Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I'm still here!

No one needs to search for me, I'm just enjoying a little downtime after this latest semester has come to a close. I'll be back after Christmas!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (illus. by Dave McKean) (HarperCollins, 2008)

Recommended for ages 12+

Created from an idea author Neil Gaiman had in 1985 that would create a "Jungle Book in a graveyard", The Graveyard Book tells the story of Nobody "Bod" Owens, orphaned as a toddler and raised by the ghosts of a graveyard he wanders into after his family is murdered. His guardian, Silas, is neither dead nor alive and can navigate both worlds in order to assure Nobody's needs are taken care of.

The problem is, Jack - the man who murdered Nobody's family - is still at large, and he's still looking for Bod to finish his business. He's working for a secret society who has ordered the boy's death, but as long as Bod stays within the confines of the graveyard, he is safe. As he gets older, though, Nobody wants to venture outside and see more of the world and have human friends.

Like Coraline and Gaiman's other work for younger readers, The Graveyard Book is a dark fantasy, yet he manages to make the fact that a boy is raised by ghosts and the undead charming. Nobody is a sweet boy who grows up loved for and cared for by the spirits of the graveyard in which he lives, and the supernatural beings - Silas and Bod's tutor, Miss Lupescu - who are charged with his care. Mr. Gaiman's descriptions again let the reader's imagination run wild, with funny and wry descriptions of everyone from the inhabitants of the graveyard to the sinister murderer, Jack Frost.

The Graveyard Book received the 2009 Newbery Medal, Hugo Award for Best Novel, and Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book; it also won the 2010 Carnegie Medal.

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman (illus. by Dave McKean) (HarperCollins, 2002)

Recommended for ages 10+

Coraline is a dark fantasy created by author Neil Gaiman. It was adapated into a graphic novel (2009) and an animated feature (2009).

Coraline is a young girl who moves into a new home with her parents and feels out of place. Her parents don't seem to have too much time for her, so she goes exploring and meets some of her odd new neighbors and the neighborhood cat. One night, she discovers a hidden doorway that leads to a parallel world; it's here that she meets her "Other Mother", who seems to have all of the time in the world for Coraline and always makes delicious meals. She desperately wants Coraline to stay, but there's something... strange... about the Other Mother. As Coraline visits more often, she discovers that the Other Mother is not at all what she seems, and she'll need the help of the neighborhood cat - who isn't exactly what he seems, either - to save herself and her family.
Neil Gaiman has been writing dark fantasy since the 1989, when he revived the DC Comics title The Sandman. He brings his creepy fantasy worlds to children as easily as he does to his older audience, and often makes some of his most unsettling characters adorable. His main characters often go against the grain, and Coraline is no exception - she is an independent, stubborn, curious girl who loves a good adventure; she's also a smart heroine who can work her way out of a tight situation.

Mr. Gaiman creates memorable images with his words - visions of The Other Mother will stick with kids and adults alike and Coraline's odd neighbors come with their own strange charm that smoothly made the transition from print to screen. His descriptions allow the reader's imagination to run wild without ever worrying about going over the top - because there simply is no limit.

Coraline has won numerous awards, including the 2003 Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella and the 2002 Bram Stoker Award for Best Work for Young Readers. Neil Gaiman's Mouse Circus website - a Coraline reference - is geared toward his younger readers and offers information about the author, downloadable computer wallpaper, and video interviews and book trailers.

Friday, December 09, 2011

DVD Review: Hellboy: Blood and Iron (Starz Home Entertainment, 2007)

Recommended for ages 12+

For those unfamiliar with the Hellboy comic book and movie series, let me provide a very quick overview: Hellboy is a demon from Hell, brought to earth by Nazi occultists during World War II. He was saved by the Allies and raised as a son by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, and later went to work for the secret international Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD), founded by Professor Bruttenholm. His two closest friends and partners are Liz Sherman, a human who can create fire with her mind, and Abe Sapien, an amphibious humanoid.

In Blood and Iron, the BPRD is asked to investigate a haunted mansion purchased by a billionaire who wants to make money from it as a tourist attraction. They learn that the mansion is haunted by ghosts, witches, werewolves and hellhounds and that the evil undead Hungarian countess and vampire Erzsebet Ondrushko, who Professor Bruttenholm has tangled with before, is back to cause more trouble. Ondrushko appears to be based on the real-life historical figure Elizabeth Bathory, and Greek mythological figures Hecate, goddess of the crossroads and witchcraft, and harpies are also thrown into the mix.

Mike Mignola, Hellboy creator, was one of the screenwriters on Blood and Iron and the cast who plays the characters in the movie voice their characters in this animated film. Fans of the comics and the movies will be happy here; there is plenty of paranormal activity, snappy dialogue and character interaction, and wild fight scenes and gunplay. While some of the imagery may be rough for younger viewers - there's not direct graphic violence, but there is blood and some implied torture - older 'tweens and teens have played more violent video games. Parents, watch it first, then use your judgement.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Book Review: The Giver, by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin, 1993)

Recommended for ages 11-14

In the dystopian future, there is no more war, disease, or poverty. There are no choices, either - in 12-year old Jonas's community, spouses are assigned to one another, children are assigned to families, and children's milestones are pre-selected and celebrated once a year. At age seven, they receive jackets that button in the front. At the age of nine, they receive bicycles. At the age of 12, they attend the Ceremony of Twelve, where they are assigned their careers. Jonas, who has been experiencing feelings that has made him feel different from his peers, is assigned to be the Receiver of Memory - the sole repository for the collective memories of the community. He begins to work with the outgoing Receiver, now called The Giver, to receive the memories and learns disturbing truths through both the memories and the truths he begins to see in his daily life in the village.

The Giver is one of those books that sticks with you, changing the way you think about things. What price is a group willing to pay to live in a perfect, ordered society? Jonas, in receiving memories, plays the part of Adam in the Garden of Eden - he receives knowledge, and with knowledge comes confusion. Is his community right because they don't know better? He begins to question everything around him and everything he's ever known; when he sees his father commit an act in the course of his daily work that he finds unspeakable, the last vestiges of what he believes in are thrown into chaos.

The Giver is one of the most challenged books books in middle schools across America, usually for its portrayal of euthanasia (but also for what has been considered a sexual reference). Regardless of its challenges, it remains a popular and important middle-school book that speaks to the power of free will and choice. There are many lesson plans for this book on the Web, including this comprehensive one from the Mountain City Elementary School District in Tennessee. The book won the 1994 Newbery Medal and the 1996 William Allen White Children's Book Award and has been designated an American Library Association (ALA) Best Book for Young Adults and an ALA Notable Children's Book. The Giver is the first in a 3-book series that includes Gathering Blue and Messenger.

Lois Lowry is an award-winning YA author; she has received numerous awards, including two Newbery medals (for The Giver and Number the Stars). Her website lists all of the awards she's won in addition to offering book information, a biography, her blog, her photos, and copies of her speeches. 

Book Review: The Magnificent 12: The Call, by Michael Grant (Katherine Tegen Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Mack MacAvoy is a medium kid - medium in height and build, medium in looks, medium in grades - he's so ordinary that his own parents don't really notice him most of the time. That all changes when Grimluk, an ancient man dressed in an old black robe, appears in his school hallway and announces that he is one of the Magnifica, a group of 12 children who will have to save the world from the ancient evil of the Pale Queen. In no time at all, Mack and his bully protector Stefan are swept off to locate the other 11 Magnifica, but it won't be easy - the Pale Queen's daughter, Eriskigal, and the monsters at her command, will stop at nothing to destroy them before they even begin.

