Category Archives: Children’s book reviews


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…

100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson

[attempting to recreate the mythical Best Written Blog Post Ever (see previous post)…although my frustration is such this will probably become quite truncated and brief]

After my disappointment with Envy, it was gratifying to pick up 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson.  Fresh, original, funny, and well-balanced, 100 Cupboards is a unique piece of fantasy, with some mystery thrown in.  Wilson spends a great deal of time letting his readers get to know his characters, most of whom are quirky, and none of whom are a “type.”  Our hero is Henry York, a twelve-year-old Bostonian who has been transplanted to his aunt and uncle’s farm in Kansas after the kidnapping of his travel-writing parents while on assignment.  Henry’s parents have over-protected and under-loved him, forcing him to do things like wear a helmet to gym class and sit in a booster car seat at his mature age, but never letting him enjoy the finer points of youth and indulge in such unsafe practices as playing a game of neighborhood baseball.

Moving to Kansas is an eye-opening experience for Henry.  Aunt Dotty and Uncle Frank have three daughters (Henrietta, Penny, and Anastasia), and live their lives in a state of happy chaos.  Uncle Frank – my favorite character – speaks little but wisely, and pursues interesting business opportunities like selling tumbleweed at auction online.  Aunt Dotty, a loving and kind woman, appreciates her soft spoken husband and loves her girls without smothering them.  The three girls range from older Penny to twelve-year-old Henrietta to the annoying (but sweet) youngest sister Anastasia. 

Though some blogging critics have complained that Wilson spends too long setting up the story, and too little time on the actual “action” of the story, I love that I’m given a chance to bond with these wonderful characters before the fantasy elements of the story kick into full gear.  Since I’d gotten to know Henry and Henrietta so well, the suspense was ramped up ten notches when they found themselves facing a wall of cupboard doors that open into other worlds.  Each time Henrietta carelessly opened that door to evil Endor, my breath caught and my heart raced.  When Henrietta disappeared and Henry had to plunge into another world in an attempt to find her, I was right there alongside him.  The story wouldn’t have been nearly so exciting if I hadn’t been so bonded with the characters.

But for me, the very best part of 100 Cupboards is the humor.  It is very, very funny.  At one point in the sixth grade book group meeting, one of the kids reminded us all of a particular funny scene, and the whole group fell into paroxysms of laughter remembering that scene.  Humor plus fully developed characters plus a dash of mystery (most of the kids in the book group kept referring to the book as a mystery) plus original fantasy – mixed all together, these ingredients make for one of the best books I’ve read in recent months.  And the book group liked it, too.

One final tidbit:  one of the library’s best-read kids, an intelligent and popular sixth grader who plows through every book that his mom and I can find for him, said this to me the other day when his mom told him that the sequel to 100 Cupboards was out and that I had put a hold on it for him:  “YES!!!!!!  Abby, you are AWESOME!!!!!  You are the BEST!!!!!!!”  And he said it loud.  And he said it in front of all of his cool friends.  Any book (and its sequel) that can garner that kind of enthusiasm from a sixth grader is a-ok by me.

The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett

I love this new picturebook by one of my favorite author/illustrators, and on a whim decided to use it for preschool storytime yesterday, even though it seems more logical to use it for one-on-one book sharing due to its size, shape, and multiple partial pages.  I was also worried that my preschool storytime crowd might think the story was too simple and spare and not be engaged.

But The Odd Egg was a total hit.  The kids were completely enthralled, and were so excited about the story’s progression that they couldn’t stay in their seats.  After several of them had run up to the book to view the pictures (blocking the view of others, of course), I had to start going around the room with each picture so that each child could get a good moment to view each illustration up close.  And the best part was the guffaws of laughter at the final illustration on the book’s endpages.  (I’m really glad that Nanette, the library’s awesome cataloger, had the foresight to process the book without the dust jacket so that last picture of duck and his “baby” can be fully appreciated.)

It’s so nice to find a picturebook that an adult (me) loves, and that also passes the test of a group of child listeners.  Bonus:  the kids loved the book, and stayed attentive to it, even though they were all wired up on the tons of sugar that they’d just consumed at their school’s Valentine’s Day party.  If a book can pass THAT test, then it’s a real winner.

