Monday, February 26, 2007

Beginning Chapter Book Blogs V and VI Below

Because of a peculiarity of Blogger, my new posts reviewing some very popular beginning chapter mysteries are showing up below under the dates February 23 and February 24.

If you're looking for books that will help your kids leap into chapter books willingly, scroll down and take a look. These books are written on second and third grade levels and provide enough suspense to keep the pages turning.

Welcome, Instapundit readers!

If you're one of those grownups who read Bridge to Terabithia in the '70's, or '80's, or '90's and have seen or will see the movie, please post a comment on your take on its success as a film.

The InstaDaughter said it was "a-a-a-l-l-l right," which meant not bad but not great. Although she's a steady reader of fantasy, the computer-generated creatures bothered her, too, particularly in the rather sappy ending. I'd like to know what your kids think about the movie as a movie, and also how it compares with the book if they had read it first. I'd also be interested in whether they now want to go on to read the book after seeing the film.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Willing to Settle? Bridge to Terabithia, the Movie

In my post of February 16, (In a Theatre Near You...), I wondered aloud if the film version of A Bridge to Terabithia would live up to the art of the Newbery Award novel. I saw the movie today with my eleven-year-old granddaughter, and the answer is, sadly, no.

There is much about the film to like. The actors who portray Jesse Arons and Leslie Burke are very good, and the supporting cast is more than able. The portrayal of Jesse as an artistic but unnoticed middle child, bullied and harried at school, is straightforward and unsentimental, and Leslie is shown as a bright, imaginative, and empathetic newcomer who beats Jesse in a foot race and leads him to the fantasy world of Terebithia as effortlessly as she introduces him to her literary parents.

What seems jarringly wrong about the film is the introduction of computer-generated characters to represent the fantasy foes the children imagine inside Terabithia. Squirrels morph into bizarre chained-draped monsters, and crows become vulture-like harpies which chase and maul Jess and Leslie in the forest. In a segment which made me wince, Jess falls from their embattled tree house and is caught by the giant loamy hand of a tree troll, who places him gently on the earth.

Thinking I might be the only one bothered by these scenes, I looked up some reviews. I'm not. In Ty Burr's review in The Boston Globe he says,

Bridge to Terabithia is an ungainly, sometimes off-putting fusion of rural tweenhood and computer-generated fantasy.

A WalMart Middle Earth.

Jess and Leslie deserve better.

I know. I know. Fantasy action which takes place inside the characters' heads is hard to represent in film. Watching two kids shadow fight with invisible foes doesn't make for exciting movie action. The movie Chronicles of Narnia set the bar for fantasy spectacle. I know. Nonetheless, these segments just don't feel right within the flow of the story. As reviewer Melinda Ennis aptly put it, the computer foes "look like rejects from one of Jackson's Hobbit films."

I really hate to knock Walden Media, because they are one of the few film makers who attempt to make movies from quality children's novels such as Because of Winn-Dixie, Hoot, and Holes. Nonetheless, such novels have strong story lines that need no Hollywood cutesiness, gizmos, or sight gags to sweeten the mix.

But this is a story about two isolated people who connect as friends, and one of them dies. Leslie dies in a sudden and meaningless tragedy, and Jess has to find his way to some peace with himself for not being there, for not keeping the tragedy from happening. In the novel he passes the way into Terabithia on to his little sister Maybelle as a tribute to Leslie, and we know Jess is going to be all right.

If the film had ended that way, I might have seen the CGI elements in the midsection as perhaps an acceptable cinematic device. But it ends as Jess escorts May Belle across the bridge with the earthy troll and the mega-munchkins of Terabithia waving and beckoning, and oh, yeah, crowns popping onto their heads most magically. I'm reminded of the old commercial where the football player scores the winning TD and says, "NOW I'm going to DISNEYWORLD!!"

It would have been enough if the movie just ended with Jess leading May Belle across the bridge to Terabithia. It would have been enough just to know that the value of imagination and the power of friendship abide.

Maybe if a child hasn't read the book it's worth the price of a ticket to see the main story line, which states this theme admirably.

But, hey, that's just me. I'd like to hear what you all think.

