Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Other Wise Man

Every Christmas I look for the new Christmas books. There are always a couple. Unfortunately the new ones are not always the best ones. I found a book a few years ago that still holds up and since it was never a blockbuster it maybe new to you.

The Fourth King: The Story of the Other Wise Man
By Ted Sieger
For Ages 4 - 10
          "The Fourth King" is a wonderful fable about a forgotten wise man that reminds us all about the true meaning of Christmas. Rated 4.75 (Christmas, Morality tale)
          Whatever moniker you know them by -- the three kings, the magi or the wise men -- you know there were only three. They carried gold, frankincense, and myrrh to give as gifts to the baby Jesus. Based on the short story, "The Other Wise Man" by Henry Van Dyke, this tale is about King Mazzel, a fourth wise man who was late to Bethlehem. He started out to meet up with his friends Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar at the edge of the desert. Unfortunately for Mazzel a series of crises came up. First their was a nomad girl stranded in a sand storm. Then a lost caravan of merchants, enslaved children and soldiers killing children in Bethlehem. What is Mazzel to do? He make the morally correct decision each and every time even though he knows it may set his journey back. When he arrives in Bethlehem Mazzel sees a young family fleeing the city and distracts the soldiers so they can get away. Upon arrival at the empty stable, Mazzel believes he is too late until the voice of God speaks to him and reveals that he was with Mazzel all along.
          Sieger's fun and vibrant illustrations keep the energy levels high as story's pacing begins to drag. It is a little long for a picture book, but the story is entertaining and well worth the read. This delightful Christmas tale reminds us all about the true meaning of Christmas.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I Don't Feel Tardy

Remember those days when you were a kid and you just didn't want to get out of bed? Now that I have a my own children I am quite often reminded of those days. As a matter of fact we were all dragging out of bed last week and I believe someone may have been tardy.

“Late for School”

By Steve Martin
Illustrated by C. F. Payne
For ages 4 – 8
A middle school stress dream, "Late for School" is based on the Steve Martin song by the same name. It's fast-paced and full of far-fetched antics. Rated 4 (school, slapstick, moral)

A teen boy wakes up late and makes a mad dash to school. From grandma’s blueberry pie facial to a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” inspired pool scene, this antic-filled romp to school makes your daily carpool line or bus stop seem quite mundane. You may be familiar with Martin’s comedy, acting, New Yorker commentaries or even his bluegrass music, but now you can introduce him to your children with this picture book. Payne’s illustrations bring a Norman Rockwell flare to this humorous adventure. Although children will giggle, the events are far too fun to inspire them to leave for school on time. So set your alarm a few minutes early and maybe you’ll have time to listen to the accompanying CD on the way to school.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

'Tis the Season

Black Friday. Cyber Monday. The Consumer Season has begun. The season of buying stuff. Buying toys, bikes, robots, games, pets, trains, and things that will end up int he garbage in less time than it takes to build them. Okay that's enough for my consumerism rant. Let's try to remember what all the fuss is really about. So before I review several Christmas stories I thought I'd cover a couple that just remind me of things kids might want for Christmas; robots and pets.

"Oh No! Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World"

By Mac Barnett
Illustrated by Dan Santat
For ages 3 – 7
What kind of book would you get if you crossed a comic book with a children's animated television show? Probably something similar to "Oh No! Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World." Rated 3.5 (misadventure, school destruction, science)

Being a super genius can cause problems, especially if you build a robot for your science fair project. Maybe you shouldn’t give it a giant claw or laser eyes. "Oh No!" is a classic comedy of errors that reads like a Disney animated television show on par with "Kim Possible." The comic book-style layouts ad to this fast-paced school adventure. It even has a message we should all follow – use your brain wisely. There are consequences to every action so think things through. But how many adolescent children do you know follow that rule? Fun. Fun. Fun.

"Children Make Terrible Pets"
By Peter Brown
For ages 4 - 6
A cautionary tale of pet ownership, this tale covers the good times, bad times and scary times. Rated 4 (pets, relationships, family)

Pet ownership has it's highs and lows. It all gets compounded when you keep an animal that is not meant to be a pet. Brown's illustrations are fun and inviting, especially for your readers. "Children Make Terrible Pets"
has a good message for all those people who want to own alligators, chimpanzees, tigers or even large pythons. Children may not get the message but they’ll laugh just the same.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pumpkin Pie Time

I was just thinking about pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving is this coming Thursday and I have a great deal to be thankful for this year. I will thank God for my many blessing and make sure that my family knows how thankful I am for all that they bring to my life. i realize that Thanksgiving is not about food, but I just can't stop thinking about all the great desserts I am going to taste this week. Pumpkin pie got me to thinking about pumpkin books. So here are two quick reviews for this holiday season. 

“The Very Best Pumpkin”

By Mark Moulton
Illustrated by Karen Hillard Good
For ages 4 – 8
A gentle story about nurture and friendship, “The Very Best Pumpkin” follows a young boy named Peter as he helps raise pumpkins on his grandparent’s farm. While Peter takes special care of a lone pumpkin, Meg watches from afar. Meg’s family is new to the area so she spends most of her time reading. When October rolls around Peter’s lone pumpkin is ready for picking an d a friendship begins to grow.
Rated: 3 (values, friendship)
What’s good: Good for story times that lead up to preschool field trips.
What’s bad: Meg’s character is a little flat.

“How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin?”
By Margaret McNamara
Illustrated by G. Brian Karas
For ages 3 - 7
The message for this story is, “Good things come in small packages.” Or maybe, “Don’t judge a book by its cover." Either way, it's a good message to teach your children.

Charlie is the smallest child in his class, which means he's usually the last picked for games and sports. But Charlie doesn’t let that stop him from enjoying school. One day Charlie's teacher brings three pumpkins into the class and asks the kids to decide which one has the most seeds. Naturally they guess it is the largest of the pumpkins. After scooping them out and using their math skills they find that some small things have a lot to offer. Rated: 3 (values, math, science)
What’s good: Good use of math and science facts.
What’s bad: Not much that's bad for this age group.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Everything's Coming Up Purple

Seeing all the Halloween costumes and make up got me to thinking about a book that was sent to me to review a couple months ago. I think now is a good time to review it.

