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I’ve had this happen a couple of times now.... I read a book with my boy and we both enjoy it. Then I meet the author, rave to him (always a him) about how we loved it… bring my son over to Meet the Author!, and he has no memory of the book. Sigh. This one I went back and re-read with him after the incident, and he begged for the sequel.

Mail Order NinjaMail Order Ninja by Joshua Elder. Illustrated by Erich Owen.

Timmy McAllister has a tough life. He’s bullied on the way to school, rich mean girl Felicity Huntington makes the life of anyone who isn’t willing to be her toady miserable there, and at home, his bratty little sister is determined to make their parents declare her their favorite. What’s a boy to do? He orders famous ninja Yoshida Jiro from the Jacques Co. catalog. (Timmy is familiar with Jiro from reading the manga series about him.) With Jiro backing him up, bullies are no longer a problem, and Timmy is cool enough to defeat Felicity in the race for school president, making the school safe for nerds everywhere! In volume two, though, Felicity orders a whole evil ninja clan from the same catalog and takes over the town. Jiro is defeated, the adults all brainwashed, and it’s up to Timmy (and the bratty sister and his best friend) to save the day. The whole thing is filled with references to things like classic sci-fi that will make adults smile without being inappropriate. It’s illustrated with expressive and perky manga-style drawings. These hilarious, high-action books are perfect for elementary school-aged boys, but it’s safe to say they’d find fans with a much broader audience. Sadly, they are out of print, so check your local library or order your second-hand copy now.
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Usually, when the year’s Newbury-award-winning book is announced, I check to see whether I’ve read it or not, and add it to my mental “to read” list if I haven’t. I will note that a mental list is very good for avoiding stress and guilt for not keeping up with the reading, but not so good at actually getting the books read. This year, I put the Newbury and Caldecott books on hold right away, and am currently listening to one of the Odyssey books (for best childrens audio) with the boy. (The actual winner of the Odyssey, Rotters is all about corpse robbing, and therefore not for me.)

Dead End in NorveltDead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. It’s 1962 in Norvelt, a Pennsylvania town founded as a self-sufficient homestead community by Eleanor Roosevelt in the Depression. Now, in 1962, the original residents are slowly dying off – all women, as the men died of black lung from working in the mines much earlier.When I first started this book, about a boy named Jack Gantos growing up in the same town as author Jack Gantos, I was prepared for another thoughtful and moving but ultimately somewhat boring book about growing up in a slow, long-ago time. The start felt a tad slow to me, as young Jack gets in trouble for accidentally firing a Japanese WWII rifle that he hadn’t thought was loaded at the local drive-in screen. One of his major entertainments seems to watching war movies from his yard using binoculars. Maybe not boring for boys, but boring for me. The tension ramps up for Jack as his father orders him to mow down his mother’s treasured field of corn for feeding the poor, with the upshot that Jack is grounded for the summer. His big project is digging a bomb shelter and a runway for the old fighter plane his father is trying to fix up. This plane and destruction building the runway causes are symptomatic of the tension between Jack’s mother, who was born in Norvelt and loves it, and his father, who wasn’t and who considers it a dead-end town to be escaped. The only time Jack is allowed to leave the house is to help one of the original residents, the former town nurse, Miss Volker, type obituaries of the others as they pass, as Miss Volker is too arthritic to do so. Long ago, she promised to marry Mr. Spizz, the tricycle-riding town sheriff, when all of these ladies were dead, and he never lets her forget it. Additional color comes from the nosebleeds Jack gets whenever he is frightened, from his best friend Bunny, a fierce Small Person who is the daughter of the local mortician, and the unexpected death by truck of a strange Hells Angel. All of these elements weave together into a story that has lots of over-the-top gross humor combined with nostalgia and sorrow at the ending of a utopia as well as good old-fashioned kid fun. Spoiler – the old ladies turn out to be dying of unnatural causes, and somehow, this is mostly treated as something to laugh at. This treatment makes the book lighter for the grade-school readers it’s aimed at, but I still found the casualness the murders were treated with a little horrifying. For those who can get past this, this book has enough excitement to pull a reader in as well as enough meat to leave the reader with something to think about.

