Archive for ‘Adventure’

May 13, 2014

Dystopian Fantasy: The End of the World as We Know it

Dystopian Fantasy: The End of the World as We Know It
by Katherine Higgs-Coulthard38-FE3-KathyHiggs-Coulthard

Hunger Games
The Maze Runner
Ender’s Game

What do these books have in common?

a) They’re great books that offer an exciting read.
b) Preteens, tweens, and teens love them.
c) They either have or will soon be made into movies.
d) They are dystopian novels.
e) All of the above.

The answer is e) All of the above!

Books like Hunger Games and Divergent are introducing today’s generation to dystopian fiction. While many adults may not recognize the label “dystopian,” it’s not new. Remember reading Louis Lowry’s The Giver or Stephen King/Richard Bachman’s Running Man back in the 90’s? In fact, a brief Google search will uncover dystopian stories dating back to the 18th Century! But what does “dystopian” mean? The opposite of utopian, dystopian stories take place in a society where people are severely oppressed or live in fear. Usually they take place in an altered reality or a future version of our world where the government wields heavy-handed power.

Dystopian stories draw in middle grade to young adult readers because they offer many of the same features fairy tales offer to younger readers: They show that the world is a dangerous place where people are not always what they seem, but where creativity, intellect, and perseverance can prevail.

If you have a child ages 10 and up, you’ve probably seen them carrying around a copy of Hunger Games or Divergent. But there are more great dystopian books out there than just the blockbusters. Check out these:


13th reality

Title: The 13th Reality
Author: James Dashner
Genre: middle grade


Title: City of Embercity of ember
Jeanne Duprau
Genre: middle grade



Among the HiddenTitle: Among the Hidden
Author: Margaret Peterson Haddix
Genre: middle grade



Title: The UgliesThe Uglies
Author: Scott Westerfield
Genre: y/a


Add to the list! What dystopian novels have your family discovered?

April 10, 2013

Fast-paced mythological fun

Rick Riordan, author of the mega-smash hit series about Percy Jackson and the Olympians, almost makes my days in the Junior Classical League cool again. (In case you missed JCL while you were off doing something more normal like cheerleading, it was a competition where you could recite Latin poems, play ancient-Roman-based trivia games, and wear togas.) I said almost, okay?

I’m into the Kane Chronicles right now, a trilogy that follows a brother and sister team as they try to learn their family’s ancient Egyptian magic and save their father. The books are told in the first person from both Carter’s (the nerdier, grew-up-homeschooled-and-on-the-run-with-archaeologist-dad, darker-skinned brother) and Sadie’s (the hipper, cooler, sometimes-braver and fairer-skinned sister) point of view. You can meet these kids here. And you can learn more about their family’s magic here. And if you really need to, you can play some Egyptian games here.

As always, I’d encourage you to read these with your kids! This one is an easy assignment, because you are going to love it and before you know it, you’ll be done and off looking for some more Riordan ancient civilization fun.

After you do, you can talk about one of the fun ideas in this book, a secret name. Everyone has one and knowing someone else’s gives you complete control over them. Sadie controls the God Set because she knows his secret name (Evil Day). Tere’s a great moment in the book where she needs to guess her brother Carter’s secret name, something she can do because she knows him so well. Why not discuss your secret names around the family dinner table? Or in a classroom? Kids could come up with names for themselves or friends, tapping into their best qualities or highest ambitions. What better way to get close to your child than to know their mythologically secret name?

serpents-shadowTitle: Kane Chronicles: The Red Pyramid, The Throne of Fire, The Serpent’s Shadow
Rick Riordan
Age Group:
Middle School kids

This book would be great for:

– reluctant boy readers (it’s big, but fast-paced and action-packed)
– anyone into mythology or ancient Egypt
– anyone studying mythology in school
– readers looking for mixed-race main characters (I’ve had many parents ask about this before: their race is not an issue in the book, just a fact about them, which is nice)
– anyone who likes a LOT of action (sometimes I find myself needing to catch my breath!)

So, what is your secret name? And if you have this conversation with your kids, let me know how it goes! Or don’t, if it’s a secret…

July 14, 2011

Join a small community in Vanderpool’s MOON OVER MANIFEST

Every morning at breakfast, my son turns on the CD player. Right now, we are listening to Hullabaloo’s Road Trip album, which I love, not only because it’s fun kids’ music, but also because I love road trips. I love everything about them–the details in the scenery that you miss from airplane, the local family restaurants you get to stop at, the greasy drive-through meals, the stupid car games, the fact that my family is stuck in a confined space, forced to answer my questions and converse with me. I love checking how many miles we have left and watching the number tick down. I love a long day of driving where you cover a lot of ground, and a long day of sightseeing where you cover almost none. I love people and places. And, even though it’s not about a road trip, that’s why I loved this book. Because it’s also about people and places, in the best possible way.

