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Posts from April 2006

Finding Lubchenko: Michael Simmons

Finding Lubchenko by Michael Simmons is a recent young adult novel (Razorbill, 2005). I personally think that it should be sub-titled "Ferris Bueller Goes to Paris." The main character, Evan, is a smart-aleck troublemaker who lures his nerdy best friend, Ruben, into trouble. Ruben and Evan end up skipping town to go to Paris for a week, accompanied by the lovely Erika, where they have many adventures. Ruben and Evan's backgrounds are backwards from Ferris and Cameron's (from the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off). Evan has the difficult, strict father who yells all the time, while Ruben has the liberal, lenient parents who don't notice what's going on right in front of their eyes. However, reading the dialog between Evan and Ruben, as Evan basically bullies Ruben into getting into dangerous situations, made me think of Ferris Bueller over and over again.

Finding Lubchenko is actually a mystery/thriller. Sixteen-year-old Evan is called to the principals's office one day to hear the news that his wealthy father has been arrested for murder. The fact that his straight-laced, Lutheran father could have actually committed the murder is never a serious possibility. However, Evan's own shady activities (stealing from his father's biotech firm) put him in a difficult bind. He has the evidence to free his father, but to share this evidence with the FBI will surely get Evan and Ruben into deep trouble. Evan decides instead to find evidence regarding who really committed the murder. This requires a trip to Paris (charged to Dad's credit card), and a somewhat dangerous investigation following the path of a real killer.

Despite the presence of a murderer, and the extremely dysfunctional relationship between Evan and his Dad, this is a relatively light novel. Evan's voice, expressed in first person, is entertaining and smart-alecky. The book is peppered with brief tangents illustrating Evan's relationship with his Dad, Evan's unrequited love of Erika, Evan's insecurities, and the teen night life in Paris. Most of these asides contribute to the development of Evan's character, and particularly illustrate his relationship with his widowed father.

I found Finding Lubchenko to be a fast-paced, enjoyable adventure, with an engaging teen voice. I will keep my eyes open for other books by Michael Simmons.

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

Anatopsis: Chris Abouzeid

This weekend I read Anatopsis, a middle grade fantasy novel by Chris Abouzeid (who was generous enough to send me a lovely signed copy). Anatopsis is a cross between traditional fantasy and futuristic science fiction, with dashes of mythology and environmentalism thrown in. It's the story of Ana (full name Anatopsis), an Immortal princess who lives in a magical castle on the only island left on Earth capable of sustaining life. Ana's mother, Queen Abigail, is a witch descended from a long line of witches, and is also the chairperson of Amalgamated Witchcraft Corporation. Queen Abigail's sworn enemy is the Warlock King Archibald Georges, head of a rival witchcraft corporation.

As the story begins, Ana learns that she is to have a new tutor for the next year, the demi-god Mr. Pound, and that her classes will be shared with Prince Barnaby Georges (son of her mother's enemy). Ana is supposed to learn with Barnaby, but never to befriend him. Barnaby is a rather hapless boy with very limited magical skills, though he does have some non-magical mechanical ability.

Ana and her best friend/chambermaid, Clarissa (a mortal), initially delight in tormenting Barnaby and his talking dog, Uno. However, as dark events start to occur in the castle, the three children and Uno bond together. By the time circumstances separate them again, their loyalties are firm. This is helped by the fact that Ana's mother and Barnaby's father are both rather harsh and dictatorial.

Ana, Barnaby, Clarissa, and Uno must solve a puzzle related to the mythological division of the human race into mortal vs. immortal, non-magical vs. magical. This division is clearly presented throughout the book, with the mortals portrayed as exploited victims of the immortals (though they are victims who quietly fight back). The mortals live in the toxic environment of the ghetto, while the immortals have access to a magical purification system that keeps their part of the world pleasant.

There are a lot of things to like about this book. I particularly enjoyed the mix of magic and science fiction. For example, Barnaby interns for a time in the offices of the Amalgamated Witchcraft Corporation, and learns of the mysterious and high tech things that go on there behind the scenes. I also liked the fact that the two main characters are rebels, each in their own way, who disappoint their powerful parents. The character of Ana is especially well-drawn. There's also a section of the book that's written in short, alternating passages, reflecting the different experiences of Barnaby and Ana during a time that they're separated, and I found the technique to be quite gripping. The rules regarding magic and the environment are detailed and consistent throughout the book. The ending is satisfying, pulling together various strands of plot into one inevitable confrontation and series of consequences.

