Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Mysterious Benedict Society & the Perilous Journey

If I remember correctly, Lisa got me started on this series. I love it. Like The Penderwicks, it's a throwback to classic stories, but it is undeniably contemporary. It's so gosh-darn enjoyable that it's easy to forgive its minor flaws. I like how the tasks and mysteries that the children solve are, in truth, solvable. The solutions are logical, and the reader can try to work it out with the characters. It's a nice balance- being neither so easy that the reader is wondering when the characters will figure it out, nor so hard that it answer seems to come from left field.

I wonder if, given the popularity of The Penderwicks and this series, if we might see a return to more innocent children's stories, at least in some books. I suppose stories about the grim realities of childhood are here to stay, but it would be nice to have some good, old-fashioned, home-before-supper adventures, too.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman

I read this one on the train on the way to see Rick Riordan at Wellesley Booksmith. What a great day!

I was a little worried about this book because Lyra's Oxford was just so weird and read like a writing exercise that they decided to publish to make more money off of suckers like me. I needn't have worried. This is just a fantastic story about how Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison first meet. I loved having those characters back with me, and
I loved the glimpse into Lyra's post-Spyglass life. I am probably missing an important and obvious connection, but who is the Tom that she writes to? Is that just an indication that she moved on after Will?

One of my old pet peeves did surface, though. The double-page excerpt from The Elements of Aerial Navigation interrupts a sentence. I actually had to flip the pages back and forth a few times because I thought I had mistakenly skipped a page. With all that we can do with book design, why can't we plan these asides so that they don't disrupt the flow of reading?

I haven't tried out the game yet. I'm torn between wanting to see it and wanting to keep my book in pristine condition. Any thoughts?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Airman by Eoin Colfer

This is another one that appeared at the library, and I'm not sure what made me request it. It took me all week to get 100 pages into it, and now I'm giving up. I really don't care for the pseudo-biographical narrative. It feels so distant from the action and I had no emotional connection to anything going on. It did start to get more exciting around the 100-page mark, but by then, I really didn't care. I was hoping that this would be a good reluctant reader choice, but I think it would take a pretty dedicated reader to enjoy this one. For the record, I didn't have much patience for Artemis Fowl, either, but for other reasons.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall

Sequels are just hard. Especially when the first was so surprisingly charming. You can't do that twice. Not while people are watching, anyway.

I enjoyed this, if not quite as much as the first. Certainly kids who liked the first will like this one. I do love the way Birdsall captures everything I love (now, and as a child) about old-fashioned-sibling-adventure stories and brings them up to modern days. I'm sure I would have loved reading about characters who read the same books I did. Birdsall also does a great job of seamlessly weaving together the multiple perspectives.

My only quibbles are totally unfair ones. I loved that Mr. Penderwick's widower status was imply accepted; it wasn't a focus of the first book, and I wonder if the girls will be able to retain the freedom to keep having adventures. I wish that Mr. Penderwick and Iantha could have at least had a prolonged courtship. Perhaps Mr. Penderwick truly hated dating so much that he chose a quick remarriage to avoid it.
I also continue to have questions about how old Batty actually is. Is she two? Four? Somewhere between? It seems to fluctuate between chapters.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Agate by Joy Morgan Dey and Nikki Johnson

This came to me by way of Pixie Stix. I couldn't find it anywhere to get a closer look at it, so I special ordered it at the store. It is gorgeous! The text is fine- perhaps a bit message-driven, but the artwork is just fascinating. You can see some of it at, but the reproductions don't really do it justice. The flap copy says the art is watercolor, but it has a drippy, smeary quality that I associate with mixing oils and water, like when you marbleize paper. I'd love to know about her method. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on this artist.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Every Book Its Reader by Nicholas A. Basbanes

I picked this up on a whim at the Harvard Book Store sometime early last spring when I was feeling like I wasn't reading enough grown-up books. I read the first half and really enjoyed it, but then got distracted by some other book that needed to be read. I picked it up again when I needed something to read while I waited for the next group of requests from the library. I picked up where I left off a year ago, and slipped right back into it.

I particularly enjoyed the first few chapters, which discussed some of the earliest known literature and how our relationship to it changes over time. I made a lot of notes in the margins about the correlations to my own ideas about the cultural history of fairy tales.

This book made me even more aware of the gaping holes in my knowledge of literature. I wasn't an English major in college because I didn't want to have to read all those Dead White Males (and after reading chapter 10, I have a better understanding of where that came from), but now I realize how much I've missed out on. Of course, it would take most of a lifetime to get caught up, but I may have to try to tackle one each summer, or something like that.

I was really, genuinely sad when I reached the last chapter, and I wanted to immediately start it over again. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in cultural studies or the history of literature.

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

I picked this up because one of my sixth graders is reading the series, and I wondered if it was entirely appropriate. Also, the fandom is rather intense, and so it seems worth checking out.

I think Meyer's greatest strength is her ability to capture 17-year-old-girl-ness- the passion of first love, the unavoidable inanity of high school- without giving over to the melodrama completely.

One thing that struck me about the fandom is the numbers of teenage girls professing their love for Edward. I was intrigued to find out more about this guy who has stolen so many hearts. It's so amusing to me then, to discover what a flat, empty character he is. His only defining characteristics (apart from the vampire thing) is that he's extraordinarily attractive physically and he loves Bella. The reader is then free to project whatever personality they like onto him.

As I finished the book, I really had no intention of continuing with the series. It was an enjoyable enough diversion for vacation week, but there are lots of books on the to-read pile. However, I made the mistake of reading the preview chapter for the next book, and now I am curious to see what happens. Drat. I hate when that happens. Maybe I'll try the audiobook.

As for the appropriateness, I do think it's a bit much for sixth grade; save it for the eighth and ninth grade crowd.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Nim's Island by Wendy Orr

Again, I have no idea why this was on my to-read list. It appeared with many others at the library with my name on it, so I figure I read about it somewhere. Perhaps because the movie came out this month. I haven't seen the movie, but it's getting bad reviews, so I'll probably wait for the rental. It could be a contender for Pages & Popcorn because it's fairy short (125 pages) and easy to read.

I enjoyed the Swiss-Family-Robinson-like setting and the adventurous plot once I let go of all my grown-up logic and needs for literary quality. Wendy Orr reportedly began writing this story as a nine-year-old, and it retains that childlike sense of adventure, even if it is a tad predictable and nonsensical. I can see imaginative kids internalizing the settings and using it for their own creative play.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Three and Many Wishes of Jason Rid by Hazel Hutchins

I don't remember what I was looking for, but I found Nancy Keane's extensive website of themed book lists. Since I'm always looking for wishing stories to go with my first grade unit, I fished this oldie (1983) out of the library.

What I liked about it was that the kids were aware of traditional wishing stories and how wishes usually go wrong, and they used that knowledge to try to make responsible wishes.

It's pleasant enough, although the wishing-for-three-more-wishes loophole is a bit dubious, and even young readers will see the solution long before the kids in the story. But the baseball content is attractive, and the length (87 pages, with some pictures, but not too many) will be great for those looking for short chapter books.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Catch Up

These are books I've read recently but haven't had a chance to write up.

February 19 – Frog Princess by E.D. Baker
February 23 – Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

March 1 – Ever by Gail Carson Levine
March 7 – The Ruby and the Key by Lisle
March 12 – The Calder Game by Blue Balliett
March 28 – Erak’s Ransom by John Flanagan

April 2 – visit to see John Flanagan
April 7 – Oggie Cooder by Sarah Weeks
April 8 – Tashi by Anna Fienberg
April 12 – Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Click by Linda Sue Park and others

I was intrigued by the concept of this one. Ten authors each wrote a chapter. I’d love to know what the process was. From what I’ve read (one interview is here), it seems that the chapters were completed individually, in order, although perhaps not the order they appear in the final book. I enjoyed seeing how it starts out as Maggie’s story, but is really Gee’s, despite a half-hearted return to Maggie at the end. I don’t remember who was responsible for the fantastical twist (it might have been Nick Hornby, but it was developed by Greg McGuire), but that element didn’t quite fit in. Besides, I’ve never really been able to just accept fantasy elements in an otherwise realistic book without some kind of explanation. “Just because it’s magic” doesn’t cut it.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Iron Thunder by Avi

I picked this one up because I have a whole slew of third grade boys who want to read about battles, including a few who are excellent readers. If we’re not careful, they’ll end up finding and reading accounts that they’re not emotionally ready for.

