Monday, June 21, 2010

11 Birthdays

11 Birthdays, by Wendy Mass, is kind of like Groundhog Day for kids: the characters are experiencing the same day over and over and over again, but this time, the characters are a pair of 11 year olds.

Amanda and Leo have known each other since, well, since birth. And every year, they've celebrated their birthdays together. Until their 10th birthday, when Amanda overheard Leo tell some boys that he didn't really like hanging out with a girl so much anymore. Devastated, Amanda runs away from their party and cuts off contact with Leo completely.

It's one year later and Amanda is facing her 11th birthday alone. Worse, she and Leo are having competing parties on the same night and it's looking like Amanda's is going to be the losing venue. She botches her gymnastics team try-out, her party flops, her mom gets fired and all Amanda can be glad of is that the day is finally over. Except that it's not. She wakes up the following morning to discover that it's her birthday again. No one seems to realize that the day is repeating itself but Amanda and she's too weirded out to know what to do.

Eventually, Leo and Amanda make up and find a way to mend the repeating loop in their lives, but not before they learn some lessons about friendship and finding your place in the world and forgiveness and understanding.

This was a lovely book, one that I passed on to my 9 year old immediately. It's perfect for the 9-13 crowd and it's blessedly free of the OMGs that seem to be everywhere in tween literature. Because the main characters are male and female, this one could work for either boys or girls, but it may seem more like a girl's book because the story is narrated by Amanda.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Red Pyramid OR Percy Jackson Goes to Egypt

The Red Pyramid is Rick Riordan's newest novel for the pre-teen and teen set. In it, Carter and Sadie Kane find out they are members of an ancient family of magicians, entangled for millenia with the Egyptian gods. If this sounds a little reminiscent of the Percy Jackson and Olympians series, that's because it is.

Some things are quite different: there's the obvious difference between the Egyptian and Olympian gods, the heroes are a brother and sister, there's a society for magicians which is distinctly unwelcoming to the pair, and there's a persistent theme of possession -- gods possessing humans to achieve their own ends, or humans "hosting" gods to achieve their own ends.

But the action -- fast and well done -- is the same, as is the light, humorous storytelling and the need for the characters to find out about/explain the Egyptian myths. Likewise, there's a long-imprisoned monster who is longing to break free into the mortal world again, thus bringing about the destruction of life as we know it.

There are enough differences to make the book mostly feel like a separate adventure; the narrative bounces back and forth between Carter and Sadie, which allows the reader to see more sides to the story; but there are many places that felt similar to the Percy Jackson books. There are many more OMGs in this book, but no other swearing, and the violence is again mitigated by the monsters turning to dust when they're killed. I was uncomfortable with the possession theme and with the minions, who are occasionally referred to as demons, so would probably not let a child under 10 read this one, and possibly not a child under 12 without some discussion about how contrary to our beliefs this book runs.

It was a good, fast-paced read and very enjoyable, so here's my verdict: if your child read the Percy Jackson books and loved them, this will give them a hit of what they liked. If, like me, you're uncomfortable with some of the themes, you might want to hold off on it until your child is older or give it a miss entirely.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


"What happened to that book you were reading about
"Lost on Planet China? I finished it. Now I'm reading
a book about a girl who had a brain transplant against her will."
"A brain transplant."
"You're kidding me, right?"
"Who in their right mind would buy a plot about a brain
Yep, it's book three in Meg Cabot's Airhead trilogy. Runaway follows the further adventures of Emerson Watts, whose brain was transplanted into the body of supermodel Nikki Howard after a freak accident at a Stark Megastores' grand opening. Book one, Airhead, is mostly concerned with Em learning to live as Nikki. In book two, Being Nikki, Em learns that Nikki didn't die of an aneurysm as she'd been told, but is very much alive and the victim of attempted murder because of something she'd overheard about Stark Megastores and the launch of their new, low-cost laptops. She tried to blackmail her boss and wound up as nothing more than a brain to be discarded until a compassionate doctor transplanted her into yet another available body, this one much too average for Nikki's taste.

Book three opens with Nikki, her mother and brother, and Em all being held prisoner by Brandon Stark, Nikki's one-time boyfriend. He wants Nikki's secret so he can blackmail his father. Nikki wants her old body back. Lulu, Em's roommate, wants Nikki's brother, Steven. And Em? She wants Christopher, her best friend, to be more than a best friend.

Got that?

It's barely plausible as a plot, but it is very readable and funny in a campy, conspiracy-theory kind of way. I like Meg Cabot's writing style -- she's like a Sophie Kinsella for the high school set -- but she doesn't quite make it past my mom-filter on this one. My biggest objection throughout this whole series has been the implication that Nikki is no sexual innocent. Em is, there's no question of that, but many references are made to Nikki's body and its sexuality. Em is confused by the sensations and signals her new body sends her. In book three, we find out that Nikki really isn't an innocent -- Brandon admits he'd only stayed with Nikki "for sex." And Nikki's been a bit of a skank, sneaking around behind Brandon's back to hook up with Lulu's boyfriend at the time, Justin. But now she wants to get back together with Brandon because she's convinced he'll be able to help her get a reverse-brain transplant so she can go back to being Nikki, even though the operation would almost certainly kill either her or Em or both.

