Monday, November 14, 2011

Charlie Bone Series

8 Titles: Midnight; Time Twister; Invisible Boy; Castle of Mirrors; Hidden King; Beast; Shadow; Red Knight

Author: Jenny Nimmo

Rating: Not Recommended
(no stars out of 3 possible, "D/F")

Audience: Third graders and up

I can't find anything to recommend in this series. I usually read more than one of a series to get as balanced a view as possible, but after 400 pages of Charlie Bone and the Time Twister (#2) I can't imagine reading another 400 pages. From this experience, the series appears to be Scholastic's dumbed-down version of Harry Potter: a boy with magical abilities (Charlie Bone) stuck in a private academy and surrounded by numerous friends and foes.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Roman Mysteries Series

Titles: 17 including Thieves of Ostia, Secrets of Vesuvius, Pirates of Pompeii
also Quiz Books and Mini-mysteries

Author: Caroline Lawrence

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

Audience: Middle-School

These unique historical fiction books follow four young detectives through the Roman Empire during AD 79-81. Readers will encounter Mount Vesuvius, Emperors Titan and Domitian, and the cities of Rome, Pompeii, Corinth, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Ephesus and others.

The books are so well-researched, with such a literate, classical feel I first rated them with 2 stars ("B"), but then realized there was quite a bit of violence and adult themes involved in the plot, so some families may prefer caution.

Crime Files: Four-Minute Forensic Mysteries

Titles: Shadow of Doubt; Body of Evidence

Author: Jeremy Brown/Scholastic

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

Audience: 5th grade and up

CSI, meet 5th graders! Ahh, thank you school library, for opening up the world of forensic science for my 10 year old. Oh, what am I worried about? When I was her age I was watching Rockford Files and Quincy, M.E.

Seriously, some of these posts will be driven by the selections my 10 year old brings home from public school. She's finally at the age where I can't pre-select everything she comes across, but I can at least read it with her and talk about it.

Naturally I wondered what the content of these books would be like. The cover shows a manga-cartoon version of a morgue, complete with wounded body under sheets. How graphic would this get?

As it turns out, not too graphic. Yes, they are dealing with crime and death and frequently murder. But the mysteries are finished in 3 or 4 pages; not a lot of space for gorey details. Mainly they focus on obscure science to solve mysteries: did you know tonic water contains quinine which will glow brightly under ultraviolet light?

The good news with these mysteries is that criminals are brought to justice. They are also smartly written with well-developed characters and good vocabulary, as well as the before-mentioned science facts. Not extremely applicable science, but extremely entertaining for kids who have finished all the Encyclopedia Brown books.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Great Brain Series

Titles: The Great Brain; More Adventures of the Great Brain; Me and My Little Brain; The Great Brain at the Academy; The Great Brain Reforms; The Return of the Great Brain; The Great Brain Does It Again; The Great Brain Is Back

Author: John D. Fitzgerald

Rating: ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience: 3rd-6th grades

I had a fun summer reliving my reading list from 6th grade which consisted mostly of Great Brain books! It was one of the first series on which I spent my own babysitting money. I then passed the books on to some nephews, so I'm now re-acquiring them for my girls. A lot of the stories were just as I remembered them, but some were surprisingly rough and a little graphic. I guess my 12 year old brain conveniently censored the shocking parts.

The books consist of the (heavily enhanced) childhood memories and stories of John D. Fitzgerald from his growing up years in turn-of-the-century Utah. The youngest of three brothers (a fourth is added in the third book), John serves as the storyteller and writer for his conniving middle brother, Tom, the "Great Brain" of the title. Most of the escapades center around Tom as he maneuvers his way through town and through the pocket change of the other kids, including John. You'll have to be the judge if these schemes qualify as cheats and scams (John's version), or merely creative plots from a superior mind (Tom's version). Many times the Great Brain matches wits with adults and provides solutions to various town problems and mysteries.

In a nostalgic portrayal of loving family life, you can be sure Tom and John's upstanding parents provide the necessary discipline and boundaries in raising their energetic boys. Always fair, usually wise, but sometimes exasperated, the parents do manage to get in the last word.

I had forgotten some of the unsettling scenes from life in the 1890s. For instance, there is a fair amount of fighting between school boys. This is not solved with modern psychology, but with fisticuffs. Bullies are quickly put to rights and then manage to become friends.

Swimming takes place at the local (naked) swimming hole (no details provided) and lessons consist of being thrown in until you swim! Again, not the comfortable, suburban method you may be used to.

In a lesson about pride, dignity and compassion, the singular Jewish store-keeper in the town actually dies in poverty rather than advertise his needs. Rather shocking for young readers, but not historically inaccurate.

