The Spooky Box by Mark Gonyea

The Spooky Box by Mark GonyeaKnock, knock! What would you do if you found a box at your door? It’s not just any box though, it’s a spooky box! This small package could be filled with anything. There could be old bones or slithery snakes. When reading this book you will be presented with multiple items that could be contained in this mysterious black box. The narrator invites participation by eventually asking readers to open the box by lifting a page flap to discover what’s hiding inside.

This engaging picture book is perfect for Halloween celebrations since all the illustrations consist of only three colors: black, white, and a very light shade of orange. The suggestions for what could be in the box also reflect a Halloween theme with items like spiders and candy. This would be a wonderful story to spark creativity with either a large group or one-on-one. Children with wild imaginations will greatly enjoy this tale. So what do you think is hiding in the spooky box?

Posted by: Katie

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Zen Ghosts by Jon J Muth

Zen GhostsIn the 2005 book Zen Shorts by Jon J Muth, Stillwater the giant panda moves next door to siblings Abby, Michael, and Karl. Stillwater becomes their friend – he plays with them, talks with them, lets them climb on him, and tells them stories that relate to their lives. The stories Stillwater tells are simple stories rooted in the Zen Buddhist tradition. In the book Zen Ghosts, it is Halloween, and Stillwater is helping the children decide what costumes to wear. He invites the children to meet him for a ghost story after they go trick-or-treating, and the story he tells is eerie and mysterious, yet gentle (and not exactly scary). Afterward, there is swapping of candy and quiet enjoyment of the moonlit Halloween night.

Muth uses watercolors to illustrate scenes of the children and Stillwater, and brush and ink to illustrate Stillwater’s ghost story. The watercolors capture the beautiful colors of autumn, and there are a couple of wonderful wordless spreads – one being an evocative picture of all the costumed trick-or-treaters out on the darkened neighborhood street that readers will pore over. In the author’s note, Muth explains that the ghost story Stillwater tells is a koan, a kind of story that is a paradox to be meditated on, from the Zen Buddhist tradition. As Muth writes, “They appeal directly to the intuitive part of the human consciousness, not to the intellect.” Zen Ghosts is gentle and philosophical (though more playful than ponderous), and a wonderful Halloween read aloud for kids in grade K and up (it would make an especially good match for older kids).

Books featuring Stillwater the panda include Zen Shorts, Zen Ties, and Zen Ghosts (and you can meet Stillwater’s nephew Koo again in Hi, Koo!).

Posted by: Parry

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The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg

Categorical Universe of Candice PheeCandice Phee marches to the beat of her own drummer. Candice might tell you, though, that she doesn’t see any drummers around, and that she’s sitting still at the moment, thank you. Candice is very literal, and very sure of her world. She knows quite well that none of her schoolmates like her, but she likes everyone anyway. I’ve seen several reviews which assert (as does Candice’s friend Douglas Benson’s mother) that she must be autistic, or somewhere ‘on the spectrum.’ Candice’s response? “I’m me.”

Candice’s outlook may be generally positive, but this doesn’t mean her world is an easy one–her baby sister died of SIDS; her mother has had a double masectomy and is (understandably) suffering from depression; her father had a business blow-up with Rich Uncle Brian before Candice was born, and has been frustrated in his job ever since. More than anything else, Candice wants to fix her family. She knows it won’t be easy, but she has to try. And when Douglas Benson confides that he believes that he is from another dimension and needs to get back to his real family, Candice is skeptical, but can’t quite bring herself to NOT believe him.

Candice is one of the most endearing, engrossing characters that I’ve read about in a long time. From her hilarious interactions with her teachers (regular and substitute) to her philosophical worries about her pet fish (does the fish think of her as a deity? Is it ethical for her to allow the fish to think so?), to her heartfelt attempts to heal her family’s wounds, every moment in this lovely novel was affecting. The book comes to a satisfying conclusion, so there’s no reason for the author to write a sequel, but I wouldn’t be at all upset to spend more time with Candice.

Posted by: Sarah

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Penguin and Pumpkin by Salina Yoon

Penguin and PumpkinJust in time for autumn and Halloween, Penguin is back. This time Penguin is off on an adventure to find out what fall is like. Unfortunately, her little brother, Pumpkin, is too small to make the journey. But Penguin doesn’t forget about him and brings him back a little bit of fall.

