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?  

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Hard Gold, by AVI


Early Whitcomb comes from the state of Iowa, where he’s never traveled very far from his family’s farm.  That all changes during the droughts of 1859, when his father falls behind on the mortgage and the local bank threatens to foreclose on their land.  Left with no other choice, Early heads out west to track down his cousin Jesse, who had set off to Colorado in search of gold.  Along the way he discovers that Jesse is actually wanted for robbery, and that law and order have a completely different look in the Wild West!

Although Early’s story only concerns his family and friends, it takes place at a very busy time in our country’s history.  John Brown’s raid on the town of Harper’s Ferry served to spark a heated discussion about slavery, and southern states were seriously considering secession.  I thought that the author did an awesome job of painting these historical events into the background, while still keeping the focus on Early.  I also appreciated all the details that were included in this adventure.  It’s one thing to know that covered wagons traveled for months at a time, but when you start to think about what these settlers ate and where they slept, you almost start to feel as if you’re right there alongside them!

I love reading about this period in American history since it seems like adventure was around every corner, for better or for worse!  It still amazes me to think of how settlers could take such a huge risk in search of a better life with absolutely no guarantee of success.  If you had everything you own piled into a covered wagon and were traveling to someplace new, do you think that you might be just a little worried about what lay ahead?  What might you do if things didn’t work out? 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Last Newspaper Boy in America, by Sue Corbett


On his twelfth birthday, Wil David is anxious to take over his new paper route.  The route has been handed down through his family for generations, and he’s spent years training for this moment.  What should be a moment of glory is ruined, however, when his paper announces that they plan to stop home delivery to Wil’s town!  Will’s letter to the editor goes unanswered, at least until he starts spreading the bad news to his subscribers.  Their reaction shows him just how much the town depends on their newspaper…and on him.

One thing I noticed is that at the beginning of this book, Wil didn’t really seem to know his neighbors.  He knew their names, addresses, and how they liked to get their papers, but he didn’t really interact with them.  As his campaign to keep home delivery went forward, though, his meetings with his neighbors became more frequent when he got to know them personally.  I don’t want to ruin the awesome ending, but I will drop a hint about how Wil’s neighbors come to his aid.  One lesson to take away from this book is that an organized group of people will always accomplish much more than just one person can.


“The Last Newspaper Boy in America” is actually more about community organizing than it is about a newspaper route.  Still, I felt that it was an awesome book, and one with a good message.  But that leads me to ask if you’ve ever felt that something happening to you was unfair?  What was it, and what did you do about it?  Do you think that writing a complaint letter could have made a difference?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Soldier's Heart, by Gary Paulsen


“Soldier’s Heart” is the story of Charley Goddard, a fifteen-year old boy from Minnesota.  This excellent book follows Charley from the beginning of the Civil War, when he lies about his age in order to join his state’s militia and fight the Confederacy.  The reader follows Charley through his training and several major battles, until the odds eventually catch up with him and he sustains life-threatening wounds.

These days it seems like authors consciously try to tone down the amount of graphic violence in their work, and I have to give Mr. Paulsen a lot credit for going in the opposite direction.  Reading this book, along with its realistic (but not TOO traumatic) descriptions of the casualties and the horrors of war, a person is able to get a much better idea of what combat might have been like.  The continual deaths of Charley’s fellow soldiers help to remind us exactly what war is, even though it might have seemed like nothing more than an exciting adventure when Charley first joined up.

In an afterword, we learn that a young man named Charley Goddard actually did exist, and that he was present at almost all of the battles described in this novel.  When you consider the fact that at least 620,000 soldiers died during the Civil War, the idea of telling a single person’s story through fiction seems like a great way to give some perspective to that staggering statistic.  If every soldier that died in the Civil War was represented by a book, most libraries simply wouldn’t be large enough to hold all of their stories…

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Journey to an 800 Number, by E.L. Konigsburg


The late, great E.L. Konigsburg wrote at least fifteen books during her time.  She’s best known for “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”, which is a staple on school reading lists.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved that book too, but today I want to highlight my absolute favorite book of hers, “Journey to an 800 Number”.  This is one of those books where I got to the end and couldn’t tell exactly what I had just read, but I sure knew that I had enjoyed it!