More graphic is the tale of a school boy who steps on a nail and loses his leg to gangrene. The boy is actually attempting suicide (in a sort of innocent, naive 10-year old way) when Tom intervenes to show him life is worth living. Helping the boy with primitive versions of occupational and physical therapy is a humbling experience for the Great Brain.

John has a similar experience when Tom heads off to boarding school. After having little success attempting to become his own Great Brain, he does rescue his youngest brother from criminals. In John's words: "It just goes to prove what a fellow can get out of life by being himself. Me and my little brain, with God's help, had saved Frankie's life."

That's a lesson boys and girls need.

For more series on bright, adventuresome school kids I recommend:

Henry Reed by Keith Robertson (Henry Reed, Inc.; Henry Reed's Journey; Henry Reed's Babysitting Service; Henry Reed's Big Show; Henry Reed's Think Tank)

Homer Price by Robert McCloskey (Homer Price; Centerburg Tales/More Adventures of Homer Price/More Homer Price)

Mad Scientists' Club by Bertrand Brinley (The Mad Scientists' Club; The New Adventures of the Mad Scientists' Club; The Big Kerplop; The Big Chunk of Ice)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Author: Jamie Ford

Rating: ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience: High School

Here is historical fiction that is both intelligent and relational. Set in Seattle's International District, Jamie Ford's first novel is a split-narrative alternating between the WWII years and contemporary (1986) times.

Bullied at his all-white school, Henry Lee is a Chinese youth who befriends a Japanese girl just as West-Coast Japanese Americans are being forced into relocation camps. Ford combines this regional history with a classic coming-of-age story portraying themes of prejudice, duty, honor and devotion.

There are refreshing visits to contemporary times and culture, jazz music and friendship, not to mention the most colorful character of all: Mrs. Beatty the Lunch Lady!

If your high school has Snow Falling on Cedars on it's reading list, suggest Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet as an alternative. Snow is the more consummate novel (better suspense, richer characters, more dramatic plot) but includes too much sex for adolescents. Hotel covers many of the same issues and themes in a purer context.

The American Adventure Series published by Barbour

Titles: over 40 in series, e.g., #1 Mayflower Adventure, #8 Maggie's Choice, #12 American Victory

Authors: various, Colleen Reece, Norma Jean Lutz
JoAnn Grote, etc.

Rating: "D" (0 stars out of 3 possible)
Not Recommended

Audience: 8-12 year olds

These are christianized historical fiction from the 1990s for elementary students that unfortunately "tell" instead of "show" readers what to think and how to feel about the subjects and characters encountered. The plots feel contrived, unrealistic and saccharin and it seems the authors do not trust the readers to come to the "right" conclusions about history, so our hands are held (and forced) all the way.

In one sense they are harmless enough, but because they seem to be lacking in intellectual challenge and not extensively researched I would not recommend this series to my 4th grader unless we could find nothing better on the market. In fact, I think they are no longer on the market except as a repackaged "Sisters in Time" series from 2005.

In preparation for this review I read two titles: #8 Maggie's Choice by Norma Jean Lutz and #12 American Victory by JoAnn A. Grote. If the preceding paragraphs aren't specific enough for you, I'll provide more critical details below.

Maggie's Choice takes place in the 1740's during the time of The Great Awakening and also touches on the issue of slavery. I found some details not accurate to the time period (an upper class aristocrat would not encourage 12 year old girls to call her by her first name), as well as poor transitions and weak dialogue. (Again, "telling" instead of "showing.") Plot twists seemed contrived: Maggie's father has wealth because a step-grandfather deeded him a house and money "by a strange twist of fate." (Also not a common practice of the time.) Finally, simplistic faith conversions cast doubt on the legitimacy of the history: "My brother took Ann and me to a revival meeting last week. And now I know God loves me and Jesus died to take away my sins." True, faith was simpler in those times, but could the author be a little less obvious?

The American Victory was somewhat better. Taking place at the end of the Revolutionary War, one of the main characters states "God has been with us, helping us in this war. He gave us a great military leader in George Washington." Fair enough. The book provides a decent history of Cornwallis's ill-fated retreat and surrender and again credits "the Lord's help." Fair enough, although I think Cornwallis should take at least some of the blame. Finally, a quote: "Kings have too much power. The only king we want in America is King Jesus!" I doubt many colonists embraced such a statement.

