Category Archives: Children’s

The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1), by Lemony Snicket

unfortunateIt’s hard to believe I had never read this famously gloomy (and funny) series of kids’ books, nor had my children. They’re right in line with the sort of thing we had all over the house when the kids were schoolaged, and would have been a blast to read out loud, but somehow, having picked up the first one once or twice, I never really got into them. What convinced me to finally start the series was the recent TV adaptation starring Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf, which  has such a lovely, gloomy, quirky tone that I watched it in a couple of days and then really wanted to go back to the source material (the TV series covers, I think, the first four books of a thirteen-book series, so presumably they’re planning three seasons? Not sure).

The books are, as the narrator warns over and over, incredibly gloomy — a lot of really awful things happen to the Baudelaire orphans. Most of them are cartoonish, like Count Olaf dangling Sunny from the top of a tower in a cage, so you don’t really feel the empathy you would in a more realistic story. But then occasionally something genuinely realistic happens, like when Count Olaf hits Klaus in the face and he has a bruise for days, and you think, this is really a story about child abuse, even though it’s cartoonish and often funny. The humour comes in the narrative voice, which constantly reminds us to put the book down if we enjoy stories with happy endings. I do enjoy stories with happy endings, and I’ve been warned enough that this won’t be one, but I’m probably going to keep reading anyway!

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Filed under Children's, Young Adult

Dear Hank Williams and My Louisiana Sky, by Kimberly Willis Holt

Dear Hank WilliamsResearch often takes me to some interesting places. In the book I’m working on now, one of my characters is a Newfoundland girl who marries a soldier from Louisiana while he’s based in St. John’s during WW2, and goes (for awhile) to live in Louisiana with him. I was looking for some books set in central and northern Louisiana (which, I’ve learned, is culturally quite different from the better-known New Orleans/Cajun/bayou world of southern Lousiana). Someone suggested to me the young adult novels of Kimberly Willis Holt, which are not only set in the right time period but also, at least the two I’ve read so far, in the right era too. They are also lovely, heartwarming stories about young girls in non-traditional family settings, coming of age and learning to live with the families they have rather than the idealized ones they’d like. I picked up Dear Hank Williams because its young protagonist, much like my main character, is fascinated by the ill-fated young country singer who because famous through his performances on the Louisiana Hayride radio show.

The novel My Louisiana Sky deals with a situation I’ve never seen explored in fiction before — its main character is a young girl of above-average intelligence, but both of her parents are mentally challenged/delayed, and as she gets older she is moving from simply taking them as they are, to being embarrassed by them, to trying to learn to accept them and what they can offer. Holt is a fine writer as well as a great chronicler of this particular slice of life in a place and time.

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Filed under Children's, Fiction -- historical

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

graveyard bookAfter surviving the murder of his whole family, a toddler finds refuge in a graveyard, where he is raised by ghosts. Nobody Owens grows up as a living child among dead people, cared for and loved by people who are either not-quite, or no-longer, human. Eventually, as a teenager, he must live among his own kind, the living, in a world he knows almost nothing about. But first he must escape the man who tried to kill his family, who is still searching for Nobody.

This is a haunting (pun intended), scary-yet-sweet little ghost story, and although it’s marketed as a children’s book, age-based categories don’t really apply to Neil Gaiman’s books. I found it had much the same feeling as Gaiman’s recent novel for adults, The Ocean at the End of the Lane — a fantasy novel rooted in the real world, that raises questions and suggests answers that are relevant even to those of us who never have any dealings with ghosts or witches. Both books made me cry a little at the end, and that’s always a recommendation.

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Filed under Children's, Fiction -- fantasy

The Serpent’s Shadow, by Rick Riordan

I haven’t reviewed every Rick Riordan book I’ve read; I’ve talked about the original Percy Jackson novel and also about The Lost Hero, the first book of Riordan’s second series (the first series deals with ancient Greek gods and demigods in the modern world, the second with the gods of Rome). However I have read everything Riordan’s published in these series as well as his “Kane Chronicles,” a series about a teenaged brother and sister who rediscover the gods of ancient Egypt, of which The Serpent’s Shadow is the third and final book. Emma and Chris both enjoyed the first series; Chris kind of lost interest after that — he’s been into more realistic fiction lately — but Emma and I have continued reading Riordan.

I enjoy the breezy tone of the Kane Chronicles very much, and the interplay between the bickering brother-and-sister narrators, who often remind me of my own two children! And, just as the earlier series did for the gods of Greece and Rome, this trilogy gives readers a good introduction to the mythology of ancient Egypt. Fair warning to conservative Christian parents who are uncomfortable with their kids reading about pagan gods: you will probably like this series even less than the others, since the form of ancient Egyptian magic that Carter and Sadie Kane and their friends practice includes having humans serve as hosts for various gods and allowing the gods to speak and act through them.

