chapter books

CYOA: The Abominable Snowman

It’s never too early to teach your kids about Yetis…

Even though I regularly blog about sharing books with my first grader, I actually have a very hard time remembering what books I enjoyed reading when I was in elementary school. I have fond memories of the early picture books I loved when I was really young (like The Monster at the End of The Book) and I still have copies of the books that got me through middle school (most memorably, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), but I can barely recall what, if anything, I was reading between first and fifth grades. However, the one exception to that memory blackout involves Choose Your Own Adventure books. I ADORED Choose Your Own Adventure books. I read them non-stop, almost obsessively, and, when I picture my childhood bookshelf in my mind, I can see whole rows of those thin white paperbacks with the numbers and red bubbles on the side.

So, when I recently stumbled onto the “Choose Your Own Adventure” shelf in the kid’s section of our local library, I’ll admit – I totally forced my daughter to bring a few home. She wasn’t entirely sold on the concept, but she could see how excited I was and quickly agreed to try some, if only to shut me up.

And, I’m pleased to report, it resulted in some of the most entertaining read-aloud time we’ve had in MONTHS. They were a huge, huge hit.

You can find a list of the entire Choose Your Own Adventure back catalog here. The titles we checked out came from the 2005 re-release of the series, which took some of original titles from the 1970s and 80s editions, and revamped them with updated text, pictures, and titles. We started with the first book in the re-released series, The Abominable Snowman by R. A. Montgomery, and a CYOA picture book (which was new to me) titled Sand Castle, also by R. A. Montgomery.

If you’ve never read a Choose Your Own Adventure book before, they’re a little hard to explain. They’re not like much else in the kid lit market. They sort of resemble chapter books, in terms of length and reading level, but, structurally, they’re something completely different. CYOA titles are sometimes referred to as “game books”, which is semi-accurate, if only because the word “game” suggests something interactive.

Choose Your Own Adventure

SO much cooler than the Star Wars opening crawl text…

The structure of a Choose Your Own Adventure book is designed to make the reading experience immersive. They’re written from the rarely-used second-person point-of-view – so the narrator is always referring to the reader as “You.” When a kid opens a CYOA book, they’re told something like, “You are a deep sea explorer searching for the famed lost city of Atlantis” or “You are born on a spaceship traveling between galaxies on a dangerous research mission.” It sets the stage for the adventure to come and it prompts the young reader to actively use their imagination while they listen. The lead character is never described in detail because “You” are that character. [read the rest of the post…]

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When I Grow Up book trailer

We open on a tracking shot of a publishing executive giving Weird Al a million dollars to make the best book trailer ever….

While I was still reveling in my excellent recent purchases at a holiday book sale, I decided to go online and see if any of the titles I bought had book trailers available. Although, I should note right off the bat that, even though they’re growing in popularity, book trailers can be pretty hit or miss. Sometimes, they do a great job of stoking your interest in a title by using exciting, cinematic imagery or offering interesting insights from the authors. And, other times, they look like half-assed junior high AV projects that a student threw together in an hour in lieu of turning in an English paper.

Fortunately, three of the books I purchased this week – Along a Long Road by Frank Viva, The Trouble with Chickens by Doreen Cronin and Kevin Cornell, and When I Grow Up by Al Yankovic and Wes Hargis – all had very decent, very well-produced book trailers available, which I thought I’d pass along.

For starters, the trailer for Along a Long Road does a cool job of showing off Viva’s rich, stylish artwork and making it clear that the illustrations really were created as a single 35-foot-long piece of art (which still blows my mind).

Next, we’ve got the trailer for Doreen Cronin‘s The Trouble with Chickens. I will admit – when Cronin came on screen in a trenchcoat and fedora, I was worried that I was going to spend two minutes being really embarrassed for one of my favorite children’s authors. Fortunately, the cheese factor was gloriously low in this trailer. Instead, we get some solid interview time with Cronin where she really goes into detail about the crime noir inspirations behind the book. (She likens J.J. Tully the dog to Humphrey Bogart, which just made me love her all the more.)

