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.

Book Review; Secrets, Lies, Gizmos and Spies, by Janet Wyman Coleman with The International Spy Museum (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2006)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Kids like spies. Spies are cool, after all. James Bond is suave and rocks the coolest gadgets in the world, and Chuck is a computer store geek turned international man of mystery. There was Agent Cody Banks, and there are the Spy Kids movies. Fast food restaurants have give spy toys away as prizes in their kids' meals. The romantic mystique of the spy appeals to all ages.

Secrets, Lies, Gizmos and Spies, written in conjunction with the International Spy Museum, is a visual history of spying. There are photos and artifacts, with the stories of real-life spies from all over the world and throughout recorded history. The book provides key terms and timelines and even an imagined interview with George Washington using actual quotes from the first President with regard to his spying operations during the Revolutionary War. The book has beautiful color and black and white photos on every page, and will interest both boys and girls interested in adventure or history.

The International Spy Museum's website offers the usual museum fare including membership and ticket information. They also have a podcast (with new episodes roughly every two weeks) and a blog, both with RSS feed capability. They offer birthday parties, school field trips, and Spy City Tours where visitors will be briefed by former intelligence officers and learn how to be a master of disguise.

Book Review: How to Rock Braces and Glasses, by Meg Haston (Poppy, 2011)

Recommended for ages 10-13

Eighth grader Kacey Simon doesn't think she's a mean girl, she's just brutally honest like a good journalist should be. Life is pretty good for Kacey until the tables are turned when a series of accidents leave her stuck with glasses and braces. Within a day, she goes from A-list to D-list as her cool girl friends pretend she doesn't exist, she's dropped from her school news segment and the lead in the school play. Her best friend seizes the opportunity to wrest the cool reins and goes on the attack, and a cruel YouTube video makes the rounds in school.

Alone for the first time, Kacey ends up teaming up with a former friend, Paige and emo musician Zander (aka Skinny Jeans) to get her popularity back. Along the way, Kacey learns that she may have been a mean girl after all - or just misunderstood.

The book is shallow, with an unlikeable heroine written to be likeable. Haston's message of being real gets garbled; it's as if the author herself is unsure of whether Kacey's behavior pre-braces is reprehensible or defensible. I did not come away with the true feeling that she learned her lesson at the end of the day; rather, she just learned to find loopholes and how to use people to get her way. It sends out mixed messages.

Tween marketing powerhouse Alloy Entertainment packaged this title and the book has already been optioned to be a new Nickelodeon show, How to Rock, to air in 2012. Author Meg Haston's website links to her blog and information about the book; she also has a Twitter feed. There is also an iTunes app that lets users take photos of themselves or friends and try on different braces and glasses combinations.

Book Review: I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President, by Josh Lieb (Razorbill, 2009)

Recommended for ages 10-12

Twelve year-old Oliver only pretends to be "slow". He wants to keep his genius - and the fact that he is already a multi-millionaire and international villian - a secret from his family and the kids at school. Oliver spends his day blundering along in school, having his secret henchmen shoot darts at bullies (that cause some unpleasant gastrointestinal distress), drinking soda and root bear out of his secretly rigged water fountains, and tormenting his English teacher from a distance. At home, he maintains his secret evil empire.

Until Oliver is nominated for Class President by a classmate as a cruel prank. Initially, Oliver declines the nomination, but his anger toward his father, who Oliver perceives as being perpetually disappointed with him, drives him to get back into the election and play as dirty as possible to win it - even if he has to rig his running mates.

This book is hilarious. Written by the executive producer of The Daily Show, there is plenty of wit and a breakdown of politics on a middle school level that shows the reader how juvenile the entire political process can be. While at a times a bit heavy-handed, it still gets its point across, and in Oliver, Lieb has created a narrator that is like a young Dr. Evil meets Gru from Despicable Me. Middle schoolers will love the idea of a kid running an international evil empire from his underground lair and who has his school rigged for his personal comfort, all while tormenting teachers and bullies anonymously. The frustration of wanting to be loved by one's parents while being aware of their flaws is a strong theme that will resonate with many readers.

