How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

Read: 1 May, 2017

My copy’s cover boasts that this story is “now a major DreamWorks Animation film.” That’s a lie. There is a DreamWorks movie with the same title, and even the main characters have the same names, but it’s not the same story. At all.

That was rather unexpected.

But not unwelcome. The movie was a wonderful story about a friendship between a boy and a dragon that sort of crammed in a thing about a Big Bad to be defeated at the end because I guess the screenwriters felt that they needed a grandiose climax but couldn’t be arsed to write a second draft in which the two plots actually make sense together.

Whereas in the book, there is a Big Bad, but it’s better integrated into the story. And, perhaps more importantly, it actually makes sense.

Unfortunately, I just wasn’t feeling the book. The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless in the movie tugged my heartstrings in all the right ways. But in the book, the two don’t really seem to have much chemistry together.

It didn’t help that the only human female in the whole book was the main character’s mother. I get it, “boys don’t want to read about girls”, but what do you think teaches them that? Sure, the movie crammed in your normal Stock Strong Female Love Interest #3, but at least she was there. It was a start.

I also had trouble with the narration. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t find the rhythm of the text, and I kept stuttering and stumbling over myself while trying to read it out loud. The writing just didn’t have any poetry in it.

There’s a whole lot of your typical boy media “gross-out” stuff, like references to snot and belching and such. I can imagine those being a hit for some kids, but mine couldn’t care less. I can see how this book might hit a lot of a kid’s interests and become a family favourite, but it just wasn’t working for us. Maybe in a few years…

Buy How To Train Your Dragon from Amazon and support this blog!

A Series of Unfortunate Events #4: The Miserable Mill by Lemony Snicket

Read: 28 March, 2017

Another instalment in the Beaudelaire saga, and likely the last one that we’ll read for a little while. The goal was to read the first four so that we could watch the Netflix show, and now I think that we need a bit of a breather. Not because there’s anything wrong with the series, but simply because we are fickle creatures who crave variety (and because I accidentally stayed up too late one night and put about a bazillion picture books on hold at the library and they’ve all come in at once).

The Miserable Mill changes things up a little, in that we get to meet a new accomplice. Sort of. Because we don’t get very much of Dr. Orwell. But still, she’s an interesting one. She’s different from Count Olaf – smarter, more cunning. I would have liked to see a bit more of her.

Without getting too much into spoiler territory, there’s a rather horrific scene at the end that rather disturbed me. This book has upped how graphic the death and maiming is.

Gender is an interesting theme in this series. We have the ambiguously gendered henchperson, which comes off feeling a bit transphobic (particularly in The Wide Window), and in this book we get a cross-dressing Count Olaf. And I don’t really know what to make of it.

But then there are gender reversals that feel refreshing, like having Dr. Orwell be a woman (which I wasn’t expecting, based both on my own biases and the name), and having the co-owner of the lumber mill seem queer coded (and not be a villain!).

So, as with most things, I think it’s complicated. Snicket is doing a great job sometimes, and riding his own biases at other times.

Buy The Miserable Mill from Amazon and support this blog!

Continue reading

A Series of Unfortunate Events #3: The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket

Read: 13 March, 2017

How fortuitous that we finished this book on the 13th!

I’m not sure if the series is just growing on me or if Snicket is hitting his stride (or, perhaps, a mixture of both), but I really enjoyed this one! It has amazing passages like:

“Stealing, of course, is a crime, and a very impolite thing to do. But like most impolite things, it is excusable under certain circumstances. Stealing is not excusable if, for instance, you are in a museum and you decide that a certain painting would look better in your house, and you simply grab the painting and take it there. But if you were very, very hungry, and you had no way of obtaining money, it might be excusable to grab the painting, take it to your house, and eat it.” (p.136-7)

Even though the stories are a bit formulaic (kids are handed over to a new guardian, Count Olaf appears in disguise, no one believes the kids, guardian dies, Count Olaf traps the kids, the kids unmask Count Olaf, Count Olaf flees), each one is still different enough to feel fresh and interesting.

The stories are dark, but my kid is finding it titillating (possibly hereditary, given my own obsession with Edgar Allen Poe at his age). They’re funny on a kid level as well as an adult level, making them fantastic family read books. And, lastly, they’re wonderful at initiating teachable moments (and handle the teaching themselves quite often, such as when the narrator explains new vocabulary).

Kid and I are both really enjoying the series.

Buy The Wide Window from Amazon and support this blog!

Continue reading

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.

Buy A Series of Unfortunate Events from Amazon and support this blog!

Continue reading

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.

Buy The Bad Beginning from Amazon and support this blog!

Continue reading

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.

Buy A Wrinkle in Time from Amazon and support this blog!

Continue reading

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.

Buy The Horse and His Boy from Amazon and support this blog!

Continue reading

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.

Buy The Spiderwick Chronicles from Amazon and support this blog!

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.

Buy The Wizard of Oz from Amazon and support this blog!