Category Archives: Children’s book reviews

Regarding the Fountain

Just finished reading Regarding the Fountain by Kate Klise, the book that we’ll be discussing in this Tuesday’s meeting of the fifth grade book group – and I’m very, very pleasantly surprised.  The book is fresh and funny and clever, with just enough mystery to keep the reader fully engaged (and feeling a little intelllectually superior to the slow-to-figure-things-out characters).

The book was chosen for the group by one of its members, a well-read young lady with an old soul.  She promised us, quietly and with a sly smile, that we’d really like the book, and several times when she’s been in the children’s room she has said to me, with a twinkle in her eye, that she can’t wait to discuss the book she chose.  All a bit cryptic, but now I get why she was being so coy about the book.  It’s unique, a rare thing these days in children’s literature.

Without giving too much of the book away, because I’m sure I enjoyed it ever so much more for knowing absolutely nothing about it, I’ll share a few tidbits about it.  As the subtitle tells us, this is “A Tale, in Letters, of Liars and Leaks.”  The letters are an assortment of faxes, memos, notes, and friendly letters, and the reader would be well-advised to pay attention to all the details of the letters as they read.  Letterheads, names (oh, especially the names), and dates all matter in this story.  A group of fifth grade characters write many of the letters, as does their teacher, the school secretary, and the principal.  Also writing are our two villains, and the mysterious fountain designer Florence Waters (Flo for short).  As I mentioned above, there’s a touch of mystery, which I won’t give away, and lots of friendships forming and flourishing via the pen. 

You’ll have to trust me when I say it’s delightful, and that you should read it.  As an extra incentive, there are fabulous illustrations by the author’s sister, M. Sarah Klise, that remind me at times of Edward Gorey’s illustrations (though Klise does have her own cool style, and I don’t want to degrade that).   You have your assignment.  Read the book.  And I’ll let you know what the fifth graders say about it on Tuesday.

The Alcatraz Conversations

I’m afraid I’ve waited a bit too long to write about the discussions that the 5th and 6th grade book groups had about Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson, and the details of the discussions have been lost in the haze of a couple of weeks of other book groups and lots of storytimes.  But I do want to mention in general that, surprisingly, the kids agreed with me.

In my previous post about this book, I confessed that I pretty much hate this book.  To quote myself, “It’s all a little too cute, too self-conscious, too adult – it’s impossible to get lost in the story, because the narrator keeps butting in with comments about the book or himself.  And the narrator, Alcatraz, is supposed to be a thirteen year old boy, but his rants and complaints sound more like a forty year old cranky grownup.”  There’s a sense that Sanderson is glorying in his own wit, celebrating how much smarter and funnier he is than his readers, and that really rubbed me the wrong way.

The 5th graders discussed the book first, and except for an initial whispered agreement with one girl who started off the discussion by saying that she hated the book, other than that I kept my mouth shut for twenty minutes or so and listened to them half-heartedly talk about the characters and the plot.  Finally, though, I mentioned that I hated the intrusiveness of the narrator, and the whole book group, in unison, said, “I HATED that!!!!”  Turns out the kids were as put off by the wise-aleck narrator as I was, and they spent the rest of the book group talking about how annoying the writing style was to them.  And in the next week’s book group discussion, the 6th graders didn’t wait for me to bring up the topic of the narrator, nor did they find much at all to love about the book.  One 6th grader had read several of the sequels, but she didn’t want to commit to being a “fan” of the series.

So it’s true – sometimes the kids and I do have the same opinion about a book.  Many times I’m far harsher on a book than the kids are, but in this case I think the kids were actually harsher than I.  I respect that the author was trying something new, edgy, and different, because there is too much “safe” children’s literature these days.  But I’m glad that the kids in the book groups could clearly articulate their thoughts and criticisms of this book, and I think they gained a new perspective on literature as a whole through their discussions.

