Sunday, August 24, 2014

Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, by Donald J. Sobol


These books tell the story of Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, a young boy with a powerful brain and a photographic memory.  This kid genius puts his skills to use as a private detective serving the good people in his town of Idaville.  His father works as the local police chief, so Leroy routinely becomes involved with local crimes as well as disputes between his school friends.  No case is too big, too small, or too hard for this kid detective!

There are almost thirty books in this series, but each one stands alone so you don’t have to worry about reading them in order.  Also, the books themselves are collections of short stories which all feature clues and open endings.  The best part about these books is how they let you read each story as you try to figure out the puzzle right alongside Encyclopedia Brown!  Of course, if you’re like me and you always get stumped by mysteries, you can always find the solution for each story at the end of the book!

For a small town, it seems like Idaville always has a lot going on.  I really appreciated how the setting was completely fictional, so you were free to imagine that mysteries like these could actually be happening in your own town.  Have you ever thought that the town where you live might make a good setting for a story?  Are there any people you know who have special talents like Encyclopedia Brown’s great brain?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls


Billy Coleman lives in rural Arkansas.  As the only boy in his family, he enjoys hunting in the great outdoors and desperately wants to buy a pair of dogs.  When his father tells him that they just can’t afford two redbone coonhounds, Billy works for two years to save up the money himself.  Billy names them Old Dan and Little Ann, and they quickly become the best coonhounds in the state.  Since his family still struggles to make ends meet, Billy turns to hunting raccoons in order to sell their furs and provide a better life for his little sisters.

I really enjoyed how the author really lets the reader peek into Billy’s mind, instead of just stereotyping him as a “hillbilly”.  Billy doesn’t attend school and gets mocked for his appearance whenever he goes into town, but he’s actually just as smart as any other kid his age.  More so, he’s a genius when it comes to outdoor skills, like hunting raccoons and surviving in the wild.

This is a classic book for boys, but I wonder how girls might feel about it since it’s really a story about a boy and his dogs—nothing more!  Yes, Billy has three sisters, but they’re really only supporting characters in the book.  In fact, none of the girls are even given names!  I think that Mr. Rawls must have left them nameless on purpose, if only to emphasize just how strongly Billy felt about his dogs.  To Billy, Old Dan and Little Ann were so much more than just his pets.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Soup, by Robert Newton Peck


The “Soup” books are Robert Newton Peck’s fictionalized memoirs about his childhood in rural Vermont.  Mr. Peck narrates the stories from his childhood perspective, and most of the stories involve the trouble that his best friend dreams up.  There doesn’t seem like there’s much to do out in the country, but Rob and Soup put their imaginations to good use.  Usually, they end up in hot water as a result!

“Soup” is more of a collection of short stories than an actual novel, unlike some of the sequels that follow it.  It was interesting to read about how kids lived in the 1930s, and how they faced some of the same challenges that today’s kids do.  Some of the stories deal with topics like lying, stealing, and smoking.  I’d be willing to bet that even boys who’ve never been to a farm could identify with most of the situations that Rob and Soup find themselves in.

When I first read this book, I had no idea that it was a memoir.  As it turns out, though, there actually was a troublesome boy named Soup, and he grew up to become a minister!  I guess it’s true what they say, you never can tell how some people will turn out.  But on that subject, have you ever given any thought to what you’d like to do when you’re older?  Do you ever enjoy thinking about your friends, and trying to guess what they might grow up to become? 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton


This is the story of Ponyboy Curtis, a tough kid with even tougher friends.  After Ponyboy’s parents die, he struggles to get along with his brothers, Sodapop and Darrell.  The Curtis boys are considered greasers, because they slick their hair and hang around with other juvenile delinquents.  The greasers in town are constantly fighting with the Socs, rich upper-class kids who seem to get everything they want.  When one of these battles turns deadly, Ponyboy and his best friend Johnny find themselves wanted for questioning, and they decide to run from the law.

One thing you should know about this book is that there is constant violence throughout the story.  The book is very controversial because of that, and it may not be an appropriate choice for younger readers.  Still, I have a lot of respect for the way that the author presents these violent acts.  Violence is simply an everyday part of Ponyboy’s daily life as a fourteen-year-old high school freshman from the wrong side of the tracks.  I think that the author meant to target readers of the same age group, since much of the violence takes place “offscreen” and it’s not overly gory.  Also, even though the characters are tough kids who curse constantly, there were no curse words actually written into the story!

