The Great Treehouse War by Lisa Graff

The Great Treehouse War

Lisa Graff, Author

Philomel Books, Fiction, May 16, 2017

Suitable for Ages : 8-12

Themes: Parents, Divorce, Interpersonal relationships, Friendship, Tree houses, Humor

Synopsis: On the last day of fourth grade, everything in Winnie’s world changed. That was the day Winnie’s parents got divorced and decided that Winnie would live three days a week with each of them and spend Wednesdays by herself in a treehouse smack between their houses, to divide her time  evenly. Before the divorce, her parents didn’t care much about holidays except Thanksgiving. When her mother realized she was never going to celebrate Thanksgiving with Winnie because it fell on Thursday, she decided to pick a new holiday and celebrate it better. The competition began and soon every day was a special holiday, as each parent tried to outdo the other: Ice Cream Sandwich Day, Underwear Day, National Slinky Day, Talk Like Shakespeare Day, and so on. Winnie was kept so busy, she couldn’t study or finish her homework. Wednesdays in the Treehouse became a sanctuary with her cat, Buttons. When her teacher warned her she was at risk of  not passing fifth grade, Winnie had enough. That’s when Winnie’s seed of frustration with her parents was planted.  That seed  grew until it felt like it was as big as a tree itself.

By the end of fifth grade, Winnie decided that the only way to change things was to barricade herself in her treehouse until her parents come to their senses.  Her friends ,who have their own parent issues,  decided to join her. It’s kids versus grown-ups, and no one wants to back down first. But with ten demanding kids in one treehouse, Winnie discovered that things can get pretty complicated pretty fast!

Why I like this book:

Lisa Graff’s witty storytelling makes The Great Treehouse War a superb summer read for kids. And it will fulfill any child’s dream of wanting to live in a treehouse — especially a two-story treehouse built 15 feet off the ground.  It is equipped with a bathroom, art station, skylights, bookshelves, a toaster oven, shelves full of fruit loops and a zip line escape to Winnie’s Uncle Huck’s house.

It is a cleverly designed book by Graff for kids who are in fifth grade and preparing to move on to middle school. It offers readers both tantalizing prose and humorous drawings and doodles, maps, sticky note comments, how-to instructions, plans, and treehouse rules. It has a comic book appeal to it and is perfect for the intended age group.

There are 10 Tulip Street kids with 10 very distinct and quirky personalities, which add to the fun and mayhem. Their diversity is uneventful, because the only way you know they are diverse is by their names like Winifred Malladi-Maraj (aka Winnie). Winnie is a spunky, creative, compassionate and courageous heroine.  She possesses what she and Uncle Huck describe at “artist vision,” where she is able to intuitively observe the needs of others. Her cat, Buttons, is the greatest cat in the world.  Other memorable characters include: Lyle and his tooth collection; Jolee the scrabble champ; Greta and her friendship bracelets; the twins Brogan the acrobat and Logan the jokester; and Tabitha and her lizards.

The plot is wacky and unique because Winnie’s divorced parents have her trapped in the middle of their selfish battle for equal access to their daughter. Any child being pulled in two different directions by divorced parents, will relate to the unfairness of it all.  Graff’s silly and sometimes outrageous approach to divorce is age appropriate and makes the topic easier to digest. There are other unusual subplots that make this book such a clever read, but I won’t spoil it for readers.

Lisa Graff is the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of A Clatter of Jars, Lost in the Sun, Absolutely Almost, A Tangle of Knots, Double Dog Dare, Sophie Simon Solves Them All, Umbrella Summer, The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower, and The Thing About Georgie. You can visit Lisa Graff at her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo

My Beautiful Birds

Suzanne Del Rizzo, Author and Illustrator

Pajama Press, Fiction, Mar. 8, 2017

Suitable for ages: 6-10

Themes: Refugees, Refugee camps, Syria, Birds, Hope

Opening: “The Ground rumbles beneath my slippers as I walk. Father squeezes my hand. “It will be okay, Sami. Your birds escaped too,” he repeats. His voice sounds far away. I squeeze back, hoping it will steady my wobbly legs.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Behind Sami, the Syrian skyline is full of smoke. The boy follows his family and all his neighbors in a long line as they trudge through the sands and hills to escape the bombs that have destroyed their homes. But all Sami can think of is his pet pigeons — will they escape too?

