Archive for the ‘Children’s Books’ Category

StanleyThis is the sixth book in the Stanley series written by children's author Linda Bailey and illustrated by Bill Slavin. It was my first introduction to the Stanley series and the experience was a good one.

One of the best things about being an elementary school teacher is that I am exposed to children's books all day, every day. In graduate school, I had to take two or three classes just on children's literature alone in order to be fully qualified to teach. I love picture books and I find that, as I've noted elsewhere, it's kind of difficult to write a bad children's book. I mean, you really have to work hard to mess it up. Bailey and Slavin did not mess this book up at all. It was well written and a fancy story about some dogs and a dog name Stanley.

Part of the problem I had with reading this book is that it is the latest in the series of Stanley books. I had no context for how to interpret these characters. Early on I had to get to know the characters in the book (viz., Stanley's friends) and get a feel for who they are and what they are about. Some of that is revealed in their names. They have funny names like Nutsy and Gassy Jack, not terribly original, but fun. I imagine the boys in my classroom would have a proverbial field day with those sorts of names. Of course it's difficult to come up with such a creative name for his female friend, Alice, so Alice is just Alice. And Stanley is just Stanley. Back to my problem: now I have to go to the library and collect the other five because I want to know more about Stanley.

This is probably a good thing.

Humans play a minimal role in the book and the animals move all the action forward in a quick pace–there's a lot to do in 32 short pages. The first human words we hear are 'Bad dogs' from an unhappy custodian wielding a menacing broom. A chase ensues and more and more messes are made as the dogs run from place to place and eventually end up sitting in the principal's office where we hear from another human, "There now, my sweeties." The only voices we hear are those of the dogs and of two adults. There are no children's voices heard in the book at all, although we do see them in action at times. This may or may not be a bad thing; I don't know. Sometimes when reading children's books it is important to hear children's voices. In this case, maybe this is part of the author's purpose in writing. The kids are only shown in school, or going to school, or running around inside the school. The children are always smiling and happy in the story (with one exception). It is interesting that the dogs desired so greatly to be in this place called school where they encounter happy children doing fun things like recess, playing ball, and laughing with the dogs.

Teaching children lessons by anthropomorphizing animals is a time honored tradition. As an elementary school teacher, I see this a lot and, furthermore, I see a lot of dog books. This is another fine 'dog book' to add to my collection and to share with my students who often come into the classroom rather unhappy about being in school and all that being in school entails. Perhaps in reading this book to them, they will see that school isn't such a drag and that even dogs are anxious to get in and get around the building. I like that the dogs are enthusiastic about their plans for the day. Hopefully this will transfer to the students who read this book too. I also like that the principal in the book is kind to the dogs even after the dogs make a wreck her school building. There's probably an important lesson in this for adults.

The artwork is fluid and well done. When I saw fluid I mean to say that the edges are soft and rounded and have a comforting feel. Buildings are somewhat distorted. The dogs have different shapes even if they all seem to have the same feet. And we are always looking at the story from an outsiders point of view. We see the action and the dogs, but we are not the dogs. An opening scene features the dogs looking up at the door to the school. The distortion makes the building appear even bigger than it might be. I imagine this is how a young student might feel when seeing the building for the first time. The artwork gives us the opportunity to have a laugh at the chaos and mayhem and messes created by the dogs. The artwork definitely enhances the story and moves it forward.

I enjoyed this book immensely and I will most certainly be going to my local library to obtain more of the Stanley series. I will also be sharing these stories with my students.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Stanley at School Amazon (Hardcover, $17.95) or Kids Can Press (Hardcover, $17.95) (Available August 1, 2015)
  • Author: Linda Bailey
  • Author at Kids Can Press: Linda Bailey
  • Illustrator: Bill Slavin
  • Publisher: Kids Can Press
  • Resources from Kids Can Press: Stanley at School
  • More Stanley books from KCP: Stanley
  • Pages: 32 (picture book)
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience:Children (primarily), anyone who can read would enjoy it
  • Reading Level: K-2
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy courtesy of  Kids Can Press via NetGalley.
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MagnificentIt's rather difficult to dislike a children's book–especially a picture book. I mean the book has to be pretty bad to get any negative feedback from anyone. After all, children's books are written for children: there's a lot of pictures, few words, colorful artwork, and few pages. What could go wrong?

So it took me all of 5 minutes to read The Most Magnificent Thing and I'm glad I did. Sometimes I think those authors who write children's books are really writing to adults; secretly though, as if adults are the true intended audience. I could be wrong, but sometimes I think the intended audience should be adults when I read these certain children's books. What is a shame is that the lessons we learn when we read children's books do not stick with us when we finally become adults. It's a shame, really, that, I'm paraphrasing here, children's literature is lost on children. To them it's a fine story, a jolly good romp through a forest or a field or a fantasy. To adults, children's literature is a sword cutting deep.

This is probably why I read so much of it. It's easier to understand the lessons the author is teaching. I don't have to wade through a dictionary when I don't understand a word–I can just look at the pictures. I don't have to think too deeply if I don't want to and yet I find that even when I don't want to I can't help but notice something deeper about the book than I had hope for.

I like The Most Magnificent Thing. I teach special education and one of the things that I have found with my students is that they too easily give up. I recall a time when a particular student was having a most difficult time with a simple art project we were completing in the classroom. The student's first instinct was to get angry, throw everything on the floor, and simply quit. I assure you it was more complicated than that, but I'll spare the details. There was no reasoning with the student. That's how the day ended (or began, depending on how one looks at it). It is a constant, day in, day out, effort to convince my students that failure is OK as long as it is not the final word on a matter. In short, my students have a terrible time persevering through difficulty.

And I'm not sure why. There are probably studies available and perhaps some expert can explain in ten different ways why students with E/BD have a propensity to quit when the quitting is easier than the sticking with something.

This is the kind of book that I always need in my classroom because this is the kind of book that teaches us those important lessons we always need to learn. What I like about this book is the fact that the main character sticks with it. I like that there are adults in the story, but only somewhat invisibly. The character–who is unnamed–has to find a way through her difficulty on her own. We call this self-regulation, learning how to overcome difficulties and keep ourselves under control because we have learned to generalize skills we have been taught by others. I like that she goes for a walk. She clears her head. She distracts herself with other thoughts. Then, only then, does she come back to the problem and see it from a different angle.

Then she grows.

This is an important lesson for my children to learn and, I think, also for adults. We tend to downplay failure here in America but every now and again someone comes along and shows us that failure need not have the last word. I like that the failure of our main character did not have the last word but served as a catalyst for better and more creative thinking. I also like how others in the story even found uses for the 'failures.'

