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3rd in Planet of the Dogs Series Is Best, Reviewer Says June 26, 2009

Our last blog was all about Robert McCarty’s Planet of the Dogs series. For the third in the series, I’m letting my assistant reviewer Thomas Jarvis, age 10, officiate. Take it away, Thomas!

Lake swimming at 40 feet depth

Thomas Jarvis: Lake swimming at 40 foot depth

 Two elves worry for three sleds carrying food and supplies deep in the blizzard. But that’s not their only problem- two reindeer are gone, Dasher and Dancer. Without them there will be no Christmas. Meanwhile, at the Planet Of The Dogs, the dogs hatch a plan.Well, at least those were my favorite parts. This fun story will make dog-loving readers go crazy for more. I loved it! 

Posted by Thomas Jarvis for


Planet of the Dog Series Barks Up the Right Tree May 31, 2009

“Out in space, on the other side of the sun is the Planet of The Dogs. This is the story of the first time dogs come to planet earth to teach people about love…” When I heard from author Robert J. McCarty about the premise of his Planet of the Dogs series, and would I like to take a look, I gave an unequivocal “Yes!” Moreover, my middle son Thomas, who’s just finished third grade, is an avid reader, particularly of  “animal stories.” We embarked on our first book co-review project.

This series for ages 6-12 (and dog lovers everywhere) from Barking Planet Productions is an impressive read that not only offers great story, accompanied by lovingly realistic illustrations by Stella Mustanoja McCarty, but conveys a refreshingly sincere, unaffected message about the necessity, nobility, loving natures, and even healing abilities, of dogs. Unlike most “dog books”, a single dog is not the hero here; the heroes are the whole race. And they save the world by following their noses with unconditional love.

I also most enjoy books from small presses and individuals because no big-publisher editors have diluted the spirit. While his message is clear, McCarty does a good job of delivering it in a non-didactic, entertaining way with good storytelling. His (and his illustrator’s) depiction of a planet where dogs roam freely and govern themselves, and their decision to journey to earth to save people from themselves, is really delightful. In fact, once we misplaced the book I was co-reading with Thomas (no finger-pointing here!), and I became pretty anxious to locate it because I truly wanted to learn what happened next!

Now I’m giving the reins to Thomas for his review based on the first two books of the series, Planet of the Dogs and Castle in the Mist. His review of the newest installment, Snow Valley Heroes: A Christmas Tale will appear soon.

“Our story begins a long, long time ago before there were dogs on Planet Earth,” the author, Robert McCarty states at the beginning of the first book of Planet of the Dogs. It’s a great read for people of all ages about the love dogs provide for humans all over the Earth. Dogs inside the book negotiate problems throughout the Earth with love as they work together with two children, Daisy and Bean. This heartwarming story shows happiness, love,healing, and teamwork as the dogs treat the world to peace. It contains realistic illustrations drawn by Stella Mustanoja McCarty, his daughter in-law.

The second book, Castle in the Mist, is very exciting. At the beginning, it introduces Prince Ukko and his guards, and we see again Daisy and Bean, the two children. But in the meantime, Prince Ukko has kidnapped the children of the Stone City ruler, who is now friends with the people of the Green Valley, thanks to the dogs. So this book is about how the dogs team up to rescue the children.  I can’t wait to finish Snow Valley Heroes.

I really recommend these books to all kids looking for some good summer reading.

–Thomas Jarvis

You can learn more about the Planet of the Dogs series and read sample chapters by visiting Libraries, bookstores and wholesalers can obtain all the books through Ingram.

Posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever


Green Christmas December 11, 2008

My husband Josh has a Quaker background that doesn’t seem to manifest itself much in his daily life anymore — except when it comes to children’s books. Blog readers familiar with the Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, know they have a distinctly “green” streak that runs deep.

So while we were waiting for our twins’ birthdate last week — they were born Wednesday, Dec. 3 — Josh read a children’s book review in one of our oft-arriving baby magazines that had him rushing to the nearest bookstore within a day or two of John and Susannah’s birth. What did he buy? Guess How Much I Love You? Love You Forever? No, he bought When Santa Turned Green by Victoria Perla.

Newly published in October 2008, this vastly different spin on the usual Santa fare centers on an unabashed environmental theme. Santa as depicted in the illustrations by Mirna Kantarevic actually bring to my mind a much older environmentally themed book by the great picture book master: The Lorax (Classic Seuss). Remember it and its famous tag-line? “I speak for the trees!”

Perla too speaks for the trees — and the polar ice caps, and the Earth’s atmosphere… in fact, the whole planet. I love how, when Santa decides he must combat the issue of global warming, he goes straight to the people who can help the most — the children:

“He went to the real future. To you.

