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 March, 2011

What is it about a series??

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

During Library Lover’s Month, we spotted a trend among the books our librarian friends reported as being the ones most requested in their libraries: kids love a good series!

Having read many series for StorySnoops myself, I have often wondered what their appeal is to kids (the appeal to publishers is obvious!).  So, I decided to ask some real live readers–both tween and teen–to identify the pros and cons of reading a series.  Here is what they said.

Pros: Cons:
The characters and the plot are more fully developed

When a story is entertaining, you want to read more about it

It’s fun to get to know the characters really well

Cliff hanger endings make you want to read the next book

If you liked the first book, you know you are going to like the rest of them

The story is never resolved in the first book–you have to read on

If each book in the series is too similar, it can become predictable and boring

So it seems that the right series can be a great tool for hooking a reader.  But what makes a series a success?  To be truly engaging, it must avoid the trap of becoming formulaic, no matter how many installments there are.  As parents, we have all endured the endless repetition of a favorite picture book, song, or movie that seems to bring comfort to young children.  After all of these years, I can’t even bear the thought of a Raffi song!  But by the time our children are independent readers, repetition has lost some of its charm.  Honestly, how many kids do you know whose attention can be held by twenty books about enchanting forest creatures?

Here are some of my favorite series that hook the reader with compelling characters and an interesting plot, without becoming predictable.

The Maze Runner Trilogy, by James Dashner

The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suanne Collins

Chaos Walking Trilogy, by Patrick Ness

Alex Rider Series, by Anthony Horowitz

Skinjacker Trilogy, by Neil Shusterman

Starcatchers Series, by Dave Barry and Ridely Pearson

Harry Potter, by J. K. Rowling

For more, check out lists of favorite series for tweens and teens and let us know what are the favorites in your home.  We’re always looking for the next great read!

-Jen, StorySnoop

Super Scoop Friday–Totally Joe Life Lessons

Friday, March 25th, 2011

My favorite part of O Magazine is at the very end, where Oprah leaves readers with a little piece of wisdom, her “thing I know for sure.” I found something very similar in the most unlikely place, the young adult book I was just reading. Totally Joe by James Howe is written as an assignment by a 13-year old boy, who must write about himself from A to Z. Joe’s “alphabiography” must also contain a life lesson at the end of each entry. These little gems can be applied to the young people for whom this book is intended, but also to anyone of any age. A few definitely made me think, made me appreciate, or made me ponder, and I love that a 13-year old gay male character could speak to me, a 42 year old woman – definitely not the target audience for this book.

Here are a few of Joe’s life lessons:

  • Standing up for other people can help them learn to stand up for themselves.
  • Just be who you are, okay?
  • There is no such thing as a wasted wish.
  • You don’t have to travel to some other planet to find your way home.
  • You gotta have friends.
  • In real life popularity doesn’t matter.
  • When you’re writing, the person you’re talking to mostly is yourself.
  • A day can start out ordinary and end up being in the Top Ten.

And my personal favorite…

  • Being who you are isn’t a choice.

What are some life lessons we can learn from you?

-Tiffany, StorySnoop

To Meddle Or Not To Meddle?

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

I help out in my 5th grader’s class with reading and writing. This class is an imaginative bunch, and I basically help kids just pretty up their sentences. I have been doing this for years and have come to adore this group of boys who have fantastic ideas in their heads but struggle to get them down on paper. It’s amazing to see that with a tiny bit of help, the most creative stories flow out of these kids. So very rewarding.

I digress. One such kid (who I shall call Peter) had an extra-enthusiastic grin when he saw me yesterday. Come to find out, he REALLY wanted to discuss the book he had brought to class for his free reading time. This thrilled me, because I know reading had been a little tough for him in the past. I wondered what magic book brought him out of his reading funk?

With great pride, he slid the book from his desk, and…wow! OK. I won’t tell you the name of the book – it’s irrelevent. I will tell you that I gave it to my fifteen year old son to read last year because it is definitely a fifteen-year-old book. Ahem. Not so much a ten-year-old book. It’s not hard to read, but the content…ahem…is geared more toward a senior in high school, you know? You’ve got your sex, running away, breaking and entering, vandalism –  all kinds of goodies.  This book is a major award-winner (for teens). It’s excellent. He has good taste!

