Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Boxcar Children

Review by Garrett--August 2008

The Boxcar Children is about four children and their names were Benny, Jessie, Violet and Henry and they have a grandfather that doesn't like children so they don't want him to know they're alive because their mom and dad died. They traveled and traveled and suddenly they found a boxcar and then they went to a dump and found cups and bowls and Benny found a pink cup and once they got to the boxcar they found a dog and he was a watch dog so they called him Watch. Once they fell asleep Watch was barking and Jessie and Henry woke up and heard him barking and then they heard a stick crack. Later in the book they found out that it was Dr. Moore that was in the woods. He was the one who helped Violet when she was sick. Later in the book, Henry was in a race and he won $25 and a silver cup.

My favorite thing about this book was when Henry and Benny and Jessie and Violet were so hot that they wanted to make a pool so they built a dam and the boys got to swim in the pool. I like this book because it's about people surviving without their mom and dad and it's cool that the grandfather is looking for them but can't find them. I was interested to see how they would survive.

This book is good for a 4th graders to read. It's not that hard to read. I really like this book a lot because it's about children and a dog. Now I'm almost done with The Mystery of the Stolen Boxcar.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Adventure Book Series--ONE mom's opinion

I'm a believer that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all, so I wasn't going to post a follow-up review on Mountain Cabin Mystery, but something keeps nagging at me. It's not so much this series as much as it is my mistrust of book reviews. I realize everyone has differing opinions, but I have found time and again that marketing and promotion often lead to misleading book reviews. So, for the sake of honesty, I have to put pen to paper here and spill my pent up guts.

Mountain Cabin Mystery, is part of a series called Adventure Books, which is self published and self promoted by the author, Max Elliot Anderson, and is targeted to reluctant reader boys 8-12. If you search the web for books that will get your boys reading, Max Elliot Anderson will pop up. He markets himself, dare I say, shamelessly, as a bored-with-books-kid-turned-adventure-author who now writes exciting books with the type of action, adventure, suspense and humor he couldn't find as a kid.

He claims his adventure books are constantly compared by readers and reviewers to Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Harry Potter, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Star Wars, Tom Swift, Scooby-Doo, Lemony Snicket, and adventure author, Jack London. (He had me at Huck Finn!) These excellent reviews for Adventure Series completely sold me and I now have the whole set in my library.

But they're just collecting dust.

I really wanted to love them, I did. And even more, I wanted my boys to love them. I even passed them to kids in the neighborhood and at my son's book club, but they just didn't catch on. This lack of interest concerned me, but for the sake of a fair review I read 3 of the books in the series, Mountain Cabin Mystery, Newspaper Caper and North Woods Poachers. To be honest, I've had more adventure, suspense and humor in Sunday School.

Sorry, gotta keep it real.

The books were mediocre, sure. What else is new? There are plenty of ho hum books in the world, and kids read them and like them all the time. (Magic Treehouse, for example). The thing that bothers me is the misrepresentation of the calibar of the books. It's highly unlikely that anyone who has ever read Jack London (Call of the Wild flashbacks etched in my brain!) Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (Classic!), or Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys (read them all over and over--okay, I'm starting to sound like a book nerd), would compare these beloved books to the Tweener Press Adventure Series.

So what is my final word on the series?

It's fine, though the moral and educational overtones and undertones are extremely heavy handed and the writing is extremely safe. Even though I personally don't dig it, I do concede there is a place and an audience for this kind of series.

Call me Simon, but these books fall far short of the bold, creative, risky and genuine characters and plotlines of the aforementioned books and simply shouldn't be classified in the same catagory.

Moral of the story: Don't believe everything you read!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Mountain Cabin Mystery

Review by Wyatt in 2007

The reason I picked this book by Max Elliot Anderson is because I like mysteries and I liked the cover because there was a guy tied up in a chair.

The thing I like most about this book is that it’s about animals.

There weren't any funny parts in the book, but the best part of the book is when they were walking on the trail and there was fog and then they thought they saw a deer. And then they got lost. Then they were waiting for a couple minutes and then they saw this black bear. Al brought food in his pocket so he dropped it for the bear. Then he saw a path with two big rocks and then Benji noticed it was an old path. Then they ran and hid between two rocks because it was narrow and the bear couldn’t fit between it. But then I got a little bored.


In Gary Paulsen’s Newberry Honor book, Hatchet, he shows—as opposed to tells--exactly what survival is like as he leads the reader through thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson’s mental and physical struggle for survival after his plane goes down in the middle of the Canadian wilderness.