I'm not looking for politically correct, revisionist history for my kids, either, but I would like something that is more balanced. I would recommend Jean Fritz' histories (And then What Happened, Paul Revere? What's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin?), David Adler biographies or even the American Girls over this series. Perhaps if our kids also read a more liberal version (Don't Know Much about History by Kenneth C. Davis) they could come to their own less biased understanding of history.

Historical fiction has pitfalls. In an effort to make history interesting and keep younger readers engaged, authenticity may be sacrificed. I purchased a small collection of children's biographies a few years ago (Childhood of Famous Americans), but I'm hoping my 5th grader will be ready for David McCullough soon!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Junie B. Jones Series

Titles: Junie B. Jones
Junie B. Jones, First Grader
(27 books in all, plus The Essential Survival Guide to School)

Author: Barbara Park

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

Audience: 5-7 year-old girls

Most parents probably have a love/hate relationship with Junie B. Jones. Barbara Park was influenced by Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby, but Junie B. falls rather short of comparison for several reasons.

First of all, the plots are simple and singular. The reader really is not going to learn a lot about life in the real world from Junie B. Consequently, the reader will probably not identify very strongly with her, either. We will laugh along with some of her predicaments and her faux pas, but she will not really stick with us or influence us to any great degree.

Additionally, she is a pretty one-dimensional character. She tends to entertain us with one humorous line after another, but she doesn't spend much time in introspection or maturation. Along these lines, many parents will be disappointed with her language and behavior. She tends to be sassy and mischievous without a lot of the redeeming qualities (creativity, imagination, remorse, personal growth) one finds in a Ramona character.

However, on the positive side, she can engage kids with her antics, and they are, for the most part, harmless. Also, her books are short enough for shorter attention spans. So if you are having trouble finding books your 5 or 6 year old likes, this may be an option for you. As with so much of our pop culture, a little dab will do you. It's reasonable for kids to enjoy this along with their Garfield comics, as long as parents continue to supplement with the really good stuff! Of course, some families will choose to pass on these, and they won't be missing much.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Beverly Cleary

Henry Books: Henry Huggins; Henry & Ribsy; Henry & Beezus; Henry & the Clubhouse; Henry & the Paper Route; Ribsy

Ramona Books: Beezus & Ramona; Ramona the Pest; Ramona & her Father; Ramona & her Mother; Ramona Quimby, Age 8; Ramona Forever; Ramona's World

Rating: *** (3 stars out of 3 possible, "A")
Highly Recommended

Audience: K-5th Grade

Writing in the 1950s, Beverly Cleary was one of the first post WW-II children's writers to understand modern kids and modern childhood. While you may find an occasional long chapter or slow event, her characters and plots are standing the test of time. Parents who want their families to slow down, find good role models and share real-life stories and laughs must not overlook these series!

Henry Huggins was the first book Cleary wrote, specifically thinking of the boys who would come to her Yakima, WA public library looking for stories to which they could relate. What third-grader doesn't wish for a dog, not to mention hundreds of guppies in mason jars all over their bedroom? Henry's adventures with Ribsy continue and in later books we find Henry delivering newspapers and building a clubhouse. Through it all he has to navigate growing up in his busy Portland neighborhood. Henry works hard and saves his money for all the important things of childhood (footballs, bikes, sleeping bags) and he learns to think his way out of exasperating situations with Scooter, Ramona and Ribsy. He shows that boys need the freedom to pursue their projects and goals, resulting maturity and responsibility.

The "Ramona" books grew out of the Henry books. Ramona starts out as a 4-year old in Ramona and Beezus, but is probably best known as a Kindergartner in Ramona the Pest. Far from being a disobedient troublemaker, Ramona is simply a creative and energetic 5-year old. I've had one friend ask if she wasn't perhaps a poor example for children, but in fact the opposite is true. Ramona is a real person who experiences real 5-year old feelings and real 5-year old troubles. She certainly does not get away with disobedience, but is disciplined with patience, natural consequences, and occasionally stern reprimands. If you've ever had to discipline a child while laughing inside at some pretty funny situations, you've had some experience with a Ramona. I've learned a lot of parenting skills reading these books and often wish I could be as wise and patient as Mrs. Quimby or Mrs. Huggins.

These are characters who eat oatmeal, do chores, learn about the family budget, deal with family squabbles and small disappointments, solve problems creatively, make their own fun and even pray and go to Sunday School. I can hardly think of better way to influence our families than to laugh along together through these stories. I like to start Ramona the Pest when my girls are heading off to Kindergarten. Henry Huggins can be started as early as first grade, because all boys like to imagine themselves a little older than they are! Also, there is some dated language ("swell," "keen," "jeepers"), so you want to hook your kids on these books before they start to think they're too old for them! Older siblings will relate well to Beezus' challenges with Ramona in Beezus and Ramona. Younger siblings of course will relate to Ramona, and parents will relate to it all! The vocabulary is appropriate and challenging as well. The 2010 movie Ramona and Beezus is a well-done send up of several books combined.

