Meandering through Middle Grade: The Tale of Angelino Brown…

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David Almond is one of those authors that many people categorise as an “auto-read”; that is, such is the strength of his previous work, any new work that is published will be snapped up immediately by his fans.  It’s a bit that way for we shelf-dwellers.  We loved Skelling, A Monster Calls and Heaven Eyes, for instance, but found some of his other books like Clay and The Savage a bit too dark and depressing.  The Tale of Angelino Brown which we received from Walker Books Australia for review, felt like something new from Almond.  The magical realism and quirkiness were all still there, but oozing out of the pages was a sense of hope and a lightness in tone that we hadn’t encountered in Almond’s work before.  Before I say too much more, here’s the blurb from Walker UK:

A warm and witty tale from a master storyteller, author of Carnegie Medal-winning Skellig and internationally bestseller The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas

Bert and Betty Brown have got themselves a little angel. Bert found him in his top pocket when he was driving his bus. Bert and Betty’s friends think he’s lovely. So do Nancy and Jack and Alice from Class 5K. What a wonder! But Acting Head Teacher Mrs Mole is not so sure. Nor is Professor Smellie. Or the mysterious bloke in black who claims to be a School Inspector. Then there’s Basher Malone – big, lumbering Basher Malone. He REALLY doesn’t like Angelino. And it looks like he’s out to get him…

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There’s a real sense of joy that comes flitting through the text and images of this tome, from the opening lines of “Here we go. All aboard”, to the rosy-cheeked, golden-haired, flatulent angel of the cover.  This book felt quite uplifting to read throughout, which is not always the case with Almond’s work, and I couldn’t help but feel that this book would be a hit with both its intended young audience, and older readers who dared to venture into books for young readers.  The tone is generally light and humorous, without ever losing Almond’s signature sense of pathos directed toward certain of the more pitiable characters in the story.

The book opens on Bert Brown’s pondering about the deficiencies of the bus driving trade, when all of a sudden, Bert’s life is turned on its head by the discovery of an angel – a living, breathing, if somewhat flatulent and undersized angel!  The grumpy Bert brings the angel home to his wife Betty and the pair immediately become enamoured of the little creature and name him Angelino.  As the story moves on, Angelino becomes a treasured being among the children at the school at which Betty works as a lunch lady and with each passing connection, Angelino grows larger.  All is not well however, as unscrupulous and just plain unwise forces find out about Angelino and set into motion a plan to kidnap him for reasons nefarious.

This really is a delightful read, with lots of giggles to be had and a real sense of warmth about the quirky characters.  Almond has a way of making even the most odious of personalities at least pitiable, if not likeable, and there is much of that going on here with everyone from Kevin the Master of Disguise, to Mrs Mole the acting Headteacher and the truly monstrous Basher Malone.  Bert and Betty are the epitome of lovable however and felt like the true heart and soul of the book to me.

Themes of friendship, forgiveness and the forging of community can be found at various junctures of the story and Angelino, while never the most loquacious of characters, serves as a central focus around which unconnected characters come together.  The illustrations enhance the reading experience and wrap neatly around sections of text, giving extra life to the imagery generated by the writing.

I thoroughly recommend The Tale of Angelino Brown to current fans of Almond’s work as well as those who have never come across his work before.  I could see this being the perfect read aloud for a lower middle grade classroom, both for its humour and its gentle message of rallying around the vulnerable.

I’m going to submit this one for the Popsugar Reading Challenge, under category #47: a book with an eccentric character, because eccentricities abound in this one.  You can check out my progress toward my reading challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

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Picture Book Perusal: The Rabbit-Hole Golf Course

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Today’s book is the perfect pick for the depths of winter, when you need a bit of sunshine and dry, parched desert in your life.  We received The Rabbit-Hole Golf Course by Ella Mulvey and Karen Briggs from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from A&U:

A warm and funny story about a unique Australian experience with a fantastic rhythmic read-aloud text.

In the big old ute, on the long red road, in the desert of my home, we all set off for the rabbit-hole golf course. It’s the best place around here to find rabbits.

