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!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley

Alec Ramsay is a young boy returning from visiting his uncle in India.  While his steamship is stopped at an Arabian port, Alec witnesses the crew struggling to bring an untamed black horse aboard.  Days later, after a terrible storm at sea, the ship goes down with the only survivors being the horse and Alec!  Alec soon learns that his new horse is built for speed, but any dreams of the racetrack will have to wait until after they can be rescued!

I enjoyed this book because it’s a story that’s half adventure and half sports.  Also, even though the book was a contemporary novel when it was published in 1941, it reads more like a well-researched historical novel today.  When Alec eventually gets rescued by a passing freighter, his parents send him a telegram with instructions to book a ticket on the next ship bound for New York.  I thought that was hilarious, compared to the availability of instant messaging and jet travel that we take for granted nowadays!

Even though this book is nearly seventy years old, it’s still just as exciting to read today.  “The Black Stallion” is pure escapist fantasy about a boy and his horse, the two of them alone against the wild world.  Whenever you mix together ocean travel, deserted islands, wild animals and athletic championships, that recipe is sure to be a success with boys who love to read!       

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes

Billy Miller is nervous about going back to school.  After suffering a concussion over summer vacation, he’s worried that he may not be smart enough for the second grade!  On top of the stress that comes from meeting a new teacher, Billy’s struggling to get along with his little sister, his parents, and his friends.  It seems like there’s always something going on at the Miller household, and Billy’s usually right in the middle of the action!

One thing I liked about this chapter book was how the reader gets the chance to follow Billy through the entire school year.  It’s not a minute-by-minute, day-by-day account, but rather an in-depth look at some of the more memorable events as Billy sees them.  Mr. Henkes gives a lot of attention to the simple things, like Billy’s diorama project and his class’ poetry recital.  These might not be major societal issues that we’re talking about, but they’re certainly huge milestones for a second grade student!

This one is a little bit longer than the traditional chapter book, but it’s nicely broken down into shorter sections so that even the most methodical reader will be able to make steady progress.  Not only is this book a great story about a very cool kid, but it’s a strong choice to prepare young men for the longer novels that they’ll see in upper grades.  Keep a copy of this book on hand and I guarantee, it won’t be long until all the pages start looking dog-eared and worn!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Even though he’s a goofy-looking kid with a history of medical issues, socially awkward Arnold “Junior” Spirit still shows a lot of promise.  He’s one of the best students at his school on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and he’s also a talented cartoonist and basketball player.  As Junior starts to become aware of the dead-end lives that his fellow Indians are living “on the rez”, he comes to realize that in order to have a future he’s going to have to get out.  Enrolling in the “white school” across town is an extremely unpopular decision with his friends and neighbors, but it’s a choice he has to make.  It’s tough to imagine how Junior’s life could get any harder…until, of course, it does.

This is a raw, honest book that doesn’t pull any punches.  I appreciated the way that Mr. Alexie was very blunt in discussing Junior’s struggles, both as an adolescent and as a Native American growing up in poverty.  I don’t know very much about the culture of American Indians, so it was awesome to get a sneak peek inside a modern-day reservation.  Mr. Alexie was brutally honest in his portrayal of the Spokane Indian Reservation, including descriptions of alcoholism and domestic violence.  “The Rez” came across as a sad, desperate kind of place, and it’s easy to see why Junior would work so hard to get out.