Recently read…

It’s winter, the wood stove is cranking, and book groups are in full swing – which means that I’ve been doing some reading.  Here are a couple of my recent reads:

Halt’s Peril by John Flanagan 

Though I really love the Ranger’s Apprentice series, of which Halt’s Peril is the ninth book, the series is just very well done bestsellers for kids.   They’re very well done because (unlike Harry Potter and some other series) each book has its own antagonist and its own dilemma, and each ends in a different place.  In other words, the reader isn’t forced to rehash the same plot trajectory in each of the books; unlike the good ol’ Harry series, we don’t start at the same time of year in the same place, then face a battle royale with the same villain, then end up relatively happy in the same place at the same time of year (a formula that I find to be extremely boring).  Instead, the main characters travel around the countryside from one book to the next, not always ending up in their home territory at the end of each installment.  We get to see them face different opponents in almost every book, and the characters do experience a certain amount of growth and change over the course of the series.  But the books are still bestsellers, not fine literature.  Sometimes the writing can be a bit clunky, and sometimes the reader has to really suspend disbelief over certain plot elements in order to move forward with reading.  But I still love ’em, and am very glad that Flanagan continues to push on with new books in the series.  They are great books to recommend to middle grade readers, both boys and girls, and every child that I have steered towards these books has gotten hooked and eagerly read every available book (and then they each gently – or not so gently – remind me of the exact date when the new book will be available in this country).

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

This book was repeatedly recommended to me by an older library patron who doesn’t often frequent the children’s room (except when her grandchildren are visiting in the summer, when I see her almost every day).  I have the utmost respect for this lady, as she is one of the most well-read people I have ever met, and I decided to heed her advice and add this book to our collection, and then, finally, to read it myself. 

Though War Horse might be seen by some as a mere revisitation of Black Beauty, as I’ve seen from some of the reviews posted on Goodreads, it’s really far more than that.  Yes, there is focus placed on the humane treatment of animals, and that point is driven home in several heartbreaking moments.  But I see this story as a book about war more than a book about animal welfare.  It takes place in World War I, and the War Horse in question, Joey, starts life as a simple English farmhorse with a very caring young master.  The young master’s father must sell Joey to the cavalry in order to pay off debts, and Joey finds himself with a new master, a caring captain, who talks to Joey about the insanity of sending cavalry units into the new technology of machine gun battle.  Sure enough, we witness the brutal destruction of most of Joey’s cavalry unit, both human and equine, as they are either cut down by machine gun fire or impaled on barbed wire.  Joey and his best horse friend then move on to the care of a gentle French girl and her grandfather, and we get to see the effect of war on the civilians before Joey is once again moved on to a  German division.  Morpurgo skillfully moves Joey from one side of the battle to civilian life to the other side of the battle before putting Joey smack dab in the middle of No Man’s Land, which leads to a very poignant scene that empasizes the brutal ridiculousness of wars that pit soldiers of different cultures but similar outlooks on life against each other.  The soldiers are but pawns of their governments, and the horses in WWI were the slaves of the pawns. 

It’s all very, very sad, and I shed many tears as I read the book.  Yes, I did feel more than a bit emotionally manipulated, but I still think War Horse is a worthwhile read.  Some of the Goodreads reviews that I read question whether this is a children’s book, and that makes me sad.  Shouldn’t children learn of the vast expense of war?  What good are we doing for them or for the world if they don’t grow up with a full understanding of how evil war is?  I really do worry about the current generation of children, and the extent to which many of them are overly protected against reading books that are sad or distressing or otherwise challenging.  Books are a very safe place to feel these tough emotions, and then to talk about those emotions with trusted adults or other child readers.  And if a child is never exposed to a sad book, what happens when sadness hits their own lives?  How prepared are they to deal with it?  And, in the case of a book like War Horse, what happens when children grow up without having to consider the gravity of war and destruction?  How long will the world survive if it is led by people who grew up without knowing of those things?

Two good books, not great books, but both worth reading for different reasons.  Read Halt’s Peril some evening when you want some action adventure before bedtime; read War Horse with a box of tissues by your side.  And then let me know how you liked them.

Alcatraz versus…

The 5th and 6th grade book groups are both reading the same book this month, Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson.  I’ve been wanting to read this book, first in a series of four (so far), partly because of its title, and partly because several of the library’s most avid readers have recommended the series to me. 

But – I’m sorry, very sorry to be this blunt – I hate the book.  It’s all a little too cute, too self-conscious, too adult – it’s impossible to get lost in the story, because the narrator keeps butting in with comments about the book or himself.  And the narrator, Alcatraz, is supposed to be a thirteen year old boy, but his rants and complaints sound more like a forty year old cranky grownup.  For instance, when his new-found grandfather pulls into a gas station, Alcatraz observes:  “I didn’t recognize the brand – the sign hanging above the ridiculously high prices simply depicted the image of an upside-down teddy bear” (p. 37).  How many thirteen year olds are going to notice, let alone comment on, the price of gas?