And, finally, we get the trailer for When I Grow Up. This trailer is mostly just excerpts of Al Yankovic reading from the book, accompanied by slightly animated versions of Wes Hargis’ artwork, but I think that was a great choice for this preview. Weird Al has such a distinct and downright wacky reading voice that he’s a great ambassador for the book. If I was a kid and I heard Al’s narration on this trailer, I’d want to read the book ASAP.

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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. [read the rest of the post…]

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I’ve taken to calling November “Building a Library‘s Month of Failure” around the house. First, my daughter tells me that she wants to “pause” our reading of The Phantom Tollbooth. (Sigh.) Next, she tells me that she doesn’t want me to read her any more chapter books at bedtime, even though my wife – my wife who, in case you were wondering, did NOT start a blog all about how much she loves sharing books with her daughter – gets to read her Harry Freakin’ Potter at bedtime, a book that my kid is LOVING. And, finally, THIS happens…

My daughter, who is lovely and amazing and is such a fantastic reader, comes to me and says, “I want to write a fan letter to my favorite author.”

I perked up IMMEDIATELY. She’d never asked to do this before.

“That’s great!” I said. “Who are we writing to?” In my head, I began thinking about how I could get the mailing addresses for Lane Smith, Kate DiCamillo, Cressida Cowell, Mo Willems, Adam Rex, the estates of Shel Silverstein or Roald Dahl, etc. And then she hit me with the bombshell.

“I want to write a fan letter to Daisy Meadows who writes the Rainbow Fairy Books.”

Daisy Meadows. The Rainbow Fairy Books.

MONTH. OF. FAILURE.

Rainbow Magic

Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion…

“SERIOUSLY?” I replied in an immature tone, practically guaranteed to send her further into Daisy Meadows‘ open and waiting arms. “She is seriously not your favorite author. Seriously. She’s not, right?” [read the rest of the post…]

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Hey Readers – Remember all those posts back in September where I was so excited about finally reading The Phantom Tollbooth with my daughter? You know, the book that single-handedly inspired this blog and that I’ve been DYING to read to her for almost six years now? I even posted my initial “Phantom Tollbooth First Read” article where I recounted my experience reading the first two chapters with my kid at bedtime. Wasn’t that a fun article – an article that promised to give you a day-by-day breakdown of our joyous experiences reading The Phantom Tollbooth together for weeks to come?

I should’ve smelled the jinx coming a mile away.

Quick aside – Our family does a lot of road-trips together and, almost every time we’re on the last leg of our drive home, if we’ve had an easy day of driving so far, I inevitably say something like, “Boy, we’ve hit no traffic today, have we?” and you know what happens? Five minutes later, we hit construction or an overturned car and BAM – four extra hours are added to our trip. And, like an idiot, I do that almost EVERY single time. I jinx the end of the trip.

This is all a very long-winded way for me to tell you… sigh… we have officially stopped reading The Phantom Tollbooth for the moment.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Yeah, we know, Milo. We’re disappointed too…

And, yes, I am a little bit heartbroken. And, yes, I think I jinxed it. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth

Perfect for Tollbooth obsessives…

Back on September 20th, we celebrated Building a Library’s first anniversary and announced that, the following week, I was finally going to start reading The Phantom Tollbooth – the book that inspired this blog – to my almost six-year-old daughter. And then… I took the following week off. Anti-climatic, I know, but it was a crazy week with swim classes and TWO soccer games and I was exhausted and blocked and I apologize. But, now that all my excuses are out on the table, I DID start reading The Phantom Tollbooth with my daughter last week and, so far, it’s been a pretty positive experience.

Let me state up front that I was a little worried that my daughter was too young for The Phantom Tollbooth. Norton Juster expertly plays with language and various abstract concepts throughout the book and I was concerned that aspects of the text would go over her head. As far as I can remember, I probably first encountered The Phantom Tollbooth when I was eight or nine, so I will admit that I am (still) concerned that I might be trying to introduce the novel to my daughter at too early an age. But, regardless of those concerns, I wanted to give Phantom Tollbooth a shot in our coveted bedtime reading slot last week and I’m going to periodically give updates on how the reading is going so far.

I’m calling this series “Phantom Tollbooth: First Read” and I’m planning to structure the updates in a similar style to the re-read or rewatch series that you can find on Tor.com or The Onion‘s AV Club. For those unfamiliar, in those series, the websites pick a book or a movie and a person episodically blogs their reaction to revisiting those works. For example, the blogger might post their ongoing reaction to rewatching all three seasons of Arrested Development or re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, chapter-by-chapter.

