spiffy & short — fiction for young readers and listeners

Today’s books deliver wonderful stories that are nicely suited to reading aloud to young children
or handing to sturdy young readers.
They’re too long to qualify for my 100-pages-and down lists
yet they are fairly short and their style and content make them
accessible to early elementary age readers or listeners.

All’s Happy That Ends Happy, written by Rose Lagercrantz, illustrated by Eva Eriksson
originally published in Sweden; English language edition 2020 by Gecko Press
220 pages

Here’s to Dani, one of the dearest characters in children’s literature.  This is the final book in a series that has captured my heart over the years and true to form, Dani shines with touching humanity, unabashed affection, and honest emotion. I breathed a happy sigh on the last page as I said farewell to a girl I’ve come to love.

If you haven’t read the series, you really do need to start at the beginning and read them in proper order. The six-book sequence covers about two years of young Dani’s life beginning with My Happy Life, reviewed here. Without giving away too much of the plot, this final episode sees Dani recover from a lengthy illness, travel to Rome for a special occasion, and reunite with her BFF Ella in a scene characteristically jammed with chaos and love.

Although Dani faces troubles large and small with straightforward honesty, the tenderhearted storyline throughout this series is buoyed by her unaffected, naive perspectives, her inclination towards happiness, and her steadfast loyalty for those she loves. Despite the high page-count, a layout with wide margins, large font size, and plentiful pen-and-ink illustrations makes them quite accessible to young readers. Read them aloud with ages 6 and up, or hand them to capable readers from about 2nd grade.

Teddy & Co., written by Cynthia Voigt, illustrated by Paola Zakimi
published in 2016 by Alfred A. Knopf
179 pages

Teddy is a “brown ball of a bear” who lives in a homey little red house near the seashore with his good friend Umpah, an elephant who’s a whiz-bang baker, turning out berry-studded muffins like nobody’s business morning after morning. Teddy’s neighbors and compatriots include Sid, an agreeable snake, Peng, an unsociable penguin, Prinny, an exuberant young pig, and Zia, her piggly caretaker.

In one of my favorite descriptions of this quiet and friendly volume, we read that “In Zia’s house, inside and out, everything was rosy. There were the warm pink floors and walls and chairs and tables and rugs, the pale pink plates and glasses, even a pink broom, both the handle and the brush as pink as watermelon. The pinkest thing of all in Zia’s house was Zia herself. Zia was as round and as bright a pink as a scoop of raspberry sherbet.” I was immediately smitten with Zia.

Each episodic chapter relates the small adventures, annoyances, hopes, and friendships of this little crew with charm and just the right dash of zest for young listeners. These have the feel of the Teddy Robinson stories, or perhaps a hint of Winnie-the-Pooh-ness. It would make a find read-aloud for ages 4 or 5 and up, or a good choice for young-but-advanced readers.

The Squirrel’s Birthday and Other Parties, written by Toon Tellegen, illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg, translated by Martin Clever
first American edition published in 2009 by Boxer Books Limited
147 pages

Take the lightly-philosophical nature of Pooh Bear and friends, add the ephemeral beauty of a summer’s dawn, sprinkle with delectable sugared cakes, spritz with some essence-of-quirk, and you’ll approximate the atmosphere of these tiny tales imagined up by one of The Netherland’s celebrated writers, enchantingly illustrated by the UK’s Jessica Ahlberg.

There are nine small, extraordinary tales in this book, the first, The Squirrel’s Birthday, being the longest by far, with most others comprising only a few brief pages. Each whimsical episode is a bit like sugar melting on the tongue, a delicate sweetness that brings a whisper of happiness then disappears in a twinkling. Or perhaps a shimmering soap bubble that glimmers ever-so-briefly and then **pop** is gone. In Tellegen’s fanciful world, we meet a squirrel earnestly preparing for his numerous birthday guests, burdened by a desire to provide plenty of delicious cakes and a good time for all. There’s also a whale dancing by moonlight with a seagull, a rhinoceros who receives “all kinds of things” for his birthday, a fab costume party, a mysterious forest feast, and a pretentious cricket who pays a fortune for a speck of dust, among other fantastical moments. At times painted with a a wisp of melancholy, at times mysterious and open-ended, always chiffon-light and fantastical, these are highly-original stories.

Presented impeccably and generously strewn with Ahlberg’s exquisite watercolors, they would make dear read-aloud tales for young children who don’t require lots of zooming action. They could also fit the bill for young-but-advanced readers, or provide a gentle read for adults looking for something fanciful and soothing. If you like, two more volumes have been published in English, Letters to Anyone and Everyone, and Far Away Cross the Sea. Ages 5 and up.


