Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Solitary Blue, by Cynthia Voigt


So you think you know what it means to be lonely?  Let me introduce you to Jeff Greene, a boy who was raised by his father after his mother ran off.  Jeff’s dad is a college professor who has very little time to spend with his son, so he leaves the household chores to a series of graduate students.  With his mother gone, Jeff spends his days dreaming of her…until one summer, she invites him to visit her in Charleston, South Carolina.  Over the course of the next few years, Jeff gradually explores his relationship with his parents, and discovers his own kind of solitary happiness.

One of my favorite parts of this book was the way that it lets you keep pace with Jeff as he explores his family tree.  You can almost feel Jeff’s sense of emotional numbness when his mother leaves and he’s left in the hands of uncaring babysitters.  Also, Jeff’s dad seems genuinely cold in comparison to his mother, but over time we discover that he’s actually a loving parent who’s rearranged his life in order to support Jeff’s needs.

To be completely honest, I was a little put off by the way that the plot developed slowly at the beginning.  I wasn’t sure who Jeff Greene really was, or why I should care about him.  If you find yourself feeling that way during the first few chapters, my only advice is to keep reading through it.  It seems like the author wrote the book that way on purpose, to help us understand Jeff’s sense of withdrawal.  This is a very deep book, and about halfway through you’ll feel like you’ve dived all the way inside the story.

One last note is that “A Solitary Blue” is the third book in a series called “The Tillerman Cycle”.  If it’s important to you to read a series in order, then by all means go back and start at the beginning.  I had heard that this book could be read on its own, so I decided to jump right into the middle of the series.  While I agree that this was a fine book on its own, now my reading list has gotten a lot longer since I’ve got to go back and see if the rest of The Tillerman Cycle is just as awesome as “A Solitary Blue”!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Castle, by David Macaulay


What can I say about “Castle”?  It’s kind of like a picture book about architecture, with an awesome story set in medieval Europe.  This is one of those books where I won’t be able to describe it no matter how hard I try, so you’ll just have to go out and read it for yourself.  “Castle” tells the story of a typical medieval fortress, from its planning stages through the actual construction.  The story even includes a fierce battle that tests the building’s defenses!  It’s an awesome look inside a huge construction project that spanned several decades.

One awesome thing about this book is that the author actually takes you inside each piece of the castle’s architecture with his blueprint-style illustrations.  The narrative is excellent as well, because the story explains why each step of the building process was so important.  When you read this book, you not only learn about all the steps in building a castle was built, but also why this type of building was so important to life in the dark ages.     

Macaulay’s book is a great choice for visual learners, those people who understand an idea better once they’ve had a chance to “see” it up close and in detail.  I’d guess that the book is probably geared towards 10- or 12-year old boys since it includes a lot of really technical details, but it’s so easy to read that younger boys might appreciate it as well.  Whatever your age, don’t miss out on reading this classic!    

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick


After his parents die in a tragic house fire, Hugo Cabret becomes an apprentice to his uncle, who lives inside the walls of a Paris train station.  Hugo learns how to maintain all of the station’s clocks, and he takes over the job when his uncle mysteriously goes missing.  When Hugo recovers a mechanical robot from the ashes of his old home, he embarks on a quest to repair the delicate machinery that serves as the only link to his family.

While this thick book can look quite intimidating at first, it’s actually a very fast read.  Over half of the pages are illustrations, which definitely add a lot of weight to the story.  You’ll find yourself flipping through the illustrated scenes of action and suspense so quickly that you’ll feel like you’re reading a movie!  I won’t give away any of the ending to this awesome book, but I guarantee you’ll appreciate the visual format once you’ve followed Hugo into his discoveries about the origins of French movie-making!

This book is kind of an amazing invention itself, and it was neat to get a chance to explore the history of popular culture.  Most of the history classes I’ve taken were more concerned with war and politics than with culture, even though things like movies and television shows can have a huge impact on the way we live our lives.  Take a moment to look around at some of the “modern technology” you use every day.  How do you think that the next generation will feel about our iPhones or iPads?  Will they appreciate how this technology has changed our lives, or will they just laugh at these old antiques? 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Giver, by Lois Lowry


In Jonas’ community, children are raised by an assigned set of parents.  They’re given the chance to try out different career paths, and they’re assigned jobs once they turn twelve years old.  Unlike most of his friends, Jonas isn’t sure what he wants to do, and he ends up being selected to become the community’s Receiver of Memory.  This prestigious job requires him to be cut off from most other people except for his mentor, an old man known as The Giver.  Eventually, Jonas learns the forgotten secrets of his community…as well as some secrets that were meant to stay buried.

