Once Upon a Story
March 30, 2016

Twenty Yawns by Jane Smiley_cover (2)Twenty Yawns

by Jane Smiley, illustrated by Lauren Castillo

Published by: Two Lions

Release date: April 2016

Ages: 4-8

Pages: 32

From the publisher:

As her mom reads a bedtime story, Lucy drifts off. But later, she awakens in a dark, still room, and everything looks mysterious. How will she ever get back to sleep?

About The Author:Jane Smiley photo

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, as well as five works of nonfiction and a series of books for young adults. In 2001 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2006 she received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. This is her first picture book. She lives in Northern California.

laurencastillo_headshot (2)About the Illustrator:

Lauren Castillo is the illustrator of many books, including The Reader by Amy Hest. She has also written and illustrated several books, including Caldecott Honor book Nana in the City and The Troublemaker. She lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. To learn more, visit www.laurencastillo.com.
Twitter: @studiocastillo.

My thoughts:

In our house, any book can be a bedtime book. Sometimes that means pulling out (or faking) that extra ounce of energy at bedtime to read that wild and silly book just one. more. time.
But then there are other days when the kiddo picks a book that’s just perfect for quieting down, settling in, and getting sleepy. TWENTY YAWNS is that kind of book.
The story opens with a day at a beach, and immediately we’re diving headfirst into happy memories, both Lucy’s and ours. Swinging in the waves with dad, walks along the water, rolling down the dunes. Then, as the sun sets and Lucy and her parents leave the water behind, the yawns begin. First mom, then Lucy, then Dad. The sun sets lower (Lauren Castillo’s spread of the sunset is ah-mazing), and the yawns continue. Into bed, story read…but then suddenly, shadows are creeping across the floor and poor Lucy, sleepy just moments before, is wide awake.
In a movement as effortless as a yawn itself, author Jane Smiley moves the reader from happy and content to nervous and cautious. Lucy knows exactly what she needs, but to get it she has to cross a darkened house, a house in which she’s the only one awake. Do you remember that feeling as a kid? How strange it seems, as if the whole world is asleep? How you tiptoe carefully, but as quickly as possible? The feeling is spot-on here. And when her mission is accomplished, and Lucy crawls back in to bed, there’s more yawns as we slip back into a mode of sleepy calm.
There’s so much to love here. The language and illustrations evoke such wonderful emotions, and the (you guessed it!) twenty yawns interspersed throughout create not only a feeling of sleepiness, but a fun little-hide-and-seek for the reader. Not every yawn is obvious!
This has already become a regular in our bedtime rotation.
Follow the tour!
Check out the activity kit!
Watch the book trailer!


One lucky winner will receive an adorable door hanger (one side for quiet time, one side for play) along with a copy of TWENTY YAWNS. (U.S. only. Giveaway closes at midnight on April 6th)


February 19, 2016

Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book!)

by Julie Falatko, illustrated by Tim Miller

Published by: Penguin Random House

Release date: February 2016

Ages: 4-8

Pages: 40

From the publisher:

Snappsy the alligator is having a normal day when a pesky narrator steps in to spice up the story. Is Snappsy reading a book … or is he making CRAFTY plans? Is Snappsy on his way to the grocery store … or is he PROWLING the forest for defenseless birds and fuzzy bunnies? Is Snappsy innocently shopping for a party … or is he OBSESSED with snack foods that start with the letter P? What’s the truth? 