This novel seemed like a short read, but that might just be because it’s such a page-turner.  The outstanding illustrations by Ellen Fortney were both hilarious and heartfelt as well.  It’s important to note that several school districts have banned this book because of some graphic content, but I didn’t feel like it was anything that would be unfamiliar to today’s teenagers.  What really bothered me was that the supposed “objectionable content” involved normal issues from Junior’s adolescence, and hardly anyone seemed to be bothered by the tragic circumstances of everyday life on the reservation!  This is just my personal opinion here, but maybe people who haven’t actually read this book are getting upset about the wrong things!  In any case, this was one of the best modern young adult novels that I’ve read since starting this project, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to any (older) boys!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Body Check, by Matt Christopher

Brent Mullen is a future hockey star!  At twelve years old, he’s already mastered the basics of ice hockey and he’s looking forward to competing at higher levels.  All of his plans change in an instant, however, when his team gains a new player whose father serves as an assistant coach.  Unlike Coach Maxwell, who emphasized fair play and sportsmanship, Coach Seabrook is all about doing what it takes to win.  When he begins teaching the boys that cheating is okay as long as you don’t get caught, Brent seriously considers leaving the team.  Will Brent be able to express his concerns before the illegal moves get one of the players hurt?

This was a very cool book, and it was one of Mr. Christopher’s that I hadn’t read before.  In fact, I just went to my library and grabbed one of his books off the shelf at random.  Matt Christopher was a perennial favorite when I was growing up, and I’m confident that he’s probably the best sportswriter for children, hands down.  If you’ve got a favorite sport, I’ll bet money that Mr. Christopher has written an awesome book about it.  All of his stories feature a solid plot set into a background of authentic sports action, which really helps to keep his storylines flying along!

As much as I enjoyed reading “Body Check”, I’d say that any of Mr. Christopher’s books would be a good choice for a young man who’s more interested in playing sports than reading books.  But don’t take my word for it, go ahead and try this experiment for yourself!  Introduce one of these sports books to the young athlete in your life, and I guarantee you’ll create a ravenous reader.  In fact, the new Matt Christopher fan might be in danger of missing practice because he wants to read “just one more page”!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Last Mission, by Harry Mazer

At fifteen years old, Jack Raab is still too young to join the military.  As the Second World War is winding down in Europe, Jack fears that all of the fighting will be over before he gets his chance to see action.  After some consideration, he uses a fake ID card to lie about his age and enlist in the Army Air Corps.  Jack makes it through training and becomes a gunner on a B-17 “Flying Fortress”.  After twenty-four bombing missions and countless close calls, Jack’s luck finally runs out!  When his plane is shot down by the Germans, he escapes by parachute and comes down behind enemy lines… alone, and afraid.

One thing I absolutely love about this book is the realism.  Mr. Mazer served in the Army Air Corps himself, so it’s no wonder that he got all the details correct.  From all the descriptions of the bomber in flight, including the snap of freezing cold air temperatures and the smell of the exploding shrapnel, you’ll probably feel like you’re strapped in alongside young Jack.  Also, I really appreciated how honest the book was when it discussed Jack’s feelings.  During training he thought he was invincible, and that no harm could possibly ever come to him.  Eventually, after seeing some of his friends injured in battle, Jack’s demeanor became deadly serious.

Just like in real life, this story doesn’t end once Jack’s tour is over.  I really enjoyed following Jack’s return home, and I could identify with the difficulties that he faced when he tried to return to his old high school.  “The Last Mission” offers an outstanding view on what war really is, as opposed to what young men sometimes think it is.  Even though this book contains some depictions of violence and foul language, I would recommend it without reservation, particularly to young men who might be considering a career in the armed services.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Freckle Juice, by Judy Blume

Second-grader Andrew Marcus wants freckles.  He’s desperate to look like his friend Nicky Lane, who has freckles all over his face, ears, and neck.  Andrew even tried counting Nicky’s freckles one time, but he only got as far as eighty-six before his teacher caught him and told him to pay attention.  He’s tried everything to get the look he desires, including drinking a magic potion of “freckle juice”!  When it turns out that even secret recipes don’t work, Andrew takes matters into his own hands and uses a magic marker to draw dozens of brown freckles on his face! 

This short chapter book is an easy-to-read classic for boys or girls.  It’s almost guaranteed that your library will have it, so be sure to ask for “Freckle Juice” by name.  I enjoyed Mrs. Blume’s message about how you have to accept the body you’re born with, even when you might feel that you’re not as attractive as some of your friends.  Most of us are aware of the pressures that young women feel when it comes to their body image, but it’s easy to forget that young men often feel the same way!