Labels: ,

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Who's the Grownup Here? The Same Stuff As Stars by Katherine Paterson

If you know some kids who have seen and liked the movie of Bridge to Terabithia this week, here's a fairly recent book by Paterson, The Same Stuff as Stars, which I can enthusiastically recommend that they read.

In this story, eleven-year-old Angel Morgan and her troubled seven-year-old brother Bernie are dumped by their restless mother in rural Vermont with a great-grandmother whom they do not know. Grandma Morgan lives on a depressing and decaying farm and is kept alive, as she says, by "meanness" and the help of a mysterious trailer tenant of hers whom she calls "Santy Claus" and who buys her meagre groceries. Angel has to take charge of her brother and her grandmother, with a little help from the local village librarian and the mysterious renter she names "Star Man" after the astronomy lessons he gives her in a nearby field.

When "Star Man" tells Angel that she is made from the same elements that make the stars, she gains a mind-altering understanding of the connectedness of the world. With a poor and absent mother, an almost shut-down great grandmother, and a father still in jail, Angel manages to gain some control over the downward spiral and to somehow pull together the almost broken strands which make them a family.

This novel was hard to put down. Paterson has a way of taking the most distressing circumstances and the most vulnerable, yet resilient, characters and telling a story which makes the reader believe that we all are made from "the same stuff as stars." She has a gift, and her books are a gift to us.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Bridging the Gap V: Stepping into Chapter Books

Here is another early chapter series which features a detective with special powers.

For the novice chapter book reader who prefers a brainy, redheaded sleuth in her middle twenties, the obvious choice is the Cam Jansen series by David Adler, whose girl detective Cam Jansen has been entertaining mystery readers for more than a quarter century. Jennifer Jansen, nicknamed Cam for her photographic memory (Cam is short for Camera), solves mysteries by her total recall of every scene she has ever, er, seen. Accompanied by her loyal buddy Eric and comic relief class clown Danny, Cam seems to have a talent for showing up just before a crime is committed and an even greater talent for coming up with the crook just in time.

Cheerfully illustrated by Susanna Natti, these beginning chapter mysteries range from Accelerated Reader levels 3.2 to 3.9 and have around 60 pages. The "crooks" are non-threatening purse snatchers and the like, and Cam and Eric are never far from a parent, their school, or their homes when they do their detecting.

For slightly younger readers, Adler has also begun the Young Cam Jansen series, tayloring these shorter mysteries for readers between AR levels 2.3 and 2.8, and featuring a younger Cam Jansen as the gumshoe with the retentive memory.

The Cam Jansen mysteries have certainly met the test of time in their 26 years of publication and may just be the step-up chapter books that meet the challenge for the right reader.

Labels: ,

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Bridging the Gap IV: Stepping into Chapter Books

My first experience with Ron Roy's A to Z Mysteries came when a very bright and very assertive first grader came up with a couple of said mysteries and pleaded, "I read both of these all the way through by myself. I'll give them to the library if you will write the AR (Accelerated Reader) quizzes for me to take." With a request like that, what can you say but "Sure! Soon as I can." It didn't take long to find out that the kid had picked a winner, and we soon added many more A to Z Mysteries and quizzes to our early chapter book arsenal.

The series, written at third grade level, feature a trio of sleuths, Dink, Josh, and Ruth Rose, who live in Green Lawn, a pleasant town which just happens to have a lot of mysteries that need solving. The mysteries run the gamut from The Absent Author through The Talking T. Rex to The Zombie Zone. When the pace of crime gets slow around Green Lawn, the kids go on location, as in The Zombie Zone, where a camping trip in Louisiana bayou country uncovers a hoax in which a voodoo zombie is seen digging up a village graveyard.

The three main characters are well delineated, the settings are varied, and the plots feature real foreshadowing in which the reader may figure out the clues before the detective trio do. The mysteries involve kid-tested subjects such as (supposed) vampires, ghosts, robotic dinosaurs, quicksand, and wolves. Dink, Josh, and Ruth Rose are smart, funny, and resourceful kids, and adults are available but mostly uninvolved in the crime-stopping until time for the final collar.

Ron Roy has recently extended the initial 26 titles with a second series of the A to Z sleuths, including Detective Camp and Mayflower Treasure Hunt.

