Wednesday, December 28, 2011

For Twelve Days of Christmas

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But don't forget Christmas is twelve days so don't turn off the Christmas carols or put away your children's Christmas books quite yet. You still have time to pick up a new book or read a classic as a family.

"A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas"
By Charles Dickens
For Ages 16 and older
Cold-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge has an ideological, ethical, and emotional transformation after he is visited by the ghosts of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Rated 5 (Christmas, Ghosts, scary)

We've all seen the movie. For that matter we have seen several incarnations of the movie from the classic-styled showings to the modern retelling, Scrooged. But how many of us have actually read the original unabridged text? We recently read it as a family, my wife, myself and our 11 and 7-year-old boys. I was a wonderful experience for all involved.

With the best opening line on literature, "A Christmas Carol" pulls the reader right into the story. "Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that... This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate." A creepy beginning for a story that has become synonymous with Christmas spirit. But to be honest most of the tale is dark, dreary and quite frightening.

Poetic and flowery, Dickens' use of language is incredibly descriptive, although often over the heads of modern readers. Yes, even adults will have a difficult time understanding some of what is written so its good that we have been so exposed to the story already. The language and imagery will lead to several intersting conversations with your family about the interpretation of events in Scrooge's life. You'll find passages in the story you never knew existed and develop an entirely new appreciation for the movies and plays you see every Christmas season.

I was sure my children would be bored by the book, but to my surprise they were the ones that kept asking for "just one more page" to be read before lights out or "another chapter after dinner." They laughed, were scared, angered, and felt empathy at all the appropriate times. I was very happy they enjoyed it and amazed at how well the writing held up after all it was written in 1843. "A Christmas Carol" is generally credited with restoring the holiday to one of festivities and joy. It has never been out of print and is one of the most adapted and retold stories in history.

We may decide to read "A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas" every year -- a new family tradition.

Two on the lighter side:

"Ready, Freddy! A Very Crazy Christmas"

By Abby Klein
Illustrated by John McKinley
For Ages 4 - 8
Freddy’s twin cousins, Kasey and Kelly are visiting for the holidays. Freddy fans know that something always goes a little haywire in his stories, but the more kids you add the crazier things get. Rated 4 (Christmas, family, mischievous fun)

This tale will hit close to home for anyone who has spent Christmas with extended family, had several children running around at one time or hosted a sleepover for your child at your house. Whether hunting for the perfect tree or making beards with whipped cream, Freddy and his cousins know how to have fun. Klein keeps the story entertaining and easily digestible for young readers. They can relate to the characters and understand their motivations. McKinley adds lighthearted illustrations to help readers fill in the visual blanks. "A Very Crazy Christmas" does a good job capturing family fun.

What’s good: Young readers will enjoy the silliness and fun.
What’s bad: Unlike "Ready, Freddy! The Perfect Present," there is no thoughtful message.

"Oh, What A Christmas!"

By Michael Garland
For Ages 4 - 8
What would happen if the harnesses on Santa’s sleigh malfunctioned on Christmas Eve and Santa was left without his reindeer? That is the question at the heart of this fun Christmas tale. Rated 3.75 (Santa, humor, fiction)

When Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and the rest of the reindeer fly off leaving Santa stranded in a field, it looks as though Santa may have a serious problem. How will he deliver his sleigh full of presents to boys and girls around the world on foot? Then Santa sees a barn full of sleeping animals and gets an idea. Maybe pigs can fly. He puts a makeshift team of animals together from the barn and takes off into the night sky. After an eventful night delivering presents, Santa returns to the barn and is reunited with his reindeer. Before he leaves the barnyard animals he leaves a decorated tree and plenty of presents. It's a fun new look at Santa's Christmas night.

What’s good: Bouncy text and bug-eyed animals pop with excitement and humor.
What’s bad: Garland does not break new ground with this story.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pets for the Holidays

As you may have noticed, I took a short break from posting reviews. I needed to catch up on my day job and enjoy the holidays a little. Now I am back with a new review and more to come.

"Double Trouble #1: Show & Tell"

By Abby Klein
Illustrated by John McKinley
For Ages 5 – 10
Abby Klein is at it again with "Double Trouble." Think "Ready, Freddy!" with twins. Rated 3.75 (mishchief, humor, pets)

Fans of "Ready, Freddy!" will be happy to know Abby Klein has a new series of adventures coming out in 2012. Freddy’s twin cousins, Kasey and Kelly, offer double the excitement in this new paperback series. Second grade will never be the same. When their class studies pets, everyone is allowed to bring one pet to school for Pet Day. Kasey and Kelly can’t wait, but they have a problem. Too many pets and no idea which one to take. How about Harry the tarantula or Zippy the turtle? Maybe their rabbit or hamster or gecko would be a good choice? Whether setting up an all-out pet race to decide which pet goes to school, teaching dogs new tricks or enjoying mayhem at Pet Day there is plenty of fun for young readers to enjoy in Double Trouble.

As a kindergarten and first-grade teacher, Klein does a good job keeping young readers interested with relatable characters and situations while offering solid behavioral messages with which parents can agree. McKinley brings his energetic illustrative style, that readers have come to know in the "Ready, Freddy!" books, to "Double Trouble." So it will seem very comfortable for kids to begin this new series. Although the books may slightly skew to young girls, boys will find many of the stories just as entertaining as their favorite "Ready, Freddy!" books.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Scream Like You Mean It

Halloween is over. For all of you vampires and werewolves inspired by the season and just now coming off your sugar high, I have a couple reviews just for you.