The Magnificent 12 is a fun adventure series with good character development and interaction; the story moves at a pace that will keep readers' interest. The chapters alternate between Grimluk's story, providing an establishing backstory, and Mack's story, laying the groundwork for the future books in the series. There are villains, monsters, and prophecies galore and with both male and female characters, boys and girls alike should find this a good read. International locales lend a James Bond-type feel to the adventure.

The series website offers the chance for visitors to create their own avatars, play games, and enter a sweepstakes to win a copy of the latest book in the series, The Trap. An online map also acts as Mack's travel journal where readers can learn facts about the different countries where Mack's adventures take place. Educators can find essay questions, discussion questions, and lesson starters on the "Educators" section of the site. The author's website offers a biography, FAQ, information about his books, and contact information. 

Book Review: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger (Amulet, 2010)

Recommended for ages 9-12

What would you do if the school oddball showed up with an Origami Yoda on his finger and started dispensing advice one day? What would you do if his advice actually made sense and worked? That's the dilemma facing McQuarrie Middle School sixth grader Tommy Lomax as he creates the case file known as The Strange Case of Origami Yoda.

At first, Tommy and his friends think Origami Yoda is just another one of Dwight's odd quirks, but as Origami Yoda's advice continues to produce positive results and even borders on predicting the future, Tommy and his friends end up seeking Dwight and Origami Yoda out. Tommy has a particular reason for wanting advice and struggles between believing in Origami Yoda's connection to The Force and the fear of falling victim to a hoax. He compiles a series of case studies from classmates' experiences with Yoda to review and make a decision; his friend Kellen adds illustratrations and his frenemy Harvey adds his own commentary. Harvey does not believe in Yoda and thinks everyone's crazy for buying into the whole scheme.

The book is hilarious. It's a fun read, written from the point of view of Tommy and his friends, with different handwriting and computer fonts and line drawings to give the reader a feeling of reading a middle schooler's notebook. The banter between characters, carried out on paper, is fun and realistic - there's sarcasm and anxiety aplenty to go with the light humorous pace. The book is a great, quick read for boys and girls alike looking for a funny book.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is the first in a planned trilogy of books by Tom Angleberger. Its sequel, Darth Paper Strikes Back, was released this past summer. The book has won several awards including the Cybil Award for best middle-grade fiction, The Dorothy Canfield-Fisher Award for 2011/2012, and the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award for Middle Grade Fiction.

The author maintains an Origami Yoda/Darth Paper blog that offers tips on folding one's own Yoda or Darth Paper, along with a "Super Folders Forum" for users to communicate. He also shares a blog with fellow author Sam T. Riddleburger, Berger & Burger.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Book Review: Goosebumps: The Beast from the East, by R.L. Stine (Scholastic, 1996)

Recommended for ages 9-12

R.L. Stine is the Stephen King of kid's horror. His Goosebumps series has been scaring the daylights out of kids for almost 20 years now, and he has branched out into other Goosebumps series (Horror Land, Hall of Horrors) and a television series based on the novels.

The Beast from the East is like reading a demented version of the old nursery song, Teddy Bear's Picnic (also referenced in the story). Twelve year-old Ginger, her ten year-old twin brothers Nat and Pat, and their parents go on a camping trip one summer. While their father sets up the campsite, Ginger and her brothers go exploring and end up getting lost in the woods, where they come upon a group of big, blue, furry bearlike beasts that want to play a game where the winners get to live, but the losers get eaten. There are a lot of rules - can they figure them all out and get back to their parents, or will they end up as dinner?

Stine's stories are short, creepy fun, and end with a macabre twist every time. There isn't a lot of character development here, but there doesn't need to be - you learn what you need to know to get through the story, because it's really the situation that makes the book. Stine is great at describing panic and fear, giving readers the good scare they want in the safety of their own space. The twist is one last parting shot to keep you thinking after the book's end, or until you pick up the next book.

Several books from the series have won Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards and is one of the best-selling children's series of all time. Scholastic has an official Goosebumps site.

Book Review: The Summer of Moonlight Secrets, by Danette Haworth (Walker Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Eleven year-old Allie Jo lives with her mother and father at The Meriwether, a Florida hotel that they help manage. She doesn't have many friends, and the mean girls at school call her a "hotel rat". The summer of 1987 changes things for Allie Jo, though - she meets Chase, a fourteen year-old guest traveling with his journalist dad and who's working through some issues of his own, and they both meet Tara, a mysterious girl who appears one day and says she's run away. As Allie Jo and Chase learn more about Tara, they're split as to what they believe - is she a troubled teen, or is her fantastic story true?

A fantasy substory taking place within a realistic fiction plot, The Summer of Moonlight Secrets is great fun with a few big issues going on - there is some minor bullying, the issue of an absentee mom, and a runaway whose stories all intertwine here. Ms. Haworth's story is evenly paced with well-developed characters. Chapters are narrated in each of the three main characters' voices, so the reader truly gets a glimpse into each character's mind and point of view in addition to how each perceives the others. The big reveal is also a pleasant surprise, as Ms. Haworth almost leads to reader to one conclusion to reveal another, more interesting one. Overall, an enjoyable read about friendship that will make readers feel good when they're done - and leave them with some interesting things to consider.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Book Review Thor's Wedding Day, by Bruce Coville (Harcourt, 2005)

Recommended for ages 8-12

Based on the humorous Norse tale about the theft of Thor's hammer, Bruce Coville fleshes the story out with other pieces of Norse mythology to give readers this amusing story of cross-dressing gods, talking goats, and dopey giants.

Told by Thor's goat boy Thialfi, Thor's Wedding Day begins with Thor discovering his mighty hammer, Mjolnir, missing. His trickster brother Loki discovers that their enemies, the giants, have somehow gotten hold of the hammer and refuse to give it back unless their sister, Freya, marries Thrym, king of the giants and Thor's enemy. Freya refuses, and Loki concocts a scheme to dress Thor up as Freya and get his hammer back. Loki agrees to accompany Thor as a bridesmaid and Thialfi must dress up to be Thor's goat girl. While in the company of the giants, Thialfi discovers that their plan goes far deeper than just handing Mjolnir back to "Freya" after the wedding, and he finds himself in the position of saving Asgard.

Bruce Coville can tell a funny story, and Thor's Wedding Day is no exception. He stays true to the tale that inspired him and to make it accessible to new, younger audiences. It's downright silly in some parts with a touch of adventure and intrigue - a good combination to keep more reluctant readers interested.

Bruce Coville's website offers information about this and other Coville titles. For readers interested in learning more about Norse mythology, there are a variety of resources available on the Web.

Book Review Capt. Hook, by J.V. Hart (illus. by Brett Helquist) (HarperCollins, 2005)

Recommended for ages 12+

Did you ever wonder what Captain Hook was like as a teenager, before he became Peter Pan’s nemesis? If so, this may be the book for you. Hook Screenwriter J.V. Hart adds to the Peter Pan mythology by giving readers the story of 15-year old James “Jas” Matthews’ eventful stint at the prestigious Eton College.

