"review" · chapter/series · Children's · juvenile lit · recommend · series · Tales

{book} taking the case

Ivy_and_Bean_Take_the_Case_FC_HiResIvy + Bean: Take the Case (Book 10)

by Annie Barrows + Sophie Blackall (illus)

Chronicle Books, 2013. Hardcover, 126 pages.

Modeling herself after a classic film noir detective from her mother’s favorite film, Private Investigator Bean “laughs at danger! […] And she and her assistant, Ivy, are ready, willing, and able to solve any mystery you can throw at them.” If there were any mysteries deemed mysterious enough in Pancake Court, that is…

Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall deliver yet another delightfully creative and intelligent Ivy + Bean adventure. I was surprised to find, however, that plenty of the usual fans on goodreads did not care for this 10th installment. Most of the explanations focused on their “boredom during the first portion of the book” and its “untidy ending.” And I can see that, especially if one misses what is going on in the story.

A mystery was a question you couldn’t find the answer to. In Al Seven’s world, the mysteries were things like Who took Hester’s jewels? or Where was Sammy La Barba on the night of May twelfth? Bean didn’t have any jewels and she sure as heck didn’t know anyone named Sammy La Barba, but there were plenty of questions that she didn’t have answers to. […] What’s inside the cement thing in the front yard? What’s behind the Tengs’ fence and why do they lock it up? and What’s the matter with the mailman? when she asked these questions, her parents usually said something like It’s none of your business. That meant that there was an answer, but they didn’t want her to know it. (13-4)

Investigator Bean and her assistant Ivy are having problems solving mysteries that are impressive enough to satisfy the crowd (e.g. the other kids of Pancake Court), and apparently the reader (e.g. goodreads reviews). Or, rather, it is the answers that their investigations reveal that lack audience interest, because Ivy and Bean are not the only one’s who’ve always wondered about the cement thing, Teng’s backyard or the mailman. When they solve the mystery, the answer turns out to be a lackluster one. The girls are increasingly mocked and the pressure intensifies to find a mystery “strange” enough to satisfy their difficult crowd (which, granted, includes themselves).

Suddenly a rope appears and know one knows who hung it from Dino’s chimney. Every night knots add length as it begins to wind about Pancake Court. This is where the “big mystery” kicks in–but obviously not the story. In Film Noir, this is where the story would start, too. But this is Pancake Court and Bean is not a hardened, tormented detective. And this is Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall breaking from the formulaic. In many ways, their willingness to dare something unexpected and different reclaims the word and idea of mystery; and in doing so, they do what they do exceptionally well: argue on the side of creativity and its prerequisite imagination and different points-of-view.

ivy and bean $(KGrHqNHJF!FFwcJd6+(BRkZVQp7cg~~60_57

Some mysteries are going to remain mysteries, like the one presented in the first chapter: Why would a mother who restricts Bean’s screen-watching-time to ten movies with a strict personal-parental rating allow her daughter to watch a film that breaks all but one of those rules? Barrows could have launched Bean’s new obsession from another source (as many other picture and early chapter books have done).

Clues to who-dunnit appear throughout the early mysteries before we’ve arrived to the Big Case. There is a lot to suggest the who and why by the time the crowd is threatening a revolt. Did the investigative reader consider all the angles? In Mysteries, does the reader really leave it up to the Investigator to do all the work?

<<spoilers alert!!! spoilers!!!!>>

Noting his presence/timing in text/illustration: Jake the Teenager. Why? to help a nutty neighbor out, or to amuse himself, or both? But why leave “The Mystery of the Yellow Rope” unsolved? because the magic of having a mystery is really what Ivy and Bean have discovered to be the most enticing part of a mystery. Think about how quickly the attitude shifted when questions were answered. Boring ol’Pancake Court became even more so.

“Al Seven is always wanting to solve mysteries,” Bean said. “That’s what I don’t get about him,” said Ivy. “Why does he always want to solve them? You solve problems, but a mystery isn’t a problem, so why does it have to be solved?” “Sometimes it’s a problem,” said Bean. “This one isn’t. Nobody’s getting hurt or anything. It’s a nice mystery.” [Ivy said.] (105-6)

Yet again they “solve” the mystery and it isn’t satisfying; the answer’s lack of logic doesn’t help. I am fascinated by the inclusion of the children’s impulse to inform their parents of the rope and inquire of the answer of them. It couples well with this (oft frustrated) need for immediacy and for any work they put in to be rewarded in a way that feels rewarding. The neighborhood kids aren’t getting the “niceness” of the Yellow Rope Mystery, nor are some of its readers, apparently; which is okay. I just find it a smart, creative shift of perspective.

