Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I've Got a Crush...

On Jon Berkeley.

I have blogged before about his very excellent book The Hidden Boy, so I was tickled pink to find the first book in his Wednesday Tales series, The Palace of Laughter. And I am here to tell you, it did not disappoint.

It's fantasy, but it's so fresh, and told in such a novel way...I am almost at a loss for words (and that never happens. Seriously.)
Miles Wednesday, who lives in a barrel outside the town of Larde, meets a tiger one day in the woods. A talking tiger. Who decides not to eat him. The next morning, the tiger is gone and Miles, who has run away from the orphanage (Pinchbucket House -- how's that for a name?) sneaks into the circus to see if the tiger is real or not.

Instead of a tiger, he meets an angel. A real angel named Little who's in trouble. He rescues her from the evil ringmaster, the Great Cortado, and this begins their cross country adventure. They are searching for the Palace of Laughter -- though they don't know what or where it is. They hope to find Little's angel companion, Stormpoint, but they are sidetracked by a number of odd and sometimes frankly bizarre happenings.

Love Love Love Jon Berkeley. Love his originality, love the mesmerizing rhythm of his prose. I get lost in his finely drawn, almost-modern-yet-curiously-old-fashioned-worlds. I can picture each one of his oddball characters -- from Little, whose skin glows faintly, to fat Lady Partridge, who lives in a tree house with a hundred cats, to Tangerine, the bear Miles has had since he was left at the orphanage and who is brought to life by some magic of Little's.

Seriously, give this one a try. Or read The Hidden Boy -- if you like fantasy or even just oddball fiction, Jon Berkeley won't let you down.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Magic Half

Annie Barrows (Ivy and Bean) is a good writer. I like her storytelling, love her use of detail, enjoy the way she unfolds her characters. However, Annie Barrows does one thing that gets under my skin. She has her characters swear. She doesn't do it a lot, but that fact that she does it at all annoys the heck out of me because it's always completely gratuitous.
gratuitous: lacking in benefit; uncalled for or lacking a reasonable basis. In other words, NOT NECESSARY.

Sometimes swearing is critical to the realism of the story. Mexican Whiteboy wouldn't work without a certain grittiness that the swearing adds to the characters and events. It's a tough neighborhood and it wouldn't be believable for the characters to run around saying "Fudge!" But The Magic Half would work just fine without the OMGs and the one "Christ Almighty" which marred an otherwise excellent story.

Eleven year old Miri is the middle child between two sets of twins -- "a one-in-50,000 family" her dad likes to say. But Miri feels isolated. Now in their new house, Miri finds a piece of glass stuck to the wall of her room. She looks through it and finds herself in 1935. Here she meets Molly, who has "called her" to help "set things right" -- though precisely how they're going to do that, neither of them is sure. Molly is similarly isolated, living with an aunt and two cousins who see her as a nuisance and a burden. One cousin, Horst, loses no opportunity to make Molly's life as miserable as possible, even to the point of physically harming her when he can get away with it.

The story does a nice job of transitioning back and forth from the present to 1935. Molly and Miri are believable, as are the other kids in the story, Miri's twin sisters and brothers. It's suspenseful, it's well written, it's got a nice ending. It's such a great story...

Just wish Annie Barrows would lose the swearing.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Nibbles, Bites and Chomps: Leveled Readers

I am always on the hunt for readers -- chapter books that are targeted for a certain level. Even better if they are leveled from easy to harder. I was happy to run across the Nibbles, Bites, Chomps books from Running Press at my local Half Price Books, and even happier to pick up a couple of "Nibbles" and a "Bite" for about 5 bucks.

As the name suggests, the "Nibbles" are easier: big print, lots of pictures, not too long. Probably appropriate for 1st or 2nd grade. "Bites" are a little harder: smaller print, longer paragraphs, not so many pictures, a bit longer overall. Probably best for readers who can read mostly independently, but might need some help here and there. And of course the "Chomps" are harder still, more like a traditional novel, and intended for independent readers.

What really struck me with this series is how many titles would be appealing to boys. Let it Rip is a story about two boys who sell farts in a jar. My Amazing Poo Plant is the story of a girl who grows a plant from a pot where a bird pooped. Walter Wants to be a Werewolf is the story of a family of werewolves who all change when the moon is full -- except Walter. The subject material just seems more targeted to boys, though there's stuff in there that girls will like, too. You can see the whole collection at the Running Press website. It's not huge, but it's got a nice number of titles. Even at full price, they're not too bad. And it's always nice to have a few more weapons in your arsenal choices in your library when the kids run out of stuff to read.

Note: what really appealed to my son was the bite-sized chunk that's cut out of each book. That, more than anything else, made him pick these up and flip through them. Sometimes novelty is your friend.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Skippyjon Jones: Lost in Spice

The original Skippyjon Jones was a lot of fun. My kids and I had a ball doing cheesy Mexican accents for all the chihuahuas and we laughed when Skippito Friskito punctured the Great Bumblebeeto.

The second Skippyjon book, Skippyjon Jones: In the Doghouse was a little trip into...well, trippiness. I'm not going to say anyone was smoking crack when they wrote that one, but it didn't make a ton of sense. In fact, the subsequent books made less and less sense, even for the delusional daydreams of a Siamese cat who thinks he's a chihuahua.

So now we have Skippyjon Jones: Lost in Spice and at last there's another SJ book that makes some sense. In this book, Skippyjon blast into space where he encounters an alien twin -- a Martian Skippyjon in glowing green. And why is he lost in spice (an inside joke only for parents)? Because the Red Planet is covered in chili powder, of course. That's why it's red.

The pictures are bright and attractive; I do like Judy Schachner's artwork. The story makes about as much sense as the first book, and considerably more sense than the second book. Worth buying in hardback? Probably not, but perhaps worth it in paperback and certainly worth checking out from the library.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I Regret to Inform You...

I failed.

It doesn't happen often, this type of failure. But occasionally there's a book I just. can. not. get. into.

Linger was that book.

I tried, I really did. But I just couldn't bring myself to care what happened to Sam and Grace and all the werewolves. You can read my thoughts on Shiver, the first volume of the series here. I still have some objections because of the premarital sex. Other than that, Maggie Stiefvater is a fine writer, but the whole thing just left me saying "meh."

Apparently in this volume, Grace turns into a wolf and that's the big cliffhanger.


At least they'll get a trilogy out of it. Whoo hoo.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Buyer Beware

I've got devotions on the brain this week. Bear with me.

Here's one I didn't like: Sticky Situations is meant to present kids with the kinds of moral and spiritual dilemmas they might encounter in their everyday lives. The little stories that make up each devotion do just that: pose a moral dilemma. The possible responses are given in multiple-choice format, and then there is a Bible verse to look up which will guide the reader to the correct answer.

I want my kids to learn to apply their Bible reading to their lives, but this is not the tool to teach that skill. I have a degree in English and I taught literary interpretation for 10 years and I had trouble seeing the connections between the stories and the verses that were supposed to guide their responses to the situations.

This one had so much potential. What a bummer that it falls so short. I think there is some value in the stories themselves. They would be nice jumping-off points for family discussion and even role playing, but the spiritual content is sorely lacking and that means it's entirely up to the parent to supply Bible verses, stories, etc. to lay a foundation underpinning the moral choices.

If you feel up to that, by all means buy this book. But if, like me, you might have trouble providing a biblical foundation for every sticky situation, you might want to look elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Devotional Picks

I have been on the hunt recently for another family devotions book to do with my kids around the dinner table. The one above was recommended by a friend from church, so I picked it up at a local Bible bookstore.

It's listed as an 8-12 year old book, but it's probably not going to hold the interest of anyone over the age of 11. It certainly is full of odd and interesting animals -- each devotion is along the lines of a "What am I?" quiz, with lots of info about the animal, but not revealing what it is until the very end. Then there's a scripture and an application lesson followed by a prayer. The devotions are short -- maybe even too short -- and they feel light on content, especially spiritual. In fact, the spiritual content almost feels like an afterthought. The devotions seem targeted for much younger kids; I think a child as young as 5 could probably track with this pretty well, though the social/spiritual issues might not ring any bells with them quite yet. It does have some pictures, but they're cartoony, not meant to faithfully render the animals in the devotions. Still, any pictures are helpful with smaller kids.

I am going to try this one for a few more days with my kids, but I think it may go back to the store. My hunch is that it might work better as a read-on-your-own book than as a family devotion.

