A Series of Unfortunate Events #2: The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket

Read: 24 February, 2017

A solid follow up to Bad BeginningThe Reptile Room follows the Beaudelaire children to a new home, and to new horrors.

The jokes and tone are very consistent with the first, so people who didn’t enjoy Bad Beginning really shouldn’t bother. As it was, we liked it quite a bit. My kid loves the titillation of the horror (which is only just barely stylistic enough to qualify as “for kids”), while I’m enjoying the dark humour in the narrative style.

I love that the series explicitly uses – and even explains – literary techniques. Just as an example, there’s some dramatic irony in Reptile Room that the narrator actually names and explains. It’s such a wonderful way to introduce my youngling to concepts, not to mention to some bigger vocabulary. Plus, “herpetology” is terribly fun to say.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events #1: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

Read: 10 February, 2017

With the kid wanting to watch the new Netflix series, it seemed about time to read A Series of Unfortunate Events. I hadn’t read it before (I was a little too old when it came out), so this was new for both of us.

It markets itself as a dark and depressing story, which it is. Mostly by telling us so. The writing style itself is a little too melodramatic to really be taken seriously, but it works well as a “baby’s first gothic” (in the Mysteries of Udolpho sense).

The book has a fairly strong narrator, who will break the fourth wall fairly frequently to comment on the story, or to explain what a word means. Sometimes these explanations are great, as when the definition is tailored to the specifics of the situation in which the word was used. Sometimes, though, it’s more of a straight definition, which is helpful for my five year old, I guess, but sucks the humour right out of it. On the whole, though, I do enjoy visible narrators, and I found that the interjections were usually quite funny.

I like that the children each have a thing to differentiate them – Violet is the inventor, Klaus is the reader, and Sunny likes to bite. But unless the children are actively doing something that fits within their area of interest, they seemed somewhat interchangeable (well, Violet and Klaus, anyway). It’ll be interesting to see if they become stronger as the series wears on.

As for the plot itself, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Readers are amply (and strongly!) warned that this series is all about terrible things happening to children, but I didn’t think it’d jump right into child brides. Still, it was a legal thing to access their fortunes, fine, but I was reading through a cringe for much of the book, silently chanting to myself “please no wedding night jokes, please no wedding night jokes…” Until, of course, one is made. It’s quick, it’s in passing, I’m 100% sure that my kid didn’t pick up on it, but this kiddie book straight up mentioned child rape, and I’m pretty not comfortable with that.

All in all, I didn’t find this book to be spectacular. It was entertaining, funny at times, and I can see the gothic imagery being very memorable for younglings.

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Time Quintet #1: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Read: 30 January, 2017

“It was a dark and stormy night.” 

I read this book with my five year old. Our copy is ancient, with yellowed pages and a taped up spine, and my sister’s name printed in pencil in the front cover. It all seems so fitting for a book about love and family.

The story is a little disjointed, with ideas and events thrown in almost haphazardly, and the ending is rather abrupt. But on the way, it trusts in children’s intelligence. It doesn’t weaken its vocabulary, it doesn’t hide from tough concepts. At five, my son was unfamiliar with many of the references, but thanks to this book we’ve now spent hours listening to Bach and Beethoven and looking up paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. I even got the opportunity to explain the basics of relativity! The best children’s books challenge their audience, and without talking down to them.

The central message of love is an important one. I barely got through the last ten pages with tears streaming down my face, and that was a teachable moment too.

The book isn’t perfect, but it’s easy to see why it’s a classic.

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The Chronicles of Narnia #3: The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

Read: 10 January, 2017

This is the story of a boy and his horse (and a girl and her horse, too, but I guess titles can only get so long before they become unwieldy), and their escape to Narnia and the north.

I had a lot of trouble getting into this one. Every time the adventure starts picking up, there’s a sudden Grownups Are Talking scene that just seemed to go on and on and on. My poor son has taken to drawing pictures during bedtime reads because, advanced in so many ways as he is, he just can’t find it in himself to get excited about Calormen politics. And I honestly can’t say that I blame him.

I might have felt differently if there had been something interesting or creative about the Calormenes. But, instead, they’re pretty much just a hodge-podge of “oriental” middle eastern stereotypes. Which really only serve to date the book.

I’m also unsure of what this does to the Narnia universe. In both The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, there was a sense of an empty world. Sure, there was the cabby who served as the first king of Narnia, but his court was comprised of talking animals. And in TLTWaTW, everyone makes a huge fuss over there being actual human children in their world.

Now, just a few years later, we find out that there are whole nations of humans less than a day’s ride from Caer Paravel.

It reminded me of the book of Genesis: God creates Adam and Eve, who have three sons, who then go off and get married. And, suddenly, we have near descendants going off to other lands and living in the cities there. Knowing a little of C.S. Lewis’s religious perspective, I can’t help but wonder if he wasn’t having a bit of a larf when writing this.

In conclusion, I found this to be a very pale follow up to TLTWaTW. There are too many grownups and grownup doings, and the use of stereotypes just comes off as lazy.

