Case of the Stinky Socks.
The Case of the Poisoned Pig.
The Case of the Haunted Haunted House.
The Case of the Amazing Zelda.
The Case of the July 4th Jinx.
The Case of the Missing Moose.
The Case of the Purple Pool.
I read the seventh and most recently published book in the series, The Case of the Purple Pool, because it was one of the books nominated for the Cybils in the Early Chapter Books category. Milo and Jazz are detectives-in-training, but even with the benefit of their lessons from Dash Marlowe, Super Sleuth, the two youngsters are stumped when someone turns the neighborhood swimming pool water purple. How? Why? And will it happen again? I figured out the solution to the mystery within pages, but young readers might just have to exercise their brains to solve this one. I think mystery fans ages 6-10 will enjoy this series.

The First Kids Mysteries by Martha Freeman.
The Case of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Dog.
The Case of the Diamond Dog Collar.
10-year old Cammie and 7-year old Tessa have a very important mom and a very lively dog. Hooligan, the dog, lives up to his name and creates havoc wherever he goes. And Mom, well, Mom is the President of the United States. So Cammie and Tessa and Hooligan live in the White House with their mom and dad and Hooligan and Granny and Aunt Jen and her son, Nate, and Granny’s canary who doesn’t have a name—yet. In the Case of the Diamond Dog Collar, Hooligan receives a gift from the president’s dog in a neighboring country, and one of the twelve fake diamonds on the collar goes missing. Cammie and Tessa must put on their detective hats and go to work to find out where the (fake) diamond could be. This series is a little more challenging for readers, so I’d suggest it for ages 9-12, especially if those mystery fans are still prefer shorter books.

Young Cam Jansen Mysteries by David Adler.
Young Cam Jansen and the Dinosaur Game.
Young Cam Jansen and the Missing Cookie.
Young Cam Jansen and the Lost Tooth.
Young Cam Jansen and the Ice Skate Mystery.
Young Cam Jansen and the Baseball Mystery.
Young Cam Jansen and the Pizza Shop Mystery.
Young Cam Jansen and the Library Mystery.
Cam Jansen has a photographic memory, and that’s one of the things that makes her such a good detective. Some people nicknamed her “The Camera” because she remembers things just like a camera, and then they just called her “Cam.” These books are beginning, level two readers for very young readers. If your reader finishes these and wants more Cam Jansen, there are a slew of Cam Jansen mysteries that are in the “Early Chapter Books” category, second to fourth grade reading level.

Then, there are these classic series that still hold the attention of young readers:

The Boxcar Children series.
Encyclopedia Brown series.
Nate the Great series.

Sunday Salon: Books Read in November, 2011

Easy Readers for Cybils:
Good Luck, Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
Have Fun, Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
No. 1 Car Spotter by Atinuke. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
Tugg and Teeny: Jungle Surprises by J. Patrick Lewis. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
Almost Zero: A Dyamonde Daniel Book by Nikki Grimes. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books. Semicolon review here.
Daisy Dawson at the Beach by Steve Voake. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
The Greatest Sheep in History by Frances Watts. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books. Semicolon review here.
Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Zooms to the Rescue by Jacqueline Jules. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books. Semicolon review here.
Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie by Julie Sternberg. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
The Case of the Diamond Dog Collar by Martha Freeman. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
The Tricky Tooth by Fran Manushkin. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
Clementine and the Family Meeting by Sara Pennypacker. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
Invisible Inkling by Emily Jenkins. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
Toys Come Home: Being the Early Experiences of an Intelligent Stingray, a Brave Buffalo, and a Brand-New Someone Called Plastic by Emily Jenkins. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
Scab for Treasurer? by Trudi Trueit. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
The Trouble With Chickens by Doreen Cronin. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
Marty McGuire by Kate Messner. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
The Snow Queen by Sara Lowes. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
Marvin Monster’s Monsterific Adventures by Tabatha Jean D’Agata. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
Sammy Squirrel and Rodney Raccoon To the Rescue by Duane Lawrence. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books. Semicolon review here.
Sophie the Zillionaire by Lara Bergen. Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books.
Splat the Cat: Good Night, Sleep Tight by Rob Scotton. Cybils nominee: Easy Readers.
Max Spaniel: Best in Show by Dana M. Rau. Cybils nominee: Easy Readers.
Butterflies by Nic Bishop. Cybils nominee: Easy Readers.
Dinosaurs Don’t, Dinosaurs Do by Steven Bjorkman. Cybils nominee: Easy Readers.
The Lion and the Mice by Ed and Rebecca Emberley. Cybils nominee: Easy Readers.
Katie Woo Has the Flu by Fran Manushkin. Cybils nominee: Easy Readers.
I Broke My Trunk by Mo Willems. Cybils nominee: Easy Readers.
Happy Pig Day by Mo Willems. Cybils nominee: Easy Readers.
Should I Share My Ice Cream? by Mo Willems. Cybils nominee: Easy Readers. Semicolon review for all three Mo Willems’ books here.
Silly Lilly in What Will I Be Today by Agnes Rosenstiehl. Cybils nominee: Easy Readers.
Patrick in a Teddy Bear’s Picnic and Other Stories by Geoffrey Hayes. Cybils nominee: Easy Readers.
A Green, Green Garden by Mercer Mayer. Cybils nominee: Easy Readers.

Children’s and Young Adult Fiction:
Dave at Night by Gail Carson Levine. Semicolon review here.
The Night of the Burning: Devorah’s Story by Linda Press Wulf.
Choosing Up Sides by John Ritter.
The Storyteller’s Daughter by Jean Thesman.
Chief Sunrise, John McGraw, and Me by Timothy Tocher.
Small Acts of Amazing Courage by Gloria Whelan. Cybils nominee: Middle Grade Fiction. Nominated by Rebecca Herman.Semicolon review here.
Losing Faith by Denise Jaden. Nominated and shortlisted for the INSPY Awards, Literature for Young People category.
Crosswire by Dotti Enderle.
Cry of the Giraffe by Judie Oron. Definitely for older YA.
Orchards by Holly Thompson.
How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr. Review coming soon.

Adult Fiction:
Pattern of Wounds by J. Mark Bertrand.
When She Woke by Hilary Jordan. My review at Breakpoint.
Gifts of War by Mackenzie Ford.

Unplanned: The dramatic true story of a former Planned Parenthood leader’s eye-opening journey across the life line by Abby Johnson with Cindy Lambert. Semicolon review here.
The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma.
Tales of an African Vet by Dr. Roy Aronson. Review coming soon.