It's Election Day here in Maryland - the midterm general election, not the primary, so there's not much hoopla. Oh, Maryland. Stay sweet. Anyway, the children are off school, and it's Tuesday, my day off, and it's a beautiful fall day, so I thought I'd catch up on what my boys have been reading.
They've both reached the point that they are reading for fun independently. And kind of a lot. It's great, but I have to say, a little scary. I bring stuff home from the library I think they'll like, and they read that stack in a weekend, and then start eyeing the review copies I get in the mail.
This is going to sound like a back-door brag, but I am legitimately worried that they're a little too erudite for their own good. Zhou, who is in grade 3, complained at a class book discussion a couple weeks ago that he thought the metaphor in the title of Jerry Spinelli's memoir Knots in My Yo-Yo String was insufficiently reiterated in the text. In almost those words. Right? That's an oy vey moment, for sure.
Oh well. I'm never going to catch up to them, so I'm just going to have to rely on their opinions of a few recent books that I had every intention of reading, but am clearly just not gonna. What with all the YA garbage I seem intent on reading lately, and with Hark! A Vagrant winking at me from the coffee table. Oh Kate Beaton, you saucy Canadian nerd you.
The Flint Heart by Katherine and John Paterson, illustrated by John Rocco
YNL: What did you guys think of Flint Heart?
Zhou (8 years old): It was good, had a good moral, and I liked the first part the best.
YNL: There was a moral?
Z: There seemed to be a point of the story but I wouldn't quite call it a moral. I think the point was like "Don't try to take things that you think will make you stronger just so you can be stronger than other people." And as for the first part, about the Stone Age in Dartmoor, don't try to pursue things that aren't yours.
Milo (10 years old): I liked the beginning part, set before our time. I liked how the origins wasn't the pre-story - it was part of the story itself. And I liked the Zagabog - he knows everything and he's incredibly nice.
YNL: Any word about the illustrations, boys?
M: Nice, but I wanted captions.
Z: I liked them. But the characters in the illustrations were different from how I saw them in my head.
Bob (46 years old): They reminded me of Arthur and the Invisibles. [Jeez, has everybody but me read this book?!]
Fashion Kitty and the B.O.Y.S. by Charise Mericle Harper
I think I might have to start a new review series. "Books my kids hijack before I can get a chance to read them" reviews. I mean, it kind of tells you something right there - when the kids see the book, surreptitiously snag it up, and then scurry away to the (very private) dinosaur egg chair in the bedroom to read it straight through.
They both did it with this new Fashion Kitty. I have to say, I was a little surprised. Fashion Kitty is clearly a girl kitty, and her book cover is pink and purple with sparkles. I think the kind of raggedy, not-too-gussied-up illustration style mitigates some of the girliness of the color scheme. I also think that the boys were intrigued by the mini pretzels and maxi marshmallows that Ms. Harper packed with the review copy.
Z: I like how it had some comics and some plain text.
YNL: It's purple and pink on the cover. Did it seem like a book for girls?
Z: It seemed like a good book for everyone. It didn't have anything to do with fashion.
M: It was about friendship, and doing the right thing. The one kid has a terrible brother and Fashion Kitty and her friend want to say, "Dude it's such a shame your brother is a big giant jerk," but they don't because number one how does that help anything? and two, because insulting a person in somebody's family is almost the same as insulting them.
Z: Almost the same.
Ghosts of Rockville: Search for the Dominion Glass by Justin Heimberg
Milo: It's about a team of kid ghost-hunters. The main character's father is a ghost, and a good guy. He keeps giving the team hints about what he knows about the Dominion Glass, which is the thing they're looking for. It's a powerful object that lets you control ghosts. Someone else - the bad guy - is also looking for it, and that guy is going to use ghosts to rule the world, basically. But the main character, Jay, just wants it to have a conversation with his father, and then he's going to give it back to the APM, which is an organization of kung fu ninja ghosthunter librarians.
YNL: The librarians are also good guys?
M: Of course! But the cool thing is the Magic View, which is a plastic lens that comes with the book. The pictures in the book are made out of diagonal lines, and when you look at them through the lens, if it's turned the right way, you can see hidden picture in them. It's very very cool.
M: If you're a fourth or fifth grader who liked Harry Potter and you like mystery, you'll like this. Oh, also, the author is very good at setting suspense. It's the first in a series.
It Happened on a Train by Mac Barnett, illustrations by Adam Rex
Milo: I like the ending more than the beginning. It starts a little slow, and then it really picks up.
YNL: Kind of like a train.
YNL: You think the author did that on purpose?
M: Not sure.
YNL: Yeah me neither.
Zhou: I like how it's about car theft, because I don't think there are a lot of kids mystery books about car theft, and I like how there's a triple agent, so Mr. Vanderdraak doesn't realize that his cars are being stolen by -
YNL: Wait, are you telling me who done it?
Z: Oh! I guess I am. Anyway, they all go to jail.
M: Oh and I like how Kevin and Sean Bailey are in books and when Steve tries to do what they do, it's like impossible to do in real life.
YNL: Was it as good as the other books?
Z: Definitely. I think the author is getting better at writing these the more he does. You know, practice makes perfect.
M: We should listen to this one. They could use a lot of sound effects and songs. We listened to the first one and the guy who read it was really good.
(That reader is veteran comedian Arte Johnson, and Milo's right, he's excellent. He uses this dry, knowing tone when narrating the book that puts him in cahoots with the listener, who is already anticipating the next perilous circumstance that Steve will find himself in due to his misplaced faith in Golden Age teen detective techniques, and the ingenious way he'll get himself out of it. But Mr. Johnson also does Steve's dialogue with the right blend of earnestness and overconfidence. It's one of the best audio performances of the past couple of years, and adds a lot of extra humor to an already funny book.
I am so glad - and you can bet Mac Barnett is so glad - that Arte Johnson is still around and working. I remember hiding under my parents' bed to watch him get the crap smacked out of him by Ruth Buzzi on Laugh-In when I was no older than Zhou, and I thought he was ancient then! (Wow, that YouTube video I linked to makes me want to ditch my whole wardrobe and just buy shirts like Sammy Davis Jr's. Watch at your own risk!))
And ok, I said I haven't read the books in this post, and I mostly haven't, but a sentence did pop out at me when I was flipping through It Happened on the Train to check the spelling of Vanderdraak.
Why wouldn't someone fake a shark attack?
And that just makes me smile. What is not to love about the classic plot devices? The kidnapping, the cliffside picnic lunch, the faked shark attack. Not in a very long time has a man with a scar and a concealed firearm called a teenage detective a snoop while giving him a long once-over. These are the tender joys of middle grade mystery.