We sit by the holes, we dig, we wait …

Thump tick, thump tick, thump tick

Where are all the rabbits?

A warm and funny Australian story.

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The Rabbit-Hole Golf Course by Ella Mulvey & Karen Briggs.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 28th June 2017.  RRP: $24.99

From the moment we picked up this tome, we were positively disposed toward it, because we are actually acquainted with a family whose number plate is USMOB, so there was something familiar about the book before we even started reading.  The familiarity soon wore off however, as this is one story that depicts an event that no doubt only a small percentage of the population have ever experienced.

The story follows a group of kids who live in the Australian outback and go on a quest to find a pet rabbit.  Rabbits being plentiful in the wild in their part of the world, the kids begin digging in the dirt to uncover a rabbit hole and its inhabitants, but the rabbits are too wily and the kids go home empty-handed.  Happily though, they have such a good time digging and scraping and sleeping under the stars, that the absence of a rabbity pet doesn’t smart too much.

The strength of this book is in the repetition and rhythm of the text.  It is a “noisy” book, as I like to think of them, of a similar ilk to books like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, that invites readers to join in the repeated refrains.  As the day wears on, the cries of “Where are all the rabbits?” are expanded upon with noises relating to different activities – the bump-click of a ride in the ute, the shake-hop of bushes rustling with kangaroos, the pinch-pop of honey ant tucker – and little ones will no doubt love joining in with the different sounds.  The beautiful ochre tones of the illustrations evoke the desert country perfectly and provide an homage to free range children and the joys of being outdoors.

The mini-fleshlings in the dwelling did have a little trouble following the story, simply because, being city-dwellers, it seemed so foreign to their experience.  The fact that kids could just dig in the dirt and come up with a new pet was baffling to the oldest one, and he joined in the perplexity of the protagonists regarding the distinct lack of rabbits in the vicinity.  Where were all the rabbits?  How come the kids couldn’t find a single one?  And why wasn’t anyone wearing a hat in that blinding sun?  I suspect this story will be a bit of a sleeper; one that will require a few re-readings before the mini-fleshlings really warm to it.

Nevertheless, The Rabbit-Hole Golf Course is one that will fire the imaginations of city kids and have them yearning for an outdoor adventure.  This would be a fantastic pick for illustrating concepts about diversity in living environments.

Until next time,

Bruce

Superheroes, Secrets and Tiny Horses: Kid Normal…

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It’s time for a bit of good old fashioned, super powered fun and I have just the book to fit the bill.  We received Kid Normal by Greg James and Chris Smith from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The first book in a laugh-out-loud funny adventure series for 8+ readers from popular radio personalities Greg James and Chris Smith.

When Murph Cooper rocks up to his new school several weeks into the beginning of term, he can’t help but feel a bit out of his depth.

And it’s not because he’s worried about where to sit, and making friends, and fitting in, or not knowing where the loos are. It’s because his mum has enrolled him at a school for superheroes by mistake. And unlike his fellow students, who can all control the weather or fly or conjure tiny horses from thin air, Murph has no special abilities whatsoever.

But just because you don’t have superpowers, it doesn’t mean you can’t save the day. Let’s hope Murph realises that, and quick – because not far away is a great big bad guy who is half man and half wasp, and his mind is abuzz with evil plans …

It’s time for Kid Normal to become a hero!

What a fun read this was!  It felt like a cross between X-Men and Little Britain and was a refreshing change of pace from the books I’ve been reading lately.   Kid Normal is not the most original story in the world – untalented kid makes good being the order of the day in many middle grade reads – but it is certainly funny, pacey and tongue in cheek, with a likable protagonist, a band of lovable misfits and some truly ridiculous(ly evil) villains.

Murph is a boy who has moved around a lot and when his mother finally discovers a school in which to enrol him in their new town, it is to Murph’s chagrin that the school turns out to be a secret school for the super-powered.  Having said that, not all of the “powers” evident in the attendees could really be classed as “super”, unless you count making a screeching noise with your teeth particularly super, so Murph, while the only one not endowed with a superpower, is not the only one struggling to fit in.