Overall, I think that Anatopsis will please fans of middle-grade fantasy novels, especially those who struggle under the burden of parental expectations, or who want a touch of science fiction thrown in. For more about the book, see the Anatopsis website.

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

This and That On A Sunday Afternoon

Here are a few things from the blogs that have caught my eye over the past few days:

  • The Horn Book magazine has been threatened with legal action by an unnamed publisher. This publisher wants The Horn Book to stop reviewing the publisher's books (presumably because the reviews are rather negative), and claims that (all) reviewers need permission from the publisher before reviewing any book. This was originally posted on Read Roger (the Horn Book blog). I also saw a nice piece on it at A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy. Clearly, the idea of needing permission before posting a review is ridiculous, but it also says scary things about our lawsuit-ridden society that it's even as issue.
  • I also learned from Read Roger about a children's book crisis brewing in my home town of Lexington, MA. A second grade teacher at Estabrook Elementary School read aloud the children's book King & King, a fairy tale about gay marriage between two princes. This led to complaints from an outraged parent who felt that she should have been warned before the book was read to her son. The Boston Globe included this quote from the Lexington Superintendent of Schools, Paul Ash: ''We couldn't run a public school system if every parent who feels some topic is objectionable to them for moral or religious reasons decides their child should be removed," he said. ''Lexington is committed to teaching children about the world they live in, and in Massachusetts same-sex marriage is legal." That ought to close the issue, but sadly, probably won't.
  • On a lighter note, A Fuse #8 Production has a great list of Sure-Fire Story Time Hits. Anyone looking for good picture book read-alouds should definitely check out the list.
  • Kelly at Big A little a recaps The Telegraph's semi-annual "Books for Younger Readers", with several recommended titles.
  • Kids Lit links to a site that (according to Kids Lit) "offers recommended books for children, advice on how to find/create free kids books, and information for new authors on writing and publishing.  But most of all, his site is filled with great lines that will re-inspire readers about the importance of children's literature and reading."
  • Chris Barton made me laugh with this post in which he asks what it means "that when I went to get my wife a novel at the library this evening, I didn't even know where the adult fiction section was?"
  • FredCQ (father of a book-loving young daughter), has a new blog in which he merges his two lives as a writer and a musician.
  • Kids Lit recaps the 2006 Edgar Award Nominees for children and adults, prior to the April 27th announcement of the winners. I'm pulling for Down the Rabbit Hole by Peter Abrahams in the young adult category. When I reviewed this book earlier in the year I said: "What I like about this book is that it's a classic mystery, with a murder and clues and the main character figuring out who the killer is."
  • Little Willow has an annotated list of her favorite teen books dealing with fame.
  • And finally, my thanks to Louise at Student for Literacy Ottawa for posting about my small brush with Fib-related fame. Thanks also for the encouraging words I received from Susan and Jen in my blog comments, and to Jonathan for passing along the word to friends.

And that is quite enough for one post. I should be better able to stay caught up this week, because I have a rare week without any travel.

Growing Bookworms Website

As regular visitors to this site can probably infer, I love blogging about books and literacy. In just over four months, I've made about 165 posts (an average of 1.3 posts per day). I enjoy the ease of posting, and the ease of browsing other blogs to read recent posts.

What I find frustrating about the blog format, however, is the difficulty of finding past articles that I've written, especially book reviews. Therefore, I've decided to add a companion website to this blog. You can find it at Of course you'll still be able to find new posts on my blog, Jen Robinson's Book Page.

At my Growing Bookworms site I've included lists of books that I've read recently, want to read, and recommend (categorized according to whether they are kids books or books intended for adults). I've also included an Index of Book Reviews, with links back to the original reviews on my blog. I certainly expect this index to grow.

