Thursday, May 22, 2014

Book of a Thousand Days

Book of a Thousand Days
Book of a Thousand Days
Shannon Hale

Scholastic, 2007 306 pgs  

Grades 5-8

Dashti, a low-class "mucker" turned servant, is sent with the young lady she serves to a tower where they are held prisoner with the rats and limited supplies.  The noble lady, Saren, has promised herself to neighboring lord, Tegus, while an evil lord has set her sights on her.  When Tegus arrives to rescue Saren, it is Dashti who communicates with him, developing a friendship under the guise of being Saren.  Tegus fails to rescue the girls and Dashti leads a brave escape out of the tower and through a war-torn land, where their home kingdom is no more.  They travel onto Tegus' kingdom, landing positions in the castle as pot scrubbers.  Dashti's talents as a mucker healer come to light and she is sent to the lord to heal him of his pains.  Eventually, a new friendship is formed.  Dashti poses as Saren to try to save Tegus's life from the evil lord and protect her lady.  She defeats the evil lord single-handed, using cunning and mucker magic and becomes betrothed to Tegus as Lady Saren.  After it is revealed that she is an impostor, Dashsti finds herself in prison.  A satisfyingly happy ending ensues, leaving the reading to breath a sign of relief and hope for more adventures in this magical land with these interesting people.

My daughter handed me this book begging me to read it.  She claimed it was "her favorite book ever" and wanted to share it with someone.  She also confessed that half way through she had to stop and read the last page because it was making her too anxious.  So, I dropped what I was reading and plunged into Book of a Thousand Days.  I was not disappointed.  Shannon Hale is the queen of the reworked fairy tale.  This offering is based on a little known Grimm fairy tale (Maid Maleen?)and set in medieval Mongolia, with all its Gods and superstitions.  The setting was different and cool.  The fantasy element is very believable and feels like it really could have existed in that civilization at that time in history.  The book is broken into two distinct parts: the imprisonment in the tower and then the girl's later adventures.  It starts a little slow and then became a huge page turner.  Dashti is a wonderful and likable character and the reader really starts to care about her.  She has spunk, determination, and courage and through all the troubles, always remains positive.  Like Dashti, we honestly start to hate Saren, but luckily the lady redeems herself by the end.  This book would appeal more to girls than boys.  It offers light fantasy, a fast moving plot and just enough romance to appeal to tweens, while remaining appropriate.  Book of a Thousand Days is perfect to curl up with in front of a fire on a cold winter's day and escape into a truly magical place.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Water Horse

The Water Horse
Dick King Smith

Crown, 1990 120 pgs  

Grades 2-4

Kirstie and her brother Angus find a mysterious egg that blows to the shore of their depression-era coastal Scotland home.  After moving it safely to the bathtub , the egg hatches and a sea creature emerges.  Grumble. the children's grandfather, identifies it as a "water horse", better known as a Loch Ness Monster.  They name the little guy Crusoe and watch in fascination as their new friend grows out of the bathtub and must be moved to a small pond outside the house.  Mother isn't thrilled with the new house guest, especially since he's eating them out of house and home, but she reluctantly allows him to stay.  Sailor father returns from a voyage in time to help the family move Crusoe to a small local loch and then, later, to the enormous Loch Ness.  The family trains Crusoe to stay underwater until called and they are confident in his safety.  Plans are made to go visit Crusoe, their now forever friend.

I read The Water Horse sometime in the early 1990s and enjoyed it very much.  The first time I used it with a book group was when the movie came out in 2007.  This spring I have chosen to use it again.  We will show the movie and compare the two stories and formats.  Now on my third reading, the book still holds up.  Dick King Smith is a master at interjecting humor in his slight, tightly woven yarns.  The Water Horse is a great tale.  It makes magic believable and gives us a slice of life from pre-WWII Britain.  The plot is linear without extra characters or secondary plot lines mucking up the works.  Its a straight story, completely digestible for the intended age group.  The Water Horse provides fantasy for those who might not like fantasy and historical fiction for those who don't like historical fiction.  It would appeal to both girls and boys.  In short, this is a good, solid piece of literature I would highly recommend for early chapter book readers, that is well written and extremely approachable.  I'm glad I chose to read this book again and will happily keep it in my rotation.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Absolutely Almost

