Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Current (After 1999)’ Category

Alphabet books are popular because they are good at teaching letters. With so many available, how do you choose between them? Click Clack ABC by Doreen Cronin introduces ABCs through a fast-paced story about farm animals preparing for a picnic. At times, the style is so frenetic that the plot is hard to follow. By drawing on characters from her best-selling picture books, Cronin ensures readers will feel comfortable. She also infuses clever alliteration. The result is a fun and educational tale.

From Alyssa Capucilli comes Biscuit, a sweet yellow puppy. Ten of his innocent and charming adventures have been collected into a sturdy cloth-bound book titled Biscuit Storybook Collection. Part of the I Can Read imprint, these stories are perfect for new and emergent readers, while also enjoyable for adults. The plot has a formulaic style that sometimes results in a forced twist. Nonetheless, I wanted to pull Biscuit right out of the pages and cuddle him. Even when he causes trouble, he’s such a winsome puppy. Biscuit tries repeatedly to please his young owner and doesn’t have a mean bone in his small body. His antics are irresistible!

Humor, mystery, and romance abound in two titles by Sarah Weeks: Pie and Honey. The titles are also unified by themes of family, death, and pets. In Pie, Alice’s Aunt Polly takes her world-famous pie crust recipe to her grave. Or does she? The search for the lost recipe leads one person to ransack Polly’s shop, another person to steal her cat, and another to question residents. In Honey, Melody doesn’t mind not having a mother until she overhears her dad call someone ‘Honey’. Has her dad fallen in love with someone? Who could it be? No one will answer these questions. Nor will they talk about her mom. Melody’s story alternates with a story of a dog that has concerns of his own. When secrets are revealed in both titles, lives are forever changed.

Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Kids. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2017.

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Friendship is a central theme that runs through the following three books. Friends can help us through challenges and to solve problems. While working through our differences isn’t always easy, friends fill our lives with happiness.

Sophie and Friends is part of a touch-and-feel durable board book series for readers ages three months to three years. The story is sweet and the illustrations are cute, but there isn’t much to touch.  Sophie the giraffe and her five friends like doing things together: Lazare the cat lives to make everyone laugh, Kiwi the bird enjoys baking cookies, Margot the turtle loves to jump over puddles, Josephine the mouse likes to hide, and Gabin the bear treasures bedtime stories. Although some of the other books in this series have pop-ups and more textures, readers will still enjoy exploring the fabrics in Sophie and Friends. They’ll also like the fun adventures.

The simplicity of Jon Klassen’s design and the deadpan humor underlying his stories never fail to entertain. In We Found a Hat, two turtles find a hat. The problem is there’s just one hat, and they both want the hat. The friends agree that the hat looks equally good on them, but it’d be wrong for one to have the hat, and so the solution is to forget about the hat. Easier said than done! Aimed at readers ages four to eight, the story encourages reading independence with only one sentence per page. In addition, this 54-page story has been smartly divided into chapters, which heightens the suspense. The ending is perfect.

Readers of the classic Ramona books need look no further than Clementine by Sara Pennypacker for another lovably-rambunctious character. Clementine’s week hasn’t been going so well. She’s been sent to the principal’s office for cutting off her friend’s hair. Margaret’s mom has refused to allow the two girls to be alone together. The disastrous week is made worse partly because of the effort Clementine puts into making everything right again, including trying to glue Margaret’s hair back on and offering to sacrifice her own hair. Like Ramona, nothing Clementine does comes from a mean heart, but rather from a creative mind. Clementine is quirky, hilarious, and unforgettable.

Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Kids. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2017.

Horse lovers will appreciate, as will history buffs and fantasy fans. The first title in a trilogy, Eclipsed by Shadow, tells the story of Meagan and her horse Promise, who just might be the “Great Horse” spoken of in legends. When Meagan attempts to rescue Promise from persistent thieves, the two of them end up taking an unexpected ride back through time in this well-written novel aimed at young people.

