Archive for Contemporary

Fly Away

Written by Patricia MacLachlan

Patricia MacLachlan continues to provide emergent readers with wonderful stories. This latest book is based on the words from a children’s song that was adapted from an Engelbert Humperdinck song. It tells of the birdies who fly away, but come back home.

Her main character, Lucy, is a young girl whose family is traveling back to the mother’s home in a poor, old overused, but much loved Volkswagen van with a pop-up top. Like many poor families, the children are unaware of their poverty because of the way the parents handle life with jokes and songs.

During the visit home to see the stubborn aunt who doesn’t want help, the river floods. While it rises, neighbors come to help move things and memories of the past flood into conversations.

The relationships between the young siblings is perfectly described. They share secrets as well as quiet strength with one another. One secret has to be shared publicly, though, when the littlest boy comes up missing.

Not surprisingly, it is a well-written book that children just beginning to delve into chapter books will enjoy greatly. They will be able to recognize themselves and their relationships to others within its pages. They will learn that we, like the birdies, often fly away, but then come back home.

Literacy teachers, second grade and third grade readers, librarians and parents will enjoy this book as they practice all their literacy skills, but more importantly just love reading.

  • Fly AwayTitle: Fly Away
  • Author: Patricia MacLachlan
  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books, April 2014
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 128 pages
  • ISBN:  978-1-4424-6008-9
  • Genre: Realistic Fiction
  • Grade Level: Grade 2 and above


Claude at the Beach

Written and illustrated by Alex T. Smith

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Claude, the small plump dog, and Sir Bobblysock return in this entertaining account of a vacation at the beach. The author begins with Claude’s background, making this a good stand-alone book, but don’t miss Claude’s other adventures. He lives with Mr. and Mrs. Shinyshoes and reserves his antics for when they are at work. Claude packs his suitcase with useful items, such as underpants, a lampshade, sunscreen, whipped cream, and sticky tape. He and Sir Bobblysock set off for the beach, where Bobblysock promptly falls asleep. Claude rescues a swimmer from a shark while the lifeguard helps a woman with her beach balls. After a snack, Claude and Bobblysock meet a family of pirates. They all go to hunt for buried treasure on Skull Island, which they eventually find. They also find the pirates who buried the treasure. Of course, the second group of pirates is very interested in the useful items Claude packed in his suitcase. Claude and Sir Bobblysock return home, dragging in sand, treasure, and seaweed smells.

Second grade readers will enjoy the silliness and wry humor. Read aloud is recommended, but only because sharing the jokes will make them even more fun. In any case, the story will hold kids’ attention and literacy skills will be enhanced.

  • Claude at the BeachTitle: Claude at the Beach
  • Author/Illustrator: Alex T. Smith
  • Publisher: Peachtree Publishers, 2011
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 96 pages
  • Genre: Contemporary fiction, humor
  • ISBN: 978-1-56145-703-5
  • Extras: Author blog at

I Hate Picture Books!

Written & Illustrated by Timothy Young

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Max vows to throw away of all his picture books, because they do nothing but cause him trouble. He read Harold and the Purple Crayon, but when he drew on the walls like Harold, his mother sent him to his room. When he wished a boat would take him away to Where the Wild Things Are, nothing happened. He woke up in his same old room with his same old picture books – the ones he now hates.

Readers will relish being in on the joke as Max complains that picture books make no sense (“Cows can’t type… and caterpillars don’t eat salami or Swiss cheese…”). And they will laugh out loud at a hilarious bit about what happens when you take Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham too seriously. As Max rants on and on, he realizes that he hates his picture books because sometimes they cause him to have strong emotions, like the time Are You My Mother? made him cry. Remembering that moment triggers something inside him to run to the trash and dig out the discarded book, and before you know it, he is lying on his floor with all his picture books around him, reading them again and again and again.

Perfect for second graders who may be advancing to early readers, Young reinforces how picture books stimulate our imaginations and stay with us long after we graduate from them. His skillful recreations of classic illustrations will have readers chanting, “I’ve read that one!” and will whet the appetite for those who haven’t.

Reading activities could easily stem from the hundreds of familiar book covers that appear within the pages.

  • i hate picture booksTitle: I Hate Picture Books!
  • Author/Illustrator: Timothy Young
  • Publisher: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2013
  • Reviewer: Lauren Abbey Greenberg
  • Format: Hardcover, 32 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-7643-4387-2
  • Genre: Picture Book, humor, contemporary, books

Trouper: Based on a True Rescue Story

Written by Meg Kearney
Illustrated by E.B. Lewis

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The story starts with Trouper, a stray three-legged dog running with a pack of dogs on the streets until they are all captured and loaded up in the dog catcher’s truck.

