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Book Reviews

Playful Boys, Creative Guys and the Big Outdoors


Mini Machines

What is it about little kids and big machines?  Maybe it’s all the amazing thuds, groans, creaks and roars emitted by these contraptions as they go about their business of digging, dumping, shifting and constructing.  In cheery board books perfectly sized for little hands, James Croft brings together rhythm, rhyme, onomatopoeia and bright pictures in four tot-friendly tales entitled Bill’s Bulldozer, Carl’s Crane, Dan’s Dump Truck and Dave’s Digger.  Croft imbues his text with a Seussian energy that makes these books especially delightful to listen to and learn from.  The cardboard sleeve keeps all four books tidily “parked” in their own “garage.”

ages 3 – 6

Robot Zombie Frankenstein!

A purple robot and a green one try to one-up each other in a lively exchange.  With each page turn, the two try out a different "identity," becoming first Robot Zombies, then pirates, then superheroes in a bid to become the best, most powerful robot ever.  The minimal text, with muttered asides from the two main characters, underscores the humor in the colorful, stylized illustrations.  The story takes a surprising turn when the dueling duo decide to collaborate on a shared endeavor:  the eating of a delectable cherry pie.  Fans of Annette Simon’s musical Mocking Birdies will chuckle at the entirely different harmony achieved by these two.

A Leaf Can Be…

In this lyrical paean to leaves, author Laura Purdie Salas uses the imagery, rhyme and rhythm of poetry to describe, with complete yet whimsical accuracy, the many functions of a leaf.  As the seasons change, a leaf changes from the “soft cradle” and “water ladle” of spring to the “wind rider” and “lake glider” of fall.  Beautiful paintings by Violeta Dabija capture the energy and color of the seasons, from the tender exuberance of spring to the brown and orange hues of autumn to the quiet frost-speckled sepia tones of winter.  Salas extends her minimal text with back matter that includes additional information about leaves and a list of resources.  This book is sure to open a child’s eyes to the wonder of the natural world.

ages 7 – 11

Passing the Music Down

Free-verse, as unforced and beautiful as the Appalachian songs it mentions, chronicles the growing friendship between a young boy from Indiana and a master fiddler in West Virginia.  The older man is “passing the music down” to this youngster, who is learning not just “tunes old as the mist and twisty as the roads” but a country way of life, where the two “gather fiddleheads” and “mend fence posts” together.  In her author’s note, Sarah Sullivan names the boy (Jake Krack) and his teacher (Melvin Wine) and lists websites and CD’s where readers can hear and discover more about their lives and music.  Barry Root’s soft-toned watercolor-and-gouache illustrations have a timeless, gentle quality perfectly in keeping with the lyrical text.

Heroes of the Year

Extraordinary Ernie is the young trainee-member of a local Superheroes Society where he and his partner, Marvelous Maud—a sheep in a leotard and pink cape—are learning the derring-do ropes.  Things get wild, wacky and woolly when the two encounter the dastardly drawings of Pencil Pete and try to foil the villain by donning disguises, including fake moustaches. Rollickingly paced and rich with humor and hijinks, this chapter book by Frances Watts is sure to corral its targeted audience.  Occasional black-and-white illustrations by Judy Watson and subplots involving somewhat goofy adult superheroes add to the fun.  Perfect for a light, summer read.

Stars in the Shadows

Author Charles R. Smith, Jr. and illustrator Frank Morrison team up to tell the dramatic story of the Negro League All-Star Game of 1934 in Chicago.  Their action-packed staging depicts the giants of black baseball as they bat, steal bases and make amazing catches, but it also captures the tenor of the times, with the announcer, fans and even a barber in a nearby shop ruminating in short asides on the segregated game and unjust Jim Crow laws.  This is historical fiction sure to hook the sports minded, with its patter, personalities, stats and close calls, and with Morrison’s dynamic graphite pictures of fiercely focused, quick-moving players.

ages 12 & up

Running with Trains

This haunting novel in poems, set in 1969, alternates between contemplative Perry, 13, and curious Steve, 9.  Perry travels through the Ohio countryside every Friday from his grandmother’s house to spend the weekend with his mother, who is working on a nursing degree; his father is missing in action in Vietnam.  Along the way, he notices a younger boy with a collie and cows.  Perry wishes he could stay put, like Steve, and be part of a stable environment.  But for Steve, the train symbolizes adventure and change, and he yearns to see what’s beyond the routines of farm life.  The odds seem against their ever meeting but even as the novel’s climactic moment (complete with cows!) draws near, Michael Rosen skillfully uses different poetic forms, including prose poems and blank verse, to explore the times and the boys’ emotions.

Mary Quattlebaum is 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.

Editor’s Note: Congratulations to Mary Quattlebaum, whose book review column received a Gold Award at the recent Parenting Media Association awards competition!