<<spoilers!!!! over……>>

ivy and bean illu-IB_WalkAwayNot all mysteries can be solved, some you do not want to solve, and many have really lackluster answers. That the audience longs for creativity, not only in the mystery but its answers is a central conflict that Take the Case handles beautifully, because it remains a mystery as to why the demand for creativity often ends up in a loathing of the creative revelation or response; or is it? Is this all too much for a grade school chapter book? Hardly…which is why I really love knowing Ivy+Bean exists. In Literature, we expect the form to contribute to the coherence of the work. You needn’t a degree to discover it; if it does, I suppose it fails. I do not believe Take the Case fails. I am continually impressed with how thoughtful the crafting of this series has proven itself to be while yet possessing utter charm and entertainment.

For all the talk of mysteries, Barrows/Blackall keep the friendship center stage as the two explore a childhood and all its strange mysteries together. Like the mutually supportive fictional duo, Blackall’s illustrations are without fail a flawless partner in the rendering of personality the text would infuse into the characters and story. There is no second-guessing or mystery as to whether these to two will stick together come what may.

recommendations…girl or boy, gradeschool, who like humor, contemporary fiction, and friendship stories. A series for those who desire to nurture their young (or to-be) creative writer and reader of Literature. Not for readers who expect (and desire) a transparent tale and its simplistic ribbon-tied ending for their young reader.

{images belong to Sophie Blackall}

"review" · chapter/series · Children's · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend · series

{book} ivy+bean make the rules

make the rules coverIvy + Bean Make the Rules (bk 9)

written by Annie Barrows

 illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Chronicle Books, 2012.

Hardcover, 127 pages.

Ivy + Bean is a series for young grade-schoolers that I just cannot resist following, even now that Natalya has “outgrown” them. And yet, who was that blue-haired young lady giggling from behind a book and coming up to me to set it down with a satisfied sigh? “Oh, mom, the zombie-part was awesome. And the Komodo-catcher…; and the…” I love Ivy + Bean.*

Bean’s older sister, Nancy, is going to Girl Power 4-Ever Camp, where she will do Crafts and Music and First Aid and other secret things that Bean will never know about because girls have to be eleven to go to Girl Power 4-Ever Camp. Bean doesn’t care. She doesn’t want to go to camp. She wouldn’t go even if they begged her. So ha. So ha ha. So — wait a second! Bean and Ivy can make their own camp, their own better camp. Welcome to Camp Flaming Arrow, where counselors Ivy and Bean will give a whole new meaning to Crafts, Music, First Aid, and hands-on learning!—jacket copy

Feeling a bit sorry for the younger daughter who WILL NOT go to Puppet Fun! the only camp for her age-group, Bean’s mom thinks Bean is finally old enough—if accompanied by Ivy—to go to Monkey Park without supervision. This means Bean is not constrained to Pancake Court or stuck figuring out how to build a tree house in the front yard with only one board. Using a flier from Nancy’s camp as a guide, Ivy and Bean decide to host their own camp, slinging old curtains over a low hanging branch in Monkey Park to make a tent. It doesn’t hurt that they can compare notes with Girl Power 4-Ever (a day camp) who is using Monkey Park, too–as are several other summer day camps actually.

make the rules p36-37

It isn’t long before Ivy and Bean find themselves with two campers who are visiting a relative who is not all that interested in keeping them entertained. This makes “Crafts” even more interesting where making friendship bracelets (like Girl Power 4-Ever) quickly morphs into Houdini cuffs from which Ivy shows them how to escape.

Ivy and Bean looked at each other with shining eyes. This was going to be good. No one ever let them make the rules.

“Rule number one!” said Bean. “You can only have as much fun as you are willing to get hurt!”

“What?” said Franny.

“Rule two!” said Ivy. “Live and learn!” Her mom said that a lot.

“Rule three!” yelled Bean. “The counselor is always right!”

Ivy began to giggle. “Rule four! If you want to make an omelet, you’re going to have to break some eggs!”

“If you can’t beat’em, join’em!” bellowed Bean.

“Don’t get mad, get even!” yelled Ivy.

“I don’t think this is a real camp,” said Franny.

“Time for crafts!” shouted Bean. (58-9).

