Tag Archives: children’s literature

What We’re Reading

Read Alouds
The Austin Family books by Madeleine L’Engle
Loyal blog readers may recall that last year I held down my children and forced them to read L’Engle’s most famous work, A Wrinkle in Time, and they really disliked it. It was the moment I had to really face that they simply wouldn’t love the books I had loved. But luckily, I tried again on the L’Engle front (I was a bit obsessed with her as a middle schooler and the heartbreak at their refusal to enjoy her work was intense) to much, much better results. L’Engle’s Austin series, about a contemporary family and their everyday struggles, has been a much bigger hit here. The books focus on one of the middle children, Vicky, and her struggles to grow up and find her place in the world. In Meet the Austins, the family temporarily welcomes an orphan, Maggy, who was raised very differently than them.  They struggle to adjust her to their small town, positive thinking lifestyle. In The Moon By Night, the family takes a cross-country trip to visit Maggy in her new California home, all while Vicky is trying to figure out her place in the world. Vicky is twelve in the first book, but nearly fifteen in the second. There’s a romance with a young man, Zachary Gray, who they meet camping and who follows the family from campsite to campsite, in part to romance Vicky. He’s much more grown up and pessimistic than Vicky or her family and it creates one of the primary tensions in the book. We’ve just started the final book in the original set (there are a few others with Vicky that L’Engle wrote at other times), A Ring of Endless Light, which deals with the approaching death of Vicky’s grandfather while she helps a young scientist study dolphins and deals with Zachary’s attentions again.

The books were contemporary to L’Engle’s time as she wrote them, but that was the early 1960’s and they now read like historical fiction in many ways. References to “phonographs” and other outdated technology litter the pages, as well as early 60’s fears about nuclear war and slang vocabulary like “slob” and “beatnik.” Overall, the kids have loved the books. They have sparked lots of discussions about the philosophy shared in the books, the quotes, and the attitudes of Vicky and her family. The family are religious and artistic and thoughtful so there is often a great deal of food for thought. The rich, meandering sentences have also been great for longer dictations. However, the time period is also occasionally a barrier. The kids were shocked by the idea that it might be seen as acceptable in any way for a seventeen year old to follow a younger teen around the country when her parents didn’t approve and she was ambivalent. “He’s a stalker!” they said, something I’m guessing previous generations of readers didn’t take from Zachary’s behavior. In general, the romantic element of the story has been a mixed element for my 12 year olds, but that’s more of a reflection of their age than anything else.

Mushroom’s Pleasure Reading
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall
Mushroom has really been tearing through books lately and he read this one with a great deal of focus and interest. It focuses on our very own fair city in the 1960’s and features a work of art we’re well familiar with, The Throne of the Third Heaven, which we’ve visited many times at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The book explores an imagined friendship between the main character, a young boy who has just lost his father, and the “junk man” who is working on his artistic masterpiece. This book, which had a touch of deep thinking and a lot of interesting issues, was right up Mushroom’s reading alley. He had read a review of this one and wanted to read it right away.

BalletBoy’s Pleasure Reading
Click Here to Start by Dennis Markell
I picked this new book up a couple of months ago in Portland (it’s not a trip to Portland unless you get to go look at books in Powell’s!). It’s about a boy who uncle leaves him a treasure in his will, but only if he can find it in the escape room style game that he turns his apartment into. I like that this genre of fun, light mystery books for kids has been growing lately. Books like this one, the Winston Breen books, and the Lemoncello’s Library books are perfect for a certain sort of reader. Click Here to Start has an added video game motif running throughout the story. A perfect light read for both Mushroom and BalletBoy.

Graphic Novel Reading
Red’s Planet by Eddie Pittman
Pittman is a former Phineas and Ferb writer and artist. The story here, about a girl from Earth who accidentally finds herself in space, dealing with a motley crew of characters, is reminiscent of Zita the Spacegirl. The full color art is lovely and imaginative. So… you’d think with a pedigree like that and an appealing story line that this would have been a huge hit here, right? Meh, the boys said. It was just okay. I also felt like there was some magic missing in this one, though I can’t say exactly what. Overall, though, I think it’s as much that Mushroom and BalletBoy are starting to outgrow this particular level and style of graphic novels (just as they have really hit boom status in the marketplace). So I’ll say highly recommended… for the 8-10 year old set.

BalletBoy’s School Reading
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
This was a challenge book for BalletBoy. One of his school topics this year, chosen by him, was time travel, so it seemed like the time was ripe to do a classic novel like this. He didn’t love it and there were a lot of moments that we had to pick through it and discuss what was really going on. I remember reading it when I was younger and the narrative is unsatisfying in places, especially the abrupt resolution. However, the issues it brings up are interesting, with the two strains of humanity developing into the Eloi and the Morlocks. And Wells does a good job with the reveal of the time traveler’s realization of who the Morlocks really are. Overall, I’m glad I assigned it.

Mushroom’s School Reading
The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane by Russell Freedman
This was a Newbery honor book from several years ago. It was a great length with the right level of text for Mushroom covering the lives of the Wright Brothers. It interweaves the Wright brothers’ quotes and photos into the text. I assigned it as part of Mushroom’s study of the history and science of aviation, one of his big topics for the year. He read it fairy quickly and retained the information well. However, if this review sounds lackluster, it’s because the book was really just okay all the way around. The old photographs throughout the text were nice, but the book design feels woefully old fashioned compared to the layout of newer nonfiction books at this level. And we agreed that the text just wasn’t that amazing. I would like to see more nonfiction books under consideration for the Newbery in general, but we’re a little unsure what made this one such a standout.

Farrar’s YA Reading
American Girls by Alison Umminger
This YA novel was an interesting tale. Fifteen year old Anna “borrows” her step-mother’s credit card to run away and stay with her sister in Los Angeles for the summer. Back at home, things are a mess with her parents, her school, and her best friend. In LA, her older sister, an actor, helps her stumble into making some money doing research for a director who is filming a movie inspired by the Manson girls. She alternates time doing her research and hanging out on the set of what is basically a Disney sitcom, flirting with one of the stars. To say that there’s a lot going on here is an understatement and by no means are the loose threads all tied up in the end. The setting is a bit wild, as are all the Hollywood characters and the background information Anna keeps reflecting on about the Manson murders. I can’t say I loved this book, but in the end, it was a compelling story. Anna was believable and I liked how she kept managing to do all the wrong things by accident and with good intentions. I think that’s pretty much what being a teenager is like much of the time. Definitely a teen read what with the references to abuse, drugs, and other vices, but Anna herself is pretty tame and there’s nothing graphic going on here.

My 16 Favorite Fantasy Books and Series for Kids and Teens

If you read my post last week, you’ll know that I recently had to come to terms with the fact that Mushroom and BalletBoy, while they may enjoy an occasional jaunt through a fantasy novel, just aren’t true aficionados of the genre and might never be (though apparently I can hold out hope that they’ll learn to appreciate it better). Still, I was a complete fantasy nut as a kid so I give you my absolute favorites. Most are from my own childhood though a few are newer, but even those appeal to the middle school reader in me. They’re in no particular order below. Note that these aren’t “the best fantasy books ever.” They’re my favorites, particularly my favorites for younger readers.

A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle
I waffled about listing “The Time Quartet” (or Quintet) but decided that really, for me, it was all about these two books, which stand alone just fine, while the others are fine, but nowhere near as good as these two. In the first one Meg and her little brother Charles Wallace travel through other dimensions to rescue their father, who is held captive on another planet. In the latter, Charles Wallace, now a teen, travels through time Quantum Leap style while Meg, now a young adult, helps him from the present by linking to his mind. Both books are completely genre-breaking and weird by any summary, but both work and spoke deeply to me as a kid about good and evil. L’Engle’s liberal Christian theology bleeds through in both.
Perfect for: About age 10-12, when kids are first ready to think deeper about stories.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can deal with the darker themes. Planet in particular has some violence and a couple of shocking events, though nothing gory.

The Young Wizards by Diane Duane
I found this series, which still gets new additions every once in awhile, when I was in college. It follows Nita and her best friend Kit as they become wizards in the modern world and have to deal with quests. The big good and evil themes are very present in these books and I love the way Duane blends the modern, urban world with those big good and evil battles. It’s also fun to see Nita and Kit take on evil across the galaxy and then come home to chores and sibling rivalry. A great bonus is that unlike many of the books on this list, this series does a great job with diverse characters and with gender roles. Kit is Latino. Later books have an autistic character who is handled very well. This series hasn’t been in vogue in awhile, but it’s so good.
Perfect for: Kids who ran out of Madeleine L’Engle books and want more in that vein.
Appropriate for: Any kid okay with darker themes like death.

The Crestomanci Books by Diana Wynne Jones
I read a tiny smattering of Jones’s work as a kid, but it was only later that I realized how much she had written and how amazing her books are. This series is probably her most accessible to readers who haven’t encountered her before, but it’s also my favorite. Crestomanci is an enchanter who helps regulate magic for the government, but in some of the books, as a kid, he gets into all kinds of mischief. All of Jones’s books wind you around through a maze and spit you out the other side. I especially love The Lives of Christopher Chant. For the most part, these can be read in any order, which is just an indication of what a great and slightly twisty writer Jones was.
Perfect for: Doctor Who Fans. Really, it has that feel sometimes.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can keep up with the plot twists.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
This is the best Arthurian retelling in my opinion, beating out any others (and I read a lot as a kid) by far. In some ways, it’s just a straight retelling of King Arthur and his knights. In other ways, it turns the whole story into something completely new, a psychological exploration of power and justice. The opening section, about Arthur’s boyhood, shape shifting with Merlin, was reworked into Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. For many fantasy lovers, White’s book stands with The Lords of the Rings and Gormenghast as some of the greatest British fantasy ever written.
Perfect for: A kid ready for a really dense read.
Appropriate for: The first section can be read as a standalone and is appropriate for anyone. The rest of the book isn’t graphic, but it is a lot more grown up and includes the affairs and jealousies of adult relationships and marriages.

The Hero in the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
It’s impossible to explain how much I adore these books. They’re connected only loosely as they take place hundreds of years apart. The first is much for traditional feeling fantasy, about a girl who fights dragons. The second takes place in a world where an imaginary British-like empire has conquered most of the magical lands without ever realizing there was magic in them. McKinley’s writing is rich and paints a vivid picture of Damar. The Hero in the Crown won a Newbery.
Perfect for: Me, age 12.
Appropriate for: There’s a veiled reference to sex in the first book, but it’s very veiled. Both books have romance as a central theme and feel very YA, but they’re not inappropriate for younger readers if they pick them up.

The Belgariad by David Eddings
This is a thick five book series originally written for adults but which is now being read by older kids and teens pretty regularly and sometimes sold as one big, fat volume. It follows a boy, Garion, as he realizes his destiny to fight a giant battle against a god. As an adult, I can see that Eddings’s world is problematic, in large part because it’s so segregated and borderline racist. The darker skinned characters are the baddies. And being good or bad is determined in large part by your race and culture. And while there are several strong female characters, it’s a man’s world rife with sexism. I have extremely mixed feelings about all that, but I also remember how much I enjoyed the vivid cast of characters and the epic qualities of the story. I think it’s still worth enjoying by kids who are able to understand what elements of the set up aren’t so good.
Perfect for: Slightly older kids who want to sink their teeth into a big fantasy adventure.
Appropriate for: Because these were first written for adults, there are numerous references to drinking (but note that characters generally suffer when they drink too much) and sex, though nothing graphic is described. Also note the above about sexism and racism. I wouldn’t suggest this series for a kid before they were ready to be a little critical of those elements, even if it was with guidance.

The Dark is Rising Series by Susan Cooper
This series is hard to explain if you haven’t read it. There are a couple of books about some average kids and another few that focus on a boy with magical powers to bend time and space. Along with an old man who is secretly Merlin in the modern day, they work for the side of the light and against the mysterious dark. Lots of Arthurian tidbits continually come into play. Mushroom and BalletBoy really liked the first book, where the average siblings find the Holy Grail, but they found the next one, about the magical boy, harder to enjoy. It’s my favorite. I loved that young Will had a secret identity and was sometimes normal and other times wise beyond his years. The jumps in time and place were interesting to me as a kid and, of course, those big good and evil themes came into play. This series has much denser and richer language than a lot of fantasy being written for kids today. Note that the film version of the titular series book is dreadful. Avoid at all costs.
Perfect for: Fans of rhyming prophesies in fantasy books, Arthurian nuts, fantasy weirdos. Really, these books are classics, but they’re also a bit hard to pin down.
Appropriate for: Any child who can keep up with the language.

Tales of Magic by Edward Eager
This series includes Eager’s wonderful classic Half-Magic, which is probably my favorite. In that book, four siblings acquire the ability to use magic wishes, but the wishes only ever work halfway, making them half invisible or sending them halfway on a journey. Later books include other sorts of magic that comes and then goes, giving the siblings a brief bout of adventure before their mundane lives resume. While the plots are fantastic, the siblings and their relationships feel very real. All Eager’s books feel very much like real magic games kids play come to life. This is one of the few series Mushroom and BalletBoy also genuinely loved, perhaps because they feel so much like real life with pretend.
Perfect for: Read alouds once your kids are really into their read alouds.
Appropriate for: Anyone at all.

The Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
This series was an adult discovery for me. I only found it a few years ago, but I was blown away by its complexity and good writing. The main character, Gen, is the titular thief, who must steal something very important. To say much more would give away the first book, which is by far the best. As the series goes on, it changes, covering politics and intrigue as well as romance in the complex world Turner created. That world is very realistic with very few supernatural elements, making it mostly just an imagined universe and not a traditional fantasy setting.
Perfect for: Kids who want “good” fantasy YA.
Appropriate for: There’s nothing inappropriate, but the characters are all adults and the romance in the later books feels very grown up. I wouldn’t suggest it before 12 or 13 to most kids.

