Tag Archives: reviews

Review: Mary Elizabeth the Spotless Cow

Today I am taking part in the blog tour for Mary Elizabeth the Spotless Cow by Sal Barbera. If you are here because of the tour, welcome! This blog focuses on reviewing lots and lots of children’s picture books.

Mary banner

We got Mary Elizabeth in the mail on Monday and have been reading it every day since then. My three-year-old has been requesting it every afternoon when we attempt to settle down for naptime. I also found him reading it on his own yesterday. He was totally engrossed in it and didn’t realize I was watching him for a few minutes. Then he looked up and said, in that nonchalant way little kids use when they are being their grown up selves, “Oh, Mommy, I just reading this book.”

Mary-Elizabeth-Spotless-Cow cover

Mary Elizabeth is the new cow on the farm and she, unlike all the other cows, has no spots. At first, the other cows ignore her and won’t play with her because she has no spots. But Mary Elizabeth has seen this kind of treatment before and she has a plan: when the other cows are asleep, she puts mud on herself to look like spots. Will it work? Will the other cows like her now that she looks like they do?

I thought this story was very sweet. At first, the other cows seem like mean bullies when they shut poor Mary Elizabeth out of their social circle, but I appreciated that Mary Elizabeth hunkers down with a plan of action. She uses her own ingenuity to take care of the problem and she does it with confidence. And once the other cows realize the error of their ways, they turn out to be not such bad cows after all.

During the month of October, the publisher is offering this book at a discount through their website. In addition, 50% of the net profits will be donated to the Phoenix Children’s Hospital’s Child Life Program. Visit http://www.sweetles.com/product/books/mary-elizabeth-the-spotless-cow-book/ for more information.

Other picture book reviews you might like:

fancy nancycowboy boydgruffalo


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The Motel of Mysteries for Perfect Picture Book Friday

Let me present:

  • The Motel of Mysteries by David Macaulay.
  • Ages 12 and up.
  • Themes: archaeology

motel of mysteries cover

My dad loves the library. He particularly loves spy thrillers and I have believed for many years that he has read all of them. Sometimes, he tells me, he gets back from the library with a fresh new book, only to realize halfway in that he has probably already read it. I was the same way as a kid, but with horse books. The children’s librarian at the Burnhaven Library put together a small catalog of chapter books on popular topics and every week, I went down the list of horse books until I had read them all. It was a great sense of accomplishment when I finished them all, but then I ran into that problem my dad probably faces: well, now what do I read?

It was always a special treat to go with Dad on his weekly visits to the library when I was little. One week, my brother and I found the “new books” display. That is where we found The Motel of Mysteries, by David Macaulay. We sat down on the floor to look through it and realized we were looking at a book unlike anything we had ever seen. It was written in the style of a National Geographic article and it appeared to be about a archaeological dig. But instead of revealing the secrets of ancient Egypt, it revealed — with hilarious wrongness — the secrets of a 1980’s motel room. The explorer, Howard Carson, misinterprets everything about the room and its contents, believing it to be a burial chamber full of religious artifacts. The TV is an altar, the bathtub is a sarcophagus, the Do Not Disturb sign is a seal to ward off thieves.

As a kid, I thought this book was pretty funny. Parts of it have remained in my memory ever since that day, resurfacing again and again. Looking at it again now, I am tickled by the section on Souvenirs and Quality Reproductions, which is a tour through the museum gift shop. Ceiling tiles have been recreated as coasters and you can have your very own coffee set based on a toilet bowl. And then there is this picture:

motel of myteries

Which is based on this one from the excavation of the ancient city of Troy:

ancient troy jewelry

When I was in college and saw this in a textbook, my mind immediately went right back to The Motel of Mysteries. There wasn’t much of an internet in those days, so I was left wondering if I had imagined the whole book as some kind of bizarre dream.