This book’s amazing setting takes place in the future, in a “utopian” society which is supposed to be perfect in every way.  Lying or stealing is not tolerated, and no one dares to break with the way that things have always been done.  When Jonas learns the truth about his community, though, it seems as if his whole world has turned against him.  This remarkable book will have you rooting for Jonas every step of the way.

An important part of growing up is taking on new roles, and exploring until you find your own place in the world.  But what do you think would happen if you came to feel like Jonas did, as if you just didn’t fit in with your home, your school, or your community?  Do you think that you’d be more likely to try to change the things you didn’t agree with, or would you try to find another place where you’d be more likely to fit in?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, by Donald J. Sobol


These books tell the story of Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, a young boy with a powerful brain and a photographic memory.  This kid genius puts his skills to use as a private detective serving the good people in his town of Idaville.  His father works as the local police chief, so Leroy routinely becomes involved with local crimes as well as disputes between his school friends.  No case is too big, too small, or too hard for this kid detective!

There are almost thirty books in this series, but each one stands alone so you don’t have to worry about reading them in order.  Also, the books themselves are collections of short stories which all feature clues and open endings.  The best part about these books is how they let you read each story as you try to figure out the puzzle right alongside Encyclopedia Brown!  Of course, if you’re like me and you always get stumped by mysteries, you can always find the solution for each story at the end of the book!

For a small town, it seems like Idaville always has a lot going on.  I really appreciated how the setting was completely fictional, so you were free to imagine that mysteries like these could actually be happening in your own town.  Have you ever thought that the town where you live might make a good setting for a story?  Are there any people you know who have special talents like Encyclopedia Brown’s great brain?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls


Billy Coleman lives in rural Arkansas.  As the only boy in his family, he enjoys hunting in the great outdoors and desperately wants to buy a pair of dogs.  When his father tells him that they just can’t afford two redbone coonhounds, Billy works for two years to save up the money himself.  Billy names them Old Dan and Little Ann, and they quickly become the best coonhounds in the state.  Since his family still struggles to make ends meet, Billy turns to hunting raccoons in order to sell their furs and provide a better life for his little sisters.

I really enjoyed how the author really lets the reader peek into Billy’s mind, instead of just stereotyping him as a “hillbilly”.  Billy doesn’t attend school and gets mocked for his appearance whenever he goes into town, but he’s actually just as smart as any other kid his age.  More so, he’s a genius when it comes to outdoor skills, like hunting raccoons and surviving in the wild.

This is a classic book for boys, but I wonder how girls might feel about it since it’s really a story about a boy and his dogs—nothing more!  Yes, Billy has three sisters, but they’re really only supporting characters in the book.  In fact, none of the girls are even given names!  I think that Mr. Rawls must have left them nameless on purpose, if only to emphasize just how strongly Billy felt about his dogs.  To Billy, Old Dan and Little Ann were so much more than just his pets.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Soup, by Robert Newton Peck


The “Soup” books are Robert Newton Peck’s fictionalized memoirs about his childhood in rural Vermont.  Mr. Peck narrates the stories from his childhood perspective, and most of the stories involve the trouble that his best friend dreams up.  There doesn’t seem like there’s much to do out in the country, but Rob and Soup put their imaginations to good use.  Usually, they end up in hot water as a result!

“Soup” is more of a collection of short stories than an actual novel, unlike some of the sequels that follow it.  It was interesting to read about how kids lived in the 1930s, and how they faced some of the same challenges that today’s kids do.  Some of the stories deal with topics like lying, stealing, and smoking.  I’d be willing to bet that even boys who’ve never been to a farm could identify with most of the situations that Rob and Soup find themselves in.

When I first read this book, I had no idea that it was a memoir.  As it turns out, though, there actually was a troublesome boy named Soup, and he grew up to become a minister!  I guess it’s true what they say, you never can tell how some people will turn out.  But on that subject, have you ever given any thought to what you’d like to do when you’re older?  Do you ever enjoy thinking about your friends, and trying to guess what they might grow up to become?