My thoughts:
I’ve been blogging for a while now. My oldest was a year old when I started. She’ll be 7 in a few weeks. In that time, I’ve met many people, read many books, and shared those books with others who will hopefully love them as much as I do.
But it’s extra-special when I get to share a book I’ve watched grow from the very very early stages.
Julie and I “met” through our shared agent (I think? Maybe before?) three years ago. I very clearly remember the day this book deal was announced. And then illustrator Tim Miller began releasing glimpses of early sketches. And then the cover reveal. And the first advanced copies came out. And then the reviews began rolling in. STARRED reviews. Lots of ’em. And the excitement kept building and building and y’all…
Finally, two weeks ago, the copy arrived in my hands.  Then it left my hands.
Those starred reviews don’t lie. Poor Snappsy is just your typical nice-guy alligator,  trying to get on with his day. A normal, errand-running, non-remarkable day. Groceries, lunch, a good book. A little party planning. Things would be fine, except for the unseen pesky narrator who keeps a running commentary on Snappsy’s activities, first accusing him of stalking innocent shoppers and fuzzy bunnies, then following him home, then accusing him of being boring. It’s like the younger sibling that follows you around the house. “Whatcha doin? Whatcha doin’? WHATCHA DOIN’?” It’s no wonder that Snappsy snaps (HA! See what I did there?) But this is not your ordinary narrator and, as the reader will soon find out, not so easily scared off.
The story has a surprise twist ending, but other surprises abound throughout the  illustrations. Read it once, then go back and read it more slowly, spending time on each of the full-page spreads. It’s a little like one of those hidden picture games. Tim has included little details, jokes, and added moments in some of the most unexpected places. We’ve read it cover to cover multiple times and are still discovering new details on every read. And, as I’ve taught my kids, always, always remember to look under the dust jacket.
Congratulations, Julie, Tim, and Snappsy. Y’all sure know how to throw a party.
October 23, 2015

Displaying THE TROUBLE WITH ANTS cover.jpgThe Trouble with Ants (The Nora Notebooks #1) 

by Claudia Mills, illustrated by Katie Kath

Published by: Alfred A. Knopf

Release date: September 2015

Ages: 7-10

Pages: 164

From the publisher:

Nora Alpers is using her new notebook to record the behavior of ants. Why? Because they are fascinating! Unfortunately, no one agrees with her. Her mom is not happy about them being in the house, and when Nora brings her ant farm to school for show and tell, her classmates are not very impressed. They are more interested in cat videos, basketball practice, or trying to set a Guinness World Record (although Nora wouldn’t mind that).
Mostly they are distracted by the assignment their teacher Coach Joe has given them—to write a persuasive speech and change people’s minds about something. Will Nora convince her friends that ants are as interesting as she thinks they are? Or will everyone still think of ants as nothing but trouble?

About the Author:Displaying Claudia_Mills (c)Larry Harwood (2).jpg

Claudia Mills is the author of over fifty books for young readers. She does not personally keep an ant farm, but she does have a cat, Snickers, with whom she curls up on her couch at home in Boulder, Colorado, drinking hot chocolate and writing. To learn more, and to download free curriculum guides for her books, visit her website at claudiamillsauthor.com.
My thoughts:
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Claudia’s work (you can read my other reviews here and here).  Picture books, chapter books, middle grade…it doesn’t seem to matter. Claudia’s voice is always authentic, her scenarios spot-on, and her characters the perfect blend of appropriately-aged angsty, and good-humored.
My first grader and I have most recently enjoyed the Franklin School Friends chapter books, which feature three friends, each of whom has their own unique talent (sports, math, science). Now Claudia is back with the first book in a new series for the same age group, The Nora Notebooks.  Despite the fact that this is a new series, fans of Mills will recognize Nora. She first appeared as a secondary character in the Mason Dixon series.
Isn’t it great when you meet up with old friends unexpectedly?
In The Trouble with Ants, Nora’s on a mission. A mission to convince the world (or at least her family and friends) that ants are more than pests. They’re fascinating! They’re strong! They’re intelligent! They’re…misunderstood! When the whole show-and-tell thing doesn’t work out, Nora turns to Plan B.  Her teacher, Coach Joe, has given her 4th grade class the assignment of writing a persuasive essay. Surely, surely, this is the way to show her classmates how awesome ants are.
So yes, this is a book about Nora and her ants. But it’s also a book about science ( packed with facts about ants, most of which didn’t know), about loyal friendships, about surviving the 4th grade, and even about loss. And as usual, Claudia Mills hits it perfectly.
Excited for what I’ve read. Excited for what comes next. Until we meet again, Nora…keep on investigating!


October 20, 2015

fanellisFeeding the Flying Fanellis and Other Poems from a Circus Chef 

by Kate Hosford, illustrated by Cosei Kawa


Published by: Carolrhoda Books (Lerner)

Release date: October 2015

Ages: 6-9

Pages: 32

From the publisher:

What do you feed a trapeze family to keep them up in the air? A fire eater with a penchant for hot sauce? Or a lion with a gourmet palate? How do you satisfy a sweet-toothed human cannonball who’s outgrowing his cannon?