Related activities:

  • Here is a list of excavation activities for kids,
  • But if I had an older kid, I would ask him to write a story about how the items in a room of the house, like the kitchen or the laundry room, might be misinterpreted by an archaeologist of the future. I actually do this thought experiment all the time, especially when I see certain stories on the news or on nature programs. It is really helpful at developing the kind of “consider the source” thinking you have to do once you are in college. And forever afterward, I guess, if I am any indication.

This post is part of Perfect Picture Book Friday hosted by Susanna Leonard Hill. She gets the best recommendations from the best people about the best books for kids. Every week.


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Dinosaur Roar!

What does it mean when a one year old has a favorite book? Kids (ok, babies) at this age are still a little like dogs (a lot like dogs? I’m leaning toward a lot like dogs). When they get sick, you try to measure how bad it is by how they are eating and pooping. You ask yourself if the quality of their sleep is different. You hem and haw about taking them to the doctor because the doctor is just going to do the same thing you’re doing at midnight, which is guess. And then no matter the diagnosis you end up with the advice of “wait and see” which is also what you get when you take a sick dog to the vet. I guess my point is: tiny children are mysteries.

So when a one year old kid looks at a book with that look on his face – fascinated, amazed, delighted – what exactly is he responding to? What about it is different from all the other books in the basket or piled in the corner or whatever? My one year old (pause while I freak out that he’s already a whole year old) is in love with this book: Dinosaur Roar! by Paul and Henrietta Strickland.

dinosaur roarHe will dig through the other board books with some determination until he finds it, will carry it over to me using both hands, and sit in rapt wonder as I read it to him for the sixieth time. Then he grabs it, shoves it back in my hands, and signs “more.” If I’m not quick to start it up again, he will open up my hand and place it on the binding. Which is one-year-old speak for “Do it again, silly.” And if I should dare approach him with another book, he will swat it right out of my hands and go find the dino book again. He does not have time for Maisy’s Fire Engine; more Dinosaur Roar!

This book has a lot going for it. Colorful pictures: yes. Repetition: yes. Simple concept of opposites: yes. And then it has a punchline at the end as well. I like a good punchline. Maybe Donovan does, too.

Related Activities:

Teach Your Baby About Opposites: I think this would be great if, say, you were leaving your baby with someone for a few hours who said they don’t know what to “do” with the baby. Well, here. Walk around the house and play with stuff.

Makes Opposites Cards. Take photos of your kid and make cards out of them. I need to do this. I think we would wear them out.

Dinosaur Costume: Because Halloween is coming up. And also just because this is a really cute picture of a baby dressed like a dinosaur.

And just in case anyone needs another, here is my kid. Dressed like a lion, but it’s close.

donovan lion

This post is part of Perfect Picture Book Friday hosted by Susanna Leonard Hill. She gets the best recommendations from the best people about the best books for kids. Every week.


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Look What Arrived!

I took the moon for a walk

We just got a whole box of books from Barefoot Books! This was my prize for winning a contest at Mothering.com for a post I wrote for World Breastfeeding Week. You can read the post here, if you like: On Motherhood.

I Took the Moon for a Walk has to be my favorite book from this collection. We read it quite frequently and it is perfect for a bedtime book. I enjoy the rhyme and rhythm of it, which I don’t often say because sometimes I feel like the rhyming in children’s books is kind of overwhelming. Usually, it’s fine and sometimes it’s fun, but I don’t generally fall into the camp of “I love this poem!” But I am making an exception here. I also like that the story shows a child exploring the world at night without being scared or monitored by his parents. It was the kind of thing I always wanted to do when I was a kid – and something I did do a lot when I was older.

I’ve raved before about Barefoot Books because their website features free podcasts of children’s audio books. I highly recommend these if a.) you are tired of reading to your kids (it is ok to admit that it happens), b.) your child keeps asking for the same story on repeat, c.) you need something to listen to on a roadtrip. When Finn was quite young, maybe 2 years old, we found he enjoyed listening to audiobooks once he already knew the story. Our favorite was The Gingerbread Man. I told him a simple version of it, then we listened to it together for a few minutes, and before long he was requesting it after naptime.

