Otter Loves Halloween! by Sam Garton

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Otter Loves HalloweenINFORMATION

Goodreads: Otter Loves Halloween!
Series: I Am Otter
Source: Library
Published: July 21, 2015


In this delightful picture book by Sam Garton, Otter and Teddy prepare for Halloween–the best holiday ever!–by choosing the perfect pumpkin, decorating the house, and finding the scariest costumes possible. Unfortunately, Halloween becomes a little scarier than Otter wanted!  With some creativity, however, soon she and her friends are able to enjoy the festivities.

The story itself is fairly straightforward, the kind with a lesson for children (that possibly appeals more to the adults buying the books).  Things may seem scary, but you can find a way to confront your fears.  Solid enough.  But I’m reading, not for the lesson, but for Otter’s charming voice and Garton’s humorous illustrations.  Otter’s exuberance for life simply leaps off the page while the illustrations humorously moderate the story, showing Otter’s fear where she tries to play cool, her mishaps when she tries to play innocent.  The play of the narrative with the illustrations is sophisticated and fun, and something I’m sure children will enjoy, as well.

I also have to note that this holiday book is not one of those ones that you suspect the publisher rushed off to the market to make some quick cash off a familiar character in October.  The story stands on its own and the quality of the tale compares with the quality of the other Otter books.  Indeed, I would read this book all year long and not reserve it solely for Halloween–it’s that good.

Being invited to Otter’s home is always a rare treat and I hope that we continue to see much more of Otter and her friends over the years.  My dream is to see the Otter books become classics.

Krysta 64

An Elephant in the Garden by Michael Morpurgo

Elephant in the GardenINFORMATION

Goodreads: An Elephant in the Garden
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: 2009


It’s WWII and Lizzie and Karli’s father is off fighting while their mother tries to take care of  not only them but also the animals in the zoo she works at.  Then comes the news that if Dresden is bombed, the large animals will have to be shot for the safety of the citizens.  But their mother has raised the elephant Marlene from birth and convinces the zoo director that she can care for Marlene in her own garden.  But  when the bombs come, how can the family find refuge with an elephant in tow?


I picked up An Elephant in the Garden skeptically, remembering how War Horse had fallen short of my expectations,.  The book had lacked the complexity of the film and I feared this book, too, would be too simple for my liking.  However, even though the book is clearly written for a younger audience, I still found it charming.  Having a book that’s easy to read and predictable in its outcome is not always a bad thing.

Some authors can write for children with much of the same nuance and complexity they give adults; Morpurgo is not this author.  He writes historical fiction, often set in WWII, yet seems to shy away from the true horrors of war.  Here the narrator, Lizzie, mentions being hungry and tired as a refugee.  She describes watching her city burn, bombed by the Allies.  And yet none of it really hurts.  It’s all too far away now, an exhibit in a museum and not the story of a real, aching heart.  The framing device, of course, helps with this–Morpurgo makes an older Lizzie tell her story to a nursing  home worker and her son–thus young readers can always be assured that everything is all right now, everything turned out okay.  Older Lizzie is here to drink her water dutifully under the nurse’s eye to remind us that she lived.

The story itself is a rather simple arc.  The children watch their father go to war, watch their mother try to make ends meet.  They meet the elephant then must flee when Dresden goes up in flames.  Of course other predictable events happen  (spoilers till the end of the paragraph!) like meeting a handsome young Allied soldier.  Everyone who’s read any historical fiction will know he’s about to become a love interest, despite the fact that it’s easy to forget, from the way she acts, that Lizzie is sixteen and not ten.  Other predictable events occur, none of it too traumatic, all things considered, since a war is going on.  You’d think someone would be gravely injured or even die.  You’d be wrong, because this is a children’s book and we can’t upset anyone.

Ultimately, it does seem a little strange to write a book about WWII for children if you seem to think children can’t handle the horrors of WWII.  If I ignore the background setting, however, and focus on the story of Marlene, I find the book quite charming.  I guess it’s difficult to write a bad book when an elephant is the star!

3 starsKrysta 64

If You Like Cats… Then Read

If You Like, Then Read is a feature where we offer reading suggestions based on books you already like, scheduled once a month. If you have more suggestions, feel free to tell us in the comments! You can check out the rest of these lists here.

