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Mystery Anyone?

This afternoon at the pool I had a chance to catch up with an old friend and her kids.  After comparing the books we are reading, she mentioned that she couldn't get her daughter, Lauren, to settle on a book.  She is passing on all of the perennial favorites of our youth and my friend didn't know what to recommend next.  She even wondered aloud if her mentioning that she liked the book caused her daughter to reject it.

So, I struck up a conversation with Lauren. Before long, I had ascertained that what she longed for were not the realistic coming of age books her mother and I loved at her age.  She craves mystery, intrigue and dare I say it...Murder!

My mind began to race and her mom grabbed her iphone to take note.  I quickly suggested the following authors and some of the titles that would certainly fit the bill.

  •  Margaret Downing Hahn
  1. Deep and Dark and Dangerous
  2. The Old Willis Place
  3. Closed for the Season
  • Betty Ren Wright
  1. The Dollhouse Murders
  2. Christina's Ghost
  3. Crandall's Castle
  •  Neil Gaiman
  1. The Graveyard Book
If your 4th-7th grader has similar interests, give these titles a try and let me know if they were a hit.


Phantom Tollbooth

I just checked in with my son and asked him,"What was the best book you read when you were little?"  "The ones with Uh Oh Duck." he quickly responded. So, if you have someone at home still loving picture books, you might want to give Duck for President, Giggle, Giggle, Quack or Click, Clack, Moo by Dorin Corwin a try. Because I was fishing for a middle readers (3rd-6th grade) chapter book, I dug a little further. "Those were great, but what about one of your first favorite chapter books.  One you loved because it was fun to read."  To this he responded, "Phantom Tollbooth, remember Tick and Tock."

I sure do!  I know them because my son read the story to me.  He was in the second grade and still required to read his books aloud to me.  He was still working on fluency and accuracy, so the best way to know how things were going was to listen to him read. He came early to reading and many of the more complex elements of humor were lost on him, but he loves it all the same.  Here is why--it is a fantastically humorous story, he had great success reading it aloud and we did it together.

So pick up a copy of Phantom Tollbooth and share it with your kids.  If they are capable of reading it to you, just lay back and enjoy the story.  I will warn you, however, that you may be doing some catch up reading, as they may read even when you are not available to listen. Here are a few facts. The book was published in 1961 and written by Norton Juster.  It was made into a movie in 1970.  The writing is full of puns that exemplify the literal meaning of many of our English language idioms.

Map of the Lands Beyond
The story begins when Milo, a boy who is bored by everything, receives a mysterious package with a note that reads "FOR MILO,WHO HAS PLENTY OF TIME."  Upon opening the package, Milo finds and builds a miniature tollbooth and a  map of the Lands Beyond.  With this, he gets behind the wheel of his miniature car and drives through what proves to be a magical tollbooth.  On the other side of the booth, he finds himself on the "road to expectations."  Paying no attention to his surroundings, Milo is soon lost in "the Duldrums," a colorless place where thinking and laughing are not allowed.  Ultimately, he is rescued by the aforementioned Tock, a watchdog with an alarm clock attached to him.  Together they move along this witty adventure and ultimately find themselves on a quest to rescue two princesses-Princess Rhyme and Princess Reason.

If you love a back-story, you many want to pick up the annotated version published last fall.  It includes interviews with the author and illustrator and illuminating excerpts from Juster's notes and drafts.


Why do the Moms have to die?

Why is it that in some of the best stories the mother must die or otherwise abandon a child for her to grow or experience adventure?  Are we really that oppressive?  Do our rules and regulations force our children into some model that prevents excitement and joy?  And, while it is true that many of the best orphans of the page have a rough start, their parent-less existence seems a benefit in the long run.

I was not an orphan, but loved to read of them and the eventual progress they would make on whatever adventure the authors could imagine for them.  Some of my favorites include Pippi Longstocking, Mary Lennox, Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna.  Their lives seem so exciting and even a little dangerous to a young girl quietly reading in the library. For my son, whether or not I was around, the adventure he craves is beyond my deliverance.  The lands of Redwall, Narnia, Middle Earth and beyond are only reachable on the page-at least for now.

This summer, if possible, try letting your kids have the freedom to find their own adventures with a book of their own choosing.  Your school might have a list of suggestions or your local library.  For the next few months I plan on exploring books that seem more fun than important.  Perhaps your young reader will find a favorite on my bookshelf.

If you know a a great, fun read for either middle readers (3rd-6th grade) or young adults (6th and up) let me know and I will pick it up myself and spread the word.


why do we want our kids to read?

Authors write with a purpose.  Some write to inform, to persuade or to entertain.  The best writers usually aim to do at least two of these things.  So, why do we read?  Usually, we read to gather information, because it is assigned, or to be entertained.  These common needs make the writer and readers a perfect match.

The older our kids get, the more they are faced with reading as an assignment.  Sometimes this allows them to collect information or satisfy a grade, but does this assigned work bring them any joy that they will admit?  If I think back to my college years, I can regrettably confess that I read nothing for pleasure.  Frankly, if a book besides a "classic" or a textbook was published from 1986-1992, it is news to me.  Sadly, by the time a child has completed their matriculation, only the most unusual one is still reading for the pleasure he felt as a 7-8 year old as he proudly finished his first chapter book.

As a mom I have been making up lost time.  I read what my son reads, what I find appealing and anything that any one else suggests.   Simply put, I love stories.  I love facts.  I love learning something new.  I love discovering new things.  So, to answer my own question, I want my son to read so that he will broaden his mind, deepen his sympathies and sharpen  his perceptions. Every day an author helps me do one of those things.  

And, here is my cautionary tale--Don't let your memories of "assigned reading" color your child's experience.  I just finished rereading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  If my son had asked me a week ago, I might have negatively advised him, simply by saying, "Yes, I read it, they made me read it in High School."  Now, I will be able to say, "No wonder you get to read this in high school.  It is a great look back into American history.  It also succeeds in telling a fast-paced story of love, deception and murder."   Now, this will not appeal to him at the moment, as it has no hint of an imaginary land, people, or activities, but by the time high school comes around, nothing will appeal to him more.

What books did you muddle through in high school or college that your professors claimed were  great?  Consider giving one or two of these stories another try. And, If The Great Gatsby is on that list, pick it up first.  It is as great as they claim.


Scott Westerfeld: Uglies or Midnighters

I must admit, I prefer a good old fantasy novel over most futuristic novels.  I guess I am drawn to mystery and love the idea that there might be other worlds working in concert with ours.  The one possible exception is Gates to Women's Country by Sheri Tepper.  If you are looking for a read for yourself this summer you should give it a try.  As for your young readers, whether they are drawn to futuristic dystopian reads like The Hunger Games or are more likely to reach for Harry Potter, they should give Scott Westerfeld a try.

I just finished reading his novel the Uglies and it would be good for The Hunger Games lovers.  Tally isn't immediately heroic, like Katnis,  but she does grow on you in short order.  She is bright and intelligent and eventually even admirable.  This book addresses the "beauty" issues and effectively makes the point that, finally, beauty is about who you are not how you look.  There are five books in the series.

If you've got a fantasy kid on your hands, they should try the Midnighters trilogy  The first novel is called the Secret Hours. In it, 15 year old Jessica Day moves to Bixby, Oklahoma and discovers a new world or at least a new hour.  Come to find out there are really 25 hours in a day and those people born at midnight, who are living in Bixby, get to participate in it while the rest of the world is fixed.  As you can imagine, if strange things come out at night, even stranger things lurk in the special hour.  I am about to start the next book in the series after I finish my reread of  The Great Gatsby, and I will keep you updated on Jessica's adventures.


Boys will be Boys ( and so will girls)

summer fun in the mud
I got a message on my Face Book page asking for some suggestions for a 9 year old reader who has loved Captain Underpants, Bone, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Big Nate.  As this describes most of the 9 year old boys I know, I thought I would respond here.  I am going to make a list with Title and Author.  All of these books find boys up to some kind of adventure or trick.  Some are fantastical, but most are just examining the ordinary antics that young boys, and sometimes girls, get up to.  Many of the characters are brought to life in multiple books, so look for the other titles staring your readers favorite boy.

