All hail Wendy Mass

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

posted by Beret

Ages: 8 and up

A couple of years ago, I received an unusual text.

“GO GET THE CANDYMAKERS AND READ IT ALOUD TO YOUR KIDS,” it advised.

It seemed rather urgent, so though the book wasn’t yet out in paperback–and weighed in at a hefty 453 pages–I “Amazon-ed” that thing and got started immediately.

Now comes the hard part:  explaining why you should get the book, too.

Unlike my friend Gina, I’m not one of those people who regularly seeks out new youth literature. I’ve been burned too many times by inane codswallop like the Rainbow Magic Fairy books. If I could remember who introduced them to my kids, I might even unfriend them, since over the course of the following ten months, I was forced to read at least 42 of those.        Continue reading “All hail Wendy Mass”

The Trilogy Grail Achieved

(A.K.A. Life After the Hunger Games: Part Three)

posted by Gina

Well, my friends, it’s been found: a post-apocalyptic dystopian teen romance trilogy with a wholly satisfying third installment.  I’ll tell you the truth, I hardly dared to hope – but it has been found.

This is a terrible cover. Please do not judge this book by it.

Welcome to the world of the Matched trilogy, by Ally Condie.  The first book, Matched, is an intriguing mash-up of Lois Lowry’s The Giver and the reality TV show The Bachelor.  The premise: our heroine, Cassia, is attending her Matching Ceremony Banquet – the single most important ceremony within the Society.  All young people in the Society attend such a banquet during their 17th year.  Girls are able to choose one of several Society owned gowns, dessert (a known but rarely experienced luxury) is served, and Matches (citizens’ researched and carefully chosen future mates) are revealed. Matches are optimally paired for success, contentment, and longevity, and Cassia has been eagerly looking forward to this night.  Her match is unusual, but not disappointing: a boy she already knows, from her own city, one of her close friends.   Continue reading “The Trilogy Grail Achieved”

Learning to Love Math

posted by Beret

I love math.

It’s possible I love it because I had a very handsome math teacher.

More likely, it’s because I had a very handsome, very effective math teacher at an impressionable age. Junior High was such a wasteland of raging hormones, brutal social cliques, and boring grammatical exercises;  Mr. W. was like a shining star in the midst of it all. Unfortunately for him, we loved him eighth-grade style; we were constantly doing ridiculous things to get his attention. One day we spoke without making a sound–just mouthed words–for the entire class period. Once we stacked the desks in a pile and sat on the floor in a circle, like kindergartners. But Mr. W. was well acquainted with thirteen-year-olds, and remained completely unfazed. Not only did he maintain his sense of humor, he doggedly plowed through the equations, vividly illustrating the meaning of X with his wacky stories and chalk drawings of widget factories. Thanks to Mr. W., algebra still makes happy sense to me and everyone else who drove him crazy.

Someone killed math for a lot of people, which is a crying shame. If your child hates math, though, it might not be their teacher’s fault. It might not even be because of you and your own math badditude. It might just be the way our culture seems to throw up their hands in the face of it. People make jokes about their inability to do math in a way that they would never, ever do about reading. They dismiss the ability to calculate by pointing to the computer and asking, “why bother?”    Continue reading “Learning to Love Math”

Life After the Hunger Games: Part Two

(A.K.A. Excellent Post-Apocalyptic Trilogies with Disappointing Third Installments)

Posted by Gina

After finishing the Hunger Games Trilogy, most of us went through the Five Stages of Mockingjay Grief:  sadness (over the various tragedies within the plot), disorientation (“Wait, WHAT?”), confusion (“Surely there are 40 pages missing from my copy.”), anger (“Seriously?”), and, finally, long-term vague disappointment.

It’s frustrating when a trilogy builds, for hundreds of pages and months of waiting between editions, to the inevitable Final Ultimate Choice, and then peters sadly out, with some form of Deus Ex Machina of circumstance and inconsistent character choice leading to the negation of said final choice.  There’s no final stand.  There’s no ultimate decision.  There’s merely a vague settling of elements and the feeling that we, the readers, have been cheated out of something.

Sadly, a lot of wonderful (specifically young adult dystopian romance) trilogies seem to have underwhelming third books, leading us to suspect that publishers are rushing publication or insisting on drawing a two-book idea out when it shouldn’t be.  Going in forewarned is half the battle; we can enjoy our first two books to the fullest and go into the third taking what we can and shrugging our shoulders over the rest.

The following trilogies are my go-to series recommendations for anyone who enjoyed the Hunger Games Trilogy.  They’re good for a wide-range of ages (both are considerably less violent and the romance is of the 6th Grade variety) and have the same kind of across-the-board appeal.

The MazeRunner Trilogy, by James Dashner

(Googling for the cover image, I see that this is about to made into a film.  So please go read it now before it’s messed around with.)

Our protagonist, Thomas, wakes up in an elevator with no memory, and finds himself delivered into a mysterious glade inhabited by other boys, surrounded by an ever-changing moving stone maze.  Where did they come from?  Why are they there?  Who’s watching them?

This is one of those fun, science-fiction-y, social experiment books where we put the pieces together along with Thomas.  It’s an absorbing read, and the sequel, The Scorch Trials, is close to as good.  The third installment, The Death Cure, is one of those books we finish because we want to know how it all ends, but is infinitely disappointing in its feel and conclusion.  It’s not bad, but it lacks the energy and drive of the first two.  And, like Katniss in Mockingjay, Thomas is ultimately robbed of his opportunity to make a final stand and clear cut choice.

The Uglies Series, by Scott Westerfeld

This series held me entirely enthralled for two books (Uglies and Pretties), but about halfway into the third (Specials), I found myself increasingly tired of this particular world.  Interestingly, the bonus fourth book (Extras) renewed my interest, having mixed things up enough to re-engage me.

In this post-apocalyptic society, all citizens undergo an operation to become ‘Pretty’ at age 16.  Young pretties live only for pleasure – going to parties, wearing fabulous clothes, and eating amazing meals.  Much of the fun of reading Pretties is inhabiting PrettyTown along with the characters.

The first book focuses on Tally, an Ugly close to her 16th birthday who’s never doubted that she’s ugly and that all she needs to be happy is her operation and subsequent move to PrettyTown.  A new friend and a visit to a mysterious settlement outside her society makes her begin to question what she’s always assumed to be true.

 Pretties and Specials both continue Tally’s story, but Specials finds the series beginning to pall.  The same plot formula has been employed at the end of the first two books, and we find ourselves tired of the veiled predictability.  I’ve re-read both Uglies and Pretties several times, but haven’t returned to Specials.

 Extras, a bonus fourth installment, breathes a new life into the series.  Changes have been made to Tally’s world, and while she exists in the story, she’s not the character we focus on.  The new societal structure (is it better?  Is it really the same, just under new constraints?) is interesting, and the new protagonist is a likeable underdog, a relief after tiring of Tally’s story.

The good thing about trilogies being the current It Girl of the Young Adult Literature world is that when we find an exciting story we are likely to be getting more of it.  But I’m still waiting for that amazing post-apocalyptic series that stays strong until the final page of the final chapter – let me know if you find it before I do.

Did you miss the first Life After the Hunger Games? Find it here.

Life After the Hunger Games: Part One

posted by Gina

Oh, those books that hook all our kids – readers and non-readers alike.  Oh, that wonderful day when your former-book-loather hides beneath the covers to finish a gripping story.  And oh, the joy of a massively popular reader-enticer that’s actually a pretty good book. I am proud to declare myself the resident expert on all things Children and Young Adult Lit, and even prouder to essentially minor in Post-Apocalyptic, Dystopian Teenage Romance.  (There’s quite a market for it, these days.)  As your resident expert, I am here to share my knowledge with you, for that day when your tween, teen, or precocious young reader comes to you – after devouring the Hunger Games trilogy and being disappointed in the film – clamoring for something similar. Let’s begin with one of my favorites:  The Scorpio Races

It’s hard to explain the premise without sounding ridiculous, so when I tell you that it’s about mythical carnivorous water horses being trained for an annual life-changing (sometimes life-ending) race, don’t be put off.  The story is action packed, gritty, dangerous, and an excellent read.

What is to love:

      • Any young person that loves horses will captivated by the scenes of water horse taming, the bond between Sean (our hero) and his dangerous, potentially murderous, charge, and Puck, our plucky, horse-riding heroine.
      • Speaking of, dividing the storyline between the points of view of both a male and female protagonist is nothing but nifty, and offers levels to relate for readers across the board.
      • Edge-of-your-seat excitement!  I literally could not put this book down.  Meals were missed.  Families were ignored.  I was sorry when it was all over.

Now, technically, this isn’t a Post-Apocalyptic Dystopian novel (there are teenagers, and there’s a little romance), but it’s similar enough in feel to hook your Hunger Games lovin’ reader.

Stay tuned for more – because I’ve got ‘em.  This is only Part One, after all.

A last note, when considering The Hunger Games and the age of your child:

Several parents have asked me my thoughts on allowing their kid to read this book.  What I think: The Hunger Games has some scary elements, yes.  But in my opinion, many kids who are reading at this level can handle what’s in this series.  It’s not any more violent or scary than what’s on TV and in a typical Grimm’s Fairy Tale.
What there is: death, kids killing each other, and sadness.  What there isn’t: much in the way of sex, gruesome descriptions of the death and kids killing each other.

And so my response is always this:

Read the book.  You know your kid best and you are in the best place to make this call.  It’s a quick read and a great story, so you might as well.  Watching the movie is not going to help you make this call: the on-screen images are – for whatever reason – more distressing than the print version.  (Also, it’s not as good.)  Think on: what else are they reading and what issues have they encountered there? How have they handled those?  What’s their emotional maturity level?  What other concerns do you have – for example, do you have a child prone to nightmares?  If so, what are the triggers?

I’ve met 3rd Graders who have loved the series, 3rd Graders who have not understood, and 3rd Graders who have been bored.  As a general guideline, I’d put the series at 6th and up – also knowing that a good half of my 5th Graders would have loved it.

Once Upon A Time

posted by Gina

My parents are currently wondering why, with fairy-tale-based entertainment being so in vogue (ABC’s “Once Upon a Time”, the Fables graphic novel series, the Hoodwinked movies), I am not actually making some money off my Children’s Literature/Fairy Tale undergrad degree (such a thing exists, yes, and I have one).  “Why aren’t they calling you as a consultant?” my dad wonders aloud.  As do I.

So until a major TV network tracks down my number to ask me to confirm the details of various Cinderella incarnations, let me share with you some favorite fairy tale retellings, spin offs, and modern collections, for the young one in your life who finds the genre as fabulous as I do.

First, the picture books:

Chances are you’re familiar with Jon Scieska’s marvelous The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and The Frog Prince Continued, but if you’re not, let me recommend these here.  Both make excellent writing prompts: one inspires a retelling of any favorite tale from the ‘villain’s’ point of view, one a reflection on what might really happen past that happily ever after.  (In addition, John Scieszka and Lane Smith collaborated on the very wonderful The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Talesalso worth a gander.)

And onto the Chapter Books:

The Great Good Thing, by Roderick Townley tells both a fairy tale and the story of what book characters do when no one is reading them.  There is nothing not lovely about this book.

For updated retellings, giving us additional insight into plot and character, consider Just Ella, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale, or Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine (and let us never speak of the film version, please).

Speaking of Gail Carson Levine, there aren’t many better fairy-tale-ers out there.  A marvelous storyteller, Ella Enchanted is but one of her many wonderful books.  Fairest, a Snow White retelling, takes place in the same world as Ella Enchanted, and The Two Princesses of Bamarre and A Tale of Two Castles are both strong stories with fun, underdog heroines.

And speaking of magnificent storytellers – if you don’t yet know the magic that is Joan Aiken, run for your library.  Her collections of original fairy tales are unexpected, lovely, and magical.  The Last Slice of Rainbow and Not What You Expected (both out of print, but around on used book sites and in libraries) are two of my favorites.

And finally, for yourself or your older kiddo, ponder the powerful Briar Rose, by Jane Yolen, a retelling of  Sleeping Beauty intertwined with one woman’s experience in a concentration camp.  And let this lead you to other works by Jane Yolen, which run the gamut from picture books to fairy tales to King Arthur.  Any fairy tale lover not yet acquainted with Ms. Yolen has a fantastic journey before them.

Any other favorite fairy tale inspired children’s or young adult literature?  Let us know!

Beret says:  It figures that a visual artist would remember fairy tales for the pictures, and not the story.

An illustration from Trina Schart Hyman's Snow White.
An illustration from Trina Schart Hyman’s Snow White.

My favorite of all time is Snow White, translated from the Brothers Grimm by Paul Heins and, more importantly, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. She also did a jaw-droppingly lovely rendition of The Sleeping Beauty. Here is a little gallery of her illustrations to give you a sense of her style. To me, everyone else’s illustrations pale in comparison.

Book Recommendation: A Whole Nother Story

posted by Beret

Title:  A Whole Nother Story

Author:  probably not anyone named Dr. Cuthbert Soup

Reading level:  4th grade and up

Genre:  Unsure

Quite frankly, it is hard to know just how to categorize A Whole Nother Story. The Library of Congress has filed it under “inventions and spies,” as well as a host of perplexingly random and uninteresting categories such as “moving (household),” and “automobile travel.”

In my opinion, such an unorthodox story begs a far less rational sort of description. Let’s begin instead with an abridged list of ingredients.

Inside A Whole Nother Story you will find:

  • “three attractive, polite, and relatively odor-free children”
  • a time machine which may or may not work
  • an evil villain named Mr. 5
  • an international super spy and his monkey-sucking machine
  • a hairless dog with psychic abilities

                       AND

  • a sock puppet named Steve.

If the above list intrigues you and/or some of the small people in your life, I can’t imagine why you are still reading this inane blurb instead of running out to get your grubby hands on your own copy.

Now, for those of you who may need a bit more cajoling:    Continue reading “Book Recommendation: A Whole Nother Story”