Tag Archives: books for kids

Knee-Knock Rise, by Natalie Babbitt, 1970, Book Review

In a land of flat plains there sits a ridge of hill, and on the very top one, the one always embraced by a cloak of mist, there dwells a beast. The people of Instep, the town closest to Kneeknock Rise, hold a fair each autumn, when the weather turns surly and the Megrimum atop the hill begins to moan. It is to this fair that Egan is bound. Here he learns the nature of the beast, and the best ways to ward it off–candles, onions, wishbones, poppies and bells. Especially bells. Bright-eyed people happily shared exciting tales of mystery and dread, for the Megrimum was “frightful and fine and it belonged to them.” But is it a beast at all?

Natalie Babbitt creates a wonderful tale that took Newbery honors in 1971. I did not, however, like it as much as Tuck Everlasting, but that’s hardly fair. I’ve had an ongoing love affair with Tuck for twenty-five years. Kneeknock Rise, though written earlier, is completely new to me. But it just doesn’t reach the depth of insight and beauty that Babbitt achieves with Tuck.

In the end, Kneeknock Rise comes off much like a fable. For while Egan is visiting Instep, he hikes to the top of the rise. What he finds surprises him, but not as much as the response he gets to his story when he hikes below again. Perhaps the moral for this fable is best illustrated by a poem written by Egan’s Uncle Ott:

The cat attacked a bit of string
And dragged it by the head
And tortured it beside the stove
And left it there for dead.
“Excuse me sir,” I murmured when
He passed me in the hall,
“But that was only string you had
And not a mouse at all!”
He didn’t even thank me when
I told him he was wrong
It’s possible – just possible –
He knew it all along.

To put it another way: You can’t talk a fool out of deluding himself.

Highly recommended.

Savvy, by Ingrid Law, 2009, Book Review

savvySavvy is a uniquely-styled book that won Newbery honors last year. Its most outstanding feature is the rhythmic nonsense words that flood the prose, creating a style all its own  “Fibertygibbity,” “a fizz and a zing,” “jump and jive,” “razzmatazz,” “bumping, jumping,” “stumbled and tumbled,” “gewgaws,” and “…loosening his lip-lock.” Ms. Law has a very distinctive and catchy way of saying everything, which makes her book quite unforgettable.

So how’s the story, you ask? Fabulous! Every member of the Beaumont family is gifted with some kind of savvy that shows up on their thirteenth birthday. Grandpa stretches and manipulates the earth, Rocket’s sparks with electricity, Fish creates tropical storms, Grandma catches and cans radio waves, and Mibs? She’s about to find out. But just before her birthday, her father is in a terrible accident. In an attempt to get to him, she stows away on a pink Bible delivery bus and drags a lot of people into trouble with her. In the process, she learns that turning thirteen signals a lot more changes than just a savvy.

The cast of characters contains some gritty, down-to-reality kinds of folks. The pastor, for one, is decidedly human. And Miss Rosemary, the preacher’s wife, is well-meaning but someone you can’t wait to wave good-bye to.  Lester, the not-so-bright Bible deliveryman finds that confidence and a good woman sometimes go hand-in-hand. The kids, Will and Fish and Bobbi and Mibs, squabble and fight and end up better friends. And the Beaumonts?  Even a savvy doesn’t make you perfect, even when perfection is your savvy. By the end, you love them all.

On top of a great story and great characters, Savvy is sprinkled with little life lessons that make the book all the tastier. Like “you can’t get rid of part of what makes you you and be happy.” Or “I realized that good and bad are always there and always mixed up together in a tangle.” Or my favorite, “when something like that comes along, whether it’s an accident or a savvy or a very first kiss, life takes a turn and you can’t step back. All you can do is keep moving forward and remember what you’ve learned.”

While the gibberish words sometimes wore me down, and I imagine they might be challenging for a reader unfamiliar with them, they also add to the book’s charm. And Savvy definitely has a lot of charm. Two thumbs way up!


The Mouse and the Motorcycle Trilogy, by Beverly Cleary, 1965, Book Review

I dearly love Ramona, but my all-time favorite Beverly Cleary character has to be Ralph S. Mouse. There’s just something about that precocious little fella that gets me every time. Maybe I see a little of myself in him. Maybe I remember being just a little irresponsible and wanting so much to grow up. Maybe I just love the idea of a young mouse who trills with the speed of a tiny red motorcycle trimmed with chrome and dual exhausts. I always have wished animals could talk.

The Mouse and the Motorcycle is a marvelously imaginative story delivered with just the right blend of adventure and fun. Ralph is a medium-sized mouse who lives in the Mountain View Inn. When a young boy named Keith checks into Ralph’s room, they find that mice and boys who share a love of motorcycles naturally speak the same language, and they become friends. Through a series of humorous, kid-pleasing adventures, Ralph proves to Keith that he’s growing up, and Keith, before departing, kindly leaves his toy motorcycle in Ralph’s possession.

