Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mary Downing Hahn

Titles:  Closed for the Season; Wait till Helen Comes

Author:  Mary Downing Hahn

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

Audience:  Middle School

Hahn's writing (plot, character development) is top notch.  She does not write down to children, nor is she sentimental or sappy.  She understands their relationships, personalities, real fears and imagined worries.  She is a well-known and well-respected author for middle schoolers.  About half her books cover the challenges of growing up, while the other half or more deal with the supernatural.  Parents will want to know which half their kids are bringing home!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Jean Craighead George 1919-2012

Titles include over 100 youth and children's books:

           My Side of the Mountain/On the Far Side of the
           Mountain/Frightful's Mountain
           Julie of the Wolves/Julie/Julie's Wolfpack
           Ecological Mystery Series  (Case of the Missing
           Cutthroat/Who Really Killed Cock Robin/
           Missing Gator of Gumbo Limbo)
           There's an Owl in the Shower
           Charlie's Raven
           The Tarantula in My Purse and 172 Other Wild Pets

Audience:  3rd Grade and up for chapter books
                   Preschool and up for picture books

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

From time to time I need to locate a large number of books to keep my 6th grader busy and happy.  Generally this occurs during the summer and any school vacations/early releases.  This past spring seemed an ideal time to check out 12-15 Jean Craighead George books.  We had already read My Side of the Mountain together which I remembered as one of the few books from my childhood I could enjoy over and over.

My Side of the Mountain, sometimes called a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, fascinated me because it plausibly presented a situation where a young teenager could move to the wild and successfully fend for himself.  I was briefly obsessed with the idea of living in the woods:  fashioning my own fishhooks and leather breeches, grinding acorns for pancakes, taming wild animals to keep me company.  I lived in northern Minnesota at the time, so it didn't seem too much of a stretch for the imagination.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Soup Series

Titles:  Soup; Soup and Me; Soup for President; Soup's Drum; Soup on Wheels; Soup in the Saddle; Soup's Goat; Soup on Ice; Soup on Fire; Soup's Uncle; Soup's Hoop; Soup in Love; Soup Ahoy; Soup 1776.

Author:  Robert Newton Peck

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

Audience:  Third Grade and Up

This series was just what the doctor ordered for some fun and funny summer reading for our family.  If your child is having trouble getting excited about reading, try these short and engaging, as well as instructive books.

Written between the 1970s and 1990s, Robert Newton Peck takes us back to his rural Vermont upbringing during the 1940s for some mischievous, good-natured adventures.  He proves the straight man to his best friend Soup (don't call him Luther Wesley) who has plenty of wacky ideas.

The Inheritance Cycle

Titles:   Eragon; Eldest; Brisingr; Inheritance

Author:  Christopher Paolini

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

Audience:  High School

This series represents a fine freshman effort by a young author, although I would say each book is at least 100 pages too long.  The books rely heavily on magical machinations, which is to say plot is usually advanced by sorcerers, spell-casting and fortune-telling, along with a large dose of mind control and ESP, not to mention some violent battle scenes.  Thus it must be recommended with reservations:  for teenagers and families who don't mind magical influence in the epic battle between good and evil.

Monday, July 2, 2012

How to Train Your Dragon

Title:  How to Train Your Dragon (#1 in a series of 9)

Author:  Cressida Crowell

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

Audience:  8 years old and up

If you're finding it hard to engage your kids in reading you may find Cressida Cowell's How to Train Your Dragon a helpful prescription.  While I can't vouch for the entire series yet, we just completed reading the first book out loud with good results.

Being a book about barbarian Vikings, there will be the expected lack of manners and violent lifestyle to deal with.  The reason we can tolerate this in this particular book is that the main character, Hiccup, triumphs with brain over brawn.  By writing and illustrating a caricature of Viking lifestyle, Cowell and Hiccup automatically make opposing behaviors more attractive.  For example, by making dragons selfish and undependable, readers are more likely to cheer for Hiccup's thoughtful, responsible personality.