Did You Know Devotions was option two. I liked this one, maybe because I'm kind of a trivia geek. It's actually quite similar in format to Weird and Wacky, but instead of wild animal facts, it tells little stories about odd occurrences in history -- like a recipe book sent out with a recipe for caramel which was missing a key ingredient. Without that ingredient (water) the mixture would actually explode on the stove. The story is then tied to a biblical truth and a life lesson. It's for 6-8 year olds, but I think it could go a little older -- maybe to 10 or 11, depending on interest level. It seems to be better adapted for family devotions and it seemed to have a little more spiritual heft than the first book. No pictures in this one, so not as little kid-friendly.

Still looking for the perfect devotional....

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ingo: A Series for Mermaid Lovers

Mermaids, I suspect, are a perennial favorite among girls. Unfortunately, books about mermaids tend to be a bit light on literary merit. In a word, they often stink. What a great thing, then, is the Ingo series by Helen Dunmore.

11 year old Sapphire and her brother Connor live in Cornwall, growing up "in sight of the sea," as their mother puts it. One midsummer's night, their father, a fisherman, leaves the family to go for a walk by the ocean and disappears. The family is fractured by his disappearance. When his boat washes ashore some days later, rumors abound -- he drank too much that night and fell overboard, he only made it look like he drowned and he's left them for another woman. But there is one possibility that Sapphire is forced to consider: that he went into the sea of his own free will, lured by something out there, something irresistible.

Her suspicions are sharpened when her brother Connor begins disappearing for hours at a time; in fact, he seems barely conscious of the time he is gone and his manner tells Sapphy that he is being pulled toward the sea as their father was. She sees him sitting on a rock just off the shore, talking to a strange girl, but he denies later that he was with anyone. Then one day, she herself feels drawn, pulled like a magnet toward the ocean, and there she meets Faro, a boy who takes her into the realm of Ingo beneath the sea.

Ingo is a step up from books like The Tale of Emily Windsnap (and for comparison, Emily Windsnap is a step up from the Tinkerbell books). The writing is better, the plot is richer and more complex. The characters and their motives are more finely drawn and more multi-faceted. Even Ingo itself is a riddle: is it good? Is it evil? Do Faro and his sister mean well or ill? It all adds to the tension and the conflict. There's a parallel plot involving Sapphire and Connor's mum, who is beginning to date again and the book explores their feelings for her new friend, who they both like and detest in equal measure. He's a likable guy, but he's not their dad. And they both feel very strongly that their father is still alive, perhaps is even in Ingo.

here are four books in the series. It's been around for a while -- Ingo was published in 2005 -- but the last book was only recently made available in the US. If you have a strong reader, this one could go as young as 9 or 10, and I think its appeal would hold into 8th or even 9th grade. If you have a daughter who likes magic and fantasy, this is a good one to try.

Friday, September 10, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon -- Bookivore's Choice for a Good Read-Aloud

Read alouds can serve several purposes: they can introduce kids to more difficult language, they can expose kids to forms of language that might otherwise be unfamiliar or intimidating, like poetry, or they can stimulate kids' interest in reading by just being a rollicking good time. How to Train Your Dragon falls into this last category.

Great literature it ain't, but it is unapologetic about that. In fact, it revels in distinctly un-literary characters like Snotface Snotlout and Gobber the Belch and my personal favorite, Baggybum the Beerbelly. The hero, or perhaps anti-hero, is Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, son of Stoick the Vast, chieftain of the Hairy Hooligans, a tribe of Vikings inhabiting a dreary, difficult island in the North Sea called Berk (for those not in the know, Berk is a British slang term for an idiot).

Hiccup is rather a failure at all the traditional Viking pursuits; he is particularly bad at yelling, which is a handicap for his task in this book, capturing and training a dragon. Hiccup, you see, usually tries to do the right thing, which is not always the same as doing the Viking thing, and quite often is exactly the opposite. In this case, because he tries to save his friend Fishlegs from being eaten as he kidnaps a dragon, he himself ends up with the smallest, laziest, most contrary and ordinary dragon ever -- not a stellar achievement for the son of the chief and possible future chieftain himself someday. Hiccup manages to get himself thrown out of the tribe and almost simultaneously reinstated in order to save the Hooligans from the greatest dragon threat they've ever encountered. Hiccup manages it using his brains -- something the Hooligans are a bit short on -- and becomes a hero in the process.

We took this one on vacation with us and it was a huge hit with my children, particularly my seven year old son. The book is peppered with goofy drawings of the various characters which my children liked. And of course, the names and the references to belching, farting, and otherwise being kind of gross and impolite were a big hit as well.