But that’s only the beginning of Ralph’s story. In the second book of the trilogy, Runaway Ralph decides he’s sick of scrounging for crumbs, and he’s had it with the scores of young siblings and cousins always begging for rides on his precious motorcycle. So he decides to run away from home. (This one will tickle every one of us who ever packed a suitcase!) He finally lands at Happy Acres Camp and meets Garf, an unhappy little boy. Ralph ends up with much more than just the peanut butter and jelly sandwich he’s been craving. After run-ins with cats, dogs, cages and one alfalfa-hating hamster, he learns a lot about what’s really important to him.

In Ralph S. Mouse, Ralph meets another young boy named Ryan and ends up haunting the halls of the Irwin J. Sneed Elementary School. It takes a few close encounters with danger and some disagreements before Ralph and Ryan learn a hard lesson–and Ralph ends up with a new vehicle to drive!

While the first installment is my favorite, I highly recommend them all three books. Each describes a different adventure, with different boys and different situations, but each is written by a master craftswoman with a keen understanding of how children think and what they love. I’ve yet to meet the child Ralph didn’t delight.

Read more of my Beverly Cleary reviews.

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians), by Rick Riordan, 2005, Book Review

the lightning thief“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.

If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life. 

Being a half-blood is dangerous. It’s scary. Most of the time, it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways.”

Percy Jackson is a troubled twelve-year-old who’s been diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD and been kicked out of every school he’s ever attended. Then in sixth grade, his life really starts to tank. Particularly when his pre-algebra teacher turns into a bat-winged monster and tries to kill him. Things go from bad to worse until he learns he’s only half human. Then the fun really begins.

Rick Riordan’s imagination is astounding. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief is a quest among the ancient Greek gods, a fresh and unique setting for tween readers. He kept me on the edge of my seat all the way to the end of the book with a great mix of suspense, action and a hilarious writing style. Consider some of my favorite moments:

“Mr. Brunner was this middle-aged guy in a motorized wheelchair. He had thinning hair and a scruffy beard and a frayed tweed jacket, which always smelled like coffee.”

“He looked like a cherub who’d turned middle-aged in a trailer park.”

“Standing behind us was a guy who looked like a raptor in a leisure suit.”

The one drawback to using the ancient gods in a book for kids is their legendary tendency toward promiscuity. In Camp Half-Blood, where Percy goes for the summer, a cabin is built for each god to collect all the cast-off children he or she has created with mortals. In a book for kids, this background of complete social dysfunction makes me cringe. But Riordan’s handling of it never crosses any bounds of propriety, never prompts kids to start asking questions that demand uncomfortable answers. It’s simply a pitfall of featuring gods. I greatly appreciate the restraint Riordan uses concerning inappropriate language. It’s nice to make a recommendation without having to include that post script.

One of my favorite things about The Lightning Thief is the way it becomes personal immediately. Warning kids right off that they might share Percy’s half-blood condition, that they too might be in danger, lends his predicament authenticity and sends a thrill of danger through the reader. It sure caught me right away. Riordan also makes effective use of his chapter titles. With headings like “I Accidentally Vaporize my Pre-algebra Teacher” and “Grover Unexpectedly Loses his Pants,” what kid isn’t going to keep reading?

I know I’m coming to this series extremely late, but there may be others even more behind the times than me. On the chance that you, reader, happen to be one of the twenty-five Americans left who haven’t read it yet, let me encourage you to look up Percy Jackson. I give this book my enthusiastic, whole-hearted approval. Be assured, I will be looking up the sequels. They are:


The Beyonders Series, A World Without Heroes, by Brandon Mull, 2011, Book Review

beyondersI’ve developed a love-hate relationship with this book. It took me a week to really give it a chance. I thought the writing style rather rough, with awkward word choices and excessive adjectives and adverbs. But as I moved into the heart of the adventure, I became hooked. Once I really started, I finished it in just two days, and it’s a 450 page book. Here’s what got me:

Jason Walker happened upon the strangest portal between worlds ever. After an episode involving a hippopotamus and the musical group The Giddy Nine (you’ll have to read about it on your own), he found himself in Lyrian where he stumbles upon The Book of Salzared. “Be cautioned, Reader,” the book warns. “Some knowledge can never be unlearned. Such is the secret contained herein. Proceed only in defiance of this gravest warning, for the dire words that follow will set You in opposition to Maldor evermore.”

Jason keeps reading, and he’s handed a quest: find all six syllables of the word that will destroy Maldor, the evil wizard who holds all Lyrian in his power. “By reading these words You have nominated Yourself to recover the Key Word, the only hope of deposing my Lord and Tyrant. Move swiftly. The knowledge You now possess marks You for prompt execution. The first syllable is “a.” Now depart! Let not my sacrifice be in vain. Away!”