A Long Way from Chicago

Author:  Richard Peck

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

Audience:  4th Grade and up

Part of the summer our family is reading books with serious themes (see reviews for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963) and part of the summer we're spending on good, clean fun!

A Long Way from Chicago is set in rural Illinois during the Depression years.  Joey and Mary Alice take the train each summer from Chicago to spend a week with their unconventional Grandmother Dowdel.  Grandma can fix a mean breakfast and a mean gooseberry pie just as easily as she can wield a shotgun, trespass, brew beer at home or blackmail the local banker.  The townspeople are just as colorful and hilarious.  Visits generally find Joe and his sister slack-jawed at what will happen next in the usually sleepy hamlet.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Title:  Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  (Mildred Taylor)
Rating:  ***  (3 out of 3 stars possible, "A")
             Highly Recommended      

Title:  The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963  (Christopher Paul Curtis)

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

Audience:  5th Grade and Up

I volunteered in my 5th grader's public school library this past school year and was introduced to these 2 civil rights/race relations gems.  The librarian mentioned one teacher in particular who insisted on reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry to his class every year.  I observed that the 4-5 class-time books my own daughter's reading/social studies teacher offered this past year seemed to focus mainly on adventure reading meant to hook the boys with limited attention spans.  After hearing just a chapter of each of these books read aloud I knew I needed to offer my daughter something more convicting and important than just another Rick Riordan escapist escapade.

I keep a lot of book lists around and many of these race relations/historical fiction titles were also listed in another anthology:  The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease.  As a Christian, not to mention a suburban white Christian, I need to better understand the persecution and lack of justice our country historically offered to minority races.  I'm responsible to instill a better understanding in my children.  Recently, my (outspoken) 7 year old met a young, black friend and announced "Twenty years ago your people were slaves to my people!"  Obviously, I have some work to do.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the shining star of it's genre.  Told from the point of view of 9 year old African-American Cassie Logan, this Newbery Medal winner contains the right mixture of humor and drama.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dragons in Our Midst

Titles:  Raising Dragons; The Candlestone; Circles of Seven; Tears of a Dragon

Author:  Bryan Davis

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

Audience:  Middle-schoolers

If I could give two grades, this series by Bryan Davis would get a "C" for kids who read it (many of them seem to love it) and a "D/F" for parents who try to read it.  I slogged through the first 2 books, and while I found nothing spiritually troubling in it, I found nothing endearing or entertaining, either.

Keeping in mind that this was his first published fantasy effort, and he works with a second tier publishing house (AMG Publishers/Living Ink Books), I felt major drawbacks included clunky prose, convoluted plots, weak science, and finally, artificial Christianity.  As you can see, it barely passed.

The basic gist of the series is that from King Arthur days, a few dragons have gone undetected by morphing into long-lived human beings.  After inter-marrying with true humans, a small race of part-dragon/part-human teenagers exist in our present age.  Some descendants of knights also exist who wish to slay the dragons and half-breeds, not willing to believe that these current dragon children (Billy Bannister and Bonnie Silver) are "good."

One of the greatest challenges an author faces is to "show" rather than "tell" the reader their story.  Authors that tell stories predictably with unnecessary details insult the intelligence of the reader.  This might be fine for immature audiences, but it won't hold weight with critical thinkers.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Picture Book Biography Series

Titles:  30 + including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Anne Frank, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Author:  David A. Adler

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

Audience:  Ages 7-10

David Adler has done a great favor to children and families in producing these thorough and well-written short biographies.  The number of subjects he covers combined with the chosen illustrators offers a comprehensive and engaging history curriculum for young people.

Adler deftly balances concise facts with interesting details to hold even a young reader's attention.  He provides a useful timeline at the end of each book.  Also, he doesn't pull any punches, so be aware that a biography about Anne Frank, for example, will be realistic and almost graphic.