Dragonsong and Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffery
Most of McCaffery’s Dragon books aren’t really for kids, though these two absolutely are and they’re also by far the best of the bunch. On a planet where the weather can be literally deadly if you don’t have proper shelter, Menolly lives alone and finds tiny dragons before moving to the Harper Hall to play music. Because these were a tiny duo of books (there’s also a third that’s nowhere near as good and follows another character) meant for younger readers inside a vast series, the world building is impeccable and complex yet totally accessible to new readers.
Perfect for: Girls who like music and dragons.
Appropriate for: Any age, but note that the other Dragonrider series have a lot more adult content and the final book is this trilogy, Dragondrums, also has a lot more romance, including a brief but not terribly veiled pre-sex scene.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
This was my real gateway drug into fantasyland as a child. Through the wardrobe I went and I never totally returned. The books follow the magical land of Narnia over time and the children from Earth who stumble into visiting there. I feel like it has to be said that the books are a Christian allegory, something that I didn’t quite get as a child, but which is beyond obvious as an adult. I don’t mind this most of the time. Lewis is an interesting Christian thinker and I appreciate the elements of Christianity he brings to fantasy. However, The Horse and his Boy is beyond racist and anti-Muslim. I think it’s worth just pulling out of the box set and hiding, to be honest. The final book is also a conundrum, being a book with numerous references to Revelations and an interpretation of both adult life and Narnia that never sat very comfortably with me, honestly. Still, the magic and story in the first books is so excellent. The messages about faith and belief were also ones that have stuck with me for a long time.
Perfect for: Reading aloud the moment kids are ready for it.
Appropriate for: Children before they’ve become too analytical. Seriously, I think these are better read before you can see the Christian allegory.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
I’m a bit too old to have read these as a kid. In fact, my own kids were tiny when I dragged them to a release party to get my copy of the final book. While I can only assume no one needs a summary, the series follows Harry, an orphan, as he attends a school for wizards and learns the tools he needs to take up his destiny and fight Voldemort, the wizard who killed his parents. Like everyone else, I loved these books and I even can say that (gasp), the fifth one where Harry is just so mad may actually be my favorite. Oh, teenagers.
Perfect for: Everyone on the planet, apparently.
Appropriate for: A lot has been made in many families about making kids wait on this series. While obviously there are some dark parts to the ending, the writing is much easier than many of the books on this list and the dark stuff is pretty mild when you come down to it. In some families, the kids are reading things I think are just as dark or even more so while being told not yet for Harry Potter. While I wouldn’t suggest them to younger kids per se, I think they’re fine for any kid who really wants to tackle them, even accelerated younger readers.

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
This series is, for me, one of the best examples of classic fantasy ever written. It follows Taran as he goes from lowly pigkeeper to epic hero. The setting and characters are drawn from Welsh mythology and have a very pre-medieval feel. As a child, this set me off on a strange love of all things Welsh that I’ve never really given up. Just seeing a Welsh flag with a dragon on it still gives me a little warm fuzzy for no reason I have any right to. The final book in the series earned a well-deserved Newbery award.
Perfect for: Kids who have exhausted all the easy, breezy fun fantasy of today and want something with more depth.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot, which are a little dense by today’s standards. There are some darker themes and scary bad guys.

Moomintroll Books by Tove Janssen
These books are so odd and charming. I especially adore Comet in Moominland. All the books follow the odd Moomins, a family of funny looking creatures, and their various friends. It’s hard to say what happens in any of them exactly, because even though there are floods and panics and robberies and so forth, you come away from all the books feeling simply like you got to dwell in another place with some strange characters for a little while. And when I say strange, I really do mean strange. When they were younger, BalletBoy and Mushroom really liked these whimsical tales.
Perfect for: Read alouds for kids who like odd stories.
Appropriate for: Anyone and everyone.

The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
In many ways, I like this series better than Collins’s much better known Hunger Games. It also uses many of the same themes about how much we control our own fates when others are trying to use us and the long term effects of violence on individuals. Despite those dark sounding themes, this is a story about a boy and his baby sister who stumble into an underground world populated by intelligent rats, mice, and bugs. The main character Gregor may be part of a prophesy. These books were obviously a more recent discovery for me, but I really love them. One of the things I love is that unlike so much fantasy, the book features non-white characters as the heroes, not the villains.
Perfect for: Animal fantasy lovers.
Appropriate for: Any child who can deal with some of the darker themes and violence. Note that even though the violence features animals for the most part, sometimes it’s pretty grim, such as a mouse genocide that Gregor sees from afar.

The Earthsea Books by Ursula K. LeGuin
In high school, an English class I was in used the first volume of these books as an introduction to archetypes in literature. It illustrates one of the great things about fantasy books: the metaphors and symbolism is often more overt and complex than in other works, making them excellent first books to deconstruct and discuss in depth. The main books follow the wizard Ged. I remember that as a young reader, I especially loved the power of words and names in Earthsea and the way the magic system worked. These are considered some of the most influential fantasy classics out there.
Perfect for: All fantasy lovers. They should be required reading.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot. They’re definitely intended for a YA audience, though there’s nothing inappropriate for younger readers.

 

Confessions of a Failed Geek: My Kids Don’t Like Fantasy

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Imagining… but maybe not swords and dragons.

In the last few months, a horrible truth has come down in our home. While the kids enjoy a little Harry Potter, like playing Dungeons and Dragons, and looked forward to seeing the new Star Wars, they just don’t care for fantasy.

I have been trying to deny this for years. I’ve been pushing the Diana Wynne Jones, the Lloyd Alexander, the Gregor the Overlander books on them. They often tolerate it. Sometimes they find it enjoyable. But the truth has been written on the wall for a long time. The fantasy books get an, “okay,” but they would much rather hear The Saturdays, The Great Brain, a pile of historical fiction, a mystery novel.

I was a fantasy fanatic as a kid. I read nearly everything that was labeled fantasy on the children’s shelves – Narnia, Edward Eager, Robin McKinley, and so forth. Then I moved into the adult section and tried out books like the Dragonriders of Pern and The Belgariad.

The idea that fantasy is “just escapism” has been pretty well refuted in the last few decades as children’s and now young adult literature has become more saturated with it and even adult literature has leaned more and more speculative with writers like Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin as some of the most blockbuster bestsellers out there.

Fantasy was so influential in forming the way I looked at the world. Fantasy is big battles between good and evil. It’s big questions about right and wrong. It’s about power and responsibility. And it lays it all out in a way that’s more epic and more philosophically bare than most realistic fiction for kids. It’s not an escape from reality, it’s reality heightened for young readers, where you can really think about what you believe and challenge your imagination.

