Category Archives: Kids and Teens

Kids Wonder Too

The meaning of life: it is a question we ponder throughout our lives, and starting from an early age. Often it is the death of a loved one (human or pet) that starts a child wondering what it’s all about, this living versus dying thing. When I was young my father counseled me, “Do not look for happiness in life, life itself is happiness.” I get what he was trying to tell me, forty years later, but at the time I wanted something more concrete to guide me in the questioning of my place in the universe.

Help is at hand, for kids of all ages (including forty-nine!). Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Maas is an absolutely charming (but not cloying or inauthentic) and enchanting book about two friends, both on the brink of teenagerhood, who set out to open a mysterious box and discover the many and varied and lovely answers to the question of what is the meaning of life.

Why are we here? Jeremy and Lizzy hear everything from “We are here because over billions of years, countless variables fell into place” to “We are here to help others” but in the end, answers come from an unexpected source, and from deep within. Life-affirming, joyful, and up to date with what middle school kids worry about, Jeremy Fink and The Meaning of Life is the perfect book for that questioning twelve-year old in your life — or in your head.

Coming soon in movie form, trailer below.

Travelling Through Time

I have my sons to thank for one of my wonderful literary adventures this summer.  We were out on Long Island, spending the day canvassing the streets of Sag Harbor. My oldest son had noticed a used bookstore on our way into town and insisted that we backtrack to find it.  He headed off with one of his brothers on foot and I followed behind.  A few blocks away from the main streets of town, just when I was sure we had taken a wrong turn, there it was: Canio’s Books.  And waiting on a rickety old table out on the sidewalk was a book I had been looking for:  A Traveller in Time, the original paperback edition of the 1939 classic by Alison Uttley!

A Traveller in Time tells the story of a young English girl of the early twentieth century sent out to the country from London to recover her health.  She settles in with an old aunt and uncle, caretakers of an ancient farm and suddenly little Penelope is able to travel back in time, all the way to the sixteenth century.  There she finds herself involved in the famous (and historical) Babington plot, an ill-conceived plan to rescue Mary, Queen of Scotts. Anthony Babington was hanged, drawn, and quartered for his efforts, and Penelope knows what awaits her new friend and his family, but there is nothing she can do to prevent their downfall.

We know where the plot is going (it is history, after all) but the magic is in the details of this book. A Traveller in Time is chock full of glorious and mundane (but still lovely) details of sixteenth century manor life, everything from long descriptions of the herb gardens to mouth-watering accounts of the meals, and from needlepoint to falconry. And as an added incentive for us twenty-first century readers, the details of Penelope’s days when she is not traveling back to the sixteenth century but is toddling around the London of her times, or wandering happily around the backward country farm she loves, provide another stop for us on the time machine, and another delightful window into the past.

The store where I bought my beloved little Uttley paperback is also a journey back in time, not only for the antique nature of its housing but for what is contained within its somewhat creaky walls: books, old and new, and all of them offering adventure, whether it be  novels crossing back in time, across oceans, and into new universes; or poems of known and unknown bards; or essays on travel; or short stories, collections of Hemingway or  Alice Munro or David Barthelme.

A book is always a time travel experience, taking me out of one moment and into another, and out of one place and onto another, wholly different, piece of the rock.  Easy to come back — simply close the book — and just as easy to take off again.  So many books waiting to be opened, so many places to go. Time traveller, reader, and adventurer.  That’s me.


Great Summer Reading for Kids (and Parents!) of All Ages

Summer is coming! I have been waiting so long for the hot weather and lazy days…days meant for reading under a shady tree, at the beach, on the patio, or lounging indoors during a summer thunderstorm. Summer is a great time for kids to read, freed from classes and teachers and essays and reading logs.

Finally free to pick the books they want to read, not the books other people want them to read, where do kids turn for guidance on great books? Librarians are a good choice, of course, and at my local library, our librarians always create engaging displays of books, new and old,, to entice summer reading. Bookstores offer suggestions for the latest in young reader publications and I can always count on Scholastic to offer great ideas with their summer reading buzz program.

I’ve put together a short list of summer reading picks that will set kids (and parents) well on their way to a summer of great reading. Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments below and read on!

