Monday, July 28, 2014

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

Cover image for The year of Billy MillerA few days before Billy is about to start 2nd grade, he falls and receives a concussion.  He overhears his parents discussing their worries that there might be permanent brain damage, so Billy starts 2nd grade fearing that he won't be smart any more.  Luckily Billy has a wonderful teacher, and a kind and supportive family.  He makes it through the year with flying colors, and, along the way, his innate kindness and desire to be good helps those around him.

Kevin Henkes visited my library last Spring and I had the opportunity to get to know him a little when I was assigned to drive him to the airport.  My husband came along for the ride and both he and I were impressed with Mr Henkes' innate gentleness and goodness.  It was my husband that wanted to read this book for our family story reading, (I say family, but actually my kids are so busy they aren't able to join us very much.  It was mostly David and I reading together.)  We both loved the book.  Mr. Henkes nails how a 7 year old thinks.  We both laughed several times because what we read brought back memories of our or our children's childhood.  David also noted that the book could be a good example to both parents and teachers of how to help a child learn and grow while providing a supportive environment.  Two thumbs way up. (229 p)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Water Castle by Megan Blakemore

Cover image for The Water CastleEphraim's father has had a stroke and his family have picked up and moved to their ancestral home so the father can be near a special doctor.  The home is actually more like a castle, and was built with money earned from selling bottled healing waters.  Ephraim's great-grand-father had spent his life searching for the fountain of youth.  Ephraim becomes obsessed with the hope that he can find the miraculous water and heal his father.  He is aided in his search by two kids whose families have been mixed up with Ephraim's family for generations.  As they work together, they begin to heal the rifts between their families, and within their own lives.

The fun thing about the book is that the reader doesn't know whether the waters really do have healing powers or not.  The author switches from modern time to historical time throughout the book, gradually giving hints as to whether Ephraim and his friends are on a wild goose chase or not.  The weakness of the book is in the science.  Blakemore tries to suggest a scientific reason that the water might heal people, but anyone with any experience with chemistry will immediately see some serious problems with the explanation.  There is some interesting discussion about whether an elixer of life would be a good thing or not, but it is a little heavy handed.  Of course, the best treatment of that topic is in Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit. Still, overall this was a fun book, and kids will probably not be bothered by the little weaknesses. (344p)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

Since I am now assigned to order the children's fiction books at my library I am trying to read the more current publications.  This one has gotten good reviews this year from several different sources.  

Cover image for Ophelia and the marvelous boyOphelia's mother has recently died and Ophelia and her sister have gone with their father to a northern city.  Her father is an expert on swords and has been hired to set up a sword exhibit in a museum.  While wandering the museum, Ophelia finds a boy locked in a room who claims to be centuries old.  He says that he must be released and complete his mission or the evil Snow Queen will take over the world.  Being a scientifically minded girl, Ophelia does not believe his story, but she does feel that she should help release him from captivity. As she goes to search for the key for his room, she sees things, and encounters creatures that defy her sense of the real. In the end she must let go of logic, and follow her heart, and the promptings from her departed mother, to defeat the Snow Queen.  There are several reasons this book is getting so much attention.  All during her adventure Ophelia, and her father and sister, are dealing with the grief from her mother's death.  So there is a mixture or fantastic adventure, and realistic mourning.  The writing is very good, and the descriptions of all the interesting things she encounters in the museum makes an old  humanities major, like myself, drool. How I would love to wander through rooms and rooms of artifacts, unimpeded as she does. Character, plot and setting all come together to make this a great read. (228 p)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Beyonders: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull

Brandon Mull is a very successful children's author who is from Utah.  He has done several of his book launches here at the library.  I tried to read The Candyshop War and couldn't get through it, so I hadn't even tried "Fablehaven" or "The Beyonders".  Then I read his volume of Spirit Animals, and it wasn't so bad. When I saw the recorded book of the first book of "The Beyonders" I decided to give it a try.  
Cover image for A world without heroes
The book starts out with two kids getting sucked into another world.  They meet up at a library and are sent on a quest to collect the syllables of a magic word that will destroy the evil emperor.  The syllables are guarded by people hiding in the most outrageous places and are protected by magical spells so the emperor will not get them.  As the two teens go in search of the word, they meet a variety of colorful characters, both friends and foes.  I won't say how the book ends, but I will warn that it was never meant to be a stand alone.

I have to admit that the book was a bit of a slog.  I almost quit after CD #6.  I actually had it out of the player and into the case, ready to return to the library.  My main problem is that I didn't care about the main characters enough, and I never thought they had enough personal motivation to do what they were doing.  Why should they believe what people were telling them?  Why should they jump into one amazingly dangerous situation after another just on the word of a stranger?  Also, with every syllable, they were told how impossible their next task was, but then they accomplished it with very little problem.  Oh well. I think that children are not bothered as much by these kind of complaints.  They just like the adventure and interesting fantastical world Mull has created.  (454 p)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Swear to Howdy by Wendelin VanDraanen

Cover image for Swear to howdyWhen Russell Cooper moves into a new town, he isn't expecting to become friends with anyone like Joey.  Joey Banks knows how to have fun and is constantly pushing Rusty to the boarders of his comfort zone for the sake of a laugh.  Joey and Rusty have the time of their lives, playing in mud, catching frogs and playing practical jokes.  Then one day one of their jokes goes terribly wrong, and Russell has to decide what it means to be a true friend.

I got about halfway through this book and remembered that I had read it before.  That's Ok.  It is worth a re-read.  VanDraanan is a great writer, and this book got a lot of Newbery chatter when it came out almost a decade ago.  I love the portrayal of the families in this book. Russell's has both parents who are happily married to each other.  The parents actually use good parenting skills when Rusty does stuff that requires disciplining.  His family contrasts to Joey's family.  They are alike in may ways, but Joey's dad is harsh, sometimes abusive. Is Joey's dad's harshness the source of Joey's reckless behavior?  Good discussion question for a reading group.  This book has a lot of potentially good discussion points.  I might decide to do it for Mother/Son book club, except I am not in charge of the book club this year. :(  (144 p)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The House of Hades by Rick Riordan

Cover image for The House of HadesOk, so now we are up to book four of the "Heroes of Olympus" series.  In this episode Percy and Annabeth have fallen into Tartarus and are trying to make their way through the underworld to the doors of death.  Meanwhile, Jason, Piper, Leo, and the rest are on the Argo II trying to get the the door to the house of Hades, to let Percy and Annabeth out.  It is just more of what readers have come to expect from the "Heroes of Olympus;" action, adventure, and relationships.  But in this book, things are ramped up higher than they have been before.  The monsters are scarier and there are more of them.  The relationships are more complicated and intense.  We even discover that one of the demigods are homosexual. I think with this book the series truly passes from the realm of pre-teen to teen level. They are like the Harry Potter books.  The first ones really are appropriate for kids, but he last ones are definitely YA.  (597 p)

The Silver Bowl by Diane Stanley

Cover image for The silver bowlI first became interested in Diane Stanley's writing through her nonfiction work.  I really liked her children's biographies of Leonardo daVinci and Michealangelo.  When she wrote Bella at Midnight I was eager to see how she did as a fiction writer.  I liked the retelling of the Cinderella very well and have been a fan of her fiction ever since.

Molly is a low born child from a big family.  Her mother is sickly, and her father is harsh, so as soon as she is able, her father sends her off to the castle to work as a scullery maid.  Before she leaves, her mother tells her that they both have a gift to foresee the future and that Molly should never tell anyone of her gift.  Molly is very unrefined, but at the castle she meets a stable boy, Tobias, who begins to teach her to work carefully and take pride in what she does.  Her manner improves, and the servant over the silver recognizes her ability and enlists her to polish silver. One day while polishing a large, ornate silver bowl she sees a terrible vision of the death of a member of the royal family. When the vision comes to pass, and then more visions come predicting the death of more royals, she goes into action, and with Tobias' help, tries to save them and the kingdom.

This was a fun read.  It isn't likely to win any awards, but it is a good basic fantasy with a strong and likable heroine. The characters in the story, Molly, Tobias, and even the Prince, grow, develop and become better people because of their adventures.  This book works as a stand alone, but there are actually two more adventures of Molly and Tobias. (307 p)