Friday, April 1, 2016

Olive & Beatrix: The Not-So-Itty-Bitty Spiders

Just because you happen to be a good reader doesn't mean you always want to read challenging books.  At our house, there is a variety of reading materials on hand for all of us.  I am just as likely to catch Frances and Gloria poring over a Lego catalog as I am to find them reading Secrets of Walt Disney World.  In fact, both of these events happened in the past week at our house.  Frances and Gloria read the catalog, picking out the sets they each would like.  And each night after they went to bed, I would hear Gloria reading Secrets to Frances at her request.  That's the thing about readers.  Once they get the bug, they read.

What I've also noticed about Frances and Gloria is that they like to read both a large variety of materials, but that what they read is also on a variety of reading levels.  Just because they can read harder books doesn't mean that is the best thing for them every day.  That's why we love the Branches series by Scholastic - there is something satisfying about completing a book in one sitting.  I find that Frances and Gloria still are building their reading stamina, and can get discouraged when they tackle longer books.  They can build fluency in reading, no matter what they read.

I was so lucky to get this new title in the Branches series during the Cybils review process.  I instantly fell in love with Olive and Beatrix, and so did the girls.  I bet you will too!!

Olive and Beatrix are twins.  The story is told from Olive's point of view.  She sounds fairly matter of fact as she notes "Beatrix make look like an ordinary girl, but she's not.  She is a witch." (p. 2).  Olive breezes right on to point out that "I may also look like an ordinary girl.  That's because I am.  I'm not a witch at all." (p. 3)  These twins are not identical, but Olive is okay with that.  Each page of this particular spread has a picture of one of the girls with some important things pointed out.  While Beatrix has a talking pet pig and a "head full of tricks", Olive has pet bugs and a "head full of smarts".  Even from the introduction, you can tell that Olive doesn't feel that Beatrix's talents outpace her own.

By the way, the whole becoming a witch thing?  Olive explains that Beatrix is a witch because she was born precisely at midnight on a full moon.  Needless to say, Olive was not.  But instead of magic spells and tricks, Olive loves science.  She and her best friend Eddie are always working on a project.  While they are experimenting, though, Beatrix is always playing tricks on them and causing their ideas to go haywire.

Olive and Eddie get tired of Beatrix's mischief and decide to play a trick of their own.  They know that Beatrix is afraid of spiders, so they plan to dump a whole pile of them on Beatrix.  And their plan works perfectly!  The problem comes when that gaggle of spiders runs through a growth potion Beatrix had conjured up.  It takes all of them to help contain the not-so-itty-bitty spiders!

As I mentioned before, these twins are very different.  Olive is confident in her science and her brain.  Olive has Eddie, and their friendship seems collaborative and supportive.  Olive operates very differently than Beatrix.  I wouldn't exactly say that Beatrix is the bad guy here, but it's pretty clear that she doesn't have close friends like Eddie.  She has her talking pig, Houston, who comments on the action wryly - when Beatrix is screaming, covered in spiders, Houston calmly steps over to Beatrix's dropped phone and announces to the caller "Miss Beatrix will have to call you back." (p. 14) - but that's all she has.  Beatrix seems bossier, not as friendly.  It takes some effort for her to work with Eddie and Olive to deal with her overgrown spiders.  Even then she peppers her dialogue with insults ("Step aside, dull skulls!" (p. 37))  I will be interested to see how these girls' relationship progresses through the series - will they learn to meet in the middle?  Become friends, even?  We'll have to wait and see.

One of the things I love most about the Branches group of titles is the diversity of text and illustration within each book.  In The Not-So-Itty-Bitty Spiders , there is such a great mix of text and illustration, keeping readers on their toes.  Even though there is only a line or two of actual text on each page, Stadelmann incorporates text throughout the illustrations too.  There is a map to examine, with captions to help the reader get situated.  There is dialogue in many of the pictures too, giving this a graphic novel feel.  Readers are absorbing the plot and characterization without spending a lot of time on the text.  It makes the book feel breezy, not onerous.

And this brings me back to my original thoughts about reading.  Frances and I are reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets out loud.  As we all know about the Harry Potter books, each chapter can take a long time to read.  We read for twenty minutes, and maybe get through five pages.  So it's fun to be able to read something like this, too.  The Branches series also can successfully tempt the reluctant reader with a book that is a chapter book, yet there is a manageable amount of text for them.  The reading level assigned by Scholastic is Grade 2, but I can see the plot appealing to a much wider range of readers.  

I love the illustrations in this book too.  The palette is a little dark and moody - greens, grays, and purples - which keeps it from feeling too girly.  It is attractive to girls, with the twin sister angle, but would also appeal to boys with the magic and science emphasis (and I haven't yet mentioned the cool inventions Olive and Eddie come up with!).  The illustrations have a good deal of humor in them as the three join forces.  Magic and science don't always work well together, and that is evident in their adventures!  Both Beatrix and Olive wear comfortable clothes for what they need to do - tunics, leggings, and no-muss hair styles.  These are can-do girls and they'll take charge!

This is a series that we will definitely be watching.  I can't wait to see what else happens to these twins.  I am so glad it was nominated for a Cybil award so we could read it.

Olive & Beatrix: The Not-So-Itty-Bitty Spiders.  Amy Marie Stadelmann.  Scholastic: Branches, 2015.

sent by the publisher for review as part of the Cybils process.