"Killer Pizza: The Slice"

By Greg Taylor
For Ages 10 – 14
 Four months after the first "Killer Pizza" tale ends, "The Slice" begins. Toby, Annabel, and Strobe are back in action in a new fast-paced adventure with new monsters, perilous fights and interesting locations. Rated 4.5 (violence, peril, monsters)
Our "Scooby Gang" begins their adventure in New York City, where they are scheduled to take part in a training program for promising Killer Pizza employees. This trip is not about pizza though. It is about monsters. Note: If you missed the first book you need to understand that Killer Pizza is a successful pizza chain that acts as a front for monster hunting and relocation.

In New York the team is sent to meet a Dekayi girl at Central Park and bring her into headquarters so that she can be protected from her own kind. Very little is known about the Dekayi, beyond their existence. Things take a predictable but thrilling turn. Soon the Dekayi monster-girl, who we come to know as Calanthe, is living with Annabel in Hidden Hills. The gang protects her, learns about her people, and tries to help her assimilate into normal everyday teen life. It’s easier said than done.

True to the first book, “The Slice” stays solidly in the B-movie fun zone and mixes in a little “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” with “Men in Black.” It delivers a zesty entrĂ©e of action, monsters, and humor that will have preteen and teen readers turning the pages. Hopefully Greg Taylor won’t make us wait too long for the next sequel. There is plenty of peril, frights and gross out moments. If your preteen or teen is prone to nightmares, be cautious with this take out. Otherwise, order up and enjoy this tasty treat.

"Wolven: The Twilight Circus"
By Di Toft
For Ages 9 – 12
What do you get when you combine werewolves, cryptids, the military and your average teenage boy? An action-filled adventure called, "Wolven: The Twilight Circus." Rated 4.25 (monsters, violence, peril) 

In this follow-up to "Wolven," Nat Carver, the average teenage boy and a royal wolven named Woody run away and join the circus. The first tale left Nat, his family and Woody on the run from the British government and on the world’s "most wanted" list.

Now, traveling with a special circus of mythical and magical creatures Nat is becoming more aware of special skills such as telepathy, hyper-sensitive smell and even a shape shifting. His new skills will be tested as they face evil vampires (not all vampires are evil) and their arch nemesis Lucas Scale, a twisted werewolf who made a deal with a demon for greater power.

Reading the first book helps, but it’s not necessary. Toft does a great job adding humor and gross-out moments for preteen readers. The action is plentiful and the characters are well-developed. Readers become emotionally attached to Nat, Woody and the other strange creatures of the circus and will enjoy the supernatural lore and magical moments of illusion without much of the gore that can be found in edgier young adult materials. It is a very solid addition to the "Wolven" series.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

What's So Punny?

Ready for a new review? Of course you are. Why else would you be here? Before I get to the next book, I want to announce that my reviews have been picked up by The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina. Yay! Now for a new review.

"Seriously, Norman!"

By Chris Raschka
For Ages 10 - 14
It's "39 Clues" without the deadly enemies and family fortune and... well, the 39 clues. This meandering journey of observation and imagination is filled with big ideas, adventurous travel, quirky characters and humor. Rated 4 (bad language, perceived peril, adventure)

Best know as an illustrator on books such as, "Sourpuss and Sweetiepie," "I Pledge Allegiance" and "A Ball for Daisy," Chris Raschka makes his fiction debut with this adventure that seems to be more about enjoying the journey than reaching any destination. Everything begins when Norman Normann miserably fails his high school entrance exam. A good score would have gotten him into an exclusive high school. His well-meaning but oblivious parents hire Balthazar Birdsong, a highly-unorthodox personal tutor to prepare him for next year's exam. Balthazar gives Norman a dictionary and the directive to read it from cover to cover. Balthazar also encourages him to observe the clouds, and use his imagination.

When the dictionary entries seem to for tell the future Norman learns that his father sell bombers for a living and is mixed up with some strange and shady characters. Before long Balthazar is teaching Norman and his friends Leonard, Anna and Emma. They decide to rescue Norman's father, Orman, from the bomber business and track him halfway around the world. Good thing the tutoring seems to have prepared Norman for anything that he may face.

"Seriously, Norman!" is filled with unique perspectives, definitions, absurdity, puns and wordplay. There is plenty to like and plenty to dislike. The ideas seem to ramble as the story meanders from one event to another. Parents who are concerned about their children learning and using bad language should be aware of pages 220-221, which cover a four-letter word beginning with the letter S. It does nothing to propel the story, so if you are reading the book as a family feel free to skip those two pages.

Although "Seriously, Norman!" is entertaining, I think I prefer Raschka's picture books.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Gone to the Dogs

I took my family to the state fair last weekend. We had a great time walking through the animal paddocks looking at cows, sheep, chickens and so much more. So I am going to stay with animal inspired reviews for a little longer.

“LaRue Across America: Postcards from the Vacation”

By Mark Teague
For Ages 4 – 8
Ike LaRue fans cheer! He's back on an eventful trip across the country with none other than Mrs. Hibbins' cats. Rated 4 (pets, travel, imagination)

We catch up with Ike as he and his owner, Gertrude, are preparing for a vacation cruise. All goes awry when their neighbor Mrs. Hibbins is hospitalized. Gertrude volunteers to watch her cats, cancels the cruise and begins a cross-country road trip instead. Sounds like a good idea with two cats and a dog, right?

Ike sends postcards from the road, that tell his melodramatic version of events. At each stop he implores Mrs. Hibbins to allow him to send the feisty kittens’ home. But it is not meant to be. His exaggerated memories are brought to life in black and white and contrasted against the colorful realities of roadside America. As fate would have it the family roadster breaks down in Death Valley, CA where they meet a cruise captain. They end up cruising back home. Teague creates a fantastic romp across America in this fourth adventure with Ike LaRue.
What’s good: Masterful illustration style, sense of humor and smart story.
What’s bad: Slightly choppy pacing.


By Patrick Carman
For Ages 9 - 14
Think "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" set in a hotel and throw in some ducks. Rated 4 (mystery, preteen, mild peril)

Eccentricities, mystery and zaniness abound in this creative adventure that longs to be placed on the shelf next to “James and the Giant Peach,” "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" or just about any other book by Dahl. Leo is a 10-year-old boy who works with his father as the maintenance crew of the Whippet Hotel in New York City. The Whippet is no ordinary hotel. Owned by the highly eccentric Merganzer D. Whippet, it is filled with strange rooms, creatures, flaky staff, odd guest, and ducks of course. According to Merganzer, they are very useful creatures. Unfortunately Merganzer is gone and nothing is as it should be.

When a mysterious box and message show up, Leo learns that he has four days to discover four hidden boxes and save the hotel. From what, he does not know. That’s when the really odd stuff begins. Leo’s adventures take him to hidden floors, hidden rooms, hidden elevators and much more. Ghosts, fire-breathing dragons and flying goats make appearances during the search for boxes. There is a sense of danger but no real threat. A disgustingly mean hotel manager, an incredibly bratty hotel guest and a true friendship round out the tale. This book has everything, including depth to the characters. My kids had me read it with them twice during the first week we had it. And we enjoyed it both times.
What’s good: Extreme imagination and pure fun.
What’s bad: Old plot presented in a new fashion.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Animal House!

The last few posts have been inspired by storms. Although there are still plenty of storms brewing in the world today, I am going to switch gears and focus on animals for a bit. Here are two quick ones:

“Colonel Purple Turtle's Purple Turtle Journal”
By Rocknoceros
Illustrated by Missy Sheldrake
For Ages 3 – 6
Colonel Purple Turtle keeps a journal where he shares stories about all his friends and neighbors in Soggy Bog. Rated 2.5, because the CD is enjoyable (animals, journal, CD)

Rocknoceros is a band from Virginia that makes original music for children. This is their first book. Inspired by songs from the CD, Colonel Purple Turtle, the book is an effort to catch the same spirit and humor that is captured in their music. While I enjoyed the songs on the CD, I was left a little flat by the book. The journal entries didn't really tell a story. The writing became captions for the illustrations.
The illustrations were a mixed bag as well. If the entire book had been illustrated in the line drawings that were sprinkled throughout it would have been very nice, with a touch of whimsy and character reminiscent of A.A. Milne. However, most of the full-color art appears overworked. That said, the Truman Coyote illustration did intrigue me. Rocknoceros could easily create more books, but they may want to consider hiring a writer to adapt their songs in the future.
What’s good: The songs are the CD are fun and entertaining for young kids.
What’s bad: A serious lack of story.

“Not Inside This House”

By Kevin Lewis
Illustrated by David Ercolini
For Ages 3 – 8
When Livingstone Columbus Magellan Crouse goes exploring he always brings home a treasure. Rated 4 (pet care, parental relationship, humor)

It begins with a bug, but his mother will have none of it. Not in her house. He doesn’t fuss or complain he just goes exploring. Each time he returns with a bigger potential pet – a mouse, a moose, even a whale. When all was said and done, and all the animals were back in the wild, Livingstone returned home with a little bug. His mother shrugged and hugged her son.

Lewis rants and rolls through the progressively more outrageous situations in this mild-mannered suburban household. Ercolini captures the ridiculousness with a flair that will have children giggling at each spread. It is a delight for story time and could start some interesting conversations about pets.
What’s good: Pets, adventure and charm.
What’s bad: Although the rhyme is not perfect it is fun.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

It's the End of the World As We Know It

I am going to continue the storm theme for a couple more reviews. This one however throws a great deal more destruction and disaster into the mix beyond just a storm.

“Ashes, Ashes”

By Jo Treggiari
For Ages 12 - 16
What happens if the storms really are the beginning of the end? Are disease and war next to come? "Ashes, Ashes" picks up the story with the survivors and the relationships they build as they try to withstand the harsh conditions and the mysterious bad guys. Rated 3.75 (danger, suspense, teen)

After the floods, earthquakes, and plague there isn’t much left of New York City. There are survivors. Sixteen-year-old Lucy lives by herself in an area near the marshes. It used to be part of Central Park. Now, it's just part of the devastated landscape. Most of the survivors band together and live in a commune in the crumbling city. They survive, but just. They hide from the doctors who kidnap and run tests on any people they can grab - looking for a cure to the plague.

Lucy is different than the rest of the survivors. She never had vaccinations. Her blood may carry a cure. When she joins the survivors in the commune, the doctors discover who she is and will do just about anything to get her blood. Even capture her friends and infect them with the plague. “Ashes, Ashes” is a fast-paced, action-paced tale of friendship.

Teen readers interested in tales of post-apocalyptic life and dystopian societies will enjoy "Ashes, Ashes," at least until they get to the end. It falls a little short and seems a little weak.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Crazy Weather, Anyone?

We had a few tornado warnings this week The kids had to run their drills during the school day. It must have made a big impact because that was the entirety of our dinner conversation that day. All of the storms got me to thinking about books where weather is a character in the story. I've read several over the last few months. Here's one your preteen readers may enjoy.


By Garth Nix and Sean Williams
For Ages 9 - 14
Storms and special powers deliver an exciting tale as siblings battle evil in a small ocean-side town. Rated 3.75 (peril, creep-factor, mystery/action)

Shortly after their father arrives home from a long trip, Jack and Jaide are caught in a very strange storm. why is it strange? First, it is in their house. Second, strange voices emanate from the storm. Thirdly... aren't the first two enough? Jack's and Jaide's father manages to get the siblings out of the house just before the entire thing is destroyed. They have no idea what is going on, but their father seems to know something. Unfortunately for Jack and Jaide, they are shipped off to live with their Grandma X and her two unique cats in a small Portland town before their father explains anything. You'd think with a start like that this story would be off and running from page one. Unfortunately it takes a while for the to get moving. However, when it does get moving “Troubletwisters” is non-stop action. As the story progresses Jack and Jaide discover they have special powers and they must learn to wield quickly. Evil is coming and it wants to claim the preteen siblings, just as it does rats, insects and even some people. Jack and Jaide are in a great deal of peril thought the story and the creepiness factor is high. Younger or immature readers may want to steer clear of this series. But fans of Garth Nix’s and Sean William’s other works should enjoy “Troubletwisters” as well.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Endless Summer Fun

My boys and I were recently watching "The Endless Summer," a pretty interesting surfing documentary from 1966. Surprisingly they really got into it. The movie got me to thinking about Labor Day weekend, the unofficial end to summer, and spending time on the beach. It all reminded me of a very nice picture book I read this summer.


By Suzy Lee
For Ages 4 – 8
If you have spent any time on the beach during the summer, you have surely witnessed this book in real life. "Wave" follows a small girl discovering the joys of ocean waves. Rated 4 (fiction, summer, no words)

Without a single word, Lee, brings the tale of a young girl discovering the beach and ocean waves to life with charcoal, acrylics and a touch of digital manipulation. The illustrations focus the reader on the simple give and take between the waves and the little girl. First, she chases. Then, she is chased. The waves crash forward and then recede. It’s a simple ballet that ends as a wave finally splashes down upon the girl leaving her wet from head to toe -- and smiling from ear to ear. That is when the little girl discovers other wonders of the sea, such as starfish and shells.

This delightful tale of childhood exuberance and curiosity is wonderfully illustrated with a elegant palette of blue and grey. The simplicity of style and illustration make this a wonderful book for bed or nap time with your children.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Adventures Continue

Now that my kids are going back to school I am thinking about adventure. We've had adventures and travel all summer and now we begin the adventure that is the school year. Here are two quick reviews for middle grade readers.

"The Loser List"

By H. N. Kowitt
For Ages 9 - 12
It’s not "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," but kids who like that series will like this book too. Rated 3.75 (school story and bullying)
This diary style story follows comic book lover Danny Shine through the school year at Thorn Underwood Middle School. Bullies, graffiti, sharpie tattoos and stolen comics keep this enjoyable story moving at a fast pace. Sure "The Loser List" is similar in style and content to the Wimpy Kid books, but the message is very strong and enjoyable. Be who you are and be proud of it.

"The 39 Clues: Vespers Rising"
By Rick Riordan, Peter Lerangis, Gordan Korman, Jude Watson
For Ages 9 - 12
The hunt for the 39 clues may be over but, the Cahill’s story is far from finished in "Vespers Rising." Rated 4 (mystery, historical adventure, peril)
The newest edition in the 39 Clues series introduces us to a new family – the Vespers. With a history lesson on the creation of the secret formula, Gideon Cahill, Madeleine Cahill and Grace Cahill we learn about the newest threat to Amy, Dan and the rest of the Cahill family. Action, adventure and historical facts are blended into fast fiction and an enjoyable read. As in all the other books in the series there is a great deal of peril and even some deaths. So it can get pretty intense for some readers. Fans of the series will enjoy the family background and the adventure.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Not Your Parent's Pixies

My last review was of a picture book about girls being proud of who they are. It showed how girls needed to embrace their inner strength. This time I am sticking to that theme but raising the minimum age limit to 13.

By Carrie Jones

For Ages 13 and up
Looking for a coming-of-age novel with a good, strong, female character who is just trying to find herself? How about one with supernatural monsters, vampire-like pixies and a little Norse mythology? I know it sounds like a stretch but, "Entice" actually pulls it off rather successfully. Rated 4 (supernatural, violence, romance)

The third book in this entertaining pixie series by Carrie Jones begins where the second left off. Our heroine, Zara, has just become the one thing she has always seen as evil. She has become a pixie. More precisely, a pixie queen. Don't fret if you have not read the previous novels. This one can be read by itself, although knowledge of "Captivate" would help.

Zara is a normal teen with normal teen problems. She also has this whole evil pixie war thing happening in her town and teens keep going missing. That said Zara is strong and strong-minded. She wears her heart on her sleeve, is loyal to a fault, impulsive and a pacifist that truly sees the dangers in the world. She is a leader without even knowing her own strength. Now back to the pixie queen bit.

In order to save her boyfriend, who happens to be a werewolf, Zara must travel to Valhalla. Obviously mere mortals cannot make the trip, so she relies on her inner strength to become the thing she fears and hates most -- a pixie. The pacing is quick, but much of the action seems a little hackneyed but Zara's character development is engrossing enough to make you overlook the shortcomings. As Zara, her friends and family try to find the entrance to Valhalla, she struggles with who she is. She struggles with mixed emotions about her lost boyfriend and the other male in her life, her pixie king. This is a struggle to which every teen will relate.

