Posts tagged ‘book’

November 19, 2010

A psychic, two geniuses, and a girl with a red bucket

The great thing about discovering a great series after everyone else already has is that you get to buy the next book immediately.  Of course, that’s also the bad thing because then it’s over too quickly.  However, I did let the first wonderful book in this beautifully quirky series marinate a little bit before reading this one, and I hope I have the patience to do the same before getting the third book.  I doubt it, but we’ll see.  It doesn’t matter what these four children are doing–I just love to watch them do it!  And watching the youngest, Constance, grow up in the stories has been great.

Title: The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Perilous Journey
Author: Trenton Lee Stewart
: Adventure
Age: Middle School, 9 – 13

Summary and Review:

Mr. Benedict is missing and the evil Mr. Curtain is back again.  This time the four young children must sneak away from their family in a journey around the world to save the man they admire so much.  The plot is not nearly as complex as the first one, and doesn’t seem to have quite as many social commentaries, but it’s fast-paced, interesting, and really more than enough for these characters to hang their hats on.  Honestly, I could watch the four of them paint a house for 300 pages.

I did have a problem with how many times they had to justify being on their own (getting away from adults or convincing adults to let them come with them), but I also have a hard time with kids’ books who don’t explain why the kids are on their own.  But this time, really, I just thought it was over-explained.

But let’s talk characters, because that’s what it’s about.  Reynie, a gifted adolescent, is always thinking.  The group’s natural (if initially relucant) leader, his strength is solving problems, and he finds the group looking to him in their most dire moments.  Much of the story is told from his point of view, albeit still in the third person.  Sticky, the bald (this time because he shaved) young boy who polishes his glasses when nervous (which is often when he’s on an adventure with the Society), is a genius of a different sort–he has memorized every fact he’s ever read, and since he can speed-read, that adds up to a lot of facts.  Kate, a tall, athletic girl whose dad is a top secret agent, has another talent–with the red bucket that’s always by her side, she can get out of (or sometimes into) almost any mess.  She’s strong, fast, and as resourceful as MacGyver when she needs to be–and often when she doesn’t need to be.  And then there’s Constance, the stubborn one who saved everyone’s lives with her mere obstinance in the first book is now just as stubborn in this one.  She’s still cranky and tired and is almost always reciting rhyming insults and complaints.  But then again, she’s only three years old.  And she seems to be psychic, so that helps, too.

Watching the four of them interact is a pleasure.  I loved this book, and highly, highly recommend it.  Because of the mix of genders among the characters and the adventurous nature of the story, this really is a great read for both boys and girls.  And adults.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

Stick to the strengths.  This book is about the four kids and what they can do when they work together.  Great example the next time your daughter has a group project at school and doesn’t want to work with X, Y, or Z.  Encourage your children to find the unique talents that all of us have.  Also importantly, for a kid in a high-pressure academic environment, is the realization that there are so many different ways to succeed.  Reynie would think his way out of a problem, Sticky would memorize an answer, and Kate would happily give up and star on the soccer team.  But they are all successful and can all be proud of themselves.

If you want to engage in a little technological interaction with your kids (and sometimes, they think that’s all there is, right?) the Mysterious Benedict Society has a great website.  Learn which character you are most like and test your ability to solve different kinds of puzzles.  Play together or against each other, and I guarantee, parents won’t find this too easy for them!

November 11, 2010

It’s meta-literary fun with your favorite characters

This is the BEST Elephant and Piggie book ever!  Well, there was “Are you ready to play outside?” which I really love and might be my favorite.  And of course, “Can I play too?” which is genius.  Come to think of it, I like them all.  But this one is really, truly great  Elephant and Piggie are at their best interacting with each other.  But in this book, they interact with YOU, too!  This is the latest in Mo Willem’s beloved series, so make sure you don’t miss it!

Title: We are in a book!
Author: Mo Willems
: Very Early Reader
Age: 2 – 7 (Amazon says 4 to 8, but that’s crazy.  This is a GREAT book for 2-year-olds, and it isn’t because I’m trying to push them out of picture books too early, as you would know by reading this blog.  It’s because I LOVE Elephant and Piggie!  Why deny them?)

Summary and Review:

Elephant notices someone watching him and is a little scared.  But when Piggie goes to investigate and finds out it’s a reader, they rejoice with happiness that they are in a book!