If You Like (60)

The Rose series by Holly Web

As a magician’s apprentice and a maid, Rose finds that life can sometimes be difficult.  Gustavus the talking cat, however, is always there to cheer her up–even if he likes to pretend he doesn’t care.

The May Bird series by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Dragged down into Ever After, a place of ghouls, ghosts, and specters, May Bird finds herself on the run from the evil ruler Bo Cleevil. Fortunately, her best friend Somber Kitty is still there to save the day.

The Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce

Determined to become a knight, Alanna of Trebond disguises herself as a boy to begin her training at the palace.  An incarnation of the spiritual being The Cat comes to her aid as an incarnate animal, whom she names Faithful.

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

The last of the unicorns sets forth on a quest to find the others, but finds herself defeated when she enters the castle of King Haggard.  A cat, however, may hold the key to the mystery.

Tailchaser’s Song by Tad Williams

When Tailchaser’s friend Hushpad disappears, he journeys forth to find her.  His journeys bring him into contact with a world far larger than he had imagined, ultimately leading him to a confrontation with a god of the Cats.

The Catwings series by Ursula K. LeGuin

To Mrs. Tabby’s surprise, her four kittens are all born with wings.  This allows them, however, to escape the city and set forth on adventures.

If You Like Cats, Then Watch…

If You Like, Then Read is a feature where we offer reading suggestions based on books you already like, scheduled once a month. This month, however, we are featuring a special movie edition!  If you have more suggestions, feel free to tell us in the comments! You can check out the rest of these lists here.

Kiki’s Delivery Service

At the age of thirteen, witches set out to live independently for a year in another city.  Young witch-in-training Kiki is excited to live in a city by the sea, but she worries that the only magical ability she possesses is to fly.  She starts a flying delivery service, but her continued insecurities lead to a loss of her powers–including the ability to talk to her cat.  Will Kiki learn to believe in herself before she loses her magic forever?

A Cat in Paris

Young Zoe’s cat seems normal–but at night he leads a double life, aiding a cat burglar with his job.  Then the gangsters who killed Zoe’s father come after Zoe.  Can a cat save the day?

The Secret of Kells

Brendan longs to explore the world outside the fortified outpost of Kells, but his uncle the abbot fears attacks from the invading barbarians.  Then a master illuminator arrives carrying his life’s work, a book so beautiful some believe it a miracle.  Can Brendan find the courage to save the book or will darkness destroy light?  Luckily, Brendan has a faithful cat to guide and protect him on the way!


Tim, a young orphan boy, spends his nights looking up at his favorite star Adara, who protects him from the dark.  But then one night Adara disappears and slowly the other stars begin to go out as well.  Venturing into the dark, Tim meets the Cat Shepherd, who introduces him to Nocturna, the magical world of the night filled with dream writers, hairdressers who specialize in bedheads, and more.  The Cat Shepherd believes that Moka, the head of Nocturna, will set things right, but when Moka refuses to listen, Tim knows that it’s up to him to alert the Star Keeper and save Adara before she goes out for good.

The Cat Returns

After Haru saves the life of a cat on his way home from school, the Cat King offers the paw of his son Prince Lune in marriage–and Haru has no way to refuse.  Can Haru escape the Cat Kingdom or will she find herself pledged to a feline?


The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (ARC Review)

Thing About JellyfishInformation

Goodreads: The Thing About Jellyfish
Series: None
Source: ARC
Publication Date: September 22, 2015


After Suzy Swanson’s friend dies on a family vacation to Maryland, the grown-ups tell her that some things just happen.  But Suzy knows the truth: Franny was a good swimmer, the best swimmer, and there is no way she “just died” in the ocean.  A school trip to the aquarium convinces Suzy of the real answer, that Franny must have been stung by a jellyfish.  She sets off to prove her theory in adventures that may lead her to speak with jellyfish experts around the world, or may just lead her to a means of living with her own grief.


The Thing About Jellyfish is one of those rare books that kicked me in the heart and really reminded me of why I love to read.  With a heartwarming ending, hard truths along the way, and a plethora of knowledge, The Thing About Jellyfish is the first middle grade book I have read in a while that made me feel that I learned something new.