"Entice" is well-written, with quick banter and humor laced throughout the action. There is mystery, horror. tragedy and romance all entwined in this haunting tale. Jones creates imagery that lingers with you long after you close the book. The romance is always just under the surface and never overly sexual.
This is a good book for girls into the fantasy genre with supernatural elements. I said of "Captivate" that, "the quality writing and imagery keep it from being another Twilight or Vampire Diaries. The character development and toned-down sexuality keep it form being gossip girl with monsters." I'd say this holds true for "Entice" as well. So you can follow the real story of friendship, love, family and finding your inner strength.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Be All You Can Be

I recently finished reading “Entice.” It's a young adult novel about pixies, the supernatural and the choices that make us who we are. I was going to review it immediately, but after thinking about it for a little I decided to highlight a book for younger girls first.

“Not All Princesses Dress in Pink”

By Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple
Illustrated by Anne-Sophia Lanquetin
For Ages 4 – 8
This book is all about being a girl in today's world. Does your daughter want to be a princess or a tomboy? How about both? It's fun, it's action-packed and it will make every little girl smile. Rated 3.5 (princesses, tomboys, self-confidence)

Does your daughter want to be a princess? Maybe she does, but she wants to do it with her own panache. Some princesses wear soccer cleats and baggy shorts with their “sparkly crown.” And some princesses where their jewels while they fix things with power tools. Some princesses even drive dump trucks – while wearing a sparkly crown if they want. Girls of all ages will relate to the princesses in this book and smile.

Not so much a story as it is a message, “Not All Princesses Dress in Pink” makes sure everyone knows that princesses can wear and do whatever they want. It’s an important message for young girls to hear. “Not All Princesses Dress in Pink” keeps the reader’s attention with whimsy, color and energy and would make a good choice for any read-aloud story time.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Geek Power

My wife and I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows a little over a week ago. We had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Several people showed up to the movie in costume. We saw Harry, Hermione and Ron waiting in line. Every generation seems to have a movie or show that inspires fans to dress up as characters. Just take a look at Comicon and you'll see what I am talking about. Today I'm going to review a book that goes right to the heart of fantasy books, games and geeks.

"Geek Fantasy Novel"
By E. Archer
For Ages 11 - 14
What would you get if you could take an online fantasy game and turn it into a book? Probably something like “Geek Fantasy Novel.” Fairies, battles and fantastical lands fill the pages with adventure. Rated 2.75 (fantasy, peril, heroism)

Ralph is your basic run-of-the-mill geek. He know the world of computers and fantasy gaming as well as anyone. He's even created his own online games. The one thing that makes Ralph a little different isn't obvious to anyone but himself -- he is forbidden from ever making a wish. When Ralph is invited to set up a wireless network for his royal relatives in England his life gets very interesting. Several wishes, exploding bunnies, mixed up fairytales and disgruntled narrators later, you’ve got a fun but frustrating adventure.

This fast-paced jaunt through fantasyland is schizophrenic and confusing, but many kids will relate to Ralph and see their own childhood imagination games in the story. They'll enjoy the geek turned hero aspect of "Geek Fantasy Novel," but don't expect it to be the next "Harry Potter."

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Proud To Be Me

My boys went to the summer matinee yesterday. They saw Diary of a Wimpy Kid. One of the main messages was to be yourself. It made me think of a book I read a little over a month ago.

“I’m Me!”

By Sara Sheridan
Illustrations by Margaret Chamberlain
For Ages 4 – 8
You don't need to pretend when when you love being yourself. That's what "I'm Me!" is all about. Rated 3 (imagination, family time, bad manners)
Little Imogen and her aunt always find it fun to pretend, but as this story shows us, sometimes being yourself is the most fun of all. Imogen’s visit to her aunt’s house begins with a little peek-a-boo through the mail slot. The adventure progresses from there. As Imogen begins to say what she wants to do today, her aunt jumps in with suggestions. A pirate, a princess, even an astronaut, but Imogen always replies with a simple no. When Imogen finally reveals that today she just wants to be herself, they rush off to the park to play and swing and buy ice cream.

The colorful illustrations mirror the energy of the text and add a playful style to this fun tale for afternoon story time. Although some children may point out that the aunt is being rude to constantly interrupt this playful story will be a hit with children who know who they are and their aunts.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Family Vacation

I just returned from a camping trip with my family. It was great - hiking, fishing, cooking over the fire. The entire affair got me thinking about a graphic novel I just read.

"Bad Island"
By Doug TenNapel
For Ages 9 - 14
Think Land of the Lost meets Gilligan's Island. A sailboat vacation turns into a strange science fiction alien romp on a deserted island. Rated 3 (aliens, family bonding, peril)

Mom, dad and two children hop on a sailboat for a family vacation, get caught in an unexpected storm, wash up on a deserted island and end up in the middle of a alien kidnapping gone awry. The sporadic flashbacks to the alien war and abduction explain the strange island and it's inhabitants. Honestly though, that is not what this story is about. The aliens and strange fantasy style creatures are just here for teen interests. This tale is about family time, what it means to be a family and sticking together through thick and thin.

TenNapel made a big splash a couple years ago with "Ghostopolis" but "Bad Island" never really climbs to that level. The illustrations, reminiscent of "Kim Possible" are lively enough to carry the character personalities deep into the content, but the tale seems disjointed and a little over the top. I know what you're saying. "It's a graphic novel. Of course it's over the top." I guess I just don't buy the whole alien war/kidnapping angle.

I did, however, enjoy the castaways trying to escape the hostile island for their suburban peace bit. Each individual int he family had to learn to trust the others, lean on their strengths and work as a cohesive unit to escape. That was fun, humorous and entertaining.What can I say, it wasn't horrible and it wasn't great. Preteen boys will probably love it as they do most graphic novels. I know my son has read it several times already.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Here I Come To Save the Day

I have been very busy the last couple weeks, so it has taken me a little longer than normal to get a new review up. It's summer and that means I'm spending a great deal of time with my kids. But I've got a fun superhero graphic novel for you today.

