As a self-admitted control freak, there was no other phrase that struck fear in my heart than "group project". Shutter! I hated group projects! In middle school, all we did was group work, which worked out great for the other kids in my group, but basically sucked for me. And they did this really strange thing in 7th grade where they put the top 10% with the bottom 10% thinking that the advanced kids could tutor the kids that were falling behind and be a good influence and stuff. Was mine the only school that conducted this doomed experiment? Whose bright idea was this anyway? I want to flick that guy in the eye.
Moving on. Group work and teamwork is a huge theme in children's literature, and a recent interview with soon-to-be children's author Jason Segal reminded me of that. While talking about his favorite movies and books as a child, he says:
"The thing about Goonies is that it shows kids that they're stronger together than apart. Like Goonies, Nightmares! is about a group of misfits who find a home together."
This got me thinking about children's books lately. No child or teen is acting alone. Harry Potter and Percy Jackson each have two sidekicks. Tris in Divergent has Four. Katniss has Peeta and Haymitch looking out for her. In 39 Clues, you have the Cahill siblings and their nanny, in The Kane Chronicles, there's the Kane siblings, obviously. In Going Bovine, Cameron is even accompanied by Gonzo and Balder on his morphine trip. The only book that I can think of where is the hero is utterly alone is Hatchet by Gary Paulson, and even there, that's the whole point of the book, it's very man vs. nature.
Maybe group work isn't such a bad thing afterall. You don't see Hermione complaining that she was somehow paired with Harry and Ron, even though they do not carry their weight when it comes to research. A Norse god in the form of a garden statue doesn't seem like a favorable companion, yet he plays a huge role in Cameron's journey. And even though Four through knives at Tris, he had her back the whole time. That last one seems the most realistic pairing to me. I was tempted to use violence several times while making a 10 minute video parody of MacBeth. (That was honestly an assignment. I'm starting to doubt the value of my education.)
I really do think that Jason Segal has a point. Every kid, and adult for that matter, likes to read about the kids that can't quite fit in, finding a group and overcoming the odds. That's just a great story. It's like the NCAA tournament. Everyone loves that one Cinderella team from a small school with players that were passed over by Duke or UConn or Michigan State and yet plays well and makes the finals. It's the Butler formula! I am using an awful lot of metaphors for a Monday morning.
Can you think of a children's or YA adventure book with a lone hero? I'd love to hear about it. Just leave me a comment or email me at misstiffreads at gmail dot com.
Friday, May 17, 2013
This is one game of capture the flag with real, and dangerous, consequences. Total strangers Anna, Jose, and Henry meet while snowed in at a Washington DC airport after all three have been at a Smithsonian gala the night before. Actually, everyone from the Smithsonian gala is snowed in at the airport, including an international orchestra, presidential hopeful, and evil art thieves. After the gala, someone stole the American flag that inspired The Star-Spangled Banner and Anna feels like it's her mission to get it back. Together, Anna, Jose, and Henry discover that they are all related to the Silver Jaguars, an ancient group that looks after the world's art and treasures, so they start to hunt down the flag and the thieves. Daring, dangerous, and delightful, Capture the Flag is perfect for fans of Chasing Vermeer or 39 Clues and also for readers that are not quite ready for Alex Rider or Heist Society.
I picked Capture the Flag out of my Goodreads To-Read list because I wanted an adventure book, along the lines of The Red Pyramid. This mostly satisfied that craving. Anna, Jose, and Henry work very well together and each have their own strengths. Anna, being a budding journalist, is imaginative and detail-oriented, so she notices small clues and hints. Jose, being the reader, brings a wealth of knowledge to the hunt, and he can also inspire bravery in the other kids. Henry is a constant gamer, so his knowledge of driver games comes in quite handy when stealing an airport baggage cart.
Much like the 39 Clues, this book, and the subsequent series, focuses on a stolen artifact that will need to be recovered by the Silver Jaguars, but there is a splinter group, the Serpentine Princes, that is determined to continue stealing treasures. Each member of the Silver Jaguars is descended from an artist or historical figure. This series does have two advantages that I can see over 39 Clues, one is consistency and the other a small cast of characters. Since the 39 Clues books are written by multiple authors, the character's dialogue and general tone of each book can be maddeningly inconsistent. Also, with so many different sectors of the Cahills, and now Vespers, the cast of characters is too large to accurately remember. But this is perfect, small cast, one author, great for young readers and without all of the cards and hoopla surrounding 39 Clues.
In my opinion, Capture the Flag is an all around accessible book and would make a great classroom read-aloud. It is exciting, funny, and relatable. Plus, for all of those overrun librarians out there, it's a middle grade novel, so you can read this in one day and feel totally satisfied. I'm starting to love middle grade books again!