It is so good to be able to read a fiction book and come out, not just having learned something about human nature like how to grieve, but having learned fun facts.  As an avid fantasy fan, I usually come out of books knowing something about the best way to joust or to care for a horse, but little of that is new to me anymore.  This book is new, and it is refreshing.  I have never known so much about jellyfish, and I am loving it.  Benjamin also nicely frames the facts, and Suzy’s journey coming to terms with Franny’s death, with instructions on how to do scientific research.  The structure of the book follows Suzy’s purpose, hypothesis, research, conclusions, etc.  Here is a book that makes science seem cool and reminds readers the best research happens when you are allowed to follow your own interests.

Not everything about the book is perfect.  I think the story is somewhat disingenuous about Franny and Suzy’s relationship.  [Minor spoilers ahead in this paragraph.]  Franny stops being Suzy’s friend long before her death, and she does not even simply “drift away.”  Franny drops Suzy intentionally.  She is cruel to her, calls her weird, excludes her from gatherings with her new popular friends.  The book is thus based on the strange premise that Suzy is actually grieving the death of the friend and the type of girl that Franny used to be, and maybe the potential that Franny had to become someone kind and fun again in the future.  But the two are definitely not best friends at the time of Franny’s death, which makes Suzy’s obsession with her death seem a bit delusional.  I know readers are supposed to recognize Suzy’s fixation on jellyfish an unusual manifestation of her grieving, but I think Benjamin skirts the issue that Suzy’s belief she and Franny were still friends at all is also a failure to face reality.

The book itself does not shirk from facing reality, however.  Middle schoolers can be mean, and Benjamin accurately captures what it can feel like to be the class joke for weeks after making a middle school faux pas or how hard it can be to feel like the only girl who does cannot figure out how to dress cool.  Benjamin attempts to lighten the mood by giving Suzy an older brother who empathizes, telling her middle school can be hard and there will be better times ahead.  But, let’s face it, saying “Yeah, it stinks but you’ll get through it in three years” is not that uplifting.  Mainly The Thing About Jellyfish reminded me that I would never want to go back to middle school myself, and I am truly sorry for anyone stuck there now.  I hope younger readers will read the book and take away that, if middle school is difficult for them, they are not alone.

The Thing About Jellyfish is a thoughtful story that tackles middle school, death, and moving on.  I have read several 2015 releases about children struggling to come to grief with the death of their best friend, but this one is by far the best of the batch.

Notable Quote

“But the main thing to know is this: The whole time, from before any of those extinctions, from life’s origins until this minute, jellyfish have been there, pulsing their way across the oceans and back.

“Jellyfish are survivors.  They are survivors of everything that ever happened to everyone else.”


Movie Review: Pom Poko (1994)

Movie Review


Director:  Isao Takahata
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata
Release: 1994


As a new human development encroaches upon their forest, the raccoon dogs of Tama Hills decide to renew the ancient art of shape-shifting in order to save their home.


The works of Studio Ghibli have often engaged with the theme of human development and the need to preserve the natural habitats of wildlife.  Pom Poko, however, stands apart from other films the studio has made in its somewhat more lighthearted portrayal of events; the raccoon dogs of Tama Hills are such a happy-go-lucky lot, fond of food and parties, that no setbacks in their master plan to save their home can make them downcast for long.  Watching the raccoon dogs constantly celebrate victories prematurely is sometimes bittersweet (we the audience know much more about humans and their implacable desire for development), but their joy of life is ultimately contagious.  Even as we watch Tama Hills undergo radical changes, we somehow have to believe with the raccoon dogs that things will work out.

Half the hilarity of the film comes not from the constant partying, however, but from the thought processes of the raccoon dogs.  They believe their ancient art form of transformation will enable them to learn about humans and to scare them away from the new development.  This results in ludicrous portrayals of humans and imaginative portrayals of ancient deities, monsters, and more.  What the raccoon dogs find believable or scary, however, does not always translate well to humans and that disconnect can result in ridiculous scenarios.  Still, as always,the amusing mixes with the somber; each failed attempt by the raccoon dogs means more destruction of their homes.

To its credit, the film provides no easy answers.  Humans, after all, will always continue to develop and the animals will always have to find a way to adapt or perish.  A serious undertone pervades even the most lighthearted of moments, such as when we watch the raccoon dogs court but know that they will have no way to provide for their new babies.  Still, somehow, we always, like the raccoon dogs have to have hope.  Things may change, but the raccoon dogs teach us to try to keep going, while always remembering our obligation to help those around us.

