Reviews of children's and young adult books old and new

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hybrid Vampires are the Best

Vampire Island by Adele Griffin

The Livingstone Family fled the Old World to New York City to escape the dangers that existed for them as hybrid vampires. In the new world they stick to a strictly vegetarian diet but some of their more vampire like traits come out every now and then. Even though Lexie, Maddy, and Hudson are all over four hundred years old they still have to go to school and try their best to fit in. Each sibling has his or her own problem to deal with in this book and we get to go along for the ride as Lexie navigates her first crush, Maddy tries to convince her family that the neighbors are pure blood vampires intent on killing them all, and Hudson tries to save the planet by bullying his fellow fourth graders to recycle and conserve resources. As hybrids they only need a small amount of animal blood to survive but they still have some super human qualities that are often hard to hide.

This book is great fun. I loved the characters that Griffin creates. It is a new look at what it would be like to be over four hundred years old, have some super powers, and have to deal with middle school. In the new world the vampires give up their immortality and start to age normally, I thought that was the one sad aspect of the book. However after living for over 400 years the family might be ready for some more normal aging. Each Livingstone sibling is very different and has his or her own quirks and hang ups about this new life. I like that we get to see the kids try and figure out how to live and make friends in this new environment. My favorite character would have to be Maddy, she is the middle child and has a slightly aggressive view of the world, which in the end serves her well but could also be her greatest liability should she develop into too much of a hunter. I am excited to read how the characters continue to grow and figure out living in the modern New York City. Recommend for girls ages 8-12.

Monday, February 22, 2010

What Powers, Did I Miss the Magic Parts?

The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong

First book in the Darkest Powers series, we follow Chloe as she discovers she can communicate with the dead. And that is about it. Chloe is fifteen and lives with her father and a series of housekeepers. One day at school she sees a melted man in a janitor uniform who tries to speak with her. Chloe runs through the school trying to get away and ends up having to be sedated and taken from school in an ambulance. She is sent to Lyle House for two weeks so she can be observed. While there she realizes that she can speak to the dead and that some of the other kids there also have powers. With the help of some new friends she makes a plan to escape and look for answers. Only to discover at the end that the home not only knew about her power, but it had once been the site of medical testing on other supernaturals. And then the book ends.

I was so excited to read this Young Adult book and I feel like the entire story was just a set up for the next book. I don't understand why we needed a whole book to get us to the place we are at in the story. I do want to read the next book in the Dark Powers series but I am not feeling happy about it. There is one huge reveal at the end of this book, that I did not spoil for you, that might be worth the time invested to read the whole thing, but I am not sure. The book is well written and I cannot fault the author for any lapses in her prose I am just so upset that not much happened. Perhaps the long set up will make the next installment even more enjoyable. I did like that Armstrong puts so much time into letting us get to know the characters, but honestly your first impression of each is going to be an almost perfect assessment. The whole story takes place in one week and maybe we are supposed to feel confused and upset as Chloe is about the lack of answers and the mystery of her "condition." I am tentatively recommending for girls 12-16. I am hesitant because I have not read the second book yet and if it turns out to me more of the same then this will turn into a do no waste your time.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Slow and Steady Always Gets the Prize

All the way to Lhasa: A Tale from Tibet Retelling & Art by Barbara Helen Berger

Berger retells this story from Tibet about a journey to the holy city of Lhasa. A young boy with his yak is on a journey to reach Lhasa. On his way he comes across an old woman sitting by the road. He asks her how far it is to the city, she replies that it is very far but he will get there before nightfall. The young boy keeps on his journey one step at a time over rivers, through a snow storm, and past a sleeping traveler until at last, just as night is about to fall he reaches the holy city of Lhasa.

This very simple story is a great example of the phrase "slow and steady wins the race." While the only race in this book is against nightfall, it is another example of how taking your time and working towards a goal will get you what you want in the end. I love the illustrations Berger created for this book. The images have soft edges and pastel colors that give the reader a soothing feeling. Even though the story is very short the reader still feels for the young boy and wants him to reach his goal. This is a retelling from an old Tibetan tale. The author gives some background at the end of the book about the city of Lhasa and I appreciated having the extra information. I would recommend as a good read before nap or bedtime as a way to wind down for children ages 3-6.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fairy Tales at their Prettiest

Rumpelstiltskin Retold & Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

We all know the story, a beautiful young woman, the daughter of a miller, is asked by the king to spin a room full of straw into gold. She starts to cry because she does not know how and a little man appears and asks her why she is crying. The little man says he can spin straw into gold for a price and the young woman agrees to his terms. For three nights the little man spins straw into gold for the young woman, on the last night she promises him her first born child. The king overjoyed with the young woman marries her and a year later they have a son. The little man comes back demanding the child and the young woman pleads with him to let her keep her son. The little man says that if she can guess his name in the next three days, she can keep her child. The first two nights the young queen fails and so she sends a trusted servant to follow the little man. The servant does learn the name and returns to the queen with the good news. The young queen tells Rumpelstiltskin his name and he files out of the room in a rage. The young queen is able to keep her child and the little man is never seen or heard from again.

