Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Dunderheads

By Paul Fleischman and illustrated by David Roberts

Candlewick Press, 2009

$16.99, ages 4-8

If you think saying the title of this book is fun, wait until you get inside this story about a quirky class of kids who plan revenge on the meanest teacher ever.

First you have to meet the menace herself, their teacher Miss Breakbone, or I should say, get past her. She fills out the first page of the book in her metal grey suit and sneers down at you as she insults her class for being twiddling, mind-wandering "dunderheads."

Until now Miss Breakbone has run roughshod over the class, giving herself gold stars for making students cry and confiscating things her students bring to class -- rumor has it to trade in for an electric chair. But now she's taken away classmate Theodore's statue of a one-eyed cat, which he dug up from a dumpster to give to his mother, and dared the class to try to get it back.

And that's exactly what they do. Theodore enlists class whiz Einstein to come up with a plan to break into Miss Breakbone's house and it takes all of their peculiar talents to outwit her.

Wheels, a tinkerer of bikes, follows Breakbone's car home in his souped up two-wheeler, then Pencil, who can draw anything from memory, slips inside the house to scope it out. And on the day of the heist, Spider, whose home is virtual climbing gym, helps the class scale the wall around her yard, while Hollywood -- a movie buff whose eyes are adjusted to dark theaters -- leads them in the dark past a house-full of party guests.

Even when the unexpected happens -- four guard dogs pounce out of the dark -- the crew is resourceful. Google Eyes, whose eyes spiral, hypnotizes the dogs and Spitball takes out the motion detectors with one wad of saliva. It's up to Clips to throw his paper clip ropes to an open window and Google Eyes to put the maid in a trance so the crew can sneak into Breakbone's bedroom and stumble upon the strongbox holding the cat.

Great on so many levels, this witty, wonderful book by Newberry Medal winner Fleischman turns an insult into a badge of pride and shows what a plucky class of misfits can do when they band together.

The Chore Board: A Helping-Around-The-House Game

By Sarah Malarkey and illustrated by J.otto Siebold

Chronicle Books, 2009

$14.99, all ages

Who would have thought a chore board could be as exciting as Candy Land? But when our boys spotted it in the mail, they couldn't ask to play it faster.

Folded out on the refrigerator door, the magnetic game had all three (ages 5, 7 and 10) hopping excitedly and asking to start chores that day. I couldn't help feel like I was in my own fantasy land and wanted to hop along with them.

Siebold's magical mix of primary colors and quirky play pieces, ranging from Dusty (the Pigpen of the group) to Count Von Shopvac baring fangs in his cleaner nozzle, had our chore slackers fixing their beds and folding clothes in record time. In less than two weeks, they'd moved all 29 spaces (each space counts for a chore) without one harumph.

Sure, there are no pictures of gumdrops or lollypops to tantalize, but as the kids wind their play pieces around the serpentining board they find fun challenges they can't resist. Each time the course loops back on itself, players must choose whether to stay on course or jump ahead by doing two chores in an hour to avoid dirty places, such as The Forest of Messy Clothes. (So focused on the challenge, they don't seem to notice that they gain only one space by doing two chores fast and what a delight to watch them scurry around the house getting those two chores done. Our rule is that they have to do quality work -- no wadding up Mom's fine washables -- and it's fascinating to see these fairly messy fellows show such attention to detail.)

Also spread out through the game are three "Answer the Spinks!" spaces, where sit sink faucets with bodies of a lion and the headdresses of a king. To move ahead, players have to correctly answer a question that challenges their brain, anything from a short spelling quiz to a science question that takes a few minutes to figure out. If parents are stumped on what to ask, Malarkey gives a short list of examples in an instruction booklet that comes with the game.

Once 29 chores are completed (26 if all detours are taken), players reach the last space, the "Totally Clean" castle and receive a reward they helped choose before the game began. In our house of boys, the reward each time is a stipend for saving for a Lego. But curiously the reward is only part of what drives them ahead. Unlike the weekday lists we used to tape on their bedroom doors, The Chore Board doesn't feel forced upon them. Everyone works at their own pace, no one goes backward and everyone eventually wins the game -- including parents if they choose to play. When kids see how fast moms and dads move along the board, they realize just how much their folks do around the house. (And the best part: parents help select their own reward, like a quiet hour or two to read in their master bedroom -- no knocking at the door allowed. Now that's decadence.)

Worth every cent, The Chore Board gets kids motivated to do something they hate to do and makes parents giddy in a way only parents can appreciate. This is one publishing gem parents will be excited to share with their friends with kids.

Let's Do Nothing

Written and illustrated by Tony Fucile

Candlewick Press, 2009

$16.99, ages 4-8

Best buddies Sal and Frankie are game for just about anything, but when they run out of stuff to do, they attempt to do nothing at all and find with hilarious results that keeping their minds blank is impossible.