Krysta 64

Claude on the Slopes by Alex T. Smith

Claude on the SlopesInformation

Goodreads: Claude on the Slopes
Series: Claude
Source: Armchair BEA giveaway
Published: October 3, 2013


Claude, a beret-loving dog, and his best friend Sir Bobblysock live with this owners Mr. and Mrs. Shinyshoes at 112 Waggy Avenue.  When Mr. and Mrs. Shinyshoes leave the house, though, Claude and Sir Bobblysock do, too.  Today, they are looking for the perfect snow day activity–but and avalanche might put a halt to their plans.


Claude on the Slopes is a fun and heartwarming story about the magic of a snow day and the power of friendship.  The book opens with a brief overview of Claude’s background (his owner, his best friend, etc.) so readers do not have to read the series in any particular order to be able to follow along.  From there, the book jumps right into Claude’s and Sir Bobblysock’s adventures looking for the best winter activities.

The story is quirky (after all, Claude’s best friend is a sock named Sir Bobblysock), but it is also always positive.  Cluade and Sir Bobblysock are open-minded about trying new things and enjoying their snow day together.  Even with things go wrong, with the plans, or with their friendship, they are willing to put in the effort to patch things back together.  And no one ever complains.  Because of this, their friendship is really cute and inspiring.  The two are polite to the point of formality sometimes, but they obviously care for each other and always have the other’s back.

Claude on the Slopes is a quick but entertaining read.  In under 100 pages, and pretty short sentences, Alex T. Smith manages to pack a lot of heart, humor, and action.  This book would be great for children (Who can resist a talking dog in a beret?), but is also wise and fun enough to be a fun read for adults.  I would love to see Claude taking on more adventures.

If You Like Animal Stories, Then Read….

Animal Stories

The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy

An unique story about the young elephant Mud who must lead her people to the “Safe Place” by finding the legendary “White Bone.”  Gowdy brings readers inside the world and minds of her elephant protagonists, giving them voices like never before. Read Briana’s review.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

We know; it’s allegorical and not technically about animals on a farm (unless you’re taking this class).  However, Orwell does clearly put a lot of thought into characterizing each species and personifying each individual.  If you aren’t a fan of Boxer by the end, you have no heart.

The Sight by David Clement-Davies

As Palla, the alpha female in a pack of wolves, seeks shelter to give birth, she is pursued by her half-sister Morgra, who desires to claim her new niece Larka.  For Morgra and Larka both possess a mysterious ability called the Sight and, with their powers combined, Morgra can claim dominion over all the world.

Audrey (Cow) by Dan Bar-el

Audrey is a cow of poetical nature, dreaming of the day she will travel to France, the land of her ancestors, to eat  clover in new fields.  Then she learns that her actual destiny is the supermarket.  Determined not to become hamburger, Audrey makes a daring escape with the help of her farmyard friends–but can a cow actually survive by herself in the wild? Read Krysta’s review.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

Wilbur the pig wants to live a long, happy life–not be turned into bacon.  To save her new friend’s life, Charlotte the spider concocts a daring plan to convince the humans that Wilbur is no ordinary pig.  But can a mere arachnid change the course of fate?

I Am Otter by Sam Garton

Ok, there are a lot of picture books about animals we could choose to include, some more realistic than others.  I Am Otter gets bonus points for featuring an animal we haven’t seen much of in fiction before, as well as for being amazingly cute and creative. Plus, there’s still a nod to the classic picture book teddy bear. Read Krysta’s review.

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Audrey (Cow) by Dan Bar-el


Goodreads: Audrey (Cow)
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 11 Nov. 2014


Audrey the cow lives an idyllic life on Bittersweet Farm until the day her mother is taken to be turned into hamburger–and Audrey learns that the same fate awaits her.  Audrey, however, has new fields to graze, new clover to taste.  She even hopes to make it to France, the land of her ancestors.  So, along with the help of her friends, Audrey comes up with a plan for a daring escape.  But can she lead a life in the wild or will the authorities hunt her down?


 Audrey may strike some as “Charlotte’s Web with a cow” or it may seem off-putting when the cover jacket announces that over two dozen animals and humans narrate the story.  To dismiss the book so quickly, however, would be to do it an injustice.  Audrey is its own joyful, uplifting book full of humor, heart, and spunk–and it surprisingly justifies its narrative choice within the first couple pages.  Had you told me before I read it, that I would be enthralled by the journey of a cow, I might not have believed you–but oh how I now wish for a sequel.