And your sisters and brothers and friends.

That’s right, he went to the children.

Because they have the power to change the world.”

The story goes on to detail what some individual children do to help save their world, from using reusable lunch containers to composting to getting Grandpa to buy a hybrid vehicle.

Parents and educators who don’t have much patience for didactic books may be put off by this book’s overt environmental theme, but I like it for its straightforward, non-sneaky and non-apologetic tone. My guess is When Santa Turned Green will turn out to be more than just a Christmas book, snapped up by those who embrace its message and who want to help children think more broadly than Christmas lists and sleighbells.

posted by Janie McQueen for


Stinky Cheese Man author reveals all November 26, 2008

If you have a kid, you probably know author Jon Scieszka, or have seen his work — he’s behind The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs — and has two fingers on the pulses of child readers, especially boys, like no one else.

Now, Scieszka does us the kindness of letting us into his colorful life with the new juvenile autobiography Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka, which readers ages 8 and up will devour… well, like stinky cheese.  And an autobiography is appropriate. Scieszka, a former elementary school teacher who now also enjoys the title of national ambassador for children’s literature, is a big proponent of nonfiction and humor for children, especially those who have become disillusioned with typical reading fare.

In fact, he’s behind the website, which was created as an outreach project to connect boys with books they actually want to read.

”Let them read funny books, let them read nonfiction, instead of lecturing them and testing them to death,” Scieszka says in a feature for the Miami Herald. “Teachers have told me they are leaving teaching because they don’t want to be test monitors. It’s killing us, and it’s killing reading.”

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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Dedicating to the ones you love November 22, 2008

Many of you booklovers know the value of inscribing a book as a gift to someone. I remember several childhood book gifts in particular that I cherished all the more because of the neatly scripted notes scrawled on one of the first pages of the book. One of my favorites was a now long out of print book called “Ten Stories,” mostly fairy stories with whimsical watercolor illustrations, given to me by an older woman who lived in my neighborhood, who had an unforgettable and wonderful name I’m glad is inscribed forever in ink: Garnet DuLong.

The only thing really better than inscribing a book yourself can be having the author sign it. But for that to happen, all the planets have to be in alignment — it’s probably a new book, you’re in the right bookstore at the right time, and the book you’re having signed really is perfect for its intended recipient. This doesn’t happen very often. I think the only book signings that were worth my time as a consumer were for Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses, and Georgia story-spinner Bailey White’s Sleeping at the Starlite Motel: and Other Adventures on the Way Back Home. Both were held at a funky, now-defunct Atlanta independent bookstore called Oxford Books. The authors were perfect, and the recipient was perfect: me. Those were very happy occurrences.

But one of my The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever customers recenty came up with a terrific “non-signing” idea I’d never thought of, even after publishing two other books. This customer lives in Alabama, and ordered three copies of the book from Amazon to give her three grown children for Christmas. Naturally, I can’t hop over there to sign them, much as I’d like to, but she had it all figured out.

She asked me if I’d sign three holiday cards, inscribing one to each of her children, including a date and my signature. A lifelong professional educator, my customer explained what a serious book-signing fan she’d always been and wanted something personal from the author tucked in the pages of the books. So she’s going to tuck in my cards.

Not only is this an awesome idea, but this is truly a “next best” solution when you can’t have the author actually sign a book. It might not last as long, but I don’t know — I’ve retained cards for more than 20 years. They make great bookmarks.

Speaking of bookmarks, you can dedicate favorite books in much the same way, even when the author can’t be tracked down to sign a card (say, if the author is deceased or there’s no getting past the publisher or there’s no book signing tour or the author is Madonna). You can inscribe your thoughts of what the book means to you directly in the book (going a little farther than the basic “To Violet, Love Rose, Christmas 2008”), or on a card or bookmark. The recipient will gets a precious memento along with the book, and never forget the meaning it held for you, the giver.

Incidentally, anyone who has my book on their Christmas list this year and who wants to copy my smart customer’s idea and have me jot an inscription on a card is welcome to contact me at You can send me your personal cards to sign or I’ll send my own.

I may not be hitting your particular Barnes and Noble but I’m learning that proxy signing works just fine.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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Newfangled Nights Before Christmas November 10, 2008

A couple of nights ago while my husband and I were browsing in the children’s section (where else?) of a local bookstore, a Christmas-themed book caught Josh’s eye. A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas happens to be a new addition to the shelves this holiday season, and it’s a worthy and clever twist on Clement Moore’s classic The Night Before Christmas: The Heirloom Edition (Moore’s original title was A Visit From St. Nicholas).