I raised my eyebrows and smiled and told him I had actually read that book. His smile got a little more mischievious. I asked him if he liked it. Bigger smile from Peter with a very enthusiastic “YES!” I had to laugh. We had a great book chat – about the more benign scenes of the book. He then told me “Don’t tell my parents. Cause I really love this book” and I saw that he was almost finished with it. We made a deal that when he finished, we would chat about the ending (becuase wow – is there a lot to discuss in the ending!)

So, what a dillemma. I have a great working relationship with Peter and don’t want to ruin it. I am happy to see him enthusiastic about reading. And hey – it IS a 5-star book. So good for him. On the other hand, my StorySnoops alarm bell keeps going off in my head. I would want to know if my kid was reading a book like this. Not so much to stop him, but more to be prepared to discuss it with him. And add my parental two cents.

I know Peter’s mom and really, really like her. Are we friends enough so that I can talk to her about this book? Not so much. And how in the world could I have that discussion without sounding like a know-it-all obnoxious meddler? I can’t.

Who am I  to say what book is and isn’t aproprioate for a kid to read? I mean, our philosophy at StorySnoops is “we read it so you know what’s in it.” And then it is for the parents (teachers and librarians) to decide which book is and isn’t a good match for a particular kid. Looking at our mission statement, I’m glad I never ratted him out to his mom. I’m just glad he found a book he is passionate about. Perhaps for him, this is truly “fiction that fits.”

-Shannon, StorySnoop

Super Scoop Friday–Godless

Friday, March 18th, 2011

I couldn’t tell if I was going to like this book or not. When I picked up Godless by Pete Hautman and read the back cover, I wasn’t sure what to think. Intriguing concept, kind of weird, but heck, it won the National Book Award, it must be good, right? Right!

The gist of the story is that 16-year old Jason is tired of having his parents’ religion shoved down his throat. He really doesn’t think he believes in anything. Since belief and faith seem to be completely arbitrary, he thinks, why not worship the town water tower? After all, water is life. He and a few friends begin their own religion, The Church of the Ten-Legged God, and call themselves Chutengodians. Deciding that climbing to the top of the tower is a requirement, and that they need to have “midnight mass” up there, leads to some problems. Things go a little farther than any of them would have imagined, and their little religion gets them into a heap of trouble, with serious consequences. One character is almost killed and winds up in the hospital with serious injuries, one goes to jail and one goes off the deep end psychologically and needs psychiatric hospitalization.

Some extremely thought provoking issues come from these characters and their story. Questioning faith and trying to figure out what it means to believe in something is at the heart of this story. Main character Jason muses on this new religion he has created and thinks to himself, “How can Jason Bock be serious about a religion that worships a false god? Are you kidding? You ever watch a football game and get totally into it? Why? It’s not a real battle. It’s just a game somebody made up. So how can you take it seriously? Or you ever see a movie that made your heart about jump out of your chest? Or one that made you cry? Why? It wasn’t real… What you see is somebody’s idea of reality. Same thing with water towers and God. I don’t have to be a believer to be serious about my religion.”

This book provides some serious fuel for a high school book report. Characters are dynamic and all represent something different. The symbol of the water tower is a rich one that could be discussed and analyzed at length, as well as that of the role of organized religion in society.

At the end of the story, after everything shakes down and the teens go on about their lives after quite an interesting summer, Jason is still left with questions and no firm belief in anything. His feelings are summed up in the last paragraph, “I have a religion, but I have no faith.”

Most definitely worthy of the National Book Award that it won, Godless was a unique and truly interesting read and one I am glad I picked up. I encourage you to do the same.

-Tiffany, StorySnoop

Time to dream

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

In the wake of the closure of the only bookstore in our town (I know, it’s Borders–it’s hard to be sad for the big chain, but I’m terribly sad about the loss of the family browsing experiencethat part is a big deal), my family has been living a little fantasy over the dinner table.

We are enjoying the dream of opening our own bookstore in town. Granted, future generations will probably think the idea of spending an evening browsing around a store that sells any type of media is quaint and old-fashioned, but I for one am going to grasp on to it as long as I can.  We have lost the record stores of old, and video stores and bookstores are in a crazy state of flux. At the moment, my town has none of these former Manseau family haunts.  So…enter my family fantasy.

First off, we know the space soon-to-be-vacated by Borders is WAY too big for us, but there seem to be lots of smaller spaces around town that would fit the bill (READ: four digit rent figures instead of five…). We want intimate, a good spot to attract strolling folks, near food and beverages (remember my fond childhood memory of eating ice cream while looking at books?)–that’s not too much to ask, right? I’m sure there is just the perfect spot waiting for us downtown, and it probably has really reasonable rent too. This is my fantasy, so let me just go with that thought…

Anyway, we all agree we would have children’s fiction (a StorySnoops no-brainer!) and adult fiction. And all the other kinds of books too. But not as many of them because we do love our fiction in this house.  My daughter is a rabid Harry Potter fan, so she has planned that there will be a Harry Potter table, and every day she will supply a “Harry Potter Fun Fact of the Day”. Something along the lines of “Did you know that Nearly Headless Nick’s last name is De Mimsy-Porpington?” Of course my son, not one to be outdone by his sister, offered to put up a Lord of the Rings table, with his own featured factoids, like “What birthday was Bilbo Baggins celebrating at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring?” (111th, in case you didn’t know).  I feel my square footage inching up just a bit with that last one.

My husband is a music guy.  And he always liked browsing in the now-defunct music stores. And he likes the retro stuff. Like LP’s. So we would need some LP’s in our store. I’m sure they wouldn’t take up too much room, right? And if we have music, it would be a natural fit to have some DVD’s too (or if we’re embracing the retro theme, does that mean we need to stock VHS? Ha!). Of course we’d probably have to sell a few turntables for those that don’t still have them lurking at home like I do.

In addition to the whole retro thing, we want to be forward thinkers so that our little family business doesn’t go under as the ebook phenomenon crashes over us. So we’ll also stock a good selection of e-Readers. And we want to offer the ebook option to our loyal customers when they come in to browse with their families and their ice cream cones.  So we’ll need a kiosk or something along those lines where they can make an electronic purchase too if they feel so inclined.

Because we are a small business, we want to be connected to our community and add all of the extra goodness that we enjoy at independent book stores. We’ll need an open space to set up the chairs for Story Time and for the author talks and book signings. And all of the StorySnoops gang will work there so that we can talk to all of our customers about the books in an informed kind of way. Customers like that. I will need to talk to Shannon, Jen and Tiffany about what hourly rate they charge, and whether they require a 401(k) plan if they come to work at my store. I can really picture it all now, and this may be the only way I’ll ever get those floor-to-ceiling book shelves I’ve always dreamed of!

All in all, as I go back over the list that we’ve so carefully created at the dinner table this week, I’m thinking that in order to include all of these features, we might need a space the size of the one Borders is leaving afterall. Especially if we decide to add a coffee cart that also sells as many ice cream flavors as Baskin Robins.  Hmmm. I’ll tell the kids to start saving their pennies now.  If you have enough pennies to do this though, and would like a copy of our family business plan, let me know.  I’ll send a copy on over.

-Eden, StorySnoop

Super Scoop Friday–Have you read the Island Trilogy, by Gordon Korman?

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

I just finished reading a wonderful adventure series for tweens, the Island Trilogy, by Gordon Korman.  Written ten years ago, these fast-moving books will be enjoyed by even the most reluctant reader, boy or girl.

When the first book, Shipwreck, begins, six kids find themselves crewing a sailboat in the open waters of the Pacific Ocean near Guam. It quickly becomes clear that none of them want to be there. But for some reason, their parents have decided that each of these troubled kids would benefit from the Charting a New Course program, where they will learn teamwork and survival skills. Luke, J.J., Charla, Ian, and siblings Will and Lyssa have no choice but to quickly learn their way around the sixty-foot boat, guided by a well-meaning skipper and his abrasive mate. When a tremendous storm develops, things go from bad to worse, and the crew of newbie sailors find themselves fighting for their lives.

Readers will appreciate the authentic voices of the main characters (aged eleven to fourteen), and may even be able to spot pieces of themselves in some of the personalities.  Each of the characters arrives at the sailboat with a troubled past; a spoiled Hollywood brat gone wild, a burned out athlete, a convicted felon (who is actually innocent), a television addict, and warring siblings. When faced with dire circumstances (the captain falls overboard and his mate abandons the kids on the sinking boat), the group comes together to help one another survive.

As the trilogy progresses, it is a pleasure to observe how the group becomes increasingly self-sufficient, tight-knit, and supportive–even the siblings have newfound appreciation for one another. Through their fight for survival, each of the characters evolves and matures.  An added bonus is that the story offers a bit of a history lesson as the children discover that the island was home to an atomic bomb left over from World War II.

Shipwreck ends with quite a cliff hanger, as does the next book, Survival, leaving readers eager to learn the fate of the castaways in the final installment, Escape.  It may not be a bad idea to have all three books on hand as your reader is likely to power through this gripping trilogy in no time at all.

Happy reading!

-Jen, StorySnoop

Baby Steps to Narnia

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

A friend recently confided in me, “My son doesn’t like to read. He’ll only read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. Is there anything else like that?”  If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me this, I would be a wealthy woman. Jeff Kinney – you should be proud!  Her son is a reluctant reader and his teacher does not let him choose his own books. Rather, he has to read classics from the 1950′s which I will not name, but suffice it to say the majority of us would groan in recognition of how tough some of these books are to get through. And as a result, he hates to read.

So the debate goes like this: “Do we force our kids to read certain “approved”  books for their nightly school reading, or do we let them choose what they want to read?”

I’ll admit DOAWK books might have some slightly obnoxious parts, but these books are easy to read and funny. The story and characters appeal to both reluctant and avid readers. That’s a pretty cool trick. If a book gets a child to enthusiastically pick up a book – who cares what it is?

The opposing argument here is:  ”Don’t we want our kids to be reading QUALITY books?” First of all, quality is subjective. I hear what the critics are saying. Would we “literary people” love for our kids to be devouring Little Women and Huckleberry Finn? Of course. Is that necessarily going to happen right away? For the majority of kids, probably not. Baby steps.

When I was a young reader, I kept my diet limited to Judy Blume, Beverly Clearly, - and Stephen King. Don’t shoot me but here is a secret: I hated the Narnia books. Hated them! Later on, as a teen, I did read them and really appreciated them. But if my mother had made me read them when I was younger, she probably would have turned me off  of reading all together. I just wasn’t ready for it, in the same way my daughter is not ready for The Diary of Anne Frank (though I really wish she was!).

There are so many books to choose from. Let kids choose what they want to read. They will pick what they are interested in and grow to learn that reading is really entertaining. Hopefully, they will grow into life-long readers. There is plenty of time for the classics.

And for the many people who have asked, here are some books that your DOAWK purists will also enjoy:

Attention authors! There is a need in the market! Here is your chance to make zillions of dollars.  Write a book that is funny with a few pictures, throw in some bad behavior, a lesson learned and some witty remarks. Slap a cool cover on it and moms like me will be lining up to buy your books!

-Shannon, StorySnoop

Super Scoop Friday-The Running Dream

Friday, March 4th, 2011

I just finished reading young adult book The Running Dream, by Wendelin Van Draanen. I was incredibly moved by this story, and it brought to mind a book I dearly loved as a teenager. The two books have many similarities, with strong, athletic female characters and positive messages about determination and perseverance.

When I was probably 12 or so, I got my hands on a book called Zanboomer by R. R. Knudson. I actually still have my copy and am holding it in my hand right now! This book has been well loved – it is pretty beat up, faded and worn.  Ms. Knudson has been lauded as an author whose stories about girls and sports heralded the lowering of gender barriers on the playing field.  She wrote sports literature for girls in the years after the passage of Title IX. The main character of her four “Zan” novels is Suzanne Hagen and she is a super jock.

In Zanboomer, for Zan Hagen, life is baseball. When she suffers a season-ending injury, her best friend and special coach comes up with an alternate plan for her to run cross-country. She can’t throw, but she can still run. Zan trains with heart, with drive and with blood sweat and tears and makes her mark as a cross-country competitor. This brand new sport makes Zan completely start over athletically, challenge and push herself and re-think a great many things.

The Running Dream is a bit more extreme, as main character Jessica suffers a below the knee leg amputation after a tragic bus accident. Jessica is a runner. It is how she defines herself, it is all she cares about and it is what makes her feel alive. Imagining a future devoid of running causes Jessica to become deeply depressed. Serious hard work, working through extreme pain, a long road of physical therapy, friends that refuse to give up on her and sheer determination get Jessica up and moving again. When her fellow track teammates raise the funds needed for her to get a special running prosthetic leg, her dreams are realized. Jessica is an incredible example of girl power in the form of tenacity, strength and heart.

Maybe it is because both books focus on high school aged, athletic girls who must overcome adversity, and who are driven and competitive, did the similarities strike such a chord with me. Regardless, I am a huge fan of both of these books and of the authors for providing readers with such phenomenal female characters. Sadly, R.R.  (Rozanne Ruth) Knudson passed away in 2008 at the age of 75. Wendelin Van Draanen, author of The Running Dream, I thank you for this book, I encourage you to read Zanboomer if you never have, and I look forward to whatever you write next!

-Tiffany, StorySnoop

Bookstore SOS!

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

I’m feeling a lot of things right now.  Surprised. Sad. Mad. Incredulous. Eager to go shopping. Huh?!  But hey, there are some screamin’ deals at my local Borders bookstore this week.  My son just came back with a calendar, a book and a DVD, all for $15.  And my mom bought out the entire magazine section as far as I can tell.  Sadly, a storewide sale at Borders can only mean one thing…going out of business.  Or, as the sign on the front of my local Borders says “Store Closin”. The façade of the building is too small for the entire “Store Closing” banner to fit—how sad is that?

Our local store is one of twelve in our area that are closing down next month.  I suppose I have seen and ignored the writing on the wall. Amazon and e-books seem to be taking over the world, and the large chains are clearly struggling. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of the large chains—I would rather support my local small business—but I am also guilty of contributing to the Goliath that is Amazon, ordering books from them for the great prices and for the convenience factor.  But this news about Borders feels like a punch in the stomach.  What it really comes down to is not that I feel sad for Borders per se—the company as a whole isn’t going anywhere anytime soon—but my town will now be without a single bookstore, and there is just something fundamentally wrong about that.

Some of my favorite childhood memories revolve around Gayle’s Books, formerly of Davis, CA.  One of my favorite family outings when I was a kid was to go to Baskin Robins and get an ice cream cone, then take it next door to browse at Gayle’s.  How cool is a bookstore that has a sign on the door that says “Ice Cream Eaters Welcome!”?  I would look through the entire kid section, but invariably come home with the latest Nancy Drew book.  That ritual is an indelible part of my childhood.  And in the pre-kid days, my husband and I spent many evenings at Kepler’s in Menlo Park, roaming the aisles with our coffee.  As Shannon has said on this blog, she is a bookstore geek, and considers a night hanging out there a great night out.  Well, I am right there with her.  I love holding books.  I love wandering through the store, just looking.  And how lucky am I that my husband and kids share my enthusiasm?  It’s simply part of what we do. This is what I will miss.  The Friday night family browse.  Sigh.

Somebody please help us.  There is a big hole in our book-loving hearts here in Los Gatos. Don’t let us go without the beautiful institution that is the local bookstore.

-Eden, StorySnoop