Monday, August 29, 2011

The Secret Zoo by Bryan Chick

When Megan sees some escaped zoo animals, she runs to tell her older brother, Noah. But by the time he gets to where she saw them they are gone. He doesn't believe her and thinks she was seeing things.

A couple weeks later Megan disappears and the family is devastated. When an exotic bird from the nearby zoo flies into Noah's bedroom leaving him part of Megan's journal, Noah begins his own investigation into his missing sister. With the help of some highly intelligent animals he and his friends, Ella and Richie, discover the Secret Zoo, a place where extinct animals are hidden before they disappear on earth. It is in the Secret Zoo that Noah finds Megan has been captured by some evil creatures and he and his friends must try and rescue her.

The author does a great job with creating tension and the writing is descriptive. The characters are distinct with Richie being odd and Ella as an in-your-face kind of gal. The plot is clumsy in spots and not all the questions are answered. Perhaps they will in the sequel. The reader doesn't know why the Shadow guy has turned evil or what the kids tell their parents at the end. Also, the beginning starts from Megan's point of view and she's writing in her bedroom and then the story shifts to some frog's points of view. I remember reading it and going, huh? The end of the novel makes it clear what the author was hinting at but it was an awkward passage that jumped too much in time. I think it would have helped with a chapter on Megan doing some investigation on her own into the escaped animals. The story then shifts to Noah's point of view and is fine.

Readers should know that a child goes missing, a monster gets killed, the kids lives are in danger many times, and some of the animals have the same intelligence as humans. Nice pacing and tension. I can see why it is popular with the students in the Lower School Library.

Reading Level: 4.7

:-) :-) :-) 3 out of 5 Smileys


Friday, August 26, 2011

A True Princess by Diane Zahler

A student said this is her favorite book and I "had to read it."

Lilia is an orphan taken in by a family with two children close to her in age, Kai and Karina. Their mother has died and the stepmother does not like her adopted children. Pregnant with her first child she wants to sell Lilia to the Miller's household to be a servant. The Miller is mean and Lilia decides to runaway and find her family. She knows her family is from the North and she has a blanket that she was found wrapped in as a baby that she hopes will lead her to relatives. She hides in a cave where she is discovered by Kai and Karina who decide to runaway as well. Lilia is happy the two want to join her on her quest to the Northern Kingdoms.

While the three travel through Bitra Forest, Kai falls under a spell from the Elf-King's daughter. In order to free him, Lilia and Karina have to find a clasp lost by Odin. The two go to the Palace of Dakir and have 2 weeks to find it or Kai will be forever under the Elf-King daughters spell.

The plot mixes several different fairy tales and is predictable in some ways and has some nice twists in others; such as with Odin and the Elf-King. The pacing is nice and the characters are decent, kind people.  There is some romance but it is innocent. The characters are not as complex as Shannon Hale's or as funny as Gail Levine's, but Lilia is a strong female character. The Nisse is an interesting character. There is some kissing and a happy ending.

A fun, enjoyable read.

Reading Level: 4.2

:-) :-) :-) 3 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Mudshark by Gary Paulsen

Mudshark  can remember nearly everything. Lose something at school?

Ask Mudshark. He'll know where it is.

Even adults ask for his help. When the Librarian buys a parrot, it too has great locating skills, and Mudshark's stream of followers start to seek help from the Parrot.

Except for... the Principal.

He asks for Mudshark's help in locating the school's missing erasers and when Mudshark finds them he has to decide whether or not to turn in the culprit. Find out how he gets out of his dilemma and takes care of the Parrot at the same time.

This book is a quick read at 83 pages.  Many of the characters are extreme in their behavior which makes the situations funny. One boy can't find his shoe because he'd been hit in the head so many times from the sport, Death Ball. Mudshark knows exactly where it is. The Librarian doesn't know that the armadillo she bought was a purse. It sits in a cage until Mudshark tells her what it is. The Principal keeps asking for the erasers to be returned when giving announcements. Eventually they all disappear and he seeks out Mudshark's help in finding them.

I couldn't pinpoint the humor - at first it seemed like slapstick, then I thought it was adultlike, in other places it was clever, and at other times I thought it was dumb. The vocabulary is high in this book and there isn't much action. The characters are interesting and the adults are dumber than doorknobs. Readers will vary in how funny they find the story.

Reading Level 6.3

:-) :-) :-) 3 out of 5 Smileys

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Mary, Mary is extremely contrary.

In fact, 10-year-old Mary is so contrary it gives her a sour expression and no one likes her. While growing up in India, Mary's parents don't pay any attention to her. When there is a cholera outbreak and her nanny, mother, and father die all the servants flee forgetting about Mary and abandoning her to an empty house. When she is found alone, she is shipped off to an uncle, Archibald Craven, in England who doesn't want to have anything to do with her as well. Isolated and alone in her uncle's big mansion on the Moors, Mary is befriended by Martha, the maidservant, who tells her the story of how her uncle's wife died falling from a tree in a garden on the grounds. Mr. Craven was so distraught by her death that he locked the garden up, threw away the key, and commanded that no one enter the garden again. This was 10 years ago. Fascinated by the hidden garden, Mary is determined to find it. With the help of a robin she discovers the key and the garden. When she decides to plant seeds she seeks the help of Martha who introduces Mary to her brother, Dickon, a twelve-year-old boy who can talk to animals and is adored by all who meet him. They forge a friendship and Mary soon finds her sour face replaced by a happy smile.