In many ways, Royce gets everything right. The ever so-critical first chapter is a gut-wrenching one. In it, Meagan and her parents face the choice of whether to save a pregnant mare or her foal. The mare had been raised by the family and had been their constant companion. But the foal would represent her only legacy, as the mare’s health wouldn’t allow her to have a second foal. The third-person omniscient characterization is meticulous. I knew not only how Meagan and her parents felt, but also how the veterinarian, potential buyer, and crafty thieves felt. This deepened my understanding of everyone involved, as well as heightened the suspense. When the thieves revealed that someone was attempting to collect seven interconnected horses, this made me suspicious until the potential buyer confessed her reason for wanting to own all seven horses. Then I instead felt concern for what might happen should she not succeed with her mission. The multiple settings are described in detail. Primitive North America, ancient Rome, nomadic Asia, and finally medieval Europe all come alive. My favorite periods were Rome and Europe. In the former Meagan encounters a suitor and in Europe she finds kindness from monks. In every situation, she also faces danger, which creates many instances of cliff hangers.

What about the novel doesn’t work? Between the first chapter and the time travel, the narrative drags. The three years between when Promise is sent away to pasture with other horses and is brought back to stay with Meagan are condensed into the about seventy pages, leaving me disconnected to the characters. True, it’s in these pages that I learn about that Promise should never be rode, and so my curiosity is piqued. Unfortunately, it’s also in these pages that Meagan turns rebellious, goes on dates, and turns into a typical teen. This plot line lacks spark. The good news is that once Meagan starts to time travel, John shows his talent as a storyteller. My one overriding concern at this point is not enough is revealed of the reasons why Promise could be a dark horse, and so I’m confused about why Meagan continues to time travel. The novel more closely resembles the episodic nature of a television series where each section contains a new story rather than the unified quality of a movie or full-length book. Yet that’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’ve faithfully followed many television series over the years.

Eclipsed by Shadow has won awards for both gifted and reluctant readers. It’s also praised as a novel for readers of all ages. Despite some minor roughness, it’s a diamond in the world of horse books. There are two sequels, and I look forward to finding out what lies in store for Meagan and Promise.

Photo taken by James H. Maglina. Used with permission.

Photo taken by James H. Maglina. Used with permission.

Cynthia Stuart was a professor of psychology, medical law and ethics, and has written many articles on the interaction of rats as therapy animals. She writes, “Human – animal bonds can be utilized in a therapeutic context in work that is geared towards developing positive relationships with fellow humans.” Her love of rats began in 2003 as an environmental educator for a mini-zoo that featured a family of rats abandoned on its doorstep. She’s the co-author of The Improbable Adventures of My Mischief. I appreciate her taking time to talk with me!

ALLISON: Did you come from a big or small family? A household of pets or none?

CYNTHIA: My family was small. Just mom, dad and me–and a variety of pets, of course. During the course of my childhood and adolescence, I shared my life with a cat, hamster, goldfish, and turtles. I’m sure I’m forgetting other pets! When I grew up, I indulged my special passion for rodents and have lived with rats, guinea pigs, gerbils, a degu, a variety of fish, and lizards. I’ll be surrounded by rodents for as long as I’m able to provide for their optimal care.

ALLISON: If you were to write a book about your childhood, how would you summarize it?

CYNTHIA: I was very much loved and protected by my parents, but because of a combination of shyness and being overweight at the time, I was bullied, which had an enormous negative impact on my life. My respite from that was a pack of close friends, my animals, and my escape via continuous reading.

ALLISON: Most people seem to have experienced a wonderful or terrible adolescence? How would you categorize yours? Why?

CYNTHIA:I’d say my adolescence was less than ideal, given the aforementioned shyness, weight issue and bullying.  I wouldn’t want to go back–I feel I’m at the best point in my life than I’ve ever been right now. I’m retired from full-time work and the bit of work I do to keep stimulated is from home as an online English teacher. The bulk of my days are spent doing pretty much as I please…. writing, reading, and spending quality time with my current mischief of rodents and my significant other.