"My Purple Toes"
By Blair Hahn
Illustrated by Tate Nation
For ages 3 - 8
A cute board book that tells the story of a father, with purple painted toes, enjoying his life with and happy to be different. Rated 3 (humor, charity)
Inspired by a father-daughter day at the nail salon, this fun story offers a good message about being different and enjoying life. "My Purple Toes" is a cute little board book that tells the story of a father with purple painted toenails. Everyone reacts to his toes differently to his purple toes. Some show surprise, some just laugh.

Nation's illustrations are cute and fit the tenor of the story well. The father's toes show up in a variety of environments. The family dog appears to have purple painted toenails as well. See if you can find them on each page.

A portion of the books is donated to Soles4Souls, which collects and distributes shoes at no cost to people in need in the US and around the world.  

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Happy Halloween!

I hope everyone had a safe fun and enjoyable Halloween.

In the past I am usually able find an interesting book to read and review for Halloween. I found one of my favorite authors Adam Rex, this way. Rex is an amazing illustrator and all around creative mind who really has fun with his books. Two of my favorite picture books are "Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich" and Frankenstein Takes the Cake." both are humorous and wacky collections of poetry that tell the tale of Frankenstein and other monsters of lore. I also thoroughly enjoyed Rex's foray in to books for 8 to 14-year-old children, "The True Meaning of Smekday."

So I went looking for his newest book, "Fat Vampire." Unfortunately I was unable to find it at my local bookstore and will have to order it. Once I read it, expect a full review.

Until then, it is time to begin thinking about the holidays. If you have any suggestions for books I should review, I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Here Comes the Judge

Back in February I wrote about how John Grisham was entering the world of children's literature. I said at the time I would withhold my final reviews until I actually read the book. Well, I read the book and wrote a review for the column I publish in family magazines. Now I'm offering the review here. Enjoy.

“Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer”

By John Grisham
For 8 – 12
Think Encyclopedia Brown on steroids. John Grisham puts his well-honed writing skills to work in this tale about a 13-year-old boy obsessed with the legal system, who finds himself embroiled in a murder trial. This well-structured story is fast-paced with interesting characters. Rated 4 (peril, topical issues, anti-climactic ending, murder)
Nancy Drew doesn’t stand a chance against the legal mind of Theodore Boone. John Grisham puts his considerable writing talents to work in this tale about a 13-year-old boy obsessed with the legal system. Theodore comes from a legal family. Both of his parents are lawyers and his uncle was a layer as well.

Theodore is not athletic, but he has a great legal mind and often helps his classmates with legal advice – at no charge of course. When one of his classmates comes to him with a problem Theodore soon finds himself embroiled in a murder trial. The story is well-structured with interesting and well-developed characters. The action is fast paced and the legal insight is entertaining. Although this installment ends in a seriously anticlimactic manner, future stories have been primed to include scary twists, turns and plenty of action.

Move over Hardy Boys, there’s a new mystery solving teen in town and I am looking forward to the next installment in the series.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Falling for Fairy Tales

I'm still on a fairy tale kick. This week the fairy tale is a modern twist on an old theme. It uses a literary technique with which readers will be very familiar. Enjoy.

“Falling In”

By Frances O’Roark Dowell
For ages 9 – 12
Its not unusual for modern authors to find inspiration in childrens' classics, such as "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz." This tale follows Isabelle, a young girl, as she falls into another world, explores the themes of family, friendship, strength and finding one's self. Rated 3.75 (fantasy, implied peril,

Obviously inspired by “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wizard of Oz,” this tale follows sixth-grader Isabelle Bean, who feels out of place in this world. She believes she belongs somewhere else, so when she falls into another world she believes she has finally found her real home.

Isabelle discovers that the children in this mysterious world spend much of there time hiding in the woods from an evil witch. Unafraid, and a little intrigued, Isabelle sets off to find the witch. Along the way she makes friends with an peculiar girl and finds a healer that happens to be her grandmother. She discovers it is her grandmother that everyone believes is a witch. Since Isabelle knows there is not actually a witch she sets out to inform everyone, but things do not go as easily as she hoped.

This interesting narrative will appeal to non-fantasy readers and has a satisfying conclusion. The tale is wrapped in twists, turns and deeper plot points that explore family, inner strength and happiness. The only drawback is in the pacing, which finds the occasional chapter plodding along at a tiresome pace.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Annie Enchanted

In keeping with my last review of "The Secret Lives of Princesses" I've decided to stay in the fairy tale realm with another book about princesses. Although it is clearly aimed at preteen girls this book has adventure and a strong secondary male character. If you enjoyed Ella Enchanted you'll probably like this book as well.

“The Wide-Awake Princess"

By E. D. Baker
For ages 9 – 12

It’s “Sleeping Beauty” through the eyes of her sister, Annie. She's immune to magic which means she remains wide awake when "Sleeping Beauty" curse takes hold, hence the title of the book. Look for whimsy, adventure and tongue-in-cheek references. Rated 3.5 (humor, princesses, relationships)

This twisted fairy tale follows Princess Annie, who happens to be immune to magic, as she sets out to find Prince Charming. Now you must understand, she's not looking for her "Prince Charming." Oh no, she's looking for the Prince Charming in the hopes of breaking the curse that has put everyone in her kingdom to sleep. Along the way she stumbles into many a fabled story – “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Princess and the Pea” and “Rapunzel” are just a few of the tales you'll recognize.

With a down-to-Earth heroine, humor and a good message for young girls, Baker teaches us that everyone has special gifts. Our job is to embrace the gifts we've been given and be proud of who we are. Princesses and a little romance make “The Wide-Awake Princess” best suited for girls, but there is enough adventure to keep boys interested as well in this fun, fast and enjoyable book.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

No Ordinary Princess

When I run through my neighborhood I see family upon family playing in their yards. They play catch, soccer, basketball, chase, and just about anything else you can think of that is fun. Last week I saw one family playing on their playground and I can only imagine that since there was a little girl dressed up like a princess standing at the top of the tree house portion of their playground, the daddy the daddy must have been a night out to rescue her. Whatever their game was it reminded me of a wonderful book I read on a recent trip to the bookstore.

