Guinea PI(g): Pet Shop Private Eye. A reluctant PI with a mystery to solve

Hamster and CheeseI’ve had this book on my shelf for a couple of years and I keep coming back to it. So obviously I need to tell you about it.

It’s a story about a reluctant guinea pig private eye.

See? Compelling, right?

Here’s why you (I mean, your kid) will like this series:

1) The aforementioned fact that IT’S ABOUT A GUINEA PIG DETECTIVE.
2) It’s got a bit of an edge.
3) The dialogue is not only realistic, but it’s actually funny.
4) You can almost feel the fluffiness of these guinea pigs. I mean, really.

How does the guinea pig become a private eye? Glad you asked. The pet store owner slams the door and the final G from GUINEA PIG falls off. When the hamster sees the sign he comes running over and hires the Guinea PI on the spot to find a missing sandwich.

Here’s a taste
The grumpy Guinea PI (whose name, appropriately, is Sass) asks a bunch of hamsters, “Did any of you guys see someone steal the sandwich?”
To which they reply, in turn:
“I was sleeping.”
“I was sleeping.”
“I was sleeping.”
“I was sleeping.”
“I was working out. Okay, okay. I was sleeping.”

Just like at my house. Sigh.

How do they finally solve the mystery? To tell you the truth, I’m not really sure. It’s… er… complicated. It involves a nearsighted pet shop employee, a naughty snake, a hamster that thinks he’s a koala, some fish that can’t multi-task and a bunch of other animals with attitude. But the kids reading the book will be able to sort it all out, and that’s the main thing.

But don’t take it from me–check out the website and order these adorable softcover books. They’re lovely and, apparently, less than seven bucks. Deal!

Visit the author’s website for more information and ordering info. The first book in the series, Hamster and Cheese (get it? get it? Sandwich — ham and cheese?) was published in April 2010 from Graphic Universe, an imprint of Lerner. The books are written by Colleen Af Venable and illustrated by Stephanie Yue. It looks like there are six in all–so far.


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Four picture books to get your kid reading

I sometimes ask publishers to send me specific books that I think will “get kids reading.” Here are a few books I think will hook kids into reading and keep them reading.

I’ve included links to each author and illustrator’s website. Author websites can be a great for additional information, resources, teacher’s guides and similar books. You (and your kids) can also send the author questions; you’ll find that most of them will respond–and getting a reply from the author, even if it’s only through Twitter, can be a very exciting thing for a child.


Boy raised by librariansThe Boy who was Raised by Librarians

Some books are better for kids, and some books are better for the parents who read them to the kids—this is great for both. It’s about Melvin, who spends a lot of time at the library, and the librarians who help him with everything from snakes to acting to baseball cards. The book follows him from elementary school to high school… and after. It’s a lovely book, well written, with smart, humorous illustrations and it shows libraries as the warm, interesting, welcoming places they are. In these days of ebooks and tablets, it also shows kids how important librarians are.

Written by Carla Morris, a retired librarian. I couldn’t find her website but I found this wonderful interview in which she talks about what gets kids reading. Illustrated by Brad Sneed and published by Peachtree. They’re @PeachtreePub on Twitter.


Norman, Speak!Norman, Speak!

A family adopts a dog from an animal shelter. But Norman clearly isn’t very smart. He doesn’t understand even basic commands like “sit” or “come.” It isn’t until the family goes to the dog park that they discover Norman doesn’t speak English—he speaks Mandarin. I love the premise behind this book: that “different” doesn’t mean “wrong” or, in this case, “stupid.” It’s a smart, well-written and well-illustrated book that will stay with you and I highly recommend it.

Written by Caroline Adderson  and illustrated by Qin Leng @qinleng on Twitter. Published by Groundwood.


peachgirl1Peach Girl

If this story seems a bit quirky, it may be because it’s a take-off of an old Japanese folk tale (originally about a boy). It follows a plucky girl who was left on a couple’s doorstep, uh, after she burst from a giant peach. (Quirky. Folk tale.) This fierce girl goes hunting for an ogre who supposedly “has teeth like knives and eyes that shoot flames.” Well, of course the ogre is nothing of the sort, as the girl and some pals she has picked up along the way discover. It’s an unusual story and maybe that’s why I like it – and why I think kids will like it, too. Disclosure: the illustrator, Rebecca Bender, is a friend of mine but I requested this book (and wanted to review it) last year, before we’d even met.

Story by Raymond Nakamura on Twitter @RaymondsBrain, illustrated by Rebecca Bender, published by Pajama Press.



