Wednesday, September 30, 2009

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

Publisher: Original Publisher – Alfred A Knopf, Inc. 1961
Pages: 160
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12

To celebrate Banned Book Week, I will be posting several blogs on some of the most challenged children’s books or children’s authors.

Over the years, Roald Dahl’s book, James and the Giant Peach has been banned and challenged because some believed that the book promoted drugs and disobedience and contained an improper racial reference, sexual references, and profanity. After reading the book, it appears that James & the Giant Peach may have been banned for exactly some of the very reasons that it is well loved. Where would most children’s stories be without elements of magic, adventure, greater than life characters, and a general sense of irreverence?

Though the book was written in 1961 and there are some figures of speech and other references that date the book slightly, the basic spirit of adventure and the main character as hero makes this story still treasured by young readers forty-eight years later. Somehow, despite all the reading I did as a kid, I managed to miss this book. I’m not sure how or why but I did. When I picked up the story, I was eager to find out what I had been missing all these years.

The story opens with a happy and well loved James who with his parents is visiting the zoo when a freak accident occurs and his parents are killed by a rhinoceros. This results in James being sent to live with two elderly aunts (Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker). James is treated poorly and unfairly by his aunts and after meeting an elderly man in the woods he is gifted with magical crystals. Before he is able to follow the elder’s advice, James drops the crystals which fall to the ground and are absorbed by the earth. Later, James discovers that the magical crystals did work causing the peach tree to produce an oversized peach and several enormous insects.

Upon meeting the insects, James is invited into the peach and with the help of the giant centipede the peach is freed from the tree and off he goes with his new friends on an adventure. From confused seagulls, to hungry sharks to revengeful Cloud Men, James and his friends are repeatedly bombarded and attacked. Yet, through it all, James proves himself to be a wise and level headed leader.

After reading James and the Giant Peach, I thought about what I knew of Dahl’s story and of children. Would I recommend the tale to children? Yes, beyond a doubt, I would recommend the book. Did I believe that the reasons the story had been banned would be evident to children readers? Not particularly. Can Dahl’s book motivate or interest a reluctant read? Yes. Once again, I feel like the benefits of this novel outweigh the negatives. Roald Dahl, thank you for a timeless story of friendship, and adventure.

Celebrate Banned Book Week, go read a banned or challenged book!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson

Publisher: Harper Colllins, 1978
Pages: 148
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12 years
Awards: 1979 Newberry Honor Award, 1979 National Book Award

Note: In honor of Banned Book Week, I will be posting daily blog reviews of children’s books that have been challenged or banned.

If I were asked to select my favorite children’s author, I would undoubtedly give Katherine Patterson that honor. From the moment that I first read Bridge to Terabithia, I fell in love with Patterson’s ability to draw her readers in with tales of believable characters, facing challenging situations, and living in diverse settings. Never once in all her stories does she shy away from hard topics which is likely why as the author of realistic fiction for children ages 9 to 12 she has had several books banned or challenged. Her story The Great Gilly Hopkins is no exception and is #21 on the American Library Association’s most banned and challenged book list.

Even after 31 years, Patterson’s story about a tough, hard to manage and hard to love foster child rings amazingly true to life. Eleven year old Galadriel “Gilly” Hopkins has spent the majority of her life in the foster care system. As a result, she has learned that to survive, you must be tough and not let anyone know that you care. The story opens with Gilly being placed in her third home in as many years. Upon arrival at her new “home”, Gilly assesses her new foster mother as a “hippopotamus of a woman” and her foster brother as a “freaky kid”.

Patterson does a remarkable job portraying the emotional challenges faced by children in long-term foster care, as well as the difficulties faced by the adults who care for foster children. Gilly is a child who has learned to manipulate the adults in her environment to behave and react as she wants them to respond. She uses profanity, lies, steals, and bullies others. Through a series of interactions and events, Gilly does experience a certain level of transformation as she learns to care about her foster mother, Trotter, and the timid and shy foster brother, William Ernst, and the elderly, blind African-American neighbor, Mr. Randolph, and her African-American teacher, Ms. Harris.

Though some of the references to Vietnam, and flower children may date the book, the theme of wanting to belong and be loved is timeless. When Gilly finally meets her biological mother, she learns the hard way that her dreams about her mother coming to rescue her and creating a home together will never materialize and that happy and ending do not always go together.