The dog in this true story was taken first to a kill shelter, then rescued by another shelter. There is no mention of the kill shelter in the children’s book. It is only in the preliminary material so can be shared with readers, but doesn’t have to be. The full color illustrations show him as he waited and waited for someone to choose him and take him home.

Children will love this story of how dogs and puppies watch for new owners to come and pick them out.

This lovely book was developed together by the award winning poet, Meg Kearney and Caldecott Honor winner, the illustrator E.B. Lewis.

Second grade readers will be able to read the short text individually and will be able to use their newly developed literacy skills of context clues, predicting outcomes, and realizing the related cause and effects.


  • TrouperTitle: Trouper: Based on a True Rescue Story
  • Author: Meg Kearney
  • Illustrator: E.B. Lewis
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press, New York, 2013
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 32 pages
  • ISBN:  978-0-545-10041-0
  • Genre: Nonfiction

Dodsworth in Tokyo

Written by Tim Egan

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Dodsworth in Tokyo is the newest installment in Tim Egan’s series about two characters, Dodsworth and a duck, traveling around the globe. Egan introduced readers to Dodsworth in The Pink Refrigerator, and though many fans consider the character of Dodsworth to be a mouse, the author himself is unsure. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly that can be found online, Tim Egan said, “I think he’s a mouse. I’ll never declare it.”

Whatever animal Dodsworth happens to be, he’s a delight in each of his books as he travels with his companion, a misbehaving duck. Prior to traveling to Tokyo, Dodsworth and the duck visited New York, Paris, London, and Rome in other books of similar names.

In the adventure in Tokyo, late first grade or second grade readers will delight and giggle as the duck bumps into a rickshaw while busily looking at the signs along the crowded street, and falls into a koi pond. The duck has to be rescued by Dodsworth. Who knew a duck couldn’t swim? This in turn, causes a lady to send a tray of wagashi (Japanese desserts) flying through the air. But the duck redeems himself by returning a little girl’s favorite toy, a kendama.

Author Tim Egan succeeds effortlessly in teaching readers about Japanese culture and introducing Japanese words, like, arigato, rickshaw, bonsai trees, karate, kendama, wagashi, sumi-e paintings, Zen temple, Taiko drummers, and sushi.

Because some of the words do not follow phonetic rules, this book would be best for skilled first or second grade readers if the children are reading the book alone. Even skilled readers may need pronunciation help with many of the words. However, this book would make an excellent addition to a geography lesson about Japan, as a read aloud by the teacher. A class might enjoy reading the Dodsworth books in order of completion, with a world map displayed on a board. Place flags on the map of the various places Dodsworth visits and encourage the kids to learn to recognize the cities and countries Dodsworth and his misbehaving duck visit.

  • Dodsworth in TokyoTITLE: Dodsworth in Tokyo
  • AUTHOR: Tim Egan
  • PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • REVIEWER: Julie Lavender
  • FORMAT: Hard Cover, 48 pages
  • ISBN: 978-0-547-87745-7
  • GENRE: Humor
  • LEXILE: 400

Crankee Doodle

Written by Tom Angleberger

Illustrated by Cece Bell

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Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on a pony.  Why?  Well, read the book and find out!  Just kidding.  Apparently, he was bored.  His pony suggested a trip to town and the story begins.  Why go to town?  Well, maybe to buy a feather for his hat.  Call it macaroni?  Really?  Apparently “’macaroni’ is just another word for ‘fancy’”.  Hmmmm, isn’t that interesting?  This book is full of ‘interesting’ information.

This graphic novel was written on a second grade reading level, but older children would enjoy it.  There are so many classroom applications for this book that I am not sure where to begin.  Writing sequence is an important lesson.  Crankee Doodle starts with “first” and moves on to “second” when asking his pony why he would want to call his hat macaroni.  Teaching social skills may be as important as teaching reading skills.  When Crankee Doodle tells his pony that he smells bad, the pony has a bit of a meltdown.  This is an excellent opportunity to teach children about appropriate communication and how our words can hurt.  It is also a chance to teach children how to deal with hurtful words.  The word choices can make comprehension a little tough for struggling readers sometimes.  However, the format makes it interesting enough to keep their attention.

Crankee Doodle is short enough so that most readers would be able to push through, even if a little frustrated.  It has just enough complexity in its storyline to keep even advanced readers interested, but not too much to confuse struggling readers.  The graphic novel style will appeal to a wide audience, young and old.

Author Tom Angleberger is also the author of the Origami Yoda books.  All kinds of fun stuff, as well as other books, can be found at his website (  Illustrator Cece Bell is both an illustrator and author.  Her website ( has information about her other works, as well as her blog.