This book is a shockingly realistic look at the pressures that young men face, so I was incredibly surprised to find out that the author is a female!  S.E. Hinton was a teenager when she wrote this book, and it was published by the time she graduated high school.  In an interview, she mentioned that her inspiration came when she realized how other people perceived her “greaser” friends to be juvenile delinquents!  What do you think people might say about your friends at school?  Do you feel like you’re a member of any certain groups or cliques?  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Choose Your Own Adventure books, by R.A. Montgomery, Edward Packard, and many others!


This is another series of “oldies-but-goodies” from my own childhood!  The Choose Your Own Adventure books feature awesome stories, and they’re written in a way that places the reader in the middle of the action like no other book could.  There were dozens of books in the original series, and I guarantee that any child of the 1980s has read at least one of them.  After a huge demand from readers, the series was continued into the 1990s and re-launched again in 2005.  With that many adventures to choose from and multiple endings for each one, the number of different stories you can read is literally endless!

Here’s how these books work:  as you start reading, you’re introduced as the main character and given a brief introduction to the setting and the plot.  After maybe 1 or 2 pages, you’ll be asked to make a decision about what you’d like to do next.  You’re then given 2 or 3 actions to choose from, each with a corresponding page number.  Once you’ve made your choice, you flip ahead and read about where your decisions have taken you!  It’s a completely different format from reading straight through a book, and what’s really cool is that as you move forward, your choices can lead to some drastically different conclusions.  Fair warning, though:  not all of the endings are happy ones!

The Choose Your Own Adventure books feature amazing illustrations and the “chapters” are amazingly short, sometimes less than a single page.  This makes them the perfect choice for reluctant readers or any kids who’d be more likely to pick up a video game controller before they pick up a book.  If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself reading the same book over and over, trying to discover all the possible endings.  One thing’s for sure, though:  once you pick up your first Choose Your Own Adventure book, you won’t be putting it down anytime soon!  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Card Turner, by Louis Sachar


Seventeen-year old Alton Richards is in an uncomfortable situation.  His free-spending parents have run out of money, and they’re counting on a huge inheritance to get out of debt.  Alton’s job is to get close to his grandfather, a rich but blind man with a passion for the game of bridge.  Alton quickly becomes much more than an extra set of hands to turn cards, and he ends up learning more about his grandfather than he could ever imagine.

I don’t want to ruin the surprise on this one, but I will say that this book is worth reading all the way through!  I didn’t see the ending coming, but I should have expected a few twists from an author like Mr. Sachar.  I especially like the way he gave a good deal of attention to Alton’s “everyday” troubles, like his relationship with his girlfriend.  This isn’t a particularly long book, but it’s very “thick” in terms of the character development.  I really enjoy these books where there’s not only an awesome story, but where you also end up caring about each individual character. 

In fact, my only complaint was that I don’t know how to play bridge, and so I couldn’t totally follow along with the sequences of cards as they were dealt.  Bridge isn’t nearly as popular as it was a few generations ago, which might be exactly why Mr. Sachar chose to base his story around the game.  It would take a new player a lot of effort to follow the excitement and strategy that comes with each hand, just like it took Alton a lot of time and effort to appreciate his grandfather.  Do you think that Mr. Sachar could be using the game of bridge as a symbol for Alton’s relationship with his grandfather?  Can you think of any games that could be used to portray the way that your family members interact?  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes


One of the neat things about this project is that it allows me the chance to re-read some of the classroom standards from my own childhood!  One of these books, Johnny Tremain, is about an apprentice silversmith working in colonial Boston.  Johnny is a cocky and prideful boy, but his career comes to a screeching halt when he burns his hand by accident.  While searching for a trade that he’ll be able to perform with his handicap, Johnny eventually becomes involved with the American Revolution.

My favorite part of this book was the way that historical characters like Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and John Hancock played supporting roles in the story.  When we read about these men in History class, they often seem larger than life.  By writing them into a story that focuses primarily on Johnny’s fictional character, we’re allowed to take a much closer look at these men in their everyday lives.  At a few points in the book, I almost felt like I was traveling back in time to 1775!  It’s incredible to see Boston as it is right now, and still try to imagine how it must have looked under the occupation of a foreign army. 

The book concludes in April of 1776, just after the battles of Lexington and Concord.  I found it interesting that the author chose to end Johnny’s story just as the much bigger story of the Revolutionary War was beginning.  We’re left to wonder about what happened to Johnny—did he become a soldier, or continue supporting the Revolution in any way?  Ms. Forbes left a lot of questions unanswered, but I think she did this on purpose.   Johnny’s fictional story is a way of paying tribute to the thousands of young men who lived and fought during that era, even though history has forgotten them.