I know lots of kids who are fascinated by trains. Those kids, especially, will love this book. And you’ll love it too because there are bits you can read to your child, including lots of onomatopeaic Locomotive by Brian Flocawords, and bits you can read just to yourself. And through it all, the illustrations are lovely—detailed, with lots of references to the 19th century. The story is the history of the locomotive as it crosses the United States from Nebraska to California. This is a book you can read in many different ways—as a story, by just looking at the illustrations and talking about them, as a type of history book. It’s a book you and your child can read again and again, for many years—or until they drop their interest in locomotives (which may be never).

Written and illustrated by Brian Floca on Twitter @BrianFloca, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing.






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Taboo Buzz’d will get ’em reading

Taboo buzzd gameHere’s a really fun game that will get your kids reading, and they won’t even knowing they’re practising their reading.

Best of all, this game is electronic, which will make kids like it even more.

Taboo is a popular board game–Taboo Buzz’d is an electronic version of it. You have to get your partner(s) to say a certain word. But you’re not allowed, yourself, to say any of the four “taboo” words.

Here’s an example: Try to get someone else to say sandcastle but you can’t say beachpail, water or moat. Or blend but you can’t say colours, mix, combine or together.

It’s pretty difficult — and fun. And with the electronic (“Buzz’d”) version it’s super-simple, which
means kids can concentrate on the words and the synonyms and the game play without any distractions.

How to play
You press the big orange button on the hand-held unit to start the game. A screen gives you the word plus four taboo words. If your teammate guesses the word, you press the orange button again. If you just can’t get them to guess your word, you can press the “pass” button. And if you accidentally say a taboo word, you press the big purple “taboo” bar on the top of the unit and your team loses a point. Each round continues with six games. The unit keeps track of the scores for two teams.Taboo Buzzd package

The reason the game is so good is that they’ve chosen really appropriate “taboo” words. It’s pretty difficult to think of a way to play the game without using those words. And of course, that’s where all the fun is. “Oops! I said necklace!”

Taboo Buzz’d is most fun when you’re playing with teams of two or more, but my son and I were even able to just play it ourselves, albeit the scoring was kind of wonky but that was fine. The game is aimed at kids 13 and up, but I think younger kids would find it fun. You could modify the rules so that younger kids had to use the taboo words. It would still be silly and fun–and they’d be reading.

Taboo Buzz’d by Hasbro, age 13+, 1,000 words per unit, requires three AAA (not double-A) batteries and they’re not included, so make sure you pick some up when you buy the game. It sells at Toys R Us, Amazon, etc., for about $22. Worth it.

On a different topic: I apologize for the backwards apostrophe in the headline of this article. I can’t get it to go the right way. Frustrating.

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Bored reading to your child? Here’s one you’ll both love

A Brush Full Of ColourThe best way to “get kids reading” is to read to them. Sit them on your lap with a good book—as often as possible. But sometimes that can get a bit tedious, especially when what the child wants to read isn’t particularly interesting to you.

Here’s a book that will be as interesting for you as it will be for your child.

A Brush Full of Colour is a vibrant, fact-based picture book about Canadian artist Ted Harrison.

While the book takes you (the parent) through the life of a great painter, it will also take your child on a journey of a different kind—of beauty and exploration. The paintings in the book are colourful and magnificent. You don’t even have to be able to read to enjoy looking at the gorgeous images.

A few tips for parents reading this book to their child:

  • Don’t read it word-for-word. You can skim the text and pick out some relevant points to tell the child as you flip the pages. “When he was little, Ted Harrison painted the inside walls of his outhouse!”
  • Don’t read it to the child at all. Sometimes the best way to experience a book is to look at the pictures and talk about them. For younger children you can say, “Point to something wintry.” For older children you can say, “What do you think was happening when he painted this?”
  • The book includes “prompt questions” under each photo caption. For instance, “What features are missing from the faces of the people?”
  • The book also asks the reader to compare different paintings. Flipping back and forth through a book is a great way to enjoy it. You don’t have to read all books from front to back!
    Brush full of colour inside

A Brush Full of Colour: The World of Ted Harrison was written by Margriet Ruurs and Katherine Gibson and features many paintings by Ted Harrison, who also wrote the foreword for the book. It was published by Pajama Press and is available Sept. 19; $22.95.

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Keep calm and read to your child

Keep calm and readEvery year, parents of children in Grade 1 start to freak out. My kid isn’t reading yet! He’s six and my son shows no interest in books. Is my daughter normal? She’s not reading!

