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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Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde by Harold Lamb

Read: 6 July, 2017

Another entry from my mother’s biography collection from the 1950s (the first being William the Conqueror).

This, along with the one about Odysseus that I’m sure I’ll be reading eventually, were my childhood favs. As I was reading this book to my son, I was surprised by how many of the stories and pictures were carved into my memory.

That said, it isn’t terribly great. The writing style is a bit clunky, and the scenes themselves aren’t nearly as evocative as they could be. I had hoped to infect my child with some of my enthusiasm for the Mongols, but this book failed to capture his interest (even when I tried to supplement it with a Crash Course History video!).

Still, it’s not a bad primer for interested kids, especially in a market that has so little world history offerings for the early/middle readers.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events #5: The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket

Read: 14 June, 2017

As the fifth instalment of the Beaudelaire miseries comes to a close, I’m not left with too much to say. I enjoyed this one, as I have all of them. They do seem to be getting even better, which is lovely.

While I know the repetition of these books gets criticised, my kid loves it. He gets a lot out of being able to spot when Plot Point A is building up, or when Character X is about to make an appearance. And, meanwhile, I’m getting more than enough out of the narrative voice for me to enjoy the series as well.

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My Side of the Mountain by Jean George

Read: 28 May, 2017

This book was utterly up Kid Me’s alley. I was that loner child who used to sneak off into the woods every afternoon to make my own bow and arrows. I’m that kid who once got a bunch of sticks smoking using nothing but forest stuff and a piece of string pulled from my school uniform tie. I’m that kid who read “kid survives in the wilderness” stories almost exclusively. And I loved this book.

My kid has been getting into the same spirit, so I figured it was time to share My Side with him. And he really loved it. The best part is that it’s been great for getting him to come out on nature walks with me, and he’s been really interested in how different plants can be used, what’s edible, that sort of thing. I’m looking forward to camping season starting to see if he’s more engaged there, too.

I have to admit, though, all the talk of running away made me rather nervous. I ran away all the time as a child, and I’m sure I worried my parents grey. But, blessedly, the idea never seems to have occurred to my child. Even when he’s upset and totally hates me,he still stays close to home. It made me super nervous that this book was going to put the idea of running away from home into his head. So far, though, that seems to have been unfounded. We’ve talked about going into nature together, and made plans for camping together. For whatever reason, running away just doesn’t seem as appealing to him as it did to me. Maybe he’ll age into it.

As a story, I found that My Side dealt a lot more with Sam’s contact with people than I remembered (I actually didn’t remember these parts at all!), and less with the nitty-gritty of his survival. On the whole, though, I found that there was a good balance between the two.

I had also completely misremembered the ending – which I recall as being a traumatic ripping away from the mountain with police and such. I’m not sure why I remember it that way, or if I’m crossing memories of another book.The real ending, however, is much gentler.

This is a charming book with fairly good pacing. It’s also great for teaching kids that they are resilient and capable of being useful, despite their small bodies. Some aspects of it are a little dated, but not nearly as much as I would have thought.

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