Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"Oldies But Goodies": Guy Books by Robert Kimmel Smith

Like Andrew Clements (see earlier posts), Robert Kimmel Smith is one of those authors who seem to be able to write about and for guys with an authentic voice and considerable humor.

Robert Kimmel Smith's books go back a bit, but because he focuses on the character's internal thoughts and feelings, they aren't dated by externals in the setting. His first big hit was Chocolate Fever, the story of chocoholic Henry Green whose over-consumption of the stuff breaks him out in a chocolate-filled rash. Henry's doctor jumps at the chance to make his career by reporting a unique new disease, and Henry flees the hospital and hitches a ride with a medically savvy trucker who helps him through the whole hilarious situation. While the plot plays with the boundary between realistic fiction and fantasy, the theme deals with acceptance of differences and and the dangers of too much of a good thing. The humor keeps the reader chuckling through these lessons, and the book has been a favorite for nearly four decades.

In The War with Grandpa, Robert Kimmel Smith deals with the all-too-real issue of conflict between the generations. Peter's grandmother has just died, and his grandfather moves in with the family. Pete loves his grandpa, but because of a bad leg, Grandpa gets Pete's beloved room and Pete is moved upstairs to a much less desirable place. Peter feels that his only recourse is to carry out a series of pranks (such as stealing his false teeth) to make Grandpa decide to move out. At first, Grandpa responds with some good-natured pranks of his own, but eventually the tricks become hurtful, and Pete begins to understand that, like it or not, both he and his grandfather are victims of the hardships of old age. Not many children's books end with the realization that "it's not about you," but this one does and does it well. That The War with Grandpa has won eight reader's choice awards proves that it's a winner with middle readers.

In Jelly Belly, Smith turns to a less poignant but just as serious problem for middle readers, FAT! Ned is the fattest kid in his grade and at 109 pounds has earned the nickname of "Jelly Belly." Although his grandma still wants to feed him up, his parents ship him to a summertime fat farm picturesquely called Camp Lean-too. Ned and his corpulent colleagues cook up amusing schemes to get around the rules and smuggle in sweet treats, but Ned finally gets it--losing the weight means dropping donuts and cutting out candy. When he takes responsibility for what he eats, he loses weight and looks forward to inhabiting a slimmer self when he returns to school.

The Squeaky Wheel is a more serious novel which deals with the immediate effects of divorce on a sixth-grade guy. Mark is scared and mad when his parent's breakup forces him to move from his comfortable suburban setting into a tiny apartment and a much different urban school. His mother is distracted by a new job, his father is distant and seems to be moving toward marriage with another woman, and Mark feels isolated as he tries to find a friend in the new setting. After a brush with Robert Kimmel Smith's recurring bully, Phil Steinkraus, Mark does eventually find friends at school and break through his parents' inability to communicate about their feelings. Again Robert Kimmel Smith finds an honest and believable voice to illuminate an all-too-common situation.


Monday, January 29, 2007

Signs of Spring: A Companion Book for The Very Hungry Caterpillar

If you are an early childhood teacher or parent introducing the concept of metamorphosis, Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar is still your first choice to present the idea of egg-to-caterpillar-to-chrysalis-to butterfly.

Here's a new book which is the perfect followup to that classic: it's titled The Furry Caterpillar, part of the Bamboo and Friends series, by Felicia Law. In this book a tubby bird named Beak and a panda named Bamboo argue over ownership of an egg Beak claims is his breakfast. Bamboo insists that the egg, now a long, furry object, is a pillowy caterpillar, whereupon Beak insists that even if it is a caterpillar, it's still his breakfast. "Pillows don't hatch from eggs," says Bamboo. "And you can't eat it. It's soft and tickly. And it's mine!" Their friend Velvet points out that the pillow is eating and growing fatter and fatter, splitting its skin daily. "My pillow got even bigger," says Bamboo. "So did my breakfast," says Beak. When the caterpillar forms its chrysalis, Bamboo offers the "hard pillow" to Beak, who deems it now too tough to eat. When the butterfly finally emerges, she says "I'm off to lay an egg!" With some resignation, Velvet observes, "Oh, dear! It's going to start all over again!" (And that, boys and girls, is why it's called a life cycle)

The illustrations by Clair Philpott, et al, are colorful closeups of the four characters, just right for ages 3-5. The pages are glossed with nature facts bracketed by leaves, and an appendix provides "Fun Facts" about butterflies and moths and a website for young science students to visit.

These books are good stand-alone books, but are better together for mutually reinforcing the idea of the life cycle to the story circle.