The bastard of a British lord and an unidentified mother and raised by a Shakespearean actress, James arrives at Eton with the odds against him. Colleger Arthur Darling targets him for bullying, but James is no shrinking violet. He defiantly pushes back against the bullies and in doing so empowers the other young Oppidans. He befriends fellow student “Jolly” Roger Davies and rises to the top of his class, aggravating Darling all the way. Dreaming of a place where he can be free that he calls “Neverland”, he plots the creation of his future. He also adopts a poisonous spider he names Electra, captures the heart of a Sultana and challenges Darling to a duel. Escaping Eton, James destroys all records of his existence in a fire; his father answers this by sending him out to sea – and that’s where the adventures really begin.

Hart was inspired to write this story based on Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie’s Eton speech, “Hook at Eton” and sprinkles homages to Barrie and Peter Pan throughout the book. A Series of Unfortunate Events illustrator Brett Helquist’s artwork is on display here at the chapter heads and some illustrations throughout the book.

My main problem with Capt. Hook is this – there is a lot of story to be contained in these pages and I found the pacing off at some points, the storytelling lags and at others, speeds by. On two occasions, Hart begins wrapping up the story rather than just that portion of the story, which threw me off as a reader. Jas himself is a well-drawn character and it was interesting to see him drawn as an antihero; I would be interested in seeing what led him to make the jump from the noncomformist antihero to the villain he ultimately becomes.

This book was suggested for ages 10 and up, but the violence, language and overall density of the material suggests a more mature reader – 12 and up – should pick this up and be his or her own judge.

Chasing Lincoln's Killer, by James L. Swanson (Scholastic Press, 2008)

Recommended for ages 12+

Chasing Lincoln's Killer is the story of the plot to kill President Abraham Lincoln, the assassination and ensuing manhunt for John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators. Author James L. Swanson based this YA version on his previous book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer (William Morrrow, 2006).

A lifelong Lincoln aficionado who shares the 16th President's birthday, the author wanted to bring his story to a younger audience. He never dumbs down the narrative to reach this audience; rather, he makes it more accessible by featuring over 70 photos of artifacts, newspapers and photos taken from various archives; he summarizes trial manuscripts and interviews, and moves the events along at a pace that younger, less patient readers will enjoy and stick with.

Scholastic's website offers free teaching resources to use with the book including an audio book excerpt, video interview with the author, and printable Wanted! poster for Booth.

Manhunt received an Edgar Award for the best true crime book of the year in 2007; Chasing Lincoln's Killer has received recognition as a Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) Best Book for Young Adults. Mr. Swanson holds a seat on the advisory council of the Ford's Theatre Society. He has collected books and artifacts on President Lincoln since he was 10 years old and has written a photographic history, Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution.

Book Review: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008)

Recommended for ages 12+

Welcome to Panem, the post-apocalyptic United States of America, divided into the Capitol and 12 districts. Every year, two "tributes" between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected from each district to take part in a brutal contest called The Hunger Games, where they fight to the death. There is only one winner. Sixteen-year old Katniss volunteers to her district's tribute after her 12-year old sister's name is drawn.

The Hunger Games is the brutal version of a reality game show - think of Stephen King's (written as Richard Bachman) novel, The Running Man and you'll have a good frame of reference. The tributes are given mentors - former winners, condemned to preparing future tributes for the games - and stylists to make them look good. The contestants have to project personality in the week of interviews and preparation so that they have a chance at receiving help from sponsors, who can send food, medicine, and supplies to their contestants during the games. The games are televised for all the districts to watch. Katniss struggles to keep her humanity in the midst of the game and rails against being the Capitol's pawn.

The book moves at a breathtaking pace with an intensity that starts mere pages in and doesn't let up until the book's end. The main characters have a good base for character development that will likely continue in the two following books in the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay; the others are as developed as they need to be in order to further the story and keep the pace. Ms. Collins makes her point about valuing bloodsport over humanity as eloquently as she is brutal in several key scenes in the book. With a strong mix of violence and compassion, boys and girls have both seized on this series and catapulted it to the top of their reading lists. Katniss emerges as a heroine not only for her strength but her ability to retain her sense of self in the middle of the games. She is a complex, conflicted heroine who resonates with 'tweens and teens alike.

The Hunger Games has won multiple awards and honors. It is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal besteller, and was one of Kirkus and School Library Journal's Best Books of 2008. It is an Americna Library Association (ALA) Notable Children's Book and one of the Young Adult Library Services Association's (YALSA) Teens Top Ten for 2009. Lionsgate Studios will release a movie based on the book in March of 2012.

A comprehensive wiki exists for the series and the author's website offers author and book information. There are many teacher's resources for teaching the series available on the Web, including Scholastic's and Hunger Games Lessons.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Book Review: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book One: The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan (Miramax, 2005)

Recommended for ages 10-13

The first book in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series, The Lightning Thief introduces readers to Percy Jackson, demigod son of Poseidon, and his friends at Camp Half-Blood.

Percy, a sixth grader who's been kicked out of several schools, suffers from dyslexia and ADHD; he's never met his real father; and his mother, whom he adores, is married to a jerk who verbally abuses Percy and his mother. When monsters start coming after Percy and he discovers that his best friend isn't exactly what he seems, his mother helps him escape to Camp Half-Blood in Long Island, where he finds out the missing information about his past and a great deal more. The Greek gods exist, and they have a lot of children populating the earth; Camp Half-Blood is a safe haven for them. Because he is the son Poseidon, of one of the "Big Three" - Zeus, Poseidon and Hades - he is hunted even more than the children of the other gods and goddess. He also learns that someone has stolen Zeus' master lightning bolt and Zeus think it's him.

Charged with finding the bolt and returning it to Mount Olympus in just 10 days, Percy heads out on his quest with his best friend, the faun Grover and Annabeth, daughter of Athena. Getting the lightning bolt back is just part of the puzzle: Percy must also learn who was really behind the theft, and in doing so, will uncover a plot to bring down Mount Olympus.

The Percy Jackson series was hugely popular with middle grade readers with good reason: it's a well-written, exciting series with plenty of monsters, mythology and quests to keep boys and girls alike turning pages. There are well-fleshed, strong male and female characters alike throughout the series and familiar monsters like Medusa and the minotaur make appearances throughout. Bringing mythology to life is a great way to make these stories accessible to a new generation, and giving these demigods learning disabilities like ADHD and dyslexia makes them relatable to a wider audience of readers who may be coping with these issues and rarely get to read about characters who also deal with them.

The Lightning Thief is the first of five books in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series. Riordan's newest series, The Heroes of Olympus, follows new heroes from Camp Half-Blood but has references to the original Percy Jackson characters.

The Lightning Thief received several honors, including designations as a New York Times Notable Book of 2005, School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, and VOYA Top Shelf Fiction List for 2005. It was made into a movie in 2010. The author's website offers information about all of his books, a link to his blog, and extras including a map of the Underworld and a Greek mythology guide. A Camp Half-Blood wikia offers exhaustive information created by Mr. Riordan's fan community on all of his books, his characters, and the mythology that breathes life into his series. 

Book Review: My Brother Sam is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier & Christopher Collier (Scholastic, 1974)

Recommended for ages 12+

My Brother Sam is Dead is a look at the Revolutionary War that readers don't normally get: like the Civil War, this war divided families. We also see a side of the American soldiers that we don't usually hear about in History class - "our" soldiers weren't always acting like the good guys, especially to their own countrymen if they weren't supporters of the cause.

