Saturday, October 31, 2009

Airhead -- Not Really for Kids

Unlike Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls: Moving Day, Airhead, by Meg Cabot, is just what she does best. It's light -- fluffy, even -- and eminently enjoyable. BUT, and this is a big BUT, it's just not appropriate for the 7th-9th grade target audience.

Airhead is vintage Cabot. Emerson Watts is a 17 year old on a scholarship in an elite New York high school. She dresses in jeans and t-shirts, is a self-described brainiac, and loves playing computer games with her best friend Christopher. She is also secretly in love with Christopher, but can't get up the nerve to do anything about it. Her parents are professors, her mother a professor of women's studies so Em and her sister have been raised to reject sexist roles. Little sister Frida, though, secretly aspires to be a cheerleader.

While chaperoning her sister at the grand opening of the new Stark Megastore in their SoHo neighborhood, Em is involved in an accident touched off by some protesters and is struck by a falling plasma TV. As the paramedics are working on her, teen supermodel Nikki Howard, also at the grand opening to promote the store, collapses with a fatal brain aneurysm.

Now, I know this next bit is going to seem like a huge stretch of the imagination, but Em's brain is removed from her irreparably damaged body and transplanted into the brain-dead supermodel's body. When I first realized that this was the premise, I thought "you have GOT to be kidding." But actually, the book is so fluffy, so not taking itself seriously, that I bought into it. Cabot does a nice job of explaining that this sort of thing has been going on for years, and that any number of celebrities and members of royal families who are presumed dead, are actually walking around in other people's bodies to avoid detection by law enforcement or ex-spouses or the paparazzi. It's the most campy conspiracy theory you've ever heard and it made me laugh.

Much of the book is concerned with Em coming to grips with her new identity. Part of the agreement her parents had to sign said that Em, who is now legally Nikki Howard, must honor all of Nikki's contracts and obligations, so Em is catapulted into a life of photo shoots and late night parties. If Em spills the beans about her true identity, her parents will immediately owe the hospital $2million for the transplant and they could all face jail time for breaching the confidentiality clause. Nikki is an emancipated minor, so Em now has freedoms, and money, she never before enjoyed. Em's life has been well-grounded up 'til now, but Nikki's has been rather less supervised. Although Nikki doesn't drink (she has acid reflux) or do drugs, she certainly has enjoyed a dating life that the much more sheltered Em now has to deal with. There's also a subplot, which foreshadows the next two books, about Stark Megastores and the possibility that they're spying on Nikki, though for what purpose is still a mystery that Em has to work out.

This is the part that gets sticky for me. When I read a book like this, I read it on two levels -- first I evaluate it for myself and then I put it through my Mom-Filter to see how I'd feel if my daughter were reading it. Airhead passes my standards easily, but fails to make it through my Mom-Filter. There are a lot of OMGs in the book...lots and lots, in fact. And Nikki's friend Lulu tells her "way to be a bitch," which I didn't much like, particularly since these girls are supposed to be the height of cool. But what really got me was the implication that while Em is an innocent, never even kissed before she became Nikki, Nikki's physical history with boys has been more involved. Her boyfriend casually assumes she'll sleep over; there's a reference to her "hooking up" with someone in Paris; and Lulu alludes to Nikki's difficulty in "stopping" whenever a boy, any boy, kisses her. Em is confused by the reactions Nikki's body has to kissing, implying still further that perhaps Nikki is far more experienced.

Frankly, I don't know how anyone thought this would be okay for 12, 13 or even 14 year olds. I might let my 15 year old read it with reservations and a lot of discussion, but no younger. The redeeming feature here is Em's innocence; whatever Nikki may have done, Em has a good head on her shoulders and has had solid parents behind her, guiding her behavior (though Em does recount her Mom's message about sex "don't have [it], but if you do, use a condom." )

Obviously the book is mostly fantasy (like Em, in her new body, discovering that Nikki's acid reflux makes chips and cookies taste bad and vegetables and tofu taste good) and good for a laugh, but it bothered me that the presumption here is that girls age 12 and up have no innocence left to shelter, so why not let this scenario with Em and the possibly very-experienced Nikki play out with all its comic consequences? I have absolutely no problem with this as an adult, or even an upper secondary book, but younger than that should be advised that the themes in this novel are far above what most middle school/jr. high kids can handle.