“Freckle Juice” is a fast read for younger kids.  I’d have no problem recommending it to any boy who’s capable of working his way through one of the “Junie B. Jones” books, but who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book about a GIRL!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst

Let’s face it, we’ve all had days where absolutely nothing is going right.  Alexander is having one of those days too.  From the moment he gets out of bed in the morning, it seems like the whole world is lined up against him.  His brothers get toys in their breakfast cereal but he doesn’t.  He has to sit in the middle seat during the carpool ride to school.  His friends all have better lunches than he does.  The day just keeps getting worse as it goes on, and eventually Alexander thinks that the best course of action might be for him to simply chuck it all and move to Australia!

I love this book because it’s so easy to sympathize with Alexander and the situations that he’s facing on this one particular day.  For example, anyone who has brothers or sisters knows how hard it can be to share a bathroom!  When you’re having a bad day, even something that’s normally fun, like going shopping for new sneakers, can quickly descend into arguments or even fistfights!  I imagine that Mrs. Viorst must be a mother or a teacher, because she certainly knows how young men can sometimes act out when things don’t go our way.  The book follows Alexander through every heartbreaking moment of his “bad day”, and the hilarious illustrations by Ray Cruz do an awesome job of making the reader feel sympathetic.  Some of the pictures might seem a little dated since this book is now over forty years old, but I think that even kids raised up with Playstations and iPhones will still be able to relate to them.

One of my favorite things about this book is the fact that it doesn’t condescend to the reader, even though it’s a picture book aimed at younger men.  Sometimes you’ll feel like things aren’t going your way, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do but keep trying.  The world doesn’t revolve around you, after all.  In the end, I actually appreciated the fact that no one rushes in to save Alexander from his bad day because, as his mother says, some days are like that.

Even in Australia.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Watership Down, by Richard Adams

This novel is an amazing epic of action and adventure…starring rabbits!  Fiver is the runt of his litter, but he possesses unique powers to see into the future.  When he has a vision that the Sandleford warren will soon be destroyed by a real estate development, he teams up with his brother Hazel to travel in search of a new home.  After a dangerous journey, the two form a new warren called Watership Down.  All seems well, at least until they cross paths with General Woundwort, the tyrant leader of a nearby warren called Efrafra!

I absolutely loved the chance to dive into the world of the rabbits.  Mr. Adams created an entire universe around his characters, including a rabbit language called Lapine.  Even though wading through all the songs and legends of the rabbits seemed a little tiresome at first, the huge amount of background material served to pull me out of my own two-legged life.  By the end of the book, I was completely immersed in the realm of the rabbits!  It was easy enough for me to accept the idea that these animals could talk amongst one another, form organized colonies with their own governments, and even wage war!

Even though the main characters in Watership Down are a bunch of cute (or sometimes not so cute!) rabbits, this book is really about the theme of a small group facing off against established forms of order.  There are always going to be risks involved when you buck the system and try something new.  Sometimes, if the stakes are high enough, you might even be putting your own life on the line!  Pick up a copy of Watership Down from your library and I can promise you, you’ll never look at pet shop rabbits the same way…  

Sunday, July 12, 2015

How to Eat Fried Worms, by Thomas Rockwell

Anyone who’s ever been “put on the spot” will be able to identify with Billy, a 10-year old whose plans to buy a motorbike are suddenly put on hold.  When his friends Alan and Joe dare him to eat a worm, Billy puts his entire savings on the line in an epic bet!  The challenge is for him to eat fifteen worms in fifteen days, with a whole fifty dollars riding on the result.  The story gets even crazier as the deadline approaches, with Billy’s family helping to come up with appetizing recipes…for earthworms!