Find out what keeps these performers juggling, balancing, and entertaining―meals prepared by their tireless chef! Poems from this jolly cook give a glimpse of his unusual perspective, from delightful to downright funny. Enjoy a front-row seat for this whimsical look at circus life that just might make you hungry!

About the Author:

Kate Hosford grew up in Vermont and is a lifelong fan of Circus Smirkus, a youth katecircus based there.
In 2010, she read an article about Ringling Brothers chef Michael Vaughn and began to wonder about the quirky food requests a circus chef might get from the various performers. The poems flowed from there. She is the author of several picture books, including Infinity and Me which won the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book award and was named an ALA Notable Children’s Book. She lives in Brooklyn with her family. For more information, visit her website: http://khosford.com/
My thoughts:
Gone are the days when teaching children poetry (and how to enjoy it) involves dry, boring, unrelatable rhymes, with a few clever poets thrown in. Today, the library and store shelves are full of rhyming picture books, poetry collections, and novels-in-verse. Some of them are wonderful, some of them…less wonderful. Truly great poetry takes skill, much more than just rhyming words. It’s attention to alliteration and assonance, meter and scansion. It’s end rhyme, internal rhyme, and blank verse.
Oh, and once you have all that down…make it unique and appealing to kids.
It’s tough stuff, that poetry.
Fortunately for budding young poets (and their adult readers), Feeding the Flying Fanellis is poetry done right.
The first poem is an introduction to the circus kitchen, and the chef who is “most content when cooking for my friends.” The next 16 poems allow us a peek inside the circus, via the performers themselves, and their culinary desires. It begins with the ringmaster and includes such colorful characters as Little Blue the hoop-jumping dog, Martin McGarrigle the stiltman, Hugo the human cannonball, and Lena the ballerina. The final two poems introduce a new member of the kitchen, and a feast of big top proportions.
The best part about this collection is its unpredictability. The poems vary widely in tone, length, rhythm, and rhyme pattern. Each poem can stand alone, but like the circus itself, presents a delightful performance when working together. The vocabulary is rich, as are the dishes mentioned. Not just cakes and cookies, but pâtés, chowders, bisques, and cheeses. The illustrations are whimsical and full of color, most drawn as two-page spreads whose perspectives are as diverse as the text. Kawa’s images depart from the realistic, into an almost dream-like world of performers, culinary delights, and maybe a little bit of magic (or perhaps it’s all an illusion).
Feeding the Flying Fanellis is a delightful collection of poems, a treat for both the ears and the eyes. A unique addition to any poetry collection.



August 28, 2015

25122006That’s (Not) Mine by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant

Published by: Two Lions

Release date: September 2015

Ages: 2-7

Pages: 32

From the publisher:

Two fuzzy creatures both want to sit in the same comfy chair. The trouble is, they can’t agree who it belongs to. They get madder and madder, until…

With expressive illustrations and simple text, this giggle-inducing tale about (not) sharing and (not) being a good friend features the endearing characters from Theodor Seuss Geisel Award winner You Are (Not) Small.


About the Author and Illustrator:

Husband-and-wife team Anna Kang and Christopher Weyant are the creators of You Are (Not) Small, which won the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award and was named a Notable Children’s Book by the American Library Association. They live in New Jersey with their two daughters, Kate and Lily, a guinea pig named Athena, and a hermit crab named Anna Kang Headshot 8-16-15 _credit Christopher WeyantOlaf.
Anna, a native New Yorker, grew up believing everything was hers until one day she realized it was her brother’s, too. She received a master’s degree in fine arts from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where the visual storyteller in her was awakened, forever changing the way she saw art, life, and everything in between. In addition to writing, Anna loves to read, travel, laugh, eat, and nap. Visit her online at www.annakang.com or on Twitter @annakang27
Christopher Weyant Headshot _credit Anna Kang
Christopher is a cartoonist and illustrator. His work can regularly be seen in the New Yorker. His cartoons are syndicated worldwide and have been featured on the Today Show, Meet the Press, and World News Tonight. Christopher likes to share everything but his personal space on the subway. Visit him online at www.christopherweyant.com or on Twitter @chrisweyant05
My thoughts:

Last year, I shared with you Chris and Anna’s first book, You Are (Not) Small. From the first reading, this book was wildly popular at our house. In fact, a year later, it’s still sitting in our rotating book basket in the living room, and still gets read frequently. And we’re not the only ones who loved it.  Earlier this year, the book was awarded the 2015 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award, an American Library Association award given annually to a book for beginning readers.