I find it sad that a book which deals with the realities of the life of foster children in such a compassionate manner should be challenged or banned. Those who have challenged it because of its topic, use of profanity, or issues of racism are either in denial or have never worked with children who live this reality on a daily basis. The ability to use this book to help children in similar circumstances far outweigh any of the negatives perceived by those who have cried out against it.

Celebrate Banned Book Week, go read a banned or challenged book!


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bran Hambric: The Farfield Curse, by Kaleb Nation

Kaleb Nation

Publisher: Jabberwocky (Sourcebooks)

Pages: 430

Reading Level: Middle-Grade

Enjoyment Level: High

I didn't plan to read this book, but when I saw that the author would be in town for a book signing, I decided to ask for an interview. I couldn't very well do an interview without reading the book, so...

The editor in me found several things in Bran Hambric that weren't so great. The overuse of the word 'suddenly' got on my nerves as did 'in an instant,' 'could feel,' and a few other choice phrases that bug me no matter whose writing I'm reading. Those little irksome things are less about the writing and the story and more about the editing.

I very much enjoyed the story. Bran Hambric is a boy with a past that is secret from even himself. Of course, like most secrets, they don't stay hidden for long and Bran's life is soon going directions he didn't think it would. He's fighting against bad guys and what he learns about his mother.

The characters are well-written and the plot flows around them in a way that is natural. Bran is a mage living in a city where they don't allow mages, so that helps make the setting rich. Readers will also find that they recognize much of the technology in Bran's world since the author mixed realism and fantasy (and it's done well!).

Despite the editorial issues, the language and imagery are vivid and witty. Several details are delightfully silly, which make this book perfect for younger readers. They'll laugh at the wacky family Bran lives but they'll also be able to handle the bad guy and the climax at the end.

The book is the first of a planned series which follows Bran Hambric and his friends, but Farfield Curse does really well as a stand-alone book. The plot is contained with a few loose ends that make you curious without leaving a reader dissatisied with the ending.

It was a pleasure to meet this author and I look forward to reading more of Bran Hambric. For the interview, please visit us at the podcast and, until next time, go read something good!

~ Vilate

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Publisher: Scholastic Press
Pages: 391
Reading Level: Young Adult

In the fall of 2008, I discovered Suzanne Collin’s book Hunger Games. However it took me a couple of months to finally read the book. Even though it had gotten great reviews, I struggled with the concept of a book premise where teenagers were forced into a game where they were required to kill one another. Yet, once I finally picked up the book and started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those “disturbing in a good way” books. To my amazement, I ranked the Hunger Games as the top book I had read in 2008. But then began the wait for the sequel Catching Fire.

At the end of the Hunger Games, main character Katniss Everdeen had found a way to not only win but to also keep fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark alive as well. Her behavior was viewed as an act of rebellion, and upon her return home, life was not as she expected. Her relationship with her best friend Gale is strained. Peeta, her fellow victor, is ignoring her and there are rumors of a rebellion rising as a result of her and Peeta’s actions in the arena. So what’s a 17 year old girl to do when the Capital feels that her actions were an act of defiance, and she has become a symbol of a potential uprising?

Suzanne Collin’s second book in the Hunger Games Trilogy picks up shortly after the end of the first novel. With this installment, Collins again contrasts the shallow, arrogant, self-centeredness of the Capital’s leaders and residents with the struggles, poverty, and oppression of the residents of the 12 Districts. Sinister President Snow informs Katniss that he is aware of her feelings for Gale and that if she doesn’t want it to seem as if she intentionally defied the authority of the Capital that she and Peeta will need to prove that their displays of affection in the arena were sincere. Embarking on the Capital’s cruel Victory Tour, Katniss slowly begins to recognize the role she has played in the growing unrest.

Though Catching Fire is somewhat slower paced than its predecessor, the intensity never quits. I found myself having to periodically stop reading and take a break, but my curiosity with how the book would end kept drawing me back to the story. I was particularly enthralled with how Collins gave readers glimpses into the lives of former victors, and the impact the games had on each of them. Additionally, I found a growing appreciation for Katniss as the ultimate flawed heroine who struggles as the reluctant symbol of a burgeoning insurgence. And with the 75th Hunger Games, Collins creation of new surprises doesn’t fail to keep her readers on the edge of their seats.

