Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury

Publisher: Random House (Yearling) (Knopf)
Pages: 145
Reading Level: 12 and up
Enjoyment Level: Middle of the Road

A year or so ago, I facilitated a book club where we read only YA books. For Halloween, it was amazingly difficult to find a book that followed the theme - Ray Bradbury's Halloween Tree was pretty much the only option that wasn't part of a series. So I kind of feel like I read this because I had to, instead of for enjoyment.

The story follows a group of boys who are out to go trick-or-treating. It's something they look forward to and are still at an age to get excited about it. One of their number, however, ends up sick and the rest of the boys are pulled along on a journey to save their sick friend.

The writing is typical Ray Bradbury, though, it does have the distinct feel of a book being written for the younger crowd. There is a sort of playfulness amidst the seriousness. The language is easily understandable for anyone. And despite the grim nature of the characters and plot, it's more creepy than outright frightening, though not so creepy as to make it difficult to read on a dark, stormy night.

In terms of the characters, they read as though they're thought out, but there is so much going on, that no one boy in the group stands out. The characters feel more like surface space - actors to play out the plotline.

And speaking of the plot, at times it feels like it's all over the place. Sometimes it got confusing trying to follow who was doing what and where. That being said, the imagery is well done and the world is very rich. As you read, you can believe that the events and setting are real.

I don't recommend the book for younger readers, as they may not follow it well and they might be frightened by some of the imagery. But i you want a book for Halloween that will put you in the spirit, this one will. It's got ghouls, demons, mummies - Ray Bradbury put them all in here. The mood is dark and reading the story aloud would add that extra spark - like a campfire ghost story.

Whatever you're doing this Halloween, be safe, have fun and and don't egg anyone's car.

Until next time, go read something scary!

~ Vilate

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Halloween Picture Book Reviews Part II

The Hallo-wiener
Author/Illustrator: Dav Pilkey
Publisher: Scholastic Paperbacks
Pages: 32
Ages: 4 to 8

Dav Pilkey is a master of children’s humor. The author of the Captain Underpants series and The Dumb Bunnies brings his unique sense of humor and cartoon-style illustrations to life in this Halloween treat. Hallo-wiener tells the story of Oscar, the dachshund, who dreams of Halloween and scary costumes. Teased by his peers and fawned over by his mother, Oscar is the laughing-stock of obedience school. When he arrives home, his mother greats him with a surprise “I’ve made you a costume to wear for trick-or-treats!” It is a giant hotdog bun topped off with mustard. Groan! Yet, Oscar does wear the costume and the adventure begins. As with most tales of the harassed character, Hallo-wiener is predictable in its conclusion.

Sad to say, despite most children I know who enjoy this story, I was disappointed in it. The illustrations are bright with wonderful details which enhance key elements and lend humor to the story. However, though I believe that Pilkey’s drawings are fabulous; I feel as a storyteller he is capable of so much more. Why is it that a character who has been ostracized for superficial reasons only finds worth if he saves the day?

Readers who enjoy Pilkey’s other works will likely enjoy this story as well. However, with so many other truly phenomenal Halloween picture books available, I am happy to leave this to those who find it funny.

(*)My Rating: I will leave this one up to the reader.

Boris and Bella
Author: Carolyn Crimi
Illustrated: Gris Grimly
Publisher: Voyager Books
Pages: 32
Ages: 4 to 8

My eight year old niece asked me the other day where my copy of Boris and Bella was. After a thorough search of my home bookshelves which left me empty-handed, I nearly panicked. Before I turned myself over to a complete state of anxiety, I did a second search of my work bookshelf. Much to my relief, it was nestled safely among other books in my office. My personalized signed copy has been among my cherished books since I acquired it several years ago. I have probably read this story to my niece more than 100 times, and have read it to multiple classrooms of children over the years. If I were to be allowed to select only one Halloween picture book, then this would be the winner.

The reader learns early on that “Bella LeGrossi was the messiest monster in Booville… Boris Kleanitoff was the tidiest monster in Booville.” Carolyn Crimi’s odd-couple Halloween tale of a messy witch and a persnickety vampire is humorous and filled with wonderful word plays (“bar-boo-cue” and “boo-ffet”) and rhythmic tongue-ticklers. The unneighborly monsters attempt to outdo one another by each throwing the biggest Halloween bash. However, the other residents of Booville choose to attend Harry Beastie’s party instead. Rather than sitting around fuming about Harry’s party, Bella and Boris arrive separately ready to give Harry “a piece of their mind”. After awhile, the unlikely pair finds a mutual interest in dancing which dissolves the anger and hatred they have harbored towards one another. In the end, they discover that they just might be the perfect match for one another.

