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!

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? 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton

This is the story of Ponyboy Curtis, a tough kid with even tougher friends.  After Ponyboy’s parents die, he struggles to get along with his brothers, Sodapop and Darrell.  The Curtis boys are considered greasers, because they slick their hair and hang around with other juvenile delinquents.  The greasers in town are constantly fighting with the Socs, rich upper-class kids who seem to get everything they want.  When one of these battles turns deadly, Ponyboy and his best friend Johnny find themselves wanted for questioning, and they decide to run from the law.

One thing you should know about this book is that there is constant violence throughout the story.  The book is very controversial because of that, and it may not be an appropriate choice for younger readers.  Still, I have a lot of respect for the way that the author presents these violent acts.  Violence is simply an everyday part of Ponyboy’s daily life as a fourteen-year-old high school freshman from the wrong side of the tracks.  I think that the author meant to target readers of the same age group, since much of the violence takes place “offscreen” and it’s not overly gory.  Also, even though the characters are tough kids who curse constantly, there were no curse words actually written into the story!

This book is a shockingly realistic look at the pressures that young men face, so I was incredibly surprised to find out that the author is a female!  S.E. Hinton was a teenager when she wrote this book, and it was published by the time she graduated high school.  In an interview, she mentioned that her inspiration came when she realized how other people perceived her “greaser” friends to be juvenile delinquents!  What do you think people might say about your friends at school?  Do you feel like you’re a member of any certain groups or cliques?  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Choose Your Own Adventure books, by R.A. Montgomery, Edward Packard, and many others!

This is another series of “oldies-but-goodies” from my own childhood!  The Choose Your Own Adventure books feature awesome stories, and they’re written in a way that places the reader in the middle of the action like no other book could.  There were dozens of books in the original series, and I guarantee that any child of the 1980s has read at least one of them.  After a huge demand from readers, the series was continued into the 1990s and re-launched again in 2005.  With that many adventures to choose from and multiple endings for each one, the number of different stories you can read is literally endless!

Here’s how these books work:  as you start reading, you’re introduced as the main character and given a brief introduction to the setting and the plot.  After maybe 1 or 2 pages, you’ll be asked to make a decision about what you’d like to do next.  You’re then given 2 or 3 actions to choose from, each with a corresponding page number.  Once you’ve made your choice, you flip ahead and read about where your decisions have taken you!  It’s a completely different format from reading straight through a book, and what’s really cool is that as you move forward, your choices can lead to some drastically different conclusions.  Fair warning, though:  not all of the endings are happy ones!

The Choose Your Own Adventure books feature amazing illustrations and the “chapters” are amazingly short, sometimes less than a single page.  This makes them the perfect choice for reluctant readers or any kids who’d be more likely to pick up a video game controller before they pick up a book.  If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself reading the same book over and over, trying to discover all the possible endings.  One thing’s for sure, though:  once you pick up your first Choose Your Own Adventure book, you won’t be putting it down anytime soon!  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Card Turner, by Louis Sachar

Seventeen-year old Alton Richards is in an uncomfortable situation.  His free-spending parents have run out of money, and they’re counting on a huge inheritance to get out of debt.  Alton’s job is to get close to his grandfather, a rich but blind man with a passion for the game of bridge.  Alton quickly becomes much more than an extra set of hands to turn cards, and he ends up learning more about his grandfather than he could ever imagine.

I don’t want to ruin the surprise on this one, but I will say that this book is worth reading all the way through!  I didn’t see the ending coming, but I should have expected a few twists from an author like Mr. Sachar.  I especially like the way he gave a good deal of attention to Alton’s “everyday” troubles, like his relationship with his girlfriend.  This isn’t a particularly long book, but it’s very “thick” in terms of the character development.  I really enjoy these books where there’s not only an awesome story, but where you also end up caring about each individual character. 