White Sands, Red Menace

Once again, my opinion of a book was completely different from the kids’ opinion.  The sixth grade book group unanimously agreed that they LOVED Ellen Klages’s White Sands, Red Menace.  They loved absolutely everything about the book: the characters, the pacing, that it’s historical fiction, the way the book ends…everything.  In fact, they couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about the book.

Which shows why we adults who are in charge of writing, publishing, reviewing, and buying children’s literature need to always remember that while we can have our grownup opinions of a children’s book, we’re not kids and we don’t think or read like kids.  It’s important for us to check our own thoughts from time to time (or more frequently) against the thoughts of the actual and intended reader, the child.  Such a slippery topic, that always incites heated discussion, as evidenced in this recent post on the topic by Roger Sutton.  I’m never able to completely pin down my own thoughts about this, sometimes wavering in the direction of “A good book is a good book is a good book,” sometimes wavering the other way, “But kids do know what they like to read – they’re as capable of having opinions as adults.”

So I’m not going to try to solve the mystery today.  I’ll just suffice it to say that Klages’s book was a huge hit with this book group, and their enthusiasm makes me want to read the book again to see if my own opinion changes on a second reading.

White Sands, Red Menace

Just finished reading Ellen Klages’ sequel to last year’s Green Glass Sea: White Sands, Red Menace.  And I’m sad to say that I really didn’t love it, even though I did love the first book.  The plot drags…and drags…and drags…and the characters didn’t grab me the way that they did in the first book.  There were two many minute details about daily life in 1946 that bored me sleepy (we’ll see on Tuesday if the sixth grade book group had the same reaction as I did), and because of that it took me forever to read the book – seven hours or so, about four hours longer than I’d have expected.  And then there was the odd scene with Ynez offering to shampoo Suze’s hair, and giving Suze a shoulder rub (so out of place in this book, so out of place).  The book is ok, but no where near as solidly and completely conceived as the first.  Some books don’t need sequels, can’t support them for whatever reason, and Green Glass Sea falls into that category.

And now, after spending most of the day reading, it’s time to do something ELSE with my eyes.


Just finished reading Masterpiece by Elise Broach, and am ready to inflict my harsh judgement of it on the world:

After finishing, I went back and re-read the reviews that have been published about this book, and I can’t be as enthusiastic as most “official” reviewers have been.  While it’s a charming and engaging story, with a fair amount of suspense, it also feels to me like a story written with a wink and a nod to adults.  If I were cynical, I might think that this adult appeal were intentionally included – but I’m not cynical.  I do think that Broach wrote the story that she wanted to write, and that she wasn’t trying to draw in legions of adult fans.  But the weaknesses are there, as evidenced in the following quotes:

“When you saw different parts of the world, you saw different parts of yourself.  And when you stayed home, where it was safe, those parts of yourself also stayed hidden.” (page 268)  A prime example of telling and not showing; while there are worthy thoughts in these two sentences, they slam you over the head with their meaning.  I would have been happier if Marvin had had his adventures and shown his emotional maturation in subtler ways.  Readers aren’t stupid; they would have gotten the point that Marvin’s adventures expanded his horizons and helped him grow as a person – um, beetle, that is.

“Fortunately, Uncle Albert [a beetle] was able to maneuver his way through the vents at the back of the oven and reconnect a loose wire.  This fixed the problem, though not before the Pompadays had a heated exchange about unreliable foreign appliances, Mr. Pompaday’s lack of handiness, and the fact that if Mrs. Pompaday were a real cook, she wouldn’t be using a microwave anyway.” (page 172)  ~ This section clearly aims to amuse the adult reader – the reader who’s been married, been disappointed in his or her spouse’s shortcomings, and felt cheated by an expensive appliance that hasn’t measured up to quality standards.

There are many more specific passages like these two that feel intended for an adult audience, and then there are also the larger themes of the book.  The friendship between James the human and Marvin the beetle feels weak and underdeveloped; there are kernels of a friendship there, but I didn’t see enough connection between the two characters to create the level of bond that they are supposed to share.  But this friendship, selfless on the part of Marvin and very productive for James (he gains his mother’s love, the friendship of his classmates, and fame for catching the thief), carries with it grand lessons about being a good friend and valuing your friendship and your friend’s happiness above personal gain and recognition.  I found these grand lessons too heavy-handed and pedantic, and would have preferred a lighter, subtler touch.

