Not Quite Ready for Harry Potter? Try Upside Down Magic!

Full disclosure: I am a big Harry Potter fan. My heart was leaping for joy when our older daughter tore through Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and then decided to dress up as Harry Potter for Halloween last year. Imagine my secret disappointment when she stopped reading the second Harry Potter book halfway through the book. However, after hearing her explanation, I couldn’t fault her reasoning. She explained that she was worried that the books might get too scary for her, so she wanted to wait a while before continuing with the series.

Enter the Upside-Down Magic books!

%RIabQqBR1SBichliSnivwUpside Down Magic books by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins

These books feature a group of kids who have “wonky magic.” They live in a world where most people’s magic fits neatly into a few categories: Fluxers, Fuzzies, Flickers, Flyers, and Flares.

Each of main characters have powers that don’t fit neatly into the typical categories. For example, Fluxers are able to change into different types of animals. A black kitten is one that many Fluxers begin with before working their way up to more complicated animals like flamingoes. Nory is a Fluxer who often combines animals to become things like a dritten (dragon + kitten) or a skunkephant (skunk + elephant). On the other hand, Bax is a Fluxer who is only able to change into rocks and other inanimate objects.

These kids with unusual magical powers come together at Dunwiddle Magic School in a newly created upside-down magic class (UDM). This class is taught by Ms. Starr, who accepts her students for who they are and encourages self-awareness through various teaching techniques.

Each of the UDM students struggles to accept his or her unique magical powers. Many of the other students at Dunwiddle make fun of the UDM students and ostracize them. Some even make the UDM students the targets of their bullying tactics. While some of the UDM students have supportive families, others do not and struggle to gain acceptance at both home and school.

As a parent, I appreciate how the Upside Down Magic books address issues of differences between people and emphasize the importance of accepting yourself. I also like how the main characters are a multicultural bunch. Furthermore, one character has a hearing aid, and what’s even better is that it’s not the central feature of her character. These books also reinforce the power of teamwork and the importance of friendship.

There are superficial similarities between the Upside Down Magic books and the Harry Potter books, the most obvious being that both are about kids with magical powers. Both Hogwarts and Dunwiddle train students in how to use magic and have set up friendly competitions between the main groupings of students at the school (though these competitions sometimes become not so friendly!) The main characters in both books struggle for acceptance among the rest of the students at their respective schools. There is even a sport invented for each series: Quidditch for Harry Potter and Kittenball for Upside Down Magic. Since the Upside Down Magic books are geared toward a younger audience, they don’t delve into the deeper issues that are prominent in the Harry Potter books such as good vs. evil, destiny, and resistance against unjust authority.

While the Upside Down Magic books don’t transport me to a different world the way the Harry Potter books do, I’m thankful that both of our daughters love them. I hope that some day they will serve as a bridge for us to enter the magical world of Hogwarts together.

Have you enjoyed any magical books for early or middle-grade readers? Feel free to leave recommendations here!

More Early Reader Chapter Books for Animal Lovers: Daisy Dawson

Since both of our daughters are animal lovers, we are always searching for a new series of books featuring animals. Anthropomorphic animals, such as Harriet the Hamster Princess and her friend Wilbur star in some of our favorites (see the Hamster Princess post from August 4, 2017). Other favorites feature humans interacting with animals (see the Calpurnia Tate, Girl Vet post from June 21, 2018 or the Mercy Watson post from June 2, 2017).

However, just because a series features animals doesn’t guarantee its success in our family. Some popular books, such as the Magic Bone series or the Dolphin School series, have not been huge hits here. After running across the Daisy Dawson books at our local overstock and used bookstore, I decided to try them out. They turned out to be a lucky find!

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Daisy Dawson books by Steve Voake

Daisy Dawson is a young girl with a big heart and an inquisitive nature who doesn’t seem to quite fit in. I came away with the sense that Daisy is often just a bit out of sync with her family and the other kids at school. She is constantly late to school, not because she intends to be late, but because she has made an unplanned stop after something caught her interest along the way.