In fact, my only complaint was that I don’t know how to play bridge, and so I couldn’t totally follow along with the sequences of cards as they were dealt.  Bridge isn’t nearly as popular as it was a few generations ago, which might be exactly why Mr. Sachar chose to base his story around the game.  It would take a new player a lot of effort to follow the excitement and strategy that comes with each hand, just like it took Alton a lot of time and effort to appreciate his grandfather.  Do you think that Mr. Sachar could be using the game of bridge as a symbol for Alton’s relationship with his grandfather?  Can you think of any games that could be used to portray the way that your family members interact?  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes

One of the neat things about this project is that it allows me the chance to re-read some of the classroom standards from my own childhood!  One of these books, Johnny Tremain, is about an apprentice silversmith working in colonial Boston.  Johnny is a cocky and prideful boy, but his career comes to a screeching halt when he burns his hand by accident.  While searching for a trade that he’ll be able to perform with his handicap, Johnny eventually becomes involved with the American Revolution.

My favorite part of this book was the way that historical characters like Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and John Hancock played supporting roles in the story.  When we read about these men in History class, they often seem larger than life.  By writing them into a story that focuses primarily on Johnny’s fictional character, we’re allowed to take a much closer look at these men in their everyday lives.  At a few points in the book, I almost felt like I was traveling back in time to 1775!  It’s incredible to see Boston as it is right now, and still try to imagine how it must have looked under the occupation of a foreign army. 

The book concludes in April of 1776, just after the battles of Lexington and Concord.  I found it interesting that the author chose to end Johnny’s story just as the much bigger story of the Revolutionary War was beginning.  We’re left to wonder about what happened to Johnny—did he become a soldier, or continue supporting the Revolution in any way?  Ms. Forbes left a lot of questions unanswered, but I think she did this on purpose.   Johnny’s fictional story is a way of paying tribute to the thousands of young men who lived and fought during that era, even though history has forgotten them. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Fat Boy vs. The Cheerleaders, by Geoff Herbach

Gabe “Chunk” Johnson is a self-professed band geek.  His biggest problem is a struggle with his weight, and it’s a constant battle for him to drink fewer than four bottles of Code Red Mountain Dew each day.  Gabe’s world gets thrown upside-down when he learns that the proceeds from his favorite vending machine, which had been used in the past to support a summer camp for his school band, will now be used to pay for a professional dancer to coach the cheerleading squad!  Gabe refuses to stay quiet about this new injustice, and he organizes a protest campaign that quickly spirals out of control.

This book is an awesome read, although I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone under the age of 16 since it touches on themes like vandalism, sexuality, and alcohol abuse.  To be fair, though, these things are probably everyday occurrences at any public high school in America.  None of these elements are overly graphic, and I appreciated the way that the author uses them to develop his story.  By the end of the book, I had the chance to examine these characters’ life circumstances in great detail.  It would have been easy to dislike the cheerleaders because they have such a successful outward appearance, for example, but often people have their own struggles which aren’t as visible as Gabe’s obesity.

I really enjoyed this book, since it allowed me a chance to root for an underdog.  Gabe Johnston might not be the most attractive person in his school, and it’d be easy to pass him by without a second thought.  If you did, though, you’d be missing out on the chance to meet a funny, friendly, resourceful kid who’s clearly a force to be reckoned with!  Even if people like Gabe seem to take pride in labeling themselves as “freaks, geeks, or burners”, you’d be missing out on a lot if you passed up on a chance to get to know them!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Great Brain, by John D. Fitzgerald

“The Great Brain” is the first in a series of seven books set in Utah, just before the year 1900.  This was also one of my favorite books when I was in school, so it was awesome that I got to read it again for a review on this blog.  The narrator, John, shares stories about his older brother Tom, who claims to be the smartest kid in town.  Even though I’d imagine that these stories probably have some fiction in them, Mr. Fitzgerald presents them as his true-to-life memoirs.