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Thoughts I Had While Reading Lyle, Lyle Crocodile

I’ve said this before, somewhere: when I wind up reading the same book dozens of times, I have to find a way to keep it interesting. Here are some of the thoughts I recently had while reading Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile by Bernard Waber for many, many days in  row.

Look at all the square footage in this New York apartment/house. Holy moly.


Mrs. Primm and Lyle sure do spend a lot of time together.


Now it’s starting to look like they are on dates.


My favorite page in the book. Says the information lady, “I have no information about a crocodile wearing a red scarf.” If I ever work at an information booth, I am going to start every sentence with “I have information/no information about …”


I am a little traumatized that Lyle has been sent to the zoo. Don’t cry! Why am I such a wimp about crying in children’s books?


Oh, good, Lyle gets to come back from the zoo and everyone is happy. And it looks like Mrs. Primm has her nose back.


Finn loves this book and asked for the “Lild”story almost every night. His favorite part is the character of Mr. Grumps. He asks where Mr. Grumps is on every page and when a page does not contain any pictures of Mr. Grumps, he is unhappy. I would gladly buy a book entirely devoted to the adventures of Mr. Grumps.

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Review: Chanticleer and the Fox

Have you ever checked out a picture book because *you* wanted to read it and didn’t really care if your kids thought it was interesting? I admit, I have done it. And not just because I am tired of reading the same fifteen train books they have at our local branch. It happened last week when I forgot the library bag and made some dumb pronouncement outside the doors, like, “Ok, just one book each!” And then Finn came out of the stacks with one called Buenos Noches, Miami and I thought, “Ok, fine, I will puzzle out the Spanish on that for you,” and Donovan grabbed one of those First 400 Words in the Kitchen type books that are just pictures and are impossible to read.

And then I saw Chanticleer and the Fox. Ooh, ooh, a book based on Chaucer! With sweet olde-tyme illustrations as well. My heart skipped a beat. I am still still a nerd English major of the worst sort.


So … it’s not that great. I mean, the story is cute, but they could have divorced it from Chaucer a little more, in my opinion. True, they updated the language to Modern English, but they didn’t really try to make the words child-friendly. And even though I I recently fell in love with Corduroy, a story about a teddy bear who searches for a button which is not exactly high adventure, I am not sure most kids are ready to follow a story about a rooster. A married rooster, at that. My kids listened to it exactly once, with looks on their faces that seemed to say, “They make books about all kinds of things, do they?” but I guess there is value even in that. I was tired of Chanticleer by about page four. And when the fox arrived, I hoped he would get eaten.

But I did love the pictures.

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Review: Choo Choo, The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away

A review of Choo Choo, The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away by Virginia Lee Burton. I really love this book; it has a special place in my heart.

choo choo

Choo Choo is dedicated, with a beautiful charcoal drawing of a little boy, to the author’s son Aris. In this picture, he is surrounded by his toy trains and — in ever-widening circles — historical, real life trains. The story itself includes all the train-related high-points: tunnels, bridges, stations, traffic crossings, hills, train noises. It is not hard to imagine that Burton knew exactly what her son wanted to see in a train book and made him one that fit the bill. Even the endpapers feature a large panoramic scene of the tracks where Choo Choo runs. My son likes to trace his fingers over the tracks in these pictures, going over the hills and through the tunnels and across the bridge. If you have a small train lover, this book has almost everything you could ask for.

Choo Choo was one of the very first books we checked out from the library that wasn’t a board book. Finn was very young at the time, less than 18 months old, and he had very little patience for this book. There are a lot of words and they don’t rhyme or have a noticeable rhythm. It seemed to take us forever and ever to get through it and, to be honest, many times we did not read the whole thing. I thought it was too long and too wordy and spent a great deal too much space in the beginning laying out the names of the engineer and the fireman and the conductor.