So when That’s (Not) Mine, the newest collaboration by this husband and wife team, arrived on our doorstep, there were many grabby hands. The six-year-old, who has read the first book so many times she practically has it memorized, the three-year-old, who immediately recognized the bears on the cover, and mine.
We were not disappointed.
That’s (Not) Mine features the same two bears we’d already come to love. This time, they’re faced with a topic well known to the preschool (and sibling) set: sharing. One comfortable armchair, two bears. One bear who was sitting in it first, but got up.  One bear who took it over.
Sound familiar?  So will what happens next. One clever bear comes up with a way to trick his friend from getting out of the desired comfortable armchair (my 6yo is a pro at pulling this stunt on her younger brother). But it doesn’t take long for the duped friend to realize what has happened, and then the battle is on.
The text is sparse, the illustrations big and expressive against a white background. The result is that each page conveys so much emotion and action, simply. We see the progression from slight irritation , to sneaky retaliation, to satisfied smugness, and then to outright anger as these two friends battle for what is apparently the best seat in the house. It’s a scene that’s played out half a dozen times (or more!) in preschool-aged homes everywhere. Then, as with You Are (Not) Small, the final page leaves the reader with a satisfied giggle.
This book is just so much of what you want your young child to read. It’s silly, and simple, and wholesome, with characters who are real and flawed and lovable.
Just like those preschoolers who won’t be able to keep their hands off it.
Want to win a copy? One lucky winner will receive a copy of THAT’S (NOT) MINE plus an adorable full-color poster. (U.S. addresses; allow 6-8 weeks for delivery.) Just fill out the entry form below by midnight on Friday, September 11th.




August 3, 2015

Hey, you know what happens when the school year ends, and then you travel for the first 3 weeks in July, and then you come home and run a camp for 115 kids?

*blows dust off blog*

Eesh. Okay. But I’m back with something to share, see!

(P.S. How’s YOUR summer going?)


Space Boy and His Sister Dog by Dian Curtis Regan, illustrated by Robert Neubecker

Published by:Boyds Mill Press

Release date: April 2015

Ages: 4-7

Pages: 32

From the publisher: Niko may live on boring old Planet Home (Earth) with his family, but that doesn’t stop him from having big adventures in space. With a box from his backyard and a little imagination, he flies off into the galaxy, accompanied by his robot, Radar, and his dog, Tag. Who’s not invited on this voyage? His annoying sister, Posh, who seems to pop up at the most inconvenient times. In this first (mis)adventure, Niko and trusty crew (and possibly a sisterly stowaway) fly to the moon in search of a lost cat. Illustrated in a comic-book style, with panels and speech bubbles, this picture book—the first in a series—will captivate boys and girls alike.

My thoughts:

We’re super into spaceships around here. Really, we’re into anything that moves–cars, trains, planes, spaceships, boats. If it moves, and you can make a (loud) noise to go with it, my 3.5yo can tell you about it. But beyond spaceships and space exploration, there are two other themes central to this story.

Imagination. It’s made apparent to the reader from the very first page that this spaceship is imaginary. We see Niko building it, see it’s cardboard construction, see the backyard setting. We even see the little robot co-pilot he’s constructed to accompany him on his journey. After the first few pages, however, we are taken on a ride through Niko’s imaginative play. The rocket becomes real, as does the robot co-pilot, and the setting changes from the backyard into deep space, with Earth fading into the distance. It’s not until the end of the story, when Niko returns safely home, that the reader is brought back to the backyard reality.

