Frogkisser

Frogkisser!Frogkisser! by Garth Nix

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Poor Princess Anya. Forced to live with her evil stepmother’s new husband, her evil stepstepfather. Forced to go on the run when her stepstepfather decides to make the kingdom entirely his own.

Aided by a loyal talking dog, a boy thief trapped in the body of a newt, and some extraordinarily mischievous wizards, Anya sets off on a Quest that, if she plays it right, will ultimately free her land—and teach her a thing or two about the use of power, the effectiveness of a well-placed pucker, and the finding of friends in places both high and low.

My Review

I really thought I would love this book after reading the first chapter. It was witty and smart, and the characters were humorous and engaging with their quirks. The first chapter was so clever, in fact, that I decided to try it as a read-aloud in my 3rd grade class. I could tell, however, after reading the first chapter to them that the prose, witticism, and irony was too complex for 8 and 9 year olds. This one is probably better suited for 5 and 6 graders.

I was caught up in the wit, however, so it was easy to read the next couple of chapters on my own. I didn’t get too much further into the book before I began to lose interest. The progress of the storyline just felt slow. A lot of little details were given about this journey the princess and her loyal dog companion are forced to go on to save her little kingdom, details that didn’t seem to help move the story along or aid in character development. They seemed meaningless, aimless, and the book became boring.

I think I had also expected a little more from the princess. I had expected a little more courage and selflessness from the main character. In the first chapter she seemed to be smart and capable, but as the book continued she came across as whiny, naive, and selfish. The development for the supporting characters was lacking so I didn’t really care much about any of them either. Wading through gratuitous detail to find out what happens to shallow characters became a chore, not a pleasure.

I actually put this book down for several months before finishing it because I got busy with moving and other books came my way that I was more interested in reading. I picked the book up again though because one of my students had given it to me and I felt like I should finish it as a matter of principle. And memories of the fun first chapter gave me hope that it might improve.

So I trudged on. The pace picked up slightly in the second half of the book which made it a little easier to read on, but I never felt fully invested in the characters or the problem. Taking a break for several months probably didn’t help in that regard.

Eventually I finished and I can say that it was a unique and interesting adventure with some clever storytelling, like the connections to classic fairytale characters. But overall it moved too slowly and didn’t provide much continuity between events or characters to truly provide satisfying entertainment. Nor was it deep enough in ideas or theme to be influential. It gets 3 stars for decent prose and because I’m sure some readers would love it, particularly younger readers who have interest in epic fantasy. They would likely appreciate all of the detail and the use of a journey that adds characters little by little as the plot progression tool. I am not an epic fantasy fan, so it didn’t do much for me, but I can see how it might for others.

Age Recommendation: The writing was clearly too boring for my third graders, even my advanced readers in the class. So I recommend this for ages 11 to 14, particularly fans of fantasy, or as an introduction to fantasy.

Appropriateness: Totally clean book; nothing to worry about in the content. There is a cruel and ruthless villain but his actions and the description of his actions are appropriate for the age of the target audience.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in this book then you might also enjoy Golden, The Wild Orchid, and other fairy tale retellings by Cameron Dokey. You could also try The Unicorn Hunter by Rachel Kirkaldie, Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt, The Beyonders series by Brandon Mull, The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, and Princess Academy by Shannon Hale.

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The Magician’s Elephant

The Magician's ElephantThe Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads: When a fortuneteller’s tent appears in the market square of the city of Baltese, orphan Peter Augustus Duchene knows the questions that he needs to ask: Does his sister still live? And if so, how can he find her? The fortuneteller’s mysterious answer (an elephant! An elephant will lead him there!) sets off a chain of events so remarkable, so impossible, that you will hardly dare to believe it’s true. Here is a dreamlike and captivating tale. In this timeless fable, the author evokes largest of themes — hope and belonging, desire and compassion — with the lightness of a magician’s touch.

My Review:

What a pleasant visit I had in the city of Baltese. I met a bright assortment of characters, each looking for the place they were meant to be and the people they were meant to be with, and who were all connected by the magical appearance of an elephant. I read other books by Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn Dixie) years ago and I remember enjoying both of them which is why I wanted to give this one a try. The Magician’s Elephant lives up to the same clever wit, delightful characters, and pleasing prose as DiCamillo’s other books.

