Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan

The Red Pyramid introduces readers to Carter and Sadie Kane.  Fourteen-year-old Carter is home-schooled by his professor father as they travel the world studying ancient Egypt.  His sister, twelve-year-old Sadie, lives in London with her maternal grandparents.  Carter and Sadie see each other two days a year, one visitation day in both winter and summer.  The book begins on Christmas Eve, winter visitation day, as Carter and his father arrive late to see Sadie.  Dr. Julius Kane has arranged a Christmas visit to the Egyptian Collection at the British Museum.

Readers, and the Kane siblings, quickly realize that there’s more to Julius Kane than an advanced Egyptian education when their visit to the museum ends with an explosion, magical appearances, a fiery man making threats, and their father trapped inside a sarcophagus.  Later they learn that their father’s actions at the museum have released five ancient gods, two of which have taken up temporary residence inside Carter and Sadie.

The next 500 pages are mostly a sprint from death-defying explosions to attacks by mythical creatures to trips to the land of the dead to a run-in with an evil Elvis jumpsuit.  (Really, no kidding.)  Along the way are numerous lessons on ancient Egypt.  There are pharaohs and gods, legends and rules, and magical methods transportation.  Carter knows bits and pieces from traveling with his father, but Sadie learns at the same pace as readers do - only as other characters explain the details to the Kane siblings.

I’m torn on which direction this review should go, so rather than pick a side (while relaxing on Christmas vacation, no less), I’m going to stay right here comfortably riding the fence, give both sides, and let readers decide.

I have three (and a half) concerns with the first book of Rick Riordan’s new Kane Chronicles series:
  1. At 516 pages, it is unnecessarily long.
  2. My lack of background knowledge on ancient Egypt had me trying to keep all the gods and legends and rules straight rather than focus on the main characters’ and plot’s development.  At least with The Lightning Thief I had some knowledge of Greek mythology to draw from.
  3. It was easy to miss the changes in narrators between Carter and Sadie every couple chapters.
  4. (only half a concern) It requires readers to suspend their disbelief more than the average fantasy novel, but that’s less of a problem with young readers who are generally more eager to do so than grown-ups.
Now, a number of my students have read The Red Pyramid, and based on my observations and conferences with them, here’s how my concerns have translated to young readers:
  1. Doesn't matter.  More of a good thing.
  2. Doesn't matter.  Most kids have little knowledge of Greek mythology, too.
  3. Doesn't matter.  Kids apparently pay more attention to chapter headings.
  4. Doesn't matter.  Suspension of disbelief.  Not a problem.
I’m pretty sure I would have recommended this book to students regardless of my personal feelings.  The Red Pyramid moves at an incredible pace with each chapter offering readers another hair-raising adventure and there’s magic and battles galore.  Rick Riordan knows the formula to keep readers reading.  High action, flying-fast pace, amazing escapes, brave battles, and a sequel to come.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye by Colleen AF Venable

Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye is a new graphic novel series that focuses on events in Mr. Venezi’s Pets & Stuff.  Mr. Venezi might run a great pet shop, but young readers will laugh at how he mixes up his animals.  Right in the beginning of book #1 there are mice and a turtle in a cage labeled “Walruses” and there’s a goldfish in a rabbit’s water bottle in a cage labeled “Three-Toed Sloth."
In the first book, Hamster and Cheese, someone is stealing Mr. Venezi’s sandwich.  Now stick with me here - the hamsters, who think they are koalas, are worried because Mr. Venezi thinks they are stealing his lunch.  If it happens again, he’s getting rid of all the koalas.  So, logically enough, the hamsters are worried.  Now Hamisher the Koala … err, Hamisher the Hamster wants to hire Sasspants the Guinea Pig to solve the mystery.
Why Sasspants?  The G from her correctly labeled cage has mysteriously disappeared, leaving Guinea PI, as in Private Investigator.
The mystery unfolds with numerous suspects, a nearly purchased chinchilla, and some not-so-trustworthy goldfish eye witnesses.
In the second book of the series, And Then There Were Gnomes, a ghost is suspected in the pet shop, and both Hamisher and Mr. Venezi have their evidence.  When the mice start disappearing, there really is a mystery, ghost or no ghost, and Sasspants, Pet Shop PI is on the case.
Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye is a great new graphic novel series for readers ready to try out graphic novels for the first time and readers who have enjoyed books like Otto’s Orange Day and Mo and Jo: Fighting Together Forever from Toon Books.  Hamster and Cheese, And Then There Were Gnomes, and the third book, The Ferret’s a Foot, will move quickly off the shelves of school and primary grade classroom libraries.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

New Christmas Newspaper Column

Isn't it easy to get sidetracked during the Christmas season?  Even with all the music and Christmas cards and Peace On Earth, Good Will To Men?  That's sort of the subject of my latest newspaper column.  Sometimes the message we need to hear, the one to get us focused back on more important things, has been in our ears all along.  We just need to listen.