Beverly Cleary continued to write for kids with her Mouse and the Motorcycle three-book series, Ellen Tebbits, Emily's Runaway Imagination, Otis Spoffod, Socks, Strider and others. While no character is quite as memorable as Ramona or Henry, her book, Dear Mr. Henshaw, about a 6-grade boy won the Newbery Medal. Ramona and Her Father and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 were Newbery Honor books. If you would like to know more about Cleary herself and her writing ideas, she has two memoirs: A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet.

There are several newer series that offer updated characters similar to Ramona, such as Judy Moody and Junie B. Jones. Judy Moody's author Megan McDonald admits she was inspired by Beverly Cleary. Look for me to review those series at some point, but expect lower marks for language, vocabulary, plot and character development. Ramona and Henry were the first and likely will remain the best!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Name of this Book Is Secret (5 Books)

Titles: The Name of this Book Is Secret; If You're Reading this, It's too Late; This Book Is not Good for You; This Isn't what It Looks Like; You Have to Stop This

Author: Pseudonymous Bosch (Raphael Simon)

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

Audience: Middle-schoolers

Better than Lemony Snicket, a good alternative in fact, this series offers middle readers the mystery, adventure and word puzzles they crave. The vocabulary is challenging and the humor is generally appropriate. The plots are somewhat unbelievable, but not as dark and violent as Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events.

11 year old "survivalist" Cassandra and her humorously neurotic friend Max-Ernest must decode clues and thwart the evil plans of Ms. Mauvais and Dr. L. as they search for an ancient Egyptian secret to eternal life.

The villains are sinister and at one point prepared to perform an Egyptian mummification ritual on a schoolmate when Cass and Max-Ernest arrive on the scene. Families might also object to Max-Ernest's selfish, divorcing parents, but Cass has real family support and legitimate adult help, unlike the Lemony Snicket series.

Parents may take issue with slang words ("butt," "puke," "suck," "freakin'") in the second book, but I would counter that they are rare (about once each) and occur in reasonable context (for the most part as description and not personal insults).

Even as I re-read that paragraph I realize it must sound contrary to some of our stated goals. Let me clarify that one character in particular (Yo Yoji) brings this flavor to the friendships and I find it valuable that he is welcomed and included. His rougher language has little or no influence on the other characters. And, as always, context must be considered before judgments are passed.

Other objectionable content includes "white" lies by the main characters (about once per book, in order for Cass to follow mystery leads) and the references to Egyptian practices and alchemy. To be fair, such scenes occur infrequently and the protagonists are not caught up in any occult practices themselves, only opposing the antagonists. The protagonists also form positive friendships and exemplify teamwork.

In short, while not perfect, the series is acceptable for many middle readers. If you really want to bond with your child over these books (always a good way to strengthen a relationship), be sure to make Cass's Super Chip Snack Mix with them!

Green Knowe Series

Titles: The Children of Green Knowe; Treasure of Green Knowe; The River at Green Knowe; A Stranger at Green Knowe; An Enemy at Green Knowe; The Stones of Green Knowe

Author: L.M. Boston

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

Audience: 3rd-8th grades

I found it very difficult to categorize this series. L.M. Boston, writing in England in the 1950's, said she wrote these short children's novels to please herself. In a typical, British sort of way, they are imaginative, yet slow-paced; well-written and respectful of tradition, yet somewhat abstruse or difficult to access.

The Children of Green Knowe introduces us to the formerly grand, country river estate and it's visiting young heir, 9 year old Tolly (Toseland). Odd occurrences imply that Tolly is being visited by the ghosts of past generations of children raised at Green Knowe. Only in Great Britain could a family trace their estate legends back to the 1500s!

My concern as a Christian is that ghosts-even friendly, familial ghosts-existing for centuries in a home is theologically misleading and not all that comforting to many children.

I'm glad I held out for the second book, The Treasure of Green Knowe, before making my final judgment. Here the story presents as a time-travel fantasy and Tolly meets up with his 18th century ancestors.

The story is cleverly woven between present and past as Great Grandmother relates family history. The historical family employs a freed black boy to serve as companion to their own blind daughter and readers will find the examples of freedom vs. slavery, prejudice vs. justice convicting. In the end, Tolly solves a centuries-old treasure mystery and the future of the Green Know Estate is secured.

