The Plot In 5 Sentences or Less: Zach, Poppy, and Alice are friends that enjoy playing an imaginary game filled with pirates, mermaids, and treasure. One of the most important parts of the game is “The Queen,” an old porcelain doll that sits in Polly’s cupboard, whose real origins are unknown. As the kids are now 12, all 3 feel ambivalent about continuing to play this imaginary game in the face of criticism from their peers. Their determination is rekindled, however, when a ghost visits Polly in her dreams, claiming that she was killed, turned into the china doll, and now longs only to be buried properly in her grave. The 3 friends set out on a journey to bury the doll and put the ghost’s spirit to rest.
My Take: Doll Bones novel is really about coming of age, facing the challenges of growing up, and grieving the loss of childhood. Black captures the confusion and awkwardness of turning 12 and being unsure about what to leave behind as childish things. I appreciated that the characters were clearly from underprivileged or blue collar families and that Black does not drive the point home too finely. All 3 of the children have unsettled home lives, giving the reader the sense that the children’s quest is not just to bury the doll, but to help restore some sense of wholeness to their respective households. Finally, I liked that the setting is in the industrial area of western Pennsylvania. It lends context to the idea that these children really are journeying a through a blighted landscape.
One Interesting Note About the Author: Holly Black is also the author of the Spiderwick Chronicles. Find out more about her at her website.
The Story in 5 Sentences Or Less: Rump lives with his Gran in a village in the mountains where people pass their miserable days working the gold mines to receive their weekly food rations from the town Miller. Rump’s life changes when he salvages a spinning wheel that was once his mothers and soon discovers that he has the power to spin straw into gold. At first, the greedy Miller demands all of the gold that Rump spins, but soon the King wants his cut too and mistakenly kidnaps the Miller’s daughter, Opal, thinking that she is the one performing the magic alchemy.
My Take: I found this book to be an interesting take on the old Grimm’s fairy tale. Shurtliff presents Rump as an unlikely hero on a journey of adventure and self discovery. Despite the use of well worn juvenile fantasy elements, (castles, trolls, witches, etc.), I found myself pulled along by the character of Rump. I was with him all the way as he grappled to control his power and unearthed more secrets about his past. I would recommend this book for kids grades 3 and above who like fairy tales and fantasy.
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to her website, Shurtliff grew up in Utah with 7 brothers and sisters. The license plate on the family van was “8SGREAT.”
The Plot in Five Sentences or Less: John and Abigail are the bright, twin children of professor and inventor John Templeton. Following the death of their mother, the family moves to Tick Tock University where, during a lecture, their father is accosted by Dean D. Dean, a man claiming that John Templeton stole his idea for the Personal One-Man Helicopter (POMH). Dean D. Dean, along with his brother, Dan D. Dean, kidnap the Templeton twins and demand that John to sign over the rights to the POMH. The twins must use their smarts to escape from the Dean brothers.
My Take: This book is a clever and enjoyable read. The narrator of the story is self aware and inserts amusing parenthetical remarks in the text as if he were arguing with the reader. For instance, he states “We’re getting off point. And I blame you. Please, I urge you to stop interrupting.” He also inserts “questions for review” at the end of each chapter that are meant to resemble reader’s comprehensive questions, but are simply ridiculous (i.e. “How would the Templeton twins’ lives have been different had they never been born?”). Too much of this sort of thing would be gimmicky and annoying, but Weiner uses a judicious amount that keeps the reader laughing. Credit should be given to Home’s schematic illustrations that reinforce the rational yet ludicrous tone of the book. Highly recommended for kids ages 8+.
One Interesting Note About the Author/Illustrator: Ellis Weiner was an editor of National Lampoon and contributor to many magazines, including The New Yorker and Spy. He has also written an e-book called “Atlas Slugged Again” which you can buy for $1.99.
The Plot in Five Sentences or Less: Kyle Keeley wins an essay writing contest and gets to spend the night in his town’s brand new public library with 11 of his peers. The library is a massive, technological marvel built by none other than Luigi Lemoncello, a one time small town boy who has gone on to make a fortune in the board game industry. When Kyle and his companions awaken the next morning, they find the doors of the library locked. Mr. Lemoncello has challenged them to a new game: escape from the library using the hidden clues. Will Kyle and his friends be able to crack the code in time and escape from Lemoncello’s library?
My Take: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” meets “The Westing Game.” This is a solidly entertaining and clever read that will appeal to both boys and girls ages 9 and above. Author Chris Grabenstein makes the puzzles challenging, but not ridiculously difficult. I appreciated the many nods and allusions to library lore and children’s literature. The characters are not especially fleshed out, but who cares? The fun is in watching the kids solve the puzzles and make their way out of the library. Ages 9+
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to his website, Chris Grabenstein used to write for commercials. One of his earliest bosses was James Patterson, with whom he now writes books!
The Plot In Five Sentences or Less: Hobie Hanson is a 5th grader in Seattle, Washington during World War II. His father is away fighting the Germans, so Hobie spends most of his time with his friends and his German Shepherd Duke. Life is not easy without his dad around, and only becomes harder when Mitch Mitchell, the school bully, sets his eyes on him and challenges him to give up Duke for the Dogs for Defense Program. Much to Mitch’s surprise, Hobie rises to the challenge and soon Duke is part of the war effort and on his way to the Pacific. Hobbie finds that he now must adjust to life both without his dad and his dog.
My Take: I found this to be a very straight forward book about a boy’s experience and sacrifice on the home front during World War II. My one criticism would be that Larson could have risked introducing more strangeness into the story. There was a lot of baseball and paper routes, what one might consider stock 1950’s Americana. Still, for those looking for a good read about the connection between and boy and his dog, this is a good pick.