I loved the way Mr. Rockwell’s writing shows the building tension as Billy’s deadline approaches.  Yes, there’s an awful lot of money on the line in this bet, but what’s really at stake is Billy’s pride.  If he backed out of the gross challenge then his friends probably wouldn’t have the same level of respect for him.  And you know, that’s one really interesting thing about male relationships that Mr. Rockwell completely nailed in this book:  although boys can often disagree with each other, sometimes even to the point of having shouting matches or fistfights, they still have the ability to remain friends!  Even if you’re completely grossed out by the thought of eating earthworms, this book is worth reading in order to study the curious ways that boys interact with their friends. 

We didn’t have the Internet when I was growing up, so back then there was no way for me to check if eating worms posed any kind of health risk.  I took a few minutes to do some research just now, and I learned that worms are, in fact, edible!  You’d want to avoid eating them raw, though, and you’d definitely have to clean the dirt off of them first.  Still, I’d advise against eating fresh worms unless you found yourself stranded on a desert island and starving!  In some countries like Thailand, however, you’d be able to find different varieties of worms prepared and served as appetizers.

What do you think about eating unusual foods like worms or insects?  Do you find the idea gross, or do you think that you might actually like to try them someday?  Do you enjoy trying new foods, or do you prefer to stick to your favorites?

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?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is a fantasy novel about the four Pevensie children:  Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.  The children are sent to live in the countryside to escape the aerial bombings of London during World War II, and they end up staying at a professor’s huge, mysterious home.  During a game of hide-and-seek, Lucy runs away to a beautiful old wooden wardrobe…which just happens to contain a secret entrance to a magical world called Narnia!  The other children soon come with her, and they discover that the evil White Witch has cast a spell which made it winter in Narnia forever.

The Pevensie children are befriended by a series of talking animals, and they quickly begin plotting to overthrow the White Witch and her army of monsters!  With the help of a lion named Aslan, the children put their bravery to the test in a struggle to save the world of Narnia.  Let me warn you now, though, if you start in on this book then I guarantee you’ll end up reading all six of the other books in the Narnia series.  The books are all interconnected, and I love the way that all of them follow the Pevensie children as they grow up in both the world of Narnia and back home in England. 

I’ve read this book several times throughout my life, and as I got older I learned that C.S. Lewis was actually using these stories to pass along different ideas from his Christian faith.  How cool is that, having a hidden message within the books!  Also, I heard that Mr. Lewis was inspired to write about the winter forest setting when he was a professor at Magdalen College.  He would spend his afternoons staring out the window of his office and watching the snow collect around a solitary lamppost, which he later used as the first major landmark the children see upon entering the world of Narnia! 

Take a moment to look around your own neighborhood.  Are there any particular objects near your home or school that you’re particularly attached to?  Do you think it’d be possible to build a story, or maybe even an entire world, around them?  

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Then Again, Maybe I Won't, by Judy Blume

Tony Miglione lives in Newark City, New Jersey, where he has a happy home life and a group of good friends.  Everything is about to change for him, though, when one of his father’s inventions becomes wildly successful.  The family becomes rich overnight, and suddenly moves to upper-class Rosemont, New York!  Tony is forced to adjust to a new school, new friends, and a new life, and he ends up suffering from massive stomach cramps as a result of the stress. 

One thing you should know about this book is that it deals with quite a few mature topics such as puberty, mental illness, and alcohol abuse.  This book would be classified as “young adult” today, and aimed mainly towards teenage readers.  Judy Blume is well-known for her straightforward writing on tough subjects, so prepare yourself in advance.  If you don’t feel like you’d be comfortable reading about these topics just yet, it’s perfectly okay to choose another book.  A classic like “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t” isn’t going anywhere, and it’ll still be around for you to enjoy a couple of years from now.

The book seems to be all about change, whether it’s with Tony’s body, his friends, or his family.  The stress that comes with becoming an uncle, for example, or moving to a new town, causes Tony to physically suffer until he learns how to express his feelings and ask for help.  The story carries an important lesson with it since our lives, like Tony’s, will be constantly changing.  Much of what goes on might be out of our control, but what we can control is how we choose to cope with these changes.  “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t” is a must read for all young men….when you’re ready for it!   