Finally I read The River at Green Knowe, just to solidify my opinions. Here the story changes up, with 3 school kids spending summer vacation at Green Knowe, barely supervised by 2 distracted but well-meaning spinsters.

Again, the line is blurred between actual magic and imagination. The children enjoy their adventures, encountering a hermit and a giant and at one time observing some sort of Celtic worship ritual during the full moon. The overall message here is that adults tend to lose their imagination and childhood should include plenty of time for play and exploration. I can't argue against those points. At their age, I had the run of the forest and the lakeshore and needed only minimal supervision. I wish more kids could be raised with these sorts of idyllic freedoms. Many of our suburb and city kids will only encounter such adventures between the pages of books like these!

In conclusion, I recommend this series with mild reservations about a few scenes or occasional references to supernatural phenomenon, certainly nothing alarming. More to the point, the writing style and expressive tone makes the stories a little hard to follow for some minds. The series may be best received by especially inquisitive, creative children, for instance; an "old soul" who claims to have "nothing to read!" I doubt (unfortunately) many "modern" kids have the patience for the setting and plot. If you'd like to know more about the real manor that inspired Green Knowe, check out this website:

There are other series that may appeal to a broader audience for families seeking intelligent, imaginative plots. If you love the challenge and the rich language/heritage of British literature, also try prolific children's authors Edith Nesbit writing at the turn of the 20th century (The Railway Children, The House of Arden, Five Children and It) or Enid Blyton writing in the mid-20th century (The Famous Five, The Secret Seven). All feature superior vocabulary and syntax, confident and capable children, mystery and adventure.

If these clever British ladies L.M. Boston, E. Nesbit and E. Blyton can remain in print, our 9 year olds should have plenty to read until they're ready for Dame Agatha Christie!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Omnivore's Dilemma

Author: Michael Pollan

Rating: ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience: Adults, Young Adults

Well, I finally had to do it. I had to find out (5 years late) what all the buzz was about organic, sustainable, blah, blah, blah.

Actually, I read Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser) some years ago and found it both convicting and a little alarmist. I also watched the features King Corn and SuperSize Me. So I am aware of some of the arguments against America's eating habits. I also work in health care, so I know the obesity and diabetes statistics.

What I appreciated about Michael Pollan's books (see also Food Rules for a Cliff's Notes version of Omnivore) is his thoroughness and practicality. He admits his own gradual journey toward healthier eating and doesn't judge people for coming to different conclusions. He doesn't expect people to become radical vegans, for instance, but encourages us to begin to educate ourselves about our food habits. He offers simple steps and options for people who want to make more informed eating choices.

The Omnivore's Dilemma divides food production into 4 groups: regular industrial farm production; organic industrial farming; local, sustainable farming; and self-production. Each of these options is explored in historic and current context and the reader can come to their own conclusion about how to implement each of these food production types into their family diet.

Most of us would agree "factory food" (as i like to call it) is our least desirable option. It's not going to go away any time soon, and probably has its place in some of our grocery shopping. A book like Omnivore's Dilemma will help you choose how much of your diet to devote to factory foods.

Pollan also tells the truth about "organic" foods. Many of these terms are defined by committees and government (lobbyists) so Pollan explains the gray areas. Terms like "free range" and "sustainably harvested" actually have no formal restriction or regulation, so companies may use them truthfully...or not! So Pollan tells the truth about both the factory option and the organic option. In all situations, caveat emptor!

Pollan is a big proponent of local, sustainable foods. This means getting to know your local producers and supporting them. "Sustainable" implies the local producer will put at least as much into the soil as they take out because they have a vested interest in maintaining their land. Conversely, corporate farming relies heavily on added fertilizers and pesticides to reap as much out of the soil as possible. For an interesting example of how local, sustainable farming (how farming was done pre-1920s, approximately) can work, take a look at

The final option is to try your hand at becoming your own hunter/gatherer! Families can decide how much of this to implement in their food choices. Most of us could plant a few rows in a garden (if you live in the suburbs, take a look at the size of your lot!), and some of us could even go fishing, or shoot a deer. Pollan validates these lifestyle choices.

It comes down to how convicted you are about food production policies in America and what you're willing to do about it for your family. Let me give you sort of a blunt, personal example: I am not a hippie living on a commune (and it's okay if you are) and I have serious concerns about the hygiene of some of our foods in the grocery store. For me, it's a little bit about the humane treatment of animals and it's a lot about the hygiene. Feedlots just aren't good for animals, or humans.