Absolutely Almost
Lisa Graff

Penguin, 2014 292 pgs  
Grades 3-6
Realistic Fiction

Ten-year-old Albie has always been "almost".  He almost wins games, gets decent grades, and gets his artwork displayed in school.  Albie's overachieving parents expect more out of him and he feels like a constant disappointment to them.  His new school year is one of change: his best friend and neighbor stars in a reality tv show prompting the family to move into a bigger New York City apartment building, he gets dismissed from his private school and must start the year at a public school where he doesn't know anybody, and his mother hires a new after school babysitter, which he feels is unnecessary.  Albie weathers the storms with the help of the new babysitter, who becomes a friend, understanding new teachers, a new school friend, and the donuts.  Eventually as the year goes on Albie's life goes from bad to worse: the babysitter gets fired for something he feels is his fault, after a brief encounter with popularity he falls from grace, loosing his new friend in the process, and he can't raise his grades no matter how hard he works further disappointing his parents.  Finally, Albie comes to terms with his strengths, repairs his friendships, and sees his parents for what they are: flawed people who try to be good parents and who love him very much.

Absolutely Almost is a very different book then that of a Tangle of Knots released by the same author last year.  Critics loved Tangle of Knots, while I found it to be confusing and over the top.  With this book I was expecting more chaotic fantasy with a lot of characters and clever coincidences.  Boy was I wrong.  Absolutely Almost is a deceivingly thoughtful book about a kind and lonely boy.  My heart went out to Albie and I almost cried when his mother fired the babysitter, who was the only adult who paid attention to him.  By the end of the book we are more sympathetic to both parents and realize that they are trying and love Albie even though they don't understand a child who isn't as ambitious as they are.  Albie is sweet and very naive.  He doesn't ever catch on that the "math club" he goes to every day is really a resource class and he doesn't understand many social nuances.  Even though the book is thoughtful, it is not boring.  The plot is realistic and simple, dealing with the struggles of an average ten-year-old: bullies, grades, making sense of a confusing world.  As always, I love a New York City setting.  With the New York setting and the struggling social school plot, the book was reminiscent of Wonder, but not really.  Absolutely Almost is less sensational than Wonder and much more relate-able.  The chapters are short and the book reads fast.  It would be a wonderful choice for reluctant readers, especially boys.  It is impossible to read this book and not fall in love with Albie, or get a craving for donuts!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Shredderman: Secret Identity

Shredderman: Secret Identity Book 1
Neal Shusterman & Eric Elfman

Knopf, 2004 138 pgs  

Grades 2-4
Realistic Fiction

5th grader, Nolan, has no friends.  Thanks to the classroom bully, Bubba, Nolan is nicknamed "Nerd" and his classmates, who also are given horrible nicknames by Bubba, give him a wide berth.  Nolan tries to talk to his teacher about the problem, but Bubba is sneaky and the other kids are afraid of him, so there is no proof of bad behavior or other willing witnesses.  After reading a comment on his excellent math test from his hippie teacher ("You shred, man!") Nolan takes on a new persona "Shredderman".  As Shredderman he sets up a website exposing Bubba's bullying behavior caught by Nolan's hidden camera.  Nolan then spreads little papers with a link to the website in a harrowing scene involving a near miss off the school roof.  Everyone in the school sees the website, Bubba is brought to justice, and the other kids start to take back their own names and refuse to be bullied.  Nolan gains a new found confidence and starts to make friends.  His teacher apologizes for not listening and asks to be Nolan's secret sidekick. Further adventures for Shredderman are to follow.

Shredderman is a series of books for beginning chapter book readers.  They would especially appeal to boys and would be a great choice for reluctant readers.  The chapter are short with catchy titles, the margins are big, and the cartoon-like illustrations are plentiful.  The is much humor in the book, but with an underlining seriousness about bullying and making friends.  Nolan has a real problem and he solves it using his head and talents.  He goes from feeling powerless to powerful.  His family is kind and supportive and his singing hippie teacher would be fun to have in class.  What child doesn't dream of being a superhero?  Nolan turns himself into one and makes the world believe it.  Does the book end a little too neatly?  Who cares.  Its great fun and just right for early chapter book readers.