ALLISON: What period of your life most changed you?

CYNTHIA: Starting college at the ripe old age of 30. My experiences led to the practically overnight shedding of my shyness and developing the ability to stand up and assert myself when necessary. I also developed a hunger for knowledge and became somewhat addicted to higher education, to the point that I wound up with a PhD in my late 50’s.

ALLISON: Who most influenced you growing up?

CYNTHIA: Definitely my parents. They set the tone for how to live a virtuous life and encouraged me to keep up my addiction to reading – which has led to my writing later in life. Both my parents were ardent animal lovers as well, who were all for my adoption of non-human family members.

ALLISON: What is involved with being an environmental educator?

CYNTHIA:The job primarily entailed giving talks to visiting school and camp groups about wildlife and caring for the environment. I also taught the Environmental Center’s pre-school classes, as well as hosted environmentally themed birthday parties. All of these activities involved integrating the animals that we had living on the premises in a mini-zoo into our talks. Nature walks were also included in the roster of activities and, if we were lucky, we’d spot wild birds and animals who were seemingly unafraid to make an appearance in the midst of usually loud, boisterous groups of children.

ALLISON: Tell me more about the family of rats that were abandoned at the mini-zoo where you worked.

CYNTHIA:Unfortunately, the environmental center at which I worked had been often used as a dumping ground for people with exotic pets who didn’t want them anymore. Staff would arrive in the morning to find a box or glass aquarium with some poor rejected pet(s). Presumably the former owners figured we’d give them a home in the mini-zoo.

One of these “drop offs” was a family of rats – mom, dad, and a litter. The center never had rats before, so they were given a place in the zoo.  However, they were still kept in tanks and not separated. Being a rodent lover, I fell in love with them and took them out of their tank whenever I could to work with them with visiting groups, as well as try to socialize them individually. I tried to advocate for vastly improved conditions for them, but my pleas fell on deaf ears.

Not surprisingly, mom and dad started to reproduce again. Then, the population started to disappear.  At first, I thought maybe they were being adopted out to visitors (which sometimes happened). Not so lucky… I found out they were being fed to the resident snakes. By the time I found out, there was just one little rat left, and I adopted her and named her Nibbles.

She was wonderful and I loved her so much. It was Nibbles that started me on the path to Rat Chickdom back in 2003, and I haven’t looked back since.  By the way, shortly after adoption, I quit the environmental center because of the snake incidents,  and the way the rest of the animals were being maintained with little regard to their welfare.

ALLISON: Why do rats make great pets?

CYNTHIA: Rats have a bottomless capacity to demonstrate total love and affection to their human parents.  Unconditional love is their calling card. It is very rare for rats to bite their people. If they do, there is a valid reason (past abuse, for example). It is typical for rats to react very excitedly when their people come into their room–begging to come out and play or, in the case of senior rats like my boys, to spend quality cuddle time with their humans. Their desire for socializing is definitely not limited to their own kind. They take you into their hearts forever and they make it quite obvious how special you are to them.

ALLISON: Describe a special bonding moment between you and a rat.

CYNTHIA: I’d have to say this occurred with my present rats, Simon and Niblet (brothers who are a year and a half old).  They were part of a huge ooooooops litter and they were the last two left after their siblings were adopted.

I’ve never encountered such fearless, bold babies in my entire rat-life. In order to bring them home, they rode with me on two commuter trains that were an hour’s ride each, had a long transit time in New York City’s frantic Grand Central Terminal, followed by a long subway ride, and then a cab. When I finally got them home and opened the carrier door into their new cage –they didn’t want to go in. What they wanted to do was climb on and play with me! So, that first night, the three of us sat in the living room play wrestling, cuddling, exploring, and watching the Academy Awards together.

I couldn’t believe that after a horrendous commute and being with a total stranger, they would do this. They actually took the initiative to bond with me–I was prepared to leave them alone for a couple of days to settle in and become more comfortable. They remain clingy Mama’s boys to this day.

