Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn, by John Bellairs


After his father has a heart attack and can’t return to work, Anthony Monday’s family begins to suffer from financial troubles.  Anthony works part-time at his local library, but his salary won’t even begin to cover their bills.  He worries about money constantly, and becomes obsessed with a local legend about Alpheus Winterborn, the reclusive billionaire who built the library.  Old Man Winterborn was rumored to have hidden the bulk of his fortune somewhere in the town, and he left behind a series of cryptic clues.  Once Anthony stumbles across one of the clues in the library, he finds himself stalked by a mysterious, estranged heir who wants to claim the entire Winterborn family fortune for himself!

I absolutely love John Bellairs’ books!  They’re not your typical middle-grade novels since they’re full of gothic mystery, suspense, and elements of the supernatural.  I actually read all of them when I was a kid, and I enjoyed all three series featuring Anthony Monday as well as two other main characters, Johnny Dixon and Lewis Barnavelt.  When I re-discovered these books as an adult, I learned that Mr. Bellairs had passed away and left several unfinished books behind.  These were later completed by another author, Mr. Brad Strickland, who had himself read Mr. Bellairs’ books as a child.  What an awesome way to continue a legacy!

Fair warning:  while neither “The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn” or any of Mr. Bellairs’ other books involve graphic violence or any kind of inappropriate subject matter, they are DOWNRIGHT SPOOKY and may very well keep you awake long after you turn off the lights!  If you’re okay with that then rush right down to your library and grab one of these books but whatever you do, don’t start reading it on a school night!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden


Chester is a cricket from the woods of Connecticut, but his whole life changes one day when he stows away in a picnic basket and ends up in New York City!  Although the city is a new environment for him, he finds a home at the Bellini family’s newsstand in the Times Square subway station.  With the help of two new friends, a cat and a mouse, Chester discovers a hidden talent for chirping out different pieces of music.  He starts with memorizing simple church hymns, but quickly moves on to intricate symphonies so beautiful that their sound can literally stop rush hour traffic!

One thing I loved about this book was its awesome sense of place.  The descriptions make it easy to see New York City as the busy, bustling town that it is, where people never seem to stop moving!  I was so impressed by the way that young Mario Bellini was allowed to ride the subway by himself whenever he wasn’t working, even all the way across Manhattan into Chinatown.  That type of freedom is almost impossible for kids today to imagine!

I finally got to visit New York City a few years ago and let me tell you, it was everything that the book described!  Times Square was lit up all night long, and thousands of people were coming there just to look at the advertisements!  When I was walking around the city that never sleeps, it was hilarious to think about one tiny cricket bringing all those people to a halt!  If you’re looking for a classic story that will stop you in your tracks as well, be sure to check out “A Cricket in Times Square”!   

Sunday, April 19, 2015

One Fat Summer, by Robert Lipsyte


Bobby Marks hates the summertime.  Every summer, Bobby’s family heads out to their annual vacation in the resort town of Runson Lake, where the most popular activity is laying out at the beach.  As for Bobby, he’d much rather hide his huge body away under layers of winter clothing, since his obesity makes him an easy target for bullies.  Bobby’s attitude takes a sudden change once he goes to work as a landscaper for the crotchety old Mr. Kahn, when he finds that mowing lawns and trimming hedges out in the hot sun has caused him to start sweating off his excess pounds.  Yeah, things are really looking up for Bobby Marks….at least until he runs into an angry local teen who swears that Bobby has stolen his job!

I absolutely loved the chance to disappear into the world of the 1950s, when kids could walk to the beach by themselves and parents only got worried if they weren’t home before the streetlights came on.  There were no cell phones or text messages back then, so there was no way to call home if you were running behind.  Most kids had a set curfew for when they were expected to be home, and it was a huge deal if they stayed out too late.  The rest of the time, though, kids had a whole lot more freedom than they do today, so it’s no surprise that Bobby has plenty of room to get into his own kind of trouble!

The thing that I enjoyed the most about this book was the way that the author described how both Bobby and his best friend, Joanie, were particularly sensitive about the flaws in their appearances.  All it took was some regular exercise for Bobby to start losing weight, but Joanie is cursed with an enormous nose.  What exactly is she supposed to do about that?

What about you?  Do you spend much time thinking about how you look?  Are you happy with every part of your own body, or is there anything that you would change if you had the chance?  

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier


Jerry Renault is an unremarkable freshman at Trinity, a Catholic school which is home to a secret society of upperclassmen known as the Vigils.  These seniors are known for bullying younger students into performing outrageous pranks, such as loosening all the screws in classroom furniture to make it collapse.  When the school’s acting headmaster takes over the annual chocolate sale fundraiser, each boy is expected to sell a record fifty boxes apiece.  Except for Jerry Renault, that is, because the Vigils have ordered him to cause a stir by refusing to sell the chocolates for ten straight days.