I’ve read several of the reviews that were written about the book when it was published in 2007, and I think that the Horn Book Magazine says it best in this phrase from its review:  “For all its self-aware preciosity…”  Obviously there’s an end to that sentence, an end that doesn’t agree with me, since the Horn Book recommends this book, but “self-aware preciosity” sums up my criticism of this novel.  I’m sure that Alcatraz and his creator would dismiss me as an “evil librarian,” but I just can’t find much to like in the book.

So now it will be doubly interesting to hear what the 5th and 6th graders have to say about it when they meet this week and next week, respectively.  I’ll try to keep my opinions to myself at first, so that the kids get a chance to say what they really think.  If all of the kids really like the book, maybe I won’t even mention my thoughts at all.  Maybe.  Stay tuned to hear how these two book discussions go…and now I’ve got to get back to finishing the book.  Sigh.

Currently reading…

Just a quick post tonight, of the books that I’m currently reading:

The Cats of Sanctuary House by Sister Mary Winifred ~ A sweet book (bought at the bargain price of $3.99 at the Concord Bookshop), with snippets about some of the many cats that the Sister has adopted over the years. 

Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum ~ Very interesting – well worth reading if you’re worried, like I am, about the direction our educational system is taking.

Halt’s Peril by John Flanagan ~ Yup, I’m addicted to the Ranger’s Apprentice series…this is book 9 in the series, which is the furthest I’ve ever read into a series…

Tiling: Expert Advice to Get the Job Done Right by Sunset Books ~ Ever hopeful, we are.  So the bathroom floor didn’t get started, let alone finished, this August like we had planned.  There’s always this winter, right?

And I really should also review Five Children and It by E. Nesbit before tomorrow’s 5th grade book group…off I go!

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

On Monday the 6th Grade Book Group and I discussed The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, and we all agreed that we like and appreciate the book.  It’s not a typical piece of juvenile fiction, since the action is internal rather than external, and there isn’t any huge drama.  And, of course, it’s historical fiction, which is a nice change of pace for me (and, I think, for the kids) from the usual fantasy fare.

My favorite part of the book is that Kelly addresses the relationship between Calpurnia and her somewhat crotchety grandfather with perception and gentleness.  Their relationship truly evolves, as the title suggests, and feels genuine.  No one establishes a strong bond overnight in real life, and I love that Calpurnia and her grandfather take their time getting to know each other.

The kids in the book group liked the scientific aspect of the story, and enjoyed Calpurnia’s intellectual curiosity and drive to know more.  And we also talked about the role of women in Texas in 1899 and 1900 (the time of the story), and how hard it would be to be a girl like Calpurnia: a girl who wants to be a scientist and not a “lady.” 

Towards the end of the group meeting, we talked about the Newbery Honor that this book won.  This particular group has now read When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (the 2010 Newbery Medal winner), Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (a 2010 Newbery Honor winner), and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, which was a 2010 Newbery Honor winner.  I asked the group, given that they had read three of the top-awarded books of the last year, which they would have chosen as the Newbery Medal winner if they had been on the committee.  Their answer?  Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, in a unanimous vote.  Their second choice was Calpurnia Tate, and, while they gave props to When You Reach Me for creativity, they all agreed that they didn’t think it was the best book of the three.  I completely agree with the kids here (and I swear that I didn’t influence their decision AT ALL!!). 

At any rate, if you have not yet read The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, you should.  I’m purposefully not describing much of the story in this post because I don’t want to wreak the reading experience for you.  Which means your assignment is to go read this book, now!

Books n’ stuff

Though I haven’t written much about books lately, I have been reading a lot.  Here are the books I’ve read most recently, with a star rating for each (if I get really inspired I might write reviews of a few of these in the coming days):

Where The Mountain Meets The Moon by Grace Lin – 5 VERY enthusiastic stars

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead – 4 1/2  stars

Erak’s Ransom by John Flanagan – 4 stars

The Big Splash by Jack D. Ferraiolo – 4 stars

The Word Snoop by Ursula Dubosarsky – 2 stars

Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay – 3 stars

And I’m currently reading:  The Lost Years of Merlin by T.A. Barron.  Still haven’t managed to crack open either of those pieces of adult fiction that I bought with Jim’s birthday gift certificate.  Hmmmm.  What does that say about me?