Crimini’s delightful play on words and rhythmic phrases are complimented by Gris Grimly’s pen and watercolor illustrations. Grimly’s ghoulish drawings and attention to details elevates this predictable tale and brings all of its characters to life.

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity of taking my niece to see Gris Grimly at a local indie-bookstore. His audience was equally filled with children and adults who admired his work, listened intently to the answers to their questions, and were mesmerized by the sketches he did in front of them. If you have an opportunity to see him at an event near you, I would certainly encourage you to do so.

(*)My Rating: *****

Cinderella Skeleton
Author: Robert D. San Souci
Illustrated: David Catrow
Publisher: Voyager Books
Pages: 32
Grades: 3rd to 5th (younger ages for read aloud with caution)

Most readers are familiar with the tale of Cinderella, but do you know the tale of Cinderella Skeleton? This is a ghoulish version of the classic tale and though it may be a picture book I will caution right from the start that this is not necessarily for younger children. Cinderella Skeleton lives in a mausoleum in Boneyard Acres. She is required to decorate the mausoleum with cobwebs and dead flowers. She is scorned by her stepmother and stepsisters who also prevent her from attending the ball hosted by Prince Charnel. With the help of a good witch, Cinderella is able to attend the ball and as with the original version she must leave at an agreed upon time. However, rather than just leaving behind a slipper, Cinderella Skeleton leaves behind her foot as well. The story continues in a similar manner to the original tale and ends in an expected manner, of sorts.

Robert San Souci is a skilled story-teller which is evident in this unusual variation on a childhood favorite. San Souci’s uses a style of verse that is rhythmic but not sing-song. It would be wise to practice reading this tale aloud before reading it to an audience because the unique style does require some rehearsing. It should also be noted that there are a number of word choices that depending on the level of the listener may require some explanation.

David Catrow’s illustrations are reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride or even Gris Grimly’s Monster Museum. The vibrant watercolors in greens, purples, and yellows are both eerie and haunting as they draw the reader in.

I enjoyed this haunting tale along with my upper grade students, but younger readers may either get lost in the text or be bothered by some of the references as well as the illustrations which depict those scenes. I would encourage parents and teachers to read the story in advance and to know their audience.

(*)My Rating: ****

So, what are you waiting for…grab a book, find a kid and start reading…
-Aly B

Rating Scale:

***** - it was amazing, definitely recommend it
**** - really liked it, recommend it without reservations
*** - liked it, recommend it
** - it was okay, recommend with reservations
* - didn’t like it, don’t recommend it

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Halloween Picture Book Reviews Part I

In preparation for Halloween, I chose some old favorites and some newer finds to review. This is the first of two postings. As with most picture books there are 100’s to choose from on any one topic, but there are some that are autumnal classics.

Frankie Stein
Author: Lola M. Schaefer
Illustrator: Kevan Atteberry
Publisher: Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books
Pages: 32
Ages: 4 to 8

Mr. and Mrs. Frank N. Stein are excited over the arrival of their baby son, Frankie Stein, but something is not quite right. “He’s….cute.” says his mother. “Why doesn’t he look scary like us?” asked his father. So begins the story…

This play on the Frankenstein story tells the tale of the green-skinned monstrous parents trying to adjust to their adorable, pink-skinned, blonde haired toddler. After the initial shock that their son does not look or behave like them, the Stein’s try to teach Frankie how to be scary, how to act scary, and how to look scary. They paint his hair purple, add a few “green bumps”, and teach him how to walk like them. When Mr. Stein attempts to show Frankie how to moan and groan like a monster, Frankie is only able to produce a squeak. Mrs. Stein tries to tell him the history of all the monsters in the family as inspiration, but to no avail. Frankie tries practicing to be scary, but then discovers his own way to be scary. In the end, the Steins agree that Frankie is the most scary Stein of all.

Kevan Atteberry’s bright and bold illustrations bring Lola M. Schaefer’s story alive. Younger children will delight in the antics of the Stein family and will enjoy imitating Frankie’s attempts to be scary. I enjoyed the book and especially appreciated the story’s lesson that embracing individuality is important.