My students, despite all that they are typically capable of, will sit and listen to a story. Stories are the best intervention I have in my classroom. They are cheap, they are always ready, and they require little planning. This book fits that formula nicely.

This book has great artwork and I like how the text is written on the pages. I'm not sure how the pages render on a Kindle, but I viewed it on a NOOK and I wasn't too happy with the rendering either on portrait or landscape view. That's a small thing and didn't take away from the content.

Excellent picture book. Kids Can Press publishes excellent stories and I'm happy I can read and review the work of excellent authors like Ashley Spires. This is a great pick-up for the general education classroom or the special education resource room or self-contained unit.

5/5 stars

Preview the Book here:

 

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase The Most Magnificent Thing Amazon (Kindle, $7.39)
  • Author: Ashley Spires on Twitter: @ashleyspires
  • Publisher: Kids Can Press
  • Resources from Kids Can Press: The Most Magnificent Thing
  • Pages: 32; picture book
  • Year: 2014
  • Audience:Children (primarily), anyone who can read would enjoy it
  • Reading Level: K-2
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy courtesy of  Kids Can Press via NetGalley.

Thanks for stopping by for a visit. Below I have published a list of books that I would like to obtain for my classroom. I have these books on cassette and would like the actual book to go along with the cassette. If you have any of these books and would be willing to donate them or sell them to me for a reasonable price, please comment below or contact me via email. Thanks.

Jerry

What have you done, Davy

The Bunny Hop

Just one!

Pigsty

The Apple Pie Tree

Franklin and the Thunderstorm

Franklin’s New Friend

The Grumpy Morning

The Paperboy

The Itsy Bitsy Spider

The Kinderkittens Show and Tell

Tell Me Something Happy Before I go to Sleep

Little Red Riding Hood (Ernst)

Alligator Baby

The Runaway Pumpkin

The Roly-Poly Spider

Poppleton

The Seven Silly Eaters

Walter the Baker

Franklin’s Neighborhood

Bat Jamboree

Toot and Puddle

Make Way for Ducklings

Little Cloud

Sara Squirrel and the Lost Acorns

Stone Soup (McGovern)

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

Those Can-Do Pigs

That Fat Hat

The Gingerbread man

Blabber Mouse

Zoom Broom

Moose’s Loose Tooth

The Patchwork Quilt

David Gets in Trouble

Possum’s Harvest Moon

Monkey Mo Goes to Sea

Strega Non Meets her Match

When the Earth Wakes

I’m a little Teapot

Sweet Dream Pie

A Bad Case of Stripes

Barney Beagle Goes Camping

What’s the Matter with that Dog?

I Can Read about Dinosaurs/Trucks & Cars/Seasons/Baby Animals

What Will the Weather Be Like Today?

Clifford the Firehouse Dog

Franklin’s Halloween

YOKO (Wells)

Inside a Barn in the Country

Comet’s Nine Lives

Finders Keepers for Franklin

Hopper’s Treetop Adventure

Monster Movie

Colors of the Rain Forest

Walk_on_the_wild_sideTitle: Walk on the Wild Side

Author: Nicholas Oldland

Publisher: Kids Can Press

Year: 2015

Pages: 36

[Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. I am not required to publish a positive review, just an honest one. So…here you go.]

Walk on the Wild Side is a whimsical tale about a beaver, a bear, and a moose who decide one day to go on an adventure. We are introduced very early to what would eventually be the main 'conflict' in the book: the three animals loved adventure, but they are competitive–and this competitive streak sometimes gets in the way of their having a good, fun time.

This story moves quickly from the decision to go on an adventure to the adventure to the conflict to the resolution. I like that the parts of the story are easily discernible and that the characters always seem to be smiling. I also enjoyed the easy text and that the amount of words on each page were limited to a few. This helped keep the story moving. I read the story to my students and they were engaged the whole way through the story. When we talked about it at the end, they were able to clearly define what happened in the story, recall elements of the story, and recall the characters in the story. It was also fun to have the students make predictions during the reading.

When we were finished with the story, I asked if the students liked it and to a student they said, "Yes!"

I am a sucker for the artwork in a kids book. The artwork in this book is strange and quirky, but it works and I love it. The color palate is limited to greens, greys, browns, blacks, and blues. The only other color was a small smattering of red that colored a bird that appeared on nearly every page–as if 'he' was watching the story unfold. I think the artwork is creative, fun, and in a positive sense, silly.

In my classroom, this book was used to talk to the kids about being competitive. Some of my students always have to be first or 'boss' or make everything a matter of winning or being first. We talked about how it is important to work together, play together, and to simply have fun being with one another. This book was a great help. In other applications, this will be a good story for helping students make predictions and, perhaps, sequencing or ordering events in a story.

A book has to be pretty bad for me to rate it lower than a five, and this book was not even close. It's a five star book that students will enjoy very much. This is a fun story that children will enjoy from front to back. I love this book because it was a fun and enjoyable read. I will be adding this to my personal library in my classroom. Highly recommended.

5/5 Stars

51UxI1ouzsL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Title: Femme

Author: Mette Bach

Publisher: James Lorimer & Company Ltd. Publishers

Year: 2015

Pages: 87

[Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. I was neither compensated nor compelled to write a positive review of the book.]

I had my suspicions when the email arrived in my inbox announcing I was pre-approved for this ( and a couple other) books from Lorimer that this book would be a challenging read for me. It was. I will tell you at the outset, before you read too far, that I did not like this book, that it was not a well written book, and that I cannot recommend this book to any readers–let alone the ages 13+, reading level 3.0 that it is designed for. I have a suspicion that Bach sat down one afternoon and started writing in her journal and the next day sent it off to Lorimer for publishing. I simply cannot envision a scenario where this book took more than 3 or 4 hours to write. It is predictable and stereotypical in every conceivable way.

The problems begin very early in the book when the protagonist begins identifying other characters who will play some role or other in the story. Predictably, Rachel Mackenzie is the 'prettiest girl in the school' and Brooke-Lynn Bradley is another pretty, spoiled, rich girl who will cause Sofie problems in the story. And of course there is Paul, the boyfriend whose only interest seems to be in finding new places (as in, the car) to kiss, or otherwise, his girlfriend Sofie and playing video games.

The book reads like a manual for how to stereotype characters–from the pretty blonde bullies, to the rugged butch lesbian Clea (13), to the popular dumb boyfriend Paul, to the confused and 'femme' Sofie–not one character is original or appealing.

The book is filled with terrible language–especially if it's for kids to read (I understand kids talk 'this way', but there's no reason to perpetuate it). There is a drinking involved in the book (8 and elsewhere). There are hints at sexual intercourse in the book (20, 46). There's yet another 'terrible father' in a book (10). The language is appalling (20, 28, 48, 54, 56, and elsewhere). And besides all this, there is the under-current of problems with the 'church' and the church's view of homosexuality (59) and predictably a 'counter-church' church where the all-inclusive minister is 'married' to his homosexual partner for '25-years' (64; which means they got married in 1990 when this was scarcely an issue).

I'm no prude and am certainly opposed to censorship, but the bottom line is that this book simply had no thought put into it. It manages to cull every stereotype conceivable about homsexuality, the church, bullies, school, friends, and put them all into the hopper that produced this book. The book is filled with meaningless drivel that is supposed to be dialogue–yet this dialogue does nothing to advance the story or help develop a plot. In fact, I'm not really sure there was a plot other than the constant tension of whether or not Sofie and Clea would kiss each other which they do after a back rub, a road trip together, a visit to a gay party, an episode of spooning, and some petty Facebook jealousy.

I'm amazed, frankly, that a girl who starts out the book infatuated with a boy–the best looking boy in the school no less–is able to decide in a few pages that she is, in fact, gay. She does wrestle a bit with this tension in the book, but it seems so strange to me that this all resulted from her being paired with Clea in a Literature class. So it made me wonder: If Sofie had never been paired with Clea in class  would she have decided she was a lesbian after all or would she have stayed 'straight'?

In my opinion, the best and most realistic part of the book was the interaction Sofie had with her mother in chapter 15. In this chapter, they visit a church that is gay-friendly (whatever that means). The minister comes in 'wearing rainbow colors' (more stereotyping) and mom is 'puzzled' (63). On subsequent pages, we see the mother crying (we are told several times on the following pages that the mother is crying) after Sofie confirms she is gay. I think this is probably the most honest part of the book because it speaks to that aspect of 'coming out' that we do not hear about. We frequently hear about the supportive families or those who utterly reject their children, but we don't often learn about the families for whom this 'coming out' becomes a sincere moment of emotional upheaval.

I cannot imagine it is easy for a mother or a father to learn about such things, but we are never given this sort of middle ground response. Typically people are either throwing parties for their new gay child or they are casting them into hell. I think both responses are reactionary and thoughtless. I think the response given in this book by the author is honest: I imagine it to be a heartbreaking experience for most people. This was the best part of the book because I think it was the most honest and if I applaud the author at all, it is here.

The bullies are predictable (calling her a 'dyke'; although I sensed that the main bully, Brooke-Lynn, was more offended that Sophie had Paul than she was that Sophie was a lesbian): there's a Facebook page set up by the bullies, there's the name calling, and there's the bullies getting caught and all being made well in the world. The book ends rather predictably with all the conflicts resolved and Clea and Sofie as girlfriends happily in love.

There's nothing about this book that is interesting. There is nothing about it that is unique. There is nothing about it that is driven by a sense of creativity. It is rife with stereotype and predictability. It's not a good story (there really is no plot). It's not well written (too much reliance upon base language). I understand the book is written for young people (13+ according to the cover), but I think authors ought to hold their readers to a higher standard and I think publishers ought to hold their authors to a higher standard as well. The book is billed as a girl whose 'new friendship with the only out lesbian at school' leading her to question her own 'sexuality and future.' It really wasn't so much a matter of  questioning such things in the book. It was about the inevitability of her deciding she was a lesbian.

This is not one of Lorimer's better publications and not because it deals with some serious questions regarding homosexuality, but because it is just a terrible story and poorly written.

1/5 Stars

LunaTitle: Luna's Red Hat

Author: Emmi Smid

Emmi Smid on Twitter

Publisher: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Year: 2015

Pages: 36

Illustrated.

Special contribution from bereavement specialist: Dr. Riet Fiddelaers-Jaspers (Website is in Dutch)

[Disclaimer: I was provided with an ARC courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my review of this book. I was not compensated in any way nor was I asked to write a favorable review. Cover image is the property of the publisher.]

Around the same time as I received my permission to access this book (the morning of March 2, 2015) I was looking at a story on the internet about a school teacher in a California high school who had committed suicide. Last year the world was stunned when beloved actor Robin Williams was found dead of suicide. It seems scarcely a day goes by that we don't hear about the suicide of someone. But we typically only hear about the famous people or the 'fantastic' suicides–like a school teacher who is found in her classroom by her students.

What we often fail to take into consideration is that suicide more often affects 'everyday' families and the little people who make up those families. Except within our own communities, we hardly ever hear about suicides that affect families and children in small towns all around our nation every day. A US News story from October 2014 reported that the suicide rates in the US are at a 25 year high at nearly 13 suicides per 100,000 persons. These are frightening statistics and should give us pause as we consider what factors have led to such confounding numbers of people taking their own lives.

As a teacher, I am thankful that I have yet to find it necessary to have this conversation with any of my students or their parents. When I was a church pastor, I did have to have this conversation with one of my congregants after her son committed suicide. I also conducted the funeral which was among the most difficult I ever conducted.

As a parent, a teacher, and a former church pastor, I have often wondered what resources are available to help adults help children work through the difficulties of suicide. I have seen small pamphlets in funeral homes, but nothing of the caliber of this 36-page picture book. I'll say it right up front: I loved this book. Absolutely loved it.

Luna's Red Hat is a wonderful book and frankly, if I may say so, it's not just a children's book. I found the book warm and comforting. It wasn't preachy or overbearing, but gentle and touching. In fact, the book invited me in with its soft brushstrokes in the art and the honest dialogue between Luna and her dad. It's not thick and syrupy, but light and honest. It does not in any way come off as cheesy or fake, but rather genuine and meaningful.

I have reviewed quite a few children's books, I have read even more, and one thing that always bothers me about many (if not most) of the children's books I read is that the dad is often portrayed as a dupe or as absent or as just plain lousy. I will say this about Luna's Red Hat the author did a fantastic presentation of the father character in this book. The father doesn't have all the answers, but he is not stupid. He is not absent, but he is not overbearing. He is mature, yet can also be silly. He is wise, but he doesn't talk too much. He gives his daughter space to vent her emotions and to give words to her feelings. He comforts her in her grief and yet he also helps her keep her life's momentum.

I very much like that the father in this book is portrayed positively. This alone would make me recommend this book.

Finally, I am sucker for a children's story with good artwork. The story can be pretty terrible and yet have good artwork and I will be a fan–maybe because the students I work with in special education tend to spend a lot more time looking at pictures than they do at words. In this book, however, I got both. The artwork is excellent. The colors are soft and inviting when they need to convey a certain emotion, and strong and dark when they need to convey another emotion. At times the author wrapped the text into the picture so as to convey an extra sense of the turmoil Luna is experiencing. I think this is an excellent idea and it works well for this book.