Another mystery series by Ron Roy, featuring kid detectives Marshall Li and K.C. Corcoran, is the Capital Mysteries, which include, in order of publication, Who Cloned the President?, Kidnapped at the Capitol, Skeleton in the Smithsonian, Spy in the White House, Who Broke Lincoln's Thumb, Trouble at the Treasury, Fireworks at the FBI, and to be published in May, 2007, Mystery at the Washington Monument.

These books have a lot to offer in the way of logical thinking, incidental learning, and just plain fun reading for the early chapter book crowd. And--Ron Roy's still writing more!

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Katherine Paterson's Latest: Bread and Roses, Too

In my post of February 16, I wondered out loud if the movie version of Katherine Paterson's classic Bridge to Terabithia could possibly live up to the universal acclaim of her much-read original novel. But Katherine Paterson isn't a one-trick pony. Following her success with Bridge, she quickly wrote another Newbery book, Jacob Have I Loved, for somewhat older readers and has gone on to pen many other finely crafted novels for children and young adults.

In her latest, Bread and Roses, Too, Paterson returns to the historical novel form which has been one of her favorites, this time revisiting to the New England textile industry which figured in her earlier novel Lyddie, set in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 1840's.

Bread and Roses, Too is set among the textile workers of Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. During the passage of more than seventy years since the time of Lyddie, changes have come to the mills of New England, especially the predominance of middle European immigrants employed there, but what has not changed is the presence of child labor, long hours, and low pay which work to the enrichment of the owners and the debasement of the poor.

Patterson tells her story through the alternating accounts of two children, eleven-year-old Rosa Serutti, whose mother and sister Anna work in the textile mills, and slightly older Jake Beale, a native-born boy whose work in the mill supports himself and his abusive alcoholic father. When wages are cut to compensate for a cut in hours from 56 to 54 per week, the textile workers, most of whom are immigrant women of varied ethnicities, go on strike with the assistance of IWW organizers such as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

Initially, Rosa is terrified by the chanting crowds and her fear that the loss of their meagre income will leave the family to freeze and starve. Still struggling to attend school, Rosa is also conflicted by the well-meant prejudices of her teacher, who urges Rosa to try to be a "real American" and oppose the walkout and marches that follow. Gradually, however, Rosa is won over to the workers' movement by their courage and pride and by the avalanche of support from groups all over the country. It is Rosa, the only really literate member of her family, who creates the sign "BREAD AND ROSES, TOO" which gives the movement its historical name.

Jake Beale is too caught up in day-to-day survival, which involves stealing food and sleeping in churches or trash piles, to care about the labor movement, but he is also swept up by the marches, cameraderie, and free food offered by the labor organizations. When Rosa and other children are offered temporary care in nearby cities, Jake, having found his father dead in their shack, stows away on the train with Rosa, believing that it will take him to a new life in New York City. The train, however, takes Jake and Rosa to Barre, Vermont, where the Italian-American community warmly receive the poor children from Lawrence. Jake persuades Rosa to pretend that he is her brother, Salvatore, and the two are taken in by an old couple, the Gerbatis, who lavish the two with genuine affection, endless food, and new warm clothes.

While thriving under the care of the Gerbatis, Rosa is still overwhelmed with worry for her mother, sister, and baby brother and torn with fear that her lie about Jake will be discovered. The unschooled Jake manages to be allowed to work in Mr. Gerbati's stone carving shed, and still hoping to make his way to New York, he finally tries to steal enough money from Gerbatti's safe to fund his escape. When the old man catches him in the deed, his reaction is not what Jake has learned to expect. Somehow Mr. Gerbatti finds the goodness of heart to understand and forgive Jake when his whole story is revealed. The novel ends with the successful end of the strike and Rosa's return to Lawrence, while Jake looks forward to a life with his new family in Barre.

Jake and Rosa are characters whose hardships and choices are no less real for being foreign to most modern child readers. Paterson skillfully weaves their fictional life stories into the known history of the American labor movement in a story that maintains enough tension to keep readers going to the very end. Katherine Paterson remains a author whose skill compells the reader to look at society's less fortunate without sacrificing the universality of experience in their stories.