You can NOT have too much Mo! Or even too many Elephant and Piggie stories!

In a moment of genius, Piggie decides to make the reader say the word “bananas” by saying it himself.  Hysterical.  And then they notice what page they are on and what page the book ends so they start to hatch a plot to get the book to never end.  Any guesses?  It’s sheer genius!  (And explains the first page a little better than the first time you read it!)  Great book, great characters.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

This book really gets kids thinking about what a book actually is.  The characters notice the page numbers, and so can you and your child!  Go back to the beginning of the book and ask you child what number she thinks the book will start on.  Then count up and look at the page numbers.  Then research to find out what page the book ends on.  This is teaching them good skills of looking in a book to find information.

Get a little surreal.  Ask your child what happens to Elephant and Piggie when the book ends.  Why is Elephant scared to have the book end and what is their plot to keep it from ending?  How does this relate to the very first page of the book?

When you read a book (any book), you probably start with the title.  Also include the author’s name.  Give your kid a sense that books come from people; understanding this may make his early years of writing more magical.  We talk about movie stars, why not lowly authors, too?  This is a good one to talk about the author because you are already in the mode of talking about the actual book itself, rather than just the story, which after all, isn’t so much a story in this one.

October 19, 2010

Is that your organ or mine? A compelling dystopia with cloning, slavery, drugs, and other things we bring upon ourselves

I had to read this novel.  It was for school.  I was about to assign it to my kids, 7th graders, for a dystopia project, on the advice of a librarian, so I needed to read it first.  What an awesome assignment!  I loved it.  It’s a page-turner.  It’s adventurous.  It’s emotional.  It makes you think about where the world today is going.  All things I love when I am reading a great book.  And it’s why I think young adult and children’s books are often so much better than adult books.  Wasn’t it the author of The Golden Compass who said that you can deal with so much more in a kid’s book?  Well, this book is a great example of that.

Title: The House of the Scorpion
Author: Nancy Farmer
: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Age: Middle School and High School and lots of Adults

Summary and Review:

The main character, Matt, is a clone.  He lives in the country of Opium, between the United States and another fictional country of this dystopic future.  In his society, clones are created and their minds altered with at birth so that they have none of their own emotions or thoughts.  They are treated like animals, or worse.  But Matt is a special kind of clone.  He is a clone of the country’s dictator, who demands that his brain be kept intact.  But this isn’t a gesture of good will–the dictator will kill Matt when the time is right, because Matt exists to keep the dictator’s life eternal–when he needs a new organ, Matt will be there ready, as have many clones in the past.

Matt must first understand that he is not a human at least as far as others see him, and then relearn his humanity with the help of a few caring souls.  He does eventually escape his horrible fate in his own country, but only to join a fate as a child slave laborer in the next one.  The book is full of issues that mirror today’s society, and this, combined with likable characters and a compelling narrative, makes it a great read.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

A lot of kids have trouble understanding what a “clone” is.  They know the term mostly from science fiction stories and snippets they hear, mostly out-of-context in the news, and so they don’t really get the full story.  As a result, I found some kids would read this book and have trouble understanding why a clone wouldn’t be treated differently.  So this is an important starting place for a conversation.  Make sure your child knows what it means to be a clone.  Basically, that the DNA is taken from one individual, put into an embryo, and a baby develops.  That baby is no different from any other baby, whose DNA happened to come from two individuals via an egg and sperm, but some students have a hard time understanding that.  Sometimes I relate the issue to identical twins.  Clones are no more alike than identical twins–in other words, they will probably look like the person they are cloned from, and probably have some similarities, but they will be their own person.  Getting kids to fully understand the implications that Matt is fully human is an important first step to understanding this book.  (After all, in today’s society, many children start out as “test tube” babies, and this, while different and controversial in whole new ways, is, from the point of view of the kid who is born, very much the same.)

Older middle school students and high school students can relate this to stem cell research as well.  I don’t think there are many people out there who would argue that it’s okay to “grow” a human being and then kill it for your own purposes–that’s the equivalent of saying we should be able to do anything we wanted with our own children.  However, there is a debate about what it’s appropriate to do with embryos that are created in the process of trying to help someone get pregnant and one their way to be destroyed.  Should scientists first be able to research on them for the good of those already alive, or is that wrong, since they have the “potential” to become human life?  Or should we not be allowed to create such things in the first place?  Books like this can help students wrap their heads around issues that otherwise seem too big or too irrelevant for them to understand.

