Wednesday, December 17, 2014

_The Dark_ by Lemony Snicket

I made the mistake of picking up Lemony Snicket's first book in that unfortunate series, but I plugged through it till the end. At our latest library outing, one of the books I grabbed from a display happened to be a picture book for children by the same author. Before reading it, I was perfectly prepared to write a bad review.

However, Lemony Snicket surprised me with The Dark. Certainly with a title like The Dark there was more than a possibility that this book would be depressing, and, well, dark. Instead it was delightful. with illustrations by Jon Klassen which are anything but frightening and complemented the theme of the book nicely.

Young Lazlo is frightened of the dark. He soon discovers that the dark is not out to get him. In fact, the dark leads him to an enlightening ending.

Illustrations by Jon Klassen are not frightening and complement the theme of the book nicely.

I would recommend this for any age child, but I would think that it would especially be a good fear-fighting tool in the arsenal of a parent of a child frightened of the dark.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

_The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp_ by Kathi Appelt

My son picked this one out. When I perused the cover and blurps on the cover, I thought, "Great. Another book about an environmental agenda."

When I got around to reading it, it started slowly. The point-of-view jumps around. It puts me in mind of Holes (if you've ever read that) with the shifts in point-of-view and setting (including time). It's a little hard to follow at first. 

Luckily the language of the swamp, dripping with voice and beauty and nature's humor, kept me reading. Then I was hooked into the broken narrative that began spiraling together to form the meat and fun of this book.

The raccoon scouts of Sugar Man Swamp have been watching for decades, even if they never were quite sure what they were looking for and, if they found it, who to report to, unless it was the great Sugar Man himself, a giant of a Big Foot-type character. But where to find him amongst all the rattlesnakes? And 12-year-old Chap tries desperately to save his home and his family's business after his beloved grandfather dies. Then there's the bad guy, the selfish and mean capitalist without a heart, the guy you love to hate. Somehow Kathi Appelt ties all of these characters (plus some) together to form a cohesive and delightful story.

Did this book have an agenda? Yes and no. It was the kind of agenda I'm okay with. It wasn't overpowering. I mean, the characters were trying to save the swamp from wild boars and from being totally concreted over. It worked because the story wasn't only about that.

And the writing was good and intelligent.

My 10-year-old liked the book, and I don't recall anything objectionable (I admit I read it at least a month ago.).

My recommendation is to read it. You may need to start reading it out loud at first to help if you think your reader might struggle tying the broken plot together. It will take a few chapters, but then you both should be hooked.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

_Lincoln's Grave Robbers_ by Steve Sheinkin

When I was in school, I really didn't dig history. Presented in standard (boring) textbook format, it didn't engage me. If you'd ever told me in 6th grade that I'd enjoy reading a history book, I would have thought you were crazy or from Mars.

Flash-forward many a year. I'm now trying to teach my children to enjoy history. Our history curriculum definitely makes it easy and interesting to like history. Add in books, both fact and fictional, related to the same time period, and history does become more than enjoyable.

Lincoln's Grave Robbers ties together historical details with which you will likely be familiar (things you can learn in a textbook) and more obscure facts that really flesh out the story. And it is a story. It's not a list of dry facts. It follows both those who sought to rob President Lincoln's grave and those who attempted to stop them. And it's suspenseful, and in that spirit, I won't give anything away.

I definitely give it two thumbs up with no reservations. Unless your child is highly, highly sensitive and squeamish. Really, it's not too gross, but the subject matter does involve graves and dead bodies. There is some discussion about grave robbers, in general, and why doctors robbed graves. My sensitive son read it and had no problems. He loved it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Pair of Quirky Characters

I'm lumping two books together because I read them a month or so ago, and if I don't, my memory will completely fail me concerning the two.

Danny's Doodles: The Jelly Bean Experiment by David A. Adler and Jasper John Dooley: Star of the Week by Caroline Adderson both revolve quirky (or weird) main characters. They are both chapter books for the younger crowd (probably 9 and under interest level). Neither are particularly riveting. Definitely not candidates for major awards, I hope.

But. Jasper John Dooley is annoying. The book revolves around him being the Star of the Week at school. He is so very excited about getting to be the show-and-teller and all the fun responsibilities that go along with the Star of the Week job. Meanwhile, his friend, Ori, gets a new baby sister, a screaming-all-the-time baby sister. While Ori is begging to come over so he can sleep, Jasper John Dooley is completely wrapped up in his Star of the Week duties. All I could think about Jasper John Dooley was how incredibly selfish he is, even for a child, even for an only child, even for a weird one who collects belly-button lint. It didn't help that the author made disparaging comments about parents of big families not even knowing who their children are, something that perhaps riled me up a bit.

In Danny's Doodles: The Jelly Bean Experiment, the odd character is Calvin (not Danny who is Calvin's friend). Calvin is weird, too; instead of bringing belly-button lint to show-and-tell, Calvin makes Danny carry around jelly beans in his pockets for days while conducting an experiment. Instead of putting down certain types of families, the families in Danny's Doodles, even the "different" families, were respected. Where J. J. Dooley is self-centered, annoying, and definitely not a good friend, Calvin's quirks somehow enhance the friendships he makes.

In a nutshell, both of these books are all about the quirky main characters and their goings on at school and home, but where Calvin (of Daddy's Doodles) presents a good model for friendship and acceptance of said quirks, Jasper John Dooley simply makes you want to avoid him.

Will I forbid either book? No. Could I convince either of my boys to read either of these books? Even when I pleaded? No.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

_Goofballs #4: The Mysterious Talent Show Mystery_ by Tony Abbott

Well, the title says it all. This book is goofy, and not in a really cute way. The goofiness is not even clever or funny, it really is just lame. The simple middle school friends basically act goofy while solving a mystery I didn't even find intriguing. And that's it.

