Sparkling Jewel (Silver Pony Ranch) by D. L. Green, illustrated by Emily Wallis

Published by Scholastic

Summary: Sisters Tori and Miranda have frequently visited their grandmother’s pony ranch, but this year they’re staying for the whole summer. Nine-year-old Tori loves being outside with the ponies, while her eight-year-old sister prefers playing with the new puppies inside. Tori’s favorite pony is Jewel, but Gran says he’s too wild for her to ride. Meanwhile, Miranda has some difficulties with a puppy named Trouble who would rather visit the ponies in the barn than stay with her brothers and sisters. When Trouble goes missing, the girls work hard to show Gran they’re ready for some new responsibilities. Ages 6-8.

Pros: One of Scholastic’s Branches series for beginning chapter book readers, Silver Pony Ranch is the first to not have at least a touch of fantasy to it. Animal lovers will enjoy reading about Tori and Miranda’s adventures on the ranch, to be continued in Sweet Buttercup, due out in January.

Cons: The illustrations don’t always match the text. For instance, Gran’s dog is described as “her collie, Lady”, but the pictures look more like a sheep dog. And Jewel, “the color of hot chocolate” looks quite light-colored.

Wrap Up Wednesdays – Can’t we all just get along?

School has started, and, hard as it is to believe, those cherubic children of September will soon be…well, let’s just say it’s never too early to start reading some picture books about celebrating yourself and others.  Here are a few ideas:

Wild About Us by Karen Beaumont, illustrated by Janet Stevens.  Published by HMH Books for Young Readers.

Kangaroo has big feet, Crocodile has a winning smile, Elephant has a long nose…no two animals are alike, yet each one is special. Kids in a classroom can think about what makes them unique and an important part of the group.

Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld.  Published by HMH Books for Young Readers.

This is Stick and Stones second appearance on a Wrap-Up Wednesday list.  What can I say?  It has a winning combination of a catchy rhyming text, adorable illustrations, and a great message about friendship.

Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall.  Published by Greenwillow Books.

What happens when a blue crayon gets a red label?  It can’t draw anything it’s supposed to, and everyone has an opinion about how to fix it.  A great parable for being yourself and not using labels (except maybe on crayons, and then only if they’re correct).

Ninja Bunny by Jennifer Gray Olson.  Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Ninja Bunny has ten rules for being a good ninja, including working alone.  But when a bear comes along, he realizes that even ninjas need their friends.

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

Published by Dial Books

Summary: When Ephraim Tuttle was a boy, he discovered the magical Circus Mirandus, accessible only to those who believe. He showed the Man Who Bends Light a magic trick, and in return the magician promised him a miracle. Ephraim couldn’t think what he wanted, so he saved his miracle all his life. Now he’s dying, and his grandson Micah, who’s grown up on stories of Circus Mirandus, knows it’s time for Grandpa Ephraim to use his miracle. Micah and his new friend Jenny go off in search of the circus and the Man Who Bends Light. There are heroes, villains, stories within the story, and through it all, the power of magic and the imagination. Grades 4-7.

Pros: One of the most highly-touted books of 2015, Circus Mirandus just about lives up to the hype. The best part about it is, it’s a great story. Peopled with endearing characters, it unfolds at just the right pace, with magic and adventure woven throughout. This would make a captivating read-aloud for second grade and up.

Cons: The two main villains, Victoria and Aunt Gertrudis were a little one-dimensional.

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Published by Disney-Hyperion 

Summary: Serafina’s always been pretty happy living in the basement of the Biltmore estate with her Pa. Sure, she’s a little different than other kids and her existence is a secret, but she enjoys prowling through the house at night, catching rats. Then one night she sees a man in a black cloak abducting a little girl. When he wraps the girl in his cloak, she disappears. Serafina barely escapes herself, but when she tries to tell her story the next morning, only one person believes her. That’s Braeden Vanderbilt, the nephew of the estate’s owner, whose tragic past has made him a bit of a loner as well. As more children vanish from the estate, Serafina and Braeden team up to try to figure out who the mysterious man is and what can be done to stop him…before it’s too late for them. Grades 5-7.

Book Trailer:

Pros: This would be a great choice to teach the term “gothic novel”. Lots of dark creepiness everywhere, relieved only at the end when Serafina proves herself a true heroine and learns the amazing truth about her own past.

Cons: Preview this before giving it to a child. Pretty scary stuff, and occasionally a bit gruesome as well.

Wait by Antoinette Portis

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary: There are only two words in this book. “Hurry,” says the mother. “Wait,” says the little boy. The mother clearly has an agenda, as she urges her son to keep up with her down streets and through the park. The little boy wants to stop and wave to the construction worker, pick a treat from the ice cream truck, and feed bread to the ducks in the park. The mother’s urgency increases as the rain starts, and finally they reach the train that is their destination. But just before they board, the boy says one more “Wait”, and the mother agrees, “Yes, wait” as they both admire the double rainbow in the sky.  Ages 3-6.

Pros: Every parent and teacher will connect with the conflicted feelings of needing to stick to a schedule and wanting to slow down and enjoy the world the way kids do. I like that the mother always keeps a smile on her face and relishes the moment the two of them finally got to share a beautiful moment.

Cons: There should be more wait and less hurry in the world.