Not only is this a story about the season but of sibling relationships as well. The cute illustrations share some of the joys of autumn. While Penguin and Pinecone is still my favorite in this series, I love the ending image of snowing leaves in this title.

Posted by: Liz

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Heidi Heckelbeck Gets the Sniffles by Wanda Coven

Heidi Heckelbeck Gets the SnifflesWe all know what it’s like to be excited for something special. Heidi Heckelbeck waits all year long for the Brewster Fall Festival. She’s especially excited this year to go through the haunted barn with her best friend Lucy.

We also all know what it’s like to get sick and have to miss out on something special. Poor Heidi starts sneezing and feeling achy all over. At first she tries hard to ignore her symptoms, but when she becomes feverish she has to admit that she feels overall terrible. She has a really bad cold that she can’t even cure with a special “potion” and she will have to miss going to the long awaited Brewster Fall Festival!

When Heidi finally feels like her old self again, her family and friends delight her with a great surprise. They have turned the garage into a special haunted house just for her. What fun and how scary!

The Heidi Heckelbeck series is always a hit with me. Every page has an illustration that helps the reader further enjoy the story. This easy reader is not only a great read-alone story, but would also be fun to read aloud – especially on a crisp fall day!

Posted by: Wendy

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Bird by Crystal Chan

BirdAs the daughter of a Jamaican father and a Mexican mother growing up in the middle of Iowa, Jewel’s life was never going to be the easiest. However, the fact that Jewel was born on the same day that her brother, Bird, died didn’t really help. Jewel’s grandfather stopped speaking after the tragedy and the rest of the family never fully recovered. Silence and avoidance permeate Jewel’s household as she constantly struggles to step out of her brother’s shadow. Then, one night in her favorite climbing tree Jewel meets a strange boy named John (Bird’s real name), and very quickly things begin to change. Is John a “duppy” – a Jamaican spirit the likes of which Jewel’s father and grandfather blame for the death of Bird? Or is he just a boy trying to find his own place in the world. Regardless of whether his appearance is merely coincidental or the work of stronger forces, John’s presence in the lives of Jewel and her family might be just the thing this family needs to break free of the pain of loss and silence.

Bird is a touching and intelligent look inside the life of a very special girl who has been overlooked for years. Although the story is told from Jewel’s point of view, Chan does a wonderful job of developing all of the important characters in Jewel’s life. We are even able to piece together a picture of Bird, the brother she never met, through the stories and bits and pieces that Jewel has collected over the years. In the audiobook Amandla Stenberg (you may recognize her as Rue from the movie The Hunger Games) provides the perfect voice for Chan’s Jewel. Stenberg’s delivery is bright and sweet and thoughtful while still maintaining an authentic childlike tone. As the story is told from the point of view of Jewel, Stenberg’s minimalist style of character variation works well here. It is clear that when the characters are speaking, we are hearing them as Jewel hears them. Whether reading the print version or listening to the audiobook, readers are sure to form an instant bond with this big-hearted little girl as she tries to come to terms with her family’s demons and make the most of her situation.

Look here for a short video about the story behind Bird.

Posted by: Staci

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Runaway Tomato by Kim Cooley Reeder

Runaway TomatoWhat would happen if the tomatoes in your garden just grew WAY TOO BIG and then started to ROLL toward the town?? YIKES! That’s what happens in the Runaway Tomato. When it starts to rain, the tomato grows and grows until it is so big that it gets stuck in the doorway. Help is definitely needed to pull it out, and in fact the whole town comes to help, but it still won’t budge. Once it is finally free, the firefighters and police officers cannot stop it from rolling, until a helicopter grabs it and flies away. But wait … the ropes are too tight, and it squishes all over the town! What a mess!! Of course, there isn’t anything else to do but to clean it up and declare a day for TOMATOFEST! It seems like the big “tomato problem” is solved until . . . the next time it rains and the problem starts all over again. This clever rhyming picture book reminds me very much of Jamie O’Rourke and the Big Potato by Tomie DePaola and would be a very fun read-aloud.

Posted by: Mary

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