Sunday, January 25, 2015

Soldier's Heart, by Gary Paulsen


“Soldier’s Heart” is the story of Charley Goddard, a fifteen-year old boy from Minnesota.  This excellent book follows Charley from the beginning of the Civil War, when he lies about his age in order to join his state’s militia and fight the Confederacy.  The reader follows Charley through his training and several major battles, until the odds eventually catch up with him and he sustains life-threatening wounds.

These days it seems like authors consciously try to tone down the amount of graphic violence in their work, and I have to give Mr. Paulsen a lot credit for going in the opposite direction.  Reading this book, along with its realistic (but not TOO traumatic) descriptions of the casualties and the horrors of war, a person is able to get a much better idea of what combat might have been like.  The continual deaths of Charley’s fellow soldiers help to remind us exactly what war is, even though it might have seemed like nothing more than an exciting adventure when Charley first joined up.

In an afterword, we learn that a young man named Charley Goddard actually did exist, and that he was present at almost all of the battles described in this novel.  When you consider the fact that at least 620,000 soldiers died during the Civil War, the idea of telling a single person’s story through fiction seems like a great way to give some perspective to that staggering statistic.  If every soldier that died in the Civil War was represented by a book, most libraries simply wouldn’t be large enough to hold all of their stories…

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Journey to an 800 Number, by E.L. Konigsburg


The late, great E.L. Konigsburg wrote at least fifteen books during her time.  She’s best known for “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”, which is a staple on school reading lists.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved that book too, but today I want to highlight my absolute favorite book of hers, “Journey to an 800 Number”.  This is one of those books where I got to the end and couldn’t tell exactly what I had just read, but I sure knew that I had enjoyed it!

Maximillian “Bo” Stubbs is a prep school student who lives with his mother, who recently remarried.  He’s excited about moving in with his rich stepfather and living a life of luxury…but not until the month-long honeymoon is over!  In the meantime, Bo will be staying with his father Woody, a traveling man who owns a camel and makes a living by showing the animal at trade shows and carnivals.  To complicate matters even more, Bo keeps bumping into a girl named Chloe, whose mother bounces between trade shows and forges checks to pay their way!

This is one of Konigsburg’s lesser-known novels, so it might be a little hard to find at first.  Check your library for a copy, or maybe your local used book store.  It’s worth the search, though, since this book seems to be all about people who are searching for their identities.  I don’t want to ruin any of the ending with spoilers, but it almost seemed like Woody was the only one who was really at peace with himself.  He knew that he would always be nothing more than a man who owned a camel, but he seemed to be content with that. 

This book is offbeat, quirky, and definitely worth the short amount of time it takes to read.  Even if you don’t enjoy it as much as “Basil E. Frankweiler” or “The View From Saturday”, that’s completely okay.  Just because it’s my favorite of her books, that doesn’t it has to be yours too.  Remember, the whole point of this project is to highlight those books that young men might not have heard of!  If you’ve opened yourself up to reading something new, then our mission has been accomplished! 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket


The Bad Beginning is the first in a series of thirteen books featuring the hapless Baudelaire orphans.  After their parents die in a tragic house fire, Klaus, Violet and Sunny are shipped off to live with their uncle, the evil Count Olaf.  It quickly becomes clear to them that they are not welcome at Olaf’s…especially when they learn of his plot to steal their inheritance!

These books are very fun and should be suitable for most middle-grade readers, although the humor is so smart that I’ve even caught a few of my adult friends reading them as well!  I really enjoyed the way that the children seem to always be smarter than the adults, especially once they’ve learned of Count Olaf’s diabolical plan.

It’s my goal to work through the rest of the series this year, but I couldn’t help thinking about how many children’s book characters are orphans.  I don’t know why that is, except for maybe that writing about orphans could give an author more freedom to explore different situations without worrying about how parents might obstruct the plot of the story?  But what do you think?  Does writing a character’s parents into the story add to the plot, or would it shift the focus off of the kids?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dune, by Frank Herbert


When Frank Herbert created “Dune”, he did so much more than just write a book.  Instead, he built an entire galaxy!  This is considered one of the best sci-fi books of all time, and with good reason.  “Dune” tells the story of young Paul Atreides, whose noble family assumes control of the planet Arrakis.  Although the planet is a barren desert wasteland, it is the only source of the spice “mélange”, which is the most powerful substance in the universe.  As Paul learns the secrets of his new home, he quickly becomes embroiled in the politics of a galactic Empire.

