Thursday, July 28, 2011

Piet Potter: Boy Detective

Piet Potter's First Case
Robert Quackenbush

Piet (rhymes with "neat") Potter is an amazing boy detective. In this easy reader series, kids will enjoy following Piet as he solves mysteries--his first mystery is tracking down $1 million that a young couple has inherited. The book looks a bit dated, but the story works nonetheless.

Recommended for early elementary and/or older struggling readers--particularly boys.

Friday, July 22, 2011


M. T. Anderson
National Book Award Finalist

Imagine a smartphone with unlimited text, internet access, and Google's ability to target you with relevant ads--imagine a such a smartphone in your brain. This is what Anderson's done--and 10 years ago, before smartphones as we know them now were mainstream. He calls it the "feed."


Walter Dean Myers
Printz Medal
Coretta Scott King Award
National Book Award Finalist

Monster is a riveting and disturbing book--but a profound one, nonetheless. Told in the format of a screen play, Monster is about young, 16-year-old Steve Harmon and his murder trial. Steve is black, from the wrong side of the tracks, and seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now, he's being charged as an accessory to a murder that took place at a convenience store in his neighborhood.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Thimble Summer

Thimble Summer
Elizabeth Enright
Newbery Medal

Thimble Summer is the delightful tale of young Garnet and her friend Citronella. Both are farm girls in a small community. Chapters are somewhat episodic in nature with a gentle plot running throughout the book. Garnet finds a silver thimble early one summer, and this seems to change the course of events. Much needed rain comes, Garnet and Citronella get locked in the town's library, Garnet attempts to hitchhike, they visit a big fair, and Garnet raises a prize pig. In addition to this, Garnet and her brother Jay weather some storms in their relationship, and they get a new addition to their family: young Eric who has hitchhiked across the country. Mr. Freebody keeps tabs on Garnet, making sure she doesn't get into trouble, and everyone ends the book happily.

This book is dated in style and may seem too tame to some young readers today. However, it's a wonderful, gentle read, and the farm setting often appeals to young readers. Fans of Charlotte's Web and similar books will no doubt enjoy this one, too. In addition, fans of other books from the '30's (such as Roller Skates) will enjoy the pacing of this story.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Saving Francesca

Saving Francesca
Melina Marchetta

Marchetta is an Australian writer who is churning out notable, award-winning books right and left. Saving Francesca is an earlier one, and, so far, my favorite. It's also more tame than some of her others.

Francesca is a junior in high school and has been sent to a new, formerly all-boy, school this year that her much younger brother will also be attending. Her mother has decreed this. Francesca is not impressed.

St. Sebastian's is full of the usual suspects of a boys' school; the girls are definitely newcomers on the block. Franscesca finds herself thrown together with three other girls from her previous school; none of them were "friends" the year before although they do have a history together. Throughout the book, Francesca learns what true friendship is, figures out how to be friends with boys, and finds a new community that is much more of a real community than her former, shallow acquaintances provided.

In addition to the school drama unfolding, Francesca's mother is suffering from acute depression. This happens at the opening of the book, and she doesn't get out of the bed until near the end. Francesca's formerly quiet father is now taking charge in the best way he knows how, and Francesca and her brother Luca are learning how to help him.

Marchetta manages to handle some pretty heavy topics (like depression) with candor and humor. This is not a dark book, it does not come across as an "issues" book, and it ends on a hopeful, but realistic note. I really love that both parents play such a prominent role in this book--very unusual in a young adult novel. I particularly like that Francesca's father is learning to be the leader of the house and is also earning the respect of his family in the process. In addition to this, Francesca and Luca really do love each other, and their mother is not denigrated, either. Three cheers for a book that upholds proper family relations and celebrates what each person brings to the family--and without being preachy in the least!

Things to Note/Discuss
  • There is some mild language and references to sex, drinking, etc.
  • The humor in this book often comes from sarcastic repartee between Francesca and her friends. This is similar to many sit-coms today in the use of "put-downs." If you don't like that fodder on TV, this book may not be for you.
  • Discuss what depression is and how it can affect you! Discuss whether the family is doing the right thing for Francesca's mother and how they could perhaps encourage her differently. Do you think Francesca's parents should have told her about the events just before her mother's spiral into depression? How open should parents be with their children?
  • Do you think Francesca's new friends are true friends? Why or why not? Who is your favorite of her new friends?
  • Depending upon your own family's situation, there may be many other angles to pull out, not least of which is how your own family is addressing any given "tough" situation.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


Laurie Halse Anderson
National Book Award Finalist
Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction

Chains is interesting and worth reading. Set in New York City at the dawn of the American Revolution, Chains follows 13-year-old Isabel and her 5-year-old sister Ruth as they are sold to a very harsh mistress of a British sympathizer despite hopes of freedom upon the death of their former mistress.

Throughout the novel, Isabel must figure out who she can trust: America or England. Neither the rebels nor the redcoats are very helpful to her, and her closest friend is a young black boy named Curzon. Curzon's master is a rebel leader, and Curzon has joined up himself. Chains shows us very clearly that there is no easy answer in war and that even our heroes may have owned slaves or not known how to navigate those troubled waters between freedom for all and freedom for some. We also see throughout the novel that hardship stalks everyone during war-time, that promises are hard to keep, that it's hard to know the right choice.

The novel ends abruptly, leaving those who are fans of Isabel desperate for book 2! This is the first book of a short series about Isabel and Curzon. I think this book can stand alone, but the adventures clearly continue.

One of the things I most appreciated about this book is that it's not another slave narrative about the American south set during the 19th century. Instead, we see another angle on the slave experience in American history, and we also see some new angles to the Revolution. Anderson provides little snippets of newspaper articles or letters from the time period that are also fascinating to read (letters from folks such as John or Abigail Adams and the like); these appear at the beginning of the short chapters. Anderson seems to have done her research well.

Recommended for middle school and up

Things to Note/Discuss
  • Is slavery ever okay? Can you have a "good" master and a "bad" master? How do Mrs. Lockton and her sister-in-law differ in their treatment of Isabel? Should Mrs. Lockton's sister-in-law intervened despite the law?
  • How do you decide who to trust? Is it okay to betray someone for the good of the country? Do you have to keep all of your promises?
  • Would you have brought food to the prisoners?
  • Is it ever okay to lie?
  • Does this book make you want to learn more about the American Revolution, especially the "behind-the-scenes" parts? Do you have a better understanding of such men as George Washington?
  • Did you know there were slaves in the North? Did you know they suffered harsh treatment like the Southern slaves?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese
Gene Luen Yang
Printz Award and a million others!

This is a must read, folks.

"No way, Betsy, I don't do graphic novels. Those are for kids! Or comic book geeks!"

Really, this is a must read.

American Born Chinese follows three seemingly unconnected storylines: one about a monkey king, one about a Chinese American boy named Jin and his friend Wei-Chen, and one about an American boy named Danny and his Chinese cousin named Chin-Kee. The stories come together in the end brilliantly.

What will you find in this quick read? Nicely balanced art with text. Racism treated humorously yet with candor and poignancy. Early high school angst at fitting in. Friendship and betrayal. The theme of being who you are created to be. Allusions to the Christ Child, visually, and near verbatim quoting of such Scripture passages as Psalm 139.

This is not a "Christian" book. Yet, Yang makes his point subtly and forcefully: we were created (by someone) for a purpose, and when we try to transform ourselves into something we're not, we "sell our souls" as the old Chinese lady tells a young Jin. The point is well made without being preachy. Along the way, you will laugh out loud as Yang pokes fun at our stereotypes of Chinese Americans--while revealing how ruthless kids can be.

Friday, July 8, 2011


Scot Westerfield
BBYA (Best Book for Young Adults, ALA)

Leviathan is a fun, quick read. To me, it reads like a summer Blockbuster movie: lots of action, suspense, special effects... not so much character development. That being said, there are some worthwhile issues that can be pulled from this novel and discussed, should you so choose.

Leviathan is a "steampunk" novel, a relatively new subgenre of the fantasy realm in which iron-clad, steam-powered machines are blended into alternate histories (usually Victorian time periods). Think: HG Wells modernized. This was my first foray into steampunk, so I'm not sure how Leviathan holds up compared to its peers.

Janie, over at Redeemed Reader, as written an excellent post about both Leviathan and Behemoth. I'll not go into the same details here, so skip on over there if you'd like more info. Here's my short version:

Leviathan begins at the onset of WWI with the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire (Alek) fleeing in the middle of the night after his parents are murdered. Along with his few trusted guides/friends, he arrives in Switzerland and is ready to hole up for a while, undercover.

Deryn, (a Scot!) aka Dylan, is styling herself as a boy in order to be allowed passage on Leviathan as part of the British Air Force. To keep up appearances, she swaggers, swears like a sailor, and tries to act tough.