Of course, we never tire of the classic version, but I think the seamless transition of Santa to Old Sir Peggedy and reindeer to a team of seahorses is a worthwhile departure. I’m not always a fan of rhyming books, either — you know how that is, rhymes are usually so forced — but Philip Yates does a superb job. I don’t mind at all the use of “thar” as a rhyming word. It is pirate lingo, after all.

The whimsical illustrations by Sebastia Serra and characters are perfect, and bring to my mind Melinda Long and David Shannon’s How I Became a Pirate, though maybe just by virtue that it’s a kid’s pirate story. Yates’ is plenty original, from the stockings stuck to the ship’s prow with tar (that happens to go with the “thar” rhyme) to the child pirate narrator’s disappointing-turned-amazing Christmas offering from Peggedy himself.

Newfangled versions of The Night Before Christmas are certainly not new, and Cajun Night Before Christmas (Night Before Christmas Series) is testimony to that. My children were entranced by it when I brought it home from the Y a few years ago, on loan from the aquatics director. It’s one catchy tale.

And I’m not particularly fond of series, either (I’m on a roll today, aren’t I) because of the similar forced feel, but there are some cute titles in the Night Before Christmas Series that might make perfect matches for some people on your list — say, the popular Teachers’ Night Before Christmas (Night Before Christmas Series), or even Redneck Night Before Christmas (Night Before Christmas Series) (which is funny but not for children, and which might be a risky purchase for someone you don’t know well).

Take a look at this series to see if a few fit the people you know. And by all means, bring home A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas for your little swashbucklers. We did, and plan to whip it out as a surprise when our night before Christmas reaches fever pitch and we need a burst of fun to help us make it through.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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Talking Turkey: Thanksgiving Picks November 7, 2008

Going over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, or just traveling across town for a tasty restaurant meal for your family’s Thanksgiving feast this year?  Either way, it’s a great time for seasonal literary picks from the entertaining to the educational. Here are some appetizing choices for your brood:

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever



“Spring forward, fall back” — changing times October 31, 2008

The time change is this weekend, and I just realized how fuzzy I am about the origin of daylight savings. I’m always proud to remember “Spring Forward, Fall Back.” Josh and I talked it over the other day and I said I always thought it was so we could simply enjoy longer summer days, and so the schoolchildren didn’t have to stand in the dark at 7 a.m. waiting for the schoolbus in wintertime. Josh — who is from the part of Indiana that doesn’t observe time change, and is baffled by it — thought it had to do with conserving electricity.

(He refers to the time change as “changing time zones.” I tell him over and over it’s not changing time zones — if it were, then our favorite TV show House might come on at 7 p.m. like in Central Standard Time, which would be even more family-inappropriate than its current time slot of 8 p.m. [at our Eastern Standard].)

I know the boys will inevitably raise the question of what Daylight Savings Time is all about, so I thought we needed to be ready. Here’s the answer, in case you wind up in the same fix.

Fact is, the hours in a day are pretty much even nearest the equator; but the farther you get away, the less daylight you will get in the winter. So we turn the clocks back an hour to gain an extra hour of daylight. But it took lots of tinkering and political maneuvering to reach this seemingly simple solution. (My source is an article from Associated Content.)

It turns out Josh, who hadn’t even had benefit of Daylight Savings Time or stayed late at the pool enjoying the longer day his whole life, was closer to the real reasons behind it: proponents wanted it to conserve artificial electricity (which was in its infancy back then — and which, incidentally, bore you-know-who’s inventor’s stamp as well).

Benjamin Franklin invented many things. Has there been a visionary like him since? Turns out, he’s also behind Daylight Savings Time. But though it was originally Franklin’s idea (what wasn’t?), it was a man named William Willett who began pushing it with his pamphlet “Waste of Daylight” in 1907. The first proposal was to advance the clock 20 minutes once a week in spring, and push it back 20 minutes in the fall.

But those of us who could barely master “Spring Forward, Fall Back” twice a year would be in a tizzy over that, don’t you agree? So in 1925, it was decided that Daylight Savings Time should begin on the day following the third Saturday in April (or one week earlier if that day was Easter Day). The end date for Daylight Savings Time was set for the day after the first Saturday in October (tomorrow). It means we get an extra hour of sleep on Sunday morning.

There are many other, more complicated factors involved. If you want to delve deeper, check out David Prerau’s very well reviewed book Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time.

And for those whose children, like my husband Josh, are hung up on “time zones,” here’s an excellent juvenile title that offers a colorful world tour of time zones: Stacey Schuett’s Somewhere in the World Right Now (Reading Rainbow Book), which happens to be featured in my book The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever.