Siblings. I have a daughter and a son, a little over 2.5 years apart. They are the absolute best of playmates. Until they’re not, and suddenly they’re beating on each other and screaming for my intervention. I’m guessing both Regan and Neubecker know this scenario. At the start of the book, we’re introduced to Niko and his spaceship invention. We then meet his sister, Posh. But, we are informed, “..she is not in this story.”  Or so Niko thinks. Despite his best efforts to shake her off, Posh keeps popping up. Eventually, our frustrated Niko leaves Posh behind on the moon. He’s soon overcome by guilt, though, and returns to rescue her–only to find out that Posh doesn’t need rescuing. It’s a classic love-hate sibling relationship that plays out a dozen times a day in households all over the world.

Apart from the themes, the other thing I like about this book is the blended formats. It is, without a doubt, a picture book. But this book has eight short “chapters,” each one its own plot event. While it can still be read in a single sitting, it’s a nice (very early) introduction to the next step. Additionally, the story is illustrated in a combination of full spread illustrations and comic format, with multiple frames on each page. The occasional speech bubble is interspersed amongst the text. There’s so much to see and discuss on each page and little elements like the detailed facial expressions take the text to a whole other level

Boyds Mill (which is the book imprint of the well-known Highlights Magazine) is a small press, selective with the limited number of books they publish each year.  But that means you can get some real gems that might otherwise go unnoticed. This is one of them. I’m happy to add this to our shelves, though I doubt it’ll spend much time there.

May 25, 2015

Hey, Baby, Look! Cover (203) Hey, Baby, Look!  Kate Shannon, illustrated by Morgan Owens

Published by:Blue Dream Books (website)

Release date: 2014

Ages: 0-3


From the publisher: An important board book addition to any little person’s first library, Hey, Baby, Look! is underpinned by brain research and whimsical creativity. Its sturdy pages are rich in color, beautifully illustrated, and full of rhyming fun!


My thoughts:

In the 6 1/2 yeas I’ve been doing this parenting gig, we’re read a lot of board books. Particularly with my youngest who was a little more “hands on” in his reading.
Meaning, he would either eat or destroy paper books.
We’ve read the simplest of board books, with a single image and corresponding identifying word on a page. We’ve read board book adaptations of longer picture books. We’ve read Sheep in a Jeep until the jeep wasn’t the only thing in pieces.
But we hadn’t read anything quite like Hey, Baby, Look!  Each page starts with the phrase, ‘Hey, Baby, look!’ which, if your kid is like mine, actually works to focus the reader’s attention on that page. This is then followed by a series of questions or directions corresponding with one of four images on the opposite page:
Hey, Baby, look!
Which one keeps you warm?
Point to the boat.
Where is the show?
Which one can float?
The questions vary in cognitive ability, which is nice because it extends the life of this book. Skills range from identifying objects, to colors, to counting, to letters.  The images are simple, bright, and distinct.  Youngest readers can be guided through the questions with finger-pointing, while my older (3yo) reader actively engages and verbally responds without my prompting. We may be beyond the board books that with single images and identifying words, but this one keeps his attention and is kept in regular rotation at our house.
A fun addition to any early literacy library!
April 15, 2015

Lucky Strike Lucky Strike by Bobbie Pyron

Published by: Arthur A. Levine

Release date: March 2015

Ages: 8-12

Pages: 272

From the publisher:

Nate Harlow would love to be lucky, just once!

He’d like to win a prize, get picked first, call a coin toss right, even! But his best friend, Genesis Beam (aka Gen), believes in science and logic, and she doesn’t think for one second that there’s such a thing as luck, good or bad. She doesn’t care what names the other kids call them. She cares about being right, about saving the turtles of Paradise Beach, and she cares about Nate.

Then, on his birthday, at the Goofy Golf mini-golf course, Nate is struck by lightning — and survives! Suddenly baseballs are drawn to his bat-popular kids want HIM on their side. It seems the whole town of Paradise Beach thinks Nate has the magic touch.

But is there room for Gen in Nate’s lucky new world?


My thoughts:

Nate Harlow is the kind of kid you immediately feel sorry for. His parents were both killed in a drunk driving accident when he was four.He’s scrawny (as my 11-year-old boys are). The toaster always burns his toast.

On April eleventh, on Nate’s eleventh birthday, he wakes up feeling lucky. Today, he’s sure, his luck will turn.

And then he’s struck by lightning.

Unlucky, right? Maybe. But then strange things start to happen. The toaster pops perfect toast onto his plate, time after time. His touch starts the dead engine of an old, rickety boat that then wins the annual boat race. His raffle ticket wins his Grandpa a brand new truck. He becomes the new star baseball player.

But with his new-found luck comes trouble. Once an outsider with his best friend Gen, Nate suddenly finds himself one of the cool kids, leaving Gen to fend for herself. Grandpa’s new truck is finicky. And not all the townspeople of Paradise Beach are a fan of Nate’s new magic touch. Soon, Nate is starting to think getting struck by lightning was the most unlucky thing that’s ever happened to him. But then another tragedy occurs, one that shakes not only Nate, but all of Paradise Beach.

Bobby Pyron has captured the essence of a close-knit, working-class town. These are, for the most part, good, honest people and we want things to work out happily ever after for them. Throughout the story, we can’t help feeling sorry for Nate, first for his constant string of bad luck, and then for his curse of good luck. It’s a “careful what you wish for” type of scenario, and the reader catches on right away, torn between wanting Nate to be well-liked, and waiting for the other shoe (ha!) to drop. When it does, we feel the impact of Nate’s lesson, even while we’re shaking our heads and muttering, “I knew something like that was going to happen.” And then there’s Gen, who is perhaps most negatively impacted by Nate’s good luck. Strong, awkward, independent…Gen is the embodiment of adolescence.  Trying to find her place, itchy in her own skin (even if she pretends not to be), as hungry for acceptance as she is for remaining true to herself. Lucky Strike‘s greatest strength is its characters. In our willingness to cheer for them, to frown on them, to shake our heads at their blinders, and to feel ourselves lucky enough to be a part of the Paradise Beach community.

Interested in reading more?  Check out the excerpt below!

Monday morning found Nate fixing his own breakfast and telling himself to hurry up or he’d miss the bus.

“Sorry, boy,” his grandpa had said the night before as he packed his cooler for the next day. “I got so many fishing trips lined up this week, I have to be out the door before sunup every blessed day.” Grandpa bustled around the little trailer, smiling in a way Nate hadn’t seen in a long time. “Don’t know why my luck’s changed, but I got to get while the getting is good! Got to ride this wave right in to red snapper season,” he said, pretending he was riding the surfboard of his youth.

Nate popped two slices of bread into the toaster. He watched the appliance with an eagle eye while he stirred powdered coco into his milk. Yes, the toaster had been reliable lately, but he reckoned that wouldn’t last.

Ping! Both pieces of toast sailed into the air and landed neatly, side by side, on the paper towel. The toast was truly wondrous in its perfection.

“Jeez Louise,” Nate breathed. “Did you see that, Grandpa?” He turned to the couch, grinning. But of course, his grandpa had been gone for hours.

“I’m telling you, Gen,” Nate said as the school bus bumped along the sandy road. “it was like that toaster had it all planned out. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it hadn’t buttered itself and opened the jelly jar.”

Gen looked up from her book on theoretical physics and sighed. “Nathaniel, a toaster cannot have a plan because a toaster does not have a brain.” She shook her head and poked her nose back into the book. She’d just started the chapter on Chaos Theory and found it, well, disturbing.

“I know that. I’m just telling you what I saw is all. They landed right next to each other, neat as you please. What do you think the odds are of that?” He poked her in the ribs with his elbow.

Not looking up from her book, Gen said, “It’s just like flipping a coin. If you do it enough times, the odds are in your favor. If the toast flies out of the toaster, as you claim, enough times, odds are they will land side by side one of those times.”

Nate slumped in his seat and picked at the stuffing oozing from a tear in the vinyl. “It’s not the same at all,” he mumbled. “I knew that coin was going to land on heads. I felt it for a fact.”

The bus pulled up to the entrance of the Liza P. Woods elementary. The familiar dread Nate always felt when he got to school lodged in his stomach like cold, leftover grits.

Gen gathered her books and pushed her glasses up on her nose. She watched the chaos of running, screaming, laughing, crying kids and sighed. She reached up to pluck at an eyebrow, then popped a rubberband on her wrist instead—Mrs. Beam’s latest attempt to preserve Gen’s eyebrows. Nate pulled the sleeve down on his bandaged hand and arm.