I find biographies to be especially convicting examples of character building.  I encourage families to expose kids as early as possible to these real stories of children growing up in another time, often overcoming difficult circumstances yet always displaying unique giftedness, courage and perseverance.

David Adler also has biographies in the 200+ page range for 5th grade and up, and is the author of the Cam Jansen mysteries, a girl's counterpart to Encylopedia Brown.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

We Can't All Be Rattlesnakes

Author:  Patrick Jennings

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

Audience:  5th Grade and Up

"I had shed a skin the day of my capture."

With this great "hook" sentence, Jennings begins an animal story written from the viewpoint of Crusher, the gopher snake.  Most of the fun in this 120 page book comes from looking at human life through the eyes of a reptile:

"The kid's den was a big white box inside a bigger white box.  My fellow prisoners and I were kept individually in small glass boxes with wire mesh roofs and dirt floors.  The prisoners in the other boxes were a tarantula, a desert tortoise, and an alligator lizard."


"Before going to sleep that night on a springy, flat box, the kid shed some skin.  It was then I learned he was a male--what they call a boy.  He slid on some fresh skins that he took from a box that he pulled out of a larger box.  Humans are bizarre."

The "kid" is named Gunnar and he is the particularly obnoxious preteen antagonist Jennings uses to illustrate the ignorance of some human beings.  Gunnar doesn't care intelligently for the wild pets he captures, spends a wasteful amount of time playing video games, and shows mild disrespect for parents.

"Despite his mother's instructions, Gunnar spent the morning in front of the 'teevee,' jabbing and cursing.  I could not understand why he preferred this to going outside."

Having a foil like Gunnar is not a drawback of the book.  It is useful for our kids to see these behaviors exposed by someone other than an authority figure, say, a snake for instance.  Kids will quickly see through Gunnar and aspire to something better.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Wolves of Willoughby Chase

Titles: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Black Hearts in Battersea; Nightbirds on Nantucket; The Stolen Lake; Limbo Lodge (aka Dangerous Games); The Cuckoo Tree; Dido and Pa; Is (aka Is Underground); Cold Shoulder Road; Midwinter Nightingale; The Witch of Clatteringshaws; The Whispering Mountain (prequel)

Author: Joan Aiken (1924-2004)

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

Audience: 5th grade and up

(Guest Blogger, Paige King)

Before there was Lemony Snicket, there was Joan Aiken. Her books are filled with evil governesses, grim boarding schools and astonishing wild animals (pink whales?!). You have no idea what you're missing out on when you refuse to read theses books.

The books occur in the fictional manors of England: Willoughby Chase, Teagleaze Manor, Battersea Castle. However, in one book they visit the island of Nantucket. In book 1, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Bonnie and her cousin Sylvia are left for a couple months with their fourth cousin once removed. Unfortunately, the cousin dismisses the servants, sells the furniture and forges a will. Bonnie and Sylvia are sent to a horrid boarding school. The other books in the series are focused mainly on plots to kill King James III. (Yipe!) They are intense and suspenseful and that is what I like about them.

I also like the giant manors and estates. Willoughby Chase even has secret passages and a priest's hole. I also like the ending. Sir Willoughby (Bonnie's father) shows up, sees what the evil cousin has done to his home and promptly has the cousin arrested. I wish I could have seen the look on her face!

The morals in Wolves of Willoughby Chase are: do not give up and stand up for what's right. Bonnie and Sylvia must keep going and trying to stop their cousin. When Bonnie and Sylvia are trapped in the boarding school, they have to keep going even though they are being starved and overworked.

This series is great: jam-packed with adventure, suspense and an element of weirdness. My only reservations are that once or twice you might hear "What the d-e-v-i-l!" or something like that. I highly recommend these books.

Editor's note:

Thanks, Paige! I'll add a few remarks about Joan Aiken herself. She was quite a prolific writer and worked in a number of genres. I always thought there were 4-5 books in the Wolves series; there are in fact 12 and I have listed them consecutively, although they can be read in almost any order.