What makes all this more interesting is that the Germans are now the "Clankers," and the Brits are now the "Darwinists." Clanker technology has given Germany and their allies massive iron-clad, steam-powered machines that can shoot millions of bullets, obliterate whatever comes in their path, and be driven from the inside by a team of men. They range in size/ability from the Stormwalker Alek drives (holds ~6 people and walks upright on two jerky "legs") to the giant land yacht called a Dreadnought. Zeppelins roam the skies.

The Darwinists, on the other hand, have figured out a way to splice various desirable life forms/threads together to fabricate new strange beasts. These range from message lizards to flying jellyfish creatures called Huxleys to the great Leviathan itself. Leviathan is part whale, part glow worm, part a million other creatures. It is air borne, held aloft by hydrogen.

Leviathan is on its clandestine way to the Ottoman Empire, transporting one Dr. Barlow and her precious cargo of mysterious eggs that are about to hatch. En route, they get shot down on a glacier in Switzerland not far from... you guessed it... Alek. Soon enough, the giant beached (or glaciered?) whale is discovered by the Clankers, Alek and Deryn/Dylan team up, and we're left with a new adventure about to the begin (I've not read Behemoth yet). Add to this the drawings that show the fantastic mechanical and biological creatures and you've got a quick, entertaining read.

Check it out for a fun summer read!

Things to Note/Discuss
  • Megan and I've noticed, to our chagrin, that many series start out promisingly enough, but end in disaster, bring on sexual issues not present in the first, or just derail in quality overall. So, no promises, folks, about the future of this series!
  • Deryn, in her guise as boy, swears ALL the time! Most of her swear words are obscure fabrications of Westerfield, I believe--meant to sound vaguely British and WWI era. However, some of her favorite phrases (such as "barking spiders") sound awfully similar to phrases I do not relish ("freakin" and it's other, more repulsive, sibling come to mind). I don't think kids will pick these up as much, but it's worth noting. Alek, as Janie mentioned in her post, uses the phrase "God's wounds" a few times as well.
  • Issues that you could discuss are numerous, including the following: mechanical warfare v. biological warfare, genetic manipulation of species, warfare and loyalty in general, mixing biology with machines (Terminator anyone?), standing for what you believe in at great personal risk, survival issues, etc.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Jeff Kinney

I'll admit it, folks. I laughed until I cried through the first half of this book--I mean it. I was wiping tears away and just cackling. I couldn't help it. Maybe I haven't progressed much since middle school. I can totally see why middle school boys (and even 4th and 5th graders) are into this series. Kinney has given us a cartoon novel (in which cartoons are interspersed with text) that is a quick read and right on a kid's level. In diary-format (well, the narrator Greg would remind us that this is a journal because diaries are girly), we read about Greg's life in sixth grade. Here's a sample from page 3:

"Let me just say for the record that I think middle school is the dumbest idea ever invented. You got kids like me who haven't hit their growth spurt yet mixed in with these gorillas who need to shave twice a day. [funny cartoon] And then they wonder why bullying is such a big problem in middle school."

See, it's funny!

And yet, by about 2/3 the way through, I was over it. The kid, Greg, is really a bit of a jerk and it stops being funny (at least to me). I'm not sure he learns how to be a true friend by the end. I'm not sure I'll read the rest of the series... at least not right away. Maybe when I need a good laugh after all the heavy young adult fiction.

Will your kids be scarred? No. Will they be exposed to bad stuff? Not really. Bad language? Nope. Sex/drugs/rock and roll? Nope (well, ok, some rock and roll). Good character? Nope.

The moral of the story: just space these out with more edifying fare, but don't bar them from your kids' recreational reading. I'm sure they have lured millions of reluctant male readers into the marvelous world of the book. They have their place, but don't let someone get stuck here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska
John Green
Printz Award

Looking for Alaska is an edgy, messy book. No doubt. However, it is also a book that explores the big issues of life in a very indepth manner. Before you write off a book such as this, it's worth exploring what makes it good and so appealing to so many young adults.

First of all, Green knows teens. Dialogue is perfect. "Chapters" are short. Adults are in the background, mostly. The setting is captivating: Culver Creek boarding school complete with lake and "mad" swan. Rules are enforced, but those in the know can get around them. Characters are compelling: Miles/Pudge is searching for the Great Perhaps and is misunderstood by his parents. He came here as part of his quest (and his father went to Culver Creek as well). The "Colonel" is Miles' roommate, from a trailer park, loved by his mother, and full of brilliant ideas for pranks. Alaska is a girl who's trying to find the way out of this labyrinth of suffering, a compulsive drinker, and a troubled soul. Throw in a few more friends, an astute religion teacher, and the usual teen angst, and you've got a winning combination.

There is a tragedy in this book, and the big questions in life are front and center: what is the meaning of life? How do we escape this labyrinth of suffering? Is there any life after death? How do we know? How do we get there? What makes a true friend? Can you prevent someone else's suffering? What makes for true intimacy?

Things to Note/Discuss
  • most Christian parents/teachers I know will never approve of this book: tons of language, a descriptive (oral) sex scene, drinking/smoking, etc. So, it's worth warning you.
  • On the other hand, if you do want to pursue this book, and/or your son/daughter pursues it, ask some of those questions in that last paragraph above. You cannot escape them in this book--it is a book kids will want to discuss. You can't help it.
  • A word about the sex scene in this book: John Green has a very engaging video in which he discusses this scene. His attempt in the scene is partly to show how devoid of real intimacy the physical act of sex is without any sort of emotional connection/intimacy.
  • John Green has a very popular online presence with teens. He is an author they are aware of, even if they haven't read his books (yet). So, it's worth paying attention to him and reading one or two of his books. I know some teens at church who haven't yet read his books but know who he is because "he's funny" and online....

Talking About Books

Some basic questions to get you started talking about books (with your kids!):
  1. What did you like about the book?
  2. What did you not like about the book?
  3. Who is your favorite character and why?
  4. Do you like the ending? Does it "work"?
  5. What's the main point of the book? (this is really the "theme" but you don't have to call it that)
  6. Is there anything in the book (characters, plot, theme) that you think demonstrates Biblical truth? (this can be VERY broad: kindness, beautiful creation, dignity/worth of human life, justice, mercy, consequences for sin, drugs/alcohol seen as less than exemplary, positive portrayals of marriage and/or gender, actual discussions in the book of such concepts as forgiveness/redemption/heart condition, ....).
  7. Is there anything in the book (characters, plot, theme) that you think violates Biblical truth? (again, VERY broad: injustice, setting up of self as absolute truth/standard, extra marital sex glorified, lack of redemption outside of self, no positive portrayal of marriage, gender called into question, unnecessary language/profanity, violence for the sake of violence, characters denigrated who exhibit such things as the Fruit of the Spirit, ....)
  8. Is there anything in the book that troubles you? (very broad again)
  9. Do you want to read more books like this (or by this author)? Why or why not?
  10. Anything else you can think of?
You don't have to ask all of these, of course. But it's worth noting that sometimes pointing out what a book does well can be just as, if not more, instructive than what a book portrays that's "wrong." I'll try to offer some discussion points for the books I review. And, as I mentioned earlier, I'll try to provide some more tools for teaching discernment.

Meet Tumtum and Nutmeg Nutmouse!

Tumtum and Nutmeg: Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall
Emily Bearn

It always delightful to discover a new book by accident. I saw Tumtum and Nutmeg: Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall on the library shelf, recognized a British title at once, and promptly checked it out. And, I was not disappointed! This is really three of the Nutmouse books in one large volume (Tumtum and Nutmeg, The Great Escape, The Pirates Treasure).

Tumtum and Nutmeg are two adorable mice (we know they're adorable from the very cute drawings which accompany the text) who live in the large Nutmouse Hall which is located in the broom cupboard of Rose Cottage (home to humans Mr. Mildew and Lucy and Arthur Mildew). Tumtum and Nutmeg love tea time, have adopted Lucy and Arthur (visiting their bedroom at night to tidy up the room and mend things), and have glorious adventures.

These are charming read alouds to the older preschool and up crowd, and they make terrific intros for independent readers to that great British fantasy genre of talking animals. Delightful in every way. And, if you fall in love with Tumtum and Nutmeg, as my children and I have, you can even visit a website just for them!

Things to Note/Discuss
  • it may be worth pointing out that Tumtum and Nutmeg get some rats drunk on chocolate liqueurs in the third book. The chocolates were a gift from nasty Aunt Ivy and no one likes the syrupy centers, but more conservative readers may wish to avoid that book if concerned. I think it points out how drunkenness only hurts, and it's certainly portrayed as folly!