The Adventures of Henry Whiskers, written by Gigi Priebe, illustrated by Daniel Duncan
published in 2017 by Aladdin
136 pages

 Next up, a story with a classic feel that rumbles along with plenty of adventure! Set in the real Queen Mary’s Dollhouse that resides in Windsor Castle, it’s the tale of a young mouse named Henry who lives there just as generations of his Whisker relations have done before him.

The real Queen Mary’s doll house and line up of cars.

Each year the mice look forward to the evening of the queen’s royal birthday banquet when the entire castle is so distracted by their elaborate festivities that the coast is clear for a mouseland celebration of their own — the Whiskers’ Annual Mouse Masquerade! When Henry’s little sister, Isabel, is allowed to help with the party preparations by venturing out on errands alone for the first time ever, she ends up going missing. It’s up to Henry and his cousin Jeremy to risk everything to rescue her!

Race around the nooks and crannies of Windsor with Henry in exquisite, tiny motor cars, go toe-to-toe with some wicked rats, discover how saving the life of your enemy can pay off big time in the end, and join in the conviviality of the Masquerade. A sequel is available, The Long Way Home. Ages 4 or 5 and up.

Oliver and the Sea Monkeys, written by Philip Reeve, illustrated by Sarah McIntyre
published in 2013 by Yearling
193 pages

One of the rollicking installments of Not-So-Impossible Tales, this wild and wooly story is rambunctiously-illustrated and chock full of loopy, effervescent fun!

Oliver is the 10-year-old son of explorer parents who have set off, once again, on a look-see at some mysterious islands when they up and disappear! When Oliver begins snooping around for them, he discovers they’ve been mysteriously kidnapped and he’s caught up in an extraordinary rescue mission.

Along with his new compatriots — a wandering albatross named Mr. Culpepper, a near-sighted mermaid named Iris, and a collection of Rambling Isles en route to the Hallowed Shallows for a spectacular seawig competition — Oscar confronts the nasty bully Stacey de Lacy and his army of toothy, green sea monkeys! It is quite the epic showdown! A jolly good read-aloud or a brilliant, fast-paced read for ages 8 and up.

Utterly Me, Clarice Bean, written and illustrated by Lauren Child
published in the UK in 2002; first US edition 2005 by Candlewick
190 pages

Clarice Bean belongs to the canon of superb young fictional girls, taking her place beside Dory Fantasmagory, Lotta, Dani, Clementine, and Beatrice Zinker. What they all have in common is earnestness, zeal, a good heart, big emotions, vivid imaginations. Clarice also happens to be a huge fan of Girl Detective, Ruby Redfort. This combo of an outsized personality and a spy heroine mean that though her days are filled with the seemingly ordinary, Clarice is forever finding drama and landing in hot water through utterly no fault of her own.

Child writes the a funny, breezy, irrepressible voice of Clarice, age about 8, galloping along with breathless, stream-of-consciousness sentences and wry observations, with typography that also occasionally careens around the page and eccentric drawings of the cast of everyday, quirky, warts-and-all characters. This story is generously sprinkled with excerpts of the Ruby Redfort volume Clarice is currently reading as she tries her own hand at solving some mysteries. A blast for young readers ages 8 and up. I laugh out loud while reading these. I’m aware of two sequels — Clarice Bean Spells Trouble, and Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now. Child has also written a spin-off series of longer, Ruby Redfort books.

Dear Hound, written and illustrated by Jill Murphy
published in the UK in 2009; first US edition 2010 by Walker & Company
176 pages

Alfie, a young deerhound pup, is being brought to a lovely dogsitter’s home while his owners are out of town, just overnight.  Unfortunately, Alfie has a shocking encounter with an electric fence at the local dog exercise area and he panics, bolting off into the woods.

Scared, soaked by a thundershower, and lost, Alfie is lucky enough to be taken in by a pleasant pair of foxes. Alfie’s difficult days of learning to live wild, and his young master Charlie’s desperate search for him, run in parallel lines throughout the story. There are many sad and trying moments for both before they are finally reunited.

This has a serious Homeward Bound feel including fear, injuries, and mistreatment for Alfie, but rest assured No Dog Dies at the end of the book! Great choice for animal lovers who can bear some heartache along the way, ages 6 and up.

Sam the Man & the Secret Detective Club Plan
written by Frances O’Roark Dowell, illustrated by Amy Bates
published in 2018 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
176 pages

I’ve posted a number of Sam the Man stories but they are so worth the finding that I’ll add this volume. Sam is one of the nicest of boys who has some dear friendships with a couple of older neighbors, an aspect of these books that I especially love.

In this episode, Sam and his 2nd-grade pals from a secret detective club. To give themselves some cases to get started, build some cred, they select 3 items from the school Lost & Found, then attempt to solve the mysteries of their disappearances. This leads to some surprising interactions and discoveries!

