Childrens book reviews by StorySnoops, judge a book by more than its cover, serving fresh scoops of new books for you every day
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Archive for August, 2010

Stuck in the Middle

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

There is a place in the middle of the reading spectrum when your child has mastered the beginning books such as Henry and Mudge but then hesitates, intimidated by moving on to the next level. Chapter books, with pages of words and few illustrations can look daunting. It’s much like when your child is about ready to swim on his own. He has the floaties on, and you know he doesn’t need them anymore. He’s just scared to take them off.

I am in this middle place with my second grader. The only books that appeal to him have massive shelf appeal but are not well matched to his reading ability. He will bring books home from school about warships (can’t read them),  Stephen Hawking (definitely can’t read these), and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books (getting closer!).

Let me first throw out this disclaimer about the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books: I’ve read them all, and obnoxious or not, I do love them. (Who didn’t laugh in that movie?! Come on, admit it, it was FUNNY!) However, I don’t love the book for my seven-year-old. Not only is it too hard for him to read, some of the vocabulary is best left to a slightly older reader.

That said, I was excited when I saw him in his room, trying to read through the first page like the Little Engine That Could. He was motivated! But eventually, it became too hard for him to read, and when he began calling his sister a “moron”, I figured we needed to make a different choice.

And that got me thinking – Why aren’t there funny graphic novels for the beginning reader? Books such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid attract even the most reluctant readers. What about a “lite” version of such a book? So I set off on a mission for a “comic-looking boy book with action and humor”. Oh, and did I mention it needs to be for a seven-year-old? Pretty tall order, but at the third library, I found it. Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute.

This is a series about a superhero lunch lady and her sidekick who double as secret spies and crime fighters. She enlists the help of her favorite group of unpopular students on her secret missions.  Few words on each page? Check. Comic format, lots of action, and illustratons?  Check! Funny and wholesome? Double check! I took home the series to give it the true test.

I casually left it on the table, and he picked it up as soon as he got home. He tried to read the title (admittedly, this was pretty hard as it had the words Cyborg and Substitute in it). He flipped through it and asked me to read it to him. Aha, a sign of weakness – he’s interested! When I told him I would read it to him at bedtime, he paused, right there at the place in the middle. And then he jumped. I held my breath. He sat on the coach and started in by himself. He had to sound out a few words on each page but he was doing it. And then I heard a giggle. And I exhaled.

I have since done some research and found that actually many stories have graphic novel versions of their books, such as Coraline, The Lightening Thief, and The Baby-Sitter’s Club. So, if you have reader that is stuck in the middle place, consider the graphic novel as a way to entice him or her into jumping into the world of reading.

One final note: a movie about the Lunch Lady and her adventures will be coming to theaters soon, starring Amy Poehler.  We’ll be there, that’s for sure!

-Shannon, StorySnoop

SuperScoop Friday – Is Mockingjay Worth the Hype?

Friday, August 27th, 2010

I just devoured Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins, the final installment of wildly popular Hunger Games trilogy.  Released on August 24th, this is one of the most highly anticipated books in the world of Young Adult fiction.  There are entire websites, chat rooms, Twitter groups, and Facebook pages dedicated to this book.  A Google search for “Mockingjay” yields 1,390,000 results.  We’re talking hype.

Is the book worth all of the hype?  In a word, yes. Mockingjay is an engrossing story that evokes many powerful emotions, perhaps mirroring those of beloved heroine Katniss Aberdeen.  In the end, I was devastated by this masterful tale but loved it all the same.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the trilogy (almost as impossible as never having heard of the Twilight Saga!), it is the story of a dystopian society in which twelve Districts are controlled by the Capitol.  Life for those in the Capitol is good.  For those in the Districts, it is a constant struggle for food, freedom, and a feeling of security.  After a previous uprising by the Districts, the Capitol established the Hunger Games to prevent future rebellions.  During this annual event, one boy and one girl are picked from each District to fight to the death on live television. Facing obstacles such as firebombs, starvation, dehydration, hypothermia, and extreme weather conditions, the last tribute alive is the victor.

After being rescued at the conclusion of Catching Fire, Katniss is now shocked to learn that she has been an unwitting pawn in the rebellion against the Capitol.  Rebel leaders carefully orchestrated everything that happened in the arena; only Katniss was not in on the plan. As retribution for the escape, Peeta is captured and Katniss’ home District is virtually obliterated. Fortunately, the leaders of the revolt are keeping Gale and her family safe in District 13, which does in fact exist. Now Katniss must decide whether to become the Mockingjay — a symbol of the revolution charged with uniting the Districts against the Capitol. In her new role, Katniss is haunted by the repercussions of her past and present actions. As she battles to overthrow the Capitol, Katniss finds herself in what is essentially a new version of the Hunger Games, fighting for her own survival and for Peeta’s, too.

Even after all of the hype leading up to its release, Mockingjay does not disappoint.  I found it difficult to put the book down until I could learn Katniss’ fate, once and for all.  Katniss continues to be a strong heroine, although her past experiences in the arena have taken their toll on her emotionally.  The leaders of both sides painfully exploit these raw emotions.  Katniss is truly a pawn struggling to do the right thing within the limitations of her circumstances.  Ultimately, it is a heartbreaking act of violence that reveals the true paradox of the story.  In her quest to destroy Panem’s cruel and manipulative leader, Katniss discovers that the rebel leader is no less cruel or manipulative.

And of course, there’s the Peeta versus Gale thing.  For those readers (like me!) who have chosen sides in this love triangle, I was eager to learn which, if either, love interest would finally capture Katniss’ heart.  I will admit that as a member Team Peeta, it was hard to like his character during this story, through no fault of his own.  I missed his sweet, devoted presence, which was fleeting at best.

With an intriguing premise, nonstop action, a bit of romance, and a cast of compelling characters, the entire Hunger Games trilogy has something for almost every type of reader.

-Jen, StorySnoop

Banned Books? What?!

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Judy Blume has been a big topic of conversation amongst the Snoops lately, for what she did write about, didn’t write about, and the fact that some of her most ground-breaking material, written over 30 years ago, is still topically relevant today.  The details may be dated, but the subject matter is and always has been universal to children and teens.  And some of that subject matter is stuff we don’t always like to talk about–childhood insecurities, less-than-stellar social behavior, religion and of course, puberty and sex.  Judy wrote some of the books that we all grew up with, and treasure to this day.  And for her efforts?  Judy Blume’s books are some of the most challenged titles in the last 40 years!  A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness. There is a great quote from Judy herself on her website, from an article on censorship:

“I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel in control of their children’s lives. This fear is often disguised as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don’t read about it, their children won’t know about it. And if they don’t know about it, it won’t happen.”

Every year, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles a list of the top ten most frequently challenged books. The reasons most cited for challenges are: sexuality, language and unsuitability for the age group.

As a parent, this all makes a bit of twisted sense to me—of course I don’t want my young children reading books that contain subject matter or language that is above their maturity level, and I don’t want them to learn an entire potty mouth vocabulary from a book.  BUT, isn’t it my job as a parent to make that decision for or with my child?  How about if my husband and I decide for our family, and other parents can decide for THEIRS, and we’ll be all good.   But there are many people in the world who would like to take that decision away from me by requesting that reading materials be removed from places where everyone has access to them.

I can’t be everywhere–I have to trust that my child’s teacher is only going to teach books in school that it can be reasonably assumed most of the students are mature enough to read.  And I have to appreciate the sticky situation that elementary and middle school librarians find themselves in when a child wants to check out a book the librarian knows they are not ready for.  But herein lies the distinction.  At some point, they ARE ready for it, whether we like the subject matter or not.  Kids will read plenty of things that we as parents either naively assume they haven’t already heard of, or maybe wouldn’t choose for them to read yet.  Does reading a certain book mean that my child is going to have sex, be a racist, do drugs, “turn” gay, commit acts of violence, or start swearing like a sailor?  Come on people! I would like to think that the parenting we’ve been doing all of these years will also have some influence here.  But does reading about these situations give a kid a better understanding of what the big wide world is like?  Let’s hope so.  Allow kids the chance to read about something that may just reinforce their own values—maybe they’ll even say to themselves, “Wow, I’m so glad that’s not me.”  I have to believe that we are not doing our job as parents if we send our children out into the world not understanding that every point of view is not like their own (and that a different point of view doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone else is wrong!).

Isn’t it great that we live in a country where we CAN choose what our children read?  Let’s leave those decisions inside the family, and remember to teach our children about one of the founding principles of this country—freedom of speech. I get it about young kids not reading about topics they haven’t had the opportunity to hear first from mom and dad.  But by middle school, and certainly high school, they’ve probably had “the sex talk”, they’ve probably already heard every vulgar word there is on the playground, and they know drugs exist. I don’t want any options taken away from my children, or from any other children for that matter. Some of the best young adult literature out there is on the frequently banned or challenged list. I would hate to think that my kids would not get a chance to read something like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye or Harry Potter. I simply want to make sure that they read it when they are ready for it and when they can truly appreciate it.

-Eden, StorySnoop

Please join StorySnoops in support of the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, September 25th-October 2nd.  We are so excited to announce that our site will be running an interview series all week.  Our guests will include blogging librarians Abby the Librarian, Mighty Little Librarian and Ms. Yingling Reads, plus Reading Is Fundamental President and CEO Carol Rasco. And don’t miss three of our favorite authors who have graciously agreed to share their thoughts: Ellen Hopkins, Meg Cabot and none other than Judy Blume herself!  Stay tuned!

Super Scoop Friday–Gimme A Call sometime!

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Just finished reading Gimme A Call by Sarah Mlynowski, and though farfetched, what an interesting and thought-provoking concept it proposes. The 17-year-old main character, Devi, drops her cell phone in a fountain and the only number she can call is her own – she is able to call and talk to her 14-year-old self. Having recently had her heart broken, and realizing that she made many mistakes throughout her high school years, she sets out to right the wrongs and make changes. Devi realizes that given the chance to do things over again, she would do many things differently.

Now, that leads the reader to ponder, what would I tell my younger self? Would I lead myself down a different path, choose different friends, make better choices, have more fun, less fun, choose the same boy or girl?? And, more importantly, where would those different choices lead me?

Devi wants so desperately to spare herself the heartache of a particularly painful breakup that she does almost anything she can to alter her course. She learns however, that sometimes changing everything really changes nothing and that maybe some things are destined to happen. Now, she does learn some incredibly valuable lessons about balance, about the importance of friendship and about not focusing your entire life on a boy. Her ability to talk to her younger self leads her to a place of balance and acceptance, and even though she does change some critical things for the better, she learns that some things are sacred and should not be altered.

When I think back on who I was at 14 and the person I was then, and the insight that I have now, of course there are some things that I would wish to do differently. I would have actually studied for the SAT for one thing! There are absolutely some words of wisdom I would wish to impart that would make the teenage years easier in so many ways. There are some things, however, that I would not change for anything in the world. Loved the concept behind this story, definitely made me think and made me look at my own teenage daughter differently.

How about you–what wisdom would you share with your 14-year-old self?

-Tiffany, StorySnoop

Reading Up and Contraband Books

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

The trouble with having a child who is a good reader is that she will read “up”.

Meaning, she will most likely be bored with books about ten-year-old girls when she is a ten-year-old girl, and will instead pick up books about a seventeen-year-old girl doing seventeen-year-old girl things. This is a major reason we started the StorySnoops website. When our elementary school kids started reading the Twilight series, we really wished we had known about the sex in Book 4. Maybe we wouldn’t have hidden the book away, but we could have been, you know, prepared to discuss it.

That said, I was totally guilty of reading up when I was a kid, and my parents had NO clue. I remember hiding Beverly Clearly’s Fifteen, in my lap when I was seven. When my grandparents found me reading it, I though I was busted. Instead, they smiled at me and exclaimed, “She’s such a good reader! Such a bookworm!”. Phew! I was safe. I smiled and went back to my book. A girl was getting pinned and had a serious boyfriend. There was kissing invloved, and I didn’t want to miss it.

I graduated to my beloved Judy Blume, who educated me in everything a girl needs to know. In fact, the first time I saw the word “sex” (a foreign word at the time) was in one of her books that my mom bought for me. You should have seen the look on my mom’s face when I asked her what that word meant!

Like many girls of my era, the raciest book I ever read as a kid was Forever by Judy Blume, about the high school couple and the virginity issue. My friends were all talking about it at school and I had to know what the buzz was about. I rode my bike to the corner book store and bought the paperback with my own money. I relished every page. I was a little baffled when it did not end well for this loving couple. I suppose that was the educational piece of it. Lost completely on me at the time!

My mom actually recommended Stephen King books for me – when I was ten! I have to call my mom out on this now, and ask her what the heck she was thinking?  I gobbled these books up. And then I became a ten-year-old who slept in my mom’s bed every night.

All things considered, I guess no major damage was done by my reading up, other than sleeping with the lights on and getting some misinformation about sex. Looking back, if my mom had known what was inside the books I was reading, she probably wouldn’t have taken them away from me. But, I’m pretty sure she would have taken advantage of the opportunity to have a thoughtful book conversation with me. If StorySnoops had been around (shameless plug here), she would have had some advance warning about that “sex” question, rather than having to explain that one five minutes before bed. Not exactly optimal timing to learn such a thing!

What about you? What book did you read as a child that was a little ahead of your time?

-Shannon, StorySnoop

It’s Super Scoop Friday–care to Linger awhile?

Friday, August 13th, 2010

I just finished Linger, the sequel to Maggie Stiefvater’s very popular Shiver.  In the interest of full disclosure, I listened to it on CD, which I have to say really added to the experience for me.  The story is told from four different points of view, and the four readers were fantastic.  I felt a much stronger connection to the Sam-Grace romance in this book than in the first, and I wonder if it was Stiefvater’s writing, or if it had more to do with the readers themselves.  Who knows?  And frankly, who cares?  Bottom line—I was sucked in!

The story line revolves around humans who change into wolves during the winter months, but live normally during the summer months.  Sam has changed into a werewolf since he was a child, but wants desperately to just be human, so that he can be with his true-love, Grace.  Grace on the other hand, by all accounts should have become a werewolf years ago when she was bitten as a child, but she never changed over.  Thank goodness, because at the end of Shiver, Sam found a “cure” and stopped changing into a werewolf.  All well and good?  Of course not.  Now that Sam is human, Grace seems to finally be suffering the effects of her years-ago bite, and their future is in jeopardy.  And a new character, Cole has entered the picture.  Cole has chosen to become a werewolf (a decision Sam can’t begin to comprehend) to escape the memories of his drug-riddled past as a teen rock idol.

I liked Sam and Grace’s intense romance—they are a couple who love each other for all the right reasons, and the focus is on their emotional connection, not their physical one.  Grace fights the age-old battle with her parents over trying to convince them of the seriousness of her feelings for Sam, whereas they are convinced it’s “just a teen romance” that will end soon.  They don’t get it.  She rebels.  But this sweetly perfect teen relationship needs a counterpoint, so enter dark and brooding Cole.  He is the primary reason I’m not so sure about this book for my twelve-year-old who is already halfway through it (yikes, really?! I’m the StorySnoop—I’m not supposed to have these problems anymore.).  He used to be a drug-using, womanizer—now he spends his first few scenes in the book stark naked (granted, he had just changed over from his wolf body—no jeans available in the woods!), and there is a rather lot of sexual tension between him and Grace’s friend Isabel, who is nonplussed by Cole’s nudity.  Hmmm.  All in all, the story is good (if a bit slow at times) and the characters are well-developed.  There is nothing really naughty described, but there is plenty of implication—just enough reference to Cole’s drug past, his self-hatred, Isabel’s physical attraction to him, Grace’s need for the simple intimacy of spending a night in the same bed as Sam…these are all pretty grown up subjects and emotions for my (albeit mature) twelve-year-old (we will be sitting down for a chat very soon). But for a well-read teen who has touched on these topics before?  Pure entertainment.  Can’t wait for the trilogy finale, Forever.

-Eden, StorySnoop

The Moral of the Story–Asperger’s Syndrome

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

One of the great things that books do for us is to educate while entertaining us. Books spoon-feed us moral lessons, and enlighten us while keeping us interested. This is a powerful tool, and one that I am glad most children’s book authors have picked up on.

With autism on the rise in record numbers, it seems that authors are choosing this current issue as a subject to write about. More and more, characters with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) are making their way into children’s books. This makes me want to stand up and cheer, as I have someone near and dear to me with AS.

AS is largely misunderstood. Often times an “Aspie’s” behavior can be interpreted as rude, uncaring, inappropriate, and weird. As a result, these kids have a hard time making friends and are often the targets of bullying.  We have read books for StorySnoops that set out to dispel the myths of these seemingly eccentric behaviors. Not only do these books celebrate the unique and remarkable traits of a person with AS, but they show positive examples of other children embracing these kids into their lives.

Bravo to the authors of these books for shedding light on this issue and for portraying kids with AS as the smart and quirky individuals they are. May it help “normal” children (and, dare I say, teachers)  gain an understanding about the kids in their classes who are different, and treat them with more respect, kindness, and acceptance. Writers have long used their works to bring attention to important issues and it is fantastic that although the issues may have changed,  this practice is still going strong.

Take a peek at some of these titles for a glimpse into the lives of some characters with Asperger’s Syndrome.

-Shannon, StorySnoop

It’s Super Scoop Friday! Have you read Runaway?

Friday, August 6th, 2010

My selection for this Friday’s featured book is Runaway, by Wendelin Van Draanen.  It is the story of twelve-year-old orphan Holly, who has spent the past two years in foster care following the death of her mother.  After a series of bad experiences, Holly runs away from her foster family, vowing never to return to foster care again.  She is initially optimistic about her gypsy adventure, but reality hits when Holly’s days become a constant struggle for survival, and she must face the fact that she is homeless — without a family and without a plan.

I was deeply moved by this heart-wrenching survival story that begins after a teacher gives Holly a journal in an attempt to encourage this bright, emotionally distant student to express herself.  The journal serves both as a narrative tool and a lifeline for Holly.  Though she is initially skeptical, the journal ultimately allows her to work through her pain and anger so that she can endure many hardships.

Many of Holly’s journal entries are upsetting, but they offer an opportunity for readers to gain perspective about their own lives.  Holly’s mother was a neglectful drug addict who died of an overdose.  Holly’s foster parents mistreat her — locking her in the laundry room for days and punishing her by putting her head in a toilet.  As a runaway, Holly does whatever it takes to survive, including stealing food and supplies, stowing away on a train, eating food from trash cans, lying to get into shelters, and hiding from the police.  She is forced to live under a freeway overpass, in a condemned building, and even in a refrigerator box.  In spite of these desperate circumstances, Holly is essentially a good person who remains hopeful and strong.

Perhaps Holly’s most inspiring trait is her ability to express gratitude, even in the face of adversity.  Holly has nothing, but she can still appreciate her health, the beauty of a sunset, and the comforting wag of a dog’s tail.  Young readers (12+) and adults can both learn from Runaway.  Just make sure you have a box of tissues nearby!

-Jen, StorySnoop

Casting Call

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

I recently read The Carrie Diaries, kind of a 15-years-before prequel to Sex and the City, and the whole time I had a mental picture of a young Sarah Jessica Parker (think back to Square Pegs or Footloose).  But I guess this is to be expected—we’ve all seen SATC, and we definitely know what Carrie looks like, regardless of how she may have been described in the original 1996 book (did anyone read that, by the way?).  There is no conflict here, and right or wrong, I like that—I have the “correct” image in my brain.

But not so for my children on a trip to see The Lightning Thief at the movies.  A main character, Annabeth, was not only 5 years older than her book persona, but looked nothing like the girl the author had gone to great lengths to describe with long, wavy blonde hair and stormy grey eyes.  The actress was beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but her dark brown hair and striking baby blues were about as far from blond and “stormy grey” as you could possibly get.  And as much as my kids enjoyed the movie, neither one of them could get past the fact that Annabeth just looked wrong.  They tell me that her grey eyes were just as important to the plot as Bella Swan in Twilight having brown eyes (for which green-eyed actress Kristen Stewart wore brown contacts).  Did the casting director or costumer even read the source material? Apparently not.

The whole reason to see a movie made from a book you’ve read is to experience a visual version of the story you loved, right?  And I have to say that I really do have an expectation about how the characters are physically represented.  I do not appreciate seeing the “starlet of the week” playing a part that she looks nothing like—it is downright disrespectful to the fans of the book.  Now in the case of The Carrie Diaries, this is all backward because so many more people have seen the show than ever read the original book—Candace Bushnell had to describe her like a young SJP, so as not to confuse us! But I think the Hollywood types have a certain obligation to stay true to the mental picture we all have for certain characters.

My daughter heard the other day that one of her favorite books, Uglies, is going to be made into a movie, and of course there is much online chatter about who should be cast as Tally.  Judy Blume was recently polling on Twitter about who her fans thought should be cast as Davey in the movie version of Tiger Eyes.  Clearly we all have a different mental picture of our favorite characters, but this is an important decision. As a nod to the fans who bought enough copies of a book to make it movie-worthy in the first place, it seems the least the movie-makers can do is remain true to the physical characteristics described by the author.  A couple of book-movie transition that got it right?  Harry Potter—now those kids are exactly what J.K. Rowling described, and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants–Blake Lively is a dead ringer for Bridget, and that’s what I want to see more of.

Tell me some of your best/worst-cast book characters–I’m just getting warmed up!

-Eden, StorySnoop