Previous month:
July 2007
Next month:
September 2007

Posts from August 2007

Back to School Offer for Teachers: Lincoln's Legacy

I've been a fan for a while of the early elementary school series: Blast to the Past, by Stacia Deutsch and Rhody Cohon. The books are about a group of third graders who travel back in time to keep history from getting out of balance (an enemy is also traveling back and causing problems). Each title features a different historical figure, from Ben Franklin to Walt Disney. (I reviewed the Ben Franklin installment here.) The books are a nice, fun way for kids to get a dose of history. And who isn't fascinated by time travel?

The publishers of the series have an offer for teachers. They are offering a free teacher's copy of the book Lincoln's Legacy, along with a teacher's guide. They ask that you email requests to I know how people love free books, so I wanted to bring this offer to you attention. The series won the 2007 Teacher's Choice Award by Learning Magazine.

Children's Literacy Round-Up: August 20

I have lots of children's literacy and reading-related stories for you this week:

  • According to, "a 17-year-old senior from Marietta, Ga., collected more than 5,300 books for a Cobb County literacy program. After dividing books between a neighborhood elementary school and a battered women's shelter, she needed to find a place for the nearly 4,300 books left." She ended up donating some 4300 books to a Mississippi elementary school that was hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina.
  • The San Jose Mercury News carried a nice article recently by Julie Winkelstein encouraging parents to provide books for their kids to read on flights, instead of only using electronic devices. She says " It is not simply that they require no batteries. They also engage the imagination, increase vocabulary, entertain, ask and answer questions, foster empathy, encourage creativity, and give parents and children a chance to spend memorable time together. Books provide the perfect avenues for children to become literate, engaged, articulate and well-rounded adults." I agree. I sat next to a young teenage boy on a recent four-hour flight. He had been separated from his family. He had no book, and spent much of the flight flipping aimlessly through the in-flight magazine, before finally turning to some sort of game on his cell phone. I couldn't help thinking: "who let this 14-year-old get on a plane with nothing to read?" Tasha Saecker also wrote about this article at Kids Lit.
  • Literacy News reports on a recent Power of Talk research study that found "For children between birth and age 3, the most powerful number is 30,000 -- the number of words they need to hear every day from their parents and caregivers, to ensure optimal language development and academic success". The study notes that it's input of words that matters, not output, and that these words should come from human interaction, not from watching television.
  • Daphne Lee at The Places You Will Go reports on another study, this one from the Journal of Pediatrics, which "found that babies don’t benefit from watching educational videos like Baby Einstein." The point, again, is that parents should be directly interacting with and talking with their children, rather than leaving them alone in front of any video, even an educational video. Daphne also offers her defense of more interactive television-watching.
  • had a recent feature article about a new program that provides books for kids waiting in the visitor line at the Santa Rita jail (Dublin, CA). Created by librarian Lisa Harris, the Start with a Story program is staffed by volunteers. The volunteers give kids books that they can keep, and also read with the kids. Seems like a step in the right direction towards keeping kids out of jail in the future, doesn't it?
  • Fidelity has partnered with Double-A baseball's Manchester Fisher-Cats to support literacy. According to a recent press release: "fans attending the team's 7:05pm home game on Monday, August 20 are invited to "step up to the plate" to promote literacy by donating their gently used children's and youth books to benefit the Nashua Police Athletic League (PAL) Youth Library. Fidelity Investments employee volunteers from the firm's Merrimack, NH Regional Center will be on hand to collect the books as well as distribute the game night giveaway, Fidelity-sponsored backpacks, to the first 2,000 children." I'm a huge fans of programs that tie together sports and children's literacy, because I think that kids look up to athletes, and emulate them, so I'm happy to hear about this program.
  • According to an article in the Record-Searchlight, the Redding (CA) Library is hosting a program to give parents tips on helping their kids to become better readers. "Among the topics: what questions to ask when children have trouble understanding what they're reading; how to get children to understand reading homework; how to motivate them to read; and recommended books for parents and children to read together."
  • The Elmira Star-Gazette is running excerpts this month from Jim Trelease's Read Aloud Handbook, as part of the Family Reading Partnership of Chemung Valley Need to Read series about literacy. This week's installment is about what to do when technology and reading conflict.
  • The North-West Evening Mail recently carried an opinion piece lamenting the lack of affordable parent-facing baby carriages, suggesting that parents don't talk to their babies as much when the babies are facing away from them, and that this hurts eventual literacy. This does seem consistent with the "Power of Talk" research study discussed above.
  • The West Australia Education Minister, Mark McGowan, is making a call to parents to read to their kids for at least 30 minutes a day. According to an article in The West Australian, "Mr McGowan has named the 12 books children must read before they turn 12 and The West Australian’s readers have the chance to agree or disagree in an online competition, which runs until next Monday." Harry Potter, as well as various classics, have made the list.

