Holiday Book Finds: Five Recommended Recent Kid Lit Purchases

by Tom B.

One of the perks of my day job is that, every year, they do an EPIC holiday book sale. For two days, a group at my office sells a tremendous selection of children’s and young adult titles at discount prices and donates all of their profits to Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), the nation’s largest nonprofit children’s literacy organization. So, I get amazing kid’s books delivered to my work, sold at bargain prices, and all the profits go to one of my favorite charities. That’s what I call a WIN-WIN-WIN scenario.

Holiday Book Sale Titles

Look upon and tremble at my hoard of books!

They just finished this year’s book sale and I walked away with a selection of really impressive titles. Some were old, some were new. Some were library favorites, some I’d never heard of. But I’m very pleased with all of them. So, in the spirit of the holidays (and so I can brag about my shopping prowess), I thought I’d give you a quick breakdown of the five books I purchased this week – which range from picture books to chapter books – all of which I’d definitely recommend for any home library. Enjoy.

1. Along a Long Road by Frank Viva

This picture book first got on my radar thanks to Carter Higgins‘ great review of it on Design Mom (Carter is also responsible for the fantastic Design of the Picture Book blog), so, when I saw it at the book sale, I scooped it up without even opening it. (Mine!) I then walked around the book sale for ten minutes, trying to read it and browse at the same time, but it wasn’t really working. Along a Long Road is just such a brilliant and beautifully executed picture book that it absolutely demanded my full attention. Frank Viva is a major talent and I honestly can’t believe that this is his first book for children.

Along a Long Road

Such a pretty book…

Along a Long Road

Even the cover flaps are gorgeous!

Along a Long Road is a gorgeous celebration of just getting on your bike and riding. Viva’s stylish layouts follow a lone cyclist riding his bike “along a long road”, “going up around a small town and down into a tunnel” – the reading rhythm actually rises and falls with the rider’s momentum. And that undeniable sense of momentum is helped by the fact that Viva ingeniously designed the book “as a single, continuous thirty-five-foot-long piece of art.” That’s right – the cyclist’s journey was originally composed as one long, long single canvas and somewhere, I promise you, a fan of this book is right now working on a way to transform the cyclist’s journey into the coolest wallpaper runner EVER for their baby’s nursery. Along a Long Road is sophisticated, energetic, and engaging and, while reading it, all I could think about was Lane Smith’s The Happy Hocky Family and Queen’s epic “Bicycle Race” anthem – which, c’mon, is pretty awesome. The New York Times named this as one of the “10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2011” and they weren’t wrong. Very highly recommended.

EXTRAS: Along a Long Road has one of the best designed book websites I’ve seen in a long while. If you want to dig deeper into this beautiful book, this is the place to start.

2. The Trouble with Chickens: A J.J. Tully Mystery by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Kevin Cornell

The Trouble with Chickens

It’s like “The Maltese Falcon”, but with chickens!

The name “Doreen Cronin” is what caught my eye on this one. My pal Kate introduced me to Cronin’s picture books back in 2004 and I’ve been a big fan ever since. Cronin is probably best known for two majorly popular series of picture books – her hysterical “Farmyard” series that kicked off with 2000’s Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type and her often-copied (though never surpassed) “Diary” series that began with 2003’s Diary of a Worm. My daughter loves Cronin’s picture books, particularly Diary of a Fly, so when I saw Cronin’s name on the cover of a beginning chapter book, I was intrigued. And, I have to say, I am so happy that The Trouble with Chickens caught my eye.

I’m a BIG crime noir fan. I love Bogart movies, I adore the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, my favorite movie is Miller’s Crossing. I like people in suits and hats, acting tough, refusing to compromise, getting suckered, gritting their teeth, and making with the snappy dialogue. It’s just my weakness. And, with The Trouble with Chickens, Doreen Cronin (bless her heart) has written a hardboiled detective yarn that I can read to my six-year-old, a detective story all about a rescue dog, J.J. Tully, trying to track down a pair of missing chickens, all for the promise of a cheeseburger. You heard me… a hardboiled, crime noir, beginning chapter book staring a private detective dog and a cast of unreliable chickens. And the dog talks like this:

Search-and-rescue dogs are a rare breed.