We hear about the Tories and they are demonized. We laugh at stories of them being tarred and feathered, but what My Brother Sam brings home is that Tories were the same Americans that the Revolutionaries were, but they just believed in a different ideal. To the Tories, there was no reason to split with Mother England, who provided for them and protected them. Taxes were a fact of life. Quartering soldiers was a fact of life. To rebel was treason and it was just wrong. When looking at the acts of the Revolutionaries - stealing from, kidnapping and murdering fellow Americans who were Tories - it is difficult to say anyone involved was 100 percent right or wrong. We learn that the Revolution was a black and white issue; My Brother Sam goes beyond that thinking and shows readers that the War was made up of many, many shades of grey.

Tim Meeker is the son of a Connecticut tavern owner whose older brother, Sam, joins the Revolutionary Army under Benedict Arnold while away at college. The relationship between Sam and their father appears to have been conflicted to begin with, as both are stubborn men with strong opinions, and this act leads to a schism within the family that leaves Tim wondering who's right and who's wrong Torn between his love for his brother and his love and loyalty to his family, he finds himself stuck in the middle of a far larger conflict when he's asked to keep secrets about Sam and when his battalion is in the area. Tim sees firsthand the brutality of the American soldiers to his Tory neighbors and he sees the cruelty of the British soldiers. Is there a right or wrong?

My Brother Sam is Dead won the 1975 Newbery Honor and was nominated for a National Book Award that same year. It has also been designated as an ALA Notable Children's book and was the twelfth most frequently challenged book from 1990-2000 (ALA).

The History of Redding website has extensive information about the novel; Redding, Connecticut is the setting for the story. A 2005 Scholastic edition of the book has an AfterWords bonus feature which includes an interview with the authors, where they compare their story to fellow Newbery winner and Revolutionary War story Johnny Tremain, and discuss parallels between their work, written after the VietNam conflict, and Johnny Tremain, written after World War II.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Book Review: Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, by Adrienne Kress (Miramax, 2007)

Recommended for ages 10-13

Alex Morningside is a 10 1/2 year old girl who's often mistaken for a boy; she wears her hair short and is something of a tomboy. Orphaned at a  young age, she lives with her uncle in their home above his doorknob shop. When Mr. Underwood, a new teacher, shows up in her sixth grade classroom at the prestigious Wigpowder-Steele Academy, Alex finds herself finally liking school. Mr. Underwood has a good sense of humor and is fun to talk with.

Mr. Underwood also has a family secret - he's the descendant of a famous pirate family. When he's kidnapped by a rival pirate family over a long-secret buried treasure, Alex is the only one who can help him. She goes on a journey that will take her through strange places, where she meets equally strange people and one Extremely Ginormous Octopus.

The book is a fun adventure for young 'tweens, with enough interesting characters and plot twists to keep a reader's interest. The only problem for me is in the occasional plodding of the storyline, which bogs down the story and may bore less patient or committed readers. The main characters - Alex and Mr. Underwood, to a degree - are fairly well-developed, and the supporting players don't really need to be: they aren't part of the story for long enough to necessitate it.

The book has won several awards in the UK and Canada, including the Heart of Hawick Children's Book Award in 2009. It was shortlisted for the Red Cedar Award in 2009/2010.

The author's website offers the usual biography, FAQ, book and appearance information. Extras include Alex and the Ironic Gentleman desktop wallpaper.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

TV Show Review: Good Luck Charlie (Disney Channel, 2011-Present)

Good Luck Charlie is a Disney Channel show that follows the Duncan family, a family of six. The title refers to the youngest, Charlie (Charlene), and the videos that her family makes for her as sort of a guide to growing up. Every video ends with her oldest sister (and star of the show) Teddy, played by Disney Channel favorite Bridgit Mendler, wishing Charlie "good luck" as she navigates her wacky family.

The show sticks to the Disney formula of having present, loving parents who tend to need more supervision than the children. While lacking much of the smart-alecky backtalk that some of the Nick shows have drawn fire for, the Duncan children, particularly the middle schooler Gabe, have no problem talking to their parents as their peers. Mom Amy may be a nurse, assuming a degree of intelligence, but she craves attention like a child; Dad Bob has his own bug-extermination business but seems to be lucky he can function on his own, as he comes across dim-witted beyond belief.

Each Duncan child is a stereotype as well: PJ, the oldest son, takes after his father in being slow-witted and often lazy; high-schooler Teddy is the straight-A, neurotic overachiever; middle-schooler Gabe is the caustic, scheming pre-teen, and toddler Charlie steals the show with a cute word or stare.

The formulaic characters provide a comfortable familiarity to the 'tweens who watch the show - they know what to expect, they know that they'll get a laugh, and they know everything is neatly resolved by the end of the episode. The parents manage to be loving and supportive and offer disciplinary action when warranted; for instance, when Teddy is caught in a lie, she is grounded; when Teddy goes through a bad breakup with her boyfriend, her mother is there to hold her and tell her it will be okay. The kids come together and care for one another and their parents and have friends who they surround themselves with. They are good kids, a good family, with their quirks - kind of like most families.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Book Review: Magical Mischief, by Anna Dale (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10-13

Magic has taken up residence in Mr. Hardbattle's bookshop, and it's causing him to lose business. He hasn't got the heart to evict the magic, so he decides, with some help from his young friend Arthur and the overbearing Miss Quint, to find a nice home for the magic. While Mr. Hardbattle is away seeking out locations, though, Miss Quint gets herself into some magical trouble when she wishes for people to talk to - and they show up, pulled straight from the books! Now Miss Quint and Arthur are left with a huge mess to clean up, and when Mr. Hardbattle returns, things have gone out of control. With the magic out of control, the threesome have to figure out how to make things right without getting the authorities involved.

Magical Mischief is a fun middle grade read for boys and girls alike. The bookshop setting provides a comfortable, homey setting and invests the reader in the location as much as the characters. The narrative tends to ramble along at points, particularly when it comes to Miss Quint's bumbling which comes off more often as irritating than endearing. The ending neatly ties up loose ends and provides an overall satisfying read that fantasy fans in particular will enjoy.

Anna Dale is a popular middle-grade fantasy author in the UK and US. Her website offers links to her books, author info, and news. There are several "magical mischief" websites on the Web, but none relate to this book; Bloomsbury's book detail page for Magical Mischief offers book reviews and links to other books by Ms. Dale.

Book Review: The Mapmaker and The Ghost, by Sarvenaz Tash (Walker Books for Young Readers, 2012)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Goldenrod Moram wants to be an explorer and mapmaker like her hero, Meriweather Lewis (of Lewis & Clark fame). When she decides to spend her summer making a map of the forest behind her home, she stumbles into an adventure that has been over a hundred years in the making. Before her summer vacation is over, she will find herself in trouble with a local group of troublemakers, The Gross-Out Gang, and she will meet a strange old lady with an interesting family connection. She will also meet her idol face to ghostly face!

The Mapmaker and the Ghost gives readers a new heroine in Goldenrod Moram. She's smart and gutsy, like many 'tweenage characters these days, but she is not on the hunt for treasure - she just wants to make maps like her idol, Meriweather Lewis. And how often do you hear Lewis and Clark coming up as a literary and historical idol? Readers get a look at an important figure in American history and learn a little more about who he is.

Some of the characters are predictable. The Gross-Out Gang, for instance, is made up of kids who come from a multitude of mixed backgrounds: the rich parents who have no time for their children; the divorced father in a deep depression who cannot focus on his daughter; and the kid who's been bounced around from foster home to foster home are all here. The ending is predictably light, but it gives the reader hope that every situation, when you use your brains and bring understanding and honesty to the situation, can work out for the best.