This version is based off of some of the Grimm's Brothers early versions. That must have been what I was read as a child because this is the version I know best. Zelinsky's illustrations are amazing. They are oil paintings that have a rich feel and take you to the middle ages/renaissance immediately. Filled with deep colors and great attention to detail this is a beautifully illustrated book. (Which explains why it won the Caldecott.) It makes for a very pretty book, and gives this fairy tale an extra boost of wonder. For me this is what I think all fairy tales look like, rich color, handsome princes, beautiful maidens, and a castle. Very old school I know, but that far away land and time is always what I think of when I hear the word 'fairy tale.' The retelling is good as well and the word to picture ratio is perfect for children ages 3-6. If you have a young reader at home who likes fairy tales this book is a must read. At the end of the book Zelinsky has some notes about the original story that I appreciated reading, although I am not sure if your young reader would find them as fascinating. However, it is still nice to have some background about how we came to have this story today. I would recommend for children ages 2-6.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Famous Song, Bad Grammar

All God's Critters Song by Bill Staines Pictures by Kadir Nelson

A new picture songbook from Simon & Schuster that takes us through the choir of animals. There is one phrase that is repeated a few times in the book and it goes like this, "All God's Critters got a place in the choir-some sing low, some sing higher, some sing out loud on the telephone wire, and some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they got. Now..." After that we learn about which parts the animals sing and how they like to perform their parts. This is a song that has been around for awhile and now we are getting some illustrations to go along with the lyrics.

I am torn about this book. I love the illustrations but the bad grammar is irking me. I feel that children at a young age need to have proper grammar modeled for them, they need to hear things that are worded correctly rather than something that fits into a folk song context. I think this bugs me so much because of my teacher training. It is hard to let that training go and embrace this book for what it is, a cute song that will hopefully teach children about different animals. As I said before the illustrations are wonderful. On every page there are so many little details to discover about each animal. Nelson does a great job of giving the animals personality. The drawings have a cartoon feel without being too far off from what the animal actually looks like. The animals are all very round and as such give them a very friendly feeling. At the end of the book there is the sheet music to the song, so if you can plunk out the tremble on a piano you and your young reader(s) can sing the song. I think in the end I must say that is a good book, despite my reservations about modeling improper grammar to new readers/listeners. I would recommend for children 2-4.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Blood Lust from the Dead

Kate Culhane: A Ghost Story illustrated by Michael Hague

This ghost story is a famous Irish tale that was first recorded in 1892 by an American scholar named Jeremiah Curtain. This is the story Curtain was told when he visited Ireland to record the legend and folklore of that country.

Kate Culhane had a hard life, living in a one room cottage with her mother, but after her mother suddenly dies things get even harder. One night, while putting flowers on her mother's grave, Kate hears a strange voice. The voice commands her to dig up the grave she had stepped on. It felt as though she had no will of her own so Kate digs up the grave and opens the coffin. The dead man inside then commands her to take him to the village. He is very heavy but Kate has no choice and takes him on her back to the village. In the village the dead man wants to go into a home and the only home she can find that does not have holy water in it is the home of a rich merchant. (The same rich merchant who has a handsome son Kate wanted to marry.) Once inside the dead man demands food. Kate can only find some dry oats and brings it to the dead man. Not wanting oats the dead man commands Kate to get a knife and take him upstairs. The dead man then bleeds the merchant's three sons until they are pale as snow. The dead man has Kate make a porridge with the blood and then tells her to eat half. In this Kate deifies him, hiding the oat mixture in her scarf and never taking a bite. Getting worried that it is near dawn the dead man commands Kate to take him back to his grave. He tells Kate where he buried his treasure in a field and how to cure the young men because he thinks Kate will have to share his grave with him. Once at the grave though Kate reveals she did not eat of the oat mixture and just as he tries to pull her into his grave the rooster crows and she is able to slam the coffin shut. She makes her way back to the village to find the merchant and his wife grieving their three sons. Kate asks to marry the oldest and for a field if she can cure them. The merchant agrees and Kate gives each of the boys some of the oat mixture, all three are restored to health. The merchant keeps his promise and Kate and the oldest son are married. After a few weeks Kate has her husband dig in the field she was promised and they find the dead man's treasure. They lived happily ever after, always remembering the poor and keeping holy water in their house at all times.

