Category: reading


OMG, it’s a post on a Wednesday!  Today was the last day of school before winter vacation, and I survived not only the library times with wired students and a few class parties, but also got done checking in and cataloging books in a timely enough manner to read a book, get home, and write this review before 9 p.m.  Be amazed.

My elementary students adore the Magic Tree House series.  It’s written for about a second grade reading level, but the Kindergarten teacher introduced her class to them and her students just love to check these books out and bring them home to read with a parent.  Bless her heart, she got a bunch of the series from Scholastic, let the students choose one book for Christmas, and gave me the rest for the library!  What an awesome present.

With all that in mind, I decided to take ten minutes and read the first in the series.  Here’s my review before I end up typing more words than are in the book!

Statistics
Checkouts, Dinosaurs Before Dark: 7
Series checkouts: 49 (over ten books, before the new additions)
Typical reader: Any elementary student, especially K-3
Sources: Various

Synopsis: Jack and his little sister Annie discover a tree house full of books.  When they point to a picture in a book, they find themselves in a new place!  Good thing there’s a book with a picture of their hometown, so they can return.  In the first adventure, they go back to the Cretaceous Era.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

This series really is cute, and appropriate for all elementary students!  Jack and Annie are curious adventurers, with distinct personalities that I could get a feel for in just the first book.  The use of a brother and sister helps to appeal to both boys and girls, which is great.

There are two awesome things about these books.  First, they’re educational.  Jack and Annie learn about what they encounter, with both their experiences and the books from the tree house.  Second, the books don’t pander like some at this reading level do.  You’re not going to have an explanation in every story about how Jack and Annie found the tree house, and what it does, blah blah blah.  There’s a simple page or so in every subsequent volume with a quick explanation about what happens in this series.  The Magic Tree House series lacks the boring repetition I’ve found in series like Junie B. Jones or the Baby-Sitters Club: Little Sister.  You’re not wasting any of the story itself on a recap of “last week’s episode,” or whatever.

There are even Magic Tree House Research Guide volumes that complement many of the chapter books, full of facts about the topics mentioned in the matching novel.  Fabulous.

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It’s been a while since I did a “Reading what the students read” column.  There have just been too many eye-catching new books available!  But here is my review of Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.

Statistics
Checkouts: 11 between two copies
Checkouts for Hoot/Flush/Scat: 42*
Typical reader: Upper elementary, both genders

Synopsis: Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House is coming to Coconut Cove, Florida.  But someone has been pulling up the stakes, putting alligators in the portable toilets, and committing other acts of vandalism.  Meanwhile, newcomer Roy Eberhardt, a middle school student, notices a barefoot boy running through town and takes interest.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

I’ll be honest.  Carl Hiaasen is known for being a very funny mystery writer, and his children’s books are supposed to be just as humorous.  This book just didn’t hit my funny bone, though.  The kids love these books however, so it’s probably just my sense of humor that didn’t connect.

That said, this is a very engaging read.  It reminded me of my all-time favorite book from my childhood, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, in both the adventures the characters have and in the social commentary.  There are two excellent reasons to read this book: the outstanding characters and the plot.

Roy is one of the best characters I’ve read this summer.  He’s got a lot of spunk, and stands up for himself and his beliefs.  He takes on a bully, stands up to an intimidating soccer star and then befriends her, and questions the legality of a corporation’s actions.  Supporting characters such as Officer David Delinko, Beatrice Leep, and Beatrice’s stepbrother “Mullet Fingers” (so nicknamed for his fishing abilities) are sympathetic and well-written.  “Mullet Fingers” contributes to the Maniac Magee air, running everywhere and living as a vagabond, doing what he feels is right.

What he feels is right is protecting the burrowing owls that live in the lot where the pancake house is scheduled to be built.  He is willing to do that through any means necessary.  Can he and the others somehow save the owls’ habitat?  Or will the cute little birds be buried by the bulldozers?  These are awesome plot hooks for budding environmentalists and animal-lovers, as well as readers who like kids that take initiative to change their world.

*: The author’s book Scat has the most checkouts of the three books, but I’d picked up this one since I thought the books were part of a series.  They are not.  You can read any of them without any knowledge of the others.  Whoops.

Today on my segment about what my students are reading, I am featuring the first book in the bestselling series Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney.

Statistics
Book checkouts: 12
Series checkouts: 48, with books 2-4 unreturned at the end of the school year *unhappy librarian grumblings*
Typical reader: Elementary students, grades 3-5, as well as some 6th and 7th grade students

Synopsis: Greg Heffley records his experiences with words and pictures in his diary (excuse me, “journal”) as he tries to survive sixth grade.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

Here’s another amazingly popular series that my students just can’t give up.  Unfortunately, I mean that a bit literally, since the school year ended with only the first and fifth books on the shelf.  They’re all checked out to people, so at least I know who to get after for the books, but they’re overdue.  These are three books that are Follett Publishing-bound (hardcover of sorts) with spine labels, barcodes, and the whole nine yards; it’s not like they can hide the library book status.  Blah!  *end librarian rant*

Anyway.  This series is a leader in the juvenile fiction trend of diary-style novels.  The books have stylized writing to look like a kid’s print, and are full of little illustrations.  A book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a quick read for a typical reader, and attractive to reluctant ones.  When I don’t have much time but want to read, I enjoy manga and graphic novels.  I can certainly understand the appeal of this format.