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to her website, Kirby was born at Fort Lawton Army Hospital in Seattle, Washington. She cost $5.
The Plot in Five Sentences or Less: Clem lives in the mining country in the Ozarks of Missouri. After his 13th birthday, he must leave school and join his father in the mines to make much needed money for the family. Clem detests mining and is tempted to join his friend Linda Jean in her family bootleg business. A string of family tragedies, however, reinforces the need for Clem to work the mines and he subsequently wonders if his life will ever change.
My Take: This was a convincing and compelling account of families caught in the economic trap of lead mining in Missouri in the 1920’s. Through the characters of Clem and his family, we appreciate how awful that life was and how few choices people had in that area of the country. Long’s writing is plain and never devolves into sentimentality. I applaud her for using the 3rd person point of view, rather than the more common first person. Towards the end there are a few plot points that tie things up perhaps a bit too nicely, but overall this is a pleasant and educational read for ages 10+.
One Interesting Note About the Author: As a child, Susan had the interesting habit of rating her days along a spectrum of 1-10. Her rating was based on the requirements of “doing [her] homework, eat[ing] well, exercis[ing], practicing the flute, and doing something nice for someone.” She no longer rates her days, but you may find out more about her at her website.
The Plot In 5 Sentences or Less: Bitty is a canary that lives in the town of Coalbank Hollow, West Virginia in 1931. Caged with other canaries in a boy’s room, the birds are daily taken to the mines and used as methane and carbon monoxide detectors. The mines are dangerous for man and bird and alike, so Bitty concocts a plan to escape. After springing himself, he makes his way to Charleston where he plans to somehow petition the state government to make mining safer. Along the way he meets lots of new friends, makes some enemies, and learns that changing the status quo is not easy.
My Take: This is a solid anthropomorphic book in the spirit of E.B. White or Dick King-Smith. I learned a lot about mining and also about birds (before reading this I couldn’t tell a grackle from a crow). Some readers may quibble about a bird somehow knowing to make their way to Charleston to legislate for mining conditions, but, hey, its a children’s book. Ages 9+
One Interesting Note about the Author: Madelyn’s first children’s “book” was called “Mommy’s Flying Birthday Cake.” You may view a copy of it here.
The Plot in 5 Sentences or Less: After she failed at running her Uncle Chester’s farm, Hattie Brooks is now working in a boardinghouse in Great Falls, Montana in 1919. Seeking to become a big city reporter, she makes her way to San Francisco with an acting troupe. She also wants to meet one Ruby Danvers, who apparently was very close to her uncle, and find out the background of their relationship. Through her pluck and determination, Hattie makes great progress in her career as a reporter, taking a ride in a new Boeing airplane and even meeting Woodrow Wilson. But Hattie must eventually make a choice between staying in San Francisco or following her true love Charlie.
My Take: Having not read Hattie Big Sky, I still felt that this was a fine, well written book about a girl trying to make it in the big city in the early 20th century. I can’t say that it was the most exciting book that I’ve read, the narrative is driven more by the relationships that Hattie makes rather than any action, but girls will find a lot to like in the character of Hattie. Ages 9+
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to her website, Kirby Larson originally wrote Hattie Big Sky inspired by her great-grandmother’s homesteading experience in eastern Montana.
Genre: Juvenile Fiction
Audience: Ages 10+
Rating (out of 5): 2
The Story (in 5 sentences or less) : Cooper is a boy that lives with his mom on a farm in New York state where they run an antiquing business out of their barn. But business is slow and money is tight ever since Cooper’s younger brother passed away and his dad left. His life changes when he is given an enchanted metal detector that can talk. Using this magic machine, he begins digging up musket balls in his yard and learns that his house is on the exact location of the Revolutionary War Battle of Newton. Cooper must use his friendship with Mr. Shepard, the local historical museum director, to fight off government bids for their land.
My Take: Somewhere within this prolix, sometimes clumsy book is a much better book. I applaud Osterweil’s premise of a young man delving into antiquing and amateur archaeology. I appreciated the parts where Cooper was on the hunt, digging up artifacts in his back yard and matching them up to local history. Less enjoyable for me were the mystical parts of the book in which he communes with his dead brother, the planet earth, spirit wind, etc. I found that the anthropomorphic objects slowed the pace of the book and were sown awkwardly into the narrative.
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to his website, Adam Osterweil “teaches junior high English at Springs School in Springs, New York. His hobbies include kayaking, historical research, and metal detecting.”
Genre: Fairytale Fiction
Audience Age: 7-11
Rating (1-5): 2
The story in no more than five sentences: Princess Imogene Eustacia Wellington meets a talking frog near a pond who claims that he is a prince who has been turned into a frog by a witch. When Imogene kisses him, the spell reverses by turning her into a frog instead! Imogene tracks down the witch who takes responsibility for the spell but refuses to help her. A group of traveling players then kidnaps the Princess frog. After several abominable productions around the kingdom, Imogene escapes, is reunited with her family, and eventually casts off the spell by kissing a frog.
The best part of the book in 1 sentence: The best part of this book is the convincing characterization of Imogene, who is not too sweet, not too cynical as she tries cast off the spell without inflicting it upon someone else.
The worst part of the book in 1 sentence: I found the middle part of the book in which she is traveling with a group of players tedious after awhile.
1 interesting note about the author: The name Vivian Vande Velde is a mouthful! You may hear her pronounce her name here at teachingbooks.net