One night Mary is awakened by crying and discovers Mr. Craven's ten-year-old sickly son, Colin, who has never walked and who people thought would die shortly after he was born. He is more contrary than Mary and has screaming temper tantrums when he doesn't get his way. Mary stands up to him like no one ever has and snaps him back to life by telling him about the secret garden. He wants to see the garden so much that he works on getting stronger believing the garden has Magic that can heal him from his sickness. The garden heals more than just Colin.

This story doesn't have much action. The plot progresses from the tension created by the characters internal changes to happy, healthy children. Published in 1911, the author's heavy emphasis on nature is typical of the Romantic Era where strong emotions are expressed when the character confronts nature in its wildness and beauty. Mary's joy is extreme and melodramatic when seeing the blue sky or flowers budding or a robin building a nest. For Colin nature is like a religious experience. For instance, he is so thrilled with the growth of the garden he recites the Doxology.

Students might struggle with the characters using a Yorkshire accent. The vocabulary is high and the content deals with death and grief. The garden is a symbol of rebirth for two children who have been abandoned by their parents. Dickon is like the god, Pan and Susan Sowerby is the motherly figure. A wonderful story.

Reading Level: Young Adult

:-) :-) :-):-) :-) 5 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Thirteenth Princess by Diane Zahler

Zita is the thirteenth princess of a king who desperately wants a son. When his wife dies giving birth to Zita he doesn't want to see her and she is raised as a servant in the castle. When she learns she is a princess on her twelfth birthday, she begins to sneak up to her sisters bedroom to get to know them. They are thrilled to accept their wronged sister. When the 12 princesses become seriously ill, Zita, with the help of Breckin, Milek and a witch, must save them from certain death.

This fairy-tale twist comes from the Grimm's tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses.  Zita is conflicted about her Dad not loving her and struggles internally with why he abandoned her to the servants. When she deals with others she is always kind and respectful and a little too mature for her age. She and Breckin are sensitive to each others feelings and back down when they start to hurt each other. I would have found it more interesting and authentic if they fought and said mean things to each other and learned from them. Twelve year olds struggle with this so much. The innocence of the characters made me think it would be good for younger students but there are discussions about romance that are for older readers. While there isn't much depth to these discussions, the allusions would keep me from recommending it to younger students. For instance, Zita wonders about kissing and the maids say girls need to know when to stop kissing. There are also hints about the king, maids, and footmen having dalliances. I wish the author had kept it at flirting but she alludes to a more mature theme. Also, without spoiling the ending, there is a death in the book that might scare a reader/child who is experiencing fears of death. I would recommend this book to grade 5 and up.

Reading Level 5.9

:-) :-) :-) 3 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan

It is Choosing Day and Will desperately wants to be accepted into Battleschool to become a warrior. An orphan, Will was raised as a ward of the Baron Arald's fiefdom. Will's mother died in childbirth and Will only knows that his Dad died as a war hero in the Battle of Morgarath. He doesn't know the details but he wants to honor his father's memory by following in his footsteps to become a warrior.

Choosing Day is when the wards of the castle are chosen as apprentices into a craft they want to learn. Will's dream of being accepted into Battleschool is dashed when he is deemed too small. When his rival, Horace, is chosen, Will is devastated and afraid he will be sent to a farm as labor. When a mysterious Ranger named Halt, shows up to take him on as an apprentice, Will is uncertain about this profession that is said to use black magic.

As Halt trains Will he learns that the Rangers provided secret itelligence to those running the country and help enforce laws. He's trained with the Ranger's weapons of bows, knives, uniquely trained horses, and stealth. Will and Horace fight until faced with a life and death situation forcing the boys to either be friends or enemies. As the kingdom comes under attack, Will helps Halt hunt down two monsters of the dark who are killing leaders of the country.

The strength of the story is the great character development, dialogue, and tension. The third person narration offers multiple viewpoints from adults to youth that adds humor and wit to the storyline. Old Bob is particularly funny. He skips the beginning of most consonsants saying words like "'e" instead of "he" and has a braying laugh. Tension is created as the two adults running Battleschool are excited by Horace's natural swordsmanship but they don't tell him because they don't want to give him a big head. Horace and Will go through internal changes as they decide whether or not to embrace their apprenticeships. The plot has some interesting twists especially at the end.

This is the first of 10 books in a series. An 11th book is still in the works and will be set 20 years into the future. The series is fun and full of action. Be aware that the adults use the word "damn" about half a dozen times mainly when referring to the monsters as "damn things." It is mostly at the end of the book and a rare moment where the characters voices started to sound the same. It's not very noticeable. This is the second time I've read the book and I enjoyed it just as much as the first time.

Reading Level 5.8

4 out of 5 Smileys