“The Secret Lives of Princesses”

By Philippe Lechermeier
Illustrated by Rebecca Dautremer
For Ages 4 - 10
This beautifully illustrated book takes you well-past the fairytale princesses you’ve met in movies. With charm and humor the world is introduced to a bevy of enchanting, magical and captivating royal ladies. Rated 4.5 (poetry, humor, beautiful illustrations)

I imagine this is how Shel Silverstein would have handled the world of princesses - with a deft use of language, poetic rhyme and a touch of quirky humor that makes both children and parents laugh. You’ll meet Princess Oblivia, who forgets everything, and Princess Tangra-La who never met a dance she didn’t like. You’ll also learn how not to offend dangerous fairies who cast evil spells. The illustration add beauty and charm to the already creative romp through fantasyland. At 88 pages the only drawback to "The Secret Lives of Princesses" is it's length. If you have any princesses in your life this is definitely a book for them.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Back to School

New Mystery Series from Clements Makes School Cool Again

I am a big fan of Andrew Clements. I have read several of his books with my oldest son. They are smart and entertaining stories with well-crafted characters, plots and lessons. When I saw that Clements was writing a series I was a little interested. Then I discovered it was a mystery - very interesting. I decided to read it. not a very difficult deceision really.

“Keepers of the School: We the Children”

By Andrew Clements
For Ages 8 - 12
Think “Hardy Boys” as written by the author of “Frindle” – likable characters, interesting twists, a gold coin from 1783 and a mystery. Ben is a sixth-grader in a small New England town. His parents have recently split and his school has been sold to an amusement park company, which plans to tear it down. Now he reluctantly finds himself embroiled in a mystery and ready to defend and save the school. Rated 4.5 (intrigue, slow pacing, deep subject matter)

Most children have read Frindle by the time they begin fourth grade and are very familiar with Clements’ school stories. This year, when your children head back to school there will be a series of school stories waiting for them on the bookstore shelves. “Keepers of the School” follows Ben, a sixth-grader in a small New England town. His parents have recently split and his school has been sold to an amusement park company, which plans to tear it down.

On his way to class Ben finds the janitor having a heart attack. The janitor gives Ben a gold coin from 1783. It has been handed down through the years beginning with the founder of Captain Duncan Oakes School. It reads, "First and always, my school belongs to the children. DEFEND IT." A few hours later, the janitor is dead and Ben finds himself involved in a mystery surrounding the school, its history and the impending demolition. With the help of his friend Jill, Ben sets out to defend the school.

Clements does a great job creating likable characters with depth. Full-page and spot illustration in pen and ink add to the drama and excitement. There is even a pretty exciting sailboat race where Ben walks away a hero. This is a good choice for boys and girls looking for a mystery.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

To Read, or Not to Read?

I have been a Shakespeare fan for a long time - probably since high school. Any time I see a book that uses Shakespeare in some way shape or fashion I can't help but read it. This one looked entertaining so I went for it. But that was never really in question.

“The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet"
By Erin Dionne

For ages 10 - 14
This middle school story features “mean girls,” Shakespearean scholars in full Elizabethan garb, a seven-year-old genius, a girl named Hamlet who wants nothing more than a quiet, boring year of school and a budding romance. Even in this crazy scenario Hamlet finds a way to stand out and believes in herself. It’s an enjoyable read with good character development. Rated 4 (teen situations, humor, Dali, Shakespeare)
Hamlet, except for her name, is a typical eight grade girl. She would like nothing more than a quiet, boring year of school. Of course when your parents are Shakespearean scholars who live, breathe and eat Shakespeare 24 hours a day it can be difficult to blend in. Throw in a seven-year-old sister who is a genius and will attending classes with you and your life will probably be anything but quiet.

The plot is fairly typical school story stuff with a budding romance, friendships and finding pride in one’s self. Throw in a couple “mean girls” and a strained sibling relationship and things begin to get interesting. Dionne does a wonderful job mixing humor and teen drama. The discussions of Shakespeare, Pollack and Dali keep things interesting. Hamlet’s character is well-developed and very likable. When Hamlet finds she actually has talent she learns that even in a family of extraordinary people you can find ways to stand out and be proud of yourself. This is a fun read that will be enjoyed best by middle school girls.

Monday, August 23, 2010

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Pigs!

A couple years ago I reviewed a book titled, "Chickens to the Rescue." It was a silly adventure with some super chickens on the farm. My children giggled every time we read it. Recently I was in the bookstore and saw the follow up book, "Pigs to the Rescue."

“Pigs to the Rescue”

By John Himmelman
For Ages 3 - 6

If you read "Chickens to the Rescue" you'll find you have already read this story. Just replace everything with pigs. It's cute, silly and good for early readers. If you have not read "Chickens to the Rescue," you'll enjoy this story of pigs who try to help but seem to comically bungle everything. Rated: 3.75 (humor, early reading, fun illustrations)

Himmelman revisits the Greenstalk’s farm in this fun follow-up to “Chickens to the Rescue.” Once again the story flows day-to-day through the course of a week. Each day there is a problem and each day the pigs rush out to save the day. Whether plowing a field, rescuing a kite, or throwing duck a birthday party the pigs do everything in their power to help. Unfortunately for farmer Greenstalk, the pigs are a little too eager and take everything to the extreme. Instead of furrows they dig trenches. And poor duck is swept into the sky by a large bunch of balloons.

What makes this story really fun are the illustrations. The ridiculous outfits and situations are depicted with great detail. Study each picture for funny details, you’ll find plenty. “Pigs to the Rescue” is fun for any kindergarten or first grade student still learning to read and looking for a laugh.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Along Came a Spider

There was a time when I can honestly say I had a "fear" of spiders. Since having children I have learned to face my fears in the hopes I won't transfer them to my kids. My children can develop their own fears, they don't need mine. I may not be afraid of spiders anymore but I do still have a healthy respect for them, and I still find them freaky. So I have to admit it took me a while to begin reading "The Deadlies."

