Tag Archives: book review

The Indian in the Cupboard

The Indian in the Cupboard is the latest read aloud in our household.  This series, by Lynne Reid Banks, gives my heart warm fuzzies because it was the series I read aloud to my younger brother when he was Mushroom and BalletBoy’s age.  I have no idea how I picked it out at the time.  All I remember was how much he enjoyed it and what a special bond it was between us at the time.  When I was in college and, unbeknown to me, the final volume of the series, The Key to the Indian, came out, he knew about it and gave it to me for Christmas.

Reading it now, I’m struck by the fact that it’s a well-written tale.  The premise, which is that a plastic figure comes to life with a magic key, is the sort of thing that many children imagine.  Banks’ story, which shows all the moral implications if that could actually happen, introduces some deep thinking about life and respect in a way that I think children can understand.  My kids, whose primary knowledge of Native Americans comes from trips to the Museum of the American Indian (they have an excellent cafe, you know), have never encountered the stereotypical concepts that Omri, the main character, needs to have dispelled by knowing “his” Indian, Little Bear.  I had to, hesitatingly, explain why Omri got so nervous about scalps.

The kids are enjoying the book and I’m enjoying rereading it for the first time in a very long time.  I can tell it’s not that most special read aloud for them (that honor might have already been bestowed anyway).  However, it’s a good story and we’ve been imagining what would happen if the Playmobil Romans and knights came to life.

Scumble

I’ve gotten a little behind on my children’s book blogging.  This is mostly because I’ve gotten behind on my children’s book reading and on reading in general.  Some actual adult books held me up and then I had a slight cold or a case of fall allergies or something and when I’m under the weather, I always just want to reread something.  But then the sequel to the middle grades novel Savvy caught my eye so now I’m back.

I didn’t love Scumble quite as much as I loved Savvy, but to my mind, Savvy was a near perfect gem of a book so it would have been a mighty tall order to exceed it.  Scumble tells the story of Ledger Kale, who acquires a very powerful savvy, or talent, on his thirteenth birthday: the ability to make things fall apart.  After some initial disasters on his way to visit his uncle’s ranch, Ledger sinks into a funk.  Sarah Jane (no, Who fans, not that Sarah Jane), a girl from town, adds complications with her outlandish tales and her discovery of Ledger’s family’s secret powers.

Ingrid Law weaves together a lot of characters and themes in the book.  In the end, Ledger has to scumble his savvy, or learn to tame his powers, so that he can go home and head to school in the fall.  Meanwhile, his uncle’s ranch, and with it, his family’s secrets, are threatened by Sarah Jane and her rich father.  I like books like this one, that have one foot firmly in reality and another one firmly in fantasy.  Overall, it was a very satisfying read.

Nevermore!

We are currently in the midst of Arabel’s Raven as our evening read aloud story.  Joan Aiken is an author that I’ve only recently discovered, much to my chagrin.  Honestly, this book might be one of the best new old books I’ve read in years.  I liked it so much that I went back and read the parts the husband read to the kids when he did bedtime, which is something I almost never do (mostly because it’s often a book I’ve already read).

The story is about a girl who acquires a pet raven.  The raven, whose name is Mortimer, knows only one word, which is apparently the only word ravens ever know: Nevermore.  Mortimer causes no end of trouble around the house.  For one thing, he eats unexpected objects, like stairs, and likes to put spaghetti in strange places, like your pockets.  He also makes what sounds like an enormous mess everywhere all the time.  However, Arabel and Mortimer have a special relationship with the sort of love and deep understanding that can exist between ravens and girls in children’s books.  So Arabel’s parents put up with Mortimer with amazing good humor.  The story has a very Roald Dahl feeling in places because of the absurd and silly situations portrayed.  However, the parents are so loving and most of the adults are so well-meaning that you know it can’t be a Roald Dahl book, though those Quentin Blake illustrations certainly invite the comparison, don’t they?

Suffice it to say that this made a perfect read aloud for us.  Humor is such an essential element in books and this one is one of the funniest we’ve read in awhile.

Elementary, My Dear Enola

I took a break from reading an actual, serious grown-up book (I know!  Grown-up book?  But it’s probably good to do that occasionally) to read the final book in the middle grades Enola Holmes series: The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye by Nancy Springer.  The series, which begins with The Case of the Missing Marquess, follows the much younger sister of Sherlock Holmes as she runs away from home and lives on her own in London, all while looking for her missing mother and dodging her meddling brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft.  Meanwhile, Enola solves crime and finds missing persons.

These books have been great fun so I was happy to read the final installment.  It didn’t disappoint me at all.  Enola is just as plucky as ever.  There are just as many anti-corset tirades as ever (maybe even more!).  Enola affects just as many hilariously bizarre disguises, including as a hansom cab driver.  There are also more coded messages, including a type of code I was unfamiliar with: the skytale.  The language is also so much fun.  Nancy Springer has written the books in Enola’s faux nineteenth-century voice.  It’s just stylized enough to be interesting without becoming off-putting to the reader.  The crime and missing person in this volume are slightly less involved than in the others.  Instead, we see more about Enola and her estranged family, which brings the series to a good conclusion.

