Tag Archives: children’s literature

Son (The Giver, book four), by Lois Lowry, 2012, Book Review

This year I read (in some cases, reread) through The Giver trilogy.  Patricia Tilton, of Children’s Books Heal, read one of my reviews and decided to take on the trilogy herself.  She discovered that Ms. Lowry had just published a fourth book this year.  I located it right away.  Thanks for the heads up, Pat!

Son is a wonderful conclusion to the series.  It begins in the same community as The Giver.  In fact, the time period overlaps, giving further details to a story I already love and introducing a new character.  Claire is the Birthmother of young Gabe, the Newchild featured in the original tale, and this is her story.

If you haven’t read The Giver, head over to my review and start there.  Claire lives under the same repressive government, the same world made safe at a terrible cost.  Claire is assigned Birthmother at her twelve year Ceremony, a profession with little honor.  She’s is only fourteen when she gives birth to her first Product.  It doesn’t go well.  The baby is immediately sent to the Nurture Center to be raised by experts for his first year before being assigned to a Parental Unit.  Claire, unable to birth more Products, is reassigned to the Fish Hatchery.  But she can’t forget about her child.  From there, her story merges with that of Jonas and of Gabe, also with Kira from book two and Matty from book three.  We find out exactly what happens to all of them.

I enjoyed this story a great deal.  The Giver is still my favorite, with its original premise and hard questions, but this one compliments it beautifully.  It looks at the same questions—of the authority of government; the restructuring of society; and the sacrifice of freedom, love, and beauty for the sake of safety and efficiency—but from a more adult point of view.  It’s true, Claire is only a teen in the beginning, but she’s also a mother.  This book more fully explores love, specifically the bond between parent and child.

Like the others in the series, I recommend at least a middle school audience.  Social themes involved can be disturbing, and this one also deals with the emotions and the mechanics of birth.  But for children with some maturity, it’s a thinker and a discussion-starter.  Ms. Lowry does a superb job keeping her books deep, beautiful, and appropriate.  I highly recommend Son for children ages 12+.

Book one: The Giver
Book two: Gathering Blue
Book three: Messenger

Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage, 2012, Book Review

Meet Mo LoBeau, eleven-year-old spitfire from the town of Tupelo Landing, NC and her best friend, Dale Earnhart Johnson III. (The three is for the immortal legend’s race car number, of course.) Yup, you’ve just landed in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business–which is a good thing, according to Miss Lana, because everyone pitches in, and a bad thing, according to the Colonel, because everyone pitches in. It’s a right neighborly place where everyone eats at Mo’s family’s cafe, but nobody in town is prepared for the trouble that’s coming. Trust Mo to wind up right in the middle of it.

Actually, trouble started eleven years ago, during the hurricane that caused the Colonel to crash into a tree right near the flooded creek where a baby girl washed into town. Ever since, Mo had been trying to locate her Upstream Mother, though Miss Lana made a right fine substitute. But that hubbub died down long ago. Now trouble has rolled into town again, this time driving a blue Impala and investigating a murder. A murder that has implicated Dale and brought danger to Mo and her unique family.

This cover doesn’t do much for me, but I’ve read few books written in such a powerful voice. Ms. Turnage treats us to a wonderfully developed setting, and her characters take on a life of their own. The narration is downright entertaining. Here’s some examples:

“You stole Mr. Jesse’s boat?” He studied his fingernails. “I wouldn’t say stole,” he said. “But I did borrow it pretty strong.”

“Dale gets his green thumb from Ms. Rose. I am practically herbicidal. I’ve killed every plant I ever met, starting with my lima bean sprout in kindergarten.”

“My voice sounded like a turkey gobble stuffed in a corset, but nobody’s told me to stop singing, and I ain’t shy.”

“He radioed in while I was flattening Deputy Marla’s tires.” “You flattened her tires?” She flipped to Mother Mode just like that, like a werewolf growing hair beneath a full moon. “Maybe,” I said. “Let me try to remember.” I studied her a moment. “Just out of curiosity, how would you feel about flattened tires, if it was true?”

