Monday, December 8, 2014

Big Hero 6

Production Team:  Disney; Directed by Don Hall, Chris Williams
                              Screenplay:  Jordan Roberts, Daniel Gerson, Robert Baird

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

Audience:  Second grade and up  (PG)

If you're like me, this movie will take you by surprise.  Your kids will come home from school begging to see Big Hero 6 and Baymax because all their friends said how great it was.  You will not know what they are talking about.  You will be suspicious, first of all, because everyone likes it; second of all, because it's Disney; thirdly, because it is about foreign concepts like robots, high-tech science nerds and unbelievable super heroes.  Finally, who or what is Baymax, and what does "Big Hero 6" even mean?  What kind of title is that?  Just stay tuned....

For the most part, this movie is a home run hit.  The concepts are fresh and new; the characters are unique and appealing; the plot is creative and energetic; the futuristic setting, San Fransokyo, is clever and attractive; the robot sidekick, Baymax, is entertaining and poignant at the same time.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Coming-Of-Age Classics (Girls, Part Two)

Titles:  Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt
            The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig

Ratings:  0 stars out of 3 possible, "D/F"
               Not Recommended

Audience:  Teenage Girls ages 13 and up

Here are two more "classic coming-of-age-books" that also have limited utility.  (Incidently, Up a Road Slowly received the Newbery Medal and The Endless Steppe was nominated for a National Book Award.)

My own mother purchased these books for me when I was about 13 years old.  Mom rarely purchased any surprises for us kids, and being an eager reader, I dove right in.  I discovered two of the most boring, depressing books I had ever encountered!  (Just read the titles again!)  If you have an introverted, moody, melancholy teen or pre-teen, you will not encourage communication or cheerfulness with books of this ilk.

On the bookshelf for my own two girls right now (ages 13 and 10), you will find books like The Westing Game, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. FrankweilerKatie John and HeathcliffeHarriet the SpyThe Cat Ate My GymsuitWinter WheatWuthering HeightsJane Eyre, even A Farewell to Arms.  But you will not find Up a Road Slowly or The Endless Steppe.  I do not remember what happened to them.

If you have a daughter particularly drawn to books about girls and their relationships, also consider L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon series.

Coming-of-Age Classics (Girls, Part One)

Titles:  Jacob Have I Loved (Katherine Paterson)
            Summer of My German Soldier (Bette Greene)

Ratings:  0 stars out of 3 possible, "D/F"
               Not Recommended

Audience:  Teenage Girls ages 15 and up

Both books have a number of things in common:  award winners (Newbery for Paterson, National Book Award finalist for Greene); state-side WWII setting; female protagonists dealing with adolescent emotions and dysfunctional families.  For me, both also fall into the category of Classics You Don't Have to Read.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ranger's Apprentice

Titles:  Ruins of Gorlan; Burning Bridge; Icebound Land; Battle for Skandia; Sorcerer of the North; Siege of Macindaw; Erak's Ransom; Kings of Clonmel; Halt's Peril; Emperor of Nihon-Ja; Lost Stories; Royal Ranger

Author:  John Flanagan

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

Audience:  Middleschoolers

If you've tired of darker fantasy steeped in sorcery and violence, John Flanagan's series will seem like a breath of fresh air.  I recommend it as "safe" fantasy, the downside being fairly simplistic plots and some tedious writing.

The first book, Ruins of Gorlan, basically offers the medieval time period of knights, craftsmen, apprentices, kings and lords with minimal focus on magic.  Think of LOTR-lite: an evil character  named Morgarath accompanied by wargals and Kalkara in the Kingdom of Araluen and the Mountains of Rain and Night.  If those don't seem familiar enough, take a mysterious, sullen protagonist and name him "Ranger."  (Viggo Mortensen, anyone?)

Originality aside, young fantasy adventure fans will love the story of 4 orphans receiving their apprenticeships on "choosing day":  Alyss to become a diplomat; Jenny, a chef; Horace, a knight; and Will to study under the curt tutelage of the legendary Ranger Halt.

Chocolate, Chocolate and More Chocolate

Titles Reviewed:

Chocolate Fever by Robert Kimmel Smith
     *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")  Recommended with Reservations
     1st-3rd Grades

The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling
     *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")  Recommended with Reservations
     1st-3rd Grades

The Chocolate War and Beyond the Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
     *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")  Recommended with Reservations
     Junior and Senior Boys

The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull
     *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")  Recommended with Reservations
     4th Grade and up

As you can see, i spent a lot of my summer sampling chocolate!  It was important to me to straighten these titles out, because one doesn't want to confuse harmless first grade morality tales (Chocolate Fever and Chocolate Touch) with warnings of bullies and psychological abuse along the lines of Lord of the Flies (Chocolate War and Beyond the Chocolate War).