“The Deadlies: Felix Takes the Stage”

By Kathryn Lasky
Illustrated by Stephen Gilpin
For ages 6 - 9
"The Deadlies" is an "on the road" adventure with a family of misunderstood brown recluse spiders that don't measure up to their species' reputation at all. Misfits struggling to find a place to fit. This tale has a great message and good dialogue, but the plot meanders quite a bit. Rated 2.75 (spiders, bigotry, family relationships, humor)
While theaters are bombarded with previews for the animated adaptation of Lasky’s "Guardians of Ga’Hoole" series, her new book series was quietly placed on bookstore shelves. “The Deadlies” follows a family of brown recluse spiders who seem to be misunderstood, even among spiders. Felix and his family would never think of biting a human and, except for the mother, they are not very reclusive. They even made a theatre cat their god-spider.

Felix, the only boy in the family, is an artist. He loves music and painting. He does not want to hide and highlights the struggle of understanding even within his own family. When he comes out of hiding to conduct with the maestro at the grand symphony hall Felix is discovered and subsequently loses a leg. Fear of the exterminators who have been called in forces the family to move. After a couple moves and run-ins with discriminating spiders the Deadlies head cross-country to the Boston Public Library.
The story is about acceptance and finding a place where you don’t have to hide who you are. A good message to be sure, but it get lost in the meandering “on the road” plot with which even Bob Hope and Bing Crosby would have struggled. The bright and humorous dialogue, especially noted between Felix and his sister, is the story's strongest point.

My nine-year-old has shown no interest in "The Deadlies" and would probably be bored with it quickly, but my six-year-old may enjoy the narrative. I'll be interested to see where Lasky takes the characters from here and if she'll be able to add any pizazz to the premise.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Ode to Testosterone

Sometimes you pick up a story because the cover calls to you. Other times it is the title. Often these stories don't live up to the expectations. Occasionally they surpass them. With a goofy name like "Shark Vs. Train" I had no idea what to expect, but it looked fun on the shelf. I can honestly say this was one of those occasions that surpassed any expectations.

“Shark Vs. Train”
By Chris Barton
Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
For ages 3 - 7
Imagine two adolescent boys playing with toys in another room while you overhear the conversation. Now imagine the scene from the toy's perspectives. "Shark Vs. Train" will make you grin, smile and maybe even laugh out loud as it romps through boyhood machismo. Rated 5 (best for boys, humor, nothing objectionable)

Two boys race into the playroom and each grab their favorite toy – a shark and a train. It is not the beginning of a joke, rather the beginning of an uncanny account of adolescent imagination. My shark could beat your train! My train could beat your shark! I’m sure as a parent you can visualize this scenario with very little prompting. A parent’s perspective makes this story fun for the adult reader, but the toys’ perspectives make it a blast for everyone.

After the boys grab their toys we see everything through the eyes of the shark and the train. The battle to see who is the best powers through a variety of competitions: pie-eating, carnival rides, sword fight, hot air ballooning, burping and so on. That's right, you can't have an adolescent book of contests without at least one bodily function contest. At least this time it was burping. Each contest leads to another and another, and the action get crazier and more imaginative along the way.

The illustrations add to the fun with wonderful character development and visual jokes. Shark and Train are captured with the raw energy necessary to pull off this imaginative romp through adolescent machismo. The illustrations are paired perfectly with the the story to create an endearing ode to boys.

Know any boys that are having birthdays soon. Legos might be on the wish list, but "Shark Vs. Train" is a book they will read over and over again.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Biographies Can Be Cool

I am always looking for biographies that my children will enjoy reading. Other than the "Little House on the Prairie" series and "The Diary of Anne Frank," biographies too often have no style or pizzaz and children can't sink their teeth into them. So few children ever hear the amazing stories and get inspired by real people. Recently I found a book that I am recommending to everyone. If I had a vote on the Newberry Medal this year it would be for "The Dreamer."

“The Dreamer”
By Pam Munoz Ryan
Illustrated by Peter Sis
For ages 8 - 12
This is a tale of the power of the human spirit and how it thrives in words and senses and raises one young boy out of an abusive family and into one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. It is engaging, intriguing and beautifully written. Ryan's fictionalized childhood biography of Pablo Neruda may be the best book I have read this year.
Rated: 5
The Good: Thought provoking and well-structured story married with eloquent sensory details and vivid prose.
The Bad: The first few chapters are quite depressing and slowly paced.

"The Dreamer" is the fictionalized biography of Pablo Neruda's childhood. For those unfamiliar with this name, Neruda is the Nobel Prize-winning, and one of the most widely read, of the 20th century. Born in Chile as Neftali Reyes, Ryan meshes factual information with with an engaging story.

Neftali is a shy boy, often sickly, who from a very young ages sees poetry in the world around. Words and sounds seem to dance in his thoughts and carry him to other worlds. Neftali's spirit grows and thrives despite his fathers abusive negativity and totalitarian rule on the family. His only respite comes when his father is out in the jungle on business. The injustice Neftali feels at home opens his eyes to the injustice he sees happening to the indigenous Mapuche people who are being forced form their homeland, often beaten and even murdered. As Neftali grows he savors every word he reads and finds his talent for telling a story.

Ryan is eloquent in the telling of Neruda's childhood and savors the sensations and experiences of the world around him. Whether telling the tale of a swan shot by a hunter, or standing in the crashing surf as waves batter Neftali under the watchful eyes of his father the story is always poetic and rhythmic in the telling. Ryan intersperses poetry between the chapters that mimic Neruda's style as well.

This is an intriguing and elegant tale that begs to be read. The plot lines of social injustice, the power of words and abusive family situations never take over the story, but server admirably to keep the focus on the strength of the human spirit. This is a beautiful book and a must read.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Be Awesome!

Last week I wrote about playing superhero as a child and pretending to have powers that could save the day. It wasn't always superheros that I pretended to be. Sometimes I just pretended to be me, but "awesome." Generally that just meant being extra cool, like James Bond without the spy mission. That is why I could totally relate to the main character when I read a the first book in a new series by Lara Bergen.