As they work their way down the list of activities throughout the week, Camp Flaming Arrow expands in number under Ivy and Bean’s on-the-fly interpretations of what each activity on the flier might involve: “Nature Study, Mind/Body Strength Training, Drama, First Aid, Dance, Social Skills, Plus! Our Role Models: great Women of History.” Drama and First Aid were artfully combined in a chapter titled “Zombie Problem in Monkey Park.” Yeah, how did we ever manage First Aid without face paint and bandages? Ivy and Bean (and cohorts) are at their bold and creative best in Make the Rules.

The hilarious and disruptive escapades are enough of a reason to read Make the Rules, but the comparison to Camp Flaming Arrow to others that promise “Hands-On Learning in a Safe and Supportive Atmosphere” (Girl Power 4-Ever flier, p 13) is amusing—and poignant when, for instance, you compare Bean’s sense of “girl power” to Nancy’s on page 100 (parentheticals mine): “I can’t get up and dance with a wart,” wailed Nancy. “Everyone will think I’m gross!” She ran out of the kitchen. She was crying. (the wart is on her knuckle.) Bean’s mother sighed. She looked over at Bean (who had missed her earlier cue to not “see” the wart), and then she followed Nancy. Bean watched her go, frowning. What was that all about?” Another instance? Ivy shared about and then led an army as Briton Queen Boudicca (also known as Boadicea) for their “Great Woman of History,” Nancy mentions they had a slide show.

“Long live the queen!” yelled Franny.

“Yah! Yah!” squalled the tiny kids.

Their squalling made all their moms look up, and once those moms looked up, they started losing their minds. Something about sticks poking eyes. In no time at all, Boudicca’s warriors were kicked out of the fountain.

“I guess we’d better quit,” said Bean, squeezing out her shirt.

Ivy nodded, dumping the last of the Romans into the garbage can.

“This was the best day yet,” said Leo. (114)

a quick bit about the illustrations. long-time readers will remember that I adore Sophie Blackall’s work. Blackall and Barrows make for a great team, so highly expressive in text and image, the illustrations keeping good balance/timing with the text. Blackall adds fun detail to the creation of all the personalities we encounter in the stories, not just Ivy + Bean who are awesomely rendered. I’m sure I go on and on in my reviews of Books 7 & 8 (linked below).


recommendations: boys or girls, early readers 5-8 are the targeted age. for the fun, free-spirited sort kid who likes to laugh (so any child). a good gift for the child of your helicopter parent friend, and/or any child who can appreciate the factoid we find on page 94-5, “[Komodo dragons] don’t poop!”. This is a phenomenal series about friendship, childhood, and creative thinking.


check out the Ivy+Bean site via Chronicle Books; they have activities for kids and teachers, much more organized and directed than the muses themselves, of course. Be sure to click on the author and illustrator links at the first, as well.

my reviews of: Ivy + Bean: Book 7: What’s the Big Idea? and Ivy + Bean: Book 8 : No News is Good News

* and bless a Powell’s staffer for loving it, too, because it is, as of this date, on-sale. 30% off (follow book title link).

{all images belong to Sophie Blackall}

"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · mystery · sci-fi/fantasy

{book} the magic half

Fairy tales and science fiction* make the odd pairing in The Magic Half. Magic makes the time-travel easier—at least to explain, anyway. And The Magic Half may be a nice introduction to time-travelling for the younger set; as well as serve as a reminder of the perils of being a sibling, an orphan, and/or living in 1935.

Miri is a single child in the middle of a family with two sets of twins–older brothers and younger sisters. When the family moves to an old farmhouse, Miri travels back in time to 1935 and discovers Molly, a girl in need of a family to call her own.~publisher’s comment

Siblings will quickly recognize and empathize with Miri, and while the mother is loving, she is stern enough to set the angst in motion. Sent to her room in the attic of their new old farmhouse, Miri finds a portal that sends her backward in time to 1935, within the same room, that is then occupied by a girl of the same age. Molly claims it is the work of fairies, and indeed, she is of a lineage of fairies, so she would know. Miri doesn’t know what it is, but if she ever wants to go home again, she better find out.

Molly’s home-life complicates the adventure of Miri’s search for a way home–even as it facilitates the return. The problem is Horst, Molly’s cousin who truly is a terrifying figure. He is abusive to Molly in ways the author restrains, while still making Miri (and Reader) feel rescue is imperative. Fortunately, Miri is a clever girl and works out how she was able to travel through time. Which creates a new problem to solve. How to maintain the time-stream, so as nothing major is changed to interrupt the loop.