Title: Moon Over Manifest
Author: Clare Vanderpool
Genre: Fiction
Age: Middle School

Summary and Review:

I did not want to put this book down.  Ever since I met Abilene in the first few pages as she jumps off train outside of Manifest because “any fool worth his salt knows you have to get a look at a place before the place gets a look at you,” I wanted to spend some time with this girl. Abilene feels abandoned by her father, who has sent her to Manifest to live with some old friends while he stays back and works on the railroad. But she makes the best of her situation, quickly making friends and becoming a person of influence in the small town community while she strives to learn the story of her father’s past here and maybe–just maybe–figure out why he left her and whether or not he will ever come back.

The story jumps beautifully from 1936 when she lands in Manifest, to the early 1900s when her father was growing up there.  The town is full of colorful characters, made even richer because you get to know them at two different points in their lives. Propelled by mysteries large and small, the story moves along quickly powered by great writing that will make you feel that you, too, are part of this town’s history.

This would be a great book to read if you liked Chasing Redbird or Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech.

April 12, 2011

if you chase it, it might chase you back

This book is a portal.  I opened its page and was instantly transformed.  So transformed, I was confused.  Was I the reader or the main character?  Was I on my couch, breast-feeding one son and patting the other, Sesame Street blaring in the background and the book balanced on my lap?  Or was I walking an ancient trail, uncovering its stones and its secrets one by one, finding a path as I found myself and my family along the way?  Or maybe I was the writer?  Did I write this book?  Conceive of its characters?  I feel I know them so well that I might have.  I can’t really say.  I loved this book!

All I know is that this book drew me in so deeply I can’t decide if I should ride this wave of bibliophilism (wow! that is totally a word!) and pick up another book immediately (preferably one by Sharon Creech) or just call it quits when I’m ahead and never read another book again.  Not sure yet, but in the meantime, I’ll write one (last?) blog entry.

Title: Chasing Redbird
Author: Sharon Creech
Genre: Fiction
Age: Middle School

Summary and Review:

Zinny is the quiet daughter in a large family, the one who listens to her sisters’ gossip at night in their too-crowded, shared bedroom, the one who collects bottlecaps and rocks, who spends more time with her aunt and uncle next door than her mom and dad in her own busy house.  She is an honest character, so true to her age and the human race that it seems Sharon Creech must have studied the very souls of her readers before she typed these words.

There are so many things about Zinny that I love, but mostly it is her honest confusion about life that gets at my heart.  Some of us (a rare few of us) will admit to being confused about the meaning of life.  But I’ve never heard anyone express out loud the ways that confusion can take hold on a daily level.  I love that Zinny admits to being afraid at times that she isn’t who she thinks she is.  That she is actually someone else, and that the real Zinny is dead, or the real Zinny is off somewhere and she is merely watching her.  I love that Zinny admits to being afraid of the “hand of God” and thinks that God has challenged her personally in peculiar, creative ways.  I love that Zinny admits to searching for a relative she knows has passed away, and I love that she finds her.  I love that Zinny is scared of the attention from a boy and of her own feelings.  I love the way Zinny learns about herself and her family, as if piecing together a mysterious puzzle, something that allows her to really understand some of the important things about being a daughter, a niece, a sister, and a girlfriend–none of which she truly attains until she first understands some things about being herself.  And I love, very much, the dichotomy in Zinny–how she feels so powerful that she believes she might have singlehandedly caused more than one death, but at the same time so useless that no boy could possibly ever like her.  If that isn’t growing up, then what is?

When Zinny starts to unravel the mysteries and dig up the stones of an old, historic trail near her farm in Kentucky, she takes her first step from being “one of those Taylor kids” to being “the one who’s digging up the trail.”  That transformation, from an overgrown past to a well-used walkway, from an unknown girl to a girl who knows herself well enough to like herself, is the story in this remarkable book.

Follow-up with the kids:

Zinny’s thoughts and feelings will resonate with a lot of kids in the midst of the turmoil of growing up and trying on a new identity.  Of course, if you are their parent, they probably won’t talk with you about it.  But that’s the brilliant thing about reading with your kids.  Just ask them about Zinny.  Why do you think Zinny felt that way?  Why did she do this?  That dichotomy of hopelessness and adolescence that I talked about above?  What does your daughter think about that?  You’ll hear some of her own feelings in her responses, and maybe you’ll learn what powers her own, personal dichotomy.

Now, you can start this conversation with the Jake/May issue because that might get them talking, but press further–what about Rose and Aunt Jessie and Uncle Nate?  Zinny’s precious relationship with each of these people tells us so much about what it means to be a live “human bean” that you could talk about this through the night.  And maybe you should.  Get a tarp and two sleeping bags and head to the backyard…that would be the best place to do it.  Under the stars.  Near the birds.

Oh, and one more thing: Zinny had a trail.  What do you or your child have?  Is it a place to explore?  100 books to read?  a new cuisine to learn how to cook?  a new exercise regime to learn and stick to?  What can you uncover that might help you uncover you?

April 11, 2011

Turtles, Scorpions, Pirate Treasure, and Diaper Rash

I’ve decided to go searching for some award-winning books, and this seemed like as good one as any to start with.  It won a Golden Kite in 2010, an award given out by the SCBWI, the Society for Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators, which means that it’s a peer award–an award given to writers by other writers.  I like the validation of that, and since I’m a writer and a member of SCBWI, that seemed like a good place to start.  I’m glad I did.  My sister was in town, which meant that I actually had a few minutes to actually read, and this was a great escape.

Title: Turtle in Paradise
Author: Jennifer L. Holm
Genre: Historical Fiction
Age: Middle Grade

Summary and Review:

Sometimes a book just gets you with one particularly good part.  This one got me near the beginning, when Turtle was dropped off at a small house in the Florida keys to live with her surprised and overwhelmed aunt and cousins.  She is outside the house, meeting her cousins and their friends when she overhears an older neighbor referring to the boys as the “diaper gang”.  Now, as a reader, I assumed this was his way of insulting them.  Turtle does too, and asks them jokingly if they change diapers.  Now they, in turn, look at her like she’s an idiot and tell her that of course they do.  And that’s her first introduction to the group of misbehaving adolescent boys and their secret diaper rash formula.

The diaper gang are the major players in the book alongside Turtle, but the diapering is only a small part of the story.  Turtle’s mom, a housekeeper, had to send her away because her new employer didn’t want children in the house.

In the keys, Turtle meets family members she never even knew about and some she thought were dead.  She has adventures that include crying babies, diaper rash, hurricanes, and pirate gold.  But in the end, this book is all about one thing: family.  And it will make you want to visit yours.

Another great thing about the book is its subtle historical setting.  You get a good feeling for the poverty and hopelessness of the Great Depression, of the stories of Little Orphan Annie and the stardom of Shirley Temple, but it isn’t rubbed in your face.  An adolescent reader who would turn away historical fiction just because of the word “history” need not shy away from this book.  In fact, don’t even tell them–they might not even notice.

The writing in the book is great.  I love all the little details–the kids who don’t wear shoes, Turtle’s sarcastic cracks at the boys, the nicknames of all the characters (Beans, Too Bad, Slow Poke–almost no one has a real name).  It all just fits together perfectly.  I’m pretty sure that if I headed to South Florida now, I might find this family there, eating Turtle soup, chasing scorpions and running around barefoot.

Follow-up with the kids:

It can’t hurt to bring up the history piece after the fact, can it?  It’s a perfect read in today’s times as a lot of families are feeling the same sense of poverty–that mix of hopelessness and dreams that comes with not having a lot of money in a country where others still have it.

Also, read the afterward with the historical details.  I liked that part a lot, and it gave a lot of context to the book.  I appreciated that it was in the afterward and not stuffed into the book, making it unwieldly like some historical fiction can be.  I also liked the part about the pirate treasure.  Without giving too much away, I can say that the pirate treasure storyline in the book didn’t really sit right with me, but the afterward put it into better perspective.

Another great conversation would be about Turtle and how she never cries anymore–she has to be the tough one in her family, her mom the weaker link.  But then something near the end makes the tears flow freely.  What is it and why was she finally able to cry?  Was it only the sadness of the event, or was it something more, maybe something that finally gave her the courage to show her emotions?

February 3, 2011

She was my ear, my eye, and my arm: a thank you to someone who helped me be a working mom

It was the first day of school.  My son was about five months old and enrolled in a daycare near the campus.  We hadn’t signed up for the really expensive back-up nanny service yet, because well, it was really expensive and we wanted to see how far we could get on our own sick days and helpful relatives (the answer: not far).  I was at the time both the principal of the Middle School and teaching one period a day of fifth grade science.  It was the first year my school had a fifth grade, so the job at least felt fairly high-stakes.  We wanted them to have a good year.

The school, Eastside Prep in Kirkland, WA, has traditionally always started the year with grade-level field trips and overnights, helping to bond the new classmates together and explore some of the real-world context of their curriculum to come.  The plan for that day was for myself and Daria, the fifth grade general ed teacher to take the kids downtown for their field trip.  (When I say “general ed”, I mean that she did all the English, History, and Math, plus the organizational stuff, the homework stuff, the computer stuff, and the what-am-I-doing-in-Middle-School stuff, which is my way of saying she did everything.)

So here I am, driving to school and dropping my son off at his daycare.  I pull into the parking lot and he promptly throws up all over me.  Daycares in general don’t like vomit, and they are pretty strict about not taking vomiting children.  So I put him back in the car and drove to school.  The next thing I know, I’m in the back of a public bus with 18 brand-new fifth graders.  It’s their first day in middle school, their first day at this new school, and for many of them, their first time going into the city on a bus.  Daria Brandt, their general ed teacher, was with me, as was my son, five months old and huddled to my chest in a Baby Bjorn.  I was still praying that the throwing up in the morning was just some spit up, or reflux, or anything.  So far, it was going well.  Hey–I could be a working mom with a baby, right?  It’s the modern age!  He was happy on the bus with the kids and they were happy to watch him.

That was until he threw up on two or three of the closest ones.

Now, these were some good kids, and most had a reasonable amount of respect for me as their teacher and principal, but even they had their limits.  Apparently, me bringing a baby that was throwing up on them had crossed some kind of line.  They weren’t all that pleased about it.

Well, Daria and I did our best to get the mess cleaned up and get the kids to the proper destination.  I still tried to stay on the field trip–I didn’t have a lot of other options, and couldn’t imagine leaving Daria alone.  A) You can’t send one teacher into the city with 18 kids.  B) Daria had just moved to the city and had no idea where we were or where we were going.  C) Well, there are a lot of reasons, and they should be obvious.

But as my son continued to vomit, it became apparent that I had to leave.  I can’t imagine what Daria was thinking at the time, but she never once seemed upset or looked at me askance, even as I was walking away, leaving her with the kids, the kids she had to walk back through an unfamiliar city to find an unfamiliar bus stop and get them all home.

That was the first time, but not the last time, Daria would bail me out that year.  To say that it was a hard, hard year is the understatement of the century.  Every working mom knows the trials, and I, at least, was not up for them at this point.  My husband worked as a surgery resident, a famously overworked field.  Throughout the months of October or April, not one week went by without one or more of the three of us being sick.  To this day, I don’t know how I got out of bed each morning (which, was no later than 4:00 for the whole year, because sleeping was never one of my son’s favorite things to do).  But I do know that I couldn’t have done it without the help of truly awesome people like my school’s new fifth grade teacher.  When I was late to class because of some administrative emergency, or just because between pumping and breastfeeding during breaks I hadn’t had time to eat lunch that day and was trying to scarf something down before class, she would help with the kids.  When we were supposed to co-teach units together and I didn’t have the time or energy to plan that much detail, she would talk about the integrated lessons within her own classroom.  Knowing that these kids were being taken care of by the best of the best made me thankful every day.

But do you know what?  I don’t think I ever said “thank you”.  I don’t think I ever bought the bottle of wine that I kept thinking she deserved…well, it was a lot of bottles by the time the year was done.

So when I saw this contest, and how it asked for a compliment, I knew exactly who I was going to write about, because even though I work at home now, I want every woman to have the chance at a career if they want it.  And we will only be able to do that if we help each other.  I hope that every mom returning to work has someone as helpful as Daria waiting to help them out.

And (segue here–this IS a book blog after all) she also introduced me to a GREAT new book.  She has her fifth graders read it (I told you they were in good hands–they read some great stuff with her), and I was excited to read it as well.

Title: The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm
Author: Nancy Farmer
: Science Fiction
Age: Middle School, 9 – 14, and probably some older kids as well

Summary and Review:

I really enjoyed this book.  The straight-up plot is the story of three children of a wealthy and powerful General who live in a futuristic Zimbabwe.  Their house is a grand estate where they interact almost solely with robotics, including the robotic Doberman guard dog.  In an attempt to find adventure (and hopefully win a scout badge) they escape their house and venture through the country, dodging (and not dodging) danger at every step.  Their parents hire the unusual trio of private detectives Ear, Eye, and Arm, three men whose exposure to plutonium in the womb gave them unusual powers and weaknesses–one with superb eyesight, one with superb hearing, and one able to feel the mood and read the minds of the people around him.  The children stay a step ahead of the detectives as they fight their way through the city.

