Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Titles: The Bad Beginning (#1); The Reptile Room (#2); The Wide Window (#3); The Miserable Will (#4); The Austere Academy (#5); The Ersatz Elevator (#6); The Vile Village (#7); 13 total

Author: Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler)

Rating: Not recommended
(no stars out of 3 possible, "D")

Audience: 4th graders and up

No review of children's pop literature would be complete without commenting on this widely and wildly followed series. The Baudelaire triplets have the extreme misfortune to be continuously (if unbelievably) pursued by their evil Uncle Olaf as he schemes to usurp their wealthy inheritance.

After reading 3 books i've come to the decision to not recommend the series. Many will disagree with me, and the series is not without merits, but on the whole I believe we can find better material for our kids.

I was bothered by the level of threatened violence, particularly in book #2, The Reptile Room. Uncle Olaf is, indeed, a malevolent presence frequently brandishing a knife and threatening the children. At one point he warns there will be "blood pouring down these stairs like a waterfall." He also commits 2 murders and swears ("damn") in the book. These behaviors are expected of a villain, of course, but I found it to be a bit over the top and wondered how it would evolve in the following 11 books.

Guardians of Ga'Hoole

Titles: The Captive (#1), The Journey (#2), The Rescue (#3), The Siege (#4); The Shattering (#5); The Burning (#6); The Hatchling (#7) and 9 more! (16 total)

Author: Kathryn Lasky (www.kathrynlasky.com)

Rating: * (1 star our of 3 possible, "C")
            Recommended with Reservations

Audience: 3rd graders and up

The first book in this series (The Captive) began to live up to my expectations! Could it be true?! The vocab was there (meticulous, despicable, infiltrator, synchronize); the natural history of owls (Latin nomenclature, flight facts, specialized feathers); the complex plot (traitors, adventure, mystery, battles, problem solving, critical thinking, even the all-important kingdom maps which almost guarantee a good book according to my 9 year old); the best themes (sacrifice, integrity, justice, friendship).

What could possibly go wrong?

The Captive tells the story of Soren, a young barn owl taken from his family to serve at St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls. The problem is that nothing is as it seems at "St. Aggies." For instance, "orphaned" really means abducted; "rescue" really means snatched and "higher good" really means to never question authority.

Fortunately, Soren meets Glyfie, a resourceful elf owl who suspects the orphanage's schemes. "Our job is to not get moon-blinked (brainwashed) and stand right side up in an upside down world." "Everything at St. Aggie's is upside down and inside out." "Thinking is the only way we'll be able to plan an escape."

In some ways a version of Animal Farm or Watership Down for younger readers, the drawback to this series is the level of violence. In The Captive when an owl is caught rescuing orphaned eggs, the aggressors cry "Kill! Kill!" and the results are intense. Likewise, in the final battle, the villain owls scream "I'll kill you! Kill you! I'll rip out your eyes!" The scene that really turned me off, however, was when the brainwashed owls lay down and allow vampire bats to suck their blood to further weaken them.

Milder offenses include owl slang or curses ("wet-poop," "racdrops"). There is also a spiritual side to "Guardians." Glaux is the owl god, glaumora is owl heaven, and scrooms are disembodied owls (ghosts) with unfinished business. When Soren meets his parents' scrooms and receives an important warning, the meeting is ephemeral, but not unpleasant.

You may find these drawbacks enough to turn your family off. In fact, I came close to not recommending this series. Two things redeemed it for me: One is a strong thematic message that we must critically analyze what our society tells us (think Holocaust, slavery, pop culture). The second is Lasky's background and reputation as a writer. (See website www.kathrynlasky.com) As always, it is reasonable to respectfully disagree!

This review was based on books 1 and 3 in the series. The movie, Guardians of Ga'Hoole may be reviewed at a later date.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Warriors Series

Titles: #1 Into the Wild; #2 Fire and Ice; #3 Forest of Secrets; #4 Rising Storm; #5 Dangerous Path; #6 Darkest Hour

Author: Erin Hunter

Rating: * (1 star out of 3 possible; "C")
Recommended with Reservations

Audience: 3rd grade and up

For this review I read books #1 and #3. Erin Hunter's fast-paced series about the lives of wild kitty gangs will appeal to kids who love animals and adventure. Every reader will want to find out what happens to domestic "kittypet" Rusty when he leaves his comfortable home life behind to become Firepaw, a member of ThunderClan. Ongoing feuds with other cat clans (RiverClan, WindClan, ShadowClan), natural threats without and traitors within keep the warrior cats on their paws. Ongoing mysteries include missing kits (kittens), dubious parentage and unexpected deaths.

