Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Juvie Three by Gordon Korman

Everyone wants a second chance at something. Students like second chances at assignments, teachers like second chances with lessons, and I'd personally like a second chance at Super Bowl XXXII. Unfortunately, second chances are rather hard to come by.

But in The Juvie Three, Gecko, Arjay, and Terrance get their second chance. At life.

Gecko is the forgotten younger brother in his family, the talented, underage getaway driver for his older brother Rueben's crime sprees. When a robbery ends up with a stolen Infiniti on its roof, Gecko is sent to juvie. His family, however, seems only concerned with Rueben. Gecko is basically forgotten.

Arjay is a mammoth fifteen-year-old. Six-foot-five, 260 pounds, and his only crime is not playing football. Taunted mercilessly by the football team to play, Arjay once...once...fights back, by pushing the popular quarterback. The team captain falls, hits his head, and Arjay is convicted of manslaughter. Juvie? Not for kids six-five, 260. Adult prison.

Terrance grew up under the watch of an abusive father and the city streets of Chicago. He knows how to survive - how to play the game of street criminals. He knows, man. (Just ask him.) Given the opportunity to leave his detention facility, he views his second chance only as chance to escape.

All three boys are now under the watchful eye of Douglas Healy, a former juvenile delinquent himself. He has worked tirelessly to set up a second chance for these three boys, a sort of half-way house where they can go to school, work community service, and develop as young men.

Gecko and Arjay recognize the opportunity they’ve been given. Terrence sees opportunity, all right, but not to straighten up. He sees a chance to hit it big in a bigger city than Chicago. New York.

The three boys futures are tied to one another. If one screws up, they’re all back in the system. When an accident sends Healy to the hospital, the boys plan to continue following their schedule without any supervision, thereby creating the illusion of supervision. Each, however, faces temptations that may draw unwanted attention to their situation. Gecko meets a young lady while volunteering at a local hospital. Arjay's musical ability is noticed by a music teacher and New York's underground music scene. Terrance meets DeAndre and is tempted with acceptance into DeAndre's crew.

It's a house of cards getting higher and higher – and more precarious – as time passes following Healy’s accident. Soon the boys realize they need to get their leader back before anyone realizes they have no leader, and another plan develops that could end with all of them back where they started. Or worse.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

After returning home for the school year, Percy Jackson finds himself at Meriwether College Prep, another new school, with a hulking new classmate named Tyson, who, despite his six-foot-three frame, is a big softie. Percy and Tyson are each other’s only friends. Meriwether is a “progressive” school, which simply means, according to Percy, there are beanbag chairs instead of desks and no grades.

The school year seems to be going fine. Seems to be, anyway, until uninvited guests show up for gym class and start firing flaming bronze cannonballs. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you are the son of the sea god - half mortal, half god, and not really part of either world.

After escaping and meeting up with Annabeth, she gives Percy and Tyson the details about events at Camp Half-Blood. Thalia’s tree, part of the magical border that protects Camp Half-Blood, has been poisoned. The tree is dying and along with it, the camp’s magical protection. Percy, Annabeth, and Tyson set off on a quest for the Golden Fleece. The Fleece’s magic powers of healing may just bring health back to Thalia’s tree.

Meanwhile, Percy’s satyr friend, Grover, has set off as a searcher hoping to be the first satyr to find Pan. His search has led him into danger, and only a wedding dress, falsetto voice, and his enemy’s horrible vision and sub-par mental capacity have kept him alive. An empathy link between Grover and Percy is formed, allowing them to communicate over great distances, but it also endangers the other. If one of them is killed, the other will die as well.

Percy’s quest brings him, Annabeth, and Tyson closer to both the Golden Fleece and imprisoned Grover. The quest also takes them directly through the Sea of Monsters. Everything should be against them – Percy’s father and Annabeth’s mother, Poseidon and Athena, dislike one another and Tyson is a Cyclops, and nobody likes Cyclops. But in the end, friendships, both old and new, remain strong, and Tyson proves himself a loyal friend (and more).