But while that in and of itself would be a great story, there’s much more.  The book, in my opinion, is really about the worlds through which the children travel.  They find themselves in a community hidden in a trash dump among people who live off the obsolete plastic they can sell from the “plastic mines”.  They find themselves in a world of yesteryear–an enclosed piece of land where no technology is allowed, and mention of the outside world is prohibited.  Here, the young graze cattle as in traditional Zimbabwe, and the elders still believe in witchcraft.  Later, they venture through a wealthy suburb and finally to the modern city, with its mile-high swaying hotel and gang-ridden violent subways.  Each foray shows what each society has to offer–and its disadvantages.

This book offers a unique glimpse of the evolution of human society and the choices we make with each technological and societal advance.

It’s also a commentary on the development of science from the technology of their holophones and robotic servants to the genetically engineered talking monkeys.

And if a great plot and great commentary weren’t enough, the characters are also great, and watching the children (and some of the adults) grow and change throughout the story makes it all the more enjoyable, relatable, and meaningful.

Nancy Farmer is a great author.  I highly recommend this quirky, intelligent adventurous read.

Follow-up with the kids:

Seriously, there’s a lot of talk about.  See above.  But if I add anything to this post, people are going to fall asleep.  1420 words so far–if I write that much on my book today, I’ll be that much closer to ending it!  But seriously, please always comment or email me for more activity and conversations suggestions–I love to think of those things!

Click on the icons below to vote for me!

January 12, 2011

Aristocratic mice

I picked up this book for one reason: the cover.  I LOVED the cover–its old-fashioned look, its promise of an adventurous tale, and the look of the well-dressed, aristocratic mice brave enough for human-sized adventures was enough to sell me.  I did hesitate slightly; it’s a large hardback volume (but a quick read as it’s meant for the third grade reader and I did graduate from the third grade quite some time ago–although not without some tears shed over that 53-page hand-written-and-with-photographs report on whales), and therefore wasn’t cheap.

Also, there’s that whole myth about books and their covers that always makes me feel slightly guilty for making a decision like that.  But here’s the deal with that phrase.  Not judging a book by its cover is extremely appropriate when applied as it is usually meant, to people.  But not judging an actual book by its cover is, in my opinion, ridiculous.  Why would you ignore that ecstatic rush of emotion when you pick up a beautiful book, hold it in your hand, wonder what kind of tale would fit between the covers, and taking it home to find out?  Well, I wouldn’t, and in this case I’m glad I didn’t.

Title: Tumtum and Nutmeg: Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall
Author: Emily Bearn
: Animal Fantasy, Fiction
Age: 7 – 10, Grades 2 – 4

Summary and Review:

Tumtum and Nutmeg live in the most glorious mansion with the best silver and more bedrooms than they’d need for a whole litter of mice.  (I don’t remember how many mice are usually in a litter, but trust me, they would be ready.)  They consider themselves quiet mice, and Tumtum likes to spend his days reading and toasting his feet by the fire while Nutmeg enjoys spending her days busying herself around the kitchen.  They remind me of my grandparents, if, that is, my grandparents were millionaire rodents.

Despite my initial excitement at the book, I started it a few times.  This is partly due to my reading habits–I tend to read 5 – 6 books at once and one always gets left out and needs to be started over.  It’s partly due to having picked the book up knowing nothing about it and doubting whether or not I had made a good choice.  And perhaps partly due to the fact that it starts somewhat slowly (although not really, I realized when I finally sat down and gave it a chance…and then couldn’t put it down until I had finished all three volumes over the next two days.)  So, it was a great read.  The mice begin to feel sorry for the two children living in the house in which their house resides (hidden in a forgotten broom closet behind a dresser) and decide to help them out.  Thus the adventuring begins.  The mice act as a “fairy” of sorts for the children, darning their socks and fixing their toys, and the children’s usually humdrum lives (lived without a mother and with the absent-mindedness of an inventor father) turn exciting and wonderful as a result.  Through various twists and turns in the plot, the mice end up fighting evil Aunt Ivy (who has come for an unwelcome stay), rescuing pets from the school classroom, and fighting pirates on the high seas (okay, they are really the Rats, and it’s a large pond, but let’s allow for some perspective here.)

The characters in the book are all wonderful—Tumtum and Nutmeg, the tiny, modest heroes, General Marchmouse, the heroic and arrogant retired general who appears as a major character in all three stories, plus the children and other supporting characters, like the nimble ballerina mice on pogo sticks.

