Monday, December 30, 2013

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Image from BarnesandNoble.com

Penguin Young Readers Group,1975
9780142410332

SUMMARY
9 year old Danny lives with his father in an old gypsy caravan behind his father’s filling station in the English countryside. His father not only teaches him how to be a first rate mechanic, he also makes Danny wonderful kites and other inventions. The two have such a lovely life together that even though Danny has lots of school friends, he never brings them home. But one day his father reveals a dark, but exciting, secret, changing Danny’s world forever. Danny can’t believe his beloved and “sparky” father could be involved in such secret dealings. But soon Danny and his father hatch a marvelous plan that will have the mean, horrible, and egotistical Mr. Victor Hazell in fits of hysterics.

The mixture of suspenseful and touching moments makes this realistic story, with just a hint of magic and “spark”, a memorable read. Set sometime after WWII, but long before cell phones and computers, this character-driven story is full of humorous descriptions. Imagination, innovation, and ingenuity are celebrated as Danny’s great idea is put into practice. In fact, it’s Danny’s brilliant idea that earns him the label of “champion of the world.” Dahl’s subtly funny narrative takes the reader on a thrilling adventure, a sort of 20th century Robin Hood story. As in many of Dahl's stories, it is the child protagonist who ultimately saves the day. Mr. Hazell holds an annual pheasant hunt to gain the favor of many rich and titled people, but Danny and his father come up with an ingenious method to remove as many pheasants as they can from Hazell’s Wood. Although the plotline features a great poaching scheme, the relationship between father and son is the real highlight of this story. Danny’s father clearly loves his son very much and there are many scenes of father and son enjoying each other’s company in such a simple, but lovely way. Dahl fans will notice that one of the bedtime stories told by Danny’s father is a snippet of The BFG. This is a great recommendation for a read aloud or for a father-son book club.
                                                                          
Read an excerpt of this fun read aloud or listen to a bit of the audiobook, narrated by Peter Serafinowicz.

CONNECTIONS
*Dahl mentions lots of different British foods in this book. Try cooking a few of the foods, such as Toads-In-a-Hole, bread sauce, baked beans on toast, and of course, roast pheasant!

*More books by Dahl:

*Readalikes:
Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by K. G. Campbell
A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck          

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 8+ / Grade 3+

-Amy

Monday, December 23, 2013

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd


Image from BarnesandNoble.com
David Fickling Books, 2007
9780375849763

SUMMARY
Ted isn’t sure what to think or feel when his Aunt Gloria and cousin Salim come to visit. They haven’t come to visit for nearly 5 years and Ted is concerned because his father refers to his aunt as Hurricane Gloria. Ted’s pretty sure he doesn’t mean a hurricane of the weather sort, which would be far more interesting in his opinion. Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, Ted is passionate about meteorology. His brain is “wired differently” and it isn’t good at reading body language. However, it is good at thinking in a highly analytical and logical way, which is great for predicting the weather. It turns out it’s also good for solving mysteries. Which is a very, very good thing because on Monday morning at 11:32am Ted and his older sister Kat watch Salim get on the London Eye and then he disappears. How does someone disappear from a glass capsule? Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Is he lost? Ted comes up with several theories, but even if he and Kat figure out which one is correct will that lead them to Salim?

This realistic mystery has an intricate plot that is revealed intriguingly, bit by bit. The pieces are expertly sprinkled throughout the story and come together in an exciting and surprising conclusion. The narrative is written from Ted’s perspective, giving the reader a glimpse into the inner workings of his mind. Although he doesn’t go into detail, Ted accepts that having Asperger’s Syndrome makes him think in a different way. While Ted is trying to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Salim, he also pushes himself to communicate, listen, and observe the world around him in new ways. Ted is an endearing and earnest protagonist, who will charm readers with his witty comments on common phrases. Slang terms and place names set this clever book in modern day London. Although American readers will encounter cultural differences, the love-hate relationships of Ted’s family members are universal. This quick, but engaging, read is a great recommendation for mystery lovers.

