Sunday, July 26, 2015

Watership Down, by Richard Adams

This novel is an amazing epic of action and adventure…starring rabbits!  Fiver is the runt of his litter, but he possesses unique powers to see into the future.  When he has a vision that the Sandleford warren will soon be destroyed by a real estate development, he teams up with his brother Hazel to travel in search of a new home.  After a dangerous journey, the two form a new warren called Watership Down.  All seems well, at least until they cross paths with General Woundwort, the tyrant leader of a nearby warren called Efrafra!

I absolutely loved the chance to dive into the world of the rabbits.  Mr. Adams created an entire universe around his characters, including a rabbit language called Lapine.  Even though wading through all the songs and legends of the rabbits seemed a little tiresome at first, the huge amount of background material served to pull me out of my own two-legged life.  By the end of the book, I was completely immersed in the realm of the rabbits!  It was easy enough for me to accept the idea that these animals could talk amongst one another, form organized colonies with their own governments, and even wage war!

Even though the main characters in Watership Down are a bunch of cute (or sometimes not so cute!) rabbits, this book is really about the theme of a small group facing off against established forms of order.  There are always going to be risks involved when you buck the system and try something new.  Sometimes, if the stakes are high enough, you might even be putting your own life on the line!  Pick up a copy of Watership Down from your library and I can promise you, you’ll never look at pet shop rabbits the same way…  

Sunday, July 12, 2015

How to Eat Fried Worms, by Thomas Rockwell

Anyone who’s ever been “put on the spot” will be able to identify with Billy, a 10-year old whose plans to buy a motorbike are suddenly put on hold.  When his friends Alan and Joe dare him to eat a worm, Billy puts his entire savings on the line in an epic bet!  The challenge is for him to eat fifteen worms in fifteen days, with a whole fifty dollars riding on the result.  The story gets even crazier as the deadline approaches, with Billy’s family helping to come up with appetizing recipes…for earthworms!

I loved the way Mr. Rockwell’s writing shows the building tension as Billy’s deadline approaches.  Yes, there’s an awful lot of money on the line in this bet, but what’s really at stake is Billy’s pride.  If he backed out of the gross challenge then his friends probably wouldn’t have the same level of respect for him.  And you know, that’s one really interesting thing about male relationships that Mr. Rockwell completely nailed in this book:  although boys can often disagree with each other, sometimes even to the point of having shouting matches or fistfights, they still have the ability to remain friends!  Even if you’re completely grossed out by the thought of eating earthworms, this book is worth reading in order to study the curious ways that boys interact with their friends. 

We didn’t have the Internet when I was growing up, so back then there was no way for me to check if eating worms posed any kind of health risk.  I took a few minutes to do some research just now, and I learned that worms are, in fact, edible!  You’d want to avoid eating them raw, though, and you’d definitely have to clean the dirt off of them first.  Still, I’d advise against eating fresh worms unless you found yourself stranded on a desert island and starving!  In some countries like Thailand, however, you’d be able to find different varieties of worms prepared and served as appetizers.

What do you think about eating unusual foods like worms or insects?  Do you find the idea gross, or do you think that you might actually like to try them someday?  Do you enjoy trying new foods, or do you prefer to stick to your favorites?

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl

This short book is about Mr. Fox, who lives in a hill with his family.  Mr. Fox regularly steals food from three not-so-nice farmers, until they get fed up and swear to hunt him down.  When the farmers surround Mr. Fox’s hole, his family becomes trapped inside the hill with a very real danger of starving to death.  Mr. Fox has to devise a plan to feed his family…but how can this be done, when escaping the hole is impossible?

I really enjoyed this book, especially the hilarious illustrations by Quentin Blake.  I believe that Mr. Blake provided the illustrations for all of Mr. Dahl’s books, which is awesome because it makes you feel like you’re already a little familiar with the characters, even when you’re picking up a book you haven’t read.  This was the first time that I’d read “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, even though I’ve rest most of Mr. Dahl’s books.  It was so short that it almost felt more like a long story than anything.  I’d recommend this hilarious book as an excellent way to introduce the rest of Mr. Dahl’s work.

One of my favorite parts of this book was the way that Mr. Dahl shaped the plot of story around the crime of stealing.  By placing Mr. Fox as the main character, he almost made it seem like stealing was an acceptable, even admirable, way to support your family!  But what do you think?  Can you think of any times when it might be acceptable to commit a crime like stealing?  Would it make any difference if your family was starving, and you were forced to steal to support them?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Watsons go to Birmingham - 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis

Even though young Kenny calls his family “The Weird Watsons”, they seem to be a typical African-American family living in Flint, Michigan.  Kenny’s a middle child, surrounded by his big brother Byron and his little sister Joetta.  Byron tends to be a troublemaker, so his parents think it might do him some good to get out of the big city and spend a little time living with his grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama.  The family enjoys adjusting to a different pace of life down south, in a peaceful place where kids are free to go swimming outdoors or to hunt squirrels.  The kids are loving life in their new environment, at least until the peace and quiet is shattered one Sunday morning when the children get an up-close reminder that not everyone in Alabama supports the civil rights movement.

Some readers might complain that this book takes a while to get going, and that may be a valid argument.  After all, it’s not until halfway through the book when the Watsons actually leave home on their trip to Birmingham!  I didn’t mind the pacing at all, though, since I really enjoyed the chance to get acquainted with the Watson children.  At some points I was laughing out loud, and it almost felt like I was sharing their living room with them!   To be honest, I think that Mr. Curtis probably structured his book this way on purpose.  By allowing us to spend so much time with the Watsons up front, he lets us identify more closely with the real people whose lives were impacted by the violence of 1963.  Without this type of character development, the real people who were injured or killed during the civil rights struggle might be in danger of being overlooked.  If our generation didn’t know their stories, these people might be seen as nothing more than names in a history book.  By reading Mr. Curtis’ book, we’re able to understand that these victims were real people who left behind families when they died.

I was completely thrilled by the two books of Mr. Curtis’ that I’ve read so far, and I’m going to do my best to read everything that he puts out.  If you’re looking to take a closer look at some of the most important periods in American history, then you’re more than welcome to join me!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Mr. Popper's Penguins, by Richard and Florence Atwater

Mr. Popper paints houses.  He’s never left the town of Stillwater, even though he would desperately love to see the arctic polar regions.  One day, Mr. Popper is surprised to receive an unexpected gift from an Admiral on an arctic expedition.  It turns out to be a penguin, and the Popper children treat him as a new member of the family.  After a while their houseguest begins to get lonely, at least until a local zoo sends the Poppers a female penguin for company.  Before long, the Popper household is filled with baby penguins!

As cool as it might sound to have exotic animals for pets, you have to be careful what you wish for!  I loved reading about how much changed in the Popper household once the penguins began to settle in.  The birds lived in the refrigerator during the summer, so Mr. Popper had to have air holes punched in the door!  During the winter months he would just leave the windows open, but the rest of the family had to wear their winter coats inside!  Eventually, feeding this flock became so expensive that Mr. Popper had to earn money by turning the birds into trained performers!

I’ve heard stories about people who keep exotic animals as pets, like pythons or even tigers, but these stories never seem to have a happy ending.  Even though Mr. Popper was a very attentive pet owner, he still felt as if his penguins would feel more at home in the wild.  But what do you think?  Should people be allowed to keep exotic animals as pets?  Would these animals be happier in a zoo, or even left alone in their natural habitat?

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”!