This book was a pretty quick, easy, and cute read, totally fitting it’s children’s literature classification, but it has a deeper message about hope, faith, human connection, and achieving the impossible. It read a little like a fable to me and reminded me of the Canterbury Tales, not that I have actually read Chaucer’s work in its entirety, but I do remember what I learned and read of it in a Humanities class. Just as Chaucer assembled a variety of pilgrims to tell their stories, DiCamillo introduces readers to several of the residents of Baltese: the Magician, the Lady, the Soldier, the Policeman, the Orphan, the Nun, the Countess, the Beggar, the Dog, the Servant, the Boy, and of course the Elephant. The chapters alternate between these characters’ points of view and we learn about their strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams, and the elements that stand in their way of achieving them. I admire how the author reveals so much about the characters and their stories in so few words. Their unique and endearing quirks make them memorable and entertaining.

Their are some bleak aspects to the plot, but the charming writing portrays an underlying humor and hopefulness in the events. The pages aren’t necessarily action-packed, but desire to reveal the mystery of how all of these individuals will overcome their misfortunes, and how they are all connected made it a page-turner for me. It may not appeal to all readers, but the strong characterization, uplifting themes, and the smart writing left me with happy ponderings and that feeling of contentment that comes from enjoying warm moments with old and new friends.

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Age Recommendation: The actual words are easy and the book is not long, but the themes have some depth to them, so while 3rd graders and some 2nd graders could likely read the book easily enough I think your average 4th grader would comprehend the message more easily.

AppropriatenessNothing to worry about here unless you have a particularly sensitive young reader who might have a hard time with the hardships of orphans and animals.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like this book you should read The Tale of Despereaux also by Kate DiCamillo, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, The BFG and pretty much all other books by Roald Dahl.

Topics and Questions for Discussion: This section may contain spoilers so if you haven’t read the book and don’t want anything to be given away stop here.

1. Leo Matienne, the Policeman is described in chapter 3 this way, “Leo Matienne had the soul of a poet and because of this he liked very much to consider questions that had no answers. He liked to ask ‘What if?’ and ‘Why not?’ and ‘Could it possibly be?’ ” Why are these questions “poetic?” Why do they have no answers? How does asking these questions make Leo different from some of the other characters?

My thoughts: Leo’s questions allowed him to consider the impossible and to think through ways to achieve it. It gave him a more hopeful attitude, a new perspective and he was later in the book able to inspire the same thoughts in others.  That is what poetry can do as well which makes him a poet.

2. In chapter 3 Leo Matienne stands at the top of a hill and watches the lamplighters do their work on the street below. This reminded me of one of my favorite books, The Little Prince and the lamplighter that the Little Prince visits. The Little Prince says he thinks the lamplighter is the least absurd of the grownups because his occupation is useful and beautiful. Would Leo agree with the Little Prince? What about his character supports your answer?

My Thoughts: Leo would agree with the Little Prince. He stops at the top of the hill to view the lamplighters at work because it is beautiful which is indicated by the fact that watching the lights spring to life inspire his poetic thoughts about the elephant. In the dark of the city the lamplights must have been a relief just as the Little Prince found comfort in sunsets.

3. Baltese is covered in clouds and darkness and cold, but the real problem with the weather is that it won’t snow. How does the weather relate to the feeling of the characters and the events in the book? How does weather and light or dark affect you?

My  Thoughts: The dark oppressive clouds are full of the potential for snow but it doesn’t come just as the people of the city are full of hope and dreams for their future but unable to fulfill them. The exciting newness of the elephant spark an ember of hope that their dreams may be possible, and as soon as the main characters begin to fulfill their potential the clouds release their oppression and the snow falls. I love how snow changes a world, makes it softer, new, quiet, bright with whiteness, and clean. The snow-covered Baltese held the same hope and possibilities for the people.

4. Sister Marie has no doubt that “all God’s creatures have names.” What is the significance of names in the book? Every major character has one, even the dogs. What is the significance of names in life?

My Thoughts: Names give identity and individuality. They separate us and depending on our behavior can be known for good or bad in the world. They can also indicate our background or ancestry. The character’s names certainly made me think of them from different countries or gave me an indication of their status in society. Knowing a name indicates a connecting with someone or something. Even the elephant’s name was important to her though she couldn’t communicate it. She wanted to be back home where people would be able to call her by name. Once Hans Ickman remembers his dog’s name he is truly able to connect with the feelings from his boyhood and get on board with the seemingly impossible task of sending the elephant back in order to achieve healing for the city.

5. Why is Madame LaVaughn’s presence necessary for the Magician to undo the magic? What does he need from her? What does she need from him? Why do they say the same things to each other each day she visits the prison? Have you ever felt the power of forgiveness either by forgiving yourself or others?

