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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 www.planetofthedogs.net. 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

 

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 janie@magicbookshelfonline.com. 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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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

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Kids’ book age guidelines Part II: Reading between the lines September 30, 2008

The trend in children’s book publishing — more specifically, marketing — is to label each title with an age or grade guideline for which the book is supposedly appropriate. And yesterday I described, with the help of likeminded sources, why it not only doesn’t help, but actually hinders, efforts to put a good book in the hands of the right child.

Drawing on the chapter of my book devoted to this topic, I gave my secret formula for finding the best books for children. Here it is again:

The most important question is not, “How old is my child?” but “What is my child’s reading ability?” Also factor in maturity and interest levels, and there you have it.

  • If your child is a superior reader, you’ll need to ask yourself, “Is the material presented in the book still appropriate?” You have to temper an advanced reader’s zeal for “big books” with a sense for her maturity level. (I’ll use a blog subject from last week as an example. An avid child reader who devours L. Frank Baum’s Oz books (see fantasy novel section) will not be ready for Wicked (Reader Picks) until she’s practically a grown-up, even if she can read the sophisticated language of Gregory Maguire’s highly imaginative parallel novel. Am I age labeling here? Well, given the explicit sexual situations and satirical nature of this very well written fantasy novel, I’m just saying Wicked is written for adults or quite mature older teens who can handle such subjects. 
  • Follow these questions by asking which books will allow your child to stretch his ability and enrich his thinking processes.
  • A quick scan of the first chapter or two of potential book choices gives the best indicator of the level on which the book is written — not the age guideline on the book jacket.
  • Gauge interest level above all, even over skill. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if a child can read something well if she doesn’t relate to the book. Strong interest in and enjoyment of the material are the only ways to cultivate a dedicated reader.
  • A boy who loves cars will likely be interested in a well presented book about cars, even if it happens to be a level or two below that designated for his age. It’s the subject matter he seeks. What a shame for him to be reluctant or embarrassed to pick it up because of artificially imposed reading levels.

My younger son Thomas, now 9, has always been a very accomplished — and rather competitive — reader, tackling chapter books way back when he was still expected to still be in the picture book phase. As I also describe in The New Magic Bookshelf, I feel it’s a shame to rush past the treasures to be found in the picture book genre for the sake of earning Accelerated Reader, peer prestige, or other bonus points by moving on too quickly to middle grade novels and other more challenging reads.

I’ve been very happy to see Thomas lately revisiting the picture books that line our shelves, even when he’s capable of reading the children’s novels placed alongside. When his dad took him to a used book store recently, Thomas chose a picture book to bring home. Likewise, when my husband Josh took him along on an outing to Barnes and Noble, Thomas came home with the whimsical Skippyjon Jones in Mummy Trouble (Skippyjon Jones).

I’m glad third-grader Thomas feels just as comfortable hanging out with Skippyjon as Harry Potter. Even if the Skippyjon Jones picture book series is supposedly aimed at “ages four-eight”.

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

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Age guidelines for children’s reading: only numbers September 29, 2008

We consumers are so used to our prepackaged goods, whether they be bologna or books, that we’ve come to rely on numbering classification systems for labeling just about everything: this movie is suitable for children ages 12+; these eggs are best used before 10/11/08; this children’s book is aimed at ages 6-8.

I appreciate knowing when my sour cream may go bad, I really do. I realize juvenile titles are ostensibly processed and classified in such a way to make it easier for the consumer to sift through and find what they hope are appropriate books. But it’s a marketing tool for the easy sale of books. And it may not help your child.

I’ve never changed my thinking that the narrow age designations for books are not only trite but deceptive in their perceived “helpfulness.” In The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever, I’ve devoted nearly a  whole chapter to this issue. I’ll quote a snippet:

“But what about the eight-year-olds who read on an ‘ages ten to twelve’ level? Or the eleven-year-olds who struggle a little more, but are attracted to books on the ‘ages eight-ten’ level? Are all children of the same age, really the same? Of course not. That’s why it’s my belief this system can inadvertently work against them. Slower-reading children might become demoralized or ashamed of being designated ‘behind.’ This will likely deter them from reading books ‘below their level’ that could have been terrific reads. All because they, and their unsuspecting parents, believe they’re intended for younger children.”