For readers who don’t share those concerns and would just like their kids to enjoy a good action/adventure story with a little painless learning about ancient cultures, this is a great series that wraps up neatly in three books. Emma and I have been speculating on what Rick Riordan will do next, and we’re convinced Norse gods are coming soon … wonder if we’re right?

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Filed under Children's, Fiction -- fantasy, Young Adult

Looking for Alaska, by John Green

Like The Fault in Our Stars, which is one of my favourite books so far this year, Looking for Alaska is a book I read because of my son’s current obsession with John Green. I didn’t find Looking for Alaska (Green’s first novel) nearly as compelling as Stars, but it was well-written and engaging. I’ve tagged this review as “Children’s” because I haven’t yet got around to creating a tag for “Young Adult,” but I would definitely recommend this book for mid-teens rather than pre- or young teens. The characters are 15 or 16, and the issues they face definitely have “mature themes.” If I’d read the book first, I probably would have wished Chris to wait a year or two before reading it, but as I didn’t, I’m glad I read it right after him, since I think that books are not the worst way for kids to learn about some of these things — sex, alcohol, suicide, etc — but that it’s good for parents to know what their kids are reading. Chris and I have already had some interesting conversations growing out of Alaska, and I’m sure there’ll be more.

This is the story of a moderately nerdy kid, a bit of an outsider, who goes to boarding school and finds the kind of friends he’s always dreamed of having. He also finds the girl he never dared dream of — Alaska Young, one of those beautiful, smart, self-destructive and ultimately doomed teenage girls that blazes like a firecracker across the lives of her more ordinary friends. The book is divided into “before” and “after” the key event that shatters the lives of protagonist Miles and his friends, and beyond all the angst common to many young-adult novels, there’s something deeper going on here. Green uses the device of a religion class, a charistmatic teacher, and a paper Miles has to write, to probe the issues that lie beneath the events — how do we deal with the pain of this life? And do we dare to hope for anything more?

I find John Green fascinating because I see him as a “Christian writer” in the same way I see Joshilyn Jackson as a “Christian writer” — a writer who is obviously a person of deep faith, who writes about subject matter that many Christians prefer not to read about, and many Christian parents prefer their kids not to read about — sex and drugs and maybe even a little rock’n’roll. Yet it’s through these cracks in human experience that writers like Green and Jackson and others are able to let the light shine through … in a way that writers who have the imprimatur (and limitations) of Christian publishing all too often don’t.

Looking for Alaska is one of those teen novels that’s often been banned and criticized for its all-too-honest portrayal of some aspects of teen life. If you’re a parent whose teen wants to read Looking for Alaska, you should read it too — and be ready to talk.

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Filed under Children's, Fiction -- general

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

So what happened was, I decided to reread Little Women. Actually, I decided to read it, in its entirety, for the first time. I read my copy of Little Women to death, over and over and over, when I was a kid, and didn’t realize till years later that it was an abridged edition — the very same abridged edition pictured here, in fact. It was the complete story (originally published in two volumes as Little Women and Good Wives), but it was trimmed all round, shorter and tighter. Yes, my decision to finally read the unabridged version was connected to me not bringing enough e-books on vacation and starting to rifle through the free “classics” on the Kobo, but once I started I got just as absorbed as when I was 12 and couldn’t put it down.

It’s great stuff, even more sentimental and preachy than L.M. Montgomery (to whom I will be comparing L.M. Alcott a lot in this, so prepare yourself), a lovely moralistic period piece salvaged from the ranks of pious 19th century children’s books by some truly great and memorable characters. And it has two great, unavoidable climaxes that have been provoking a strong reaction in readers since the second volume (where it all goes down) was published in 1869. Beth dies, and Jo refuses to marry Laurie — a crashing romance failure made even worse when he happily settles for her sister Amy, and Jo marries some middle-aged German guy.

Having read this and absorbed it like a sponge in childhood, it’s time to return to it with a dispassionate adult brain and see how the things that bothered me so much as a young reader strike me now.

Oh my. Where do I begin?

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Filed under Children's, Fiction -- historical

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

I bought this book for Emma’s e-reader because it was recommended to me as a good book for an eleven-year-old girl, but although she started it, she never got into it — it just didn’t connect with her for some reason. Maybe another time she might pick it up and like it — with kids and books, who knows? Meanwhile, I started it when I ran out of my own e-books on our trip to Europe, and read it on the train journey between Rome and Naples. I found it absolutely gripping, so it’s definitely one of those kids books that’s not just for kids.

When You Reach Me is a story about time travel. A young girl in New York City starts receiving mysterious messages and can’t figure out who’s leaving them. There are enough hints in the book to make it fairly clear early on that someone has come back from the future to prevent a tragedy — but who’s travelling in time, and why, and how Miranda pieces it all together, makes a gripping story. I’d definitely recommend it to your eleven-year-old, but if he or she doesn’t immediately fall in love with it, pick it up yourself and give it a try!

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Filed under Children's, Fiction -- fantasy