After an encounter with a butterfly, Daisy finds that she has the ability to communicate with animals. She quickly befriends a dog named Boom, a horse named Meadowsweet, and other animals who live nearby. Daisy is able to develop true friendships with the aniamsl and finds a place where she is appreciated. In the books, she often helps the animals out of predicaments or helps them to solve their problems.

While these books move at a slightly slower pace than the books our daughters typically like (okay, than those I typically like reading with them), I found myself drawn to the main characters. All of them have richly drawn personalities, from Daisy herself to Trixie, the cantankerous cat who may have a soft heart underneath her abrasive exterior. And we can’t leave out the easily excitable young squirrels, Conker and Hazel, or wise, gentle Meadowsweet. Interactions between the various characters make the books quite funny.

These books are filled with black and white illustrations, making them quick reads. There is little to no violence in them, so they are a good choice for kids who are easily frightened.

Do you have any recommendations for our resident animal lovers? Feel free to leave them here!

Fun, Futuristic Chapter Books for Early Readers: Galaxy Zack Books

Although looking at our home library may lead to you think otherwise, I do acknowledge that there is such a thing as having too many books.  With some guilt, I suspect that we may be closer to that point than not. Despite constant use of the local public library and restricting my own reading to eBooks from the library, I still manage to find books that I cannot resist buying for our daughters. For a while, I tried restricting us to books with strong female characters, but then the Galaxy Zack series ending up being an exception to my rule.

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Galaxy Zack series by Ray O’Ryan

At the beginning of the series, Zack and his family move from Earth to Nebulon for his father’s new job at the futuristic tech company, Nebulonics. Zack faces some typical challenges of starting over in a new place: making new friends, figuring out how things work at his new school, trying new foods, and adjusting to new routines. Zack even has to learn new slang (e.g., “grape” is what kids say on Nebulon instead of “great”) and how to greet others appropriately (i.e., making a circular motion with his hand rather than waving). Zack eventually settles in on Nebulon and has some typical adventures there, such as teaching a friend how to swim and preparing for a science fair. Zack joins his school’s Explorer Club, which leads to him having adventures on other planets throughout the galaxy.

The Galaxy Zack books are quick, humorous reads filled with black and white illustrations. They include cool futuristic technology, like foldable hover cars and an IRA (Indoor Robotic Assistant). I appreciate the way that the series tackles issues common in lower elementary school about family, friendship, and school. Life lessons such as the importance of not judging by appearances and how to cope with others that you don’t get along with at first are woven throughout the books in an age-appropriate manner. As a parent, I do wish that there was more of a gender balance in the series. Zack and his friends are boys. Zack’s mother and twin sisters have relatively minor roles. Even a female robot introduced to the household in one of the books causes a lot of problems for Zack. Despite this shortcoming, our daughters have really enjoyed the Galaxy Zack books and are eager to read more of them.

Do you have any recommendations for futuristic, adventure books? Feel free to leave your recommendations!

 

 

 

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Early Chapter Books for Young Animal Lovers: Calpurnia Tate, Girl Vet

Our older daughter loves animals and aspires to be a veterinarian when she grows up. The last book she read was the National Geographic Kids Ultimate Bugopedia by Darlyne Murawski. She gave it a thumbs up for “interesting information” about different types of insects and “cute pictures.” Eugenie Clark and Jane Goodall were the subjects of two other books she recently read. She has been asking for a pet for years and was thrilled to receive a Betta fish from us on her most recent birthday. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that she has really enjoyed the Calpurnia Tate, Girl Vet books!

img_1579.jpgCalpurnia Tate, Girl Vet books by Jacqueline Kelly

Calpurnia Tate, the main character of the series, is a rather unconventional young girl. The series is set in Texas in the early 1900’s. Calpurnia is interested in studying animals and plants, exploring the outdoors, and keeping a scientific journal—all pastimes deemed “unladylike” by her mother. Fortunately, she has a strong relationship with her grandfather, who supports Calpurnia’s interest in science and teaches her what he knows. In her spare time, Calpurnia helps out Dr. Pritzker, the local veterinarian, learning a great deal about taking care of animals in the process.