If you discount the superpower element, Kid Normal is a tried and true story of a young man who is lost and alone developing some solid, if unusual, friends and working together to overcome their difficulties.  In this case, the difficulty happens to be a giant wasp-human hybrid villain with a plan to take over the picnic world through the means of enslavement-inducing helmets, but apart from that, the story is one with which middle grade readers will be generally familiar.

The humour really is the driving force behind the story, with the book using a narrative style that invites the reader in and addresses them here and there.  The narrative style is fun and fast-paced and there were many moments that had me giggling along at the imagery produced.  Many of the adult characters are larger than life and readers won’t be able to help having a laugh at their over the top antics.  We absolutely fell in love with Hilda, the girl whose power is to produce two tiny horses at will.  I mean, what a brilliant power! Who wouldn’t want such an adorable skill at their disposal?

While my copy didn’t have any illustrations, the final edition of the book will be illustrated throughout, which will no doubt enhance the reading experience even more.

Kid Normal was a wonderful brain-break that celebrates the outsider, the kid who doesn’t fit the mould, in a supremely humorous way.  There is enough action and mystery to keep young readers happy and I highly recommend this to readers who love a rollicking tale that uses super-charged laughs to drive the action-packed outcome.

Until next time,

Bruce

Meandering through Middle Grade: Running On the Roof of the World…

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Today’s book is one that was an unexpected winner for me and highlights once again the plight of those forced from their homes due to political unrest.  We received Running on the Roof of the World by Jess Butterworth from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Join 12-year-old Tash and her best friend Sam in a story of adventure, survival and hope, set in the vivid Himalayan landscape of Tibet and India. Filled with friendship, love and courage, this young girl’s thrilling journey to save her parents is an ideal read for children aged 9-12.

There are two words that are banned in Tibet. Two words that can get you locked in prison without a second thought. I watch the soldiers tramping away and call the words after them. ‘Dalai Lama.’

Tash has to follow many rules to survive in Tibet, a country occupied by Chinese soldiers. But when a man sets himself on fire in protest and soldiers seize Tash’s parents, she and her best friend Sam must break the rules. They are determined to escape Tibet – and seek the help of the Dalai Lama himself in India.

And so, with a backpack of Tash’s father’s mysterious papers and two trusty yaks by their side, their extraordinary journey across the mountains begins.

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I was somewhat hesitant going in to this book, simply because stories about child refugees having to flee their homes are by their nature, sad and distressing, and given what’s going on in the world at the moment, I can get a bit hand-shy of books that are too real in that regard.  Thankfully, Butterworth manages the story of Tash and Sam with great control so that while the dangers and sadness are apparent at every step, they aren’t so prominent as to overwhelm the reader.  In fact, Running on the Roof of the World is a remarkably accessible book for young readers who are interested in real life events and what’s going on outside their own bubble, written in a tone that is both moving and dignified.

Tashi’s parents are part of the secret resistance against the Chinese occupation of their village in Tibet.  After seeing a man set himself on fire in protest of the occupation, Tashi is shocked and awakened to the danger that is coming toward her own family.  After a surprise visit from the Chinese police, Tashi and her best friend Sam find themselves in a desperate dash away from the village, carrying a coded message from Tashi’s father and the resistance…a message they don’t know how to read or to whom it should be delivered.

The beauty of the book is in the simplicity and authenticity of the children’s journey.  After leaving their home in abrupt and unprepared circumstances, Tashi and Sam have one goal – cross the mountain pass into India and reach the Dalai Lama.  The simple acts of avoiding patrolling soldiers, moving from one spot to another and deciding who they can trust, all against the background fear of what might have befallen Tashi’s parents, feel very immediate throughout the book and heighten the suspense of the story.  The chapters are quite short, which made it easy to take the “just one more” approach and dig deeper into the story.  I also loved the mandala-style illustrations that adorn each chapter heading.