This is Ms. Tash's first book. Her website offers information about the book and a link to her blog. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Book Review: Bindi Babes, by Narinder Dhami (Delacorte, 2004)

Recommended for ages 8-12

The Dhillon sisters - Amber, Jazz, and Geena - are perfect. They are  perfect students, perfectly dressed, and perfectly popular. Their teachers always look to them for help with their classmates and for the right answers, and the girls never disappoint. The girls keep their act airtight so no one will sense the pain they are in from losing their mother the year before. The sisters will not even talk about her at home for fear of letting loose all the emotions they have bottled up.

Escaping his grief through work, their father is rarely home and when he is, rarely speaks to them other than to indulge them in nearly everything they ask. When he announces that their Auntie is coming from India to live with them and take care of the girls, they are furious - they certainly do not need anyone to babysit them! When Auntie arrives and starts interfering in their lives - especially when their father starts saying no to new clothes, sneakers and pierced ears - they decide she's got to go. Marrying her off would be the best way to benefit everyone, but who to choose, and how to do it?

The book is 'tween chick lit; it is an easy read with little emotional depth or character examination. The ending is predictable but satisfying, and leaves the family's story open to a sequel. In fact, the book is the first in a 4-book series. Ms. Dhami provides a glimpse into Indian culture which has doubtlessly introduced many girls to a new culture in our increasingly diverse society.

Narinder Dhami has also written the popular film Bend it Like Beckham. Her website offers links to her books, author facts, and a link to Amber's blog, where the Bindi Babes narrator keeps readers up on the latest gossip. Random House provides a teachers guide complete with discussion questions and links for further reading on diversity.

Book Review: Wonderstruck, By Brian Selznick (Scholastic, 2011)

Recommended for ages 9-13

Wonderstruck tells the stories of two different people in two different time frames whose lives converge in an unexpected way. One story is told primarily through words and one through pictures; those familiar with Mr. Selznick's Caldecott-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret will recognize his artwork immediately.

The story, alternately told in 1927 and 1977, follows a young, girl named Rose who yearns to leave her New Jersey home and travel to New York City to see her favorite actress and a 12-year old boy, Brian, who is reeling after his mother's sudden death. New York City, particularly the American Museum of Natural History, plays a major role in the book as we see the stories converge.

Wonderstruck relies as much on Selznick's artwork as it does his prose in creating this story. The art is detailed and provides a comprehensive narrative on its own; his prose is simply stated and powerful. He weaves these two seemingly unconnected stories together and creates a powerful, emotional tale that readers will not want to put down. It is a love letter to New York City and a loving look at families lost and found.

Brian Selznick's novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, won the 2008 Caldecott Medal and has been made into a movie directed by Martin Scorcese. Scholastic's Wonderstruck website offers features on American Sign Language and constellations, a link to the author's website, and a sneak peek at the book for those visitors who haven't gotten the book yet.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Book Review: When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead (Yearling, 2010)

Recommended for ages 10-14

When You Reach Me is a science-fiction novel set in a realistic fiction setting. It received the Newbery Award in 2010.

Miranda and Sal are best friends of the same age who live in the same building and both have single mothers. They spend all off their time together until the day when Sal is inexplicably punched in the stomach by a boy on the street. From then on, he shuts Miranda out of his life, leaving her hurt and confused. At about the same time, Miranda begins receiving strange notes from someone saying they are coming to save her friend's life and his or her own, but that Miranda must write a detailed letter as the author will not be himself when he reaches her. She tries to figure out whether the notes or real or a joke as she navigates her situation with Sal, amkes new friends, and preps her mother to be a contestant on a game show, The $20,000 Pyramid. The notes continue to arrive, each with future predictions that come true, until the day Miranda witnesses an awful accident and brings the truth home: the notes are no joke.

The book is wonderfully addictive, with interesting characters and a realistic, New York in the 1970s setting. Ms. Stead layers plot upon plot, drawing the reader in and dropping little clues throughout the story to guide the reader along while never giving away the surprise until the climax of the story. Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time figures heavily into the story both as Miranda's favorite book and a device to further the plot and is woven beautifully into the fabric of the story. Older readers will be better able to sit down and spend some time with this complex book and have great discussions afterwards.

In addition to winning the Newbery, When You Reach Me has received numerous awards and honors including designation as a New York Times Notable Book and an American Library Association (ALA) Notable Children's Book; it has also won School Library Journals' Best Book of the Year (2009) and Publishers Weekly's Best Children's Book of the Year (2009).

The author's website provides information and reviews on her books, a link to her blog, and contact information for libraries and schools that wish to host her.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

TV Show Review: Flight 29 Down (Discovery Kids, 2005, recommended for ages 9-14)

For viewers too young to watch Lost but who may enjoy Survivor, this 2005-2007 Discovery Kids series about a group of high school kids whose plane goes down on an unknown island may be a fun viewing choice. A high school class saved enough money to go on an eco-camping trip to Micronesia, but one of the planes, with 10 kids and a pilot, loses an engine to lightning and is forced to land. Everyone survives the landing, but with no transponder and no radio range available, no one knows where they are. This diverse group of teenagers and one younger tween find themselves faced with having to work together to survive until they can be rescued.

The show provides lessons in the importance of working together and listening to one another. This was not a group of friends on vacation together, they were classmates. Very different classmates, as we see as some of the stronger personalities emerge. We see the vapid teens who have no idea how bad the situation is, thinking it's an early start to their vacation; the control freak who wants everything done her way, and the smart, younger stepbrother who no one listens to until it's almost too late. All of these personalities must overcome their differences to figure out how to survive in a new environment, with an adult who seems more of a liability than an asset. We see the group figure out how to braid vines to be strong enough to save the plane from the rising tides and how they wait for the water to make the plane float in order to make it easier to pull out of the way. We see them argue over rationing food and how to best make a fire. Available both on DVD and through sites like YouTube and Preserving Discovery Kids, this series would be solid viewing for parents and teachers alike to watch with children and to hold discussions on collaboration and how basic life skills can help save your life. Corbin Bleu, who later went onto mega-popularity in Disney's High School Musical series, was the breakout star of this show.

TV Show Review: Majors and Minors (The Hub, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-14

You could say that Majors and Minors is like American Idol minus the insults and general snarkiness, for kids, but it is so much more than that. The competition, which focuses on collaboration more than competition, pairs 12 "minors" - kids from 10-16 - with 12 "majors: - celebrity mentors including such famous names as Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert, and will.i.am as well as renowned choreographers, producers and songwriters. No one gets "voted off" each weekend, but the kids must all work together with their mentors to learn a new song and dance routine, which they help create, for a live performance at the end of the week's episode. Ultimately, one winner will be chosen from the group to win a recording deal and the chance to join a nationwide tour.

The kids are such a relief to watch. They are all grateful to be there and look forward to working together, not against one another. One girl mentions that it's great "to just be a kid". We see the experts and kids alike become frustrated by the constant rehearsals, but there is never a nasty moment between kids or their mentors. In fact, the mentors continue to remind themselves that these are just kids and that "this isn't what they do." It sends an overall positive message to the viewers and is a pleasant hour of television viewing for families. Shows like this illustrate the constant practice and rehearsal needed to succeed in a music competition and shows the kids that it is okay to become frustrated, but to persevere. School music classes should consider getting permission to show these episodes during classes to enhance the curriculum.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

TV Show Review: Phineas and Ferb (Disney Channel, 2011)

A Disney Channel staple since its premiere in 2007, Phineas and Ferb is an animated show about two imaginative brothers, Phineas and Ferb, and the adventures they manage to find during their summer (or Christmas) vacation. Their older sister, Candace, is on a mission to get them in trouble with their parents when she's not daydreaming about her crush, Jeremy, and they have a pet platypus, Perry, who leads a double life as a secret agent on the hunt for evil scientist, Heinz Doofenschmirtz.