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm, illustrated by Matthew Holm

Published by GRAPHIX 

Summary: Sunny is not happy at the prospect of spending the entire month of August, 1976 with her grandfather in Florida. He lives in a retirement community with no kids, she has to sleep on a squeaky sofa bed, and Grandpa’s idea of a big outing is a trip to the grocery store. In chapters flashing back to various points in the last couple years, the truth about why Sunny is on her extended visit are gradually revealed: her older brother is having some serious trouble with drugs and alcohol, and their parents want Sunny away from home while they try to get him some help. Sunny makes friends with the gardener’s comic book-loving son, and eventually is able to talk to her grandfather about what is going on at home, getting reassurance that it’s not her fault. She even talks him into a trip to Disney World before she returns home in September. Ages 8-12.

Pros: This seems to be the year for graphic novels starring girl protagonists. The award-winning Babymouse brother-and-sister team has produced a touching story based on their own childhood. An author’s note at the end talks about living with someone with an addiction.

Cons: I didn’t like the artwork quite as much as some other similar graphic novels (Smile, Roller Girl). Although the rendition of the 1976-era “Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific” magazine ad was spot on.

Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Adam Gustavson

.Published by Henry Holt and Co.

Summary: Most kids today have heard of the Beatles, but many would be hard-pressed to come up with the names John, Paul, George, and Ringo, let alone give any details about the Fab Four. This book goes back to the early days of the four lads growing up in post-war Liverpool. Each band member is given a few pages for his own story, with all the tales eventually coming together with the formation of the Beatles. The book ends in the fall of 1963, just as Beatlemania was beginning to sweep the globe. Back matter includes an author’s note telling of her love of the Beatles that began in childhood, a glossary, notes on the many quotes in the text, and additional resources. Grades 2-5.

Pros: The Beatles are such a phenomenon, it was interesting to read each boy’s story and see them as struggling teenagers, deeply devoted to music. The illustrations perfectly capture the various personalities of John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

Cons: Kids with grandfathers younger than Paul and Ringo may not appreciate the Beatles enough to persevere through this somewhat lengthy picture book.

Wrap-Up Wednesdays: Early Chapter Books

It’s back-to-school time, and many kids will experience an exciting first this year: independently reading their first chapter book.  Here are some ideas for what that book might be.  (And yeah, I know Wrap-Up Wednesday is on Thursday this week.  The kids aren’t the only ones going back to school.)

Sprout Street Neighbors: Five Stories by Anna Alter.  Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Five animal neighbors help each other solve their problems with friendship and gentle humor.  Each chapter stands alone and features one of the five friends.

Dory and the Real True Friend by Abby Hanlon.  Published by Dial Books.

Dory and her wild imagination are back for a second book.  She’s starting school, and her brother and sister recommend she leave her imaginary friends at home and make a real friend.  Dory decides to listen to the voices of experience and takes their advice…sort of.

Space Taxi: Archie’s Alien Disguise by Wendy Mass, illustrated by Michael Brawer.  Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Archie and his dad are back with another adventure driving the space taxi.  This time Archie’s on his own on a mission to rescue a princess, and gets a crazy alien disguise to help him succeed.  Plenty of adventure and humor.

Danger in Ancient Rome (Ranger in Time) by Lisa Messner.

Ranger the golden retriever time travels to ancient Rome where he uses his search and rescue skills to help two young gladiators.  Magic Tree House fans will enjoy the combination of history, time travel, and adventure, all seen through the eyes of a really cute dog.

Piper Green and the Fairy Tree by Ellen Potter, illustrated by Qin Leng

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Summary: It’s Piper’s first day of second grade, and she’s decided to wear her brother Erik’s monkey earmuffs to school. Things get off to a bad start when Piper’s new teacher, who looks like a princess, turns out to be pretty strict and insist that Piper take off her earmuffs. When Piper refuses, a note goes home to her parents, and things spiral downward quickly. The next day, Piper decides to play hooky by hiding in a tree. A friendly elderly neighbor helps Piper to uncover the secrets of this fairy tree, and to get back on track with school and the new teacher. Grades 1-3.

Pros: Piper is a spunky second-grader who will be appreciated by fans of Junie B. Jones, Clementine, and Horrible Harry. Kids will be fascinated by her life on an island off the coast of Maine, from where she travels by lobster boat to school each morning.

Cons: I couldn’t get a good picture in my mind of how the fairy tree worked, and why the neighbor had to cut off a branch to get to the two kittens hidden inside.

8: An Animal Alphabet by Elisha Cooper

Published by Orchard Books

Summary: Each page of this alphabet book has a montage of animals that start with the featured letter. There is one of each animal except for one that is pictured eight times. For instance, the “E” page shows an eagle, earthworm, elephant, elephant seal, elk, and eight egrets. Why eight? The author explains, “Because 8 is round and adorable. Because it is fun to count to…Because it is not too big, and not so small, but just right.” The animals pictured are listed at the bottom of each page, and the last four pages include a thumbnail picture of all the animals with a fun fact about each one. Ages 3-6 (although my 20-year-old daughter seemed quite taken with this book).

Pros: Plan on spending a lot of time poring over the pictures of all the animals, and, if you’re ambitious, the facts about the 184 animals at the end. Not your average alphabet book (or counting book), but loads of fun.

Cons: The cover of the book includes one of each animal inside, but it will most likely be covered by the taped-down dust jacket if you borrow this from the library.