ALLISON: How can rats be therapy animals?

CYNTHIA: I’ve written articles about this topic for the American Psychological Association’s Human-Animal Interaction group as well as “It’s a Rat’s World” magazine. To me, it’s extremely obvious how they can provide emotional support–especially to those persons challenged with depression and anxiety. To have animals who so forcefully display their adoration of an individual–regardless of how upset that person is–is not only comforting but healing.

Because rats are so forceful in their demands for love and attention, they help to integrate people with mood disorders into life outside of themselves. It’s very hard to ignore a rat or rats standing on their hind legs, nose and arms reaching through the cage bars, clamoring for love and a bit of play and cuddles! Like with all pets, they have needs that must be met on a regular schedule, thus providing a reason and obligation to get up out of bed and start one’s day in the morning.

Of course, there is the scientific evidence of the benefits of simply petting animals, and rats tend to be addicted to petting. While I go into greater detail in my articles, suffice it to summarize that since rats are so positively pushy about showing love, pet parents who may need some type of emotional support, unconditional acceptance, and love get that in abundance from their rats. I’ve definitely relied on their support during my own challenging moments!

Ralph S. Mouse, Stuart Little, and Tucker are all famous literary mice. Now making a debut for rats are Archer and Fletch, two siblings that star in The Improbable Adventures of My Mischief by Cynthia Stuart and E. Merwin. What happens when two pet rats suddenly find themselves out in the street, dependent on the streetwise Rat and an uncommon agouti? The Improbable Adventures of My Mischief is a short and suspenseful tale with likable characters, of the two and four-footed kind, and a lot of heart.

Adventure is plentiful in. The action starts in a pet shop, where a pregnant rat is about to become snake food. Thanks to an apathetic snake, the mother rat is spared and so is her litter, two of whom go to live with an uptown girl named Skylar. She talks to them, redesigns her apartment to fit their comfort, and even exposes them to Shakespeare. The problem is the president of the condo board has an intense dislike of rodents and will stop at nothing to rid the building of them or at the very least to evict Skylar. When exterminators show up, Archer and Fletch know they must flee for their lives. Little do they know that life on the streets isn’t all that safe either….

Likeable characters abound in The Improbable Adventures of My Mischief. Of the two-footed kind, there is Skylar. The apartment is only world she’s ever known. In it, her parents provided her with books and tutors. By age fourteen, Skylar had graduated from New York University with a master’s degree in English literature. But as fate would have it, Skylar also lost her parents to a plane crash in a storm. Books alone could not protect her from loneliness, but two rats in need of a home could. Of the four-footed likeable characters, there are Archer and Fletch. On the one hand, they’re normal rats that like to eat and climb and play. They also have squabbles the way most siblings do. On the other hand, they’re quite atypical, possessing an ability to use cell phones, surf the web, and create theatrical productions. In fact, they’re in the middle of a play practice, when the exterminators arrive.

The Improbable Adventures of My Mischief contains a lot of heart. For example, when Archer and Fletch go missing, Skylar plasters the city with posters. She researches how to set humane traps to safely lure her rats back home. And she receives unexpected help from a young man who just recently passed his vet licensing exam. As for Archer and Fletcher, despite their dire predicament of being lost in New York, they set their sights on rescuing another rat in danger. They recruit a streetwise Rat, his girlfriend, and the agouti to help. Having lost his family to humans in front of his eyes, Rat is easily convinced to help a fellow rat—no matter the cost.

A cursory online search resulted in my finding references to several fictional mice but not so many for rats. There’s Templeton from Charlotte’s Web and Scrabbers in Harry Potter, neither of which are all that likeable. Thanks to The Improbable Adventures of My Mischief, pet stores may now find rats a popular purchase. Stay tuned this week for an interview with the author and article from the author about therapy rats.

 


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Fall 2017

This fall I will be on hiatus except to post family news. Stay tuned!

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