In addition to suspense and youth novels you'll find historical fiction, adventure, Jane Austen updates and children's bedtime stories. Eventually she made her way into supernatural, even occult themes. Don't let that scare you off; I mention it to inform families that recommending one or more series of an author does not imply endorsement of everything else an author wrote.

Aiken was talented and versatile, producing up to the weeks before her death at age 79. Learn more about the choices she offers your family by exploring the website maintained by her daughter:

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bad Kitty is Good Fun

Titles: Bad Kitty; Poor Puppy; A Bad Kitty Christmas; Happy Birthday, Bad Kitty; Bad Kitty for President; Bad Kitty Gets a Bath; Bad Kitty vs. Uncle Murray; Bad Kitty Meets the Baby

Author: Nick Bruel

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

Audience: K-3rd grades

Nick Bruel began his Bad Kitty franchise as creative, albeit lengthy picture/alphabet books. (Not all preschoolers can sit through four versions of the alphabet.) The best thing that happened to this series was giving that kitty a bath. That's when hilarious illustrations (one fang, really?) combined with cat personality to tickle our feline fancy.

Cats are funny. They're funny when they think too highly of themselves and they're funny when slobbering dogs cluelessly one-up them. We love them when they're curled up, harmlessly asleep, or when they're stampeding through the house at 11pm looking for domestic prey.

Nick Bruel's clever writing combined with entertaining drawings give the chapter books in the series a comic strip feel. This makes them accessible to struggling or talented readers and parents alike. Here's proof that graphics-based series can be smart and engaging, as well as downright fun!

Flat Stanley

Titles: Flat Stanley, Stanley and the Magic Lamp, Invisible Stanley, Stanley's Christmas Adventure, Stanley in Space, Stanley Flat Again plus 10 Flat Stanley's World Wide Adventures (Mount Rushmore, Egypt, Japan, etc.)

Author: Jeff Brown

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

Audience: ages 7 and up

Here is a beginning chapter book series appropriate for confident young readers. It receives one star not because of any reservations in particular, but because it is pretty basic storytelling.

Most 1st and 2nd grade readers will be thrilled with the adventures of Stanley Lambchop and his family as they sort out unusual dilemmas regular people can only dream of. Adults will find the series impossibly repetitive, but it is harmless fun for kids. Stanley and the Magic Lamp mentions spell-casting in passing in the prologue, but the main plot is a safe rehashing of magic lamp myths.

This series is certainly an acceptable option for kids who are ready for short chapter books although it offers no additional, unexpected artistic or literary advantages. A word that might be used to describe it is, in fact, "flat."

Monday, March 26, 2012

Hugo Cabret

Title: The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Author: Brian Selznick

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

Audience: 3rd grade through middle school

The best part of reading as a family may not be sharing your favorites with your kids. It may well be what your kids share with you as their favorites!

Do you realize what a privilege that is? If we want our kids to take our suggestions, we'd better be willing to take some of theirs. When we do, we can find some real gems. My 5th grade daughter had been asking me for 2 years to read this book and I'm glad I finally took a Sunday afternoon to do so.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret takes a story about an unusual artifact (a 19th century automaton - pronounced "a-TOM-a-ton") and explores it in an unusual, graphic writing style. The book won a well-deserved Caldecott Medal for its rich, etching-like illustrations. Though 500 pages in length, it is a short read as illustrations comprise about two-thirds of the book. It defies description because the remarkable topic is combined with a storyline told partly in prose and partly in picture.

Set in the 1930s, Hugo is an orphan living in a Paris train station. He secretly maintains all the clocks as a way to salvage his absent uncle's job. When he discovers a project his deceased father had been working on, Hugo hopes to unlock a special message from his parent. The tension builds as Hugo must avoid discovery by the Station Inspector, appease the resident toymaker, keep all the clocks wound, and complete his father's restoration project.