CONNECTIONS
*Bring in pictures of the London Eye and other locations mentioned in the book. Check out the official London Eye website for more information.

*Bring in a map of the London Underground system and have kids follow the routes Kat, Ted, and Salim take in the book. You can do the same thing using a map of London for the rest of the book.

*Make a day by day timeline of events as you read the book and see if you can figure out the mystery before Ted pieces it together.

*Readalikes:
Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett    
Shakespeare’s Secret by Ellen Broach

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 9+ / Grade 4+

-Amy

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder


Image from ZKSnyder.com
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1967
9781416990512

SUMMARY
When 11 year old April moves to the Bay Area of California to live with her grandmother she isn’t expecting to stay very long, much less make any friends. But then she meets Melanie, the girl who lives upstairs, and both girls know they have found an imaginative kindred spirit. The new friends and Melanie’s younger brother Marshall create elaborate games of make-believe all around the neighborhood. But the most intriguing game of all is the mysterious and slightly scary Egypt Game. When the friends find a secret entrance into the abandoned backyard of the enigmatic junkshop owner, they just can’t walk away. Soon they combine their love of all things ancient Egyptian and their boundless imaginations to create the best game of all. Soon the Egypt Gang grows to include more friends and everyone is having a great time, until strange things start happening in the neighborhood. Not only that, eerie messages are found in their hidden land of Egypt. Is there someone watching them? Has the game gotten out of hand?

This story, equal parts mystery and friendship tale, celebrates the fun that can be had by giving yourself over to your imagination. Written and set in the 1960’s, the setting reflects a time when children had more freedom to explore their neighborhood without adult supervision. However, even though the story is firmly set in a time before cell phones and computers, young readers will easily relate to April and her friends. Readers will also fall in love with the multicultural cast of characters, including Chinese-American Elizabeth, Japanese-American Ken, and African-American Melanie and Marshall. The neighborhood is also extremely diverse, with families of all backgrounds and skin colors, but race doesn’t factor into the story. The casual and friendly tone of the text allows Snyder to use plot and character to move the story along at a nice clip. In the same manner, Snyder delves into April’s frustrating relationship with her single mother, an aspiring Hollywood actress. The addition of a neighborhood murderer and a spooky Halloween adventure add just enough scary suspense to hook readers.

Listen to a clip of the audiobook, narrated by Alyssa Bresnahan, or read an excerpt of the book and find yourself intrigued by the Egypt Game.

CONNECTIONS
*The Egypt Gang does a lot of research on the ancient Egyptians and many real gods, goddesses, pharaohs, and queens are mentioned in the story. Bring in books on Egyptology and Egyptian mythology for kids to explore.

*Read more about the Egypt Gang in the sequel, The Gypsy Game.

*More books by Snyder:
            The Bronze Pen
            Cat Running
            The Changling
            The Headless Cupid
            The Treasures of Weatherby
            William S. and the Great Escape
            The Witches of Worm
  
*Readalikes:
            The Kane Chronicle series by Rick Riordan
            Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
            The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 9+ / Grade 4+

-Amy

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Back to Blackbrick by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald


Image from SimonAndSchuster.com
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2013
978144248558

SUMMARY
Cosmo is pretty sure this isn’t how his life is supposed to be. His mom has moved to Australia for a job and he hasn’t gotten over the death of his brother. He also refuses to believe that his massively brilliant Granddad is losing his memory, so he begins to take action using the advice from the Memory Cure website. But even though it helps sometimes, he can’t seem to get Granddad to remember that Cosmo’s brother Brian is dead. Things go from bad to worse when Granddad takes a fall and a social worker arrives to assess his ability to live at home. Cosmo is desperate to help and that’s when his grandfather gives him a small silver key. Although he’s completely skeptical, Cosmo keeps his promise to use the key to unlock the South Gate that leads to Blackbrick Abbey. And that’s when Cosmo realizes he’s traveled into his grandfather’s past. Not only that, he come face to face with his 16 year old Granddad! Maybe now he can fix everything in the past to make the future better. After all, Cosmo is a time traveler, no wait, he’s a massively brilliant Time Legend!