There is a limited website for the book at Sheldrake Industries (Oliver's cover company in the book) that offers some information about the book, a video with Josh Lieb, and a quiz where readers can figure out how evil they are.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Book Review: Rapunzel's Revenge, by Shannon and Dean Hale (Illustrated by Nathan Hale), (Bloomsbury 2008)

Recommended for ages 9-12

In YA and kids’ lit powerhouse couple Shannon and Dean Hale’s retelling of the Rapunzel tale, “Punzie”, as her friend Calamity Jack calls her, isn’t sitting around waiting for some prince to rescue her – she’s taking the matter into her own… hair.

Rapunzel grows up in the care of Mother Gothel, an evil woman with growth magic that she wields to keep the people of the surrounding lands under her control and to bleed them for all of their money. If they cannot pay her taxes, she dries up their land. She enslaves citizens to work in her mines. Rapunzel believes Mother Gothel is her own mother until one day, she ventures outside to the palace wall and meets her real mother. Furious with Gothel’s lies and cruelty, she demands answers from Gothel; Gothel responds by having Rapunzel taken to a forest and enclosed in a tree for four years. Her growth magic assures that Rapunzel has food to eat and small creature comforts; the growth magic also extends to Rapunzel’s famous hair, which grows and grows. Gothel visits Rapunzel every year to see if she will agree to live by Gothel’s ways as her daughter, but when Rapunzel refuses for the last time, she uses her growth magic to seal Rapunzel up in the tree for good. Luckily for Rapunzel, one of the palace guards taught her how to tie a good lasso. She manages to escape and meets Jack, a young man on the run whose only possessions are the clothes on his back, a goose named Goldy, and a magic bean… who could Jack be running from in this fractured fairy tale? Will Jack be able to help Rapunzel brave the arid lands and get her back to Gothel’s palace so she can free her mother and end Gothel’s reign of terror?

This book is great fun for boys and girls alike. It is a graphic novel that draws on two favorite fairy tales – Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk – with a modern twist that will appeal to kids who are on that cusp of being teenagers, but still appreciate the comfort of a good fairy tale. Rapunzel is a strong female character who ends up saving her friend Jack as often as he saves her, and Jack is a funny charmer who finds himself feeling very awkward around the beautiful Rapunzel. It’s a classic good versus evil tale with action and snappy banter, magic and a strong sense of right, wrong, and justice.

Shannon Hale is the Newbery Award-winning author (for Princess Academy) who writes for ‘tweens, teens, and adults. Dean Hale, her husband, writes children’s books and has written both Rapunzel’s Revenge and its sequel, Calamity Jack, with Ms. Hale. Her 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.

Game Review: Minecraft

Recommended for ages 9+

Minecraft is a sandbox game - a game with no objective other than to have fun (and survive) - where players create their own worlds by mining and digging resources for themselves. With both multiplayer and single player options, Minecrafters can play with others or on their own.

Players have limited time to get their resources and shelters initially built; monsters called Creepers (right) come out at "night" and damage property and individuals alike. There are other monsters, including spiders, skeletons and zombies that cause varying degrees of damage to property, players or both.

Once initial shelters are built, players can modify their game by downloading modifications (mods for short) that provide them with extra weapons, unlimited resources, and additional characters. Some mods are not comptabile with others, but there are lists letting players know which mods clash with others.

Minecraft is a great game for kids. It affords them the creativity to create their own worlds to their liking and gives them the tools to continue creating and modifying these worlds. By playing alone, they can interact with other Minecrafters, or by playing by themselves, they can avoid any potential problems with "friends" who think destroying other people's worlds is fun. It is a game of imagination and creation with no goal other than to enjoy.

