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Posts from May 2008

May Carnival of Children's Literature

For those looking for a bit of enjoyable weekend reading, the May Carnival of Children's Literature is now available at Here in the Bonny Glen. Melissa Wiley is the original creator of the Carnival of Children's Literature, and when she put out a last minute call for submissions this week, people responded promptly and enthusiastically. Melissa has put together an entertaining collection of links about children's literature, with particular emphasis on reviews. Head on over and check it out!

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey: Trenton Lee Stewart

Book: The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey
Author: Trenton Lee Stewart
Illustrator: Diana Sudyka
Pages: 448
Age Range: 9-12

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous JourneyBackground: I much enjoyed The Mysterious Benedict Society. I called it "sure winner for middle grade readers, boy and girls, especially if they like puzzles, or reading about mystery and adventure." Naturally, I was pleased when I heard that there would be a sequel. And I finally have it in my hands. Yay!

Review: The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey reunites the multi-talented four-child team assembled during The Mysterious Benedict Society. As the story begins, the four children, who have been separated from one another for nearly a year, are reunited. Their mentor, Mr. Benedict, has arranged a surprise quest for them, a chance for them to polish their special skills in a safe environment. Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for the reader), that safe environment doesn't quite materialize. Mr. Benedict and his assistant, Number Two, are kidnapped and held for ransom. The children must follow Mr. Benedict's clues on their own, and find a way to save him.

Some adult readers may take exception to the notion of four children, one of them only three years old, traveling around the world, unaccompanied, into dangerous situations. But I think that kids will love it. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey reminded me a bit of Enid Blyton's Five books, which I devoured as a kid, with that same feeling of resourceful kids taking responsibility for their own adventures (remember when the Five hid out on Kirrin's Island, sleeping on beds made of heather?). But the Mysterious Benedict Society kids are much more talented than the Famous Five, and certainly more three dimensional. As in the first book, each child's particular strength plays a part. But Trenton Lee Stewart doesn't shy away from showing their flaws, either, nor the occasional tensions between them. Reynie's excitement, in the first chapter, at seeing his friends again will mirror the reader's excitement at seeing all four of the kids again.

The children's personalities shine through on virtually every page, kept from being overpowering by the author's lightly humorous tone. For example, here's Kate, strong and dynamic:

"Well, enough lying around," said Kate, who had been lying around for perhaps three seconds. She sprang to her feet. "Aren't you going to say anything about my bucket?" (Page 13, ARC)

and here are the team leader Reynie and the brilliant but awkward Sticky:

Reynie smiled to himself. He was quite familiar with Sticky's habit of polishing his spectacles when nervous, and seeing him do so now was unexpectedly satisfying. There was a unique pleasure in knowing a friend so well, Reynie reflected, rather like sharing a secret code. Also, it was nice not to be the only one afraid of Kate's bird." (Page 27, ARC)

and here is Constance, the difficult one:

It was at that unexpected celebration that the other children had learned that Constance was only two years old. Until then they'd thought she was just an unusually small, awkward, and stubborn child with poor manners." (Page 82, ARC)

In this installment, Constance reveals new and downright spooky pattern-recognition abilities, which almost around to precognition. But she's still her old, cranky self, requiring patience from the others. Sticky reveals surprising strengths, too, while Kate displays a new vulnerability, now that she has found her father (who appeared in the first book to have abandoned her). Reynie seems not to have so much changed as to have continued his evolution as a leader and astute thinker.

The children's travels involves a ship, a train, bicycles, and a small airplane. They decipher clues, and have several run-ins with dangerous characters. They are constantly on the move, and learn new things about themselves and the mysterious Mr. Benedict along the way. In short, like the first book, this is an engaging, entertaining adventure, sure to please middle grade readers. I think that kids will especially enjoy the chance to solve the clues along with the Benedict Society kids. None of them are so difficult as to be intimidating, or so difficult as to be implausible. (That is, it's not implausible that the kids can solve the riddles - some of the other action is a bit implausible.) Overall, this is a sequel that is probably slightly stronger than the first book, and one that will not disappoint fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society. I hope that Reynie, Kate, Sticky, and Constance will have further adventures.

Publisher: Little, Brown Young Readers
Publication Date: May 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes are from the advance copy, and may not reflect the final edition of the book.
Other Blog Reviews: Oops ... Wrong Cookie, Look Books, Amanda's Book Blog. See also my review of the first book, The Mysterious Benedict Society.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

I Shall Not Want: Julia Spencer-Fleming

Book: I Shall Not Want
Author: Julia Spencer-Fleming
Pages: 336
Age Range: Adult (mystery)

I Shall Not WantBackground: When I'm not reading children's and young adult titles, my reading genre of choice is mysteries. For several years I've been a fan of Julia Spencer-Fleming's Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series. Enough so that I signed up for the author's email list, and jumped at the chance when she offered ARCs of the series' sixth title: I Shall Not Want.

Although this is a mystery series about a small-town police chief, the real tension comes not from crime scene investigations, but from the relationship between the police chief and a local minister. The series begins with In the Bleak Midwinter, in which Clare first moves to the snowy Adirondack town of Millers Kill, and falls head over heels in love with the married police chief, Russ. Clare is an Episcopal priest, and as such is permitted to marry, but her church, and her own conscience, frown on affairs with married men. Thus a huge theme for the first book, and the books that follow, involves the unrequited passion felt between the two main characters.