  • Crankee DoodleTitle:  Crankee Doodle
  • Author:  Tom Angleberger
  • Illustrator:  Cece Bell
  • Publisher: Clarion Books
  • Reviewer:  Sandi Waymire
  • Hardcover:  unpaged
  • ISBN: 978-0-547-81854-2
  • Genre:  contemporary fiction
  • Lexile score:  450

When We Go Walking

Written by Cari Best

Illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker

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With integration being such an important concept in education today, this book is a must have.  What better way to interest your second grade children in taking a walk around the neighborhood or school than to follow Wendy and her family on their walk?  Walking, stretching, bending, and twisting, sight words, new vocabulary, and new ideas.  Literacy and PE all from one book.  But wait, there’s more!  Recycling and repurposing equals science.  Wendy and her family find all sorts of fun stuff to put into her collecting bag.  They see birds and trains, old clocks and old signs.  The illustrations are colorful, detailed, and have added dimension due to the creative collage work of the illustrator.   There is a wonderful “I spy” quality of this book as the text and pictures match perfectly.

Although this would be a great book to read aloud to first grade children, the vocabulary and more complex language make it more appropriate for second grade.  “Then I muscle my legs like Wonder Girl’s and lug it up the hill.”  The authors use of words in this way, paired with the illustrator’s sweet pictures help the reader expand vocabularies, learn different ways to say things, and gain comprehension from pictures.  PE, art, and even some science can be integrated into literacy lessons with this book.  It might even be possible to squeeze out a lesson on being environmentally friendly out of this book as Wendy and her brother find trash that does not belong on their Rambling Road.

Whether a child has memories of family walks or is looking forward to making them, all children (and adults) will find something fun and interesting here.

  • When We Go WalkingTitle:  When We Go Walking
  • Author:  Cari Best
  • Illustrator:  Kyrsten Brooker
  • Publisher: Amazon Children’s Publishing
  • Reviewer:  Sandi Waymire
  • Hardcover:  unpaged
  • ISBN: 9781477816486
  • Genre:  contemporary fiction
  • Lexile score:  480

What the Snakes Wrote

Written by Hazel Hutchins
Illustrated by Tina Holdcroft

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While Rufus, the farmdog, stands guard next to his doghouse, with chickens in the background and a cat’s silhouette in the window, he notices that snakes were lying in the dirt in oddly-shaped patterns. Unbeknownst to Rufus, the “shapes” were actually letters and spelled out “dog.”

Rufus decides to go on patrol of the farmyard, since the farmer is busy taking care of a hole he discovered in a field, and Rufus encounters the pigs, cows, and horse, and lots more snakes, coiled in more fascinating shapes. When Rufus saves the snakes from impending danger of a vehicle, he thinks the farmyard returns to normal. However, many other snakes emerge and contort into some kind of message.
Rufus finally fetches the farmer, and eventually the farmer reads the snakes’ message: Save Our Home. The farmer was unwittingly covering up the snakes’ den with his attempt to fill the hole in the field. With a happy ending for the snakes, the farmer, and Rufus, the author delightfully emphasizes the need to respect the habitats of animals, allowing them to coexist with humans…and dogs!

This is a really fun book for students who are making the connection between the written letter and the formation of words. The illustrations are clever and friendly, as all the animals appear to be smiling at the reader, including the snakes. Mid- to late-first grade readers can read the book alone and will enjoy recognizing the words that the snakes script in the dirt.

First or second grade teachers can incorporate this charming book into a number of lessons or unit studies: farms and farm animals, animals and their habitats, reptiles, animal appreciation, or letter recognition. Included in the back of the book are two pages of additional information about snakes, meant to be read aloud by a teacher or parent.

Author Hutchins and author/illustrator Holdcroft have contributed many other books to the children’s literature genre and have garnered picture book awards.

A creative follow-up to this story might include offering dough or clay in a center and encouraging the children to roll the dough into “snakes” and then spell words with the snake-shapes for a friend to read.

  • What the Snakes WroteTITLE: What the Snakes Wrote
  • AUTHOR: Hazel Hutchins
  • ILLUSTRATOR: Tina Holdcroft
  • PUBLISHER: Annick Press
  • REVIEWER: Julie Lavender
  • EDITION: Paperback, 32 p.
  • ISBN: 978-1-55451-472-4
  • GENRE: Contemporary


The Meanest Birthday Girl

Written by Josh Schneider

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In Josh Schneider’s book, The Meanest Birthday Girl, Dana, the main character, celebrates her birthday “doing what she likes to do,” because, after all, it’s her special day.  Doing what she likes includes wearing her favorite birthday dress and eating her favorite breakfast. But, it also means calling Anthony names at the bus stop, pinching him, and stealing his dessert at lunchtime.