The show is great fun, with well-written characters who are as inspired as they are hilarious. When a friend wants to create an award-winning neighborhood science fair project, they help him build a portal to Mars. When a friend expresses a wish to float around in a giant bubble, the boys decide to spend the day creating a giant bubble to go sightseeing. Most episodes have a subplot involving Perry the Platypus foiling Doofenschmirtz's evil plan du jour; sometimes, the plots plots converge, but Perry always manages to save his cover, keeping the brothers in the dark about his secret life.

Encouraging imagination is never wrong - why shoot for the baking soda volcano science project when you can open a portal to Mars, after all? Episodes are filled with smart writing and witty songs that become viral videos shortly after they air. Phineas and Ferb is a cartoon that tweens have no problem admitting they watch and enjoy; there are learning opportunities with every episode, particularly for forward-thinking science teachers who could talk about the boys' - or Doofenschmirtz's - latest inventions.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pandora Gets Jealous, by Carolyn Hennesy (Bloomsbury, 2008)

Recommended for ages 10-13

Get ready for Mean Girls meets Clash of the Titans.

Pandora - Pandy to her friends - has no idea what to bring to school for her project on the gods' presence in their lives. If she brings the piece of her dad, Atlas', liver again, she's totally going to fail. When she stumbles across a locked box hidden away, she knows she should not bring it. Her dad told her that she should never open it. But it would be perfect. When the mean girls at school tease her and tell her that the box is worthless, it somehow ends up being opened, and the seven evils escape into the world, and poor Hope ends up being locked in the box.

Zeus and Hera charge Pandora with tracking down and recapturing all of the evils she released in six phases of the moon, or else. Pandy sets off with her two best friends, Alcie and Iole, and a little stealth help from Olympus. Her first stop: Delphi, to recapture Envy.

Pandora Gets Jealous is the first in Ms. Hennesy's Pandora series; each book features the evil that she and her friends must recapture. Aimed at girls, the writing starts off light, with Pandora appearing almost vapid, but the story becomes intense very quickly. The solid mythology in the book is a great way to bring these stories to a younger, female audience that may still see Greek mythology as something geared toward boys despite there being gods AND goddesses on Olympus. Like Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, Ms. Hennesy makes Greek mythology contemporary for a new audience.

The author, actress Carolyn Hennesy, has a Pandora-focused website with a wealth of additional content on the series including teachers' guides, book synopses, and a discussion forum.

Book Review: Calamity Jack, by Shannon and Dean Hale (illus. by Nathan Hale) (Bloomsbury, 2010)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Calamity Jack is the sequel to the graphic novel Rapunzel's Revenge and gives readers the backstory on Rapunzel's buddy, Jack. Like Rapunzel, this is a fun, new take on the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale geared to attract older readers.

When readers first meet Jack in Rapunzel's Revenge, he's a guy on the run. Calamity Jack tells the story of why he's on the run and who he's running from - a kid who can't stay out of trouble, Jack ends up getting himself, and by extension, his mother, into trouble with the local giants that run his town. He steals a goose that he hears is due to lay a golden egg and goes on the run, hoping that any golden eggs will pay for the destruction of his mother's bakery. After his early adventures with Rapunzel, she accompanies him back to his hometown where they hope to reunite Jack with his mother - and find the town under siege by giant ants, his mother a prisoner of the giants, and a sneaking suspicion that the giants are at the heart of all the town's problems.

Anyone who enjoyed Rapunzel is going to enjoy Calamity Jack. It's written in the same fun spirit, and it was a great idea of the authors to give equal time to the main boy and girl characters with their own adventures. Graphic novels are a good way to reach male readers, and turning a fairy tale into an adventure tale is a smart way to draw in those readers who may feel they are "too old" for these books.

Newbery Award-winning author (for Princess Academy) Shannon Hale writes for ‘tweens, teens, and adults. Her husband, children's author Dean Hale, wrote Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack, with Ms. Hale. Ms. hale's blog offers links to information about her books, events and games. She also offers a list of favorite books for both children and adults, including some recommendations by her husband.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

TV Show Review: Secret Millionaire's Club (The Hub, 2011)

This is is how philanthropy reaches the next generation. Investor and philanthropist Warren Buffet lends his own vocal talents to this animated show on The Hub, which centers around four middle school friends and their mentor, Buffet, who teaches them good financial sense. In "Be Cool to Your School", the first episode of the series, the kids learn that their clubs, programs, and annual class trip to New York City have all been canceled due to budget cuts. Having just heard Warren Buffet speak to their class, they decide to seek him out and get some financial advice on raising money to restore their trip. Rapper and entertainment powerhouse Jay-Z appears in this episode with more advice for the young group, providing a younger, well-known role model for young viewers.

The group tries to come up with solutions on their own, and kids can see the trial and error process as different attempts fail for different reasons. Viewers see the friends learn from their mistakes and adapt for future situations. Their success illustrates that hard work comes with rewards. Every episode has a solid lesson in money and life smarts built in, along with an inspirational message. With many middle schoolers playing the Stock Market Game in class, this would be creative classroom viewing or assigned viewing at home.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Book Review: Alex Rider - Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz (Walker Books, 2000)

Recommended for ages 10-14

The first book in Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider series, Stormbreaker introduces readers to 14-year old Alex Rider, an American boy being raised by his British uncle after his parents' death. At the beginning of the book, Alex learns that his uncle was not a banker, as he thought, but a spy for MI6 who was killed in the line of duty; the British government now wants him to finish his uncle's mission - to infiltrate technology billionaire Herod Sayle's empire and find out the secret behind his new computers, the Stormbreakers. The series has received numerous awards including Children's Book of the Year at the 2006 British Book Awards and the Red House Children's Book Award in 2003. Stormbreaker was made into a movie in 2006.

The book is fast-paced and has enough gadgets and intrigue to keep readers engaged. Alex's character is believable as the reluctant spy pushed into working for MI6, and Horowitz does not shy away from grisly outcomes. Rider's finds his uncle's bullet-ridden, bloodstained car in a junkyard, and a madman with a Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish figures prominently in the story. Rider is put through rigorous MI6 training with military men who try to make him fail because of his age; he is not given a free ride and we do not get the sense that any of his training or knowledge came easily. Rider is likeable as much as he is relatable - missions and gadgets aside, he is a young man coping with his uncle's death and seemingly insurmountable circumstances in front of him, and readers will cheer him on.

The author's webpage features an Alex Rider minisite with information about all of the books in the Alex Rider series and downloadable desktop wallpapers. The Alex Rider website offers exhaustive information on missions, characters, and criminals in the series; readers can create user accounts on the site to receive regular updates and additional content about the series. The site also links to Alex Rider's Facebook page and YouTube channel.

TV Show Review: So Random (Disney Channel, 2011)

So Random is a Disney Channel show spun-off from the popular show Sonny With a Chance when star Demi Lovato departed earlier this year. The sketch comedy, which acted as a backdrop on Sonny, now takes center stage with the ensemble cast from Sonny and features guest stars from extreme sports star Tony Hawk to fellow Disney stars Selena Gomez and Mitchell Musso.