Follow-up with the kids:

This book is a large volume, and might be daunting for a child to pick up, but the reading level is such that many young elementary students will be able to read it themselves.  Having three stories in one makes it a great purchase—you don’t have to wait for the next in the series to be released!  Also, I think the stories are so universally fun and lovable, that, if you can convince them to do so, it would be a great one for an older sibling (maybe in 2nd – 4th grade) to read aloud to a younger sibling (maybe in Kindergarten or 1st grade).

And if they love it, there’s always the next one, Tumtum and Nutmeg: The Rose Cottage Tales.

Possible Issues: Minor Violence and Alcohol (rats and alcoholic chocolates)

I feel almost silly for mentioning these things, because the book is so innocent and old-fashioned as a rule, but I know that every family is different and some parents will appreciate knowing this in advance, if only to help prepare their kids.  In the first story, the enemy is evil Aunt Ivy, who comes to stay with the Mildews, completely unwelcomely.  She does so because she is having an exterminator at her house get rid of mice.  She HATES mice.  So when she sees Tumtum and Nutmeg, she hatches a plan, leaving out mouse poison (which gets Tumtum sick and starts a very creative war with the Royal Mouse Army under the command of General Marchmouse), and planning to put poison gas into their mouse hole (hairspray, but still).  The second story has the mice working to rescue the same General as well as some gerbils from a school classroom, right before they are threatened with various things like being sent to a pet store, having the gerbil family broken up into different homes, and being fed to another pet.  There’s also mention of being “put down” although it doesn’t say what that means.  In the third story, to escape the pirates (Rats), they feed the rats chocolates with liquor in the middle; the rats get drunk and they escape.  SO, while these are SMALL pieces of the story, and describing them all in one paragraph here makes it sound way more overwhelming than it actually is, I know it’s important for many families to know these things in advance.  But it’s tame.  Way tamer than your average Disney movie, for example.  Happy reading!

December 30, 2010

Moms, get down on your knees and let your inner BOY out!

When I saw the UPS truck pull up in front of my house today, I knew it was here.  The book I had been waiting for!  The book I saw on the Kirkus Book list for 2010 and decided to wait until after the holidays to order.  You can see I waited a long time.  I tore the box open immediately and have already read it, although at this point it’s probably apt to say that it’s a picture book, I’m an adult, and technically, this is a present for my son.  Well, he can have it later.  I’m busy now.

Title: Shark Vs. Train
Author: Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld
: Picture Book
Age: 2 – 6

Summary and Review:

Here’s the plot: it’s a shark versus a train.  I know, I know, the title says it all!  That’s why I had to get the book.  But who will win?  Well, that depends, which is the storyline.  Are they in an ocean? (Shark.) A train track? (Train.)  Roasting marshmallows? (Train: it has a smoke stack, after all.)  Are they giving rides at a carnival?  (Train: are you really going to ride a shark?)  The answers are not in the text, only the illustrations.  The battles get progressively silly until the two toys are sword-fighting on a tight-rope, a situation neither is happy with, and you can almost see the imaginations of the two boys getting stressed, even though they aren’t pictured except in the beginning and ending few pages.  But luckily, mom calls for lunchtime (it could be dad or grandma–the character is off-book), and the toys are put away (thank you, illustrator, for that great example!) for next time, although they are still talking the talk in the toy box.

I mean, I was an obvious candidate for this book, as evident from the fact that I eagerly awaited it knowing little more than the title.  And really, the title was all I needed—it surpassed the expectations of a book with that title.  But this is a really fun book.  It’s clearly aimed at the boy, testosterone-powered crowd, with its fierce characters and epic battles.  Plus, the two kids in the story who play with the toys (although they only make brief appearances) are both boys.  But I think girls would love it, too.

Follow-up with the kids:

Okay, this one is both obvious and fun.  Let’s encourage some creativity and strike those imaginations.  Get a toy shark and a toy train.  Or a stuffed elephant and a toy car.  Or a … well, ANY two objects really.  And play Shark Versus Train!  Invent situations and talk about who would win.  Make sure your toy talks it up, saying why he would win, and encourage your young son to do the same with his toy.  When possible, act out the situation for real.  Get physical.  Make sure the game isn’t too quiet–I don’t think Shark Versus Train should be a quiet game.  There should probably be some non-violent aggression going on.

Moms, get down on your knees and let your BOY out!  (And the actual boy whose been cooped up in the house with you all winter.)