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

This is the story of Nobody Owens, a baby who becomes an orphan when his family is murdered by a secret society of evildoers.  “Bod” narrowly escapes the attack by hiding in a nearby graveyard, where thousands of ghosts extend their protection to him.  Seeing that he has no one else to support him, the ghosts decide to shelter and care for Bod themselves.  He grows up to become a mostly normal boy…one who just happens to live in a graveyard, surrounded by restless spirits and hunted by ruthless evildoers!

I’ll be honest, the unique setting is what drew me into this awesome book.  Everyone grows up thinking that their home life is normal, but I had never even imagined what it must be like to live in a graveyard!  At first glance, the plot reminded me a little of “Harry Potter”--- an orphaned boy is hunted by evildoers and things kind of go on from there.  I couldn’t have been more wrong, though, and let that be a lesson to me not a judge any book by its (back) cover!  I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the great thing about books is that you can take a single basic idea and then run with it in any direction.  If you gave the same idea to a hundred different authors, you’d probably come up with a hundred stories that were completely different.

Can you think of any particular places that you find interesting, even if they’re not necessarily one of your favorite spots?  Maybe a shopping mall, a train station, or even one of your classrooms at school?  Which of these places could be turned into a fascinating setting for one of your own stories?  

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Hard Gold, by AVI

Early Whitcomb comes from the state of Iowa, where he’s never traveled very far from his family’s farm.  That all changes during the droughts of 1859, when his father falls behind on the mortgage and the local bank threatens to foreclose on their land.  Left with no other choice, Early heads out west to track down his cousin Jesse, who had set off to Colorado in search of gold.  Along the way he discovers that Jesse is actually wanted for robbery, and that law and order have a completely different look in the Wild West!

Although Early’s story only concerns his family and friends, it takes place at a very busy time in our country’s history.  John Brown’s raid on the town of Harper’s Ferry served to spark a heated discussion about slavery, and southern states were seriously considering secession.  I thought that the author did an awesome job of painting these historical events into the background, while still keeping the focus on Early.  I also appreciated all the details that were included in this adventure.  It’s one thing to know that covered wagons traveled for months at a time, but when you start to think about what these settlers ate and where they slept, you almost start to feel as if you’re right there alongside them!

I love reading about this period in American history since it seems like adventure was around every corner, for better or for worse!  It still amazes me to think of how settlers could take such a huge risk in search of a better life with absolutely no guarantee of success.  If you had everything you own piled into a covered wagon and were traveling to someplace new, do you think that you might be just a little worried about what lay ahead?  What might you do if things didn’t work out? 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Last Newspaper Boy in America, by Sue Corbett

On his twelfth birthday, Wil David is anxious to take over his new paper route.  The route has been handed down through his family for generations, and he’s spent years training for this moment.  What should be a moment of glory is ruined, however, when his paper announces that they plan to stop home delivery to Wil’s town!  Will’s letter to the editor goes unanswered, at least until he starts spreading the bad news to his subscribers.  Their reaction shows him just how much the town depends on their newspaper…and on him.

One thing I noticed is that at the beginning of this book, Wil didn’t really seem to know his neighbors.  He knew their names, addresses, and how they liked to get their papers, but he didn’t really interact with them.  As his campaign to keep home delivery went forward, though, his meetings with his neighbors became more frequent when he got to know them personally.  I don’t want to ruin the awesome ending, but I will drop a hint about how Wil’s neighbors come to his aid.  One lesson to take away from this book is that an organized group of people will always accomplish much more than just one person can.

“The Last Newspaper Boy in America” is actually more about community organizing than it is about a newspaper route.  Still, I felt that it was an awesome book, and one with a good message.  But that leads me to ask if you’ve ever felt that something happening to you was unfair?  What was it, and what did you do about it?  Do you think that writing a complaint letter could have made a difference?

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!