"Mom, can we read this one?" These days, whenever I hear that question, there's a pretty good chance one of my boys is holding up one of the books from the Billy and the Mini Monsters series, Usborne books written by Zanna Davidson and illustrated by Melanie Williamson. My boys were captivated as soon as I pulled the books out of the box they arrived in, and their love has only grown since then.
Billy is a boy (I would guess around 10 years old) who finds five tiny monsters living in his sock drawer. He winds up saving their life in the first book when they get trapped in the washing machine, and they swear their allegiance to him for life. Captain Snott, Fang Face, Trumpet, Gloop, and Peep may be monsters, but they're actually pretty cute, more so than scary - and Billy takes to them instantly.
Each book in the series focuses on a different adventure Billy has with these mini monsters. Wherever they end up, trouble seems to follow - at school, during swim lessons, moving house, at a party, even at the airport. The monsters and Billy work together to ultimately sort out their problem, and life continues.
Although the monsters tend to complicate Billy's life, they also help him grow and learn important lessons. At school, Billy learns to not be intimidated by a bully. At a birthday party, Billy realizes his sister isn't actually that bad, and they can have fun together. At his swim lessons, the monsters help Billy overcome his fear of heights and diving off the diving board. The situations may seems silly on the surface, but the bigger lessons are meaningful and relevant to kids.
"Obviously, she wasn't some silly, superstitious little kid who believed in ghosts or any of that nonsense but ... if ever ghosts did exist, this was exactly the sort of place they would be." Amelia, the protagonist of the Gateway series written by Cerberus Jones, is reflecting on her new home, a rundown hotel her parents just bought.
What Amelia doesn't know for much of The Four-Fingered Man is that the hotel her parents bought is a gateway for aliens, with a portal under the caretaker's house that opens wormholes to a variety of planets. Her father, a scientist, has been tasked with keeping track of these intergalactic travels, which are becoming more unpredictable.
Each story in the series has a self-contained plot but builds on the overarching storyline of life at this hotel. The books in this series engaging science fiction/mystery reads for late elementary or middle school students, with short chapters, fairly large text, and occasional illustrations. There are eight books in the series, ranging from 780-900 Lexile, each fewer than 160 pages.
Set in London in 1909, this mystery brings to life a brand new department store, Sinclair's, as seen through the eyes of its young workers. It doesn't take long before you are just as enchanted with this place as Sophie is!
I was quickly sucked into Sophie's world. Her story is a beautiful blend of elegant imagery - you can practically smell and touch everything in Sophie does - and labyrinthian mystery. Sinclair's is the backdrop for a mystery that is, as times, dark: theft, murder, a crime lord, kidnapping, threats... in short, everything that makes up a satisfying nail-biter. But the overall book doesn't feel dark because of the balance of these plot elements with absolutely enthralling language. And this is an English teacher talking.
Clockwork Sparrow is primarily told from the perspective of Sophie, a young woman who is working in the millinery department (that's hats, if you were born after 1950 ;) of Sinclair's. But the narration jumps between Sophie and a few other key characters: Billy, a young porter who is prone to slipping up; Lil, an adored model of Sinclair's fashion; and Joe, a young man who has found himself in more trouble than he would like to admit.
Sometimes, switching narrators within a story can feel confusing or scattered. It worked for me in this novel, though, because each character has its own voice, and Sophie continues to be a uniting thread throughout the novel. Indeed, I found the additional voices added depth and intrigue to the mystery.
All in all, this novel was great fun - both from the layered mystery to the absolutely enchanting atmosphere of the store. Sinclair's really is a character in this story, and it plays its part well. I won't give spoilers away here, but if you would like details on the story arc before buying the book, send me a message! I understand the desire to know what's coming before handing a novel to a kid. But honestly, just read the book along with your kids! You won't be disappointed.
It's that book that transports you to another time and place... and keeps you there long after you've finished reading.
Buy The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow here! ($6.99, paperback)
Check out The Mystery of the Jeweled Moth for more adventures from Sophie and Lil
Click on the pictures to get a preview of the writing:
"Things to pack for vacation: pants, sunglasses, books, toothpaste, bobble hat, pet cactus, tambourine, toothbrush." This is one little detail that's easy to overlook in Nibbles (A Kane Miller book by Emma Yarlett) because the story itself is so captivating. And I'll say from the start, this is a tough book to accurately portray in words because it's interactive in more of an out-of-the-box way than I've seen in many children's books! Let me try to explain.
Nibbles is a little yellow monster who loves to eat BOOKS. As you're reading about Nibbles, he actually eats his way out of the book and starts chomping through some classic fairy tales. And he takes you with him, following his path through Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk.
But what's hard to explain is that these books are printed inside the Nibbles book - like little books with smaller pages set in the pages of this picture book. And, when Nibbles eats his way through a book, he leaves an actual hole in the page! Maybe let's pause, and I'll show you some pictures:
As Nibbles makes his way through these classic tales, he is changing the story - so, as you see, as the three bears are about to accuse Goldilocks of destroying their house, she cries out, "It wasn't me! It was a monster!"
The golden goose from the giant's castle in Jack and the Beanstalk carries Nibbles back to his own story and deposits him back in the crate - but you quickly discover Nibbles has chewed his way out of the crate, leaving a real hole in the back cover of this really fun, interactive picture book. The story is charming and funny and sweet; the illustrations captivate you, the little character of Nibbles is unavoidably lovable, and your kids will ask you to read it again as soon as you're done.
It's that book that redefines picture books - and fairytales - and monsters - in one fell swoop.
Pick up a copy of Nibbles today! You won't be disappointed. :)
Buy Nibbles, the Book Monster here (hardcover, $16.99)
And bring home a plush Nibbles, too
Hi there! I'm Christine - Usborne Books & More independent consultant, kids' book fan, English teacher, mom of two boys.