My Online Reading

UnknownFor this post, I have decided to give a general review of the website, instead of focusing on a specific book like I usually do.  Mostly this is because all the books on this site are very, very short, and I always feel a little silly writing a synopsis that is longer than the book itself.  I believe this is an Australian website, and it has lots of books to choose from.  There isn’t much information on the site about who wrote the books or made the site, it’s pretty much just the books.  They are organized into a bunch of different categories, like people, creatures, mysteries, and disasters.

Alright, first let’s talk about what I liked about this website and its books.  First of all, it’s free.  There is no membership or login, there are no annoying ads or confusing buttons to click that lead you away from the site.  You just choose a category, click on a book, and read it.  There are silly stories and ones that are more informational, and it’s easy to differentiate between them from style of the illustrations and the title.

As I said before, these stories are all very, very short, so I recommend this site for kids who are on the cusp of becoming independent readers.  During this past school year, I volunteered at my daughter’s first grade class once a week.  Often I would spend the whole 2 hours just listening to kids read.  One little boy was a native spanish speaker, and he made good progress throughout the year, but everything was just a little bit more difficult for him.  When I read with him, he had a very predictable cycle- first he would read diligently, sounding out unfamiliar words and noticing how the text related to the pictures.  Then he would start taking long pauses between sentences, looking around the room and up at the ceiling.  Then he would pause between words, guessing what they were instead of sounding them out.  Finally, he would stop altogether and put his head on the desk.  Finished.  Sometimes, even a 10 page simple book was too much for this kid, especially if it was boring.  He needed short, light stories, and he needed lots of them so he could gain vocabulary and recognize it in a variety of contexts.  No parent wants to spend money on these types of books, because they are only useful for a very short window.  And it is a pain to lug tons and tons of them back and forth from the library.  These ones are free, and they don’t clutter your house.

Now for what I don’t care for.  These aren’t high quality stories.  Lots of them end abruptly and almost none of them have any kind of moral.  Some of them even rub me a little wrong, like the one about the mom who laughs so loudly that her daughter’s friend gets embarrassed and leaves and the mom just laughs harder.  The nonfiction ones are so condensed that you only get a couple of factoids and then it’s over.  The illustrations are very generic, although they are bright, and they help the story move along.  Basically, if you’re looking for great literature, this is not the place to go.

Lastly, there are a couple of things that are neither bad nor good, just a little unique.  It’s an Australian site, so occasionally there are issues with word usage and spelling in the stories.  I like that kind of thing as long as I’m reading with my kids, because it’s an opportunity for a cultural discussion.  The other thing is that some of the stories, particularly in the ‘disasters’ category, are kind of bizarre.  There is one on the Hindenburg and one on Agent Orange, for example.  You may like that, you may not.  Go check it out, see if it would be helpful for your early reader.

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Heather Fell In the Water, by Doug Macleod & Craig Smith

UnknownHeather is a nice girl who just wants to visit a Japanese tea house, or a farm, or even just take a walk without getting wet.  But where ever she goes, Heather always falls in the water!  She is getting fed up with it, and her parents are getting worried that someday she will fall in really deep water and be in really deep trouble.  Those water wings she wears all the time won’t help her get away from a shark in the ocean, after all.  Finally, Heather agrees to spend one day at the pool to see if the water really hates her as much as she thinks it does.  To her surprise, when she gets in the water on purpose, she has a really great time!  Her newfound knowledge gives her courage and she learns to swim, dive, and race in the water like a champion.  And her parents are so proud of her, that in their enthusiasm… they fall in the water.

My mother grew up near the ocean, and I think that is the main reason why she felt so strongly that my 5 sisters and I should learn to swim at a young age.  Even when my dad was in medical school and we had no extra money, she dragged us all out to the YMCA and spent endless Saturdays congratulating us on our newly developed talent at blowing bubbles and kicking or stepping tentatively off the diving board.  None of us are Olympic champions or anything, but we are all grateful that we can be safe and confident in the water.  That is the long story of why I like this book- it doesn’t just encourage kids to stop being afraid of the water, it teaches them that when they learn how to be safe in the water, that’s what takes the fear away and makes it fun.

