Thursday, February 26, 2009

The School Story

Andrew Clements
Simon & Schuster, 2001

This book makes me cry. The beginning makes me cry, the end makes me cry. Why? Because it's about a sixth grader who is trying to publish a book, and I've wanted to publish a book ever since third grade, so there.

Natalie's mother is an editor at a big publishing house, but Natalie doesn't want her mother's help. In fact, she wants to keep the project a complete secret. With the help of her English teacher and a good friend who becomes the world's first twelve-year-old literary agent, Natalie breaks into publishing right under her mother's nose. But how long can they keep the secret, and what happens when mom finds out the promising author she's been editing is her own daughter?

I usually don't like to encounter characters in books who want to become writers because the author is so obviously writing about him or herself. But The School Story takes a different angle. Andrew Clements knows how it feels to be a writer, and that's what he's captured in this marvelous story. Recommended for ages 8 and up, essential for any kid who wants to become an author.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Andrew Clements
Simon & Schuster, 1996

Where do words come from? Nick's teacher, Mrs. Granger, says that people agree on what words to use and what they mean, and if everyone decided to change the meaning of a word then one day it would be changed in the dictionary.

Mrs. Granger never expected Nick to try it.

A battle of wills ensues, with Mrs. Granger defending the dictionary and Nick Allen attempting to get his entire school to use the new word "frindle" instead of "pen." This book is the first and one of the best of Andrew Clements' collection of school stories which feature unique and well drawn characters, clever plot lines, and heart-warming endings. Great for readers age 8 and up.

Monday, February 23, 2009


Neil Gaiman
HarperCollins, 2002

Coraline begins like a modern day version of The Phantom Tollbooth --- bored child with nothing to do steps through a magical portal into another world. In Phantom Tollbooth, the other world is silly, witty, and mostly harmless. In Coraline, the other world is inventively surreal and deliciously creepy. Coraline faces dangers that Milo never dreamed of in a game of hide-and-seek where the stakes are even higher than life-and-death.

This is the first book by Neil Gaiman that I have ever read. I simply must read more. Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Mermaid Summer

Mollie Hunter
Harper & Row, 1988

A hundred years ago, so this story begins. In it, Mollie Hunter draws a Scottish fishing village as only one who has known one can do, making the characters seem as real as your own neighbors. She understands their fears and struggles, how the sea is both their provider and their terror. Superstitious they are, so says Mollie Hunter, the most superstitious folk you'll find. All except old Eric Anderson, who doesn't believe in mermaids.

The mermaid is not amused.

Mollie Hunter's mermaid is a frightening creature, strong and dangerous. It will take all the wit and courage that Eric's two grandchildren can muster in order to keep the mermaid from taking her vengeance on the whole village. At 120 pages this book is a quick read, but the poignant story will stay with you long after the cover is closed. Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tom's Midnight Garden

Phillipa Pearce
Oxford University Press, 1958

Two bored and lonely children live in the same big, old house-- Tom is missing out on summer vacation while he recovers from measles, and Hattie is an orphan living with her wealthy and unpleasant Aunt. Tom and Hattie might be able to cheer each other up a bit if they became friends. The only problem is that they were born nearly a century apart, so they can never meet.

Or can they?

This absorbing story of mystery, time-travel, and friendship is widely considered to be one of the great children's fantasy books of all time. Perfect for ages ten and up.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Thief

Megan Whalen Turner
HarperCollins, 1996

It took me some time to see the light. I thought this book started slow. Sure, the first person point of view character had an engaging voice and a charming personality, but I read for plot. I wanted action and adventure. When a young thief is dragged out of the royal prison and hired by the king to steal a politically significant and possibly magical artifact from a neighboring country, he sets off on a pleasant ride through the countryside escorted by a soldier, a scholar, and two scholarly apprentices. Snooze. I don't think I would have read any further if my husband hadn't taken over and read the book out loud to me.

Not reading on would have been a tragedy. I would never have discovered that several members of this jolly party, including the narrator, are not who they seem to be.

Read this book twice. The first time, it is a good book that gets better and better. The second time, once you know all the answers, the book is a work of pure genius. Recommended for ages twelve and up.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Among the Hidden

Margaret Peterson Haddix
Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1998

Twelve-year-old Luke is an outlaw.