How will that change my behavior? Pollan suggests 3 guidelines in Food Rules: Eat Real Food; Mostly Plants; Not Too Much. Sounds manageable, doesn't it? In practice, I'm going to think a lot more about the 5-ingredient rule (eat foods with about 5 ingredients-foods your grandmother could recognize). We've already increased our fruits and vegetables. Next I'm going to order my own side of beef cut to specifics. Then I'm going to think about eggs and chickens. We're even considering joining a CSA: community sponsored agriculture group. For about $100 Rocky Ridge Ranch will provide families with 4-5 meats, eggs and produce each week. Not everyone can do that, but we might. (

If this interests you, there are plenty of options to begin your education process. (Two other books I am curious about but haven't read yet are Pollan's In Defense of Food and local pastor Craig Goodwin's Year of Plenty.) Then you can make your own informed choices about your family's food.

Leave a comment about your ideas!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Inkheart Series (3 books)

Titles: Inkheart; Inkspell; Inkdeath

Author: Cornelia Funke

Rating: Not Recommended
(0 stars out of 3 possible, "D/F")

Audience: Middle-school

The idea in Inkheart of becoming part of a story, or bringing a story to life would appeal to many readers. For that reason, this series is not without creativity, story and craft. I concede the premise is brilliant: a story out of control where characters come to life while readers (or even the author himself) can also enter in and attempt to intervene with the growing plot.

Unfortunately, I found it too sinister, threatening and dark to recommend as a whole. The pace and plot of the second book, Inkspell, was laborious: a 600 page book with only 250 pages of plot. I was left with no desire to plod through the third.

Combine this with coarse language (frequent "d***"s culminating in several "b******"s and finally a "son of a b****") and too much violence (stabbings, revenge, death threats) and the series really missed the mark for my family.

Positive arguments could be made for the strong female lead (Meggie) or for the message against wishing for selfish desires to come true. To be sure, there are sacrifices to be made and evil to conquer. Most interesting is the warning to be careful of what you read and what you write! But these themes are sadly eclipsed by plot and language failures.

Many kids could be drawn into a story with medieval touches, fairies, firestarters, princes and carnival performers, but the Inkheart series will disappoint more thoughtful readers.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Drive Thru History DVD Series

Titles: 9 including Rome if You Want to; Greece and the Word; Turkish Delight; East Meets West; Columbus/Pilgrims/Boston; New York/New Jersey/Washington; Patriots/Penn/Freedom; Soldiers/Jamestown/Virginia; Discovering America's Founders

Producer: Focus on the Family; Coldwater Media; Dave Stotts

Rating: *** (3 stars out of 3 possible, "A")
Highly Recommended

Audience: 4th graders and up

My 9 year old states these dvds "present history in a fun and humorous way that is also kid-friendly and educational."

Indeed, this series is a creative, fast-paced and informative introduction to Western Civilization and American history. If you get the Pantheon and Parthenon confused, or don't know the difference between the Circus Maximus and the Coliseum, or have trouble remembering that Octavian defeated Mark Antony and went on to become Caesar Augustus (yes, that Caesar Augustus), you'll also enjoy watching these with your kids.

For homeschoolers there are discussion guides and even a mini-curriculum based on US history (the 9-unit Foundations of Character).

I've not seen history for kids done in such an engaging way with excellent production standards. Dave Stott is the live-action, on-site host and the monologue is complemented with maps, slides and stills. The series will appeal to both boys and girls but be cautious with your younger viewers as there are some graphic descriptions of historical events.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Little House Series (9 Books)

Titles: Little House in the Big Woods; Little House on the Prairie; Farmer Boy; On the Banks of Plum Creek; By the Shores of Silver Lake; The Long Winter; Little Town on the Prairie; These Happy Golden Years; The First Four Years

Author: Laura Ingalls Wilder

Rating: *** (3 stars out of 3 possible) "A"
Highly Recommended

Audiences: K-6th Grade

A review of these classics seems almost moot, but as I begin the series a second time with my 6 year old I realize again the value of this uniquely American collection.

We are all aware in general of these pioneer stories detailing the struggles and joys of our austere American history. Many families are tempted to doubt their application to a fast-paced, entertainment-oriented generation. Can these simpler, slower-paced, coming-of-age tales really captivate our modern kids?

I have an energetic 6 year old daughter who's internal computer is automatically programmed to "play" and "entertain." She is not like her 9 year old sister who can read 3 hours a day. If any kid would find Laura and Mary's life in the Big Woods dull, it would be my 6 year old. Surprisingly, she cannot get enough of Laura and now has me reading Farmer Boy while I simultaneously read The Long Winter with her big sister. How does this work?

