Over at Heavy Medal a week or so ago, a discussion of age-appropriateness raged on in regards to the Newbery Medal and I found myself reflecting on the children's books I choose to read. I've decided I need to branch out from time to time and try something for kids outside of my comfort zone. With school, wife, and child, I don't get to read near as much as I'd like so I still want to choose books carefully, but I've decided this can still be done even while branching out a bit within my own reading universe.
Earlier this summer I tackled CHIME, a beautifully written novel by Franny Billingsley. Since I fear it is far too old for Newbery consideration (not everyone agrees) I decided to try a few books on the other end of the spectrum, early chapter books, since it is also a genre I have very little expertise in.
First up, THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE by Gerald Morris . . . Morris has an entire early chapter book series on King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table and some of their more legendary stories. THE ADVENTURES OF SIR LANCELOT THE GREAT and THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GIVRET THE SHORT came first, back in 2009.
With this latest installment, Morris tells the tale of King Arthur's nephew, and one of his most celebrated knights, Sir Gawain. In his retelling for a younger audience, Morris writes with a current, witty humor all the while underscoring the importance King Arthur placed on courteousness and respect. Gawain goes from "the Undefeated" to "Once Defeated" to "True" in these pages. Transforming from somewhat arrogant, to humble.
I see boys in 3rd and 4th grade eating this up. It's slapstick comedy done very well for this age range. The book is so absurdly funny at times, ("Well really now! What would a dragon want with a damsel?"), that it's incredible how Morris has been able to preserve the original tales and do them justice at the same time.
Only once does his retelling veer off course for me. At one point, when learning an important lesson about keeping one's promises, Morris sidebars with: "Things are different nowadays. Nations are not founded on keeping promises so much as on bleak and gloomy things called economies, which expect people to do whatever suits them rather than what they've said they would do." It felt so out of the blue and ill-fitting compared to the rest of the pitch perfect sidebars, that it caused me to roll my eyes. But all in all, it's a minor complaint. THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE is mighty good.
Next up, I read THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS by Doreen Cronin. Cronin's probably most famous for her picture books DUCK FOR PRESIDENT; GIGGLE, GIGGLE, QUACK; and of course CLICK, CLACK, MOO: COWS THAT TYPE (a Caldecott Honor book). In THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS, Cronin introduces readers to J.J. Tully, a retired search and rescue dog, that narrates with a noir-like, hard boiled detective style.
I loved this book. I loved this book so much, I don't even know what to say about it, other than to quote some samples so you can get a taste yourself. Cronin's deadpan humor shines through from the opening paragraphs: "It was a hot, sunny day when I met that crazy chicken. So hot that sometimes I think the whole thing may have been a mirage. But mirages don't have chicken breath, mister."
What better way to get young readers familiar with the mystery genre than to put this little gem of a book in their hands. J.J. is cranky and rude, but loveable at the same time. When he first meets his "clients", he shrugs them off:
"Her name was Millicent. I called her Moosh, just because it was easier to say and it seemed to annoy her. She had two little puffy chicks with her. She called them Little Boo and Peep. I called them Dirt and Sugar, for no particular reason."
"They were half yellow, half white - like fuzzy popcorn kernels with feet. They were new enough to this world to be spitting up eggshell."
When the book's villain is revealed to be none other than a particular thorn in J.J.'s side, he grows to sympathize with the chicks and get to the bottom of their dilemma. But he doesn't lose the snarky attitude.
"There's an easy way to do a search and a hard way. The easy way is early in the evening with a cool breeze and a steady partner. The hard way is high noon with a crazy chicken clucking in your ear and two feather balls riding your tail. This search was going to go the hard way."
I could devote an entire post to this book (although I'd probably end up quoting way too much of it, thus ruining its surprise), but want to end with commending the subtle depth that Cronin provides J.J.'s narrative. I loved the following passage: "I got down as low as I could. The earth will hold on to your smelly secrets for a long, long time. And it will give them up to any dog who comes sniffing. Problem is, it gives up all its secrets at once. You have to be able to sniff through them to find the one you need. Bare feet. Barbecue sauce. Blueberries. It didn't take long to pick up what I thought was a chicken trail."
I'm sure 3rd and 4th graders will love J.J. Tully as much as I did and welcome future installments of this series.
Finally, I picked up another early chapter book with multiple starred reviews, TOYS COME HOME by Emily Jenkins. The full title reads: TOYS COME HOME: BEING THE EARLY EXPERIENCES OF AN INTELLIGENT STINGRAY, A BRAVE BUFFALO, AND A BRAND-NEW SOMEONE CALLED PLASTIC. Such a mouthful for early readers!
With a lovely "classic" feel, Jenkins tells the story of a toy stingray's awakening and how she makes her way through a world of people and new toy friends. I didn't realize that this book was actually the third of a series, serving as a prequel for the previous two.
Adorable comes to mind, when trying to think of a word to sum up this book. I love the depiction of StingRay's "awakening" in the beginning as she soaks in her new surroundings. I love her naive confusion as Bobby Dot instructs her on the routines in place within The Girl's room. I love her reaction to new feelings that pop up inside her, feelings she doesn't always have a name for. And I especially love the way StingRay struggles with, but ends up putting aside her jealousy near the end of the book, and welcomes Lumphy into her world ("You can puke on me.").
TOYS COME HOME, of the three early chapter books I read, may have the best chance of standing the test of time. I don't see many young girls getting as big a kick out of SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE as the boys will, and not all child readers will be able to appreciate the noir-like style with which THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS is written in. But with TOYS COME HOME, the themes of family, friendship, and jealousy will forever ring true for children of this age range and they couldn't be presented in a more clever, kid-friendly package.
SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE: B+
THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS: A
TOYS COME HOME: A
Maybe I need to read more early chapter books!