Note, this is very different from the movie, so if your children saw the film, this isn't going to be as dramatic, nor is there as much emphasis on the viking-dragon relationship. Dragons in the book are supremely selfish and Hiccup's dragon is no different.

It's good fun as a family read aloud, and worth a look for reluctant readers, too. And if your kids like it, there are 4 more books in the series, enough to fill lots of nights with laughs.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Planning for Success: A Good Breakfast

Image courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post

Sometimes, things interfere with a child's ability to learn. One thing that has a powerful impact is hunger. Hungry children don't learn as well as children who are well-fed because their brains become consumed with the need to eat. Instead of focusing on what happens when you encounter silent e, they are thinking, "What can I eat? When can I eat? How can I get my stomach to stop hurting RIGHT NOW?" Children who are persistently hungry tend to perform worse on standardized tests (Tufts University Center on Hunger Poverty and Nutrition Policy). One study that examined hungry kindergarteners found that hunger was directly linked to a drop in math scores. Probably reading, too, but they didn't look at that (Food Insecurity and Hunger in the Kindergarten Classroom: Its Effect on Learning and Growth, Winicki and Jemison, 1999).

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it really is important for kids to have a good, healthy breakfast before they go to school, and I would submit that they need a mid-morning snack if their lunch period is more than 3.5 hours from when they ate breakfast. Unfortunately, some schools seem unable to grasp this idea and act like snacks are an unforgivable inconvenience. This is particularly true as you move into the higher grades -- 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th -- but not when you get to junior high or high school -- children that age can usually eat during their passing time between classes without anyone going into a tizzy over contraband food. It's bizarre to me that adults will wander an elementary building with a cup of coffee and a donut or bagel, seldom going more than 2 hours without eating, yet deny kids the same opportunity.

Image courtesy of The Daily Green

So, what can parents do to maximize their children's chance of success in the classroom?
1. Find something healthy (read: balanced) for them to eat at breakfast. If you need some ideas, try The Daily Green and Family Fun for some recipes. Sweet rolls are yummy, but not the best choice to start the day. Ditto for that bowl of Cocoa Puffs.

2. Lobby for snacks in the classroom if your child has to wait more than 3.5 hours between breakfast and lunch. Be respectful, but be firm. Sometimes, you can even make it a medical issue. One of my children gets migraines, which are occasionally triggered by hunger. She is now able to go to the nurse's office and have a snack at 11 o'clock, a full 1.5 hours before her lunch (her breakfast-to-lunch waiting period is 5 hours -- waaaaay too long). Her classmates, however, are out of luck.

Image courtesy of Reader's Go there for the recipe -- yummy!

3. Pack a snack with some substance. This is not the time for fruit snacks and YoGos (these are just candy with a good marketing rep, folks). Pack cheese sticks, peanut butter on crackers (check your school's peanut policy first -- a lot of schools are peanut-free because of allergy issues), protein bars, a bagel with cream cheese, a bag of granola... something that will hold your child until lunch.

4. Pack a good lunch and/or monitor their selections for school lunch. Sometimes the problem is on the other end of the day -- your child has an early lunch and then has a long wait until he arrives home. Be sure to pack lunches high in protein and complex carbohydrates which take the body more time to digest. It's okay to pack treats, but if your kids are like mine, they eat the treat first and may actually ignore their sandwich or cheese or whatever healthy stuff is in there to keep them going. If you pack a treat, make it small. Here are some fun sites for lunch ideas: Family Fun, Raising a Healthy Family, What's for Lunch at Our House (Bento Boxes -- so cool, but maybe a little intimidating), a more down-to-earth take on Bentos at Just a Girl, and lunches for kids with severe food allergies at To The Moon and Back.

Food. It's important. Make sure your kids are getting what they need when they need it.

Monday, September 6, 2010

I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be your Class President

I am a sucker for a good title, and this one caught my eye at Barnes and Noble (who don't pay me to mention them at all. Although they should. 'Cuz I shop there. A lot. And I wouldn't say no to some free books. Or whatever.). I tracked it down at the public library and was more than rewarded for my effort. This is one of the funniest books I've ever read. Ever.

I am a long-time fan of The Daily Show -- it's one of the few things I regret about not having cable. And this book, written by Josh Lieb, an executive producer for The Daily Show, has all the earmarks of a great Daily Show episode. The humor is edgy, it pokes fun at everyone and everything, and it is merciless. Really, the whole book felt like it was channeling Jon Stewart, only through 12 year olds.