Each book of the series focuses on a different animal. The books are relatively quick reads due to large font size and detailed black and white illustrations scattered throughout. Calpurnia has a strong personality, some aspects of which many kids will be able to relate to. She is resourceful, brave, and inquisitive, making her a strong role model for kids. As a parent, I appreciate the amount of science that is included in these books. For example, in one of the books, Calpurnia and her grandfather discover an ammonite in the river bed. Calpurnia’s grandfather teaches her how to extract it without damaging it and discusses the ammonite’s relationship to the present-day nautilus. I also appreciate how Calpurnia challenges the gender norms of the early 1900’s, creating opportunities for parents to discuss this issue with their kids.

However, I do have a couple of notes of caution for parents. Calpurnia has six brothers, one of whom is more sensitive than the others and shares her love of animals. However, this particular brother is not always portrayed in a positive light and Calpurnia sometimes states that she does not want to be like him. Another issue that caught me off guard was that in one of the books, the Comanches that used to live where the Tate family currently resides were described as “bloodthirsty.” Luckily, I was reading this book aloud to our daughters and chose to drop the descriptor. While I don’t often censor what I read to our daughters, here I chose to do so because I didn’t feel it was integral to the plot and hadn’t had anytime to do historical research to prepare for that type of discussion. Some families may choose to discuss why the author chose to use that word, while others may wish to do what I did.

Overall, we’ve enjoyed the Calpurnia Tate, Girl Vet books. Have you read any animal-centric books lately? Please feel free to leave recommendations!

 

More Science-Themed Chapter Books for Early Readers: The DATA Set

I have a soft spot in my heart for books with science themes, which is why my last recommendation was the Ada Lace series by Emily Calandrelli (see post from May 2, 2018). I’d like to follow up that recommendation with another science-themed series that was well-received in our household, but very different.

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The DATA Set books by Ada Hopper

This series revolves around a group of friends who are drawn together by their shared interest in science and technology. This shared interest has led others to dub them the DATA set. They have a futuristic treehouse that serves as a clubhouse as well as a place to work on their inventions and science projects. At the beginning of the series, the DATA set meets Dr. Bunsen, their friendly neighborhood mad scientist and inventor. Encounters with Dr. Bunsen lead to adventures ranging from time travel to toy animals coming to life. As the DATA set says, anytime something strange is happening, it is probably somehow related to Dr. Bunsen and one of his inventions.

The books are fast-paced and straightforward, at times even predictable. While the characterization isn’t deep, it is humorous and clear. The books are filled with illustrations and use a large font, making them quick reads. I appreciate how the series emphasizes teamwork and maintains a gender balance among the characters. While the books are light on actual scientific concepts compared to the Magic School Bus series or the Ada Lace series, the DATA Set series does serve to make science exciting and intriguing. These books have gone a long way toward stimulating creative thinking in our household.

Although we all enjoyed both sets of books, I think that the Ada Lace series is better suited for slightly older readers due to the depth of scientific explanations, slightly more advanced vocabulary, and emotional drama. Younger readers might prefer the fast-paced action and straightforward nature of the DATA Set series.

Have you enjoyed any science-themed books for early readers lately? Please feel free to leave recommendations!

 

Science-Themed Chapter Books for Early Readers: Ada Lace

I believe that one of my responsibilities as a parent is to support each of our daughters in pursuing her individual interests, especially when they vary from my own. To that end, I have shuttled our younger daughter to ballet lessons and read many graphic novels with our older daughter that I would never have selected on my own. But as a former science teacher, in my secret heart of hearts, I hope that both of them develop a passion for science. I am thrilled every time that our younger daughter announces that she wants to be an inventor when she grows up and equally delighted that entomology is currently a passion of our older daughter. This is why I was so excited when a friend lent us her daughter’s Ada Lace books.