I am a solid fan of the unrequited passion storyline, when it's done convincingly. And Julia Spencer-Fleming is very good what she does. The reader positively aches for Russ and Clare, two kindred spirits who eventually can't even spend time together as friends, because of the risks of gossip. The problem with unrequited passion storylines in a continuing series, however, is that in order for the series to progress, you have to eventually allow the couple to be together. And, usually, that's the beginning of the end for the dramatic tension in the series. (For some pop cultural examples, Grey's Anatomy flagged once Meredith and Derek were finally together, and they had to break them up again. And the old television show Scarecrow and Mrs. King couldn't survive once Mrs. King became Mrs. Scarecrow.) This puts the reader (and I presume the writer) in a bit of a bind. We love these characters. We want to see them happy. And yet, once they come together, we see that as the happily ever after (Elizabeth and Darcy, for example) and we don't really need to read about them anymore. And that's where Julia Spencer-Fleming is with Russ and Clare - at the precipice.

I highly recommend this series, as long as you start at the beginning. These are darkly atmospheric tales, set in a rural location with harsh weather and strong-willed characters. The books are mysteries, but they are also in-depth character analyses, and provide a sharp look at religion and moral values. They are leavened with humor, too, through the voices of the characters.

The review that follows will contain spoilers for the series as a whole, especially book 5. So stop here if you haven't read All Mortal Flesh. And if you are new to the series, go get yourself a copy of In the Bleak Midwinter. You won't be disappointed.

Review: As this sixth installment of the Fergusson/Van Alstyne series begins, tragic heroes Russ and Clare can theoretically be together, because of Russ's wife's death in book five. Russ, however, is consumed by guilt over the fact that had he been with his wife, instead of with Clare, his wife wouldn't have died. His guilt is compounded by the fact that he wants to be able to be with Clare openly, but feels like his potential happiness is at the expense of his dead wife. Clare, meanwhile, is a mess, because Russ has been pushing her away, at a time when she is coping with her own guilt regarding the events of All Mortal Flesh.

But I Shall Not Want Doesn't start with Russ and Clare at all. Instead, the book introduces a new character and thrusts her into compelling action from the very first page. How is this for an opening line:

"When she saw the glint of the revolver barrel through the broken glass of the window, Hadley Knox thought, I'm going to die for sixteen bucks an hour."

Hadley turns out to be a new cop on the local police force, a struggling single mother who isn't sure whether or not being a cop is the best thing, but is in it for the benefits. Hadley's outsider perspective freshens the series a bit, and allows the reader to see things about Russ and Clare that might be hidden from the heroes themselves. The perspective of the book shifts seamlessly between these three primary protagonists (with occasional digressions). For example, here is Hadley's first meeting with Clare:

"I'm Clare Fergusson." She moved close enough for Hadley to make out her face, cheekbones, chin, and nose, all points and angles. "I'm the rector here at St. Albans." She smiled a welcome, but there was a bone-deep sadness about her that the smile couldn't dissipate. (page 15, ARC)

Hadley's opening scene is filled with drama and tension, and ends with a major character in jeopardy, possibly dead. The next chapter begins six months previously, as the reader learns of the events that brought the characters to that pivotal scene. Talk about keeping the reader turning the pages! I stayed up until 2:00 am reading this book, because I had to know what happened.

The plot of I Shall Not Want involves illegal Mexican immigrants (working at local farms), a caring nun, racist rednecks, and suspicious activities by newcomers to the area. These various plot elements end up pulling Russ and Clare together, in spite of themselves, as each works to help people in trouble. Although the plot is suspenseful, I found myself flagging many passages along the way that were well-written, or illuminating, or humorous (or all three). For example:

Sister Lucille patted her hand. "Not meaning to be nosy. It's just that I've found one of the great benefits of the celibate life is fearlessness. Especially for women. You can see what needs to be done and do it, without fear of how it's going to affect your family or your reputation." Where she had been patting she squeezed, hard. "Don't let anyone convince you it's a flaw. We need more fearless women following Christ, not less." (page 25, ARC)

I Shall Not Want also has a fun nod towards adult readers of children's books. One of the cops mentions the Weasley twins (in context of a younger cop being a red-head), and an older cop doesn't know what he's talking about. Here's the exchange:

"Harry Potter?" Kevin said. "Everybody's heard of that."

"MacAuley made a face. "Kids' books."

"I like 'em." McCrea twisted a faucet on. "Last one came out, I read it before my son did."

"Grown-ups reading kids' books," MacAuley said with disgust. "It's no wonder we're importin' men from Mexico to do our work for us. We're all getting too dumb to know one end of a hammer from the other." (page 43-44, ARC)

And we're back on track to the plot. Honestly, I don't know how Julia Spencer-Fleming pulls it off. I'm reading as fast as I can to find out what happens, but I'm also happy to stop and read little insider passages about what it's like to be the rector of a small church, or about the police chief's steps to limit fraternization among the police force (given the presence of a new female cop). And I'm smirking over witty internal monologue like:

"Her twenty-year old refrigerator was almost buried beneath photos, clippings, comics, and brochures. He figured the whole appliance was held together by magnetic force at this point." (page 124, ARC).


"... Neil said. "He didn't understand when she told him to clear off, 'cause he don't speak no English."

Kevin thought Neil wasn't doing so hot in that department himself." (page 200, ARC).

Funny, profound, intriguing, moving. This book has it all.  The addition of Hadley as a new character, and the inclusion of another young cop's viewpoint, keep this sixth book fresh. The reader continues to care what happens with Russ and Clare, but also gets a bit of a break from the intensity of their emotions. And the way that the plot strands come together is satisfying, without being obvious.

Highly recommended for fans of the series. New readers should start at the beginning. Clare, Russ, and the rest of the Millers Kill team are well worth spending time with.