Hatchet is one of the few, if not only, books that appears on practically every recommended reading list for boys, so I had to find out if this book is worth all the fuss. It definitely is! This realistic fiction is absolutely everything it’s cracked up to be. The book begins with the main, and pretty much only, character, Brian, in a single engine plane on his way to spend summer vacation with his father. Brian’s parents are recently divorced and he harbors a secret about why they split which sets up the internal struggle reflective of the physical struggle he’ll endure after his pilot has a heart attack and dies in mid-flight. Brian’s one saving grace comes ironically from his mother—the target for his bitterness--who gives him a hatchet as a going-away present. The hatchet is what allows Brian to survive.
For the observant reader, the hatchet and all of Brian’s harsh encounters with nature are metaphors for what Paulsen calls “the art of survival,” whether it be “getting through heavy traffic, facing an illness, or living in a rough neighborhood." Paulsen says, “The tools for survival are in all of us, just waiting to be used.” In Hatchet the reader gets to watch as Brian figures out how to dig deep and use those tools.

Paulsen crafts every detail with such painstaking patience that you feel as if you are right inside Brian’s world, the world of nature which is right under our noses and yet as unfamiliar to most of us as outer space. But Brian’s mind is as much the setting as the wilderness, and Paulsen's writing style--short, choppy, incomplete sentences--makes you feel like you're right inside his mind as he works through his challenges. Overall, the novel is crafted so carefully, you not only see it, but hear it, smell it, taste it and feel it all.

One of the greatest achievements of Hatchet is Paulsen’s ability to completely engage readers with a bare-bone plot and a one-man show. There are no glittery gimmicks or over-the-top antics. In fact, when you turn the last page and close the book, I guarantee you’ll miss Brian and his simple, but far from easy, existence in the woods. Luckily, there are several sequals to this novel. Brian's Winter, Brian's River and The Return. (Brian's winter is especially interesting because it continues the story of Hatchet as if the ending never happened).

This book is ultimately about making mistakes, rebuilding, growing, changing and healing. It is the kind of material I want shaping the minds and hearts of my boys.

The Janitors Boy

Reviewed by Tatum in 2007

Have you ever put gum under a desk before? Jack Rankin, the main character in Andrew Clements, The Janitors Boy, sure has, which gets him into a lot of trouble. This is where the story bursts to life when Jack gets mad at his dad for being a janitor and decides to get back at him by filling a desk with gum. Little does he know that by getting caught and having to work off his debt might be what’s best for his relationship with his dad.

Jack hates the fact that his dad is a janitor and is completely embarrassed by it. People are always telling him how much he looks like his dad and has the same personality and this makes Jack even madder. Then having to work for his dad for three weeks after school makes matters worse but, through out the story, he learns how great of a guy his dad is and how he tries his best to help people.

The thing I loved about this book is you can see how the character grows the whole time. You can see that Jack is frustrated with his dad and isn’t hidden. At the beginning Jack thinks mean things towards his dad, but by the end he wants to know more about his dad and spend more time with him. Andrew Clements did a great job of describing this situation and I think boys 10-12 would really enjoy this book and would fly thorough it.

The Report Card

Reviewd by Tatum in 2007

Have you ever tried to get D’s on your report card? Have you ever pretended you didn’t know the answers or done crappy on the quarter’s final project on purpose? The main character, Nora, in Andrew Clements The Report Card is professional at almost failing on purpose even if she knows her parents will yell at her, ground her, and be greatly disappointed in her.

Nora is actually a genius, but doesn’t want anyone to know and make a big deal of it. All her life she has been hiding her true potential from everyone. Then, the librarian finds out, a test determines her genius, and everyone knows her secret. She doesn’t know what to do and when the librarian asks her “Why are you so smart?” It’s the first time she doesn’t know the right answer. It causes her to think about if she’s doing the right thing. Read the book and find out the rest.

Andrew Clements writing is so clear and easy to process. This story is great for boys and girls. When you read this book you aren’t overwhelmed with big words or fancy language. When you read some books they are so descriptive and get really boring but this book gets to the point and keeps you interested. This is why I really loved the report card and I think it’s a great book for 4th through 7th grade kids.


Reviewed by Tatum in 2007

I have read all of Andrew Clements books because I really love him as an author. This story, Frindle, by Clements is about a boy named Nick who makes up the word “frindle” for pen. It causes a lot of commotion in his town and all over the world.

I really enjoyed this book. Boys would really enjoy it because the author makes you really believe it’s a boy talking, not a grown man. All my brothers seem to get in trouble in school and the same thing happens to Nick. When his fifth grade teacher puts Nick in line, the story comes alive. It shows a fifth grade boy trying to out-smart his teacher in English. During the book, it refers to Nick and all the kids in a war against Ms. Granger. Everyone eventually uses the word Frindle instead on pen and it becomes a phenomenon. Nick becomes a millionaire just by being the inventor of a new word.