“I don’t need a ride…It’s because Anna Celeste is my Sworn Enemy for Life and I’d rather go face-down in a plate of raw chicken entrails than go to her party.”

The plot is tied up nice and tight, too. It kept me guessing at just who the bad guy really was, and there are lots of folks to choose from. The book contains two, I think, minor profanities, but the rest is clean and appropriate for the middle grade crowd. These days that seems to be the best we can get. Three Times Lucky, I know, has been nominated for a Cybils award and I think it’s chances are about as favorable as having turkey on Thanksgiving.

Papa’s Latkes, by Michelle Edwards, illustrated by Stacey Schuett, 2004, book review

papa's latkesHappy Hanukkah, everyone!

No, we’re not Jewish, but my family likes to celebrate Hanukkah. And this is one of the picture books I like to read every year. It doesn’t really explain the meaning behind the holiday, so it’s not a great teaching tool, but it’s flavored with hope and family, two of the holiday’s most important  ingredients.

Within, Salma’s and Dora’s mother has died, and the girls are having a difficult time anticipating this first Hanukkah without her. Papa steps in and, with the girls recalling all the preparations Mama used to take, prepares for the first night of the eight day celebration. His latkes (traditional potato pancakes), however, aren’t quite the same as Mama’s.

This book is gorgeously illustrated, and it so beautifully shows the tradition surrounding this ancient festival. But it also portrays the heartache of missing a loved one and the hope of remembering her. Papa, with his twinkling eyes and his sly humor, is a wonderful character, filling in as Mama and Papa and holding the family together with love. He’s not perfect, but he’s so likable and solid.

I don’t review many pictures books, and I don’t commonly use a rating system, but Papa’s Latkes is an easy five star.

A few years ago, my kids and I studied and celebrated all the Jewish feasts for homeschool. If you’re curious, you can find posts about each of them on my other blog under Holidays->Jewish. I’ve pulled out a few that relate to Hanukkah:

Latke Recipe

What is Hanukkah?

Studying Hanukkah

Hanukkah Resources


The Lemonade War, by Jacqueline Davies, 2007

This was a short, easy read, and it just so happens I read it over Labor Day weekend, which is when this book takes place.

Evan Treski is about to start fourth grade. Then the week before the year begins a letter comes in the mail. His summer is ruined! His school year is ruined! All because of his little sister, who is now going to be in his class. Well, she’s not that little. Only fourteen months younger. And he even likes her most of the time. But she’s so smart she got to skip third grade. He has so much trouble with math, and he’s the slowest reader in the class. Now everyone will know how much smarter Jessie is than him, and Jessie will know it, too.

Jessie Treski can’t figure out why her brother has been so weird ever since the letter came. Why wasn’t Evan as thrilled as she was? They always had fun at home. Now they’d have fun at school. And he’d help her make friends in fourth grade and figure out what all the girls were really saying. Girls could say so much with a look, with a smirk. Jessie just didn’t understand it. But Evan knew all about getting along with people. It was easy for him, and everyone liked him. Sometimes she wished she could figure things out so easily.

Such a simple misunderstanding between siblings suddenly turns into an armed conflict. Hurt feelings, shouted words, and the Lemonade War is on. Even though he’s no good at math, Evan wants to prove he can still outperform his kid sister. He’ll make more money selling lemonade than she will during the last five days of summer. And she wants to prove she’s not a baby.

For such a short read (173 pages of large type), the characters in this story are pretty well developed and they interact with each other in a very real way. Every kid with a sibling will resonate with the conflict immediately. But I wouldn’t call the quality of literature outstanding, because the greatest strength of this story isn’t really story at all. It’s the very fun way two siblings (and the audience) learn about math and economics and running a business. Yes, there’s a whole course of information in here, but it’s boiled down into an engaging, kid-friendly narrative. It really is fun to see the ways each kid comes up with to earn more money than the other. One business term (like “profit margin” and “negotiation”) is defined before each chapter and then cleverly woven into the story line. And the mess the kids get into keeps getting deeper and deeper. It really is fun, and teachers and parents would be wise to grab this one up and take advantage of the entertaining teaching opportunity.