Other attention to detail is important too: flowers that droop to match the mood of the characters, a  small tear rolling down a cheek, the sadness in the mother's face. All of this works together to give a strong emotion to the book–an emotion that I believe captures well what a person in Luna's situation might well experience.

The story is deep, but the text is not complicated. The artwork is simply excellent. The topic is a difficult one, yes, but the author handles the subject matter with a deft hand and a sensitive heart. I believe this is a book that needs to have a wide audience and should be on hand for such an occasion as one might have to endure as a teacher or a parent or a pastor. Sometimes we simply do not have the words to give voice to our feelings. This is a book I believe that lends its voice to help grief stricken parents and children alike navigate through the troubled waters of the suicide of someone close.

There is also a two page guide at the end of the book from a professional grief counselor (links are provided above). There are some helpful words for parents and other professionals. In my opinion, while it is helpful, it's probably not necessary. It neither adds to nor detracts from the book's content. The story stands well enough on its own.

This is a book I will be purchasing for my classroom. It probably won't just 'sit on the shelf', but it will be handy if I ever, God-forbid, need it.

Very highly recommended. It is simply a beautiful book.

5/5 Stars

912Ap+P711LTitle: Ballet Cat: The Totally Secret Secret

Author: Bob Shea

Publisher: Disney Book Group (Hyperion)

Year: 2015

Pages: 56

[Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for my fair review of this book. I was in no way compensated or asked to write a positive review. I was asked to write a minimum number of words and to be honest. Done. The copy I read and reviewed was prepared for NOOK via Adobe Digital Editions.]

This is a short book that is highly enjoyable both for it's delightful artwork and for it's whimsical storyline about two friends learning about compromise, friendship, and honesty. It's a simple enough book to read and understand from an author who has demonstrated an ability to write stories that make connections with young readers in a variety of situations (see Dinosaur vs. series).

I think it is a hard lesson to learn, as humans, that real friendship is a difficult water to navigate precisely because it entails things we'd rather not think about–things like compromise and honesty. Children seem to understand these things, but I think even children tend to get caught up in the mayhem of 'one-upism'. I see this a lot in special education where children often come from such environments where family or economic struggles obscure these things for one reason or another. I have no explanation for why it seems to be so, but in my experience working in special education I see a tendency among my students towards selfishness and an unwillingness to compromise even in the smallest areas of social interaction. It could be their particular diagnosis; it could be environmental. Others can tell us why, I'm concerned that it is so and that the classroom becomes a training ground where these things–not taught in other environments–are learned and perpetuated.

Ballet Cat has it all worked out and seems to push towards playing 'ballet' every day: "We play ballet every day, Ballet Cat," grumbles Sparkles the Sparkle Pony. Then Sparkle engages, less than enthusiastically in Ballet play until he simply can take it no more and slouches to the floor in despair. He is sad, frustrated, and defeated and has to muster up the courage to tell Ballet Cat the truth that 'Sometimes [he doesn't] want to play ballet!'  His other fear is that in telling the truth to Ballet Cat he might lose his friend. In the end, however, Ballet Cat is a gracious friend and reveals to Sparkle Pony that he is more important to her than playing Ballet every day. (I'm using 'he' and 'she' carefully since it could be that Ballet Cat and Sparkle Pony are not, in fact, 'she' and 'he'. I don't think the identity of their sex is of particular importance in the story.)

The author makes it clear that friendship involves two things: compromise and honesty. Ballet Cat must learn to compromise; Sparkle Pony must risk friendship by being perfectly honest. It's also important to learn that we can have differing opinions, differing likes, differing opinions and that in the end these differences, and our honesty about these differences, do not have to spoil a good friendship. This is a helpful book and I think it would serve its purpose well in the midst of a classroom and especially in a special education classroom such as mine.

The only problems I had with the book are 1) that I didn't particular care for the way it rendered on my NOOK reader. It read like a comic strip. It's supposed to be 56 pages, but rendered as 30 on my NOOK. 2) I'm not sure why Sparkle Pony is called Sparkle Pony. There's nothing about the Pony that sparkles. He is covered with three giant polka dots, but no sparkles. Perhaps this will change, but in my review copy it was kind of strange. Otherwise, I very much like the art work and I like how the dialogue is printed in call-out boxes–which may lend itself to a reader's theater type reading of the story. The artwork is happy and, I think, conveys the proper emotive feel at just the right times. The color palette is simple, but captivating.

Really I like this book very much, exceptions noted, and will most certainly purchase a copy for my classroom. It is designed for younger readers–the inside cover says ages 6-8, grades 1-3. That might be appropriate, but I think by the time a student is in third grade they are beginning to understand these things and this book may not be age appropriate. I might actually lower this to say Pre-K-K as it might be too 'babyish' for a second and/or third grade student. That's my opinion and it is not necessarily a statement of scientific accuracy. It's a statement of my experience working with boys that age and raising three of my own.

5/5 Stars

Dear DragonTitle: Dear Dragon Goes to the Aquarium

Author: Margaret Hillert

Illustrator: Jack Pullan

Publisher: Norwood House Press

Year: 2015

Pages: 32

[Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for my fair review of this book. I was in no way compensated or asked to write a positive review. I was asked to write a minimum number of words and to be honest. Done.]

One thing I did before writing my review of this book was I read it to my nephew who is now in the second grade. I also let him read it to me and when we were finished we talked about the pictures, the words, and whether or not he actually enjoyed the story. 

So on a cold, Sunday afternoon me and my nephew sat on the couch together and read the book. He snuggled up to me and we enjoyed the whole 7 minutes together reading about Dear Dragon's trip to the aquarium–alternating who read between the pages. Of course he enjoyed the story and he enjoyed the artwork. I asked him what he didn't like and he said 'the sharks'; I asked, 'why?' And he replied, 'Because they eat people.' His favorite part was the goldfish–but I was unable to get out of him exactly why he liked the goldfish. It could be that he's 7 and just liked the goldfish. Finally, he was able to read it with little effort. So if this book is rated for K-2, it might be too low for those at the high-end of second grade. In some instances, this might be too low for those more advanced first grade readers also. I think each teacher will need to assess if the book is appropriate for a student; although, to be sure, one can't practice too much even with 'easy' books.