Happy Time Change, and if you are in participating territory, enjoy that extra hour of sleep this weekend! 

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever



What do Shel Silverstein and Johnny Cash have in common? October 29, 2008

Well, one’s a late, beloved story-spinner, songwriter, musician and poet (heavy on the children’s fare, with Where the Sidewalk Ends 30th Anniversary Edition: Poems and Drawings and A Light in the Attic (20th Anniversary Edition Book & CD)) and the other is a late, beloved country-western singer, songwriter and entertainer.

What they have in common is the smash-hit novelty song A Boy Named Sue, the most popular version of which Johnny Cash recorded live for his acclaimed 1969 At San Quentin (Legacy Edition) album. Back in the days when there was much country/pop/folk cross-over and we didn’t have satellite radio to whittle down our music into narrow, super-specialized categories, we all knew A Boy Named Sue. I remember an early elementary classmate’s family had an organ that fascinated me (a then-fledgling pianist) with the color-coded sheet music to the song.

Now that I hear the song not infrequently — my husband listens to The Legend of Johnny Cash
quite a bit — I wonder how they managed to set that mostly-spoken ditty to music, but that’s another matter. What I really marvel at is my very recent learning that Silverstein was much more than the writer of witty, often nonsensical verse — that he also penned A Boy Named Sue (and co-performs it in a rowdy duet with Cash in the YouTube video above).

When my younger son tripped off to school just this morning with Silverstein’s Lafcadio, The Lion Who Shot Back, I decided this fascinating bit needed to be the blog topic today.

Here’s another dash of trivia: the song A Boy Named Sue was reportedly inspired by late humorist Jean Shepherd, a close friend of Silverstein who himself took his share of ribbing from having a feminine-sounding name. (Are you familiar with the neo-Christmas classic, 1983 TV movie A Christmas Story [HD DVD]? That’s based on a Shepherd story, with his own voice narrating.)

Wikipedia  further suggests the title A Boy Named Sue might have been inspired by male lawyer Sue K. Hicks, a prosecutor in the historic Scopes Trial. He was reportedly named Sue after his mother, who is said to have died in childbirth.

But if you’ve read any of Silverstein’s work at all, you know his amazing, crazy imagination didn’t necessarily need outside inspiration. I hope you enjoy the video above for a rare glimpse into the wild persona who was Shel Silverstein.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever



Are we standing between our children and nature? October 21, 2008

Yesterday’s blog centered on ways children can help free themselves from constant electronic stupor and get started doing real things again, with the help of a few good kids’ how-to books like The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls.

Almost as soon as I pressed the “publish” button, it occurred to me that many parents these days also come from the home computer generation, and might struggle themselves to “get back to nature.” I know I’m one to have trouble disengaging myself from my laptop — I can find almost any reason to log on.

Yesterday my older son Riley and I researched and quickly came up with a homespun Halloween costume, an old-fashioned white-sheet ghost with some professional finessing thanks to a video series from eHow. So yes, even and sometimes especially where children are concerned, electronics like Ye Olde Internet can be a prime resource.

In fact, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv is mentioned in the bibliography of my book The New Magic Bookshelf, but as my book doesn’t center on this subject, I don’t say much more about it there except that it’s a wonderful tool packed with practical ideas on enriching our children’s lives with nature.

But as Publisher’s Weekly so cannily points out in its review of Louv’s guide: “Indeed, a 2002 British study reported that eight-year-olds could identify Pokémon characters far more easily than they could name ‘otter, beetle, and oak tree.'” Hear, hear! I can definitely relate to this.

Quite aside from our lip-service about wanting our children to have some appreciation for the “simpler things” is the seldom recognized craving children have for contact with the natural world. I doubt many of us witness true joy when we watch our children engrossed in a video game or TV show. A robotic focus is what I see. Compare this with the too rare, healthy pleasure that radiates from the faces of barefoot children pink-cheeked from chasing fireflies, gathering dandelions, splashing in a stream or even just playing with the dog in the backyard.

The “simpler things” do seem to require more effort from us. It’s hard to push ourselves away from our home offices, and pull the plug on a child clutching a handheld, ever-so-close to “beating the game.” And Louv also acknowledges that sometimes our keeping children securely behind closed doors is a safety measure — children can’t run around at will anymore, as some of us lucky souls were able to do.

However, in Louv’s words: “Although we have plenty of reasons to worry about our children, a case can be made that we endanger our children by separating them too much from nature, and that the reverse is also true — that we make them safer, now and in the future, by exposing them to nature.”

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever