Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis

I was hooked immediately. I’m not sure if the hook would work for all readers, but for me it was perfect. “From the snap of the ball to the snap of the first bone is closer to four seconds than to five. One Mississippi: The quarterback of the Washington Redskins, Joe Theismann …” That’s all I needed. In that instant I was twelve years old, watching Monday Night Football, and seeing that unforgettable play over and over in my mind. If you’ve seen The Blind Side in theaters, you’ve seen the play. The movie starts exactly as the book does.

Unless of course, like me, you couldn’t watch.

There’s much more football in the book than the movie, and that’s more than fine by me. Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Lawrence Taylor, Bill Parcells - these are names that drew me into football in my childhood. They are also names that provide the back story for why a six-five, 350 pound man is worth his weight in gold in the NFL.

Michael Oher’s story has become pretty familiar in the last year. You’ve at least seen the movie trailer on TV. Maybe you’ve seen the features produced by ESPN or NFL Network leading up the 2009 NFL Draft. Michael Oher, now a starting lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, lived homeless and basically parentless until, mostly by chance, he ended up at Briarcrest Christian School and had random run-ins with the Tuohy family.

Big Mike, by simply seeking warmth in the school gym one cold night, ends up on the Tuohy family’s ten thousand dollar couch. They share their Thanksgiving dinner with him. Mrs. Tuohy buys him clothing. More and more frequently they offer him a place to stay. Soon they offer him a permanent place in the Tuohy family. They legally adopt him.

The story of Michael’s (he hates being called Big Mike) journey from homeless and education-less to NFL starter is truly amazing. More people than just the Tuohy family offer their time and talents to give Michael what he needs. Tutoring, coaching, patience, and time, time, time. In the book author Michael Lewis takes a more methodical approach to telling the story. The movie’s approach is more emotional. Both, however, tell an incredible story and neither should be missed.

And I don’t say that very often about movies based on books.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Robot Zot! by Jon Scieszka

Robot Zot is a Wham Bot! A Bam Bot! Robot Zot is unstoppable, and he's about to conquer the blue planet out his ship's porthole. Earth. He crashes his ship in the midst of the fierce Earth Army and howls his battle cry: “Robot Zot – never fall. Robot Zot – conquer all!” Leaving behind the safety of his ship, Robot Zot bravely races into …

… a kitchen.

Yes, a kitchen. With a black-and-white checkered linoleum floor, various appliances, and beautiful yellow cabinets.

Undaunted, he quickly begins his domination Earth. Robot Zot may be only 6 inches tall, but he’s a Wham Bot! A Bam Bot! And his blaster gun is certainly real. Blender? Blended. Egg beater? Beaten. Stainless steel toaster? Also falls at the hands of the great Robot Zot.

“Zot scans the battlefield. He is glorious. He stands victorious.”

Robot Zot continues his world domination with a fiery destruction of a box-shaped foe that issues challenges and insults. “Is your breath not smelling as fresh as you would like? Maybe you should try lemonmintpinefresh!” Ka-boom!

Readers will enjoy Robot Zot’s destruction of various household items, and just as they are expecting more explosions and victories on each page, a new challenge arises. Robot Zot meets the Queen of all Earth and falls quickly and deeply in love. When she’s kidnapped, his mission immediately changes from world domination to rescuing his new love.

Jon Scieszka’s sense of humor is … uh … not typical of children’s literature. Seriously, a robot bent on conquering an entire planet who destroys a blender and falls in love with the next generation of this? No, it’s not typical for children’s literature. It’s better. David Shannon’s illustrations show the diminutive Robot Zot as the force he truly is. He leaps off the page, gun blazing, eyes scowling, ready for battle. Ready for victory.

Be prepared for little robots to chant their way through the house or classroom, issuing challenges, and referring to themselves in third person. “Brian Bot – never fall! Brian Bot – conquer all!” One reading will lead to more, and reader bots will be hoping for more adventures featuring Robot Zot!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Oh, the Weather Outside is Frightful...

In order to meet my deadline, I started writing my latest column on December 1. November 30, a Monday, was a beautiful day. The temperature reached the 50s, I think. The grass was still mostly green and pretty soft. (I know the soft part because I was tackled into it by my children numerous times.)

Today it's below zero. Outside is all white. Nothing is soft. Even the snowbanks, which were soft initially, have frozen. Keep that in mind as you read Made-up games lead to winning day with kids, my latest column for the local paper. (Click here for the printable version.)

Rest assured, however, that I could have written the article about this past Wednesday evening when the first Wisconsin blizzard began or most of Thursday as the storm continued. The games were the same, just a bit snowier and a bit slower.

But every bit as fun.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Blizzard Site Updates

The first snow day of the season came yesterday, a month earlier than the past couple years when the snow and bitter cold waited until January. But why let a good ole’ fashioned blizzard go to waste? So after getting the hay twisted into sticks for the night’s fire, I decided I might as well do some site updates.

First, I finally got around to adding a disclosure policy. It sounds so serious. Disclosure policy. But apparently I need to tell readers all the ways I am compensated for the content on this site so you can decide if my opinions are being influenced by the big bucks that are a-rollin’ in. Or not. Basically, there’s no advertising or paid product placement. Once in a while I receive a free book or advanced readers copy from an author or publisher (thank you!), but that doesn’t mean it will end up recommended on the site.

Second, to follow up the disclosure policy, I tagged all book reviews with one of four tags to identify where I obtained the book.

