It’s hard to believe that summer is already coming to a close. We’re hardly feeling ready for school to start, and every week I look at my list of things I thought I was going to get done and realize it’s only gotten longer (including all those books I was hoping to read!). Well, here’s a few, at least.
Let’s start today’s with some activity books! I know, school’s starting up again so maybe your kids are pretty busy now and may not need quite as much to keep them occupied, but we’ve just made our way through these at the end of summer.
My youngest loves drawing and making crafts. During the pandemic, she enjoyed watching Mo Willem’s “Lunch Doodles” videos, where he spends some time making drawings and talking to kids, showing them around his studio. And we still have various bits and bobs hanging up from when my middle kid, several years ago, went through Don’t Let the Pigeon Finish This Activity Book! So she was delighted when this one arrived: an activity book inspired by the video series, where Mo Willems helps you earn your MMD (Master Mo Doodler) Diploma.
There are 15 “studio sessions” in the book, with instructions on drawing various familiar characters, making various doodles based on prompts, and plenty of crafts. Each studio session has a portfolio piece to work on at the end. The pages are perforated so you can tear them out to work on them, and you’re accompanied by Dot and Dash, the “Doodle Poodles,” who are taking the class with you. My daughter whizzed through the book, completing the activities in a matter of days, at the end of which she had a little portfolio (also cut and folded from the book) for all of her pieces. If you’re a fan of Mo Willems, this activity book is a delightful way to practice his doodling techniques!
Puzzlooies are another activity book series that combines a story with various pencil-and-paper puzzles. The books are bound on the top with a cardboard backing, similar to Mad Libs pads, though at 78 pages each they’re a little thicker than that. The stories follow a band of four kids having an adventure of some sort, and along the way you stop and solve puzzles that give you key pieces of information about the story
Mystery at Mallard Mansion is a murder mystery about a dead celebrity duck. The Last Donut is about the search for the last donut from a bakery that just closed down. There are a variety of puzzles: word searches (where the unused letters spell a hidden message), crossword puzzles, mazes, and so on. There are some that involve following a sequence of instructions, filing in a grid to create a picture, and even some that involve cutting out pieces to rearrange. (The solutions, of course, are at the back of the book in case you get stuck.) Oh, and there are also some jokes and riddles.
Two of my kids (ages 8 and 14) zipped through all four books pretty quickly; the puzzles weren’t too much of a challenge for my 14-year-old but she still enjoyed working on them. The stories are fun but kind of silly, and both of my kids groaned a bit about some plot points. For instance, in One of Our Giant Robots Is Missing, there’s a robot theme park that includes a giant metal bird, The Grackle. It’s supposed to be a ride, but for some reason it also has an armor-piercing beak and sharp claws—great for the giant robot battle that occurs, but not particularly sensible otherwise.
The Puzzlooies are single-use books, since you write directly in the book (or cut up some pages), though you could re-read the story afterward. There are four available now, with more on the way (including four coming in September).
You’re probably familiar with Strange Planet, a comic strip that features aliens describing the human world and activities in odd but literal terms. This book for kids features Pyle’s illustrations (and occasionally frames of the comics), with a variety of activities: word searches and simple crosswords, fill-in-the-blank poems, mazes, math problems, and more. There are also some simple activities that are more like a journal: filling in the names of your family and pets, for instance. The names of the puzzles and instructions are given in alien-speak, like “observe the distinction” for spot-the-difference puzzles. It’s a cute book, though it’s not entirely clear what age range it’s intended for, since some activities are quite simple but younger kids may need help interpreting the instructions, and it’s a mix of what are usually considered fun activities and what looks more like a homework worksheet (particularly when it comes to the math-based puzzles). Overall, though, if you’ve got kids who enjoy Strange Planet and are used to figuring out what the aliens mean, they may get a kick out of this one.
And while we’re on the subject of Strange Planet, here’s the first picture book featuring Pyle’s aliens. Two aliens, a parent (I mean, lifegiver) and the child, spend the day following a cat around the house and observing its behavior, trying to copy it with mixed results. It’s a bit like an extended strip, though it’s more about describing the cat’s behavior in alien-speak than setting up a joke with a punchline. It’s a cute way to introduce the younger set to the world of Strange Planet.
The Last Kids on Earth: June’s Wild Flight by Max Brallier, illustrated by Douglas Holgate
The Last Kids on earth: Thrilling Tales from the Tree House by Max Brallier, illustrated by Douglas Holgate & Friends
I’ve written about the Last Kids on Earth series before, featuring four kids who are some of the only human survivors of a monster apocalypse. Portals from another dimension flooded Wakefield with monsters of all sorts and turned most of the people into zombies, but this band of kids created their own little family unit and have even befriended some of the monsters. Together, they’re working to prevent Rezzoch from taking over the world. The books have also spawned a Netflix series (which I’ve watched parts of), but I fell behind a bit and just caught up on two more books recently.