I love reading about different historical eras, and I’d imagine that story-telling was a popular pastime in the days before radio and television.  Young John begins the book with a story about how his family was the first in town to have an indoor flushing toilet installed in their home.  The neighbors came from miles around to see this wonder, and Tom’s great brain came up with the idea of charging admission.  Despite John’s worst fears, the toilet didn’t explode!  The house didn’t stink or flood over, either.

Mr. Fitzgerald doesn’t shy away from some of the hard realities of life on the frontier, which often included religious conflicts between Mormons and other faiths.  Alcohol abuse, missing children, a suicide attempt, and other mature subjects are also part of John and Tom’s daily lives.  On re-reading this book, it occurred to me that it almost might be more appropriate for young adults rather than middle-grade readers.  Still, Mr. Fitzgerald presents these issues very matter-of-factly, and I think his intent was to show his readers the obstacles that a normal ten-year-old boy like John would have faced.

“The Great Brain” is one of the few books that I’d say all boys absolutely must read, but it’s appropriate for readers of any age who enjoy adventure stories and problem solving!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Rocket Man, by Jan L. Coates

As an unremarkable eight-grade student and the middle child in a busy family, Bob “the Blob” Prescott feels almost like he’s turned into Mr. Invisible.  Even when Bob’s out on the court playing the game that he loves, he’s constantly overshadowed by the basketball legends of his father and his older brother James.  When Bob finally earns himself a backup spot on the Division 1 team, his accomplishments just don’t seem to matter much in comparison to his Dad’s long battle with cancer.  At the height of the basketball season, Bob’s put to the ultimate test when he agrees to design a charity basketball game in order to raise money for cancer research.  Will he be able to succeed in the spotlight, or is Bob doomed to remain “Mr. Invisible” forever?

One thing that I really enjoyed about “Rocket Man” is how the book relies very heavily on the sport of basketball as a setting, but the actual story itself is about the relationships between the characters.  This is not a book about basketball, even though the sport is something that has always served to bring Bob, his father and his brother closer together.   Whenever the Prescott men have to deal with things that are kind of difficult to talk about, they use pick-up games of basketball as a way to bond without having to say a single word.  In the same way, using the sport of basketball as a setting for a strong, emotional narrative is a great way to draw in a reading audience of young men.  There’s some very cool storytelling going on here, guys!

There’s no way that I’m going to give away the ending in this review, but I really appreciated the way the author kind of left things open.   There are very few things in life that we can really be certain, so I appreciated the “realistic” feeling that the book left me with.  We’re all going to face different kinds of challenges, but what really matters is how we respond to them.  Bob might not be able to do a whole lot about his Dad’s fight with cancer, but he is doing everything within his power to be supportive and strong.  Sometimes, even when a set of circumstances might be completely beyond your control, it’s still possible to make an impact in a way that you never could have imagined…

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Shipwreck Island, by S.A. Bodeen

One of the neat things about adventure stories is that a lot of them involve the same basic plot, at least at the beginning.  From “Robinson Crusoe” to “The Swiss Family Robinson” to the television show “Gilligan’s Island” and the movie “Castaway”, fictional characters have been getting stranded on deserted islands for literally hundreds of years.  While the basic premise might be the same, each character’s circumstances are slightly different, which can make each story awesome in its own way.  The latest stranded-on-a-desert-island epic comes from award-winning author S.A. Bodeen, and she does a great job of continuing this tradition of adventure.

Sarah Robinson has enough to deal with when her widower father, John, decides to get married again.  His new wife Yvonna moves in with her two sons, Marco and Nacho, and the kids have a difficult time getting used to one another.  In an attempt to bring all the kids together, John and Yvonna decide to take them along on their vacation to Tahiti.  It’s a great idea, but the plan quickly falls apart when their “luxury cruise liner” turns out to be a rickety old boat.  To make matters worse, the Robinson family is sailing into a monster storm.  You can pretty much guess what happens next…but you’ll have no idea what’s waiting for the Robinson family when they become stranded!  