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Science Fair Projects: Comment Suggests Downloadable Book

A reader has posted a comment which links to a downloadable science fair project book. If you need a guide fast, check this book out and let us know what you think about this ebook resource and downloadable books in general. It seems to me that "how-to" books may be the camel's nose under the tent in the movement toward ebooks because of the ad hoc way they would be used.

Madeline / alias Detective ThinkMore said...
Here is the most complete science fair instantly downloadable ebook, Super Science Fair that covers every aspect of doing a science fair project 129 pages. You can't go wrong!

[Blogger's Note: I haven't downloaded and read this ebook and am in no way affiliated with its publisher. I did look at the site to check its viewability at this URL:]



Sunday, January 28, 2007

Thrillers for Middle Readers: Margaret Peterson Haddix

Like adults, there is a certain sub-set of young readers for whom "what happens next" is what's important in a book. Whether it's the typical mystery in which a crime begs to be solved or the thriller which has an unknown zone that won't let the reader go, the mystique of the unresolved keeps those pages turning. Margaret Peterson Haddix is an author whose books drop the reader right in the middle of the unknown zone immediately and keep him or her there to the end.

Haddix is probably best known for her Shadow Children series. Like many of her books, these stories take place in a near-future setting in which novel social forces impinge on daily life. In the first book in the series, Among the Hidden, drought and famine have prompted the government to make third children illegal and subject to execution. Into this situation Luke is born. His parents are able to give him an almost normal early childhood until the woods which surround their home are destroyed by suburban development. Unable to play outside, Luke is a prisoner inside his own house. Luke accepts his isolation, staying away from windows and keeping silent during the day when his parents and siblings are at work or school, until the day he glimpses a child's face in the window next door. Luke manages to befriend this hidden third child, Jen, and from her learns of an entire underground of shadow children like himself. When Jen decides to "out" herself and join a resistance movement of third children to confront the government, Luke is too fearful to join her. Although Jen dies in the government retribution against their march, Luke learns to hope that his isolation may someday end.

Further books in the series are Among the Impostors, Among the Betrayed, Among the Barons, Among the Brave, Among the Enemy, and finally Among the Free. In these sequels Luke is recruited by the underground alliance of parents of third children to attend a boarding school which accepts illegal children under assumed names. There Luke secretly becomes part of the resistance which infiltrates and ultimately brings down the rule of the Population Police. Throughout the series the reader wonders if Luke himself will survive and if Jen's sacrifice will finally be justified. In Among the Free, justice finally brings down the fascist government, but not before Luke has to deal with the political and cultural chaos which follow the fall of any civil order, however cruel.

In two other novels, Haddix again deals with the theme of civil order and individual freedom. Running Out of Time begins with Jessie, living in what she believes is Clifton, an ordinary 1840's village, until a diphtheria epidemic forces her mother to reveal that they are living in a reconstructed historical preserve, in the actual year 1996, and not free to move outside their town for any reason. Ma asks Jessie to sneak out of Clifton and call someone who may be able to bring modern medicines before many of the "settlers" die. Dressed in her mom's '80's jeans and t-shirt, Jessie must manage to deal with the dangers of the twentieth century while she tries to save her family from a disease of the previous century.

In Double Identity, Bethany is hastily uprooted and deposited by her tearful but unresponsive parents with an aunt she has never known. Bethany eventually learns that she is a clone of her dead sister Elizabeth and that her parents are trying to protect her from the backer of the cloning process who seeks her to promote his own financial ends. As she becomes frightened by the stalking of this unknown man and overwhelmed by the identify crisis of being, almost inconceivably, both her dead sister and herself, Bethany has to gain a maturity beyond her thirteen years.

All of these books are real page turners which sometimes require a "willing suspension of disbelief," but within their compelling twists of plot, there are powerful underlying themes which deal with the most complex issues of our time--population growth and its consequent climate change, individual versus societal rights, and the effects of science on personal liberty.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

It's Science Fair Time! Books to Save Your Sanity

Mid-winter is the favorite time for school science fairs, and if there's one in your future, do I have some books for you! Believe me, you'll need 'em.

A good science project book should begin with a clear presentation of the scientific method, suggestions on choosing a project, forming the hypothesis, designing experiments, collecting and interpreting data, writing a conclusion, and preparing an oral and/or graphic presentation. Projects described should have lists and sources of materials, complete directions, and clear illustrations. Start with a basic book strong on process and then look for titles specializing in specific areas of science.