And I might add, the publisher or book reviewer has labeled it so — age designation most often has nothing whatsoever to do with the author’s intended audience.

In a Sunday story for the Ottawa (Canada) Citizen, former librarian Barbara Julian reports an outcry among authors over just this practice, even calling age labeling “unnatural.”

A group of children’s authors in England has issued a formal statement condemning this juvenile publishing industry trend. Notoagebanding.org has reportedly amassed more than 3,300 interested people from authors to librarians to booksellers to sign the statement.

“Pinning reading ability to age level is an inexact science, as any teacher knows. An exceptional book won’t stay within an age-defined straitjacket, anyway,” Julian notes. “A clever, humorously illustrated picturebook gives as much pleasure to the parent reading it aloud as to the child listening and looking.”

I also love Julian’s quote of juvenile author Nikki Tate, who doubles as a publisher’s publicist: “A very young child with a strong interest in a topic may devour a book intended for adults, whereas even the simplest, most attractive book on the same subject won’t tempt someone with no interest in the content. A good book is a good book is a good book.”

Read the full article here.

OK, so how is a parent, educator, or other involved adult to make a decision as to whether a certain title is appropriate reading for a child? The key is not in thinking, “How old is my child?” but, “What is my child’s ability?” Add into consideration interest and maturity levels, and then you’ve got the recipe for finding a fantastic book.

In tomorrow’s blog I’m going to elaborate on these and other ways around the labeling gimmick, so stay tuned.

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

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Listening together: Audio adventures September 19, 2008

Audiobooks are magical: when you pop in something riveting enough, on CD or tape, in the car, kids’ room, kitchen, or anywhere there’s a CD or tape player, a truce between quarreling siblings can be instantly struck; a troubled child may stop whimpering and grow quiet and listen; your own jumbled thoughts will calm and you begin to focus on what you’re hearing, not what your overworked mind is telling you.

I’ve always been resistant to TV/DVD players in the car — and none of my used cars ever came with one anyway, removing the tempation. I knew I’d never get around to installing one. And you know what, I’m glad. I’m not saying TV in the car is so terrible — but although it keeps the kids quiet, it segregates the family just as it does at home (not always a bad thing, this I know).

Audiobooks can also be musicals, operettas, radio broadcasts (the very best!) and the like. Among the finest we’ve heard are The Little Prince: A Magical Opera, based on the classic Antoine de Sainte-Exupery book; and a well-restored, eerie collection of The Shadow radio serial broadcasts from the 1930s — which made us shudder deliciously as we drove toward our beach vacation destination down dark two-lane roads at night.

A quick stop at a Books-A-Million in Augusta, Georgia halfway home from a trip to Beaufort, SC to visit my mother one weekend when I was on my own with the boys, then little more than toddlers, once netted a well-produced audio compilation of all the Beatrix Potter books from Peter Rabbit to the Tailor of Gloucestor. The family visit was typically wonderful, I’m sure, but what made that trip charmed for me was listening to the stories together on that long drive home, kids’ meals in small laps eaten sporadically between the exciting parts.

The country-themed restaurant Cracker Barrel has an audiobook lending program that lets you rent recent audiobooks for the cost of a DVD rental. This is very handy on long road trips when everyone begins to get bored and restless. 

These days, the boys are in 3rd and 5th grades, but we listen on the way to their new charter school to stay quiet and experience some calm and focus before the school day begins. This week it’s Ghosthunters and the Incredibly Revolting Ghost by Cornelia Funke, procured from our local branch library (the very best, no-cost way to check out audiobooks). The boys beg to put it on the second we get in the car.

The New Magic Bookshelf includes much more about audiobooks, and the bookstore offers a selection.

Here are a few websites I recommend to get started browsing for some wonderful audio adventures for your family:

http://audiobookco.com

http://blackstoneaudio.com

www.recordedbooks.com (includes a rental option)

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

Visit magicbookshelfonline.com