One caution in this series is the sense I get that violence will increase. Rivalries between and among the clans lead to several battles resulting in injuries and the occasional death. In her website she states her "favorite death scene" comes in books 6 of this series (Darkest Hour).

Another concern is that StarClan (cats that have gone on to the "kitty heaven" and appear as stars in the sky) will have increasingly new-age influence on the cats in the series. Occasionally the cat warriors will call out for StarClan's "help" in confronting an insurmountable task.

Humans ("Twolegs") are sometimes viewed in a negative light: "Last new leaf , the river was clean and full of fish. Now it's filthy with Twoleg rubbish from their camp." My hope would be that some redeeming Twolegs appear later in the series.

Finally, because natural cats don't follow our social norms of marriage and family, there will occasionally be a litter of unexpected kits! Since this happens in the real cat world, anyway, I did not find it morally disturbing. There was certainly no intimate discussion of how these relationships take place.

One of the best messages these books send to our young people is that of loyalty and integrity. The cats face issue of traitors and prejudices. There is a strong sense of right and wrong and even compassion: "A true warrior-the best warrior-isn't cruel or mean. He doesn't claw an enemy that can't fight back. Where's the honor in that?" Girls will also appreciate the roles female cats play. They can be warriors, but a high value is placed on mothers and kittens, those who serve in the nursery or as "medicine cat." For the clans to survive it is clear all must work together and respect each other.

Erin Hunter is becoming pretty prolific in children's fiction. Her Warriors series have 4 subsequent sets: New Prophecy (6 books), Power of Three (6 books), Omen of the Stars (3 books and counting) and Super Edition (5 books and counting). She also has 6 books in the Seekers series, which focuses on the adventures of the three types of bears: Polar, black and brown/grizzly. Readers might like to know she finds "death a great source of drama" and is personally interested in mythology, astrology and standing stones. For those reasons, further review is warranted on the subsequent series.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Titles: The Lightning Thief (#1); The Sea of Monsters (#2); The Titan's Curse (#3); The Battle of the Labyrinth (#4); The Last Olympian (#5)

Author: Rick Riordan

Rating: * (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")
           Recommended with Reservations

Audience: Middle-schoolers

The Lightning Thief, first title in this series, left me eager to read more. Riordan has taken a classical idea (Greek mythology) and given it a fast-paced updating that appeals to today's youth. His protagonist/hero, Percy Jackson, is smart and sassy, but also nervous and unsure as he explores his new-found abilities as a human son of Poseidon. These emotions parallel many feelings of adolescence.

As the first book progresses, Percy encounters Greek Gods in all their capricious forms, as well as "half-blood" friends like himself. His character matures and grows in confidence as he triumphs through the many exciting (if somewhat unbelievable) plot twists.

The third book, The Titan's Curse, however, felt more like a grocery list of inexplicable adventures and monsters. On the positive side, Percy is fiercely determined to fight for the right side and rescue his friends. In fact, Athena points out "Your fatal flaw is personal loyalty, Percy. To save a friend, you would sacrifice the world. In a hero of the prophecy, that is very, very dangerous."

I also appreciate the fact the Percy starts his adventures by not fitting into societal norms. He struggles with ADHD in class and does not excel in school. It's clear he has trouble focusing and paying attention, but he is not a discipline problem per se and sincerely tries to do his best. This would be a helpful message for many families today.

So far language has not been a problem in the books. The kids speak casually, but not derogatorily. The only use of questionable language in the third book was one case of a child saying "oh my god" (the half-bloods will sometimes say "oh my gods" because Greek mythology is clearly not monotheistic), and one case of a character firing a sulfurous "fart" arrow. That was the only use of "potty" humor I've encountered.

Some Christians will question the value of a fiction series based on a pagan belief system. It is not a series I recommend for everyone. The best way to experience Greek mythology is with a copy of the D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, as well as readable copies of The Iliad or The Trojan War (Olivia Coolidge is one author), and The Odyssey (The Children's Homer by Colum; The Adventures of Ulysses by Evslin; The Legend of Odysseus by Connolly). For families who have done that and are looking to engage their middle-schoolers during free-reading time, Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a reasonable series. It's also valuable to point out to our children how infinitely superior our God and His character is when compared to the chaos and infighting exemplified among the man-made gods of Olympus.

I believe the Apostle Paul was well-educated in the philosophies of his day as well as mythology when he stood on Mars' (a.k.a. Ares, the Greek God of War) Hill and proclaimed "Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; ...Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you...." Acts 17:22-34.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke

Rating: * (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")
Recommended with Reservations

Audience: 3rd graders and up

What did I do all summer? I really did read a lot of kids' books and I will get my reviews in here soon. When reviewing a series, I prefer to read at least 2 titles before making a recommendation, so that is some of the delay in my posts.