While the story eventually has a happy ending, it’s not without loss and trial and Butterworth does well to capture the uncertainty of the life of those seeking refuge in a way that young readers can appreciate.  I feel like this is a story that will stay with me for quite a while and not least because it deals with an occupied territory that is somewhat forgotten or just accepted in the West.

I would highly recommend this book as a classroom read aloud or simply as an engaging and moving story of two children alone in a hostile environment.  Having passed some time between reading the book and writing this review, I think Running on the Roof of the World deserves to be a Top Book of 2017 pick, because of its authentic tone and relevance to world events.

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I’m submitting this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge in category #45: a book about an immigrant or refugee.  You can check out my progress toward my reading challenges for the year here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

Picture Book Perusal: The Sloth Who Came to Stay…

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Today’s picture book is a beautifully rendered reminder about the amount that can be gained from being unhurried.  We received a copy of The Sloth Who Came to Stay by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Vivienne To from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from A&U:

A wryly amusing story about a fast family who are taught to slow down when an adorable sloth comes to stay by the award-winning author of Fox and Ruby Roars.

Amy’s family is speedy! They are always in such a rush that there is no time to talk or play – until the afternoon Amy brings home a sloth. Then things start changing very, very slowly …

A timely tale about enjoying the little things in life from award-winning author Margaret Wild.

the sloth who came to stay

The Sloth Who Came To Stay by Margaret Wild & Vivienne To.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 28th June 2017.  RRP: $ 24.99

We all need a reminder now and again to stop and smell the roses and I can’t think of a more beguiling reminder than that found in this book.  Amy’s family like to multi-task; they shop for groceries while making phone calls, exercise while doing the dishes and always bring their work to the dinner table.  After all, if they don’t move fast, they won’t have enough time to fit everything in to their busy, busy days. When Amy finds a sloth at the park and brings him home to stay, her family’s schedule is turned upside down and in the time they spend waiting for Sloth, they discover that taking one’s time can reap its own rewards.

This book has a thorough helping of charm.  Sloth is absolutely adorable, not least because he moves so slowly he has greenery growing on his fur!  When read aloud, the text and rhythm of the book reflect the considerable slowing of the family’s life as they aim to accommodate Sloth’s pace.  Similarly, the illustrations depicting the family home become less cluttered and brighter as the family’s new slower pace of life starts to show positive results.

The mini-fleshlings immediately took to this story as a pre-bedtime read aloud and particularly enjoyed picking out details in the illustrations, such as Sloth’s lady beetle and caterpillar friends, and the unusual activities of the family over the fence, whose presence will become important at the end of the story.  The book was a joy to read and one that the mini-fleshlings asked for again and again after its initial introduction.

As well as being a delightful and relevant story for today’s busy families, The Sloth Who Came to Stay would also make a cheeky, and hopefully instructive, gift for a super-speedy family of your acquaintance.

Until next time,

Bruce

Bloomsbury Middle Grade Double-Dip: Dogs, Doctors and Doings for the School Holidays…

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Seeing it’s the school holidays here in sunny (always, always sunny) Queensland, you should probably let your hair down and grab a tantalising treat to accompany your perusal of today’s double dip.  Both of today’s titles have been provided to us from Bloomsbury Australia for review.

First up, here’s book five in the Marsh Road Mysteries series by Elen Caldecott, Dogs and Doctors, and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The final title in the brilliant Marsh Road Mysteries adventure series by hugely popular children’s author Elen Caldecott. For fans of the Laura Marlin Mysteries by Lauren St John.

Meet Piotr, Minnie, Andrew, Flora and Sylvie – the Marsh Road Mystery solvers.

Sylvie Hampshire is in hospital. She knows she’s responsible enough to take control of her diabetes medication, but now she has to prove it on the hospital ward. She’s only been there a couple of hours when Barry, a therapy dog, goes missing in suspicious circumstances. It’s time to bring in the gang! With their detective senses on high alert, the five friends set out to find Barry, but the stakes soon become much higher than they thought. Have they finally met their match? Not if Sylvie Hampshire has anything to do with it!