The good news is: your kid is normal.

Do not panic. Do not stress. Don’t even worry, in fact. Your child can and will grow up to be a great reader, as long as you do a few simple but important things.

1)      Read to your child every day (or evening, say, before bed).

2)      Give your child books. From the library. From the bookstore. From Goodwill. From the neighbour. From the school. From you. From your parents. Anywhere—just as long as some of them are your child’s, to keep, to read, to mishandle, to chew, to do anything they want with.

3)      Let your kid see you reading.

For more information about why these are the top three, click here.

More good news: If you only ever do #1 on this list, you’ll probably end up with a reader on your hands. A great reader. Because, according to all the research and the literacy experts, #1 is by far the most important thing you can do to foster reading.

Are there other things you can do? You betchya! This blog has a zillion ideas to… well, to get kids reading. Ahem. Right now, for instance, you can enroll your child in a summer reading program at the library. It’s free and kids love it. If your library doesn’t have one, create your own. Seriously. Bonus side effect: 15 minutes of downtime every time you give your child a book. You’re welcome.

Here are some other fun and easy activities you can do with your child to foster reading.
Supermarket scavenger hunt; In-car literacy games; online game that promotes reading, typing; reading comprehension.


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The Iron Trial perfect for Potter fans

Iron Trial coverIf your kids loved Harry Potter, they’ll enjoy The Iron Trial, by heavy-hitting YA authors Cassandra Clare and Holly Black. If those names sound familiar, they should—Clare wrote the best-selling Mortal Instruments series for young adults and Black is co-creator of the popular Spiderwick Chronicles.

The Iron Trial is the first book in a planned five-book series, set in a magical world.

There are obvious parallels to the Potter series. It’s set in a school for magicians called (*cough* Hogwarts! *cough*)—sorry, something in my throat—Magisterium. It features a likable main character and his two best friends (a girl and a boy) who get up to all sorts of misadventures. And there’s a bad guy who threatens all life as we know it.

Since this website is about “Getting Kids Reading,” we view that parallel as a good thing. After all, if your kids liked Harry Potter and it got them reading, why fix what ain’t broke? They’ll probably like this book—and they’ll read. And that’s the point.

Brief synopsis
Young Callum Hunt (known as Call) has been told all his life that he should avoid magic school at all costs—it’s a dangerous place and you’ll probably die there. He attempts to flub the entrance exams but he’s forced to go anyway, much to his father’s chagrin. He meets and befriends two other “mage apprentices” and during his first year at the school gets into all kinds of trouble as he tries to bend the school’s rules fairly harmlessly. But there’s a good and sinister reason these kids are being trained. There’s a big baddie: the Enemy of Death (*cough* Voldemort! *cough*)—that darned throat of mine again—who is a threat to everyone at Magisterium.

Above it all it’s a coming-of-age story with a character who will come to learn who he is, how to relate to his peers, and how he can use his special gifts.

There are a lot of characters and back-stories to keep track of, but young readers never seem to have a problem with that, so it shouldn’t be an issue. In fact, it will probably make them enjoy the book even more.

It’s a quick read because it’s well-written and it has a fast-paced plot. So if you do have a Harry Potter fan, The Iron Trial is likely a good bet to get—and keep—your kid reading.

The Iron Trial is available September 2014; it’s about 300 pages long. Here’s some more information about the series from co-author Cassandra Clare. And here she has some excellent and quite detailed advice about writing.

Oh, and speaking of… if you do have a Harry Potter fan, have they read the new 1,500-word short story J. K. Rowling recently put on the Potter site, Pottermore? In order to get to it, your child will have to register on the website and sign in, and then go to ‘The Campsite’ Moment in Chapter 7 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Yeah, don’t ask me—your kid will know what to do.


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Pediatricians recognize importance of reading aloud to babies

Photographer: Linda Bartlett

Photographer: Linda Bartlett

Reading to children during the first three years of their life is so important that the American Academy of Pediatrics has just included it in recommendations to new parents.

Starting this week, the more than 62,000 pediatricians in the U.S. will not only give the usual breast-feeding and immunization advice to new parents, but they’ll also be talking to them about the need to read aloud to their new baby.

Reading together should be a “daily fun family activity” right from the start, Pamela High (the author of the new policy) told the New York Times.

Reading, talking and singing are important ways to build a child’s vocabulary in their early years.

Researchers say they can recognize gaps between children who have been read to, and those who have not, in children as young as 18 months old.