But now that Finn is older, this has become one of his favorite books. Duh, of course we need to know everything about Choo Choo before she decides to run off. We need to know her engineer and see his oil can and hear about how much he loves her; because if you are a person who loves trains, you need to know all about everyone in the book who loves trains. You need to see his hat and imagine it on your own head. You need to see the conductor’s pocket watch and imagine you have one, too. We have to see where Choo Choo goes every day before she runs off, because this is how trains cast their magic spell on us: they travel along paths we can’t always see from our windows or from the roads we usually travel.

Burton is better known for her book Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, which is a pretty great book, too. But I like this one better. I saw The Little House, another book of hers, at Half Price Books last week and I am still a little irritated that I didn’t buy it (someone wanted to spend his summer reading gift certificate on a Thomas book). I think I will put that on our list.

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Review: The Keeper and the Rune Stone

Today I am featuring something a little different: a guest post by my talented colleague Christa French! Christa and I met a hundred years ago when we worked at a store together. We watched a lot of instructional videos on wicker while we were there and learned the “right” way to fold up a rug. Since then, she has proven herself to be a wonderful writer and an amazing friend. And I’m sure she remembers the right way to fold up a rug, just like I do. Christa blogs here: http://christafrench.com/ Read her review below and then go show her some love.

Review: The Keeper and the Rune Stone by Paige Pendleton

keeper and the rune stone

The Keeper and the Rune Stone is a charming, family-centric novel that takes the sweet earnestness of The Boxcar Children and maps high fantasy elements onto it.

Eleanor Driscoll, our narrator, is a precocious, empathetic thirteen-year-old with two brothers and a younger sister. She begins her story with a reasonably awesome wish-fulfillment laundry list: the Driscoll family has moved into an enormous, beautiful mansion! And they get new computers! And bikes! And horses! Of course, they will have to do chores in order to maintain these last, because this is a family story.

More to the point, the children are quickly introduced to the world of magic. Their indoctrination comes with the enhancement of the senses, though not actual superpowers – except for the reasonably fabulous ability to speak with animals.

But, of course, magic always comes with a price. There are negative elements within the world of magic, and now the Driscoll children are exposed to them – and must fight on the side of the good.

This is the kind of light, middle-grade fiction that will be torn through by hands eager to find out what happens next in the world of Eleanor and her brothers and sister.

A note for parents: most of the novel is safely PG, but there are vampires (in this book they’re called noctivagi), and the bad-guy scenes are decently scary. It doesn’t get scarier than the prologue, though, so if you’ve gotten through that with no trouble, the rest is smooth sailing.

If you read and enjoy The Keeper and the Rune Stone, we would love to hear about it. Book 2 in the series, The Keeper and the Alabaster Chalice, has recently been released.

This week, Christa is featuring a review of Dark Companion by Marta Acosta on her blog. Go. Read it.


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Review: Fancy Nancy

fancy nancy

A few days ago, I took the boys to a friend’s house to play. The little girl, we’ll call her O, had a huge collection of dress up clothes and even if she didn’t, I had the feeling that she would play dress up in whatever. She is a little younger than Finn, but she is a lot better at getting in and out of her own clothes than he is; I’m guessing because she changes outfits all the time. We have some dress up clothes at our house, notably an old felt wizard hat and a pair of fuzzy purple glasses that my neighbors were going to give to Goodwill before we took them. It’s not quite the closet O has, with tutus and headbands, baskets of shoes and twirly skirts. O has stuff you might want to dress up in; we have, you know, some old crap.

While we were playing, Finn found a pair of O’s princess high heels. They weren’t real shoes, just little plastic things for dress up. He shoved his giant feet into them and wore them around the house for a long time. By this time of the day, he was also down to wearing a t-shirt and underpants, as he had lost his shorts on a trip to the bathroom and refused to put them back on. My son in pink high heels, underpants and a t-shirt — may I never forget that vision, it was quite cute. I didn’t think to snap a picture.