Little Sister Is Not My Name!

No, this blog title has nothing to do with me and my relationship with my older siblings!  I just finished reading the first book in Sharon M. Draper’s new early chapter book series about a nine year old girl named Sassy.  And the title of the first book is:  Little Sister Is Not My Name! 

As I was putting NEW stickers on some freshly processed children’s books the other day, I was intrigued by this book’s cover.  I knew the book had gotten favorable reviews, but the cover just looks a wee bit commercial, so I decided that I’d best take it home and read it for myself.  And while I was at it, I chose a few other younger juvenile books to read, too, since it occurred to me that I’ve been reading mostly intermediate/middle school and young adult books, but not much fiction for younger kids.

Little Sister is a quick, fun read, and I’m actually very impressed.  The cover, cheesy though it is, will attract a lot of readers (primarily girls, which is too bad, because boys might enjoy the book too), and once the book is in their hands, I can practically guarantee that they’ll like it and be searching for the next book in the series.  Sassy is a completely genuine child character: with very few exceptions, her voice and actions ring true.  In my opinion, a well-portrayed child character is a rare beast, and it’s refreshing to meet Sassy and realize that if she weren’t fictional she could easily walk through the door of the library and start chatting with me about her Sassy Sack and boys and her friends and her Grammy.

Draper is an acclaimed teacher (see her official biography here – it’s impressive), and logic would say that her experience working with students helped her to create Sassy and her friends.  If you know kids and understand them, you’re more likely to be able to create a fictional kid who walks, talks, and acts like a real kid.

I highly recommend this first book in the Sassy series, and can’t wait to put it in the hands of a couple of my favorite young library patrons.

Tunnels

On Tuesday, the sixth grade book group will be discussing Tunnels by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams.  I’ve been reading this book over the last week and half, and I’m surprised by how impressed I am by it.  It’s not the greatest piece of literature I’ve ever read, but its unexpected plot turns and grim, dark atmosphere make it compelling and involving in a totally unique way.

Two thumbs up from this reader for Tunnels – go find yourself a copy and let me know what you think of it.  And I’ll post the sixth graders’ reactions to the book here later in the week…

Ranger’s Apprentice

For last week’s Teen Book Group, we read The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan, first in the Ranger’s Apprentice series.  I’d been meaning to read this book for a while, just so I could know what the kids are so excited about (the series is extremely popular at the library), but hadn’t gotten around to it until C. suggested it as a book group book.  And now I am completely and totally hooked, and have read the first three books in the series (The Ruins of Gorlan, The Burning Bridge, The Ice-Bound Land) and am on my way to pick up the fourth book, The Battle For Skandia.

What’s so great about these books?  I’ll admit that they’re not the best-written or best-edited books ever, but that’s not what they purport to be: they’re bestsellers, and proud of it, and better written than many bestsellers that I’ve read.  Flanagan is a master of drama and plot, and also does a great job creating and developing his characters.  I love that his characters have very real flaws, like Halt, the adult who should know better, encouraging young Horace to beat up the bullies who had been tormenting him.  And his characters grow and develop and surprise even themselves (think Horace at the end of book two here).

But what I love most about this series is that Flanagan doesn’t fall into the Harry Potter trap of structuring each book the same way (i.e., each of the Harry Potter books covered one year of school at Hogwarts).  Flanagan could easily have had each of his books cover a year of Will’s apprenticeship, with each year culminating in a Big Battle of some sort, but instead he wisely chose to write the series as one adventure leading into the next.  Without giving too much away, I was pleased to see that Will and Halt are not existing as apprentice and master at the end of the third book; they are separated, and the story is the better for it.  I can’t guess where we’re headed in the fourth book, and that makes me want to read it even more (now I understand the frustration of the series’ fans who know the next book has been published in Australia, but not yet here in the U.S.).

The Teen Book Group also loved The Ruins of Gorlan, and several of the book group members have become hooked on the series.  We unanimously agreed that the books are engaging, fun, and exciting, and we all thanked C. for recommending them.  The group’s only complaint?  The cover art is too dull and doesn’t draw you in.  After much discussion, we decided that the cover art for the British versions of the books is by far the best (the Australian covers are too young, the American covers are too dark and boring).  Bad cover art, though, is a pretty minor flaw, and it was refreshing to have found a book that we could all agree on and enjoy.  And now it’s time for me to go pick up that fourth book…