This is a very morbid story. The introduction does warn you of that but I was still surprised while reading it. In spite of that though, I do like it. I think this is a great ghost story for 7-11 year-olds because it has the right mixture of creepiness, gore, and a happy ending. The illustrations are wonderful, they are filled with dark colors and a lot of a sickly green color that reminds you of the dead. The illustrations also serve to make what you are reading seem all the more creepy and vivid. I don't know that I have ever read a ghost story with a happy ending. I really like that concept, you get to be scared for awhile but then in the end it is all O.K. I do love happy endings, so true ghost story aficionados might be upset by the cheery way the story concludes. A great read for around Halloween, The Day of the Dead, or any other time you want a little scare.

Friday, February 12, 2010

This Goose is Cooked

Will's Quill or, How a Goose Saved Shakespeare by Don Freeman

Willoughby lived in the country but wanted more from life so decided to move to the city. He was amazed at all the hustle and bustle he saw when he arrived, being only a country goose. After almost being caught to be cooked Willoughby tries to hide in an alley only to have old dirty dishwater dumped on his head. A nice young man sees what happens and dries Willoughby off. Willoughby follows the nice young man to a theater where the young man is acting in a play. During the sword fight Willoughby, wanting to protect his friend, bites the other swordsman causing the audience to laugh and then leave. Willoughby realizes he didn't help his new friend at all and follows him home. Late at night Willoughby hears the young man complaining and throws his pen out of the window. Willoughby looks at the quill pen and realizes one of his own quills would work much better. He takes a feather from his side and knocks on his friend's door. The man is very happy to have the new quill and invites Willoughby inside. That night the young man is able to finish his first play with is new quill pen. From then on Willoughby and Will Shakespeare were friends and went everywhere together.

A cute story but I did not particularly like it. Now to be fair I was a history major in college and thought to make my living at studying history for awhile so I may be biased about historical fiction. Actually I am biased about historical fiction, it bugs me. This was not as bad as some other stories I have read though, the illustrations do give you a sense of London during that time period and the dress is fairly accurate. The author simply inserted a goose into Shakespeare's life that helped him write his first play. I think that if Shakespeare ran across a fat goose in London and he was able to get close to it, he would have taken it home and eaten it, but that is just my opinion. Another thing I did not like about the story was that when people are speaking the author tries to have them speak as they would have then. This is a bad thing for two reasons, one, I think children will get confused when the majority of the narration is in modern English with only a few sentences thrown in here and there that sounds so different from what they speak, and second, I am not sure he is entirely accurate about how they are speaking. If you are going to make someone speak as if they were from that time I would want to make sure you had it correct. I realize I am on a soap box here and it is historical fiction, fiction, being the key word, but as I said before, it bugs me. This is a nice story though about friendship and trying to help people, which are good things. If you have a young reader at home who likes stories that take place in a different time or has caring animals this is a good book to pick up. I would recommend for children ages 3-6.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Girl Power

The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke illustrations by Kerstin Meyer

Princess Violetta was the youngest of King Wilfred's four children and, the only girl. Her mother, the queen, had died in childbirth and the king decided to raise Violetta as he was his three sons, to train to be a knight. This did not come easy for Violette and her brothers were always teasing her about how small she was, or how slowed she moved. Rather than give up Violetta started to practice fighting, riding, and other knightly skills in the middle of the night. As she grew up her brothers stopped teasing her as she got better and better. When Violetta turn sixteen the king announced that there would be a tournament and, the knight that won would get to marry her. Violetta was furious but the king would not listen to her protests. On the day of the tournament a knight dressed in black beat every other competitor, even the king's sons. The knight revealed herself to Violetta. She declared that she would never marry unless a knight could defeat her. After that she left for a year to explore the world. When she returned the king welcomed her home and let her marry whomever she wanted.

