Friday, May 29, 2009

The Chronicles of Narnia

Never having read all the books before, I have been slowly working my way through The Chronicles of Narnia on digital audio downloads. It's interesting that Harper Audio has chosen a different reader for each title I've heard.

Because they are classic tales that most kid-lit aficionados have already read, I just have a few brief comments on Books 3 and 5. (I listened to Prince Caspian , Book 4, out of order to coincide with the movie release!) I am adhering to the chronological order of the books, which does not necessarily coincide with their written order or their published order! Confusing, at best

Lewis, C.S. 1954. The Horse and His Boy. Read by Alex Jennings. Harper Audio.

The Horse and His Boy is my favorite of The Chronicles of Narnia. It's shorter than some of the other books (about 4 hours) and it has all the hallmarks of a great adventure story - believable characters, constant action, a hint of mystery, a quest, tension, and lastly, human (and equine!) frailties that add to, rather than detract from the characters. Although written in the aftermath of WWII during the Cold War, the story line is surprisingly relevant. The main human characters, the orphaned Shasta, and the warrior princess, Aravis, from the "North" and "Calormen," respectively, are surprisingly representative of stereotypes from today's ideological war between "East" and "West." Refreshingly, in The Horse and His Boy, the two sides come to understand and appreciate one another. Alex Jennings is a superb reader.

Lewis, C.S. 1952. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Read by Derek Jacobi. Harper Audio.

After The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, this is the most obviously religious book of Lewis' Chronicles, linking Aslan, the god of Narnia, to Jesus of the Christian faith. This certainly does not detract from the story, however, it may render it less appealing to those of different or no faiths. After listening to this maritime adventure, it's easy to guess that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader might have been an inspiration for Clive Barker's, epic Abarat adventures. (I wish there were more!) After Alex Jennings, the voice of Derek Jacobi is somewhat of a disappointment, particularly his grating rendition of the fearless mouse, Reepicheep. Nevertheless, all of Lewis' books are classic tales of adventure and righteousness.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

In Our Mothers' House

Polacco, Patricia. 2009. In Our Mothers' House. New York: Penguin.

Coincidentally, this book crossed my desk yesterday after I heard on the news that the California Supreme Court has upheld Proposition 8, outlawing same-sex marriage. If you're looking for a book that presents same-sex marriage in a positive and loving light, this is the book for you.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Just Grace Goes Green

Harper. Charise Mericle. 2009. Just Grace Goes Green. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Just Grace Goes Green continues the adventures of elementary schooler, Just Grace, so named because of the multiple Graces in her class. In this 4th installment of the series, Grace’s class is learning about recycling, and her best friend, Mimi, has a cousin coming to visit.

While there are some amusing parts, such as when Grace goes shopping for a birthday present for cousin, Gwen,

“Mom said that she liked the present I picked out for Gwen so much that she thought I should have one too. Mom said it wasn’t fair for both Gwen and me to have one and not give one to Mimi. Then on the way home from the store Mom stopped at a bakery and we bought cupcakes. WHO IS THIS MOM? It was like a shopping alien had taken over her body or something,”

other humorous attempts fall flat, or appear to be targeted at adults. What elementary school reader will understand this reference to the Vapors 1980 hit, “Turning Japanese?”

“I could tell what we were going to have for dinner the minute I walked into the house. Mom has this silly way of asking Dad to order sushi for dinner. … When Mom wants sushi she plays her special sushi song on the CD player. I don’t really know what’s called but the main part of the song say, ‘I’m turning Japanese oh yes I’m turning Japanese I really think so.’ It’s kind of like their secret code.”

While a laudable attempt, much of the recycling message comes across as too academic. In several instances, the author uses Just Grace’s recycling or endangered species lessons to itemize factual information,

“6. Red pandas are endangered because their homes are disappearing. People are cutting down their trees to use the wood and then building farms and towns where the trees used to be.”

A final criticism is the author’s choice of Just Grace’s final recycling project – promoting the continuous use of disposable water bottles, decorating them to make them more attractive for re-use. I realize that there is no firm scientific backup for the claim that toxic chemicals may leach from disposable water bottles, however, there is certainly a suggestion that it may be possible. Given the fact that so many other recycling projects are possible, why did she choose this controversial one? Additionally, by having the characters decorate their bottles with glitter and glue; one can only assume that they won’t be well-washed before re-use.

Perhaps if I had read the earlier books, I would have formed a better bond with the main character and been slower to find fault. Overall, I think that the Just Grace series is popular (the many sketches and graphics interspersed throughout the story are simple and cute!) and has great potential for finding a loyal following of third and fourth grade readers; but for me, this particular title falls flat.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Keeper of the Grail

A second video booktalk for Keeper of the Grail by Michael Spradlin, Book 1 in the Youngest Templar series. These video booktalks can be a lot of fun to make!

A great historical fiction, adventure story that ponders the great questions of war and religion. Action-packed with a cliffhanger ending. There is a strong female character in this story as well. Enjoy!

Keeper of the Grail

A video "booktalk" for Book 1 of the Youngest Templar

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bunnicula and Geronimo Stilton

Wanting to catch up on what's popular, I finally took the time to familiarize myself with two very popular series, Bunnicula and Geronimo Stilton. I downloaded the books to my mp3 player, and these reviews refer to the audio versions.

Geronimo Stilton, Books 1-3 (I only listened to Book 1)
Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye, The Curse of the Cheese Pyramid, Cat and Mouse in a Haunted House from the Geronimo Stilton series by Geronimo Stilton. Read by Edward Herrmann and published by Listening Library.

Of course, as evidenced by the sheer number of titles in the series, Geronimo Stilton is obviously very popular. This audio version was also an Audie Award finalist and a Listen Up! award winner. Now that I've got that out of the way, I'll admit that I didn't enjoy the Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye. The narrator, Edward Herrmann, is certainly a capable reader for most of the characters, however, his vocal portrayal of Geronimo's young sister, Thea, was in my opinion, almost creepy. It certainly did not evoke an image of a spoiled younger sister. Aside from that, there were some excellent sound interjections (waves, crashes, etc.). I think this was a needed addition to compensate for the lack of colorful graphics that are so prominent in the print version. The Lost Treasure is a somewhat predictable adventure story of the reluctant adventurer, Geronimo Stilton. I find it interesting that Geronimo Stilton is a hugely popular series about an adult, an adult mouse in this case, but an adult nonetheless. Amelia Bedelia (Peggy Parish), and to a lesser degree, Mr. Putter (Cynthia Rylant), are the only other "adults" that have such a large appeal to K-4 readers.
Next time, I'll choose a print version.

The Bunnicula Collection, Books 1-3 (I listened to Books 1-2 only) by James Howe, read by Victor Garber. Published by Listening Library.

I'll call the Bunnicula books, Horror Lite - something to appeal to a younger crowd that craves eerie suspense on a much milder scale than that of an R.L. Stine book. Bunnicula is, of course, a vampire rabbit - not of the blood drinking variety, though - Bunnicula prefers vegetable juice.

Bunnicula may be the namesake of the series, but the main characters are Bunnicula's fellow house pets, Harold the dog, and Chester the cat. The resident vampire, Bunnicula, is nocturnal and does not speak. The Bunnicula stories are written in the voice of Harold, the Monroe Family's lovable and obedient dog. The story is preceded by a note from the "publisher," explaining the circumstances under which he came to publish the manuscript written and delivered by Harold the dog. The stories are suspenseful in a non-threatening manner, and most of the supernatural suspense (are there werewolves at Chateau Bow-Bow?) is resolved in the end. Chester, a highly intelligent and suspicious cat with a superiority complex, is a perfect foil for Howard, steadfast, loyal and calm. Mr. and Mrs. Monroe and their two boys round out the family. Victor Garber moves seamlessly between the many voices in the story. In Howliday Inn, he creates numerous and memorable character voices for each of the kennels' many 4-legged inhabitants.
In both series, there are puns and jokes that will not resonate with young readers (imagine the spurned French poodle, Louise, calling her rival, "Hester Prynne!"), but while they don't add to the story, they don't detract from it either.
Popular with boys, series readers, and Grade 4 and under.

Children's Choice Book Awards

Congratulations to the winners of the 2009 Children's Choice Book Awards!

Book of the year

Grades K-2

The Pigeon Wants a Puppy by Mo Willems

Grades 3-4

Spooky Cemeteries by Dinah Williams

(Yikes! My library doesn't have this one!)

Grades 5-6

Thirteen by Lauren Myracle

Teen Book of the Year

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (no surprise here!)

Author of the Year

Stephenie Meyer

Illustrator of the Year

Jon J. Muth for Zen Ties

Favorites of mine that were nominees, but not winners:

The Donut Chef and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules. I'm a Baby Mouse fan, too!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

How the mighty have fallen (and no one knows)

How the mighty have fallen (and in the children's department, no one knows)

Michael Vick, Barry Bonds, A-Rod, Marion Jones, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, ... professional athletes, Olympians, singers, movie stars ... when someone has reached the pinnacle of fame, publishers rush to make their biographies (often poorly written ones) available to children. But what happens when those once-shining stars fall from grace by virtue of their own misdeeds?

That's when adult publishing kicks into high gear and "tell-all" biographies of "the fallen" begin to appear, but in the children's department, there is a different story.

In the children's section of public libraries, biographies of the disgraced sit on the shelves, largely ignored by kids and parents, until at some point, they are discarded. Out-of-date, they no longer circulate and take up valuable shelf space. In school libraries, they're often quickly pulled from the shelves or quietly become "lost."

But children do not live in a vacuum. They know their favorite hero is not "lost." They know that something has happened. Perhaps they even have an idea (possibly even a wrong one) about what has happened. But we don't tell them, at least not in print.

I wonder if children's publishing is missing an opportunity here. Cautionary tales of rags to riches to rags might not be as uplifting as rags to riches and fame, but they are real stories and they are human stories and sometimes, they are stories that children should hear.

If you know of any good books that tell these stories of descent (and in some cases redemption) in a fashion appropriate for children, please feel free to leave them in the comments section.

Beneath the Waves - a review

As we read disturbing news accounts of dying manatees , environmental disasters caused by toxic waste, and ocean pollution on the scale of ...