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur
Publication Date: June 10, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the author. All quotes are from the advance copy, and may not reflect the final printed book.
Other Blog Reviews: The Mystery Gazette, Citadel of Stars
Author Interviews: Poe's Deadly Daughters

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Clementine's Letter: Sara Pennypacker

Book: Clementine's Letter
Author: Sara Pennypacker
Illustrator: Marla Frazee
Pages: 160
Age Range: 7-10

Clementine's LetterClementine's Letter is the third book in Sara Pennypacker's Clementine series, after Clementine (review here) and The Talented Clementine (review here). In this installment, third grader Clementine has adjusted to her new teacher's rules, and isn't spending quite so much time in the principal's office. She is thus devastated to learn that her teacher has been nominated for a contest, and will be spending the week out of school. What's worse - if he wins the contest, he'll be gone for the rest of the year. Clementine is outraged. They had plans. How can the teacher up and abandon her? Worse still, the substitute teacher and Clementine simply don't get along. In a fit of anger, Clementine writes a less than enthusiastic recommendation letter for her teacher...

Meanwhile at home, Clementine happens on an ingenious gift idea for her father. Afraid that her mother might feel left out, she embarks on a quest to buy her mother a special gift. As the reader might expect, the quest to make money leads Clementine into a spot of trouble.

I continue to love Clementine's voice, and the way that Marla Frazee's delightful sketches bring her to life. There is a picture on the last page of the book of Clementine, happily hugging herself, which is worth the price of the book alone. In fact, I challenge the prospective reader. Go to the store, find a copy of Clementine's Letter, and turn to the last page. See if you can look at that picture, and not want to read more about Clementine. Go ahead. I dare you. And then check out page 106, for a contrasting sketch of Clementine angry with her substitute teacher. Marla Frazee can convey the entire range of human emotions through expression and posture.

As for the text, I flagged passage after passage, examples that highlight the joy that is Clementine. Like:

"Whenever my teacher needs someone to run an errand to the principal's office, he sends me. This is because I am so responsible. Okay, fine, it's also because I get sent so often I could find my way with my eyes closed.

Which I tried once. You'd be amazed at how many bruises you can get from just one water fountain." (Page 2)


"When my brother wakes up, he sticks one foot up in the air and smiles really big when he sees it -- as if it's his best friend he's been missing all night. He waggles it back and forth and thinks it's waving to him. "Hi foot!" he yells. Then he does the same thing with his other foot.

I do not think anyone who says hello to his own feet is ever going to make it to third grade." (Page 39)

Clementine is resourceful, too, frequently able to suggest a solution to a problem (like her friend Margaret's phobia's, or her little brother's unwillingness to have his jacket put on). And she is honest with herself. For example:

"I turned away so I wouldn't laugh, because I know how bad it feels to be laughed at.
Okay, fine. Also because she's a little bit bigger than I am and her pocketbook has pointy edges." (Page 51)

I also like the active role that Clementine's parents, especially her father, have in her life. In this book, Clementine starts a book that she wants her father to write, and includes helpful lines to get him started. He responds in kind, and the book becomes an extra communication tool between an already close parent and child.

And, of course, I like the regular references to the Red Sox in the book. Clementine's neighbor, Mitchell, who is NOT her boyfriend (but will be one day, you'll see...) is a rabid Red Sox fan, the kind of boy who can tell you about every home run hit out of Fenway all season long. Plus Mitchell is a likable character in his own right. Here's why:

"This is a good thing about Mitchell -- he never asks why, he just does stuff for me. If I'd asked Margaret, she would have asked me a hundred questions and then told me a hundred reasons why my idea was stupid and she had a better one.

Not Mitchell. He just says Okay. If I ever have a boyfriend, which I will not, it might be him. (Page 114)

If Mitchell is a bit too good to be true - it's okay by me.

In short, this book has all of the elements that made the first two books wonderful: voice, humor, heart, and illustrations that bring the whole thing to life. But I have to admit that this isn't my favorite of the three. Clementine's antics weren't quite as over-the-top, and her struggles in this book just didn't move me in the quite the same way. I enjoyed The Talented Clementine more. But I don't think it's that the series is getting stale - I think that in any series, individual readers are going to prefer some books over others. The bottom line is that I adore Clementine, and enjoyed getting to spend more time with her. I will eagerly await book 4.

Publisher: Hyperion
Publication Date: April 1, 2008
Source of Book: Bought it at Hicklebee's
Other Blog Reviews: emilyreads (review haiku), Kids Lit, Sarah Miller, A Year of Reading, Read, Read, Read, Book Talks, Miss Erin
Author Interviews: School Library Journal
Illustrator Interviews: Cynsations, Just One More Book

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Summer Reading, Blogging Tips, and Charlie Bucket

Is it just me, or are there more and more interesting blog posts out there every day? Here are a few things that have caught my eye since last weekend:

  • PBS Parents has a new guest expert, literacy and education consultant Julie Wood. Julie is talking with parents about "instilling a love of words in your child." She discusses her own experience reading aloud with students, and notes that "A love of words and a rich reservoir of word knowledge are essential for children. Word knowledge allows children to understand what they read and to express themselves in writing and speaking." Do check out the post, and the intelligent comments and questions entered by various parents.
  • Mitali Perkins has an interesting post (inspired by a discussion on the YALSA-BK discussion list) about religious authors and children's fiction. She notes (responding to a previous comment by Pooja Makhijani): "An author's religious worldview definitely shapes his or her fiction, but I worry about assumptions that drive such a discussion in the realm of children's literature." She also posits that "Children love stories because for once they sense equality in a relationship with a grownup." Make sure you read the comments on the post.
  • Liz B. from Tea Cozy can be glimpses in an MTV report on an American Sign Language story hour at the NJ Library for the Blind and Handicapped. She has the link here.
  • Jenny has a must-read post at Read. Imagine. Talk. about how her passion for encouraging readers was influenced by her experiences teaching in an inner city school. She says: "For now, I am content to be able, for the first time, to trace my thinking about literacy to a moment in time.  My love for helping kids fall in love with books is not because I love books, but because it is painful to watch kids who have no interest in or knowledge of books." Here's hoping she shares more in this series, however.
  • At The Reading Tub blog, Terry shares her plans for the upcoming BEA conference, and outlines three items on her "influence agenda" for people she talks with at the show. She calls for specific shifts in focus for the publishing industry to help nurture developing readers (e.g. "We need more sensory books for emerging and semi-independent readers").
  • A Visitor for BearCongratulations to Bonny Becker! Her picture book, A Visitor for Bear (which I LOVED) was just awarded the Hicklebee's Book of the Year Award. Hicklebee's is my local independent children's bookstore (in San Jose), and it's run by people who adore books, and want kids to adore them, too. That makes this award a huge honor, but one that is well-deserved.
  • After preparing for a summer school class that she's teaching, Tricia shares an excellent post about The Importance of Math in Our Lives at The Miss Rumphius Effect. She asks readers of the blog: "What do you do to help your students (young or old) think about the importance of math in their lives?"
  • Speaking of summer, over at Chicken Spaghetti, Susan asks readers: "what's on your summer list". She shares some of her planned reading, and several others contribute in the comments. How about you? Do you have any books lined up for summer reading?
  • See also Donalyn Miller's post about the summer reading slump, and what she's doing to combat it, at The Book Whisperer. She says: "I believe that the most important books my students will read are the ones they read after school is out. Choosing to read during the summer proves my students are independent readers who don’t need my modeling or expectations to keep reading. They read because they want to, not because they have to." Donalyn also shares some titles from her own summer reading list, and asks readers to share theirs. 
  • And for a special twist on summer reading, April Pulley Sayre writes at Interesting Nonfiction for Kids (I.N.K.) about how it's sometimes good for kids to be trapped through circumstances (like a vacation house) into reading books that they wouldn't ordinarily read. She concludes: "Nonfiction is perfectly suited to this kind of spontaneous reading. Seed your surroundings with such books and see what happens!"
  • Via TadMack from Finding Wonderland (who always has the scoop on the important things), I learned that Colleen Mondor has another project brewing, this one open to anyone who would like to participate. She ""is going to be highlighting young adult books that cover political subjects Wednesdays this August, and invites interested bloggers to join her... Topics are these: August 5th - Race in America; August 12th - The environment; August 19th - Class divisions in America; August 26th - US foreign policy."
  • PJ Hoover asks an interesting question over at Roots in Myth: "Why is Charlie (Bucket, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) worthy to become the heir? He made a mistake just like all the other kids. Sure, he didn't get carried off by Oompa-Loompas, but he still disobeyed the rules." Read the post for PJ's son's thoughts, and the comments for various other responses.
  • Although relatively new to blogging, Natasha from the Maw Books blog shares an extremely helpful post filled with Blogging Tips for the Book Blogger. She covers everything from motivation to branding to blogging and blog reader platforms, with many other topics in between. Some other tips from readers can also be found in the extensive comments.

Happy reading to all!

MotherReader's 48 Hour Book Challenge is Approaching

48hbcAre YOU ready for MotherReader's third annual 48 Hour Book Challenge? It's coming up! The chosen weekend is June 6-8. Here's the gist (from MotherReader herself):

"Read and blog for any 48-hour period within the Friday-to-Monday-morning window. Start no sooner than 7:00 a.m. on Friday the sixth and end no later than 7:00 a.m. Monday...But the 48 hours do need to be in a row."

Why would you want to read and blog as much as possible over a designated 48-hour period? Well, for those of us who want to do something like that every weekend, this provides an excuse to do so, and company, so that it's not such a lonely pursuit. Plus there are prizes! But what it really boils down to is this: if you participate in the 48 Hour Book Challenge, you'll be able to prioritize reading and blogging about books over a two-day period. And you'll be amazed at how much you can accomplish if you really set your mind to it. You don't have to get carried away, of course. Showering and sleeping and things are certainly allowed.

I wasn't able to participate last year, but this year I am ready. I haven't been reading nearly as much as usual lately - still catching up after my move, and trips, and guest and all sorts of things. I think that the 48 Hour Book Challenge will be just the thing to get me back on track.

My current top 10 list of candidate books is:

Why did I pick these books? Well, they're already on my shelf, so they are easy to come by. They're all books that I've been wanting to read, and that seem fun (spooky or scary in some cases, but still fun). And they're all medium length, mostly middle grade titles (they're supposed to be for fifth grade and above). If I'm going to spend so much time reading and blogging, I don't want to get too bogged down on any one book (though you can read long books - I think that there will be prizes concerning pages read and time spent, not just books completed). Of course my list is subject to change, should I happen to read some of the books ahead of time, or should something irresistible show up in the mail.

My plan is to set up skeleton blog posts ahead of time for each of the books that I'm thinking of reading, so that I don't have to waste time pulling in the cover shots, etc., during the challenge. (And I don't think this is cheating, since I won't count it as time spent). I'm going to start as early as my work will allow on Friday. My plan is also to convince a certain better half that Saturday, June 7th, would be an excellent day for him to spend golfing. It's also fitting for me to be participating in a reading challenge on June 7th because that was my Grandmother Robinson's birthday, and she loved books, especially children's books. Kind of a nice tribute, really.

Anyway, if you want more information about the 48 Hour Book Challenge, stay tuned to MotherReader.

Growing Bookworms Newsletter: Special Double Issue

Jpg_book007This afternoon I will be sending out the new issue of the Growing Bookworms weekly email newsletter. (If you would like to subscribe, you can find a sign-up form here.) The Growing Bookworms newsletter contains content from my blog focused on children's books and raising readers. There are currently more than 260 subscribers.

