Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mudshark by Gary Paulsen

When each chapter begins with an all-school intercom announcement asking the custodian to report to the faculty restroom, you know the book is going to catch readers' attention.

When each chapter's custodial call gets progressively worse, from asking the custodian to bring "a shovel and a plunger" to "a rag, a strainer, and a set of tongs" to "a plastic shield, a hazardous waste suit and a large container of pepper spray" to finally "a Geiger counter, lead-lined gloves and smoked-lens goggles," all to the faculty restroom, well, who wouldn't want to discover the menacing cause of impending disaster?

What is somewhat confusing, however, is that the chapters themselves have nothing to do with the announcements, at least at first glance. The chapters tell the story of a young detective named Mudshark, so named for his quickness in Death Ball, a local sport that combines various aspects of soccer, football, rugby, wrestling, and mudfighting.

Mudshark is always thinking and always observing. So if you lost your homework, as Markie McCorkin once did, Mudshark could direct you to the bushes at the front of school to find the lost assignments, as he did for Markie. Because Mudshark sees things - Markie on the step, two small kids, a yellow ball, an orange folder, a red paper clip - and he puts them all together to solve the problems he’s presented. It's not rocket science. Just observation and memory.

But then the library's new parrot begins solving problems quicker than Mudshark. Sure, the parrot emits naughty noises and objectionable odors, recites off-color limericks in several languages, and says, "Hey, babe, what's happening?" but that doesn't stop the students from believing he's psychic. Mudshark knows better. It's not rocket science. Just observation and memory.

Mudshark is called in by the principal to help solve a mystery involving missing erasers in the school. Mudshark soon discovers the problem includes the custodian, the faculty restroom, a couple classmates, and a missing hamster. As he seeks to unravel the knots in this yarn, Mudshark must also keep the precocious parrot from getting in the way.

In the end Gary Paulsen brings everything together, including the cause of faculty restroom dilemma. The plot gets a bit confusing at times – I had to reread parts during my initial read – but it made much more sense as I reread it aloud to my class. My class wanted more description of the faculty restroom, but I think their imaginations actually drew more vivid and dangerous scenarios than would have been offered. We all wanted more Death Ball, more than the occasional mention of the playoffs or resulting injuries.

There’s still plenty of silliness to keep readers’ attention, with laughs on nearly every page, and an ending that elicits major groans and a great “Now what?!?”

Monday, June 29, 2009

Recognition Again?

Any sort of confirmation that someone is actually reading your stuff is cool. It really is.

But to receive an award from a reader, to have someone personally sift through the gazillions of websites on the Internet and select yours as worthy of recognition, now that's something different.

Even if it's pink.

Now, I'm not against pink in general. It's a legitimate color, worthy of roses, pencil erasers, and raspberry sherbet. I'll even allow for it's migration into baseball, but only with good reason. But as an award, I must take issue. Awards should be shiny - gold or silver preferably - and tastefully named. Awards should not, to the best of my understanding, contain either flowers or teacups, unless said award is for an individual's talent or achievements in gardening and/or tea consumption. (Neither of which I am especially adept at.)

The links above reference actual trophies. Since it is difficult to email trophies, and impractical for blog award winners to display three dimensional objects on their websites, I'd like to display something else. Something that says, "Yes! That's what I'm talking about!" And yes, I'm allowing attitude to trump shininess in this situation. So if it's alright with Ms. Houghton's Class, who awarded me this distinction, I'd like to display the following picture to represent a more "me" feel.

So whaddya think? Will that work?

The last time I received an award I admittedly bent the rules of acceptance, choosing to look backward at worthy recipients rather than forward the award, so to speak. This time, well, "bending" the rules would be a generous description. I'm giving great thanks and a tip o' the hat (or a pump o' the fist, considering the above picture) to Shannon from Ms. Houghton's Class ... and that's it. I'm using books to read and posts to write as (hopefully) worthy excuses. So I tentatively accept the One Lovely Blog Award, recognizing that in order to do so one should follow the rules and probably not disrespect said award's pinky icon, and I pray that some sort of e-karma doesn't come back to get me.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Scaredy-Cat Catcher by Betty Hicks

Rocky gets his turn in the spotlight in Scaredy-Cat Catcher, the fourth book in the Gym Shorts series by Betty Hicks. Rocky has always been the best catcher in the league, no question, but on a routine play at the plate, his arm gets broken. End of season.

But that was a year ago. The new season has started, and Rocky is back at his starting position behind the plate. On the first play similar to when the injury happened, Rocky has the guy dead at home. All he has to do is make the tag. But at the last second he pulls his arm away to avoid reinjuring it.

The run scores.