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but this adventure story quickly turns into a mystery with a lot of suspense.  My impression is that “Shipwreck Island” is going to turn into a series of adventure novels, so here’s your chance to get in on the ground floor by reading the first book when it comes out this month.  On another note, I really appreciated the way that the author chose to write her story about a blended family with kids from different parents.  But even though the author is portraying a “modern” family, I thought it was so cool that she followed in Johann David Wyss’ footsteps by giving her family the last name of Robinson!  Way to go, Ms. Bodeen!    

One last thing I feel I should mention:  a lot of people might question why I chose to review this book when the character who gets the most attention is actually a girl!  Please try to remember that this project wasn’t necessarily designed to highlight books about boys, but to find books that boys like.  If you keep an open mind going into this one, I guarantee you’ll agree with me that Sarah Robinson would be a pretty awesome friend to be stranded with…even if she is a girl!

For more information on S.A. Bodeen’s other books, be sure to check out her website.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss

“The Swiss Family Robinson” is an exciting adventure story about a large family who survives a terrifying shipwreck, only to become stranded on an uninhabited island!  At first the Robinson family is forced to focus on their immediate survival in the wild, but they quickly adapt and become quite comfortable living on their own.  Eventually, they make a shocking discovery when they learn that their island might not be as deserted as it appeared!

I had never read this book before, but I had seen Walt Disney’s movie version of the story.  It was exciting to notice areas where the book differed so much from the movie.  That’s one of the neat things about these older, classic books--- if you’ve got an exciting plot with some interesting characters, it can be told in an unlimited number of ways.  This book was written nearly 200 years ago, and it’s been re-printed in dozens of different versions for different age groups.  Feel free to shop around a little and choose the best version for you, even if it’s one of the comic books!  I decided to read the English translation of the original book for this review.  The author was careful to detail all of the steps that the family took to build their new home.  It was very cool to read about their ingenuity, but at times I almost felt like I was reading a survival manual!

I’ve since learned that Mr. Wyss may have been inspired by Daniel Defoe’s novel “Robinson Crusoe”, which is about a man who spends years alone on a desert island.  The family’s last name could be a clue to observant readers, pointing them towards another excellent book that the author enjoyed.  While these two books might sound similar, being stranded by yourself would actually be a very different situation from being cast away with your entire family.  But what do you think?  If you were cast off on a desert island, would you prefer to be by yourself or in a group?  Can you think of any specific people that you might want to face these hardships with?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Candy Corn Contest, by Patricia Reilly Giff

Even though I prefer reviewing full-length novels aimed at middle-grade and young adult readers, I definitely don’t want to overlook some of the outstanding chapter books aimed at younger boys.  Patricia Reilly Giff’s “Polk Street School” series is an excellent example of these.  One great advantage of this series is that if you like the characters, you can pick up the next book and follow your new friends into their next adventure!

In “The Candy Corn Contest”, Mrs. Rooney hosts a contest with her second grade class to see if anyone can guess the number of candy corns inside a jar on her desk.  No one is successful, and during the week Richard “the Beast” Best accidentally discovers that the magic number is written on the bottom of the jar!   Richard doesn’t want to be a cheater, so he has to find a way to get out of the contest without ruining everyone else’s fun.

This situation might seem simple, but it’s probably a major ethical dilemma for a second-grader!  I think that the intended audience would really identify with Richard, especially if they thought he might get in trouble for being honest.  What do you think you would do if you were in his position?  Have you ever had to admit that you’d done something wrong, even though you knew that your honesty might get you in trouble?

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

This story is about Bud Caldwell, a twelve-year old orphan who runs away from his most recent foster family.  Bud travels across his home state of Michigan during the Great Depression in a search for his long-lost family.   He meets a musician who he thinks might be his father, and falls in with the man’s traveling band.  Out on the road, Bud has time to explore his family tree, and discover how little he actually knows about his roots.

This book has not only has an amazing plot, but it also has one of the most interesting settings.  Our lives today are so comfortable that it’s very easy to forget about how things were just a few generations ago.  Mr. Curtis does an excellent job of describing life during the Depression, especially the “Hoovervilles” and the conflicts between labor organizers and security men.  I can’t imagine a life where I didn’t know where I was heading next, or where my next meal was coming from.