By Dan Santat
For Ages 6 - 10
What do pets want more than anything? To spend time with their owners, of course. And if their owners are superheros, they may have to become sidekicks to get it. Superheroes, super-pets and super-villains make bring plenty of smiles to the adventure. Rated 3.25 (superheroes, family, comic violence)

Captain Amazing has been watching over Metro City for a long time. A very long time. He's getting old. That point is driven home when he bungles the take down of some villainous nere-do-wells. Captain Amazing decides it's time to take on a sidekick. Since he is out saving the city all around the clock, his loving pets decide to tryout for the part. So his hamster and newly acquired chameleon begin training, even though they don't seem to have any super powers. Amazing's dog gets into the act with a super power and his long lost cat, who can shock people, returns to the scene.

This story is less about crime fighting and more about sibling rivalry, loyalty and family. The pets are there for each other and Captain Amazing, no matter what. Santat, brings the highly energetic storyline to life with lovable characters and just enough heartstrings to bring a little depth to the shallow plot. Young superhero fans will be delighted by the easy-to-read structure and vibrant illustrations. Expect young readers to read "Sidekicks" a couple times before they begin looking for a sequel.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Get a Clue

I receive a lot of mysteries to review. So I'm sure I will post more throughout the summer, but this next one is the last of my mystery binge. I need to read something else.

“Jack Gets a Clue: The Case of the Beagle Burglar”

By Nancy Krulik
For Ages 5 – 10
If Dr. Doolittle were a young boy and a detective, he might be in stories similar to "Jack Gets a Clue." This simple mystery series is great for emerging readers. Available July 1. Rated 3.5 (mystery, talking animals, humor)
Young Jack has a pretty cool secret. After squirrels pelted him with acorns, Jack discovered he could speak with animals. So when his friend Leo’s homework goes missing and Jack’s dog Scout gets blamed, Jack knows he has to prove his dog’s innocence. He teams up with Elizabeth, who enjoys solving mysteries, to follow the clues to the homework stealing culprit.

This is a short chapter book series for young readers, similar to “Nancy Drew and the Clew Crew” or Encyclopedia Brown.” It’s fun and fast-paced with just enough mystery to keep young readers interested. If you like Krulik’s series, “Katie Kazoo Switcheroo,” or you are just a budding detective, “Jack Gets a Clue” is for you.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

More Summer Mysteries

I'm still on my mystery kick. I've got two more that will make for good summer reading. The first one has a historical bent to it. Enjoy.

“The Midnight Tunnel: A Suzanna Snow Mystery”

By Angie Frazier
For Ages 5 – 10
Think Nancy Drew set in 1905 in Loch Harbor, New Brunswick. From a dark and stormy night to a Sherlock Holmes-style detective, this fast-paced mystery is perfect for young girls. Rated 3.75 (mystery, danger, history)

Suzanna is a young girl who has been trained by her parents, the managers of a luxury resort, to be well-mannered and proper. Of course, Suzanna would rather be a detective, like her uncle Bruce Snow. He is the Sherlock Holmes of Boston. One dark and stormy evening the daughter of a wealthy guest goes missing and Suzanna thinks she may have seen it happen. Though no one believes her, Suzanna sets out to find the truth. She is very excited when her uncle is called, but quickly finds disappointment upon meeting him and his assistant for the first time. They are very sexist. Nevertheless Suzanna sets out to follow the clues and make sure justice is served.

Although the story begins slowly the place and time are superbly set. Children will be surprised to see the amount of work kids as young as 11-years-old had to do at the turn of the century. When the mystery begins it is fast-paced and intriguing with twists and turns enough to keep readers guessing. Young female mystery buffs will eagerly await Suzanna’s next big mystery.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mysterious Summer Reading

I've just returned from a wonderful vacation in Disney World with my family. The first attraction we rode at the Magic Kingdom was The Haunted Mansion . We always love that one. This time we discovered some new extras. The Disney imagineers have been hard at work. There are new interactive additions in the line and a few special surprises from the hitchhiking ghosts. The mysteries of The Haunted Mansion got me to thinking about reviewing mysteries.

“The Mysterious Four: Hauntings and Heists”

By Dan Poblocki
For Ages 8 – 12
There's a new Scooby gang in town and they want your help in solving the mysteries of Moon Hollow. This is a quick read for young readers. It's fun and help them practice using logic. Rated 3.5 (mystery, interaction, mild creepiness)

When Viola Hart moved with her family to the small town of Moon Hollow, she thought “there can’t be excitement everywhere.” But Viola loved a mystery and knew how to find them anywhere. Upon investigating her new neighborhood she makes quick friendships with Rosie, Woodrow and Sylvester. The corners of their yards come together in back of their houses, so this is where they convene their a new club – a mystery club.
The story progresses with several different kinds of mysteries. Each member of the club shares a story then asks questions on how to solve it. The mysteries are only slightly interactive since the answers are quickly provided, but they are fun and will help children use logic. The gang expose con artists, uncover the truth behind a local river monster and shed light on a far bigger mystery of the paranormal.

The book comes with a code for a free download of the e-book which contains an extra mystery. Young readers will enjoy the adventure and you can be encouraged that the mysteries entice children to pay attention to detail.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Bilingual Anyone?

