Sunday, February 7, 2016

Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot, by Dav Pilkey

This is the story of Ricky Ricotta, a lonely little mouse who befriends a mysterious giant robot.   The robot helps Ricky with his homework, stands up to the school bullies, and even saves the world by battling the evil Doctor Stinky McNasty!  Using an amazing graphic novel format, even the most reluctant reader will find himself whizzing through the chapters.

 Some of you might already be familiar with Mr. Pilkey’s work from his epic series, Captain Underpants.  The Ricky Ricotta series features his same brand of unique humor, although slightly turned down for younger readers.  First- and second-grade boys would probably love the juxtaposition of a tiny mouse teamed with a giant robot….at least, I sure did! 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen

Brian Robeson is a thirteen-year-old boy, the son of divorced parents.  While traveling through Canada on a Cessna plane to meet his father for the summer, the pilot suffers a massive heart attack and dies.  Brian survives a crash-landing in the forest, leaving him stranded on his own with nothing to help him survive…except for a single hatchet.

“Hatchet” is a fast-paced adventure story which is considered to be one of today’s must-read books for young men, although I’m ashamed to say I never read it before now.  It’s a fast-paced story in which a seemingly endless series of challenges are thrown at Brian, one after another.  In fact, the only thing I really didn’t care for with this book was the way that it all seemed so unfair!  After surviving a traumatic plane crash, you’d think the last thing Brian would have to worry about would be dying from starvation or exposure!

Mr. Paulsen’s book proved so popular that he went on to write another four books in the “Hatchet” series, which collectively became known as “Brian’s Saga”.  I’m planning to move on to the first sequel in the series soon, if only to find out what kind of adventures Brian will be thrown into next.  Even though it never seems fair when it’s the entire world against one boy, these hopeless situations sure make for a great story!  “Hatchet” gets my strongest recommendation, so be sure to pick up your copy today.    

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, by Wendy Mass

Only one month before his thirteenth birthday, Jeremy Fink and his best friend Lizzy Muldoun receive a mysterious package in the mail.  The box is from Jeremy’s deceased father, and it contains a mysterious wooden box with four keyholes.  Determined to open the box, Jeremy and Lizzy set a goal to find all four of the lost keys during their summer vacation.  Their quest immediately runs into an obstacle when they run afoul of the law, and are required to complete a period of community service working with the mysterious Mr. Oswald.  As Jeremy’s birthday approaches fast, he begins to wonder if he’ll ever be able to open the box and discover the meaning of life.

One of the most remarkable things about this book is the amount of effort that Jeremy’s dad put into his project.  The plot follows a well-planned script that Mr. Fink laid out before he died, which includes major roles for many of his family friends and business partners.  It quickly becomes apparent that Mr. Fink was a devoted father, and he wanted to maintain a strong presence in Jeremy’s life even if he passed away.

I’m not going to spoil the ending by giving away the secret of life but yes, Jeremy does finally manage to open the box.  Even though the project of tracking down the missing keys tests his patience and resolve, it ends up being a great way for him to learn more about his father.  Do you ever wish that you had the opportunity to get to know a family member who’s passed away?

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

In the year 2044, the world’s societies have collapsed.  Most people seek to escape their misery by retreating into a virtual world called OASIS, a computer-generated virtual reality which holds a universe of hidden secrets.  Before his death, the mysterious creator of OASIS hid a series of “easter eggs” inside his program, with the promise to leave his enormous fortune to any gamer who could find them all.  Years have since passed, and a legion of egg hunters (or “gunters”) spend endless hours following a trail of clues relating to geek knowledge and the popular culture of the 1980s.  Wade Watts is just one more anonymous gunter, spending endless hours in the OASIS with his avatar “Parzival,” until the unexpected moment when Parzival finds the very first easter egg!  Suddenly, a huge race for the prize develops, with Parzival and the other gunters being pursued by a powerful corporation with a goal of seizing the entire OASIS.

I loved the way that this book was so fast-paced, but still managed to include a treasure trove of fun facts about the 80s.  This book will be an instant classic to anyone who grew up during that era, but even though the references might not click as quickly with younger readers, kids today will be able to gather lots of research material on the Web.  Taking a few minutes away from the story to pull up a Youtube clip from movies like “War Games” or “The Breakfast Club” will allow readers to feel like they’re discovering a hidden part of the OASIS right along with Parzival.  It’s a brilliant way to make the book almost seem like an interactive adventure, and readers will feel themselves sinking deeper into the OASIS.

