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September 2011

Book Reviews

Go Back-to-School With Books

By Mary Quattlebaum

Books about classroom hijinks and life's new challenges.


The Best Birthday Party
by Serena Romanelli and Hans deBeer. NorthSouth, 2009, $7.95

Smooth balloons, a nubbly straw hat and a satiny umbrella are but a few of the touch-and-feel delights at Wilma the sheep’s birthday party. Wilma’s friends—a rabbit, a duck and a pig—each present her with an engaging gift. And at the end—surprise!—the little lamb gives each of her animal buddies a special something that only she could make. The simple story is cute, but the whimsical illustrations are the book’s stand-out, smile-worthy feature. In each double-page spread, two brown birds hop ever closer to the pink-frosted cake until the ending finds them happily partying, too.

ages 3 – 7

Seven Little Mice Go to School
by Haruo Yamashita, illustrated by Kazuo Iwamura. North South, 2011, $16.95

Despite natty bottle-cap hats and walnut-shell shoes, the seven mice children balk at going to school. They have a litany of complaints and fears: school is too far away, the wind is too cold, there may be a bully. But clever Mother plans a walk to school like no other. Her line of squeaky little ones is soon joined by other rodents and becomes a mouse train so long and noisy that it scares off a hungry snake—and banishes the worries of the seven bewhiskered school children. Translated from a Japanese edition first published 30 years ago, this story proves that starting-school fears know no era or country and that smart, kind mamas come in all sizes and species.

Mr. President Goes to School
by Rick Walton, illustrated by Brad Sneed. Peachtree, 2010, $15.95

Gophers in the White House garden and prime ministers at one another’s throats—what’s a president to do? In this hilarious look at problem solving, Mr. President (of the United States) dons a Groucho Marx disguise and sneaks away to a place where life seemed a whole lot simpler. In Mrs. Appletree’s classroom, he fingerpaints, makes new friends, takes a nap and does the hokey pokey. And when he returns to his workaday world, Mr. President puts into effect all the important life lessons he just learned in school. Soon the feuding heads of state are sitting crisscross applesauce, talking out their differences and solidifying their friendly exchange by doing the hokey pokey, which truly shakes them out of their cantankerous, me-versus-him mindset. This wise, funny tale, with its warm-toned pictures, deals humorously with school issues such as working through conflict and taking turns. It is sure to spark spirited discussion, laughs and exuberant rounds of hokey pokey in classrooms across the country.

ages 9 - 14

When Life Gives You O.J.
by Erica Perl. Knopf, 2011, $15.99

Zelly, 10, yearns for a dog—and so her larger-than-life grandfather, Ace, gives her … a plastic orange juice jug. It’s his loudly proclaimed theory that Zelly’s zealous care of her container will convince her dubious parents that she can accept responsibility for a real pup. And as if an imaginary dog weren’t embarrassing enough, Zelly’s younger brother thinks he’s Batman, and her girlfriends keep trying to match her up with a schoolmate, Jeremy, just because she and Jeremy both are dark-haired, bespectacled and Jewish. Erica Perl, the Washington author of popular picture books, has created in Zelly an endearing, totally relatable character with a warm, wacky family. And like Pinocchio, the wooden puppet, O.J., the plastic pooch, soon seems to take on a life of his own.

Gilda Joyce: The Bones of the Holy
by Jennifer Allison. Dutton, 2011, $16.99

Uber-cool teen sleuth Gilda Joyce has to step in when her mother’s new life threatens danger. Pragmatic mom has suddenly gone ga-ga over a plump antiques dealer named Eugene Pook and plans to marry and live with him in St. Augustine, Florida. Gilda does not despair. Armed with her deceased dad’s typewriter, her notebooks and her disguises, including a plumed hat, Gilda decides to penetrate the heart of a decades-old mystery involving a ghost in a white gown who looks just like her mother. Local author Jennifer Allison blends the chilling with the comedic in stylish writing that skillfully shifts point of view to offer a nuanced, deeply felt novel with an intricate plot. This fifth book in the unique Gilda Joyce series will leave readers hungry for the sixth.


More Picture-Perfect Science Lessons
by Karen Ansberry and Emily Morgan. NSTA Press, 2007, $29.95

How do magnets work? Why does my heart beat? What do worms eat? Parents and teachers field these and what may feel like hundreds of similar questions from kids in any given week. How might we best help children to learn and even to start investigating and finding their own answers? Now, thanks to this helpful volume, adults can learn how to use picture books (Diary of a Worm, If You Find a Rock), fun crafts and simple experiments to guide scientific inquiry at an early age. This cross-curricular approach for grades kindergarten through fourth can enhance children’s skills in reading, literature and science. Authors and veteran science teachers Karen Ansberry and Emily Morgan also list the specific scientific standards of learning that connect to each lesson, a boon for any instructor. As for the three questions posed at the beginning of this review, they’re all explored here, along with the picture books that both give answers and inspire more questions.

Mary Quattlebaum is a mother and the author, most recently, of the picture books Pirate vs. Pirate (Disney Hyperion) and The Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans (Random House). You can contact Mary at, which has information about her 18 award-winning children’s books, school presentations, and writing workshops.