Here are just a few of the many available online, at your bookstore, and in your school and public libraries:

Complete Handbook of Science Fair Projects, by Julianne Bochinski. (Best for middle and high school students)

Janice Van Cleave's Guide to the Best Science Fair Projects, by Janice Van Cleave (duh!). (good for grades 3-6)

Quick-but-Great Science Fair Projects, by Shar Levine and Leslie Johnstone. (Also good for grades 3-7).

Janice Van Cleave's Help! My Science Project Is Due Tomorrow. (for the procrastinator who has to turn in something!)

Sports Science Projects: the Physics of Balls in Motion, by Madeline Pl Goodstein. (Make an A in science and improve your field goal percentage?)

Electricity and Magnetism Science Fair Projects, by Robert Gardner. (Gardner has similar project guides for most areas of the physical and natural sciences.)

If your young scientist needs a little motivation (or diversion), try these fiction books for a dose of "misery loves company" and a few laughs:

Jake Drake, Know-It-All, by Andrew Clements. Jake sets out to ace the school fair to win a super computer, but he learns something about knowledge being its own reward in the process.

I Was a Third-Grade Science Project, by Mary Jane Auch. When brainy Brian and Josh demonstrate their science fair project on hypnotism, Brian manages to hypnotize Josh into behaving like a cat, and only their formerly lame partner Dougie manages to save the presentation.


Mystery Solved! Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Almost Remembered Book

Among the comments from earlier posts was a reader ("Amy") who enlisted me in a search for a favorite childhood book--one which involved psychic twins who visited an upstate New York hotel, inhabited by an Indian ghost named Saskia, and who solved a mystery involving Henry Hudson and Baffin Bay.

I'm used to having students pose questions like this to me, usually without this much detail (usually they only recalled the color of the book and that "it was good.") Luckily, in the past twelve years or so, I had the help of advanced Booleian searches and could usually extract enough information from the reader to come up with the book from my own brain or the library catalog's database. So Amy's query kept nagging at me, and I finally started sifting through big public library catalogs.

New York City's public catalog has the cutest name (CATNYP), but wasn't really very helpful, so I tried first the Boston Public Library and then the Chicago P.L., figuring that big city libraries with many branches would have lots of old mystery series gathering dust in their juvenile collections. Unfortunately, Amy hadn't told me when she had read this book, so I waded through titles from the 1950's on looking for twins solving mysteries with ESP. I found a series with a whole family full of twins who used extrasensory perception to solve mysteries, the Starbuck Family Adventures, by Kathryn Lasky, which sounded like it could have included the book Amy was searching for. I emailed her back to ask about this possibility and to ask for a time frame. Immediately I heard back that she'd been inspired by my search to look again on and had found the very book she remembered, Three Spirits of Vandemeer Manor, from the Mostly Ghosts series by Mary Anderson, published in 1987. And yes, the book was green!

While searching for Amy's mystery book, I ran across some other "twin" series which might appeal to kids, twins or not. For example, if you know a reader who likes old-fashioned books, take a look at the old twins series by Lucy Fitch Perkins such as The Dutch Twins. They're sure to fail the P.C. test, but their quaintness has a certain charm.

For the readers who like twins and ghosts in their series, check out the Ghost Twins series by Dian Curtis Regan.

For the YA reader there's the strange but well-reviewed Vampire Twins< series by Janice Harrell, which is, I guess, the antidote to all those Sweet Valley High titles.

If you have an old favorite, about twins or whatever, send in your description of the book and a time frame for when you read it, and we'll see if we can locate it. Maybe I can enlist Amy or an army of Nancy Drews of the Library to help! And, hey, don't forget the color!

Friday, January 26, 2007

More Heart-y Reading: Valentine's Day Books for Ages 2-8

Here are some suggestions for the age 2-7 set which entertainly illuminate the whole idea of Valentine's Day.

Cynthia Rylant teams up with illustrator Fumi Kosaka to show us a little boy happily designing Valentines for family and playmates, pets, and even birds and trees, all in cheerful rhyme and nicely textured illustrations, in If You'll Be My Valentine.

For the tot fan of Little Bear on television, Else Holmelund Minarik's Little Bear's Valentine keeps a mystery going as Little Bear tries to identify his secret admirer while delivering and receiving Valentines from the usual suspects. Again the story demonstrates the concept of reciprocity and mutual affection for friends and family. Illustrator Heather Green manages to reproduce most of the charm of the original Sendak illustrations of this series.

For the school-aged reader, my vote goes to the latest in the series about Dolores and her cat Duncan, Happy Valentine's Day, Dolores, by Barbara Samuels. Dolores' habit of "borrowing things" from her sister Faye's room gets her in a pickle when she can't resist the frog necklace inside a tiny Valentine box in Faye's bureau. When Dolores just has to try it on, she discovers that she can't release the catch and has to wear the necklace to school, only to have it confiscated in music class.

When Dolores gets home, she hurries to put the necklace back (the illustrations show Dolores dropping the necklace and Duncan happily playing with it as she rushes upstairs) and finds it gone from pocket. Thinking quickly, Dolores slaps a bandage and some catchup on Duncan to fake an emergency, takes a cab to the gift shop (conveniently next door to the vet), buys another necklace, and hurries home to hide it in Faye's room. When Faye suspiciously presents her with the lost necklace (which she downstairs found on the floor), Dolores unabashedly presents Faye with the new necklace and a cheery "Happy Valentine's Day, Faye!"

This book has an upbeat take on the vagaries of the sisterly relationship and wonderful illustrations which extend the humorous twists of the plot. Readers and listeners will single out Duncan the cat's droll expressions and body language as Dolores drags him through the whole kerfuffle. It's a perfect read-aloud book for Valentine week.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Princessess-A-Plenty: Recommendations from a Reader

In the Comments to the Princess posts, reader elainet has some suggestions for middle and YA book lovers who want more royal reading:

In the "princess-with-a-twist category," try Robin McKinley's Beauty, a verson of Beauty and the Beast written before her better-known Newbery Award book The Hero and the Crown. (If the YA designation and length are not too off-putting for a younger reader, you might also consider Deerskin, and Spindle's End, also by Robin McKinley.)

If the princess doesn't have to be the protagonist, (and you don't mind dragons underfoot) take a look at Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles.

Elainet also reports that her "medieval fantasy" readers liked Artemis Fowl and Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom series beginning with Mister Monday and Grim Tuesday.

These suggestions are great. If any readers have more suggestions of the princess persuasion, please comment!


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Big War: The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages

I just finished reading a book which I feel is worthy of a Newbery.

A very impressive first novel, it is Ellen Klages' , The Green Glass Sea, set in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project's culmination during World War II. The story begins as Dewey Kerrigan waits on her neighbor' front steps for her father to take her to live with him. Dewey's mother has abandoned her, her grandmother with whom she lives has gone to the "Home," and she finds herself with her small suitcase, a cigar box of metal parts, and her precious copy of "The Boy Mechanic," being sent across the country to the top-secret scientific community where her father is now helping develop the atomic bomb. Dewey is named "Screwy Dewey" and shunned by the cliquish girls at school, partly because of her weird orthopedic shoe, but mostly because of her fondness for scrounging in the community dump for scientific paraphernalia to use in her various inventions.

The second main character is Suze Gordon, likewise ignored by the clique because of her size and bossy ways. Suze is uncomfortable in Los Alamos and longs to return to Berkeley, where her parents were university professors. As Dewey and Suze find themselves unwilling roommates when Dewey's father has to testify in Washington, they gradually discover common ground, with Dewey learning to love Suze's superhero comics and Suze visiting the dump with Dewey to scrounge metal objects for her art collages. Suze defends Dewey against the other girls and learns that she, too, has a cruel nickname, "Truck."

When Dewey's father is killed in a Washington traffic accident, Dewey runs away in fear of being sent to an orphanage, and Suze and her family realize that she has a place with their family forever. Together the family visits Trinity, the site of the Project's detonation, to touch the "green glass sea" formed in the desert at ground zero. As they drive away, Suze switches off the radio just as the announcer begins his report on the bombing of Hiroshima. Klages poignantly ends the novel with peace between the girls juxtaposed against the awesome and terrifying interposition of a deadly weapon of war.

At first I found the ending unsatisfying. We are left knowing what the characters, wrapped in their happy family cocoon, don't know, their love and hope for the future inconsequential in the face of what that beautiful sea of green glass portends. After some thought, though, I see that that is the way it is--some personal good experienced in a world of fearful doubt in which a happy ending can't yet be written.

The characters are so well realized that the I visualized them vividly as the story unfolds, and the friendship which grows between the two very different girls develops naturally out of the plot and setting. The story is both rooted in its place and time and universal. This is a great read for children between 9 and 12!


And the winners are . . . . 2007 Newbery and Caldecott Awards

On January 22 ALA announced this year's awards for literature for young people. Their best-known awards are the Newbery Awards, given to the authors of books for young people, and the Caldecott Awards, presented to the illustrators of picture books for children. The envelope, please!