And that's it for this week. I hope that you'll find some food for thought in the above articles.

Sunday Afternoon Visits: August 19

People are starting to trickle back in from vacation, and I have lots to share with you from around the Kidlitosphere this week:

And that's all for this week. Happy reading!

Two Movies from Children's Books

This week I saw, and enjoyed, two movies based on children's books. I thought that Bridge to Terebithia was wonderful. I cried a bit towards the end, but that's to be expected. I thought that AnnaSophia Robb was luminous as Leslie, and that Bailee Madison (as May Belle) stole most of the scenes that she was in. I could have done without quite so much visualization of the fantasy elements, especially at the very end, but it's a minor quibble.

I also watched Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix yesterday. I thought that it was a good movie, but I regretted seeing it so soon after having re-read the book. It's the one that's most different from the book so far, I think, which is perhaps inevitable given the length of the book. But Evanna Lynch was perfect as Luna Lovegood. And I have to say that Alan Rickman makes the already fascinating character of Snape ever more intriguing with every installment.

What movies from children's books have you seen recently?

Readergirlz: Gearing Up for 31 Flavorite Authors in October

In October, 31 Flavorite Authors will be rocking the internet and reaching out to readers. YALSA and readergirlz have teamed up to present an amazing month-long experience. Every day in October, a different author will be appearing at the readergirlz forum to chat with fans.

Meg Cabot, Stephenie Meyer, John Green, Ann Brashares, and many, many more are booked for this awesome interactive event. Want to see the entire schedule? Download the 31 Flavorites poster!

Also download and print the 31 Flavorites bookmark!

Here is the entire schedule in plain text:

Week One
1. Meg Cabot
2. Tiffany Trent
3. Brent Hartinger
4. Lorie Ann Grover
5. K.L. Going
6. Nikki Grimes

Week Two
7. Ellen Hopkins
8. Justina Chen Headley
9. Chris Crutcher
10. Ann Brashares
11. Sarah Mlynowski
12. Cecil Castellucci
13. Kirby Larson

Week Three
14. Tanya Lee Stone
15. John Green
16. Sara Zarr
17. Deb Caletti
18. Rachel Cohn
19. Kirsten Miller
20. Mitali Perkins

Week Four
21. Sonya Sones
22. Lisa Yee
23. Carolyn Mackler
24. E. Lockhart
25. Janet Lee Carey
26. Gaby Triana
27. Lauren Myracle

Week Five
28. Holly Black
29. Cynthia Leitich Smith
30. Dia Calhoun
31. Stephenie Meyer

Spread the news, friend the readergirlz MySpace site and group forum, and get ready to hang out with your favorite authors and readergirlz!

Have you read the latest issue of readergirlz? The August edition spotlights IRONSIDE by Holly Black. Read the exclusive interview, take part in the book discussions, pick up other highly recommended books, and more!

Readergirlz is a literacy project founded by four female authors - Justina Chen Headley, Lorie Ann Grover, Dia Calhoun and Janet Lee Carey - in an effort to encourage teenagers to read and discuss quality books featuring gusty girls, and to get active in their communities. For more information, please visit

I hope that all of you will take part in 31 Flavorites this October!

(The above text was written by Little Willow, on behalf of postergirlz, the official advisory council for readergirlz.)

Books Now Available: Eighth Grade Bites

Last week I reviewed Heather Brewer's middle school novel The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod: Eighth Grade Bites. I'm posting now to let you know that today is the planned release date for the book. I think this one will be a hit with middle schoolers, so now is your chance to pick it up.

Book: The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod: Eighth Grade Bites
Author: Heather Brewer (see also a character blog featuring Vladimir Tod)
Pages: 182
Age Range: 10-14
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Publication Date: August 16, 2007

One Shot World Tour: Australia: Now Live

The first One Shot World Tour: Best Read with Vegemite edition, is now live on some 16 blogs. Each blog features reviews, interviews, and/or discussion of books by authors from Australia and New Zealand. Colleen Mondor, our tireless organizer and champion, put together the following schedule below, which I have updated with direct links to posts where available (click on each blog name for today's posts, unless otherwise noted):

Also, don't miss Finding Wonderland's post about the Top Five Reasons for Vegemite.

We hope that you'll enjoy the first One Shot World Tour.

One Shot World Tour: Australia: John Marsden's Tomorrow Series

John Marsden's Tomorrow books are a seven-volume young adult series portraying an alternate reality in which Australia is conquered by an invading army. A group of teenagers, evading capture through a fluke, are left on their own to strike as best they can against their country's invaders, and survive the war. In this article, I'll briefly highlight each book, taking care to minimize spoilers. I'll follow with some general comments about the series as a whole.

Book 1: Tomorrow, When the War Began

Tomorrow, When the War Began is a compelling novel about teenagers who find themselves, overnight, in unimaginable circumstances. Ellie and her six friends return from a multi-day camping trip out in the Australian bush country to find that their town, and their families, have been taken over by an invading foreign army. Joined by one more friend, the eight teenagers focus first on their own survival, and then on striking back at the enemy invaders. They uncover unexpected depths of bravery and leadership within themselves, and the bonds between them grow stronger every day.

It's an appealing premise (at least for fans of dystopian literature such as myself). But what makes this book stand above the ordinary is that the periods of action are balanced by periods of introspection. The teenagers aren't cardboard characters setting off explosives (though there are explosions). But rather, each character has strengths and weaknesses, moments of bravery and moments of giving in to shock and fear. Their reactions are real, not candy-coated spy stuff. They feel remorse when the actions that they are forced into hurt other people, and they question their own motives. The narrator, Ellie, is particularly well drawn, and we see her evolve over the course of the story. Here are some examples:

"That was the first moment at which I started to realise what true courage was. Up until then, everything had been unreal, like a night-stalking game at a school camp. To come out of the darkness now would be to show courage of a type that I'd never had to show before, never even known about." (Chapter 7)

"Although we'd agreed, so logically, to split up if we were chased, I knew now I wasn't going to do that. At that moment only a bullet could have separated me from those two people. Suddenly they'd become my family." (Chapter 7)

The book also does an excellent job of painting life in rural Australia, with references to chooks (chickens) and Landies (land rovers) and the day-to-day details of cattle farming. The camping spot that the teens find is hidden away in a valley called Hell, nearly inaccessible, and their matter-of-fact efforts to organize themselves speak volumes about their rural upbringing. Marsden's writing is filled with tiny details to make it easy to imagine the scenes that he describes. Here's one of my favorites:

"The earth floor on which I stood was covered with twigs and clods of clay from the walls, and litter from possums and birds. The kettle was rusty, the bottom shelf hung askew, and the ceiling was festooned with cobwebs. But even the cobwebs looked old and dead, hanging like Miss Havisham's hair." (Chapter 14)

Book 2: The Dead of Night

The Dead of Night picks up shortly after Tomorrow, When the War Began leaves off, with our intrepid band of teens recuperating from recent adventures in their bush hideout, and then venturing out into enemy territory in a search for allies. They meet up with a group of adults who are taking steps against the enemy, but find that being responsible to adults again is not quite what they expected. They also see, again, the violence of the enemy, and raise the stakes of their own guerrilla actions. As in the first book, they find themselves changing in response to their situation.

Book 2 does address one question that I had while reading Book 1. In the first book, Ellie is using a recovery lull to write about the group's adventures to date, at the request of the others. She knows that the other are going to read what she's written, but she's very open about the interpersonal dynamics of the group, including her own conflict about being interested in two of the boys. She acknowledges, while writing up the events of Book 2, that her write-up to date has caused some tension in the group, noting "Oh, the power of the written word." Despite this conflict, Ellie is unflinching in her depiction of ongoing emotions. I found this description of fear especially authentic:

"I was breathing hard, as though I'd run a crossie (cross-country race), and I was sweating all over. The sweat felt so cold on my skin, like it was turning to ice. My throat had a lump so big I felt I'd swallowed a chicken bone. Basically, I felt sick. I was very scared. I'd almost forgotten the emotion that had brought us here: my love for Corrie and Kevin." (Chapter 2)

I thought that the following description of how the teens had been transformed by the invasion of the country summed up much of the feel of the series:

"We were just ordinary teenagers, so ordinary we were boring. Overnight they'd pulled the roof off our lives. And after they'd pulled off the roof they'd come in and torn down the curtains, ripped up the furniture, burnt the house and thrown us into the night, where we'd been forced to run and hide and live like wild animals. We had no foundations, and we had no secure walls around our life any more. We were living in a strange long nightmare, where we had to make our own rules, invent new values, stumble around blindly, hoping we weren't making too many mistakes. We clung to what we knew and what we thought was right, but all the time those things were being stripped from us. I didn't know if we'd be left with nothing, or if we'd be left with a new set of rules and attitudes and behaviours, so that we weren't able to recognize ourselves any more. We could end up as new, distorted, deformed creatures, with only a few physical resemblances to the people we once were." (Chapter 10)

Book 3: A Killing Frost

In A Killing Frost, Ellie and her friends take even more extreme actions against the invading enemy, attacking the harbor that the enemy is using for transport. Even as she becomes ever more ruthless, Ellie continues to question the changes in herself, and wonder where her limits lie. The friends remain close, and the reader gets to know them increasingly well. My favorite lines from this installment reveal Ellie's love of books:

"We looked in the house for books, but only found two, apart from technical manuals. I thought it was amazing, a house with just two books. (Chapter 21)

I believe that Book 3 was originally the end of the series, and there is some resolution at the end of the book. However, fortunately for us, Marsden decided to continue, adding four other titles to the series.

Book 4: Darkness Be My Friend

I had intended to stop with Book 3, because I have so many other neglected books. But I gave Darkness Be My Friend a quick look, and was soon too drawn in to stop. In Book 4, Ellie and her friends (the ones still alive) agree, reluctantly and with trepidation, to return to their town of Wirrawee to help guide some soldiers from New Zealand. The soldiers plan to sabotage the enemy's new airfield. Things don't go quite as expected. The soldiers disappear, leaving the teens once again on their own. They sneak into Wirrawee themselves, and attempt to do some damage, and in the process pick up some news about their captured friends and family members.

In Book 4, Ellie is a bit more bitter than in the earlier books, reflecting the ever-increasing trauma of the war, and her grief over her lost friends. She says early in the book:

"We'd escaped from a nightmare, or we thought we had. The truth is, there's no escape from some nightmares. This one followed us across the Tasman. They'd air-lifted us out of our own country after it was invaded. We'd arrived in New Zealand burnt and injured and shocked, with broken bones, and scars inside and out. We'd lost contact with our families, we'd seen friends die, and we'd caused other people to die by our own deliberate actions.

"We were just typical survivors of war, I guess."

Ellie and the others are also braver in Book 4. This is where they really stop thinking that other people are going to save them, and truly take responsibility for themselves.

Book 5: Burning for Revenge

Burning for Revenge finds Ellie and her friends let down by the New Zealanders, and preparing to take dramatic action against the invaders. They have successes, but also come face to face the depth of the damage that the war has done to their country. They encounter a group of feral children, scraping by in an abandoned suburb, and worry about how these children will ever become functioning adults. Ellie also faces a betrayal by one of the others in her group, which is damaging in a different way.

Book 6: The Night is for Hunting

The Night is for Hunting is a bit of a break from the relentless activities of the previous books. Oh, there are still chases and battles, but in between there's a bit of a lull, spent in the safety of Hell. The wild children from the previous book (referred to as "the ferals") play a major part in this installment, and despite their ferocity, they ultimately help to re-humanize Ellie and her friends. Like some of the other books, this book includes big picture thoughts by Ellie, such as this passage:

"When it's all said and done, the only things that matter in life are so damn simple. Family, friends, being safe and well. I think before the war a lot of people got sucked in by all the crap on TV. They thought having the right shoes or the right jeans or the right car really mattered. Boy were we ever dumb.

"Maybe people thought they could hide behind that stuff. Maybe they thought that if they wore Levis, ate Maccas and drank Pepsi no-one would look any further. No-one would see the real person.

"War's stripped all that from us... It seems like suffering's the only time we can see what's essential. If peace ever comes back I'm making a vow: I'll design myself special glasses. They'll block out whether people are fat or thin or beautiful or weird-looking, whether they have pimples or birthmarks or different coloured skin. They'll do everything suffering's done for us, but without the pain. I'm going to wear those glasses for the rest of my life."

Perhaps that sounds a bit over-the-top out of context. But trust me, after reading about everything that Ellie and her friends go through, passages like the above bring tears to the reader's eye.

Book 7: The Other Side of Dawn

The Other Side of Dawn concludes the Tomorrow series (though there is another, shorter series that follows called The Ellie Chronicles). This installment brings a new level of tension, and the constant risk of capture, as the teens help with the push towards the end of the war. Ellie suffers tremendously in this book, both physically and emotionally, though we know that she'll survive (she's the narrator - she has to survive to have written down the story). The atrocities of the invading army are more detailed in this book, but Marsden makes sure to lighten things with the occasional humorous or tender moment.

For example, there's this throwaway line: "We waited silently. Would have been silly to wait any other way." (Chapter 5), a classic understatement as the teens stay out of the way of soldiers on patrol.

I read the last third of the book completely oblivious to my surroundings, emotionally engaged in Ellie's struggles, and needing to know the conclusion to the series. I'll say no more about it, in my wish not to spoil things for you, but that the ending is satisfying.

General Thoughts on the Tomorrow Series:

Most of the editions that I read included a handy guide to Aussie terminology at the front of the book, which I found very helpful. By the end of the seven books, I was fairly well up on my Australian lingo, and I may start using phrases like fair dinkum (the truth, the real thing), dag (an annoying person), and stuffed (exhausted).

The series also includes various homages to the Australian countryside, like this one, from Book 2:

"To a lot of people, I suppose it wouldn't have been beautiful. It had been a dry summer, and although the river flats were a soft green, the paddocks beyond Risdon had burnt off into the ochre sameness that seemed part of my life, part of me. The lush green of our springs and early summers never lasted long. I was more used to that dry monotonous yellow; so used to it that at some stage it had soaked into me, till I wasn't sure if there were boundaries between me and the landscape anymore. I remember Mr. Kassar at school saying that he'd come home after living a year in England and his heart ached with love when he saw the sunburnt plains again. I knew what he meant; boy did I know what he meant." (Chapter 7)

Or this one, from Book 4:

"You can never stay angry for too long in the bush though. At least, that's what I think. It's not that it's soothing or restful, because it's not. What it does for me is get inside my body, inside my blood, and take me over. I don't know that I can describe it any better than that. It takes me over and I become part of it and it becomes part of me and I'm not very important, or at least no more important than a tree or a rock or a spider abseiling down a long long thread of cobwebs." (Chapter 4)

Or this one, from Book 6:

"...but I still couldn't resist the power of the place. At one stage we were riding through a eucalypt forest, trees quite widely spaced, no undergrowth. It was so easy, so relaxing. Tall white trunks, fawn bark peeling off them, little brown birds darting from on e to the next. There were no bright colours to hurt the eye. Quiet, fresh, self-contained. It wasn't paradise -- far from it -- but it would do me." (Chapter 10)

Aside from the fully realized setting, what makes this series stand out is the combination of fast-paced action and teenage introspection. The characters grow and evolve throughout the series. They commit acts of violence, and are changed irrevocably by their actions. They feel real. They argue with one another, and make mistakes. They experience a full range of emotions, from fear and exhaustion to love. Marsden doesn't shrink from portraying real human needs, physical and emotional. There's a scene in which the kids have to hide, silently, all day, with the enemy very nearby. When they are finally released from their hiding place, the first thing that they do is go to the bathroom. I liked the honesty of that.

The Tomorrow books are also a commentary on the horrors of war, and what war does to both soldiers and civilians. Because of the way we receive this message, through Ellie's eyes, Ellie who feels completely real to us, it doesn't feel in any way like a "message book." It feels like something that happened to a friend. We're horrified by everything that she's had to go through, and determined that it should never happen again. At least, that's how I felt.

I highly recommend this series for teen (14 and up) and adult readers. It's a series of exciting adventures, but it's also much more.

Further Reading:

John Marsden's website
The John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers
While I Live (the first book in The Ellie Chronicles)

Children's Literacy Round-Up: August 13

In an effort to get back to my regular schedule, here are the new children's reading and literacy related articles that have caught my eye since Friday.

  • According to the Burlington Free Press (Vermont), the Children's Literacy Foundation "will visit children at Winooski's summer food Readers Program, which is designed to keep kids reading during the summer months. CLiF will tell stories to up to 75 children expected to be in attendance, and each child will have the chance to pick out two to three books to keep." Sounds like a fun day!
  • According to BBC News, UK "(b)usiness leaders feel educational standards have not improved since 1997, despite official data showing record exam and test results". A report by the Institute of Directors found that "Four out of 10 still do not achieve the expected standard for their age in reading, writing and mathematics."
  • According to the Jamaica Gleaner, Jamaican "Education Minister Maxine Henry-Wilson has sought to explain why her party has not achieved 100 per cent literacy by this year, as outlined in its 2002 manifesto... According to Henry-Wilson, the Foundation of International Self-Help (FISH) has found that a large number of children are having problems with their sight." In reading the article "problems with sight" appears more to refer to learning disabilities than to actual vision impairments.

And that's all that I found that's new since Friday. Happy reading!

Spud: John van de Ruit

Book: Spud
Author: John van de Ruit
Pages: 352
Age Range: 12 and up

Spud, by John van de Ruit, is one of those books that I would probably never have picked up on my own. But I'm glad that Razorbill sent it to me, because it is laugh-out-loud funny. Told in diary and letter format, Spud tells of John (Spud) Milton's first year at an elite boys' boarding school in 1990 South Africa. Spud comes from a family that edges beyond quirky into the realm of dysfunctional, though he himself is fairly normal.

Spud (so-called because of his lack of physical development) ends up in a dorm with several unusual boys. Together, he and his dorm-mates are called "The Crazy Eight" by the entire school. One boy, Spud's cubicle-mate Vern, is someone who should clearly have been institutionalized, instead of just sent away to school. Another boy, called Gecko, falls prey to every conceivable illness or mishap. Rounding out the dorm are boys named, or nicknamed, Simon, Fatty, Rambo, Mad Dog, and Boggo. The school is populated with eccentric teachers, sadistic prefects (older students who have authority over the new boys), and strict rules. But, over time, Spud finds his place at the school (especially in the choir and the theater, and especially after he has a girlfriend to talk about).

Spud is set as apartheid is crumbling, and Nelson Mandela is being released from prison, giving readers a window into a unique time in South African history. Spud himself is fairly liberal (he wants to be a freedom fighter), but his father is terrified about the way that the country is going. This backdrop adds depth to the story, but never feels heavy-handed, and is only a small part of the story of Spud's development. Here are a couple of examples:

"Our head of house is a black boy called P. J. Luthuli, who looks incredibly serious and is neatly dressed. He gives us important tips about the school like, "Don't run in the quad," and "Stay off the grass." He then tells us to get ready for bed. I think this is the first time I've ever taken instructions from a black person." (January 17, first day of school)

"Crammed into the common room to watch the release of Nelson Mandela. The huge crowd outside the Victor Verster prison in Cape Town screamed as an old man with a gentle face and a huge smile walked free, holding the hand of his wife, Winnie. (Dad says Winnie is worse than Satan.) I felt all choked up with emotion -- I couldn't believe that this smiling old man was really a communist terrorist. Around me the white boys just stared blankly at the screen. Floods of tears were rolling down Luthuli's face." (February 9)

Spud has a largely episodic plot. The story rambles through Spud's first year of school, tracing his experiences with his dorm-mates, girlfriends, and crazy family. I don't normally care for episodic stories like this - I'm all about strong plot. But I was reeled in by the dry, throwaway humor of Spud's voice, and that kept me reading.I could give dozens of examples, but here are a few:

"My father is so busy pointing out a pair of mating dogs to my mother that he doesn't spot the speed bump that savages the underbelly of the car. Our station wagon limps up to the school and slides in between a Rolls Royce and a Mercedes-Benz. To announce it's grand arrival, our rust-infested jalopy vomits up a couple of gallons of oil onto the ancient cobblestone paving." (January 17)

"I called the Mermaid (girlfriend), and chatted for about 10 minutes. I ... told her the highlights of Fatty's extraordinary farting performance instead. Surprisingly, she wasn't that interested and seemed a bit distracted, so I said I would see her soon and hung up." (May 23)

"Wombat (grandmother), wearing a black eye patch like some debauched old pirate, was at her crazy best at the infamous Milton family barbecue. She has somehow convinced herself that Dad is trying to kill her with poison (not a totally absurd idea). She made me taste a piece of each item of food on her plate before wolfing it down herself. As you might imagine, nothing kills a friendly gathering of family faster than the belief that your son-in-law is trying to assassinate you." (August 26)

I would recommend Spud for upper middle school and high school kids, especially relatively advanced readers who will appreciate the dry humor. There are lots of references to books and reading (Spud is working his way through classics like the Lord of the Rings series), and the text is relatively dense. I don't think that it's a good choice for reluctant readers, despite the humor, because it's not a very quick read, and not a very linear plot. However, for older kids looking for humor, books set in boarding schools, or books about South Africa, Spud has a lot to offer. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to younger kids, even those who are good readers, because there are pretty blunt references to male body parts, and slightly more veiled references to homosexuality (not Spud himself, but a couple of prefects in the dorm). It's more a boy book than a girl book, with repeated references to farting, and an early teenage boy's views on fidelity. But the best recommendation that I can give is this: If, like me, you found the preceding three quotes laugh-out-loud funny, then this book is for you. A sequel is in the works.

Publisher: Razorbill
Publication Date: October 4, 2007
Source of Book: ARC from the publisher (quotes above are from the ARC, and may differ from the text of the final published book).

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

Eighth Grade Bites: Heather Brewer

Book: The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod: Eighth Grade Bites
Author: Heather Brewer (see also a character blog featuring Vladimir Tod)
Pages: 182
Age Range: 10-14

The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod: Eighth Grade Bites is the first of a planned series by Heather Brewer. Vladimir Tod is your typically eighth grade boy, a bit geekier than most, reluctant to do his homework and occasionally annoyed by his best friend, Henry. Except that Vlad requires blood to fill his nutrition needs, has to keep strict control of his fangs, and is deathly allergic to garlic. That's right: Vladimir Tod is a teenage vampire. He lives with his Aunt Nelly, his parents having been killed in a mysterious fire three years earlier, and he knows no other vampires. Only Nelly and Henry know Vlad's secret. Nelly, a nurse, sees to Vlad's nutrition by sneaking nearly-expired blood bags out of the hospital and making them into "snack packs."

It's a funny thing. I'm not particularly revolted by reading about vampires sucking blood from people or animals. And I'm perfectly willing to eat rare steak. But Vlad's little frozen blood snack packs? Those really grossed me out. Something about the juxtaposition of day-to-day "teen getting a snack out of the refrigerator", and the consumption of human blood with a spoon. It turns my stomach just thinking about it.

That aside, I found Eighth Grade Bites entertaining, and clearly targeted towards a middle school audience. Brewer includes a number of throwaway lines, sure to appeal to eighth grade boys, like:

"And why did Mr. Otis seem so insistent, so anxious that Vlad tackle the very topic he wanted most to avoid?

The answer was easy.

Because teachers, no matter how kind, no matter how friendly, are sadistic and evil to the core." (Chapter 6)

Or this:

"Nothing could convince Aunt Nelly to let Vlad stay home for the duration of the school year, which just goes to prove that parents and guardians don't care if they're sending you to face bloodthirsty monsters, so long as you get a B in English." (Chapter 13)

Nelly goes out of her way to make sure that Vlad's life seems normal. I found it a bit implausible that she would take his vampirism so much for granted, but it's an interesting perspective. She makes him cups of "tea", which are really cups of warm blood (!), and nags his to do his homework and go to sleep earlier.

But of course, Vlad's life isn't normal. As he hits his teens, he starts to develop new talents (including mind-reading), to which he has to adjust. He also seeks more information about his parents, especially his vampire father. As the story begins, a beloved teacher of Vlad's disappears, and his teacher's replacement, Mr. Otis, shows signs of suspecting Vlad's secret. Mr. Otis's inquiries lead Vlad into a dangerous adventure, and a quest for information about who he is, and what it means to be a vampire.