Maximillian “Bo” Stubbs is a prep school student who lives with his mother, who recently remarried.  He’s excited about moving in with his rich stepfather and living a life of luxury…but not until the month-long honeymoon is over!  In the meantime, Bo will be staying with his father Woody, a traveling man who owns a camel and makes a living by showing the animal at trade shows and carnivals.  To complicate matters even more, Bo keeps bumping into a girl named Chloe, whose mother bounces between trade shows and forges checks to pay their way!

This is one of Konigsburg’s lesser-known novels, so it might be a little hard to find at first.  Check your library for a copy, or maybe your local used book store.  It’s worth the search, though, since this book seems to be all about people who are searching for their identities.  I don’t want to ruin any of the ending with spoilers, but it almost seemed like Woody was the only one who was really at peace with himself.  He knew that he would always be nothing more than a man who owned a camel, but he seemed to be content with that. 

This book is offbeat, quirky, and definitely worth the short amount of time it takes to read.  Even if you don’t enjoy it as much as “Basil E. Frankweiler” or “The View From Saturday”, that’s completely okay.  Just because it’s my favorite of her books, that doesn’t it has to be yours too.  Remember, the whole point of this project is to highlight those books that young men might not have heard of!  If you’ve opened yourself up to reading something new, then our mission has been accomplished! 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket


The Bad Beginning is the first in a series of thirteen books featuring the hapless Baudelaire orphans.  After their parents die in a tragic house fire, Klaus, Violet and Sunny are shipped off to live with their uncle, the evil Count Olaf.  It quickly becomes clear to them that they are not welcome at Olaf’s…especially when they learn of his plot to steal their inheritance!

These books are very fun and should be suitable for most middle-grade readers, although the humor is so smart that I’ve even caught a few of my adult friends reading them as well!  I really enjoyed the way that the children seem to always be smarter than the adults, especially once they’ve learned of Count Olaf’s diabolical plan.

It’s my goal to work through the rest of the series this year, but I couldn’t help thinking about how many children’s book characters are orphans.  I don’t know why that is, except for maybe that writing about orphans could give an author more freedom to explore different situations without worrying about how parents might obstruct the plot of the story?  But what do you think?  Does writing a character’s parents into the story add to the plot, or would it shift the focus off of the kids?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dune, by Frank Herbert


When Frank Herbert created “Dune”, he did so much more than just write a book.  Instead, he built an entire galaxy!  This is considered one of the best sci-fi books of all time, and with good reason.  “Dune” tells the story of young Paul Atreides, whose noble family assumes control of the planet Arrakis.  Although the planet is a barren desert wasteland, it is the only source of the spice “mélange”, which is the most powerful substance in the universe.  As Paul learns the secrets of his new home, he quickly becomes embroiled in the politics of a galactic Empire.

Be forewarned, this is a LONG book for young adult readers, tipping the scales at nearly 900 pages!  It’s definitely not a beach read, but rather something that you’ve got to lose yourself in over the course of a few weeks.  If you’re hesitant to take on a challenge like “Dune”, keep in mind that this book inspired a generation of science fiction books and movies, including the Star Wars series!  There are also a number of Dune sequels, and many people consider this book to be the sci-fi version of “Lord of the Rings”.

One other neat thing about “Dune” is that it’s been adapted into movie versions on at least two occasions.  I really enjoy seeing a movie once I’ve read the book, since it allows me to see how the same story can be told in different ways.  One thing’s for sure, with all of the “Dune” books and stories that are out there, filmmakers will never run short on inspiration!