Once again, I find myself waiting for the next installment of the Hunger Games Trilogy. Wonder what I have to do to get an ARC of the third book????

Monday, September 14, 2009

Phantom Island: Wind - by Krissi Dallas

Publisher: AuthorHouse (self-published)
by: Krissi Dallas

Category: Teen, Fantasy

Pages: 399

I'll leave the real debate about self-publishing to another blog. I will say that I'm not usually a fan of books that have been published by authors. Though the opinions of self-publishing are changing, the fact is that nine times out of ten, they're still just not good enough to spend $18.00 on.

The author of Phantom Island approached me to do a review. I told her that I'd be happy to, but she wasn't guaranteed a positive opinion on it. She agreed and that was that. I guess, it's lucky that I won't be giving a negative review...

It took me a bit to get into the story once I started it. I'm not a fan of prologues. I more or less skipped the one in this book and didn't feel like I missed out on anything. After that, I did still have some issues getting started. There wasn't much action in the first couple of chapters so it was slow going. When the kids first get to camp, there was actually an entire section I skipped where the camp director was talking. I might have missed something, but if I did, I wouldn't know it because the rest of the story didn't really miss it. I felt like I got the whole picture without the speech.

Once the action got started, though, I really enjoyed the story. Secrets, lies (lots of them), a hidden island. Great stuff.

The imagery is vivid and the world Ms. Dallas has built is absolutely lush. I felt I could see what the characters were living. And I love the sense of history behind the people of the hidden island. The characters all intertwine and the story is woven around them very well.

Our main character, Whitnee, has a lot of trauma to work through, but she's well-rounded, if a little repetitious at times. It was a pleasure to go along with her on the journey through the strange new world. The way she interacts with the people around her showed her personality. Her friends complemented her and helped her through some very difficult things.

While there is action, for me this was mainly the story of a journey. It felt like a lot was set up. Usually with first books in a series, they tend to have the ability to stand alone... This one didn't really do that for me, but I didn't mind terribly since I know the second in the series if forthcoming. The ending did offer an outcome that I didn't expect and it left a lot of room for Whitnee to grow.

Overall, the pacing was good, barring the first few chapters. There are bits of sentences, some vocabulary, and grammar that an editor would've altered had this been published by a traditional house. If I didn't know it was self-published, I could guess that it was, or that an editor didn't take as much time as he should with the manuscript.

However, the little details I saw (and the editor in me cried out to change them) didn't detract from the story at large. The plot is pretty solid and I still enjoyed reading and getting lost on the island with Whitnee and her friends. I'll be looking forward to reading the next in this series.

(I think I'll consider myself an Aerodorian... and you'll have to read the book to figure out what that means!)

For people who are looking for some high fantasy mixed with teen angst and a lot of secrets, check out this book. I highly recommend it.

For more information you can visit the author's site (the link is above) or to buy the book from, simply click on the link to the left and follow it over.

Until next time, go read something good!

~ Vilate

Friday, September 11, 2009

Review of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Publisher: Tor Teen
Pages: 384
Age Group: Young Adult

Summary (adapted from book cover):
While skipping out of school to play an Alternative Reality Game (ARG), 17 year old Markus and his friends find themselves caught at the center of a terrorist attack on San Francisco. Apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Markus and his friends are interrogated and tortured. Upon his release, Markus finds that his city has become a police state and that his world has been changed forever. Can a 17 year old computer hacker and his friends fight back against the DHS and the sweeping paranoia of a community and bring about a change? Just maybe…

Before anyone says “I’m not into stories about computer geeks”, I want to challenge you to give this a shot. I consider myself reasonably computer savvy by way of the average computer user. However elevate it to the level of techno-babble, and my eyes glaze over and my head spins. Yet, author Cory Doctorow does a great job in making the story enjoyable for geeks and non-geeks. Though I questioned the extensive technical explanations from the story’s teen narrator in the early chapters, I quickly realized that I would likely be lost without them and felt free to skim the explanations about things that I had a better grasp of.

Doctorow’s main character is a likeable 17 year old computer hacker who enjoys hanging out with his friends and playing computer games. Markus finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and his responses to the circumstances set off a series of events that will forever change him and his view of the world. As he struggles to battle against the government, his close friends distance themselves from him and he finds a new ally and partner in a 17 year old girl who is his computer equal.

