Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book Reviews: Chapter Books

Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary (1968). Illustrations by Tracy Dockray. 211
I first read Ramona the Pest when I was a beginner reader. I loved the Ramona books, and reading Ramona the Pest a second time, I understand why. Ramona perfectly captures what it is like to be young. She misunderstands her teacher, she tries to be good and has a hard time, and she is excited about losing her first teeth. There is nothing out of the ordinary that happens in Ramona the Pest, but that is what makes it such a compelling story. Cleary’s writing is simple but not boring. My biggest complaint is the illustrations. To my knowledge, they have been added in the most recent additions. It is obvious that they are new to the book. Instead of adding to the text, they seem to be added to make the story look more current by showing pictures of characters in current styles (for example, instead of having a backpack for kindergarten, Ramona wears a messenger bag). The style of these pictures gets a little confused, as well. Some of the illustrations almost look Japanese-inspired. This does not really match the story at all.

My One Hundred Adventures by Polly Horvath (2008). 260 pages.
My One Hundred Adventures was the first book I ever read by Polly Horvath, and it was good enough for me to try and read everything she has written. It is the story of Jane, who decides one summer that she will have one hundred adventures. While she does manage to have a lot of adventures, the story is also about her growing up. Horvath’s descriptions are gentle in their best moments. While a lot of crazy events are happening, nothing seems over the top or too fantastical. I particularly loved how the summer was divided by what berries are ripe—it shows how connected Jane is to her house and the land around her. Overall, this is a beautiful book about growing up.

Superfudge by Judy Blume (1980). 178 pages.
Superfudge is the story of a boy, Peter, who is going through a lot of life changes during fifth and sixth grade. First, his parents tell him that they’re having a new baby. Then, his family decides to leave New York City for a year and live in New Jersey. While the book is called Superfudge, the narrator is actually Fudge’s older brother. Blume’s descriptions of the change in Peter’s life feel very real. To anyone who is growing up, this is a great book to read. Not all changes seem good at first, but Blume shows that sometimes it is good to have a new adjustment to life. My one issue with the book is that because it covers about a year and half of time, it comes across a bit choppy. This could be good for a child reading one chapter at a time, because each chapter can stand alone, but for a longer reading, it is a bit disjointed at times.

Smiles to Go by Jerry Spinnelli (2008). 248 pages.
Smiles to Go is the story of Will. It begins when he learns that protons actually die. It was previously thought that they never expired, and this discovery rocks his world. What I loved about this book is that the reader gets to completely see into Will’s head (who is the narrator). Sometimes Spinnelli uses short, choppy sentences. At other times, he uses run-on sentences. The change in sentence structures allows the reader to understand the different emotions that Will feels instead of Spinelli telling the reader how Will feels.

Holes by Loius Sachar (1998). 233 pages.
I have nothing bad to say about Holes. In fact, it was one of my favorite books for years. What Sachar does best in this story is that he is able to pull seemingly minute details together to form a cohesive story. The fact that Stanley’s last name is his first name backwards is important, as is the fact that a famous outlaw robbed his great-grandfather. Most chapters are short, which is effective in making the reader want to read just one more. Overall, it definitely deserved the Newbery Medal

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (2007). 486 pages.
I loved The Mysterious Benedict Society. With the “Emergency” occurring around the world, only four children can save humanity from being controlled by the evil Mr. Curtain. I love that each child is completely different from one another, but they all need each other in order to “save the day.” 486 pages seems like a long book for a child to read, but Stewart is able to captivate his audience by filling each chapter with plenty of action.

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (1964). 217 pages.
What works really well with The Book of Three is that it is set in its own time and place and never feels outdated. Alexander creates the world of Prydain, which is under attack by a Horned King. Taran, a young assistant pig-keeper, is a boy who has to help save his world from being destroyed. While Alexander creates a complex world, he never adds too many details (like Tolkien) that would make the story too complicated for younger readers. I am sure that many young fantasy-lovers will become engrossed in this series.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950). 189 pages.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a story that many children will cherish. While it invokes strong Christian imagery (such as Aslan’s death and resurrection), the story is much more than that. Talking animals, an evil White Witch, a never ending winter; these are all images that will be remembered. Lewis’ story is timeless; what child wouldn’t want to find an entry to another world? The original illustrations are great; they are fun to look at while reading, but they are not detailed enough to ruin the way the reader pictures Narnia to be.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008). 307 pages.
What if ghosts were real? In The Graveyard Book, ghosts are real, and not all bad. In fact, they help raise the orphan, Nobody Owens as their own. The illustrations go rather well with the story, as they are done in wispy grays and blacks. The biggest issue I have with this book is that it is a bit dark and scary. It even starts off with a big illustration of a knife. This may frighten some children, but the story itself really is age-appropriate and not too gory. Despite its dark feel, The Graveyard Book is a great story overall.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (2000). 224 pages.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 is a great piece of historical fiction about race during the 1960s. What makes this book so great is that many people (no matter their race) can relate to the Watson family. Instead of it being written about the “other,” a poor Black family that is repeatedly tormented because of their race, it is written about the “Weird Watsons,” a middle-class Black family from the North. When the family is confronted by racism, they are surprised as much as the reader. This is a great book for someone who is interested on a different perspective on race during the 1960s.

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