Chapter Book Roundup
Now it’s time to discuss an underappreciated body of literature for children, what are often called chapter books. Since I think that term is still fairly vague, I’d call them transitional chapter books. That is, books that bridge the gap from the more challenging easy readers to the easiest novels. On the younger side, these might look like 26 FAIRMOUNT AVENUE, on the older side you have SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL and THE WHIPPING BOY. Perhaps you might also stretch and consider THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER or the RAMONA pair of Honor books. When you toss in the graphic novel series like BABYMOUSE and heavily illustrated novels like CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS then you have a diverse range of books in this field. Let’s take a closer look at some of them that have garnered 2-3 starred reviews this past year.
Horn Book: This brisk, episodic (in the best way) chapter book introduces Juana, a young girl living in Bogotá, Colombia, who loves many things: her city, her family, reading, Brussels sprouts, and her dog, Lucas. She does not like school, though, and especially not her English class—until her grandfather announces that they will be traveling to the United States to visit Spaceland. Juana’s determination to “work muy, muy hard to learn todo the English that I can possibly fit into the space between my pigtails” provides a loose framework for what follows. The first-person narration is distinctive, filled with understated humor (“[Lucas] eats math homework like a pro. The harder the homework, the faster he’ll eat it”) and frequently interspersed Spanish words which the reader is left to identify in context.
School Library Journal: Medina has written a first-person narrative filled with expressive description. Spanish words are used throughout, and their meaning is made clear through context. As both author and illustrator, Medina is able to integrate the text and illustrations in unique ways, including spreads in which Juana tells us why, for example, she strongly dislikes her school uniform or why Mami is the most important person in her life. Font design is also used creatively, such as when Medina traces the arc of a soccer ball hit hard enough to be sent “across the field.”
Kirkus Reviews: Defying simple categorization, Cecil’s 144-page illustrated narrative presents a street dog that dreams of home, a light-skinned girl who longs for companionship, and her father, a juggler who panics in front of an audience. . . Children ready to move beyond early readers will appreciate the pace of the page turns and the chance to discover visual details that characters miss.A brief denouement in the final act reveals that each main character has given the others just what they needed; a clever structure and a satisfying story.
Publishers Weekly: Set over four acts, the story-which could either be considered a very long picture book or a large-format chapter book-follows the lives of three city inhabitants. There’s Lucy, a small stray dog who romps through Bloomville, always on the lookout for food: “She takes a big sniff. These are questionable scraps. Very questionable. She eats them anyway.” Sam, a grocery clerk, is a gifted juggler with stage fright. Eleanor, Sam’s daughter, slips Lucy tidbits when she can. . . Cecil’s understated writing and careful pacing contribute substantially to this sweetly satisfying story.
Publishers Weekly: Newbery Medalist MacLachlan creates a spare, moving tale told from the perspective of Teddy, the dog of the title. Teddy can speak, but only poets and children can understand him, so Teddy isn’t surprised when both Nicholas (Nickel) and his younger sister, Flora, ask him for help when they get lost in a snowstorm. . . Using simple words that even youngest readers will understand and enjoy, MacLachlan tackles subjects such as death and mourning with understated grace (“And he closes his eyes, his hands still on my neck. By the time Ellie gets there he is still. Silence”). Overarching themes of love and family permeate the narrative, providing readers of all ages with a deep understanding of the relationship Teddy had with his previous owner and the one he is building with his new family.
Booklist: Writing in a spare cadence that is perfectly precise, Newbery Medalist MacLachlan moves back and forth in time as Teddy remembers his days with the cranky but perceptive Sylvan and regathers his sense of stability as he makes new memories with Nickle and Flora. To be able to touch the deepest places of loss, hope, and love with a minimum of flair and fuss is a rare gift, and MacLachlan gently brings her readers to a place where the results of magical thinking are as real as life’s trials.
School Library Journal: The creative team behind the “Clementine” books (Hyperion) launch a new series starring Waylon, Clementine’s science-obsessed classmate. His universe is exploding in a very personal “Big Bang.” . . . In Pennypacker’s skillful hands, Waylon is an appealing everykid whose passion for science just might spark readers’ curiosity as he contemplates ideas from angstroms to alien hand syndrome.
Booklist: Pennypacker is at her best here, creating vivid characters and showing the subtly shifting connections between them. Waylon emerges as a quirky, sympathetic individual who understands that his family and friends are fundamental to his happiness. The subplot involving his gone-goth 14-year-old sister is an unexpected pleasure, but the groundswell of goodwill culminating in the climactic scene will have the greatest impact. Alternately laugh-aloud funny and melt-your-heart tender, this illustrated chapter book is a great read-aloud choice and a memorable find for independent readers.
Horn Book: Third grader Max is getting used to his new life: his parents are newly divorced, and his dad is settling into a new apartment. . . Urban’s touch is light throughout, and with likable characters, cheerful black-and-white illustrations, and a story just right for budding chapter-book readers, she’s off to a good start.
Publishers Weekly: Urban’s subtle and perceptive take on divorce will resonate with children facing similar predicaments as she blends Max’s worries and “someone-sitting-on-his-chest” feelings with a vivid imagination and good intentions that take father and son on some very entertaining adventures-with future ones planned.
Booklist: Divided into weekend segments, the narrative includes plenty of amusing and lovable moments, while not glossing over the times when Max feels uncomfortable in the new apartment, or the fact that Dad sometimes gets the blues (or a cold). The cast of characters grows throughout, but at the heart of the story is Max’s warm, easygoing relationship with his father.
Finally, I’m going to mention a couple of books that are probably more popular than anything else mentioned above, but probably lacking in sufficient literary merit to even warrant a suggestion much less a nomination: OF MICE AND MAGIC by Ursula Vernon and DOG MAN by Dav Pilkey. I know these books are complicated by the series issue and the art vs. text issue and the popularity vs literary merit issue, but I would ask if are we doing both these young readers and their beloved authors a disservice by dismissing them so easily?
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at email@example.com
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