Review By Kelly Carey
Whether you are 5 or 50, we all have a Snurtch that we must contend with and control. In Sean Ferrell’s THE SNURTCH, Ruthie is struggling to manage her Snurtch, a wonderful personification of her bad temper and poor behavior. Ruthie’s Snurtch causes big trouble at school...trouble for which Ruthie takes the blame.
Ferrell’s book offers a platform for discussing those moments when we are not at our best. It is much easier to assess our own actions if we can blame our poor choices on a Snurtch, an ever present goblin of sorts that causes trouble. Ruthie’s Snurtch pulls her hair and makes her grumpy. He makes her run in the classroom and push her classmates. When she burps back at the Snurtch or returns his tongue out face, Ruthie ends up alone on the playground or relegated to the teacher’s time-out chair.
Who can’t relate to being blamed for something you didn’t do? The Snurtch did it!
But as Ruthie looks hard at the Snurtch, Ferrell finds a unique plot twist to show that Ruthie is ready to claim responsibility for the Snurtch. Ruthie transforms the Snurtch from a scapegoat for her misdeeds to a safe way to say “I’m sorry.”
THE SNURTCH is a wonderful, whimsical, and humorous character, conjured up with the same care as the imaginary bunny Harvey who landed Jimmy Steward in a looney bin – lucky for Ruthie, she found a way not only to own her Snurtch, but she found classmates who have Snurtch issues of their own.
Ferrell has taken a universal childhood problem – managing our behavior and impulses – and wrapped this complex problem up in simple straightforward text. His plot is complex, which keeps the pages turning and the story interesting – but the easy flowing text meets the readers at just the right level.
What could be simpler and yet more provoking than an opening line that reads “Ruthie has a problem at school”?
What I find most intriguing about this book is the wonderful marriage between the author’s words and the illustrations. While the book is illustrated with Ruthie and her classmates in fun and realistic artwork, the troublesome Snurtch is a crayon scribble that interacts with the other drawings like the cartoon Roger Rabbit walking amidst live action scenes and actors. The result is a clever visual representation of how the enigma of our mood and behavior can have a drastic effect on our everyday life.
Read Ferrell’s wonderful picture book, and get a grip on your Snurtch.
A Review by Kelly Carey
Cassie Beasley’s middle grade fiction novel, Circus Mirandus, certainly deserves a space on the shelf with The Polar Express and Alice in Wonderland, as all three explore the importance of a belief in magic and the unexplainable through a creative explosion of fantastical characters that pluck at the very heart strings of love and life. On the surface, Beasley’s Circus Mirandus is a visual delight of fun house creatures, sideshow oddities and mind bending magicians, but pull the tent flap back just a bit and readers will find a touching examination of the special bond between a devoted grandfather and his grandson and a stunning message about faith and the magic of love.
In Circus Mirandus, Beasley conjours up a mystical traveling circus that appears like Brigadoon to the faithful who believe. The circus first materializes to a young Grandpa Ephraim and it both changes and shapes his life in essential ways. When the story opens, Ephraim is a dying old man whose powerful relationship with his grandson, Micah, makes them both reach out to Circus Mirandus for a miracle. Beasley wonderfully complicates Ephraim and Micah’s quest with a horribly wicked Aunt Gertrudis. Even her name sticks in your throat as you read it and her actions make you hate her in a most satisfying way. Then along comes clever and logical Jenny, a classmate and friend of Micah’s, to act as a perfect foil to both Aunt Gertrudis’ nastiness but also to Micah’s faith in the existence of magic.
The search to find Circus Mirandus will be just as harrowing as the sights and characters of the circus itself. Readers will feel their hearts swell and swoon as they join Micah on his quest to discover the circus and the miracle he and his grandfather desire. Along the way, it would be a good idea to adhere to British science fiction writer Arthur Clarke’s second law – The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. This is true both when hunting for a magical circus and in our universal pursuit of happiness.
Enjoy the discovery!
Plot, character and creativity are Beasley’s greatest strengths as she masterfully pulls readers into her story of magical realism. First, she makes you care about Ephraim and Micah. Then, she enthralls you with the fanciful charm of her circus and its performers. Finally, she presents a life or death problem plagued with a vile villain.
The formula may seem simple, but Beasley plays out her plot and characters with the skill of a master puppeteer and, at some point it may be true, that the strings are attached to the reader who happily allows Beasley to move them through her wonderful tale. Beasley lets her story unfold with a seamless flow back and forth between Ephraim’s boyhood to the present, where the reader is following Micah’s struggle to save his grandfather, find the circus and survive horrible Aunt Gertrudis. Backstory comes through chapters told within the tents of the circus and Beasley offers up each new bit of information just as the reader is relaxing. She ramps up the rising tension of her plot by removing the limits of Aunt Gertrudis’ wickedness, pushing Grandpa Ephraim closer and closer to death, and then snatching away the certainty of Circus Mirandus as a solution.
In the end it is simply magic.