December 27, 2010

A Fairy Tale book that is not too simple and not too violent but just right for your little Prince or Princess

Ah, my poor holiday-neglected blog!  I have not forgotten about you!  In fact, the holidays have given me a lot to write about, but I’m going to focus on fairy tales today because I am really excited about this book.  My family is lucky enough (crazy enough?) to celebrate two holidays, and while I’m not sure that means more presents necessarily, as each holiday’s gifts come from different sides of the family, it certainly does lend itself to quite the extended season of present-opening.  My husband and I decided that, knowing the wrapped love that was going to be poured on our son from grandparents, great-grandparents, and aunts and uncles, that we weren’t going to go crazy with gifts ourselves.  So, we bought a book of fairy tales and put it under the Christmas tree.

I was a little nervous that after the puzzles and games, magazines and toys from all the other relatives that my lone book gift would go neglected in the days after Christmas.  So it was with a really proud heart and a smile on my face that I found myself agreeing to read the fairy tales to him for the first, second, and third time right then on Christmas morning!  We even paused present-opening to read some of the stories!  We’ve read it multiple times each day and night since–and I am SO PROUD of myself!  Is that ridiculous?  I don’t care!  Parenting does not necessarily come with a lot of moments where you feel like you know what you are doing–so I am going to revel in this one!  I chose a great present!  And it was a book!  And he loves it!  Ha!

Now, I spent hours researching this book, and it was harder to find that I anticipated.  Part of this was because my beloved local bookstore has just now gone out of business, so asking them for advice was not to happen.  I did visit one of their really depressing, crowded, going-out-of-business sales in search of some books, but the shelves had been all but torn down by the vultures that had come to prey on the dying store, and what’s more, had been recently restocked with total junk books presumably brought in by the company running the closing sales.  So while I did find some fairy tale books that were marketed at the toddler age group, they were really, really horrible.

Then I looked online, and I found the same thing.  My options seemed to fall into one of three categories: (1) fairy tales that had been so dumbed down and shortened as to have almost no meaning whatsoever, (2) Disney-brand fairy tale stories, and (3) adult-length gorgeously illustrated stories that closely followed the original versions.

The first option was out for obvious reasons.  While I wanted short text, I wanted enough words for the story to actually make sense.  This seems obvious to me, but apparently not to some publishers.

The second option was also out for (what I hope are) obvious reasons.  I have nothing (or very little) against Disney, and I’m sure we will one day have all those Disney DVDs lined up on a shelf somewhere, but there’s something to be said for not reading brand-name versions of hundreds-of-years-old stories.  Disney changed a lot, really–you should have seen my husband’s surprise when he read the end of “The Little Mermaid” to my son.  Not to mention his surprise that some of the titles in the book were actually fairy tales and not Disney movies.  Sigh.  So no Disney version for me.

And as for the third option, while perhaps more literary and historically accurate, well, let’s face it, the original fairy tales are a little longer and more graphically violent than I really need to be reading to a two-year-old.

So, after much searching and review-reading, I came across this book.  I love it.  Is it perfect?  Maybe not for everyone.  But I think it really does the job, hits all the points I was worried about, and given the number of times we’ve read it so far, I’d say it was the right choice.

Title: Fairy Tales
Illustrator: Mary Engelbreit
Genre: Picture Book, Fantasy
Age: 0 – 6, Toddler, Preschool

Summary and Review:

I was intrigued immediately by this book because of the illustrator.  A Mary Engelbreit print hangs in my laundry room, stolen from my mom’s laundry room after she died.  A Mary Engelbreit anything reminds me of my mom, my aunt, and my grandma.  I remember a phase in my family when all greeting cards and calendars were Mary Engelbreit.  I think there was even a Mary Engelbreit apron.  Her artwork is original, colorful, and somehow simplistically complicated.  My son seems drawn to it, too.  I know that pictures are part of what draws him to a book.

The stories are simple, perfect length to read two or three at bedtime, and a perfect length for a young attention span to really enjoy and understand them.  Some may complain that they could be a little longer, they could include a little more of the beautiful complexity of the originals, but I do think they are a good compromise–they are introducing my toddler to these stories and he will have plenty of time later to fill in more details (starting, probably, with the Disney movies, and hopefully moving on from there).  They are told in a gentle manner without losing their charm, and for the most part stick closely to the original plot-lines.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

Fairy tales are rich with allusion and meaning and give a lot of opportunities to ask leading–or open-ended–questions to the unsuspecting toddler.  My favorite leading question in books like this is to say “that’s not very nice, is it?”  Yes, I realize by doing this I am indicating my moral choices and hoping my son will agree.  But if that isn’t parenting, what is, really?  And I don’t want him to think that by reading a story about someone making a bad choice that I am condoning that choice.  Of course, you can ask a more open version of that question if you prefer, and definitely should if your child is older and closer to preschool age.