Having played every sport invented and every board game they could find, Sal and Frankie can't imagine what to do next. So they plunk down on the floor and Sal, the bellwether of the two, suggests they stop talking. "All right," submits Frankie flat on his back. "Ten seconds of nothing," to which Sal sits up as if he was spring-loaded. "That's it!" he declares, now on his feet like a showman about to belt out a tune. Beside him the title page announces, "Let's Do Nothing."

But doing nothing proves difficult for Frankie, whose imagination never slows down.

When Sal suggests they pretend to be statues in a park, imaginary pigeons perch all over Frankie and he flails his arms to shoo them away. So Sal tries again: "We'll be two giant redwood trees. You can do that." Always game, Frankie chimes back, "I can do that." But then an imaginary dog lifts his leg on Frankie the tree to go to the bathroom and Frankie the boy flies off the chair.

Sal's patience is thinning, but he's still not giving up. "You know the Empire State Building in New York?," he asks "You are it!" he encourages. No pigeon or dog can upset this plan, he adds. But what's that giant furry hand with an opposable thumb reaching up from below Frankie? King Kong has a grip on Frankie's tower and he's snatched off his glasses.

OK, reacts Sal, time for a new plan.

This time Frankie lays down on the floor as Sal piles building blocks on his body. No moving, no breathing, no blinking, Sal orders. But as Frankie screams for his friend's attention, Sal's frustration with Frankie boils over. But good friends that they are, their run-in lasts only a moment when inspiration hits. "That's it!" Sal beams. "We figured it out!...There's no way to do nothing! ...Let's do something!"

Any child who's ever found themselves sighing, "I don't know what to do," will laugh themselves silly reading Fucile's first children's book and after they're done might just fly off their chair and do something too.

Bobby Bramble Loses His Brain

By Dave Keane and illustrated by David Clark

Clarion Books, 2009

$16, ages 4-8

Little eyes will do loop-de-loops of delight as they try to keep up with Bobby and his brain somersaulting from one page to the next.

Bobby is a boy who has energy to spare; he loves to climb and bounce and isn't afraid to dive off buildings. In fact, he thinks he's too hard-headed to get hurt and he can outwit gravity despite his mother's warnings that he'll fall and crack open his head.

Then one day he goes too far, leaps out from the second story of his house and topples head-first. His head pops open and out runs his brain, beginning a chase through town to get it back.

Bobby's father announces a $20 reward for its safe return, spurring the whole town to scramble to get it back. But no one is clever enough. The family needs someone as fast, strong and brave as Bobby. They need Bobby, but his thoughts are all scrambled. So they give Bobby a whiff of the top of his head to put him on the scent of his brain and Bobby takes off on instinct, leaping after his most vital organ in a race of brain against braun.

This is one of those fantasies you give into with abandon. It's crazy wonderful fun and doesn't need credibility to work. What's more you don't wince as you'd think you might when Bobby's head cracks open. Keane makes the break in Bobby's noggin look like a canister lid popping open as the brain takes off in a sprint.

A Tree for Emmy

By Mary Ann Rodman and illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss

Peachtree Publishers, 2009

$15.95, ages 4-8

Emmy would rather play with the mimosa tree in her grandma's pasture than anything and wishes for her birthday to plant one in her backyard. But none of the stores in town sell the wild tree and there isn't another tree as "stubborn and strong and little bit wild" like her.

The willows, oaks and pines in her yard are nice, but she's never wanted to swing from their branches like a possum, and they don't have fuzzy pink blossoms to stick behind her ears so she can pretend she's a flying bug or seed pods to rattle like maracas.

When grandma offers to dig up a little mimosa sapling for Emmy to plant in her yard, the problem seems solved. But then Emmy realizes it will be a long time before her tree has flowers or pods and flops hopelessly onto her bed. Will she care enough about her scrawny tree to save it from Daddy's lawn mower?

This tender story celebrates just how wonderful it is to play in the natural world and how some things, no matter how small, are worth the wait.

Ballyhoo Bay

By Judy Sierra and illustrated by Derek Anderson

Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Book, 2009

$16.99, ages 4-8

Every Saturday Mira Bella flops over to Ballyhoo Bay in her flippers to teach art to sea life, kids and grannies until one gloomy Saturday a plan to build a high-rise development on the beach threatens to put an end to etching and sketching and undersea sculpture at the bay.

The plan calls for penthouse apartments, a garage "where there once was a beach," and a "casino as high as a cloud" and tacked on is a P.S. "No children or wildlife allowed." The students see no other choice than to pack up and leave, but Mira Bella cries out, "Nonsense! We won't move away. This ridiculous notion is only Plan A." She pulls out her art tent, rallies the students to paint banners of the sea, sand and sky that they love and together they march to city hall to push for Plan B: to leave the beach as it is, "friendly and fun and fantastic and free."

Almost as fun to read as a Dr. Seuss rhyme, Sierra's read-aloud shows the power of art to change minds and gives a nod to poet John Keats' famous line, truth is beauty.