The Newbery Award goes to author Susan Patron for her novel The Higher Power of Lucky. Her main character, Lucky, is anything but. Her mother is dead and her father has abandoned her to her ex-stepmother, Brigitte, a Frenchwoman who has reluctantly come to the desert town of Hard Pan to live in a trailer and be Lucky's guardian. Lucky's main mentors are the denizens of the town's ten-step groups whom she overhears as she cleans the community center where they meet. Lucky tries to find her own "higher power," a difficult goal as she observes, "It's almost impossible to get control of your life when you are only ten. It's the other people, adults, who have control of your life because they can abandon you."

The Newbery Honor Books are Penny from Heaven, by Jennifer Holm; Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson; and Rules, by Cynthia Lord.

The Caldecott Award goes to David Wiesner for Flotsam. An illustrator with a very distinctive, scultural style, Weisner is already a three-time Caldecott honoree for Tuesday, Sector 7, and Free Fall.

Caldecott Honor Books are Gone Wild: An Endangered Animal Alphabet, illustrated and written by David Limans, and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, illustrated by Kadir Nelson.

I hope to revisit some of these titles as I read them. If you have read them already, please send in your comments and recommendations, and I'll pass them along.

The 2007 Carnegie Medal goes to author Mo Willem and Weston Woods Studios for their video production of Willem's book Knuffle Bunny.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

More Princess Stories That Won't Shrink Ze Brain...

Reader devereaux/Nora comments that her 10-year-old reader (DD) had enjoyed Ella Enchanted and The Princess Academy, eagerly seeks out alternate versions of fairy tales, and would welcome more suggestions of books of the fractured fairy tale genre.

Here's a list of novels suitable for middle and YA readers, from which this discriminating young reader may choose: Beauty, a reworked Snow White, by Nancy Butcher; Beauty Sleep, by Cameron Dokey; The Great Good Thing, by Rod Townley; East,< a retelling of East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon, by Edith Patou; and Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg, an extension of Peter Pan by Gail Carson Levine. I haven't read these novels myself, but they received good professional reviews.

Devereaux/Nora also requested some fiction books about doll houses. Nora didn't mention any favorites, but if DD hasn't found these two, The Doll People and its sequel The Meanest Doll in the World, by Ann M. Martin, should fill the bill. Another tried-and-true dollhouse fantasy is Rumer Godden's classic The Doll's House.

If DD doesn't mind a bit of mystery, there's also The Doll House Murders, by Betty Ren Wright, a not-terribly-scary mystery in which the dolls in the attic dollhouse rearrange themselves each night to help Amy solve a decades-old murder in the old house below.

I hope the above titles help. If any of you readers out there have other suggestions for our 10-year-old DD, please add your comments to help Nora keep her reading happily!


Monday, January 22, 2007

Hearts and Flowers: Time for Valentine's Day Books

If you're in need of good books to read to that school Valentine party or to hook a beginning reader, here are a couple with a great track record:

Denys Cazet, author of the very funny "I Can Read" Minnie and Moo series, has a guaranteed giggle-provoking book for the holiday titled Minnie and Moo Will You Be My Valentine? In this outing Moo pens an "Ode to the Cream Puff:"

Your peaks are crowned
With the sweetest snow;
Your valleys crisp
In deep-fried dough;
Your insides filled
With that custard stuff;
How I love thee,
My sweet Cream Puff.

Inspired by this deathless poesy, Minnie and Moo decide to dress as a pair of bovine cupids and go about the countryside firing their arrows (suction cup-tipped, of course) laden with love poems. Since Moo can't keep the poems in order, she manages to deliver misleading messages to both farm animals and farmers, with star-crossed "lovers" reminiscent of a Shakespearean comedy. The love complications inspire Minnie to compose her own poem:

Moo, I can't take another step.
I'm tired, I'm cranky, I'm out of pep;
These clothes don't fit, I look a fright.
The underwear is much too tight!
I'm telling you, Moo, I've had enough.
I'm tired of all this cupidy stuff.

From the "Ready-to-Read" series comes Cynthia Freeman's long-running Henry and Mudge series about Henry and his gangly, good-natured St. Bernard, Mudge.
The Henry and Mudge series features gentle, homey humor and a close family neighborhood setting, as evidenced in Henry and Mudge and Mrs. Hopper's House. Henry's parent dress up in tuxedo and ball gown to attend the sweetheart dance ("I bet you didn't know I was this handsome," says Henry's dad), and Henry and Mudge spend the evening with Mrs. Hopper, whose slightly spooky house is filled with cats and her father's old stage costumes. When Henry's parents pick him up, they find Henry and Mudge both splendidly attired in formal dress. ("I bet you didn't know I was this handsome," Henry tells his dad!)

Another sweet treat for young children is The Night Before Valentine's Day, by Natasha Wing. Using the familiar Clement Moore rhyme scheme, this catchy story covers what to expect from what can be a confusing holiday for little kids.

If you need some "guy" books for Valentines Day, don't overlook the "oldie, but goodie" Arthur's Valentine, by Marc Brown. This is one of the best "Arthur Adventures," especially for a holiday story that won't have the boys gagging at the mushy stuff. It's almost Valentine's Day and Arthur keeps receiving saccharine handwritten Valentines--at school, at home, and even in his sacrosanct tree house! He finally determines that Francine is the secret admirer who sends him a ticket to meet her the local movie house. Arthur weasels out of the romantic tryst by having Francine close her eyes and wait for his kiss; Arthur sneaks away, leaving a chocolate kiss on his empty seat!

Another title which boys will sit still for is Diane DeGroat's Roses Are Pink, Your Feet Really Stink , in which Gilbert engages in a little payback with his classroom "enemies" by sending them mean messages and signing each other's names to them. Margaret and Lewis are steamed with each other until they notice that they have no Valentines from Gilbert and confront the real poison-pen writer together. Gilbert repents and the class party is saved, with new appreciation of how teasing can cause hurt feelings among friends.

If you find yourself in charge of a such a classroom Valentine party, here's the book you've gotta have: Valentine School Parties...What Do I Do?. (In fact, if you're the "room mother" for the year, you might as well buy the whole series by Wilhelminia Ripple!) For Valentine parties she offers six themes (Hearts, Cupids, Love & Friendship, Animals, Post Office, and February & Presidents), and also provides games, crafts, favors, refreshment ideas, and instructions for making the requisite Valentine Box.

If you want to make some Valentine cards and decorations at home, you need All New Crafts for Valentines, by the queen of holiday craft books, Kathy Ross. This book has good instructions with drawings for simple things to make with inexpensive and "found" materials. For older kids, try Valentine Treats: Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family.

Have a heart-y holiday!


Sunday, January 21, 2007

Princess Stories That Won't Shrink Ze Brain...

Had it with pink and Disney princesses? If your daughters, granddaughters, students, nieces, etc., are still tuned in to The Tiara Times, here are some titles for middle readers that they won't be ashamed to keep on their bookshelves for years to come.

The gold standard of modern princess tales is a book I mentioned in my December list posted on Instapundit, Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine. Cursed by “that fool fairy Lucinda” with a spell that makes her always obedient to any command, Ella (short for Cinderella, of course,) has to contend with an absent father, evil stepmother and step-sisters, and the handicap of always having to obey any order, like it or not. Ella manages to fight her way through the usual fantasy foes and winds up rescuing her prince to boot. A girl’s gotta do whatever it takes, and Carson turns the Cinderella story on its head with humorous and page-turning results.

Levine continued her theme of the plucky princess wannabes in The Princess Tales, Volume I, The Princess Tales, Volume II, Two Princesses of Bamarre, and her most recent royal releases, The Wish and, for slightly older readers, Fairest, in which Aza, a plus-sized teen in a culture obsessed with physical beauty, uses her natural talent, ability, and wit to gain self approval and true love. As long as you have princess fans around, keep checking with author Gail Carson Levine, who continues to mine this fertile field with many quality titles.

A relative new kid in the royal neighborhood is Shannon Hale, author of The Goose Girl, based on the traditional Grimm's tale, and its fictional companion piece, Enna Burning. Hale's 2006 Newbery Honor Award book is The Princess Academy, in which the main character Miri, too small to work in the village quarry, finds her true calling when all Mount Eskel girls are forced to attend the Princess Academy which qualifies them to be chosen as Prince Steffan's wife. Miri is almost swept up in the princess fever which sweeps through the girls during their long, hard year of scholarship, but out of her involuntary studies she finds a love of learning and, one feels, her true love as well. (My own granddauther read this one straight through, taking time out only to sleep and eat, and pronounced it "really good!")


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Great Books (But Not for Everyone)

While some books appeal to almost everyone (literature rated G, so to speak), some great books require the right book at the right time to be appreciated. Let's face it--some kids are just picky.

One of the quintessential hard-case types are those male readers (aged 9-99) who turn up their noses at any novel, no matter what. As kids they only like real stuff, thank you, and stick to nonfiction, often within a narrow subject range. If it's not about dinosaurs, or motocross, or fishing, or the Civil War, fageddaboudit! As a school librarian, I often struggled to find required fiction books for these guys, so I've seen their eye rolls all too often.