If your child is reading this book, I would highly recommend reading it with them.  It will help you identify issues that are most important to you and your child and help direct a conversation even further.  Plus, it’s a great read.

October 12, 2010

Okay, I get it, you are two. You don’t need to prove it.

Right now, we are spitting.  Spitting water, spitting milk.  Spitting anything and everything we get to drink.  Not so consistently that we think dehydrating him until he turns into a raisin would be a good idea, but consistently enough that we think about it.  Knows better.  Proves it by saying after he spits “NOT a good idea!” or “NO! NO! NO!” or “Time out?”  Me not having to say these things somehow does not make it better.  And these are the times I turn to Michael Thompson.

This is not a children’s book.  But if you have children, you should probably have this book.  So I’m going to throw it up here.  I’ve seen Michael Thompson speak a few times on the educator’s circuit.  He is funny, educated, well-spoken, and he doesn’t talk down to you.  He speaks the language of a parent, with the heart of a parent, the time-tested soul of a parent, but filters everything through the brain of a PhD.  And that, to me, is useful.

Title: It’s a Boy!
Author: Michael Thompson
: Parenting
Age: Adult, Parents of boys

Summary and Review:

Thompson, like some others, has a lot of books on raising kids.  He almost exclusively focuses on boys.  He is a guru on boys.  Of course, there will be some who don’t like his ideas and strategies, but I have to say they are middle-of-the-road enough and varied enough that I think there is something for everyone.  Thompson has really led the bandwagon of others who are just now starting to figure out that our way of raising, schooling, and often medicating boys is failing them in huge, huge ways.  This book is less about those issues than what you can do at home as they are growing up, but following his advice at home is certainly likely to help you out in the future and maybe help you avoid some of the problems boys tend to have in schooling later on.

The book covers the development of boys from birth to age 18, which I guess is Thompson’s idea of when they are supposed to leave and be on their own.  Given current trends, I’m not so sure that we won’t need an extended version as adolescence seems to stretch later and later these days.  But that’s another story for another blog.

Thompson combines personal stories from families he’s worked with and schools he’s observed with summaries about what happens at each age of development.  Right now, we are reading both the “toddler” section and the “powerful little boy” section, which seems to cover everything he’s doing and a lot more.  The book is wonderfully reassuring, and speaks very frankly about things some parents don’t want to admit or talk about, such as playing with the penis or turning every toy into a weapon of some sort.  It’s well organized, with short, clearly-titled sections that are easy to read and even easier to reread when you need to reference something.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

I think anything you want to follow up with is in the book.

October 11, 2010

There is a lot of gold, but the darkness is there aplenty

Okay, let me be honest.  I hated this book.  At least, once I was done with it I did.

But let me be honest again, while I was reading it, I couldn’t put it down.  So the relationship was not simple.

And let me now be really honest.  (Because it’s not honesty until you actually reveal something about yourself, instead of just about the book alone.)  The main reason I hated the book because I couldn’t handle it.  Some things are too painful to read, at least for me with my over-active imagination and brain that won’t turn off, even if I want it to.  It’s not that I shy away from tough subjects or even painful subjects in books, in fact, sometimes I am drawn to them, but something about this–maybe the use of animals (I am a vegetarian of the most sentimental kind) or children (I am a new and pregnant mother) or the religious overtones (I consider myself very religious and spiritual)–REALLY got to me.  Which again, is why it’s also such a great book–it’s powerful.

So I guess it’s most honest to say that while I was reading it, I wasn’t sure about it.  When I was done, I hated it more than anything I’d ever read.  Now that time has passed and I’ve had a chance to reflect on its meaning, I’ve come to rethink things.

So why would I write about it?  I was clear that this blog is only to talk about books I consider “page-turners”, books that I liked.  I’m not here as a reviewer.  Well, here’s the deal.  Months after reading the book, I still think about it.  I am drawn to its theories, to its plots, to its characters.  I want to learn more, but I don’t know if I am strong enough.  I thought I would never, ever read the sequels.  But I think I am wrong about even that.  I think someday I will have to.  The pull is just that strong.  So even though the part of me who wants to escape sometimes into a rosy world resists the horrific imagery that at times appears in this book, there is more of me who knows why the author did that, who agrees with him, and who wants books and stories like this to live on until humanity figures it out on its own.

