Sunday, June 28, 2015

Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl


This short book is about Mr. Fox, who lives in a hill with his family.  Mr. Fox regularly steals food from three not-so-nice farmers, until they get fed up and swear to hunt him down.  When the farmers surround Mr. Fox’s hole, his family becomes trapped inside the hill with a very real danger of starving to death.  Mr. Fox has to devise a plan to feed his family…but how can this be done, when escaping the hole is impossible?

I really enjoyed this book, especially the hilarious illustrations by Quentin Blake.  I believe that Mr. Blake provided the illustrations for all of Mr. Dahl’s books, which is awesome because it makes you feel like you’re already a little familiar with the characters, even when you’re picking up a book you haven’t read.  This was the first time that I’d read “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, even though I’ve rest most of Mr. Dahl’s books.  It was so short that it almost felt more like a long story than anything.  I’d recommend this hilarious book as an excellent way to introduce the rest of Mr. Dahl’s work.

One of my favorite parts of this book was the way that Mr. Dahl shaped the plot of story around the crime of stealing.  By placing Mr. Fox as the main character, he almost made it seem like stealing was an acceptable, even admirable, way to support your family!  But what do you think?  Can you think of any times when it might be acceptable to commit a crime like stealing?  Would it make any difference if your family was starving, and you were forced to steal to support them?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Watsons go to Birmingham - 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis


Even though young Kenny calls his family “The Weird Watsons”, they seem to be a typical African-American family living in Flint, Michigan.  Kenny’s a middle child, surrounded by his big brother Byron and his little sister Joetta.  Byron tends to be a troublemaker, so his parents think it might do him some good to get out of the big city and spend a little time living with his grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama.  The family enjoys adjusting to a different pace of life down south, in a peaceful place where kids are free to go swimming outdoors or to hunt squirrels.  The kids are loving life in their new environment, at least until the peace and quiet is shattered one Sunday morning when the children get an up-close reminder that not everyone in Alabama supports the civil rights movement.

Some readers might complain that this book takes a while to get going, and that may be a valid argument.  After all, it’s not until halfway through the book when the Watsons actually leave home on their trip to Birmingham!  I didn’t mind the pacing at all, though, since I really enjoyed the chance to get acquainted with the Watson children.  At some points I was laughing out loud, and it almost felt like I was sharing their living room with them!   To be honest, I think that Mr. Curtis probably structured his book this way on purpose.  By allowing us to spend so much time with the Watsons up front, he lets us identify more closely with the real people whose lives were impacted by the violence of 1963.  Without this type of character development, the real people who were injured or killed during the civil rights struggle might be in danger of being overlooked.  If our generation didn’t know their stories, these people might be seen as nothing more than names in a history book.  By reading Mr. Curtis’ book, we’re able to understand that these victims were real people who left behind families when they died.

I was completely thrilled by the two books of Mr. Curtis’ that I’ve read so far, and I’m going to do my best to read everything that he puts out.  If you’re looking to take a closer look at some of the most important periods in American history, then you’re more than welcome to join me!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Mr. Popper's Penguins, by Richard and Florence Atwater


Mr. Popper paints houses.  He’s never left the town of Stillwater, even though he would desperately love to see the arctic polar regions.  One day, Mr. Popper is surprised to receive an unexpected gift from an Admiral on an arctic expedition.  It turns out to be a penguin, and the Popper children treat him as a new member of the family.  After a while their houseguest begins to get lonely, at least until a local zoo sends the Poppers a female penguin for company.  Before long, the Popper household is filled with baby penguins!

As cool as it might sound to have exotic animals for pets, you have to be careful what you wish for!  I loved reading about how much changed in the Popper household once the penguins began to settle in.  The birds lived in the refrigerator during the summer, so Mr. Popper had to have air holes punched in the door!  During the winter months he would just leave the windows open, but the rest of the family had to wear their winter coats inside!  Eventually, feeding this flock became so expensive that Mr. Popper had to earn money by turning the birds into trained performers!

I’ve heard stories about people who keep exotic animals as pets, like pythons or even tigers, but these stories never seem to have a happy ending.  Even though Mr. Popper was a very attentive pet owner, he still felt as if his penguins would feel more at home in the wild.  But what do you think?  Should people be allowed to keep exotic animals as pets?  Would these animals be happier in a zoo, or even left alone in their natural habitat?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn, by John Bellairs


After his father has a heart attack and can’t return to work, Anthony Monday’s family begins to suffer from financial troubles.  Anthony works part-time at his local library, but his salary won’t even begin to cover their bills.  He worries about money constantly, and becomes obsessed with a local legend about Alpheus Winterborn, the reclusive billionaire who built the library.  Old Man Winterborn was rumored to have hidden the bulk of his fortune somewhere in the town, and he left behind a series of cryptic clues.  Once Anthony stumbles across one of the clues in the library, he finds himself stalked by a mysterious, estranged heir who wants to claim the entire Winterborn family fortune for himself!