Personally, I like the artwork. It depicts happy people at an aquarium enjoying and afternoon or morning looking at various animals that might live at an aquarium including penguins, catfish, sharks, and more. I like very much that there is an adult guiding the children through the aquarium and teaching them about all that they are seeing and I also like the play on words with the various names for fish: cat, clown, gold, and star. This is a fun way to involve the student and help them make predictions and also requires a bit of pre-knowledge in order to make such predictions. Students shouldn't have too much trouble with this exercise. Finally, this book will be helpful in practicing sight/high-frequency words.

At the end of the book there is a section featuring Reading Reinforcement practices for teachers to use in group work or for students to practice on their own with a parent or other. Some of the exercises are phonemic awareness, fluency, and comprehension–all important things for young and emergent readers to practice. I am glad this section is included because, personally, I love to build curriculum and academic games around literature. Having some ideas built into the book is helpful in that regard.

I have two small complaints about the book that I am, frankly, not sure how to handle. First, on page 22 there is a picture of dolphins and the text says, "Look at these fish." Well, in fact, dolphins are not fish. It bothers me that I am clearly looking at dolphins and the text calls them fish. I think this should be corrected. Second, on page 26, the text says, "Oh, I see. I see gold fish." This one is sketchy because I am not sure if the author is saying, "Oh, look at the gold fish" or if the author is saying, "Oh, look at the goldfish." If students are being asked to look at a particular species of fish then it should be written 'goldfish'; if, on the other hand, students are being asked to look at fish that are gold, then it's fine. So I'm not sure what to do about the second issue because I'm not sure the author's intent (even though the teacher in the story is looking at a school of goldfish. The first issue, though, is clearly wrong: dolphins are not fish.

The story reminds me a little of The Magic School Bus which is a good thing. Overall, I enjoyed the story and the useful text and the play on words. It's a good thinking book and the reading is easy enough (although I think it's rated too low for higher readers who may not enjoy the textual simplicity. I should also note that this story is part of a larger series of stories featuring Dear Dragon–when I checked it was 14 stories.

4.5/5 Stars.

The following information is excerpted from the Norwood House Press website:

Grade level: K-2
Dewey: E
Subject: Dragon, Fiction, Aquarium
Accelerated Reader Reading Level: 1.0
Accelerated Reader Quiz #: 171090
Lexile Level: BR
GRL: E

*You can also read my reviews at Amazon.com, Goodreads, and occasionally I will also post at Shelfari. Visit NetGalley also for more reviews.

***UPDATE***

I received this email from the publisher concerning my complaint about the word 'fish' being used to describe a dolphin:

Hi Jerry,

Thanks for your feedback on Dear Dragon Goes to the Aquarium.  We recognize your comments about dolphins not being fish. Although we were going for simplicity there, we could have chosen better words and will change the word fish when referencing that illustration.

Thanks for your input!

Sincerely,

Patti Hall

President & Publisher

This is awesome. A publisher actually listening to a reviewer!!

JasperTitle: Jasper John Dooley: You're in Trouble

See also: Jasper John Dooley: You're in Trouble

Author: Caroline Adderson

Illustrator: Ben Clanton

See also: Ben Clanton's Squiggles and Scribbles

Publisher: Kids Can Press

Year: March 1, 2015

Pages: 124

[Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book. I was in no way compensated nor asked to write a favorable review of the book. All you get here is honesty and my opinions.]

My initial reaction after I finished this book was that I didn't care for it all that much. I mean, frankly, I work with children all day long who need absolutely zero drinks of Torpedo High Energy Drink. On one level, I perfectly get the humor; on another level, the story was an echo of what I deal with every single day of my life. I'm sure I am in for some nightmares. I jest, of course, but reading about my students in this book was fun and helped me see them in a little different light. Maybe I can just go to work each day an imagine they have dads or moms who allowed them to drink Red Bull before they came to class.

So, let's start with what I didn't like about the book and from there move on to what I did like.

First, the role of the parents kind of bugged me. I see this in children's books a lot. The parents are present, but they are also kind of stupid. I'm not sure if Jasper's parents are sitting back and waiting for Jasper to figure out the problem on his own or if they are aloof (mother) and kind of irresponsible (dad). This is the only Jasper story I have read so I'm not sure if this is typical or atypical of the parents in the series. I'm not sure why the parents seem so strange, but they bugged me because they seemed to provide no guidance whatsoever in the story; they were there, but they were absent. The age group this story is written for (7-10 according to Kids Can Press) is an age group that needs guidance during discovery. I'm not sure I want my sons' best friends giving them guidance for living–even if I am not naive enough to disbelieve they get it from them anyhow.

Second, there were a few language issues that bothered me. Maybe it's Canadian to say things like 'the lates', but this is not something that is typically understood in American English–and it's certainly not something we teach in Language Arts. It's a colloquialism that might need explained to students who read the book or adjusted in versions destined for the US. Second, I'm not sure why there are so many randomly placed capital letters in the book. At seemingly random places, random words are capital in the middle of sentences. It's odd and, again, it's not how English is taught. I'm sure it's a literary device, but I still hate it because there's no accompanying explanation as to why it is that way.  Third, I'm not sure I understand the author's intention in using the word 'pills' to describe cutting celery. As an adult, I understand what it means; I'm not sure children will understand. And the notion that 'it would be so much easier to swallow a pill with Torpedo High Energy Drink…' is just a bit too close to reckless even if the author is talking about celery.

I am a teacher and I see the results of children who make reckless choices. I also see the results of parents who are irresponsible and aloof. I understand that some things are meant to be funny, but lampooning dangerous things can problematic, for children, if done so without explanation. I hate to be critical, but if I want children to read a book I have to read it with an educator's eye and a parental eye. It seems to me that these, and some other strange things, might require explanation or some guidance. It also appears that Jasper is simply destined to learn the hard way. He keeps going back to this energy drink, he keeps feeling badly about it, and he keeps swearing off drinking more. There is probably a lot of truth in this for adults as well as children. If Jasper learns he cannot manage these things on his own, I wonder if there are lessons to be learned by adults too?

Now, on to the things I liked about the book.

First, I think the book is really funny. As an adult, I saw the humor and some innuendo that made the book interesting. There was one particular conversation that I thought was terrific:

"Three things, the. Good sleep? Check. Good breakfast? Check. Dad set two plates of bacon and eggs on the table. "With your good sleep and your good breakfast behind you, you'll feel confident and strong for the game, Jasper.' 

"My breakfast is in front of me," Jasper said.

"But after you eat it, it will be behind you."

"Won't it be in me?" (46; digital edition; NOOK)

I love conversations like this. Here in this conversation I think the author captures well the spirit of a precocious child. It's really a wonderful exchange and it characterizes many of the conversations that take place in the book. It's funny and charming and totally exasperates the dad.