Elementary School Readers — My fourth grader introduced me to the Dear America series and I love it. Although the series seems geared towards girls (all the narrators are girls and the website is purple and flowery), my son was enthralled by these historically-based novels. The series takes readers from colonial times through the Revolution, and then on through important events and times of our American history, right up through the 1940s. I sure hope more are coming. My favorite is Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady, which tells the story of a young girl who survived passage on the Titanic. Filled with fascinating details about the Titanic, thought-provoking depictions of class and poverty issues of the time, and truly moving in its portrayal of that horrible “night to remember” (with age-appropriate descriptions), The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady is wonderful and typical of the high-quality of the Dear America series.

For boys (and girls) wanting more in historical fiction, Lauren Tarshis has begun a great new series for Scholastic geared more towards boys, the I Survived series, which takes events from history and tells the story from the point of view of a child who lived through it. The Titanic is represented, in I Survived the Sinking of the Titanic, 1912, as is Hurricane Katrina and the shark attacks of 1916.

Kids always like mysteries and in addition to the wonderfully creepy John Bellairs books, I also like the historically-based (again!) mystery series by Carol Marsh, including The Colonial Caper Mystery at Williamsburg and The Ghost of the Grand Canyon.

Middle-School Readers: I’ve got more historical fiction to recommend: Prisoners in the Palace by Michaela McColl, telling the sotry of a young maid in the service of Queen Victoria and Megiddo’s Shadow by Arthur Slade, about a sixteen-year old boy who lies about his age to fight in World War One and ends up fighting the Turks in Palestine.

All of the books I’ve recommended are also excellent reading choices for adults, parents or not. Enjoy your summer reading, everyone!


Where Canada is Evil, and Water is Precious

The new Young Adult novel The Water Wars by Cameron Stracher is a thriller for any age, offering an acute and harrowing vision of a future not so far away.  The world has run out of potable water and those territories in control of the few remaining fresh water sources — the republic of Minnesota and the very evil Canadians — hold power over all of North America,  challenged only by the giant conglomerate Bluewater , corporate desalinators of the world who turn sea water into something barely drinkable and pollute the oceans with the byproducts of their evil process.

Told from the point of view of Vera (an engagingly innocent and yet surprisingly tough young teen) Stracher first sets up his new world for us with landscape so well-rendered that I felt myself growing more and more thirsty by the minute, and then plunges us into an exciting battle between the water-haves and the have-nots, where the entire future of the continent is at stake.  Vera, her brother Will, and their mysterious friend Kai must battle it out against pirates, anarchists, child slave traders, corporate evil-mongers, and power-drunk governments in order to save their families — and their world — from  desiccation and annihilation.

Fast-paced and  exciting, The Water Wars satisfies like a long tall glass of cold water on a hot, dry day — and will leave you thirsty for more.

Books as Gifts: great books for kids

Great Gifts for the Great Kids in Your Life:

For the younger set:
Two Bobbies by Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery, illustrated by Jean Cassels. The true story of a dog and a cat who together survived Katrina. This book is beautifully illustrated, heartwarming, and unforgettable.

For the third to fifth graders:
Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan. A young girl, master soap carver and list maker (“How to Get Boys to Stop Making Fun of My Name”), journeys to Mexico and to Oaxaca’s Night of the Radishes, to find out who she is and where she belongs.

Books by Kate Klise and Sarah Klise, all fun but substantive mixtures of illustrations and text, telling stories about confused kids using their wits and their hearts to find their way and save the day. Trial by Jury is one of my favorites.

Museum of Thieves by Lian Tanner. The first in a trilogy about a gutsy girl named Goldie, her brave pal Toadspit, and her intelligent mentors Herro Dan, Sinew, and Olga Ciavolga. The names alone are proof of Tanner’s imagination (did I mention a cute little dog named Broo who turns into a brizzlehound and a vulturish crow named Morg?). The story unfolds in an enchanting mix of fun and scary fantasy with nuggets of reality-based — and very solid — wisdom for young readers.

For sixth through eighth graders:

I am David by Anne Holm. This novel tells the story of a boy raised in a concentration camp in Eastern Europe, cared for by the other prisoners and in the end, allowed to escape by a pitying camp guard, who tells him to head north to find freedom. He sets out on his journey sure that the guards are coming after him, but as time passes and his experiences accumulate, he begins to find faith, both in a God of his own fashioning and in his fellow man. Tears and cheers and a solid story line that will engage young readers.