Review by Kelly Carey
For adults who loved All the Light We Cannot See, here is a middle grade novel for the young reader that similarly embraces the universality of the tiny threads that bind all of humanity together. This 2016 Newbery Honor novel blends a mystical fairy tale, complete with kings, queens, evil witches, spells and curses with the grounding historical reality of Nazi Germany, the Great Depression and the treatment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. On the surface, Ryan uses music, and specifically harmonica music, to connect the stories. But, on completion of this amazingly crafted novel, readers will find a linkage that goes beyond music, time and place.
Echo reels readers in with an opening story filled with enchantment and make-believe. The opening story is left incomplete as Echo introduces three separate tales told through the eyes of three young protagonists. As each protagonist faces their own daunting challenges, the history around their lives becomes relatable and personal. Friedrich is caught in Nazi Germany just before World War II. Mike struggles during the Great Depression, and Ivy’s story plays out after Pearl Harbor. For young readers who devoured the Magic Tree House series, and are ready to jump up a level, Echo is the natural next step in historical fiction for children.
Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo proves that a single story can jump genres and be more successful for the leap. Her novel is equal parts fairy tale and historical fiction. The combination has an amazingly readable effect.
While the history is there, Pam Munoz Ryan uses poetic, yet solid and simple characters, to show rather than tell the history. As a result, readers become entranced with each character. You will cheer for them and weep for them because they are complete in their humanity, in their flaws, in their hopes and in their struggles. Ryan’s characterization is so full that you know things about her main characters without her ever even telling you. Here is an author who didn’t just create characters, she created souls.
Review by Kelly Carey
Be prepared to laugh uncontrollably at Mother Bruce and the growing goslings who climb on him, tug at him, become troublesome teenagers, are annoyingly adorable and will absolutely not leave Bruce alone. Bruce is not your average bear in the forest. He finds recipes on the internet, shops with a shopping cart, and sets out to make hard-boiled goose eggs with a honey salmon sauce. Before he can boil the eggs, they hatch and Bruce becomes a very grumpy, growling, furrowed brow Mother Bruce. He tries desperately to ditch the goslings who lovingly tail him all over the forest.
The illustrations alone will have you howling. Add in a story line filled with humor that appeals to kids and adults alike and the result is a belly laugh inducing picture book that will make you wish for goose eggs that hatch.
Higgins’ Mother Bruce is masterfully plotted. The page turns are fast paced, and the creative story line zigs and zags with a wonderful unpredictability. The writing follows the number one rule established by the writers of South Park. The South Park writers advise that the beats between your scenes should connect with the words “therefore”, and “but then” rather than the snooze worthy “and then”. (You can watch them discuss this during a guest lecture at NYU using the button below. But beware; the language is colorful so have your bar of soap handy.)
Higgins has achieved this plot rule brilliantly and the result is a thoroughly entertaining story that keeps the reader anxious, frazzled and laughing hysterically.
Review by Kelly Carey
I’m a country girl who finds joy in her heart far, far from the city. Imagine my surprise when Last Stop on Market Street, a picture book that takes place in the city, filled me with mountain hiking happiness.
On the surface, this Newbery Award winning picture book is a simple tale of CJ and his grandmother hopping a bus after church to volunteer at a soup kitchen. CJ is frustrated that it’s raining, that he has a chore to do after church, that he has to take the bus, that he doesn’t have music pumping through his ears from headphones, and that the Last Stop on Market Street is a gritty, graffiti scrawled part of the city. Nana uses gentle guidance, delivered in a spunky no-nonsense voice, to flip CJ’s frustrations into celebrations.
A pay it forward coin, a lady with butterflies in a jar, a blind man, and a song shared from a musician with a guitar all offer opportunities for CJ and the reader to notice bits of joy that could easily have been missed. The sights and happenings along the bus ride encourage adult and child readers to recognize all the beauty of life; beauty that is sitting right next to them, sometimes on a bus to Market Street.
In the end, CJ, the readers, and a country loving gal like me will have learned to be a “better witness for what’s beautiful” in the world.
Matt De La Pena combines gritty city images and real dialogue with gorgeous messages and amazingly beautiful imagery. There is a wonderful rawness about the way CJ and Nana talk to each other. De La Pena doesn’t dress up their language for this story, but writes it exactly as you would hear it. No soft cooing phrases or unreal platitudes fly between CJ and Nana. The result is that De La Pena’s message is strong and true.
Using a coin, a song shared, and the wonderful interaction between Nana and a blind man, De La Pena not only propels his plot forward but delivers a stunning reminder to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us.
by Kelly J Carey
I remember a preschool mother coming out of a teacher conference annoyed that the word “shy” had become a bad label. Her daughter was shy, but she was a happy shy child. In Alicia Potter’s book, Miss Hazeltine welcomes the shy cats of the world and while she gently helps them with lessons like “How Not to Fear the Broom”, she doesn’t “mind if some cats only watched.” It is perfectly fine to be shy and fearful at Miss Hazeltine’s home.
With humor and giggle worthy illustrations, Miss Hazeltine’s home proves to be a safe place free of judgment and full of encouragement and love. Miss Hazeltine even shares her own fears: mushrooms, owls and the dark. A mishap during a milk run finds Miss Hazeltine face to face with all three! With a charming loop back to the lesson’s Miss Hazeltine has taught them, the cats set out on a rescue mission. The feared broom even comes into play.
