Horton Halfpott

30 10 2012

Dickensian [dɪˈkɛnzɪən] adj

1. either from or related to Charles Dickens (1812-70), the English novelist, or his works

2. resembling or suggesting conditions described in Dickens’ novels, especially squalid and poverty-stricken working conditions were truly Dickensian

3.  grotesquely comic, as some of the characters of Dickens

In every sense of that definition Horton Halfpott: or The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor or  The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset by Tom Angleberger is Dickensian.

Alright, a few years from now, as Tom Angleberger’s books gain more and more popularity – hilarious comedies with memorable characters in ridiculous situations may come to be known as Anglebergian, but for now, Angleberger is going to have to settle for his book being Dickensian.

It certainly resembles the works of Charles Dickens.  Set in Smugwick Manor, the labyrinth like mansion of the Luggertuck family, Horton Halfpott is filled with characters that had to be inspired by Boz himself.  The story takes place in Victorian England, just like Dickens stories, and, just as Dickens did, Angleberger creates a cast of characters made up of weak servants that are mistreated, rich snobs that you love to hate (and Dickens loved to mock), a bumbling detective, and a helpless waif of a hero that just needs someone to give him a leg up.  The book is worth reading for the names themselves – The evil Luther Luggertuck, Horton Halfpott (a pint sized hero who washes pots and pans), Celia Sylvan-Smythe (who Luther and Horton want to sit in a tree with… yeah, we all know what they want to do in that tree), Loafburton (the baker), the Shipless Pirates, the bumbling detective Portney St. Pomfrey, and the other servants – Bump, Blight, and Blemish.

The servants at Smugwick Manor work in hilarious, but hideous, conditions that give you the “grotesquely comic” that worked so well for Dickens, but makes you root for them that much more, all while laughing at the ridiculous roles each of them is given in the household.  Of course, the best of all is Horton Halfpott himself, the small boy who doesn’t seem to have anything going right in his life reminds readers of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield in so many ways.   Horton’s life is so awful that you just have to laugh at each crazy thing that happens to him.

The main conflict in the story is the zany disappearance of the Luggertuck’s priceless gem – The Lump.  Of course, our hapless hero, Horton Halfpott is the lead suspect in the crime, because this story is Dickensian, so Horton’s life has to get continuously more and more awful.  However, it’s these problems, as well as all the twists and turns that make Oliver Twist such a fun read, that make this book so great.  Horton finds himself in so scary, exciting, and interesting predicaments as the mystery unfolds that you just can’t put the book down.  I highly recommend this on, as well as any other Anglebergian adventures you might find in the library.

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.  


Cold Cereal

12 07 2012

Leprechauns, dragons, rabbitmen, bigfoots, super geniuses, a changeling, a movie star that punched the Queen of England in the face, and an evil cereal company???

Yup.  That’s Cold Cereal by Adam Rex.  If you weren’t familiar with Rex’s work before, this list of odd characters (especially the evil cereal company) is… well… odd.  However, if you read the hilariously awesome The True Meaning of Smekday then you know it’s just Rex doing what Rex does best – creating absurd, but hysterical adventure stories.

This one gives me a trifecta of great comedic adventures that I’ve read so far this summer (along with A Heroes Guide to Saving Your Kingdom and Fake Mustache), and it’s hard to decide which of those three is the funniest.

Cold Cereal is about Scott Doe.  He’s just moved to a new town where everyone, including Scott’s mom, works for Goodco. Cereal Company. On his first day of school, Scott goes on a field trip to the factory and on the bus he meets Emily Utz and her twin brother Erno.  Erno is one of the smartest people Scott’s ever met, until he gets to know Emily and realizes that she’s an off the charts super-genius.

Mr. Wilson, the twins’ foster father, sends the kids on a mission to solve a tricky puzzle to test their smarts.  He does this often, but this time it’s different.  This time he’s leading the kids to some truth about his employer, Goodco, and their true intentions – to take over the world.

Along the way, the kids run into a guy who might be a big foot, a leprechaun, a wizzard, a uni-cat, a dragon, and all sorts of unusual creatures.

The book is fast paced and full of great action sequences and funny conversations between Scott and his little friend Mick.  It appears that this will be the first in a series, because it leaves a few threads hanging for future books.  I, for one, can’t wait to see what Adam Rex has in store for Scott, Erno, and Emily in the next installment.

In my quest to read 90 books in 90 days this summer, Cold Cereal was #38.  

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom

26 06 2012

I have a special place in my heart for funny books.  My favorites have always been the books that make me laugh.  I distinctly remember a book I read in 5th grade called Upchuck Summer that had me rolling on the floor and sharing the hilarious parts with my friends.   I loved SuperfudgeRamona the Brave, and the poems of Shel Silverstein.

As I got older, I kept reading funny stories like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Catch-22, and books by Christopher Moore.

Lately, as a teacher, when I read kids’ books, the ones I seem to enjoy most are the clever, funny ones.  The Origami Yoda books, Peter and the Starcatchers, the Whimpy Kid books, and The True Meaning of Smekday are some of the best I’ve read recently.  You can go ahead and add The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy to that list.

The Hero’s Guide actually has four heroes.  They’re all Princes Charming.  You see, the bards (old fashioned musical storytellers) didn’t quite get those old fashioned stories right – the stories of Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty focused on the damsels in distress, but not the heroic princes that saved them.  These four princes now have something to prove, so they set out for adventure, eventually teaming up to form the League of Princes Charming and fight an evil witch, a simple giant, a scary dragon, and a band of evil bandits.

Prince Charming is really one of literature’s most famous characters, but no one knows anything about him (or them), not even his real name.  This book is a hysterical spin on those old fairy tales, giving depth, character, and charm to all four Princes Charming.

I highly recommend this one to any fans of comedy, fantasy, or adventure books.

This summer I have a quest to read 90 books in 90 days.  This was #28.  

Fake Mustache

11 06 2012

There are a couple of websites that I keep finding great book recommendations from: Twitter and Goodreads.

I’d never used Twitter before this summer, because I figured I connected to enough people through Facebook.  However, to make a long story less long, last year I read a great book for teachers called The Book Whisperer.  The author of that book, Donalyn Miller, has a blog that I started following online.  Near the end of this past school year, she blogged about a challenge that she gives her students (and, of course, does herself) – to read 90 books in 90 days over summer break.

If you’re reading these blog posts on my site, you probably already know that I’m working on that 90 book challenge too.   Fake Mustache, by the waywas the 21st book I read this summer.

Anyway, on her blog, Donalyn Miller said that she’d be tweeting each time she finished one of her 90 books.  She also said that a whole community of readers would be on there, using the hashtag #bookaday, to inform the world as they read their 90 books.

I decided to start a Twitter account (@mcliterature), and connect with some of these folks.

The coolest stuff started happening.  I made online Twitter friends through our shared interest in good books.

I started following Donalyn Miller on Twitter, and even participated in a Twitter discussion about graphic novels in the classroom.  That led me to some great books like Babymouse, Squish, and Smile – which I might not have ever read if it hadn’t been for all those Twitter people suggesting them.

So, I read a few Babymouse books and Squish (they’re by the same authors), and when I finished, I tweeted to the #bookaday folks that I was done.  Next thing you know it, my messages were being re-tweeted by Matt Holm (the guy that draws both Babymouse and Squish).  So, I started including him in my tweets each time I read one of his books, and this led me to a few other folks, who started talking about books like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Big Nate, Diary of a Whimy Kid, and the Origami Yoda books (all of which aren’t quite graphic novels, but tell the story with both pictures and words).

I had just read The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and The Return of Darth Paper, so I had a lot to say about stories like that.  It turns out that Tom Angleberger had another book, Fake Mustache.   I read that one, and loved it so much, that when I tweeted about finishing my third Tom Angleberger book of the year, I raved about all three books.

About a day later, Tom Angleberger himself, who had seem my tweet, messaged me and recommended I read his other book, Horton Halfpot.  Then we actually went back and forth, messaging one another for a little while.  During the conversation, he (and I know it was in a fun, joking way) even called me #mynewfavoriteenglishteacher.

Now, I’m not saying Matt Holm, Tom Angleberger, and I are all best buddies now, but it’s so cool to connect with these authors in such a personal way.  I’m really loving Twitter for that.  I’m hoping maybe we can read a few of their books in class next year and get them to answer a few questions from the class.

Anyway – on to Fake Mustache.  This book is hilarious.  It’s the story of a 7th grader named Lenny Jr. who goes with his friend Casper to a local novelty shop, where Casper purchases a very realistic fake mustache.

The next day, a small man (or is it a tall boy) who looks a lot like Casper with mustache that looks a lot like the one Lenny Jr. saw him buying robs a bank.  Then another bank gets robbed, then other strange events start happening.  Lenny’s not positive, but he thinks that Casper’s behind it all, when a man named Fako Mustacho steps onto the scene.

Fako, who may or may not really be Casper, has plans for world domination, and there’s something about that mustache that’s allowing him to brainwash the whole world.  Well, except Lenny Jr. and washed up television star Jodie O’Rodeo, formerly of The Jodie O’Rodeo Showdeo, and they have to figure out a way to stop him.

I laughed through the whole book, and can not recommend it more.  I can’t wait now to get my hands on Horton Halfpot – I mean, how can I not read it, the author himself recommend it to me?