Thanks for reading.  Here's my latest article.

No Christmas music until November 1.  That’s a family rule.  Unless it snows, of course.  Then all bets are off, all sanctions on Saint Nicholas end, and the family is free to rock around the Christmas tree at will.

For two months Christmas songs become the soundtrack of our family’s daily life, but within days their message fades into the background.  The music is playing, but any number of Jingle Bells may ring or Herald Angels sing, and at best I’m humming half a chorus every third song.

Still we add to the family Christmas music library.  In November, 2009 we bought “Give This Christmas Away” by Matthew West and Amy Grant.  Imagine my surprise when the calendar flipped to December 2010, and I finally heard the song.

Now I’d listened to it a bunch.  Even sang along.  But it took a year before I finally heard it.

“Give This Christmas Away.”  Really?

The song was written by Matthew West for a children’s Christmas movie.  The video features children around the world opening Christmas gifts from an international charity.  The gifts are simple - books, balls, teddy bears - but the children’s faces radiate pure joy.

Those simple gifts cause children to run and smile and cheer.  Mouths drop open in amazement.  Little hands clasp boxes as if they hold the world’s greatest treasure.  One boy in oversized sunglasses tosses a soccer ball repeatedly, the shininess of the new ball exceeded only by the brightness of his smile.

“That’s it?” I thought.  All that joy from those simple gifts? There are five beat-up soccer balls in our garage causing very little joy at this moment, but one new ball can make a boy bounce like he’s never seen a new ball before?

Maybe he hasn’t.

So, yeah, it took me a year to hear the song.  But now I’m wondering.  What it?

What if, this Christmas, we all decided, simply, to give?

What if we all donated outgrown winter clothes to a Keep Kids Warm campaign or provided one toy for Toys for Tots?  What if we all took one angel off the Angel Tree and bought a gift for a child in need or bought one prepackaged bag of food at the grocery store for the local food pantry?

And we’re all allotted the same 24 hours in a day.  What if we give some of that away?

Shortly after we moved into a new house I came home grumbling about the time I would have to waste that evening shoveling the recent snowfall.  We arrived home to a clean driveway, cleared by a mystery neighbor.  The time I'd “waste” shoveling was suddenly back into my evening schedule, but then I ended up outside anyway, with a neighbor, shoveling someone else’s driveway.

Giving is contagious, apparently.

Make a meal for another family.  Provide the neighborhood kids with hot chocolate on the next snow day.  Present an elderly neighbor with a tray of Christmas goodies or offer them a ride to church or the grocery store.

The song says, “Your life will be changed by the gifts you receive when you give this Christmas away.”

Giving can changes lives.  Maybe even your own.

Merry Christmas.

For more information about the song and artist, including the video, please visit Help Readers Too.

Friday, December 10, 2010

How to Grow Up and Rule the World by Vordak the Incomprehensible

I was immediately intrigued by How to Grow Up and Rule the World, as growing up to rule the world is the ambition of numerous youngsters.  As an educator, I feel it is my role to nurture my students' ambitions and encourage children in whatever career path they might choose.  I hoped that Vordak the Incomprehensible would prove to be Vordak the Invaluable as a resource for students showing evil tendencies.

Now, don't get me wrong, there is some excellent information here about evil lairs, evil organizations, minions, instruments of evil, and diabolically clever yet extremely slow-acting death traps.  But the more I read, the more questions arose.  So I decided to use my Twitter account to contact Vordak directly via his Twitter account.  Here is our correspondence, with occasional commentary and added information.

Reasonable enough.  I have a very similar memories.  (But I still can't find it on the map.)

Again, very reasonable.  Ice fishing is pretty big in these parts.

The links aren't live in these Twitter screenshots, but the information I referenced above is about a Wisconsin gentleman who survived a plane crash thanks to his cheesehead.  See for yourself here.

Oh, oh.  I didn't mean to aggravate a supervillain, but in the quest for literary truth and justice, I forged ahead.

I may be confused (or maybe not), but either Vordak is brave or he's nuts.  What's the word for "evil bravery" or "evilly brave"?

Well, Vordak is certainly confident in his encyclopedic knowledge of evil, and if he isn't going to rule the world on his own, he's certain to ride another evildoer's coattails.

Trustworthy and humble.  See for yourself at Vordak's blog.  I figured it was about time to wrap up our conversation.  It has stretched out over a week, and annoying a supervillain isn't high on anyone's to-do list, when ...

Right.  A few hundred suspects.  Put the most suspicious in a lineup and all that would fit in the room behind the mirrored glass would be Vordak and his helmet.  Seems my suspicions of annoying a supervillain were right on.  It was time to wrap it up.