It is simply the definition of "classic" put into action. A classic never goes out of style and has components that remain applicable to any given age. You will not find yourself lecturing or preaching to your kids as you read Little House books; the stories make their application all on their own. Kids love to hear how other kids live and easily pick up on the work ethic, contentment and family dedication inherent in these books.

Curiously, every time we work through a Little House book, my kids automatically become more content and less demanding! Of their own volition, they will say things like "I don't really need anything for Christmas" or "I'm going to skip candy for two weeks" or "Please read another chapter!" Now, they don't have the will power to follow through on such rash promises, but they do at least consider it!

But that is not really why I treasure these books with my kids. More than that, it is the American spirit that shows through: starting out with nothing; building your family and livelihood from the ground up; knowing when to cut your losses; starting over with a good attitude; trusting a good God; redeeming the time; persevering through adversity; using lessons from the past as strength for the present, hope for the future. These are themes our kids need. These are themes I need.

When I read these books I find myself complaining less about the weather, colds, laundry, other mundane chores. I look for opportunities to share work with my kids and encourage their efforts. We revel in simple pleasures like popcorn and tea shared under blankets. Sometimes we even play "mad dog" or "kittens in the corner."

One way to enjoy these books is to read one or two a year, starting in Kindergarten or first grade. If you don't think boys will be interested in this series try Farmer Boy and The Long Winter. These books feature strong male characters overcoming challenges. Of course, Pa is an outstanding role model in any of the books.

These are books from a simpler time, but they are not simplistic literature. Wilder is a master at storytelling from a young person's point of view and writes fine description. She possessed a remarkable memory for events as well as emotions. The books' style matures as the characters age. Foreshadowing is subtly employed and events are revisited in future books. Another mark of quality: five of the nine books received Newbery runner-up honors. Garth Williams masterfully illustrated many events in the series that might otherwise remain archaic: threshing machines, maple sugaring, hay racks, even covered wagons.

If you are hoping to develop relationship with your kids, reading is a great starting point for many conversations and experiences. As with most habits, beginning early is half the battle. Don't wait for passive entertainment to capture all their attention, and don't overlook this series as you read with your kids!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Underland Chronicles (5 Book Series)

Titles: Gregor the Overlander; Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane; Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods; Gregor and the Marks of Secret; Gregor and the Code of Claw

Author: Suzanne Collins

Rating: ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience: Middle-schoolers, ages 11 and up

After enjoying Collins' Hunger Games young adult trilogy, reading this middle-schoolers' series was the next natural step.

Gregor the Overlander was Collins' first published book, and a solid accomplishment. Collins creates a unique setting and a compelling plot line, then mixes in some humor and relational characters to explore themes of family, sacrifice, loyalty, just war and civil rights. Quite a statement!

Gregor is an 11-year old boy in New York City babysitting his little sister one summer. They unexpectedly tumble down into The Underland, a vast land of several kingdoms below the earth. Here Gregor meets unique humans who align themselves with giant bats ("flyers") in order to keep giant rats ("gnawers") at bay. Lower caste inhabitants include giant bugs ("crawlers") and mice ("nibblers") while giant spiders ("spinners") tend to manage their own political affairs. Proper allegiances must be formed among all these species in order to prevent the loss of Underland's fragile peace. Gregor and his baby sister are the lynchpins to hold unstable alliances together. Along the way they hope to solve their own family mystery.

If this sounds dark or bizarre, don't worry. Baby sister provides plenty of light-hearted moments of humor and innocent play. Language is clean and while Gregor speaks like a casual 11-year old boy, the ancient human race uses a more formal dialect with some vocabulary challenges for the reader. There are a few fights or battles, but peace and diplomacy are highly valued commodities. Wisdom and maturity win out over youthful impulse.

Naturally, as you progress through the series, Collins ups the ante. In book four, Gregor and the Marks of Secret, she explores a Holocaust theme when poisonous volcanic gas kills nibblers deceived and trapped by an unstable and evil gnawer. Thus, these books are appropriate for middle-schoolers who are ready for discussions about serious topics such as the Holocaust, just war philosophy, civil rights.

My other caveat concerns the tendency in "animal" books for animal characters to embody souls or spirits of their own. It's valuable to talk with children about what's real in such books (ideas of equality, kindness, justice) vs. what's fiction (giant cockroaches saving our lives). One can almost sense a Buddhist philosophy in such writings. For instance, Gregor appreciates the giant cockroaches so much he promises himself never to kill another roach in the Overland (New York City)! I think a simple reality check with your child is reasonable compromise.