Cross-posted to and .
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Leave It to ChanceLeave It to Chance. Volume 1: Shaman’s Rain. by James Robinson and Paul Smith with Jeromy Cox. “Why aren’t there more Nancy Drew-style books anymore?” the creators of this book asked themselves, and set out to create one. Well, kind of. These people are comics types, so this is a graphic novel. And they seem to like fantasy, too (fine by me.) Chance is the 14-year-old daughter of a famous modern-day magician whose job is protecting the town of Devil’s Echo. She thinks she should be learning to take over the family business, but her father, shattered by the loss of his wife several years back, has decided that only boys should do magic. Refreshingly, Chance’s preferred clothes are pretty gender-neutral, so that even though her gender is central to her motivation, there isn’t a lot of girliness that would turn boys off of reading it. That’s great, because Chance’s adventures are top-notch. She frees a small dragon from being sent to a possibly hostile dimension. Naturally, he escapes, and chasing him down leads her straight into trouble, as well as a cute and powerful sidekick. Chance finds a dead body, perhaps related to the vicious mayoral campaign underway; overhears a gathering of very disgruntled sewer goblins; and decides to try to locate the kidnapped daughter of a local shaman. She teams up with a Hispanic female police officer and a reporter, and ends up solving bunches of interrelated mysteries while always managing to stay just out of danger herself. The art style is clear and vigorous and shows plainly that Devil’s Echo is diverse in the normal human sense in addition to its magical denizens. This is just right for elementary-aged kids looking for straight-up excitement. While there are definitely shady characters, there isn’t any graphic violence and our heroine always manages to squeak out of even the tightest situation without harm. My love brought this home from the library for us, and as it’s out of print, that may be the easiest way to get it in general. There are two more volumes that I haven’t seen, but may yet track down.
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book coverWinnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne. Read by Stephen Fry, Judi Dench, and a whole host of others. This is a recording of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. It is delightfully narrated by a nearly full cast of talented British actors with varying accents. The only voice actor I was unsure of was the one playing Christopher Robin, clearly an actual child, whose inflections seemed a bit wooden at times. Aside from that, once again, hearing an old favorite aloud like this reminds one of just how delightful the words really are. This version has the added pleasure of having had music composed for Pooh’s many hums. The words are read with the music played on piano underneath, so that while it’s not sung, you can hear how it’s meant to sound. This is a wonderful version to share with a favorite child, or to reacquaint yourself with the wonders of Pooh.
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My loyal readers might remember that last summer Lightening Bolt insisted on listening to one of about four CDs all summer long. This year, he has gone entirely off music. Instead, we are listening to audio books of the early chapter variety. He’s only beginning to be ready to listen to these read aloud at home, but when he’s stuck in the car, they are marvelous. Here’s what he’s enjoyed so far:

book coverThe Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi. Narrated by Mark Hamill. He’s asked to listen to these twice. A fun introductory fantasy, but note that the language is occasionally crude and that the three siblings are not kind to each other in the early books.

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond. Narrated by Michael Fry. It’s a classic, and still very funny.

book coverKenny and the Dragon by Tony DiTerlizzi. Narrated by Alan Cumming. A light-hearted yet earnest tale of a boy who befriends a gentle and intelligent dragon, and then must save him from the fearful villagers.

Half Magic by Edward Eager. Narrated by the WTW Repertory Company. A fantasy classic. LB liked it so much that he insisted that Daddy listen to it, too. Daddy was not so impressed, until informed that it was originally published in 1954. Yes, it’s a bit old-fashioned, but it’s held up remarkably well.

book coverThe Magic Tree House Series by Mary Pope Osborne. Narrated by the author. These are the big hits of the summer. LB will now utter “Mary. Pope. Osborne.” in an extremely satisfied voice, and explain to anyone who cares to listen that she is and will forever remain his favorite author. We are now listening to book 37, and reading many out loud as well. I will note that the books starting in the late 20s begin to use more magic and vary from the strict 10-chapter plot formula of the earlier books, making them more interesting to older readers/listeners.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. Narrated by the author. White’s old-fashioned country voice still let me notice the poetry of his language so much more than I did when I eagerly read the book for plot as a child. Really, no wonder it’s lasted so long.