Thursday, May 16, 2013
For the past three years, Rick Riordan has released another book in the Kane Chronicles Series during May. I went to an author event for Rick Riordan when the first book in this series, The Red Pyramid, was released. It was amazing seeing a huge theatre full of kids getting so excited for reading and books, and that excitement was absolutely infectious. I loved the Percy Jackson books and I was positive that I would love the Egyptology woven into this new series.
Then, each year as the weather warmed and school let out, I would sit out on my deck, be it a modest 12 square foot apartment balcony, or a spacious deck on my house, and read through the adventures of Egypt mythology in modern times. And here I am, warm days, no school, time to read, and there's no Kane Chronicles. Excuse me? I'm like one of Pavlov's dogs over here. Once there are beautiful, nice days, budding trees, and lemonade, I crave a little modern Egyptology.
I might go so far as to re-read The Red Pyramid, my autographed copy that is, because I'm that cool. Or, I'll try to find another middle grade fiction quest book. Right now I am pretty deep in Capture the Flag by Kate Messner and it is satisfying my craving for wacky hijinks and unbelievable feats of crime-solving. Plus there's a dog, who doesn't love that?
Unlike the last time I had a literary craving, I know what type of book I'm looking for, or rather, I know exactly what I'm looking for, I just need a read-alike. Any suggestions for a Kane Chronicles read-alike? I'm open to any kind of a kid heroes quest book to read on a lovely May afternoon.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Sophronia is a mischievous girl who does not quite fit into her semi-aristocratic family, what with her love of machines and general tomboyness, so imagine her shock when she is accepted to a finishing school. However, something is strange about the woman interviewing her for Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, and even though Sophronia cannot quite put her finger on it, she knows this is no ordinary finishing school. Even while being transported to her school, her carriage is besieged by flywaymen-steampunk air pirates of a sort-after some prototype, but with her quick thinking, Sophronia and her traveling companions-Dimity, Pillover, and Michelle-come out relatively unscathed.
Upon arrival at the school, Sophronia makes quick work of assessing the flying ship that houses the school, making friends in low places, enemies in high places, and a general name for herself as an observant and talented student, although, exactly what is she being trained to do?
This is a huge mash-up of criminal caper, steampunk adventure, and fantasy tome all in one little book. Even though at first the plot seems overrun with genres, it is a compelling story. Sophronia (despite my complete inability to pronounce her name) is engaging and kind to her classmates. She brings other students-like Dimity, Agatha, and the unusual Lady Kingair-and sooties-like Vieve and Soap-together for her exploits. The school itself is a steampunk marvel riding high in the air, and one can only guess that the vampire and werewolf professors will have a bigger role in further adventures.
My only compliant about this book is that the cover makes it appear more appropriate for an older audience. Sophronia is only about 14 years old in this book, and the action is only mildly perilous and completely appropriate for younger readers, like an ambitious ten year old. This cover looks much older than the book implies, although it is a lovely cover. To me, this is a tween book, with the potential to move up, but tweens probably don't mind carrying a book that looks a little more daring and mature.
Only time will tell if I continue with this planned series, but I wouldn't mind another adventure at Miss Geraldine's. The characters are witty, the action is entertaining, and overall, what girl doesn't want to learn how to incapacitate a man by using nothing more than a handkerchief and batted eyelashes?
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Warning: This is one of my rare departures from children's lit, and like most of my rare departures, this is a memoir meant for adults. As if the book cover didn't already tell you that.
Much like Anthony Bourdain (whose blurb graces this book), Gabrielle Hamilton didn't set out to become a chef, instead she kept falling back into it. Her mother was a French ballerina who took great care in her home and cooking, and Gabrielle lovingly remembers those simple, yet elegant meals, and writes about them in such a way that readers will be salivating. After her family breaks up, Gabrielle is left an alone and ambition-less teenager. The only place that she can simultaneously earn money and cause trouble is the kitchen, so she lies about her age and starts working at diners. She follows this path all the way to New York bars, where she is busted for serving alcohol underage. She tries college and fails, cooks again, tries college again and it sticks, but she is not meant for full time academia, rather she needs to be in a chef's jacket.
The most compelling chapters focus on her small New York restaurant, Prune, and her unusual marriage arrangement to an Italian doctor and his large Italian family. While the whole book is beautifully written, the ending, spent mostly in Italy, is the highlight maybe because Americans are more comfortable with Italian cuisine than French, or maybe because the love of her adopted homeland is so vivid.
For all of the good points of this book, I do have some warnings. I have a high language tolerance, meaning that a few dozen swear words do not faze me--I worked at a car dealership after all. And honestly, Hamilton does not outright swear so much in this book as she does mention that when working the line her language would make a greasy car salesman blush like a school girl. Also, her life is not all perfectly plated meals and linen tablecloths. The bulk of the book is spent talking about her shortcomings, the drug use, bad relationships, hard family situation, and seedy underbelly of the restaurant industry. One minute you are dying to try her food, the next you are cringing at infestations so disgusting that I dare not write about them or I'll lose my breakfast. It's not all lovely food, but it is an honest food memoir.
My biggest hang up with this book is that Hamilton seemed overfond of the flashback or aside. At one point, she is describing a panel she presented with, only to flashback and get inside her head for whole pages, then circle back around to the original point. It's like going to a Dave Matthew's concert and in the middle of Satellite he does such a long, involved guitar solo that you entirely forget what song is being played in the first place. (Then again, I was likely the only person at that concert who was not drunk or high--I was only 20 and still pretty innocent at that.) I apologize for my own reminiscent aside, but now you can see how that can by annoying.
I would recommend Blood, Bones, and Butter to the right reader, but I am not sure who that would be. Some foodies would likely be insulted by the jabs at Food Network. Restauranteurs would have already seen this before and likely feel that Hamilton has nothing to add. But wannabe food adventurers like me--people that given the time and money would love to travel and eat crazy food, people who frankly love Anthony Bourdain because you feel dangerous and worldly by extension--will like this book. If you want crass honesty about cooking, passionate writing about food, and a general toughness in an author, then Hamilton will serve you well.
PS. I did entirely read this book based on a blurb from Anthony Bourdain. To see how I feel about book blurbs, check out this post.
Friday, May 10, 2013
This is my favorite time of year for many and assorted reasons and one of them is lilacs. There are dozens and dozens of lilac bushes all over town so that great scent just finds you at random. Sadly, I do not have a lilac bush yet, but it's in the master plan. But both of my neighbors have lilac bushes, so I still have that wonderful fragrance wafting through my window.
We had two big lilac bushes at the first house I lived in. The memory of those flowers is one of my strongest from childhood. We had a tiny galley kitchen in that house and we would bring in lilac cuttings and place them in green plastic water cups and the whole kitchen seemed to expand and brighten with that scent. It was amazing!
Even on this cool, rainy morning the smell of lilacs makes everything just a little bit brighter, so I recommend that you stop and smell the flowers today, and maybe snap a picture.
Thursday, May 9, 2013
Between the griffin in Wednesdays in the Tower, and the dragons in Seraphina, I have mythical creatures on the brain. When I found this Daring Dragons preschool storytime outline, I knew it would be perfect to share! I wanted to share a picnic storytime because I am having ant issues, but this will have to do for now. At least I don't have a dragon infestation, although my hubby would love that, since that would require the mother of dragons from Games of Thrones or whatnot. I don't watch it, I just hear a lot about it.
Opening Rhyme: Dance Your Fingers
Dance your fingers up, dance your fingers down.
Dance your fingers to the side, dance them round and round.
Dance them on your shoulders, dance them on your head.
Dance them on your belly, and now put them to bed!
Book: That Pesky Dragon by Julie Sykes
Rhyme: Five Green Dragons
Five green dragons making such a roar
One danced away and then there were four.
Four green dragons dancing round a tree
One danced away and then there were three.
Three green dragons dancing around you
One danced away and then there were two
Two green dragons dancing in the sun
One danced away and then there was one
One green dragon having lots of fun
Book: If I Had a Dragon by Tom and Amanda Ellery
Song: Fly Dragon Fly
Fly, fly dragon fly, Fly, fly dragon fly
Fly, fly dragon fly, way up in the sky.
Hop, Clap, Stomp, Sway, Sleep
Book: Clinton Gregory’s Secret by Bruce Whatley
Rhyme: Baby Dragon
Baby Dragon counts to three, Baby Dragon bends one knee
Baby Dragon touches toes, Baby Dragon breathes through his nose
Baby Dragon runs in place, Baby Dragon makes a funny face.
Baby Dragon lies on the floor, Baby Dragon starts to snore.
Book: Who Wants a Dragon by James Mayhew
Rhyme: All Around the Castle (Tune: All Around the Mulberry Bush)
The knight chased the dragon
The dragon thought it was all in fun
ROAR went the dragon.
Book: Hush Little Dragon by Boni Ashburn
Rhyme: I’m a Little Dragon (Tune: I'm a Little Teapot)
I’m a little dragon, strong and stout
Here is my tail and here is my stout
If you get me upset you better watch out
I’ll give you something to shout about!
Craft: Mosaic Dragon
For the Mosaic Dragon, I printed a dragon outline and had children place tissue paper "scales" on him and paint over the tissue paper with water to transfer the color. It's a quick and easy art project for even the wiggliest storytime participants!