When they reach a refugee camp and are safe at last, everyone settles into the makeshift city. But though the children start to play and go to school again, Sami can’t join in. When he is given paper and paint, all he can do is smear his painting with black. He can’t forget his birds and what his family has left behind.

One day a canary, a dove, and a rose finch fly into the camp. They flutter around Sami and settle on his outstretched arms. For Sami it is one step in a long healing process at last.

Why I like this book:

Suzanne Del Rizzo offers a timely, compassionate and poignant story of a Syrian child refugee who flees his beloved home with his family and leaves behind his pet pigeons. Sami’s story is a journey of hardship, sorrow, and hope for a better future. The text is lyrical at times, but mostly it is honest. Conditions are cramped in the tent city, but Sami and his family are safe. But he has trouble adjusting to his new life. He continues to worry about his pigeons, until three birds appear one day and he finds his joy again. This is a turning point for Sami.

Del Rizzo’s exquisite polymer clay illustrations add depth and a life-like dimension to Sami’s story . Her stunning  sunset with vibrant colors of pink, purple and golden hues remind Sami of his sky at home. He even sees his fluffy cloud-like pigeons.

I appreciated that the author focused on the refugee crisis that is affecting the most innocent and vulnerable, children. She doesn’t address political themes in the book, but focuses on the humanity of the situation for children displaced from their homes in Syria. Instead, her story is based on an article she read about a boy who found comfort in connecting with wild birds at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan.

My Beautiful Birds is an excellent addition to any school library. It is age-appropriate and an introductory story about children who are displaced because of war or natural disasters.

Resources: Make sure you check out the Author’s Note at the end of the book. She talks about the displaced refugees in Syria that flee to nearby countries,  but she also talks about the 65.3 million people who are displaced worldwide.  For more information and resources about the Syrian conflict, visit the Pajama Press website.

Suzanne Del Rizzo has always loved getting her hands messy. She traded her job in scientific research for a career in children’s illustration with her first picture book, Skin on the Brink, which won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award and was a finalist for the Rainforest of Reading Award. Suzanne’s dimensional illustrations use Plasticine, polymer clay, and other mixed media to bring rich texture and imagination to her books. Suzanne and her family live in Oakville, Ontario.

*I was captivated by Patricia Nozell’s lovely review of My Beautiful Birds on her website, Wander, Ponder Write.  Check out her website, because she is reviewing a lot of books about child refugees and immigrants stories from all over the globe.

Why Am I Here? by Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen

Why Am I Here?

Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen, Author

Akin Duzakin, Illustrator

Erdmans Books for Young Readers, Oct. 14, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 5-9

Themes: Curiosity, Wonder, Compassion, Empathy

Opening: “I wonder why I am here, in this exact place. What if I were somewhere else — somewhere completely different from here.”

Synopsis: A child wonders why they are here, living the life they do. They could be on the other side of the globe living a very different life. Would they have been a different person? What if the lived in a city with millions of people? What if they lived in a place where there was a war and had to hide? What if they were a refugee on their way to an unfamiliar place? What if they lived where there were deserts, floods or earthquakes?  Is the child meant to live in some other place or are they right where they are supposed to be?

Why I like this book:

Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen has written a beautiful and quiet book for children who like to think big thoughts. It is a thought-provoking and contemplative story where the child imagines how different life would be if they lived in a variety of settings with a different family. The text is sensitive and powerful.

I fell in love with the book when Patricia Nozell reviewed it on her website, Wander, Ponder, Write. It would have been the type of picture book that would have touched my heart and tickled my curiosity as a child. Like the child in the story, I was introspective and pondered many of the same big questions.

The story is written in first person, with the child narrating. The story doesn’t identify the gender of the child. The child’s soft facial features, light brown skin and shaggy hair allows both boys and girls to identify with the character.

Akin Duzakin’s dreamy illustrations are rendered in pencil and soft pastels which soften the harsh realities of a world of homelessness, children working in an underground mines, war, refugees and natural disasters.  They evoke compassion from readers, but also convey warmth and hope at the end.

Resources: This is a good introduction book about the different lives children live in other parts of the world. It could lead to many interesting discussions between children and parents. It will also give kids a  better understanding of their place in the world.