This is part of a series of three books. Being Nikki was released this past spring and the third installment, Runaway, is coming out in 2010.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Moongobble and Me

This is a chapter book series by Bruce Coville, of the Unicorn Chronicles fame. At 80 pages, it's geared toward 7-10 year olds, particularly those who are past the early chapter books like Henry and Mudge and need something with a little more length and complexity but aren't quite ready to give up pictures. The Dragon of Doom is the first in the series.

Edward, the narrator, lives with his mother in the village of Pigbone, where not much happens of any note until someone moves into the cottage at the top of the hill. That someone turns out to be Moongobble, an aspiring magician, and his talking toad. Moongobble hires Edward as his assistant, a position which provides Edward with much scope for excitement. Alas, Moongobble is a miserable magician; most of his spells end with the subject being turned into cheese and everyone in the vicinity being sprayed with green goo. The head of the Society of Magicians arrives to test Moongobble's skills and when all goes awry, sets Moongobble to a series of tasks. If he can complete them, he will earn to right to continue as a magician. The first task -- and the central event of the book -- is to rescue the Acorns of Alcoona from the Dragon of Doom.

The book has nice touches of humor, as when they are cleaning for the Master Magician's arrival and Moongobble tries to perform a spell that will send a breeze to blow away all the dust in the house and only succeeds in making the whole place smell like a fart (and that's the word the book uses, to my son's eternal delight). Then too, the Dragon of Doom turns out to be only 4 feet long, and is a figure of fun rather than fear. The pictures, which appear about every third page, are spaced just about right for kids who are moving past picture books, but still need illustrations to clarify the story and extend their interest in the text.

I bought this for my 6 year old with the idea that I would read it to him first, then as he becomes fully independent he can read it himself later. The book was a big hit. It's pure story, not trying to teach anything else (like the Magic Treehouse Books), just seeking to entertain. It works well as a read-aloud book because the action moves along at a nice clip. Fans of Coville's will find that this is in no way like the Unicorn Chronicles -- it's far less serious and complex -- but it's light and entertaining and not at all intimidating for beginning readers. Although the protagonist is a boy, it should be of equal interest for boys and girls. This is the first in a series of books that includes The Weeping Werewolf, The Evil Elves, The Mischief Monster and the soon-to-be-released Naughty Nork (coming out November 2009).

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls

I wanted to like Moving Day, I really did. I am a big fan of Meg Cabot's and when I discovered this series written for the 8-10 year old crowd, I thought it couldn't help but be a home run. It has all the elements for success -- a heroine who's 9, a familiar crisis (moving), a pair of lovable brothers for the longsuffering heroine to tolerate-- but for me, it just didn't click.

Maybe I set the bar too high. After all, Cabot's Princess Diaries are among my favorite books of all time. I laughed out loud reading books 1-3 (though the rest of the franchise is negligible). But Allie Finkle is no Mia Thermopolis. She's just not that likable.

Here's the premise: Allie is horrified to find her family is moving across town. How will she survive without her best friend, Mary Kay? What about her rock collection? How will she manage in a new school? But the thing is, Allie's best friend is irritating. And not in a funny, trademark Meg Cabot way; she's just annoying. It's hard to see why Allie hangs out with her. At the same time, Allie is occasionally mean to Mary Kay in a way that seems rather heartless. So while you can certainly see why Allie does mean things to Mary Kay, you can't really endorse her behavior or feel good about it. Nor does Allie (who narrates the book) really feel much remorse. She knows what she did was wrong, but it doesn't weigh on her. It wasn't deeply troubling for me, but it did make Allie less likable.