Magic steps aside for a thoughtful construction of consequences, and “we’re running out of time, hurry before something irreversible happens!” steps up the pacing of the novel. Plotting and Panic are in carefully balanced to create the puzzle and propulsion. Yes, today’s review is brought to you by the letter “p.”

By fretful end, both the intellectual and emotional, Magic makes its return to ease that troublesome finale. The question of that final hour? What will the mother of 5 do with the addition of another? I think I was so relieved everything worked out, I didn’t want to puzzle out that twist. Time travel is fairly exhausting.

As gifted as Barrows was at infusing this story with personality and plausible explanation, I was a bit disappointed by the summation: “Magic is just a way of setting things right.” Like Miri, I “didn’t really know what it meant, but it made [me] feel better” (191). Sure, it took wits and guts on Miri and Molly’s part throughout this adventure, but in the end, Magic was a necessary ingredient to make it all shine–for them and the novel. The Magic Half infuses a sense of sweetness and optimism into the otherwise dire hopelessness of both Miri’s and (especially) Molly’s lives. I suppose, sometimes big interventions do feel like magic. I know I wouldn’t mind a few magic lenses and a fairy grandmother.


recommendation: primarily girls, ages 8-12. The peril and the concepts may be too old for 6/7 crowd. The novel creates a nice intersection for lovers of either Historical, Mystery, Fantasy, and/or Science Fiction (however light). Is a reasonable precursor to the wondermous YA novel Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer.

of note: Both girls wear glasses (which is key to the plot) but neither sport them on this otherwise cute cover, which is disappointing. a quote that isn’t disappointing: “I think [ghosts are] more like echoes of people who aren’t there anymore.” […] “Grandma May said something like that once. […] She said that some places can hold on to the past. In some places, everything that ever happened there is still happening, but just an echo of it” (55).


*I asked Carl V. this; Sean and I have discussed this: “Is time-travel an element of sci-fi even in fantasy or hist fic? or is it a free-for-all?” Carl’s reply: “Hard core SF fans will argue about this, but I always consider it a sci-fi element.” and we kinda think it is, too. Chime in at will.


The Magic Half  by Annie Barrows : Bloomsbury, 2008. hardcover, 211 pages.

Annie Barrows is the author of the beloved Ivy+Bean series with illustrator Sophie Blackall, so I checked out Ms. Barrows’ solo middle grade novel effort from the Library. 

"review" · chapter/series · Children's · fiction · Illustrator · juvenile lit · recommend · series

ivy+bean: no news is good news

Ivy + Bean : No News is Good News (book8)

by Annie Barrows w/ Illus. by Sophie Blackall

Chronicle Books, 2011

Hardcover,127. Juvenile Fiction, Ages 6-10.

Ivy and Bean need some money. Ten dollars, to be exact. Never mind what for. Okay, it s for low-fat Belldeloon cheese in a special just-for you serving size. Don t ask why. How are Ivy and Bean going to make ten dollars? Hey, maybe they should write a newspaper about Pancake Court and sell it Great idea And easy, too. All they have to do is snoop around the neighborhood. Wow…It s very interesting what they can find out. It s even more interesting when the neighbors read about it in the newspaper.~Publisher’s Comments

Natalya was 6 or 7 when we picked up the first Ivy+Bean book by Annie Barrows. N has since moved onto Teen shelves, but I still try to keep up on “the two friends who never meant to like each other” and their adventures. First, the books are just that delightful. Second, Sophie Blackall is one of my favorite Illustrators (as many of you know). There are a lot of fun chapter books for the 6-10 age group. If you need to narrow it down: Ivy + Bean has and continues-to-be brilliant. Check them out.

No News is Good News was an especially fun read for me. I remember my mom packing “cheese in a special just-for-you serving size” wrapped in a red wax to play with; though I doubt mine were lowfat. The trip down memory lane was fun. Ivy and Bean are also out to create a local newspaper as a fundraiser, and we are in the early stages of zine project 2.0. May it reassure neighbors and family and friends, we will not be looking in windows and record the odd observation. With FaceBook, Google-+, or Twitter, do I need to?