Over time, I also expect to fill out my lists of recommended books in more detail (they tend to include only recent reads right now), and to include other resources helpful for growing and sustaining bookworms of all ages. Of course I'll have a special emphasis on resources for raising children who love books, and on children's books that adults will enjoy, because those are my strongest interests. Readers of adult mysteries and thrillers will also find recommendations. Because, to paraphrase the author P. B. Kerr, 'mysteries and thrillers are children's books for adults anyway'.

If you have some time, please visit my new site and tell me what you think. Thanks! Have a great week!

Poetry Friday: The Daffodils

Here's a round-up of last week's poetry Friday entries: Poetry Friday founder Big A, little a, Little Willow, A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, Chicken Spaghetti, Gotta Book, Farm School, and Here in the Bonny Glen.

And here is my contribution for this week. Wordsworth, in hope of spring eventually coming to Northern California this year.

The Daffodils
William Wordsworth

I wander'd lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretch'd in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: --
A Poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company!
I gazed -- and gazed -- but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought;

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Happy Friday, and best wishes for Spring to come to you wherever you are! I should also note that last week Melissa Wiley had a poem by Christina Rossetti that was also about daffodils. And Kelly had a poem about sunflowers. Spring thoughts are everywhere!

The Edge of the Forest

I'm a bit delinquent in writing about this (due to yet another trip), but the new issue of The Edge of the Forest was published yesterday. The Edge of the Forest is a monthly online journal dedicated to children's literature, edited by the talented Kelly Herold (editor and webmaster) and a stellar editorial board. I'm honored to report that two of my book reviews are included in this issue, along with many great contributions. If you are someone who is interested in children's literature (and if you aren't, why are you reading this?) you should definitely check out the new issue of The Edge of the Forest. Happy Reading!

Children's Literacy Round-Up: April 20

Lots of news about books and literacy out there in the press this week. Here are some highlights:

  • An April 12th article by Kevin Cullen in the Lafayette Courier and Journal Online helps parents to recommend and select books for their kids. Parents, kids, and youth services librarians are all quoted in the article.
  • In an April 12th editorial, the Cay Compass mirrors Education Minister Alden McLaughlin's calls for improvement's in the Cayman Islands' educational system. The editorial includes this statement on the subject: "(t)here is perhaps no more important skill learned in a child’s school years than the ability to read and write well. The fact that this is not happening here in Cayman –– with all its wealth and modernity –– for a significant portion of the indigenous population, is nothing short of travesty."
  • The April 13th Morton Grove (IL) Champion published winning essays from a writing contest run by the local library. The title of the writing contest was "How the Library Changed Your World." The article includes essays written in kindergarten through sixth-grade, 7th through 12th-grade, adult, and senior adult categories. They're fun to read!
  • Per the April 12th Salt Lake Tribune, The National Jr. Honor Society members at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School received a grant from Youth Service America to establish a "Literacy Link". "The funding allowed the school's National Junior Honor Society members to purchase books and record them onto cassette tapes, making audio books for ... a multigenerational day-care facility for senior citizens and preschool children. The school's National Junior Honor Society wanted to give their own reading talents back to the community and improve other children's literacy by finding books that were childhood favorites."
  • In a Whittier (CA) Daily News article, Debbie Pfeiffer Trunnell writes about a new literacy program called Books and Baseball, introduced by local Pony league president Marcos Martinez this season. The idea is to introduce young baseball players to the joy of reading books.
  • An April 15th Greensboro News-Record editorial discusses North Carolina Governor Mike Easley's efforts to boost reading and writing skills among NC middle school kids by placing literacy coaches in schools. The editorial is generally positive about the goals of the Governor's program, but concerned about the $5M pricetag.
  • An April 16th article by Diane McCartney in the Wichita Eagle profiles Leanne Chase and her dog Misha, who have brought the R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program to a local school in Kansas. I have written about this program (but not these participants) previously. The idea is that children who are uncomfortable reading aloud to other people can read aloud to a trained therapy dog instead.

Two Articles About Reading

Two recent blog posts pointed me to interesting articles about children and reading that I would like to share with you.

First, I've discovered the new DEAR Time blog, hosted by Renee Rogers. In her very first post, Renee talks about the joys of Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) time at local schools, and recommends that people try this program at home, too. She links to an article in Education World entitled "Sustained Silent Reading" Helps Develop Independent Readers (and Writers).

Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) is another acronym for programs by which everyone in a school stops all other activities, and reads silently at the same time. I actually like the term SSR, rather than DEAR (and SSR was Ramona Quimby's preferred term, too, I believe). But whatever you call it, research suggests that these types of programs in schools can have a huge impact in improving reading scores, and on encouraging kids to enjoy reading. The Education World article, written by Gary Hopkins, is an excellent summary. You can also read about SSR programs in David Brouchard and Wendy Sutton's The Gift of Reading: A Guide for Educators and Parents, and in Jim Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook.

The second article comes courtesy of one of my favorite blogs, Students for Literacy Ottawa. Louise re-caps a National Post article by Don Truckey called "How Boys Read". The article discusses the 10% gap by which boys trail girls in standardized reading tests, and reviews Canadian efforts to amend the situation. The article in particular references a University of Alberta study that found "that boys actually read a great deal, and to great effect, but not always in ways valued or even measured in school." The author goes on to discuss ways in which boys achieve literacy under their own terms (defining a concept of "morphed" literacy).

Don Truckey has written a book aimed specifically at 10-12 year old boys. You can find information about the book here. I was pleased to see that the book is about a southpaw, because I'm left-handed, too.

Like Fibs, I'm Famous, Too

Last Friday I wrote a post called Fibs are Famous, congratulating Gregory K. for the tremendous success of his new poetry form, the Fib. Today I learned, through her kind email, that Melissa McNamara quoted my post in her weekly Blogophile column about must-read blogs on In one section of the column, Melissa re-caps the Fib phenomenon, closing the section with this quote from me: "I just think that it's amazing that a blogger can have a neat idea, see it catch on across the blog universe, and end up in the mainstream media. Very, very cool!

I continue to enjoy watching the spread of the Fib phenomenon, secure in the knowledge that I was an "early adopter" to the trend. Even apart from the reference to myself, I enjoyed the rest of Melissa's column, too. The section on "How Not to Get a Job" is particularly entertaining.

Happy Blogging, All! 

Death in the Garden: Elizabeth Ironside

Today I have an adult mystery review for you. Death in the Garden by Elizabeth Ironside is an unusual blending of historical mystery and modern-day novel. It begins with a brief Part I, in which Diana Pollexfen writes of her feelings on being found not guilty of the murder of her husband, George. Part II describes the 1925 weekend the culminates in Diana's husband's death, from the shifting perspective of various house party attendees. Part III moves forward sixty years to the perspective of Helena, Diana's thirty-year-old grand-niece and heir, upon Diana's death.

As she goes through her beloved aunt's possessions, Helena finds Diana's diaries, and learns for the first time about the murder of George Pollexfen. Before she can accept her inheritance, Helena feels compelled to learn the truth about whether or not Diana murdered George. The remainder of the book details Helena's investigation, and includes various extracts from letters and diaries and people's memories, as well as events in Helena's modern-day life. The book culminates with resolution of the mystery, and of some issues in Helena's own life.

I found this book to be a cross between a post WWI British country estate novel (like the work of D. E. Stevenson) and a spare, modern-day examination of people's ordinary lives (like the work of Anita Brookner), with the tiniest hint of the supernatural thrown in. The mystery was almost incidental, paling in comparison to the examination of individual characters and motives. Both the historical and modern portions of the book have a strong and authentic British flavor.

Elizabeth Ironside is the pseudonym of Lady Catherine Manning, wife of the British Ambassador to the U.S. Death in the Garden was shortlisted for Britain's CWA Silver Dagger for Best Mystery of 1995. The U.S. edition was published in 2005.

If you enjoyed Jacqueline Winspeare's Maisie Dobbs books you are likely to also enjoy Death in the Garden. I highly recommend this book to people who enjoy historical novels, especially to those interested in the post-World-War I era in England. I also recommend it to those who prefer their mysteries to be focused on character and human nature, rather than on fast-paced action.

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

What Books You Would Like to Live In?

I ran across a neat idea this week in Blog from the Windowsill, a blog for the staff of "Notes from the Windowsill" to talk about children's books. Notes from the Windowsill is an electronic publication celebrating children's books loved by adult readers.