“Sophie the Awesome”

By Lara Bergen
For ages 7 - 10
Think "Judy Moody" or "Junie B. Jones" with proper grammar. This tale of an adolescent girl with an abundance of personality who discovers her real strength will be most enjoyed by elementary girls.
Rated: 3.25
The Good: Authentic dialogue with situations and characters that are easy to relate to.
The Bad: Somewhat cliche storyline and character development.

Sophie is a lively third-grader that feels that her life is boring. She is in the middle of the pack when it comes to everything. She is neither tall nor small, she is the middle child, and she is only average at academics and sports. Don't feel too sorry for Sophie, she knows she is special. However, Sophie wants everyone else to know she's special too.

First things first, Sophie decides a name change is in order. Maybe she could be like the heroes in her books: “Nate the Great,” “Marvin the Magnificent,” “Ramona the Brave,” or “Harriet the Spy.” Thus Sophie the Awesome is born. Now she just has to prove to everyone that she is awesome. Living up to a name like that is not easy. As Sophie tries to earn her new name she finds that “awesome” may not be the perfect name for her, but she does find a good one that fits.

Bergen taps into the elementary schoolgirl's psyche with storytelling ease. The dialogue is authentic without being grammatically incorrect, as in the "Junie B. Jones" series. Fans of “Judy Moody” will also enjoy this series. Be sure to also read the second book in the series, “Sophie the Hero.”

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Super Heroes to the Rescue

How many kids want to have super powers or be super heroes? I can remember wearing a towel-cape and running around the house. Of course that was just this last Saturday. Hey, I've got two kids and a Dad has to do what a Dad has to do. Besides, what dad doesn't want to be a super hero to their kids?

“The Amazing Adventures of Nate Banks: Secret Identity Crisis”

By Jake Bell
For Ages 7 - 10
This series is fun and fast. Think “Captain Underpants” without the potty humor. “The Amazing Adventures of Nate Banks" is a chapter book that will appeal to young boys like a comic book.
Rated: 3.5
The Good: Super heroes and a good message.
The Bad: Light on quality content.
Nate Banks is Kanigher Falls' biggest comic book expert, which also means he is an expert on super heroes. Usually it is only the big cities who get their own heroes but, when Ultra Violet appears in Kanigher Falls Nate becomes a little obsessed with the mysterious purple-clad hero. Nate is struggling a little in school, but Professor Content gives Nate a chance to earn a little extra credit. All he has to do is put a report together on Ultra Violet. That is when things really get interesting. Nate discovers Ultra Violet's secret identity, unwittingly aids the big, bad guy and helps save the day.

"Secret Identity Crisis, “Freezer Burned,” and the other installments in the series are fun and fast reads. Think “Captain Underpants” without the potty humor. Each issue also contains an 8-page comic book that helps tell the story.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Land of the Lost or Summer of Fun

Every young boy loves an adventure. Okay, maybe not every one, but a great many do. They love to pretend, play sword fights, search for treasure and discover uncharted lands. Summer happens to be a great time for this kind of play too. Children have all day to play outside and often take real adventures with their families. You and I know them as vacations. This book happens to offer an exciting adventure for those rainy summer days that are sure to put a damper on the outdoor adventures.

“Jake Ransom and the Skull King’s Shadow”

By James Rollins
For Ages 9 - 14
Best for boys, but girls will enjoy it as well. Think Young Indiana Jones with a little Doctor Who mixed in and you’ll end up with “Jake Ransom and the Skull King’s Shadow.”
Rated: 4
The Good: A fun fantasy-adventure with a mystery thrown in.
The Bad: Perilous situations and some unbelievability (even for a fantasy.)

Three years after the apparent deaths of their parents on an archaeological dig in the Yucatan, Jake Ransom and his sister are invited to London for the opening of a museum exhibit featuring their parent’s work. Aside from a couple journals and a broken Mayan coin, the siblings have very little to remind them of their parents. So they go to London for the opening. Just as a solar eclipse occurs Jake and his sister are transported to another world, with dinosaurs, Mayans, Romans, Egyptians, Vikings, and Neanderthals all living together in a mystical valley.

The pace of the action quickens as Jake tries to uncover a way back to “reality” while simultaneously preparing for a battle with the evil Skull King. Along the way Jake discovers clues that suggest his parents may still be alive. I guess we’ll have to purchase “Jake Ransom and the Howling Sphinx” to find out more.

Rollins deftly mixes historical facts in with fiction and fantasy for a fun and interesting adventure. This mysterious adventure includes battles, alchemy, peril, and interesting relationship dynamics. It will certainly make for good summer adventure reading.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Princess or Bust?

Every little girl seems to be enamored with princesses. It seems only natural the whole "princess thing" will would continue as they grow older. Of course, if you begin referring to cliques as princesses the term may not be held in such high regard for long.

“Diary of a Would-be Princess”

By Jessica Green
For ages 9 - 12
This "school" story follows Jillian, a fifth grade girl in a small Australian town. “Diary of a Would-be Princess” has potential, but the pacing and coloquial Australian dialogue drag it down. It has some highlights worth reading, but the rest falls flat. Rated 2.5 (cliques, adolescent relationships, procrastination)

What appears to be a great new book for young girls about how to deal with life, relationships, and school turns out to be only mildly interesting. The story follows Jillian James, a fifth grader in a rural Australian town. Written as a journal, everything is told from Jillian’s perspective, aside from a few notes from her teacher. The journal offers an interesting look at a girl who begins the year wanting to be in the popular “princess” clique, but throughout the year develops group of friends, mostly male outcasts, that are uniquely her own.

The pacing is slow and the Australian slang can be difficult to decipher at times. Jillian has a nice flare for humor and her character is well developed, but the supporting cast remains a little flat. Unfortunately, by the time Jillian makes her climactic and thoroughly entertaining speech on the virtues of procrastination, most readers will have put off reading this book until later in the summer.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Spirited Summer Reading

Okay with supernatural story lines, but don't want your daughter reading "Twilight?" What are you to do? Sift through the book shelves at your local bookstore and keep your eyes peeled. There are plenty of books that fit that description without the violence and sexuality that comes with most of the vampire genre. I happened upon this fun summer read and enjoyed it enough to share.

