Series Books

Last week, we studied graphic novels and series books. I didn’t think these warranted their own post, so here they are…

The Adventures of Captain Underpants
by Dav Pilkey
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First sentence: Don’t know, since my copy was missing the first 14 pages…
Content: Simple sentences, lots of illustrations, and some bad puns (and underwear humor). It’s in the beginning chapter book (grades 1-2) section of the bookstore.

I don’t know how I made it this far, with kids and as a bookseller, and not have read any of the Captain Underpants books. I mean, I knew about them and all… and even some of my girls have read them. I just never did.

(If you don’t know the plot: a couple of 4th grade kids at an elementary school hypnotize their very mean principal and turn him into the hero Captain Underpants, except he’s not very good, so they have to go save him a lot.)

My thoughts? It was very silly. There’s not much else besides silly. I can see why kids like these: they read fast, and they’re silly. Pretty much it. At least I get it now?

Ivy and Bean
by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
First sentence: “Before Bean met Ivy, she didn’t like her.”
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Content: Simple words and illustrations. It’s in the beginning chapter book (grades 1-2) section of the bookstore.

This is another series I’ve sold and my kids have read, but I’ve never bothered with. It’s about how Bean, an adventurous 7-year-old, and Ivy, a more imaginative 7-year-old became friends.

I thought it was cute. Bean reminded me a lot of Ramona, especially in her relationship with her older sister, Nancy (who’s 11). Bean’s kind of rude, rambunctious, mischievous, and definitely prone to getting into trouble. She becomes friends with Ivy, who is a more creative, imaginative child, one day when she tries to play a trick on Nancy that backfires and Ivy comes to her rescue. They then combine their interests and try to place a spell on Nancy. I think Barrows captured the crazy imagination and “games” (as my kids called them) of 7-year-olds, and it made for a very delightful book.

Warriors: Into the Wild
by Erin Hunter
First sentence: “A half moon glowed on smooth granite boulders, turning them silver.”
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Content: It’s got more words and characters than other series books; it’s probably better for older readers. Warriors, and all the accompanying series have their own section at the bookstore.

So, I have to admit: I’ve been wondering what all the fuss is about this series. We sell it hand over fist (so much that it, like Magic Treehouse, has its own shelf!), and so there must be something about it that appeals to kids.

But, for the life of me, I don’t know what that is. The basic plot is that in this forest there are for clans of cats, that are always at odds with each other over territory (because food is scarce) and a house cat named Rusty decides to run away and join one of the clans. I’m sure something else happens, but honestly? I couldn’t finish it.

It’s not just that the writing was terrible. (Okay, it was passable, but it got really grating after a while.) It’s that I just didn’t care about the cats. I don’t care about their hyper masculinity (and all the warrior cats were male, the female cats were called “queens” and relegated to the nursery, except for the overall leader, which just seemed like a bone they threw) and their territorialism (really? This is what kids are reading? No wonder we’re so divided. If the ThunderCat Clan and the RiverCat Clan can’t get along, there’s no hope for us!) and the monologuing… It was all just Very Bad.

Though, I suppose, if I were an 8- or 9-year-old kid, I might think differently. (I checked: none of my kids ever read these. I wonder what that says about us?)

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Breathing Room

by Marsha Hayles
First sentence: “Father jerked the car to the side of the road and stopped.”
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Content: There are some unsettling moments and a couple of characters die. The book would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore if we had it.

I know I’m not supposed to start a post like this, but: I wasn’t terribly thrilled about reading a book about a girl with tuberculosis in the 1940s. The main character, Evvy, is shipped off to a sanatorium because she has TB and her family hopes she can be cured. And it was surprisingly engaging and actually kind of gripping. I’ve not read many sick kids books (tending toward the cancer end of them), but I was fascinated not only by the treatments used in the 1940s, but just the general mood of the book. Evvy wanted to get better, and her body was fighting her, so there was that conflict. There was a camaraderie between the girls in the ward, but they were sick, so things that were outside of their control constantly interfered in their lives. It made for a very good story.

I was also fascinated by the historical pictures that the author put at the beginning of every chapter, as well as the small details she included in the book. It wasn’t anything that slowed the story down, but it added an extra layer to the story that I didn’t expect.

It really was a good read, and one I’m glad I did.

Module 13: The 39 Clues: The Maze of Bones

Riordan, R. (2008). The 39 clues: The maze of bones. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.

Genre: Multi-author series book, realistic fiction, puzzle book.

Book Summary: Amy and Dan Cahill have always been the favorites of Grace, the matriarch of the huge Cahill family. Now, upon her death, they (and other members of the vast extended Cahill family) are given a choice: $1 million in inheritance, or the first of 39 clues that will give the winner power and access to the Cahill family’s vast secrets. Of course, Amy and Dan take the clue, which leads them on a wild and often dangerous race against the other members of their family (who are sufficiently horrible) as they try to figure out the clue and where to go.

Impressions: This was so much fun! (Of course: Rick Riordan wrote it.) I’ve said this before: Riordan knows how to pace a book (or at least did when he was writing the original Percy Jackson series; he’s not been as tight lately) and knows how to keep a reader turning pages. And this one was no exception. I liked the play between Amy and Dan — they really felt like siblings, sometimes fighting but usually cooperating to reach a shared goal while looking out for each other. I can see why kids liked this, and wanted to read more. My only drawback is that Riordan didn’t write the whole series (each book was a different author), so I wonder if the characterizations of Amy and Dan would change slightly with each book.

Review: While Grossman kind of disdained the premise behind the series and the “focus-grouped, manufactured quality” of the books, he praised Riordan’s writing: “the premise of “The Maze of Bones” is dramatic and instantly engaging.” Ultimately, though, he was underwhelmed by the idea behind the series, writing, “It’s a story about people born into the most privileged family in the world, who then set out to become the most important people in history. Whatever happened to just owning your own chocolate factory?”

Grossman, A. (2008, November 7). First prize: World domination.  New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/09/books/review/Grossman-t.html

Uses: This would be good for a summer reading group (one that reads the first in a series? Maybe just a 39 clues club? I might use this idea one summer) for 3-5th grade kids.

Readalikes:

  • York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby — Siblings Tess and Theo Biederman and their friend Jamie Cruz follow clues left by genius inventors — the Morningstars — in a quest, full of danger and intrigue, to hopefully save their apartment building. The stakes may begin small, but they soon realize there is much more at stake.
  • Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet — A Vermeer painting — A Lady Writing — has been stolen. Demands that Vermeer’s paintings be reassessed have been issued as a ransom. Two sixth grade students — Calder and Petra — start looking at information in new and unique ways, taking no coincidence for granted, and solve the mystery finding the painting and catching the thief in the end.
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart — Four gifted children pass a test to go on a secret mission to take down the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened. I haven’t read it (yet; I picked it for my summer reading group this year), but it sounds fun.

Ghost Boys

by Jewell Parker Rhodes
First sentence: “How small I look.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 18, 2018
Content: There are some tough issues here, but all the violence is either handled delicately or is off stage. The publisher has it for 10 and up, so I will probably shelve it in the YA section (grades 6-8) at the bookstore, but it would be good for curious 4th and 5th graders.

Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot by a white police officer while playing in the park. He had a toy gun, and the officer thought he was being threatened and therefore shot Jerome. If that sounds familiar, it’s intentional.

The book isn’t about the shooting, exactly. It’s told from Jerome’s perspective, after his death. He’s a ghost, hanging around, angry he is dead, and wondering what his purpose is. From there, we learn in flashbacks how he came to be shot, as well as following the preliminary hearing (in which the white officer gets off), and learn about Emmett Till’s murder in Mississippi in 1955. The point of the novel, however, isn’t about the story. It’s about the feelings this kind of murder generate. The sadness and anger in Jerome’s family. The questioning by the daughter of the officer. The sheer number of black boys that have been murdered. But also hopeful feelings: the friendships that come out of a tragedy like this.

