Red Herrings and Other Genre Conventions

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 12.58.12 PMWhen you pick up a mystery novel, what do you expect?

  • A crime or some other kind of puzzle to be solved
  • A detective as the main character
  • Several suspects with motive, means, and opportunity
  • A suspenseful plot with many clues, including some that are false or misleading
  • A satisfying resolution that makes you feel like you could have solved the mystery yourself

These are conventions of the mystery genre. We know them from a lifetime of experience with books and movies, but kids have to discover them for themselves.

Tracy Barrett’s The 100-Year-Old Secret is a good introductions to the genre. Larrabee pronounced it one of the “best detective stories” he’s read. Blaine enjoyed it too when he was younger.

It’s part of a series featuring two American kids, Xena and Xander Holmes, descendants of the great Sherlock Holmes. In the first book, the siblings are tasked with finding a missing painting.

While Larrabee was reading it, he said, “I think I know who’s in the painting… But I still have a lot of chapters left.” That, my young friend, sounds like a red herring.



A Dystopian Paradise

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 12.28.44 PMWhat could be more idyllic than curling up on a late summer evening with an adventure story set in a dystopian future?

Blaine and I recently finished Legend, the first book in Marie Lu’s dystopian trilogy. It’s set in a future Los Angeles, part of the war-torn Republic. It’s told from the viewpoint of two fifteen-year-olds from different sides of the tracks: June, a top student at an elite military academy, and Day, a wanted criminal hiding out in the slums. When June’s older brother is murdered, Day is the prime suspect and June goes undercover to track him down.

Blaine and I both enjoyed the book. Occasionally we quibbled with some of the amazing leaps (deductive and otherwise) made by the characters. And Blaine, in particular, noted the characters’ overuse of the word “wound.” Although this book has not replaced The Hunger Games as our favorite dystopian novel, we’re eager to read the next two books in the series.

So why are we drawn to these books? Several years ago, in “The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction,” the New York Times asked authors and other experts why post-apocalyptic fiction is so popular. I’m inclined to agree with Maggie Stiefvater, author of Shiver, that dystopian novels are more an escapist pleasure than an exploration of real fears about the future. Stiefvater suggests that in a world of complex, nuanced choices, “the absolute black and white choices in dark young adult novels are incredibly satisfying for readers.”

We’d love to hear your recommendations. What is your favorite dystopian young adult novel?


A Bookish Treasure Hunt

IMG_0027Q:  What did Mr. Tibbs use to make the legs of the breakfast table for the Big Friendly Giant?

A:  Grandfather clocks, of course!

Did you know that one? Larrabee did. It was Clue #4 in his The BFG-themed treasure hunt.

A book-based treasure hunt makes a great reading incentive. Here’s our deal: I pick two books, and Larrabee chooses two more. When he finishes all four books, he earns his treasure hunt.

This summer, I’ve learned a new technique on Skillshare to take our bookish treasure hunts to the next level. In “Fun with Kids – Create an Augmented Reality Scavenger Hunt,” Paula Guilfoyle showed me how to use Google forms and the Aurasma app to design a high-tech hunt.

Here’s an example from our first Harry Potter-based treasure hunt:

Larrabee scans the cover of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire using the Aurasma app on my phone. He sees a question:

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, who represents Durmstrang in the Triwizard Tournament?
A. Fleur Delacour
B. Viktor Krum
C. Igor Karkaroff

If he chooses “B,” he sees a clue:

Look where Harry might have to go in our house to figure out the clue in the golden egg.

If he looks in the bathtub, he finds the cover of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which he can scan to get his next quiz question and his next clue.

The seventh clue leads him to his prize — a book and a piece of candy. In addition, to the Harry Potter and BFG treasure hunts, I’ve made a Frog and Toad-themed one (based on the books, not the musical). If Larrabee keeps reading, I may need to come up with one more before the summer ends.





Prophesies and Predictions

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 1.31.27 PM“Let arms be still and voices low,
A million eyes watch as you go.
The silken door your pathway ends,
There fire and light will be your friends.
Then see yourself as others may,
And catch noon’s eye to clear your way.”

In Emily Rodda’s Rowan of Rin, seven companions journey to the Mountain to discover why the stream has stopped flowing to their village. Before they leave, the Wise Woman makes a prophesy and gives them a magical map. The map reveals new words of advice at each stage of the quest.

Asking questions and making predictions based on their own experiences and on clues in the text are key reading comprehension strategies for kids. The cryptic prophesies in this story invite young readers to guess what’s coming next. What is the silken door? A curtain? A spider web? Who is the bravest one who will finish the quest alone? Sometimes their guesses turn out to be right, and other times they realize only later what the clues meant. That process of predicting and revising their predictions makes them active and engaged readers.

Larrabee chose this book based on a Bookshop Santa Cruz recommendation (using the gift certificate from their reading contest), and he’s glad he did. We’re looking forward to the other four books in this fantasy series.

Harry Potter Is Back!


Wait, did he ever leave? In the nine years since the last book was published, I’ve read the complete series aloud (twice), watched the movies (at least once), celebrated a Potter-themed Halloween, sent Larrabee to WEST’s Hogwarts camp, and enjoyed Bookshop Santa Cruz’s Harry Potter Festival.

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 2.56.40 PMBut now there is a new book: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The script of the play that just opened in London. Published on Harry’s birthday (July 31). And it picks up the story where we left it at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Wow!

Larrabee and I have been on a reading binge for the last few days. We just finished the book and handed it over to Blaine.

I don’t want to include any spoilers since this book is just out, so I’ll keep my comments brief.

The story is good. And it’s a pleasure to revisit some of the settings and characters from the Harry Potter books. I recommend it!

But reading a play is a different experience than reading a novel. It’s particularly tricky to read aloud. At the beginning, Larrabee had to read along so that he’d understand who was speaking. And he found it confusing to follow a story revealed almost entirely through dialogue. We eventually got used to it, though. We learned the characters well enough to distinguish them and lost ourselves in the story.

Parents should also know that this story has the darkness of the later books. And if your child isn’t familiar with the earlier Harry Potter books, this book is not the place to start. In fact, anyone who hasn’t been immersed in the wizarding world in recent years will want to brush up on his or her Harry Potter before diving into this book.

I’d love to see the play some day. For now, I’m looking forward to our summer trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood!