Sunday, July 31, 2011

Leonardo da Vinci by Kathleen Krull

There are some things I like about this biography, and some things, or actually one thing, that I don't like. Kathleen Krull is quite a good nonfiction writer. Her language is natural and flows nicely. It almost sounds colloquial, but is formal enough to not be condescending. She writes about interesting stuff, and she gives a balanced view of people (she primarily writes biography) showing their good side and bad side. This biography focuses on da Vinci as a scientist instead of an artist. She spends a lot of time talking about his notebooks and all the amazing things that can be found in them. The thing I didn't like about this biography is that she includes a discussion about da Vinci's sexual orientation. She believes, (as, I believe, many modern scholars do) that da Vinci was gay. Now, that might be an interesting discussion in a biography of da Vinci written for adults, but I just don't think it is appropriate for a book written for children. Some kids might be street wise and world savvy enough to be interested in that little tidbit, but not all children are. I don't think da Vinci's sex life has a huge bearing on his accomplishments as an artist or scientist. He never wrote about it in his notebooks or proclaimed it publicly. What gives a children's biographer the right to do so. (124 p)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

When I was a kid we had a card game called, "Authors." It was a simple "Old Maid" kind of game where you collected 4 books by a famous author to make a set. The one with the most sets at the end of the game wins. It was a great game, too, because from it I learn a lot of famous authors and their most well known works. One of the authors in the game was Robert Louis Stevenson and one of his cards was Kidnapped. I really enjoyed Treasure Island, so when I saw this book this week I decided to give it a try. It was originally written in 1886 as an adventure book for boys, and it deals with the conflict between the British King George and the Scottish clans in the 1750's. I can see why a Victorian boy would have loved this book. It is full of all the kinds of adventures like sword fights, a shipwreck, long forced marches, treacherous relations, that still populate adventure fiction. The main character, David Balfore, is orphaned, so he goes to find his uncle who reportedly owns a big estate. When David meets his uncle he begins to suspect that he, David, is the rightful heir instead of his old miserly uncle. Of course, this is the case, and to prevent David from inheriting, the uncle pays a sea captain to capture David and sell him into slavery in America. David then goes through a book full of adventures, escaping the ship and making his way home through Scotland with the help of a rebel-rouser, Allen Breck, who is wanted for rebellion against the crown. It sounds like a great book for boys, right? The only problem is that it is full of Scottish dialect. By the end of the book the reader is totally conversant with Scottish terms like "ken" and "bairn". For modern boys it would take a really confident reader, maybe one who has read all of the "Redwall" series by Brian Jacques, to get through it (230 p).

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Lemonade War by Jaqueline Davies

I will start right off by saying I did not like this book. I can see what the author was trying to do. I understand why a publisher might decide to have it published, but I personally didn't like it. It is a story about a brother and sister who are only 14 months apart in age. The younger sister is academically gifted and is going to skip a grade. This is really threatening to the older brother who struggles academically. His sister is going to be in his grade and he is afraid she will make him look like a dork. So all of a sudden the two siblings, who have historically gotten along really well, start being very mean to each other. The whole book is one big family fight. The two kids decide to have a contest who can earn the most money selling lemonade. The book, in addition to being a family drama story, is also a math puzzle book. The reader can follow along while the math smart Jesse figures out the profit margin if she sells her lemonade for 50 cents a cup. The reader learns about franchising, undercutting, value adding and a number of other financial terms. It is very education, I'm sure.

Here are the main things that bugged me. 1. The kids were so mean to each other. 2. The sister was so bright, but the brother was academically a little slow. In my experience, when one kid in a family is that bright, the other isn't going to be dumb. 3. At the end the kids make up and everything is all right again. I don't think, after being so mean, kids could get over it so easily. I think in a real family, if two siblings treated each other that badly, their relationship would be damaged for a long time, maybe for the rest of their lives.

Anyway, that was a bit of a rant. The writing wasn't bad, and the plot was well paced. Someone else probably would like it. (173 p)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

As with most of the books I "read" I actually listened to this book. I downloaded the MP3 version from Net Library and listened to it as I did my housework. On Net Library they only had the title as I wrote it above. As I was listening to it, I thought, wow, this is a pretty good adventure story. It has the feeling of Captains Courageous or Call it Courage (both excellent historical adventures every boy should read). --spoiler alert--A young teen, named Manjiro, is out on a Japanese fishing boat when it gets caught in a large storm. The boat is shipwrecked on a small island and the survivors are eventually picked up by an American whaling ship. At that time Japan was very isolationists. Foreign boats straying into their ports were not treated well, so the whalers drop the castaways in Hawaii. The captain comes to like the young boy, however, and adopts him as his son. He takes him back to America and the boy learns English and goes to school. Eventually he returns to Japan, just in time to be the interpreter when Admiral Perry lands in Japan and is instrumental in establishing the first Japanese and American diplomatic relationship. When they got to the part in the story when Manjiro goes to the California gold rush and gets enough gold to finance his return to Japan, I thought to myself, "Ok, that is a bit much. I wonder why the author thought she had to add the California gold rush into an already on-the-edge-of-unbelievable story?" When I got to the end of the book, there was an author's note that stated that all the major events of the story, including the California gold rush stuff, were based on a true story, I couldn't believe it. This Manjiro guy led an amazing life! I guess sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. This is a great new historical adventure and well deserving of its Newbery Honor award.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Benjamin Franklin, An American Genius by Brandon Marie Miller

Once again, I didn't include the entire title in the heading. The whole title is, Benjamin Franklin, American Genius: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities. This is one of the "His Life and 21 Activities" series published by Chicago Review Press. If you are a home schooler, this is a great series to discover. They are fairly extensive children's biographies, but they also include hands-on activities that go with the information in the text. I have read several in this series and they have all been well written and interesting. The activities are well chosen, too. Some are craft ideas and others are just educational activities. In this book there is one activity is about making glycerine soap (Franklin's parents were soap makers) and another explains experiments using static electricity.

Benjamin Franklin was such an amazing man. If you want to be inspired about how awesome the founding fathers where, read about Benjamin Franklin. Unlike most of the others, he didn't start out as an aristocrat. Through diligence, intelligence, good humor and discipline, he worked his way up from being a printer's apprentice to being one of the wealthiest and best known men in the Colonies. This book highlights his achievements, but also mentions his faults, so the reader gets a pretty even view of his life.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie

I am a children's librarian, so most of what I read are children's books. Every once in a while, I get hankering for a more mature book, and the author I choose most often is Agatha Christie. I like the Miss Marple mysteries the best. The librarians in that side of the library call them cozy mysteries, nothing too creepy or gory. In this one, Miss Marble, an elderly English spinster from St. Mary Meade in England, goes on a vacation in the West Indies. While there she meets several charming couples, old and young, and everything seems idyllic, if a little boring. Then one of the older gentlemen is found dead in his bungalow, and Miss Marple wonders if he really died of heart disease as the local medical community thinks. As she begins to use her special old lady powers to investigate the incident, others are found dead. In the end it is a race against time and Miss Marple must keep her wits about her to prevent the final murder. The Miss Marple mysteries are so much fun. I really relate with the sweet old lady who is outwardly innocuous, but inwardly she is as sharp as her knitting needles. (245 p)