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Those Darn Squirrels by Adam Rubin

I always thought squirrels were smarter than your average mammal. They are resourceful, sneaky, and creative. (Never mind that they occasionally forget where they've stashed their winter nuts or knock out the power on my block with ill-advised forays into transformers on the power poles.) They outsmart us humans on a regular basis. Of course, I subscribe to the belief that it's not that squirrels outsmart us, it's that we regularly underestimate the squirrels.

And who gets more frustrated by squirrels than bird feeder owners? It's a birdfeeder, not a squirrel feeder, yet there those grey little monsters are stealing the food. We try everything from hanging the feeders on wires to creating intricate obstacle courses. In Those Darn Squirrels, Old Man Fookwire - a man so grumpy he sneezes dust and hates pie and puppies - tries these very things to stop squirrels from stealing from his one love. His beloved birds.

Does it work? You be the judge:

So the squirrels, now fat and sassy on Old Man Fookwire's birdseed, decide to rub it in. They taunt him, as evidenced in this video taken in the old man's backyard:

Okay, they don't really taunt him. They do the opposite. The squirrels, now that the birds have all migrated south, notice Old Man Fookwire sadly eating his cottage cheese and pepper, missing his beloved birds. They devise a plan to pay back the grumpy old man for their plundered booty. (Squirrels are apparently empathetic too. Who knew?)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bone #2-3 by Jeff Smith

The Great Cow Race (Book #2)

The Spring Fair brings people from far and wide to Barrelhaven, especially for the highly anticipated, and highly wagered, cow races. Gran’ma Ben is the undefeated champion racer. While staying in Barrelhaven, Thorn has another dream that seems to reflect the past – a young girl, a departing loved one, a cave of dragons.

Phoney Bone is plotting his next get rich scheme. By building up a “mystery cow” in the upcoming cow races and spreading the rumor that Gran’ma Ben has lost a step, Phoney plans to clean up on the subsequent wagering. After a near disaster at the Spring Fair, Lucius Down, proprietor of the Barrelhaven Tavern, a burly man who has known Gran’ma Ben for some time, ends up back at Gran’ma Ben’s farm with her, Thorn, and the three Bone cousins.

Eyes of the Storm (Book #3)

Thorn’s mysterious dreams continue, with a now-speaking dragon, a princess, and an ominous hooded figure, and now Fone Bone has started having dreams of his own. Lucius, Smiley, and Phoney head back to Barrelhaven to run the tavern. When Gran’ma Ben hears Fone Bone and Thorn discussing their dreams, she sets off in a fury to confront the red dragon. Wanting to know the reason behind her outrage and why the red dragon is connected to their dreams, Thorn and Fone Bone follow her out into the storm. A mid-storm confrontation with a hoard of rat creatures is avoided when the red dragon Gran’ma Ben was off to meet intervenes. After returning safely home, readers are treated to a history lesson from Gran’ma Ben about a princess, the former kings and queens of Atheia, the Big War, and how all the current signs point to another war.

Eyes of the Storm is where readers learn there is much more to Bone than cute little displaced cousins and a host of well-constucted, strong-willed characters. There is an entire history of the Kingdom of Atheia, the valley, the warring factions, and the lingering ill will between them. Readers won’t learn more until later books, but at the end of Book #3, Gran’ma Ben informs Thorn and Fone Bone that the “situation down south has changed,” a hooded person is “gathering an army in the eastern mountains,” and “large numbers of rat creatures are headed this way.” No, readers don't get too many details about the valley's political situation, but readers do get plenty of incentive to continue reading.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bone by Jeff Smith

The Bone books are a nine book series following the life of Fone Bone and his two cousins, Smiley Bone and Phoncible P. (Phoney) Bone, after being exiled from their hometown of Boneville. Fone Bone is the good-hearted main character, trying to do what’s right despite his cousins. Appropriately named Smiley Bone agrees without much thought and thoroughly enjoys life because of it. And Phoney Bone? Well, the mayor of Boneville actually declared a school holiday in his honor … just so kids could come out and throw rocks at the town’s ex-richest resident.

Book #1 - Out from Boneville

Fone Bone, Smiley Bone, and Phoney Bone find themselves lost in the wilderness after being kicked out of Boneville. In this introduction to the saga, a swarm of locusts separates Fone Bone from his cousins. He quickly meets many major characters: a mysterious red dragon, pint-sized bug Ted, two bickering yet menacing rat creatures, and Miz Possum’s three mischievous kids. Finally he meets the beautiful Thorn who takes in the still lost, still freezing Fone Bone to her and Gran’ma Ben’s house.