My favorite part of this book was actually the author’s notes at the end, where Mr. Curtis wrote about how his own family influenced the story.  His relatives were the inspiration for two of the main characters, and their stories undoubtedly helped him produce such a realistic description of the era.  Mr. Curtis suggested that readers should take the time to listen to their own family members, in order to get a first-person account of history.

What do you think about his advice?  What do you know about how your parents or your grandparents grew up?  Is there anything that you don’t know about them, but might like to learn?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Travel Team, by Mike Lupica

Travel Team is an underdog story about Danny Walker, the shortest twelve-year old in Middletown.  Danny is a gifted basketball player, but he’s got some big shoes to fill.  His absentee father is a former pro ballplayer who might be best known for taking the local youth league to the national championships.  Danny’s family situation is interesting enough, but the real story begins when Danny fails to make the town’s “travel team” of top ballplayers when the coach thinks that he’s just too short to compete.

When Danny starts to think about taking a year off from basketball, his dad steps back into the picture and offers to start up an alternative ball team.  He and Danny then set about assembling an unlikely team made up of Danny, a few other misfit kids, and even the unthinkable….a girl!  After a series of losses, it quickly becomes clear that this team will never win an actual game.  Until, all of a sudden, they actually do!

I don’t want to give away too much of this book, because it’s worth reading for yourself.  It reminded me of all of Matt Christopher’s books that my classmates and I used to race through.  So many kids like to play sports, even though only a very small percentage will grow up to play professionally.  There’s so much that young people can learn from sports, and one of the most important things they can learn is how to lose well.

But what do you think?  Have you ever played on a sports team?  If so, what was something that you learned from your experience?      

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford

“The Incredible Journey” is another book where animals actually serve as the main characters, and the story is about how these housepets make a trip of several hundred miles through the wilderness to re-unite with their owners.  I’m always amazed by these type of animal stories, and how the authors succeed in letting the reader have a peek in on the animals’ thoughts and feelings.

Unlike “The Call of the Wild”, the two dogs and a cat in this book don’t feel very much in touch with wild animals, no matter how much time they spend on their own and despite the life-or-death challenges that they face.  They do adapt to their environment in order to survive, but this behavior is all done with the goal of getting back to their family.

I really enjoyed reading about how the young Labrador simply knew which direction to head.  It was almost as if he didn’t have any choice but to lead the others on this journey, like he was being pulled back to the home where he knew that they belonged.  His sense of purpose was impressive, even when the animals were presented with several easy opportunities where they could have quit their journey.

What do you think about the determination showed by these animals?  Have you ever done something where you felt like quitting wasn’t an option, even though nobody would really blame you if you did?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, by Gary D. Schmidt

I picked up this book before I knew that it was based on actual events.  I’m really glad for that, because I like to think of this book as a good story first and foremost, rather than a true story.  This one is about Turner Buckminster, a preacher’s son, and how he adapts to being the new kid in town in a very small Maine community.

It actually took me a few chapters before I realized that the book was set in the 1800s, and I guess that’s because I felt like I could identify with Turner.  We’ve all been the new guy at some point, and it’s easy to feel empathy for someone who’s picked on and left out.  Eventually, Turner makes friends with one particular little girl in town, whose name is Lizzie Bright.

Here’s where the problem lies:  Lizzie is black, and at this point in history, blacks are still treated like second-class citizens.  By befriending Lizzie, Turner quickly becomes an outcast himself.  During the course of the book, Turner gets caught up in the middle of the town’s plan to relocate the black families out of the area for a real estate development project.

I won’t spoil the ending here, but this one is definitely worth reading.  I like these “Man vs. Society” types of conflict, where it seems like the entire world is against one person.  Is there any way at all for the lone person to win this type of conflict?  How do you think that you would you behave if you found yourself in a situation where it seemed like everyone was against you?