This week's issue is a bit long, because I wasn't able to send out the newsletter last week. I have a review of the latest Percy Jackson book, an installment of my "reviews that made me want to read the book" feature, two children's literacy and reading news round-ups, three Kidlitosphere round-ups with links to useful posts from the past two weeks, an announcement about the upcoming Kidlitosphere conference (in Portland in September), and a report describing Rick Riordan's recent signing event in San Jose. Recent posts not included in this newsletter include:

More reviews coming next week, I promise. My schedule is finally clearing a bit. Thanks for reading, and for growing bookworms!

Children's Literacy Round-Up: Memorial Day Edition

Wishing you all a peaceful, sunny Memorial Day. And with thanks to all of the men and women who have sacrificed to protect the United States over the years, so that we can sit outside an enjoy holidays like this. (Well, ok, I'm sitting inside on the computer, but I intend to get outside this afternoon.) Here are some recent children's literacy and reading news stories from around the wires.

  • VOA news has an article by Faiza Elmasry about a student run bookstore that is raising literacy levels in a South San Francisco middle school. "To improve students' English skills and general literacy, two English teachers have helped set up a bookstore inside the school. The store provides a variety of interesting books at affordable prices and an opportunity for students to run it themselves." The author of the article visited the store, and interviewed both students and teachers involved.
  • A recent edition of the PBS Online News Hour focused on the question of whether or not there currently exists a gender gap in education. Two experts (Linda Hallman, the executive director of the American Association of University Women, and Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for Student of Opportunity in Higher Education) answered contributed questions, moderated by Ray Suarez. A transcript of the resulting interview can be found here (with links to the audio version).
  • Literacy and Reading News has an article by Brian Scott about the 12th Annual Summer Reading Program at Barnes and Noble, featuring Andrew Clements. "Children who take part in the program read any eight books of their own choosing, list them, and record their favorite parts of the book in their "Summer Reading with Andrew Clements" journal. They then can bring their completed journal to any Barnes & Noble to receive a coupon for a free book from a list of bestselling titles. The completed form also serves as an entry form to win a free autographed copy of an Andrew Clements book."
  • Also at Literacy and Reading News is a post about the importance of fathers in children's literacy, with content from The National Center of Family Literacy. "As Father's Day approaches, NCFL offers ... tips for fathers and families on how to teach their child by using the world around them and maximize time spent reading together", such as "Teach math skills by letting your child count the money to pay at the store".
  • The Hartford Courant has an article by Joe Milicia about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Toddler Rock program, which uses music to introduce preschoolers to learning. I've linked to articles about this program before (and this article is very similar), but I think it's still a neat program, if you haven't read about it before. "Letter recognition, rhyming and alliteration — all crucial to developing reading skills — are important parts of the three 10-week programs, which wrap up for the season Wednesday. So are the development of social skills and self-esteem."
  • Have you seen the Times (UK) article by Jonathan Leake that proposes that texting boosts children's literacy? According to the article, "Professor David Crystal believes that sending frequent texts helps children’s reading and writing because of the imaginative abbreviations needed. The finding is in stark contrast to fears that texting’s free forms and truncated words herald the abandonment of traditional grammar. “People have always used abbreviations,” said Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. “They do not actually use that many in texts but when they do they are using them in new, playful and imaginative ways that benefit literacy.”" Personally, I think that jury is still out on this subject.
  • An article by Fay Burstin in the Melbourne Herald Sun (Australia) addresses late-talking children, saying: "Almost half of all those who start talking late develop language difficulties by the age of four, a University of Melbourne study of 1900 kids has found. The difficulties include learning and literacy problems at school and forming relationships with other children... Professor Sheena Reilly, lead author and speech pathologist at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, said the study dispelled the myth that all children grew out of language problems. She urged parents to seek help early."
  • According to an article by Sally Williams on IC Wales, a UK think tank has proposed cutting school summer holidays to two weeks to boost literacy. "Children are falling behind in class because progress made during the academic year is forgotten over the long summer break, the Institute for Public Policy Research has claimed. Research suggests that pupils lose some of their reading skills during the long summer break, the Institute for Public Policy Research said. So, in a bid to boost learning, the institute is calling for the school year to be divided into five eight-week terms, with a fortnight’s holiday between each." This recommendation is, of course, controversial already.
  • A recent news release reports that a three-year regional New Zealand literacy program has had "outstanding results" for all primary school students. (Which makes me a bit suspicious - how could any program help "all students"? But anyway...) "Development West Coast invested $1.8 million into the joint research and development project, led by the Woolf Fisher Research Centre at University of Auckland, with Learning Media Ltd, 34 primary schools and several early childhood centres, University of Canterbury Education Plus and Ministry of Education. Teachers were taught how to use student achievement data to monitor and improve both their teaching and pupil learning."
  • The Connecticut Post has an article by Keila Torres about "Lee y sers, a national program to help Latino parents teach their children how to read". The program "was created by Scholastic, in collaboration with the National Council of La Raza and the Verizon Foundation. "We don't see this as a Latino issue, it's a national issue. Latino children are the fastest-growing population in the nation," said Windy Lopez, Scholastic's national manager of Lee y sers. "It's about ensuring those children have the skills they need to compete in a 21st-century economy.""
  • The Milford Daily News (Massachusetts) has a guest column by Massachusetts First Lady Diane Patrick about the importance of reading aloud to children. She says: "This summer, I am proud to join Reach Out and Read in their challenge to all Massachusetts parents to read to your child every day. By taking 20 minutes a day to sit down with your daughter in your lap and read her a story, you're not only helping her to gain a better understanding of our language, you're helping her to develop what could become a lifelong love of reading. When you read to your children, they're not thinking about the valuable lessons or the new words they're learning; they're thinking about how wonderful it is to be spending time with their parents. Later in life, they'll continue to have a positive association with reading, which can have an extraordinary impact on their education and their success in the workplace." I don't know too much about Diane Patrick, but I certainly agree with her about this.