Andrew Clements has a good way of teaching lessons in his books. It draws you in and iteven though it's harder to get boys to sit down and read a book, this one keeps you interested. This book even got an award. It’s so clever the way everything fits together in the end. It really shows kids to speak their ideas and follow through with their plans. I definitly recommend this book for boys.

Miss Lazar is Bizarre--My Wierd School

Reviewed by Garrett in 2007

A.J. told a secret to his best friend,Ryan that he never told anyone before. The secret was that sometimes he would pretend he had to go to the bathroom so he could skip a few minutes of school. I liked that because sometimes I do that too. Even though he didn't have to go to the bathroom he flushed the toilet. Then the water overflowed. He called for help and Miss Lazar (the school custodian) came to the rescue. A.J. got blamed for putting crayons down the toilet even though he didn't do it.

I like the book because Miss Lazar is always using toilet plungers to rescue people. I can't think of anything I don't like about the book.

Mr. Docker is Off his Rocker--My Weird School

Reviewed by Garrett in 2007

Mr Docker is A.J.'s science teacher. A.J. hates science at first, but Mr. Docker is so cool that at the end he thinks science is so cool. Mr. Docker rides into class on a rolling thingie and he eats bugs and accidentally lights his hair on fire. When A.J. and Andrea (he hates Andrea) went outside for recess and Andrea said "guess what?" and then A.J. said, "Your butt!" He says that's the first rule of being a kid. Everytime someone says "guess what?" you should always say "your butt." So then A.J. went on vacation and he forgot to do his science project so Andrea said "you're going to be in trouble!" And A.J. said "So's your face!" He says that's the first rule of being a kid. If someone says something rude to you you should always say "so's your face!" I liked that part cause it was funny. It was awesome.

I liked this book because I think this is the funniest book I ever read. There's nothing I don't like about it. Amen.

Maniac Magee

Reviewed by Zach in 2007

I had to read it for SFA at school because it's a Newbery Medal book. I thought it was really good because of all the things the main character, Maniac Magee does. I like to do a lot of the same things he likes to do, like run. He’s really athletic.

The main conflict in the book was that his mom and dad died and he had to live with his uncle. His auntie and uncle hate each other but won’t get divorced because they’re Christians. So he runs away. Everybody thought he was strange because he ran everywhere and he would say hi to everyone he passed. He did all these amazing stunts that everyone thinks are so cool. Like once he ran in the middle of a high school football game and caught the ball and made a touchdown and he was so fast that no one could catch him.

He’s super good at tying knots and he’s allergic to pizza. There was a contest in the newspaper that if you untie a knot bigger than a volleyball you get a prize. He did it but the prize was pizza and he’s allergic to it so he gives it to the McNabb kids. He lives with them but they were really messy and dirty and out of control. They wouldn’t go to school. So he tells them he’ll do stunts if they went to school. He threw a rock at a telephone pole 67 time in a row. He stayed in a scary backyard for 15 minutes. All to get them to go to school.

Maniac does a lot of amazing things. When he played baseball, he hit a homerun every time. He kept getting more and more famous. My favorite part of the book was when John McNabb was playing baseball and he ran to the creek to pee real fast. He comes back with a frog and he pitches it to Maniac Magee. Maniac bunts the frog down the third base line. John McNabb had an idea to push the frog out of bounds so it would be a foul ball. But the frog kept jumping away from him and no one could catch him so Maniac made a home run with the frog.
But even though he did amazing things, he got so depressed because he doesn’t have a family so he kept running away until he found the right family, the Beals. He lives with the Beals in the East end. But the East end of town is where the blacks live. It was a book about race. One day a man came and wrote “Fish Belly go home” because he didn’t want a white boy living with the blacks. So Maniac didn’t want to cause trouble to the Beals so he ran away and started living in the deer pen in the Zoo.

I like this book a lot.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Kid Who Ran for President

Twelve-year-old Judson Moon is running for President of the YOU-nited states of America. This is no joke. His friend and eventual campaign manager, Lane Brainard comes up with the idea and works out all the angles. In typical Dan Gutman style, the campaign is a delightful journey for the reader. The thing about Gutman is that he somehow always makes even the most far-fetched idea seem like it really could happen. He is slick so don’t be fooled by his clever wit and quick laughs because if your kid reads this book he'll be learning a lot about the political system of America without even realizing it.