Also, the illustrations of Heather going everywhere in the water wings are hilarious.  There is one picture of Heather sitting up in bed, trying to go to sleep, with those enormous water wings propping her arms straight out to the sides, that just kills me every time.  My kids stop me every time we get to the part of the book where Heather realizes that the water wants to be her friend because there is a big smiley face hidden in the water, and they just love the idea of the water smiling at them.  The always want to make sure I see it and love it as much as they do.  And I always do.

To find out if this book is at your public library, visit World Cat.

Craig Smith has a great website, as does Doug MacLeod.

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Domestic Chicken And Other Feathery Tales, by Hilary Archer

UnknownMost of us think chickens are pretty straightforward.  They peck, they roost, they taste delicious with carrots and potatoes, and we have no qualms about stealing their equally delicious eggs.  But Hilary Archer sheds new light on the secret lives of chickens, a complex and sophisticated society teeming with rich culture and depth of tradition.  In this enlightening work, we learn of the domestic chicken, the chicken club, the organic chicken, and the elusive battered chicken.  Find out what’s really going on in the hen house after hours.  Or maybe you shouldn’t- you’ll never look at your chicken pot pie the same way again.

Domestic Chicken and Other Feathery Tales is available for free on iBooks.

This story is right up my alley.  I have a deep history with chickens, and as soon as I saw the title of this story, I knew that I would love it.  It’s written in verse, but it’s good verse, not cumbersome or unnatural.  It’s a great example of verse that makes a story more amusing and musical and fun, not awkward and stilted.  I love the puns, I love the whole concept of revealing the secret world of chickens.  To be completely honest, however, my kids did not warm to this story as I hoped they would.  They really liked the pictures of the domestic chicken with the apron on, the fancy chickens at the club being all snooty, and especially the fried chicken all sunburned at the beach.  But there are just too many words and too few pictures for kids my age to get into it.  And they didn’t get the jokes about the hippy organic chicken or the cowboy free range chicken or the boxer battered chicken.  I can’t quite tell if it would be a big hit with a 10 or 12 year old, or if it’s just story that’s a little old for the little kids and a little young for the big kids.  One thing is certain, I liked it, and I’ll probably read it again, by myself, maybe under my bed covers with a flashlight, giggling.

Hilary Archer has a website mostly about her illustrations.

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The Diggers are Coming, by Susan Steggall

UnknownWhen a new construction project needs to get underway, it takes an army of people and machines, working together, to get the job done.  Wreckers and planners, mixers and tippers, bulldozers and cranes all show up and do their thing.  “They shave and shift and shove,”  “they tumble and twist and turn,” and “they rattle and roll and roar.”  With all that racket and jumble of activity, it’s hard to imagine anything actually getting built!  But in construction, you have to create a little chaos before you build something beautiful.  And at the end of the this book, the people who are coming find brand new homes waiting for them- “Everything’s done and they’re here to stay.”

So first of all, what kid doesn’t love a construction site.  I have girls, and I will be the first to admit that they are not quite as in love with trucks and trains as my nephews, no matter how much I encourage them.  But when we pass a construction site where things are getting knocked down and flattened and poured, it is nearly impossible to drag them away.  Once when my oldest was about 3, a building was getting demolished near our apartment, and we had to plan an extra half hour on our walk to the grocery store just to stop and watch the machines do their work.  So any book about a construction site is a great idea, in my opinion.

I’d like to talk about 2 things that I particularly like about this book.  The first is the great use of alliteration.  One of the things that makes construction site and machines so appealing to little kids is that they are noisy and dirty on purpose!  Susan Steggall manages to keep a very consistent flow of alliteration going through the whole book, which mimics the hectic din of people and machines in the story.  You really have to enunciate to wrap you mouth around her phrases, but it doesn’t end up feeling stretched or contrived, just crisp and busy, just like it should.  The other really effective thing she does is to manipulate her text size, style, and placement to create that construction site feeling.  She puts one bold letter in the middle of a word, or she rolls her text along the big wheel of a tractor, and she never puts more than two lines of verse next to each other on the page.  This means that you have to be a little more careful as you read not to get things out of order, but she doesn’t go over the top with it.  It is just enough, I think, to make the text itself a contributing part of the story, mirroring that rough and tumble, noisy and dirty feeling that kids like so much.

To find out if this book is at your public library, visit World Cat.

Visit Susan Steggall’s website to find out more about her and her work.

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The Brave Monkey Pirate, by Hayes Roberts

UnknownNobody likes getting shots, not even the infamous monkey pirate, Modi.  When he visits the doctor with his mom and hears that he has to get his scurvy immunization the next day, he is a little worried.  Luckily for him, his pirate monkey dad has a secret map that guides him through many terrible dangers to the home of the crab wizard, keeper of a magical talisman that will help Modi with his shot.  With the aid of this gift (and the promise of ice cream if he sits very still for the doctor), the shot is over in no time, and our brave monkey pirate Modi is safe from scurvy (and a few other things).  Modi’s adventure teaches children to find the brave monkey pirate inside of themselves, and to remember that even things that seem a little scary will be over in no time if we sit still, close our eyes, and count to three.  And hopefully we’ll all get some ice cream on the way home.

I found The Brave Monkey Pirate on the website Children’s Storybooks Online, which, as it states, has illustrated children’s stories for kids of all ages.  There are not gazillions of books on this website, but all the ones I have read are good quality, both the writing and the illustrations.  If you have a choice between volume and quality, it’s pretty much a no-brainer which one you should choose.  It is absolutely free to read the books on this site, and you don’t have a sign up for an account or access it through a subscriber like your public library, which some other sites require.  There are lots of annoying advertisements flashing constantly in the margins of the page, which, of course, is how the site can afford to stay in operation without charging for the books, and they don’t bother me too much.  If I can ignore the ads on Facebook, I can ignore them on this site.  The one thing I wish I could change about this site is the fact that you can’t view the books in full screen, which makes it tough when you’re reading to multiple children and they’re all trying to see at once.  That’s my one complaint, though.

As for the book itself, my kids really enjoyed it.  Hayes Roberts has a few books up on this site, and they all have bizarre-looking monkeys in them, and they all have some kind of lesson couched in a silly and fantastical story.  I picked this one because I like the juxtaposition of something boring and pedestrian (like getting a shot at the doctor) with something silly and magical like a pirate monkey journeying to get a talisman from a crab wizard.  This tendency- pairing the common with the fantastic- is woven through the language, story, and illustrations of all of the Hayes Roberts stories we read.  It is charming and adorable. And though I may have nightmares about the big buggish eyes he puts on all his characters, my kids didn’t seem to mind, and we will all enjoy his stories again and again.

To read The Brave Monkey Pirate and other free illustrated stories, visit Children’s Storybooks Online.



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The Watermelon Seed, by Greg Pizzoli

UnknownEveryone knows there is nobody in this world who loves chomping, slurping and gulping down copious amounts of juicy watermelon more than a crocodile.  At any time of day, any season of the year, any year of life, a crocodile (or at least, this crocodile) finds nothing so irresistible as a “big salty slab” of watermelon.  Until… he swallows a seed.  Will our melon-loving friend grow a garden of the things inside his tummy, or will he find himself changing into one, complete with vines, round belly and pink skin?  The Watermelon Seed has kids laughing out loud (and perhaps overcoming their own seed-swallowing phobias) as they wonder what a watermelon-crocodile fruit salad would taste like.

The Watermelon Seed is a great example of how fun stories with few words and simple illustrations can be.  I have a great time reading this book to my kids, and it doesn’t take me half a hour to get through it, which I appreciate when it’s 20 minutes past bedtime and I have a sink full of dirty dishes waiting for me.  I remember wondering when I was a kid whether a watermelon would grow in my belly if I swallowed a seed, and I’ve had the same discussion with each of my kids.  We just watched a Magic School Bus episode about it the other day, in fact, and the subject never ceases to fascinate them, even when they know the answers already.  This book doesn’t bother with the actual question of whether or not you will turn into a watermelon if you swallow a seed.  And maybe that’s why I like it so much.  It treats the whole subject like a big, outrageous joke, which is exactly what it is.  I think often kids (and adults) just need to learn to laugh at themselves and take their fears a little less seriously, and The Watermelon Seed helps celebrate that in its own way.

To find out if this book is at your public library, visit World Cat.

Visit Greg Pizzoli’s website to learn more about him and his books.

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Our New Baby, DK First Steps

UnknownWhen a family of 3 becomes a family of 4, there are a lot of adjustments to be made, and it’s easy for a child to become overwhelmed by the changes to their little world.  Our New Baby is a great little book all about helping children accept and embrace those changes.  There are great color photographs, straightforward but engaging text narrated in the child’s voice, and some of the captions to the photos are in fun fonts and positioned on the page to look more playful and interesting.  It is a great resource for parents looking to help their first child get ready to welcome their second.

I read this book with my girls via We Give Books, an excellent online source of free books.  The greatest part about this website is that the more people read books on their site, the more books they donate around the world to promote literacy in underprivileged areas.    I almost never review books like Our New Baby, mostly because books geared at kids age 0-3 are very short and very basic.  You try to write a summary of them and you’ve written more text than is in the book itself.    I chose this book for two reasons.  First of all, we are welcoming a new baby in just 2 months and my girls are feeling a little baby crazy.  They picked this book out of all the ones we scanned through on the website and insisted that it was the one.  Who am I to argue with a 3 and 4 year old?  The second reason is that I wanted to highlight the great selection of nonfiction books for all ages that are available on We Give Books.  More and more children’s book authors are choosing to specialize in nonfiction and are doing a great job of educating kids about all sorts of subjects in engaging, interesting, and creative ways.  It is a great new age for promoting learning at an early age about science, history, architecture, culture, all kinds of this.  And a source like We Give Books makes it easy to browse a wide variety of subjects and authors without having to hike out to the library or invest money and bookshelf space in something you’re not sure is going to float your kids’ boat.

To read Our New Baby and lots of other great fiction and nonfiction books for free, visit We Give Bookscreate a free account, and get going!

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Old Mikamba Had a Farm, by Rachel Isadora

UnknownWe all know what kind of animals Old McDonald had on his farm, and how they went oink, oink here and moo, moo there, quack, quack here and baa, baa there.  But have you ever heard of Old McDonald’s very distant cousin, Old Mikamba, and all the animals he has on his farm in Africa?  Well, he’s got elephants and cheetahs, giraffes and lizards, springboks and ostriches all yammering away in their very different languages.  In fact, with that baraa-baraa-ing, trill-trill-ing, snort-snort-ing, squawk-squawk-ing, roar-roar-ing, it’s hard to imagine Old Mikamba every gets a little peace and quiet.  Illustrated with gorgeous scenes of African animals and countryside and set to the familiar children’s tune, Old MiKamba Had a Farm is sure to entertain children while simultaneously expanding their cultural horizons.

There is so, so, so much to love about this book!  Let’s talk about the text first.  My husband gets all bent out of shape whenever a picture book author hijacks an old story or a song and uses it for a new theme.  He just thinks it is cheating.  Normally, I am all for originality, but I think this is a special case.  Old Mikamba Had a Farm is taking something universally familiar and comfortable to western culture kids (the song), as well as a theme that pretty much all kids everywhere are enthusiastic about (animals), and using them as tools to expose kids to a culture- clothes, people, houses, landscapes- that are new and foreign.  Expanding kids’ cultural horizons can be fun and easy and completely non-threatening and picture books are an amazing vehicle for the job.  Plus, using a song like Old McDonald Had a Farm, that is so integrated into our collective knowledge, creates the sense that this other people I’m learning about really aren’t that much different from me at all.  There are some great end pages about endangered animals and efforts to save them, as well as fun facts about all the animals mentioned in the book.  My one beef with the text is that I totally lost my voice trying to make the elephant, hippo and warthog noises.  It’s a tall order to snort and grrr that close to bedtime on some days.  But my kids loved it, and what wouldn’t I do to entertain them, right?