For Phantom Tollbooth, I’m going to adopt a chapter-by-chapter model, although some nights, we’ll be reading multiple chapters. For our first week, we started slow, only making it through the first four chapters. In the future, we may be moving through the book at a different pace, largely determined by what we’ve got going on that week. (Fair Warning: A trip to NYC will limit our progress this weekend.) I’ll give a quick summary of the chapter, my thoughts, my daughter’s reactions, and I might even toss in a few pieces of trivia from Leonard S. Marcus’ fantastic The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth as well.

Are we all set? Excuses made and plans delineated? Great. And, with that, let us begin…

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH FIRST READ: CHAPTERS 1 AND 2 – “Milo” and “Beyond Expectations”

CHAPTER ONE: “MILO”

“I do hope this is an interesting game, otherwise the afternoon will be so terribly dull.” – Milo, The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth, Chapter One

Santa got my letter!

The opening passages of The Phantom Tollbooth were what sold me on the book as a kid. In a few short paragraphs, Norton Juster wonderfully captures the itchy, nagging boredom that can easily consume a child in the wrong frame of mind. I love comedian Louis C.K.’s inspired riff on how “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy” and it shares some nice thematic parallels to initial mindset of Milo, the protagonist of The Phantom Tollbooth. To quote Juster:

There once was a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always.

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’s bothered. Nothing really interested him – least of all the things that should have.

It’s an incredibly powerful opening and, after reading into it a few paragraphs, I turned to my daughter and asked, “Do you ever feel like that?” “Yes,” she replied. “I get bored a lot.” [read the rest of the post…]

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My Brave Year of Firsts

This is pretty much what it felt like to drop our daughter off to first grade….

Before we get to Bink & Gollie, if you’ve been wondering if Building a Library was on hiatus, I totally understand. Things here at Library Headquarters have been beyond hectic now that my daughter has just begun FIRST GRADE, a big life milestone that (if I’m being honest) I’m still a little weepy about.

The race up to the beginning of her school year was overwhelming with school supply shopping, orientation meetings, and desperate attempts to squeeze in a few final day trips to museums and zoos before first grade finally began.

The weekend before school started, I took my daughter to a local bookstore and told her that, in celebration of her new school year, she could pick out ANY book she wanted. An hour and a half later, I almost regretted that decision. We looked at EVERYTHING. New books, old books, picture books, easy readers, chapter books, audiobooks. Yes, I did have to reiterate SEVERAL TIMES that the toys and stuffed animals in the children’s section did not, in fact, count as reading material and, thus, was not eligible to qualify as “any book you wanted”, but, on the whole, it was fun to watch my daughter browsing her head off, completely lost in the stacks trying to find the perfect book.

My Brave Year of Firsts

This is actually a “perfect” book for any kid about to start first grade…

After trying to steer her towards some good-looking chapter books – she’s interested in Judy Moody, but won’t take the plunge yet – I spent twenty minutes advocating for My Brave Year of Firsts: Tries, Sighs, and High Fives, a new picture book by Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell. Even though I had been previously pushing for my daughter to pick a chapter book, I’ve written about my affection for Curtis and Cornell’s picture books in the past (I find them sentimental in all the right ways) and the book just seemed PERFECT for a kid about to start first grade.

It’s all about a young girl taking the leap and trying a myriad of new things for the very first time. She starts first grade (perfect!), she tries to ride her bike without training wheels (we’re doing that right now!), she makes new friends (just like my kid!), she helps her dad (I’m a dad!), and her name is Frankie (my daughter is named Charley!). My Brave Year of Firsts is a fun, wonderfully illustrated rumination on the benefits of being brave and trying new things and, thematically, it couldn’t have been more perfect for my kid.

So, of course, she didn’t pick it.

(Sorry Jamie and Laura. The book IS pretty great, though, and my daughter has a birthday coming up, so guess what she’s getting?)

Give a kid the power to pick out their own book and they will take full advantage of that privilege. And, after I vetoed a few more toys and at least one Barbie book, I heard my daughter gasp in the stacks and come running towards me.

