Tag Archives: children’s books

Rules, by Cynthia Lord, 2006, Book Review

rules

This was part of my goal to read every Newbery book (this one took honors), and I finished it in one sitting. I started it the last evening of 2012 and enjoyed it enough to forego watching the ball drop. I turned the last page in the earliest hours of 2013. I knew this book had won wide acclaim, but had no idea what it was about. Turns out it shares a similar theme with Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine.

Catherine is a normal twelve-year-old girl who would like a normal life, but having a younger brother with autism means nothing is normal. David blurts out odd phrases at inopportune times. He opens cupboard doors at other people’s houses and hunts for their cellars to make sure the door is closed. He embarrasses Catherine and makes a simple thing like inviting the new neighbor girl over not so simple at all. He must be taught the social graces that the rest of us so naturally assume. So Catherine takes it upon herself to help him by creating a list of rules.

Chew with your mouth closed.

Say “thank you” when someone gives you a present (even if you don’t like it).

If the bathroom door is closed, knock (especially if Catherine has a friend over)!

No toys in the fish tank.

A character like David can easily alienate a reader with no basis to relate, but David actually became my favorite. He evokes a great deal of sympathy with a few cute quirks. For instance, every time he puts a toy in the fish tank, he burst into Catherine’s room and tells her, “No toys in the fish tank!” (See, he hates to be wet, and he needs her to take it out.) And every time Catherine’s guinea pigs squeal, he covers his ears and yells, “Quiet pigs!” And my favorite, my absolute favorite quirk is that whenever he can’t find the words he needs, he quotes Frog and Toad, a classic easy reader written by Arnold Lobel.

“‘“What are you laughing at, Frog?”’” David asks, worried lines cutting his forehead.

I touch the tiny frog stamp on his hand and show him mine. “‘“I’m laughing at you, Toad,” said Frog, “because you do look funny in your bathing suit.”’”

David smiles. “‘“Of course I do,” said Toad. Then he picked up his clothes and went home.”’

I feel like I got to know David, and I loved him. But the story focuses on Catherine and her changing emotion from anger and embarrassment to acceptance. And she does this with the help of Jason, a wheelchair-bound boy she befriends who can’t talk. The person under the handicap, she realizes, is a person worthy of love and respect. Rules is a moving, well-written story any way you look at it, one I’d highly recommend.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J. K. Rowling, 2007, Book Review

It took me fall, winter, and spring, but I finished my third venture through the Harry Potter series. And you know what? I enjoyed it as much as the first time. I’m amazed at the imagination and intricacy of the books, and I’m doubly amazed at how much I forget in a few years’ time.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, though he remains veiled and therefore more frightening to the public, Voldemort has nearly completed his takeover of the wizarding world. The Ministry of Magic has capitulated and is now run by Death Eaters whose policies are reminiscent of the Nazi regime. Pureblood families are given high status, those of mixed Muggle/wizard blood are tolerated, and Muggle-born wizards are persecuted and sometimes killed. Muggles are simply animals to be hunted. Pockets of resistance, however, are widespread.

As soon as Harry learns of the Ministry’s fall, just before the start of his seventh and final year at Hogwarts which he knows he must miss, he sets out on the quest Dumbledore set him: find Voldemort’s horcruxes and destroy them. A horcrux is an object that contains a fractured part of a soul. Even if Voldemort dies, he can rise again as long as he has a horcrux tying him to life. He’s like a cat with nine lives. To ensure his final destruction, Harry, Ron, and Hermione must find and destroy the remaining horcruxes. But where are they?

Because this final book is a quest, it feels a little less structured than the others, but I never once felt it lagged. Each time the heroes reach the point of despair, they are given help or make a breakthrough. Little by little, the story builds to the final confrontation that simply must take place at Hogwarts, the place it all began. Many excellent characters meet their demise in this book, especially in the last hundred pages. Loyalties are determined once and for all, and a good many surprises lie in wait. Though we know, of course, that Harry must win, it only happens at the highest cost and through the most twisting of circumstances. Dumbledore’s theories and manipulation lie at the heart of the conclusion, and explanations are given that reach back all the way to the very first book. It is a nicely packaged, thoughtful conclusion to the series. I especially enjoyed the final epilogue that takes place nineteen years later.