My thoughts: They each want to be seen and recognized. They want validation of their problems and of their worth. They were each asking for something of the other in their repeated conversations, but they weren’t clear and were so focused on what they wanted that they couldn’t see what the other needed. The Magician forgiveness and Madame LaVaughn needed an apology and regret. When the Magician finally let go of the idea that his magic would be his legacy, when he finally forgave himself and communicated his sorrow  Madame LaVaughn could finally see that she mattered to someone and was able to forgive him. they both had a weight lifted.  The Magician could finally perform the magic needed to send the elephant back and Madame LaVaughn could see good in other people again despite her injury.

Gregor the Overlander

Gregor the Overlander (Underland Chronicles, #1)Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a fan of The Hunger Games series this book caught my interest because it is written by the same author. I wondered if Suzanne Collins writing could draw me into another world as effectively as she did with The Hunger Games. As indicated by a 3 start rating she was semi-successful. I liked the book. Collins’s writing is good; her characters are unique, memorable, and likable. She gets right into the story; by the end of the first chapter I was familiar with the main character, his life situation, his inner conflict, and the plot development was well on its way as Gregor had already fallen into the Underland. All that in just 13 pages. The action moved quickly after that and the plot developed logically and smoothly.

I appreciated the theme of family love and loyalty. That was what I related to in The Hunger Games as well. Collins’s characters face difficult challenges, have to overcome their fears, and make hard choices, but they find the strength to do all of this because they are motivated by a desire to protect their family. I may be a wuss at times like when needles or really hot weather are involved, but I would suffer through a lot to protect my family. I can relate to the characters’ motivations.

This was a good read, but it didn’t match my love for the Hunger Games books which got 4 and 5 stars. A lot of that has to do with the target audience. Gregor the Overlander is definitely written for young readers (boys in particular would enjoy it), so it is lacking some detail that as an adult reader I wanted. More info about why and how the Underland came to be would have helped, but for young readers this information may have been too much.

The writing is appropriate for young readers and also engaging for an older audience, but I was distracted by the inconsistency related to the age of the main character. He is 11 which matches the age of the readers for which it is intended, but the kind of internal “talk” we get from him, the choices he makes, and the maturity with which he makes them seemed incompatible with his age. Yes, some hard life circumstances have required Gregor to step up and take on more responsibility than your average 11 year old, but that responsibility wouldn’t be enough to justify the maturity level he displays. Fourteen years old would have been a much more accurate age for his behaviors and thought processes. And still he would be a mature 14 year old, so 11 was a little unbelievable. About halfway through I was able to just start picturing him as 14 and that helped.

Had the book been written for a slightly older audience then some of those background details and explanation that were missing could have been appropriately added. It would have made for a stronger and more enthralling world. The plot and action is certainly interesting enough for older readers, and I think it should have been written for them.

A unique world, fast pace, likable characters, and pleasant writing make this an overall satisfying reading adventure.

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Age Recommendation: 9 and older. Easy to read, but not too dumbed-down.

Appropriateness: There is war and death related to that. The darkness of an underground world and the creatures there may seem disturbing, but the writing is not graphic. This would be a fun read aloud for parents and kids or for teacher and classroom. 3rd graders would especially enjoy it.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like this one you should read Deltora Quest by Emily Rodda, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Fablehaven and Beyonders both by Brandon Mull, The City of Ember by Jeane DuPrau, Holes by Louis Sachar, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

“What” is involved in reviewing – a recap

my children’s lit textbook

The last 4 posts have pretty much covered the content of my college children’s literature class minus the reading of all the awesome books. Hopefully you have been inspired to read though, and then to review what you read. It’s all about deciding how you feel about a book. Paying attention to the characters, plot, theme, and writing style can help you define and explain those feelings and that is the key to reviewing. It doesn’t matter if you like or dislike a book as long as you can explain why you feel that way. 

It’s also important to keep in mind the audience for whom a book is written and what purpose the author hopes to serve. If you pick up a popular young adult fiction novel expecting shakespeare you are likely to be disappointed which may affect your review unfairly. But if you can recognize that the book is just meant to be entertaining and exciting, not a poetic oration on the meaning of life you just might be able to appreciate it or at least aspects of it. Similarly, a children’s book is, by nature, going to have more simplified words and content so that the audience for whom it was written will be able to understand and relate to it.  But that doesn’t mean it has to be boring or badly written. So if you find yourself cringing at an underdeveloped plot or character don’t let that slide because it’s a book for kids.

