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”!