The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck

The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail coverMeet the smallest mouse in the Buckingham Palace mews. Brought to the mews in a sewing basket when his mother died, the little mouse knows almost nothing about his origins. Even his name, Mouse Minor (if you can call that a name), was given by his classmates rather than his family. More than anything else, he wants to know where he’s come from.

His journey to answer the questions of his past begins days before Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, when he’s accidentally caught in plain (human) sight wearing his school uniform. Though it’s true that a complex mouse society is constantly engaged in keeping the human world humming, human beings themselves are never to know. This essential rule of mousedom broken, Mouse Minor sets out to make his own way in London. A ride in a horse’s ear, a brief stint with the Yeomice of the Guard, and a botched kidnapping lead him at last to Queen Victoria herself, who really might know everything, and who suggests that the answers he’s seeking might be wrapped up in the biggest mouse secret of all.

The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail is an entertaining mystery adventure, but its real strengths lie in Peck’s use of language and his worldbuilding. Artful turns of phrase throughout are delightful for their own sake, while repeated phrases help to give flesh to Peck’s imagined mouse society. Mouse Minor serves as an able guide to his hidden mouse world, but the language does a lot, too, to communicate the traditions and assumptions that have grown up among this particular group of mice, as well as the shape of the relationship between mice and human beings. Highly recommended for language lovers, and those who enjoy a good mouse story.

Learn a bit about the prolific author behind the story, Richard Peck, or find other reviews from School Library Journal and Waking Brain Cells.

Sample the excellent audio version, narrated by Russ Bain.

My Top Ten of 2013

One of the best parts of working on Lemon-Squash has been the excuse it provides to read. A lot. While I try to share all of the really good books I discover with you, there are a few that have stood out as particular favourites. If you know me in person, there’s a pretty good chance I’ve already insisted that you read these. For those who don’t (and those who need a refresher), here are my top ten kids’ and YA reads from 2013.*

*These are titles I discovered and loved this year, not necessarily ones that were released in 2013. That said, at least a couple have sequels released this year or due to come out in 2014 that you should watch for, too.
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Tommysaurus Rex by Doug TenNapel

Tommysaurus Rex coverWhat if you discovered your very own pet dinosaur?

When Ely’s dog, Tommy, is accidentally killed in a car accident on his morning walk, Ely is overcome with grief. To help him deal with his loss, his parents send Ely to spend time at his grandpa’s over summer vacation. One day he sees a plastic T-Rex model and thinks, common sense aside, how cool it would be to have a pet T-Rex. He is soon in for a big surprise when he wanders into a cave — and meets a real T-Rex! But this is no ordinary dinosaur: he follows Ely around like a dog, and can do tricks like a dog, too. As they spend more time together, the bond between them grows stronger. Ely decides to name the dinosaur Tommy, and people flock to see the T-Rex. They even hold a show to raise money to help fund his care.

But not all are in support of Ely and his dinosaur. Randy, a local bully, can’t stand to let Ely get all the glory as the popular kid. No one can anticipate what happens next when he tries to take things into his own hands.

TenNapel’s graphic novels share an overarching sense of darkness, both in storyline and illustrations, but there are also strong themes of hope and family love. The number of kids and parents who have sought out his works at my library got me hooked, and I am glad of it. Tommysaurus Rex is anything but a light read: within a mere 137 pages, TenNapel addresses love, loss and bullying. I teared up more than once, but found the story’s resolution heartwarming.

Curious to find out more?

Take a look at other reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Review.

You can also read more about Tommysaurus Rex at Great Books for Kids and Teen, where you’ll also find links to TenNapel’s blog and website.

Ten: Lost Things

Another of the best known Arthur stories is the search for the Holy Grail. This week’s Ten highlights other stories which focus on the search for something lost.

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
Sometimes things get lost on purpose.
Ella lives in a town founded by the creator of the famous pangram, “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog.” When letters from the pangram start falling off the founder’s statue, the town leaders decide that any letter no longer appearing on the statue will also be removed from the town’s vocabulary. Continue reading

Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) written by Lisa Yee and illustrated by Dan Santat

Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) coverFive facts that complicate Bobby Ellis-Chan’s life:

  • He wants a dog more than anything, but fur sets off his asthma
  • Somehow he ended up with a fish, instead
  • His father used to be a famous football player, and has way more in common with Bobby’s football-star big sister than he does with Bobby
  • Now his father is a stay-at-home dad who hasn’t quite gotten the hang of cooking or laundry
  • His best friend, Holly, started to act like a girl over the summer

Fourth grade starts off tough for Bobby. And just when some things seem to be turning out alright — it turns out his fish can do tricks! — others go terribly, terribly wrong. A misstep here, a backward campaign poster there, and Bobby’s class is divided right down the middle, boys vs. girls. With Bobby chosen as the boys’ champion, and Holly representing the girls, it looks like their friendship might be toast.