The City of Bones  by Cassandra Clare is the perfect example of a young adult novel that is just meant to be entertaining. I didn’t see any indication that there was some underlying commentary or message; it was just meant to be fun. Unfortunately, I also didn’t see much of the fun. The writing was choppy and the dialogue confusing.  The characters acted too old for their age and their motives were unclear and inconsistent. I can appreciate the interesting plot and world, but the entertainment factor can’t excuse the poor writing style and story elements. Overall, I did not like the book and would not consider “good.” It might meet the standard for “Ok.”

The Giver

When the elements of a good story and good storytelling combine in just the right way you get “good” and even “great” books, but evaluating each element separately helps to identify the books that fall in other ranges of the grading scale. It also helps to validate your opinion about a book, to provide evidence to support your review. Though taking each element on its own is helpful, it’s the result when they are combined that creates a book’s impact (or lack thereof).

That concludes my “lecture” on reviewing. So go ahead – Read! Then make the judgment, decide if the book was good or not. Evaluate the different aspects of the book to justify your judgment. Then don’t forget to talk about it or write about it so you can learn and remember. Share it with others too so you can learn from them. Share it with me so I can learn! And most important of all, give me book recommendations because I’ve got some reading and reviewing to do!

The “how” of reviewing (part 2) – story elements

Story Elements

My 2nd grade daughter has been learning about the elements of a good story. These include setting, characters, plot, conflict, and theme. Sound familiar? Pretty basic stuff. We all have heard about these aspects of storytelling since at least the 2nd grade, but hopefully that doesn’t make them seem worn out. They are in fact just as essential to making a good story as our elementary school teachers taught us. It is really difficult to feel interested and satisfied by a story that is missing any one of these elements or that incorporates them badly.  Consider early reader books – “See Jane run. See Dick run. Dick and Jane run.” This may certainly be helpful in a child learning to decode the word “run” but it doesn’t give any drive to keep reading to find out what happens. That’s because nothing happens. The book is missing a plot and a conflict and therefore is also missing people who want to read it.

The most important story element for me is probably characters. I need to connect with the people in a book so that I actually care what happens to them. Otherwise I just have no interest in reading even the most exciting of plots. Stardust by Neil Gaiman was such an interesting story idea and yet the characters were so one dimensional that I didn’t really care to find out what happened to them. On the flipside great characters can make even those most normal of plot events inspiring. Anne of Green Gables is a perfect example of this. Anne Shirley is a dynamic and relatable character so reading about even a simple walk past “the lake of shining waters” is engaging.

Characters must also be consistent. We need to know what motivates them to act the way they do and then their decisions and actions throughout the book must align with those motivations. And if the character undergoes a change of heart then the catalyt(s) for such a change must be explained well enough that we can believe they would truly spur that change in the character. Without that consistency the characters will be difficult to understand, to relate to, to believe in, and therefore to care about.

Theme is a necessary story element, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be provided by the author. The best book themes are those that the reader gets to discover, and that means there can be as many themes in a book as there are people who read it. I find that books where the author preaches the theme in no uncertain terms, those in which we are told bluntly what it is we are supposed to learn are generally bland and sometimes annoying. Even if the message is a positive one, one that we completely agree with it can be unsatisfying to have it spoon fed to us. It takes away some of the power and meaning if I don’t get to use my own capacities for observation and perception to unearth how a book is applicable to my life. The best stories present the events and happenings and leave the analysis and judgment to us.

The Secret Garden

Miracles on Maple Hill is a book that I found to preach too much. The theme of the healing and restorative powers of nature is a truth I wholeheartedly embrace. My own life experience shows me it is true, but in Miracles on Maple Hill that theme is presented so directly that it feels trite and maybe even cheesy rather than inspiring. (You can read my full review of that book here.) Contrast that with the way the Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett presents the same theme. In that story nature almost becomes one of the characters and its interactions with the rest of the cast show us its power to transform, but we are given the opportunity to unearth that conclusion for ourselves. The book and its message become a journey and a memory rather than a sermon.

The way an author presents the rest of the story is just as important as the presentation of the theme. Checkout my next post, Part 3 of The “how” of reviewing, for more.

The “how” of reviewing (part 1)

Reviewing a book means we make a judgment about it. Basically, we decide whether or not a book was “good.”  So what do we base our judgment on?

What makes a book “good”?

The simplest answer – If you like it then the book is good, right? Well, kind of.