Frankly, most of the kids in her school are rather repellent and the reader will have no trouble getting the rather heavy-handed message that Allie will be much better off in her new neighborhood with her new school. Especially after she meets her new neighbor, a girl her age who is imaginative, enthusiastic, open and willing to share -- just about everything Mary Kay isn't. Obviously it takes Allie a little longer to realize this fact, and her situation is complicated when she steals the turtle from the local Chinese restaurant. This part really irked me, partly because it was so pointless (she's worried he'll be made into soup) and partly because Allie doesn't suffer much in the way of consequences (she is promised a kitten after the move, but this is taken away; later she gets a kitten anyway). Her family is banned from eating in that restaurant, but who cares? They're moving anyway.

Other, smaller things rankled as well -- the fact that her parents keep a swear jar, which they occasionally have to contribute to and the casual cruelty of Allie's classmates spring to mind. Allie does have one positive change of heart about boy in her class that was nicely done, but the rest of the kids are so deeply unlikable that it's hard to see why she wouldn't want to move. There's also a subplot in which Allie stands up to some girls in her class and rescues a cat they're mistreating. Her rescue backfires and the cat escapes outside. Allie owns up to her mistake, and rats out the other girls for their cat abuse, which was handled well, but further underscores the question: why does she want to stay with these awful "friends?"

I wanted to like Allie, but didn't. Because I like Cabot, I will give this series another shot. Maybe the second book, set in the new neighborhood and shorn of its feral 3rd graders, will capture that light style she normally does so well.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On My Christmas List

Photo compliments of

Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis is going on my To-Buy list for my tween nieces. I originally checked it out of the library thinking it would be a good book for my 8 year old, but after reading it, I think it's a better fit for the 10-12 crowd.

Emma Jean Lazarus is highly intelligent and oddly disconnected from her peer group, which might be expected given her intelligence. She is happy to float along in her isolated sphere. It doesn't bother her that the other kids find her strange; she is secure in her identity. Then one day, she finds Colleen crying in the bathroom. Emma Jean is unsure what to do, and then Colleen appeals to her for help with her problem and Emma Jean has an epiphany. She suddenly feels compelled to help Colleen.

It's a testament to Emma Jean's disconnectedness that she doesn't realize Colleen's appeal is really more of a conversational cliche -- she doesn't really expect Emma Jean to help her. But Emma Jean picks up the gauntlet. From helping Colleen, she moves on to finding a wife for her mother's boarder, and to helping another classmate escape a teacher's persecution because of a misunderstanding.

As a character, Emma Jean is original and unexpected. For all her social isolation she is very secure in herself and this is in large part because of the relationship she has had with her parents. Her father is dead, killed in a car accident 2 years previously, but Emma Jean has vivid and beautiful memories of time spent with him and she is absolutely certain of his love for her. Her mother, too, is a warm and understanding soul, one who recognizes and appreciates Emma Jean's personality quirks -- they are, after all, the same quirks that drew her to Emma Jean's father. She is always affirming and is a touchstone for Emma Jean as she tries to make sense of her classmates' problems while also wrestling with the finality of her father's death.

Colleen is the perfect everygirl, very much a portrait of the typical middle schooler. She is tortured by self doubt, wracked with fears that she'll be exposed to the same kind of rejection that Emma Jean experiences and which she just knows she cannot survive with the same equanimity. And yet, pack follower that she is, Colleen is genuinely concerned for others and her kindness for Emma Jean raises her from being a two dimensional caricature to being a fully realized character.

Emma Jean's exploration of her feelings surrounding her father's death and her mother's journey toward dating again make this more appropriate for older kids, middle school and up. The book is very clean, without even the oh-so-prevalent OMGs that you might expect in a tween book. Emma Jean does engage in some deceptive behavior which ultimately doesn't get punished, so it might be worthwhile to talk that over with your child and point out that while she achieved her ends, her means were a little questionable. Colleen's behavior is worth talking about as well -- the fact that she does the right thing for the right reasons even though she is sure she will suffer for it is one of the most wonderful parts of the book.

This book is a great vocabulary builder. There were several words I knew would be a stretch for my nieces (who are 10 and 12) and a few that I thought they certainly wouldn't know: another reason why this book is for older kids.