And that's enough for today. Hope that everyone is having a wonderful weekend!

The Battle of the Labyrinth: Rick Riordan

Book: The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 4)
Author: Rick Riordan
Pages: 368
Age Range: 10 and up

The Battle of the LabyrinthBackground: It almost seems pointless for me to review The Battle of the Labyrinth. Anyone giving more than a passing attention to my blog knows that I am a huge fan of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. I love the way the books engage young readers, including formerly reluctant readers, and get them excited about reading. I love the way the books are filled with interesting facts about Greek mythology, but never feel even the tiniest bit like the author is lecturing. I love the well-developed characters, with their strengths and flaws and personality quirks. I love the humor of the chapter titles ("Nico Buys Happy Meals for the Dead" and "The Underworld Sends Me a Prank Call").

It would be difficult for one of the Percy Jackson books to disappoint me. I feel about them the same way I feel about the Harry Potter books - I care about the characters and I want to spend time in the world of the books. Each new book provides me with an opportunity to do that, and I wouldn't miss one for anything.

So, can I just say that the fourth Percy Jackson book, The Battle of the Labyrinth, lived up to my expectations? Can I tell you that it's a worthy penultimate chapter of the series, and is not to be missed by fans, and leave it at that? No? You want a real review? OK.

Review: The Battle of the Labyrinth is the fourth book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. For those new to the series, the premise is that the Greek gods, being immortal, are still around, and occasionally pair up with mortals to sire children. These children are called half-bloods, or demigods. They are mortal, in that they can die, but they also have special powers, which vary depending on which god was their parent. The half-bloods are constant targets of monsters, and lead perilous lives. Not many of them make it to adulthood at all. Fortunately, they do have a camp that they can go to during the summers, Camp Half-Blood, where they learn to harness their strengths, and live in relative safety.

The hero of the series is Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon. Percy, child of one of the three most powerful Gods (along with Zeus and Hades), lives in the shadow of a prophecy, and frequently finds himself at the center of the action. But he's an ordinary teenage boy in many ways, struggling with ADHD and dyslexia, and completely baffled by the ways of girls. His three best friends are Annabeth, daughter of Athena, Grover, an adolescent satyr, and Tyson, his half-brother, a cyclops. In this installment, Percy learns that the Labyrinth, the one with the Minotaur and Icarus and Daedalus, still exists, and has grown to stretch under the entire United States. The Labyrinth is organic, constantly shifting, and filled with perils. Percy's enemy, Luke (another half-blood, one gone to the dark side), has learned of an entrance from the Labyrinth into the previously safe camp. Once Luke can find his way through the Labyrinth, with his army of monsters, he plans to destroy the camp and then take on Olympus itself. Unless, of course, Percy and his friends can stop him.

This book features a nearly impossible quest, a dark prophecy, and constant danger. Percy and his friends must demonstrate courage, loyalty, and their own unique strengths to make it through the Labyrinth. Not to worry, though. There's also humor, and a bit of a side plot concerning Percy's love life. Rachel Elizabeth Dare, a mortal girl who can see through the mist (which normally keeps humans from seeing monsters, or understanding what's going on with the demigods), had a brief appearance in the third Percy Jackson book. In this installment (as hinted at by the author in my interview with him) she plays a more major role, adding a mortal's eye perspective while also creating tension in Percy's relationship with Annabeth.

The thing I love most about this series is the juxtaposition of humorous, self-deprecating teen voice with big picture philosophical issues. For example, in one scene in this book, Percy and Annabeth meet Hera, Queen of Heaven, wife of Zeus. Hera explains:

"You see, in times of trouble, even gods can lose faith. they start putting their trust in the wrong things, petty things. They stop looking at the big picture and start being selfish. But I'm the god of marriage, you see. I'm used to perseverance. You have to rise above the squabbling and chaos, and keep believing. You have to always keep your goals in mind." (Page 105)

This is in contrast to various remarks by Percy, throughout the book, like:

"If you've never been charged by an enthusiastic Cyclops wearing a flowered apron and rubber cleaning gloves, I'm telling you, it'll wake you up quick." (Page 33)

"Tyson and I spend the afternoon catching up and just hanging out, which nice after a morning of getting attached by demon cheerleaders." (Page 35)

And then, of course, there's the very first line of the book: "The last thing I wanted to do on my summer break was blow up another school." Who could resist that opener?

So, you have humor, combined with both mythological information and the imparting of wisdom. This is layered on top of a fast-paced plot, one with heavy use of foreshadowing and suspense, that keeps the reader turning the pages. I felt that the characterization was particularly strong in this fourth book, even of relatively minor characters. Grover has a new girlfriend, a tree nymph named Juniper. At one point, asked about when she noticed something, Juniper says: "I don't know. I don't pay attention to time." Tyson, Percy's not-too-bright but mechanically talented brother, tinkers with metal scraps when he has difficulty sleeping, and apologizes to a sacred cow that he startles. You definitely get the feeling that Rick Riordan knows all of these characters intimately, not just the half-bloods, and that when it makes sense, he reinforces their personalities to the reader. 

This is a book that young readers will devour in a few sittings, but that will also leave them wondering. How will Percy and his friends take on Luke and Kronos in the final chapter? Will Rachel be back? Where will Nico, son of Hades, stand when the chips are down? Will Percy ever wise up to the fact that Annabeth is acting weird because she is jealous? And perhaps it will leave them thinking about some big-picture stuff, too. What are we as a civilization doing to the wilderness (a major concern of Grover's in the book)? If you were in Percy's shoes, would you have made the decision that he made 2/3 of the way through the book? (No spoilers here, if you've read the book, you'll know what I mean). Is Annabeth right to retain some scraps of loyalty toward Luke, who was her friend when they were young?