Medieval Midwifery

I first read this amazing little gem by Karen Cushman during my final year in college, when it was new and my interest in children’s literature first began to emerge.  For me, this book is nearly perfect, and not just because it brings together my love of midwives and children’s books.  It’s also just an amazing work of literature that introduced us to Karen Cushman, who has since written a number of other great works.

We’ll be doing the Middle Ages this year for history and I wanted to start the year with a medieval book for our first read aloud, to get into the medieval mood.  However, I hesitated before using this one.  It’s such a “girl” book in many ways.  Not only is the protagonist female, but the subject of midwifery is obviously female-centric.  Not to say that boys and men shouldn’t also take an interest, but it did make me pause.  The book is short, but I also worried that the plot and the language might be a tad sophisticated for my kids.  Alyce’s voice is a complex and compelling one.  It’s amazing to me that Cushman managed to capture this sense of self-pity and angst without it seeming whiny or boring like it can in many young female narrators.

It took us a couple mornings to get into it, but as Brat transformed into Beetle and finally into Alyce, the kids cheered to see her successes with delivering babies and calves.  But most importantly, the message of the story has become a mantra for us around here that I hope is sinking in with the kids.  At the end of the story, Alyce has run away after a disastrous delivery.  She realizes that her place is back with the midwife where she can learn her craft.  She returns, only be turned away.  She walks off despondently, but then realizes that the midwife has told her what she must do to stay.  Alyce turns around and bangs on the midwife’s door and tells her she refuses to go away.  She’s realized that it’s okay to fail as long as you try again.  Once she’s learned that, the midwife lets her back in.

For me, this is one of the central ideas of learning.  Things shouldn’t come easy all the time.  Learning is hard.  It’s failure after failure before the triumph of knowledge and skill.  To learn, you have to be willing to fail and try again.  I don’t want to be too harsh with the kids.  I think learning should also be fun, experiential, interesting and joyful.  But I want to gently push my kids and know that they can take that.  Occasionally we get tears when I say a first try at something new isn’t right.  Now, we’ve started referencing Alyce when that happens.  She tried and failed and tried again.

Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for President Coin

I’m almost afraid to write a Mockingjay review for fear of spoilers for anyone who didn’t stay up too late last night reading it.  But I really can’t help myself.  I’ll keep the spoilers very minimal, but read at your own risk if you’re a fan of this immensely popular YA series.

First of all, if you’re one of the two fans of YA literature out there who aren’t familiar with this series, it takes place in the distant future in a North American country called Panem, where the capital, District 1, rules over the other districts with an iron fist and forces their children to participate in “The Hunger Games,” a twisted reality show fight to the death.  In this third volume, our hero, Katniss, joins the rebels in the hitherto mysterious District 13, where she must decide how to act in her role as the symbol of the ongoing rebellion against the capital.  Gale, Katniss’s best friend is at her side ready to fight while Peeta, her partner in the games, is imprisoned in the capital and keeps urging peace.  The final volume fleshes out many of the minor characters, but keeps up the action of the previous books.

The complaint I’ve already seen about this volume is that Katniss continues to be a pawn in everyone else’s schemes.  It’s true, but I didn’t really expect anything different.  Like the other books, Katniss proves herself to be her own person, especially by her actions at the end of the story.  I feel like Katniss’s refusal to be only a pawn, while still lacking the control over her situation she desires, is one of the points of the story.  One of the things that bothered me about Catching Fire was how completely dense Katniss was about what was going on around her.  By contrast, the schemes in Mockingjay are genuinely harder to tease apart and more morally ambiguous, making it easier to stick with Katniss’s close first person perspective.

Having read Suzanne Collins’s other series, the excellent Gregor the Overlander books, I suspected that the ending of this book would be ambiguous.  It’s much less ambiguous than the Gregor books in that the political situation is resolved and we see what happened to all the characters.  However, many of the ambiguous actions of the war are never fully addressed, seemingly purposefully.  There’s certainly a lot of moral gray left in the story for readers to ponder.  As well, Collins makes some interesting choices with the plot near the end, where the plot seems to build to a tense climax only to be jerked away.  Fans of the romantic triangle may also be disappointed.  There are some interesting twists, but the romantic resolution is done quietly, without the fireworks some fans might want.

So, in case I wasn’t clear, my first reflection is positive.  I liked the way Collins managed to keep the story so action packed yet still brought us a quieter ending.  I also appreciated that this volume was a lot less fashion-centric.

Polo!

Special post by Mushroom, age 5

I like Polo because it starts with the letter P [this is the first letter of Mushroom’s name] and it’s a comic book.  Polo is a dog.  He goes on adventures and he meets new friends.  But he always returns home.  It’s kind of like on Toot and Puddle when they say that “a boomerang flies but always returns where it belongs.”  They take adventures a lot too.  Polo lives in a tree on an island.  He uses a boat to travel.  He travels on other things too.  And sometimes his journey is magical.  Like in Polo and the Magic Flute, he came and this Panda gives him a magic flute and the Panda has one also.  The magic flute makes things turn magic, like a flying carpet.  These are so easy to read because they don’t have any words at all!  Only like one or two words that are really noises.