We have to be half strength, half perseverance, and half obedience.

Do your own math, tough guy – I’m making a point here.

The Trouble with Chickens

It’s even in black and white, like a noir movie… I love this book…

Isn’t that AMAZING? I can’t wait until I can spend a few evenings gleefully reading it to my daughter in my best Phil Marlowe voice. In my experience, most mysteries for children don’t have a very strong voice narrating the story, so I think it was just genius of Cronin to take that iconic noir detective voice from the hardboiled mystery genre and transplant it onto a kid-appropriate crime tale, a crime story with dogs and chickens, nonetheless. I’m definitely excited to read The Trouble with Chickens aloud, and it’s short and accessible enough that kids venturing solo into the world of chapter books for the first time won’t have a hard time getting up to speed either (it’s about as long as a Mercy Watson book or Lulu and the Brontosaurus). What a great find.

EXTRAS: As far as I can tell, Doreen Cronin‘s official website is down at the moment, but you can find some fun extra content at the official HarperCollins page for The Trouble with Chickens, including an excerpt from the audiobook version… which, to be honest, I wish sounded more like a 1940s radio play.

3. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret UFOs by Donald J. Sobol

Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret UFOs

What really happened at Area 51? Turn to page 52 to find out…

Speaking of kid-friendly mysteries…

I’ve written at length about my love of the Encyclopedia Brown series before, so I won’t rehash old material, but, needless to say, if I see a heavily discounted Encyclopedia Brown book at a book sale, I’m going to buy it. Idaville’s favorite kid detective is just a great character for young readers to encounter, and my daughter is a particular fan of Sally Kimball, Brown’s sidekick and the toughest kid in town. Sobol’s mysteries are short, punchy adventures that do a lot to encourage active reading and often feature some vaguely dated, though legitimately funny prose. For example:

Bugs Meany was the leader of the gang of older boys, the Tigers. They should have been called the Shepherds. They were always trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes.

See? What’s not to love about that? Always glad to add to the Encyclopedia Brown section of our library.

EXTRAS: As I mentioned during my original review of the Encyclopedia Brown series, there is a shocking lack of Donald Sobol-related content on the internet. Sadly, Wikipedia is probably your best place to start…

4. When I Grow Up by Al Yankovic

When I Grow Up

When I grow up, I’m going to parody pop music staples…

I did a feature earlier this year titled “Four Celebrity Children’s Book Authors Who Are Actually Worth a Damn” and the fourth celebrity author I featured was Weird Al Yankovic, the parody song-maker whom I’m happy to list among my childhood idols. Back then, we’d only read When I Grow Up at our library, but, when I saw it at the book sale this week, I couldn’t pass it up.

Here’s what I said about When I Grow Up back in March:

When I Grow Up turned out to be a really pleasant surprise. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books about show and tell and/or kids discussing what they want to be when they grow up, so, on the surface, the premise of Yankovic’s picture book wasn’t really anything to write home about. However, Yankovic was able to turn his take on the subject into a truly unique experience by utilizing two of the most dominant traits of his songwriting – his absurd sense of humor and his skill with lyrical meter. Simply put, When I Grow Up is a tremendous read-aloud book. I know some parents don’t like books that rhyme, but Yankovic’s text is so expertly crafted and has such a fun, easy-to-lock-onto rhythm that I found it a joy to read aloud. A lot of children’s authors don’t understand that rhyming isn’t everything – that poetry not only needs rhyme, but it also needs rhythm and meter – and I’ve encountered way, way too many awkwardly phrased “rhyming books” where you can’t go two pages without tripping over a clumsy passage.