In short, I would rate this as essential reading for fans of the series. And I'll also add that for readers 10 and up, if you haven't read the series, you really should. But start at the beginning, with The Lightning Thief, so that you can learn and grow with Percy Jackson and the Olympians. And by the time you get to The Battle of the Labyrinth, I'm sure that you'll enjoy it as much as I did. Which is, tremendously.

Publisher: Hyperion
Publication Date: May 6, 2008
Source of Book: Bought it and had it signed at Hicklebee's (notes about the signing here)
Other Blog Reviews: Kevin's Corner, Becky's Book Reviews, Lesa's Book Critiques, Boys Rule Boys Read!, Book Dweeb, Turning the Paige, Book Nut
Author Interviews: My WBBT interview from last year, Miss Erin interview from March of 2007

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Saturday Afternoon Visits: Memorial Day Weekend Edition

It is pretty quiet out there on the blogs this weekend. I hope that you're all outside, enjoying the holiday weekend (in the US it's a holiday weekend, anyway). My friend Cory is here, and we thought that we would be sitting outside sipping margaritas right about now, but it's unseasonably cold, and the air is smoky from a fire nearby (not near enough to be a danger, but near enough for the air to be smoky, and for my heart to go out to the people who have lost their homes this week). So anyway, we're inside, Cory is reading, Mheir is hard at work assembling the new grill, and I figured I would share a few links:

  • Tasha Saecker recently published two excellent posts related to literacy at Kids Lit. In the first, she responds to Esther Jantzen's OpEd piece in the L.A. Times (which I mentioned in my last literacy round-up). She says, among other things, "The best part of the article is its call to action. How do we as caring adults, involved citizens and librarians get our communities investing in literacy, educating parents and really addressing this monumental issue? Well, it can't be to sit in our comfortable offices and work cubicles and moan about it. We have to be out working with Headstart children, WIC families, and visiting those areas of our community where we worry about safety.  If children live there, then we can venture there." Great stuff! Please go and read the whole post. In her second post, she talks about the reading habits of teachers. She links to an article "on research into teacher reading habits by the Centre for Literacy and Primary Education which finds that many teachers do not regularly read children's literature and therefore tend to select books from a narrow band on authors." I agree with Tasha that there seems to be an opportunity for children's librarians to fill the gap, and help the teachers to recommend a wider range of books for kids.
  • As part of the second anniversary of Just One More Book!, Andrea and Mark are redesigning their website, and seeking artwork that promotes a love of reading. Various artists have submitted logo-like illustrations in this vein, and JOMB now has a Love of Reading Gallery. There's some great stuff there already, so do check it out. Also, congratulations to Just One More Book! and Chicken Spaghetti for being "Best of Blogs" finalists. You can find links here at JOMB to vote for them (they are in different categories, so you can vote for them both). Go Susan, Andrea, and Mark!!
  • In other blog redesign news, Jill from The Well-Read Child is seeking feedback from readers about what they are looking for from her blog. If you have any input on types of books that you'd like to see Jill review, or other types of content, you can find the survey here.
  • I know, I know, I keep linking to Jackie Parker's guest posts at ForeWord Magazine's Shelf Space blog. But she keeps getting better and better over there. In her latest post, Jackie discusses the way that blogging has changed her reading habits, and asks readers: "What are you reading? What are you looking forward to? How has blogging or blogs affected your To Be Read pile?" If you have time to comment, I know that she would appreciate your input. (Though I must say that I swear that I left a long comment, and I don't see it there now... Maybe I got filtered somehow.)
  • At the conclusion of the Summer Blog Blast Tour, Colleen Mondor answers some questions about how the whole thing was put together, and why these cross-blog interview events aren't open to the general public for participation (though other events that she organizes are). She also offers to give pointers, if anyone else wants to organize a similar event. You can find the full SBBT wrap-up, with links, at Lectitans.
  • I haven't participated in Weekly Geeks yet, mostly because I'm barely keeping up with the things I'm already doing on my blog, such that I simply can't take on anything new. However, I have been watching with interest. Every week Dewey at The Hidden Side of the Leaf suggests a topic, and various people blog about that topic. Last week's topic was "Choose a political or social issue that matters to you. Find several books addressing that issue". And I could not resist linking to Becky Laney's response, in which she writes about the importance of literacy, and shares various books to help people raise readers (such as the Read-Aloud Handbook, of course, but she has many others). This is one to save, and share with new parent friends. See also Jenny's post about equality in education at Read. Imagine. Talk.   
  • And last, but definitely not least, there's going to a Scaredy Squirrel television show!! 100 Scope Notes has the scoop. Personally, I think it's a great idea. Scaredy is a very engaging character to young children. And perhaps, since he started out in a book, he'll be able to recommend other books, too. See my interview with Scaredy's author Melanie Watt here. I had asked if there would ever be Scaredy stuffed animals, and it seems like the answer is probably yes now.

And that's it for today. I think I have time to read some Percy Jackson before our other guest come over. I wish you all a weekend of peace.

The Second Annual Kidlitosphere Conference: Portland, OR

Thanks to the efforts of the fabulous Jone (aka MsMac) and Laini, planning is underway for the second Kidlitosphere conference. Laini and Jone have set up a blog where they will be recording conference information as it becomes available. Right now they have a date (September 27th, plus possible events the night before and the morning after) and a location (Portland, OR). And they are looking for a rough idea of headcount, so that they can plan details like facilities and group hotel room rates.

Thinking about attending? Here's what Jone and Laini say:

"If you blog about children's books (or YA), or if you are a writer of children's books (or YA) who blogs -- we'd love to see you there."