I did enjoy the story, and will use the book for the 5th grade book group, since it should provoke a decent discussion.  But I don’t think it’s a “masterpiece,” and I certainly wouldn’t nominate it for the Newbery (I saw it on a layman’s list of potential Newbery nominees).  On a scale of 1 to 10, I give Masterpiece a 5.

Current reading

With no book groups for a couple of weeks, I’ve been doing some reading just for the sake of reading – here are the books that I’m working on:

The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau.  While I didn’t enjoy this as much as The City of Ember, I still liked it, and have requested the other two books in the series from the library.  It’s not often that I get the urge to read an entire series of books; usually I get bored with series books, especially science fiction series, so it’s a compliment to DuPrau that I’m continuing with this one.

(At this point, Max jumped into my lap, and is now providing a dusty impediment to my typing – clearly we need to vacuum, he’s so dusty – but he’s too cute to evict, so I’ll soldier on…)

Masterpiece by Elise Broach.  I’m enjoying this one so far, and think that I’ll use it as the February choice for my 5th grade book group, provided I can locate a copy of it on CD for the book group member who prefers books on CD.  It’s a bit cute, but also a bit innovative, and I’m hoping that the plot will progress in a way that stresses innovation over cuteness.

Chasing Vermeer and The Calder Game by Blue Balliett.  I’ve been meaning to read these for a while now, and found pristine copies of each at the used book store yesterday, so now I have no excuses.  (And, truthfully, I’m a little ashamed that I’ve never read these two books…they are contemporary classics, and I should know them…)

I Put a Spell on You by Adam Selzer.   Another possible book group choice, though I don’t know enough about this book to say for sure yet.  I think I’ve mostly been drawn in by the Scrabble letters on the cover, since Jim and I do like to play Scrabble.

There are more, of course: several books in the bookcase in the foyer that I’ve bought over the last few months and keep meaning to read.  There never seems to be enough time to get to them all, though a cold rainy day like today certainly helps.

(And one endnote: yes, Max is still living with us.  My asthma calmed down significantly, Ophy and Pippa seem to have adjusted to him, and we just plain love the little bugger too much to give him up.)

Mr. Maxwell’s Mouse

My love affair with Mr. Maxwell’s Mouse began about a year and a half ago, when my friend and former Alcott School colleague Gayle asked me for title suggestions to use with her fourth grade class’s project on animal characterization.  I randomly and quickly scanned the library shelves for picturebooks that had animals with distinct and developed personalities, sent her an email list, and thought nothing more of it until a month or two later.

Gayle and I sat down to share coffee and breakfast that month or so later, and I had completely forgotten about the list of books I had sent her.  But she hadn’t.  She thanked me again for the list, and told me that she had immediately gone and purchased all of the books I had recommended (I gasped inwardly at that, remembering that it was a quickly assembled list), and that while all of the books were great, one stood out:  Mr. Maxwell’s Mouse by Frank Asch and Devin Asch.  Her class had loved it, and it had proved to be an excellent model for her creative writing exercise on creating memorable and unique characters.

Mr. Maxwell is a gentleman cat who has just received a promotion at work and decides to celebrate at lunch that day.  Though each day he always eats the same lunch menu item (baked mouse) at the same restaurant, Mr. Maxwell deviates on this day of his promotion and orders the live mouse instead.  The mouse arrives at his table, delivered by Clyde the head waiter, “stretched out on a single slice of rye toast as if sunning itself on a sandy beach.”  And the mouse proceeds to cleverly stall and manipulate Mr. Maxwell, distracting him with such comments as, “It’s very comforting to know that I’m serving such a courteous customer,” “I always thought that when it was my turn to be…ahem…eaten, I would be enjoyed with a fine glass of wine, ” and “I’ve heard that this year’s Beaujolais is exceptional, but shamefully overpriced.  So I’d suggest one of the fine Rhine wines – anything between the years ’78 to ’85, but not the ’83.  That year produced a very bitter crop of grapes.  Unless you prefer a white wine with mouse – then almost any chardonnay will do.”