It's not quite my thing, but I think that middle school readers, especially vampire story fans, will enjoy The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod.

Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Publication Date: August 2007
Source of Book: ARC from the author (quotes included above are from the ARC, and may differ from those in the final books)
Author Interviews: Bildungsroman

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

Sunday Afternoon Visits: August 12

So, it turns out that when one stays completely away from the blogs for two weeks, a lot of new and interesting posts pile up. Here is my attempt to catch up:

  • Liz Burns and Sophie Brookover are writing a book. Liz says "It's called Pop Goes the Library: Using Pop Culture to Connect With Your Whole Community, and the good folks at ITI are going to publish it, sometime in 2008." They are seeking input from people who work in libraries. If you have something to say about the relationship between pop culture and libraries, you can find the survey here.
  • A new "pay it forward" idea is making the rounds of the Kidlitosphere. The original idea came from Overwhelmed With Joy, transferred to the Kidlitosphere by Cloudscome, and then taken up by Big A little a and Fuse #8. The idea is to re-distribute great books, in the form of ARCs and review copies, via monthly drawings. Libby from Lessons from the Tortoise is also in, as is Kris from Paradise Found. As for me, I'm in complete support of the idea, but I just can't commit to a new monthly project right now.
  • Over at the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone, people are discussing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
  • FirstBook has been asking people "what book got you hooked". More than 100,000 people responded, and FirstBook recently published a top 50 list. Wendy from Blog from the Windowsill has turned the list into a meme, in which you indicate which of the 50 books got you reading (and which you don't remember). I took a quick scan, and came up with only 7 that I don't remember reading at all.
  • HipWriterMama asks us to honor ourselves, with a specific exercise, saying: "I know this may seem like a hokey exercise, but if anything, I hope it will give you affirmation of your strengths and all things that you're good at."
  • Alan Silberberg has a priceless photo on his blog, of seven happy girls, in a swimming pool, all holding copies of Pond Scum. It's adorable.
  • Camille offers tips for "newbie read-alouders" at BookMoot. She also suggests some favorite read-alouds for groups of kids, and asks readers to submit their suggestions. Do share, if you have any favorite titles.
  • A relatively new blog, Bottom Shelf Books, has a funny two-part interview with the characters from Punk Farm. Also via Bottom Shelf Books, a man apparently smuggled a monkey onto a flight recently, by hiding it under his hat. There is no conclusive evidence that the hat was yellow, but Minh has a good picture.
  • Congratulations to Cynthia Lord for achieving a childhood dream. Rules was featured on the cover of the recent Scholastic Book Club catalog. Cindy describes her own past experiences with the book club, and then says: "So yesterday, when I opened my mailbox, I almost cried. Because I wish I could show this to that little girl skipping down the hill from the bus stop with her three, glossy-new books, probably having already started reading one on the bumpy bus ride home". She brought a hint of a tear to my own eyes.
  • ReadRoger has what really ought to be (but won't be) the last word on Laura Bush's planned children's book. I'm not as down on celebrity children's books as some people (MotherReader comes to mind). If, say, a sports figure publishes a book, and kids read that book because they love the sports figure, and they get the message that this admired sports figure thinks that books are cool, I'm ok with that. But I'm dead set against message books (where the book is primarily a vehicle for some heavy-handed message), and when I hear about a book in which kids who don't enjoy reading learn the value of books, I am very skeptical. Which is too bad, because I think that Laura Bush is a genuine advocate for literacy and books. I just think that this one sounds like one that might alienate kids, as Roger so concisely points out.
  • Via Miss Erin, I learned that Emma Watson (famous for her role as Hermione Granger) has apparently been cast as Pauline Fossil in a new BBC movie based on Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes. Like Erin, I adore Ballet Shoes, and I look forward to seeing the BBC movie version. You can find more details here.
  • And finally, this simple little post over at BookMoot really resonated with me. In Book Stack of Reproach, Camille laments the books she has yet to read, and the ones that she's read and enjoyed but not written about. Oh, how I can relate! I've been having a lot of headaches lately, and although I can read for short periods, I find that the concentration required for writing a coherent review, well, it just isn't there. But soon...

And that's it. I can't tell you how nice it feels to be caught up with the doings of the Kidlitosphere.