Now, about that project. The best part for me in this clever story was learning that "primitive," clockworks robots known as automatons did (and do) in fact exist!


Title: Freckles

Author: Gene Stratton Porter

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

Audience: 5th grade and up

Even as I write this, I toy with a "C minus" rating for dear Gene Stratton Porter. Porter was a turn of the century writer and naturalist who rightly receives credit for the impact she had on conservation in Indiana. I also have a lot of reverence for classic literature, and while I appreciate what Porter was trying to do with this book, I have to be honest with my readers (all two of them) that this novel sadly does not quite stand the test of time.

My 5th grade daughter and I read this aloud together and I feel it is an example of a classic that would truly benefit from an update and an abridgment. While the plot is slow in developing, the chief drawback is the dated language, which is probably fixable.

The main story concerns a disabled, orphaned young man ("Freckles") who finds a job and home protecting lumber interests in the massive Indiana swamp/forest known as the Limberlost. Freckles is mostly disabled by his own low self-esteem, however, and despite his meaningful job and caring friends, he still questions his worth in life.

Even "The Swamp Angel," object of Freckles affection and unattainable daughter of the wealthy "Man of Affairs," is unable to convince Freckles of his value and her unconditional love. Porter solves this conflict by providing miraculous proof of Freckles parentage. Not only does she provide this solution at the last possible moment, she also provides the miracle of a rags to riches story.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Great Depression

Title: Nothing to Fear

Author: Jackie French Koller

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

Audience: 7th grade and up

Set in New York City during the Great Depression, Nothing to Fear is narrated by 13 year old Danny Garvey, a first generation Irish Catholic. His family is hit hard by the Depression and his father leaves to find work while his mother takes in laundry. Their lot in life seems mild when compared to the Riley family next door: nine children and a father in jail.

Danny is sworn to honesty and hard work while his father is gone, but the reader will still encounter the harsh difficulties of the Depression: homelessness, unemployment, violence, hunger, prejudice. Koller offers believable characters and settings, including the curmudgeonly Jewish shopkeeper who has a heart of gold and Danny's fiesty, devout Catholic mother. Danny and his family display a strong sense of honor and integrity. Mature themes include adolescence (Danny and Mickey become attracted to Kitty and Maggie Riley), alcohol abuse, domestic violence (Mr. Riley is arrested after assaulting his family). From the standpoint of these characters and situations, President Franklin's New Deal is a much-needed and anticipated improvement, but faith in God and personal diligence is at least equally valued.

World War II Titles

Titles: Number the Stars/Lois Lowry (***=A)
Highly Recommended
Lily's Crossing/Patricia Reilly Giff ( *=C)
Recommended with Reservations
Across the Blue Pacific; The Greatest Skating Race;
The Little Ships/Louise Borden ( **=B) Recommended

Audience: Ages 10 and up for Number the Stars and Lily's Crossing
Ages 8 and up for Louise Borden

We just completed a short home study on World War II and I find one of the best ways to reinforce history is to supplement with historical fiction. These books are a good selection.

Number the Stars is a Newbery Award winner and well deserving of the honor. In a mere 140 pages the author deftly describes the efforts of the Dutch Resistance to rescue 7000 Jews and secure their safe passage across open water to Sweden. Told from the perspective of 10 year old Annemarie, the novel carefully shows the reader when and how it becomes necessary to stand against evil. In discussing the themes of courage and honesty, I'm reminded of the apostles Peter and John before the high priest in the book of Acts: "We ought to obey God rather than man." (Acts 4:19)

The writing in this book is some of the best I've read. No word is wasted or unnecessary; the plot is engaging and suspenseful. Lois Lowry ends the book with a clever historical twist and adds an afterward that clearly explains to the reader the facts and the fiction of her book. When your middle schooler is not yet ready for Anne Frank, give him or her Number the Stars.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Regarding the... Series

Titles: Regarding the Fountain, Regarding the Sink, Regarding the Trees, Regarding the Bathrooms, Regarding the BEEs

Authors: Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise

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

Audience: 3rd grade and up

The Klise sisters get an "A" for creative wit in these fun, clever stories communicated via memos, letters and news clippings. The reader gets lots of wordplay to help solve a little mystery in a very entertaining and intelligent fashion.