I can remember flying through and then rereading fantasy novels, especially in middle school. Obsessing over the details, copying the maps of imaginary places, and then dreaming up my own imaginary places. I can remember imagining, all Mary Sue style, what it would be like to be in these fantasy places, visiting Narnia, tempted by the Dark Side, tromping into Mordor, fighting the power of IT, training to battle dragons.

And now, I realized, my kids just won’t have those moments or anything like them. It made me want to cry.

But, gathering myself together. It’s okay. I would have groaned at some of the long classics and historical fiction that they actually adore. They adored The Secret Garden when they were little. They actually really enjoy classics that other kids often find sort of dull, like when we read Island of the Blue Dolphins. And far from shying away from tough topics, Mushroom’s favorite books are critically acclaimed books about tough topics like Mockingbird and Counting By 7’s. Those aren’t the sort of books I would have read at that age at all, but they’re undoubtedly giving him different perspectives on the world. They get excited about a new Penderwicks book and reveled having a new Calpurnia Tate book to listen to.

And while they may not be fantasy nuts, they don’t lack for imagination, playing out long soap operas of intrigue and love between their toys and coming up with elaborate spy, ninja, and mythology inspired games with their friends. For them, art, history, and politics can be just as much fodder for the imagination as Narnia or Middle Earth.

Fall Book Roundup

This is our periodic round up of mini-reviews of just a few of the things we’ve been reading lately.

Read Aloud
The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Is it possible that this sequel is even better than the original? I think I like it even more than the first book. The writing is so beautiful and detailed and the characters and world are so well drawn. Calpurnia is the only girl in a large, prosperous Texas family in 1900. Her grandfather, a Civil War veteran, encourages her interest in nature and science while the rest of her family want her to be more feminine. In this book, the Galveston Hurricane, the greatest natural disaster in American history, is explored. Calpurnia becomes closer to her younger, animal loving, soft-hearted brother Travis, considers becoming a veterinarian when she grows up, and learns about the weather. Like the previous book, each chapter begins with a quote from Charles Darwin, though these are drawn from The Voyage of the Beagle. Build Your Library sells a unit study about evolution that uses the first book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate as a core part of the study. This book lends itself even more clearly to being used as the literary backbone of a science study. Calpurnia builds her own barometer, astrolabe, and other instruments, as well as dissects several creatures, such as a grasshopper and a worm.

Audiobook
Penny from Heaven by Jennifer Holm

We’ve really enjoyed all of Holm’s books inspired by her family history. This book takes place in 1950’s New Jersey, where Penny is caught between her mother and her late father’s large Italian family. Most of the book is light and funny, filled with vivid characters. Penny’s cousin Frankie is constantly in and out of trouble, her grandmother cooks only inedible food, her uncle sleeps in his car, her other grandmother wears only black in mourning for her father, even many years after his death. Meanwhile, Penny spends her time trying to sneak away and have fun despite all her mother’s rules. However, I have to issue a warning and a spoiler. More than midway through the book, Penny has an accident with a clothing wringer that is so gruesome I nearly had to pull the car over because we were all freaking out so much. It works out in the end, but it was really a pretty horrible accident.

School Reading
Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Laurence Pringle

This book is a great introduction to evolution. We are studying paleontology this year and I wanted to begin with a look at evolution. This book has such a clear text with such great illustrations by Steve Jenkins as well as illustrative photos. It was at exactly the right level for the kids to read independently and the chapters were very well organized. Evolution can be hard to understand, but this book explains it well, including the history of our understanding of evolution and how natural selection and adaptation works.

School Reading
Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age by Cheryl Bardoe

Because we had the opportunity to see an IMAX film that covered the same material during a homeschool science center day, we skipped ahead a little bit in our paleontology study to look at the Pleistocene animals. This book was very well written with great photos. It’s not long and was also at just the right nonfiction reading level for the kids. The opening part focuses on the find of a baby mammoth in Siberia. The mammoth was perfectly preserved and can now be seen in museums. The mystery of the extinction of the mammoths and their kin is also covered.

 

Mushroom’s Reading
Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales by Nathan Hale

Mushroom has been loving these nonfiction graphic novels and has already read several of them. Each book covers a different American history topic, generally with a slightly dark or violent topic, including several wars and the infamous Donner Party. Mushroom says he likes the first one, about Revolutionary War spies, the best. A lot of the nonfiction graphic novels that are coming out now are dry or formulaic, but this series has creative storytelling and good details as well as a friendly art style. I think it would appeal to a lot of the fans of the Horrible Histories series.

BalletBoy’s Reading
The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar

BalletBoy wanted something light to read and he picked this book off the shelf. It’s not one of Sachar’s better works, honestly. It’s part of a series of books about middle school kids. This one is about a boy who joins the popular crowd, but it comes with a price. Soon, not only is he not part of the popular crowd anymore, but he’s pretty sure he’s cursed. This is one of those books that explores all the awkward, sometimes terrible things that middle school kids can do to each other. The end message is positive and funny, but BalletBoy didn’t end up loving the book, in part because he felt uncomfortable with how the kids treated each other. My kids have definitely seen some doses of meanness, but maybe not in this same way.

Farrar’s (regrettable) YA Reading
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Why do I always get sucked into these? But good reviews, a little buzz, and an interesting concept and I was suckered into trying this book. In the end, I gave up on it toward the end, not quite finishing it. Mare is a poor “red” girl. She has no abilities and is subject to the powerful “silvers” and their never ending war. That is, until it’s discovered she does have mysterious powers and is swept into an arranged marriage in order for the royals to hide that fact. There’s a rebellion (of course), a love quadrangle (double of course), and a lot of hand wringing. There’s a twist that was a reasonable good idea, but on the whole the book fell very flat for me. It was yet another formulaic dystopian style YA novel with mediocre writing. Bah.

 

 

Book Roundup

I’ve gotten out of the habit of doing our periodic book roundups. However, as always, we’ve been reading. Here’s a few things from our shelves from the last few months and I’ll try to get back to doing more book blogging again.

School Read
Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd
We took this book out of the library and let it inspire our final project for fifth grade: graphic design. This was such a readable book for my design loving kids that they both read it for pleasure reading first before I could assign it, which is a rare occurrence around here indeed. It’s a well designed book (as one would hope) and filled with great visual examples. The text also breaks down important elements of design in a way that’s simple for the reader. At the end there are ten projects for readers to try so they can do their own graphic design. As always, the kids has their own takes on how to do the projects, but it was a really good introduction. I highly recommend it.

Nonfiction Practice Reading
TIME: Modern Explorers
We have struggled a lot to hit the right length and difficulty level for nonfiction reading in our house. I may write more about this in a future post, but in the meantime, I found a good solution for now, which was to seek out adult magazines geared toward more casual readers by simply running through the offerings at the bookstore. This one has been the biggest hit. It’s a special issue of Time about explorers in all different fields: medicine, oceanography, outer space, climbing, and more. There’s a nice variance of lengths and both the boys have been excited by what they read. The opening article, about twin astronauts, was especially interesting to them. The writing is at a high enough level to be challenging, but not as challenging as many other publications geared toward adults and the length of the articles is just right, which has been a key element for my not so fast readers.