Crocodile Tears by Anthony Horowitz, the latest in the Alex Rider series, has Alex looking to MI6 for help but finding himself once again alone in the fight to save himself, and in this case, a good part of Africa as well. My boys love the Rider series and I like that notions of responsibility, loyalty, ingenuity, and honesty get equal play with the action and drama that make Horowitz’ plots so exciting and fun.

Finding the Truth Within

My son’s teacher read Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan out loud to his class, a chapter a day.  Every day of that month of reading Martin came home eager to tell me about what was happening with Naomi, her brother, and her great grandmother with whom she lives in the small town of Lemon Tree, California.  But after few minutes of gushing, he’d stop himself and say, “No, Mom, you have to read this book for yourself.  It’s just too good for me to share it all.”

It wasn’t until he came home with the question “What is a halfway house?”  that I found myself a copy and began to read.  And Martin was right: Becoming Naomi Leon is a great book for kids. The narrator, fifth-grader Naomi Leon Outlaw, works through the struggles in her life by composing lists:  “Things I am Good At”; “How To Get Boys to Stop Making Fun of My Name”; and “Regular and Everyday Worries in My Life.”  But when her mother shows up at the door after a seven-year’s absence,  Naomi finds her lists aren’t enough to answer the questions raised by her mother’s sudden and overwhelming presence, including “Where is my father?”; “Why does my mother want me, and not my brother?”; and the most important questions of all, “Who am I, and where do I belong?”

Becoming Naomi Leon is full of unforgettable characters, big and small, including Naomi’s great grandmother, tiny in stature but huge in heart; her brother Owen, smart as a whip and endearingly positive; her new friend Blanca, talkative and kind; her mother of many moods and hair colors; mom’s new boyfriend, creepy and opportunistic; and her father, an example of fortitude and love, and a master carver.  These talents he passed on to Naomi; they were fostered by great grandma; and, in the end, these strengths allow Naomi to declare, loud and clear, who she is and with whom she belongs.

Not only does Ryan create wonderful characters in Becoming Naomi Leon, and an age-appropriate plot line (good for nine to twelve year olds), but she also provides interesting background, filled in by fascinating facts.  The roots of Naomi’s soap carving skills go back to her father’s native city of Oaxaca in Mexico. Every year at Christmastime, Oaxaca hosts the Night of the Radishes  (La Noche de los Rabanos), a festival of radish carving (like no radishes you’ve ever seen, some of these root vegetables are as big as a boulder) in which the town square is filled with wondrous tableaux, all created with carved radishes.  When Naomi is invited to participate, she finally understands that the manner in which she carves, by discovering the element of truth within the material she works, applies to herself as well.  Not only will Naomi carve a true and noble lion, she will find, under layers of history, family, and circumstances, the truth and the beauty of her own self.  A good book to read aloud to your kids, Becoming Naomi Leon is also one they can read easily on their own.  Just be ready for the questions, including inquiries as to halfway houses and requests to go Oaxaca for Christmas.

Keeping Spirits Strong

Lian Tanner’s Museum of Thieves is the first in a trilogy series about a gutsy girl named Goldie, her brave pal Toadspit, and her intelligent mentors Herro Dan, Sinew, and Olga Ciavolga.  The names alone are proof of Tanner’s imagination (did I mention a cute little dog named Broo who turns into a  brizzlehound and a vulturish crow named Morg?).  The story unfolds in an enchanting mix of fun and scary fantasy with nuggets of reality-based — and very solid — wisdom for young readers. Kids won’t even realize they are being preached to about values such as bravery, honesty, independence, and responsibility: “[L]earn to think before you act. Whatever happens, remember that there is always a choice.  Think of the consequences, and then do what you must.”   Young readers are certain to love the bit about thieves having the hearts and guts necessary to save the city of Jewel from certain destruction (trust me, the explanation makes sense and will not lead youngsters to shoplift from the local Seven Eleven) and visiting a museum may also rise to the top of their agenda of what’s cool and fun to do.

Goldie has lived in Jewel her whole life, and her entire life she has been shackled to either her parents, her bed, or one of the army of Blessed Guardians.  Jewel believes in protecting their children to the point of imprisonment — the problem is that fear breeds fear and conformity breeds sheep-like behavior, and when real trouble threatens, no one has the first idea of what to do to protect the town and people of Jewel.  No one that is except for those few who have make it their duty to preserve currents of strangeness, oddity, and singularity, along with elements of  danger and violence, within a very special museum.  Those guardians — called “The Keepers”  — understand that living a secure life is the same as living an imprisoned life, and that diversity of ideas, actions, and people creates a society that is vibrant, strong, and resilient.  Goldie unwittingly becomes one of the Keepers protecting her city, and proves quite good at thievery, camouflage, and in the end, selfless and independent acts of bravery.  The very bad guys are defeated — but for how long?  Look for the next installment in the Keepers Trilogy to find out. Museum of Thieves is entertaining and fun, but with enough substance to make it solid reading fare for kids and parents alike.

For a book that is short on fun but brimming with moving and inspiring adventure — and like Museum of Thieves, provides real life lessons for its young readers —  try
I am David (also published under the title North to Freedom) by Anne Hold.  First published in Danish in 1963, I am David tells the story of a boy who has been raised in a concentration camp in Eastern Europe, cared for by the other prisoners and in the end, allowed to escape by a pitying camp guard, who tells him to head north, to Denmark; “you’ll be safe there.”  Young David is wise in many ways, taught languages by the different prisoners and eternal lessons of dignity, compassion, honesty, and comportment, but is completely blank on concepts of pleasure, joy, play, love, or happiness: “One smiled for joy?  Or was it happiness?  Joy passed but happiness never completely disappeared; a touch of it would always linger to remind one it had been there.  It was happiness that made one smile, then.  He would always remember that.”

David sets out on his journey sure that the guards are coming after him, but as time passes, he begins to find faith, both in a God of his own fashioning and in his fellow man.  David serves as a moving and compelling role model, against a background that is a mixture of the gray concentration camp life he knew and the colorful and bountiful life he discovers in his travels through Italy, Switzerland, and into Denmark.

Mackenzie Blue: Pre-Teen Carrie Bradshaw

The Mackenzie Blue series by Tina Wells are chick-lit for pre-teens.  The books are also funny and engaging, contemporary in style and traditional in moral lessons offered: be true to yourself, be good to your friends, offer kindness to everyone.  Twelve-year old Blue Mackenzie is the star of the series, a privileged seventh-grader with material possessions aplenty, including gadgets galore and a closet overflowing with cool teen clothes.  She goes to parties, hangs out at the mall, surfs the internet, and yet still manages to perform well in school, excel at her extracurriculars, and still have time to bond with mom (who lives to provide tons of food to family and friends) and dad (who works in the fashion industry, makes tons of money, and brings home great goodies).  Mackenzie might just grow up to be the Carrie Bradshaw of tomorrow, with her funky clothing style, her love of writing, and her taste for the better things in life.

I only have sons and I can say my boys would not be interested in reading the Mackenzie Blues books, not even my youngest who is into Project Runway and wants his own cell phone so that he can start texting his friends (just under ten, he has a good three or four years to go before he’s getting one).  These books are girls-only books, and only for girls between the ages of nine and twelve.  That said, these books are fun enough to attract even the most hesitant of readers, engaging enough to hold the attention of more seasoned book buffs, and if you can get past the plugs for iPods and Starbucks and The Jonas Brothers, even a mother can find something to like in Mackenzie Blue.

Discovering Truth and Keeping Humor

It has been a long time since I’ve reviewed a book for young readers but Trial by Journal by Kate Klise is such a great find, I have to write about it.  My youngest son introduced it to me.  He is in third grade and although he has read the Harry Potter books, he is not into fantasy nor is he drawn to the sports novels put out a lot these days in an effort to draw boys into the world of reading. Trial by Journal caught his eye because of the clever-looking girl on the cover, scrawling in her journal.  He also loves to write and draw in his journal.  When he opened the book up and realized Lily Watson was writing about a murder trial in her journal, he became hooked.  And guess what?  So did I.

I was flabbergasted by the idea of a novel for ages 8 to 12 including the ideas of capital punishment, abduction and murder of a child, and animal abuse (yes, all these issues and more are present in Trial by Journal). Twelve-year old Perry Keet has disappeared and fellow zoo employee Bob White has confessed.  Zoo owner Rhett Tyle is pushing for the death penalty and, given that he owns everyone in town, most of the population of Tyle County is also.