Franny K. Stein

The Franny K. Stein series by Jim Benton, consisting of 6 books, is a fun read for all elementary school age kids. It appeals to both male and females, as well as reluctant readers and book lovers alike. Zach picked the first one up at a school book fair when he was 8-9 yrs old and we've been Franny fans ever since. Even though the vocabulary was advanced for my boys, it hasn't deterred my boys from ploughing through each book and waiting anxiously for the next one to hit the shelves.

Franny's conflict is that she's a girl. A girl living in a bright and cheery pink house with lovely purple shutters on Daffodil Street. The trouble is there is nothing bright or cheery or lovely about Franny. She's a little girl mad scientist with a spooky, creepy bedroom/laboratory, complete with bats, snakes and spiders, where she builds and creates all kinds of crazy-clever concoctions like zero-gravity dog food and cannibalistic broccoli.

At the beginning of the series Franny is completely misunderstood at her new school. None of the other kids can understand why a girl wouldn't want to play with pretty dolls and eat peanut butter sandwiches. With the help of her new teacher, Miss Shelly, (gotta love that) Franny thinks of an experiment to try to fit in, which results in a totally transformed Franny, a sweet Franny with adorable shoes and cute hair. Thank goodness, in the end, after a whole lot of catastrophe, Franny learns to be herself.

Besides the smart, witty story line there are two things I love about this series: First, the spunky illustrations, also created by Benton, serve as the punch lines to the jokes. They finish Benton's sentences with a smirk. Second, there is a subtle (never heavy handed) moral to each story. Benton knows how to give ordinary conflicts and lessons an extrordinary twist.

If you can't tell, I highly recommend this series.
For more information, check out this link:


Franny K. Stein--The Invisible Fran

Reviewed by Wyatt in 2007

Franny K. Stein has a problem. She built a robot in the science lab, but 3 other kids changed it. They made it come alive and it became really dumb. It started ripping up all the books and slobbering all over the library. Franny tried to stop them, but the robot had a big hand and he smacked her and her tongue was sticking out and her whole body was red. The Robot smacked her like 4 times. Read this book to find out how Franny solves this problem.

What I liked about this book is that she’s a mad scientist and her assistant, it’s weird, but it is a dog and he wants to be a mad scientist and after the Robot died the dog made an oven and this guy in Franny’s class liked pretty and colorful cookies and he made cookies and the dog ate 10 or 5. It made me hungry. They had frosting and sprinkles on them. They looked so good. You should make it. It is so good. My friend gave me one once and it was so good. You should read this book. It’s the best book I read in my life. I’m serious, but maybe not to you. To me, but not you.

Monday, August 11, 2008

My Weird School

As usual, Dan Gutman does not disappoint. I'm a fan of everything he writes, but the My Weird School series is particulary delighful, especially for 8-9 year olds. The wacky teachers at Ella Mentry school are presented through the eyes of a off-beat second grader who wants to be a pro football player, or dirt bike racer because they don’t have to know how to read or write. He thinks school is dumb and boring and all the important things you need to know, like which breakfast cereal tastes best and which shampoo leaves your hair shiniest, you can learn from T.V. The zany principal and teachers will leave you giggling, if not laughing out loud. Gutman capitalizes on the exaggerated gullibility of childhood, making it so fun to eavesdrop on A.J. and his friends as they try to make sense of their world. A world of misperceptions, myths and mystery. A world where the adults are often aware they are being misunderstood, but play along anyway.

One thing I love about Dan Gutman is that he never entertains the reader for the sake of entertainment. In ironic fashion, this series is infused with the joy of learning--the excitement of science, music, art, and even P.E. But it is subtle enough that your kids won’t even know they're learning.

This series is a must-read!

Flat Stanley

Flat Stanley is anything but flat. (Gee, I wonder if that line's ever been said before?) I admit I was pleasantly surprised, as I tend to approach series books with a skeptical eye. But once you get used to Jeff Brown's understated style, there's something charming, almost cozy and comfortable about the read.

Stanley's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Lambchop, are endearing as they deal with absurd situations in polite, deadpan style. In the first book, when they find out their son, Stanley has been flattened by a bulletin board, Mrs. Lambchop suggests they have breakfast and then see what their family doctor has to say about it. The doctor suggests they keep an eye on the "young fellow" and takes his measurements to have his clothes altered. Once Stanley gets used to being flat he enjoys it. In fact he does all kinds of useful things that round people can't do, including travelig to see his relatives via an extra large envelope. His little brother, Arthur, even becomes envious and tries to flatten himself with piles of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Eventually Stanley gets tired of being flat and in a touching scene between he and his brother, Arthur helps Stanley round out again.

This series will make you smile and warm your heart.