Do you have any ideas for an adventure-loving yet still sensitive almost-Kindergartener?
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I am indebted to Colleen at for this as well as the Sisters Grimm… I think she wrote a column about mysteries for kids and teens last summer. Somehow I missed the first in the series and started with the second… though I made it through without noticing, you might wish to start with the first book, The Case of the Missing Marquess.

book coverThe Case of the Left-Handed Lady by Nancy Springer. Read by Katherine Kellgren. Enola is the much younger sister of Sherlock – just 14, and knowing her older brother mostly through Dr. Watson’s famous books. Her mother recently ran away, and Enola is now living on her own, hiding from her brothers, who want to send her to boarding school. She and her mother communicate via ciphers in the newspapers, which enterprising readers could try to solve for themselves. Enola is posing as the secretary to a Scientific Perditorian or finder of lost persons, intending to do the finding herself. Dr. Watson comes to her office, seeking help in finding her, but accidentally leading her to the case of a missing society lady, only a few years older than herself. The police and Sherlock Holmes assume that she’s eloped, but Enola doesn’t believe it and uses her wits and multiple disguises to solve the mystery. Enola is an excellent character, determined to stay independent but still figuring herself out, and ever conscious that her name, backwards, spells “Alone.” Raised feminist by her mother, she knowingly manipulates the Victorian conventions regarding females to fit in multiple places without resorting so low as to disguise herself as a man, from high society houses to London’s poor and sooty underbelly. My husband and I both very much enjoyed these. For the children it’s actually aimed at, parents should be aware that there is some violence that could be disturbing for younger or sensitive children – I’d put it as more appropriate for 12 and up than the 10 years I read on the case. Katherine Kellgren’s assured British accents are perfect for Enola and adapt themselves well to the many characters of different classes in the book. Enola might not exist without Sherlock, but she’s well worth reading in her own right, a strong character in a vivid (if vivid is the right word for sooty fog) setting with just the right balance between plot tension and introspection.
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book coverThe Sisters Grimm: Fairy Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley This is the first book of a delightful fantasy mystery series for elementary-age kids. Everyone has heard of the Brothers Grimm, but what if the stories they wrote down were real? Sabrina and Daphne Grimm didn’t think so, until their parents disappeared, the only clue a red handprint painted on the dashboard of their car. Two years later, they’ve been shuttled from one bad foster home to another, when someone claiming to be their grandmother comes to take them home to Ferrytown. Daphne trusts Granny Relda immediately, even when she starts telling them things that can’t possibly be real. The older Sabrina is more skeptical – even when a first attempt at running away has them surrounded by stinging pixies. But the next day, Granny Relda brings them along as she investigates a crushed house, crushed into what looks remarkably like a giant footprint. Many of the old fairy tale characters came to America when life got too uncomfortable in Europe, she tells them. They’ve mostly settled in Ferryport, where a spell the Grimms arranged for keeps the Everafters safely inside and unwanted people out. It’s not an entirely popular solution, and the modern-day Grimms face a good deal of resistance as they investigate the crime and try to keep the peace. The premise is remarkably similar to the excellent graphic novel series, Fables by Bill Willingham, though appropriately lighter for a younger audience. Still, we find, for example, Prince Charming mayor of Ferryport, and not entirely popular among the many princesses he’s wed and left. Strong characters, an engaging setting, and a fast-moving plot make this a great choice for young readers, or even their parents looking for a light read.
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book coverSacred Myths: Stories of World Religions by Marilyn MacFarlane When I was in the sixth grade at a religious school, my teacher skipped the brief pages on other religions at the beginning of our religion text. She was trying to teach us Christianity, not those other false religions.

For those who want their children to have a somewhat broader exposure to the world’s many religious traditions, I recommend this book. Each of seven major world religions is given a one-page summary, including its version of the Golden Rule in large and decorative type. While Mr. FP had no patience for these sections, he was mesmerized by the five myths told for each religion. All are illustrated with images from appropriate religious art enmeshed in bright graphic design – hard to describe, but interesting to look at. Religions included are Buddhism, Hindusim, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Native American and Sacred Earth. Stories include the births of Buddha, Ganesh, Mohammed and Jesus, as well as many less well-known stories; a pre-Hellenic retelling of Demeter and Persephone, where Persephone goes willingly to the Underworld to help the spirits there; and Mr. FP’s favorite, “How Grandmother Spider Stole the Sun.” The stories are engagingly told and brief enough to work for older preschoolers (OK, my preschooler - Publisher’s Weekly says age 10… judge your own child) up through adult. It also includes a helpful pronunciation guide, glossary, and books for further reading. For educators, her website says that she also has a classroom guide available, with questions for discussion as well as explanations of all the symbols in the pictures. I’ve not seen the guide, but the stories are well worth reading.


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