The Lemonade War is appropriate for fourth graders and would be a wonderful read aloud.


The Bloody Jack Adventures, by L. A. Meyer, Series Review

I’m doing something a little different today. Instead of reviewing a single book, I’m going to highlight an entire series. This is because I started the series well before I started my blog and I just read book six. Since I never reviewed one through five, and I have no intention of rereading them right now, I’ll simply share a series overview with you.

Mary Faber is a young orphan girl (twelve, I think, in book one) in London’s Cheapside district. She joins a gang that soon becomes her family. She and some of her fellow waifs sign on as ships boys. She is in disguise, of course, as the young boy Jacky Faber. Brash and fearless, Jacky manages to get into more scrapes than you can imagine. This whole series is one exciting adventure after another. Seriously, you can hardly draw breath between them. But everywhere she goes, Jacky comes out on top. Having gained the name “Bloody Jack” through innocent circumstance, she becomes something of a legend in the Royal Navy and on the high seas. It’s unrealistic, really, the way this young teen girl comes to command pirate ships and warships and such, but she’s extremely lovable. And her adventures are very fun to read!

I do have to give a few words of caution. These books contain mild profanities (quite liberally at times) as well as some OMGs. And Jacky, as she ages, comes into more and more (several per book) sexually charged situations where her “maidenhood” is threatened, questioned, joked about, etc., and her maturing body is often referred to, described, and scantily clad. Furthermore, though she is affianced to Jaimy, she does a lot of kissing on other fellows and even curls up next to many of them, as sleeping alone gives her nightmares. She’s basically a good girl; however, an older audience would be recommended. I’d say 14+.

Here are some Amazon blurbs:

Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy (book one): Life as a ship’s boy aboard HMS Dolphin is a dream come true for Jacky Faber. Gone are the days of scavenging for food and fighting for survival on the streets of eighteenth-century London. Instead, Jacky is becoming a skilled and respected sailor as the crew pursues pirates on the high seas. There’s only one problem: Jacky is a girl. And she will have to use every bit of her spirit, wit, and courage to keep the crew from discovering her secret. This could be the adventure of her life–if only she doesn’t get caught. . . .

Curse of the Blue Tattoo: Being an Account of the Misadventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman and Fine Lady (book two): After being forced to leave HMS Dolphin and Jaimy, her true love, Jacky Faber is making a new start at the elite Lawson Peabody School for Young Girls in Boston. But growing up on the streets of London and fighting pirates never prepared Jacky for her toughest battle yet: learning how to be a fine lady. Everything she does is wrong. Her embroidery is deplorable, her French is atrocious, and her table manners–disgusting! Then there’s the small matter of her blue anchor tattoo. . . .Despite her best efforts, Jacky can’t seem to stay out of trouble long enough to dedicate herself to being ladylike. But what fun would that be, anyway?

Under the Jolly Roger: Being an Account of the Further Nautical Adventures of Jacky Faber (book three): A Pirate at heart, unlikely heroine Jacky Faber returns to sea in a truly swashbuckling tale filled with good humor, wit, and courage. After Leaving the Lawson Peabody School for Young Girls in Boston–under dire circumstances, of course–Jacky boards a whaling ship bound for London, where she hopes to find her beloved Jaimy. But things don’t go as planned, soon she is off on a wild misadventure at sea. She thwarts the lecherous advances of a crazy captain, rallies the sailors to her side, and ultimately gains command of a ship in His Majesty’s Royal Navy. But Jacky’s adventures don’t end there…soon she is being called a pirate, and there’s s price on her head!

In the Belly of the Bloodhound: Being an Account of a Particularly Peculiar Adventure in the Life of Jacky Faber (book four): The British crown has placed a price on Jacky’s head, so she returns to the Lawson Peabody School for Young Girls in Boston to lay low. But the safe haven doesn’t last–a school outing goes awry as Jacky and her classmates are abducted and forced into the hold of the Bloodhound, a ship bound for the slave markets on the Barbary Coast. All of Jacky’s ingenuity, determination, and plain old good luck will be put to the test as she rallies her delicate classmates to fight together and become their own rescuers.