“THIS is my book.”

Bink & Gollie: Two For One

My kid could’ve picked ANY book in the store, but this is the one she wanted.

The book was Bink & Gollie: Two For One, by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee with illustrations by Tony Fucile. It’s an illustrated early reader/chapter book hybrid, a sequel to the original Bink & Gollie, the New York Times bestseller and Theodor Seuss Geisel Award Winner, which happens to be one of my daughter’s favorite books.

I love it when my daughter exhibits good taste.

I’ve been meaning to write about the original Bink & Gollie for months now (and I still probably will one day), but it’s one of those books that is SO good that it’s actually intimidating to write a review of it. How can I possibly convey the depth of the warmth and humor in Bink & Gollie in a simple blog post? It’s just an amazing title and Bink & Gollie: Two For One definitely lives up to its reputation. [read the rest of the post…]

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Midway Monkey Madness

How can you not adore a book called “Midway Monkey Madness”?

In my last post, I went on and on about how fantastic the DC Super-Pets chapter books from Capstone Publishers are, and I still really recommend them for any kid who loves superheroes and who’s starting to read on their own. (Even if they aren’t a junior comic nerd like my kid, they’re still very entertaining reads.) Plus, be honest, you have to love a chapter book series with titles like Midway Monkey Madness, Attack of the Invisible Cats, Salamander Smackdown, and Battle Bugs from Outer Space. (Am I right? I’m right, aren’t I?)

Plus I just discovered that Capstone makes a line of DC Super Hero chapter books that offer similarly designed, early-reader-friendly stories revolving around DC’s most famous heroes – Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Green Lantern. While I’m not willing to endorse them sight unseen, I’ve had such a positive experience reading Capstone’s Super-Pets books to my daughter, I’ll definitely be checking out their DC Super Hero chapter book line in the near future.

But, if you’re not into comic books, no worries. If you just want to learn more about these visually compelling chapter books, I’ve grabbed two videos that might interest you. One is a book trailer for the DC Super-Pets chapter book series and the other is a fun interview with artist Art Baltazar, talking about his career and the books themselves. Enjoy.

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How to Cheat a Dragon's Curse

My daughter BEGGED me to find this book at our library.

And we’ve come to the end of our week! (Cue the Rebecca Black song.) Welcome to the FIFTH installment of What We Took Out From the Library Last Week, our new series in which we spend an entire business week profiling the various books that my five-year-old daughter and I checked out from our local library last week. We came home with five books and we’ve been listing the books in the order they were selected, so today we’ll talking about the fifth and final book we chose to take home with us. Our fifth title was a chapter book – How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, the fourth book in the “How to Train Your Dragon” series by Cressida Cowell, which follows the “heroic misadventures” of a young Viking-in-training named Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III.

You might be familiar with the name “How to Train Your Dragon” from the successful (and actually very good) 2010 DreamWorks animated movie, which was based on the original book.

But before I start talking about How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse, you need to know THREE things:

1. The How to Train Your Dragon movie was a very, very loose adaptation of the original book. (There are some significant differences.)

2. We have not actually finished reading How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse. We’ve only had it out for a few days and it’s a 272-page book. My daughter and I read a few chapters at bedtime most nights (but I don’t out her down every night). So… I won’t be talking about many specifics regarding How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse.

3. I absolutely love – LOVE – the How to Train Your Dragon series. For me, it will forever be the first chapter book series that my daughter ever fell in love with, which has won it a very special place in my heart.

Are we all set on my three very important things? (Insert self-mocking emoticon here.) I opened with those because I really wanted to establish exactly why my five-year-old was checking out the fourth chapter in a series of juvenile novels for young readers. It’s because she’s over the moon for the adventures of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and she’s INSISTING that we read every single book in the series.

How to Train Your Dragon series

The first eight books in the “How to Train Your Dragon” series. The ninth book – “How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword” – is not pictured.

So, how did we start reading the How to Train Your Dragon series? Well, long-time readers of this blog will remember that, in the past, my daughter would never, ever let me read longer books with her at bedtime. At the time, the longest title we’d ever read to her at bedtime was probably one of Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson books. But several parents we knew were already reading their children chapter books and early YA novels at bedtime, raving about how their kids were just LOVING the first Harry Potter books, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and so on. And my wife and I – we wanted in on that action. It just sounded like way too much fun. [read the rest of the post…]

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Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace

The detective wore sneakers....