Gen blinked up at him. “Ready?”

“I guess,” he said, and followed his friend out of the bus.

“See you back here after school,” she said, like she always did, something that gave him comfort.

A spitball sailed through the air and landed in her hair. Nate plucked it out.

He watched as she walked down the long corridor, through the gauntlet of kids who laughed and taunted her. Her backpack full of books hung almost to the back of her knees. She was the only kid in school who had ironed creases in her jeans, and the face of Albert Einstein on her backpack. For one single second, Nate wanted to run and catch up to her, to glare and holler at the kids who made her life at Liza P. Woods miserable.

It wasn’t any use trying to protect Gen, though. They were the same kids who made his life miserable too. The difference, Gen always said, was he cared what those kids thought and she did not. Easy for her to say, he thought, as he turned and headed to the other end of the building where his classroom waited for him. She had the whole big, chaotic, noisy love of the Beam family behind her.

Nate pulled open the door to room 311. The cold lump of dread shimmied in his stomach. He hunched his shoulders and braced for the snickers and the eye rolling and the feet that would try to trip him up as he walked to his desk.



March 4, 2015

Jack At The Helm (The Berenson Schemes #3)  by Lisa Doan, illustrated by Ivica Stevanovic

Published by: Lerner

Release date: April 2015

Ages: 9-12

Pages: 152

From the publisher:

Jack’s parents have bought a farmhouse in Nepal. It’ll be the site of a new religion―their latest get-rich-quick scheme. Sure, the Berensons don’t know quite how to get to the place. But once they arrive, their plan is sure to work. When the Berenson family’s travels leave Jack lost in the wilderness of Nepal, a patched-up old raft is the only way to track down his mom and dad. At least this time, Jack has company. He’s riding with Harry from Connecticut, a traveling dude who has been trying to find himself―and who also wound up stranded. As Jack and Harry ride down a winding river, they’ll have to watch out for rocks, rapids, and even crocodiles!


About the Author:Lisa Doan

Lisa Doan is the author of The Berenson Schemes series – Jack the Castaway, Jack and the Wild Life and Jack at the Helm. She received a master’s degree in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her extensive travel in Africa and Asia and eight years spent living in the Caribbean were the basis for the series’ international settings. She has hatched her share of harebrained schemes, including backpacking alone from Morocco to Kenya, hitchhiking across the Sahara with Nigerian car dealers, sauntering off on an ill-advised, one-person walking safari, and opening a restaurant with no actual restaurant experience. Her occupations have included master scuba diving instructor, New York City headhunter, owner-chef of a “sort of Chinese-like” restaurant, television show set medic, and deputy prothonotary of a county court. Visit the author and download free, CCSS-aligned curriculum guides at lisadoan.org.
My thoughts:
Upon reading Jack at the Helm (and the first two books in the Berenson Schemes series) what struck my most was Jack’s unique voice. Poor Jack is a child burdened with well-meaning, but rather eccentric parents who just can’t seem to keep track of him. In this latest book, he finds himself wandering Nepal, but Jack’s no stranger to having to survive on his own. I invited Jack (and author Lisa Doan) to the blog to share a few survival tips:

Jack Berenson’s Top Tips on Surviving a Foreign Family Trip

So . . . Mom and Dad got you a passport and are taking you overseas. Here are a few guidelines for the  wanting-to-live young traveler.

Job one: Never take your eyes off your parents! It’s a little known fact that adults like to wander  off—mine have escaped me three times already. Don’t let yours get away.

 While you continue to stare at your parents, don’t pitch a tent at a random camping spot. If nobody else is camping there, then either everybody knows it’s a bad idea or everybody is dead. Don’t be that kid  that got carried off by wild dogs or dragged into the water by a crocodile.

While you keep watching your parents, stuff your pockets with a compass, Swiss army knife, antibiotics, water purification tablets, Neosporin, bandages, trail mix, an SAS Survival Handbook, rope, a tarp, rain gear, a map and flares. I’m not saying you’ll need them, but. . . .