Required Reading
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
We do very little required reading, but I did choose a couple of shorter books to be read by all three of us at the same time then discussed at a poetry tea and this is the one that finished up our school year. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a boy named Jess, a middle child in a poor, rural family who dreams of being an artist. Leslie moves in next door and they quickly become friends. Leslie’s family is affluent, there because they’re fleeing the city for a country oasis. She’s different, smart, and well-read. She introduces Jess to a fantasy world and they play games in the woods across the creek. However, on a fateful, stormy day when Jess isn’t there, she is swept into the creek and drowns. I know this book is divisive for many. Some people feel utterly betrayed by the story and Leslie’s very unexpected death (there is some foreshadowing, but it’s limited). However, I felt like the book is one that has a strong impact on readers and generally elicits a strong response. I talked to the kids about how the book is sad and that there’s a surprise shocking thing that happens. Even with the warnings, BalletBoy cried when he read about Leslie’s death and it led to a lot of good conversations, which was exactly the goal of having a required reading book like this one.

Mushroom’s Serious Read
Counting by 7’s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Mushroom has a book type these days, one that can best be described as “issue books.” He likes books where difficult things happen to kids or where kids have to overcome various issues. That’s why I was sure this book would be right up his alley. Willow, the main character, is profoundly gifted, but also misunderstood by everyone but her parents. Unfortunately, they die in a terrible accident, leaving Willow on her own without anyone. A bizarre cast of characters step in to help her out, but slowly, as Willow resurfaces from her grief, she’s the one who helps them out. I read this one alongside Mushroom and we both really liked it.

Mushroom’s Graphic Novel Read
El Deafo by Cece Bell
You know how I just said that Mushroom likes “issue books”? Well, here was one that brought together his two great literary loves in one volume: a book that was both an issue book and a graphic novel. What could be better? El Deafo won a much deserved Newbery Honor last year, hopefully making it the first graphic novel to be honored among many. The characters are all rabbits, but the story is based on the author’s own childhood. Cece loses her hearing and must adjust to having an awkward hearing aid, but one that soon helps her hear in places that no one else can. It’s a story that’s both serious and funny.

BalletBoy’s Serious Read
The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne
BalletBoy generally refuses to listen to any books I suggest for him so he always runs through the shelves and finds his own interesting titles, often of books I’ve never heard of. That was the case with this book, which is a sort of fanciful tale about a boy who is born floating. In a twist a bit like the classic Rudolph Christmas special, Barnaby’s parents are ashamed of his unusual state and do everything they can to hide it, that is until Barnaby floats away to have a series of adventures. BalletBoy really loved this book and immediately dove into another book by Boyne (who is probably best known as the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). I only skimmed a bit of it, but I can’t say I was as enchanted as he was, still, I think the fairy tale and moral qualities of the story appealed to him as a reader.

Farrar’s YA Read
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
This Printz award winner from last year begins like a typical teenage boy book. Narrator Austin is a bit of a stoner, a bit funny, a bit confused about his sexuality, and a bit disgusting in the way that teen boys can be. However, after introducing the characters, the book slowly veers into science fiction as a virus that ends the world by turning people into giant bugs is unleashed thanks to a series of accidents. This was one of those darkly fascinating books for me. It really stayed with me for weeks afterward and I liked how the book swung from being one sort of book to being another entirely. Austin’s voice reminded me a little of the main character from Youth in Revolt – a teenage boy who is both disgusted with himself and yet unable to stop himself when it comes to poor decisions. But by the end of the book, it felt like I was in a comedic Starship Troopers. This book is definitely not for everyone, but I liked what Smith had to say in his thank yous about how he wrote it just for himself, just because. Obviously, that led to a unique, interesting book.

Farrar’s YA Graphic Novel Read
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
I read this all in one sitting because I was so compelled once it got started (I know, not so hard for a graphic novel, but still). The setting is a sort of alternate universe where medieval values and trappings live alongside modern technology. At the start, the title character Nimona, a young teen with a medieval punk look, offers her services to the most famous super villain, a man who washed out of being a knight after his arm was destroyed in a jousting explosion. It quickly becomes clear that Nimona, who happens to be a shapeshifter, is dangerously unstable and bloodthirsty. The story makes you feel for her despite the high body count she racks up. But as the story continues, it becomes less clear who the good guys and bad guys even are and what Nimona is as well. I highly recommend this one to anyone who likes a good graphic novel. I liked the balance it struck between humor and seriousness.

Ten “Girl” Books My Boys Have Loved

Anyone who knows me knows I love to recommend books to people. I’m a children’s book nut and I like helping people find good books for their book devourers and picky readers alike. But often I feel like people who want book recommendations want to start in the wrong place, which is gender.

It’s important for all kids to be able to see themselves in the characters they read about (not to get onto a tangent, but that’s exactly why #weneeddiversebooks). Books are a mirror for our lives and help us understand our own experiences by identifying with others’ stories. However, I think it’s just as important that kids have the opportunity to read about different perspectives and that includes reading about what it’s like to grow up as a girl.

When people talk about the need for there to be books with strong female characters, the focus is usually to help girls become strong women. However, as the mother of boys, I think it’s just as important that boys read these books to learn how to respect, admire, and be understand strong women when they grow up. We do just as huge a disservice to boys when we don’t give them “girl” books as we do when we box girls into a reading corner.

So here are just a few of the many “girl” books my boys have read and enjoyed over the years. Many of them are books that are consistently on the “for girls!” lists.

Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Conner
Last Christmas, my sister-in-law gifted BalletBoy a very amusing picture book: Fancy Nancy and the Wedding of the Century, signed by the author. He had a great blush. Why is she giving me this? But I knew immediately. As a preschooler, BalletBoy had loved Fancy Nancy so very much that he had announced that he planned to marry her when he grew up. We may have grown out of Nancy a long time ago, but her girly, vocabulary rich, pink-loving charms were once really enjoyed here.

Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
Mushroom and I recently reread this one curled up in bed late at night. It’s probably no surprise that this would have been a much loved girl picture book for my anxious kid. Henkes’s world has many boy characters as well – we especially liked Owen too – but Wemberly has a special place for us.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munch
This classic tale of princess empowerment is funny for boys too. My boys always thought the picture of the annoying prince who needed rescue was very amusing. I especially thought it was good for boys to see that princesses can rescue them.

Ivy and Bean series by Annie Barrows
Not long ago, BalletBoy noticed a newer Ivy and Bean book he’d never read and picked it up sort of wistfully before putting it back and declaring he was too old for it. However, these books about two neighbor girls with very different personalities and a close friendship was one of the first chapter book series he read independently.

Ramona series by Beverly Cleary
Not that we didn’t also enjoy Henry Huggins or Ralph S. Mouse, but Ramona’s struggles from pest to older kid have been Cleary’s most loved books here. She is one of the most real characters in children’s literature, with some of the most real family relationships and struggles.