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Ada Lace books by Emily Calandrelli

Ada Lace is a young girl with a passion for science. The series opens with Ada adjusting to life in a new city. Ada spends her days recording observations of her new ecosystem, the Juniper Gardens housing complex, in her field guide. She ends up befriending a girl named Nina, who is just as artistic as she is scientific. In the first book, Ada Lace on the Case, the girls work together to solve the mystery of a neighbor’s missing Yorkie. Note that with this book, I felt that I needed to discuss privacy concerns with our daughters because one strategy Ada and Nina use in their investigation is setting up a wireless camera to spy on suspects. While there is no physical violence in the books, there is mild taunting between Ada and another character, Milton Edison.

Unlike the Magic School Bus books by Joanna Cole where each book has a stated scientific topic that is taught in a fun way, these books integrate scientific ideas and principles into their plot lines. I appreciate how these books introduce kids to ways science applies to their lives. A “Behind the Science” section is found at the end of each  book where topics such as the Turing test, drones, Arduino boards, gecko gloves, photoresistors, and white light are explained in more detail. With her engineering background and experience working with Bill Nye, Emily Calandrelli clearly knows how to make science accessible to the general public. As a parent, an added bonus of these books is how Ada works through typical tween angst in them. Our household is eager to for the next Ada Lace book to be published.

Have you read any science-themed chapter books for early readers? Feel free to leave recommendations!

 

More Adventure Chapter Books for Early Readers: Dinosaur Cove

If you could travel through time, which time period would you visit? Personally, I’d like to travel forward to a time when interplanetary travel is widely available so that I could visit our neighbors in the solar system. At the other extreme, the answer for some is to prehistoric times in order to see live dinosaurs. For those in the latter category, the Dinosaur Cove series might be right up your alley.

img_7885.jpgDinosaur Cove books by Rex Stone

Two boys named Jamie and Tom are able to travel back to the time of the dinosaurs by passing through a hidden gap in the back of a cave. Their sidekick in Dino World is a ginkgo-loving wannanosaurus they have named Wanna. Jamie and Tom have exciting adventures in Dino World, exposing readers to facts about dinosaurs along the way via the boys’ Fossil Finder device. Our daughters’ favorite book of the series so far is Tracking the Diplodocus. In it Jamie and Tom have to work together to remove a branch that is stuck in between the teeth of a diplodocus in order to calm the dinosaur down.

The books are fast-paced, quick reads filled with plenty of black and white illustrations. They have little violence, even though some of the books involve carnivores searching for food. The series emphasizes teamwork, friendship, and problem solving. One drawback of the series is that the books are dominated by male characters. The two main characters are boys and the adults they live with are also male. Despite this, my daughters have enjoyed the series.

Do you have other favorite adventure books for early readers? Feel free to leave recommendations!

 

 

 

Adventure Competition Chapter Books for Early Readers: the Race the Wild series

I love books and have done so from a very young age. However, I also admit to loving certain TV shows, the Amazing Race being one of them. I enjoy seeing the wide range of locations across the world used by the race. My husband and I like discussing what we would do if faced with the challenges the contestants are given. I think this is why I was especially drawn to the Race the Wild series by Kristin Earhart. To me, it is like a rated-G blend of the Amazing race TV show and nature documentaries.

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Race the Wild by Kristin Earhart

The Race the Wild series is about a contest for teams of kids that takes place around the world. The race’s challenges are presented in a riddle format. In order to succeed, the teams must draw upon their knowledge of animals, plants, and the environment to complete the challenges, typically by photographing a specific animal or plant. The chapters of each book are separated by a brief nonfiction passage about a specific animal, plant, ecosystem, or biome. After finishing a leg of the race successfully, teams are whisked off to another location to compete in the subsequent leg.