Title: The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)
Author: Phillip Pullman
: Science Fiction / Fantasy
Age: 12 and up

Summary and Review:

Lyra is a out-of-place in her world.  Left alone by a mother and father she doesn’t remember, she is raised in a university by academics and their staff.  She has little formal education, other than what seem like infrequent meetings with the scholars, but is bright and curious.  She spends most of her time flying through the streets of the city, playing rough-and-tumble games with the other children.  We see her curiosity at the beginning of the book as she and her daemon (an that is connected to her by a strong, invisible force, a physical representation of her soul, and something all humans in this world have) sneak into a study and witness an almost-poisoning of (ostensibly) her uncle, Lord Asriel.  After saving him and getting involved with a mysterious woman, she becomes a runaway and joins a party of “gyptians” in a high-stakes adventure to the arctic, where she believes her uncle has headed, and where she and others believe that children who have been kidnapped have been taken.

The story is rife with delicious imagery of her collegiate environment, the busy town surrounding it, and the fantastical worlds up north with flying witches and armored bears.  But the real power lies with the kidnapped children and the story of what is happening to them.  A horrific research project, funded by an all-powerful church, is experimenting with the children, leaving many of them dead in a painful way that is foreshadowed earlier in the book by interactions between Lyra and her own daemon.

On the downside, which is part of the reason I had trouble with at first, I found Lyra to be a strong character who doesn’t necessarily affect things around her as much as she is affected by them.  This isn’t universally true–she makes some important decisions, but she is played as somewhat of a pawn.  On the same note, Lyra is an important part of a prophecy (which is why she is partly played as a pawn by those who know it), and part of this prophecy gets a lot of hype but I felt falls rather flat at its conclusion.  However, in the end, the allegory about religion and the ways in which we treat our souls (and ourselves) eventually spoke to me too powerfully to put down this book for good.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

(For the short version and a quick question, skip to the end.)

Wow.  I mean, wow.  First of all, don’t start off the conversation the same way so many people talk about this book, which is how this is “too deep” for a children’s book and/or “deep enough” for an adult book.  I mean, throw up.  Are children stupid?  Have the adults who say these things never spoken to a middle school or high school student?  Most of them speak much more eloquently about the meaning of life than their adult counterparts who are way too deep in their search for financial security to even remember they once cared about such a question.  Pullman understood that a children’s book would be the best way to raise such profound questions, and for that, I truly admire him.

This book would raise a lot of great questions in a classroom setting.  Too bad our messed up ideals about children’s education would never allow them to read a book that speaks so poorly of organized religion.  (It’s interesting, isn’t it, to even think that?  I mean, it’s obvious a school would never read this book.  But why?  Because religious parents would be afraid that one book was going to bring down thousands of years of religion?  I’d rather think that one book could entice students to think about religion, to think about what it means to them, and in the end, change the way they look at their own religion, probably giving them more authority over their own thoughts and making their own beliefs even stronger.  But alas, our society is too weak for that.)  However, in my fantasy world in which this could be read in a classroom, or in a world in which you are an especially enlightened home-schooling parent who wants to present a myriad of viewpoints to your child, or in a world in which you actually have these kinds of conversations over the kitchen table with your teen who somehow didn’t get the apathetic-towards-things-his-parents-care-about gene, then here you go:

What do the daemons in Lyra’s society represent?  Is there a parallel in our world?  Why do you think daemons are the opposite sex of a person?  Why do a minority of people have same-sex daemons?  Why would removing someone’s daemon release energy?  Why would the church want to eliminate daemons, at least in their natural form?  What is so scary to the church and religious people in general about an alternate world, a world in which living things are different than they are in this one?

If you are the average parent with an average teen and just want to get a chance to see what they thought of the book and maybe have a short but hopefully meaningful conversation, try something like this:

So, do you think the daemon’s are people souls?  Or their desires?  Or did you have another idea?  (If they do, go with it and ignore the rest of what is written here.)