Chocolate Fever (1972) and The Chocolate Touch (1952) both deal with boys who love chocolate and candy and the consequences of their greedy habits.  The plots are humorous and the lessons clear:

"Although life is grand, and pleasure is everywhere, we can't have everything we want every time we want it!"

"You've been eating so much sweet stuff that there isn't room for eggs and meat and milk and bread and spinach and apple and fish and bananas and all the other things you're supposed to have to make you grow big and strong."

"Don't you think there's such a thing as enough?"

These books are doubly useful if you have a picky eater or a sugar hound in your family!  My own children have benefitted from this type of outsourced nagging.  There's absolutely nothing wrong and everything right with families using literature to instruct!

Far different messages for a far different audience come from Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (1974) and it's sequel Beyond the Chocolate War (1984).

Friday, September 19, 2014

Counting by 7s

Author:  Holly Goldberg Sloan

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

Audience:  Middle School Girls

Counting by 7s is a paradoxical book.  Sometimes written in first person, sometimes third, it feels both quirky and edgy while it explores both despair and hopefulness.

I suppose that's how adolescence often feels, and this book would especially appeal to youngsters who don't fit into typical teen scenes and/or have been identified (for better or for worse) as "gifted."

Willow Chance is one such girl.  She thinks in patterns of sevens, researches science and medicine, studies words and pi, analyzes behaviors and gardens.  Wearing her gardening clothes to middle school, and toting wheeled luggage instead of a backpack, Willow doesn't stand much chance of peer acceptance.  But she really doesn't mind, if she can just find one person that interests her.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm

Author:  Nancy Farmer

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

Audience:  Middleschoolers

Assigned for my 7th grader's Language Arts class, this 1995 Newbery Honor book is set in Zimbabwe in 2194.  Essentially science fiction, it offers a unique view of the future along with a backward glance to Zimbabwe's tribal culture.

Military General Amadeus Matsika and his wife have 3 children:  Tendai, a 13 year old boy; Rita, his capable 11 year old sister; and little brother Kuda, 4 years old.  When the three children are kidnapped by the evil Mask gang they must employ all their wits to escape several fantastic scenarios.  Meanwhile, Father and Mother hire 3 unusual detectives (the title characters) to search for the children.

With the book's background in Zimbabwean culture, the reader must become familiar with a number of animistic terms:

Mwari-the supreme god of Zimbabwe, valuing the traits of loyalty, bravery and courteousness.
Shona-the dominant tribe, to which the Matsika family belongs
mhondoro-the spirit of Mwari, and the spirit of the Zimbabwe land
vlei people-a ghost-like people that wander the outskirts of Harare, the capital city
Gondwanna-terrorist gang from northern Africa
shave-a wandering spirit who enters a person to teach a special skill
ndoro-talisman with a connection to the spirit world

Considering all this talk of the spirit world and spirit possession, one might ask if the book is even appropriate for young Christians.  That's why my review basically warns families to proceed with caution.  With a view towards animist tribes still in existence today, I believe the story provides an enlightening contrast to Christianity.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The True Meaning of Smekday

Author:  Adam Rex

Rating:  ***  (3 stars out of 3 possible, "A")
              Paige (age 12) Highly Recommends this book!

              0 stars out of 3 possible, "D+"
              Her mom (age 45) does not recommend this book!

Audience:  5th grade and up

Sometimes the best part of reading together as a family is coming to completely opposite conclusions about a book!

For instance, Paige has read this book at least five times!  She views it as "hilarious, the best book ever!"  She truly loves it.

I slogged through 425 pages,  hating almost every minute of it!  But then again, I can't really stand Star Trek or Mork & Mindy, either.

It really depends on your personal tastes when it comes to a book like Smekday.  Are you an old, stuck-in-the-mud traditionalist who's lost her sense of humor?  Or a young, creative genius who loves fantasy worlds?

Smekday takes place in a future America, where 12 year-old Gratuity Tucci (nicknamed "Tip") encounters the aliens who have invaded Earth.  Following a quest format (like Huckleberry Finn, or, more likely, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe), she befriends an alien Boov who's chosen to go by the American pseudonym, "J. Lo."