Like mysteries, races and competitions have built-in suspense and drama. The questions, “Who is going to win this leg of the race?” and “Who is going to win the entire race?,” are always there pulsing in the background. Despite this, it took several chapters for our daughters to become invested in the series. However, once they were in, they were completely hooked.

As a parent, I appreciated that the series struck a balance between moving the plot along and presenting facts about wildlife. I also liked that the series places a heavy emphasis on the importance of teamwork. Each book in the series is written from a different team member’s perspective, which helps to provide insight on how each team member copes with frustrations of the race and learns to work with the others. A final selling point for me was the gender balance and diversity among the characters of the series.

Have you enjoyed other books about competitions or races? I’m looking forward to reading the Lemoncello’s Library series by Chris Grabenstein and the Candymakers series by Wendy Mass with our daughters when they are older. Feel free to leave additonal recommendations here!

Binge-Worthy Chapter Books for Early Readers: Dragon Masters

What’s the last book series you binge read? Mine is Dragon Masters by Tracey West. Over the course about a week, our daughters and I read the existing 9 books of the series. Their only disappointment with the series is that the tenth book will not be published until June 2018!

img_7903.jpgDragon Masters books by Tracey West

The series begins with a young boy named Drake leaving behind a comfortable life on his family’s onion farm to train as a Dragon Master in the castle of King Roland of Bracken. Drake has been chosen by the Dragon Stone, a mystical stone, to be paired with an Earth Dragon who he eventually names Worm. Pieces of the Dragon Stone are given to each of the Dragon Masters to facilitate their ability to bond and communicate with their dragons. At the castle, Drake meets the other Dragon Masters and their dragons, as well as Griffith, the wizard in charge of training them. Over the course of the series, the Dragon Masters face danger and solve problems together. There is a heavy emphasis on the importance of teamwork in this series, which will appeal to parents.

The books are fast paced and suspense builds over the course of the series, particularly between books 8 and 9. At the end of each book, our younger daughter always exclaims, “I wonder what the dragon in the next book will be like!” The characters are life like and have distinct personalities. I appreciate the gender balance among both the heroes and villains of the books. While there is fighting in the books, the violence is largely mild and free from gore and blood. When injured, characters are rendered unconscious or frozen, rather than bloodied. The series also raises ethical questions about how the dragons and the Dragon Masters were recruited by King Roland that can lead to interesting discussions.

 

Do you have a series or two to recommend while we wait for the next Dragon Masters book comes out? Feel free to leave your thoughts!

More Sweet Chapter Books for Early Readers: The Adventures of Sophie Mouse

Over the last few months, we have received an influx of new books as gifts from friends and family who know that both of our girls love books. Between the holidays and their respective January and February birthdays, our bookcases are overflowing. Exciting!

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The Adventures of Sophie Mouse books by Poppy Green

One of our recent discoveries has been the Adventures of Sophie Mouse series by Poppy Green. Sophie Mouse is a young mouse who lives with her parents and younger brother in Silverlake Forest. She and her best friend, Hattie Frog, have adventures with other young animals in the forest. In gentle ways, the books deal with issues of friendship, school, independence, and identity—all of which are topics that early readers are likely to find relevant to their own lives. For example, the first book in the series, A New Friend, deals with being the new kid at school and how to fit in despite being different.

Personally, I have not found the books to be fast paced, but they are quick reads. The books are filled with black and white illustrations and the font used for the text is relatively large. Plot twists are often predictable, but our daughters revel in being correct about their predictions. Characters talk through their worries and problems to find solutions.  Parents of younger readers will appreciate that there is no violence in the books. Even during a snowball fight, the snowballs end up hitting a wall instead of the characters themselves. An additional bonus for parents: Sophie and her brother are often depicted doing their chores and helping out around the house!

What are your favorite chapter books for early readers? Feel free to leave recommendations!