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.