If not, and they agree with the soul-thing, keep on that, and don’t necessarily use the church as the enemy, even though that really is what the book talks about, but maybe something more generic like “adults” or “authority”.  That way, your teen can talk about things that are more relevant in his own life.  Unless, of course, oppression by an organized religion is an issue in his life, in which case, knock yourself out.

As a follow up, if they agree with the soul-thing, you can ask: “why would the adults want to experiment with cutting away souls?  Do you think adults do anything similar to kids today?”  (And if your teen answers that making her go to high school is the same as cutting away her soul, don’t argue; just listen.  She’s probably trying to tell you something important.  Kids often feel like they are trying to be pressed into cookie cutters that are not the right size and shape for them.  See if this conversation can lead you to understand if your child feels that way and if so, if they can tell you who is doing that to them (parent, teacher, coach) and what they feel is being taken away from them.  (And please listen.  I mean, if they argue you are taking away their individuality by not buying them a car, you don’t have to take them too seriously, but at least hear what they are trying to say!)

SHORT VERSION: Don’t even bring up religion.  Use the daemons not as a representation of souls, but as a representation of human desire.  Does your teen ever feel like adults are trying to take away his or her natural desires or instincts just like the experimenters in this book?  Umm, yeah, I’m willing to bet so.  That’s a conversation right now.

September 10, 2010

A girl among the stars

Title: Stargirl
Author: Jerry Spinelli
: Fiction
Age: 12 and up

Summary and Review:

This book will remind you of being in high school.  If you are in high school, it will illuminate some of the toughest things about high school.  The self-named and formerly home-schooled Stargirl is the new kid in class and everybody notices her.  How could they not?  She gets out her ukulele in the cafeteria and sings, even sings Happy Birthday to kids she doesn’t know.  She has a pet rat in her shoulder bag, and puts a vase of flowers on her desk in every class she goes to.  The story is a typical high school one, but not very typically told.  She is first avoided, then popularized (even made a cheerleader), later worshipped and copied (ukuleles appear on campus, for example), and then, suddenly and inexplicably (but predictably) shunned.  Given the worst silent treatment a campus could plan.

There are many things that make this a great book, but one of them is the unusual point of view from which the story is told.  We never get to see Stargirl’s feelings or thoughts–we can, like the rest of the confused high school students, only guess them.  Instead, the story is told from the point of view of a boy, and a popular one at that.  He becomes a love interest in the story and watching the battle of popularity through his eyes gives the novel such a refreshingly honest perspective.  We see this absolutely ordinary teenager struggle with his desire to be with this usual girl and yet his (even greater?) desire to be accepted by the mainstream.  The hypocrisy of the narrator’s feelings are played against the hypocrisy of the student body and serves to brilliantly remind us of our own hypocrisies.  I appreciate any book that can point out my flaws in such a beautifully, readable way.

The story of Stargirl is hard to put down; you are immediately wrapped up in the characters and their lives, hoping they will make the right decision and knowing from your own life experience that they might not.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

Read the book.  You’ll be glad you did; it’s enjoyable and reminiscable, even if the latter is technically not a word.  That will give you most of what you need to know to talk to your kids.  Well, daughters, really, because let’s be honest, male narrator or not, this is mostly a girl book.  If only because the only boys who will read it are avid readers, and unfortunately there are not many of those at the young adult level.  Sigh.

But if you are stuck about what to talk about, or haven’t read the book, ask your daughter if she knows anyone like that at school and what she thinks.  How were they treated?  Did your daughter have any kind of relationship with them?  Maybe your daughter was more like Stargirl than the others.  Or maybe your daughter has been in a position like the narrator–caught between friendships that cross the traditional boundaries of social groups.  Maybe she knows what it’s like to have to make a decision like that.  At some point, don’t we all make those kinds of decisions all of them time?  Didn’t you?

If you have a reluctant talker, make the issue about people outside of your daughter’s immediate circle of friends.  Or discuss issues from a couple of grades ago–you’ll still get the point across, but your daughter won’t feel like you are probing into a private area she doesn’t want to discuss right now.