The Bronze Bow

Problem is people don’t all like the same books 100% of the time. We have different tastes and preferences in genre, subject matter, and writing style. Our like or dislike of a a book depends so much on our own personal preferences and opinions which are not quite good enough standards for determining a book’s worth for the world in general. How could there ever be any agreement on giving a book an award or recommending it for study in a book club or high school English class if the merit was all based on opinion? I found The Grapes of Wrath to be depressing and Great Expectations annoying in high school, but that doesn’t remove them from the Classics list, and it doesn’t mean that they don’t have some worth in the literary world. Hearing me admit that would probably give my high school English teacher a heart attack as my teenage mind was rather adamant that both books were just lame. But thank goodness for a college children’s literature class that opened my mind.

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World

In that class we were required to read books from a variety of genres, some of which I was not as excited about as the others. I liked reading for an escape from my reality for just a little while, so I never got terribly excited about nonfiction. I also had never been able to read a “high fantasy” book without getting bored part way through and just giving up. But I needed to pass the class for my elementary education degree, so I decided to keep an open mind and give all the genres a fair chance.

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons

It was surprising which books I enjoyed most. My number one favorite from the class actually turned out to be a nonfiction selection called Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and The Endurance . And surprisingly the “fairy tale-esque” Seven Daughters and Seven Sons wasn’t just the reality escape I was expecting. I enjoyed the book, but it was also the source for some great class discussion about controversial reading material. And So Far From the Bamboo Grove caught me by surprise with the horrifying real-life events it covered while still fitting into the children’s literature category.  The fantasy book The High King turned out to be more amusing and easier to read than I had anticipated. Being able to discuss all of these books in class and hear others explain and justify their opinions and preferences really helped me to find greater enjoyment in genres I would have normally not considered reading.

Golden

I came to recognize that I needed knowledge and experience with various genres in order to make appropriate recommendations and choices for the elementary school children and the curriculum I would be teaching. I would undoubtably have students one day who had different opinions and preferences for reading and I wanted to be able to encourage a love of reading and to help develop their interests. And even more importantly I learned to appreciate the “good” aspects about books which in turn allows me to now enjoy a much broader scope of genres. I can even recognize the “good” when I don’t necessarily like the book as a whole. My experience with a variety of genres taught me that a “good” book is more than just its subject material. That may pique our initial interest, but a book’s true worth comes not only from what is written, but how it is written.

(Check out my previous post for the”why” behind reviewing and stay tuned for part 2 of the “how” of reviewing.)

The “why” behind reviewing books

My favorite class in college was definitely children’s literature.  It even beat tap dancing and bowling. It’s the only class that I can remember actually looking forward to doing the homework. I got to snuggle down with great books for an entire semester and actually got college credit for it.

Lincoln: A Photobiography

There were books we were required to read , and then we got to choose others. (I have included the pictures of some of the required reads throughout this post.) I don’t remember many of the books I chose on my own, but the required reads I remember well even 10 years later. I know the difference in memory stems from having discussed and reviewed the required selections with the rest of the class. Being able to express feelings about the book and talk about the writing, the characters, and the plot just cemented them better in my brain, whereas my own book choices I just recorded the number of pages read.

I love to read, obviously, and I feel the time spent reading is invaluable if through the

process I am changed and improved. If I can learn something about myself or others or

Charlotte’s Rose

the world around me from reading then that is a great use of my time. But to gain anything from a book requires more than just reading the words on the pages and then setting the book aside once the last word has been read. We need to ponder what the words have taught us; we need to know how we feel about it and why. Taking time to internally process a book and our experience with it is what allows reading to have power. And then if you really want to make the new knowledge stick, make it concrete and memorable, we need to express our thoughts and feelings. Writing it all out can be particularly beneficial as it give us a record to refer back to and to remind ourselves of the literary journey we took.

The High King

It’s not just the positive experiences with books that are beneficial. Being able to explain why we didn’t like a book is just as valuable as explaining why we loved it. Discussing with others can provide further insight as well. We can see other perspectives and ideas that we might have missed, or hearing someone else agree with us can reaffirm and solidify our own ideas. I love that moment when you read or hear something and say, “Yes! Exactly! That [author/reviewer/person] totally gets it, and gets me!”

So that’s why a review books. It’s why I like to talk about them with other people. It’s

So Far From the Bamboo Grove

all about learning, gaining, and improving myself and then connecting with others and the world around me.  If I’m really lucky I may even be able to help others experience the same kind of growth. My children’s literature class helped me to see the importance of reviewing in the whole reading experience; it gave me the “why” of reviewing. But more importantly, the class also gave me the tools to effectively and accurately review.

I will overview these tools or the “how” of reviewing in my next post. Stay tuned!