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.