When I Grow Up

You gotta admire a kid who aspires to be a part-time assistant tarantula shaver…

Fortunately, the phrasing of When I Grow Up is fast, rhythmic, and clear, which allows you, as a reader, to pay way more attention to what’s actually being said. And that’s great because When I Grow Up is also packed with fun wordplay and a nicely bent sense of humor. The story revolves around eight-year-old Billy, who’s giving an epic show-and-tell presentation, where he’s waxing rhapsodic on all of amazing potential jobs he could try when he finally grows up. The jobs are where Yankovic’s humor really shines as Billy imagines professions like a gigantic lathe operator, a gorilla masseuse, a sumo wrestler, or a pickle inspector, to name a few.

Wes Hargis’ illustrations do a great job of keeping up with Billy’s flights of fancy and, again, I can’t compliment Yankovic enough for the way in which he turned When I Grow Up into a really lyrical read-aloud experience. My daughter loved the ongoing lunacy of Billy’s presentation and, as the text reached a crescendo – the way in which the best songs do – I could feel her excitement follow right along with it. Yankovic has only written the one picture book at the moment, but I think he brings something really unique and fun to the world of kids’ lit, so I hope it’s not his last.

EXTRAS: The HarperCollins page for When I Grow Up has links to a lot of additional content, including audiobook excerpts, an iPad app, an interview with Weird Al, and more.

5. Which Way to Witch School? by Scott Santoro

Which Way to Witch School?

Aren’t those witches adorable?

I love stumbling onto a book that I’ve never heard of before, which was my experience when I happened upon Which Way to Witch School? at the book sale this week. It’s a 2010 picture book all about a class of young witches, “not wicked or cruel,” as they spend a semester at Miss Thornapple’s school for witchcraft. I’ll admit I was immediately drawn in by the faces of the little pointy-hatted witches on the cover – each face had so much personality and character that it immediately signaled a certain level of impressive craftsmanship on the part of the artist. Trust me on this. My daughter is in a big spooky stuff, monsters, and Halloween phase at the moment – the high point is her love for Adam Rex’s Frankenstein books, the low point is her new affection for Monster High dolls – so, believe me, I have sat through A LOT of “little witch” books at this point. I know a good one when I see it.

And Which Way to Witch School? is undeniably a very entertaining, well-crafted picture book, a fun rhyming romp brought to life by the expressive faces of its lead characters. Scott Santoro‘s knack for making his characters distinct and three-dimensional carries on throughout the book, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that he’s worked as a story artist for animated films (Flushed Away, Bee Movie, etc). There have been several notable children’s illustrators who have come out of the animation field in the past few years – Bink & Gollie‘s Tony Fucile and Giants Beware‘s Rafael Rosado come to mind – and, more than anything else, in my opinion, animators really shine when it comes to facial expressions and body language. And those two areas are definitely the strongest aspects of Santoro’s book.

Which Way to Witch School?

They make the black arts look so fun!

And that statement is a roundabout way of both paying Santoro a compliment and politely noting that the art is much stronger than the text in Which Way to Witch School? Not that Santoro’s verse is bad. It’s not. It’s warm and playful and establishes the world of Miss Thornapple’s school nicely. But it isn’t particularly memorable either. The rhyme scheme slips from time to time and can feel a little sing-songy. That being said, this is still a very charming picture book that is perfect for any kid who’s going through a witches-and-ghosts phase at the moment. My wife just started reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with my daughter – which my kid is loving so far – so finding a picture book all about a gaggle of young girls happily traipsing off to witch school is a wonderful bit of good timing. I’m really happy that I found Which Way to Witch School? and that Scott Santoro is now on my radar as an illustrator to keep my eye on.

EXTRAS: Scott Santoro’s personal website has a section on Which Way to Witch School?, but don’t expect much extra content, aside from some nice text-free looks at some of the two-page spreads.

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