Disney Fairies/Tales from Pixie Hollow

Titles:  16 (4 collections of 4 books each)

Authors:  various, published by Disney

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

Audience:  1st-3rd grades

It sometimes seems the only reading choices offered our young girls range from magical fantasy to supernatural occult!  The Disney Fairies series is obviously less controversial than the Poison Apple books, but it presented a mixed-bag, at best, and really offered little in terms of character, creativity or challenge.

For this review, I read two selections.

In The Trouble with Tink (by Kiki Thorpe) we learn the bizarre backstory of the series:

"Not far from the Home Tree, nestled in the branches of a hawthorn, is Mother Dove, the most magical creature of all.  She sits on her egg, watching over the fairies, who in turn watch over her.  For as long as Mother Dove's egg stays well and whole, no one in NeverLand will ever grow old.  Once, Mother Dove's egg was broken.  But we are not telling the story of the egg here.  Now it is time for Tinker Bell's tale...."

Mother Dove??  I picture James Barrie rolling over in his grave.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Poison Apple Books

10 Titles:  The Dead End; Curiosity Killed the Cat; The Ghost of Christmas Past; Green-Eyed Monster; This Totally Bites...; Miss Fortune; Now You See Me; Midnight Howl; Her Evil Twin; The Ghoul Next Door

Authors:  Various, published by Scholastic

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

Audience:  Middle School

Well, there's no chance of misinterpreting the tone and plot of this tween series.  It's clearly capitalizing on our culture's current obsession with monster myths and horror stories.  (My question is:  What's it doing in my 3rd grader's classroom?!)

Her Evil Twin begins with a common 7th grade theme:  Anna and Dory have been friends, like, for forever.  But now that they're in middle school, Anna wonders if Dory is too boring and immature for her.  Could Anna fit in with the cooler girls in class:  Jessamyn, Kima and Lauren?

Dory's an honest, sensible friend and she's pretty sure JK & L (The Jackals) aren't to be trusted.  They really plan to tease and bully Anna.

JK & L trick Anna into calling up a mirror spirit in the darkened school bathroom.  Everyone gets scared and deserts Anna, except for Dory.

Following this disturbing incident, Anna meets a mysterious stranger named Emma.  Emma seems like a good friend at first, but increasingly odd things happen when Emma is around.  Also troubling, Emma seems to get more and more controlling, angry and...creepy.  Anna's getting blamed for things she didn't do; Emma's stunts are risky and dangerous; Anna's friendship with Dory is completely fractured; someone's going to get hurt!

Ivy and Bean

Titles:  10 in the Series

Author:  Annie Barrows

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

Audience:  2nd-4th Graders

I've been putting this review off for awhile, as I find it somewhat agonizing to have to "not recommend" this series.  I've been curious about this series for 2-3 years as it was clearly popular at the elementary library where I volunteered.

The harmless dust jacket picture of two 7-year-old playmates belies the fact that one of the girls, Ivy, longs to become a witch and is actively, although playfully, "training" for it.  (A closer inspection of the cover will reveal silhouettes with Ivy holding a wand and Bean holding a crystal ball.)

This is a shame, as these books have come the closest in terms of clever humor, character development and engaging childhood plot lines of anything I've read since Beverly Cleary.  For this review I read 5 selections:  #1 (Ivy and Bean), #2 (The Ghost that Had to Go), #4 (Take Care of the Babysitter), #5 (Bound to Be Bad) and #8 (No News Is Good News).

Sunday, March 30, 2014

History Year By Year

Title:  History Year By Year:  The History of the World, From the Stone Age to the Digital Age

Publishers:  Dorling-Kindersley and Smithsonian Enterprises

Rating:  **  (2 out of 3 stars)

Audience:  Elementary and Middle School Ages

If you're a history buff, or if your middle schooler needs to bone up for the National History Bee (, this is a must-have volume.

Both DK and Smithsonian know how to put out a quality product, and those of us familiar with The Eyewitness series know what to expect:  full-color spreads, bulleted details, informative inserts.  This publication delivers on all counts and doesn't disappoint.

I recently viewed a few different history volumes to supplement our home library and found this to be the most accessible and best format.  Only two initial pages are spent on the least significant (and least evidenced) topic of history:  the evolution of man (weakly evidenced by the inclusion of only three skull visuals, of which just one appears to be human).  With a secular publisher, this is about the best you can do.  In fact, it's rather extraordinary, compared to the other books I skimmed.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


Directors:  Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee

Writers:  Jennifer Lee

Disney, PG

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

Audience:  7-12 year old girls

First of all, let me say I am not a huge Disney princess fan.  Also, I am not a huge fan of animated musicals.  In fact, I have several complaints about this movie.  But they tend to be "old-age" complaints.  So, overall, I have to say the animation, characters and message make this movie a pretty good choice.  It doesn't "fire on all cylinders," but it does fire on most.