While it’s a bit on the heavy-handed side, I think that was done intentionally. Rhodes wants to get her readers — many of whom are young — thinking about why this happens. About underlying racism. About seeing the “other” as, well, not “other”. And I think she wants to get a dialogue going, because if we don’t talk about these things, our culture won’t change and black men and boys will keep getting murdered.

It’s a quick read, and definitely a worthwhile one for kids (and adults!) to read.

The Brixton Brothers: The Case of the Mistaken Identity

by Mac Barnett
First sentence: “Steve Brixton, a.k.a. Steve, was reading on his too-small bed.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are some slight intense moments, offset by humor. It would probably be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I think it could be an upper beginning chapter: there are short chapters, big print, and lots of illustrations.

Steve Brixton has always wanted to be a detective like the ones he’s always reading about. But it isn’t until  his teacher gives him an impromptu research paper assignment about American Quilting, that Steve gets  to see some, well, detective action. He’s set upon by Librarians (the bad sort) and Goons and he and his friend have to figure out who has stolen the Top Secret Codes from this historic quilt (I think… the plot wasn’t really the point of this one).

Goodness this was funny. Especially if you’ve read a lot of Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew books. Steve and his friend, Dana, are always getting into scrapes they have to get out of, and somehow (even though neither are terribly bright) figure out the mystery in the end. (My favorite exchanges were of the Steve: “Hey, chum” and Dana: “Don’t call me chum” variety. Every. Single. Time.) It was kind of a lame mystery — the solution was pretty obvious — but I don’t think the mystery is the point of these.

Even so, it was a ton of fun.

The Wild Robot Escapes

by Peter Brown
First sentence: “Our story begins in a city, with buildings and streets and bridges and parks.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Others in the series: The Wild Robot
Content: Same as the first one: short chapters, large print, illustrations. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore. This one, like the first, would also make a good read-aloud.

Spoilers for the first one, obviously.

When we left our fair robot Roz, she was being airlifted off her beloved island and transported back to the city. She was reprogrammed, and then sent out to be a farm robot, helping a family. Except, she wasn’t reprogrammed enough: she remembered her life on the island and her son, Brightbill, and while she wasn’t entirely unhappy at the farm — cows are good conversationalists and Roz had a lot to do — she missed her, well, home. So, she sets out to escape, which leads her on a whole adventure trying to get back to her island.

It’s much of the same as the first book here: intrusive narrator (but again, not so much that it was bothersome) and Roz is a very sweet character to root for. I liked her adventure this time, and the different things she saw and how her story spread out and paved the way for her to get back. The ending was sweet and satisfying at the same time, which was nice.

It really is a delightful story.

The Book of Boy

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
First sentence: “This story, like another, begins with an apple.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the author.
Content: There is some challenging language, because it’s set in medieval times, but with the large print, short(ish) length, and illustrations, a younger kid/reluctant reader could enjoy it. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Things that surprised me about The Book of Boy: How religious it was (though I don’t know why that did; it’s set in 1350 in Italy, and religion was a huge part of everyday life), how much I didn’t mind it’s religious nature, and how charmed I was by Boy and the pilgrim he went on a quest with.

Things I’m unsure about: the speculative(ish) element of it. See, Boy is a humpback child, and was told to keep his hump covered and hidden and never touch it. He’s shunned because of this — this felt “true”, even though I don’t know if people who didn’t look whole were shunned, but that’s what stories have always led me to believe — by everyone except a wayward pilgrim on a quest to collect the relics of St. Peter. But, once on the quest, Boy discovers that his hump is not an ordinary one, which is a blessing and a curse.

Things I really enjoyed: I loved the narrative style of the book. I think Murdock caught the inner voice of this naive character, who was doing what he was supposed to, and unsure about his own future and any changes. I loved that Boy could talk to animals, and that the animals helped him when he needed it. And I really enjoyed the whole quest: there were challenges along the way, and both Boy and the pilgrim needed each other. It was very sweet and charming.

Overall, a good book.