After that disastrous game, Goose, Jazz, Rita, and Henry convince Rocky that it's all in his head. "Bugs on the brain," explains Jazz. They reassure him that it won't happen again. And they're right. The next game Rocky is confident. He won't even flinch! He knows it! When the winning run heads toward home, the ball arrives in Rocky's glove in plenty of time. All he has to do is tag him and the game is over, but . . .

The run scores.

Time for action! Rocky’s friends do all they can to retrain his brain and break his bad habit. They practice in the backyard, Goose sliding toward Rocky as he makes tag after tag. Rocky’s coach gives him words of confidence. Even Chops, Rocky’s skateboard riding bulldog, gets a lesson in.

Rocky has never quit in his life – that’s even how he got his name. His nickname comes from Rocky Balboa, another famous non-quitter. But can he get through this? At times, he doesn’t think he can.

And I have to mention one favorite scene. Rocky is planning to quit, hiding behind “I don’t want to quit. I have to. For the team.” His friends won’t let him. Goose and Rocky make a bet. If Goose can spit in a tulip ten feet away, Rocky plays one more game. What follows is one of the best demonstrations of expectorating in children’s literature, illustrations included. Goose hocks a loogie dead center. Plop!

Once again in the Gym Shorts series, friendship and teamwork win out. Four friends (and a bulldog) come to the aid of the fifth, helping him accomplish a goal he wouldn’t have been able to do on his own. Great sports scenes, great friends, and another great addition to the series.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

I read this one by myself as soon as I got it and thought, “Oooo-kaaaay. Maybe on the second time through…”

Then I called over the resident 7-year-old. “Hey, Bud! Read this with me?”

Magic. Giggles. “Again, again!” Here’s how it went:

The Boy [reading]: “Hey, look! A duck!”

Me [reading]: “That’s not a duck. That’s a rabbit!”

The Boy [not reading]: Huh, huh, huh-huh, huh.


The Boy [reading]: “Wait. Listen. Did you hear that? I heard duck sounds. Quack.”

Me [reading]: “That’s funny. I distinctly heard rabbit sounds. Sniff, sniff.”

The Boy [not reading]: Huh, huh, huh-huh, huh.

And that’s how it went. He read the duck arguments, then I read the rabbit arguments, then he giggled. (Then I giggled.) Grown-ups are … we’re just so … grown up! Grown-ups don’t get it, or so my unscientific observations seem to indicate, but kids do, and that’s what matters. We’ve read it numerous times now, he keeps laughing, and his reading keeps getting more and more expressive. When he reads, “There, see? It’s flying!” he means it.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld have created another winner for the classroom. Duck! Rabbit! will work great as a partner read (just like Elephant and Piggie books). It also could lead into some great art projects centered on optical illusions or even entirely new books. Imagine this:

Kid One [reading]: “Hey, look! A vase!”

Kid Two [reading]: “That’s not a vase. That’s two kids lookin’ at each other!”

Kids One and Two [not reading]: Huh, huh, huh-huh, huh.

And finally, to wrap it all up (and really, would you expect anything less from me?), the all-time, greatest ever, classic Duck! Rabbit! debate:

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Calvin Coconut: The Zippy Fix by Graham Salisbury

Calvin Coconut is a Trouble Magnet, that much we know, but in The Zippy Fix author Graham Salisbury shows us that while Calvin not only attracts trouble, he can cause his share too.

Sixteen-year-old Stella has arrived from Texas, and she’s starting to fit in. Calvin’s mom and sister surprise Stella with a new green dress. She’s been invited to a dance at the high school. She puts it on and…

Well, here’s Calvin’s reaction: “She looked pretty good, all right. The silky smooth dress was the deep color of a ripe watermelon. It somehow made Stella look like a nice person. ‘You look like … like … like a watermelon.’”

See? Trouble finds him. He meant to be nice! He recognized how nice Stella looked in her new dress and wanted to compliment her. He did! But unfortunately sixteen-year-old girls don’t appreciate comparisons to oblong-shaped over-sized fruit, and she too can play the insult game. “Stump. Peewee. Pygmy. Pip-squeak. Squirt. Half-pint. Elfie. Rump. Shrimp. Shorty. Midget. Which one works for you?” Stella asks.

Now is where Calvin creates trouble. Stella is allergic to cats. Cats? Calvin comes up with a plan, a way to fix Stella with help from Maya’s cat, Zippy. The Zippy Fix.

The results are extraordinary, way beyond Calvin’s expectations. And this is where readers learn even more about Calvin. He has a heart. Compassion. He wants to make things right with Stella by getting her the perfect birthday gift, but it’s going to take a little more than the $1.31 he has.

Calvin goes through great lengths to make up the difference including loans, recycling, odd jobs, Uncle Scoop, trouble with Tito, help from Ledward, and a lot of determination.