Labels: ,

Bridging the Gap III: Stepping into Chapter Books

Okay, full disclosure here. I'm a major fan of the Junie B. Jones series. I'm not ashamed to reveal that I still burst out laughing reading these books late at night!

I have long been an admirer of Barbara Park since she won our state (Tennessee) children's choice award for Operation: Dump the Chump back in the '80's. To me, she's one of the funniest writers around--funny, and yet genuinely respectful of the real issues of her characters in the way that, say, Beverly Cleary is with Ramona Quimby.

Junie B. Jones (her middle name is Beatrice, but she only likes the B.) begins the series as a kindergartner who is part Carol Burnett and part Lily Tomlin. She is a not-so-sophisticated five-year-old who nonetheless is quite self aware. In the first book of the series, Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, Junie B. is terrified of riding the bus home on her first day at Kindergarten. Ever resourceful, Junie B. slips out of the bus line, hides out in a cupboard, and enjoys the pleasures of the now deserted classroom, library, and nurse's office until she realizes that the bathrooms are locked for the night and she's REALLY gotta go--"speedy quick." Junie B. knows what to do in an emergency. Sure, call 911! Well, this is an emergency, right? When the EMR vehicle roars up to the school, sirens blazing, Junie B. pleads for help and the custodian unlocks the girl's restroom, just in time!

During her first day at school we meet the characters which feature strongly in the rest of the Kindergarten series--Junie B.'s "bestest" friends, "that Grace," and "that Lucille" (who has a richie nana and terminally fluffy hair), "crybaby William," their teacher "Mrs.," the kindly custodian, Junie B.'s Grampa Frank and Granma Helen, and of course, Junie B.'s harried parents.

I can vouch for this series as a readaloud. Since each book can be read in about 45 minutes, I used the holiday titles with kids from first to third grade with resulting chuckles, guffaws, and howls of laughter through the year. On one of our more, er, exciting school days, we had a severe weather alert which ended with the power going out for the last half of the day. I had to lead a first-grade class out of the library and huddle us around a door in the Kindergarten hall where what passed for daylight illuminated the pages just enough for me to be able to read them. Despite parents coming and going to pick up their kids all around us, swirling clouds, and rumbles of thunder, I never lost the group's rapt attention to Junie B's latest adventure. Now that's a good book!

The Kindergarten and first-grade series (Junie B., First Grader) both follow Junie's progress through the school year, hitting such milestones as school carnivals, Valentine's Day, field trips, and, with the most recent book Junie B., First Grader: Dumb Bunny, a class party in which Junie B. has to dress like an Easter Bunny, a getup which definitely cramps her style! The official Accelerated Reader levels for the full series range from the middle of second grade to early third grade, making them accessible for most kids who are ready to move right into chapter books

Some of Junie B.'s critics snipe at her Junie-isms such as "I runned speedy quick" for their poor grammar, but I found that kids laughed and corrected them quietly as we went along. Another criticism is that readers in second and third grade are embarrassed to read about a lowly Kindergartner or first grader, but I found that the older kids, having just left behind fears of smelly school buses and killer farm roosters, enjoyed feeling a bit superior and yet empathetic at the same time.

I still remember those long ago days in Kindergarten and first grade and how world-shaking every experience seemed to me, so I guess I feel a bit superior and more than a little sympathetic with Junie B. Jones, too. Maybe those of us who love her see a part of ourselves in her naive but boundless joie de vivre.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bridging the Gap II: Stepping into Chapter Books

John Scieszka's Time Warp Trio series is another time-travel chapter series, this time with a bit of attitude. Three Brooklyn boys, Joe, Fred, and Sam, come into possession of a mysterious volume christened The Book which somehow takes them into weird adventures in the past and future. The Time Warp Trio are loyal but wise-cracking buddies who find offbeat action as they make their way through various venues and, with the aid of their wits, warp themselves back home.

The titles of each volume are a trip in and of themselves, for example, Plaid to the Bone (in which the trio visit medieval Scotland) and You Can't, But Genghis Khan (in which they warp to 13th century Mongolia).

In Viking It and Liking It, merely mentioning "Thursday" (named for Thor) transports the boys from Brooklyn to "Vinland," where they dodge marauding Indians, find themselves on Leif Ericson's ship, and learn about runes, skalds, and sagas. The Time Warp Trio provides slapstick action in historical settings to keep the young reader rolling through the many titles in this series.