Mississippi Jack: Being an Account of the Further Waterborne Adventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman, Fine Lady, and Lily of the West (book five): The intrepid Jacky Faber, having once again eluded British authorities, heads west, hoping that no one will recognize her in the wilds of America. There she tricks the tall-tale hero Mike Fink out of his flatboat, equips it as a floating casino-showboat, and heads south to New Orleans, battling murderous bandits, British soldiers, and other scoundrels along the way. Will Jacky’s carelessness and impulsive actions ultimately cause her beloved Jaimy to be left in her wake? Bold, daring, and downright fun, Jacky Faber proves once again that with resilience and can-do spirit, she can wiggle out of any scrape . . . well, almost.

My Bonny Light Horseman: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, in Love and War (book six): The infamous pirate, riverboat seductress, master of disguise, and street-urchin-turned-sailor Jacky Faber has been captured by the French and beheaded in full view of her friends and crew. Inconceivable? Yes! The truth is she’s secretly forced to pose as an American dancer behind enemy lines in Paris, where she entices a French general into revealing military secrets—all to save her dear friends. Then, in intrepid Jacky Faber style, she dons male clothing and worms her way into a post as galloper with the French army, ultimately leading a team of men to fight alongside the great Napoleon. In this sixth installment of the Bloody Jack Adventures series, love and war collide as the irrepressible Jacky Faber sets off on a daring adventure she vowed she’d never take.

There are several more in the series, but this is as far as I’ve read. As an adult, I enjoyed these immensely. But let me again emphasize a 14+ age ranking due to a good deal of sexual suggestion, though Jacky’s behavior remains above board.


The Accidental Hero (A Jack Blank Adventure, book one), by Matt Myklousch, 2010, Book Review

This book was recommended to me by Erik, from ThisKidReviewsBooks. In fact, he reviewed it in a guest post here on my blog. This summer, when he reviewed the sequel on his blog, I decided book one might be a great read-aloud to start out my son’s homeschool year. Erik assured me he would love it, so I ordered it from the library.

It was a great way to start out the homeschool year. You see, reading is unimaginably difficult for my son. While he’s old enough that he should be reading novels like this with ease, he’s only just outgrown Magic Tree House books, and he still frequents The Boxcar Children (for which I’m very proud of him—he couldn’t read those independently at the beginning of last year). Anyway, he’s a normal boy who loves high-action, super heroes, things that blow up. He just can’t visit those worlds without help yet. So I read this one to him. (It weighs in at 468 pages.) It took us three weeks and two days, but it blew him away!

Within, Jack Blank is so named because no one actually knows his last name. Or who his parents are. Or his past. As long as he can remember, he’s been a ward of St. Barnaby’s Home for the Hopeless, Abandoned, Forgotten, and Lost. He’s an orphan who doesn’t really fit in anywhere. Not even at St. Barnaby’s. So imagine his thrill when an emissary from the Imagine Nation (a real live world right out of his comic books) comes to take him away. Of course, that was right after a Robo-Zombie emerged from the swampy water of St. Barnaby’s flooded basement and tried to kill him.

The Imagine Nation is the stuff of dreams. There are awesome weapons, flying vehicles, intelligent machines, and an ultimate techno-city, Empire City. (My son loved it!) And everyone who lives there has superpowers–the heroes, the villains, and Jack! But the Empire City is a fearful place. A great battle was fought there in recent memory, and fears that the invading Rustov Robo-Zombies will return is very great. When it’s learned that Jack is resistant to the Rustov virus he’s found to be infected with, he is regarded with deep suspicion, especially by Jonas Smart, one of the ruling Circlemen who is using the public’s fear to grab power for himself.

As Jack seeks to prove himself, he does eventually find out who he is, and the revelation is earth-shattering. (I didn’t see it coming at all!) The fate he’s facing is so monstrous that he decides it’s better to simply leave the Imagine Nation altogether. But one wise super has this to say to Jack: “It is a great burden, of that there is no question, but the future is not written. It lies in the choices you make. Our future is ours to decide. Always.”