The Penderwicks
 series by Jeanne Birdsall
We loved meeting the Penderwicks again in the most recent book.
The books are so sweet and touching positive with such great sister relationships. We have read every one and loved them all.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This classic was a read aloud ages ago and both boys enjoyed Mary’s transformation from contrary to happy. They may have also really liked my poorly done accents. I highly recommend the beautiful Inga Moore version, which was the one we had.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
This fairy tale with a girl power twist was a much enjoyed story for both my boys, who both liked Ella’s unlucky tale. I like the determination that Ella has to show and the way the romance evolves through the story. The boys thought the movie wasn’t all that great, but I’m pretty sure everyone agreed on
that.

11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass
Mushroom read this book not too long ago for pleasure reading. Wendy Mass has several more boy-centric titles, but most of her books are solidly female-centric. This light and funny one with a magical twist, with worries about middle school cliques and birthday party attendees, feels especially girl-centric. But he enjoyed it a lot and I like that the final message is so positive toward girls and boys continuing to be friends, even in middle school and
beyond.

Smile
by Raina Telgemeier
This coming of age graphic novel was based on the author’s real life and deals a lot with learning to figure out who your real friends are and how to be yourself, lessons that both girls and boys have to learn. It has a cult following among girls, but I have noticed a lot of boys reading it as well. I’m embarrassed to say that I initially didn’t give this to either of my kids, thinking that it might be to middle school girly. However, Mushroom specifically asked to read it. Clearly, he knows that “girl” books aren’t just for girls.

 

The Book Talk

booktalkIf you have a kid who just loves to read everything you throw at them, then you’re lucky. Mushroom and BalletBoy like to read, but they’re not quick readers or book devourers most of the time. Frankly, they’re picky readers.

I think a lot of parents throw their hands up when it comes to picky readers. Sometimes I feel the same way, but I try to reframe my mind to see it as a challenge, not a problem. Starting a book is hard business, even at age ten. Really, even at age not quite forty, it can be a pain to get over that hump.

There are several ways to help kids overcome that hump a little easier. One way is to be willing to read the first chapter aloud to kids. Another is that if it’s a new book, it may have a book trailer. However, I wanted to talk about a more old-fashioned, personal method, which is the book talk. Many teachers, reading specialists, and librarians know the book talk, which is an old method that used to be used in schools a lot to try and hook kids’ onto a book.

Book talks are super simple. They’re exactly what they sound like. You talk about the book’s plot, characters, and themes to the child. You might read a blurb about the book or the opening page or just a short excerpt from an exciting moment early in the story. Mention what other books it’s like and what genre it falls into. Since you’re likely book talking to just one or two kids, you can be extra specific. Think of it as an ad for the book. Be lively and positive about the book. You’re trying to be the hook.

Remember that for kids who are reluctant or picky readers, previewing the book may be an important first step for reading. These kids don’t like to commit to a book only to discover it’s all wrong for them. If it takes you a couple of weeks to read a book, then in the life of a kid, that’s like a marriage. You want to know what you’re getting into first. So while you’re not giving the climax away, some kids will want to know the gist of the plot. And some kids will want to get warnings. Does anyone die in the book? Is anyone bullied? Is there anything else sensitive souls will want to know?

It’s easier to book talk a book you’ve read, but I’ve talked up many books I haven’t read. Just read the blurbs, glance at the opening page or two, and read a few reviews, such as on Amazon or Goodreads. You’ll get enough to talk about the book for two or three minutes, which is really about how long a book talk should last.

We use this method a lot. The other night, Mushroom had finished all his current reads, as well as two new to him graphic novels and he came to me and said, “Do me a book talk.” I pulled out five books and talked each of them for a couple of minutes. He took one… Then asked me a few minutes later if I would download a kindle short story that goes along with the book Wonder. The book talk doesn’t always work. But I know that the plots and idea of all those books are now swimming around in his head. So that’s something.

Reading Short Stories

We changed up how we do reading at the rowhouse a little more than a year ago. We used to do “required reading” from a list of books. The kids had to choose one book per month. I think that was an okay system, but we began to find it difficult to keep up. If my kids were voracious readers, it might have been perfect. However, as it is, they’re just not. They enjoy reading, but they’re not stay up all night readers. And while I had chosen good books at their level, I found that my central goal of wanting them to just read more wasn’t being met by pushing them to read specific books.

So we dropped that. Now, instead, we do an hour of required reading before bed nearly every night. The only requirement is that they read something new to them for at least half of the reading time. In other words, a new book for at least half an hour and then rereading a graphic novel is okay if it’s what they want, which it is sometimes. This has filled that goal a lot better. They read a lot of what I would consider “junky” books, but they also routinely choose interesting books by good authors. Most importantly, their fluency and reading enjoyment has improved, so that goal is met. They read more books than they used to, which is great.

However, I found that as they got older I had another goal. I wanted to push them to read more difficult writing and practice closer reading, such as marking up a text, pulling out quotes, discussing and supporting your opinion, as well as beginning to look at literary elements. Reading one novel a month hadn’t met that goal because everyone was reading something different. We can do a little of that with poetry at poetry teas and also with read aloud novels, but I wanted to add another component, which is why I turned to short stories.

Short stories are perfect for close reading. You can introduce kids to classic authors and stories in a much less intimidating way. You can really pick apart a story from start to finish and feel like you had a meaty discussion. Everything in a short story is condensed so that things like the plot arc become clearer and things like character development and message have to be done with the bare minimum.

To keep it simple, I decided to make it one short story a month. I printed a bunch and put them together. We have mostly stuck with it and I feel it has worked really well. When I initially introduced this and asked the kids to underline and mark things in their copies, they weren’t at all sure what to do. But as we have practiced, I’ve seen them get more adept at finding the things I ask for, such as examples of metaphors, places where you can see a character’s motivation, descriptive writing, examples of irony, or other things. They’ve also gotten more eager to sit and discuss the story, which we do at a special poetry tea time, of course.

I chose stories by looking at lists and short story collections. A few of these we haven’t gotten to yet because we’re not finished with the year, but I thought I’d put our list here. Lists of middle school short stories was a good starting point, but many of the classic stories, such as “To Build a Fire” and “A Sound of Thunder” are ones I wanted to save for various reasons.

Good places to find short stories:

  • Best Shorts edited by Avi is a great collection with stories just right for this age.
  • Shelf Life edited by Gary Paulsen is a good collection with a more contemporary feel.
  • Guys Read series edited by Jon Scieszka has several volumes with different themes and is continuing to add more. The stories are chosen with boys in mind, but they’re really just great stories by a variety of authors and the “boy” angle can really be ignored. Many of the stories are by popular contemporary authors. For example, the fantasy collection has a Percy Jackson story. However, they also include some older and classic authors.
  • This list is an excellent list for middle schoolers, compiled by polling teachers on a popular education site.