The next day, I took the boys to the thrift store so we could search for some new clothes. It dawned on me about a week ago that we are depending on Finn’s hand-me-downs for the baby to wear, but that at this age very few of Finn’s clothes (most of them second hand already) are in any condition to be passed on again. So, since the boys seem agreeable to sit in a cart during the August heat, I am taking advantage and making some trips to the thrift stores to find them clothes. Finn disappeared into the middle of a clothes rack and re-emerged with a pair of plastic pink dress up high heels. “I want them,” he said.

Oh right, I thought, this is why I don’t usually bring you shopping with me: you want stuff. I thought the shoes looked too small, but Finn sat on the ground and put them on while I pawed through the racks of baby shorts. He wore them around the store for a good fifteen minutes. Another mother told me he looked adorable. I was ready to buy them — I’m not sure exactly why. Because it’s subversive and that is ok? Because they were cheap and second hand? I mean, in the end, it’s just another piece of plastic junk to fill up our tiny house; he can play with O’s shoes whenever we go to her house, does he need his own pair? But then Finn found a Minnie Mouse doll he liked better and asked for that instead.

I bring up this timely story because we just read Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser, and it is all about dressing up. Nancy likes everything to be fancy. Here I thought my son’s rejection of the worn out old wizard hat in our sad “dress up” drawer meant he didn’t care about being fancy. I am a dummy, though, because he loved this book and he is very, very excited about being fancy.

Synopsis: Nancy loves being fancy, but the rest of her family is plain. So she decides to teach them how to be fancy and they end up at a restaurant covered in Nancy’s “accessories.” At dinner, she is delighted that they eat with their pinkies up and call each other “darling.” By the end of the story, we see what a family is willing to do for each other to show their love.

The illustrations are top-notch. Nancy’s fancy clothes and curly hair and sheer exuberance are evident on every page. Her parents come across as good sports, gamely dressing up in Nancy’s creations. The page where they enter the restaurant in full movie star attitude is delightful. I was a little sad that dad’s “fancy” outfit was just a top hat and cane from a magic kit. I guess I was expecting him to look a little more like David Bowie. But I totally understand now why people throw Fancy Nancy parties. It is so much fun.

Last night when we read this book yet again (Finn calls it “the fancy book”), I told him maybe he could play dress up at school today. “Do you have a dress up corner at school?” I asked.

His eyes lit up and he nodded his head enthusiastically. “I can be fancy at school!”

And at your friends’ houses and at the thrift store and wherever, darling.


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Cowboy Boyd and Mighty Calliope

Usually, I put up reviews for books that are kind of old news. This is because they come from the library because the library is free. But today’s review is for a book that is not out yet. Something new! Exciting!

cowboy boydCowboy Boyd and Mighty Calliope is from Lisa Moser, the same author who wrote Railroad Hank. We read Railroad Hank a few months ago and loved it. It had a lot going for it, as it was about a train, but even so it is a charming book that is fun to read aloud. We would say the line “Railroad Hank rubbed his chin” very slowly and rub our own chins at the same time. Finn thought this was hilarious. Cowboy Boyd and Mighty Calliope has a similar feel. Even the illustrations seem related, though they are by a different illustrator.

Synopsis: Cowboy Boyd is a cowboy who rides a rhino instead of a horse. Calliope has trouble doing a lot of the ranching tasks and the other cowboys aren’t sure she will work out, but Cowboy Boyd believes in her. And when it’s time to soothe the cattle after a bad storm, Calliope comes through and saves the day in her own particular Calliope way.

Cowboy Boyd is a fun story. Finn asked to read it over and over again, which is always the sign of a winner. I liked Calliope as a character and would like to see her have more adventures in other books. But I think I liked Railroad Hank better over all.

This book will be available at the end of August.


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