And that is the positive message I was sort of surprised to uncover in this ultra-techie, blow ‘em up, bigger-than-life superhero story. That, along with themes of loyalty, friendship, courage, and honor—all developed without one single profanity. Wow! I have to hand it to Mr. Myklusch. He managed to thrill my son with supers, intrigue, suspense, and mega-imagination, and he did in a positive way. Two thumbs way up for The Accidental Hero!

The Impossible Journey, by Gloria Whelan, 2003, Book Review, and a Sea Cutter Giveaway!

“Comrade Sergei Kirov was killed on the first day of December. That same night my parents disappeared.”

It is 1934 and Kirov was the man competing with Joseph Stalin for control of Russia’s Communist Party. Stalin wanted no competition. So Kirov was conveniently assassinated, and in the name of justice hundreds, perhaps thousands of arrests were made, even thought the killer was already in custody. Those “suspects” weren’t really suspected in the murder at all. They were simply too outspoken against the Communist regime.

Among those taken were Marya’s parents. Their crime? They once were rich. Her mother was sent to Siberia for three years; her father sent to a coal mine. Twelve-year-old Marya was left to care for her little brother all alone. They lived for a time with greedy neighbors who emptied their apartment of Mama and Papa’s things. But Marya knew it couldn’t be long before they landed in an orphanage. Then Mama’s letter came in the mail, and on it was a return address. Marya decides the family has been split apart long enough. She and little Georgi set out on the long, long trip to find her.

This is an eye-opening look at what really went on after the Russian Revolution. The disappearances, the secret police, the way aristocrats were turned into second class citizens, the seizure of farms, the disregard for human life. It was a terrible, terrible time in Russia’s history. Cleanly written and appropriate for ten-year-olds, it’s a fabulous way for kids to “see” what happened. They’ll live history with Marya and Georgi. The story takes place nearly twenty years after the revolution, however, and gives very little history about how the Communist regime came into being. It feels a little like jumping into a movie that’s half over. Some research into the 1917 revolution might be helpful.

Not my favorite book by Gloria Whelan, but I don’t think that woman can write a bad one. She always writes with an eloquence that makes the pages fly past, and she gives her characters such life. And I’ve always been fascinate by Russian history. I recommend The Impossible Journey.

Things That Go Bump in the Night (3:15 Season One), by Patrick Carman, 2011, Book Review

I won this book last year from Erik, over at Thiskidreviewsbooks.com. (Thanks, Erik!) Since Halloween had just passed, my son and I waited to read it till the season rolled around again this year. We’re only about halfway through, but I thought this would be a great time to post a review. Because the book is actually a collection of unrelated short stories. Scary ones that my son is really digging this time of year. The coolest part? Every story ends unfinished. To find out what happens, you have to log into Mr. Carman’s website, 315stories.com and watch a short video.

There’s something to that 3:15. Let me quote from the author’s introductory note at the front of the book: “3 stands for listen, read, and watch, because that’s what you do with a 3:15 story. 15 is for how long it’s going to take you, 15 minutes or less.”

Each of the 10 stories comes with two passwords that you type into the website—one for a brief intro, and one for the dramatized scary ending. Videos range between one and three minutes in length and they’re professionally done (meaning they aren’t hokey). It is a really original concept and my son loves it. My only complaint is that the vast majority of heroes and heroine die. Not that it’s graphic or nasty; you just know there’s no way the poor kid makes it through the frightening climax. But some of them leave you with a bit more mystery, and I thought those were more fun.

If you’re looking for goose bumps but not horror, Things That Go Bump in the Night is a great pick. I’d say it’s appropriate for kids age 9+.

Such Wicked Intent (The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, book two), by Kenneth Oppel, 2012

I loved the occult-free scariness of book one. It left me with the same nicely unsettled feeling as the classic novel, Frankenstein, for which this series serves as a prequel. But in book two, after the Elixir of Life fails to save his brother, Victor burns all his books of alchemy and turns his focus to the spiritual. Mr. Oppel does weave a page-turning story which I did finish and enjoy, but I do advise much more caution than with book one. My fear of dabbling with spirits closely resembles Elizabeth’s when she admonishes Victor for trying to talk to his dead brother:

“The occult? I actually believe in a world beyond ours, Victor. I haven’t seen them yet, but there may truly be ghosts—and devils too—and I think it very unwise to try to summon them.”