My wife has been having a lot of fun recently reading some older chapter books with our daughter at bedtime (Lulu and the Brontosaurus, The Tale of Despereaux, Roald Dahl’s The Witches), and, I’ll admit, I’ve been stone-cold jealous. My few recent attempts to read longer works with our daughter have failed rather spectacularly, either degenerating into her telling me how much she dislikes “black and white only” books or with her working herself up into a frenzy because “Harry Potter is too scary for me, Dad! Don’t! DO NOT read it to me!!” (In my own defense, I’d barely lifted The Sorcerer’s Stone off the shelf before the freak-out commenced.) I love reading picture books and beginning readers with her, but I was anxious to see her reaction to being exposed to slightly longer, slightly more mature reading material. Plus she sat and listed quietly for her mom, so it’s not fair. (Crosses arms and pouts.)

My salvation ended up coming from an extremely nostalgic place for me – Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown series.

When I was a kid, our home library didn’t have a FRACTION of the books that my daughter has available to her every day. We used our local library a lot and I only have a vague recollection of a few specific books that we actually owned ourselves. (Just FYI – I have a notoriously lousy memory.) I remember our house having copies of The Giving Tree, Dr. Seuss’ Butter Battle Book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, a metric ton of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, and an almost complete collection of Encyclopedia Brown mysteries.

Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace

This might sound odd, but the illustration of this sign is easily one of the most iconic images from my childhood...

I picked up a copy of Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace, volume six of Sobol’s original series, while on a family vacation two weeks ago and got almost giddy with nostalgia and long-forgotten memories as I flipped through the collection. Encyclopedia Brown gets mocked a lot in popular culture – getting jabbed at in everything from possibly my favorite Onion article ever to the fantastic cult comedy, Mystery Team, by Donald Glover and Derrick Comedy – BUT I legitimately, totally, and unironically love and respect the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries.

I think some people dismiss Donald Sobol as formulaic, which I understand, but give the man his due for creating a really wonderful formula. Sobol PERFECTED the procedural mystery for early readers. The “procedural mystery” is an incredibly powerful storytelling format, which has dominated television programming for years now in shows like CSI, NCIS, Castle, Psych, Law & Order, and House, among many others. People find comfort and structure in the procedural mystery. The stories are quick, detail-packed, and normally engaging since the reader will spend the duration of the tale wondering “whodunit”. And, if you have really great writers, you can tell some amazing stories in the procedural mystery format too.

Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace

Pre-teen Sherlock vs. a very dim pre-teen Moriarty

I actually think Sobol is a great writer, and his mysteries are perfectly structured for early readers with potentially short attention spans. He uses recurring characters to make the reader empathize with his cast, he tells his stories in quick 6 to 10 page bursts, and he even gives his young readers a physical activity – flipping to the back of the book to read the solution to the mystery – to keep their interests.

Yes, Leroy Brown solves crimes WAY too easily and most of his cases can be cracked thanks to his obsessive knowledge of odd bits of obscure trivia. (“That sword isn’t from the Civil War! If it was, why would the inscription read the FIRST Battle of Bull Run… yadda, yadda, yadda.”) But, given the age of his target audience, I think all those are moot points. Sobol wasn’t trying to be Agatha Christie. He was making creative problem solving entertaining for kids through a nice mixture of relatable characters and the tried-and-true mystery format.

And, yes, the Encyclopedia Brown collections are fairly repetitive – but so is most series’ fiction. I think the constant, continually rebooting world of Brown’s hometown of Idaville is a welcoming, familiar place for young readers. Kids know how the world works in Idaville and, when reading an Encyclopedia Brown mystery, they’re using their aggregated past knowledge of how Sobol’s procedurals traditionally work to see if they can mentally jump to the solution hidden at the end of the book before they physically have to turn the pages and see if they’re right. In my opinion, it’s a really winning formula that encourages kids to be active, questioning readers and I don’t think Sobol gets enough credit for the simplicity and elegance of the Encyclopedia Brown format. [read the rest of the post…]

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