This story is as much about growing and being brave as it is accepting who we are and being happy with ourselves. Share this book with children who may be shy or fearful and you may hear a gentle purr of contentment.
Potter does a wonderful job of creating loops in her story. Miss Hazeltine’s shared fears come back to haunt her, the lessons she taught the cats become necessary for her rescue and yet the cats solve the final problem without the help of the adult in the story.
Potter executes a complete story arc with sweet humor, and quiet wit; perfect for skittery cats. Her lovely lesson is so neatly tucked into the story about Miss Hazeltine and the shy cats that it will curl into the readers lap without them even realizing it.
I’ve read it again and again – and I'm allergic to cats!
By Kelly Carey
Never before has vacuuming led to the adventure that Kate DiCamillo creates in Flora & Ulysses. She uses hilarious antics and crazy props, like a lamp shaped like a shepherdess, and a flying superhero typing squirrel named Ulysses to deliver Flora from a lonely life where she feels ignored and misunderstood.
Flora’s parents are divorced, and she lives with her romance novel writing mother. Flora’s mother is kooky and totally obsessed with writing her novels. Like so many kids, Flora cannot forge a connection with her mother. Her father used to read her the comic book adventures of the Amazing Incandesto, but he doesn’t live at home anymore and Flora is struggling to make sense of how their new relationship works. DiCamillo now adds a superhero squirrel, a quirky boy with trauma induced blindness , mayhem at a Donut Diner and a bag and shovel!
As Flora likens Ulysses to the comic book hero Incandesto, her mother becomes Ulysses’ arch-nemesis and the tension builds so high the reader will scream “Holy bagumba!”, a favorite Flora phrase.
As sweet as it is funny, readers will be both charmed and moved by Flora & Ulysses.
DiCamillo finds a way to make the absurd and ridiculous blend seamlessly into a story of vanquishing loneliness and finding friendship. She mixes the unreal with the real and creates a page turner that is both silly and serious. Despite the many adults populating the story, DiCamillo keeps her child protagonist in charge and her reader fully engaged.
by Kelly Carey
Few trees in New England put on a better fall foliage show than the maple tree, and few authors have put together a better picture book debut than Lori Nichols with Maple. In our increasingly eco-conscious world, here is a loving picture book that creates a natural but powerful link between a little girl and a maple tree.
Maple’s tree is planted “when she is still a whisper”. Can you guess what kind of tree Maple’s parents plant?
While Shel Silverstein’s boy and the tree in The Giving Tree had a relationship that was sadly thought provoking, Nichols creates a connection between Maple and her tree that is mutually giving and totally joyous. Along with three adorably expressive little stuffed animals, Maple and her tree grow and play together through the wonderfully illustrated changing seasons. When a new baby arrives, Maple depends on her tree to be the perfect big sister.
The relationship between Maple, her tree and her new baby sister is as sweet and charming as the bond Nichols creates between her story and her reader. If Nichol’s illustrations were music they would be smooth jazz, and her text creates huggable moments for her adult reader and child listener.
I would like very much to introduce Maple to Kevin Henke’s Chrysanthemum – two free spirited little ladies, with nature inspired names, who will make you giggle.
In just under 300 words, Nichols creates a character, weaves a complete story arc, builds tension and zings us with an adorable wink at the end. Picture book word counts are shrinking, but Nichols proves that her story can still offer every element needed for success. She has a bit of an advantage because she uses her phenomenal illustrations to convey character, meaning and message. Any author would be fortunate to have Nichols’ drawings to expand on their text.
One can always dream, perhaps under the dancing leaves of a maple tree?
Nichols released a follow up book titled Maple & Willow Together on November 4!
Early Chapter Book
by Kelly Carey
Friendship works best when two friends each bring something unique to the relationship and are willing to compromise. Bink brings her home at the base of a tree and a zany love of colorful socks, while Gollie brings her home atop the tree and an aversion to colorful socks. With the same uncomplicated stroll through friendship that is experienced when reading the beloved Frog and Toad, Bink & Gollie have a wonderful, frustrating and loving relationship.
In three short chapters, each its own complete story, Bink brings mayhem and Gollie brings understanding. The charming compromises involve socks and pancakes, a mountain adventure and a sandwich, and a goldfish and a pond. Through it all, Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee use heart and humor to capture the essence of friendship.
The combination of illustrations and minimal text on every page in a chapter book format makes this an excellent bridge book for the child reader ready to move beyond picture books. The illustrations have a no nonsense feel and the dialogue rich text gives this book a nod of maturity that elementary school readers will appreciate.
For writers, here is a textbook lesson on how to create memorable complete characters and tell a full story with an arc, tension and a heart-string tug in very few words. Any time you think it can’t be done, just pick up Bink & Gollie for inspiration.
Bink & Gollie will make you smile, giggle and sigh and before you know it you’ll be ringing up your own best friend to ask if they want to go roller-skating.
Our favorite mentor texts to guide your writing and revisions.