Brandon Mull may not be the smoothest writer, but he’s infinitely creative! Jason is aided by a “displacer” a wizardborn race who can remove their body parts and reconnect them at will, and by an Amar Kabal, a race that can die and grow anew from a seed at the base of their skull. He’s hunted by manglers, conscriptors, even a torivor, and he must duel an evil nobleman to the death with billiard balls. But with the help of another Beyonder named Rachel (from Washington), he perseveres. Ever he looks for a way home, but he also keeps in mind the words of Galloran, the noble Blind King who challenged Maldor and failed, “heroism means doing the right thing regardless of the consequences.” Lyrian’s quest becomes his own.

On the downside, A World Without Heroes contains several bloody moments. Jason has undertaken a quest that sets him in opposition to a great evil, and there are casualties. Also, the book begins with the sounds of torture echoing through Maldor’s dungeon and with Galloran’s memories of suffering (both instrumental in turning me off). And The Book of Salzared is a little gruesome, bound with that man’s warm, living flesh and inscribed with his blood. Other than these squeamish moments, the book is clean, unobjectionable and infinitely intriguing.

In conclusion, I’ve never before recommended a book that took me five days to dig into. Yet after hating the first chapter or two, I fell in love with Mr. Mull’s imagination. I give his story a hearty thumbs up. 10+

The next two installments in The Beyonders series are due out in spring 2012 and spring 2013.

Kindle available in title link.

Tango: The Tale of an Island Dog, by Eileen Beha, 2009, Book Review

tangoTango: The Tale of an Island Dog is a cute story that will appeal to dog lovers. Tango is a Yorkshire terrier accustomed to the good life. But when he’s swept off his yacht and washed ashore on Prince Edward Island, he finds himself in need of a friend. Fortunately, he finds lots of them. Miss Gustie, with her gruff ways, young McKenna, in need of a family, and Beau, the aging fox. But not all residents of the island are friendly. The gang of cats who live in the Pitiful Place are up to no good, and Tango better watch his step. In his quest to get home, Tango find he has everything he desires right on the island.

While I appreciated the animal personalities, the writing didn’t grab me. In fact, I found it disjoined, with too many perspectives coming at me at once. It took me most of the book to sort them all out and get a feel for who they all were. Often I was surprised by some bit of information that hadn’t been built up to very well, something narrated in rather abruptly. And I felt the dialogue was forced, even stagnant in places. I just wasn’t impressed with the story’s flow.

A child, I think, won’t notice these complaints. They’ll see lots of animals, good guys vs. the bad, they’ll sympathize with poor Nigel, the three-legged cat who doesn’t fit on either side, and they’ll cheer for Tango and McKenna in their quests for a home. And they’ll love the feel-good ending. Though I didn’t love it, I think kids will. Ages 8+

The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite deAngeli, 1949, Book Review

door in the wallI love a story with a wealth of meaning behind its words. This one is exemplary. Within, young Robyn’s father has left for the Scottish wars, his mother has gone to wait on the ailing queen, and Robyn awaits John-the-Fletcher who will escort him to the manor of Sir Peter where Robyn will serve as squire. But Robyn takes ill and loses the use of his legs, John-the-Fletcher never arrives, and the servants flee for fear of the plague that rages through London.

A monk named Brother Luke carries Robyn to the abbey where he cares for him. “Thou hast only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it,” the monk encourages him. But who would look for such a thing in illness?

At the abbey, Robyn recovers, but his legs remain crippled. “We must teach thy hands to be skillful in many ways, and we must teach thy mind to go about whether thy legs will carry thee or no,” Brother Luke tells Robyn. “For reading is another door in the wall, dost understand, my son?”

Robyn grows strong, and eventually receives word from his father to continue to Sir Peter’s, which he does with the aid of the monk. It is there, when danger threatens the castle, that Robyn truly comes to understand Brother Luke’s words.  For it is there he finds his own door in the wall.

Written in 1949 and capturing the Newbery the following year, The Door in the Wall has become an American classic. Its sweet story and positive message are still as relevant today as they were sixty years ago. It is chuck full of gentle lessons, like: “Each of us has his place in the world…If we cannot serve in one way, there is always another.” Or, “None of us is perfect. It is better to have crooked legs than a crooked spirit. We can only do the best we can with what we have.” And, “He had found out that the harder it was to do something, the more comfortable he felt after he had done it.”

The Door in the Wall also provides a textbook of fascinating medieval context. Ms. deAngeli had a special talent for detail that adds such richness to her settings. And her formal language style aids this illusion of stepping back in time. She doesn’t apologize for tough vocabulary, either. This makes the book more challenging to read, but sixth graders should handle it with ease.

This story has so much to offer. I’d definitely make it available to 10- to 13-year-old readers.

Newbery Honor Books, 2000-2010, Book List – Where to find print editions and Kindle downloads

In a continuing effort to highlight excellence, here is a list of books that won high honors in the annual contest for the Newbery Medal, the greatest award given for children’s literature.  Title links connect to paperback editions (some hardcover).  Kindle editions are available where noted.  If the Kindle notation is not a hyperlink, downloads are available through the title link.  As I read them, I’ll also link to book reviews on this blog.