All for Stella. The girl who stole his bedroom. Who teases him endlessly. Who made him live in the garage. Who looks beautiful in a new green dress. That Stella.

Look for The Zippy Fix this September.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Happy Father's Day

It's a little early for Father's Day, but when the newspaper says your column appears on the second Friday of the month, you roll with it.

Fathers belong in a special category, one kids reserve for the greatest and the strongest, for those who know everything and can do anything. God. Superman. Dad.

My latest newspaper column appears today. Here's the regular version and the printable version.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt by Megan McDonald

Judy and Stink Moody's last book, The Holly Joliday, featured Christmas vacation. Now they are on vacation again, and it's definitely not winter. The Moodys are on their way to Vegetable Island! Or is it Artichoke Island? Judy knows. "You mean Ocracoke Island."

Stink doesn't care. "I just want to meet pirates and look at shipwrecks and see real gold and find treasure." When the ferry docks, Scurvy Stink and Mad Molly O'Maggot meet a real life pirate who informs them that Third Annual Pirate Island Treasure Hunt starts first thing in the morning. X marks the spot on their map. Unfortunately, X only marks the start of their hunt, not their desired destination.

Working their way around the island, Judy and Stink must solve clues to collect sixteen pieces o’ eight. The clues include rhymes, puzzles, codes, talking birds, and hidden signs. Judy and Stink also need to watch out for spies in the form of another brother and sister team they nickname Tall Boy and Smart Girl.

(There’s also a trip to the Crab’s Claw, a seafood restaurant on Ocean View Road, which incidentally, would have been my downfall. “Maybe the next clue is inside this crab cake!” [Chomp] “Nope.”)

The best part of the book is the interaction between Judy and Stink. Despite their light-hearted teasing and sibling name-calling, they really do work together. It’s pretty obvious that neither of them could succeed on their own, but together, they just might have a chance.

In the end the Moody’s hunt leads to more than treasure. They learn the truth about their closest competition and the value of teamwork and good friends.

Look for this latest Judy and Stink Moody adventure from Megan McDonald in August.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Beyond the Grave (The 39 Clues) by Jude Watson

After Dan and Amy successfully send Ian and Natalie Kabra clue hunting in Kyrgyzstan and witness the "death" of a rival, they learned the location of their next clue. Egypt.

Cairo is where author Jude Watson picks up the Cahills' story. Amy and Dan's au pair, Nellie, is bargaining for spices in the marketplace, Dan is distracted by King Tut pencil sharpeners and mummy shaped flashlights, and Amy is trying desperately not to lose either person. But what are spices and kitschy souvenirs compared with an ancient Sakhet, the clue that led them to Cairo, in a shop window and an old nemesis nearly killing Dan on page two?

Yes, the action starts immediately and continues right up to the destruction described on the last page. The nonstop action takes them to an Ekaterina stronghold and an alligator infested island on the Nile. There are more museums - to Amy's delight and Dan's chagrin - and even the darkest depths of an ancient tomb. They run into Irina Spasky and Jonah Wizard again and meet an old friend of Grace named Hilary Vale. And the mysterious Madrigals finally make an appearance.

Dan is as funny as ever. When a salesman in a room filled with spangled belly dancing outfits asks, "You are looking for lovely costume?" Dan responds, "Not my color! But thanks!" Later he says they should check Queen Neferfarty's tomb for a clue. Amy is troubled by her inability to judge character. She's been hurt by Ian and Alistair and wonders if she'll ever stop being taken in and used by selfish people who act friendly.

Characters are beginning to grow and change too. Nellie is becoming more adept at tracking Cahills, namely Amy and Dan. Saladin enjoys more than red snapper. (Hummus anyone?) Irina Spasky has ... wait for it ... feelings?!? And tragedy in her past? (Oh sorry, not everyone is growing. Jonah Wizard, frustrated that he's unknown in northern Africa, comments in an international airport, "They don't know that I'm da bomb?" If anything he shows he's even whinier than we all originally thought.)

Amy and Dan are changing too. They had been told to trust no one. Now they are beginning to wonder, does that include Grace herself? The more the siblings learn about the Cahill clan, the more disgusted they become. What's more, Amy and Dan find themselves resembling their extended family more each day. Lying, cheating, stealing, double-crossing … is this what Grace prepared them to be? Is this who Grace really was?

Eventually Grace shows them her true colors, and leaves no doubt. She communicates with them from beyond the grave. OK, not really. But they do receive a personal letter and plenty of hidden/secret/coded messages that Grace had prepared for them before her death. Grace also shows them that the only way they can possibly win the Cahill quest for The 39 Clues is with her help.

But only if they can find it within themselves to trust her.