And with that, the absolutely, positively, highest recommendation ever given to a book [whose author has launched thinly-veiled threats in my direction] on this website goes to How to Grow Up and Rule the World by Vordak the Incomprehensible!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Here There Be Monsters by HP Newquist

Before we begin, two quick thoughts:

1. At first glance, the cover of Here There Be Monsters led me to believe this was one of those fantastical nonfiction books that tell magical travelers how to avoid dragons, trolls, and ogres, complete with ornate maps and directions written in rhyming couplets.  It’s not.

2. Here There Be Monsters is just regular ole’ nonfiction, and generally, I dislike nonfiction.  That being said, I have been known - only on occasion, mind you - to read and enjoy regular ole’ nonfiction.  This is one of those occasions.

The full title is Here There Be Monsters: The Legendary Kraken and the Giant Squid.  The prologue begins by asking the reader, a school-aged youngster, to imagine being the late-night lookout on a ship.  You are suddenly drawn out of your drowsiness by a violent thump against the ship.  Then another.  You investigate and discover a giant eye peering at you from the depths, then arms and tentacles covered with suckers and claws groping the ship’s deck.  Eventually you and the crew fight off the monster and save the ship.

When you return to land, your story is dismissed as fantasy.  No one believes you.

Author HP Newquist goes on to explain that these legends, while many times exaggerated in the telling, were indeed based on the truth.  He details the names of scientists, their discoveries, and how each bit of information they learned invariably led to more questions.  One chapter outlines the events of 1870-1880, when there were dozens of sightings and numerous specimens that washed up on the world’s beaches.  Later he details similar events ninety years later during the 1960s.

Newquist does a great job of only giving readers the information scientists discovered as he recounts historical events.  It’s history on fast forward.  Instead of 500 years of scientific discoveries, readers get all 500 years in one book.  There’s anticipation as to what the next discovery will be without the decades of waiting.

As readers learn more about the giant and colossal squids (yes, they are two distinct animals), they are also presented with the fictional accounts that helped grow the legend of the kraken, novels like Moby Dick, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Peter Benchley’s Beast as well as movies like Disney’s adaptations of 20,000 Leagues and Pirates of the Caribbean.

All of this - the history, scientists, specimens, legends, and stories - are integrated nicely for an informational yet enjoyable read.  Rather than reading to learn more, I found myself reading to find out what the next discovery would be.  Would the mystery of the kraken / giant squid be solved?  Turns out it’s a mystery still being solved today.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bink & Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee

Bink is a short, wild-haired, peanut butter loving, crazy sock wearing, inquisitive, downstairs neighbor who enjoys eating pancakes.

Gollie is a tall, sensible-haired, lemonade loving, black sock wearing, adventurous, upstairs neighbor who enjoys making pancakes.

They’re perfect for each other.

Bink and Gollie’s first book is just three short stories.  In Don’t You Need a New Pair of Socks, these two seemingly opposite friends go roller skating to Eccles’ Empire of Enchantment where Bink gets a new pair of crazy socks.  Gollie says, “The brightness of those socks pains me.  I beg you not to purchase them,” but Bink can’t wait to put them on.  When Gollie’s dislike of Bink’s new socks conflicts with Bink’s desire for Gollie’s pancakes, Gollie suggests, “Perhaps a compromise is in order, Bink.”  That’s what friends do.

In P.S. I’ll Be Back Soon, Gollie goes on an adventure to the Andes Mountains in Chile.  She posts a sign on her door announcing her absence.  Bink knocks anyway.  Gollie, halfway up a steep incline yet curiously still on the other side of her door, tells Bink she cannot be disturbed.  Bink returns repeatedly, ignoring the signs on Gollie’s door.  One reads, “To Whom it may concern: Further interruptions will NOT be tolerated.”  When Gollie finally achieves her mountain climbing goal, Bink is able to join her on the mountain peak.

In Give a Fish a Home, Bink and Gollie realize the depth of their friendship when a goldfish named Fred threatens to come between them.

I thoroughly enjoyed Bink & Gollie, and judging from the laughter, so did the students and classroom teacher who listened to my read aloud.  I was nervous that the second and third graders wouldn’t really get it.  Would they understand what Gollie means when she says, “I long for speed.”?  Would they know what Eccles’ Empire of Enchantment was?  Would they catch that Gollie’s mountaintop adventure was imaginary?  Would the students recognize Golllie’s feelings when she says, “Furthermore, that fish is incapable of being a marvelous companion.”?

But I realized it didn’t matter.  Some got it, some didn’t, but everyone enjoyed the story.  If kids don’t understand “I long for speed,” they still see that Bink and Gollie are roller skating on the next page.  Even if kids would sooner recognize Wal-Mart than Eccles’ Empire of Enchantment, Bink still purchases outrageous socks inside.

Adults, you’ll love Bink & Gollie the first time you read it.  And even if they don’t understand everything the same way you do, kids will enjoy Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee's team effort just as well.