It is the subject matter that gets a "C" in some of the editions. For instance, in Regarding the Sink, Eastern philosophy is introduced and it may be helpful for some parents to be prepared to discuss this with their kids.

Iron Lady

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

Audience: ages 13 and up

Saw this movie a couple weeks ago and want to recommend it to anyone who is interested in history or cares about politics, or plans to vote this year!

First of all, it is an amazing acting job by Meryl Streep, who plays Margaret Thatcher, ages 40-80. In the opening scenes I had to convince myself that it was indeed Meryl Streep and not a third actress, as the aging makeup was so remarkable. This is a movie of head shots and I challenge you to find one that is not up to par. But that is only makeup. Streep is transformed into Margaret Thatcher with spot-on British accent and delivery as well as the way she physically carries herself. To see her walk and putter as the elderly Baroness Thatcher is a tribute to the dignity of the aging process and Streep's respect for her character.

Secondly, it was encouraging to watch the story of a principled politician develop, from Thatcher's early days as grocer's daughter and scholarship student to strong party leader. She patiently pays her dues in the man's world of politics to eventually conquer the "Good Old Boys" system. Margaret Thatcher earned her elections and never minced words, becoming the UK's strongest Prime Minister since Churchill. She remembered WW II and applied those lessons to the Cold War and acts of terror. Thatcher stood by her beliefs when it was not popular or politically advantageous to do so, quite different from our current pre-occupation with external appearances and political correctness.

A few quotes, or near-quotes, from the movie:

Redwall Series

22 Titles: Redwall, Mossflower, Mattimeo, Muriel of Redwall, Salamandastron, Martin the Warrior, Bellmaker, Outcast of Redwall, Pearls of Lutra, Long Patrol, Marlfox, Legend of Luke, Lord Brocktree, Taggerung, Triss, Loamhedge, Rakkety Tam, High Rhulain, Eulalia, Doomwyte, Sable Quean, Rogue Crew

Author: Brian Jacques

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

Audience: 4th grade and up

(Guest Reviewer, Paige King, 10 years old)

The Redwall Series is about forest creatures (mice, badgers, moles) that live in a land called Mossflower. In the mythical land of Mossflower, evil creatures (rats, weasels, foxes) try to take over a place called Redwall Abbey. (It's not Catholic.) The critters in Redwall (mice, badgers, otters) respond by fighting back, aided by a vision of Martin the Warrior (a mouse) and riddles that will lead them to his magical sword, crafted from a meteorite. Sometime the GUOSIM (Guerrilla Union of Shrews in Mossflower) or the Badger Lord of Salamandastron with his Long Patrol of hares help out. Some important events are: when Martin's sword is made (Mossflower), when Cluny the Scourge is defeated (Redwall), and when Cregga Roseyes is blinded (Salamandastron). Be careful! There are 20 books in the series. Don't wear yourself out!

I like these books because there are riddles to solve and codes to decipher. The characters are fun to read about. I also like it when the evil creatures get killed. They always say things like "Ha! You can't kill me!" and then they get killed. There are lots of surprises and excitement, so it's fun.

There are about 20 books in the series, so there are a lot of morals. The author, Brian Jacques, uses morals such as: never give up on yourself, friends are important, always try your hardest, and evil never pays. The characters always work together to solve problems and liars and cheaters never win the battles.