  • Alvin Ho by Lenore Look
  • Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown
  • Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos
  • The Vacation by Polly Horvath
  • Homer Price by Robert McCloskey
  • The Name of this Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch
  • Stink by Megan McDonald
  • Bad Kitty Gets a Bath by Nick Bruel
Give these a try and let me know what your reader thinks!


Searching by Title, Author or Subject

Our local library uses a cataloging system that allows you to search by Title, Author or Subject.  While I know that our kids love to read series, I would submit that once you find an author you like you ought to give their other books a try.  This is true whether or not the books are numbered one, two, three etc.  As I consider what kids might enjoy reading over the summer a few great authors come to mind.  Today I want to introduce you to E. L. Konigsburg.

She has won the Newbery Award twice.  In 1968 she not only won a Newbery Award, but was also runner-up for a different title. Two amazing novels in one year!  Among her most noted books are From the Mixed Up files of Mr.s Basil E. Frankweiler, The View from Saturday and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth. But I want to recommend The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World.

You would find this piece of realistic fiction by searching for the following subjects:  art, friendship, history, heroism, Nazi Germany and Degenerate Art.  Quite a combination, wouldn't you say!  As the novel unfolds we are introduced to two young boys-- Amedeo Kaplan, who is a new comer looking to make an original discovery and a true friend, and William Wilcox, a dedicated son who is rather aloof and mostly concerned with helping his mother with her small business.  They meet early in the novel and each manage to fulfill their objectives while becoming great friends.  I found the book as I was looking for a way to shed new light on the story of Hitler and the time period leading up to WWII. The core mystery of the novel evolves around the art that was deemed "degenerate" by Hitler.

The friendships created in this novel are true and complex, much like her other novels.  I particularly like this novel, because it weaves interesting, often unknown, facts about history into the fast moving plot.

I would highly recommend this author to anyone over 3rd grade who likes realistic fiction.  E. L. Konigsburg writes strong girl and boy characters, making her stories great for everyone.  Consider trying her out this summer.


Bird in a Box

I have a few loves in my life besides people: books ( all stories really), my cats (Emmit is helping write this entry by keeping my lap warm) and art (especially photography).  As I have learned and practiced the art of photography, I always remind myself that the work should be beautiful and provocative.  I like to provoke people by reminding them that there is always hope.  The piece that best does this for me is Picasso's Guernica.  This black and white mural conveys the chaos, pain and destruction that is war.  It also offers us hope in the shape of a flower and a lit candle.

Hope is a strange thing to describe to a child.  It is also impossible to show to these very concrete thinkers.  But I read a book yesterday that shows its reader hope from many angles- Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney.  It a piece of historical fiction told by three children, Hibernia, Otis and Willie, living in Elmira, New York.  It is set in 1936 and 1937.  The common bond between the children is the boxing career of Joe Louis, The Brown Bomber.  The facts surrounding Louis are accurate down to the use of the actual transcripts of the radio announcers working Joe's fights.

The story is a blend of romantic nostalgia and harsh realism.  I appreciated the frankness of the children.  They are completely alive on the page.  I enjoyed learning about Joe Louis and what he meant to the African American community of the 1930s.  I also appreciate the references to the many great artist who came to fame in Harlem. The children of this novel live into their own hope willingly and without regard to the risks that come when you live into it.  And they are rewarded.  Each begin to harvest the promises of the seeds of hope they planted at the beginning of the novel as they gather together to listen to Joe Louis reach his goal of becoming the Heavyweight Champion of the World.


Making time to read

Today things got away from me and I didn't blog or get a chance to read much.  For me this means I am grumpy.  I carried my new book, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld ,in my bag all day and never found the time to find a quiet place to read for an hour or so.  It is always the best part of my day-- Stepping into a new place with new friends who have stories to tell me.  I can actually see the places in my mind.  And, I can always find something to like or admire about the work. So, now that the dishes are finished and my husband and son are going to watch the Glee season finale, I going find that quiet place.


Pippi Longstocking

Timid and shy I am not, but I am no Pippi Longstocking! Surrounded by her companions, Mr. Nilsson, the monkey, and the horse on the porch, Pippi casts a spell on her neighbors, Tommy and Annika.  Tommy and Annika first meet Pippi when they notice that the once abandoned house, Villa Villekulla, has an occupant.  They have no idea what adventures await them the day they first knock on Pippi's door.  