Meanwhile, Phoney meets back up with Fone Bone – after meeting many of the same characters – at Thorn and Gran’ma Ben’s house. Somehow Smiley has made his way to Barrelhaven, the small village up the way, and is working at the local tavern. Kingdok, leader of the rat creatures, is introduced, and readers learn of the rat creatures’ search for Phoney Bone. All three cousins eventually meet in Barrelhaven for the annual Spring Fair.

There's more to the story, much more, but Book #1 basically serves to get readers familiar with the characters and setting, and Author Jeff Smith shows readers the peaceful life lived by the valley's residents, but gives clues to its forthcoming end. The comic book style allows readers to see the glowing eyes watching from the shadowed corners of the forest, feel the sudden onset of winter (WHUMP!), hear Gran'ma pull rat creatures through the wall (CRASSSH SPLINTER K-K-R-R-K-K-K-K CRUNCH), and understand the difference between, "CAN YOU HEAR ME?!!" and "OHMYGOSH."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

When Claudia runs away from home, she does so with careful preparation, even to the point of making sure she's not "running away" but "running to" somewhere. She saves her allowance, chooses her brother, Jamie, to accompany her, and identifies her destination, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. (If you're going to run away, might as well go somewhere large, comfortable, indoor, and preferably beautiful.)

Claudia plans to return as soon as everyone has learned a lesson in Claudia appreciation and certain sibling injustices have been corrected. And, as Claudia learns later, she is tired of being boring, straight-A's Claudia Kincaid.

Claudia and Jamie's meticulous plan goes off without a hitch: supplies in their instrument cases, days in the museum, meals at the snack bar, and nights sleeping in a canopied sixteenth-century bed. Kids. Hiding out in a high security museum.

It isn't until Angel, a twenty-four inch marble statue, arrives that the learning, and the mystery, really begins. As museum officials seek to determine whether Italian artist Michelangelo is Angel's creator, Claudia and Jamie try to solve the mystery themselves and, for Claudia anyway, discover someone other than her boring, straight A's self.

When the all but forgotten race to find two missing children leads closer to Claudia and Jamie, the children are led to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the all but forgotten narrator of the story, and her mixed-up files. Given one hour to discover the truth, Claudia and Jamie devour the files as behind the scenes, their own mystery is unraveled.

(Special thanks goes out to the two girls in my class who told me that this is one of the best books they've ever read and who, in doing so, reminded me that E. L. Konigsburg's classic deserved inclusion on the site. Thanks, ladies!)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Madam President by Lane Smith

“A president has many duties,” begins Madam President. What follows is a day in the life of the president, illustrated through the life of a typical elementary school girl.

From giving executive orders to attending state funerals, this young president is just as busy as the actual president. Just because her executive order has to do with waffles and the state funeral is for Froggy, doesn’t mean she’s not busy. Do you think negotiating a peace treaty between Cat and Dog is easy?

Every president must choose a capable cabinet. If you’re president, I guess you are allowed to personalize your cabinet as well. Sure, there’s the Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of Education. But why not add a Secretary of Pizza and Secretary of Soccer? And just for good measure, why not choose Mr. Potato Head as Secretary of Agriculture?

Madam President has dark shaded secret service agents and press conferences and disasters to tackle and the wonderfully wonderful power to veto. Tuna casserole for lunch? “Veto!” Little House on the Prairie the Musical? “Veto!” (This kid’s earning my vote.)

At first I wondered if Lane Smith’s book would be an anything-boys-can-do-girls-can-do-better kind of book. It’s not. Not in the least. Madam President simply explains the responsibilities of the president through the eyes of a kid. And the kid happens to be a girl. The boys in my class as well as the girls craned their necks to find the secret service agent in the illustrations and to check out the Secretary of the Interior.

And every one of them knew exactly what it’s like to deal with a not-so-secret communication declaring their room a disaster area.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Holly Joliday by Megan McDonald

Being from Wisconsin, and having shoveled four times already, with another shoveling forecast for the near future, it's hard for me to understand not having snow at Christmas. But I can use my imagination. Christmas without snow...