Seventh grader Oliver Watson, the dumbest kid in school, is actually a genius masterminding a worldwide empire, both legitimate and criminal, from a bunker he excavated below his family's home while they were on a trip to Hawaii. From there he orchestrates kidnappings, the overthrow of a corrupt African dictator, the love life of his English teacher, and the eighth grade student council elections. Or at least, that's what's supposed to happen. But life in 7th grade doesn't always work out quite the way one hopes.

I am a Genius may remind some people of Artemis Fowl, but without the distraction of fairies and leprechauns. However, unlike Artemis, Oliver is not a nice person. Really, really not a nice person. But he is a funny person. And being inside his head, once you recover from the initial shock, is funny, too. Much of the book is pure fantasy -- what wouldn't we have given to have a tool that could give our teachers a little electric shock every time they zinged us verbally in class? Or blow darts that our private bodyguards shoot at kids who pick on us -- darts that make those bullies suddenly flatulent in front of the whole school?

Here's my problem with this book: it's billed as a book for 12-14 year olds. That's because Oliver is 12. By this reasoning, we should be letting 8 year olds watch The Exorcist. That's a movie about an 8 year old, right? That should be okay for kids, right?

I so wanted to put a picture from The Exorcist here, but I just can't. That movie still scares the CRAP out of me.

The themes this book deals with, the satire, the relentless skewering of every junior high stereotype, is going to go right over the heads of kids who are actually in junior high. This book is deeply disrespectful of teachers, parents, basically anyone in authority. This is fine if your audience can grasp that it's satire. Otherwise, Oliver and his evil plans are just mean. There are cultural references that many kids aren't going to get, and there's a lot of crude language and mild swearing that seems not very appropriate for this age. I do think this would be fine for high school students and I highly recommend it for adults who have lived through the hell-on-earth that is junior high. It will make you laugh. A lot.

Potential distractions: Oliver likes to footnote himself quite a bit, and going back and forth from the story to the footnotes might be disruptive for less able readers. Also, Oliver writes like an adult (he's a genius, remember) so the vocabulary may be a little above some kids.

Seriously funny, but seriously not for junior high aged kids. Save this one for the 9th grade and up crowd.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Guardians of Ga'Hoole -- Coming to a Theatre Near You

My oldest daughter got started on the Guardians of Ga'Hoole series by Kathryn Lasky over the summer, mainly because it was one of the selections she could choose from for the Barnes and Noble reading program. She picked it because nothing else looked very interesting and although she wasn't sure she'd like it, she brought it home.

8 weeks later, she has read ten of the 15 or so books in the series and can't wait to get her hands on the rest. She has browbeaten her parents into reading the first few books as well, so I am now able to tell you that if you read these books, you will know a great deal about owls -- maybe more than you ever thought possible (or necessary).

The books -- at least the first few -- follow Soren, a young barn owl who has fallen from his nest in the forest. He is captured by some owls from an 'orphanage' called St. Aggie's, but this 'orphanage' has a sinister intent. With his friend Gylfie, an elf owl, Soren escapes St. Aggie's and sets off to find the Guardians of Ga'Hoole -- a legendary order of owls said to protect the weak, right wrongs, and do noble deeds.

The series is coming out in film September 24 and so far the stills and trailers look gorgeous. However, this is the same bunch that brought us Happy Feet, which didn't impress me a whole lot, so I am not getting my hopes up. I generally have low expectations for book-to-film adaptations.

What I like about the books is that they drove my daughter to ask so many questions -- what do sooty owls look like? How about burrowing owls? What does an owl pellet look like? What's inside it? Are there really blind nest snakes that take care of the owls' nests? (yes). Questioning, we know, is one of the habits of a good reader, so this was a very good thing. We spent several busy hours on the Internet satisfying her curiosity and building her understanding and knowledge into the bargain.

The other thing I liked was the size of the series -- 15 books are a God-send when you have a child that reads constantly. I spent the first half of the summer scrambling around trying to keep her supplied with books. After we found these, I could put my feet up and drink iced tea on the deck while I ate my bon-bons. Whew!
Already my daughter is begging to see the movie, so I am crossing my fingers that it's at least passably good. In the mean time, if you have a little nature lover who's between 8 and 12 years of age, you might want to give this series a try.