Dip into it for…  dogs and doctors

…a fun and funny mystery featuring dogs, doctors, a mysterious entity known as The Whiter and five good mates untangling the mystery of a stolen therapy dog.  Honestly, who’d steal a therapy dog? Well, that’s what Sylvie and her friends have to work out!  I hadn’t read the first four books in this series but I had no trouble at all getting into this one.  The relationships between the characters are explained neatly as they arise and the author doesn’t waste time lumping backstory into the action to slow things down.  The hospital setting makes this mystery stand out from the pack because it’s different and has its own set of tricks and traps to foil well-meaning child detectives as they go about their detective business.  The main characters all have their own strengths and character flaws that affect the investigation in various ways and the book even has some data sheets at the end showing each of the five kids’ stats for those who may not be familiar with them.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re not a fan of meddling kids!  The only thing that annoyed me slightly about this was Sylvie’s initial attitude toward having to stay in the hospital for two nights for monitoring…but that’s just the grown up in me being sensible and boring.  Her reactions are perfectly age-appropriate and understandable if you’re a kid.

Overall Dip Factor

While not the most riveting mystery there has ever been, Dogs and Doctors is a fun light read with two mysteries left out for the kids to solve.  The ending is action packed enough to be a good payoff for the preceding detective work and Sylvie, as the main character, learns a thing or two along the way about being responsible and allowing others to come to the fore when needed.  There was nothing in particular in the story that indicated to me that this was a “final” book of the series, which may leave long time readers of the series unfulfilled, but as a standalone read this ticked all the boxes for kids meddling in dangerous situations and coming out on top.

Next up we have Andy Seed’s The Anti-Boredom Book of Brilliant Outdoor Things to Do, illustrated by Scott Garrett and just in time to combat the holiday chorus of “Muuuuuumm! I’m boooooooored!”  Here’s the blurb from Bloomsbury:

Say goodbye to boredom with this fantastic outdoor boredom buster book! From the hilarious Andy Seed, Winner of the Blue Peter Book Award 2015 for Best Books with Facts comes the fantastically busy Anti-boredom Book of Brilliant Outdoor Things to do.

The outdoors are boring right? Wrong! Not when you’ve got Andy Seed’s Anti-boredom Book of Brilliant Outdoor Things to do! Suitable for all seasons, find out how to set bug traps, create a rainbow, construct an amazing summer slide and much, much more!

But what about those rainy summer days we hear you cry? Not a problem! This book also includes awesome indoor activities about the outdoors for rainy days. Design your own mini parachute, create the worlds most amazing frisbee, or create a bird feeder to keep your feathered friends well fed!

A brilliant book bursting with amazing outdoor activities that will have you running for the door! Packed full of hilarious illustrations from the wonderful Scott Garrett, this book will keep you entertained for hours on end!

Dip into it for…  outdoor things to do

…a comprehensive collection of ideas to keep the kids busy in the great outdoors.  The book has ideas for all sorts of places, from the city to the beach, to the countryside to plain old indoors, so even if you’re headed off on holiday somewhere, it would be a handy tome to bring along.  The book is divided into the sections mentioned above, and lists a selection of activities for each environment as well as the things you’ll need to complete them and tips or instructions for how to get the best out of whatever the activity is.  As this is the book of outdoor things to do, activities range from kayaking around a lake to ball games to messy things to make and build.  For those who love their devices, there are also some photo challenges to do as well as maps to look up if your mini-fleshlings can’t go a day without looking at some sort of screen.

Don’t dip if…

…you don’t immediately want to be cajoled into hiking up the nearest hill or building a canoe out of twigs and shoelaces, I suppose.  While many of the activities listed here will definitely keep the kids busy, a lot of them do require certain materials that may have the kids constantly asking, “Mum, where’s the sticky tape? Where can I find coconuts? Why don’t we have a limbo stick?” and so forth for the next two weeks.

Overall Dip Factor

There’s definitely something for everyone in these pages and I particularly like that the end of the book has a list of “challenge” activities that require a bit more planning and, more often than not, the involvement of an adult or at least a small group of conspirators.  Overall, I think this book is a great inspiration for those looking to develop more “unplugged” time as a family.