Those who have been read, sung and talked to regularly “have heard words millions more times,” according to the Times.

Reading aloud to children is particularly important with the advent of new technology. More and more, parents find themselves handing their phones and tablets over to their baby, to swipe and click. It’s a new, high-tech form of babysitting that simply doesn’t do for them what reading aloud does. Pediatricians recommend that children be kept away from screens until they are at least two years old.

The bottom line is what parents (and GKR readers) already know: read to your child, every day.

Here’s a link to the New York Times article.


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Wonderful middle-grade read: “Bog” (and it has trolls)

Bog-Cover-fullKids love fantasy-based novels, but they’re not always well written and they don’t always send a positive message. Bog, a new middle-grade novel by Karen Krossing, does both while managing to be the kind of book kids will love.

In Bog, trolls and humans exist within very different cultures. Trolls consider humans to be weak and foolish; trolls just want to be left alone in nature. To humans, trolls are like dangerous animals—to be tricked and then destroyed (sunlight turns them to stone) with impunity.

The main character, Bog, will discover that not all humans are bad, and that there’s a little bit of human—and a little bit of troll—in us all.

The story itself is about a journey to stop a troll hunter who is teaching people how to destroy trolls. But the story is also a metaphor for the divide, comprising fear and ignorance, that separates cultures.

Written after 9/11 and with its aftermath in mind, Krossing explores racism and stereotyping with a gentle hand.

Bog is a well written and well-crafted adventure with a flawed yet likeable main character set in a believable other-world. The plot clicks right along; it will hook and enchant even reluctant readers.

Bog, by Karen Krossing; lush cover illustration by Félix Gerard; published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside.


Reading extensions
Lena Coakley interviews Karen about what inspired her to write Bog – here.

Karen’s blog – with more about the process of writing Bog.

Karen is giving away 10 copies of Bog on GoodReads until June 1, 2014.

Watch this brief trailer for Bog

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Zowie!! May 3 is FREE COMIC BOOK DAY

Free Comic Book Day logoThe first Saturday in May each year is free comic book day.


Go into most major comic book stores in North America (heck, maybe the world!) and get a free comic book.

Do comic books get kids reading? Heck, ya!

If you’re in Toronto, check out Little Island Comics (Bathurst south of Bloor) for younger readers or The Beguiling and pick up a free comic book. They’ll also have visits from comic book writers and artists. There are lots of other comic book stores in Toronto and area (like The Labyrinth, for instance) but those happen to be the ones I know fairly well.

If you’re not in Toronto — and I know that dozens of you aren’t — Google it! Find a store! Get a comic! Bring the kids! Biff! Baff! Zowie!

But don’t take my word for it, here’s Stan Lee to tell ya:

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The Tweedles Go Electric, by Monica Kulling

Tweedles Go ElectricIt’s the dawn of the 20th Century and everyone’s getting into the coolest technology–cars. Everyone, that is, except the Tweedles. They’re content with their bikes and their horse-and-cart.

Until one day, Mr. Tweedle makes an announcement: “We’re going modern. We’re buying a car!”

The Tweedles don’t buy just any car, however. They opt for an electric car. A green car.

Author Monica Kulling and illustrator Marie Lafrance take us into the world of the 20th-Century Tweedles and their wondrous green, electric car.

Kulling has written more than 40 books for children and is known for her Great Idea series of books on historical inventions.

Her writing is often delightfully subversive. By which I mean that she tends to quietly introduce the subversive notion that girls can do anything.

Meet, for instance, 12-year-old Franny Tweedle:

Like most girls, she is more interested in higher education. Speed gives Frances nosebleeds, and adventure seems to go along with getting lost, which makes her nervous. There’s only one place Frances puts her nose and that is between the pages of a book.

In The Tweedles Go Electric, Frances will end up discovering that she finds speed exhilarating. In fact, (spoiler alert), she saves the day in that electric car.

Oh, and later she will become so exhilarated by speed that she will drive right across the country, “from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” (Sub-ver-sive!)

This is one of those books that—through its weavy, clip-along plot and stylishly flat, folksy illustrations—helps you to feel, taste, smell and understand what went on in another century.

It’s a book that begs you to put your child on your lap for a thoughtful read-along.

The Tweedles Go Electric was written by Monica Kulling, illustrated by Marie Lafrance and published in 2014 by Groundwood Books which always makes such “beautiful and thought-provoking books” as they so correctly state on their website’s home page. Purchase the Tweedles online here.



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