If it's history or war buffs you're dealing with, here are some Civil War books that might meet the reality test for those guys.

For the hard-core biography reader, try Russell Friedman's Newbery Award book Lincoln: A Photobiography. Friedman's text provides one of the best bios of Abraham Lincoln, and the photos from the period are fascinating in their ability to evoke the era. If a novel is required, look for these tried-and-true titles, available online or at most local libraries: Jayhawker, in which author Patricia Beatty takes the reader into the all-too-real world of border insurgents such as Jesse James; also take a look at Charley Skedaddle and Eben Tyne, Powdermonkey, both also by Patricia Beatty. Some other tried-and-true novels are Across Five Aprils, by Irene Hunt, Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith, With Every Drop of Blood, by James and Christopher Collier, and The Perilous Road, by William O. Steele. All of these authors have kept American history fans happy in a fiction framework for years.

In contrast to the keep-it-real kids, some proto-philosophical young readers are already looking for what literature has to impart about the meaning of life. For the reader who is looking for more than a thrill or a laugh in his or her fiction, here are a few recently published novels to consider.

Lois Lowry, known for her "serious" fiction through such books as Number the Stars and The Giver, has a new book, Gossamer, whose improbable premise is the coming of age of a dream giver, a fantastical creature who strengthens humans against the world's evil by gathering memories and providing restorative dreams. In the hands of the right reader, the book is both life-affirming and deeply moving.

Another author with a reputation for strong novels about strong girls is Karen Cushman, known for her Medieval period novels The Midwife's Apprentice and Catherine, Also Known as Birdy, has set her new book The Loud Silence of Francine Green in McCarthy-era America, where the issue of freedom of speech and association comes down to Francine's choice between being a quiet (and therefore "good") girl at her Catholic school or joining her outspoken friend Sophie in speaking the truth.

A disturbing but intensely absorbing book by Susan Beth Pfeffer, Life as We Knew It, deals with the life of a 15-year-old girl after an Apollo object disturbs the moon's orbit enough to bring normal life to an end on earth. The novel is written in the form of a journal kept by a middle child who watches her single-parent family cope and survive as life as they knew it disappears. What typical teenager Miranda learns about the importance of family, community, and the joys of daily life will not be lost on thoughtful readers of any age.

Finding worthy reads for the discriminating kid who eschews the popular series is challenging but satisfying, because it is at the heart of reading guidance--putting great books in the hands of the intelligent, strong-minded people for which they were written.


Monday, January 15, 2007

While You're Waiting for Harry Potter...

While you're waiting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you might want to look at the wizardry series by Diane Duane, beginning with So You Want to Be a Wizard. There are quite a few books in the Young Wizards Series and with girl and boy characters as self-taught apprentice wizards and a vast conspiracy of evil out to quash them, there's plenty of fast-paced, well-written action.

If Harry Potter afficionados hanker for that dreary English atmosphere, a new book, Endymion Spring, brings together the quest theme with a dark and evil wizardly force which American kids Blake and Duck encounter while their mom is doing research in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Blake and Duck's quest is interwoven with the story of Gutenberg's printer's devil, Endymion Spring, as they seek his lost book revealing all of human knowledge.

Another worthy alternative is Cornelia Funke's popular two-book series which includes Inkheart and Inkspell. In these books the main character Meggie deals with the consequences of her father's mysterious ability to "read" ominous characters into the real world from the books Inkheart and Inkspell.

For those Harry Potter fans who seek the "chills and thrills" factor in J. K. Rowlings' books, author John Bellairs has written three semi-related series which are highly popular with those readers who love a damp crypt or spooky old mansion in the mix. Bellairs and his first illustrator Edward Gorey are considered the masters of the juvenile Gothic genre.

The Louis Barnevelt series begins with the deliciously scary The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Louis goes to live with his eccentric and wizardly Uncle Jonathan in his appropriately Gothic old mansion and discovers that an evil wizard has planted a clock in its walls which is ticking down to doomsday. Louis and Uncle Jonathan continue to fight this nameless evil in many sequels, including The Figure in the Shadows, The Letter, The Witch, and the Ring, and Vengeance of the Witch Finder.

Bellair's second hero, Johnny Dixon, and his mentor Professor Childermass likewise take on many manifestations of evil in books such as Trolley to Yesterday, Curse of the Blue Figurine, Chessmen of Doom, and The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull.