Pippi is one of the first characters I "identified" with as a kid.  As you can see from the photo, I had red hair and freckles.  On the playground the kids sometimes called me Pippi, my preferred taunt. (The other regular choice was Heat Miser from the Christmas special.)  Even though I knew some kids were teasing, it didn't really matter because I knew her.  She was an terrific friend.  I would have loved to spend just one day with her. 

When looking for a book for an early reader, finding a character they can identify with can help get the ball rolling.  The character doesn't have to be a carbon copy of your reader.  He many have similar talents.  She may have similar dreams.  He may even have qualities and/or attributes your reader longs for, making the new friend irresistible.   
Pippi Longstocking, written by Astrid Lingren and published in the United States in 1950, is a wonderful chapter book for any middle reader (3rd-6th).  If your young readers is interested, but doesn't fit into this range, just have them read a few pages aloud to you.  If they only misread a word or two a page they are ready for this book! 


Summer Reading Fun

Yesterday, I was eating lunch and noticed a young girl watching something intently outside of the window of the restaurant.  I was curious about what it was, so I went over to the window myself.  She was watching a small grey mouse under a flowering bush.  "She reminds me of Mrs. Frisby,"  I told the girl.  She then asked,"Who is Mrs. Frisby?"   "She is the main character of one of my favorite books, Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of NIMH.  Have you ever read the story?" I questioned.  "No." replied the little girl.  Her mother then interrupted, "We should try it for a summer reading book."  

I couldn't have said it better.  This children's book, written by Robert C. O'Brien and illustrated by Zena Bernstein, was published in 1971 and  won the 1972 Newbery Medal.  It is the tale of a widowed mouse, Mrs. Frisby, working to save her son Timothy's life.  He has come down with some type of respiratory illness.  While searching for a cure and the time for his convalesence, she meets many unexpected heroes:  an old white mouse, Mr. Ages; a crow, Jeremy; a wise old owl; and an entire colony of rats, including Justin and  Nicodemus.  And, what story of adventure would be complete without a common enemy?  In the case of the inhabitants of Mr. Fitzgibbon's farm, the enemy is the farm cat, Dragon.

This book is perfect not only for a family read aloud but for any middle reader, (3rd-6th grade) to read independently.  The animals are the characters, so keep that in mind as you think about whether it will appeal to your reader.  Fun is the read away.


The Newbery Medal was named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

For a list of winners check out this link:



 After reading my post yesterday, my husband sent me a text asking, "What is steampunk?"  It made me wonder if I ought not give it some attention today.  It is a sub-genre of fiction that is a bit like science fiction.  It involves a setting where steam power is widely used—whether in an alternate history such as the Victorian Era in Britain or "Wild West" era United States, or in a post-apocalyptic time and it includes rebellion.  Two of the authors I really admire who write in the genre are Scott Westerfeld, author of the Uglies series, and Phillip Pullman, author of the His Dark Mysteries series.

When I read the His Dark Materials trilogy I was completely entranced.  My favorite of the three books, Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spy Glass, is The Subtle Knife.  The first novel follows Lyra Belacqua in her adventures to help a kidnapped friend.  The following novels find her traveling to parallel universes that are each more interesting than the other.  Not only are these novels among the best young adult literature I have ever read, they are perhaps some of the best written period.  If you are looking to travel to far away lands with exciting new discovers this summer, you can't go wrong picking up this trilogy. The first time I experience the series was with and audio version on a long road trip.  The audible version is beautifully narrated if you would prefer listening.

I have only read one of Scott Westerfeld novels, but I found it intriguing and creative.  I think it may be time to give him a more thorough review.  Come to think of it, I have never read any of the Uglies novels, so they are going on my reading shelf for next week.  I will also be reading Pippi Longstocking, Bird in a Box and The Great Gatsby.