This is a book for earlier readers, but I don't think even young and silly children would find this an amazing read.  While there was absolutely nothing objectionable in this read, I couldn't even persuade my boys to give it a quick read to give me their opinion. I think falls in the category of "Why Bother?" I know I certainly won't bother to check out any other titles in the series.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

_The Thickety: A Path Begins_ by J. A. White

The title and cover of this book grabbed my son's attention at the library. It kind of looked similar to The Luck Uglies. We were both interested. 

I cannot overstate the following:

I'm SO THANKFUL I read it first.

What is marketed to younger readers simply shouldn't be. It's too darned scary. Folks, only if you want to send your child down a dark, dark path should you place this book in his hands. I'm not joking. Nightmares.

The main character is Kara who, at age 6, witnessed her mother's last twitchings after being hung because of being a witch. That's at the beginning of the book, and it goes downhill from there.

Kara endures many trials and tribulations on account of her magic and witchcraft. Unlike Harry Potter who has friends and hope and where there's a clear right and wrong and good and evil, Kara is simply doomed. The reader is uncertain about what is right or wrong and who is good or evil. The end offers no hope, just a depressing cliffhanger that makes me not even want to read on when the sequel comes out.

If that weren't enough, there's blood and guts violence. And faith-bashing. The group that persecutes the main character is a "cult" that follows the teachings of a dude that lived 2,000 years or so ago who gave up his life to defeat the evil witches and magic. While it's a made-up cult, you'd have to be almost brain-dead not to notice the parallels Mr. White draws between a scary cult and Christianity. If you're okay with that, fine, but there's still the complete despair and bleakness and scariness that pervade this book.

You know, there are some kids' books that should be read by all age groups. They are classics. It just doesn't matter whether the main character is a child or not. Well, this book is the opposite. It's a book about children that should only be read by adults or older teenagers, and then only should it be read by those who like the horror genre.

And if you don't believe me, Mr. White wrote this on his website:

An advanced 8-year-old reader could probably read the book, but that doesn’t mean he or she should. This isn’t the type of kid’s book where everything ends up okay at the end. Terrible things happen.  Characters die in some pretty awful ways.
If that sort of thing doesn’t bother you and your parents are okay with it, I hereby give you permission to read my book.

Friday, August 8, 2014

_The Luck Uglies_ by Paul Durham

Luck Uglies, Bog Noblins, Harmless, Mud Puddle Lane, River Drowning. With names like that, why wouldn't you want to read this new book by Paul Durham? This fantasy book follows 11-year-old Rye O'Chanter as she learns about her family and the world around her while fighting evil in the form of Bog Noblins and Earl Longchance.

While both my son and I struggled a bit at the beginning with getting into the world of The Luck Uglies, we soon fell head over heels. He immediately asked for the next in the series (which isn't supposed to come out until 2015), and I simply enjoyed turning the fun names and phrases over in my mind (because I'm odd that way). My 10-year-old son is now reading it a second time, but only after my 8-year-old finished his first time through.

I picked The Luck Uglies randomly off the library bookshelf, and I was more than pleasantly surprised. This may not be a great "literary" masterpiece, but I would say it's a pretty good book. With good models for friendship and characters with character (despite the fact that some of the good guys are outlaws), it meets my moral standards. With excellent descriptions, cool characters, and a well-developed plot, it gets my English-teacher stamp of approval.

Now is the time for the parts that some parents may find objectionable. There is a part in which characters give their opinions about what happens after death. It isn't religious. It doesn't acknowledge God. There are parts that hint at a bit of pagan/mystical or something-or-other. But, hey, this is fantasy. It really wasn't pushing a world view.

Another head's up. If you're child has no idea about where babies come from, this might possibly prompt questions because Rye's father is out of the picture. Nobody knows who her sister's father is. The mystery is solved eventually, but it does allude to the fact that little sister came about because of a visit from Dad. There's nothing sexual or anything at all my prudish mind might find risque. Just a warning if your kid is in the dark and curious about what it all means because none of us want to be surprised by the "where do babies come from" question.

I sort of hated writing those last two paragraphs because I really don't think this book should be avoided. With all the crappy kids' "literature" out there, well, this one isn't. If my comments scared you off, please read it yourself before nixing this as an option for your children.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Question for Smarter People

Why, oh why, am I completely unable to underline or italicize the names of book titles in my post titles? It's the kind of thing that really, really bugs me.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

_The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand_ by Jen Swann Downey

"Wow! What a cool title for a book! Certainly boys will like this one."

That's what I thought when I picked this book randomly from the library bookshelf.

When I opened the The Ninja Librarians and started reading, I was put off a bit at first by the author's "busy" writing style. While description and detail I like, there can be too much of a good thing, and it distracted me from getting into the story. On top of that, Downey used a fair number of parenthetical asides and other diversions from the main idea of sentences, so I found myself having to backtrack to the beginning of sentences several times to remember what they actually were about. Once I met the characters and became engaged in the plot, this busy-ness was easier to handle.

Who are these characters and what is the plot, you may ask. The main character is Dorrie, a 12-year-old gal, who, along with her older brother, Marcus, is sucked into the fantasy realm of Petrarch's Library where highly specialized librarians train in self-defense and time travel, as well as card catalog-y types of skills. The librarians goal is to save writers in various times and locations from persecution and their writing from being wiped into oblivion. This book definitely champions freedom of speech; that's a plus.

While I'm not sure a book about librarians is something many children (let alone boys) would pick up and be excited about right off the bat (with all sorts of intellectual and historical and sometimes-obscure references), if you stick with it through about the first 100 (of 350+) pages, you just might enjoy it. It is fun.

In addition to sticking up for free speech and being fun, The Ninja Librarians is a good example in the importance of telling the truth, trusting adults in charge, and family.