Ultimately, the mouse gets Mr. Maxwell to blindfold himself with his napkin, the better to kill the mouse with whom he has now become too well acquainted to kill openly.  The mouse snags the tip of Mr. Maxwell’s swishing tail, guides it to the plate, and utters the countdown to the moment of knife killing mouse – but, you guessed it, Mr. Maxwell’s knife ends up cutting his own tail, not the mouse, and the mouse escapes. 

I love, love, love this book.  It’s a joy to read aloud, since you can create three great voices: Clyde the waiter, Mr. Maxwell, and the mouse; the words flow incredibly well; and the audience’s tension is palpable as the plot develops.  Will the mouse die?  Will he outwit Mr. Maxwell?  The ending isn’t at all obvious as you read the story, and Asch and Asch masterfully build the suspense up to the climactic moment of knife striking flesh.  Pictures and text weave together seamlessly, culminating in one wordless, tilted two-page spread that depicts the mayhem in the restaurant after Mr. Maxwell cuts his own tail (and the boys in the audience inevitably relish the bit of blood on Mr. Maxwell’s tail).  And the final bit of text, a letter sent from the mouse to Mr. Maxwell in his hospital room, neatly and subtly finishes the tale off in a satisfying, and reassuring (nobody got hurt, really) way.

If you don’t know this book, do find it and enjoy it.  These are some of the best developed characters you’ll ever find in a picturebook, and their interaction with each other withstands multiple readings.  And, unlike some of the books mentioned in my last post, Mr. Maxwell’s Mouse doesn’t hit you over the head with one single message.  There are layers of meaning and interpretation here, as well as a story that just begs to be enjoyed as a story.

Time Stops for No Mouse

After it was highly, highly recommended to me by a young lady and her sister, I decided to schedule Time Stops for No Mouse by Michael Hoeye as the May book for the sixth grade book group.  The young lady in question is an intelligent and discerning eighth grader, and her sister, equally intelligent and discerning, is a junior in high school.  Both raved about how much they loved the book, and got a bit misty eyed as they told me about it.  And then a few days after these girls sold me on the book, the father of another young library patron thanked me profusely for adding the book’s sequels to the collection.  He told me how much he and his daughter adore the series, and how happy he was to see it in its entirety in our library.

The sixth grade book group met this past Tuesday to discuss this book, and the meeting revealed some positives and some negatives regarding Hoeye’s book.  On the plus side:  all attending book group members actually finished reading the book, which hasn’t happened much lately with this group.  Also on the plus side: once I was able to insist that we talk about the book and not sports, we had a productive discussion.  On the negative side: no one, including me, loved the book.  Also on the negative side: we discovered this isn’t the most fertile book for a group discussion.

I was truly surprised by how little I liked Time Stops for No Mouse; I hated Hoeye’s choice of names (sorry, I know he works hard to create his characters’ names, but they just frustrated me, since they are hard to pronounce and hold no meaning for me), I was a bit bored by the story, and the whole package of the plot, the characters, and the names feels a bit too contrived for me. 

As for the kids in the book group, they were primarily bothered by the fact that mice are the main characters in the story.  Several kids had the same reaction: why make the characters mice, if they are living in a world that seems exactly like the human world?  Where are the differences between how mice live and humans live?  And where are humans in this invented world – do they exist, or not?  And then there were the expected grievances: not enough action, not enough violence, not enough fantasy (animal fantasy clearly doesn’t count as fantasy to this group).

I’m left feeling a bit puzzled by Hoeye’s book.  Would I have liked it better if I hadn’t gone into it with such high expectations?  Would the book work better with a different group of readers, perhaps younger readers?  Would I appreciate the book more if I were to read the three sequels?  And is the kids’ reaction colored by their bias towards Alex Rider and Harry Potter?

If I have time this summer, I think I’ll read at least one of the sequels and see if I’m swayed by that.  But first I have a stack of books on my coffee table, waiting to be read:  The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd, The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry, The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan, The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, The Titan’s Curse by Rick Riordan, and Tunnels by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams.  Isn’t it lovely that there’s always something new to read?