My 4th grader has been eager to know if Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke would be appropriate for her. Actually, she's been asking since 3rd grade, so I am a little behind. I do recommend this book with some cautions for 3rd graders and up.

Mainly this is a harmless, magical tale of a homeless boy on a journey around the globe to rescue a dragon. Along the way, the boy (Ben) encounters Arabian culture (with a helpful djinn or genie) and Asian culture where dragons are considered good luck. Of course, Asian culture tends to be polytheistic and includes the possibility of reincarnation.

Reincarnation is mentioned briefly three times in the book: "These people believe we all live many lives on this planet." There is no value judgment placed on this or other beliefs; it is simply stated as background for Asian culture, which is an accurate portrayal. By that I mean, the author does not try to sway readers to adopt this belief.

For Christian families it would be reasonable to read this book while discussing differences between Eastern and Western cultures, their views of dragon mythology and the biblical account of life after death. Remind your children of the truth of Hebrews 9:27-28 and the hope this provides for all cultures.

I also hope to work up a review on Cornelia Funke's better known titles Inkheart, Inkspell an Inkdeath. Many times an author's later books reveal more of their personal philosophy as well as more mature themes. A recommendation of one book does not guarantee a blanket recommendation for others by the same author. If you have a perceptive child who anticipates reading everything by Funke after they sample Dragon Rider, warn them that might not be the case for your family.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

What Are You Thinking?

Make yourselves nests of pleasant thoughts! None of us yet know, for none of us have been taught in early youth, what fairy palaces we may build of beautiful thoughts, proof against all adversity; bright fancies, satisfied memories, noble histories, faithful sayings, treasure-house of precious and restful thoughts, which care cannot disturb, nor pain make gloomy, nor poverty take away from us; houses built without hands, for our souls to live in.
-John Ruskin

Monday, January 18, 2010

Speaking of Haiti...

Just as the quake struck Port-au-Prince last week I was finishing Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains about Dr. Paul Farmer's work in Haiti and around the world.

Part biography, part scientific travelogue, part social journalism, Mountains Beyond Mountains describes Paul Farmer's attempt to bring a portion of Haiti out of abject misery and into simple poverty. A Harvard-trained infectious disease physician and medical anthropologist, Farmer has dedicated his life to the health and well-being of an entire rural area in the central plateau region of the country-a village known as Cange. His comprehensive public health philosophy includes free medical care, food, water, education and research.

Meanwhile, Farmer has become an internationally-recognized expert in the treatment of both HIV and tuberculosis, particulary drug-resistant TB. Along the way he's pioneered the treatment of near-epidemic TB in such far-flung places as Peru and Siberia. With the help of a few friends and a few millionaires the non-profit organization Partners-in-Health (PIH), located in Boston, administers Farmer's plans far and wide.

The book is a pretty fascinating read, from Farmer's unorthodox American upbringing (eccentric father nicknamed The Warden and near-homelessness), to his genius-level and workaholic-inspired personal sacrifices. The middle of the book lags a bit, describing multi-drug resistant TB in detail. But the book also contains a good introduction to Haiti's particular political history and social challenges. (Why doesn't Haiti have tourism-like nearby Jamaica? Why doesn't Haiti have sustainable agriculture-like nearby Cuba?) Finally, it offers an outstanding example of Margaret Mead's famous quote: "Never the understimate the ability of a small group of committed individuals to change the world." To which Paul Farmer adds "Indeed, they are the only ones who ever have."

A particularly timely read as Americans should now, more than ever, familiarize themselves with this near-neighbor, the poorest nation in our western hemisphere.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Animal Stories

I've been very thankful to have kids who are readers. Well, at least one of them is. One is a super-extreme obsessive-compulsive reader. The other is much more casual about it. For instance, if she broke a leg and couldn't walk, she'd spend a decent amount of time reading.

I'm also thankful one of the things they love to read are animal stories. This saves us lots of parent-child arguments about the quality of material they are reading. We have not had to argue too much about comic books, or Harry Potter (yet), or dragons and unicorns and magic, or Babysitters Club, or Sweet Valley High. I understand the position that states, "as long as your child is reading, who cares what they read?!" I just can't fully endorse it as I believe we need to challenge our kids with quality, stewardship of time, and education from their earliest days. Of course, humor and relaxation are priority values for our family as well. So, while they enjoy Dad's comic book collection from 1975, they are also able to fulfill many of our reading goals and values through several animal classics.