So, it's open to anyone who blogs about children's or young adult books or writes children's or young adult books and blogs about that. The conference fee is expected to be a quite reasonable $50, including dinner Saturday night, though of course travel costs will drive up the expense. Here's my endorsement, though. I don't like travel. I travel way too much already, for work, and because my family lives 3000 miles away from me. Yet I flew to Chicago from California for the conference last fall (that one organized by the tireless Robin Brande), and considered it completely and totally worth the time and the money. The chance to meet, face to face, with people I interacted with practically day, in a virtual sense? For me, it was impossible to resist. And I was very glad that I went. Everyone I met was warm and friendly and genuinely thrilled to be able to talk, in person, with other people who share their passion for children's books and reading. (My post about last year's conference is here.) It's a completely validating experience.

So, fellow Kidlitosphere members, think about attending if you can. You won't regret it. I plan to be there for sure, and others are RSVPing here even as you read. (You don't have to make a firm commitment now, but if you're thinking of going, do let Laini and Jone know, so that they can plan the best possible event). I hope to see you there!

Reviews that Made Me Want the Book: May 21

Welcome to the latest installment of my "reviews that made me want to read the book" feature. My idea with these posts is to keep track of the books that catch my eye, while also giving props to the talented reviewers who draw my attention through their words.

Secret Society GirlLeila's reviews at Bookshelves of Doom often catch my eye. So when she said: "This book almost got me hit by a car", I paid attention. In her review of Diana Peterfreund's Secret Society Girl: An Ivy League Novel. Leila said "It isn't deep or particularly literary (you may have guessed that from the cover), but it's compulsively readable and completely entertaining. The characters are likable* and bright and I've already ordered the second book in the series." Good enough for me!

Circle of TruthLaura Salas drew me in with her brief review of Circle of Truth by Pat Schmatz. Although the book has fantasy elements, such as a magically appearing stairway, what Laura liked about it was the analysis of relationships in a blended family. She said: "This is not an action-packed book, but the tension increased notch by notch, tightening its grip on me. I couldn't wait to finish and see what happened. The ending was satisfying. I won't say anymore since I don't want to ruin it for anyone."

Portia's Ultra Mysterious Double LifeCindy Mitchell at Kiss the Book also intrigued me with a relatively short review, this one of Portia's Ultra Mysterious Double Life by Anna Hays. It sounds a bit like the Gilda Joyce books. A student reviewer said: "it had a great story of how a twelve year-old girl tries to deal with another earthquake catastrophe and having no father. I really liked this book and would gladly add it to my own collection."

The Sky InsideThis book was a personal recommendation to me by Becky Laney: Clare B. Dunkle's The Sky Inside. Becky also reviewed the book at Becky's Book Reviews, calling it a science fiction dystopian thriller with a premise that "screamed out "read me, read me, read me NOW!"" She also says "t would have been really easy--almost expected--for the characters to take a back seat to the premise, but that isn't the case in The Sky Inside. Yes, the premise had me at hello. But I really and truly came to believe in Martin."

Jumpy Jack & GoogilyEsme Raji Codell recently shared a "healthy dose of the funniest new picture books (she) could find" at Planet Esme. The one that I simply must have is Jumpy Jack & Googily by Meg Rosoff and Sophie Blackall. Honestly, aren't the title and the cover enough? OK, here's part of Esme's description: "Googily, with sharp teeth but a disarming smile and eyes that are, indeed, googly, very endearingly checks wading pools, closets, under tables and beds for any culprits, and children will enjoy the inside joke of a monster inserting himself into every place that Jumpy Jacks fears one might be."

Blue Like FridayAnother brief review by Stacy Church in Book Bits, the Westwood (MA) Public Library blog, pulls me in from the first lines of the review. Stacy says: "This may be my favorite children's book I've read all year. It's funny, really funny, and sad (my favorite combination), and the characters are great. On top of that, there's a mystery that the kids solve themselves. What could be better." What, indeed, Stacy? The book is Blue Like Friday by Siobhan Parkinson. Special bonus: I get a kick out of sitting in California getting book recommendations from the Westwood Library, hometown library of my lovely nieces.

Black SheepCourt from Once Upon a Bookshelf recently shared the news that Sourcebooks will be re-releasing a selection of Georgette Heyer's regency novels shortly. Her review of an advance copy of Black Sheep made me want the book now, but it won't be available until June 1st. In truth, for me, knowing that the book is going to be available, and is one that I haven't read, is good enough for me to decide to buy it. But Court's comments also helped: "The characters were wonderful, and the dialogue was witty and amusing. It was predictable, but that is what you would expect from this type of book. Of course the girl’s going to get the guy, everyone’s problems are going to work out wonderfully and all will live happily ever after. As my first foray into Heyer’s Regency romances, it was certainly successful. I finished the book feeling the complete satisfaction that only a good read can leave you with. I can see why Jane Austen fans really enjoy her books, and I will definitely be reading more of Heyer’s works." Yay! Another convert to one of my favorite authors.

The Diamond of DarkholdThis one is an announcement, not a review, but it's all I need. Monica Edinger reports at Educating Alice that Jeanne Duprau has a new (fourth) Ember book coming out: The Diamond of Darkhold. Monica says: "According to the flap copy, in Sparks Lina and Doon find a beat-up book missing most of its pages, but in it is mention of a device that may still be in Ember. So they go back to find it." Good enough for me! Cool cover, too.

Model SpyJennie from Biblio File intrigued me with her review of Model Spy (The Specialists), by Shannon Greenland. The premise is that a 16-year-old girl is tricked into becoming a spy. Jennie said: "This book was super-fun and exciting. I loved it. I'm sure all the techno babble was completely made up, but I don't care. I like the socially awkward smart, yet hot girl. The plot kept moving and I couldn't put it down. I can't wait for the rest of the books in the series."

And that's all for now. I don't have time to actually read any of these books any time soon, but the combination of review, author, and premise made me want to read them all. Thanks, Kidlitosphere friends!