Now for what some parents won't like. The author seems to have a beef with Christianity. Early on I was caught off-guard when Dorrie's quirky mother (and all of her family is quirky) said, "Oh, praise Nataero!" when a lost library book was found. Evidently, Nataero is the Roman god of lost things, but I was surprised because I felt then that it seemed to be poking fun of those who might exclaim, "Praise God," when something good happens.

Later Mathilde, the ultra-feminist character, teases another named Saul for having the same name as "Saul. Of Ye Olde Tarsus." She then quotes First Timothy 2:12. The character Saul says, "I'm obviously not THAT Saul. I would never write that and you know it!"

Also, in the appendix/glossary at the end of the book (called a guide to Petrarch's Library), we are given information about many of the historical figures mentioned in the book. Many of these characters were those persecuted in history for speaking out on one thing or another. I felt that the author included a disproportionate number of victims persecuted by those acting in the name of Christianity (as compared to those persecuted by other groups of people, either religious or secular).

The entry for Petrarch himself perhaps is the most telling. Here we have the old dude the cool fantastical world is named after, and what does Downey choose to write about him? "Historians out in the later wherens* consider Petrarch the father of 'Humanism'--a system of values and beliefs that people are basically good and that problems can be solved using reason instead of religion. If they only knew the half of it."

In the end, I did enjoy the book--at least the parts of it that were central to the plot and not slapping me in the face for my faith. I don't know if the author plans to make it into a series, but she certainly has plenty of room to do so. Will my sons be reading this book (or any that may come after it)? That's undecided. I think I could easily point out the things I think they should be aware of, but is it that good that they need to read it? Not really. Nor did they express any interest in reading it at any point during the two weeks it resided in our library tub.

*Wherens is the made-up world in this book that combines "where" and "when".

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

_The Fledgling_ by Jane Langton

This novel about a young girl who is completely strange is also completely boring. I think maybe because the author was projecting a "save the animals" environmental message, it's cover is graced with a Newberry Honor seal.

The Fledgling is set in Massachusetts near Waldon Pond. If I were to brush up on my Emerson and Thoreau, I probably would have a deeper understanding of this book. But I doubt it.

Basically, in a nutshell, all of the intellectual characters are good, but the ones who work at the bank are stupid and bad. If you want confirmation that hunting is bad, this is the book for you. However, if you want a realistic portrayal of what hunting is like, this is not for you. If you want your sensitive child to cry and be traumatized, please allow him/her to read the gruesome ending of this book. It's pretty sad.

But really, I had to force myself to read this one. It was that boring. I'd give it a giant thumbs-down, and it's not just because the author's agenda is one I find quite shallow.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Ranger's Apprentice books (continued)

Well, I've continued reading the series, and I've made it through the sixth book.  My previous decision still holds, but I have different reasons for the decision now.

The violence isn't so intense in books 2-6. Yes, there's violence, but since knights and Skandians (Viking-like characters) are featured, there's bound to be fighting.

The romance continues, but I'm no longer terribly concerned about it. It's not too mushy or gratuitous. I don't think it's so much romance as to make a boy not want to read these books.

Language, however, is rough at times. I suppose that's what you get when you follow around some adult warriors through all sorts of adventures. Words that begin with "d" and "h" are scattered throughout, albeit not liberally (not every page or anything).

Are these books literary masterpieces? No. They are fun books. They are adventure books. From my point-of-view, there's no underlying agenda being pushed.

On a side note, the fantasy world seems based on a Europe from history, modern ideas do creep in here and there. An enameled pot here. A wire there. Amusing to me and my husband, but not a deal-breaker.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

_The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men_ by Christina Hoff Sommers

I mentioned this book in an earlier post. I was curious and ordered the book from our library. It is not an easy read because it is scholarly, but it was a good read. By "good" I mean that if you have sons or if you are a teacher, you should read this book or the updated version of it which I have not read (The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men).

What struck me about this book is that I needed to read it about 16 years ago when I began teaching. I was taught to believe in and use (in education classes and in teacher in-services) so many practices that Sommers debunks. I pushed for students to vomit out their feelings in journals and practiced so many other teaching methods that put boys at a disadvantage. I can see it so very clearly in the rearview mirror. I certainly didn't mean to hurt them or their learning, but I can see that I was misinformed. The sad thing is that those who misinformed me also were educators who really wanted to help all of the children, but they were misinformed, too. It seems that somehow really poorly researched findings about girls' voices being squelched in our society caught on and became the shaky basis for well-meaning but bad policies and initiatives.

While this book leans solidly to the right, it is well-researched and filled with logic and common sense. Sommers does a good job of pointing out flaws in a respectful way that considers her opposition. Even if you are more liberal-leaning, I think you would find this book thoughtful and useful.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

_John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads_ by John Denver

In honor of West Virginia Day (June 20th), I offer up this picture book review.

It rocks. The illustrations by Christopher Canyon are beautiful, especially if you like quilts. But even if you don't like quilts, the pictures are so detailed and gorgeous. It comes with a CD of the song, and the boys love listening and turning the pages and watching Mommy cry at the end. Every time.

Buy it as a gift. It's worth it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

_Ranger’s Apprentice Book One: The Ruins of Gorlan_ by John Flanagan

My mother-in-law, who has reared 10 of her own boys, highly recommends the Ranger’s Apprentice series. We were recently on the receiving end of a few of the books, and my oldest two boys (ages 10 and 8) gobbled up the first two books and were begging me to find the others at the library. They also insisted I read them, too.

I complied. 


Things have been quite busy around here lately, and I tried picking up the first book, The Ruins of Gorlan several times. But my eyelids were just too heavy. Sleep won the day.