My Rating: ****

Too Many Pumpkins
Author: Linda White
Illustrator: Megan Lloyd
Publisher: Live Oak Media
Pages: 32
Ages: 4 to 8

When Rebecca Estelle was a child, money was scarce and pumpkins were all her family had to eat for a month. As an adult, Rebecca Estelle refuses to eat pumpkin in any form and won’t even plant it. However, one day “long after Rebecca Estelle’s hair had turned snowy white”, a giant pumpkin crashes onto her yard. Not only is she left to clean it up, but she attempts to remove the whole thing from her memory. This lasts only until the spring time, when she sees new sprouts in her garden. As the pumpkin vines begin to grow, Rebecca Estelle tries everything she can think of to destroy the new plants. Despite all of her attempts to ignore the pumpkins, they continue to grow until her backyard is covered with the round orange gourds. Now what to do with all these pumpkins?

As a fan of Megan Lloyd’s illustrations, I was immediately drawn to Linda White’s Too Many Pumpkins. This is really more of an autumnal harvest tale than a Halloween story. Nonetheless, the bright, vibrant drawings and the main character’s aversion to pumpkins will enchant young children as they discover how Rebecca Estella solves her dilemma of “too many pumpkins”.

Though I truly enjoyed this tale, I would caution that younger children with shorter attention spans may require some of the text to be summarized in order to remain fully engaged with the story.

My Rating: ****

The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything
Author: Linda Williams
Illustrator: Megan Lloyd
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 32
Ages: 4 to 8

For parents and teachers looking for a “just right” scary story for small ones, Linda Williams’ The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything would be my first pick. The rhythmic language that repeats and builds with each page provides enjoyment for the listener as well as the independent new reader. Listeners and readers alike will delight in the way the little old lady fearlessly faces each piece of clothing that appears to her in the woods. The accompanying sounds provide the book with its own unique soundtrack. In the end, children will delight in the little old lady’s clever solution to her eerie problem.

During my first year of teaching, I discovered Linda Williams’ The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything and my love affair with this story has never waned. Megan Lloyd’s wonderful illustrations only enhance an already fabulous story. Even after literally hundreds of readings, it has been a book that I have enthusiastically read every fall since. This is a must have book for any library and for any fall reading list.

My Rating:*****

So, what are you waiting for…grab a book, find a kid and start reading…
- Aly B

Rating Scale:

***** - it was amazing, definitely recommend it
**** - really liked it, recommend it without reservations
*** - liked it, recommend it
** - it was okay, recommend with reservations
* - didn’t like it, don’t recommend it

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner

Publisher: Walker Publishing Co., 2009
Pages: 195
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12 years

Over the years, I have shifted my reading preferences from more realistic fiction to fantasy fiction and suspense. Much of this switch can be attributed to working in a field where I deal with the harshness of reality on a daily basis. When I do find time for pleasure reading, I want to simply escape. However, after starting a book club for 4th-6th graders, I realized that I would be remiss if the only novels I recommended were part of the fantasy and science fiction genre.

I was attracted to Kate Messner’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. for several reasons. First, Messner is a middle school teacher. As an educator, I want to be able to encourage and support teachers who are writers. Second, though I currently live in Southern California, I grew up in New England and the story is set in the fall in Vermont. Third, I was looking for a realistic fiction story to share with my students in our book club.

Gianna (“Gee”) is a twelve year old girl who would rather be drawing pictures, or running trails than doing homework. The story opens with Gianna needing to finish a science project by the end of the week. Her ability to compete in the upcoming Sectionals for cross-country hinges on her ability to complete the project on time and obtain a passing grade. It appears that nearly everyone has been working on this science project for the past three weeks except for Gianna. With the support of her best friend Zig, Gee believes that she will be able to finish the task and then compete in Sectionals. However, as most of us know, real life can trip us up on the way to the finish line. Not only does Gee have to deal her archenemy, Bianca, trying to sabotage her efforts, but there are unexpected challenges at home that continue to interfere with Gee's reaching her goals.

Messner does a phenomenal job in making Gee, her friends, school and home life seem real. In many ways, Gee is a typical middle schooler who struggles with her school work, with budding emotions for her male best friend, and with the transformation of her family life due to her grandmother’s failing memory. Without giving too much of the story away, Gee’s quest to find 25 leaves and assemble them into a display for her science teacher becomes the metaphor for all of the changes and challenges that she is facing.