The book starts off a bit confusingly, for the perspectives do not switch every chapter or every couple pages, but every paragraph–sometimes sooner.  At first this is slightly annoying.  After all, how can one get to know Madge the cow, much less remember her, if she only gets a few sentences before the dog starts talking?  And who is this dog anyway?  Why is he speaking?  Thoughts like these swirled around my head for awhile, distracting me from the story, but once I became accustomed to the shifts and started to get a feel for the characters, I appreciated the structure.  Dan Bar-el does not use it merely to be different, but really tells the story through it–who tells what part of the story and what they choose to reveal and what they gloss over proves significant.  Furthermore, Bar-el allows the animals and humans to interrupt each other.  Sometimes the interruptions are humorous, but they are always telling.

The characters themselves are nearly all likable, even the cows who gossip and the cougar who has a hankering for beef.  Their narrations reveal a lot about them, from their word choices to the parts of the story they choose to focus on.  Even the animals who appear only briefly make a mark.  And how clever Bar-el is with his characterizations!  From Buster the pig who loves to solve riddles to the rooster who loves to make speeches, all of them are vividly drawn.  Perhaps my favorite secondary characters, however, are the sheep, who make quite a point of noting their intelligence and discussing their sheep articles and how they impose their “collective will” to make statements of principle.  Who knew that the seemingly mindless wanderings of sheep were actually so deep!

The illustrations add a lot to the story, making the characters come alive with through their expressions and attitudes.  Often the pictures are humorous, as when we see Audrey practicing her escape attempts by balancing on a beam.  Sometimes, however, they seem more reflective.  They always add to the story, however; they are not mere decoration.

Audrey is a true treat of a story and I loved following the titular cow on her bold adventure to go where few cows had gone before and to make poetry out of a life doomed to end shortly on the supermarket shelf.  Her tenacity, hope, and kindness drive the story, so that a little something of her zest for life seems to transfer itself to the reader–and help them to see the poetry all around, too.

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

War HorseInformation

Goodreads: War Horse
Series: War Horse #1
Source: Purchased
Published: 1982


Joey adores his master Albert and his work as a farm horse in England.  But then World War I comes and the army needs every horse they can get.  Soon Joey is fighting in France and inspiring the men with his bravery.  But all he really wants is to find his way back to Albert.


War Horse warms the heart with its story of the bond between a horse and his master, and the terrors they endure while attempting to reunite.  Though written for a younger audience and thus silent on many of the horrors of war, the story provides  just enough details to reveal the pain and the sorrow that follow Joey throughout his career in the army.  The ever-present suffering is lightened by small glimpses of kindness and friendship, but these moments ultimately make the return to the grind of war even more unbearable.  Joey’s strength throughout, as well as Albert’s determination to do whatever it takes to find his horse, brought tears to my eyes and will, I have no doubt, do the same to others.

Though written from the perspective of a horse, the story lacks some of the whimsical charm or even the strangeness readers might expect.  Joey seems to understand the world around him extraordinarily well, talking about developments in the war and other human affairs like mortgages as if he knows all about them.  I would have expected a horse either not to care about such things or not to understand them–would an animal, after all, really think money made sense or politics or any of that?  He also has an extraordinary ability to repeat entire conversations verbatim, regardless of the language humans speak.  Interestingly enough, however, Joey does not seem to have a consistent ability to interpret what he hears.  For instance, he can tell readers that his owner is talking of selling him, and yet he walks off with his owner willingly and is surprised to find himself sold.  It makes me wonder how he learned all about humans and their wars and their ways when he seems to be repeating merely a bunch of strange sounds the humans make.

Aside from the perspective, I enjoyed the rest of the story reasonably well.  I found it impossible, I admit, not to compare the book to the film, and I (unfortunately for the book) realized quickly that I like the film more.  The movie, after all, can show things Joey cannot–the expressions and emotions of the soldiers, the reality of the war, the suffering of the civilians.  Joey experiences the world a little more simply, speaking not of death but of an empty saddle; remarking on the dead horses more than on the dead men.  Some of it, of course, stems from his horsiness, but the rest, I cannot help but suspect, is so as not to upset younger readers.

War Horse is a moving and a heart-warming story, one that brings readers on an incredible journey through the horrors of World War I by reminding them that love is always stronger than hate.  And yet, in the end, I would pick the movie over the book every time.