Matilda by Roald Dahl

Read: 7 June, 2018

Overall, my seven-year-old and I found this to be an enjoyable read, though it lacked focus. The “main plot” doesn’t get started until about halfway through, and Matilda suddenly gets magical powers (the first hint of the supernatural) just a few chapters from the end.

At the same time, the chapters don’t quite work for this to be an episodic type of story. Several stories span more than one chapter, and chapter lengths vary quite a bit – which meant that some nights we read long enough for my throat to get sore, while other nights we barely seemed to read at all.

But for all that, the story is amusing, and I loved Matilda’s “get even” attitude. Both my kid and I thoroughly enjoyed the over-the-top baddies.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Read: 8 May, 2018

I read this with my seven year old. About half way through, he told me that the book was giving him nightmares. When I asked him if he wanted to stop, he said: “No. Like, good nightmares.”

And I think that just about sums up the book. Good nightmares.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Read: 23 April, 2018

I read this with my seven year old son. We both really enjoyed the first bit of the book, which is about Mrs Frisby and her sick child. The stakes felt very real, and we enjoyed all the characters she meets (the helpful crow, the wise owl, the mouse doctor, the shrew neighbour, the scary cat, etc). There was whimsy there, even as we fretted over little Timothy.

But then came the titular rats. Most of the second half of the book is the backstory of the rats, as told by Nicodemus. The narrative voice gets very removed, and we just weren’t given any time to care about any of the characters. And the characters we did care about, and spent the first half of the book getting to know, disappear almost entirely until the very end.

So we found the story to be very uneven. I think we would have liked both sections of it if they had been in different books, but we just spent too much time waiting for Mrs Frisby and Jeremy and all the rest of them to make a reappearance for the second half to be much fund.

The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag

Read: 16 April, 2018

My kid is still an early reader, which means that he does best when there are pictures. Unfortunately, a lot of books for his reading level aren’t at his story level, so I’m always struggling to find things that will actually hold his interest while he practices his literacy. Turns out that graphic novels are perfect for this, because he can easily read books that are written for much older children, and therefore have more risque scares and complex plots.

The Witch Boy is exactly all of that.

The story is just scary enough to be a thrill, and I loved the message of being yourself – outside of social boxes like gender. This is a wholesome story to share with kids, and I loved the amount of representation the author was able to cram in.

Plus, we got a huge kick out of the fact that the main character is watching Steven Universe in one panel. My son literally squealed and ran the book over to show me when he caught that!

Having now read it myself as well, we’re both hoping that this will become a series.

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Read: 25 March, 2018

My son and I tried to read this together, but only got about 2/3 of the way through before he gave up and I had to finish it on my own. The writing style is beautiful, and we both enjoyed the interweaving of myth and realism. But, unfortunately, it just takes too long to get anywhere.

There are two stories: In the first, a calico cat hides under a porch with an old hunting dog and gives birth to two kittens. The four of them form an unlikely family as they hide from the dog’s dangerous and cruel master. In the other story, taking place a thousand years earlier, a snake’s daughter changes herself into a woman to be with a hawk man, leaving the abandoned snake heartbroken and jealous.

I loved the way the two stories work together to comment on love and family. Mostly, though, this is a story about the place – a swampy jungle on the border between Texas and Louisiana. Long pages are spent describing the trees and the water, sometimes multiple times over. And while this was poetic and beautiful, it’s also what lost my kid’s attention.

It’s a beautiful meditative piece, but it is just too repetitive to be as long as it is, or perhaps too long to be as repetitive as it is.

A Gameknight999 Adventure: Terrors of the Forest by Mark Cheverton

Read: 9 January, 2018

This book apparently follows from the Herobrine novels, but doesn’t require that they be read. My son wanted to jump straight to Entity303 and, while past events are frequently mentioned and impact the current book’s plot, they are explained enough to get a feel for what’s happening.