After school, Dana continues her celebration with a birthday party that includes all her friends. Later, just before bedtime, Anthony arrives at her door with a gift, leaving the reader to ponder if Anthony was not invited to the party.

His gift? A large, white elephant with bright tusks and toenails that just happen to be painted with Dana’s favorite color. Dana is elated with her wonderful gift and surprised that Anthony would present her with such a nice present after she’d treated him the way she did earlier in the day.

Though Dana enjoys showing off her pet in the neighborhood, her excitement is fleeting. Her pet elephant eats Dana’s breakfast, causing her stomach to rumble on the school bus. That noisy moment invites name-calling from Gertrude, who calls Dana “Grumble-Guts.” Dana’s white elephant pet sleeps in her bed, requires much exercise, eats too much, and even crushes Dana’s bike. And, meanwhile, Gertrude continues to taunt Dana with name-calling, mud ball throwing, and dessert stealing.

Remorsefully, Dana apologizes to Anthony for her actions. When Anthony reminds Dana that Gertrude is celebrating her birthday today, Dana, seemingly uninvited to Gertrude’s party, hatches a plan. Dana gives the white elephant a bath, paints its toenails Gertrude’s favorite color, shows up at Gertrude’s door, and presents her with the white elephant, admonishing her to “Take good care of it.”

Schneider’s humorous and a bit preposterous story about a white elephant gift read aloud to a second grade class opens the door for a discussion about bullying. Many children can relate to name calling and possibly, pinching or pushing and shoving, and maybe even snatching food or toys. Children might also relate to being excluded from a party or other play activity.

After reading the book aloud, the teacher could continue in a humorous bent, allowing the kids to come up with silly, ridiculous ways to end bullying. After a fun time of creativity, the teacher could direct the conversation to a serious one about bullying, encouraging the students to talk about bullying with a trusted adult, if the need arises. The teacher could also utilize teaching time to point out behaviors that might be considered “bullying.”

For an extension of the story, the teacher could incorporate a creative writing experience and have the students write and illustrate a story called, “The Best Birthday Present I Ever Received.”

Author Josh Schneider has written other books for children, including the 2012 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award Medal Winner, Tales for Very Picky Eaters. Interestingly, Josh is married to Dana, but says on the back flap of the book’s cover, that his wife is “much less terrible than the Dana in this book.”

  • Meanest Birthday GirlTITLE: The Meanest Birthday Girl
  • AUTHOR: Josh Schneider
  • PUBLISHER: Clarion Books-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • REVIEWER: Julie Lavender
  • EDITION: Hard Cover, 48 p.
  • ISBN: 978-0547838144
  • GENRE: Contemporary

Gooney Bird on the Map

Written by Lois Lowry

Illustrated by Middy Thomas

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Mrs. Pidgeon’s second grade class is counting the days until February vacation. With just ten days until the school vacation begins, Mrs. Pidgeon’s class celebrates  Valentine’s Day, a couple of Presidents’ birthdays, practices math facts, studies geography, and tromps around in the snow during recess.

Some of the students in Gooney Bird’s class are taking exciting vacations – to Vermont, Hawaii, and Florida. But most of the classmates will be staying home in Watertower.

When the vacationers begin to brag constantly about their vacations, Gooney Bird hatches a plan to show them just how it feels when others gloat, and it involves a very large “frozen” map of the United States that the class, with the help of the school custodian, Mr. Furillo, outlines in the snow-covered playground.

By the end of the story, everyone is happy about the map project, and the gloaters tone down their vacation bragging. The book culminates with Mrs. Pidgeon’s class presenting a program to the entire school about the various states they’ve studied, using their outdoor map in the snow.

Author Lois Lowry uses this story of Gooney Bird, which is one of several Gooney Bird installations, to teach geography concepts in an interesting, yet subtle way. She makes Mrs. Pidgeon’s classroom seem like a happy place to be, where much learning – and fun – takes place.

A fun reading activity to continue the geography concepts introduced or taught by author Lowry might be to place a large United States map on the wall and encourage the children to place sticker-flags on the states they have visited.

  • Gooney BirdTITLE: Gooney Bird on the Map
  • AUTHOR: Lois Lowry
  • ILLUSTRATIOR: Middy Thomas
  • PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • REVIEWER: Julie Lavender
  • EDITION: Paperback, 125 p.
  • ISBN: 978-0-547-85088-7
  • GENRE: Contemporary
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