There is a wealth of information available for anyone interested in learning Minecraft, including the Minecraft Wiki, which is available in ten different languages including Spanish, French, Russian and Korean. Billing itself as "the ultimate resource" , the wiki offers help on gameplay, crafting, modifications and more. WikiMinecraft is a fan-based site that offers video tutorials and screen shots to guide new crafters.

One family creates their own Minecraft video podcast, Minecraft Family Adventures, available on YouTube.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Book Review: Helen Keller: Her Life in Pictures, by George Sullivan (Scholastic, 2007)

Recommended for ages 8-12

As a little girl, I was captivated by Helen Keller's life story. Losing her sight and hearing as a baby, and growing up in darkness and silence? I couldn't even imagine. And having a teacher brave enough to reach in and pull me into the light? One can only imagine Helen Keller's struggles, but what is even more amazing and inspirational are her triumphs: graduating college with honors at a time when women were still fighting for the right to vote. Learning to lip read while being blind and deaf, relying only on touch to communicate with the outside world. Becoming a political and social activist at a time when women were supposed to be seen and not heard. She was an amazing woman who was surrounded by amazing women; first, her beloved teacher Annie Sullivan and later Polly Thomson, and when I saw this book in my local library, I snatched it up.

I was not disappointed. Helen Keller: Her Life in Pictures is a gorgeous book filled with photos of Helen throughout her life. There are childhood pictures of her and pictures of her with Annie Sullivan; we see pictures throughout her college career at Radcliffe, and we see pictures of her with the many public officials she met throughout her life. Always mindful of her appearance so people would not look at her and see her handicap first, she is always dressed beautifully and perpetually smiling. There are some candid photos, including shots of her with her pets and even a shot of Helen, Annie, and Annie's husband, John Macy.

Keller's great-grandniece Keller Johnson-Thompson writes the foreward where she discusses asking her grandmother questions about her famous relative. Notes at the end of the book provide further reading on Helen Keller, including a link to Ms. Johnson-Thompson's biography on the American Foundation for the Blind's home page, where she serves as an Ambassador; there are many links to Helen Keller photographs and artifacts on this page. There is also a link to the Helen Keller birthplace museum.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Book Review: Out from Boneville, by Jeff Smith (Scholastic edition, 2005)

Recommended for ages 11-13

Jeff Smith's Bone was a popular comic book title in the '90s, winning four Eisner Awards, and three Harvey Awards in 1994. Later on, the book caught on with kids as graphic novels gained more acceptance among educators. Scholastic has taken the 55-issue comic book series and repackaged them into a series of graphic novels. Out from Boneville is the first volume of this series, which follows the adventures of three cousins as they blunder into a fantasy world after being run out of their home, Boneville.

Phoncibile (Phoney for short) Bone is greedy and arrogant, which we are led to believe caused his ouster; Smiley Bone is the laid back one, and Fone Bone, our protagonist, is high-strung but an overall nice guy. Drawn as white humanoid shapes, the Bones resemble Casper with legs. The art is cartoon-like, very tween-friendly, and the banter is light and fun. Even the rat monsters who spend much of the novel trying to eat Fone Bone and seek out Phoney Bone for some dark reason are bumbling and goofy.

Out from Boneville sets up the entire Bone series, so  the storyline leaves a lot of questions unanswered by the end, but they are questions I am willing to pick up another volume to continue the journey.

 For teachers interested in working with graphic novels, Scholastic offers a guide for teachers and librarians (with mentions of Bone). Jeff Smith also maintains a Boneville web page with his touring schedule, his blog, and a section devoted to Bone.

Book Review: I'll Pass for Your Comrade, by Anita Silvey (Clarion Books, 2008)

Recommended for ages 9-12

I'll Pass for Your Comrade is a line taken from a Civil War Ballad, "The Cruel War"; a woman is saying goodbye to her love, leaving to fight, and begs to join him in combat. She offers to "pass for his comrade" - something that, according to the National Archives, at least 250 women did during the Civil War. Many women fought to be with their husbands and fiances. Some women fought for revenge. Some women fought for the thrill of battle. Unfortunately, because they had to keep their stories silent, most of these stories have been lost. I'll Pass for Your Comrade tells the stories of some of the women who donned men's uniforms, cut their hair, and went to war.