In need of someone else to talk to, Bobby discovers that his goldfish, besides being a pretty good soccer player, is a great listener. And when the class takes a field trip to a botanical garden, Bobby finds himself hugging — and quickly stuck to — the world’s stinkiest, and surely loneliest, tree. But while fish can sort of listen, and trees can sort of hug back, neither quite compares to Holly. Maybe boys and girls can be friends after all?

If you don’t remember being Bobby, by the end of Bobby vs. Girls, you’ll certainly want to be his friend. Recommended for readers who’ve enjoyed Ramona Quimby’s books, or as a readaloud over several sessions. Like the Ramona books, Bobby’s chapters are episodic enough to stand alone, but listeners will want to know what happens next!

Read more reviews from 100 Scope Notes (SLJ) and Waking Brain Cells.

See how the cover for Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) was developed!

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by K.G. Campbell

Flora and Ulysses coverFlora Belle Buckman knows better than to hope. Already a confirmed cynic (her mother says so), ten-year-old Flora has adopted the very helpful comic book feature, Terrible Things Can Happen to You, as her guidebook. Its often-repeated advice, “Do not hope; instead, observe,” has proven especially useful, rescuing her from the perils of hope and reminding her that acting on what she sees and hears is much more reliable. Observation tells her that her mother loves Mary Ann, the shepherdess lamp, more than she does Flora, for example, and allows Flora to behave accordingly.

The problem is, there seems to be a lot of hopefulness around Flora lately. First there was the squirrel, Ulysses, who survived being vacuumed up and gained amazing superhero powers, like flying and the ability to type poetry. He’s always hopeful about something, and he loves Flora more than any lamp, and possibly more than giant donuts. Then the annoying William Spiver showed up next door; he seems to be setting a lot of his hopes on being Flora’s friend. Even her father, quite possibly the world’s loneliest man, seems to be feeling hopeful, what with everything that’s been going on. And Dr Meescham ignores Flora’s favourite advice entirely, hoping always that something wonderful will happen, even when it doesn’t. Even when terrible things happen instead.

Will seal blubber be enough to help a young cynic hold out against so much hopefulness?

DiCamillo has a knack for blending Douglas Adams’s casual absurdity with a fair amount of heart. Add two children with vocabularies that are impressive, but never unexplained, a nod to the grammar-sensitive, and a poetry-loving squirrel you can’t help but love, and you have a story that will appeal particularly to those of us with a bit of a nerdy bent.

Find other reviews at the New York Times, A Rogue Librarian’s Reading List, and Fuse #8.

Discover the Flora and Ulysses origin story in this article from Publishers Weekly.

Journey by Aaron Becker

Journey coverTake a little Harold and the Purple Crayon, a little Where the Wild Things Are, some glorious illustrations, and a world you’ll remember (and wish for!) long after finishing the book, and you have Aaron Becker’s wordless picture book, Journey. Tired of waiting for her family to put down their electronics, and for the neighbourhood kids to invite her into their games, Journey‘s protagonist sets off on her own adventure. Red marker in hand, she creates a door that leads her from sepia-toned reality to a grand and richly green forest. When a stream appears, the marker produces a small boat, and when the stream-turned-aqueduct suddenly ends, it provides a hot air balloon in the nick of time.

Making (literally) her own way along is only half the adventure, though. While floating above the city in her balloon, the girl notices a purple bird being caught and caged. Abandoning her meandering trip, the girl follows the hunters’ airship, determined to find and free the bird. Accomplishing her task might earn her what she’s wanted all along. It might also cost her everything.

I’ve been waiting for Journey since spring, and while I wasn’t disappointed, I was surprised. I’d anticipated something of an update on Harold, and wondered how such a personal journey would come around to the “act of tremendous courage and kindness” described in the publisher’s blurb. While the red marker does play a significant role in the story, the vast, detailed landscapes and distinct contrast between the girl’s travels and her family’s screen-and-cord-bound lives combine to make this a much more outward-focused journey than Harold’s from the start. And while the story is simple, I think that this is another one where rereading and discussing will reveal more to love about Journey every time.

Read about the book from a teacherly point of view at Reading, Teaching, Learning, or from a mom’s perspective at Everyday Reading.

Come join the Sharp-Schu Book Club on Twitter on Wednesday, September 25th to talk about Journey and ask Aaron Becker questions!

If the art is what grabs you in Journey, check out Becker’s guest post on Gurney Journey to find out how he did it.

In case you haven’t seen it already (and even if you have), you really need to watch this gorgeous book trailer: