Small Medium at Large

19 07 2012

When I was 10 years old, books didn’t get much better than Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary.  Those two women knew how to create great characters, put them in realistic, but interesting situations, and make you care if those people solved their problems.

Joanne Levy, the author of the new middle grades book Small Medium at Large, reminds me of those two wonderful authors.

The story is about Lilah, a 12 year old girl with typical 12 year old girl problems – divorced parents, prissy schoolmates, a crush that doesn’t seem to know she exists, and… oh yeah… dead people talk to her.

You see, Lilah was struck by lightning the day of her mom’s wedding.  Don’t worry, she’s fine – if you count suddenly having conversations with her deceased grandmother – Bubby Dora, a famous dead fashion designer, an attention starved (also dead) birthday clown, and the father of her crush (yup, he’s dead too) as being fine.

There’s your plot.  It’s fun.  It’s silly.  It’s a comedic version of The Sixth Sense in a lot of ways.  This idea, in the hands of a lesser author, may have gone no where, but Levy’s strength is character.   Lilah is one of those kids that you wish was in your class.  Her best friend, Alex, is the perfect sidekick, loaded with believable (and the believable is the hard part, because most authors make 12 year old characters too adult) sass and chutzpah.  Her dad is sad, but sympathetic, making a good contrast to Alex’s energy.  And the ghosts each add something new to the play – comedy from Prissy and the Clown, heart from Andrew(the crush)’s dad, and mystery from the young boy Rufus.   Lilah’s grandmother, Bubby Dora, though, steals the show – she’s absolutely fantastic, interfering at just the right (for comedy)/wrong (for Lilah) moments with the kind of sarcastic wit that will make middle grade readers fall in love with her.

With some of the strongest dialogue I’ve read in a long time and fantastic physical comedy, the book is full of hilarious moments, but my favorite is a scene in which Andrew and Lilah meet up at a cafe at the behest of Andrew’s dad.  Andrew doesn’t believe what’s going on as Lilah tries to help his dead father communicate with his son.  You can feel the frustration, sense the love, and understand the pain that both Lilah and Mr. Finkle must feel as the meeting goes south, but Levy throws in just the right amount of humor to keep the scene teetering on that line between laughter and tears.  I’ll go ahead and say it, that scene alone is one of the best written passages in a middle grades book ever.

With a debut novel like this one, I can not wait to see what Joanee Levy has for us next.  This is a true talent.

I have to give full disclosure here… A few weeks ago I entered an online contest and won an annotated copy of Levy’s new book.  Not only is it autographed, but it’s full of notes about the writing process, where Levy got her ideas, and some inside scoops about the story.  Afterwards, I was able to talk back and forth with the author on Goodreads and Twitter for a bit, but I promise, these experiences haven’t colored my opinion of the book.

My quest to read 90 books in 90 days this summer break is more than half over.  Small Medium at Large was #47.  


The Tooth Book

19 07 2012

Dr. Seuss wrote a bunch of books under a pseudonym, which is a fake name, also known as a pen name.

Actually, he wrote all his books under a pseudonym, because he name wasn’t actually Dr. Seuss.  Seuss was his middle name and also his mother’s maiden name.  Even though the actual pronunciation is more like Soice, rhyming with voice, Dr. Seuss was okay with everyone mispronouncing his name, because it sounded more like a name for an author of children’s stories, reminding him of Mother Goose.

So, his real name was Theodore Geisel, and his pseudonym was Dr. Seuss, but he had another pen name too.  Dr. Seuss wrote and illustrated poetic children’s stories.  For his other books, ones that he wrote mostly for beginning readers, but did not illustrate himself, he used another name – Theo LeSieg.  Theo was a shortening of his real first name, and LeSieg is Geisel backwards.

One of the LeSieg books that has become a classic of sorts is The Tooth Book.  Like most books be either LeSieg or Seuss, the book is a series of rhyming passages with a whimsical feel.   This one starts by showing you teeth of all shapes and sizes, from all different sorts of creatures, like walruses, crocodiles, and people.  Then, like many of his books, the author hits you with a good message.  Some of the Seuss books, like The Lorax, The Sneetches, or Horton Hears a Who make you work for the message, hiding it in there so a kid really has to think to get it – not this one – Dr. Seuss hits you right on the head with a moral about taking care of your teeth, eating right, brushing properly, and visiting your dentist.

I remember reading this one as a kid, but back then it had different illustrations.  Roy McKie, who did tons of the LeSieg books that I loved as a kid – In a People House, Ten Apples Up On Top, The Eye Book, and The Nose Book – but for some reason in 2000, the reissued the Eye, Nose, and Tooth books with new illustrations.  The new ones are good, but the old ones were just fine, so I’m confused as to why they would re-do them.   I don’t think my kids enjoyed it any less, but the new pictures did take away from the nostalgia for me a little bit.

Illustrations aside, it was a fun book to read to my kids, who sometimes are a little reluctant to brush.  I think I need to order a copy and read it once a week or so at bed time to really help them understand the importance of proper oral hygiene.  I love when a fun story with colorful pictures can help me do my job as a dad.

The Tooth Book was my 46th book this summer.  I’m shooting for 90 books in 90 days over break.  Just 44 more to go!

Prince Caspian

17 07 2012

The Narnia series is all messed up.

C.S. Lewis wrote the books in a particular order.  With each volume, he didn’t really know that there would be more.  The first three books he wrote go in chronological order, but after that, there’s some prequel stuff, some sequel stuff, and other stuff that just fits into the Narnia world, but doesn’t 100% connect with the main characters of the first three books he wrote.

So, I just finished the second book, Prince Caspian.  Wait a second, some folks say that I just read the fourth book in the series and that the book that I thought was first is actually second, and now I’ve really skipped books one and three.


You see, for the longest time, the books were numbered in the order that Lewis wrote them.  Even though the story takes place in a different order, they remained numbered by the date of publication.

I guess some people without a whole lot to worry about other than silly trivial things like the number on the spine of a children’s fantasy story wanted them to be renumbered in the chronological order that the stories take place.

Both sides have valid points.  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (the first book according to the publication dates) Lewis describes the fantasy world of Narnia like the reader had never seen it before, but he doesn’t do that in The Magician’s Nephew, which was written 6th, but actually takes place 1st.  That leads you to believe that the publication dates are the correct order.

However, some little kid wrote Lewis a letter in 1957, saying that his mother thought the books should be numbered in the order they were written, but the kid felt they should be renumbered to match the chronology of the story.  C.S. Lewis wrote back, sort of agreeing with the kid, but also remarking that he didn’t think he was writing a series and that it might not even really matter what number is what.

Regardless, if you’re reading the Narnia books published before 2005, they’re numbered in order of publication.  If you’re reading newer copies, they’re numbered by story chronology.

That said, I’m reading them in publication order, so Prince Caspian is the second book for me.  I enjoyed this one.  I had some issues with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, because it was very vague, skimming over what I thought were important details, and speeding through what should have been the exciting action scenes.  I think that the movie version, which I really liked a lot, ruined TLTWATW for me.

Now, having read another Narnia book, I get Lewis’ writing style a little better.  He’s not writing long drawn out, detailed stories like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings.  He knew his audience was much younger than that, and he wrote for them.  He got to the point.

I said in my review of  Lion that I wished I’d read it as a kid, and now that I’ve finished Prince Caspian, I really wish I’d read the whole series earlier.

Prince Caspian takes place 100s, maybe even 1,000s of years after Lion did.  The title character is being groomed by his uncle, the King of Narnia to take the throne some day.  Then his uncle has a son, and Caspian learns that now that his uncle has a real heir he intends to kill Caspian, just as he killed Caspian’s father years before.

Caspian runs, hoping to flee to safety.  What he finds is Old Narnia is alive and sort of well – he’d always heard the stories of talking animals, walking trees, and mythological beasts of the past, and even though everyone else thinks they’re just stories, Caspian believes.  He was right.

He befriends a badger and two dwarves, who help him build an army of bears, mice, centaurs, giants, and squirrels.  They’re no match for the king’s army, so Caspian calls for help.  Enter Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, the four protagonists from the first (or second) book.  The former kings and queens of Narnia enter the fray to aid their new friend.

I liked this one much better than the first one (except Susan, I kinda wanted to punch her in the face).  The action is stronger, the characters better developed, and the story more complex.  Now I want to see the movie.

I’ve now read 45 books this summer, which puts me half way through my quest to read 90 books in 90 days during vacation.  

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

17 07 2012

I love Dr. Seuss.  

I grew up on The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, Horton Hears a Who, and The Lorax.  

When I start a poetry unit with my students, I usually hear moans and groans about how much the 12 year olds hate poetry.  Then I let them know that my three favorite poets to talk about in class are poets their already familiar with.  Of course, the good Dr. and Shel Silverstein top the list, then I surprise them by admitting, that while I don’t enjoy the swearing, Eminem is, in my opinion, one of the most talented wordsmiths out there today.

We then look at a few of Silverstein’s best, a few clean versions of Eminem’s best work, and a lot of Dr. Seuss.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish is not on that list for me.  It’s just not.

If this was written by Bob Jones, I’d think it was a great Dr. Seuss impression, but it’s not.  It’s got Dr. Seuss’ name on it, but it’s not up to the standards of his best work.  It’s Seuss-lite.  It’s Seuss-ish.

The book starts out with counting a variety of fish of different colors, shapes, and sizes.  That’s all good, because some of Dr. Seuss’ books don’t tell a story, but teach fun lessons about numbers, shapes, letters, colors, or body parts.  That’s the beginning.

Pretty quickly we run out of fish, and the book devolves into a B-list blend of Fox in Socks (which is fun because of the tongue twisters) and There’s a Wocket in my Pocket (which I like for all the funny creatures Seuss introduces).  What works for Fox and Wocket just doesn’t work as well here.  Definitely worth reading just for the Seuss pictures, but not the Doc’s best effort.

I’m on a quest to read 90 books in 90 days this summer.  This was #44.  


The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

15 07 2012

I seriously can’t explain how I’ve never read these books before.  As a kid, I loved to read and I loved, more than anything, a series of books – The House With the Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs (along with the other fantastically, spooky books that followed), The  Bobbsey Twins series by Laura Lee Scott and The Hardy Boys by Franklin W. Dixon, and The A.I. Gang by Bruce Coville were among my favorite reads when I was younger.

How did I miss the C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books?  I was certainly aware of them.  I knew the existed, and I knew that they supposedly contained exciting stories full of action, adventures, swords, battles, and mythological creatures.  Yet, even though from 4th-6th grade I read everything I could get my hands on about ancient mythologies, I never read them.

I wish I had.

Simply because I now have to make this statement, a statement that I very rarely make: I liked the movie better.

Here’s the thing.  I enjoyed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I really did.  However, as I read, I kept thinking about how much more twelve year old Mike would have enjoyed it than 30something Mr. Curtis was.  The books are very simple – a great introduction into fantasy worlds, really.  There’s not a lot of detail to get bogged down in – far more tell than show – and now that I’ve read countless fantasy stories with much more meat to them (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, A Game of Thrones…) I can’t help but be disappointed how much detail C.S. Lewis left out.  Seriously, the entire book leads up to an insanely important and gigantic battle, then the battle is over in four sentences.

All throughout the book, I kept picturing the movie – which, it tuns out, is a very faithful adaptation, but since you can see the environments, the battles, and the characters in the movie – and they’re barely described in the book – the visuals from the movie put it over the top.

Again, though, I did like the book.  I just don’t recommend it to anyone who is over 15, unless you read it at an earlier age and a re-read is nostalgic for you, and I don’t recommend it to anyone who’s seen the movie.

I am going to read the rest of the series – and since I haven’t seen those movies, I’m hoping my mind will paint the pictures C.S. Lewis wants me to paint and I can enjoy the stories like I should have when I was ten years old.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the 43rd book I’ve read this summer on my quest to read 90 books in 90 days.  Almost half way there.   


Babymouse #6 and #8

14 07 2012

Who ever checked out Babymouse 5, 7, and 9 from my local library sure has had them a long, long time.  I know you don’t need to read these in any particular order, but I read the first three and have been patiently waiting for #5 to be returned.

Finally, the other day I got sick of waiting.  My kids and I walked to the library.  The bigger guy was looking at his own books, the little guys were playing with some blocks and puzzles, and I just wasn’t motivated to read the book I’d brought with (Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which I did finish a few days later).

I walked over to the graphic novel section, and, of course, Babymouse 5 was not there.  So I figured I’d just skip ahead to 6.

Babymouse #6: Skater Girl has a sweet little lesson about finding your passion and having priorities.  It seems like everyone in school has a talent that sort of defines who they are, but Babymouse wants to be the best at something, and when she’s approached by a figure skating coach she finds something to be passionate about.  

Like every kid ever, Babymouse has joined a million different clubs, teams, and activities, but always seems to want to quite before too long.  As usual, Babymouse falls into her imaginative worlds, fighting locker beasts, winning Olympic medals, and showing the bullies who’s boss – and her hilarious daydreams are, as always, the best part.

Babymouse #8: Monster Mash is just as strong.  Babymouse wants to have the perfect post trick or treat Halloween party, but the popular crowd at school tries to pressure her into toilet papering, egging, and excluding her true friends from the party.  In true Babymouse style, our hero does what’s right and, with the help of her imagination and day dreams, turns the tables.

Both are well worth reading, even out of order.

These two Babymouse books are #41 and 42 in my mission to finish 90 books in 90 days this summer.

In the Night Kitchen

13 07 2012

Maurice Sendak’s most famous book is Where the Wild Things Are is one of my all time favorite picture books.  I love the illustrations.  I love the message.  I love Max, the character in the book, and his imaginative spirit.  It’s a great book and deserves its place on the top of dozens of best picture book of all time lists.

In the Night Kitchen is a whole different ballgame.  I honestly don’t get it.  It’s so close to WTWTA in spirit and tone, but it’s light years away at the same time.  Night Kitchen is about a boy, who goes to sleep in his room, gets sucked through the bed and the floorboards, somehow losing his pajamas and his underwear, floating down into a kitchen where three of the creepiest, hugest, serial-killer-smiliest looking bakers are making bread for people who like bread in the morning.

The little naked boy falls in the batter, ruining it (I think), but saves the day because he makes an airplane out of bread dough, flies around the kitchen, sky dives into a giant bottle of milk, and helps the the giant, creepy bakers by pouring milk out of the bottle his naked butt is swimming around in – into the batter.

I don’t get it.

The illustrations are nice.  I like that the kitchen looks like a cityscape made from food boxes and jars, but did I happen to mention the bakers are insanely creepy?

I don’t understand the story.  I have no idea what happened.  I assume that the adventure was a dream, but to me it’s one of those dreams you should keep to yourself, because everyone else will think you’re insane if you share it.

In the Night Kitchen was the 40th book I’ve read this summer.  I’m closing in on the halfway point in my mission to finish 90 books in 90 days.