We hear the words of the women who fought, like Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who wrote about her participation in the Battle of Bull Run as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford. We see photographs of women like Frances Clayton, featured in the book both dressed in her uniform and her dress. We learn about their lives after the War, and how some of them took their secrets to the grave, their families only discovering their truth after death.

The book has black and white photographs and primary documents reprinted throughout, offering students the chance to see history as they read about these women. The author also provides a bibliography for further reading. This would be a strong selection to use during Women's History Month or during a Civil War unit.

Book Review: Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer (Hyperion, 2002)

Recommended for ages 9-12

When Artemis Fowl was published almost ten years ago, it was hailed as the next Harry Potter type series in terms of kids' blockbusters. There have been seven novels, plus graphic novels, since, and while it hasn't reached the Harry Potter level of mania with readers young and old, it is a strong series that has managed to remain on the shelves over the past decade - not something many books can claim these days.

Artemis Fowl the Second is a boy genius and the son of a missing crime lord. To find his father restore his family's reputation, he needs some help. In this case, "help" means getting a copy of the Rule Book from the Fairy World - because in this world, they are real and they don't want us to know it - and finding out their secrets to use against them. But now he's got the attention of the LEPrecon (the Lower Elements Police), and dealing with magic is never predictable.

It took a while for me to warm up to this book. I did not like Artemis, for starters. He is supposed to be an anti-hero, but there was not enough of him to give me a connection; I only thought of him as an annoying kid too smart for his own good for about 3/4 of the book. The LEP characters were somewhat more engaging but they needed some time to hit their stride; when they first appear on the scene, they almost seemed like caricatures in the exaggerated speech and description.

There is a prevalent subplot about how we humans, the Mud People, are destroying the planet. Colfer makes it abundantly clear that The People find humans beneath them and hold them in contempt.

There are plenty of Artemis Fowl websites, incluiding the US and UK websites that provide information about the books, book trailers, and games for visitors. Author Eoin Colfer's website offers links to author information, information about all of his books, and a message board.

Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney (Amulet, 2007)

Recommended for ages 9-12

I am an unabashed fan of the Wimpy Kid series - I've read all but the last one, and am right there with my kids in the wait for Cabin Fever, the next book in the series (39 days from today!). Dude had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Kinney at ComicCon a few years ago and he could not have been a nicer guy, autographing his book and mentioning that he had a son with the same name (I don't know if he calls his kid Dude, though). 

Greg Heffley is a middle school ne'er do well - he's lazy, he's selfish, and he can't figure out what everyone else's problem is. Despite these qualities, he's wildly funny, and he does try to do the right thing (he just tends to get a little lost on the way to doing it). He's a middle schooler, he's just trying to navigate life and make things easier on himself. Can you blame him?

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a good book for several reasons, aside from it's compulsive readability: the characters are well-written and funny, Greg has a clear voice, and this book shows boys and girls alike that keeping a diary - or a journal, whatever you choose to call it - is a good thing. Writing, even to a slacker kid like Greg, can be something fun to do. The book even resembles a diary on the inside and out, with lined pages, handwriting font, and hand-drawn pictures that look like Greg had drawn them filling the book.

Jeff Kinney's Wimpy Kid series is one of the most popular middle-grade series out today, with five book currently out and the sixth coming in November. The Wimpy Kid website offers information about all of the books (and a countdown clock for Cabin Fever)  and offers news and information about the author, a link to "Wimp Yourself" where kids can create their own Wimpy Kid using preselected templates, links to merchandise.