The hero of the book, Lily Watson, is  called in to serve as her town’s first juvenile juror.  She does a great job listening during the trial; an even better job tracking down the truth; and the best job ever turning the whole ordeal into a term paper, complete with journal entries, drawings, hidden notes, newspaper articles, and radio interviews.

I was a bit repelled by Lily’s early admission that the one who murders, “has to die.  It’s only fair.  Think how awful it must be for Perry’s mom and dad to know the man who killed their son is still alive.  Even if you put him in jail, he could still escape…It’s just too dangerous to have someone that creepy and stinky on the loose.” But that is Klise’s brilliance in this book: instead of preaching to kids about big issues, she has written a novel that lets her characters evolve while exploring these big ideas.  The truth behind Perry Keet’s disappearance slowly emerges, the dangers of capital punishment are alluded to, and happiness becomes possible all over again for Klise’s slew of interesting and engaging characters.  Everyone except the bad guys, of course: they are properly dealt with and no one dies.  Even the rats are saved!

This book is very funny (I loved the character’s names — Anna Conda, Golden Ray Treevor, Sy Meese, for example) and it is also serious in portraying the danger of taking people and things at face value, the importance of trusting yourself, and the satisfaction of treating others with respect, whether human or animal.

Boys and girls will enjoy reading Trial by Journal.  Note to all parents: you will, too.

Dogs Plagued By Men

Richard Adams is best known for Watership Down (which I reviewed in November of 2008), his wonderful novel depicting the epic journey of a group of brave rabbits to find a new home and a more peaceful existence. The Plague Dogs, published  five years after Watership Down, portrays two dogs undertaking an even more perilous and ambitious journey.  They are also in search of a new home and a measure of peace, but this time the animals are running against time, away from men with guns, limelight-hungry politicians, and a muckraking journalist, and running far from the research laboratory where they were tortured needlessly and for no compelling reasons at all.

There are a few good men in The Plague Dogs but they remain in the background until the very end of the novel.  All of the bravery and kindness comes from four-footed beasts.  They are also the ones struggling with moral and existential questions about their roles and  purposes in life.  Bred to be obedient to a master, the dogs must learn to think for themselves and of themselves.  In the process they illustrate the extent of their hearts and the force of their desires. Their Herculean and cooperative efforts underscore the pettiness,  selfishness, and weakness of the humans around them.

What is so moving about The Plague Dogs is that the dogs really just cannot understand why the humans at the research center failed to act as responsible masters.  Snitter, the smaller dog who had long-ago experience of a good master, tries to explain the researchers to the larger dog, who never knew the gentle hand of a human, “They weren’t real masters, Rowf.  They didn’t particularly want you to be a good dog.  They didn’t;t care what sort of dog you were.  I don;t know what they did want.  I don’t believe they knew themselves.”  That is the horror of the situation: the dogs were at the mercy of an unmovable, incomprehensible force and no matter what they did, the torture would continue.  They cannot go back once they run away, because anything, even dying in the wild, would be better than more experiments at the hands of such humans.

Adams writes powerfully of the twisted logic behind animal research and the moral turpitude of research carried out without care for the animals comfort or peace.  One of the good humans recruited against his will into the quest to hunt and kill the dogs (who are wrongly believed to be infected with bubonic plague), states, “I dislike the whole business of experiments on animals, unless there’s some very good and altogether exceptional reason in a particular case.  The thing that gets me is that it’s not possible for the animals to understand why they’re being called upon to suffer.  They don’t suffer for their own good or benefit at all, and I often wonder how far it’s for anyone’s.  They’re given no choice, and there’s no central authority responsible for deciding whether what’s done in this case or that is morally justifiable.  These experimental animals are just sentient objects;  they’re useful because they’re able to react; sometimes precisely because they’re able to feel fear and pain.  And they’re used as if they were electric light bulbs or boots. What it comes to is that, whereas there used to be human and animal slaves, now there are just animal slaves.  They have no legal rights, and no choice in the matter.

The Plague Dogs could be read as a manifesto for animal rights but it is even more: it is a compelling, fast-paced, and complex novel about the struggle for self-determination.  That the characters fighting to be free and in control of their own destinies are dogs does not take away from the majesty of their quest or the grace of their efforts.  Adams is a lyrical writer, willing to take his animals far into the realm of what we deem “human” emotions, and allows them to struggle and mature before us in a way that is believable, incredibly moving, and in the end, inspirational.