This series can also be a parent-pleaser.  There’s no foul language, gore or sexual content, hardly any violence, and positive parental role models.  It’s aimed at upper elementary to middle school students, but there’s nothing objectionable if a child in a lower grade wants to read it.  Maybe a discerning parent won’t like the potential for imitative behavior, but along with the little pranks and not always making the right choices, the protagonist does often try to do what’s right.

Illustrated tribulation!

What do I think of this book?  Well, I think I shouldn’t go straight from a hard-hitting, exciting page-turner of a zombie/dystopian YA novel to a humorous spice-of-life book for kids.  Then again, I might just have a sense of humor that needs a tuneup.  Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with this book!  It is written in an excellent voice, perfect for both making a believable protagonist and reeling in the readers who can relate to him.  The illustrations are amusing and make great accompaniments to the story.  The trials and tribulations Greg goes through are ones the intended audience share as well, and older readers can look back and either smile or cringe as they recall their own middle school experiences.  (Except me.  I was a bookish wallflower who probably missed half of what went on with my peers at that age.  Which might be why I feel like I’m missing something with this book.)

Fun fact: This series was originally published on the web at http://www.funbrain.com

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Today for “Reading what the students read,” I would like to discuss the first book in the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin (pronounced “Owen,” for what it’s worth) Colfer.

Statistics
Book checkouts: 12
Series checkouts: 55
Typical reader: Upper elementary or middle school student, approximately 60/40 male/female

Synopsis: To sum it up in a sentence, “Imagine an evil, 12-year-old James Bond exploiting fairies for their treasure.”

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

This series is tremendously popular with the grades 5-7 crowd.  The first book alone garnered a dozen checkouts, even with having to pull it for repairs a couple times.  So I absolutely had to give it a try.

My impression of the eponymous first book of the series is a bit mixed, but positive overall.  I had a little difficulty getting into it at first, but once Captain Holly Short, the protagonist on the fairy side, was introduced, the reading became more to my liking.  It is a genre-defying mix of science fiction, fantasy, folklore, and criminal/espionage thriller.  And it actually works for the most part.  This is a great story.

Artemis Fowl is a rather sinister title character, who brings to mind the “James Bond” and “Mission Impossible” themes and maybe the need for a cat to stroke, Dr. Claw-style, on the arm of his chair.  He is coldly calculating, a young criminal mastermind from a long lineage of such villains.  By his side are his henchman Butler and Butler’s little sister, Juliet, ready and willing to do his bidding.  In this story, that bidding is to a) track down the “Book” that all fairies have in their possession that, when decoded, reveals many of their secrets, b) kidnap a fairy when it comes above-ground to complete a magic ritual, and c) obtain the pot of gold ransom in exchange for the prisoner.

On the plus side, the fairy lore is superb and both Artemis and Holly are well-rounded characters.  Artemis comes across as a pretty solid villain, yet he also has soft spots, a touch of childishness that he can’t quite shake, and other qualities that make him human.  Holly is a soldier, the first female LEP-recon officer, with both a penchant for screwing up and being tough as nails.  She’s rather likable.  Several secondary fairy characters are also nicely fleshed out.

On the negative side, I would prefer to have seen more to Butler and Juliet’s personalities.  Juliet especially came across a bit one-dimensional.  There are hints that Butler is more than just a big goon who follows orders without question and cares for his sister, but his character was left wanting.  Mature readers may be turned off by the abundance of toilet humor concerning dwarves – though that can also be a draw for many young readers.  Lastly, your mileage may vary concerning the environmentalism and xenophobia of the fair folk.

Overall, this is a good first adventure that has the potential to draw in readers of many different genres.


Next time on “Reading what the students read”: Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney.  I got it from the library today.  Stay tuned!

For the first installment of “Reading what the students read,” I chose the first book in Rick Riordan’s series Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Lightning Thief.

Statistics
Book checkouts: 9
Series checkouts: 38
Typical reader: Upper elementary student, either gender

Synopsis: “Percy Jackson is about to be kicked out of boarding school…again. And that’s the least of his troubles. Lately, mythological monsters and the gods of Mount Olympus seem to be walking straight out of the pages of Percy’s Greek mythology textbook and into his life. And worse, he’s angered a few of them. Zeus’s master lightning bolt has been stolen, and Percy is the prime suspect.
“Now Percy and his friends have just ten days to find and return Zeus’s stolen property and bring peace to a warring Mount Olympus. But to succeed on his quest, Percy will have to do more than catch the true thief: he must come to terms with the father who abandoned him; solve the riddle of the Oracle, which warns him of betrayal by a friend; and unravel a treachery more powerful than the gods themselves.”

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

Wow!  This is one of those novels where I can actually say, “I see why it’s popular!”  The writing is strong, the plot unique and catchy, the action nonstop, and the characters well-rounded.  It’s a story that captures the reader and doesn’t let them go until the tale is completely resolved.  There really wasn’t a dull moment.

One of the highlights of the book for me was trying to figure out who each god or monster was before the narrative actually revealed its identity.  It’s great fun to catch the hints.  Riordan also has been quite clever in bringing the Greek pantheon to the 21st century, trading in battle chariots for motorcycles and magical helmets for baseball caps.  This series has gotten a lot of kids interested in Greek and Roman mythology – always a good thing.