(Thank you, Paige. Sounds like you've found a winner.)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Titles: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (#1); Rodrick Rules (#2); Last Straw (#3); Dog Days (#4);Ugly Truth (#5); Cabin Fever (#6); Diary of a Wimpy Kid Do-It- Yourself Book

Author: Jeff Kinney

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

Audience: 5th Grade and up

I usually try to read 2 or 3 books of a series before I write a review. In this case, I read the original Diary of a Wimpy Kid/Greg Heffley's Journal and have decided to make a snap judgment against it, thus avoiding the torture of reading others in the series.

Sorry I could not find any redeeming value in the book. I could try to justify it given all the best-seller status, Hollywood movie, getting kids reading arguments, but the evidence just isn't there.

It is disappointing to read all the parents on Amazon gush about how much their kids love this series, as if that is the only criteria for reading. Well, children love candy. Children love mud. Children love television. Children love staying up late. That is why children have parents. Someone needs to help children discern the best from the good, and the good from the c**p. (Pardon my vernacular.)

Now, if it was a simple argument of, "don't kids deserve some fun in their reading" I would say, yes, absolutely. No one reads classics all the time. Everyone needs some recreational reading and everyone needs to change genres from time to time. The problem with this series is that it fails on so many levels. It offers a flat story line and no real vocabulary. Language and grammar fail because, of course, it's a 6th grader's diary. Those things could be forgiven, because, of course, it's a 6th grader's diary, if only it were funny! It is not funny or clever. (I think my daughter and I smirked twice.) The pictures are ugly (yes, I know, it's a 6th grader's diary).

But the worst part is serious: Greg is a lousy, dishonest friend. He mishandles his Safety Patrol responsibilities and lets his friend Rowley take the blame. Throughout the rest of the book he remains oblivious to his greed and selfishness, never tells the truth about the situation, and never apologizes. Greg makes a small sacrifice for Rowley at the end, but by that time it seemed too little, too late to actually be considered redeeming. He just wasn't the kind of role model my kids need. Naturally, a book of this type can also be predicted to stereotype parents. As you might guess, the dad is clueless and the mom alternates between nag and embarrassment.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Limit

Author: Kristen Landon

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

Audience: Middle School

This first novel by Kristen Landon begins with a somewhat choppy plot sequence and some choppy, colloquial dialogue. But the author has created a believable near-future America where debt, senseless consumerism and an over-reaching central government combine to create provocative philosophical and ethical questions for characters and readers.

The Search for WondLa

Author: Tony DiTerlizzi (author of the SpiderWick Chronicles)

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

Audience: Middle School

My main reservation with this book is that, as the first of 3 volumes, it impossible to conjecture where DiTerlizzi may be headed with his science fiction trilogy. Will it continue as a harmless fantasy, purposefully reminiscent of Oz books, or will it devolve into some sort of post-modern treatise on equal rights for plants, animals and robots with no real moral compass or Higher Power?

Eva Nine, the main and human character, has been raised in an underground protective sanctuary by her robot "Muthr" (Multi-Utility Task Help Robot: points for creativity). They have been preparing for the day when they can return to the planet's surface and/or find other sanctuaries occupied by other humans. Eva Nine and Muthr have never seen the sun, the moon, or the surface of their planet, not to mention another human being.

Eva is very much a typical 12-year old adolescent, chaffing at her robot mother's frequent reminders and syrupy comments and longing for some harmless freedom. She possesses an "Omnipod" (the most amazing, futuristic, encyclopedic Ipod ever) and one very primitive item: a scorched and glued together picture, or tile, or perhaps cover of an old hardback book, showing a human child, a robot and an unidentifiable adult along with the pieced-together word "WondLa."

Blood on the River

Title: Blood on the River/James Town 1607

Author: Elisa Carbone

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

Audience: 5th Grade and up

Ahh, I love to give out a well-earned "A"! This book is an excellent example of fiction (historical fiction) that is real literature: well-written with meaningful themes.

Necessities such as plot and character development are not overlooked. This book will appeal to boys and girls who love adventure, and they'll learn valuable history painlessly along the way.