1. Book - Personal Copy
2. Book - Library Copy
3. Book - Advance Readers Copy
4. Book - Free Copy

Most of the reviews I publish come from books in my personal collection. A good number of books came from a local library, either public or school. The ARC and Free Copy tags refer to books I received from authors or publishers.

And that’s it. Thanks to everyone who visits Help Readers Love Reading! and thanks for all you do to get great books into the hands of kids.

Oh yeah, click here to read the disclosure policy.

Disclosure Policy

In an effort to be completely transparent, not to mention in compliance with FTC guidelines, here is the Help Readers Love Reading! disclosure policy:

Help Readers Love Reading! is a personal site written and edited by me. Please contact me with any questions. The email address is in the header and sidebar.

Help Readers Love Reading! does not accept any form of cash advertising, sponsorship, or paid topic insertions. (1)

Whatever compensation is received will never influence the content of Help Readers Love Reading!. (2)

The owner of Help Readers Love Reading! (3) is not compensated for his opinions. (4)

The views and opinions expressed on Help Readers Love Reading! are mine and mine alone. (5)

If I appear to be an expert on a certain topic, I will only recommend books that I believe, based on that expertise, are worthy of said recommendation. (6)

(1) Mostly because I’ve never been asked. Let’s face facts. If someone drove a dump truck full of money up my driveway, I’d consider their offer. Wouldn’t you? Until that happens, I’ll graciously settle for the heretofore occasional and infrequent free book or advanced readers copy provided by an author or publisher.

(2) I’ve received free books and not recommended them. If I claim to recommend books kids will love, and parents and teachers trust me, then I’d better not let something like a free book influence my recommendations.

(3) Me

(4) But it’d be a nice gig if you could get it.

(5) Oh, boy.

(6) The inclusion of that bit of legalese was advised. My preferred edit would read, “If I appear to be an expert on a certain topic … um, what?”

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Chicken Dance by Tammi Sauer

Marge and Lola are chickens with dreams. 1. Enter the barnyard talent show. 2. Win. 3. Accept the grand prize tickets to see Elvis Poultry in concert.

The ducks are realists. Talented realists. According to them, facts is facts. “Ducks win every year. All chickens can do is bawk, flap, and shake.”

Undaunted, Marge and Lola test their talents. Bowling. Juggling. Tightrope walking. Out. Out. Out. They even tried flying and swimming. Also out. Their experiments last all day, right up to the start of the talent show. Out of options, Marge and Lola decide, simply, to wing it.

The goats ate a tractor. The pigs made a pyramid. The cows jumped over the moon. Then the ducks grabbed their boards and surfed their way to the top of the leader board, scoring a 9 out of 10. With only Marge and Lola left, they know they have a chance. They do what chickens do best, and it's exactly what the ducks teased them about. They bawked. They flapped. They shook. They scored a … well, I can’t give that away, can I?

I will say there are a range of emotions for the characters involved. There’s disappointment and excitement. Sadness and surprise. And when the King himself, Elvis Poultry, appears from backstage, his reaction to Marge and Lola’s performance has everybody all shook up.

Tammi Sauer gives readers an enjoyable story with enough twists and turns to keep young readers surprised at the outcome. What at first appears to be a story where the bullies – those rotten ducks – get what’s coming to them turns into a story about playing to your strengths and the rewards that can come from individuality. Dan Santat’s illustrations are as funny as chickens bowling or juggling can be. Young readers will especially enjoy Marge and Lola’s talent show moves and will be eager to imitate them.

UPDATE: Thanks to Tammi Sauer's comment below, I now know there is a website dedicated to "The King," Elvis Poultry. Check it out for all sorts of fun, including dance lessons!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Daisy Kutter: The Last Train by Kazu Kibuishi

On page one of The Last Train, readers meet Daisy Kutter, owner of a general store, a severe scowl, and too much time on her hands. In her boredom she pulls a suction cup dart gun from the shelf. Then another. Daisy is also the owner of serious gun handling skills. She plasters everything in the store with rubber darts.

“Old habits die hard, don’t they?” asks Tom, the sheriff, as he arrives and witnesses the one-sided shootout.

Tom asks Daisy to help him co-marshal a poker game at a local watering hole that evening. Marshal? “You’ve got to be kidding, Tom. You’re still trying to turn me over to the dark side. To settle down like you. When you know I’d still rather play.” The look on Tom’s face shows his resignation to Daisy’s true character.

“Old habits die hard, don’t they?” Daisy throws Tom's question back at him.

Daisy makes the acquaintance of some colorful characters at the poker game who later make her an offer she can’t refuse. Rob one more train. Demonstrate that the latest security robots (Robots? More on that later.) are no match for an experienced train robber like Daisy. The reward? The return of all her poker losses – a significant sum – plus $350,000.

At first glance the story appears to be set in a traditional western town. But as Daisy walks out of her store, there is a 20 foot tall robot walker (picture this guy with four legs) in the street. One of the poker players is a robot, and when offered a job, Daisy clearly states, “I don’t work with machines.” No explanation is given – future, alternate history – but the differences fit seamlessly into the story and are immediately accepted by readers.

While Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet books are wonderful for middle elementary readers, I’d be sure to keep Daisy Kutter on the young adult shelves. A run-down cat house and a female acquaintance who lives there, a bit of colorful language, an old flame, and some gruesome shootout scenes make appearances. Nevertheless, The Last Train is an action packed, train robbing, saloon door swinging, Old West story. With a futuristic twist.

For more information about reading graphic novels, and to see where I was introduced to Daisy Kutter, I highly recommend this article.