The Fun Book of Scary Stuff by Emily Jenkins, pictures by Hyewon Yum

Published by Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers

Summary: A boy makes a list of his fears: monsters, ghosts, witches, and trolls. While reluctant to tell them to his two dogs at first, eventually he shares them one by one. For each, one of the dogs attempts to debunk the fear (ghosts are scared of dogs; how bad can witches be if they’re cooking food in their cauldron?). Eventually, the boy moves beyond his list to his cousin, the school crossing guard, and the ultimate: the dark. Even the dogs are afraid of the dark, but the boy reassures them and finds a simple solution for handling that fear. In the end, the list is put to rest, and everyone goes off for a dog biscuit or two. Ages 3-7.

Pros: Readers will relate to many of these fears, and appreciate the light-hearted ways they are dealt with. Most of the story is told in appealing cartoon-bubble dialog.

Cons: Despite the dog’s claims, I’m pretty sure trolls do exist.

Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers 

Summary: Ruby has kept a big secret for many years: when she was five, her mother was arrested and sentenced to 20-25 years in jail. Since then, Ruby has lived with her aunt and gone to visit her mother in prison every weekend. She’s kept her distance from other kids because she doesn’t want them to know about her mom. The summer before middle school, Margalit moves into Ruby’s condo complex, and the two girls quickly become friends. Just as Ruby is about to reveal the truth to Margalit, she learns that Margalit’s brother may have been the victim of Ruby’s mother’s crime. Can Ruby risk being honest with her friend?  Grades 4-6.

Pros: This book takes a sensitive look at an issue not often addressed in children’s literature. Readers will take Ruby to heart as she navigates the difficult issues life has dealt her. Her mother is portrayed sympathetically, but Ruby still struggles with anger, hurt, and a sense of loss. The realities of life in prison and what it’s like to visit a loved one there are described unflinchingly.

Cons: The emotional issues occasionally slow down the action a bit.

Woodpecker Wham! by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Steve Jenkins

Published by Henry Holt and Company

Summary: Brief rhyming text describes what woodpeckers do, including eating, grooming, nest building, and reproducing. Colorful cut-paper illustrations provide detailed pictures of different types of woodpeckers. The final seven pages contain much more information about the topics covered in the main part of the book, including how to find woodpeckers and additional resources for learning more. Preschool-Grade 3.

Pros: Award-winning writer April Pulley Sayre teams up with the equally-decorated Steve Jenkins to produce an eye-catching and informative picture book. The additional information at the end is complete enough for a beginning research report.

Cons: Regular readers of this blog may begin to weary of my incessant praise of Steve Jenkins’ amazing illustrations.

Francine Poulet Meets the Ghost Raccoon by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen

Published by Candlewick Press

Summary: Francine Poulet is a third-generation animal control officer who has yet to back down from any animal that needs controlling. Until one night when she’s called in to catch a ghostly raccoon on a roof and gets the first fright of her life. After a fall off the roof results in a lengthy hospital stay, Francine decides she’s not cut out to be an animal control officer after all, and gets a job at a bait and tackle shop. Fortunately, a young boy named Frank comes into the store one day and encourages Francine to try again with the raccoon, which has now taken up residence on a roof on Deckawoo Drive. Francine musters her wits, climbs up the house, and overcomes her fear to stare down the raccoon and eventually snare it in her animal control net. She is back and better than ever. Grades 1-3.

Pros: Fans of Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series will recognize several characters in this new Deckawoo Drive series (this book is the second installment). The crazy situations, goofy characters, and slapstick illustrations combine to make this lots of fun for beginning chapter book readers.

Cons: Some of the sophisticated vocabulary and humor may be a bit over the average eight-year-old’s head.

Wrap-Up Wednesday: Listen to the Music!

Is it just me, or are there a lot of picture book biographies of musicians this year? Here are a few books to share with those kids coming home with their first band instruments:

Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews, illustrated by Bryan Collier.  Published by Harry N. Abrams.Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews tells how he started his musical career as a young child in New Orleans.  He and his friends made their own instruments from castoffs, and he got his big break when he started playing along at a jazz festival.  Beautifully illustrated by Caldecott medalist Collier.

Elvis: The Story of the Rock and Roll King by Bonnie Christensen.  Published by Henry Holt and Company.Can’t help falling in love with the story of how a poor boy from Mississippi became the king of rock and roll.

Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm by Karen Deans, illustrated by Joe Cepeda.  Published by Holiday House.

The inspiring story of the all-female, almost all African-American jazz band that traveled around the United States and Europe in the 1940’s.  Breaking racial and gender boundaries, the group was a true sisterhood of talented musicians.

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez.  Published by HMH Books for Young Readers.

Another barrier-breaking musician, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, became a drummer in Cuba when girls and women weren’t allowed to play drums.  More than one blogger has picked this book as a potential Caldecott winner.

Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Adam Gustavson.  Published by Henry Holt and Company.

Once upon a time, there were four boys growing up in postwar Liverpool named John, Paul, George, and Richard.  This book looks at the stories of those four, and how they intersected and eventually connected to become the Beatles.

Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola, illustrated by Emily Carroll

Published by Candlewick

Summary: Masha feels all alone in the world since her grandmother died and her father is about to get remarried. When she sees an ad for an assistant posted by Baba Yaga, she remembers her grandmother’s stories about the Russian witch and applies. She’s given a series of tests, the final one of which is to cook some children for Baba Yaga’s supper (she cleverly outwits the witch on that one). Through a combination of skill, luck, and a little magic talent, Masha proves herself capable of being a witch’s assistant and heals some family relationships in the process. Grades 5-8.

Pros: Readers will connect with Masha and her family issues in this engaging graphic novel. The witchy folktale elements add a pleasantly spooky note.

Cons: If I hadn’t grown up on a steady diet of Baba Yaga stories in Jack and Jill magazine, I might have found some of the folktale allusions a little confusing.

Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Published by Wendy Lamb Books

Summary: Bridge and her friends Tabitha and Emily have been best friends for years, having sworn a vow never to fight. Seventh grade tests that promise, as the girls begin to move in different directions, with Em swooning over a new crush, Tab becoming a human rights activist, and Bridge still trying to figure out why she got a second chance at life after surviving a car accident years before. The story, which begins with the new school year, is mostly told from Bridge’s point of view, interspersed with narratives from Sherm, Bridge’s new friend, who may or may not be a boyfriend. Then there are sections about a mysterious character, referred to in the second person, who is having a crisis on Valentine’s Day. Her story slowly unfolds over that single day as the rest of the story moves from September to the culmination on Valentine’s Day when all stories converge. Grades 6-9.

Pros: Rebecca Stead seamlessly blends many, many elements, large and small, into a fabulously satisfactory resolution. The middle school characters are so real you expect them to pass you on the sidewalk whenever you put down the book.

Cons: I really wanted to have this book in my elementary library, but I just can’t see a fifth grader appreciating it nearly as much as he/she would as a middle schooler. Also, can someone tell me why the title of this book is Goodbye, Stranger?

It’s Raining Bats & Frogs by Rebecca Colby, illustrated by Steven Henry.

Published by Feiwal and Friends 

Summary: Delia always looks forward to the Halloween Witch parade, but this year it looks like rain. So she chants, “It’s raining, it’s pouring, but raindrops are BORING. Change the rainfall on my head. Make it CATS and DOGS instead!” Everyone’s happy with the change to raining cats and dogs…for a while. But when the animals become a nuisance, Delia changes them to hats and clogs; then bats and frogs. Nothing seems to work until Delia finally gets the brilliant idea to make it rain…rain. Water turns out to be just what everyone needs to make it the best parade ever. Ages 3-6.

Pros: Rebecca Colby has her finger on the pulse of your average silly preschooler. I can imagine big smiles and laughter with this one. Perfect for Halloween or any rainy day.

Cons: The front flap of the cover mentions the Halloween parade, but the text calls it the Witch Parade and never mentions Halloween. The illustrations make it clear it’s Halloween. So is this a Halloween book?

What Pet Should I Get? By Dr. Seuss

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

Summary: Two children (the same two from One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish) are on a mission to choose a pet. They consider cats, dogs, birds, and some other fantastic creatures, but have trouble narrowing their decision to just one. They finally make their choice and are shown carrying a basket out of the pet shop with two eyes peering out from the dark interior, leaving the reader to guess what’s inside. Ages 4-8.

Pros: Fans will be thrilled that there’s a new Dr. Seuss book, more than 20 years after his death. Back matter tells how the manuscript was discovered and turned into a book.

Cons: I couldn’t help thinking of Go Set a Watchman. Sometimes it’s okay to just let the classics be and not try to squeeze out one more. I liked these Seuss illustrations, but the rhymes seemed a bit forced at times and the ending was abrupt.

Bee Dance by Rick Chrustowski

Published by Henry Holt and Company

Summary: Told in the second person (“When sunlight warms your honeybee wings, off you go on flower patrol!”), Bee Dance recounts a day in the life of a bee. He sets off to find nectar, and discovers a whole field of flowers. Returning to the beeswax comb, he communicates through a dance so that the other bees can join him in collecting nectar and pollen. At sunset, the bees return, weighted down with their treasure, and enjoy a restful night before waking to begin the process all over again. An author’s note explains more about the bee’s dance and the role it plays in honey making. Ages 3-6.

Pros: Brief text in a large font and beautiful cut-paper illustrations make this a good choice for an informational read-aloud.

Cons: It’s a pretty brief introduction to bees and honey.