This minor act of rebellion escalates out of control as Jerry continues to refuse to sell the chocolates, even after the Vigils’ order has expired.  He’s quickly marked as an outcast, and it becomes clear that this fundraiser isn’t so much about money as it is power, and whether it’s the teachers or the Vigils who really control the school.  I never really liked this type of “man vs. society” conflict when I was younger since it seemed so unfair that the entire world was ganging up on one person.  As an adult, though, I’ve since learned that life isn’t always fair.  This hard fact is especially true when it comes to people who have the guts to be different or to take an opposing viewpoint.

Why do you think that some people choose to take a stand on a certain issue, even when it means they could potentially be embarrassed or humiliated?  After all, wouldn’t it be easier to just go along with the program and not make any waves?  Do you think that there might be some kind of breaking point that makes people want to stand up and rebel, even if it’s over an issue that might seem trivial to others?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis


“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is a fantasy novel about the four Pevensie children:  Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.  The children are sent to live in the countryside to escape the aerial bombings of London during World War II, and they end up staying at a professor’s huge, mysterious home.  During a game of hide-and-seek, Lucy runs away to a beautiful old wooden wardrobe…which just happens to contain a secret entrance to a magical world called Narnia!  The other children soon come with her, and they discover that the evil White Witch has cast a spell which made it winter in Narnia forever.

The Pevensie children are befriended by a series of talking animals, and they quickly begin plotting to overthrow the White Witch and her army of monsters!  With the help of a lion named Aslan, the children put their bravery to the test in a struggle to save the world of Narnia.  Let me warn you now, though, if you start in on this book then I guarantee you’ll end up reading all six of the other books in the Narnia series.  The books are all interconnected, and I love the way that all of them follow the Pevensie children as they grow up in both the world of Narnia and back home in England. 

I’ve read this book several times throughout my life, and as I got older I learned that C.S. Lewis was actually using these stories to pass along different ideas from his Christian faith.  How cool is that, having a hidden message within the books!  Also, I heard that Mr. Lewis was inspired to write about the winter forest setting when he was a professor at Magdalen College.  He would spend his afternoons staring out the window of his office and watching the snow collect around a solitary lamppost, which he later used as the first major landmark the children see upon entering the world of Narnia! 

Take a moment to look around your own neighborhood.  Are there any particular objects near your home or school that you’re particularly attached to?  Do you think it’d be possible to build a story, or maybe even an entire world, around them?  

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Then Again, Maybe I Won't, by Judy Blume


Tony Miglione lives in Newark City, New Jersey, where he has a happy home life and a group of good friends.  Everything is about to change for him, though, when one of his father’s inventions becomes wildly successful.  The family becomes rich overnight, and suddenly moves to upper-class Rosemont, New York!  Tony is forced to adjust to a new school, new friends, and a new life, and he ends up suffering from massive stomach cramps as a result of the stress. 

One thing you should know about this book is that it deals with quite a few mature topics such as puberty, mental illness, and alcohol abuse.  This book would be classified as “young adult” today, and aimed mainly towards teenage readers.  Judy Blume is well-known for her straightforward writing on tough subjects, so prepare yourself in advance.  If you don’t feel like you’d be comfortable reading about these topics just yet, it’s perfectly okay to choose another book.  A classic like “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t” isn’t going anywhere, and it’ll still be around for you to enjoy a couple of years from now.

The book seems to be all about change, whether it’s with Tony’s body, his friends, or his family.  The stress that comes with becoming an uncle, for example, or moving to a new town, causes Tony to physically suffer until he learns how to express his feelings and ask for help.  The story carries an important lesson with it since our lives, like Tony’s, will be constantly changing.  Much of what goes on might be out of our control, but what we can control is how we choose to cope with these changes.  “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t” is a must read for all young men….when you’re ready for it!   

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman


This is the story of Nobody Owens, a baby who becomes an orphan when his family is murdered by a secret society of evildoers.  “Bod” narrowly escapes the attack by hiding in a nearby graveyard, where thousands of ghosts extend their protection to him.  Seeing that he has no one else to support him, the ghosts decide to shelter and care for Bod themselves.  He grows up to become a mostly normal boy…one who just happens to live in a graveyard, surrounded by restless spirits and hunted by ruthless evildoers!

I’ll be honest, the unique setting is what drew me into this awesome book.  Everyone grows up thinking that their home life is normal, but I had never even imagined what it must be like to live in a graveyard!  At first glance, the plot reminded me a little of “Harry Potter”--- an orphaned boy is hunted by evildoers and things kind of go on from there.  I couldn’t have been more wrong, though, and let that be a lesson to me not a judge any book by its (back) cover!  I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the great thing about books is that you can take a single basic idea and then run with it in any direction.  If you gave the same idea to a hundred different authors, you’d probably come up with a hundred stories that were completely different.

Can you think of any particular places that you find interesting, even if they’re not necessarily one of your favorite spots?  Maybe a shopping mall, a train station, or even one of your classrooms at school?  Which of these places could be turned into a fascinating setting for one of your own stories?