It's encouraging to find a contemporary author dealing with intelligent themes and historical references. Suzanne Collins has given older kids a smart read with this series.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Our Rating System

We use a simple 3-star rating system:

*** = "A" Highly Recommended
** = "B" Recommended
* = "C" Recommended with Reservations
O stars= "D/F" Not Recommended

Just like Mrs. Dunbar's high school English class, there will be many "Cs", several "Bs" and very few "A's."

Now, what to do with books/movies that fall under "Not Recommended?"

Families can certainly read those selections and use their own judgment. One option is to read with your kids, and another is to wait til your child is older. I would expect parents to come to different conclusions based on their background and interpretation.

Some will find our grading system too strict, and others will find it too loose. I look hard to find redeeming qualities in materials because I don't believe in being afraid of culture. Also, I have seen God use unexpected means and materials to touch people on different levels. At the same time I have almost no tolerance for weak story lines, poor writing, lazy plot devices.

I am frankly more concerned about the effects on our young people from saccharine Christian story-telling than from a well-told, albeit "secular," story. After all, our children must navigate within a secular world. Some may be disappointed when I give high marks to a book series with minimal Christian overtones, but (apologies to Augustine): All excellence is God's excellence.

Our Goal

Our main goal with this blog is to point families toward quality media. Some of our guiding Bible verses include:

Romans 12:1&2, paraphrased: Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is God's good, acceptable, and perfect will.

I Corinthians 10:23 paraphrased: All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but not everything will build me up.

I Corinthians 10:31 paraphrased: Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

Matthew 10:16 paraphrased: Jesus sends us out as sheep in the midst of wolves. He tells us "be wise as serpents and harmless as doves."

First of all, these verses encourage me to carefully critique the world's priorities and advertisements. I'd like to remind families that they don't have to cave in to the world's peer pressure. Our kids don't have to see every popular movie and read every book on the best seller lists. One of our goals with this blog is to help you make decisions about what is worth your family's time, media-wise.

Second of all, the Bible helps me handle the tension of being in the world, but not of the world (John 16 and 17). We don't have to fear anything the world presents, but we are commanded to evaluate it, wise as serpents and innocent as doves. We hope this blog helps you and your kids engage the culture, not simply avoid it.

We understand families must differ in their implementation of our recommendations. The Bible reminds us that different people will have different convictions, and we are not to stand in judgment against this. (I Corinthians 10:23-33).

Ultimately, we hope we save you some time and point you to some fun and rewarding books and movies for you and your kids.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Hunger Games

Titles: The Hunger Games; Catching Fire; Mockingjay

Author: Suzanne Collins

Rating: ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience: Ages 16 and up

I'm naturally skeptical about glowing reviews, best-seller lists, and celebrity endorsements. When I hear a book is addictive and a reader can't put it down, or it was a cliff-hanger and a reader couldn't wait for the sequel I tend to think the reader is weak-willed, more than thinking the author is uber-amazing. So I approach books like The Hunger Games with more neutral, but not necessarily lower, expectations.

I'm pleased to say this is one series that delivers as promised. The Hunger Games is the sort of book where you don't really care what the kids do all day--just as long as they let you read!

Reminiscent of both The Lottery (short story by Shirley Jackson) and Fahrenheit 451, The Hunger Games takes us through a young woman's agonizing choices in a post-apocalyptic America. Katniss Everdeen sacrificially takes her sister's place in the country's annual Hunger Games, an over-the-top reality show watched by an entire nation. In this reality game, real lives are lost as there can be only one surviver.

The plot sounds violent and futuristic, but Collins handles the storyline with tact and the reader with care. Graphic details are rarely provided, particularly in the first 2 books. The story is advanced more by relationship and psychology than by violence or gore.

The series is full of covert and overt references to Roman Coliseum days, as well as our own current voyeuristic age. Readers are left to grapple with several themes: loyalty, the limits of just war, the role of government, superficial appearances, even their relationships with food, entertainment, and other excesses.

The concluding title, Mockingjay, becomes more graphic as the reader encounters a world where nothing is as it appears, and almost nothing makes sense. Except for love (or, a Christian would say, God) suicide would be a reasonable, logical choice. Collins is a master at creating impossible circumstances for her protagonists, and then writing them a way out of it. The reader never has to fear a completely bleak conclusion.

Collins has remade a fascinating America. Eventually some of the science fiction inventions feel a little unbelievable, but the reader is willing to suspend disbelief because Collins has also weaved relationship into the story. These are characters we relate to and believe in and we care to see what happens to them, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Scholastic markets these books for as young as middle-school, but young adults are a more accurate audience. If your teens are reading 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, The Hunger Games is also a reasonable choice. Younger kids can enjoy Collins' Gregor the Overlander series. Read that review here.