Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant
Set in a small town in Indiana in 1972, this is a comforting and gentle chapter book appropriate for primary grades about a 9-year-old girl named Flora. Flora is facing changes in her life: her beloved dog has recently died, her parents are separated, living in different houses, and she is starting fourth grade, which is very different from third grade. Over the course of the year, she adopts a cat, makes a new friend, and her parents get back together. There is no real conflict in the story and no swearing, violence, sex, or modern technology; it is just a sweet and simple story with a happy ending. Nothing bad really happens, except the death of Flora’s dog and that happens before the book begins and Flora comes to terms with his death, feeling that he will always be with her, and bonding with the cat she adopts. Though her parents separate, they never begin divorce proceedings and get back together and are happy again. The book has an old-fashioned feel to it, a la Beverly Cleary or Elizabeth Enright. It is a good choice when you are looking for a happy story – an ordinary girl with loving and supportive family and friends dealing with life’s changes – and this makes it appropriate for younger readers, though it is a chapter book and the main character is in fourth grade. I think older readers may be bored with it, though it is a lovely story; it is best suited to younger grades. A feel-good read about family and friendship and happy memories of your childhood hometown.
Mercy Watson to the Rescue by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
The first book in a funny and silly series of chapter books for beginning readers about Mercy Watson, the beloved pet pig of Mr. and Mrs. Watson, who loves to eat – her favorite snack being hot buttered toast. Mercy becomes an inadvertent heroine in this first book. When she climbs into bed one night with the Watsons, the weight is too much and the floor cracks open! Mercy sets off while the Watsons are trapped – they think Mercy is off to alert the fire department, when actually she is off to find a midnight snack. A misunderstanding leads to the fire department being called by the neighbors and the firemen arrive just in time to rescue the Watsons from falling through the floor. Mercy is heralded for saving the day with a plateful of hot buttered toast! With bright, over-the-top illustrations that add to the fun.
Princess Cora and the Crocodile by Laura Amy Schlitz and illustrated by Brian Floca
This is a beginning chapter book that is delightful and funny. Princess Cora is harangued all day long, by her nanny who insists she bathe three times a day, her mother, who forces her to read incredibly dull books, and her father, who insists on jumping rope 500 times every day, in order to be prepared for the day she becomes queen. Cora is bored and missing out on being a kid, but is too well-mannered to act out. She asks her fairy godmother for a dog, but instead, she finds a crocodile in her room. Dressed in Cora’s clothes and a wig, they change places for the day so Cora can have a day to herself. While Cora spends a glorious day climbing trees, picking strawberries, and getting dirty, the naughty crocodile exacts a lesson on each adult, putting them in Cora’s shoes so they realize the error of their ways in their approach to her education. The nanny is forced to take a long and cold bath, Cora’s mother is locked in the tower with the only dull books to keep her company, and Cora’s father is tied up with the jumping rope and bitten on his bottom. When Cora returns, the adults are so thankful to see her instead of the crocodile that they listen to her requests and agree to them. From now on, Cora only has to take two baths a day and she can get dirty in between, she can choose which books to read, and she can get her exercise from running and climbing outdoors. Plus, she gets a dog! The crocodile takes up residence in the castle’s pond and is fed his favorite treats regularly by Cora. With humorous illustrations that add to the fun, this is a modern fairy tale for reading aloud or for beginning readers to read on their own.
The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan
Two children, Flora and Nicholas, lost in a snowstorm after their car goes off the road and their mother goes for help, are rescued by an Irish wolfhound named Teddy. Teddy has learned to love words from his person Sylvan, a poet who adopted Teddy and brought him to his cabin in the woods where he wrote and taught aspiring poets. The children and Teddy can communicate because, as Sylvan said, “only poets and children” can hear dogs speak. Sylvan has recently died and Teddy is now looked after by Ellie, a student of Sylvan’s who comes by the cabin regularly to tend to Teddy. For several days, the roads are not passable, so the children and Teddy hunker down in the cabin. Teddy shares the sad story of Sylvan’s illness and death while the children cook, gather wood from the shed, and shovel the snow until Ellie and then the children’s parents arrive. In the happy ending, Teddy is adopted by the children’s family. Sylvan had told Teddy before his death to “find a jewel or two” and we learn that Flora’s middle name is Jewel and her mother’s name is Ruby, which adds a bit of magic to the story. Tender and moving, with beautiful, poetic language, this is a quiet and contemplative story about loss, love, and family.
One thing about the book that rang false to me is the original premise that united the children and Teddy – that two young children would be left alone while their car is towed, but if you can get past that one jarring and implausible plot contrivance, this is a beautiful story. The children were never really in danger and Flora left a note for her mother, so the parents weren’t worried, which makes the book appropriate for younger readers, while adults will have to overlook the plot contrivance to get to the heart of the story.
Barkus by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Marc Boutavant
This is a fun beginning chapter book that is the first of a new series by Patricia MacLachlan, who often includes animals in her books. Reminiscent of Henry and Mudge, this book is about a little girl named Nicky and her new companion, Barkus, a charming big brown dog. The book consists of five short chapters, each with a story about the pair that is narrated by Nicky. In the first chapter, Nicky’s uncle is traveling overseas, so he leaves his dog Barkus with Nicky and her parents. In succeeding chapters, Barkus goes to school with Nicky, has a birthday party with the neighboring dogs, rescues a kitten whom the family adopts, and spends a night camping with Nicky and the new kitten. The stories are full of energy, showing us the joy and exuberance of children and dogs, with vibrant, happy illustrations.
The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems and illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi
This is a sweet chapter book about friendship and taking chances. Diva is a little dog who lives in an apartment building with her person in Paris. She has never been outside of the building and its courtyard. Flea is a homeless cat who has been all over Paris and enjoys his adventures. The two meet and become friends. Flea helps Diva step out of her courtyard and see more of the world and Flea learns what it is to have a home and a family to love you when he is adopted by Diva’s person. Now Flea and Diva have adventures together and then return to their loving home.
Like Bug Juice on a Burger by Julie Sternberg
Nine-year-old Eleanor is going to camp this summer! The same camp that her mother went to as a child. Her mom loved the camp, but when Eleanor gets there, her first day doesn’t go so well and she wants to go home. She doesn’t like the food, there are spiderwebs, and she has to be in the baby swim class and wear a life vest. However, as camp goes on, Eleanor finds a new friend, gets to take care of a goat, and her swimming skills improve. It turns out camp isn’t so bad after all. Eleanor narrates the story and she is a charming character with a voice that rings true to children of that age. A sweet and fun story for primary grade children with cute illustrations throughout the book. This is the second book about Eleanor, the first is Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie.