Posts tagged middle reader

Baaa: This satirical picture book is grim, fascinating, humorous and clever.



Middle Reader

Ages 10 and up

By David Macaulay

64 pages

Houghton Mifflin



In the course of his career, David Macaulay has employed several different illustration styles. He’s an amazing artist, regardless of the medium, and a true genius. Seriously, he won the MacArthur Foundation Award—aka, The Genius Award—in 2006. The art in Baaa is black and white and beautifully done. Macaulay uses light and shade perfectly and creates texture and depth with cross hatching and carefully spaced lines.

Though this is a heavily illustrated book, the story is not for younger children. Because of the bleak subject, I’ve categorized it as a middle reader but I think there are many aspects to be appreciated by older children, teens and adults.

Baaa is a parable about overpopulation, borrowing ideas from George Orwell’s 1984 and Soylent Green, the 1973 film. Instead of people, Baaa is sheep. This satirical picture book is grim, fascinating, humorous and clever.

“There is no record of when the last person disappeared. The only person who could have recorded when the last person disappeared was the last person to disappear.”

Sometime later, sheep begin to wander from their pastures into the now deserted towns. After they’ve eaten all the flowers and grass and potted plants, they move into the houses and grocery stores.

When a television in an abandoned house is accidentally turned on, several sheep sit mesmerized by the glow emanating from the screen. Eventually they learn to operate the machines attached to the TV’s and they’re able to watch movies.

More time passes and the sheep learn to speak and read. Slowly, they learn to be more and more like humans. They inhabit the homes the people left behind, and learn to drive cars. They establish schools, travel and pursue careers; leaders emerge from the pack. Times are prosperous and the population increases.

But before long, the lines at markets begin to grow, traffic moves more slowly and grocery items are in short supply. Items must be rationed, but it’s never done fairly. Hungry sheep turn to crime. More and more sheep are unhappy and riots break out.

Just as things seem to be at their worst, there’s a miraculous end to the food shortage and a brand new product on the shelves!

Everyone is eating it and everyone loves it. Soon there’s a shortage of Baaa and the unrest returns. Armed forces return the peace. Baa returns to the shelves. The cycle repeats and the population declines, until there’s just two sheep left. They meet for lunch.

“There is no record of when the last one disappeared.”

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The Mennyms: “They were just a whole, lovely family of life-sized rag dolls.”

The Mennyms


Young Adult

Ages 10-14

By Sylvia Waugh

224 pages

Greenwillow Books



Who, or what, the Mennyms are is best summed up by a few lines from Chapter Three:

“They were not human you see — at least not in the normal sense of the word. They were not made of flesh and blood. They were just a whole, lovely family of life-sized ­­rag dolls.”

When Kate Penshaw died forty years ago, the ten dolls she created came to life. Miss Quigly and nine Mennyms were each “born” with their own histories and personalities. Collectively they’re able to tend to all the household needs, but they’re careful not to draw attention to their unusual existence. To appear human, they “pretend” various activities, including sitting down to dinner together though they needn’t ever eat.

Sir Magnus, aka Grandpa Mennym, is quite proper with a respected past. He writes articles, some about his heroics in the military, for academic publications. He manages all his business via post and is able to remain unseen. His wife, Tulip, takes care of the household finances. Their son Joshua works as a night watchman at a local factory. He disguises himself well and only ever converses with one person, to whom he just appears shy. Joshua’s wife Vinetta makes clothing to be sold in local shops. Orders are placed over the phone and Appleby, one of the couple’s five children, makes the deliveries.

Appleby is fifteen and the exact picture of a difficult teenager. She’s insolent and audacious. She’s also the only one who can pass for human in the outside world, making her fearlessness all the more dangerous. Soobie is the oldest child at sixteen and is very practical. He is the only one who won’t partake in the family’s “pretends.” He’s also made from blue yarn. The twins, Poopie and Wimpie, are around five or six, and are typically imaginative children. Though Googles is a baby and mostly just sleeps, when she is awake she’s quite happy and playful. 

Miss Quigly, the poor thing, lives in the hall closet and comes to “visit” every couple of weeks. The Mennyms, with the exception of Soobie, pretend not to notice when she sneaks out of the closet, goes out the side door, around to the front of the house and rings the bell. After visiting with the family for a few hours, Miss Quigley departs through the front door, sneaks back into the house and then into her closet until the next visit.

The Mennyms have lived in the same house since their creation. For forty years they’ve been paying rent to the inheritor of Kate’s estate through a management company. When they receive a letter from Albert Pond, the nephew of the man who owns their house, they fear discovery. Uncle Chesney has passed away; Albert is the Mennym’s new landlord and he wants to pay a visit to meet them. For obvious reasons, this cannot happen.

The family has other pressing issues to deal with. Joshua is laid off and must try to find another job in which he can remain concealed. Appleby is engaging in a secret pretend of her own and Soobie has found an unfinished doll tucked away in the attic. She’s another Mennym and his very own twin!

Waugh is a gifted storyteller and is able to draw readers into the lives of these unlikely protagonists. She’s created characters that are captivating and relatable, and the troubles they face are familiar and real, even if the Mennynm’s are not.

I look forward to sharing reviews of the Mennym’s other adventures as well. I thoroughly enjoyed them all.


The Mennyms in the Wilderness

The Mennyms Under Siege

The Mennyms Alone

The Mennyms Alive


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The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip: Shrieking orange creatures, tired goats and the value of community.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip


Middle Reader

Ages 5-12

By George Saunders

Illustrated by Lane Smith

84 pages

Villard Books



Persistent: continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition

Gappers: baseball sized, bright orange creatures with multiple eyes

Frip: a small, seaside town consisting of three leaning shacks

George Saunders is normally an adult writer by trade. His short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, Harper’s and McSweeney’s, to name a few. I’ve not acquainted myself with his other works, but I adore this book. Saunders has a gift for weaving a tale while dropping in bits and pieces that all come together to form a delightful story. And an ideal story for the illustration style of Lane Smith.

If you know children’s books, you know Lane Smith. He is the illustrator of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, The Time Warp Trio Series, Grandpa Green, It’s a Book, as well as many, many others. His style is unmistakable, even with all the copycats out there; no one comes close to Lane.  He combines a variety of media to create the most engaging, enticing, quirky, interesting and utterly perfect art. I adore his books. All of them.

If you don’t know Lane Smith’s books, a whole new world is about to open up for you.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a cautionary tale; one which demonstrates that you should not take joy in another’s misfortune, for you may someday find yourself in a similar position.

Frip’s entire population is made up of three families—Capable, and her recently widowed father, the Romos and the Ronsens—and though they all live by the sea, their livelihood is reliant on their goats, since goats make milk that the families can sell.

Gappers, those meddlesome creatures, love goats more than anything else. They attach themselves to the goats, and then proceed to emit a high-pitched squeal of pleasure. This is troublesome to the goats; it causes them lose sleep, lose weight, and eventually, stop giving milk.

It is the job of the children to brush the gappers off their family’s goats, gather the gappers in sacks, and empty the sacks into the sea. It takes the gappers three hours to crawl out of the ocean, up the cliff and back onto the goats. Therefore, the children must perform this task eight times a day. Every day.

Capable’s house is closest to the sea so the gappers always reach her goats first. When one marginally smarter gapper realizes that they can get all the goats they need from this one family, things become unbalanced.

The Romos and Ronsens couldn’t be more pleased to be relieved of their brushing duties and are all too vocal about it. Now Capable is doing the work of three families all by herself and she cannot keep up. Despite her father’s wishes, Capable asks the neighbors for help. Not only are they not willing to help, but they also blame Capable for bringing this plague upon herself! In fact, they’ve moved their houses farther away from hers so as not to “catch” whatever it is she has that brought all the gappers to her yard, instead of spreading out over all three yards.

Capable can take no more. Though her neighbors tell her she should work harder, smarter and more efficiently than physically possible, she rounds up all her goats and sells them in a nearby town. Capable knows she tried her best and her best hadn’t worked. She decides to take up fishing; something that no one in Frip has done for quite a long time.

The gappers are forced to move onto the next family’s goats, those that belong to the Romos. Evidently, it had not occurred to the other families that the gappers would be back to taunt their goats once Capable’s goats were gone. With the tables turned, the Romos now look to the Ronsens for help. The Ronsens, clearly not anticipating what is to come, refuse to help.

After a series of ridiculous (yet true to life) strategies to rid themselves of gappers, the Romos and the Ronsens find themselves in dire circumstances. Capable, initially pleased to see the families get their comeuppance, takes pity and invites them for dinner.

(I’m compelled to take a moment and tell you how much I love this illustration.)

Finally seeing the wisdom of Capable’s ways, the Romos and the Ronsens decide to sell their goats and take up fishing. And things in this small seaside town get a little better.

But what of the gappers? With the all the goats gone they need to find a new object of devotion to which they can attach themselves and emit their loving shrieks. They soon find something perfectly suitable to their needs, creating the scene of one of my favorite book endings ever.

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The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963: Read before gifting.

The Watsons Go To Birmingham: 1963


Middle Reader

Ages 10 and up

by Christopher Paul Curtis

Not illustrated

224 pages

Delacorte Books for Young Readers


Newberry Honor book


The Newbery Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. This was Christopher Paul Curtis’s first book, and it was awarded a Newbery Honor. His second book, Bud, Not Buddy (Delacorte Books for Young Readers; 1999), won the Newbery medal. The man knows how to write. His characters are genuine and relatable and his storytelling is rich and vivid.

This book is funny. Laugh out loud funny. Here’s a few of the chapter titles.

“Swedish Cremes and Welfare Cheese”

“Every Chihuahua in America Lines Up to Take a Bite out of Byron”

“I Meet Winnie’s Evil Twin Brother, the Wool Pooh”

This book is sad as well. The crux of the story is the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, an atrocity in which 4 young girls were killed. Though none of the Watsons are physically hurt, our narrator, Kenny, is fundamentally changed by the event.

The Watsons are an African-American family of five living in Flint, Michigan in the early 1960’s. Dad is from Flint, Momma was born and raised in Alabama. Byron is the oldest child at thirteen. He is vain, relentlessly teases his younger brother Kenny and is always getting into trouble. Kenny, ten, is smart, funny and an avid reader. Joetta, or Joey, the youngest child and the only girl, is very protective of her older brothers and worries constantly about the trouble Byron causes. When I was little, if my older siblings got into trouble, I would cry and beg my mother not to punish them, even when they were being punished for something they’d done to me. I never wanted there to be any trouble, I always wanted to keep the peace. That’s Joetta all over.

Byron, ever the troublemaker, has pushed his Momma too far and she makes the decision to send him to Birmingham, Alabama. He’s going to live with her mother, who will either straighten him out, or kill him. So, the whole family is going on a road trip to Alabama.

The title of the book comes from the notebook Momma puts together in preparation for the trip. She’s calculated the daily mileage, factored in food breaks, bathroom breaks and drawn up a hotel budget. Dad is very excited about the road trip and purchases an Ultra-Glide for the car. The Ultra-Glide was a turntable that attached to the dashboard of your car so that you could play records in your car. I’ve looked it up. It was real!

Kenny passes the time in the car imagining who will win the impending battle between Byron and Grandma Sands. It would be “something like if Godzilla met King Kong, or if Frankenstein met Dracula, or like when champion wrestler Bobo Brazil meets the Sheik.” But once he lays eyes on Grandma Sands, who “looked just like Momma would if someone shrank her down about five sizes and sucked all the juice out of her,” he believes Byron will destroy the old woman.

It’s September but it’s hot in Birmingham. A heat the children have never experienced before and one they’re certain no human could truly survive. In an effort to get relief from the oppressive mugginess, the children head to a local swimming hole. Despite Grandma Sands’s warnings of the whirlpools (which Kenny mistakes for “Wool Pooh” because of her thick southern accent), Kenny is determined to swim in the forbidden area. Byron and Joey leave Kenny behind to go to the public swimming spot and Kenny soon finds himself in real trouble. He’s pulled under water and comes face to face with the Wool Pooh (who looks nothing like Winnie). Just as Kenny thinks the Wool Pooh will take him for good, Byron dives into the water and saves him from drowning.

The morning of the church bombing, Joey has already left for Sunday school when Kenny hears the noise. Actually, he feels it more than hears it. Word soon spreads that the local church, the church where Joey is, has been bombed. The family rushes to the scene and Kenny walks right up to the demolished and smoldering church. He finds a shiny black shoe among the rubble and is convinced it’s Joey’s. He’s certain she’s dead. In a daze, Kenny returns home, alone, with the shiny black shoe in his pocket. When Joey appears in his bedroom, happy and completely unaware of the tragedy, he believes her to be an angel and refuses to look at her. Joey, irritated and unsettled by Kenny’s behavior, picks up the shiny black shoe and throws it at his head. Kenny finally looks at her and sees that she is unharmed and wearing both her shoes. He then learns that she was too hot in the church basement and went out to the porch for some air, escaping the tragedy.

