Archive for ‘Fantasy’

August 27, 2014

when your early reader is (not) a robot

by Wendy Lawrence

At some point, early readers (the people) get tired of the early readers (the books). For my first son, this was before he even opened them. I think I bought one or two out of a sense of duty, but wasn’t even that excited to read them myself. Some of them lack any obvious attempt at plot, characterization, voice, or any trait necessary to call something a “book”. And don’t get me started on the phonics ones.

But these! These are about robots! And aliens! And space adventures! And they have great titles! In fact, I’m pretty sure my son was drawn to this series, which was one of the first ones he read, just because of the title Ricky Ricotta’s Might Robot vs. The Stupid Stinkbugs from Saturn.

rickyricottaTitle: Ricky Ricotta’s Might Robot vs. The Stupid Stinkbugs from Saturn
Author: Dav Pilkey
Genre: Early Reader, Science Fiction
Ages: 4 – 8

Written by Dav Pilkey, of Captain Underpants fame*, these are a great beginner series. They are books that can be read in one sitting, with easy words (and not too many words per page), tons of pictures, Pilkey’s characteristic flip-o-rama (essentially a two-page flip book illustration), and even instructions on how to draw all the major characters (well, the robot and the alien villians, not the boring ones like mom and dad). 😉 One of my son’s drawings based on those instructions can be found here:

filename-1*For those of you who worry about that sort of thing, there’s nothing of the toilet humor in these books that so pervades Underpants. I realize that my first example has the word “stupid” in it, but that’s not really indicative of how these books are written.

My son’s favorites as he remembers them, are Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot vs. the Mecha-Monkeys from Mars, Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot vs. the Uranium Unicorns from Uranus, and … vs. The Mutant Mosquitos from Mercury. There is a first one, and they were written in planet order (Mercury, Venus, etc.), but you can read them in any order. Every book stands alone.

So, if you have an early reader, I would highly recommend these. A reluctant reader might read them with you–one page you read aloud, then next page he/she reads aloud. (Although I do think reading aloud makes it even harder, so consider that.)

Have you tried these? Do you think you might?

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
Divergent
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
Author:
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?

June 3, 2013

Putting Down Roots

kathy headshotHi! I’m so excited to introduce Kathy Higgs-Coultard, who is a new contributing writer for The Family That Reads Together. This post is great timing for me as my son and I just planted our first garden; we will see how THAT goes. Kathy’s writing will be featured on the 2nd Monday of each month. Kathy’s contributions will mainly focus on the traditions, (mis)adventures, and discoveries she’s experienced while raising her four children to be voracious readers and writers. You can read more about Kathy at our about the authors page or visit her at Write with Kathy.

Putting Down Roots

I have never been much of a gardener.  I think the problem stems from my love/hate relationship with plants—I love them, they hate me. No matter how much care and attention I give a plant, it always dies. So when we decided to transplant our four children from Forest Hills–a subdivision dominated by pachysandra, myrtle, and impatiens, to a new home on two acres of wooded property, I panicked. Especially when Laura (then six) announced, “Now we can finally have a garden.” Her face was so bright and hopeful, I did what any good mom would do. I lied. “Yes, sweetie,” I said, “a garden. We can do that.”

To my defense, I did not intend it to be a lie. Laura and I researched plants and chose those best suited to shady areas. We fertilized. We watered. We prayed. We really, really tried. But the hostas we used as a border along the back of the yard were nibbled down to nubs. The tulips we planted in a mulch bed were gnawed to nothing. And the purple azeala Laura loved withered to barren sticks when some creature burrowed under it. “Why does everything I love die?” Laura asked.

I knew how she felt. I’d begun to wonder if maybe Mother Nature herself hated me. It was possible that she still held a grudge from that time I cut every bud off my grandmother’s rosebush and used them to frost a mud pie. Maybe Mother Nature had sicced her forest friends on our garden.

Then, in the serendipitous way things always seem to happen, I came upon one of my favorite childhood stories while leading a book drive. “I loved this book,” I told Laura, showing her the cover of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. She liberated it from the pile and insisted we begin reading it that night.

Night after night we worried over Mrs. Frisby’s plight to move her sick child before the farmer could plow up her home. When we got to the part where Mrs. Frisby goes to visit the rats living under the rosebush, Laura jumped up and yelled, “That’s what happened to the azeala!” To test her theory, she set up an observation station by the picture window overlooking the backyard. It took a few weeks of on and off again observing for us to learn that it wasn’t rats living under our azeala, but hosta-eating rabbits. We also discovered that deer enjoy a tulip or two in the evening. Most impressive were the variety of birds flitting through to snag berries off the wild bushes at the wood’s edge. We even spied a family of wild turkeys, although they seemed more interested in using our yard as a shortcut to somewhere else than a feeding ground.

“We need to go back to the garden guy,” Laura announced when we talked about her findings. I nodded. Tim would be able to give us tips on protecting our garden from our furry friends. But Laura shook her head. “No! We need to find out what other animals eat and plant that, too! Maybe we could see opossums, and raccoons, and unicorns.”

Oh my.

mrsfrisbyTitle: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Author: Robert C. O’Brien
Genre: Adventure, Science Fiction
Ages: Listening 5 yrs and up; Independent 8 and up

1972 Newbery Medal Winner. Although some older books do not capture the attention of today’s children, this book pulled my kids right in and held them enthralled as they worried for Timothy’s health and Mrs. Frisby’s safety. Side note: O’Brien’s daughter wrote two sequels to this book.

touchabutterflyTitle: Touch a Butterfly: Wildlife Gardening with Kids
Author: April Pulley Sayre
Genre: Nonfiction
Ages: Adult

Beautiful—in photos and lyrical language, April invites parents to create nature adventures in our own yards. From helping readers understand the necessary components of a habitat to providing advice on how to build a low maintenance, sustainable environment for wildlife, April encourages all to approach wildlife gardening with confidence and to include their children in the adventure.

What about you? Do you have gardening attempts to share? Successful or otherwise?

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
Author:
Rick Riordan
Genre:
Fantasy
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…

February 15, 2011

Would you want a gift from a fairy? Maybe not.

C.S. Lewis once said “Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”  I don’t know this because I am intellectual enough to remember profound quotes by famous people, but rather because it was written on the wall of the coffee shop where I hung out earlier today.  It struck my fancy immediately, and I’m happy that it fits into today’s blog post.  Because fairy tales are not only for the young.  Fairy tales are for all of us and they give us a sense of truth about the world that we can’t always find anywhere else.

This book, a Newbery Honor book, was one of my favorites that I’ve read in awhile.  I absolutely loved it and it was a true page-turner for me.  And because I had read NONE of the hype about the book, or any reviews, I was dumbfounded with shock and excitement on about page 180 at what I had missed.  Because of that, I’ve decided to hide some of my reviews below a “SPOILER” line at the end of this post.  This might be ridiculous because nothing I’m about to say is not already in reviews everywhere, or even basic descriptions of the book.  But if you haven’t followed that, you might enjoy the book even more as you follow the beautiful story of Ella all on your own.

Title: Ella Enchanted
Author: Gail Carson Levine
Genre: Fantasy
Age: Middle Grade

Summary and Review:

Ella has always lived with a curse, set upon her at birth by a foolish fairy: the curse of obedience.  If you think it doesn’t sound so bad to be obedient (or have your child be!) imagine always HAVING to be obedient.  Anything that anyone says, Ella has to do.  She can try to refrain, but it causes her pain and she eventually has to cave.  So if someone orders her to cut off her head, she’d have to do it.  As a result, Ella dances a dangerous dance in life and lives differently than anyone else.  Only her mother and godmother know the curse but it affects every second, every decision of her life.  After her mother dies, Ella is sent to finishing school by her absent and self-absorbed father.  She runs away on a quest to find fairy who cursed her and search for a cure.

SPOILER BELOW – SPOILER BELOW – SPOILER BELOW – SPOILER BELOW – SPOILER BELOW – SPOILER BELOW – SPOILER BELOW – SPOILER BELOW

 

Stuff to do with the kids:

Okay, so here’s the deal.  You might have figured it out just from the title–it’s pretty obvious.  After all, her name is Ella.  Her mother dies.  She has a fairy godmother.  She’s in love with a guy named “Prince Char”.  Sound familiar? Because that part all comes in the early part of the book.  And then, for those of us who are a little slow on the uptake, there are more clues later: her father marries an evil woman (who becomes her evil stepmother) who has two evil daughters (who become her evil stepsisters), and by then even I’m starting to figure it out.  It’s another Cinderella story!  But much more than that because the actual story of Cinderella doesn’t start until more than halfway through the book, and this is not a character we’ve seen before. Ella is not a weak-willed girl who follows orders and becomes a princess, rescued by the prince.

No, Ella is a strong, naturally rebellious girl who is fighting all her life against a horrible curse.  And the fight is a wonderful adventure, a great read, and a beautiful reintroduction to a favorite character.  Talking with your kids about her character and how different it is from your daughter’s original idea of Cinderella.

Teachers might like to ask their students to write their own versions of a fairy tale, taking this book as a wonderful example of how to do so.

February 7, 2011

The haunting song of the mockingjay

I was SO excited for this book.  I LOVED the first two in the series (Hunger Games and Catching Fire, in case you are either from another planet, or maybe don’t have a teenage daughter around), and pre-ordered this book from Amazon.  While I love Amazon and my free two-day shipping and access to almost all products cheaper, in general I try to buy my books from my local indie store.  But I wanted this one immediately.  Trouble is, Amazon didn’t send it immediately.  In fact, I ended up getting it about a month after it came out, by which time I was so upset about the whole thing I wasn’t really excited to read it anymore.  So it took me until now to open the coveted pages of one of the most anticipated books of the year.  There were parts that I really liked.  There were also parts that I hated.  I do think the trilogy as a whole is a brilliant piece of work, from deep character development to a great analysis of humanity and the worlds we create for ourselves.

I was excited to discuss my opinion of the book with someone, but when I logged on to my favorite discussion group, I was wholly disappointed to find all the chatter to be about Peeta versus Gale.  REALLY?  While the final decision, if it even was a decision, is symbolic of some of the book’s messages, it is not always about the boy.  Well, maybe in the case of Twilight, it was about the boy.  But these books are actually about something.  Hopefully, my discussions below will help you discover what.

The questions below are well-suited to the individual reader who just wants to sit and ponder for a minute, and would also make great discussion starters for a family that reads together, a book club, or a classroom of students with a teacher astute enough to assign something that is both so popular and powerful.  WARNING: from here on out, I assume you’ve read the book.  SPOILERS INCLUDED.

Title: Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Dystopia
Age Group: Middle Grade, Young Adults, and Millions of Adults!

Summary and Review (CONTAINS SPOILERS):

The rebellion is in full force now, but unfortunately we don’t see much of the action.  While I loved Katniss’s voice in the first two books, I felt strangely trapped inside of her head in this one.  I REALLY wanted out.  The first person became too much, as through the first half of the book, all she does is whine her way through the days.  She whines about Peeta.  She whines about Gale.  She whines about District 13 (and yet seems to strangely ignore all the weirdness and fascism that IS District 13).  She is SO uber-serious about her own thoughts and jumps on anyone who doesn’t read her mind and respect her immediately, and yet she is just as quick to put everyone else down.  It all got really tiring after awhile.  The worst part, though, is the beginning, where she is considering whether or not to be the symbolic “mockingjay” for the rebellion.  I wanted to kick her head in as she weighs the pros and cons behind something that really isn’t her decision–it’s just who she is.  Throughout the decision process, she plays the constant victim, and yet also wants our sympathy for being a hero at times–saving Peeta’s life, threatening to eat the berries.  Let’s face it, she’s been a rebel for awhile, even if if was unknowingly at first.  The fact that she couldn’t embrace that made me almost turn my support over to Coin.  I mean seriously.

Although, in Suzanne Collins’ defense, she is a teenage girl, and I DID feel trapped inside the mind of a teenage girl.  So maybe that’s what she was after.  But in general, I like my heroes to have SOME likable qualities…I mean anything that I can respect and relate to.  But maybe that wasn’t the point.

The other thing that really got to me was the amount of time spent describing the propaganda and the cameras.  I though the same point could be made without quite that many pages dedicated to make-up.  I get it–people are superficial!  I get it–war is about propoganda and lies just as much as bullets!  Enough already!

But here’s what I loved: I LOVED the ending.  I loved the message–that humans are evil, the world is evil, and it pretty much always will be!  When I was reading the first two books, I was wondering if it could end any other way, but I doubted the ability of a major book to end with such a honestly depressing theme.  But I shouldn’t have doubted Suzanne.  It’s not that I think the world is a horrible place.  But let’s face it.  The world is, at times and for many people, a horrible place.  Look at Egypt right now.  Look somewhere else tomorrow.  And to ignore that is to let it continue.  So that you, Suzanne, for not letting us ignore it.

Okay, maybe that’s enough of me, too.  I’m including below some of the questions I’ve been asking myself.  I would love to stand in front of a middle school English class and ask them.  Or ask them to a group of teenagers.  Or anyone else that’s read the book.  But my husband has not and my toddler has not.  So I’m asking you.  Please feel free to respond with comments!  I would love that!  And if not, please use these questions in your our family, your own book groups, or your own classrooms.  That would be cool, too!

Discussion Questions for Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay

1. Katniss mentions a few times in the beginning of the book her discomfort and unease with the totalitarian ways of District 13.  But she doesn’t seem to question them much and no one else does either.  It seems completely shocking to me to leave the control of the Capitol for something so controlling and not talk about it.  Why do you think it is?  Does no one notice?  Do they notice but not dare say anything because that’s what they are used to doing?  Is anything better than the Capitol?

2. Katniss seems unwilling to take control of her own life in the beginning of the book.  Why?  Is this a low point because of all she’s endured?  Or is she (like all of us perhaps) just a better person when things are going badly and turns back into her own narcissistic teenage self when life is more comfortable?

3. Think of specific scenes from the book.  We are seeing them only through Katniss’s eyes.  What would they look like through Gale’s or Haymitch’s?  How would this be a different story? (Because I believe it would be REALLY different.)

4. The message of the book was that humans suck, war sucks, violence sucks and humans will always default to war and be violent.  Do you agree or disagree?

5. Why, oh god why, did Katniss take so much time deciding whether or not to be the Mockingjay?  Personally, I wanted to shoot her.  I wonder how the story would have been different if she just assumed she would be and did it from the beginning.  I’m not sure I see the advantage in the many pages of anstsy decision-making.  But maybe you do?  Discuss.

6. The book focused a lot on propoganda.  A lot.  Why?

I’ve got more, but I’ll leave you with that for now.  If you have opinions, I’d love to discuss them with you!!  Or leave me your own to discuss.

🙂

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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
Genre
: 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!

January 6, 2011

Geek out with Harry Potter literary analysis

Hardison, the computer geek character in Leverage, my current favorite TV show, is fond of saying “It’s the age of the geek!”  And looking at Google and Facebook alone, it’s hard to argue that, although whether or not it’s the age of the literary geek is probably more debatable.  However, I’m happily able to admit that I am a full Harry Potter geek, even if I don’t have my own wand or invisibility cloak.  And that as a result, this book made me REALLY happy.

Title: Harry Potter’s Bookshelf
Author: John Granger
Genre
: Reference/Literature, Young Adult, Adult, Middle Grade
Age: 12 and up

Summary and Review:

John Granger really goes all out in his literary analysis of Harry Potter.  His author email address is john@hogwartsprofessor.com, and he takes his professorship seriously.  Which, let me tell you, I appreciate.  Reading this book has given me not only profound insight into the Potter series, but also the centuries of literature it is built upon.  Whether Rowling was influenced by the exact books Granger mentions or whether she alludes to them with her writing style purposely, is irrelevant.  The brilliance of the book is how it ties together so many forms of literature and shows how those forms have influenced writing today, specifically the writing of the great JKR.

Topics in this book include the narrative structure of the book–why Rowling might have chosen the third person omniscient limited as her main form of narrative style, genre–how each book reads like a classic mystery tale, and author-influence–how frequently Jane Austen and her characters and ideas flit through the pages of the Potter novels.  He also covers the setting as structured like a familiar British boarding-school novel, and the moral meaning of the significant gothic influences and postmodern themes present in the book.  He covers satire, allegory, literary alchemy, and fantasy.

The book was a great read.  As a Harry Potter fan, I enjoyed a new glimpse into the books, and it has encouraged me to pick them up another time, reading at a deeper level.  As a reader, I loved learning about the literary history that I either never learned in school or have long forgotten.  And as a writer, I really appreciated the chance to dissect a great book and to really think about why it’s great and what choices the author may have made along the way.

This book certainly isn’t a children’s book, but a precocious Potter-loving middle school would enjoy it.  And any high schooler with an appreciation for the young wizard will get a kick out of it, especially since he or she would likely be in the middle of the stage of education where many of the books mentioned in here are required reading.  This might make Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre a heck of a lot more fun!

Follow-up with the kids:

It would be a lot of fun to reread one of the Potter books or even the whole series with this analysis in mind.  Or you could do a scavenger hunt through one of the books and look for some of the clues and allusions Granger mentions.  And despite the fact that it’s a literary analysis, you could probably (sigh) watch the movies (which, don’t get me wrong are great, but really) and find some of the trends, especially as regards the setting, in there as well.  So grab some popcorn and sit the family on the couch to look for gothic symbolism or medieval signs.

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.

November 18, 2010

Children who chase squirrels and other daily events

There were so many things I loved about this book.  I certainly enjoyed reading it.  But there were so many things I didn’t enjoy, and so every time I thumb through my bookcase of middle grade and young adult books (already filling up two rows deep, like one of those used bookstores that smells really good), I think to myself how that doesn’t really fit the criteria of books I want to blog about.  But then Kirkus reviews, who I would have to grudgingly admit probably knows their stuff (and grudgingly, mind you, not because I have anything against them but only because they seem to *gasp* disagree with me), has placed this book on their list of best books of 2010 and so now I am forced to reconsider.  So, in case you follow their advice over mine (or my advice over mine, since I did tell you in the last post to buy the Kirkus review books), here’s a little synopsis of what was, really, a charming book to read.

Title: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling
Author: Maryrose Wood
Genre
: Fiction/Fantasy
Age: Young Middle Grade, Ages 8 – 12

Summary and Review:

The narrator of this book has a great voice, which is one of the things I loved about it.  It has an old-fashioned feel to it which I always love, and the girl, a 15-year-old graduate taking her first job with children, can tell a story well.  The girl arrives at a mansion in the woods to care for three children.  The woman of the house is beside herself, having tried to marry into a good situation (i.e. money) but presently completely unhappy with the way her husband ignores her (especially on full-moon nights, when he is nowhere to be found).  They have discovered three children in the forest who appear to have been raised by wolves, and now want to raise them as their own (or at least have Miss Penelope Lumley, our heroine, raise them).  And there’s a lurking coachmen.  And a grand ball, thrown by aforementioned housewife, that Miss Lumley has to get the children ready to attend.

The set-up is perfect for lots of fun, mischief, misbehavior (if accidental as they don’t know any better), and mystery.  And you would think it would also be perfect for some wacky characters that would be fun to get to know and some answers to the mystery, but here’s the catch: it’s not.  The narrator, Miss Penelope, and the housewife are well-developed characters.  The husband and the coachman are interesting.  But the children are really just wild.  You see some glimpses, but I really wanted to see more.  Of course, Miss Penelope is 15, a perfectly reasonable age for a MG heroine, but in the old-fashioned context and in her responsible role, she seems more of an adult character than not.  That, though, could be my own fault.  And none of the mysteries are solved (even though some are obvious).

So basically, this whole book is a set-up for the next one, and you feel like you just watched part one of a two-part TV special.  It’s like a soap opera.  I have no problem with series books–in fact I quite like a continuing story, but for me, each book has to stand alone.  And this one doesn’t.  It’s very short, and I have no idea why they didn’t just finish it and make a whole book, but probably something to do with money.  At any rate, it irritates me.  So there you go.  And while I have no doubt that the children will become better-developed characters as the series goes on, I want really good children’s characters in a children’s book.  That’s just how it should be.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

One thing that really brings out the maturity in a kid is having them take care of another kid.  Of course, any kind of responsibility helps, but there seems to be something about being in charge of a smaller being that brings out the best in people.  So ask your children what they might do if they were in the heroine’s shoes.  How would they possibly teach these children?  And ask them to challenge some of the book’s assumptions; after all, the children have done very well by themselves, is it right necessarily to train them out of their old habits?