I loved the tender and fragile relationship between Gee and her grandmother. And as a teacher, I recognized in Gianna so many of my own students who struggle to attend and to conform to the system and structure called school. My only criticism was that Gianna’s perspective often times seemed more mature than I would expect from a 12 year old who leaned more towards being a creative free-spirit than the “I’ve had to grow up too fast” type of kid. Much of Gianna’s reactions and dialogue seemed fairly aligned with her character’s persona, but at times the narration which was from Gianna’s point of view seemed more adult like. However, I don’t believe that it takes away from the story and I would recommend the book to children and adults, especially for children who are dealing with a close family member whose health concerns are impacting the lives of other the family members.

Enjoy the fall, and find time to read a book…

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Publisher: Random House, Inc.
Pages: 215
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12 years
Awards: 1968 Newbery Honor Book
Enjoyment Level: Highest

I read a lot growing up. Reading has always been one of my favorite things to do, and when I was younger, I'd read the same books over and over. I think I may have checked Egypt Game out of the library a dozen or more times. I didn't understand what it meant that it was a Newbery Honor book, I just knew that I loved the story.

It focuses on an eleven-year-old girl, April, who is displaced when her mother sends her to live with her grandmother. April soon meets Melanie and they discover that they both love anything to do with Egypt. They discover a yard in the back of an antique shop and their little land of "Egypt" is born. Soon, there are six players and danger they have to overcome as friends.

Even though this book isn't technically a fantasy, there is plenty of magic in it. Not to sound pretentious, but it's the magic of imagination and youth. When I first read this, I remember being drawn into the story like no other I'd read (except maybe Witch of Blackbird Pond) and I wanted to have what the characters had.

Each of the players contributes to the storyline. They all have problems to overcome and very distinct personalities. The unfolding of the game, the friendships and the problem-solving all flow together seamlessly. It's a beautifully written story and it's timeless in its subject matter. No matter what technologies we are inundated with in our modern world, the ideas and themes of The Egypt Game rise above it all.

Teachers will find countless resources online for teaching with this book. That's one of the many benefits of being a Newbery book, but with the plot being ripe with theme, character development, and conflict, you can rely mostly on the text for teaching material. And the book is perfect for middle-grade readers.

If you've never read The Egypt Game, you're missing out. Go find a copy and read it. Everyone should have the opportunity to travel to Egypt.

Until next time, go read something good!

~ Vilate

Friday, October 2, 2009

Are You There God? It's me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Publisher: Atheneum Books, Simon & Schuster, 1970
Pages: 149
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12

Note: To celebrate Banned Book Week, I have posted several review blogs on some of the most challenged children’s books or children’s authors. Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret is listed at #62 on the top 100 challenged books published by the American Library Association. Released in 1970 the book wasn’t actually challenged until 1980’s.

This week I selected to review several classic children’s books which had been frequently banned or challenged. I began with Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins. Next, I selected Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. And I am concluding the week with Judy Blume’s Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. I wish I could say that these were the only books challenged by each of these authors but unfortunately, each one had several challenged novels with the honor for the greatest number of challenged books going to Blume.

In Blume’s book, eleven year old Margaret Simon struggles with body angst and religious confusion. The book opens with Margaret’s family moving from New York City to New Jersey. Margaret meets Nancy who together forms a secret club with two other girls, Gretchen and Janie. Blume uses the friendship between the four girls as a vehicle to explore the emotional ups and downs of transitioning from childhood to adulthood. This coming of age story has Margaret wondering when she would fill out her training bra or get her first period. At the same time, Margaret who comes from a mixed religious heritage but is being raised without religion, decides that it is time for her to select one. Using Margaret’s prayers which begin with “Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret”, she seeks God’s help to what she should do and when her body would begin to change and develop. Her religious journey takes her to her grandmother’s temple, her friend’s Presbyterian Church, and also to a Catholic confessional.

Though the story may have been somewhat radical in 1970, for first exploring issues of puberty and religion, Margaret’s questions and experiences continue to be the same ones explored by every pre-teen girl today. As I read the book, I was at times transported back to my own pre-adolescent struggles and questions about life, boys, and my changing body. I found Blume’s willingness to deal with things in a direct manner refreshing and wondered why it had offended so many that it should be challenged as often as it was.

Though ALA’s official Banned Book Week is wrapping up, books continue to be challenged and removed from libraries in the United States. Whether it is a book from 1970 by Judy Blume or a book from 2009 by Ellen Hopkins or Laurie Halse Anderson, just to name a few, people are still challenging the right for children, and teenagers to read books. Read a challenged book, and speak out in support of authors who boldly write about important topics. There are many children and young adults who are transformed by the stories on the pages of these books. May their words be free for all to read.