September 8, 2010

An enthralling, exciting, fantastical, and very real BRAVE story

Title: Brave Story
: Miyuki Miyabe
: Fantasy
Age: Older and wiser middle schoolers, Grades 7 and up

Summary and Review:

Wow.  I mean seriously WOW.  This book was a LOT to read.  In a good way.  But also in a deep way.  A dark way.  A profound way.  And a very REAL way.  This book is not for the light at heart.  It’s for students who want their books to represent their world, not sugar-coated, and probably (hopefully) much darker than the one they inhabit.  It’s the kind of book parents want to think their children aren’t ready for and the kind of book that those same children probably need to read.  I loved it, but I admit, I loved it even more in retrospect than while reading.  It is long; it is complex.

The dark moments are far outnumbered by lighter moments, but they are there and they are not likely to be forgotten.  The main character, Wataru, is a young boy whose parents are getting divorced and the boy is going through very real feelings of loss and guilt about that. Simultaneously, he discovers a portal to a fantasy world through which a friend of his–or rather a popular boy who he wishes was a friend–has also traveled.  That fantasy world imitates in many ways his favorite video game, a fact which at first irritated me because it seemed so fake, but which I came to love as a metaphor for him inventing this world as he goes, trying to make sense of the real world back home through challenges and parallels he discovers in this new, fascinating, and imaginative world.

The fantasy world is equipped with everything you want a fantasy world to have: great characters, interesting and very different towns, warring peoples, and complex politics.  Our young hero starts out with very little power or strength but begins to find his own.  The world is full of surprises, challenges, and certainly some scariness.  And somewhat intense parallels to Wataru’s situation at home.

The book certainly touches on deep subjects.  Wataru’s father is leaving his mother for another woman, and while he sees his father as the culprit in a very black and white way at the beginning of the book, he later learns that his father originally left this woman for his mother and starts to wonder what it all means. The conversations are real, something that kids will especially appreciate.  When he and his dad finally sit down to talk about the separation, his dad says “Convictions are important decisions, the kind you can’t go back on.” And Wataru thinks, but doesn’t say “So abandoning me and Mom was an important decision.”  But then he asks his father “So what are your convictions, Dad.  I mean, Mom is really sad, and Grandma’s furious, and all Uncle Lou does is hold his head in his hands and moan.  How can convictions be worth all that?”  In other words, Wataru asks what a lot of kids would want to ask.  The conversation goes further.  Wataru’s dad says that “You only live once/”  and that “If you think you’ve made a mistake, you have to fix what can be fixed.” But Wataru doesn’t know the whole history and doesn’t understand.  He thinks to himself “Dad’s life was a mistake.  So…what does that make me?”  He tries to ask these questions to his father, but just like in real life, they get stuck in a generation gap of understanding.

At one part of the book, his friend wakes him up when his mother has turned on the gas in their apartment in at attempt to kill both herself and him.  This is a parallel story to something that had already happened to this same friend.

I know some people will be turned away by the darker aspects of the book, and others by the unfamiliar cultural setting–the book was translated from the Japanese.  If your child is honestly too young to handle material like this, then that’s probably a good decision.  But most children can handle more than their parents think–and there are many children who would benefit greatly from reading a book like this.  Besides, I firmly believe that children, like anyone, will get out of a book what they are ready to get out of it, and very little more.

But you know that boy in school–there are many of them–who bury their heads in fantasy novels, rarely read a book less than 500 pages, invent complex games or stories of their own, and might even have parents who are divorced?  Please buy him this book.  And get it for a lot of other kids, too.

The book’s English edition won the American Library Association’s Batchelder Award in 2008.  The author, born and raised in Tokyo, worked first at law offices and has previously written crime novels, which gives this project some more context.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

This is one to read alongside your child.  The darker aspects will have you wanting to engage in a conversation immediately and often–what do you think about this?  Isn’t it awful?  You’ll want to reassure your children that the world isn’t (always) like this, and likely your instinct will be to hope they don’t really relate.  But hold back.  Let them experience it for themselves.  Let them ask you questions.  Let them know you’ve read it, too, and you understand.  But let your kids guide you through this one.  Otherwise you take most of the magic away.

If you like, here are some possible questions to ask when they are done (although, please, put them in your own words, or you will be met with eye-rolling):

What was the importance of Mitsuru’s character?  Why do you think he was portrayed as someone more popular than Wataru, someone Wataru looks up to, but also someone experiencing many of the same things as Wataru?  Mitsuru seems to be a symbol of something.  What?