Finally I had a chance to begin reading. While the book is set in a fictional realm which is usually a minus for me, I just didn’t want to put it down. I could see why the boys liked the books so much. The story of fifteen-year-old Will figuring out his new life as the ranger’s apprentice is filled with adventure. As gripping as the arduous training and battles are, Will’s inner struggles had me on the edge of my seat and cheering for him to make (what I thought) the right decision.

I’ve only had a chance to read this first book, but I heartily recommend it.


It’s a little late now since both boys read the first two, but I do think I’ll hold off on letting them read more for a bit. Why? Because it’s a little more intense than I think they are ready to handle. There is some violence which is to be expected in a tale with knights and castles, bullies and monsters. While I wouldn’t call the violence gratuitous, it was fierce enough to make me feel uncomfortable. I do think some 10-year-olds might be okay with it, but it’s something that a parent should judge. If you have concerns, preview chapters 21 and 22 for what I considered to be the harshest of the violence.

For those who want to shield their children from all romance, there is a kiss at the end of chapter 31. While only 3 sentences of the entire book were devoted to it, it made quite the impression on both the receiver and me. Again, it was not gratuitous and it also wasn’t trashy. It was intense because of Flanagan’s writing style that brings words to life. I might have even blushed while reading it. There. Now you think I’m a total prude, and that’s okay. I can handle it.

The book is recommended for ages 10 and up, and that is probably a good starting range. Perhaps my 10-year-old can handle it just fine, but I’m still waiting (mostly because of the violence). I recommend giving it a perusal before you hand it to your boy if he is younger than 10. 

If any of you have read beyond the first book and have more insight about the series, please let the rest of us know in the comments.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

War on Boys

I've heard of the book by Christina Hoff Sommers,  The War Against Boys, but I've not read it yet. Have you?

My husband found this article recently. There's a video that I would like to watch. Alas, our internet is too slow for such things. Maybe yours isn't. If it's helpful, let me know.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Guardians of Ga'hoole Series by Kathryn Lasky

This series is about owls. Talking, thinking owls. Owls that have friends and enemies. Owls that fight pure evil.

I've only read through the first five books, but if they are any indication, these are clean books. I think those who object to the magic in Harry Potter might find these books okay. I don't think the specialness of these owls would be considered magic; it's just the kind of special powers that fantasy characters have.

I must warn you, however, there are bad words used--but they are owl bad words, made up ones. If your child uses them, people will just look at them strangely.

The battle between evil and good is pretty intense. These are not just fun feathery owls. There are real bad guys, and if your son can't handle that, these aren't the books for him. What I liked is that the bad guys were clearly bad, and the good guys were good. And because the owls battle, there is violence, too.

Now you must realize that fantasy stuff is not high on my list of likes, but once I got into the first few chapters of The Capture (the first in the series of 15), it wasn't so bad. By that point, I had figured out the basic jargon that is unique to many fantasy books, and these owls do have special words and phrases we must conquer.  After the first book, I wanted to read more, and more importantly, both of my boy readers did, too. My oldest has read the first 10 books over and over.

I would guess 8 might be an appropriate beginning age for these books (though the reading level on the back cover says RL4), but if you have a different perspective (perhaps you've read all the books), please comment and let us know!

Friday, May 9, 2014

_Marley: A Dog Like No Other_ by John Grogan

I saw the commercials on television for Marley & Me when it first came out, and I thought it looked hilarious. It wasn't until just this past year that I finally saw it on television, and it was better than I had expected. In January I read the memoir that the movie was based on (as recommended by a friend a few years ago), and it was even better than the movie. I laughed out loud and cried. I wanted to read it to my children, but there were just too many adult themes.

*Spoiler Alert* If you don't want to know what happens, then don't continue reading. Of course, that means you won't know my opinion of the book, so proceed with caution.

Then a few weeks ago I spotted Marley: A Dog Like No Other by John Grogan on the library shelves. The front cover claims it is a "special adaptation for young readers," so I had to check it out. After reading it as quickly as possible, and laughing and crying out loud again, I knew I wanted to read it to my older two boys. 

The problem is, as you know if you've seen the movie or read the grown-up version or understand that dogs don't live as long as people, that the lovable, furry, and stupidly boisterous main character dies in the end. I wasn't sure one of my boys could handle that part of the story. I decided to just ask him if he wanted to listen, making sure that both boys realized ahead of time that in the end, Marley would die and that it would be sad. 

He chose not to listen. Except he forgot to leave the room once. After that, he wanted to listen to the whole thing. Except when it became clear that the end was near. Then he didn't listen. Instead, he read the rest of the book on his own and skipped any parts that were just too intense for him. 

In the end, both of my boys absolutely loved the book. They rolled on the floor laughing. Apart from the whole sad part (which really is one of those sads that makes you happy), the book is stinking hilarious.

Now. There are parts some parents may not want their children reading. First--poop. If you have a problem with your children reading about poop, especially dog poop and sometimes vomit and gas, then don't bring this book home.  Second, the death thing. If you think you child can't handle it, preview it first before you let him read it. Third, if your family rejects anything that isn't doctrinally sound, this one mentions doggie heaven in the context of a father trying to comfort his children. 

The fourth thing is that some of the language is. . . hmmm. . . well, not "bad words" exactly, but phrases I mostly don't want my children using or phrases I wasn't ready to explain. These are the only parts I felt strongly enough about to leave out while I read aloud. The wife in the book jokingly shouts to her husband (when the dog plows him over and is on top of him) something about "when you two are done making out." Also, once when Marley was in a movie, a child actress screamed that Marley's "thing" was out.  One phrase I wasn't certain about but read anyway because I wasn't paying close enough attention was about Marley "in pursuit of hot poodle butt-sniffing action." Again, these phrases may be fine for you and yours, but my prudish self cringed a bit when thinking of reading them to my 8-9 year old boys.