The show is fun, featuring short sketches about situations that matter to kids. Some recent sketches include an infomercial for Bedazzle Zit, which lets tweens and teens cover their blemishes in sequins; Learning Spanish with Reynoldo Rivera, where a Spanish teachers pokes fun at his students in Spanish and English (and manages to get the two of them to translate on their own), and Socks With Sandals, a rap by Footy Scent and Hush Puppy. The show is pure fun that offers a learning opportunity with every episode. The Reynoldo Rivera sketch uses basic Spanish vocabulary that viewers can easily pick up, and sketches like MC Grammar, a parody of rapper MC Hammer, gives kids a laugh but drives home some basic points of grammar.

Book Review: The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau (Yearling, 2004)

Recommended for ages 9-12

A post-apocalyptic novel, The City of Ember begins with The Builders, who created an underground city that would save humankind from an assumed environmental catastrophe. The city was to last for 220 years, at which time they hoped it would be okay to return to the surface. They created Instructions to leave Ember, which they gave to the Mayor, to be passed down to every Mayor until it was time; the box containing the Instructions would then open.

The box was lost after the seventh Mayor tried to force the box open.

In the year 241, the City of Ember is failing. They are running out of food and supplies and there are rolling blackouts that last for longer stretches each time. There are whispers that the generator is failing. Because the population of Ember does not know their above-ground origins, they do not know that there is another choice. Lina and Doon, two 12-year old residents of Ember, learn about some of Ember's secrets, like the stores of food available to those who know the "right people". Lina also happens upon a document long hidden in her grandmother's closet; torn into shreds by her baby sister, she tries to unravel the mystery and thinks she has happened upon a way to leave Ember. Will anyone other than Doon believe her, or will the Mayor and the police try to keep them quiet?

The book tells an intelligent story with fairly well-drawn characters. Ms. DuPrau does not speak down to her audience, but I do wish she had fleshed out the characters a bit more; the Mayor, for instance, is the typical bloated, corrupt politician; Lina's grandmother's memory is slipping away, but she remembers that there is something lost that she must find before she dies; the police are one-dimensional, just-following-orders good/bad guys. The overall story, however, is solid and compelling - what happens to a society if their lights go out for good?

The City of Ember is the first in the Books of Ember series and was made into a movie in 2008. Designated as an American Library Association (ALA) Notable book, the book has received Kirkus Editors Choice status and was awarded the 2006 Mark Twain Readers Award. The author's website offers information on all of Ms. DuPrau's books, a biography, and an FAQ. The site also offers the chance for visitors to solve a puzzle similar to the document in City of Ember.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Book Review: The Midwife's Apprentice, by Karen Cushman (Clarion Books, 1995)

Recommended for ages 8-12

Brat is an orphaned girl with no name or family. When the village midwife discovers her sleeping in a dung heap to keep warm, she takes her on as an apprentice. The reader sees Brat grow in confidence and ability.

A 1996 Newbery winner, this historical fiction novel has a strong message: you can make your own way in this life, no matter what cards you are dealt. Alyce remembers no mother and no home; she is the target of village bullies and sleeps in a dung heap to keep warm, but she never believes in giving up. When the midwife is cruel with her words, she shakes it off and continues to learn by observation. She does not wait for someone to provide her with a kinder name than Brat or Beetle, the name given her by Jane the midwife; she decides she likes the name Alyce and tells people to call her by that name. She finds a way to even the score with the cruel villagers and earns the respect of one of the village bullies when she aids him in delivering a calf. This is medieval girl power.

In addition to winning the Newbery medal, The Midwife's Apprentice has also been designated as one of the American Library Association (ALA)'s Best of the Best Books for Young Adults and the New York Public Library's "One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing". Ms. Cushman also received Newbery Honors for her book Catherine , Called Birdy.

The author's website offers a full bibliography of Ms. Cushman's books, along with an author biography and "odd facts". An FAQ is available for popular questions, and there is a link to contact the author for appearances. There are a wealth of resources available online for discussing and teaching this book, including a robust guide at eNotes.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Game Review: Plants vs. Zombies (PopCap Games, 2009)

Recommended for ages 8-up

Plants vs. Zombies is a tower defense game by PopCap Games where the objective is fairly simple - using houseplants of all sorts, keep the zombies out.

With every wave the player successfully fends off, the zombies increase, but so do the plants at the player's disposal. Originally starting with pea shooters and sunflowers, who draw sunlight and allow you to grow more plants, the game also provides such defensive fauna as cherry bombs, walnuts, and exploding potatoes. The zombies start out fairly straightforward in the classic shambling style and whispering "Braaiins", but get craftier - some ride zambonis, some dance, Saturday Night Fever-like, onto the scene, and some drop from the sky. They will eat through the plants if they make it through the wave of attacks, and if they eat their way through, the player's last resort are the lawnmowers set up as a last line of defense. Increasing levels see battle go from the front lawn of the player's home to the backyard (and setting up defense by the pool) and the roof. A neighbor,  "Crazy Dave", appears periodically to give the player a chance to purchase additional bonuses.

The game is available for limited play on PopCap's site; it is also available as a download for Apple iPod and iPad systems, Android, Nintendo DSi, PlayStation 3, XBox, and the multiplayer platform Steam. PC and Mac users can also buy a copy for their computer. There is a Plants vs. Zombies wikia where players can read about walkthroughs, cheats, and new releases.

The game is shoot-'em-up fun without any horrific or realistic violence. Zombie's heads pop off, but it is not like watching a George Romero film. The flowers are drawn as cute animated characters, and the zombies are so ugly they tend to be cute more than horrific. If the zombies make it into the house, there is a crunching sounds and red letters appear on the screen saying, "The zombies ate your brains!" but that is the extent of the horror in this game. The game helps kids plan strategies, figuring out how much they want to spend on their flowers, placement to best fend off their zombies, and when to spend funds with "Crazy Dave".

The game is the fastest-selling PopCap video game and has been nominated for Interactive Achievement Awards from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences ("Casual Game of the Year" and "Outstanding Achievement in Game Design"). The game has also received nominations in "Best Game Design", "Innovation", and "Best Download Game" for the Game Developers Choice Awards. (Wikipedia)

Book Review: Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen (Aladdin, 1987)

Recommended for ages 10-13

Hatchet is a Newbery Award-winning survival novel by Gary Paulsen. The book tells 13-year old Brian's story of survival in the Canadian woods after the pilot of the plane he's in has a heart attack and dies at the controls; Brian alone must figure out how to get the plane down and how to survive until help comes - if it comes.

He spends the summer learning how to survive and adapting to his new environment, starting out with only the hatchet his mother gave him when he left. He learns how to identify edible plants, how to hunt and trap animals, and how to cook them; he can make simple tools and fashion a shelter for himself. When he finds hiself with time to think he is consumed with thoughts of his parent's divorce and his mother's role in it.

Brian's story of survival, and the subplot of his parent's divorce - in the background, but always there - make this a very readable book for boys and girls alike. While the main character is a boy, the struggle to survive and the feelings he finds himself confronted with, told with urgency, make this a page-turner that communicates emotions all tweens and teens can relate to.

Hatchet is the first in Brian's Saga, a series of books about Brian Robeson written by Gary Paulsen. The author's Random House site  has information about the other books, with excerpts and teachers' guides. The book was made into a movie, A Cry in the Wild, in 1990 and is available on DVD. The book has received numerous awards and honor in addition to the Newbery, including designation as an American Library Association (ALA) Notable Book (1987) and a Booklist Editor's Choice Citation (1988).