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William the Conqueror by Thomas B. Costain

Read: 8 December, 2016

As I was talking to my mom about reading the Narnia books to my son, she mentioned that she has a few children’s books that we might want to look through. There, on her shelf, was an extensive collection of Random House historical biographies for children from the 1950s.

These books had been my mother’s when she was a child, then enjoyed by me, and I picked out a few to share with a third generation – our first was William the Conqueror.

At five, my son is perhaps a little young for this series, but he followed along in his own age-appropriate way. The battle scenes, which enthralled me as an 8-10 year old, we’re a little too intense. There are also a few authorial asides (particularly with regards to gender roles) that made me uncomfortable enough to turn into Teachable Moments.

But, for the most part, this book holds up. The vocabulary is a bit challenging, and the narrative voice doesn’t lend itself well to out-loud reading, but it’s a great introduction to historical concepts. And while I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all the historical facts, the book lays an excellent foundation for helping kids to get a feel for a time period and a familiarity with essential names.

The writing style can be very repetitive, and seemed to have trouble deciding whether it wanted to show or to tell. It’s unfortunate because the book, on the whole, is great fun.

The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi

Read: 25 October, 2016

This is the story of the Grace children. After their parent’s separation, they move into their great aunt Lucinda’s old home – a house that has stood empty for years, ever since Lucinda went to live in a mental health facility. Almost immediately, strange things begin to occur…

The kid and I read the box set edition of this story, which combines all five books. Reading them all together like this, it’s hard to imagine how the series would even work as separate books. The first book stands alone all right, but the rest only really have a shared macro arc. They start, plot happens, and they end suddenly, without proper arcs of their own. Even the first book only works as a stand alone because it’s focus is on the initial discovery of the mythical creatures. My most generous guess is that the publishers didn’t want the whole story to look too daunting for emergent readers, but my cynical guess is that it was an attempt to cash in on the series format that’s been so popular with children’s books since Harry Potter.

Taken as a whole, the story lacks a certain focus. There’s an excellent build in the first book, but then it starts to break apart. Things happen, but the atmospheric building is lost. Occasional references are made to the Big Bad, Mulgarath, but he doesn’t really feel like a threatening presence until the final book. It would have been better if his influence were felt more palpably throughout. As it was, the big boss showdown didn’t seem all that much more threatening than the smaller boss showdowns we’d been getting throughout the story. I wanted to give my kid a good scare, but Mulgarath just didn’t cut it.

The strength of the series is in the characters. Every character, human and non, has a unique voice that made reading this aloud both easy and fun. I knew, even before I got to the dialogue tags, whether it was Jared speaking or his brother or a goblin. I also liked the way that each child character was special in their own way – Simon is the animal lover and Mallory is the fighter (and isn’t it wonderful for the girl to be the fighter?). Even Jared, who is your standard Gryffindor reader-insert hero character, begins to emerge as the artist as the story wears on.

The series starts very strong, but loses focus. That’s not to say that books 2-5 are bad, but rather that they just kinda happen, and I think the kid and I were both getting a bit bored with the series toward the end. The awe of discovery of the first book was gone, and there wasn’t enough else there to sustain our interest.

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The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Read: 21 September, 2016

Like most people my age, I grew up with the Wizard of Oz movie, but hadn’t read the book. It didn’t occur to me to until I met my father-in-law, who is somewhat obsessed with Oz. He grew up the book, but not our book. No, he grew up with the Russian Oz, written by Alexander Volkov, which features a young girl by the name of Ellie travelling to Magic Land with her talking dead. Imagine his surprise when he came to Canada and discovered a whole alternate universe of Oz, by a different author, and even a Hollywood movie!

He showed the movie to my son, and his enthusiasm must have been contagious (perhaps aided by the Wicked Witch popping up in LEGO Dimensions), because my son loved it.

The time seemed as ripe as it would ever be to finally read Baum’s Wizard of Oz at bedtime.

It holds up beautifully. The language is only very slightly Old Timey, but was modern enough to be perfectly comprehensible for a modern, 21st century kid (peppered with a few bigger words to help with a child’s expanding vocabulary). He enjoyed revisiting the characters, seeing their additional adventures, and even noticing the differences between the movie and the book (in particular with the pictures, drawn by David McKee, which are wholly independent from the Judy Garland movie’s imagery).

For my own part, I enjoyed it. It was very whimsical, with solutions often popping out of thin air just as they are needed. It’s an episodic book, with creatures being introduced, dealt with, and then disappearing forever – so the book lacks much of a narrative build. That makes it quite perfect for bedtime reading, as sleepy kids aren’t great at keeping track of plot threads.

I don’t know how well the book would be received if it were written today, just because we tend to be a bit more narratively demanding – even with out children’s books – but it was fun. It throws a lot of ideas around, but doesn’t overplay them or resolve things too neatly, so there’s a lot of room for imagination.

In conclusion, we enjoyed it. It held my five year old’s interest, as well as mine, and it gave us a good way to finish up our day and prepare for bed.