The Stories I Chose for Fifth Grade

“The Fun They Had” by Isaac Asimov
A great one for homeschoolers because it imagines a very dull sort of future homeschooling. And a good one for talking about the ways that we perceive the future and what’s important for learning and childhood. An easy and quick one to read.

“Zlateh the Goat” by Isaac Bashevis Singer
A parable style story about a boy and the goat he can’t bring himself to take to be butchered.

“Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes
This was one of our best hits, which inspired a great conversation about human nature and laws. A classic short story about a woman who catches a thief and instead of calling the authorities, takes him home for supper.

“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
A perfect Christmas season read. The classic story of literary irony. This one was a great hit.

“Scout’s Honor” by Avi
A great funny kid story from author Avi’s childhood. He and his city friends try camping without really knowing what they’re doing.

“The Grown Up” by Ian McEwan
This is from McEwan’s collection of short stories about one boy called The Daydreamer. This one is essentially like the movie Big in short story form.

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calabaras County” by Mark Twain
The language in this story is a slight stretch for some kids, but the story is great for thinking about dialect and untrustworthy narrators. Plus, it’s funny.

“Nuts” by Natalie Babbitt
A funny take on the devil as a trickster. This is from Babbitt’s collection of stories about the devil.

“Miss Awful” by Arthur Cavanaugh
A story about a nice teacher and a mean one. A good one to talk about authority figures.

“The Third Wish” by Joan Aiken
A modern feeling fairy tale. A nice one to potentially read with other stories about wishes, such as “Wishes” by Natalie Babbitt and “The Stone” by Lloyd Alexander.

“All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury
The classic anti-bullying story. Just an amazing short tale. We actually read this with our co-op, but I had to include it on this list because it’s my favorite of all time. Bradbury has many others that are appropriate for middle school, but this one is perfect for upper elementary too. Note that there’s also an excellent short movie of the story, which can be easily found online.

 

Early Winter Books

Well, it took me a little while to get back to the book roundup. Sorry, folks. We were not reading a ton in the last couple of months, in large part because we’ve been so busy. It’s hard to read before bed when you’re not getting home until past bedtime! But there have been a few books fit in, though you’ll note there are more of my reviews than the kids’ this roundup. They did a lot of rereading old Wimpy Kid and Calvin and Hobbes. Ah well. Probably about right for hectic times.

Read Aloud
The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones

Straight off enjoying another Chrestomanci books, we dove into this one. It’s typical Diana Wynne Jones, with a twisty plot and lots of complexity. If you don’t know the Chrestomanci books, they take place is a series of connected worlds. In one world, Chrestomanci is the enchanter with nine lives whose job is to make sure everyone uses magic fairly and follows the rules. This book tells the story of how Christopher Chant became Chrestomanci, though not before he gets neglected by his parents and then caught up in a magic organized crime syndicate run by his uncle. Chrestomanci, that is, Christopher in this book, is such a great character. He cares about people and doing the right thing, but is always managing to come off like a jerk. In this book, you can see how he became the mysterious and witty character he is in the other novels. Mushroom and BalletBoy have been enjoying this one so much that I have a feeling we may read Conrad’s Fate, one of the later books where Christopher is also a child, very soon.

Another Read Aloud
The Potato Chip Puzzles by Eric Berlin

This is the second book in the Winston Breen series. We loved the first one over the summer and the kids enjoyed this one just as much. In this story, puzzle lover Winston gets put in a team to win a bunch of money for his school from a snack food company with a quirky owner. Teams must run from puzzle to puzzle, solving them all to win the prize, but one team is cheating, trying to knock the other teams out of the race. As with the previous book, there are usually two puzzles per chapter – one that’s integral to the story and one that’s just a diversion. They’re number, maze, word, and other sorts of puzzles and generally very innovative and fun. Also pleasing is that the story isn’t just a structure for the puzzles. It’s also pretty well-written in its own right. Kids who enjoy “everyday kid” type books should definitely give this series a try.

School Read
Murderous Maths: Secret Life of Codes by Kjartan Poskitt

I really do love the Murderous Maths books, even though they always take us forever to get through. They take us forever because they’re packed with serious, brain-bending information and because we always have to stop over and over in the middle of reading them to figure out the math and try out the various things they suggest. This book was no different. I have the Murderous Maths box set, but realized recently that there are a bunch more of these out there not in the set! Several of them, including this one, are easier than some of the ones in the set (which go up to calculus, for goodness sakes). This one was particularly packed full of good activities and lots of complex ideas about how to make codes. Overall, a fun read.

Audiobook
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

It took a lot of strong arming to get the boys to listen to this one in the car. I’m not sure what was so forbidding about it, but for some reason it did not catch their fancy. And the tropes of high fantasy, which abound in this story, are less familiar to Mushroom and BalletBoy, who have cut their teeth mostly on the low fantasy worlds like Harry Potter and the aforementioned Diana Wynne Jones sort of books. However, they slowly sank into it. The narration on the audiobook is really wonderful. And the story is just as great as I recall from my own youth. Taran is a lowly assistant pig-keeper who gets swept up in a quest to find his charge, who happens to be an oracular pig (she can tell the future). On his way he meets a heroic prince, a king who wishes he were a bard, a snappy girl who is training to be a sorceress, and a strange but loyal creature who latches on to him. It’s the start of a great series that is based loosely on Welsh mythology and had me obsessed with all things Welsh as a kid.

BalletBoy’s Read
Heads or Tails by Jack Gantos

After we saw Gantos speak earlier this year at the National Book Festival, it became clear that the boys were determined to read more of his works. I happened to have this one on the shelf and BalletBoy decided to read it. It proved to be a pretty quick read for him and he says he liked it very much, in part because it’s very funny. He keeps reading me little snippets that honestly, make no sense, but which send him into peals of giggles. Like many of the author’s other works, he, himself is the main character, though one hopes that many of the wacky events have been exaggerated for literary purposes.

Farrar’s YA Read
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

I really enjoyed this YA book about twin artists. It’s told in two perspectives at two different times. Noah tells the story of the events leading up to the time when their mother dies just before and after they turn fourteen. Twin sister Jude steps in with a very different voice two years later. Noah is struggling with figuring out he’s gay, trying to establish a relationship with his father, trying to understand his mother, and falling in love for the first time. While he struggles, Jude seems happy and popular, but two years later, Jude is at an art high school completely distraught over her mother’s death, barely speaking to her twin, and superstitious to the point of mental illness while Noah is the one that seems happy and well-adjusted, though completely different from his younger self. The contrast between the two parts makes the story feel like a mystery, compelling you to understand what happened between the two characters. Great writing certainly doesn’t hurt either. Nelson’s style, especially how she described those teenage feelings of anger and depression, really resonated with me. One of the best YA books I’ve read this year.

