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 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.