Aldo Zelnick is a 10-year-old boy living in Colorado. When school lets out for the summer, his grandmother gives him a sketchbook inscribed with a note: "Dear Aldo, Here's a gift to start off your summer vacation. It's a sketchbook for recording all your artsy-fartsy ideas! I'm so proud of you. All my love, Goosy." Though he's initially a bit intimidated about how to fill the pages of the book, Aldo takes his grandmother's gift and the advice of his neighbor, Mr. Mot --- a retired English teacher --- and starts to fill the sketchbook with words and drawings about his summer. Aldo writes: “First Goosy tells me to draw, then Mr. Mot tells me to write. How’s a kid on summer vacation supposed to get any relaxation time?”
Aldo makes it clear that his preferred way to spend summer vacation would be playing video games and getting slushies at the nearest convenience store. But his parents have different ideas. They sign Aldo up for baseball, which the non-athletic Aldo considers to be a kind of torture. “Sports aren’t much fun, unless you’re the sort of person who enjoys feeling sweaty and tired,” he writes. He’s also resentful that his parents make him spend time outside every day: “Trees, bugs, dog poop. Who cares? There’s really nothing to do outside.”
But Aldo gradually learns to enjoy being outside. Between dodging bullies at the pool, bike rides and hikes with his grandmother, and the secret clubhouse he forms with his best friend Jack under the low branches of a blue spruce evergreen, the summer starts to shape itself into something worth reading and writing about. And with a little help from his brother, Aldo even learns to enjoy baseball. There’s only one thing getting in the way of an otherwise idyllic summer. Someone has found Aldo's sketchbook in its secret hiding place. Worse, he or she has filled it with girly pictures of flowers! Aldo is outraged, and together with Jack he sets off to discover who has broken into their clubhouse and tampered with their book.
Written in a casual and easy-to-read style, Artsy-Fartsy is a perfect summer vacation book. Not only does it capitalize on the engaging blend of art and text made popular by Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Aldo Zelnick’s creators, Karla Oceanak and Kendra Spanjer, have planned their series around vocabulary-building. On the advice of his neighbor, the English teacher, Aldo is working from A to Z. Artsy-Fartsy has an asterisk behind each of the fancy “A” words he uses. At the end of the book there is a gallery of “A” words, with humorous definitions and illustrations. Some of them are informal, like the schoolyard acronym ABC gum, which stands for “already been chewed.” But others are more challenging words young readers might not generally encounter in this type of book, such as abysmal, amalgam, or apprehensive. Oceanak and Spanjer plan to take Aldo through the entire alphabet; each letter will be a new sketchbook and another month in Aldo’s life.
So far the series has three books in it: Artsy-Fartsy, Bogus, and Cahoots, spanning Aldo's summer vacation. They all feature Aldo and his friends in classic childhood adventures, with a humorous and easy-to-read style that slips in these vocabulary builders the same way some parents might hide the broccoli in a plate of mac ‘n cheese. I am charmed by the series (and, I must admit, by the setting, which as a Colorado girl includes several places I know: I even had a blue spruce clubhouse in the park where I occasionally hid in the summer). I hope that the remainder of the series stays as fresh and funny as these first three books.
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