Blossom Plays Possum by Birdy Jones

Blossom Plays Possum: Because She’s Shy

Birdy Jones, Author

Janet McDonnell, Illustrator

Magination Press, Fiction, Jul. 17, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: Anxiety, Bashful, Shy, School, Animals, Courage

Opening: Ask me my name? Want me to play? Call on me in class? I say nothing and hope no one will see me. I call that playing possum. It’s my way of being shy.

Synopsis: Blossom is a talented possum. She makes glitter headbands, plays the flute and recites to her  audience of stuffed animals.  But no one knows what Blossom can do because she is bashful and freezes up when other kids invite her to play. Playing possum isn’t the best way to make friends.  She wants to interact with the other kids, but she doesn’t know how. With the support and encouragement from her classmates and her teacher, Blossom learns to take some risks and have some fun.

Why I like this book:

Birdy Jones has created a believable main character in her story about an adorable possum who “plays possum” so that no one will notice her. Blossom is so shy around people that she freezes. Children will enjoy the fun wordplay with “possum.”

It is a realistic story about children dealing with common social anxieties. Many children will identify with Blossom, who is afraid of trying new things for fear of saying the wrong thing, being laughed at and making a mistake. This lovable possum will help kids talk about their own fears and anxieties and show them there is nothing wrong with being shy or making mistakes.

Janet McDonnell’s delightful and whimsical illustrations add a flare of drama and humor to the story as she shows Blossom playing possum — hanging upside down on the monkey bars or lying on her back with mouth wide open and all four limbs stiff in the air.

Resources: The book is an excellent resource for parents and teachers. There is a Note to Parents and Other Caregivers at the end of the book with more information and resources about overcoming shyness.

Birdy Jones loves to tell stories. Her debut book Mister Cool was named an Anti-Bullying Book of 2014 by Publisher’s Weekly.  She is a supporter of “We Need Diverse Books,” and stays engaged with hot topics that affect young readers today.

Mine! by Jeff Mack

Mine!

Jeff Mack, Author and Illustrator

Chronicle Books, Fiction, May 9, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 2-5

Themes: Mice, Animals, Possessiveness, Quarreling, Sharing, Friendship

Opening: Mine!

“Mine!” This one word is powerful when you add two mice, who find a large rock and each one declares ownership. A battle ensues with the two trying to outsmart each other by dangling tantalizing morsels of cheese from a fishing pole and bearing other gifts. As the stakes get higher for who will own the rock, a dump truck backs up with a load rocks to knock one of the mice off the rock. One victor is momentarily triumphant, while the other builds a rock fortress around his rock. A wrecking ball brings the rock wall tumbling down. In the final battle, the two mice both stand on top of the rock facing each other with fists raised and yelling “Mine! Mine! Mine!” at each other. And then something happens and they both are in for a big surprise!

This is the first time I’ve reviewed a picture book with only one word. Jeff Mack’s zany story is highly entertaining with great pacing. His bold and  colorful illustrations are expressive and show the building tension between the two mice, one blue and the other orange, as they try to outsmart each other. You have to love that cover!

This is a perfect read-aloud story for young children who are learning to share.  It is a clever book about sibling rivalry and one that will elicit giggles from children. It’s a great book for about learning how to solve problems. This book belongs in every pre-school classroom.

Jeff Mack has drawn since early childhood, when he would illustrate his own stories, particularly about monsters, robots and pinball machines. He has illustrated more than 30 children’s books, including Ah Ha! and Good News, Bad News, both of which he also authored. Visit Jeff Mack at his website.

** I won Mine! from Sue Morris’ website, Kid Lit Reviews. Check out her honest and objective reviews of the most recent book releases.

Big and Little Are Best Friends by Michael Garland

Big and Little Are Best Friends

Michael Garland, Author and Illustrator

Orchard Books, Fiction, May 9, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 3-5

Themes: Animals, Elephants, Mice, Best Friends, Differences, Acceptance, Rhyme

Opening: Big and Little / Are best of friends. / Though the things / that they like / Are at opposite ends.

Synopsis: Big is an elephant and Little is a mouse.  They are opposites in every possible way. One likes loud music, the other prefers soft. One loves hot weather, the other loves cold. One is shy and the other is bold. One wears plain, the other wears frilly. They are as different as night and day. Sometimes they fight, but they always make put their friendship first.