Got that?

Em has to deal with the fallout from their infidelity, has to make sense of her body's messages, has to find a way to get Christopher to see that she loves him (though I have to say, this is pretty obvious and I found myself wondering how she could miss something so glaringly clear). While I like Cabot's easy, breezy style, and I very much liked the realization Em has that being pretty on the outside doesn't really make up for being a jerk on the inside, I have all the same objections I had to the first book; there's just too much sexuality in this for me to be comfortable with it as a junior high book, and almost too much for me to be comfortable with it below age 16.

Monday, June 14, 2010

What Do You Get a 7 Year Old...

who's a reluctant reader?

It's tricky, sometimes, to find something they're interested in that isn't too babyish, or too difficult. Here's what I came up with for my somewhat reluctant boy for his 7th birthday:

Since he loves all things Pokemon, I found this activity book. It's full of puzzles -- crosswords, word finds, secret codes to crack, that sort of thing. It's reading masquerading as something else and he was excited to get it. It will come in very handy on our vacation in a couple weeks.

Some people love Dav Pilkey, others hate him. I once heard a librarian make a disgusted noise over the number of Dav Pilkey books kids were checking out of the library. I, on the other hand, am thrilled that my son wants to read his books and am willing to put up with a certain amount of corny humor and pee pee jokes. Ricky Ricotta, it should be noted, is light on the pee pee humor. It's more of a comic-book style book, highly graphic (by which I mean the action is illustrated pretty thoroughly) and written in larger text at a level that falls between Henry and Mudge and Magic Tree House.

Ricky Ricotta is geared for 1st and 2nd graders and is like brain candy for my son. I wanted something he could read to himself (he is very big on this now -- reading to himself silently), something I knew he could read with no external support, and Ricky Ricotta fits the bill perfectly.

For a step up in reading level and pee pee jokes, he got a Captain Underpants. These are really 3rd-5th grade level books, and for boys they appeal because of the plentiful illustrations and the bathroom humor. Yes, it's full of wedgies and boogers, but don't make the mistake of thinking these books are pure dumb -- the language level in them will surprise you. My son thinks they're hilarious, but can't read them without some help. He was quite happy to get another one as a gift.

This last one was a shot in the dark for me: I am completely unfamiliar with this series, but thought it looked like something I could read to my son. It's billed as "laugh-out-loud," which I am taking with a grain of salt. I'll review it later after I see how it plays with my son.

The search for high-quality, high-interest reading material continues....

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

How fitting that I should pick up this little gem to read just as we're embarking on our World Tour for summer lessons. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a perfect pearl of a book, deftly blending Chinese folklore and tradition with an almost modern, very accessible, heroine.
Minli lives with her parents in a dreary little village where life is just barely eked out of the barren soil. Inspired by her father's stories, Minli decides to set off for the Neverending Mountain to ask the Old Man of the Moon how she can change her family's fortune. Along the way, she is guided by a talking goldfish, meets a dragon born of a painting, watches the Goddess of Weaving flirt with an oxherd, has dinner with a king, and meets the happiest people in the land. In the end, she changes the fortunes of her whole village, but not at all the way she thought she would. Woven throughout are the stories Minli has heard from her father, as well as the stories of the people she meets, which you can't help feeling are going to become fairy tales for future generations.

The story is amply enriched by Grace Lin's beautiful paintings, which are reminiscent of traditional Chinese illustration techniques, and the little woodcut-style pictures that adorn each chapter. Other Grace Lin books we've encountered have been artistically much simpler; these are really a step up in both style and impact.

The story is magical, simple and rich at the same time. The whole thing was just charming. I have been bugging my 9 year old to finish what she's reading because she's got to read this next. My sense of this one is that it would make an excellent read-aloud book, too, because of the fairy tale nature of the text, so I may try it out on my son as well. Probably best for 3rd grade and up, though, if reading independently.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

On to China

Our next stop on our round the world tour is China. I couldn't find the book listed in the original library curriculum, so I started surfing Amazon to see what was out there, then hit the Library to see what they had.

There were quite a few picture books on China, possibly because there are so many Chinese adoptees in the States now. I narrowed it down to three books, chosen for three separate reasons. The Pet Dragon I chose because it shows Chinese characters. I wanted my kids to see how different our systems of writing are and maybe adapt this activity of making old Chinese scrolls to one involving Chinese characters.

I chose Beyond the Great Mountains for its artwork, which is reminiscent of Chinese painting. It also incorporates Chinese characters and it's a poem, which is a nice way to expose my kids to a different literary form. I found some nice poetry prompts here so they could try writing a poem about China, and also some word searches and other activities. I particularly like the Venn diagram and I think we'll use that to compare China to Japan, or China to the U.S.