The art in this book makes me wish I had an art degree so I could talk about it with any degree of knowledgeability (yep, that’s totally a word- looked it up just now).  Simple put, it’s gorgeous.  There is nothing more beautiful than an African landscape with those amazing thorn trees, I think.  And then she uses such a variety of textures and materials that the overall effect is like some fabulously artistic patchwork quilt.  I must admit, my girls were a little thrown off that the elephant and rhinoceros looked like they were made out of newsprint collages, but it was a great opportunity to talk about different types of art and beauty.  Overall, great book, great time, we’ll read it again at bedtime tonight.

To find out if this book is at your public library, go to World Cat.

To learn more about Rachel Isadora’s life and works, you can go to her Wikipedia page.  She has a separate website featuring her art.

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The Adventures of Piñata and Tortilla, by Phillip Orozco

UnknownIn the life of a piñata, it’s pretty hard to avoid candy-crazed kids with sticks trying to beat the bejeebers out of you.  Sometimes the only option for a poor piñata is to climb a tall tree and hide out for the day, except that then you are stuck.  This is what had happened to poor Piñata on the day that Tortilla took his Tuesday hike down the trail toward the stream and heard someone calling for help.  Luckily for Piñata, Tortilla was both helpful and innovative, and with a little bit of help from a friendly puff of cotton candy, everyone ended up safe and sound on the ground.  Best of all, Piñata learned that not everyone in the world is only interested in busting him open to gobble his candy insides.  Some people are generous and kind, and even a piñata can find a true friend.

Happy Cinco de Mayo everybody!  I know this story doesn’t really have anything to do with true Mexican culture, but I am grateful to the Mexican influences on our American culture that have brought us tortillas and piñatas, without which this story would not be possible.  It would have had to be the adventures of bear and pig or something equally generic, and would have not have had a fraction of the entertainment value.  I wish you could hear my second daughters deep, throaty pirate laugh when she sees the tortilla walking around in jeans or wrapping himself around the cotton candy.  It’s pretty priceless.  As my husband says, it’s no masterpiece, but it is entertaining for kids.  And as long as you make sure your kids know that real piñatas are not alive and it’s ok to whack them with sticks, it’s a nice little story that teaches about friendship.  My kids had fun with it, I hope yours do, too.

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A Sick Day for Amos McGee, by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead

UnknownAmos McGee is just about the nicest guy and the best zoo keeper around.  He takes extra special care of all his friends- chess with contemplative elephant, footraces with the speedy tortoise, and bedtime stories for the owl who is afraid of the dark.  But one morning Amos wakes up with sniffles, sneezes, and aches all over, and he just has to go back to bed.  When his animal friends realize that Amos will not be coming to the zoo to take care of them, they decide to make a special trip out to his house to take care of him.  Together they nurse their friend back to health, taking care of him just like he does for them, and end their day with a lovely pot of tea and a bedtime story by the owl.

Charming.  Charming is the perfect word to describe this story.  I love gentle, tender Amos who takes such good care of all his quirky zoo friends.  I love that he eats oatmeal for breakfast and calls in sick when he’s got the flu.  I love that the animals all take the bus over to his tiny house, even though there is no way my imagination can find a way for that elephant to get through those tiny bus doors.  And I love that the shy penguin sits on Amos’ feet to keep them warm while he takes a nap.  This book is the work of husband-wife team Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead, and the way the illustrations meld so perfectly with the spirit of the story makes it feel very appropriate that it be the work of two people who are so closely connected.  I love this charming, charming story, and my kids loved it too.  It is perfect bedtime material.

To find out of this book is at your public library, visit World Cat.

Visit their websites to find more about author/illustrator team Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead.

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