I maintain my 12+ rating. This one is tragically bloody. It contains sweeping, epic scenes of violence during the final battle. It also includes the torture and screams of Hermione when she is captured by Death Eaters and the strangling death of another. Nagini the snake emerges through the neck of an inferi (dead person who does Voldemort’s bidding) in a particularly nasty scene. One of the influential characters orders his own death by another, which is supposed to be sacrificial in nature but actually smacks loudly of euthanasia (“…avoid pain and humiliation…” “…I should prefer a quick, painless exit to the protracted and messy affair…”).

Yet the main themes of this book are overwhelmingly positive: loyalty, friendship, selflessness, sacrifice, and courage. It celebrates standing for principal, standing for ultimate truth in the face of dire consequences. Death, it is maintained, is not something not to be feared, and love conquerors even the greatest of evils. Like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, there can be found within the pages of Harry Potter a story of salvation, of redemption, of old, deep magic beyond the understanding of man or wizard. It is the echo of an older, greater story. It is a story worth reading, worth celebrating.

In my final conclusion, the evil within Harry Potter is the stuff of nightmares, but Hogwarts is the stuff of dreams. The detail, imagination and adventure are, quite simply, magic. While Harry should be read at an age that can handle dark spiritual themes, in my opinion, it should be read!

Cassidy Jones and Vulcan’s Gift, by Elise Stokes, 2011, Book Review

cassidy jones vulcanI’m excited to be in on the release of Elise Stokes’ second novel, Cassidy Jones and Vulcan’s Gift. This fast-paced series is reminiscent of the adventures of comic book superheroes, except Cassidy Jones happens to be a totally hip, totally stubborn, totally modern fifteen-year-old girl. A freak accident left her with enhanced senses and superhuman strength that she struggles mightily to adjust to. She may be saving the Seattle suburbs by night, but by day she must try to fit into Queen Anne High School, navigate those tricky guy-girl relationships, and make sure none of her friends figure out her secret. Such a rumor whispered to the wrong individual would put her loved ones at serious risk.

In Vulcan’s Gift, a top-secret weapon leftover from Nazi German, long considered a myth, surfaces on Catamount Mountain. It’s up to Cassidy and her brilliant sidekick, Emery, to figure out and muscle down this new threat. Throw in a missing Siberian tiger, multiple Sasquatch sightings (not to mention the gaggle of faithful Sasquatch followers), family wealth, and a shiny new villain, and you have the recipe for a teen-pleasing page-turner.

Let’s backtrack to Emery for a moment. Son of the scientist connected to Cassidy’s enhancement, Emery has some impressive credentials of his own. At age fifteen, he’s already earned a college degree and put off graduate school to guard and guide Cassidy. Unrealistic? Of course! As you recall, we’re talking comic book superheroes here. Anyway, Emery is light years ahead of the pack in maturity and intellect, and his perfection can get downright obnoxious. Yet, there’s a warmth and genuine affection to his character that makes me hope Cassidy will finally be done with her high school crush, Jared, once and for all. Aside from Cassidy and her wonderful physical dilemma, Emery is by far the most complex character of the series.

There are many things I appreciate about Vulcan’s Gift, not the least of which is Ms. Stokes’ polished writing style. While it isn’t poetic or abundant in creative word pictures (which I have a real penchant for) it IS solid, smooth, and so easy to readperfect for a high-flying adventure. I also applaud Ms. Stokes for leaving out the language and content so many of us find objectionable in children’s literature. I didn’t miss it! Her imagination for thinking up a superb plot is better than most and packaged air-tight, and colorful, bigger-than-life characters are becoming her trademark. No, this series isn’t particularly deep or beautiful, or even witty, but it sure is fun to read!

Once again, the end of the book leaves lots of wiggle room for a new adventure. Questions from the first book remain, and now we’ve left a psychotic new villain on the loose, last seen laughing maniacally. I’ll be eagerly awaiting book three, Elise!

Read my review of the first Cassidy Jones adventure, then find it here: Cassidy Jones and the Secret Formula.

The Little Brown Sparrow, by Michelle Isenhoff

little brown sparrowAfter a difficult day in the meadow, Keturah learns she doesn’t need any particular talents to be special. She’s valuable just as she is. A sweet retelling of a well-known Bible story, through the eyes of a bird who was there. 