June’s Wild Flight is sort of a spin-off book. I count it as the sixth book in the series, but it’s not numbered—it’s a “solo episode” that takes place between Books 5 and 6. During a battle with Rifters (sort of pirate monsters), June’s go-kart gets snagged on an ogre and by the time she gets free she’s a long ways from home. She tracks down the creature they were hunting and discovers it’s a baby wretch—the things that grow up into evil monsters with weird telepathic powers—and reluctantly decides to get it back to its nest, because the Rifters have nefarious plans for it otherwise. She’s joined by Globet, a little pink blob monster friend, and Johnny Steve, an owl-looking monster who considers himself an expert on humans but really has no idea at all. It’s filled with action and humor (as you’d expect from the series), but it’s fun to see this book focusing on June and a sort of side quest.
Thrilling Tales from the Tree House is a bit different because it’s a graphic novel. The others in the series are prose but with plenty of illustrations (often with multiple panels and speech bubbles), but this one is entirely comics—plus there are sections in full color! The kids are holed up in their tree house with Globlet and Skaelka (a battle-loving monster), when a giant monster starts attacking. Each of them wants to fight it alone, but nobody can decide who will get the honor. They decide that each will tell a story of their own heroics, and then the person with the best story will get to battle.
Each of the stories is illustrated by a different artist, with Douglas Holgate providing the framing story. It’s fun to see the different styles, and the stories are over-the-top (and, the characters argue, mostly untrue). Jack paints himself as a hero, of course, while Quint’s story has him as a whiny sidekick. Globet’s story is colorful and cartoony (and very pink), while Dirk’s story is like a gritty western. After the story contest concludes, there’s also one more tale, this time featuring Evie Snark and Ghazt the General, whom we’ve met in previous books. Evie is another human kid survivor, but instead of joining up with Jack and the crew, she’s been trying to summon monsters and rule the world herself, or at least team up with whoever’s going to be in charge when the monsters win. This story shows a bit more of her scheming and conniving, and (as the comic states) explains some things that happened between since Book 4, in preparation for Book 7 (which comes out next month). I’ve somehow missed Book 6 entirely, so I’ll have to go back and look for that one next.
In a couple of weeks it’ll be the Mid-Autumn Festival, the time to enjoy mooncakes—while you’re at it, you can also enjoy this graphic novel. It’s about witches and werewolves and family and romance. (And, of course, mooncakes, though they don’t feature quite as prominently in the story as I’d expected given the title.) Nova Huang is a young witch, living with her grandmothers (instead of leaving home to learn magic, as her deceased parents wanted). She works in their bookstore and does little magical jobs around town.
Tam Lang (who happens to be a werewolf) is Nova’s best friend from childhood but has been away for a long time. Now they’re back in town, trying to battle some sort of horse-demon in the forest. The two teens team up to investigate, and their relationship grows deeper as they get to know each other again.
The story includes magic and adventure, nefarious plots, and humor (just wait until you meet cousin Terry). It also digs into family—both the ways that they can support us and the ways they can cause us pain. Tam and Nova each have very different relationships with their parents and family, and that’s an important piece of understanding each other.
I read Raybearer, the first book in this series, back in February. Note that there are some spoilers here for the first book, so if you haven’t read it, you may want to skip this section! Redemptor picks up the story, as Tarisai reckons with the consequences of her decisions in the first book—in particular, her treaty with the abiku. She’s agreed to enter the Underworld so that no more children need to be sent there, but first she needs to anoint a Council, and the other leaders aren’t so ready to join her cause.
This book really digs into what it means to have an empire: as Tarisai learns more about how wealth and power are distributed, and what it means that nobles “manage” lands on behalf of the emperor and empress, she grows more and more uncomfortable with the way things are. A vigilante known as the Crocodile has been disrupting imperial trade and calling for the populace to rise up—and Tarisai finds herself agreeing with him.
Oh, and there’s also the fact that she’s having visions: she sees other redemptor children, long dead, demanding justice, pushing her to do more, insisting that nobody else understands. There’s something deeper behind this treaty, but it’s not clear who’s telling the truth. I really enjoyed this one, even though it took me a bit longer to read. There’s still a lot of magic and intrigue, but the story is really thought-provoking about several different topics.
My Current Stack
I finished a time travel book called The Future Is Yours by Dan Frey about a computer that can connect to the internet a year into the future. It was pretty fascinating, and I’ll have more about that soon. Then I’ve just started reading The Oracle Year by Charles Soule, another story about having information about the future and what that can do. Maybe I’ll have enough for another time travel(ish) stack in a couple weeks or so!
Disclosure: I received review copies of these titles. Affiliate links to Bookshop.org help support my writing and independent bookstores.