Contemporary, pleasant, and friendly, the Sam stories are super for ages 6 and up. They don’t absolutely have to be read in order although the first book, Sam the Man & the Chicken Plan, is a helpful introduction.

Operation Bunny, written by Sally Gardner, illustrated by David Roberts
published in the UK in 2012; first American edition 2014 by Henry Holt and Company
176 pages

A recipe for this book would include a dash of Roald Dahl, a pinch of Alice in Wonderland, and a generous scoop of originality and zany delight. Written in an arch tone and sophisticated style, augmented by delightfully off-kilter illustration work, it’s a jolly opener to a trio of books.

Wealthy, snobby, and coldhearted Ronald and Daisy Dashwood (aka Smoochikins) have adopted a girl named Emily Vole, then assigned her a Cinderella role in their household when their triplets are born. Emily’s life is one of drudgery and endless, insufferable demands. Next door though, leading a shabby sort of existence, lives Miss Ottoline String and her cat, Fidget — a talking, cakes-and-tea-serving, enchanted cat! Miss String is a dear, twinkly lady who tells Emily about a shop run by fairy folk called Wings & Co. and one day introduces her to a ring of magical keys, keys that have a mysterious connection to Emily and which open up quite a can of worms!

Suddenly Emily is up to her ears in a hair-raising (and hare-raising!) adventure as she and some unusual allies try to put a stop to the murderous witch Harpella and her diabolical plans! Marvelously clever stuff for ages 7 and up, with a couple of zesty sequels — Three Pickled Herrings, and The Vanishing of Billy Buckle.

Madame Pamplemousse and Her Incredible Edibles
written by Rupert Kingfisher, illustrated by Sue Hellard
published in 2008 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books
138 pages

This is I think the most unusual book on the list today. From the cover I anticipated a charming sort of sugar-frosted story but actually it’s much more Roald Dahl flavored.

A young girl named Madeline is sent each summer to work for her despicable Uncle Lard in his revolting restaurant, The Squealing Pig. Uncle Lard is up for competition as Most Dreadful Relative with folks like Aunts Spiker and Sponge of James and the Giant Peach fame. So.

One day Madeline, quite by accident, stumbles upon a curious, tiny shop crammed with the oddest comestibles. When the small jar of weird pâté she purchases there turns her uncle’s restaurant into THE go-to establishment in Paris, Uncle Lard insists Madeline go to work at the shop and spy out the secret recipe for this incredible stuff. Madeline discovers far more than a secret recipe, however. The shop owner has a mysterious manner, a generous disposition, and quite an unexpected compatriot, all of which help Madeline reverse her fortunes. It’s a quirky tale with a broody, flickery sense of magic and an abundance of foods both strange and grotesque. Pen and ink spot art drawings and an unusual typefont lend a chic, Parisian sense of sophistication to the pages.

This book was unusual enough that I decided to read one of the sequels just to see how the storyline progressed. The second volume was not available in my library but I read the third, Madame Pamplemousse and the Enchanted Sweet Shop.

Again, there’s a strongly sugar-and-spice vibe on the cover that does not in any way match the sinister magic within.  These books are certainly not darker than Harry Potter or even the Brothers Grimm, but they aren’t cutesy sweetums stories so don’t make that mistake. For advanced young readers ages 9 and up, foodie tweens, or those looking for an extra-short, somewhat creepy fantasy. Three volumes comprise the series.

It’s Not Easy Being Mimi, written and illustrated by Linda Davick
published in 2018 by Beach Lane Books
165 pages

Mimi is another small spitfire who, like Pippi Longstocking, does not fit tidily into young child categories. She lives by herself in the topmost apartment in Periwinkle Tower, drives a sporty little convertible, and owns a cat named Marvin. Her best friends also live independently in apartments and houses nearby. In school this crew seems to be around first grade age. It may sound odd but it all reads smoothly and quite matter-of-factly in this jolly book.

Mimi longs for an identical twin, or at least a friend so much like her it is nearly like having an identical twin. Her hopes are raised when the building supervisor, Mr. Bosco, reveals that Someone New is moving into Apartment No. 1 — but then are dashed when the new occupant, Boris, quickly turns out to be a source of annoyance and consternation.

Hang onto your hats as Mimi and her pals cope with a horrendous haircut, celebrate a birthday and Thanksgiving, and prepare for the school holiday pageant, all while navigating the ups and downs of friendships and managing a series of small disasters. Humorous, kindhearted, relatable, and packed with commotion, this rambunctious treat is elevated by Davick’s comic-style drawings and peppered with playfully-exaggerated fonts. Read it aloud to ages 5 and up. Hand it to sturdy readers who can handle words like Marizipan, sushi, and dreidel. A sequel is available, Mimi’s Treasure Trouble.


I’m always on the hunt for juicy books for young and old.
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