There are some things people do not want to share or have revealed. They certainly wouldn’t care for the exaggerations made to spice up the story. Ivy and Bean narrowly escape all-out disaster. It helps that despite their (innocent) mischief they are still little girls and that their observations were fairly mild. But when the girls remark upon their finished newspaper, The Flipping Pancake, with: “It looks so real.” (109) how can the adult reader disagree? Points are made and lessons are learned—but not in a message-y way. A marvelous aspect to the Ivy + Bean books are the deft handling of learning opportunities via the girls’ interactions and adventures. These are fun reads with creative stories and solutions.


Since you are going to get your dear 6-10 year old girl (and dear 33 year old L) the boxed sets for a gift, throw in that brand new Paper Doll Set! Shameless, I know, but I adore these books. Barrows has a fantastic sense of humor and story, and her characters are wonderful. It is yummy icing that Blackall illustrates their adventures (and their dolls!).

Annie Barrows’ Ivy + Bean site.

Chronicle Books’ Ivy + Bean site (has a page for Readers and one for Teachers because the books do inspire creativity and great conversation.)

Sophie Blackall’s site.

my review of Ivy + Bean: Book 7: What’s The Big Idea? (at the bottom of linked post)

"review" · Children's · fiction · Illustrator · juvenile lit · Picture book · recommend · series · wondermous

a Blackall connection (1)

Sophie Blackall is one of my favorite Illustrators, children’s books or no*. When I try to think of just one word to describe her work: Vivacious comes to mind. Odd, I know, but it works. Her Illustrations are “attractively lively and animated.”** She is one of those Illustrators whom I will read the book because their artwork is featured.


I found Ms. Blackall via the Ivy + Bean Books written by Annie Barrows. And really it was her illustrations that had me picking up that first book, Ivy and Bean (2006), off that out-facing new release display. I have since come to adore both the Author Annie Barrows and her Ivy + Bean Series and we pick up every new one even though the daughter has since grown out of the book’s better-situated audience. We don’t let these things get in the way of a delightful reading experience.

“Two friends who never meant to like each other”

One of the reasons I really enjoy Ivy and Bean is Barrows’ original stories and her fantastic and utterly relevant premise to the series. From Barrows’ Ivy and Bean site:

One of the big problems of being a kid is that your parents often try to make you play with people you don’t really like. My parents were forever trying to get me to like the kids of their friends. These kids were often weird. I didn’t want to play with them. It was a problem.

I remembered that when I was writing the first Ivy and Bean. Ivy and Bean are very different. Bean is loud and wild and goofy. She loves to be involved in games and poke her nose in other people’s business. Ivy is quiet and full of ideas. She spends most of her time learning how to be a witch. Each girl thinks the other one is weird. Each girl thinks she could never be friends with the other. Especially because their parents keep nagging them about it.

But sometimes opposites can become the best of friends because they’re opposites. For example, people who like to talk need people who like to listen. And people with great ideas need people who can put those ideas into action. For Ivy and Bean, their differences mean that they have more fun together than they could ever have separately. It also means that, together, they do more wacky things than any one kid could ever dream up.  The Ivy and Bean books are about the adventures—and disasters—created by this unlikely team. And since their motto seems to be “Why not?” there’s every reason to believe that their capers and catastrophes will continue for quite a while.

Ivy + Bean: Book 7: What’s The Big Idea? By Annie Barrows

Illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Chronicle Books, 2010.

(hardback) 131 pages.

I just finished Ivy + Bean: Book 7: What’s The Big Idea? and found it amusing as usual–laughing aloud and showing the pictures to my husband. It is one of the best of the series. And I am going to recommend it to my Eco-Criticism Professor.

After the 5th graders scare the 2nd graders w/ global warming and the imminent death of the polar bears, the teacher suggests that for their science fair projects they come up with exhibits for how to fight Global Warming.

To the reader’s amusement, Ivy and Bean struggle to come up with a viable idea. There are several creative projects, but Ivy and Bean steal the show. Their solution is fantastic—absolutely brilliant.

Their solution is so obvious, and so crucial; I was pleasantly surprised to find it in a younger grade school book; elegantly wrapped in Ivy and Bean’s adventures.


* per the Oxford English Dictionary.

** check out Blackall’s “Missed Connections” blog.


Sophie Blackall's blog. Blackall's Etsy shop. Annie Barrow's Ivy & Bean site.
The blog "7 Impossible Things before Breakfast" had this wonderful interview w/ Blackall.


the (1) is due to the fact I was going to “review” 2 books with a Sophie Blackall connection, but the 2nd was  becoming lengthy and a bit negative (having more to do with the story, not the illustrations), so I will post (2) on Monday instead.