It just ain't right.

And Stink Moody knows it. Even thought he's from Virginia, and even though Judy says there's a billion-to-one chance of it actually happening, Stink wants a white Christmas.

The new mailman, Mr. Frost, first name Jack, says there's a chance. The low-pressure system moving in could bring cold temperatures by the weekend. Stink is so consumed with the idea of it snowing on Christmas that it's the only thing on his Christmas list! Snow! (Imagine, a second grader with a one-item Christmas list: Snow.)

Stink is supposed to be a mouse for the 10th Annual Holly Jolly Holiday Happening, a mouse that's not even stirring. But - Surprise! - Stink makes his grand entrance as a stellar dendrite, which, as his class has learned, is a type of snowflake.

Stink's hope leads him to bet Judy that it will snow - it will! - before Christmas. So on Christmas Eve, they decide to stay up until midnight to see who wins the bet. But as most second graders will, Stink tuckers out about two hours shy. Judy makes it within three minutes of midnight, however, and she uses that time to do all she can to make sure Stink is not disappointed come Christmas morning.

As Judy would say, Mele Kalikimaka!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Two Perspectives on Little Kids - New Column

After writing this column I had two thoughts. First, this boy (and others like him) are on their way into our classrooms in the not to distant future. Second, why should this worry me? Aren't all little ones like this?

Oh, and I just had a third thought: This young boy's mother is a teacher. Yeah, I'm smiling to myself.

Toddler creates interesting church service

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

One False Note (The 39 Clues) by Gordon Korman

Picking up immediately where The Maze of Bones left off, Amy and Dan Cahill, their au pair, Nellie, and Grace’s fastidious feline, Saladan, are in pursuit of the second of the 39 clues. Having successfully and secretly swiped clue #1 from the rest of the Cahill clan, the music of Mozart has now placed them on a train to Vienna, Austria.

Within pages, the action continues in One False Note. Amy, Dan, and Nellie are accosted by the Holt family and tailed by the Kabras. They follow Jonah Wizard and get double crossed by Irina Spasky. Uncle Alistair, however, has flown under the radar and managed a slight lead. Too bad the Starling triplets couldn’t join the rest of the Cahill Clan on their European Vacation.

The hunt for the next clue leads them to Mozart’s sister, Nannerl. Amy and Dan discover that she was equally as gifted as her brother, maybe moreso, but received no recognition because she was female in a male world. Nannerl’s diary, or more accurately, the diary’s missing pages, lead them to two major clues-to-the-clues, from Grace Cahill herself: The words that cost her life, minus the music and D>HIC.

Going into book two, I was curious to see if the tone of the first book would continue through the change in authors. Rick Riordan’s characters have now been adopted by Gordon Korman, eventually to be passed on to eight additional authors in the ten book series. Mr. Korman discussed this in a Scholastic webcast, explaining how he was able to layer additional information on to already developed characters. Dan is still a stinker, always ready for an adventure – breaking into a hotel room and jumping out a window, for example – and Amy still has an aggressive, quick-thinking side hidden not-so-deeply beneath her shy, bookworm exterior. Would a simple bookworm blackmail an adversary, a room full of them, no less, by aiming a tube of liquid red paint at a priceless portrait?

At times I wondered how in the world other Cahills always beat Dan and Amy to the next location. How many clues-to-the-clues are there, anyway, and how do the others find them so quickly? And if there are so many of these clues out there, how has this secret stayed hidden for so long? Then I remind myself to stop being such a grown-up. Who cares? Irina Spasky is at the door! Do I care how she got there? NO! I just want to know if she’s going to use her poisonous finger nail needles to kill someone.

Background knowledge and more background knowledge will be needed to fully appreciate the story. How many kids will really see Vienna or Venice in their imagination? But then again, is it necessary to understand how amazing it would be to discover unknown works by Rembrandt, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Warhol to truly enjoy the story?

Probably not. Just buckle up and enjoy One False Note as it moves along like Nellie driving on the Autobahn. And get reading! Book three is due on March 3, 2009! Amy and Dan are already headed east in pursuit.