Bellairs' third series involves a young teenager named Anthony Monday, whose mentor is Miss Eells, a librarian in a Gothic-style town library. Anthony is introduced in the mystery The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn, and his ventures with the eccentric Eells' sisters continue in The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb and The Mansion in the Mist, as well as many others.

Bellairs' books are pleasantly but darkly scary and yet somehow have a comfy, reassuring ambience because of the closeness of the young heroes with their crusty but trustworthy mentors. Perfect for reading under the covers late at night!

After all, it's a long time until the rumored release of Rowling's seventh book in the Harry Potter series, symbolically awaited on July 7, 2007, (Book 7 on 7-7-07), and dedicated fantasy fans need to exercise those page-turning muscles until that fateful day!


Put Some Fun into Bedtime with These Books!

If your young reader is one of those wonderful kids with a sense of humor, these books for the preschool and early elementary set are good additions to their bookshelf, and they'll give adults reading them out loud something (besides lights out) to smile about, too):

For the preschool-Kindergarten set:

Mommy? by Maurice Sendak, Al Yorinks, and Matthew Reinhart. Scholastic, 2006.

This high-tech pop-up book features a typical monster-taming Sendak protagonist, a toddler who wanders into a suitably spooky-looking house calling “Mommy?” and proceeds to de-“bolt” a Frankenstein monster, nip the knickers off Wolf Man, and unwind a mummy’s wrappings, until he finds a suitably maternal monster at last.. A slightly macabre take on Are You My Mother?, this book has some sly fun for the adults who will undoubtedly have to “read it again!”

For the Kindergarten-Grade Two reader:

Cha Cha Chimps by Julie Durango. Illustrated by Eleanor Taylor. Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Ten bed-bound chimps slip out to cha cha the night away at Mambo Jamba’s, where they count down from ten to zero as they hokey-pokey with a hippo, macarena with a meerkat, and belly-dance with a cobra. When a hip Mama Chimp “hustles” them home to jam in their jammies with a sitter, she goes back to boogie the night away. Kids hearing this story will pick up the refrain “Ee-ee-oo-oo-ah-ah-ah, ten little chimps do the cha cha cha” by the second time around.

Bats at the Beach, by Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

Bats break out the moon-tan lotion and frolic on a moonlit beach, doing all the things kids love doing by day on the sand. Rhymed verse dances through enchantingly dark but luminous night time fun. (See if the kids notice that the author is hanging upside down on the “About the Author” back flap!)

Trosclair and the Alligator by Peter Huggins. Illustrated by Lindsey Gardner. Star Bright Books, 2006.

Despite dire warnings from his Pere, Trosclair and his dog Ollie brave the waters of Bee Island Swamp, inhabited by the world’s biggest alligator. When treed by Gargantua, Trosclair (channeling Brer’ Rabbit), pretends to offer up Ollie instead of the honey-(and bee-)filled beehive. Predictably, Gargantua “bites," Trosclair drops the beehinve into his open mouth, and the Trosclair’s trick and the subsequent bee stings rid the swamp of Gargantua forever.

<The Most Perfect Spot by Diane Goode. HarperCollins, 2006.

When Jack takes Mama, wearing her best pink hat and unknowingly trailed by a stray spotted dog, to “the most perfect spot for a picnic,” each place they choose results in disaster, as they fall into the lake, are pelted by horses kicking up mud, survive a runaway carousel, are surrounded by a pack of yapping dogs, and make a run for home in a downpour. In two-page spreads, the careful reader will see the spotted dog as the author of each adversity. Back home at last, Mama and Jack, followed by the dog dragging the bedraggled pink hat, settle down to a picnic on the floor, with the “dog they named Spot, the most perfect Spot!”

For the sophisticated not-too-old-for-picture-books set (and anybody else who’s still alive):

Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and Other Stories You’re Sure to Like, Because They’re All About Monsters, and Some of Them Are Also About Food . (You Like Food, Don’t You? Well, All Right Then.,.)
by Adam Rex. Harcourt, Inc., 2006.

A real tour-de-force by author-illustrator Adam Rex, with rhyming spoofs of the lifestyles of such monsters as Wolfman (hair clumps in his roommate’s drain), Dracula (spinach in his teeth), Invisible Man (can’t get a decent haircut), Yeti (“Don’t call me BIGFOOT!), and the Phantom of the Opera (has writer’s block because he can’t get “The Girl from Ippanema” and other ditties off his mind). The copyright page even features a snow angel left by The Invisible Man. A book for all ages (even those old enough to KNOW the tune to “Girl from Ipanema”)!