Jin Jin the Dragon I chose because in China, dragons are helpful. They bring rain and control rivers. I thought it would be nice to look at dragons from a Chinese perspective. I found two great dragon crafts here and here. Not sure which I'll be using. This would be a good place to say that I LOVE THE INTERNET.

I mean really, how awesome is it that all these resources are at your fingertips?

For food we're going to make Green Onion Pancakes, which I think my kids might actually eat. I may also try a stir fry recipe and let them help cut veggies.

My baby will be working on the letter C with some activities from this site. She'll also do some coloring -- here's a link to my search result of China coloring pages.

Next Stop: South Korea

Monday, June 7, 2010

Next Stop: Asia

This summer, I'm tackling a new study program to keep my kids thinking and reading while they're not in school. It's called Passport to the World.

I spent a good long while on my local library's online catalogue trying to find the books on the list and discovered that my library is shamefully lacking in multicultural picture books. I was forced to substitute other books (this is okay, just more work for me) and trek across town to get a library card at the much bigger metro library (ours is a suburban library) in order to get books to fit the program. They were also rather thin on Asian picture books, something I find rather frustrating, but I was able to find enough to make for a workable set of lessons. We're starting with Japan and this book (left). This was not a book on the list.

Mainly the lessons call for observation of life in a particular country, then pick up on some custom or food and use that to extend the lesson. Since I haven't seen this book yet, I am winging it a bit as I plan. I did, however, find some nice complimentary crafts.

We can either make windsock fish (like those on the cover) or origami windsock fish. Or we can make Japanese paper dolls. Since I have a son to consider, we'll probably do the fish. For food, we could do fishless sushi, which interests me but is very complicated to make and requires special ingredients that might be hard to find. Or we could just go to Target and pick up some Udon noodles and make those, maybe chilled with a sesame dressing.

I am going to have my older child (9) look up some simple Japanese vocabulary. There is a good site for this here. I also found some other good upper elementary activities here. My littlest one (4) will do a coloring sheet or two -- I found some nice ones of people in native dress for lots of different countries (these are the kind you color online) and a site that has lots of cultural coloring pages. We'll talk about the letter J, too, and the sound it makes. We may do a coloring sheet of J words also.

I'm going to have my son (7) build something from the book out of Legos -- a carp, perhaps, or a building of some sort. He will be practicing his handwriting with some sentences about Japan. Also, there are some word searches here that he likes to do.

I'm looking for a recipe of some sort that we can make, particularly one my son can read and follow. Or, we may make our own recipe and write it out so we can remember it for another time. We may have a Japanese meal (everyone eating on the floor) although my kids are not what you'd call adventurous eaters. At any rate, we're planning to spend a week on Japan before moving on to China.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Reader is Born -- I mean Made

I brought this book home from the library, thinking my son might be interested in it as a read-aloud for bedtimes. After much cajoling, he let me read the first chapter, just to see if it would be any good.

Boring, Mom. No dice.

However, after lights-out, my husband caught him in his closet, reading it by flashlight. Normally, we'd just consider this a highly advanced attempt at staying up later, but he went on and on about how good it was, how funny, how he just wanted to read it a little bit longer, just another minute, just ONE MORE .... come ON!

not my kid, but cute, eh?

Next morning he got up early and finished it.

For months I've been waiting for a "breakthrough" for him -- that shift between the labor of decoding text and the joy of reading a story. It has been a slow process. Decoding is so much more work for him than it was for his older sister. He skips words, he skips whole lines, he's so focused on spelling out each word, he sometimes loses the thread of the story. He has consistently been at least 5 months behind where his sister was at the same age.

Now, I want to tell you that it would have been easier for Bookivore to just say, "Well, I guess he's not going to be much of a reader" and let it slide. Que sera, sera. Sing it, Doris.

But Bookivore knows that readers are MADE, not BORN. And reading takes work. And patience. And repetition. And repetition some more. And eventually, you will see improvement. But it may take a while. It may take much longer than you're comfortable with. I know I passed comfortable about 4 months ago.

Finally, we're seeing results. But know this: he still skips words, still skips lines, still misses really crucial parts of the story -- after reading The Dragon in the Sock Drawer, he couldn't tell me the dragon's name or how they finally got the egg open. So obviously we have more work to do. But the motivation is there, and it wasn't there before, so that's a step in the right direction.

Here are some other steps I'm going to take:
  • I'm having his eyes checked at his physical this summer. I think they're OK, but it's best to be sure.
  • I'm having him summarize (verbally) everything he reads so I can get a sense of what he's understanding from the story.
  • I'm still making him read aloud to me, for the same reason.
  • I'm encouraging him to use his finger to follow the text as he reads so he doesn't skip things.
  • I'm talking through the Good Reader's Habits as we read.

And I'm keeping at it.