This story, part historical fiction and part science fiction, addresses the importance of memory, past, present, and future. The book begins in modern day Ireland, but soon readers are transported back to the early 1940’s. Cosmo’s grandfather was a stable boy at a once grand estate and he’s deeply in love with the gorgeous Maggie, a girl from a nearby village. Unfortunately, the lord of the manor also takes an interest in the 16 year old girl. Fitzgerald deftly addresses Maggie’s “condition” and the identity of the baby’s father as Cosmo and Kevin come to terms with this heartbreaking situation. Fitzgerald creates believable dialogue and motivations for the characters of the past, which contrasts with Cosmo’s 21st century sensibilities. Written in first person from Cosmo’s point of view, the story is equal parts action and reflection as Cosmo comes to terms with his grandfather’s failing memory. Ultimately, this is the story of his struggle to deal with his emotions about his grandfather’s memory, his mother’s absence, and his brother’s death. These are big issues, but Cosmo, sensitive and funny, keeps the book from becoming depressing. He admits he makes mistakes, but he’s always looking for a way to make things better and that proactive attitude keeps the story compelling and uplifting. In addition, the time travel element of the plot will keep readers wondering what happens to the characters (or if they will even exist in the future/present/whatever).

CONNECTIONS
*If you could time travel to spend a year with a relative, who would it be and why?

*Readalikes:
One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 10+ / Grade 5+

-Amy

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle


Image from TimFederle.com
Simon and Schuster, 2013
9781442446892

SUMMARY
13 year old Nate Foster is not a fan of Janksburg, PA. No one, except his best friend Libby, understands his love of all things theatre. His family ignores him and his classmates call him names as they shove him into lockers. So when Libby finds out about an upcoming audition for E.T.: The Musical, they both know it’s Nate’s big chance to get out of Janksburg. And that’s why Nate is on a Greyhound Bus to “New York Manhattan City”, armed with his audition materials, his mom’s ATM card, and a couple dozen donuts. If all goes well, he can make it to the city, do his audition, and be home before his parents even notice he’s missing. Of course, things don’t really go as planned, throwing Nate into a whirlwind weekend in the city filled with casting directors, the biggest Applebee’s in the world, a long lost aunt, and maybe, just maybe, the chance to be on Broadway.

Written in first person from Nate’s point of view, this is a hilarious and touching story. Nate has a great voice—innocent, observant, funny, and sensitive—making him an endearingly flawed, yet charming, protagonist. This is a character-driven story, filled with a supporting cast of unique individuals, most notably, Libby and Nate’s mother (a recovering alcoholic). The book humorously touches on Nate’s sexual orientation in an age-appropriate way. His classmates call him a “fag”, but as Nate puts it, “I’m thirteen, leave me alone. Macaroni and cheese is still my favorite food–how would I know who I want to hook up with?” Nate also has the experience of meeting his aunt’s gay best friend and being astounded that two men can kiss in a club and no one punches them. The book is filled with musical theatre references, many of them rather obscure. However, if you give this to a theatre-loving kid they are most likely to be fascinated by these details, rather than put off. Federle is a professional actor and he uses his intimate knowledge of New York City and theatre to create a realistic depiction of the culture. The audition process is not idealized for young readers and Federle leaves the ending open as to whether or not Nate is cast in the show. A great story about being loved and appreciated for being the best version of yourself.

Read an excerpt of the book and find yourself rooting for Nate as he takes on New York City.

You can also watch this video of the author reading an excerpt of the book to get a flavor of the audiobook (also narrated by the author).

CONNECTIONS
*Watch the movie, E.T., before/during/after reading this book. It’s fun to discuss where you think they would put in songs and dances if the movie was actually made into a Broadway musical.

*Learn more about Federle and his theatre career in this interview with Thomas Schumacher.

*Readalikes:
Drama by Raina Telgemeier
My Life: The Musical by Maryrose Wood

*Read more about Nate’s adventures in the upcoming sequel (to be published in 2014), Five, Six, Seven, Nate!

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 12+ / Grade 6+

-Amy