Matching kids and books

I passed out my invitations to the end of the year book club parties today.  We are having a talent show for the 4th graders and they are already planning their acts.  As I stared at the enthusiastic faces of this group of children, I began to wonder what I will see in those same faces this September.  If they are typical, I expect to meet a changed child.  One who no longer blindly accepts my reading suggestions, but who demands evidence that a novel will thrill them at every turn.  They are beginning to "know their own minds," which seems to limit the literary risks they are willing to take.  Combine this with the fact that their school load will now begin to include considerably more required reading and you can find minor uprisings in the group.

After sponsoring the clubs for a few years now, I have finally learned my lesson.  These maturing readers are developing specific preferences.  They are also developing an attitude that "reading for assignment" is boring.  To combat this understanding, we only select books for book club that they think will be fun to read, regardless of the literary merit.  The plan is just to keep them reading and loving it.

For readers in this category I can make a few suggestion.  They seem to be attracted to four major groups of literature.  Below you will find a list with some titles that were loved by the groups. ( FYI-- I do split the groups more on genre lines than age, having middle school book clubs for the following groups rather than by grade.)
  1. Realistic Fiction: Numbering the Stars, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, and The Help
  2. Steampunk: Airborn, The Golden Compass,  and Leviathan
  3. Fantasy:  The Alchemyst, The Secret Hour, Magyk and the Night Tourist
  4. Dystopian: Hunger Games, The Eleventh Plague


Five Children and It

With summer on my mind, I keep seeing images of beaches and birds, kids and sunscreen and for this summer turtles-gigantic turtles.  We are headed to the Georgia Coast and are planning on going on a turtle walk, in hopes of seeing a sea turtle come on shore and lay her eggs.  If we went in August, we would be able to look, with the help of scientist, for the contents of those very eggs, scurrying to the ocean, making their way to the Sargasso Sea. 

If you are planning a trip to the beach yourself, you may want to prime your family's imagination by reading E. Nesbit's, Five Children and It.  Published in 1902, this delightful novel traces the magical adventures of five children, Robert, Anthea, Cyril, Jane, and the Lamb.  Without the rules of London city life, while on vacation over the summer, the children are set free.  It begins with a plan to dig their way to Australia.  Here they find a Psammead or a kind of sand fairy.  This fairy will stretch your ideas of what a fairy is.  The best thing about him is his ability to grant wishes.   Five kids, summer fun and wishes.  You might think things would be perfect, but as we have been taught in many of the novels published since this "first", children, never mind adults, are not very good at wishing.

If you are not going to any grand location for summer break, this book is also for you.  The mishaps of the children will remind you of the famous children who came after them:  Lucy and her wardrobe, Charlie and his Chocolate Factory, James and his Peach.  All children looking for and finding adventure--in, as we might say, "Their own backyards."  Nesbit sparked the ideas that adventures didn't always have to happen in some remote unheard of land.  She reminds us we need not travel far to have our wishes granted.

It should be a great fit for all ages as a read aloud and I would put it the children's literature category, making it a reasonable read for third grade and up.  To be sure for your own kids, have them read a page or two aloud to you.  If they stumble over more than 2 or 3 words, it may be too difficult for a "fun" independent read.


Maurice Sendak

I heard early this morning that Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, had passed away at the age of 83.  The radio played a clip of an interview he had given not too long ago.  In it he said, "I don't write for children, I just write."  It made me think of all of the books I have loved no matter how old I was when I read them or for whom the book was intended.  I have beautiful memories of books.  Some of them are born of my own reading biography like the Fire Cat, The Secret Garden, and Babar.  Others are precious because of the time I spent reading them with my son like The Enormous Crocodile and Harry Potter stories.  Books continue to enrich my life. Yesterday I became friends with Karou and Akiva in the new novel The Daughter of Smoke and Bone.  Today I met Maks and Willa in the City of Orphans.  I saw my son carry a copy of Triss from the Redwall series out of the house for school, telling me that he plans to spend his free time with all of his beloved friends, mouse and fox alike, that have come to life on the pages of Brian Jacques wonderful fantasy novels.  What are the books you would put on a shelf that would help tell your story?  The books you loved.  The books you can't wait to read.  Once you've given it some thought, get to it and "Let the wild rumpus start."

If you are looking for more information about Maurice Sendak and his body of work check out this story on NPR.