That's it. I recommend this book heartily if you are cool with the issues I highlighted. It's not just funny; it's also good writing. Grogan has a way with words. His writing style isn't just humorous; it's also beautiful. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

_Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything_ by Maira Kalman

This colorful book is striking in appearance and style. Maira Kalman takes a poetic approach to writing about the life of Thomas Jefferson. Lilting phrases and fun facts draw the reader into this children's picture book biography. While some uptight people (like myself) might find the text style that uses capital letters in the middle of words annoying, others would likely think it all added to the charm of the story.

But charm is not everything; it often distracts from less appealing qualities.

I can forgive the text style; it's artistic, I suppose. I cannot, however, be okay with what I consider to be age-inappropriate content. Now, it's not blatantly graphic or anything like that; it's just a little too much detail about sensitive topics, and I don't think it's fit for the grades K-3 for which it is recommended. While I think young children cannot and should not be kept in the dark about slavery, I do not think that they need to be exposed quite yet to sexual relations issues when they are not yet ready to learn all about sex itself:
“Here is Jefferson’s farm book with a list of his slaves and the supplies they were given. Our hearts are Broken. One of the names is Sally. It is strongly believed that after his wife died, Jefferson had children with the  Beautiful Sally Hemings. Some of them were freed and able to pass for white. Passing for white meant that your skin was so light, you could hide the fact that you were partially black. To hide your background is a very sad thing. Perhaps people felt they had no choice in such a prejudiced land."

And that brings me to the other problem I have with this book. It presents itself as a non-fiction book, but Kalman intersperses her own feelings and opinions throughout in such a way that the young intended audience cannot easily distinguish fact from opinion. Even when some facts are presented without opinion, they are stated in such a way that there seem to be some subtle political undertones:

“He was a strong leader with many ideas. He believed in separation of church and state. That means that all people should be free to practice whatever religion they like. Religion should not be part of government.”

Kalman  writes of Jefferson, "The monumental man had monumental flaws." That's true, but we all do. I feel that this book had promise, but the monumental flaws ruin it for the younger set. Perhaps it would be useful for the older set to critique.

If, however, you want a different perspective on this book, here's a much prettier blog with lots of pictures and such.

Yesterday I did check out what other picture books our small library had about Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson: A Picture Book Biography by James Cross Giblin had great illustrations (by Michael Dooling) and was really informative. It did not come out and speak about the Sally Hemings relationship, but she was mentioned several times. An older, more astute child might wonder why she was mentioned so often, leading to the important historical discussion.

The two other books compared John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Worst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the True Story of an American Feud by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain and Those Rebels, John and Tom by Barbara Kerley were both interesting reads with fun illustrations (by Larry Day and Edwin Fotheringham, respectively). While perhaps Kerley's depiction of King George and England is particularly unfair or American-centric, I found no major flaws for the younger set.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

_Little Joe_ by Sandra Neil Wallace

A few weeks ago, I brought Little Joe home from the library. My oldest saw it and exclaimed, "Little Joe! That was the best book I read last year!" I agree with him. 

My other reader was not convinced. In fact, he decided to go "green beans" on me about Little Joe. No matter how much I tried to convince him that if he tried it he'd like it, he insisted he did not want to read it. So, as I make him eat at least a few green beans, I made him read the first few chapters of Little Joe. He still would't admit that he liked it, but I could tell he did (just like with green beans).  Not wanting to read or like the book became part of his identity, but when I watched him reading it, I could tell by his face that he enjoyed it. 

Eventually, after he was finished reading the book, I was able to get him to admit that he did really like it. When I asked him why, he replied, "I like Little Joe because it's so real."

Me, too. Sandra Neil Wallace's story about a young boy, Eli, raising his first calf, Little Joe, is real. The relationships of the characters are real; especially central to the plot is the relationship between Eli and his father. The descriptions of nature are real. The farm life is real. This book captures the beauty of real, everyday living.

Boys who enjoy outdoors and animals should enjoy this book. Parents who enjoy their sons reading well-written, non-obnoxious, and detail-rich (but not overwhelming) books should put this in their hands. Eli is also a great (real) role model for boys; he's a young boy (9 years old) who is a hard worker, doesn't complain all the time, and is respectful and kind. Don't miss this one!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

In My Defense

In a former life, I was a public school teacher. I taught many students who did not read. I struggled to find books that would interest them. It was my goal to get them reading, and the thought of steering them away from something that would actually have them reading made me squirm.

Now I am a mom. I am more conservative. I am still a teacher since I homeschool. I have no problem motivating my children to read because they take after their bookworm parents. Now the thought of allowing them to read anything they're interested in makes me squirm, especially because of a substantial amount of trash that resides on library and bookstore shelves, cloaked in attractive book jackets.

I recently read an article that made me feel less guilty for keeping an eye on what my children read. "In Defense of Book Banning" by Mark Hemingway is something any parent of readers or future readers should read and consider. It's what I would have written were I smarter and a better writer. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Golden Name Day by Jennie D. Lindquist

If you've ever read this book, published in 1955, you are almost certainly questioning why in the world I am including a review for it on this blog. With female main characters, lots of tea parties (even if they're not tea parties technically), tons of flowers and dresses, a few kitties, dolls and such, this is about the girliest book I've ever read.

Illustrated by Garth Williams, it has a similar feel to a more popular series he illustrated--the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Due to her mother's (unnamed) illness and prolonged hospitalization, young Nancy must leave the city and go and live with Grandma and Grandpa (who are not her real grandparents, but more like "adopted" grandparents) in the country. Grandma and her family endeavor to keep Nancy busy so that she does not become too sad about being away from home and her own family.

The grandparents are of Swedish decent, and we are introduced to many of their customs. The one that most fascinates Nancy is name day. The Swedish almanac has a chart which assigns to each name a special day on which everybody with that name celebrates his or her name day with a party and much fun. Nancy's name, because it is American, is not in the almanac, and she spends the book searching for a way to have a name day all her own.

Truthfully, there is not much action to this book. But it is beautiful with such poetic details of nature as to fascinate any nature-lover. This book was pure and true to life and non-offensive in every way I can imagine. And I was reminded of how my own grandmother used to keep me busy with so many little projects and fun activities when I used to stay with her so far away from home and my parents.

But what about the boys!?  Well, the reason I am reviewing this book at all is my oldest son loved it. He was the one who found the second book of the trilogy on the library book shelf and asked me to find this one (through ILL) since it is out of print. At first, he was interested because Garth Williams illustrated it, and my boys were really into the Laura Ingalls books. Then he read it and insisted I read it.

Why did he like it?  Well, my son is one who stops to smell the roses. He struggles to buckle down and complete some assignments because he is so easily distracted by little joys. He relishes his little sister's giggles, the bird on the patio, and the way the glass of ice water collects condensation. In this book, he liked the apple blossoms at night and every other little portrait of nature. So, if your boy is like this, perhaps he, too, would delight in this book.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Look-Alikes and Look-Alikes Jr. by Joan Steiner

So what if there's not many words in these books? So what if there's no real story and no information? These books rock!

Artist Joan Steiner creates mind-boggling (and beautiful) scenes from ordinary objects--candies, crumbs, socks, you name it.  In Look-Alikes, Look-Alikes Jr., Look-Alikes Christmas, and Look-Alikes Around the World, the more you look, the more you see. And you definitely want to look and look and look.

I have no idea how long it took Joan Steiner to create these amazing dioramas. I can't even fathom how she was able to imagine them in the first place. But I do know that my boys and I love looking at them together. We challenge each other to find a diaper pin in this picture or a bar of soap in that picture. It's fun "together" time to curl up with one of the Look-Alikes books.

Look for these gems at the library. Better yet, buy them as gifts for your boys. Or yourself. Or anybody.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

_The Littles_ by John Peterson

My first exposure to The Littles was the Saturday morning cartoon when I was in elementary school. When Scholastic listed The Littles to the Rescue in the book club paper that was sent home with us each month, I just had to have it. It was the first chapter book I owned. I think it might be the first chapter book I ever read, but I can't quite remember.

My husband brought another one of the series into our home from his childhood. Then we've somehow added another one or two since. When it came time for our first son to start reading chapter books, this series seemed like a good choice.

These books feature small people creatures with tails living inside the walls of humans. They adapt human things for their own use--like a soup can for an elevator and a needle for a sword. The Littles are fun because you can see life from a different perspective and because the ordinary for us is adventure for them.

I just finished reading the first book, The Littles, with my 6 year old, and he begged for me to read another one. Just like his brothers before him, he's hooked on the series. I'll be keeping my eyes open for more of them at yard sales this summer. If you have a young boy just learning to read, consider this series for one of his first forays into the world of chapter books.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Rock River by Bill Maynard

"What is brave?" is the question Rock River deals with. Young Luke (almost 12) spends the summer with his family at their cabin on the river. He and his friends roam all over the countryside, exploring and having good kid fun. Luke, whose family is still dealing with his older brother's death on the river, navigates dangerous waters as he tries to figure out if he is brave or not.

This novel, aimed at the middle-school reader, is not a book that reaches out and grabs you. In fact, I struggled to get into it at first. However, once the plot gets moving, it's not so bad. While not a literary classic, it's worth a read for the boy who's hungry for the outdoors and adventure. The messages about bravery, friendship, and family are decent, too. I probably wouldn't recommend that you search out this book, but if it falls in your boy's lap, let him give it a try.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The "Who Was. . . ?" Series

We were shopping at Ollie's when we came upon these neat-looking biographies in the "Who Was... ?" series published by Grosset & Dunlap.  I was excited to find them at bargain prices since my boys love biographies. 

However, even though the back cover of each book tells us they are written at the 3rd grade reading level, I'm not so certain all of them contain appropriate material for your average 8 or 9 year old. While there's bound do be disagreement, I just don't think that children need to know that Louis Armstrong's mother had "lots of different boyfriends," each one of whom he called step-father or that he was married four times. They also don't need to know about Sally Ride being in love with another woman. Yes, these are all facts about the lives of real people, but they are facts that can wait until children are older. 

Some of these books also have more editorializing than I think should be in a biography aimed at young folks. These little ones are not yet discriminating enough to recognize a writer's bias and easily mistake opinions for fact. 

For example, in the book about Abraham Lincoln, we learn about the Civil War, "The war did not end quickly. On both sides, soldiers died in bloody battles that didn't accomplish anything." Is this a fact? Or is the author just adding in a personal belief about the meaninglessness of war?

In the book about Jackie Robinson, we read about young Jackie and his friends, "They'd swipe fruit from local stands. They'd throw dirt at passing cars. Sometimes they'd take golf balls from a golf course, then sell them back to the players. It wasn't right, but the boys never did anything violent or got into big trouble." I don't really want my sons to read this and think it isn't really a big deal to behave in these ways; boys will be boys-ha! 

Overall, I cannot either recommend or denounce the entire series because I haven't read all of the titles. From the ones I have read, the books are interesting and have extra historic tidbits to further explain the time period. Many of them also do have some degree of bias, some minor, some not so minor. I would say that if you are concerned, you should read a specific title before handing it to your boy. They are not all written by the same author, and some are simply better than others.

Except for the above quotation, I really liked the "Who Was Jackie Robinson?" book, written by Gail Herman. The book showed Jackie to be an excellent role model who practiced self-control and was a hard worker. It was an enjoyable read.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Attack of the Killer Potatoes by Peter Lerangis

Yep. This book is really about killer potatoes. This is another book I just let my son pick up and read because from the cover, it looked pretty harmless and funny. After he giggled through the reading, I thought I should check it out, too. I soon realized I wish I had read it first.

Attack of the Killer Potatoes by Peter Lerangis is about a 7th grade boy, Arnold, who, along with his best friend,  finds a whole lot of trouble when they steal a scientist's secret formula--a growth hormone derived from dinosaur DNA.

I would file this book in the obnoxious category. The main characters are all rude to each other and seem to think only of themselves. Arnold and his sister show absolutely no kindness toward one another. Arnold and his best friend Max openly disobey parents and authorities with no remorse. This book shows how to be the most obnoxious middle-schooler possible--the exact opposite of what I'm shooting for with our children.

Additionally of interest to parents of boys is the fact that, while the two boys are the protagonists of the tale, they are not the heroes. The author allows the male main characters to be nothing more than screw-ups; from the two boys to the mad scientist to the police officer, no male is admirable or good. In the end, Arnold's interfering sister and his mother save the day. Let me clarify that I am totally okay with female characters saving the day, but it is not okay when all the boys in a book aimed at young boys are no-good idiots who mess everything up.

Gee, and the title was so promising.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

John's Story: 1775 by Joan Lowery Nixon

We've been studying the American Revolution for history this year. When I pulled out all of the books we've accumulated on that topic, I found one I'd picked up used-- John's Story: 1775 by Joan Lowery Nixon.  It is part of the Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg series, and is about an 11-year-old boy (just a year or so older than my older sons) who is witness to events unfolding in Williamsburg. I figured it would be a good supplement to our history text and that the boys would gobble it up.

I was wrong about the boys gobbling it up. Usually I just have to set a book out, let them know it's there, and within a day or two it's read. A few weeks after the book was out, I asked if they liked it. One had looked at it but wasn't interested in it. The other said he read it but wasn't too impressed. I was surprised and decided to read it to see why it wasn't a hit.

I read the book and wasn't enthralled by it either. It was just sort of stilted, wooden, boring. I don't think the Prologue helped either; a group of friends in a class visit a booth at colonial Williamsburg where a women sets the stage for the story of the rest of the book. It really made for a slow start. 

There was nothing really objectionable in the book. I did like that the historical aspects of the book seemed well-researched; I came away from the reading with a better understanding of Virginia's involvement in the colonies' fight for independence. However, the story of the book seemed contrived just to relate the historical events in a specific formula. Nothing in the writing made it enjoyable to read.

Overall, I wouldn't recommend it as a good read, but it's pretty safe for the boys--if they can stay awake while reading it. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Gruffalo Crumble

The title for this post will really have you scratching your head unless you've had the fortune of reading a delightful picture book my husband brought home from the library last week. The kids simply couldn't stop reading/talking about/reciting The Gruffalo written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. I think all of my talking children memorized the entire book just for fun!

In the book, a mouse scares off a big monster-- a gruffalo to be exact-- in quite the clever way. In the process, he mentions his favorite dish--gruffalo crumble. If you're trying to convince your boy that brains can trump brawn, this is the book for you. 

The children and I decided to create our own gruffalo crumble--best served with owl ice cream. We had fun planning our own recipe based on the book. 

We started with a granola base for the crumble part. Next we tried to add ingredients that matched the description of the gruffalo. We used dried apricots for the orange eyes, slivered almonds for claws and/or tusks, white chocolate chips for terrible teeth, raisins for his black tongue, pumpkin seeds for the poisonous wart, dried mulberries for knobbly knees, and purple sprinkles for the purple back prickles. It tasted great on our "owl" ice cream, and they're hoping to have it on yogurt for breakfast sometime soon. We did decide, however, that we need to find something else purple because the sprinkles just settled to the bottom and didn't have much of a taste anyway. If you come up with something better, leave a comment so we can try it, too.

In fact, feel free to use the following recipe, but your children would probably like brainstorming their own add-ins from the book. This is an extremely kid-friendly recipe because it's just measuring, dumping, and stirring. The measurements don't even need to be exact. 

Gruffalo Crumble

4 cups granola (store-bought or homemade)
1/2 cup dried apricots, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup white chocolate chips
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup dried white mulberries
1/4 cup purple sprinkles

In a large bowl, mix together all ingredients. Serve on ice cream, yogurt, or with milk--or grab by the handful for a quick snack.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims by Rush Limbaugh

My first exposure to Rush Limbaugh was in my college days. Back then, I was quite the liberal thinker. While I hadn't actually ever listened to him, I knew from news snippets here and there that he was a totally, like, bad person who was a hater of all people and probably puppies and babies, too. Enter Jon. Jon was one of my Latin buddies. We lived in the same dorm, and before class I would walk down to his room to meet him so we could walk across campus together. Each day before class, Jon would be setting his VCR to record Limbaugh's televised show when I knocked on his door.

"Ugh. You watch Rush Limbaugh?!" I asked disgustedly.

Flash forward many a year.  I am now married to a man who has listened to Rush for years. In fact, my husband prefers to listen to talk radio while driving instead of be-bopping to music like I do. Suffice it to say that I am now well-acquainted with Rush. My children are Rush Babies. In fact, when my third-born was a toddler we sometimes were saved from sleepy tantrums because he was soothed as soon as Rush's opening music came on the radio.

My opinion of Rush has changed a lot, too. I now realize he is not evil. In fact, I'm a conservative and actually agree with a lot of what El Rushbo says even if I'm not a big fan of the manner it which he says it. I will not, however, choose to listen to Rush on my own because I still prefer music. I don't like his language and sometimes crass way of talking about people. I don't like being bombarded with the negative subject matter of politics all the time. Of course, I know tons of people completely revile the man and tons love him 100%.

None of these opinions matter to me in reviewing his book, Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims.  I was excited to have his book to read before I handed it to my boys, but I was disappointed in the book. It wasn't that it didn't have a lot of history in it; from what I've read in other children's book about the Pilgrims, it seemed accurate. It wasn't that the presentation was poor; there were color pictures, and the writing was on pages that looked like old parchment-type paper. It wasn't that it was filled with typos and grammar errors; it wasn't.

It just wasn't one of the carefully crafted types of books that I enjoy reading. The narrative sounded like. . . well, it sounded like Rush Limbaugh. It had his energy and his tongue-in-cheek humor (a little light potty-humor, too, if I recall). It had a not-so-veiled reference to/ advertisement for Limbaugh's iced tea. It had a talking horse as the panacea for all plot difficulties. While informative, I found it tedious.

My sons and husband, however, loved it. They laughed out loud while reading it. Since I didn't read anything too gross or offensive, I suppose I should give my stamp of approval for the book. My boys all gave it a big thumbs up, so I guess I'll begrudgingly do the same. This is, after all, a blog for books boys will like.

Just be aware that this is NOT a literary masterpiece.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Amazing Cows: Udder Absurdity for Children

The title says it all. Okay, not all. This fun book by Sandra Boynton is sure to please those boys who loved her board books when they were younger. It has jokes, riddles, stories, poetry, and all manner of cow silliness-- but all good, clean fun. My boys who love wordplay were giggling. They had to read it out loud to me. I had to read it because I love Sandra Boynton's humor. This book did not disappoint. I especially liked "Red Rover."

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Petticoat Party series by Kathleen Karr

Whoa! Hold on. I know what you're thinking. This is supposed to be a blog about books for boys! Don't worry; read on.

The series written by Kathleen Karr has four books: Go West, Young Women!Phoebe's FollyOregon, Sweet Oregon; and Gold-Rush Phoebe. The books are historical fiction focusing on the life and times of one Phoebe Brown, a girl in her tween/early teen years traveling with her family on the Oregon Trail and later seeking her fortune in the California gold rush. The recommended age on the back is 10 up.

One of my sons picked out the first three books of this series at the library. I try to at least glance at what they pick out so I can okay or nix their choices. I was in a hurry, and just checked out the front of the first book. It seemed harmless enough and said, "Good-bye, Massachusetts--Hello, Wild, Wild West." I could see why he might be interested. I tossed it in our bag and brought it home. 

I didn't think of the books again until after my son had already devoured the first one and was well into the second.  He told me I should read them because they were good; I was busy but decided I could at least read the back cover. What I read made me think I should quickly delve a little deeper; the blurb on the back talked about Phoebe not being able to "stand another day of her father and the other bossy male members of the wagon train." It also touted them as the first feminists of the frontier.

What I read inside the covers of those first three books (no, I didn't finish the series) caused me to tell my son he shouldn't read the rest of the books, and I explained to him why. You see, all the men are painted in the worst possible male chauvinist colors. Phoebe's father is a bully, he and the other men on the wagon train are unbelievably stupid, they force their families to go west, they expect to be served and to be kept content. The men are nothing but clowns. 

In one exchange, Phoebe's older sister comments, "Anyway, according to Mr. Cooper, Indians prefer their women silent and submissive." Phoebe replies, "That doesn't sound any different from Papa or any other white male I've ever known, Amelia."

All three books were filled with unhealthy stereotypes. Perhaps the author meant it to be funny and satirical. Regardless of why, I simply don't want my boys to grow up being put down. The stupid male stereotype is now dominant in family shows and movies. It doesn't need to find its way into my little boys' heads disguised as historical novels.  

By the way, there are other reasons I don't like the book, if you're interested. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why "Books for the Boys"?

When I was teaching 8th grade language arts, I struggled to find books that boys wanted to read. Maybe that was because the boys just didn't like to read. Maybe not. There were a couple of books that really, really interested them. Many of them were nonfiction, and I just didn't get that. I rarely saw girls with nonfiction "fun" books. The boys gravitated more toward science fiction than the girls did. I noticed, for better or worse, there were definite differences in what the boys and girls read.

Flash forward a decade or so. Two of my sons, ages 9 and 8, are voracious readers. As a mom, I have a different perspective. My struggle is not finding books that my boys want to read, but finding books that I want them to read. You see, I am still a teacher, but the difference is that my students are my own children, my precious gifts. I do not want their heads filled with raunchy and lame humor. I do not want their heads filled with bad language. I do not want their head filled with gratuitous sex and violence. And at this tender age, I do not want their heads filled with philosophies that might hurt them in the long run. If at all possible, I do not want a bunch of words carelessly spewed out on paper that pathetically take on the form of a book.

What I do want is books that uplift them, challenge them, engage them, fill them with the beauty of images and the music of words, teach them the certainty of truth, and make them want never to stop reading. When they are reading, I want to watch my sons giggle hysterically, whimper in sympathy, cry in sorrow, shout in victory, and sigh at the joy of it all.

So why not a blog dedicated to all books--both for girls and for boys?  Much has been noted recently that our schools are biased toward girls and the way they learn. So many of the books out there today are also geared more toward girls and how they think. While I think it's great that girls now have that chance to learn and follow their talents, I want my sons also to have that opportunity.

I know many other parents, grandparents, and teachers desire that same chance for the boys in their lives. That is why I am starting this blog. Maybe I can introduce you to a great book for your boy or steer you away from one that is less than ideal. Maybe you can give me your feedback on a highlighted book or author or even suggest another great read. Maybe you'll disagree with me, and that's fine. I know I'm opinionated.  But I will attempt to include enough objective details in my reviews that you may use your own standards and values to judge whether or not a book deserves to be the object of Bobby's book report or that special birthday gift for Ralph. Above all, I hope I can be helpful to you as you try to instill that lifelong love of reading.