Even with the moderate violence and sexual references in this book, I wouldn’t give it more than a PG-13 rating.  Reading this book is kind of like playing an awesome video game, actually, and the end result is a huge literary geekfest.  If you’ve been searching for a book that would be awesome enough to make a young gamer power down his system for a few days, look no further than Ready Player One.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Scout Finch is a precocious six-year-old from rural Maycomb County, Alabama.  Her father, Atticus, enjoys a quiet life as a successful lawyer in the 1930s, but the family’s lives are turned upside down when Atticus takes on an unpopular case.  Tom Robinson is a black man accused of raping a white woman, and the entire town seems to have judged his guilt in advance of the actual trial.  Despite Atticus’ heroic efforts in the courtroom, it’s apparent that the residents of Maycomb just aren’t ready to take the word of a black man over that of his white accusers, even when there’s no hard evidence of Tom’s guilt.

Yes, there are several mature subjects in this book, such as sexual assault, mob violence and racial epithets.  It is not overly graphic, however, and I feel that Ms. Lee did her best to paint an honest picture of the attitudes that were common during this time.  Given that the book was probably aimed at adult readers, I thought it was extremely interesting that this book was narrated by a six-year-old girl.  The perspective of a youthful outsider allows us to get a great look at the emotions involved in this scandalous crime, as well as the biases that were inherent in the judicial system of that era. 

One final reason to like this book (or if you’re like me, to LOVE it!) is the fact that it was Ms. Lee’s only novel.  Also, despite the fact that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of the best-selling books of the past fifty years, Ms. Lee refuses to do any personal publicity!  She still lives in Monroeville, Alabama, the town where she was born, and maintains a very private lifestyle.  By refusing to comment the inspiration for her novel or the hidden meanings of certain parts, it’s almost as if she’s choosing to let her book speak for itself.  I think her taking a stand like that is incredibly cool, since it’s exactly what writing is all about!  Even long after you’ve passed away, the words you’ve written will still be there to live on.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Going Bovine, by Libba Bray

Cameron Smith is a high school slacker who suddenly begins to suffer from hallucinations.  Over time, he learns that he’s come down with Creutzfeldt-Jakob variant BSE, more commonly known as the deadly “mad cow disease”.  Fearing that he may be dying, Cameron escapes from the hospital with help from his dwarf friend Gonzo, an honest-to-goodness angel named Dulcie, and a Norse god named Balder who’s been cursed with the appearance of a lawn gnome.  These unlikely friends set off on one last wild Spring Break adventure that’s almost too insane to be real!

Even though this book has a couple of mature themes, I’d feel comfortable recommending it to most high schoolers.  The tough issues that Cameron faces are dealt with in a very respectful manner, and Ms. Bray’s writing presents a raw, unvarnished picture of a less-than-perfect kid.  With all the drama involved, this book might have become a real downer if it wasn’t so absolutely hilarious!  The situations that Cameron and his crew encounter are completely over-the-top, and there were some points when I felt like I was dreaming this story instead of simply reading it! 

One of my favorite parts about “Going Bovine” was that it made me wonder if Cameron was actually dying, or if the whole story was simply a sickness-induced hallucination.  Either way, it made for a fun experience since everyone has considered the possibility of their own death at some point.  And if you’re ever stuck for ideas on a writing project, you couldn’t ask for a better prompt than imagining what you might do if you only had a few weeks left to live.  If Ms. Bray could create this amazing story from that one simple idea, just imagine the story you could write!  

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Crash, by Jerry Spinelli

John “Crash” Coogan is a seventh-grade football star, and I’ll go out on a limb and call him kind of a bully as well.  Crash enjoys the fast-paced, macho world of sports, and he lives every other part of his life with the same intense passion.  His head-long behavior continues when he meets a new neighbor, Penn Webb, who’s basically the exact opposite.  Penn is a quiet, thoughtful boy whose Quaker family doesn’t condone violence, eat meat, or seek out material things.  When Crash strikes up a reluctant friendship with Penn, he’s forced to re-think many of his own behaviors.

I loves the way that this book unfolded over the course of the entire school year, so it gives the reader a chance to get to know Crash while organizes his life priorities.  The year holds a lot of surprises for Crash, including changes in his parents’ employment, his little sister’s growing social activism, and new friends at school.  The most serious concern is his grandfather Scooter’s sudden illness, which serves to remind Crash that having a healthy family and supportive friends is much more important than having nice clothes, toys, or even being popular.  At the end of the book, I really appreciated the way that Mr. Spinelli intentionally left the conclusion kind of open and unresolved, almost as if he realized that Crash wasn’t a perfect person but he still wanted to give him more time to improve.  It was a very cool and thought-provoking way to close out a fun book!

This book would hold a lot of appeal with any upper-middle-grade readers, especially young men who consider themselves to be sports fans.  The hilarious circumstances and quick pacing make “Crash” a fast read, even though it’s not necessarily a short book.  Pass a copy along to the jock in your life and I guarantee, this is one book that they won’t be embarrassed to be seen reading in public!