Why I like this book:

Michael Garland has written a timely and heartwarming story for children that celebrates tolerance. Elephant and a mouse are very different in surprising ways, but they learn to compromise and accept each other. They learn that they don’t need to change who they are in order to become best friends. Elephant and mouse discover that their differences can lead to a lot of fun when they are together. The story also breaks down some preconceived stereotypes.

Garland’s simple rhyming text includes fun synonyms and antonyms and is perfect for beginning readers. Garland’s signature double page-spreads feature lively, humorous and colorful illustrations that will appeal to children’s imaginations.

Resources: Use Garland’s concept book to teach children about opposites, like “big and little.”  Ask children their favorite color, food, toy, sport, book, movie and so on. Compare the similarities and differences with siblings or classmates. Apply the idea to friendship. Would they still be friends if one liked cake and the other preferred pie?  Depending upon the age of the child, you may want to include bigger topics that include diversity.

Michael Garland has 35 books in print. Four of Garland’s books are New York Times Bestsellers, and Miss Smith’s Incredible Storybook won State Reading Awards in Delaware, California and Texas. He lives in Patterson, NY.  You can visit Garland at his website.

Time Jump Coins By Susan May Olson

Time Jump Coins: An Adventure in Historic Philadelphia

Susan May Olson, Author & Publisher

Fiction, May 17, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Time travel, Historic Philadelphia, Different Abilities, Diversity, Friendship

Synopsis (GoodReads): Imagine if you could time travel to the past just by rubbing the date on a penny!

Ten-year-olds Joey (Johanna) and Eli can time travel to any year between 1859 and 1909, simply by rubbing a coin from a set of Indian Head pennies! Old Philadelphia can be a lot of fun. They see the first phone and climb up the arm of the Statue of Liberty at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. They get to go on a sleigh ride through a Wissahickon winter wonderland.

In between trips, Hal, proprietor of Hal’s Coins and Collectibles, teaches them tons of interesting facts about coins. However, their adventures take a serious turn when they wind up in a textile mill in Manayunk. They are shocked by the conditions for children working in the mill. They get mistaken for workers and are forced to work. They’ll be lucky if they don’t fall into the dangerous gears of the machines!

Joey wants a friend more than anything. The fact that Eli is a super-smart history whiz should make him the ideal time travel partner. But Joey has a bad temper, and Eli has Asperger’s Syndrome. Will their quirks drive them apart, or worse, get them stranded in the past forever?

Why I like this book:

Susan May Olson’s debut novel is a whimsical time-travel adventure to historic Philadelphia for Joey (Johanna) and Eli. Olson has spun a story of pure magic around an inherited 50-coin collection of Indian Head Cents, that when rubbed can take the two fifth graders back to Philadelphia between 1859-1909,  and when pinched can return them home. What a clever way to travel back in time and experience history first-hand.

The main characters are memorable, but couldn’t be more opposite. Joey has a bad temper and Eli has different abilities and is socially awkward with people. But they share one thing in common — neither have friends. They are assigned to sit next to each other on the bus and they gain a respect for each other. Since Eli is a history buff, Joey shares her magic coin collection with him and its secret. Eli does much of the research for their coin jump leaps. Their growing friendship throughout the story is perhaps the highlight of the book for me.

The plot is clever, fast-paced and filled with adventure, wonder, mystery and danger — if you get lost, injured or lose the penny and don’t return in time.  There are some secrets and surprises in the story. This is a great summer read and I predict tweens will enjoy the Time Jump Coins.

I especially liked Joey and Eli’s interaction with Hal, the coin collector. I had no idea that each coin has a mint mark on it beneath “In God We Trust.”  P for Philadelphia, D for Denver, S for San Francisco and W for West Point.

Favorite entry from Joey’s Journal:

“The most popular kids are like a pop song you hear on the radio that everyone likes right away…And then there are other kids that are like a painting hanging on a wall that most people including you walk right by and never notice. But one day you walk by that painting and take a long look. You’re not even sure you like it at first, but you walk by slowly because you want to get to know it better. The more you get familiar with the painting, the more you realize how much there is to it and how cool it is. My friend Eli is that kind of painting.”

Susan May Olson is a former speech-language pathologist who lives with her family in Chapel Hill, N.C.  Time Jump Coins is her debut novel. Visit Susan at her website, where she’s reviewed over 150 time travel stories.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.