“I wrote The Little Brown Sparrow years ago for a children’s program at church. It’s always been one of my favorites. Less than 950 words, I chose to make this one free. Enjoy!” -Michelle

Where to find it:

The Quill Pen, by Michelle Isenhoff

cover2

If you owned a pen that wrote the future, would you use it? What if consequences spread like ripples in a pond? What if they raged out of control?

What if the pen demanded tribute…in blood?

Micah Randall has found such a pen. One that’s ensnared him in a curse dating back generations. One that’s devastated two families and now threatens his whole New England village. But how can Micah destroy the pen when it offers him his only chance at the future he dreams of?

Free lesson plans.
Watch the trailer.

Find purchase links in my sidebar. ->

Beneath the Slashings, by Michelle Isenhoff

BeneathTheSlashings_cover_600x900Divided Decade Trilogy, Book Three

Slashings–n. Broken branches, shattered trunks, and other debris left on the ground after lumbering: The slashings lay strewn about like casualties of war, cold, gray, and skeletal.

Grace Nickerson’s life has been shattered by fours years of war. She’s desperate to return to a sense of normalcy. But when her father returns from the army, he sells the farm and drags the family off to a lumber camp in Michigan’s northern wilderness. Grace is devastated; she’s never been brave. When her tears and tantrums won’t change Pa’s mind, she stops speaking to him altogether.

Grace spends long hours working with her brother Sam and Ivan, the surly Russian cook, but at least in the kitchen she is safe from the lumberjacks. She’s seen them from the window. They’re rough, unkept, and terrifying. But slowly, with Sam’s help, she comes to understand they’re all missing home and recovering from loss, just like she is. Her fear begins to evaporate–until she learns one of them is trying to kill Pa.

Who is sabotaging the camp, and why?  Will the winter in the woods bring the healing Grace needs?  Or will it drive a wedge into her family?

Beneath the Slashings also concludes the story of the Watkins/Jones family and their flight from slavery to freedom.

Free lesson plans.

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Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux, by Lisa Rivero, 2011, Book Review – Bargain eBooks

oscar's giftI have just finished reading a delightful surprise. Oscar’s Gift: Planting Words with Oscar Micheaux showed up unexpectedly in my inbox, sent to me by brand new children’s author, Lisa Rivero. Folks, this is an author to watch! Ms. Rivero has combined a scrap of American history with imagination, sensitivity, humanity and vivid imagery. The result? A powerfully gripping tale of determination and beauty. In essence, Ms. Rivero has captured the soul of America.

Tomas is an eleven-year-old boy of Swedish descent with a gift for words. But his chance at a dream is stolen away when his mother wins the land lottery and receives a claim on the newly-opened Indian territory of South Dakota.

“Before I met Oscar, I thought that life was a game of chance…Like the game with walnut shells Papa and I saw once at a county fair. A man put a tiny round stone under one of three walnut shells. Then he moved the shells left and right, over and under, back and forth so fast that I lost track of which shell had the stone…No matter how closely I watched and how sure I was that I had kept my eye on the right shell, I always guessed wrong.

I used to think that life was like that walnut shell game. 

It didn’t matter how hard I tried or how much I hoped. In the end, whether I chose the right shell was pure luck.”

As luck would have it, Tomas would not be apprenticed at a newspaper. He was going to become a farmer. And as luck would have it, his father, who worked so hard to own his own land, would not.

Tomas’ mother remarries a Lakota man who “didn’t smile on the outside. Once in a while, though, I began to recognize a smile under his face, if I looked closely enough.” Joe is a good man, but living in a mixed family–an interracial family–creates challenges of its own. Especially when Joe’s little girls attend school and Tomas cannot. That Joe would let his girls attend is praiseworthy. His own experience in a white man’s school illustrates another conflict in the history of the Great Plains. “They said they needed to kill the Indian in us to save the man,” Joe tells us. “The Indian and man are one and the same. They could not kill me, and I didn’t need to be saved.”

In South Dakota, Tomas meets a neighboring homesteader, Oscar Micheaux, who would become an American novelist and film maker. Oscar faces his own persecution at the hand of whites. But it is Oscar who helps Tomas come to terms with his lot in life. It is Oscar who helps Tomas recognize that he can write his own future.