Considering how much of the book is spent watching the ship get built, it’s surprisingly exciting. I found myself really thinking about the extraordinary idea that we can get enormous amounts of iron to float. Avi does a great job of capturing the cultural moment of innovation and the response to an idea that will change everything. I also really liked the bits of historical information and diagrams throughout the book. They were good reminders that what I was reading had really happened without pulling me out of the story, and the afterward did a nice job of distilling the fiction from the fact.

This is the first in Hyperion’s “I Witness” series, which seems like it will be worth keeping an eye on.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Barkbelly by Cat Weatherill

I’m pretty sure I read about this one over at Pixie Stix. She has it tagged “Quirky and Hard to Define.” That it is. I enjoyed it, though. It would make a great read aloud- the epic quest for self-identification is moderately episodic, keeps you wondering what will happen next, and has great character names like Candy Pie and Farmer Muckledown. I like it so much that I immediately picked up the companion, Snowbone, but it was too much of a good thing. I think I only got through the first chapter before realizing that I was done with the adventure. At least for a while. So often I come back to Cathie Mercier’s comment about sequels: is there really more story to tell, or do you just want more? In this case, I think, yes, there is more story there, but I don’t need any more just yet.

This story seems very un-American to me (and indeed, the author is British), and I’m trying to decide why. Part of it is the landscape; American concepts of and attitudes towards wilderness are so different from European ones. This book in particular really channels England’s long history of fantastical creatures living alongside humans. We don’t have that a part of our cultural history. Hmmm… I’m going to have to think about this some more.

I’m fascinated by covers and how they change from country to country
and over time to appeal to new readers. This one is so much more appealing. I’m not sure if it’s the UK cover, or the new paperback one.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson

I read this because one of my 6th graders kept telling me how good it was. It came out in 2005, and I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that Gail Carson Levine’s Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg came out that same year. It seems that Disney paid a lot of money to talented writers to flesh out bad storylines involving classic Disney characters. (Although, I adore David Christiana’s illustrations in the latter.) This book has a lot of good elements- a mismatched group of kids who have to overcome their differences to save the world (including one who is treasonous), three-dimensional holographs that enable the kids to enter a parallel, sinister world, and roller coasters. Unfortunately, the story just doesn’t hang together well. Aside from the main character and the one who defects to the dark side, the kids are pretty much interchangeable. One of the more annoying plot contrivances is the man who seems to know what the kids need to do to save Disneyland from the villains, but insists that the kids have to find out for themselves. It’s never really clear why he can’t solve the problem himself.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George

I read about this on a blog somewhere and it made it onto my “to read” list, but I don’t remember where I saw it written up. Probably on someone’s Best of 2007 list. It’s a nice variant on the Capable Girl theme, and, again, the cover doesn’t do it justice. It has a lot of humor to it, starting with the aunt who gives the main character, Creel, to the dragon so that a knight can rescue, and then marry, her, saving the entire family from financial ruin. The dragon society that George creates is rich, and I loved the passages about Creel’s embroidery and dress-making skills. I can see this one being a hit with the 9-11 crowd, while they’re waiting for the next Inkworld.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Elvis and Olive by Stephanie Watson

I grabbed this one out of the galley pile at the store one day when I needed something to read at lunch. It’s solid realistic, opposites attract, friendship fiction, if somewhat exaggerated. Each of the girls is an extreme- the straight-A good girl from a health-food yuppie family, and the off-beat, free spirit, untruthful girl with a questionable history. There are plenty of morals, and you won’t miss them, but I’m sure kids will be amused by Annie’s antics, and may identify with her slice-of-life friendship with Natalie.