“I So Don’t Do Spooky”

By Barrie Summy
For Ages 10 - 15
Best suited for 10 - 13 year old girls, "I So Don't Do Spooky" follows a spirited young girl and her ghostly accomplices as she solves paranormal mysteries. It is entertaining and fun with just enough drama to keep it honest, but it probably won't leave a lasting impression. Great for vacations. Rated 3.5 (mystery, ghosts, humor.)

Think 13-year-old Nancy Drew with ghosts thrown in. This is the second book in the series by Summy that follows Sherry Holmes Baldwin. It’s a teen mystery with a twist. Sherry’s mother is a police officer who passed away and is now a ghost at The Academy of Spirits. With the help of her ghostly mother and grandfather Sherry sets out to discover who is stalking her step mother. Summy keeps the pace quick and the content light-hearted even when discussing death and family loss.

At the heart of this mystery is a story about friends, family and relationships. The dialogue is believable and the situations are somewhat universal to 13-year-old teens without being overly dramatic. It is not shifty enough to really draw you into the mystery, nor does it really qualify as a super natural thriller. I see these books as fun, light vacation fare that are best read in paperback. They are charming and enjoyable, but probably won’t leave a lasting impression.

Sorry for the Delay

I have been delayed in posting new reviews, discussions, interviews and such and I apologize. With my recent move to North Carolina came a new job, house hunting, and generally finding a new work flow for my book reviews. The good news is I have not stopped reading. So I now have a stock of books to review. I will begin by posting a review for a fun summer read later this evening.

Thank you for your patience and support.

Monday, May 24, 2010

To Read or Not to Read?

That is the Question.

Every year the American Library Association releases a list of the most "challenged books." These are the book that receive the most requests to be banned from libraries sand schools around the country for being offensive in one manner or another. This year, Stephanie Meyers' "Twilight" series made the list at #5. I am no fan of the Twilight series. I believe it sets a bad example for teen girls with sexual content and abusive relationships. I, however, do not think it should be banned. I am all for the first amendment. I believe the best way to keep bad and inappropriate books off the shelves is not to buy them. What amazes me most about the lists is that "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Catcher in the Rye" still make it every year. You would think by now something would have replaced them.

You can check out this and past year's lists here http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/banned/frequentlychallenged/21stcenturychallenged/2009/index.cfm

What do you think of the annual "challenged books" list? Should authors exercise personal responsibility? Should parents be aware of what their children are reading? Should the government protect us from questionable literature? And who decides what is questionable literature?
The American Library Association has really taken to the lists. They have even put together a celebration week.
Let me hear your thoughts.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Road Trip Reading

I will be traveling with my children soon. Hopefully we will get a few chance to go places during the summer, but we'll begin with a rather long drive from Missouri to North Carolina. The drive got me to thinking about our last trip. We packed the car and headed to Hilton Head, SC for a vacation.

Our family likes to vacation and travel, even if only for a daytrip. For some reason though, we never seem to stop teaching. Okay, teaching might be an overstatement. What I should say it we try to have as many educational experiences as possible without our children feeling bamboozled. For instance, during Spring Break we went to museums in Savannah, GA, learned about the old Central Georgia Railroad, and a great deal about both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. We also spent time at the beach building moats and castles, finding sea creatures and studying them, and discovering interesting shells (nature, cause and reaction, etc.) We even went to a quilt show. One of the bigger highlights, though, was reading "Charlotte's Web." This was the second time for our nine-year-old and the first for our five-year-old.

"Charlotte's Web" is a wonderful book and both my children loved it. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. "Charlotte's Web" wouldn't have won numerous awards and had two movie adaptations if it wasn't a good and beloved book. Sometimes, however, it helps to be reminded of the reasons a classic is a classic with the new eyes and ears of our children.

As we read I remembered all the wonderful things about the book and E. B. White's marvelous writing style. Then I gained a new appreciation for the book. The real beauty to "Charlotte's Web" can be found in the book's versatility for teaching. Purely from a writing standpoint "Charlotte's Web" offers great insight into writing with emotion and description. Take a closer look at the story itself and there are lessons and discussions to be had on friendship, love, life, death, babies, reproduction, vegetarianism, spelling, pride, word definitions, and so much more. It's a treasure trove of experience and potential knowledge waiting to be opened, shared, and learned.

This is not the first time we read a chapter book while on the road. We try to find a book to read on all our family trips. That's not to say we don't let our children play video games and watch movies, we do. They also read books on their own and play car games, but family reading with a special book is always one of our favorite times during the trip. It's usually a great learning experience for all of us.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Surfs Up!

It was 90 degrees yesterday. It's suppossed to reach that mark again today. I guess that means it's almost summer. All I can think about is getting to the beach. Once I have had my fill of sand in my clothes maybe I'll take a quick trip to the mountains. But I'll end up back at the beach. Maybe I'll try my hand at some surfing or waterskiing this summer. It's been a long time since I have attempted either. If something like surfing sounds interesting to your young children, have I got a book for you.

My Daddy Taught Me to Surf

By Joseph Tomarchio
Illustrated by Shane Lasby
For Ages 4 – 8
It's not the next Caldecott Winner, but "My Daddy Taught Me to Surf" is an enjoyable introduction to surfing, community and love of the ocean. This paperback book will get young children revved up to hit the waves. It's just too bad the illustrations aren't better. Rated 3.5 (how-to, conservation, elementary illustrations)

Do you live near the beach? Are you planning a beach vacation? Yes? This book may be just right for you. The story follows a young boy and his father as the father patiently explains the fundamentals of surfing to his son. He covers everything – the parts of the surfboard, terminology, understanding of waves, and respect for nature, and of course, instructions for actual surfing. The text is a little long, but still enjoyable. The only real area of this book that is subpar is the illustration work. They are somewhat elementary in approach and style.

Children interested in surfing will be raring to go after reading “My Daddy Taught Me to Surf.” Surfer moms and dads will remember their first wave with a smile. So if you are planning a surfin’ safari pick up a copy  of this book for the trip. Visit taughtme2books.com for availability near you.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Science of Harry Potter

I can't quite decide which book to review next. I just finished "Kingom Keeper III," "Keepers of the School," and I am halfway through "Trackers." When I am not reading I am busy researching schools in my free time. That got me to thinking about how easily some books fit into a school curriculum.

Even though the "Harry Potter" series ended it is far from old news. The last two movies (book 7) are set to be released this year and Universal Studios Orlando just opened an exciting new theme park, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Needless to say, "Harry Potter" is still popular. You can even use the series for teaching science.

A couple years ago, when we were homeschooling our eldest son we read "Harry Potter and the Socerers Stone." We incorporated science into the lessonplan with a couple Harry Potter Spells and Potions Science Activity Kits. We covered flight, chemistry, snakes, physics and more. We were teaching science at a second grade level and were able to adapt the projects to fit. The kits could easily be adapted for kids in second through fourth grades. The projects were fun and actually worked to get our son interested in science. Although anyone who knows our son knows that wasn't a difficult task.

We still have some of the materials. We have found that they also make great summer fun activites.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In Too Deep

As the weather continues to grow warmer more people are planning summer vacations. Where do you like to go? The mountains? The beach? I grew up at the beach so I love to return as often as I can. I even like spending time at an aquarium when possible. It just makes me feel more at home. Strange, I know.
I even like reading books that take me to the beach or ocean. That is why I recently read a book called "Dark Life," which takes place on the ocean... and in it.

"Dark Life"
By Kat Falls
For Ages 10 - 14
The post-apocalyptic story of "Dark Life" is packed full of suspense, and peril. This undersea tale is set in a science fiction backdrop right out of the movies, but the plot is pure action-adventure with good guys, bad guys, and governement conspiracies. Rated 4 (science fiction, action, peril, violence)

In a future where land is scarce and the population is extremely crowded the new land rush is under the sea. You won't find Ariel or Sebastian the Crab in this tale of pioneers farming the ocean floor for a land deed. This intriguing post-apocalyptic story follows 15-year-old Ty, the first child born under the sea, and his family. His parents helped develop the underwater homesteads and Ty's younger sister has a way with the sea life. When "Topsider," 15-year-old Gemma runs into Ty he feels obligated to protect her. Throw in a missing brother, a gang of pirates, government conspiracies, plenty of undersea wonder, science-fiction, action galore, and a touch of teen romance and you have a pretty exciting book.

The science fiction and futurescape are only backdrops to this tale. The real story is in the character building, the battle to survive on the frontier, the terror of the Seablite gang, and the suppossed government conspiracy. The premise is intriguing and there are enough twists to keep the plot from becoming too predictable. The "dark gifts" the undersea children develop are an interesting aspect of the story as well. Maybe they will be explored more in future adventures.

Katt Falls delivers a very cinematic action-adventure from the opening sequence right to the end. She smartly sprinkles a few slower paced chapters in so you can catch your breath, stretch your legs, and dive back into the nail-biting suspense. "Dark Life" is a fun book, but it's not for the young or faint of heart. Ty, Gemma, and just about all the pioneers face life-threatening situations on a regular basis. Older kids and teens should enjoy it though.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Get a Clue!

There are no shortage of adventure series for young readers and preteens. The series are trying new things as well, using new media and video to compliment the story lines. One such series has been very popular, "The 39 Clues." They are fast-paced mystery-adventures that wisk readers to exotic locations around the world. "The 39 Clues" include an online game, collectible cards, and a sweepstakes. Another series, set for release in May, using a 360-degree media approach is "Trackers," but I'll review that one at a later date.

"The 39 Clues: The Emperor's Code"
By Gordon Korman
For ages 8 - 12
This fun adventure-mystery is very fast-paced and filled with interesting facts about China, emperors, Kung Fu, and Mount Everest. Intrigue abounds and it will have you guessing and striving to solve "The 39 Clues." Rated 4 (danger, adventure, education)

We have now been following young Amy and Dan Cahill, and their au pair Nellie Gomez, around the world for seven books. "The Emperor's Code" is the eighth book in the series. In the first installment we learn that Amy and Dan were orphaned as youngsters and forced to live with their not-so-friendly aunt. Then their beloved grandmother dies. The funeral brings together an interesting assortment of Cahill relatives and an interesting proposition. Dan and Amy can each take a two million dollar inheritance or tear up the check and search for 39 clues that could make them the most powerful people in the world. They choose the hunt and thus the adventure and danger begin.

Dan and Amy have been to France, Austria, Russia, Egypt, Australia, South Africa and now they are in China. Their last adventure was more cold and ruthless than previous books. It also brought the first real casualty to the story line. However it did answer one question — Dan and Amy are Madrigals. The end is coming, but can Dan and Amy keep their sanity and family intact through the last couple books.

As we begin book eight Amy and Dan are struggling with the revelation of their Madrigal lineage, their parents' possible dicey past, and trusting anyone. They are in China trying to discover a clue of which the last emperor, Puyi, had knowledge. Things get interesting when Amy and Dan get into a nasty argument and Dan runs off. Then the Kabras show up and kidnap Dan. After escaping he ends up traveling with another cousin, Jonah Wizard; all the time hoping to find Amy and wanting to quit the hunt.

In the meantime, Amy and Nellie are searching everywhere for Dan. They even recruit an uncle, Allistair Oh, to get information. They finally discover Dan is with the Wizards and decide they must stay on the hunt in order to find them. The dizzying adventure culminates at the top of the world (Mt. Everest) with the Holts, Kabras, and Dan and Amy fighting for a single vial of liquid.

This installment of the hunt has less ruthlessness and mortal peril, although danger still exists. The action is fast and furious and the historical facts are very interesting and blended well with the fictional plotlines. From the Great Wall to the Shaolin Temple there is something for every reader in "The Emperor's Code." I was particularly intrigued by the experimental French helicopter and ascent to Everest's summit. Answers are coming quickly now, but so are the questions. What is Nellie's story and how do the Madrigals fit into the Cahill family? With two books left in the series it will be interesting to see how everything is wrapped up — or if doors will be left open for another series.