Anyway, in a recent post, Wendy Betts asked "is there a book you would like to live in? Or at least visit?". She was inspired to this question by her son, who would like to live in A Cricket in Times Square. Wendy's own choice would be to live with the Melendy family (The Four Story Mistake, etc.). My responses are below, with some related lists that I thought of myself.

3 Children's Books that I Would Like to Live in:

  • Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright (because there's a whole semi-abandoned town that the kids get to play in).
  • The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall (because exploring Arundel Hall and the gardens would be very cool).
  • The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton (because there's a really cool secret room).

3 Schools from Children's Books that would have been Cool to Attend:

  • Hogwarts (not an original choice on my part, but way cool).
  • St. Clare's or Malory Towers, both created by Enid Blyton.
  • The village schoolhouse in Avonlea, but only when Anne Shirley was the teacher there.

3 Books that I Like, but would NOT Want to Live in:

  • Holes by Louis Sachar (slave labor digging holes in the hot sun? No thanks!).
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry (a town with no colors? Surely not. But it would be pretty easy to make a list in this category by just considering Newberry winners. What are we to make of that?).
  • The City of Ember by Jeanne Duprau (living underground with no light? Not so fun).

3 Schools from Children's Books that would NOT have been Cool to Attend

  • Crunchem Hall from Matilda by Roald Dahl.
  • Bloor's Academy from The Children of the Red King series by Jenny Nimmo (a very creepy school, without the moments of joyfulness of Hogwarts).
  • Lowood Academy from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (not strictly speaking a children's book, but I read this when I was pretty young, and it gave me nightmares).

How would you respond to these questions? If you have a minute, and have thoughts on any or all of the four categories above, please enter them in the comments of this post. Or enter them on your own blog if you like. I had fun thinking about these questions, and I hope that you do, too. It's the ultimate fantasy for children's book readers, getting to live inside a beloved book.

I guess an honorable mention should go to Inkheart and Inkspell, in which people do go to live inside a book. But that's another story... Happy Reading!

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

The Westing Game: Ellen Raskin

Another book that I read on my trip last week was Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game, originally published in 1978, winner of the Newberry Medal in 1979, and now available in a highly portable 2005 reprint paperback edition. I can't remember if I ever read this book as a child. Re-reading it, I found very faint echoes of familiarity, but it's not a book that I remember (the sad fact of reading too many books too quickly, a vice that I've had since I was a small child).

I thought that this book held up well for being nearly 30 years old. There are very few pop cultural references to distract, and although the gender roles are somewhat dated, most of the characters, especially the female characters, are prepared to stand up for themselves by the end of the story.

This book is a complex and well-thought-out puzzle. It's about a group of potential heirs who are all lured into living in the same small apartment building, which is conveniently located adjacent to a mysterious old mansion. After some time living near one another, the heirs are called to the mansion for the reading of Samuel Westing's will. This highly unconventional will contains two central points. First, Westing accuses one of his heirs of murdering him. Second, he provides (through his lawyer) a series of clues as to who the murderer might be. The idea is for the heirs to pair up, and use the clues to solve the mystery of who murdered Sam Westing.

The remainder of the book consists of the 16 heirs each attempting to solve the mystery, complete with red herrings galore, miscellaneous explosions, and the need to solve various personal problems along the way. The problems of the individual heirs include issues marital discord, health issues, language barriers, career choices, and sibling rivalry.

What makes The Westing Game a children's book is the fact that several of the heirs are teenagers, and one (the hero of the story) is a belligerent 12-year-old girl named Turtle. However, the level of complexity of the mystery easily allows the story to stand up to reading by adults. In fact, I had a bit of difficulty keeping track of all of the characters and plot points, and I might need to read it again sometime soon, to make sure that I didn't miss anything.

The Westing Game reminded me a bit of an Agatha Christie novel, with only the presence of kids as major characters to suggest that it's not intended for an adult audience. The ending is wholly satisfying, including significant character development among the heirs, forgiveness and atonement, the uncovering of a variety of old secrets, and the resolution to the mystery. It's well worth checking out.