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LEGO Star Wars: Phonics Box Set

Now that my child is just on the cusp of reading on his own, I’m struggling to find him enough ability-appropriate materials (he seems to be growing into quite the avid reader, not sure where he gets that from…).

So far, we’ve mostly been going through the BOB books, supplemented with a few emergent readers from the library. I found a LEGO Star Wars chapter books at the toy store, and I got really excited! My kid loves LEGO and he loves Star Wars, so what could be better? The book was a little too overwhelming for him right now, but I don’t think it will be long, so I bought it and then took to Amazon to see if any more were published (spoilers: there are quite a few!).

While searching, I came across this Phonics box set and immediately purchased it.

The text is actually a mix of early phonics and more complex words, so it’s ideal for parents reading along with their children. The books make this extra easy by bolding the words for the child to read. As with most phonics books, each book overs a different vowel sound.

The stories themselves are a little silly. They aren’t exactly high literature, but they are definitely a relief after a few weeks of BOB books (don’t get me wrong, I love the BOB books, but there’s only so much I want to hear about the things Mat has been sitting on).

The artwork isn’t great. It’s colourful, but it looks a little rushed – proportions are often off, for example. But it is colourful and it is easy to tell who the characters are and, frankly, my kid didn’t notice anything amiss.

The set includes two workbooks. The materials in the workbooks are fine, but they are so small! They lack guidelines, and the spaces provided for kids to write in their answers are far too small. Emergent readers tend to be very young, and they lack fine motor skills. The format of the workbooks would be more appropriate for a grade 2-3 child, while the content is more suited for K-grade 1. Rather than frustrate my kid, we decided to just go through the workbooks verbally.

Overall, I think the box set is well worth it’s price. It could have been done a little better, but it’s a lot of fun and I appreciate more materials in my child’s fandoms being available. My kid already loves reading, but giving him characters that he’s already invested in just makes the experience even better.

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The Once And Future King #1: The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White

Read: 17 May, 2016

This really wasn’t what I was expecting at all. My dad had given me an old paperback copy of The Once And Future King when I was a child interested in Arthurian legends, but he made it sound like a very serious, stuff tome – a perception that wasn’t corrected by the fact that this thing is an absolute brick. It ended up sitting on my shelf for nearly two decades before I finally decided that I’d give it a read through audiobook (my preferred vehicle for fantasy novels suffering from gigantism).

It turned out to be very different from what I had assumed. For one thing, it’s clearly aimed at children (specifically boys – there are almost no female characters in the whole book, and the two I can think of are a) Maid Marianne, and b) the witch, Madam Mim).

The story is episodic, each usually involving some adventure Merlyn sends the young Arthur (often accompanied by his foster-brother Kay) on. These mix and match different stories, including Robin Hood! Most of these adventures include some kind of lesson: A discussion on the nature of time, an introduction to embryology and evolution, etc.

The book is still quite a brick, and I think it would have been difficult to get through if I had tried to just read it to myself. It did work well as an audiobook, though, and I think that it would have worked fairly well as a bedtime story – with each adventure read aloud and treated as self-contained.

I found the novel to be quite funny, particularly the episodes with King Pellinore. The audiobook reader was clearly having a lot of fun with those episodes, what?

Overall, I found the book a bit dated, and it’s hard to see it competing for children’s bedtime attention given the options that are available now. But it was still a fairly enjoyable read, a good story with some food for thought and amusing humour. I may give it a try on my kid when he’s a little older.

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Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Rift by Gene Luen Yang

Read: 4 March, 2016

Aang tries to recapture the past by bringing his new Air Acolytes to a festival in honour of Yangchen, the previous Air Avatar. When they arrive, however, they find that the sacred meadow has been replaced by a factory co-owned by Toph’s father.

While the focus in The Search was tying up an Avatar plotline, both The Rift and The Promise seem to focus more on setting up the world of Legend of Korra. Here, we get to see more of how the four nations mingled, as the factory works through the cooperation of Earth, Fire, and Water benders.

The Rift also sets up how the world of Korra moved away from bending toward technology, creating an environment in which a figure like Amon could rise. It’s all very ambitious and, in my opinion, very well handled.

I think that where The Search fell a little flat for me is that Aang didn’t really have a central struggle. His search for balance – and the ways in which he is influenced by the friends (and even the enemies!) around him – has always been the source of the most compelling plotlines. Here, he is torn between his desire to preserve the past and the necessity of allowing the future to be. We see him decide what sort of Avatar he will be – the kind who will work to preserve the world in amber, or the kind who will nurture and guide the world as it grows. And that is good storytelling.

The side plot of Toph seeing her father was fine, but fairly bog-standard. He is initially stubborn, then she gets to show off how awesome she is, then he comes around and accepts her. That’s nice and all, but I’ve seen that a thousand times before. It only worked because I am already invested in Toph as a character and because it wasn’t the central storyline – which is why The Search didn’t work nearly as well.

I’ve just started re-watching Korra with my family (who haven’t seen it before), so I’m really excited to share these bridging stories with them!

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