“‘This grand prairie,’ he (Oscar) swept his hand toward the door, ‘is like a blank piece of paper. The way I see it, we come here to write our story on the land, acre by acre. Every homesteader’s claim tells a different tale…Being a writer is no different from being a homesteader.’”

Ms. Rivero’s words flow onto the page like liquid beauty, and drinking them up is more than just an entertaining reading experience, it’s soul-satisfying. If I haven’t convinced you of that already, consider a few more of my favorite images:

“His voice was deep and rich and slow like low thunder before a storm that forces you to stop what you are doing and listen.”

“Nothing in life is fair or unfair. All we have is the work we do and the thoughts we think.”

“Back then I felt that life was not my own, that I was like a tumbleweed blown across the prairie, occasionally getting stuck on a fence or caught in a tree, but mostly bouncing from place to place without direction.”

And “The day was hot and ripe for a thunderstorm, just as I felt inside, as if any moment the sky would burst open and drench the world with its ripeness.”

Oscar’s Gift is a lovely, touching story of hope and purpose. It is rare that I have absolutely nothing negative to say about a book, but in this case, it is true. Except, perhaps, that it was too short. Not that I was unhappy with the ending. I simply wasn’t ready yet to slide this slice of America back into history. Perhaps this experience on the plains will prompt me to dig a little into Oscar Micheaux’s real life on my own.

I highly recommend you purchase your own copy of this one, but Ms. Rivero has been kind enough to donate one paperback copy of Oscar’s Gift. Click here for giveaway details.

Check out Lisa’s website.

Tomorrow – interview with Lisa Rivero.

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.

Cassidy Jones and the Secret Formula, by Elise Stokes, 2010, Book Review

cassidyjonesfrontI met Elise Stokes recently in a forum post discussing clean content in children’s literature. I was intrigued enough by our conversation to order her book, Cassidy Jones and the Secret Formula. I’m glad I did! Not only are its pages free of objectionable content, they contain all the ingredients required for a superb adventure. The story is well-written, compelling, and exactly the sort of teen read my daughter loves.

Cassidy Jones doesn’t stand out in a crowd. She isn’t popular, nor is she a bully. She can’t climb a rope in PE to save her life, and she has an allergy to sports equipment in general. In the sea that is Queen Anne High School, she has “adopted the strategy of being a sardine. A sardine wasn’t exciting, but it was safe.” She’s the very last person you’d ever suspect of having mutant genes and super powers.

But the morning after an accident in the lab of a famous scientist, Cassidy finds that her senses, emotions, reflexes, memory and strength have all been amplified. She’s been turned into a finely-tuned weapon, but one as unstable as hydrogen in a smoker’s lounge.

As Cassidy learns to control her new strengths, the scientist suddenly disappears. Distrustful of the police, Cassidy teams up with Emery, the scientist’s brilliant teenage son, to locate her and bring her safely home. After all, the woman is the only one who can help Cassidy now. But Emery warns her that enhanced abilities place her in grave danger. The ones who kidnapped his mother would stop at nothing to control Cassidy and use her powers for their own evil purposes.

And then someone even closer to Cassidy disappears.

Ms. Stokes employs a very solid writing style. It’s not particularly beautiful or witty, but it flows along as strong and easy as a Mississippi current. It’s a natural base for the hard-hitting, fast-moving action that zips above it like a powerboat, tugging us along in its wake till the final pages. Pages that, I must say, compel me into the sequel. I mean, who is the strange new character at the end? Who has the item missing from the lab? And what, I want to know, does this mean for Cassidy’s future?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I need to let you know that Ms. Stokes has crafted Cassidy Jones in such a way that even guys will enjoy getting in on this adventure. Don’t let the girly name in the title throw you, fellas. The book isn’t girly. It reads like a comic book, with a gaudy, insane villain, unlikely heroes, and high-powered action sequences. Numerous references to well-known characters like Clark Kent and Wolverine back up this comic book illusion, as does Cassidy’s little brother’s fetish with all things superhero. And it’s clean! I highly recommend this one.

The sequel, Cassidy Jones and Vulcan’s Gift will be released this fall.  Watch for the date on Ms. Stokes’ website.

Tomorrow – interview with author Elise Stokes.

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.