I've already mentioned titles and authors such as Wind in the Willows, Winnie-the-Pooh, Beatrix Potter and Thornton Burgess in an earlier entry. Let me add some more family favorites.

Richard Scarry: The Busy Day Book; What Do People Do All Day; The Best Storybook Ever; Best Read-it-Yourself Book Ever; Best Word Book Ever; Great Big Schoolhouse; Please and Thank You Book; Cars and Trucks and Things That Go; and many more! One can hardly find an author/illustrator who better understands the type of story young children need: short and humorous, yet true-to-life, with detailed illustrations that can occupy for hours. These are great books for boys and girls who love to hear how the world around them works: What happens on a big ship? How do you build a house? How many different cars and trucks are there? How do you make paper? How do you bake bread? His delightful animal characters including Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm guide the readers through the world around them.

Uncle Wiggily's Story Book by Howard R. Garis. For 50 years, beginning in 1910, these short stories of a long-eared rabbit gentleman appeared in newspapers and magazines and were the subject of one of the first board games for children. Uncle Wiggily's adventures center around helping young girls and boys though their mishaps and foibles, often enlisting the help of other animal friends in the forest. While the language is a bit dated and the stories are a bit simplistic, the stories have been a delight for my 5 year old with a short attention span. We worry too much that children won't relate to older literature, when in fact, a classic is a classic due to it's timeless nature. I believe children will always be able to relate to mud puddles, ice skates, Fourth of July, and other encounters with Uncle Wiggily.

No list of animal favorites would be complete without the three by E.B. White: Charlotte's Web, The Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little. I pick up any copies I see at second-hand bookstores to pass on to libraries, schools, friends. 'Nuff said.

Must also mention Beverly Cleary's trilogy: Runaway Ralph; The Mouse and the Motorcycle; Ralph S. Mouse. Fun reads for boys and girls alike.

Phyllis Reynold Naylor's Shiloh trilogy: Shiloh; Saving Shiloh; Shiloh Season. About a boy and his dog, these are nice pre-adolescent options as they deal with some hardships in life. They have been made into a 2-movie series as well.
For a history twist, there's Robert Lawson's Ben and Me; Mr. Revere and I; Rabbit Hill.
George Selden wrote The Cricket in Times Square and several related books.
A few years ago we stumbled upon Freddy the Pig, 26 books written by Walter Brooks in the 1940sand 50s. Again I wondered if my 8 year old would really "go" for these. Wouldn't the stories be too far-fetched? (Freddy the Magician, Freddy Goes to the Moon) Wouldn't the language be dated, or difficult? Neither of those concerns proved true as my daughter devoured all the copies we could find at our local library.

Now we are working on Hugh Lofting's Dr. Dolittle books. These 8-10 books written in the 1920s and 30s are imaginative, humorous and readable. We are working on the first two (The Story of... and The Voyages of...) with fantastic illustrations by Michael Hague. The second title won the Newberry Medal in 1923. Again, no worries here about obsolete language. In fact, I find exposing my kids to these types of books has given them the type of vocabulary that allows them even more options in communicating and writing with detail. I've often heard that if you want to improve your writing, read good writers and I'm sure the same is true for our children.

Next you can select from a huge list of horse books, the first of which, Black Beauty, was written by Anna Sewell in the 1870s. This was a challenging read, but my 8 year old plowed through it handily, with a sensitive appreciation for the plight of English carriage horses.

Walter Farley wrote 21 Black Stallion books! Marguerite Henry has many well-known titles: Misty of Chincoteague; Stormy, Misty's Foal; Brighty of the Canyon; King of the Wind, to name a few. One we haven't read: Will James' Smoky, the Cow-Horse.

Also, Jim Kjelgaard's dog books: Big Red, Outlaw Red, Irish Red, Stormy, and more. Or for that matter, Jack London's White Fang, Fred Gipson's Old Yeller, Wilson Rawling's Where the Red Fern Grows.

Kipling's Jungle Book, or at least his short story Rikki Tikki Tavi!

Of course, the options are endless, and if you have a real power reader you can add in more recent series books such as Animal Ark (Ben Baglio) or The Saddle Club (Bonnie Bryant). But I really think it's to our kids' advantage to tackle many of these thoughtful, well-written childrens' classics first.

Animal stories are timeless, gender-neutral and frequently commercial-free (Littlest Pets aside). As a family we've found they stimulate imaginative, creative play with stuffed animals, or plastic animal figurines. And I'll never forget the time my 5 year old slithered around the bathroom floor so her sister the mongoose could attack her. Finally, when we all grow up we have Animal Farm, Watership Down and James Herriot to look forward to. What could be better?!