There are a wealth of discussion materials for the book available online. Scholastic offers a free lesson plan and unit plan on teaching imagery with Gary Paulsen; Literature Index offers free PowerPoint presentation, clip art, and templates; and BookRags offers a study guide.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Review: Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, by Jack Gantos (HarperCollins, 2000)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Told through the eyes of a boy with ADD, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key moves at an almost frantic pace. Joey is "wired". He can't sit still, even when he knows that acting up in class is wrong. Abandoned by both his parents, lives with his abusive grandmother who is also "wired". When Joey's mom returns, she struggles to keep him medicated and on track, but she works long hours and she drinks out of frustration.

Joey's behaviors become self-destructive - he swallows his house key; he sticks his finger in a pencil sharpener; he separates from his class on a school trip and finds himself sitting on a rafter in a barn. The school is trying to be understanding and has him spending part of his day in the Special Education class, but when Joey decides to run with a pair of scissors and injures a classmate, he is suspended and sent to the district's special ed program for six weeks. There, he meets with a social worker who helps him get his medications adjusted and works to get him - and his mom - back on track.

The frenetic pace of the storytelling gives the reader a glimpse into what goes on in the mind of a child with ADD, and Joey's explanations help readers figure out what motivates him to do what he does - regardless of it being right or wrong, Joey does have reasons. It is an important read for understanding kids that are sharing classrooms with one another, and gives both adults and children a starting point for discussions on what ADD is and how it affects people.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key has won numerous awards including the Newbery Medal. It was a National Book Award Finalist, one of School Library Journal's Best Books of the Year, and it is an American Library Association Notable Children's Book. It is the first in a series of Joey Pigza books including Joey Pigza Loses Control, What Would Joey Do?, and I Am Not Joey Pigza.

The Macmillan website for the book offers award information, critical praise, a biography on Jack Gantos, and links to Mr. Gantos' website, Facebook page, Goodreads page, and Wikipedia page. The Multnomah County Library system offers a discussion guide and related book suggestions. 

Book Review: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsberg (Athenum Press, 1967)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Another one of my favorite childhood books, this Newbery Medal Award winner gave me dreams of running away to live in the American Museum of Natural History when I was younger. I know that the characters in the book run away to the Met, but I wanted to be around the dinosaurs.

Claudia is a precocious 11-year old living in Connecticut. She's bored. She feels unappreciated by her family. She decides to teach everyone a lesson by running away, but she does not do things on the spur of the moment. She plans it out - it's her favorite part of the whole process. She invites her 9-year old brother, Jamie, to come along, because he's the money man. He saves his money and he gambles (and cheats) to make more.

The two run away and spend a week living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here, the novel details their complex hiding arrangements and their food budgeting. They bathe in the fountain and pick up some extra money while doing so (from the coins thrown in during the day) and do their laundry at a local laundromat.

Claudia also decides that she and Jamie will learn something every day they are there, and eventually happen upon a new exhibit of a statue, Angel, that may or may not be one of Michelangelo's earlier pieces. Claudia becomes focused on solving the mystery of Angel's origin, saying she cannot go home until she has figured it out. She does not want to be the same girl that left.

Their search for information takes them all the way to the statue's previous owner, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a wealthy widow living in Connecticut. She manages to get the children to tell her where they have been for the past week, and offers them, in return for their story, an hour in her file room where the secret to the statue lives; they are then driven home by her chauffer.

This story does not age. Parts of it may - maybe an 11- and 9-year old wandering the streets of New York City sounds riskier in this day and age - but it is, at heart, a child's fantasy. What preteen hasn't felt unappreciated by his or her family and dreamed of running away? This is a New York adventure that boys and girls alike should read and enjoy. Konigsburg does not speak down to her audience; rather, she illustrates how mature these children are in the decisions they make: they have a budget to stick to; they take care of themselves by bathing and doing their laundry; they strive to learn something new despite not being in school.

E.L. Konigsburg received Newbery Medals for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The View from Saturday; she also received Newbery Honors for Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. There is a wealth of information about the book online, including discussion guides through Scholastic and the Wake County Library system.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Sisters Grimm: The Fairytale Detectives, Book 1, by Michael Buckley (Amulet, 2007)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Sisters Daphne and Sabrina have been shuttled from foster home to foster home since their parents disappeared, so when a woman claiming to be their grandmother contacts the orphanage to claim them, Sabrina is suspicious; their parents told the girls that their grandmother was dead.

Not only is their grandmother very much alive, the girls learn that they are descended from the famous Grimm brothers and that their "fairy tales" were actually case studies - magical creatures are very real, and they're stuck in Ferryport Landing, New York, with a Grimm to act as the guardian.

As Grandma Relda and her friend Mr. Canis are investigating a  mystery involving a giant, Mayor Charming and a house crushed flat, they are kidnapped by a giant and Sabrina and Daphne must find a way to rescue them. But can they trust Jack the Giant Killer, who offers to help them? What magical creatures are there to help them or hurt them - and how can they tell the difference?

This first adventure in the 7-book series is great fun for kids and adults alike - it's a great bridge between a fun, action-adventure story and the fairy tales we all grew up with. The dialogue is well-paced and smartly written, never talking down to its audience, and the characters are likable and provide a good mix of fantasy and reality. These are children who miss their parents and who fell into the cracks of a child protective system that fails to do its job. Even when they find their fantasy grandmother to love them and connect them back to their family, they face surreal dangers and have to figure out who they can trust. This is a great book for a family book group discussion, providing many ideas to talk about and delve deeper into between parents and kids. The publisher's website provides a readers' guide for this purpose (geared at librarians and teachers, but parents can build on this). The site also offers a fairy tale "regurgitator" that helps visitors create their own fairy tales.

Book Review: Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume (Yearling, 1970)

Recommended for ages 9-12

This Judy Blume classic follows sixth grader Margaret Simon, whose parents move her from their home in New York to the suburbs of New Jersey, and her search for an identity as she goes through puberty. The book has received numerous awards, including the New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year (1970). In 2005, the book made Time Magazine's All-Time 100 Novels List.

Margaret meets new friends and they quickly form a secret club called the PTS's - Pre-Teen Sensations. They have to wear bras to their meetings and they talk about boys, school, and most importantly, when they're getting their periods. Nancy, the ringleader, makes Margaret uncomfortable with her superior attitude and concern over these things; she's afraid she'll be the last to get her period and be made fun of.

Raised without organized religion, Margaret has a very personal relationsihp with God and talks to him whenever she needs a comforting ear. She tells him her insecurities about puberty and her frustration with her family. With the other kids in her neighborhood identifying as either Christian or Jewish, Margaret struggles to know God in one of these faiths, but comes up empty; she asks him, after visiting both a synagogue and a church why she can't "feel him" the way she does when she talks to him.

I loved this book when I was in sixth grade and re-reading it now, it holds up, mainly because the heart of the story still exists. Mean girls may appear bigger than life now, but Nancy was definitely a pioneering mean girl; Margaret is the Everygirl that we all identified with - insecure about ourselves, insecure about our place in school and our families, and just trying to figure it all out. Blume weaves all of Margaret's insecurities together to create a solid, realistic character that girls can all identify with. Nobody does puberty like Judy Blume.

Judy Blume's website features the usual author fare; there is a bio, interview questions, even autobiographical essays. She offers advice on writing and has a section on censorship - she is a very well-known advocate for the freedom to read - and her "Reference Desk" section provides interviews and an index of articles and information about Blume.