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!