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."