 You blinked and your parents have disappeared. You’re in a foreign wilderness and will have to dig deep and use MacGyver-like focus to survive the night. (Bonus tip: don’t use the antibiotics you stuffed in your pocket to treat your runny nose—you’re just crying, not sick.)

 By some miracle, you’re still alive at dawn. Do you wait for your parents to rescue you? Be honest with yourself: Do you have enough food to last through their long, badly planned and poorly executed rescue operation? My own personal experience is, don’t wait.

You decide you’d better try to save yourself. Depending on where you are, you may face: avalanches,  tsunamis, wild animal attacks, heat stroke, malaria, snake bites, mud slides, volcano eruptions,  earthquakes, hurricanes, frostbite, dengue fever, ant swarms, bee swarms, locust swarms and the  occasional military coup. Prepare for the worst and know that being a good person won’t save  you—you’re going to need a lot of quick thinking and a lot of luck.

  Let me know if you make it back!


ONE LUCKY WINNER will receive ALL THREE BOOKS in the Berenson Schemes series: Jack the Castaway, Jack and the Wildlife, and Jack at the Helm.  (U.S. addresses only). Enter below by 11:59pm on Wednesday, March 18th.







Good luck!

Follow Jack on the rest of his tour:

Mon, Mar 2
Just a Little Creativity
Tues, Mar 3
The OWL for YA
Wed, Mar 4
Once Upon a Story
Thurs, Mar 5
Kid Lit Frenzy
Fri, Mar 6
Children’s Book Review
Mon, Mar 9
The Compulsive Reader
Tues, Mar 10
Books Unbound
Wed, Mar 11
Geo Librarian
Thurs, Mar 12
The Late Bloomer’s Book Blog
Fri, Mar 13
The Hiding Spot


February 19, 2015

22328530 Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb

Published by: Balzer & Bray

Release date:February 2015

Ages: 8-12

From the publisher:

Moonpenny is a tiny island in a great lake. When the summer people leave and the ferries stop running, just the tried-and-true islanders are left behind. Flor and her best, her perfect friend, Sylvie, are the only eleven-year-olds for miles and miles—and Flor couldn’t be happier. But come the end of summer, unthinkable things begin to happen. Sylvie is suddenly, mysteriously, whisked away to school on the mainland. Flor’s mother leaves to take care of Flor’s sick grandmother and doesn’t come back. Her big sister has a secret, and Flor fears it’s a dangerous one.

Meanwhile, a geologist and his peculiar daughter arrive to excavate prehistoric trilobites, one of the first creatures to develop sight. Soon Flor is helping them. As her own ability to see her life on this little lump of limestone evolves, she faces truths about those she loves—and about herself—she never imagined.
My thoughts:

You would think that living on a small island in the middle of the lake would be akin to paradise. The quiet (once the tourists leave for the summer), the lack of traffic, the sense of community.
And for some, like Flor’s father, the island is a kind of paradise. But being isolated doesn’t mean you’re sheltered from growing pains, and those coming-of-age moments of awareness, as 11-year-old Flor is finding out. Let’s see how much of this sounds familiar:

As parents/adults, we look back on those adolescent years and remember: they’re hard. In Moonpenny Island, Tricia Springstubb has captured that voice of unrest and confusion in Flor. She’s young, a tad naive, desperately optimistic. But also worried, seeking stability, and hurt. Whether you live on an isolated island, or the congested city, these are universal traits all adolescents experience.

One of the tricky parts about writing middle grade is finding balance. To wrap everything up in a nice, neat box, with a happily ever after ending, is unrealistic. And cheats the reader, who identifies with the struggles of the characters, but then feels disassociated from the perfect ending. At the same time, this is an age group who needs hope, who needs to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s not the ending they hope for. Moonpenny Island recognizes this. There are some questions left unanswered, some wounds not fully healed. But there’s also an acceptance of change and the possibility of new things and we get the sense that Flor is ready to face what’s next. And that’s what’s most important.

With a unique setting, a strong voice, and the emotional rollercoaster of those almost-a-teen years, Moonpenny Island will resonate with its target audience. And with the parents who remember.


© 2014-2021 Once Upon a Story All Rights Reserved -- Copyright notice by Blog Copyright