Do your children take a foreign language class? Both of mine did, but no longer. The school system they attend now does not offer a language class until middle school. We have to supplement their language lessons at home. That got me to thinking about books that include a second language, such as "Bebe Goes Shopping." My children always enjoyed that one, but here is another:

“The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred”

By Samantha R. Vamos
Illustrated by Rafael Lopez
For Ages 4 - 8
If you’ve ever read “The House that Jack Built” you’ll understand the progressive-structured nature of this tale. The farm maiden and all the animals come together to make rice pudding. Rated 3.5 (rhyme, Spanish, recipe)

The story of the farm maiden build as she and the animals work together to make a rice pudding for the evening fiesta. Vamos uses repetition and relationships to expose children to Spanish words and their meanings. The accompanying illustrations, by Lopez, use vibrant colors and layers to evoke a folk art style that matches well with the traditional progressive-structured narrative. Readers will enjoy this rhythmic tale as a read-aloud at story time. They’ll also enjoy the rice pudding recipe and glossary of words, which can be found at the back of the book

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Summer Techno-Adventure

I read a lot of books. I'm not complaining about it either, I love books. But I have a hard time not reading all the books in a series once I get started, which can make reviewing new books difficult. Sequels get me every time. I just have to know how the author extended the story. Sometimes they do a great job. Sometimes they don't. Occasionally they leave the first book with a second already planned. Such is the case with the book I review for you today.

“Trackers, Book Two: Shantorian”

By Patrick Carman
For Ages 9 – 12
It's like "The Usual Suspects" for the teen set. The entire story is told from the confines of an interrogation room. The twists and turns keep you guessing about what's really going on through this fast-paced techno-mystery. Rated 4 (mystery, adventure, peril)

Taking up where Book One left off; Adam, Lewis, Emily and Finn are still in custody and being questioned by the FBI. In Book One we discover that Adam and his friends are high-tech experts capable of infiltrating anything and finding anyone. Soon they catch the eye of the Internet Security Directive, led by a man named Lazlo with the help of teen, tech genius Zara. The Directive wants Adam and his gang to work with them to catch Shantorian, a super-villain determined to shut down the Internet. It’s a complicated plot with several twists. Ultimately the team of friends find themselves in FBI custody being questioned for the theft of four billion dollars.

Adam is calm and collected in both books as he lays the entire story out for Agent Ganz. Evidence is offered in the form of videos which can be seen online, or the scripts that can be read at the back of the book. The pacing is fast, with little time spent on details other than those essential to the story. As the story unfolds the mystery becomes less about the theft and more about who Lazlo and Zara really are. Adam is the only character that ever truly gets developed but readers will find it easy to relate to him. Reluctant readers and tech-savvy preteens should enjoy this tale.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Train, Train...

I was thinking about summer travel recently and all the places people go. I don't know about you, but my children enjoy new places, especially those with subways, light rails, or monorails. Families with children who are fascinated with trains and subways will enjoy this picture book and if you are traveling to a city with special transportation opportunities this book should prove fun for the car.

“Subway Ride”

By Heather Miller
Illustrated by Sue Rama
For Ages 4 - 8
Lively illustrations and fun facts factual about the ten subway systems around the world make "Subway Ride" a must for children fascinated by transportation. Rated 3.75 (fun facts, transportation, world travel)

Five children head into the subway system for a trip to the park. Once on the train, each stop brings them to a new city, including: Atlanta, Moscow, London, Chicago and New York. In all, the children travel to ten different cities before reaching their final destination. When the doors open they leave the station and head out for a fun-filled day in the park.

Miller utilizes minimal text and flowing rhymes in an effort to keep the pace lively. Unfortunately the text sometimes comes across stilted, acting like a hiccup in the story's momentum. Rama’s vibrant digital collage and watercolor illustrations are easy for young readers to follow and add a pleasant energy to the story. The use of blushed lines and bright colors bring a sense of action and depth to each subway station. Young fans of trains and public transportation will be enthralled with the easy-to-digest information about landmark subways around the world.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Where For Art Thou...

Summer is fast approaching so now is the time to begin a summer reading list. You can add the last title I reviewed, "The Brass Monkeys." Although the book I am reviewing tonight is not Shakespearean in nature, "Romeo and Juliet" does play a significant role and it would make a good summer read for a preteen girls. 

“The Romeo and Juliet Code”

By Phoebe Stone
For Ages 9 – 12
A coming-of-age story set during World War II, this tale combines mystery, romance and humor to create an compelling narrative of the era. Rated 4 (mystery, war, romance)

It’s 1941 and the Germans are bombing London. Eleven-year-old Felicity Bathburn Budwig is is secreted out of the city by her parents and taken to her father’s family home in Bottlebay, Maine. There, she is unceremoniously left with The Gram, Felicity’s grandmother; Aunt Miami; Uncle Gideon; and “Captain Derek,” a 12-year-old adopted orphan recovering from polio. Shortly after her parents leave Uncle Gideon begins receiving letters from Felicity’s father, who is now in Portugal. However, he won’t let Felicity see the letters. Why? She teams up with Derek to discover where the letters are and break the mysterious code in which they are written. Throughout the story Felicity uncovers secrets about her family and finds her own place in the world.

Although at times it can be tiring, Stone's lyrical prose is easy on the ears and does a fantastic job of describing America on the brink of World War II. Stone uses humor, romance and mystery well to break the stress of self discovery and war. The characters are well developed and, event though the novel feels a bit old fashioned, readers will identify with Felicity and her scheming ways.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Funky Monkeys

Time for me to make up for lost time and load you up with some reviews. Expect several over the next few days. Yay, book reviews!