For instance, are we in Denmark?  Finland?  Germany?  Norway?  Sweden?  Is it the 1700s?  1800s?  2014?  2214?  Do they have to sing so darn many songs?  It must have the longest soundtrack on record.  Also, how much magic can one take before the plot becomes totally irrelevant?  Finally, be forewarned:  it's a chilly movie.  Can we get another blanket in here?

But those are really adult complaints.  My girls (who essentially reflect the two sisters/main characters:  Elsa and Anna) ate it all up readily:  from annoyingly goofy live snowman Olaf to annoyingly modern abominable snow monster.

The Lego Movie

Directors:  Phil Lord, Christopher Miller

Writers:  Dan & Kevin Hageman

PG, Warner Brothers

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

Audience:  8 year old boys and their fathers

I've never thought of myself as a sexist stereotypist.  However, this movie basically only appeals to boys who love Legos and their dads who wish they still had time to play with Legos.

Seriously, if you're a mom, stay home.  Or take your girls to Frozen.  (Never thought I'd say that.)

This movie had an obnoxious level of noise, violence and explosions.  The loosely strung plot was so full of non sequiturs and random cameos that it felt like it was constructed by 8 year olds.  Also, you will leave the theater with the song "Everything Is Awesome" pounding in your head.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Andrew Clements

Titles:  The Report Card; Frindle; Extra Credit; No Talking; Lunch Money;
           Troublemaker; The Janitor's Boy; Lost and Found; Landry News;
           The Last Holiday Concert; About Average

Author:  Andrew Clements

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

It's not often I come across a series and writer who seem to fire on all cylinders:  smart, funny, important, creative, and unique are the adjectives I would use to describe Andrew Clements writing style and topics.  For this review I read Frindle, and the The Report Card.

Writers must write about what they know, and for Andrew Clements that includes teachers, schools and students.  He taught at elementary, junior and high school levels before writing full-time.  (For more information, see his website at

I read Frindle straight through in about 2 hours one Tuesday afternoon.  I wanted to immediately recommend it to my friends and their kids.  That's how good it was.  It mostly made me laugh and think, although I admit it made me a little teary-eyed as well.  If you never really cared for school, or even if you only had one really memorable teacher, you will find a lot to which you can relate in this book.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

George Brown Class Clown

Titles:  12 including Super Burp (#1) and Trouble Magnet (#2)

Author:  Nancy Krulik

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

Audience:  1st-2nd Graders

This series is an option for families who are looking for easier chapter books that are funny and engaging, without being too tasteless or thoughtless.  I realize the word "burp" appears in the first title, but George Brown's Super Burp problem presents mostly harmless fun.  Hilarious plots develop while the main character tries desperately to control his new power.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Dan Gutman

Series: My Weird School (21 books in original series plus 12 more)
          The Kid Who Ran for President/The Kid Who Became President
          Baseball Card Adventures (11 books)

Rating: 0 stars out of 3 possible, "D"
           Not Recommended...yet

Audience: Elementary ages (My Weird School) (The Kid Who Ran for President)
                Middle School (Baseball Card Adventures)

Well, I know. It seems a little mean to give a guy whose written #117 books a "D," especially when he's already popular with kids. My main objections to Dan's books are that they cross the line a little too far into crass humor and sometimes have not-so-subtle political and environmental axes to grind.

In the My Weird School series, Arlo/AJ is a pretty typical 2nd grade boy: disdainful of school and girls.  I read #14 Miss Holly Is too Jolly to see how Christmas would be treated.  The language was a little rough and crude:  "crybaby," "I hate her" (in response to the girl, Andrea, in his class), "You're a dumbhead," "So is your face."  And, of course, Christmas was grouped in with Kwanzaa and Hanukkah as the class prepares for the holidays.  In Arlo's letter to Santa he asks for the "new video game where you get to kill zombies with machine guns."  In the end, a selfish gift exchange takes place, and AJ is certainly not thankful for the hat Andrea made for him:  "I hate hats."

Nothing new there.  It's simply a reflection of our current culture and that's not the standard I'm looking for with my kids.  You may see it as harmless, but then again, it's not really inspiring our kids to anything better or different.