Farrar’s Other YA Read
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

This is a story about a girl and her super wealthy family and their summers spent on their very own island retreat. Main character Cady loves her cousins and their friend Gat, with whom she has a budding romance, while her mother and aunts bicker all summer. Cady has suffered a traumatic brain injury and can’t remember some of the previous summers, which makes for both a mystery and a lot of really short, vaguely poetic sentences apparently. There’s a big twist ending, though having read that there was a “big twist ending” I admit that I saw the twist coming, at least somewhat. This book has made a bunch of best of lists for YA this year but I’m mystified as to why. The upper class characters are mostly spoiled jerks and I didn’t find reading about them particularly innovative or new. The mystery is sort of interesting, but the writing nearly killed me. It wasn’t beautiful, it was just sparse, disjointed, and sometimes confusing. This definitely wasn’t on my best of lists.

Farrar’s Graphic Novel Read
Neurocomic by Hana Ros and Matteo Farinella

I was intrigued by this graphic novel about the inner workings of the brain, which I saw on a best science books of the year list. The book’s design is lovely – hardcover with shiny silver designs. Plus, the art is really approachable. My reaction to the book itself was a bit mixed. On the one hand, the narrative was sort of weak and I had hoped that the information would be a bit more in depth. As it is, I actually knew most of this information about how the brain and nerves work. On the other hand, for what it is, the narrative isn’t terrible. Writing a vehicle for information story is always tricky, after all. I liked the ending a lot, actually. And with a different eye, such as toward using this as a great introduction for teens or really anyone without any lay knowledge, it’s really good. So I thought I’d include it here in case anyone has any middle or high schoolers ready to learn a bit about neuroscience. Overall, I like that there are a growing body of science comics out there. I was unimpressed by the Max Axiom series, but this book can join the work of graphic novelist Jay Hossler as a useful way to think about its subject matter in comic.

October Books

Time for our monthly book roundup. What we’re reading and liking and occasionally not liking at all.

School Read
Old House, New House by Michael Gaughenbaugh

It’s been a few months since I felt a big, strong wow about a nonfiction book we read for school, but I give this book a huge wow. It’s out of print and a little older, but if, for some reason, you decide, as we did, to embark on a study of houses or architecture anything along those lines, then you absolutely must have this book. It tells the imaginary story of a boy whose parents have just purchased a ramshackle Second Empire Victorian in the midwest with the intention to restore it to its former glory. Curious about how houses have changed over time, the narrator reflects on the houses owned by his aunt (a Brooklyn brownstone) and uncle (a San Francisco late Victorian) and cousins (a colonial farmhouse). That leads to a conversation with his grandfather, who grew up in a Sears home and eventually purchased a post-war suburban ranch home. Then with his mother, whose ancestors were from the south and lived in Greek revival plantation style homes. Basically, the whole thing just spirals from there into every sort of house style you can imagine and every relative and ancestor the narrator has seems to live in a different sort of home. All this is explored while his new home is being renovated. The illustrations were incredibly detailed but also accessible to kids. The story is a bit cram everything in, but somehow the book makes it work. I had a slight quibble with the book’s adoration of Victorians and mild disdain for Greek revivals, but I suppose everyone has to have a favorite style. Really a great long form picture book and very worth seeking out.

Audiobook
Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

So, so funny! I had skimmed over it when it first came out and I know what Gaiman’s sense of humor is like, so I knew we would enjoy this one, but the audio version, read by Gaiman himself, was just divine. The story set up is that a boy and his sister are home with their father while their mother is away. There’s no milk in the house, so their father runs to the corner store to get some for their cereal. Returning much later than expected, he begins to tell a whopper of a tale about what took him so long, a story that involves alien invaders, a time traveling dinosaur, and an exploding volcano god, among other things. At end twist and turn, the father makes sure that the kids know that even know he may have been fighting for his life or dangling by a rope, fortunately, the milk was safe in his pocket, though it occasionally emerges to save the day or fulfill a prophesy. The book is incredibly short. We listened to the whole audio version on one field trip to go apple picking (though, to be fair, those apples were really far away) and I don’t think I’ve ever heard this kids more disappointed to finish an audiobook (except for maybe Fake Mustache, which is tied for funniest audiobook ever).

Mushroom’s Read
From Norvelt to Nowhere by Jack Gantos

We adored Gantos’s Dead End in Norvelt, which we listened to on audiobook earlier this year, and we had the great pleasure of seeing Gantos speak at the National Book Festival. However, I have to admit that Mushroom hasn’t just loved this sequel, which he says is slower and not as funny as the first book. Having not read it all myself but having tasted the beginning, I’m finding this hard to believe, but I said I’d be sure to include his take. The first book was a quirky murder mystery. This sequel picks up where the previous book left off on the trail of the murderer. The author’s alter-ego, the narrator of the story, heads out on a road trip with his elderly neighbor to get to Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral and possibly catch the murderer. Even if Mushroom didn’t love it, I may pick up our library copy and finish it myself.

BalletBoy’s Read
P.K. Pinkerton and the Deadly Desperadoes by Caroline Lawrence

BalletBoy really likes to pick out random library books which he judges by the cover. He liked the stylish western cover on this one, so he decided it was the book for him. I have read some of Lawrence’s better known Roman Mysteries, but I haven’t read this one. However, BalletBoy gives it a big thumbs up. He says it was funny and that he liked the mystery element. It’s part of a series that takes place in the old west, following a boy who becomes a detective. In this first book in the series, he is on the run for his life after his parents were killed and must escape from the titular deadly desperadoes, who are after his mother’s only valuable property.

Light Reading
Return to Planet Tad by Tim Carvell

While everyone waited for the new Wimpy Kid, both boys read this book on the side. Mushroom read the first book last month and BalletBoy joined him in reading it this month. It’s in that same snarky Wimpy Kid style with lots of pictures about a typical middle school boy and typical middle school embarrassments and misadventures. The main character, Tad, keeps a blog where he tells his thoughts and jokes. A quick, funny, light read aimed at boys. Yet another I didn’t read myself (this blog post seems full of those this go around) but I heard a lot of the jokes read aloud when someone thought they were really funny. Not high literature, but a good way to pass an evening read for this age.

Farrar’s YA Read
The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey

This is the second book in Yancey’s YA trilogy about an alien invasion on earth. Aliens in ships high above the earth slowly destroy humanity in waves, first knocking out technology, then flooding the coasts and sending a plague. With each successive wave, more people die. When the first book picks up, the aliens seem to have begun the fifth wave, possibly taking human bodies, but what exactly is going on is left somewhat unclear. While it’s an alien tale, the story has a sort of post-apocalyptic zombie feel. This second book didn’t compel me as much as the first book at the start. While the first book stayed for a long time with protagonist Cassie before moving on to just a couple of others, this book jumped around more from the beginning and I admit I didn’t love Ringer’s voice at first and she really dominates this book. However, by the second long chunk of her voice, she began to really grow on me and the ending had me interested again as a potential twist is brought out. What if the aliens aren’t alien at all? Yancey is a great writer who knows how to tell an edge of your seat tale. This is a dark series, even for the dystopian filled YA of these days, but it’s worth reading.