Fairy tales are also full of characters that make choices.  Ask your preschooler if they would make the same choice.  Examples: would you give up life as a mermaid and risk death for a chance to meet the prince?  Or, “do you think the mermaid was right to take that risk?”  “Should she have killed the prince to save herself?”  Vary the type of question you ask, how you ask it, and whether or not you ask them to project the feelings onto themselves by your child’s age and the level of questions you think they will be able to understand.  Ask him why Ella’s stepsisters are so mean to her.  Ask her why Beauty would volunteer to live with a Beast.  Why did the princess first lie to the frog?  Why did her father, the King, insist the frog stay for dinner?  And why did she change her mind about the frog later?

Fairy tales are also great for reenacting.  Have a puppet theatre?  Act out the fairy tale.  Or make a crown out of some construction paper, and act out the story yourselves.  Fairy tales are such a beautifully rich part of our heritage.  Helping your kids understand their basic plots and structure will give them a solid foundation for understanding much more complex literary and morality in their years to come.

And you won’t risk hearing them one day say “Wait, you mean The Little Mermaid isn’t a Disney story?  Hans Christian Who?”

But really, my husband has other redeeming qualities.

September 17, 2010

The impossibly international pickle of mystery, adventure, and zany fun

Have you seen the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding?”  If you have and didn’t like it, don’t worry, it has nothing to do with the book I want to talk about.  But if you haven’t, it’s a great movie and you definitely should.  But I digress.  I bring it up because even though I’m not male and my husband isn’t Greek, I think about it every time I think about our families.  I’m the one with a couple of cousins in Wisconsin (give or take).  He’s the one with 30 first cousins and hundreds of other people he calls cousins that, in my family’s definition, aren’t really even related.  I used to get in arguments with him when he would describe someone as a “cousin” who is really a 2nd cousin once removed, or even a great-aunt, my argument being that the word “cousin” has an actual meaning and doesn’t translate to “person somehow related to me”.  But I’ve since learned to love his family’s all-inclusiveness and the sense of belonging that really gives you.

But all this is by way of writing a disclaimer, saying that by my husband’s definition, I am related to the author of the following book.  I’m not completely sure how (it involves tracing up a couple of generations, and then paralleling over through some siblings and then back down, and maybe over again, or something like that).  But I am super proud to say that Eli Stutz is my “cousin” and he wrote a great middle grade book.  About which I will now write.

Title: Pickle Impossible
Author: Eli Stutz
: Fiction, Adventure
Age: Upper Elementary and Young Middle School, Ages 9 – 12

Summary and Review:

Pierre has twenty-four hours to take a prized jar of pickles to the international Picklelympics in Switzerland, where the financial prize is the only hope of saving his family’s farm.  On the way he meets (a euphemism for “is kidnapped by”) a young girl who later saves him and is coincidentally the narrator of the story.  Together, Pierre and Aurore fight evil bad guys, play pool, ride motorcycles, fly planes, and meet a woman who has refused to grow old.

The adventures are completely wacky, totally unbelievable, and wonderfully fun to read.  I picked up the book one night when my husband was out late and a few hours later found myself eagerly turning the final pages, having never left my seat in the meantime.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

I like the character of Pierre–the perfectly average kid who realizes that he’s actually a perfectly balanced kid and that this comes in handy.  In a world in which we seem to expect our kids to be the best at everything they do, the moral of how great it is to just be in the middle is refreshing and honest.  Ask your kids what they are perfectly average at–and celebrate it!

Me, for example, I’m perfectly average at most sports–I always seemed to pick them up faster than other beginners, and then I never got much better than that.  I’m not someone who can’t throw or catch, but I’m not someone who ever was or ever will be a sports star.  And yet I love to play sports!  I remember days sitting on the sidelines at high school junior junior varsity soccer games wondering if I would ever play.  I wish at the time I had just known that it was okay to simple have fun playing the game (of course, you have to have a coach that lets you play first, but you get the idea).  I remember one horrifying game when a coach illegally substituted me (in the middle of play) for an older girl who wasn’t even on our team–or in our age group.  I felt like a cheater, a total loser, and definitely got the wrong message–that winning the game was much more important than letting some slow midfielder run up and down the grassy field on a nice day.

Too many kids today drop out of activities they aren’t good at, but they enjoy, because there is so much pressure for success everywhere.  Most of our kids aren’t going to be professional athletes.  And yet sometimes their middle and high school training looks like that’s what we want them to be.  I mean, someone has to come in last.

Or, in the case of Pierre, in the dead middle of the pack every single time.