Labels: ,

Bridging the Gap: Stepping Up to Chapter Books

One of the critical moments in the making of a reader is the jump from picture books and controlled vocabulary readers to nonfiction and fiction chapter books. Some young readers are resistant to this leap; in fact, you can almost see them calibrating the thickness of a book before they even pick it up. "Thick" books can be scary (even to adults), and it takes the promise of a really good read to get the wary ones over the hump.

One series that seems to have that promise for early readers is Mary Pope Osborne's Magic Tree House series. This group of books, with reading levels between grades 2 and 3, seems to have appeal to almost all kids in grades 1-3. The characters are brother Jack and younger sister Annie, average kids in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania, who in the first book discover a tree house in the woods and inside it a powerful book which will take them to earlier times and many places.

Osborne is a skilled writer of historical fiction for older readers and traditional folk literature for the picture book set, and she knows how to spin a tale that keeps kids reading. Now with 37 books published in this series, she uses the series author's device of familiar characters and similar opening episodes to ease children into the next book in the sequence. The device of time travel to a different place and era with each book keeps the series fresh and provides some passive historical learning as a big bonus. From book to book, the readers may find themselves living with a rain forest gorilla band, swimming with wild dolphins, or serving at the first Thanksgiving.

As another bonus for teachers or homeschooling parents, thematic guides for most of the books are also available, e.g., Rain Forests. (Magic Tree House Research Guide) These guides lead the user to resources and activities in science or social studies that parallel each book's story line.

The latest book in the series, #37, is Dawn of the Red Dragon, is forthcoming on February 27. In this adventure Jack and Annie travel to Edo (now Tokyo), the capital of fifteenth century Japan, where they seek the first of the ancient keys to happiness among the samurai. As always, Jack dutifully totes along a research book for each trip and takes careful notes while Annie eagerly leads the way into adventure.

Mary Pope Osborne makes books, libraries, and librarians an important feature of each story as her obvious love for her subjects take young readers into the world of chapter fiction.

Labels: ,

Monday, February 19, 2007

Eco-Fiction: Hoot and Flush by Carl Hiaasen

When the bete noir of coastal over-development writes a junior novel, he doesn't leave behind the off-beat indigenous Floridian cast of characters adult readers know and love. In Carl Hiaasen's Newbery honor book Hoot, a Coconut Cove newbie, Roy, aided and abetted by his Huck Finn-ish accomplice "Mullet Fingers" and his pugnacious step-sister Beatrice, foils the plans of Aunt Paula's All-American Pancake House Corporation to plant yet another of their cholesterol cuisine castles on top of the habitat of the endangered burrowing owl.

A bit of mild eco-terrorism and some clever public relations campaigns make Roy the hero of Trace Middle School and Coconut Cove and the endangered owls remain safe to, well, hoot! This book is also available on film in the the 2006 release Hoot.)

Hiaasen's second eco-mystery Flush, is really my favorite of the two Hiaasen books. In this one, Noah and his little sister Abby, worry that their wimpy but environmentally-correct dad, will never get out of jail after he sinks a casino boat which he believes is dumping its raw sewage into the local lagoon. The two do some nocturnal surveillance of Dusty Muleman's off-shore gambling operation and are convinced that their dad is right about the illegal activities, but are unable to come up with proof until they hit on a foolproof caper--they smuggle themselves on board, and with the aid of some typical Hiaasen coastal characters, dump enough food coloring into the casino boat's heads to color the whole lagoon pink when Dusty does his nightly dump.

Hiaasen comes up with his usual quirky accomplices for the eco-kids corps--Lice, their shiftless and reluctant chief witness, Shelly, his somewhat disreputable girlfriend with a heart of gold, and the kids' long-lost grandfather who bears a passing resemblance to Hiaasen's favorite swamp hero Skink. This book is just plain fun for all, and it's, well, a hoot to see the enviro-crooks caught, er, red-handed (so to speak) at the end. It's somewhat of a tour de force to create a fiction book with an environmental message that is not a bit preachy, but Hiaasen has done it again.

I wish they'd make a movie of this one!