Book Revew: Wonkenstein: The Creature from my Closet, by Obert Skye (Henry Holt, 2011)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Rob is a 12-year old boy whose main use for books is to throw them into his closet. He has better things to do, after all, than read. Plus, Rob's closet is just strange. It's not because it's got a second-hand door with a pony sticker on it that says, "Smile". For starters, the doorknob is big, gold, and has a bearded man's face engraved on it - and his expression seems to change. For another, the closet is where Wonkenstein - a creature that seems to be a mashup of Willy Wonka and Frankenstein - comes from one day, and now Rob's closet will not open so he can send him back.

Rob tries to keep Wonkenstein a secret while trying to get him back to his world, but he ends up getting into more trouble, whether at home or school, the harder he tries. Poor Rob just wants life to go back to normal, but at the same time, he finds himself getting attached to the little guy.

Wonkenstein is a cute book for younger readers and older readers that may have drifted from reading and just need something fun and familiar to pull them back. The book has fun black and white illustrations that look like a child's drawings and helps, along with the first-person voice of the book, add to the fantasy that Rob is narrating his own true story.

Obert Skye's website has information about all of his books, plus author and tour information, and the publisher's website has a book detail page with much of the same information, plus links to the book's pages on social networking sites incluing Shelfari and LibraryThing.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Book Review: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of 1911, by Gina De Angelis (Chelsea House, 2001)

Recommended for ages 10+

The shirtwaist was a high-necked, long-sleeved blouse design popular in the early 1900s - the iconic Gibson Girl image produces a clear picture of fashion at the time. During this period, New York boasted about 450 shirtwaist factories, but building codes and labor laws left a lot of room for interpretation. As a result, on March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in the Asch Building in downtown Manhattan. Multiple factors - locked doors to prevent workers from leaving early or stealing materials; ineffective and too few fire escapes and elevators, and crowded office conditions being just a few - led to the deaths of 146 workers, many of whom were Eastern European immigrant women new to the United States. The fire and the ensuing trial - which exonerated the company's owners - gave rise to movements pushing for stronger building safety standards and unionization of garment workers, which would help them lobby for better working conditions and better pay.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of 1911 tells the story of the fire and the aftermath. Black and white photos taken at the scene of the fire and the makeshift morgue bring home the pain of the event and drive home the magnitude of the fire. Readers will learn that not only were the owners cleared of any wrong doing, because the building was legally sound, but they actually made money after the insurance settlement, causing an outcry among family members of the deceased. They will read survivor's stories and learn that the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, went on to continue business and continue the business violations that caused so many deaths at the Asch Building. The book also details the story of the garment workers labor movement and takes the reader into present-day sweatshop conditions and the continued fight for safe working conditions and a living wage.

There are many online resources dedicated to the Triangle Fire. Cornell University's Kheel Center for Labor Documentation has a web exhibit with primary and secondary sources housed in their archives and offers a bibliography for further reading and research. Cornell also offers a link to a transcript of the trial against Blanck and Harris. Nonprofit organization Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, seeking to establish a permanent memorial to the victims, offers an open archive where contributors add their own modern-day remembrances and information and a names map which lists the name, country of origin, New York address, and final resting place of the identified victims. Below is a PBS video that some teachers have shown in class.

Book Review: Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (HarperCollins, 1971)

Recommended for ages 8+

I'm a child of the 1970s. I played with a Holly Hobbie doll and I watched Little House on the Prairie faithfully. I wanted a pretty, big sister like Mary and I wanted, alternately, to have a best friend like Laura or to be Laura. Now that I think of it, the 1970s had a lot of pioneer-retro fare available for young girls. And now they have Bratz and Wizards of Waverly Place. To each generation her own, I guess, but I can't help but think that these generations are missing out on something. But that's another blog post.

Most people know Laura Ingalls Wilder's stories, if not through her books, then through long-running television series based on them, Little House on the Prairie. Ms. Wilder was a pioneer child who wrote down all of her experiences and later had them published. There are nine books in the Little House series, which was first published between 1932 and 1943. The series resonated with girls and young women and is popular to this day.