Don't miss this one. It's out in paperback and it's truly a gem.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Green Light Readers

photos courtesy of

Anyone with a child beginning to read knows that not all "readers" are created equal. For starters, the levelling system will vary greatly from brand to brand -- a "1" from one company might be more or less the same as a "2" from another, while a "2" from that company might look more like a "3" from still another company. Sometimes there's variability within a company -- not all "2s" are at the same level of difficulty. Frustrating if you don't have time to run out to the bookstore and thumb through books to see just how complex the text is.

Green Light Readers, therefore, were a welcome surprise for us. I was looking for something my son could read independently, but something that wouldn't intimidate him with a lot of small text. He's past most of the true #1 readers -- the kind with only 5-10 words per page, often staring Dora the Explorer or someone else that he considers "babyish." I needed something with perhaps 5-7 sentences per page, but with vocabulary he could manage, and it had to have a story he could follow and appreciate. It couldn't be Dora saying "Hop across the rocks! Hop! Hop! Hop!"

Daniel's Mystery Egg by Alma Flor Ada had a story that was interesting to my 6 year old. A boy finds an egg. His friends all predict what kind of egg it is (ostrich, alligator, duck) and what problems he's going to encounter because of it (not enough room, reptile trying to eat him, noise). Finally the egg hatches and we get to see what was in it. Daniel is quietly confident throughout the book and the pictures on each page clearly cue the reader about the content of the text. This is great for emergent readers -- if they aren't sure about a word, like ostrich, they can look at the picture and make an educated guess. If they've read it before, they can look at the pictures to remind them what that new word is. Many books do this, but this series seems particularly good at dovetailing the illustrations with the text.

The text is larger than normal, which is good for 5-6 year olds whose eyes haven't yet developed to the point that they can comfortably read smaller print (normally, this occurs between ages 6 and 7). We liked this book so much, we bought another one called Did You See Chip? by Wong Herbert Yee. The story in this one was perhaps not as compelling, but the text and illustrations were again well-coordinated for beginning readers. Both books are level 2 readers.

Another nice feature is that many of the Green Light Readers are available in Spanish, making them applicable for Elementary foreign language teachers, Bilingual teachers, bilingual families and those who just want to expose their children to another language. All the books come with suggested activities at the back of the book. While we chose not to do them, they are a nice feature for enrichment or possibly for homeschoolers.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Why Bookivore?

Reading shouldn't be a mechanical thing, a spewing out of words without really understanding or enjoying what they're saying. If reading is a meaningless exercise, something's wrong.

Kids should devour books. That was my goal as a teacher and it's been my goal as a parent. I want my kids to lose themselves in books. I want them to race with Amy and Dan Cahill across the world looking for clues. I want them to thrill with Harry Potter as he steps into Diagon Alley for the first time. I want them to fret with Henry when Mudge is lost and I want their mouths to water as they wait with Pa for the magical pie in Sweet Dream Pie.

To that end, I started reading to my children when they were infants. And I mean infants -- not-able-to-hold-their-heads-up-by-themselves-still-struggling-to-focus babies. I actually read to my oldest in the womb, but I think that might have been carrying things a bit far.

That was the easy part. Now they're 8, 6 and 3 and I'm coping with different issues -- how to find books for my 8 year old that are appropriate for her? How to find books to motivate my 6 year old to read on his own? And how to get my 3 year old to read something other than Dora the Explorer books? At the same time, I look for books my older nieces and nephews will read and enjoy, and that keeps me very aware of what my kids are going to encounter as they navigate the grades.

In the end, this is what sparked Bookivore: it marries my love of books with my search for quality, appropriate lit for my kids. I'm not striving to be the first out there with a review -- many of the books you'll find on here are readily available at public libraries and even second hand stores. While I wish I had a money tree in the back yard so I could buy all the books I want, I have to get mine in more fiscally responsible ways. We buy cheap, we borrow, we use our library religiously. Sometimes we splurge. What you'll find here are the books that I love, that I have found useful or motivating for my own children, that I think have some awesome quality or feature that makes them worth reading.

May you find something here that makes you want to pick up a book and read.