I went into this not expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised. Considering that it’s a novelisation for a game without either plot or in-game lore, it seems like the kind of thing that would be banged out for a quick buck. And, it’s true, the came wasn’t exactly revolutionary – the plot is fairly simple, the character arcs lack subtlety, and there’s quite a bit of repetition. But at the same time, it was just fun. I enjoyed reading it, my son enjoyed listening to it, and since we’re playing the twilight forest mod on our family server at the moment, it was really cool to go find places and mobs we’d just been reading about.

My edition could have used some better editing. There were quite a few typos and even an instance or two where characters were addressed by the wrong name. But, overall, I was actually fairly impressed. This book is candy, but it’s healthier candy than a lot of what’s available.

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What Made Them Great: Marie Curie by Mary Montgomery

Read: 29 September, 2017

This is a biography intended for children. First published in 1981 (my edition was published in 1990), the writing and artwork for this book are a little dated, but there isn’t anything too offensive to modern sensibilities.

I quite liked the emphasis on Marie Curie’s hard work, her perseverance. In fact, there was quite a bit there about her character – her generosity, her self-sacrifice for others, her dedication even when things were difficult, etc. For whatever reason, I haven’t been seeing that sort of explicit mention of character models in other biographies I’ve read with my kid. It was particularly good because some of the traits discussed are specifically things that my kid struggles with, so it gave us some nice ‘teachable moments.’

There’s also a section at the end about radiation. While not exactly cutting edge, the information is no more dated than what most high school students would be exposed to.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Read: 12 September, 2017

This is a rather sweet story about a mouse who loves a princess. Though written for the younger set (at 6, I’d say my kid was just the right age), there are some rather brutal moments: Tails are chopped off, parents die, children are beaten so badly that they go partially deaf, someone dies of fear… The book doesn’t really hold back, and I can see some parents (and perhaps more sensitive children) being put off by it.

As it is, the central message of the book is one of empathy. Having most of the villains be hurting, and even the “good” characters doing bad things because of their grief, generated a number of good teachable moments about that empathy theme.

Fatty Legs by Margaret Pokiak-Fenton & Christy Jordan-Fenton

Read: 17 July, 2017

Olemaun desperately wants to learn how to read. So, despite her sister’s warnings and her father’s fears, she demands to go to the Outsider’s school.

The story of Olemaun is told in a very straightforward, factual manor. There are the hardships and the bullying from a nun nicknamed ‘the Raven’, but there are also sweet moments, such as her few interactions with the nun nicknamed ‘the Swan’. It’s a very human story.

With its simple narrative style and many illustrations (including a number of photographs), this is perfectly suited to early chapter book readers. This would make a perfect introduction to the issues surrounding residential schools and cultural genocide.

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Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

Read: 10 July, 2017

Maya has Cystic Fibrosis, so her family has to move to be closer to a specialist for her. This, of course, makes her older sister Cat feel all sorts of complicated and uncomfortable feels. To make matters worse, they’ve moved to a down where the boundary between the living and the dead isn’t particularly strong…

This is a story primarily about the relationship between the two sisters, complicated by the younger’s illness. Cat feels responsible for her little sister, and understands that her sister’s needs are important, but she also resents her for it. She understands why they had to move, but still feels angry about it. It’s tricky and nuanced and messy and Telgemeier approaches it beautifully.

The titular ghosts themselves are just there to force the two sisters to face their demons, but they do so well. Their reliance on “the essence of the world breathing around them” mirrors Maya’s own shortness of breath. And the fact that they are ghosts obviously works with Maya’s shortened life expectancy.

I see some people complaining about the authenticity of using Hispanic culture – particularly the Dia de los Muertos – as a backdrop for the story, but that’s really out of my area of expertise. It’s clear, however, that it’s done with reverence. And while the Dia details are a little fudged, I read that as having to do with the particular nature of the setting – the celebration takes place at the mission because the mission is where contact is strongest.

In all, I found it to be a sweet story that has a surprising amount of depth for such a quick read.

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