In my last post (and some of my earliest blog posts — books for boys, books for girls, and books to read aloud) I recommended books I thought were excellent or in danger of being forgotten. One book (The Black Book of Secrets) got it’s own review because I liked it so much and thought it had exceptional benefit.
I’d like to add a few more to that list.
A Long Way from Chicago
I can’t help but wonder who won the National Book Award the year that Richard Peck’s “A Long Way from Chicago” was nominated but was only a finalist.
There is something attractive and captivating about watching an adult through children’s eyes. In this case, it’s also hilarious.
Joey is 9-years-old and his sister is 7-years-old when their parents decide that a week in the country with their father’s grandmother is necessary. But this grandma isn’t a doting spoiler of children. This grandma takes no guff from rich bankers or their wives, doesn’t defer to the sheriff or his deputies, and is completely unimpressed with reporters from the big city. This grandma also rights wrongs, embarrasses the wealthy, and humiliates the proud. And she does it seven times for a week each summer when her grandchildren, Joey and his sister Mary Alice, visit until Joey is 15 and Mary Alice 13.
As Mary Alice says as she gets older, “I don’t think grandma is a good influence on us.”
Perhaps not, but the end result is a thoroughly entertaining book that should be read aloud to children everywhere. I know I intend to keep my copy and read it to my granddaughter.
The Last Book in the Universe
Reading a book for children — in this case young adults — when you’re an adult is a risky business. But I’ve done it all my life. First, when single, so I would have good books ready for when I married and had children. Then, when I had children to ensure the material I was reading aloud would hold their interest and had no unpleasant surprises. And now, finally, as an “Opa”, who doesn’t have to do it for his granddaughter, I do it anyway for pleasant surprises like this one.
This book should not have grabbed me as it did. I hate books written in present tense. It strikes me as sophomoric and pretentious. As a result, this was the first book written in the present tense that I ever finished.
I am also annoyed with science fiction that throws so many “futuristic” words and ideas that the story bogs down in a sci-fi “wow fest”. “Look how clever I am as a writer! I can make up words so you can’t understand me!” But this book, while chock full of new words, introduced them slowly enough that I could follow the story.
And the main character, “Spaz” was interesting from the start.
It’s a dystopian future, with civilization destroyed by the predicted (but unexpected) “big one,” an earthquake to end all earthquakes. “Spaz” lives in what’s left of a crumbled city run by gangs. He is sent by his gang to rob an old man living in squalor of the few things that old man has, or suffer the consequences. And from there, this book takes off in unexpected ways.
Much of Mr. Philbrick’s prose is almost poetical. I don’t want to give examples here so I don’t give any of the plot away, but this was very good writing, with engaging characters, that made me jettison some of my reading preferences (and prejudices) for the duration of the book.
One criticism of the book from children (who posted reviews about it on Amazon.com) I understand: This is more than just a book for young people. It’s a step up both in reading vocabulary and the vocabulary of ideas. As a result, one student reader mentioned that he liked Rick Riordan’s books better. Well, Mr. Riordan’s books can be engaging, and they are certainly more straightforward than this one. His are also a tad more politically correct. That’s the only drawback I can see. If the child reading this book isn’t ready for complex characters and situations, if he or she can’t read between the lines, then the child will not understand much of the book.
However, I think most children can understand this book. It’s a cut above many of the books for children now being offered.
The Eighth Day
I have one problem with this book. The back of the book gives so much away up front that the impact of this creative story is blunted. So, I intend to tell you nothing about it. This book is best approached knowing nothing and going in cold.
And it’s a very good book indeed. Unusual and peopled with three-dimensional characters, chock full of unexpected plot twists, this is a book for the entire family. The author, a school teacher, never (well, hardly ever) loses sight that she is writing for teenagers, and yet the story is enjoyable for adults.
In a children’s market where everyone is trying to create the next Percy Jackson or Harry Potter, the author has demonstrated just how original someone can be. Buy this book. You won’t be disappointed.
The Cricket in Times Square
Chester (a cricket) accidentally leaves his Connecticut meadow when, lured by the smell of liverwurst into a picnic basket, he stows away inside, ending up in Times Square, New York. He is lost in more ways than one, but he makes the acquaintance of two unlikely friends, Harry (a cat) and Tucker (a mouse) who help to introduce him to life in the big city And, of course, there is the boy, Mario, who works in his parents’ newsstand.
But Chester isn’t an ordinary cricket, and he has things he can teach the busy, New York people around him, about music… and stopping to smell the roses.
Don’t ask me what took the Newberry Award when this book by George Seldon was written, but this is a very good book, with emotional impact, that any child can understand. This book should never be forgotten.
When I was a child, this book was so famous that our school teacher read it aloud to us. Now, I fear, this funny and touching book is in danger of being forgotten as more “socially instructive” books edge out older reading material for children.
Fern has fallen in love with one of the pigs on the farm. He is the runt of the litter, and he is doomed to die for that reason alone. He is so small, he can’t possibly live long anyway, and Fern’s father intends to end his life as humanely as possible. But Fern says it isn’t fair and convinces her father to spare its life. Her father, in an attempt to teach her a lesson, makes her a present of the little pig, and she names him Wilbur.
Fern nurses Wilbur to health. In fact, she does such a good job that his life is once again in danger because he is just the right size to butcher. This time, Fern will be unable to save him, but Charlotte, a spider who has made her home in Wilbur’s pig pen, has a plan to save Wilbur’s life — if she can convince the other animals to help.
This funny and touching book was also a Newberry Honor book, and every child should read it — or have it read to her.
Here Lies the Librarian
This is another book by Richard Peck, who rarely disappoints. Full of humor and interesting characters, there is a reason I cannot provide you any information about the characters or situation, because to do so would ruin the surprise that jumps out of the story in the first chapter.
Trust me on this one. It’s a good book.
Rather like the “shameless commerce division” of the Car Talk radio show, I am going to plug of my own books: The Adventures of Roman Kalbris.
Actually, this isn’t an original. It’s an adaptation and translation from the French of a book written by Hector Malot in the late 1800s. M. Malot was the Rick Riordan of his day. It’s not a complete translation, as I added information and situations that weren’t in the original, but M. Malot’s book is in the public domain, so he couldn’t stop me. I did this because I fell in love with this book when I stumbled on it by chance while attempting to teach myself French better, and I wanted to present it to the modern reader.
“The Adventures of Romain Kalbris” tells the story of a boy who wants nothing more than to follow in is father’s footsteps and be a sailor. But when his father dies at sea, heroically saving members of another boat, his mother sends him to live with his miserly (and land bound) Uncle Simon to keep him safe. And so begins a series of humorous misadventures that take Romain from his small home of Port-Dieu to the big city of Paris.
There are no car chases or magical creatures, but this story is magic simply in the presentation of a life that is now found only in history books. Because it was written during the time, it is a very accurate portrayal, and it is almost as educational as it is fun. It is the story of a boy with a big heart — and the people he meets along the way in his attempt to make his dream come true.
And the pictures in the book were done by a poor college art major who gets 10% of the profits. He’s now graduated, and he’s working for a tree service to make ends meet and living with his parents. If you all buy enough of these books, maybe he can leave home!