“Brass Monkeys”

By Terry Caszatt
For Ages 9 – 12
Think Jake Ransom, Alice in Wonderland, and Phantom Tollbooth all rolled into one. This school fantasy, adventure is a fun and strange trip that makes a great summer read. Rated 4 (fantasy, evil teachers, mild peril)

After being forced to transfer schools; Eugene, an awkward, eighth-grade boy and his mom move to a northern Michigan town in the middle of winter. Strange things begin happening as soon as they arrive in town. Several local kids take Eugene into their ranks, especially after they discover his nickname is Billy Bumpus. Evidently they had been given a message that “B.B.” was coming to town to save the school and all the students. Weird, huh? And things got even weirder on the first day of school. Then he meets his English teacher, Ms. “Ming the Merciless” Mingley – that's right, even weirder. Using a favorite tool of children’s literature, things really get moving when Eugene enters another world; an underworld. He begins and epic journey to save his fellow students and find McGinty, a legendary teacher who can stop Ming in her tracks.

The action is non-stop, the characters are believable and Caszatt develops the underworld of literary allusions and unused school supplies without error. He subtly makes a comment about poor teachers and the misguided education system sucking the life out of students. But he also shows how a few inspired teachers can make all the difference in the world. This is a page turner of a book that even reluctant readers won’t want to put it down until the story is over.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I See Paris, I See France...

Now that spring break and Easter vacation are over it's time for me to get back to work on the book reviews. The good news is I read a lot. So I have plenty to review.

"The Underpants Zoo"
By Brian Sendelbach
For Ages 3 - 7
There's a new zoo in town and you've never seen anything like it. There are more than zany animals that keep this tale fun for all. Rated 3.5 (humor, rhyme, underwear)
It's ridiculous and absurd. All the animals are in underwear. Hippos have hearts on their underpants, zebras have stars. What kind of underwear does a lion wear? How about a penguin? Sendelbach keeps this silly story moving with easy to read rhymes and fun illustrations. Kids will giggle with delight as ants join the party. This one is easy to enjoy as a read-aloud, especially with emerging readers.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Going on a Treasure Hunt

I went to the flea market last weekend with my wife and kids. We went in search of tiny treasures. We were hoping to discover something my wife could use as a subject for her 21/365 painting project. Our search took us to many vendors - some friendly, others not. We searched high and low for just the right object. We never found it, but we did make a discovery. Beneath some old chapter books and sandwiched between a few mediocre pictures we found a real treasure. It was just sitting there waiting to be read, a first edition "Being an American Can Be Fun," by Munro Leaf.

For those of you unfamiliar with Leaf's many of his books have been reprinted and are well worth a read. We own "Reading Can Be Fun," "Manners Can Be Fun" and "How to Behave and Why." All of Leaf's books are written for children without speaking down to them. The illustrations are black and white line drawings with a healthy dose of humor. By today's standards the books are a little long and don't have any of the quick cuts in story lines that have become popular in many new books. So they are best read as short chapter books. 

"Being an American Can Be Fun" was written in 1964 and explores our "unalienable rights" of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Leaf defines what each right means to the individual. He then compares these rights as they are in the United States to communist countries around the world. Sure some of the information in out of date, but it honest and direct about how blessed we are in the United States.

This is a great book and I would love to see it reprinted. Unfortunately I think they would edit the copy too much to try and be politically correct and not offend communists. If you have not guessed by now, we did buy the book and proceeded to read it to our very appreciative children. It also prompted some great conversations about the greatness of America as compared to communist countries.

So don't forget about classic out of print books. You never know what you'll find.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Little Magical Reading

Who could use a little magic in their lives? Who couldn't? Here are a couple magical tales to keep you thinking about possibilities and looking for adventures.

“Museum of Thieves”
By Lain Tanner
For Ages 9 - 12
Can we keep our children locked away form the dangers of the world forever? This is one of the main questions in "Museum of Thieves," a magical fantasy with a touch of the creeps. Rated: 3.75
In the city of Jewel children are chained to their parents until they are 16-years-old. They are kept completely away from danger, risk and life. Consequently the children of Jewel never have the opportunity to develop their strengths, their gifts or learn how to live. When Goldie has finally had enough she runs away. Looking for a place to hide she ends up in the Museum of Dunt. She soon discovers that the museum is a living, changing magical place with dark secrets as well as light. The darkness is rising as the Fugleman (sort of like a the mayor) tries to take over the city by force, spread fear and rule a fascist regime. Only Goldie and a band of misfits who live at the museum can save the world. It's a dark tale with a fantastic landscape, a depth of social discussions and a discovery of virtues. Unfortunately a few plot details are never ironed out. Luckily they aren't major plot points and the adventure is entertaining enough to help you forget about them.

“Bran Hambric: The Specter Key”
By Kaleb Nation
For Ages 9 - 12
Like Harry Potter, Bran Hambric is an orphaned boy with magical powers in a magical world. Bran is trying to discover his family, his family secrets and possibly save the world. Rated 3.75
In “The Specter Key” Bran discovers a mysterious box left for him by his mother. When his best friend appears to be killed in a brilliant flash of light, Bran sets out to discover the mystery of the box. In order to do that he must first find an object called the specter key and rescue his best friend. "The Spectre Key" is full of fast moving action and interesting characters. The inventive settings and unique story add to the magic and make this book a worthy compliment to your Harry Potter collection. But be aware that you may be lost of you haven't read the first book in the series.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Return of Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss passed away in 1991. Who would have thought we'd be graced by his special writing talents nearly 20 years later. As it turns out that is exactly what is happening. Random House has collected stories that Dr. Seuss published in magazines in 1950 and 1951. They have sine not seen the light of day. Now Random House is set to release this new collection as a wonderful new picture book. Although the tales are not technically new, they will be new to most of us. Check out the Random House press release below for more information.