Second, there are not a lot of illustrations in the book, but the ones that are there are well done and add texture to the story. One of my favorite pictures is of Jasper falling asleep on picnic table in the park while his friend Ori, wearing a shirt reminiscent of Charlie Brown, looks on. I would like to have seen a few more illustrations, but that's a personal preference. The ones that are in the book are fun and capture well the tenor of the story.

Third, I think the ending added a nice twist to a story that seemed to me lacked an overall plot. Essentially the story goes from scene to scene and works very hard to see how many 'bad' things Jasper can do after drinking the energy drink. There's no real rising action, no real climax, and the can of energy drink must be the biggest can of energy drink on earth. But the end of the story provided a fresh twist that I truly appreciated and, to be sure, brought the story together for me. I laughed out loud when I read it and, after I thought about it for several hours after finishing the book, it caused me to reassess the entire story. Really it was the ending that won it for me.

Overall, I like the story even if I have a few reservations about some of the things in the story. Those reservations might well be matters of personal preference and nothing more. This book is part of a collection of Jasper John Dooley stories–early chapter books for young readers. I am sure that young readers will be amused by the chapter dedicated to Jasper's underwear, to toilet foot, and to getting stuck in the wrong bathroom. I'm sure they will be amused by many things in the book. It's a good effort even with my exceptions noted in the above paragraphs. It's a fun story I think will be fully enjoyed if there is some parental or teacher guidance. The book is not just about making good choices or the sketchy things that happen when we make bad choices, but about learning to resist temptation. In this regard, it may be helpful for some adults too.

4/5 stars

Grades 2-5/Ages 7-10

ZippyTitle: Zippy the Runner

Author: JiYu Kim

Illustrator: JeongHyeon Seon

Publisher: Norwood House Press

Year: 2015

Pages: 29

[Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for my fair an unbiased review of this book. I was in no way compensated for my review and I was not required to write a positive review of the book. ]

I teach special education at a small elementary school. I have been teaching special education for 4 years now as a second career. It is not easy work–I work with students who have emotional/behavioral disorders. The students keep my on my toes and on the go. They have more energy than is typically necessary for a human, but that is all part of the fun of the work.

Another aspect of these students' lives that is perplexing is their willingness to give up easily on tasks they deem too difficult. Typically their default mode is: "I can't." It is terribly frustrating for me as a teacher because I see in them the ability to do anything they set their minds to doing–even if it requires more processing time to do so. Yet within in them there is a chicane of some sort or another that convinces them they cannot. Thus a large part of every day is spent working to show them that they can, in fact, accomplish something and that what matters is not, always, success, but effort. We constantly use the word 'try' in my classroom because, as I tell the kids, you do not know if you can or cannot until you try. 

To this end, I believe Zippy the Runner would be a helpful book. Zippy, the main character, has to press on and on, keep practicing, keep running–keep trying. What I like best is that at the end of the book Zippy has no yet succeeded, but neither has Zippy quit trying. This, in my opinion, is what is key to this story.

I also like the artwork very much. I believe the illustrator did a brilliant job composing art for the pages–even though what I saw on the digital version didn't render very well on my Adobe Digital Editions (I didn't even download this to my NOOK so I'm not sure how it rendered on that device.) Still, I loved what I saw. And if the truth must be told, I will say that if a children's book as good artwork, it will usually fly with kids–and with me. I love the illustrations.

The end of the book features a Reader's Theater idea which can be found here and some curriculum ideas for using the book in the classroom. The reader's theater is a bit short, but may be helpful in lower grades. The curriculum idea is a fun little art project that the students will likely enjoy as well.

This is a book I will incorporate into my classroom and one that I think my students will enjoy. I enjoyed very much and I will look forward to reading more from this author and, perhaps, from Norwood Press House books in the MySELF Bookshelf Series.

5/5 stars

The information below is from the Norwood Press House website I have linked to above.

Grade level: K-2
Dewey: E
Subject: Fiction, Social and Emotional Learning, Optimism, Self-Worth
Accelerated Reader Reading Level: 2.5
Accelerated Reader Quiz #: 168500
Lexile Level: 470L
GRL: K

BOBTitle: Blue Ocean Bob: A Challenging Job

Author: Brooks Olbrys

Illustrator: Kevin Keele

Publisher: Children's Success Unlimited, LLC

Year: 2015

Pages: 51+

Blue Ocean Bob Website

[Disclaimer: In exchange for my fair and unbiased review, I was provided an ARC by the publisher through NetGalley. The views expressed here are mine alone. I was not required to write a positive review and I was in no way compensated for the review. All images belong to the copyright owner.]

Blue Ocean Bob wants to be a marine scientist who helps all the animals and 'safeguard the sea.' What follows are five short stories told in a series of couplets (AABBCC, etc.). Each chapter is relatively short, but they are fairly well balanced and interesting enough to hold the attention of the reader. It took me about 20 minutes to read the book and I enjoyed it.

In chapter 1, Bob has to help a baby seal learn how to swim, but first he must learn how to dive himself. In chapter 2, he has to help clean up the water, but in the process gets a pelican tangled in a net and has to solve another problem. In chapter 3, he has to warn some sea animals that a storm is coming and they need to find safe place to wait it out. In chapter 4, he has a crisis concerning his choice of a career path and has to wrestle with some tough decisions. And in chapter 5, Bob finds his calling once again by rescuing an animal that needs help.

Bob has to work hard to see his goals through to the end in each chapter. I'm guessing this has something to do with the author's interest in 'achievement philosophy.' The little bird, Xena, his 'guardian, ally, and friend,' is kind of annoying and serves as a sort of Jiminy Cricket type character except that Xena is (seemingly) always negative and warning Bob of the dangers that lie ahead and why he should just abandon all his quests and his ambition to be a marine scientist. Bob has to press on through this constant negativity, through constant challenges, and seek wisdom from others in order to accomplish his goals of rescuing and warning animals in the sea.

I do like this book. There are times, yes, when the rhythm of the rhyme gets a bit difficult and that may prove challenging for students at times. With that said, I have no real problems with the story as such. I would use this book in my special education classroom because I find that many of my students often default to 'I can't' or 'it's too hard.' Sometimes those negative nancies abound and it would be helpful for them to have another voice showing that they can, in fact, accomplish things they put their minds too; that they can achieve when they try. Bob is a great character study in perseverance.

One final note, the artwork is spectacular. I would like to have provided a link to the illustrators website, but I'm not sure I found the right one so I didn't include it. I love the pictures and the color and the overall wonderfulness of the art. It is appropriate to the story and enhances it on every page. Children seem to like stories involving interaction between humans and animals. I think this accomplishes that in a nice way, even if there are moments when the grammar could be a little clearer.