Be forewarned, this is a LONG book for young adult readers, tipping the scales at nearly 900 pages!  It’s definitely not a beach read, but rather something that you’ve got to lose yourself in over the course of a few weeks.  If you’re hesitant to take on a challenge like “Dune”, keep in mind that this book inspired a generation of science fiction books and movies, including the Star Wars series!  There are also a number of Dune sequels, and many people consider this book to be the sci-fi version of “Lord of the Rings”.

One other neat thing about “Dune” is that it’s been adapted into movie versions on at least two occasions.  I really enjoy seeing a movie once I’ve read the book, since it allows me to see how the same story can be told in different ways.  One thing’s for sure, with all of the “Dune” books and stories that are out there, filmmakers will never run short on inspiration!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Jumanji, by Chris Van Allsburg


I love reviewing the occasional picture book, especially if it’s one that older audiences can enjoy as well!  Chris Van Allsburg’s story is about Judy and Peter, two ordinary kids who discover a mysterious board game called Jumanji.  The game is actually infused with magical powers, so the kids find themselves faced with all the dangers of the jungle!  Wild animals running loose, a powerful monsoon, even an erupting volcano!

One thing I enjoyed about Jumanji (and this is true for all of Mr. Van Allsburg’s books!) is how his illustrations can simply suck you into the story.  In this book, it almost feels like you’re playing the game right next to Judy and Peter!  The awesome illustrations don’t just tell the story along with the narrative, they support it by helping you to imagine yourself in those surroundings.  It’s no wonder that this book is so popular with boys of all ages, especially those with a healthy sense of adventure!

Let’s imagine for a second that you could actually get drawn into one of the games that you have at home.  Is there any particular game that you’d like to experience the way that Judy and Peter did?  Would it be a board game like Monopoly or Sorry!, or would you like to get drawn into a video game?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card


Sometime in the not-so-distant future, Earth has survived two invasion attempts from an alien species known only as “The Buggers”.  In anticipation of another onslaught, the nations of Earth create an international space fleet to defend themselves.  As a young child, Ender Wiggin is selected for training at their academy, where he learns the fundamentals of combat by participating in battles against other student armies.               

I’ve never really been a huge reader of science fiction, but I strongly recommend this book because of the underlying themes.  Younger readers might want to hold off because there is some violence, as well as some curse words, but probably nothing that your average fifteen- or sixteen-year old young man hasn’t been exposed to already.  Besides, anyone who’s overly disturbed by these things has obviously missed the whole point of the novel.  “Ender’s Game” doesn’t just have my recommendation--- it’s also endorsed by the US Marine Corps, and it’s required reading for their officer candidates!

“Ender’s Game” is a book that I would recommend for almost all high-school boys, but especially for any of them who’ve ever considered joining the military.  I had the unfortunate opportunity to see combat in Iraq, and for me, it was a life-changing experience.  By putting the realities of warfare into a fictional setting, the author allows us to get a huge amount of insight into what war really is.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein


When I first picked up a copy of “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, I didn’t realize that it was a book of poetry.  My older brother just told me that it was a good book and that I should read it, so of course I did.  To be perfectly honest, I probably wouldn’t have started reading it if I’d known it was poetry, but once I opened the cover it was too late to quit.  Shel Silverstein’s hilarious line drawings sucked me in, and the outrageous verses kept me turning the pages.

This is a poetry book for boys who don’t like poetry, so it quickly became one of my favorites.  I really appreciated the fact that you can open it to any page and pick a poem to read at random, so there’s no need to read the book from beginning to end.  Of course, you’ll undoubtedly end up with a few (or a few dozen) favorite poems, so there’s a handy index included at the back of the book.  Silverstein wrote many other books, including a couple other compilations of poems, so there’s a lot more to enjoy after you finish “Where the Sidewalk Ends”!    

One thing I enjoyed about Silverstein’s writing style is that he’s just so much fun!  The silly poems and outrageous drawings will get a laugh out of almost anyone.  Also, this book is a great inspiration for your own writing projects.  The topics are simple, dealing with things like chores or annoying siblings.  Even a kid who never thought about writing poetry would be tempted to put a few verses down on paper after reading Silverstein’s work!