I was thinking a lot of about this book and whether or not I liked it. In the end, I do like it. I like the message of hard work and determination to achieve your goals and of not letting people bully you around for no reason. I also like that this message is specifically directed at young girls. I think we need more books where little girls are able to see a strong female character that works hard and achieves just as much (if not more) than the men in the story. I have nothing against girls who want to be feminine and girly (I have quite the soft spot myself for frilly dresses) but I do want them to know that even being a girly girl you can still go out and achieve anything. The illustrations in this book are not my favorite. There are some interesting little details tucked away on some of the pages but overall I found them to be too simple. They do help convey the story and are not bad they just don't "float my boat." I did like the way the text is laid out in and around the illustrations though, it gives the reader a sense of being in the middle of the story that was a lot of fun. I think this makes a great read aloud for girls 3-6.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Whole New World of Vampires

Vampire Academy A Novel by Richelle Mead

Wow, where to begin with this one. Hmm, well it does suck you in (no pun intended). We are thrown into a very unfamiliar vampire world right away without much explanation. Basically, there are two types of vampires the living and the dead. The living are the Moroi who have guardians to protect them, they do need blood but also can eat food, they can tolerate a little sunlight and are born. The Strigoi are undead, feed only on blood (of any being including Moroi), have to be made, and die in sunlight. There is a war between the two groups or more accurately the Strigoi are killing off the Moroi. Our heroine, Rose, is a guardian in training to a Moroi princess Lissa. Oh, and Rose is half human and half vampire, a dhampir (stronger and faster than a human but no blood lust). The girls have a connection to one another that allows Rose to feel what Lissa is feeling and even occasionally see things through her eyes, something that neither of the girls understand as it is extremely rare in the vampire world. We meet our two main characters as they are captured and brought back to St. Vladamir's Academy in Montana, a school that trains vampires and their guardians. Enter all the angst, drama, embarrassment, self doubt, and drama that is high school. This book goes back and forth between the petty and awful things high school students do to one another and a mystery and danger that surrounds Lissa. Lissa starts to become unstable, she realizes she has the power to heal and to make anyone do what she wants but as she uses the power her mind becomes increasingly dark. Is there a real threat to Lissa other than herself? Can Rose help to solve the mystery of Lissa's powers before it destroys her friend?

This was a very good book. It draws you in right away and I feel that I am not doing it justice in my summary. There is so much to take in that every detail seems important. I liked the way the author led us along through the mystery of Lissa's condition until at the end all is revealed. The character development continues throughout the book and we get to see our two main characters grow and struggle with their own natures. This is an edgier Young Adult book and I would not recommend for young teens but for the older ones I think this is a great read. There is romance that comes into the story for both girls in very different ways. It was often painful reading the different situations they get themselves into, remembering those feelings I think everyone had in high school. This is a series of about six books and I cannot wait to go to the library tomorrow to get the next one. My main concern is that the library will be closed due to the impending snow storm and I will have to wait until Thursday.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Cows Can't Write Poetry

Minnie and Moo: Will You Be My Valentine? by Denys Cazet

Moo decides, after reading a book of poetry, that everyone on the farm could use some love poems. Minnie and Moo dress up as cupids and literally romp through the farm shooting poems on arrows at everyone. At first the poems end up with the correct animal but then, in typical Minnie and Moo style, the poems start getting mixed up and causing a few problems. In the end though everyone has a little Valentine's Day cheer.

I think this book may be too silly for me. I don't know how that is possible. I think little cartoon chipmunks singing new pop songs in squeaky voices are hilarious, but this book tested my limits. I might have been hoping for more in the poems that Moo was composing, why I don't know, but that is all I can come up with. Some of the poems are just so ridiculous while others actually make sense and are funny but are not over-the-top silly. I could not appreciate the over-the-top silly this time around. The illustrations are great and break up the text so that new readers do not get overwhelmed with too many words on the page. This is a good book about Valentine's Day for boys or girls, which admittedly is a hard thing to do. With all of that said, I was still not wowed by this Minnie and Moo story. I would give it a try though if you are looking for a silly Valentine themed book. Might not be the best read before bed because it could inspire some silly poetry that will only get sillier as your new reader gets more tired.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Birds, Pies and Clean Laundry

Barnaby Grimes: Return of the Emerald Skull by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell

Stewart and Riddell do not disappoint in this second installment of the Barnaby Grimes story. For those of you who did not read my review of the first book in this series (Curse of the Night Wolf) here is a quick recap of Barnaby. Barnaby is a tick tock lad, a cross between a messenger and delivery boy, in the late nineteenth century London who tends to get in the middle of mysteries through no fault of his own. In this story Barnaby delivers a rare bird to a headmaster in a school just outside London. Barnaby has an uneasy feeling but it quickly disappears once he meets Mei Ling, a pretty young laundress who he starts to visit. Ling teaches Barnaby the ancient art of yinchido, which improves his mental clarity and fighting abilities. When Barnaby goes back to the school to check on a friend's son he finds something sinister is at foot and it all has to do with the package he delivered. Will Barnaby be able to break the forces of evil and free the students before more people get killed?

Overall I liked this book. It has all the elements of a good mystery/adventure and is very age appropriate (I would recommend for boys ages 7-10). My one complaint about this installment of the Barnaby Grimes story is that the Mei Ling storyline is never finished. Barnaby is supposed to visit her one day and instead heads to the school and get caught up in a plot to destroy the earth. He does stop the evil from taking over and we learn what really happened there. But we never hear if he went back and visited Mei Ling. Maybe that is a way of leaving that storyline open for the next book, but it felt a bit odd to me to not mention her at as the book was concluding. Other than that one minor complaint I thought this was a fun romp through and over London. We also get to know Barnaby and his regular clients a bit more and I think there will be some fun supporting characters featuring more prominently in the books to come. Like the last book the illustrations, in black and white, are wonderful and full of creepy details. One of the aspects I like most about these stories is Barnaby's can-do attitude. There is no task to small or too large for Barnaby and, he is not above working hard for what he wants. Again, I highly recommend and hope you enjoy.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Valentine's Day Information

Here are some facts about Valentine's Day that I learned from Hearts, Cupids, and Red Roses: The Story of Valentine Symbols by Edna Barth and illustrated by Ursula Arndt.

1. St. Valentine was recorded to have died (executed really) on February 14th. One legend about Valentine is that he would secretly marry young couple even though Claudius II (emperor at the time in Rome) had declared that to be illegal.

2.The UK and USA are the two countries where Valentine's Day is still widely celebrated, in a few countries it was banned.

3. The oldest known Valentine in letter form was from Margery Brews in 1477 written to John Paston.

4. In 1845 one postage rate was set for the United States and Valentines increased dramatically in popularity.

5. In the language of flowers violets mean I return your love.

My quick review of this book is do not bother. While some of what you read is interesting the author jumps around in time so much that it is very hard to follow. And even though the book is supposed to be about the origins of Valentine's Day symbols the reader is rarely given many concrete facts or even the first appearance of that symbol. Mostly we are given facts from England and USA from the 18th and 19th century, which explains more of the modern interpretation of the symbols not their origins. This book is meant for an 8-10 year old but I do not think they would find it very interesting. The illustrations are drawn in black and white and often are not very clear or crisp. I would stay away.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mice with Personality to Spare

Kevin Henkes author of such books as Chester's Way, A Weekend with Wendell, Chrysanthemum, Lily's Plastic Purse, and Owen

Today I thought I would do a review of a few books by author Kevin Henkes. I love his "Mouse Books." I was given a copy of Chester's Way when I was in college studying to be a teacher and fell in love with the characters Henkes created. All of Henkes' mice are about kindergarten age and they have little adventures and trials learning to share, make new friends, deal with teasing, the birth of a sibling, and getting along with others.

These books have great illustrations and little details that bring the mice to life. Little dialogue lines in the illustrations also adds life to his mouse characters. I think my favorite character so far is Lily. Lily is courageous and outrageous, loving everything from squirt guns to costumes, she is a tom boy with a bit of flair. Equally lovable though are the other mouse character of Chester, Wilson, Owen, Wendell, Sophie, Chrysanthemum, and Julius. These books make a great read aloud for 3-5 year olds, especially children starting school for the first time. The stories are very easy to relate to and can be used as a teaching tool for many of the manners children are learning at that age.

In Chester's Way, Chester and his best friend Wilson always do things their way. When Lily moves into their neighborhood they do not like her because she does things differently. Despite the boys not playing with her for awhile she still helps them when a some older boys were teasing them. After that the three share their knowledge with each other teaching one another the things they like and can do (i.e. tie shoes). The three become best friends, until Victor moves into town that is. This is a great story about learning to make friends with someone who does things a little differently than you do. Again the illustrations are great and there is a lot to look at on every page that makes the story come to life. You really feel like you know Chester and Owen from the illustrations. I would recommend for children 3-5.

Monday, February 1, 2010

I Heart Animals

My Heart Is Like a Zoo by Michael Hall

Looking for a way to incorporate some more hearts into your life this February? Then this is the book for you, new from HarperCollins this book takes the reader through twenty animals and their emotions. All of the animals are constructed of hearts in different sizes, shapes, positions, and colors.

Beautifully designed, this book is a must for young toddlers. The animals are expertly crafted from only hearts and you will be amazed at some of Hall's creations. Each page has bold and bright primary colors (for the most part) with a large depiction of the animal. Each animal has only a line said about it, in which we learn the animal's name and what it feels like today. This book though is really all about the images. I couldn't believe what can be done with some hearts. Especially fun since Valentine's Day is right around the corner but a great book any time of the year. My local library already had this one on the shelves so it should be available now. A great way to introduce some new animals and colors to your young reader at home. I highly recommend for children ages 1-3.

If you want a preview of the book there is one posted at HarperCollins.com