I recommend this book and will adopt this as part of our social skills curriculum in my classroom.

4.5/5 stars

ImagesTitle: Bad Magic

Author: Pseudonymous Bosch

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Year: 2014

Pages: 400

[Disclaimer: I was provided with an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book. I was in no way compensated for my review and was not required to provide a positive review.]

This book is part of a series of books written by Pseudonymous Bosch. Now I don't know Mr. or Mrs. Bosch, but I do happen to appreciate the play on words in the name. It's kind of like Lemony Snicket. It's fun. It catches the reader's attention. It makes me think, right off the bat, that I am in for something fun along the way.

But this was a very, very long story. It was very slow developing. It was very slow getting to the point. And when we finally did get to the point it wasn't like there was an 'aha!' kind of moment; it just kind of happened. "Yep, it was a ruse all along. Now we'll let you in on the real secret."  And the secret was rather disappointing.

So here is where I am with this story: I'm uncertain. I finished it a week ago and I sat on the review because I'm just not certain. There were elements of the story that were fun and wonderful. I especially enjoyed seeing all the connections to The Tempestthis was probably my favorite aspect of the book. I enjoyed that there were subtle hints of blossoming teenage romance, but that it wasn't overdone. I enjoyed that as far as a nemesis is concerned, it was mild.

I'm not sure there was anything to dislike about the story, but I'm not really sure there was anything that really drew me in and compelled me to want to read another in the series. There was some humor. There was a pseudo-ghost story. There was a little bit of action. There were clues and a sort of mystery. But it all seemed like so much 'let's hurry and include all the elements of a good story without any real reason for including them.'

It had a lot of elements. It had several characters. It had some 'suspend your disbelief' moments and elements.  I didn't even find the characters to be overwhelmingly likeable.

But I'm just not certain that by the end of the story I was sufficiently drawn in to give this story an overwhelming seal of approval. It might just be me; maybe others will feel differently. But here I am standing on the ridge of 'did I get' and teetering largely to the side where there is a resounding echo from the 'no' chasm.

By and large, this book was a disappointment to me. I do not say that easily because I like to like books, but at this juncture I can say little else.

3/5 stars.

Curve ballTitle: Curve Ball

Author: John Danakas

Publisher: Lorimer

Year: 2014

Pages: 121

[Disclaimer: I was provided a free review copy of the book (via NetGalley) in exchange for my honest and unbiased review via my blog. Review is also published at Goodreads and Amazon. I was given no compensation for my review and I don't even get to keep the book, but the FCC thinks it is important for you to know that this review is free of all subterfuge. Enjoy!]

This is another in a series of books published by Lorimer that I have read that feature sports themes. Given that I am a huge fan of baseball, and have been all my life, I have to say that I enjoyed this book very much. Of course 'curve ball' is the working metaphor as young Tommy Poulos navigates through a summer with his uncle Nick, a new Little League baseball team, a mean spirited bully named Jeff, and a budding friendship with Kelly, the only girl on the baseball team.

I like that this book is set in the world of Little League baseball. I coached for many years and it was fun to reminisce on all those times when games were on the line and tough Little League coaching decisions had to be made. It was fun to relive the crack of the bat and remember that Little League baseball is about the local, neighborhood teams and not so much about all that ESPN nonsense that most kids never experience.

I also like that for the first time in a long time I have read a children's book where the male adult characters are put in a positive light. Uncle Nick, while a bit sad about some of the realities of life, is a genuine and positive male role model for young Tommy. Given that most of the children's books I have read lately have featured less than stellar male role models–if they were even present–this was an excellent change of pace. I applaud the author for having the courage to buck the trend of making male characters either terrible humans or absent altogether.

I'll be terribly frank about my next point: I'm not sure how I feel about the Kelly character. Yes, I get that we live in a remarkably, wonderfully diverse world where girls join boys in playing on boys' teams. Sadly, however, we do not live in a world where boys are permitted to join girls in playing on girls' teams. It's an awful double standard in the USA and Canada. So I am indifferent about the Kelly character's presence in the book. She could have fulfilled her 'cheerleader' for Tommy purpose in the book without being a member of the baseball team. That's just my opinion.

All in all this was a good story. I have read several really good stories from Lorimer authors now and I seem always to be surprised by one thing or another. Weaving Tommy's baseball trajectory into his uncle Nick's business trajectory was a nice move and helps us understand that adults and children face curve balls in life and that we all need to find ways to overcome them. I am pleased that the author allowed Tommy to deal with differences he had with another player not through lowering himself but by rising up and simply being a good ball player. That is, he proved his skill and worth through working hard.

This is a good story, if a little predictable, that I recommend and would keep in my own classroom.

5/5 stars.

ImagesTitle: The Fourteenth Goldfish

Author: Jennifer L. Holm

Publisher: Random House Children's Books

Year: 2014

Pages: 110

[Disclaimer: I was provided and ARC in exchange for my promotion and unbiased review of this book. I'm only required to be honest which is waht I am. I don't even get to keep the book. It's only an e-book for my Nook. And I don't even get to keep it. So there.]

If I’m going to be honest in my review of this book, then I must confess it took me about 50 pages to actually get into the book. The beginning all seemed like so many disconnected ideas that I almost quit reading. I also got frustrated very early on because I was reading yet another children’s story that consisted of, surprise, a broken, ‘dysfunctional,’ family. I am still amazed that so many children’s authors think the best vehicle for story telling or heroic children is the broken family. The early description of the Melvin’s family on page 27 was really not funny even though I suspect a certain considerable depth of sarcasm. Personally, I find nothing funny whatsoever, ever, about meth, arson, or death. It's a cheap laugh in my opinion.

I’m no prude, but I think a certain amount of discretion should rule when writing books for kids. That’s just my opinion.

I also didn’t care for the, generally speaking, poor male role models. Grandpa is cranky and overbearing. Dad is more or less absent—although he does appear every now and again to fix the plumbing which, expectedly, breaks again. Finally, the fake description of Melvin’s ‘father’ on page 28 presents us with yet another lousy male role model. I think children's books authors ought to take care to present us with a few more positive male role models.

I’m not privy to the author’s intentions, and from the bio at the end of the book it seems she had a fairly typical upbringing and family so I’m uncertain why there was a need for such negative portrayals. The only fairly positive models the reader gets are from dead scientists and some literary figures. This is too bad.

So much for my criticisms of the book. Once I managed to get through some of the early tension and scene setting, the book started to move a little better for me. I appreciated, with the above exceptions noted, the humor in the book. Grandpa was a bit cranky and critical, following a stereotypical presentation of an old person, but at times it was a funny.  One part I found apropos was his ‘criticism’ of a twenty-two year teacher. His quip, “What does she know about anything?” was, in my opinion, an appropriate question and social commentary because I happen to agree. Teaching is far more than being able to dispense facts or information and grandpa rightfully asks the question.