There’s an interesting mystical connection between Kenny’s near drowning and Joetta’s near death but I want to leave that to the reader to discover.

The tragedy in Birmingham leads Momma to rethink leaving her eldest child behind, and the whole family returns to Flint together. Kenny, however, has clearly changed. He is not at all himself and spends his time in a secret hiding place, reliving the events in Birmingham and hoping that all the bad memories of what happened will magically disappear.

It’s Byron who figures out where Kenny’s been hiding and Byron who finally gets through to him, in the most sweet, patient and caring way. No matter how many times I read this book, or the speech Byron gives Kenny about how everything’s going to be all right, I’m always reading it through tears. 

Though this is a family living in a very different time you can still relate to their troubles, share in their joys and feel their pain. If you purchase this book for someone else, I highly recommend you read it yourself first.

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Esio Trot: True love, by way of a tortoise.

Esio Trot


Middle Reader

Ages 7-10

By Roald Dahl

Illustrated by Quentin Blake

64 pages


Published 1990


A quick note about the title—Esio Trot is tortoise spelled backwards.

If you’re familiar with Roald Dahl’s books, you know Quentin Blake’s art; he is Roald Dahl’s main illustrator. Blake has a vast canon of his own amazing works as well. He illustrated Dr. Seuss’s A Great Day for Up! He’s also my favorite illustrator, which is too bad because it’s near impossible to collect all of his books.

Blake’s art is loose, free, uncomplicated and energetic. He is able to capture everything you need to know with a simple line stroke and just the perfect amount of contrast. There’s movement to his art. When he works in color, he uses a perfect palette and adds just enough color to give you the essence you need. His work looks so effortless that it can, wrongly, give you the idea that what he does is easy. It’s not. There have been many illustrators who have tried to copy Blake’s style, but there’s no comparison. Only Blake can convey so much emotion with so little ink.

In Esio Trot we have my favorite illustrator drawing my favorite animal! Turtles, or in this case, tortoises. The interior art is black and white and is quintessential Blake. The tortoises each seem to have their own expression and personality. You can see the gentle heart of Mr. Hopper and hear Mrs. Silver’s laugh. And this is all accomplished through Blake’s hand.

Mr. Hoppy lives upstairs from Mrs. Silver. He’s quite smitten with her but he’s also quite shy. He often converses with her from their respective balconies but just that requires all courage he can muster. Mrs. Silver has a pet tortoise Alfie that she is quite fond of. Alfie’s lived with her for eleven years (I myself have had a pet turtle for 19 years) and in that time he has only gained three ounces. Mrs. Silver is desperate, and impatient, for Alfie to grow bigger. This situation gives Mr. Hopper an opportunity to win Mrs. Silver’s heart.

Mr. Hoppy confides that he has a secret: a phrase to say to Alfie three times a day that will make him grow. Mrs. Silver dutifully, though skeptically, follows his instructions. In the meantime, Mr. Hopper visits every pet store in town and purchases 140 tortoises of varying sizes. You see where this is going, right?

Mr. Hopper is ever so careful in his plan to make it appear as though Alfie is really growing. He weighs each tortoise, matches the colors on the shell to the original model and picks one that is ever so slightly larger to replace Alfie. He does this every week for eight weeks. Mrs. Silver is overjoyed at how well the spell is working. It’s working so well that Alfie has grown too big to fit into his house!

Not to worry. Mr. Hopper gives her another spell, this time to reverse the growing, just enough so that Alfie fits back in his house. And Mr. Silver goes through the whole process again, backwards. And it works again! Mrs. Silver is so overjoyed she invites Mr. Hopper to come down to her balcony and he proposes on the spot! She joyfully accepts. Mrs. Silver is none the wiser and Mr. Hopper is able to return all the excess tortoises he’d purchased.

Alfie, who was returned to one of those stores, is purchased a week later and goes to live with a young girl named Roberta Squibb. Roberta is grown up now; she’s married and has a family of her own. Alfie still lives with them and it’s taken him all that time to grow twice the size he was when he lived with Mrs. Silver.

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