In a future world where being a third-born child is a crime punishable by death, Luke lives like a shadow, hiding every time someone comes near his family's farm. Then, when the government builds an upscale housing development next door Luke is sure he will never be allowed to go outside again.

But his family aren't the only ones with a secret to hide.

Among the Hidden is the very best dystopian science fiction for young readers that I have ever come across. Intelligent, suspenseful, with well drawn characters and a chillingly believable setting, this book is one of my favorites. Ages 10 and up.

Monday, February 9, 2009

King of Shadows

Susan Cooper
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1999

Young actor Nat Field is enjoying the opportunity of a lifetime - the chance to travel to England to perform a Shakespeare play in a replica of the Globe Theater. Then, shortly after he arrives in London, he becomes seriously ill. The next morning he wakes up as young actor Nat Field of 1599, recently recruited to join William Shakespeare's players at the original Globe in the premier of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Is it a dream come true, or a nightmare?

Susan Cooper paints a vivid picture of Shakespeare's England complete with open sewage, cut-purses, bear pits, plague, and all those other unglamorous aspects of the age. Nat muddles along as best he can, finding refuge in the familiar lines of the plays and forming a friendship with the playwright he'd admired across the centuries.

This is the sort of story that only Susan Cooper could come up with and pull off so well. Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Boggart

Susan Cooper
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1993

When Jessup and Maggie get a telegram saying their dad has inherited an ancient castle in Scotland they think they're going to be rich. Excitement dampens when they learn the old ancestral home is a crumbling wreck. There's no money to fix it up, and they can't move to Scotland, and so it seems the only option is to sell the property.

Sad to part with their tarnished treasure, the family decides to have some of the furniture shipped to their home in Toronto, just so they can have something of their inheritance to keep. But once the furniture arrives, things began to happen - strange things. Mysterious things. Dangerous things. Perhaps the old castle wasn't empty after all.

This imaginative tale shows off Susan Cooper's greatest gifts - her ability to blend folklore magic with real life, her strong sense of family relationships, her heartfelt characters, and her keen storytelling. Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Silver on the Tree

Susan Cooper
Margaret K. McElderry Books 1977

In this final novel of the Dark is Rising Sequence, all the principle characters from previous books come together with all the prophetic rhymes and magical objects they've collected throughout the series. A journey through time, space, history and legend brings them to a final spectacular confrontation with the Dark. Exactly the sort of fantasy adventure my thirteen-year-old self craved.

Yes, I loved this book, but the very end made me angry. To tell you why would be a spoiler, so I'll refrain. I will say that after I read this series I had a fun time wondering if anyone I knew was an Old One - a member of the secret magical society charged with protecting the world from evil. I thought my eighth grade English teacher could have been, but the cafeteria cash register lady was probably from the Dark.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Grey King

Susan Cooper
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1975

Fantasy is sadly underrepresented in the Newbery awards. Susan Cooper's The Grey King defied that trend. Why did this one win the Newbery and not any of the others in the series? They all have the same lyrical prose, the same deep foundation in the legends of the British Isles, the same sweeping conflict between good and evil. My personal opinion is that the ALA has an unusual affinity for moody stories about outcast orphan boys and their all too mortal dogs (see Alcatraz Vs. The Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson).

In this story, Will Stanton of previous books is joined by his new found friend Bran Davies in a quest to find a legendary golden harp and wake a band of sleeping warriors that will help turn back the rising tide of the Dark. One of my favorite parts of the book is the Welsh pronunciation lesson that Bran gives to Will - I still turn to it when I want a quick reference for how to say a word with double d's or lots of y's in it.

Monday, February 2, 2009


Susan Cooper
McElderry, 1974

Many people have a book that they read over and over again as a child. This one was mine. It begins with the Drew children indignant that the grail, the artifact they discovered in Over Sea and Under Stone, has been snatched from the museum, presumably by the powers of the Dark. They return to Tresswick to try and solve the mystery, and encounter none other than Will Stanton, who is there on the same errand. Having the characters from the first two books of the series meet up lends the story the delightful excitement of getting some of your good friends that don't know each other together for the first time.

My favorite part, though, was the Greenwitch. A creature of the wild magic drawn from an ancient spring rite, the Greenwitch holds beneath the sea the secret key to the grail. Without this key, the grail is useless to either Dark or Light. Who will risk drawing her forth and unleashing her untameable powers? Who can persuade her to give up her precious treasure?

Oh, you'll never guess! You'll just have to read it.