But this is no ‘simple’ book to read. In order to understand a lot of the commentary, a lot of the plot, and a lot of the dialogue, one must be familiar with a lot of our culture and history. The reader needs to know about Shakespeare and Salinger, Newton and Galileo, Curie and Einstein, Thornton Wilder and L. Frank Baum; Jonas Salk, Louis Pasteur, and Robert Openheimer. This is no story for people unacquainted with a certain stream of literature and science. This is really thrilling to me because as an educator I sometimes wonder if our students are being made to read and understand the contributions such folks made to our history and to our culture. The book is thick with these sorts of references and bring the story to life for those who either already understand these references or make the effort to Google them and learn.

There are other references (historical, film, and literary) too that will make the book exciting for the reader, but I don’t want to spoil all the fun.

The story is fun and makes some important points as it begins to conclude. One of the most important lessons we are forced to think about is our responsibility to leave the world a better place by thinking carefully about the decisions we make. We think about this in relation to the work of Oppenheimer; we think about it in relation to Jonas Salk. At the end of the day we are confronted with a choice: just because we can do something, should we? It’s an important ethical question that we would do well to start thinking about at a younger age. I think the author has asked us an important question and asked us to think thoughtfully about how we will answer it. I’m not sure there are easy answers—even in a children’s story.

At the end of the book is a nice collection of recommended resources for continuing the conversation. I love when authors do this because, I think, it’s their way of saying: “I want you to think for yourself. I’ve started a conversation, now go do some work on your own.” It’s a simple, yet brilliant, way of continuing the dialogue. Some overachievers will certainly take her up on the challenge and these are the ones who will later write the books we read.

I mostly enjoyed the book and I don’t think my criticisms and caveats will detract from the enjoyment that readers will have with this story. Good effort.

4/5 Stars.

 

Gabriel FinleyTitle: Gabriel Finely and the Raven's Riddle

Author: George Hagen

Illustrator: Scott Bakal

Publisher: Random House Children's Books (Schwartz & Wade Books)

Resources for Teachers/Librarians: RHTeachers/Librarians

Year: 2014

Pages: 252 (e-book via Nook)

[Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC of this book in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. I was given no compensation or otherwise in exchange for the review and was not required to be positive, just honest.]

If you are a fan of The Hobbit, Lemony Snicket, Harry Potter, The Goonies,and Lord of the Rings (and perhaps a few others) then I think you will like this book. This book has a lot of action, many interesting characters, and some fun along the way towards the end of the story.

This book is an adventure book, but perhaps not so much in the sense of Indiana Jones. The adventures take place in words–a favorite story type of mine. So the story is more in line with The Hobbit because as it turns out the main adventures are found in riddles and puns: word adventures, word games. This makes the book thrilling and keeps the reader engaged. It kept me engaged the entire story as one riddle after another was scrawled across the page and I had to close my eyes to keep from seeing the answer so that I could guess it myself. In my opinion, the book hung on the word games so much that it didn't really matter that there were talking birds and walking desks and magic necklaces and paravolating and more. All of this added to the fantastic nature of the book, but the riddles kept the book grounded in reality and kept it moving forward.

Along the way we meet characters–strange characters, characters we can relate to, and characters we despise. The most frustrating (and my favorite) character was Somes but only because he was so hard to figure from page to page. From the get go I thought he was just going to be a bully all the way through, but in the end we learn some things about Somes that really alter the way we think about him as a character. Along the way, I think Somes actually surprises himself too. Pamela is another interesting character who comes into the story with her mother Trudy. I was a bit confused about why Pamela's mother Trudy was always so bossy towards Gabriel. She was a guest in his house and yet seemed to come in and act like the queen of the castle. Another character, introduced early in the story, Addison, perplexed me because he played absolutely no significant role in the book at all. He was a throwaway character but perhaps the author intends to make use of him in another volume. The end of the book caught me off guard with respect to Abigail's family situation and her 'two moms' (I may have missed it earlier in the book.) There's nothing explicit and it is mentioned almost in passing. We are given no details. It just is. It was a surprise.

There are, of course, other characters. The reader gets hints of these characters' lives–especially the main character Gabriel–but the characters do not drive the narrative. The narrative is driven by the word games that they must unravel each step along the way in order to uncover more clues to the mystery. All of the characters have their issues. Gabriel has parents, but they are nowhere to be found. Somes has a sketchy home life. Abigail, I just mentioned comes from an evidently non-traditional home. Pamela lives with her mother and they both, in turn, live with Gabriel who lives with his aunt Jaz. Even the bird, Paladin, only lives with his mother. The only character whose family situation is relatively typical is Addison who moves before the main narrative kicks into high gear.  It's strange why so many stories have to feature chaotic family conditions. Maybe it is these chaotic conditions that drive these children to adventures. For some students, it will be easy to relate to such diverse family conditions.

Along the way the reader learns about families, friends, loyalty, courage, overcoming doubts and fears, and trust; good and evil. Readers are also asked to think their way through the story. I was only a bit disappointed that 'The Duel' only lasted a few pages and a few riddles. The duel reminded me in a lot of ways of the riddle game played by Bilbo and Gollum in the dark cave. In fact, Lord of the Rings seems to have influenced this story in other ways too. When the author wrote, "It [the magical torc] wanted to be found, and after a thousand years, I was the unlucky one to stumble upon it" (109 ARC e-book, NOOK version) I immediately thought of the Ring of Power that also wanted to be found or lost as if it had it's own will. I think it's a good allusion that I hope students who read this book will catch on to. Understanding the allusions to the stories I have referenced will give the reader a deeper appreciation of the nature of the story and enhance the reading experience.

In conclusion I will say this: it's a good story, but it is dark. There is death in the story. There is a certain level of violence. There is a certain level of metaphysical evil (one of the characters is continually referred to and depicted as a demon). There's good; there's evil. This is a complex story in that regard and I am always quick to help my readers understand that some younger readers may need some guidance working through some of these complex narrative devices. In other words, this is not a story for 'everyone', yet it is a story for everyone. Since I am necessarily an opponent of censorship, my main objective here is simply to state that some readers might need some guidance. Might is the operative word.

I liked this story a lot. It is a bit clunky at times and there are a few phrases I might have turned a little differently, but all in all I think it's a good start to what might be a good franchise (spoiler: since the ending is kind of open, the author has left himself an in to future installments featuring these characters.) Good read and an all around enjoyable story if this is your kind of story.

4.5/5