So there you are – an involving mystery and a bunch of outdoorsy things to do.  You can thank me later for making sure your school holidays are busy and booked up.

Until next time,

Bruce

Meandering through Middle Grade: D-Bot Squad!

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It’s time for a change from my usual middle grade fare as today I will be bringing you the first four books in a new series for reluctant male readers.  We received D-Bot 

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Squad books one to four by Mac Park – author of the prolific and popular Boy Vs. Beast series – from Allen & Unwin for review.  Check out the blurb below:

A super-exciting series about DINOSAUR ROBOTS for first readers…

from the creators of the bestselling Boy vs Beast series. A world kids will love, using words they can read.

Dinosaurs are back, and on the loose!

It’s up to D-Bot Squad to catch them.

Hunter Marks knows everything there is to know about dinosaurs. But does he know enough to pass the computer game test and make it into top-secret D-Bot Squad?

*The first four books in the D-Bot Squad series will be released in July, with the remaining four books released in October 2017 and February 2018*

I’m going to be straight up honest here and say that series like this usually have me running in the opposite direction.  You know the ones.  The Zac Power and  Fairy Magic type series that seem to have a never-ending procession of books all with exactly the same formulaic story.  I know they’re designed to get kids reading.  I know they’re aimed at kids who are gaining confidence in reading independently.  But as a reader, they give me the shivers.

The eldest mini-fleshling in the dwelling however, who is six and in grade one, was immediately drawn to these books and he doesn’t even particularly like dinosaurs.  From the second the first chapter of Dino Hunter was read aloud to him, he was absolutely hooked.  He wanted to tell his friends about the books.  He wanted to bring the books to school so his teacher could read them.  He continues to be riveted by the stories and we are now onto Double Trouble, the third book in the series.

The plot is simple enough.  Hunter Marks loves dinosaurs but finds himself a bit on the outer as all his classmates prefer superheroes.  While working on a project in the library, he is shown a dinosaur cave display built by the librarian Ms Stegg, and Hunter’s adventure begins.  Drawn into a test by the D-Bot Squad, Hunter must design a robot to catch a pterodactyl that is on the loose, thereby earning his place in the Squad.  From this follows a range of adventures that see Hunter designing robots using his specialist knowledge of dinosaurs, to catch errant dinosaurs that are on the loose in present-day locations.

The books are cleverly designed to be non-intimidating to reluctant and new readers, so there are full page pictures every few pages and no more than 55 words on each page.  There is also some great continuity happening in each story.  Each book has six chapters (which the mini-fleshling somehow figured out by the start of book two) and each book finishes on a cliff-hanger that leads into the next story.  This may be a bit of a problem in that it might be more difficult to read the books out of order, but it drew the mini-fleshling in like nobody’s business and he could barely wait for the next bedtime so we could get cracking on the next book.

Each book also has one of those page-flipping animations in the top right hand page corner, that when flipped, animates a dinosaur.  The first two books featured pterodactyls – appropriately enough to the stories – that flap their wings as the pages are flipped.  The mini-fleshling had never seen these before and thought they were genius.

The best thing about the books for me was that the claim on the back of the book was actually correct.  The book features a sticker that shouts, “A world kids will love with words they can read!”  I’ve already noted that the mini-fleshling loves the world of the books, despite not being a particular fan of dinosaurs.  What about the second part of the claim? Can a six year old grade one student read these words?

Yes, He. Can.

At halfway through grade one, this mini-fleshling has mastered his Magic 300 sight words (or is it 200?).  He’s learnt all the sight words he needs to know for the year, anyhow.  And he is certainly able to read most of the words in these books with a little support.  This is an amazing revelation to me because it opens up more options for him for his own independent reading.  He need not be solely reliant on picture books anymore, but can develop his confidence on longer early chapter books with stories that he is interested in.

What a boon!

If you, or your mini-fleshling, is looking for a new series of books that really are accessible for younger kids and interesting for independent readers, I’d recommend giving D-Bot Squad a go.

Until next time,

Bruce