How does this family deal with divorce?  What have you noticed about any of your friends who are going through this?  Does this make you think about it any differently?

What does Wataru learn about himself?  How does he learn it?  How does the contrasting character of Mitsuru help illuminate what Wataru is learning?

How do you (or your friends) use fantasy to escape or explain your own reality?  (This could be a week-long conversation.)  Help your child understand that when they go online to play a game or social network (especially those kids who social network and try on different personalities, which is definitely the fad now), they are using fantasy worlds in almost the same way as Wataru, even if it’s much less obvious.  See if you can get them to tell you why they and their friends like to do that.  And then you may have solved the mystery of the online generation!

Good luck with that!

September 8, 2010

Both Mr. Benedict and his Society are mysteriously and creatively wonderful

Title: The Mysterious Benedict Society
Author: Trenton Lee Stewart
: Fiction, Adventure
Age: Middle School, grades 5 – 9

Summary and Review: Any book can get me with good characters, and this one has that in abundance.  Good guys, bad guys, kids, adults–they are all wonderful, quirky, and believable.  The Mysterious Benedict Society consists of four main characters, all children who had passed a test for “gifted children looking for special opportunities.”  What is great about this book becomes immediately apparent in that they each pass the test in a different way–one by understanding its actual design as a puzzle to be solved, one by actually knowing the ridiculously obscure answers, one through sheer obstination, and one doesn’t pass.  But after the fact, she engineers a clever escape route for the test administrator who is being bombarded by angry parents of others who didn’t pass, and passes on account of her sharp MacGyver-like skills (and a bucket of tools she never leaves behind).  Once the children are through the written (and of course second, practical, portion of the exam), they meet the mysterious Mr. Benedict and the people who work for him.  They are given their special assignment: to infiltrate a secret school where kidnapped children are brainwashed to do the dirty work of a man who turns out to be the twin brother of Mr. B himself!

Communicating with their mentors via Morse Code, the four students learn the ways of their new school and eventually understand its sinister mission–brainwashing and controlling the public through hidden messages in television shows which he sends by having children–the students at his so-called school–recite into a machine called the “Whisperer”.  The students successfully complete their mission, with the help of some of their adult accomplices, although Mr. Curtain, the enemy, escapes…leaving room for a sequel which I am very excited to read!

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

One of the obvious commentaries in the book is the effect watching too much TV can have on you–of course, it might not actually brainwash you, but then again, there are those who would disagree.  I mean, watch a few commercials and then tell me what you think.  But honestly, that I believe would prove to be a frightfully unsuccessful conversation with a child, and I think the message already comes through loud and clear.  It might be prudent to mention, and at least get the kids thinking about the messages that media can send, hidden or otherwise.  Some students might have fun the next time they watch a TV show to dissect the commercials and find the hidden and not-so-hidden messages in the commercials.  Doing this as an activity rather than a conversation is likely to be more successful, and teaching media awareness is hugely important in today’s world.

However, despite my general feelings toward the television and my happiness that this book seems to agree with me, my favorite message in the book comes from the characters themselves.  Each kid is very different–Reynie is very smart, a thinker, and sees the world as a series of problems he can solve.  Sticky Washington has an unbelieveable memory and knows every fact about everything he’s every read or seen.  Kate the Great (as she would like to be called) is a James Bond/MacGyver type who likes to solve problems by jumping out of windows and scaling walls with the rope she always carries.  And Constance is just a contrarian.  Her best quality is her stubbornness, and the reason this is an important quality isn’t revealed until the end of the story, when a similarly surprising fact about the small member of the team is also revealed.  Talking to your child about how each of them is able to contribute their strengths to solve a mystery as a team could be a vital lesson, especially if your child is one of many who struggles with the hated “group project” in school.  Is your son a natural leader, frustrated by what he sees as a lack of skills in others?  Can talking about these characters help him realize that his classmates might also have talents that are different from his?  Or is your daughter too shy to participate, not knowing what she has to give?  Can realizing that everyone has different strengths help her to realize that she also has a talent to contribute?  Conversations like these can also help children understand kids in their class who are “different” than themselves, in whatever way they may be.

And if all those reasons aren’t enough to like a book, then I don’t know what is.