I am so impressed with this book that I wrote a 9&1/2 page review in my journal! Let me do my best to condense it here:

Samuel Collier was a real orphan boy (age 11) chosen to sail to Jamestown as servant to Captain Johns Smith. Other boys accompanied other gentlemen on the trip and this novel explores their relationships and experiences. Elisa Carbone did her research well and the book offers an excellent portrayal of real-life struggles and realistic situations faced by the Jamestown colony between 1607-1610.

Tintin (comic strip & movie)

23 Titles: Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in America, Cigars of the Pharoah, Blue Lotus, Broken Ear, Black Island, King Ottokar's Sceptre, Crab with the Golden Claw, Shooting Star, Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham's Treasure, Seven Crystal Balls, Prisoners of the Sun, Land of Black Gold, Destination Moon, Explorers on the Moon, Calculus Affair, Red Sea Sharks, Tintin in Tibet, Castafiore Emerald, Flight 714 to Sydney, Tintin and the Picaros.

Author: Herge (pen name for Georges Remi)

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

Audience: Ages 9 and up

We interrupt our regularly scheduled reviews for a more timely weigh-in on Steven Spielberg's Tintin movie!

My daughter began reading the Tintin comic books (now promoted to "graphic novels") when she was probably 8. (Perhaps a little young.) I found Tintin in Cricket magazines when I was in 6th & 7th grades. I never really knew exactly what Tintin was because I was unable to complete the series sequentially; I never seemed to know how the mystery adventure began, nor how it concluded. But I was hooked by the art and the action.

Twenty-one of these serial adventures are currently available beginning with Tintin in America and published in collections of 3 episodes each. Herge was a prolific Belgian artist working in the middle 20th century. The Tintin episodes were written between 1929 and 1975 and sometimes reflect historical and political events of the day. Do not expect overt references to WWII or the Cold War, however, as Herge's political sympathies were changeable and suspect to both Allied and Axis powers. He frequently set his adventures in out-of-the-way places to avoid controversy.

All this to say, enjoy the art, story and character of Tintin without looking too deeply for conspiracy theories! The only reason this series does not quite receive "highly recommended" remarks from me is the level of cartoon violence and lack of any exterior moral influence (aka GOD) on Tintin.

Tintin is some sort of teen reporter who travels the world solving mysteries and apprehending bad guys. This he accomplishes through physical and mental skills, as well as the support of his trusty fox terrier, Snowy and adult friends like Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus. Some of the writing is repetitive, comic book style ("Great Snakes!" "Crumbs!" "Blistering Barnacles!") and the strip relies heavily on physical humor and prat falls, but in my opinion, it is some of the best recreational reading graphic novels have to offer.

Steven Spielberg's current movie combines parts of three adventures (The Crab with the Golden Claw, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure) and is a satisfying depiction of both the visual effect of Herge, and the fast-paced plot lines.

While some Tintin purists (those impossible-to-please, stick-in-the-mud types) lament that Spielberg and 3-D have denigrated an institution, this amateur felt the movie held quite true to the spirit of the series. The complaints that a chase scene was too long, or the movie too busy seem to be weak, sour grapes when compared with the comic book itself. (For instance, I felt the noses were drawn too large; then I revisited the books and found them accurate!) Furthermore, the resident expert (my 10-year old daughter) was satisfied that the art remained intact and all necessary inside jokes, hints and references were present. Let's hope the planned sequels maintain the quality.

Monday, January 2, 2012


Author: Roland Smith

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

Audience: Middle-school

Here is a contemporary youth novel offering middle-schoolers a unique plot and setting. The main character, Peak Marcello, is a 14 year old boy with mountain climbing skills in his bones and in his brain. Relocated with his mom, stepdad and twin stepsisters from Colorado to New York City, he illegally climbs skyscrapers to satisfy his thrill-seeker genes. Peak is a good kid: bright, doing well in his private school, loving to his stepsisters. But when arrested for trespassing on skyscrapers, Peak finds himself in serious juvenile delinquency territory.