I absolutely love John Bellairs’ books!  They’re not your typical middle-grade novels since they’re full of gothic mystery, suspense, and elements of the supernatural.  I actually read all of them when I was a kid, and I enjoyed all three series featuring Anthony Monday as well as two other main characters, Johnny Dixon and Lewis Barnavelt.  When I re-discovered these books as an adult, I learned that Mr. Bellairs had passed away and left several unfinished books behind.  These were later completed by another author, Mr. Brad Strickland, who had himself read Mr. Bellairs’ books as a child.  What an awesome way to continue a legacy!

Fair warning:  while neither “The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn” or any of Mr. Bellairs’ other books involve graphic violence or any kind of inappropriate subject matter, they are DOWNRIGHT SPOOKY and may very well keep you awake long after you turn off the lights!  If you’re okay with that then rush right down to your library and grab one of these books but whatever you do, don’t start reading it on a school night!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden


Chester is a cricket from the woods of Connecticut, but his whole life changes one day when he stows away in a picnic basket and ends up in New York City!  Although the city is a new environment for him, he finds a home at the Bellini family’s newsstand in the Times Square subway station.  With the help of two new friends, a cat and a mouse, Chester discovers a hidden talent for chirping out different pieces of music.  He starts with memorizing simple church hymns, but quickly moves on to intricate symphonies so beautiful that their sound can literally stop rush hour traffic!

One thing I loved about this book was its awesome sense of place.  The descriptions make it easy to see New York City as the busy, bustling town that it is, where people never seem to stop moving!  I was so impressed by the way that young Mario Bellini was allowed to ride the subway by himself whenever he wasn’t working, even all the way across Manhattan into Chinatown.  That type of freedom is almost impossible for kids today to imagine!

I finally got to visit New York City a few years ago and let me tell you, it was everything that the book described!  Times Square was lit up all night long, and thousands of people were coming there just to look at the advertisements!  When I was walking around the city that never sleeps, it was hilarious to think about one tiny cricket bringing all those people to a halt!  If you’re looking for a classic story that will stop you in your tracks as well, be sure to check out “A Cricket in Times Square”!   

Sunday, April 19, 2015

One Fat Summer, by Robert Lipsyte


Bobby Marks hates the summertime.  Every summer, Bobby’s family heads out to their annual vacation in the resort town of Runson Lake, where the most popular activity is laying out at the beach.  As for Bobby, he’d much rather hide his huge body away under layers of winter clothing, since his obesity makes him an easy target for bullies.  Bobby’s attitude takes a sudden change once he goes to work as a landscaper for the crotchety old Mr. Kahn, when he finds that mowing lawns and trimming hedges out in the hot sun has caused him to start sweating off his excess pounds.  Yeah, things are really looking up for Bobby Marks….at least until he runs into an angry local teen who swears that Bobby has stolen his job!

I absolutely loved the chance to disappear into the world of the 1950s, when kids could walk to the beach by themselves and parents only got worried if they weren’t home before the streetlights came on.  There were no cell phones or text messages back then, so there was no way to call home if you were running behind.  Most kids had a set curfew for when they were expected to be home, and it was a huge deal if they stayed out too late.  The rest of the time, though, kids had a whole lot more freedom than they do today, so it’s no surprise that Bobby has plenty of room to get into his own kind of trouble!

The thing that I enjoyed the most about this book was the way that the author described how both Bobby and his best friend, Joanie, were particularly sensitive about the flaws in their appearances.  All it took was some regular exercise for Bobby to start losing weight, but Joanie is cursed with an enormous nose.  What exactly is she supposed to do about that?

What about you?  Do you spend much time thinking about how you look?  Are you happy with every part of your own body, or is there anything that you would change if you had the chance?  

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier


Jerry Renault is an unremarkable freshman at Trinity, a Catholic school which is home to a secret society of upperclassmen known as the Vigils.  These seniors are known for bullying younger students into performing outrageous pranks, such as loosening all the screws in classroom furniture to make it collapse.  When the school’s acting headmaster takes over the annual chocolate sale fundraiser, each boy is expected to sell a record fifty boxes apiece.  Except for Jerry Renault, that is, because the Vigils have ordered him to cause a stir by refusing to sell the chocolates for ten straight days.

This minor act of rebellion escalates out of control as Jerry continues to refuse to sell the chocolates, even after the Vigils’ order has expired.  He’s quickly marked as an outcast, and it becomes clear that this fundraiser isn’t so much about money as it is power, and whether it’s the teachers or the Vigils who really control the school.  I never really liked this type of “man vs. society” conflict when I was younger since it seemed so unfair that the entire world was ganging up on one person.  As an adult, though, I’ve since learned that life isn’t always fair.  This hard fact is especially true when it comes to people who have the guts to be different or to take an opposing viewpoint.

Why do you think that some people choose to take a stand on a certain issue, even when it means they could potentially be embarrassed or humiliated?  After all, wouldn’t it be easier to just go along with the program and not make any waves?  Do you think that there might be some kind of breaking point that makes people want to stand up and rebel, even if it’s over an issue that might seem trivial to others?