[I thought Mushroom could sum up the appeal of these wordless books better than me.  I’ll add that they’re French and the cartoony style is both appealingly simple and surprisingly imaginative.  The first volume is much longer, but in the last two years Polo’s shorter adventures have been published here in smaller volumes.]

On the Oregon Trail

The Water SeekerI was never allowed to play Oregon Trail, the classic game from my childhood about outfitting wagons to go west.  I’m still sort of convinced it’s because my 5th grade teacher didn’t like me that every other kid in the class seemed to get a turn on the computer to play.  Oh well, because I’m sure this book is way better than that game ever was.

Kimberly Willis Holt’s newest novel, The Water Seeker is about a lot more than the Oregon Trail.  It’s about a boy growing up in the first half of the nineteenth century with a number of special gifts, including the ability to dowse for water.  Amos Kincaid gets bounced around in life and eventually ends up heading west on a wagon train with his father where the trip is full of the sort of adventures and tragedies you would expect from a story about a wagon train adventure.  I really enjoyed this beautiful told tale about growing up.  Holt brings the feel of that time period to life without it feeling like a history lesson.  The way Amos travels from family to family brings us a lot of details about different ways of life, however the details always feel integral to understanding Amos and the story.  As Amos grows up, I really felt for him as he tried to make his own way in life and figure out what he wanted.  There are a number of vaguely supernatural elements to the story, but they remain on the periphery, almost like a historical magical realism.

One of my only lingering questions is who the book is really for.  Amos goes from a young boy to a young man in the course of the story.  Adult perspectives also get a great deal of play.  My library had it shelved with middle grades novels, but it feels more like a YA story to me, though it’s not typical teenage fare either.  The other thing I’m left wondering is what’s up with all the yellow on covers recently.  This cover looks like it’s referencing The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, another historical novel, though a very different one.

Going Toward the Adventure

I just finished Polly Horvath’s latest middle grades novel, Northward to the Moon, which was a sequel to her excellent My One Hundred Adventures.  If you don’t know Horvath’s work, it’s most definitely worth checking out.  She writes poetic stories about young people thrown into unusual situations, usually in small towns surrounded by quirky characters.  In Northward to the Moon, Jane’s stepfather, Ned, is fired from his French teaching job in Saskatchewan for not speaking French.  When he gets word that an old friend is dying, Jane, her mother, her depressed little sister and her rambunctious little brothers all set out on a wild goose chase that connects Ned with his long-lost family.  Like My One Hundred Adventures, which focuses on Jane’s desire to figure out who her father is, Northward to the Moon is ostensibly about a mysterious pile of money and tracing where it came from.  Another mystery, of why Ned’s mother moved the family to Fort McMurray when he was young, is also introduced.  However, Horvath isn’t afraid to write a book with multiple loose ends.  The real story is about adventures and travel and what makes people need to look for adventure in their lives.

While I’m still letting the ending sink in, I can say I loved this book and its beautifully crafted musings on life and people’s eccentricities.  The sense of place that Horvath’s writing evokes about all the settings introduced in the story is also amazing.  I’ll just leave you with this quote, Ned, about his unusual upbringing:

“On the other hand, Fort McMurray wasn’t without any merit. You could go outside and see the northern lights any night in winter.  Down south we had studied the northern lights but in Fort McMurray we experienced them.  That’s when I decided that experience is everything.  That there was little I could learn in a classroom that was as worthwhile as seeing it for myself. So I hit the road and have been hitting it more or less ever since.”

Girl Psychic

Continuing in my quest to read more local DC authors, I turned to Jennifer Allison’s Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator, the first in a series of middle grades novels.  Gilda is a 13 year old girl who worms her way into spending the summer with unknown relatives in San Francisco.  Gilda is a quirky character who likes mysteries and supernatural phenomena.  She immediately becomes convinced she needs to solve the possibly mystery of the tower in the house where she’s staying.  Her depressed cousin’s aunt died falling from the top and may (or may not) be haunting the house.

I had very mixed feelings about this book.  On the one hand, I loved Gilda.  Not only is her voice humorous and well-written, but she’s just a compellingly real character of the kind that often don’t appear in books.  She’s caught at that moment between being a kid, enjoying pretend and dress-up and being a teenager, referencing Buffy the Vampire Slayer and chiding her older brother for looking at dirty pictures on the internet.  I loved the whole concept of the story too.  A girl psychic detective is just a great idea and sounds like it would be a terrific starting point for stories.  Also, while it’s kind of an aside, check out that cool cover.  The book design was excellent, with Gilda’s glasses used as a divider for sections and multiple fonts used for notes and letters.  I’m a sucker for cat’s eye glasses.

However, the story meandered in places.  For a mystery, the mystery didn’t turn out to be all that mysterious.  I had trouble figuring out how real all of Gilda’s supernatural beliefs were.  By the end of the story, I was happy to see how things turned out.  So despite getting bogged down a little in the middle, I can’t quite let go of how much I liked the idea behind this book. I’m curious to read the next one.