As I read through the story, I felt that the author did a reasonable job with the struggles and choices that Markus has to make. Are all his choices the right or best choices? No. Sometimes his choices actually set into motion a whole series of other events which at times make things worse. And despite questioning the actions and intentions of all adults throughout the story, Markus eventually finds he needs the assistance of his parents and several other adults in order to find the best resolution.

Adult readers will enjoy the references back to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and comparisons to the late sixties civil rights movement in San Francisco. Additionally, though some may find Markus’ parents’ reactions, particularly his father’s reactions somewhat annoying, I actually thought that given the circumstances that they were justifiable.

Overall, I found the book to be an enjoyable read which held my attention despite a few times when I started to glaze over from the more technical descriptions. I have already recommended the novel to both teens and adults that I know and would continue to recommend it.

Note: There are often lots of debate regarding YA stories and whether language or sexual content should be included in novels written for teens. The language and sexual content in this book is typical to what most teens would be exposed to in an average high school or age appropriate movie.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Pure, by Terra Elan McVoy

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Category: Teen

Pages: 336

You can find the author here: Terra Elan McVoy

This does contain some spoilers, but hopefully not too many.

This is one of those books that just begged me to read it. I picked it up whilst browsing in Borders. The cover is very pink and the title really grabbed my attention. Knowing how often Christian values are belittled in the media these days, I think I was drawn to this just to see how it would undermine the idea of being 'pure' by the end. I know that's pretty unfair, but religion seems to be more of an 'edgy' topic these days than sex. So I did have some trepidation and I pre-judged the book. I can't say I apologize for that, but at it turns out, I was wrong and I'm very glad about that.

The story is about a group of girls who have made purity vows. They all have rings to show that they are promised to their husbands, sometime in the future. But one of them breaks her vow and the plot flows around that as the main character, Tabitha, struggles with her own questions about what is right and what is wrong.

For me, the pacing of the book was a little slow. The conflict came later that I expected and it felt like it took too long to build it up. On reflection, the personalities of the narrator and her best friend probably needed the set-up in order for the results to make sense, but even after finishing, I feel like the pacing could've gone a little faster.

However, the story progresses and I found myself relating to Tabitha and her questions of right and wrong. She struggles to stand by her friend, Cara, in a time of confusion while trying to figure out why Morgan, her best friend, is suddenly a stranger. Tabitha affirms to herself what she knows is right, but she chooses not to just abandon her friend. She understands, more than most people, that to be Christian means to be loving, despite the "mistakes" that people make.

The author does a wonderful job of presenting this plot in a meaningful way. Teens and adults alike will be able to sympathize and struggle right along with Tabitha. As she comes to an understanding with herself and her beliefs, the plot wraps up with her making amends with Morgan. I was happy to read the ending and that the author didn't cop out and make the girls BFFs again. Tabitha and Morgan had both changed too much to go back to where they were and that, for me, was the real taste of reality for the story.

Tabitha is a wonderful character. She is developed well and her progression, if slow, is natural and honest. I was very happy that the story didn't end the way I thought it might. I'm glad to be wrong.

The author did a good job, also, of making most of the characters come alive. Even people we meet once or twice felt like they had a story and even though we didn't get to see those stories, it was nice to know they were there. I was slightly disappointed by Morgan's development. She ended up being incomplete for me, though it would've been difficult to show her struggles when Tabitha wasn't talking to her. Still, the Morgan mid-story and the ending Morgan didn't progress naturally for me. It certainly wasn't enough to ruin the book.

The threads of religion and God are strong. If you have issues reading about those things, this book isn't for you. However, I would encourage anyone, even if they don't believe the same as Tabith, to read the book. She makes some wonderful arguments and sets a great example for anyone who wants to be a better, more loving, individual - Christian or not.

Until next time - go read something good!


If you are interested in purchasing this book, please note that I have left a nice, convenient link at the side of the blog that will take you right to ^_^

Friday, September 4, 2009

Book Club: First Discussion

Hey kiddos!

Our first book discussion (How it Ends, by Laura Wiess) will take place on September 23rd at 8:00pm Central time. There's still time to get in and join us before that date. If you'd like to be part of the book club, send us an email at

I'll be posting discussion questions closer to the date so if you'd like to answer and send them to me to include in the blog post, feel free!

~ Vilate