I enjoy the Flat Stanley series. The conflicts are subtle. The adventures are creative. The relationships are sweet. And the illustrations by Scott Nash are exceptional. I definitely recommend this series.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Time Warp Trio

Because Jon Scieszka's, The Stinky Cheese Man was so clever, I didn't hesitate to pick up book No. 1, Knights of the Kitchen Table, of his The Time Warp Trio series. On the back cover one review promises that the "tongue-in-cheek humor makes for laugh-out-loud reading." That's a hefty promise, and unfortunately The Time Warp Trio doesn't deliver.

Not that it's completely dull, though it's pretty close, but laugh-out-loud? Weird School, by Dan Gutman, that's laugh-out-loud. Time Warp isn't much more than snicker-n-smirk reading. The basic premise is anything but fresh. Three friends, Fred, Joe and Sam, travel back in time when a magic book is opened to a picture of a medieval knight (let me guess, each page of the book will whisk them away to a new adventure--viola, you've got yourself a stock series).

It appears Fred, Joe and Sam, are almost as bored as I am when they suddenly find themselves in a medieval adventure being charged by a black knight (maybe because they've read Magic Treehouse too).

I will say, though it's a been-there-done-that series idea, I do like Schieszka's premise. He brings together classic characters from King Arthur, to Merlin to Smaug the dragon. Older readers like me will even recognize famous lines from The Holy Grail and The Princess Bride. Unfortunately these characters have been dumbed down considerably. They are far too easily outsmarted by the likes of 3 pre-teen boys and reading about them is like eating the carboard cereal box for breakfast rather than the cereal itself.

There was a clever plot twist at the climax, involving a confrontation between a dragon, a giant and Sam, but overall, the writing is simply lazy. Rather than showing us what's going on, Scieszka often cops out by writing things like "It was too disgusting to describe," "I won't even describe it because it would ruin your appetitie for a week," or "he answered in a way too rude to describe." A few more careful revisions could have made a mediocre tale, magical.

This series won't boost your child's brain cells, but if they're into dragons, knights and time travel they may tolerate this read.

Black Lagoon Adventures

On his website, Mike Thaler is referred to as "America's Riddle King." After reading his Black Lagoon Adventure series I suspect this is a self-appointed title because, although his books clearly revolve around word play, "Riddle King of America" is a a bit of a stretch.

In the spirit of The Dumb Bunnies or Ameilia Bedelia, Black Lagoon Adventures relys partly on situation comedy, but mostly on puns, double entendres, rhymes and alliteration to get a laugh. Sometimes it worked and made me crack a half-hearted smile, but mostly, for me, it fell flat. For instance, in book #3, The Class Election, the main character, Hubie, campaigns for class president with the slogan, "Don't be a Booby, vote for Hubie." (Keep in mind I am an English teacher, and probably more critical than the average 7+ year old).

I will give Thayer credit for his energetic approach to humor--he does try to be clever and create a dynamic plot--but much of the word play made me go, huh? The off-beat illustrations by Jared Lee lend strength to the series and are integral to the jokes, but even they don't always put the punch in punch-line.

Overall, it's not a horrible series. It's kinda cute and kinda witty, so I guess I'll kinda recommend it.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Geronimo Stilton

Geronimo Stilton is pretty stilted despite its novelty. The book’s strength lies in the creative and colorful splash of fonts, making some words jump off the page at you. While the fonts are fun, they are sometimes hard to decode for young readers. I’ll admit the aesthetics of it attracted me and my 9 year old twins to the series. They wanted to buy several of the books, but we settled on one: It’s Halloween You Fraidy Mouse. The twins and I curled up together on the couch—one on each side of me—and we began to read. Within 10 minutes one twin jumped up and said “I’m gonna go out and play, Mom.” Five minutes later the other twin was zzzzzonked.

Published by Scholastic, the book appears to have no author, other than the fictional Geronimo Stilton, who is also the narrator and main character. Unfortunately the story, characterization and dialogue are overshadowed by the fun fonts and cheesey cheese cracks. Geronimo is an annoying bachelor mouse who publishes his own newspaper, The Rodent’s Gazette. He’s a ‘fraidy mouse who obsesses about food and hates snakes, spiders and getting dirty. Riding on planes, trains, boats, and walking too fast make him sick. He crumples like a used “Cheesey Chew Wrapper,” over the slightest fright. In It’s Halloween, You Fraidy Mouse, the female characters are flat and tiresome, either bossing the males around or doting on/stalking them. The humor in this series is lazy and relies heavily on corny mouse-isms, and not-so-clever word-plays like famouse and fabumouse.

This book is definitely a thumbs down for me. I won’t waste my time reading any more Geronimo Stilton!