Little House in the Big Woods is the first book in the Little House series, and introduces the reader to the Ingalls family: Laura (writing in the third person), her older sister, Mary, younger sister, Carrie, and her parents, Ma and Pa (Caroline and Charles). The family lives in the Big Woods in Wisconsin in the later part of the 19th Century, shortly after the Civil War. (Laura even mentions a family member who is "wild since he came back from the army".)

We go through each of the seasons with the Ingalls family and learn how these families lived, how they ate, and how much fun they managed to find time for. There are family dances, family visits, and hours spent playing in the fields together. There is always time for work, though, and this is where the book acts as a primer for living in the woods. Laura talks extensively about the process of preserving meats and vegetables to keep the family fed through the lean winter months; how Pa prepares an animal skin to be used as leather goods; how to get sap from a tree, and how to smoke bees out of a hive to be able to get to the honey. It's a fascinating look at a different time, and while it is written with a girl's voice, this is should not be considered a "girl's book": boys and girls alike can learn much about the wildnerness life.

There is a wealth of information about Laura Ingalls Wilder online. Wilder's home in Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, where she wrote the Little House books, is now the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum and word finds, quizzes and coloring pages. The Little House Books website features a family tree tracking the girls of the Little House series from Laura's great-grandmother to her daughter, Rose. The site also offers games and craft ideas, as well as information for teachers interested in teaching the book. There are many teaching plans for the series available online, this interesting one from BookPunch. The History Chicks podcast also has an interesting episode dedicated to Wilder.

Book Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl (Bantam, 1977)

Recommended for ages 8-12 (but I think it's ageless)

This was one of my favorite books growing up, and reading it again all these years later, I find my love has not diminished in the slightest. In fact, there were so many things I "misremembered", due to multiple viewings of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder is Willy Wonka). While the movie retained much of Roald Dahl's dark comic humor, nothing beats the book, and Dahl's wry observations on bratty children and the parents who indulge them, and how the meek inherit... well, if not the earth, at least a lifetime's supply of chocolate.

Charlie Bucket is starving - no, really, he is. He lives with his mother, father, and four sickly grandparents, who are so old and sick that they never get out of bed. Father has a menial job screwing the caps onto toothpaste tubes, and they family is very poor. They are so poor, all they can eat is cabbage soup, and Charlie refuses to take more than his share. Every day he walks past the famous chocolatier Willy Wonka's chocolate factory and lifts his nose, inhaling the delicious smells; the only time he gets to enjoy a Wonka bar is on his birthday.

It all changes when Willy Wonka announces a contest where five winners will be allowed to tour the chocolate factory - and Charlie is holding one of the Golden Tickets. Grandpa Joe, his elderly grandfather who retains the joy and wonder of youth, jumps out of bed and insists that he go with him, and they're off. Charlie meets the four other winners - the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, spoiled brat Veruca Salt, TV addict Mike Teavee, and boorish Violet Beauregarde - and their overly indulgent parents at the gates of the factory, and when Willy Wonka's gates open for the first time in years, the fun really begins. Who will make it through the factory tour?

Dahl's writing weaves words into pictures that are enhanced by Joseph Schindelman's black and white illustrations. From Willy Wonka's mysterious origins to the Oompa Loompa's cautionary songs, this book is Mr. Dahl's morality play. It's a great reminder of the golden rules as children enter into the middle grades: be polite. Don't be a bully. Share. Don't be a glutton or have bad manners. Modesty and a humble demeanor reap their own rewards. Reading Dahl is like Emily Post for kids, but with chocolate rivers and candy flowers.

Roald Dahl is a well-known classic children's author. There is an inactive wiki that appeared to be the start of a comprehensive body of work  with 106 articles; there is a call to revive it on the home page. There is also a wonderful Roald Dahl website that is animated and features links to the Roald Dahl store, museum, and his children's charity. The site features a "book chooser" that will match kids with a "splendiferous read" of his, a biography on the author, and a "Wonkalator" - a calculator game that asks kids to help Wonka with his latest magical formula.