But Victor will try any means to get Konrad back:

“I tell you, I want to see my twin again!”

“But how?” Henry demanded.

I sighed. “I’ve no idea, not yet. Here’s all I know…That anything and everything might be possible. I won’t subscribe to any rational system again. Nothing will bind me.”

“That is the way to madness,” said Elizabeth.

“If it makes me mad, so be it.”

Victor’s determination lands him, Elizabeth, and Henry squarely in the spirit world. And the result is horrible. For in the spirit world, a shifting, strange, parallel dimension, Victor finds ancient cave writings that describe how to grow a soulless body that exactly resembles the deceased, which the kids do in an outbuilding on the manor. When it is grown, Victor intends to retrieve Konrad’s spirit and unite them. But the spark of life needed to grow the body (the liquid butterfly shadow that accompanies them out of the spirit world) they learn, is subject to a dark force. They have dabbled in evil far beyond their expectations.

Such Wicked Intent also contains a few other cautionary details. There are one or two mild profanities and a scene in which Victor strips off all his clothes to capture the parasitic butterfly shadow that crawls on him. And at one point Elizabeth narrowly escapes being raped. But the demonic element is my greatest caution.

On the literary side, Mr. Oppel continues to create a character in line with the original selfish, violent, power-hungry Victor Frankenstein. His metamorphosis is clever. And the conflict between religion and science continues to be represented brilliantly by Victor and Elizabeth. A main theme of the series, as in Frankenstein, is how far should one go in playing God? Just because we can do something, does that mean we should? It’s a great discussion starter and very relevant to today’s medical advances and ethical issues. It also illustrates man’s limits. For with all our learning and technology, we are still unable to create life.

This plot is complex, suspenseful, and contains several twists and surprises. It’s a thought-provoker. But it also delves into uncomfortable and potentially dangerous spiritual areas. I couldn’t put it down. But for kids, I strongly advise parental guidance and age 14 at the least.

Book one: This Dark Endeavor

Summer of the Gypsy Moths, by Sara Pennypacker, 2012

If you’re looking for a sweet story, you probably wouldn’t consider one in which two twelve-year-old girls bury an old lady in the garden and lie about her death so they don’t have to be shipped off into foster care. But that’s just what Stella and Angel do, and sweet is just the word I’d use for this one.

Stella has spent her whole life searching for threads to tie her to the earth. She’s always felt she’s spinning out of control, ever since her mom left her. Grams’ house was well-grounded, but then Gram died and Aunt Louise took her in, along with a second foster girl named Angel who mixed with Stella like oil and water. But Aunt Louise never mentioned her bad heart. When she dies, both girls need to buy a little time. Stella is sure her mom is going to come for her by the end of summer, and Angel is waiting for her own aunt to get approval from the state to become her legal guardian. And George and the summer cottages where Aunt Louise worked are right next door. They could cover for her. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to hide the truth for just a little while.

From such crude beginnings, this story takes a decidedly poignant twist. Friendship grows up between the two girls, though they are complete opposites. The summer becomes one of self-reliance, discovery, and maturity. They grow like the gypsy moths that are wrecking havoc on Cape Cod that summer: “They’d fed on the leaves in the dark of the night, until they were able to fly. You had to admire them for that. They did what they needed to do, in the dark so nobody would bother them, getting ready for their big adventure of becoming moths.”

Both of these girls have had a tough past. Angel, in particular, is deceitful, bitter, and conniving. She’s also in the habit of saying “Jesus querido,” which is Portuguese and the only reason I haven’t granted this one the Squeaky Award. The book does have a feeling of desperation, a dose of all that’s wrong with culture in America today. But there’s also hope and love and redemption. I enjoyed this one a great deal. If you’re in need of a dose of sugar, pick up a bad of Dom-Doms and Summer of the Gypsy Moths. 10+