My family has read each book in "The 39 Clues" series. Some are better than the others, but all have been fun and interesting. I know my son is looking forward to the last two books — and so am I. The ninth book, and next to last installment, in the series "Storm Warning" is set for release May 25.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Middle School Cool

What makes a book a good vacation book? Is it adventure, friendship, mystery, humor, depth of character? Does any good book also make for a good vacation book? The way I see it, you can read any good book while on vacation, but vacation books are generally lighter reads and just for fun. They are not going to win Newberry Awards, but they will entertain you. They can be about any subject at all. Actually, they are often about school life and friends. Which brings me to my new review on "Cinderella Cleaners."

"Cinderella Cleaners #1: Change of A Dress"
"Cinderella Cleaners #2: Prep Cool"
By Maya Gold
For Ages 9 - 13
The "Cinderella Cleaners" series is fun, fast-paced, and lighthearted. The stories focus on friendship and middle school drama with hairbrained schemes and hijinks for a little added excitment. Fairytale overtones spice up the adventures with happily ever after moments. Rated 3.5 (humor, disobediance, lying, friendship)

Diana Donato is a theater obsessed eighth grade girl, living just outside Manhattan in a small New Jersey town. She lives with her loving father, rigid stepmother, and spoiled stepsisters. "Change of A Dress" is the first book in the series which will have four or five out before the end of the year. The stories follow Diana and her best friend Jess as they get themselves in and out of trouble, build relationships, meet new people, scheme, and generally live normal middle school lives.

So how does "Cinderella" fit into the story line — aside from being the name of the family business, and the whole stepmother/stepsister bit, that is? Well, the first book also contains "Cinderella" overtones with a red carpet appearance and VIP party (the ball), a lost shoe, a special dress, a lot of manual labor, and a prince. Only this time the prince is the hottest young actor on broadway.

On suggestion from her stepmother, Diana is forced to begin working at the family dry cleaners, which means she won't be able to try out for the her school's Fall theater production of "Our Town." Diana is devestated. Things don't seem so bad when she is befriended by the highschool girls, Cat and Elise, who also work at the cleaners. While at work Diana comes across two VIP tickets to the gala opening of the hottest new broadway play. Now all she has to do is figure out how to attend, what to where, and how to appease her stepmother.

The second book in the series is "Prep Cool." Again we find Diana and Jess mixed up in typical 13-year-old behavior. Not as many "Cinderella" references in this storyline as the first and that is probably a good thing. The same players are back plus a few new ones. When Diana and Jess get the chance to go to a dance at the extremely upper crust Foreman Academy things get a little interesting. Jess hits it off with one of the prep school boys and that does not sit well with the queen of the prep school girls. She steals Jess' new iPhone and begins to text mean and insulting messages to all of Jess' friends. Diana, with the help of her friends from the cleaners, devises a plan to sneak into Foreman Academy and steal back the iPhone. Things are never simple though. Diana must act the part of a prep school student, fool the teachers, take a pop quiz, and not get caught by the mean girls... or anyone else. It is all quite exciting.

"Cinderella Cleaners" is a fun series. The stories are fast-paced and entertaining. The characters are easily relateable, the relationships are well-developed, the dialogue is believable, and the plotlines are fun. The series does not break new ground, but it is far more suitable for young readers than "Gossip Girl." The only real drawback to this series may be the fact that it unknowingly glorifies breaking the rules. Although Diana is a good girl, she still breaks the rules. She lies to her parents, sneaks out, and "borrows" clothes from the cleaners. She feels guilty about all of it and she does receive punishments, but never for the big things. After all, the stories do borrow from a fairytale — Diana learns lessons and everyone ends up happily ever after.

For more adventures with Diana and "Cinderella Cleaners" look for "Rock & Role" in June and "Mask Appeal" in August.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

It's Cool

Summer vacation is cool even if the weather is hot and the humidty makes everything sticky. I've spent time in dry heat too. It's not much better. So swealtering heat is not cool, but summer vacation is. Confidence is cool. Inventions can be cool. Imagination is cool. And opening a brand new book is definitely cool... at least to me. So when I saw this new book, "Mac Slater Hunts the Cool" I thought, "this could be cool."

"Mac Slater Hunts the Cool"
By Tristan Bancks
For Ages 8 - 12
A quick-paced story about imagination, being yourself, and questioning what is cool, "Mac Slater Hunts the Cool" is entertaining and interesting. Unfortunately it lacks depth and misses the chance to be great. Rated 3.5 (dangerous stunts, cliques, mild bullying)

Mac Slater has never thought of himself as cool. He lives in an old bus next to the artists' village in Kings Bay, Australia. His mother is a diehard hippie and his father is a protester. His best friend Paul is an outcast as well, but together they work well. They both like to invent - currently it is a flying bike. So it strikes both Mac and Paul as odd when some hip young corporate types offer Mac a chance to hunt cool things, film them, and post the videos on the Coolhunters website. Only one catch. Mac has to compete with the "it" girl fashionista, Cat, to see who will get the gig and a chance to fly to New York.

The story questions what "cool" is and where you can find it. This is a pretty good idea and it provides for some fun adventures and plenty of humor. The story briefly explores class structure in high school, from geeks to jocks, but it balks at the chance to delve deeper into teen psyches. "Mac Slater Hunts for Cool," is a quick paced story about friendship and imagination. It's about being yourself and happy with whoever that is. That's cool.

Tristan Banks' background in acting and filmmaking comes through in the pacing and structure of "Mac Slater Hunts the Cool." It sort of reads like a movie. Unfortunately it reads like a mediocre movie with no real depth. On the surface it is enteratining and fun. It's light and humorous, but it misses too many opportunities to be a great book. Not cool.

If your kids want to read something fun and interesting, this story is cool. This is a planned series so maybe Bancks will explore more depth as the story continues, but don't expect more from "Mac Slater Hunts the Cool" than what is on the surface.