Book Review: Bomb

screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-11-36-57-amI’ll confess that I usually prefer fiction to non-fiction. But I’m willing to make an exception for Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin. It’s a history of the atomic bomb told with thriller pacing.

Starting with the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938, the book follows three interrelated stories: the American efforts to build a bomb, the Soviet spies’ efforts to steal the bomb design, and the Allies’ efforts to prevent Germany from developing the bomb. Sheinkin does an amazing job of weaving in quotations from primary sources to create an informative and readable narrative.

Blaine enjoyed this book too. More than once, I overheard him telling his dad about something he learned from it. His concise review: Bomb is bomb.

Book Review: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda

screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-11-01-55-amWhen Larrabee came home from the library last week with a copy of Tom Angleberger‘s The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, it brought back memories of a time when my purse was full of folded paper Star Wars characters. When Blaine and his classmates discovered this series four years ago, there were only three books. Now there are six (all with great titles, including my favorite-The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee).

After hearing Larrabee chuckling in the backseat while he read the first book, I had to read it too.

Tommy starts with an important question: Is Origami Yoda real? In other words, even though it’s just a paper finger puppet worn by the weirdest kid in the sixth grade, can he trust its advice? The book consists of the investigative case file that he’s put together by asking his classmates about their interactions with Origami Yoda.

Like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, this book is aimed at a middle school audience but is easy enough for younger kids to read. It’s sweet and funny, though, and Larrabee didn’t seem to mind reading about middle school dances. And the Cheeto Hog and Soapy the Monkey have universal appeal.

The book includes instructions for folding your own Origami Yoda. I’m sure I’ll soon have one or two in my purse, in case you need any advice.

Read this book you must. Laugh you will.

Book Review: Lou Lou & Pea and the Mural Mystery

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-4-00-26-pmLou Lou and Pea and the Mural Mystery by Jill Diamond is an intriguing and light-hearted mystery for younger readers.

Lou Lou Bombay and Peacock Pearl are 5th graders and best friends. Lou Lou lives in a house shaped like a ship and grows prize-worthy camellias. Pea loves art and has a flair for fashion.

When bad things start happening in their neighborhood, they want to help. Then, they notice that new images are appearing in the murals of El Corazón. Oddly, the new images all relate to the recent crimes. They have a mystery to solve! A cryptic riddle points the way for them to find the culprit just in time for the Día de Los Muertos procession.

In a recent interview, Jill Diamond reveals that the fictional  El Corazón neighborhood was inspired by her own neighborhood, San Francisco’s Mission District.


Ofrenda with 2nd graders’ skeleton dolls at Gateway School

I’m planning to donate a copy of this book to Larrabee’s 2nd grade classroom. Larrabee is reading it now, and I think his classmates would enjoy it too. They made skeleton dolls this fall as part of their study of Día de Los Muertos.

Good news: Jill Diamond is already planning a second adventure for Lou Lou and Pea!

Christmas (Book) Traditions

img_5379Deck the halls with boughs of…  Wait, the Christmas books are in this box? So much for decorating. It’s time to read!

Larrabee started with our new addition from last year:  Olivia Helps with Christmas by Ian Falconer. Then, O Little Town of Bethlehem by Ron Berry, caught his attention with its music and lights. And he read Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree by Robert E. Barry out loud to me. I’ve been reading that one at Christmas time as long as I can remember.

We’ll save The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore for Mark to read aloud on Christmas Eve. That’s a tradition.

My personal favorite of all the books in the box is How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss. I can practically recite it from memory. No Christmas would be complete for me without chimbleys, Whos’ mouses, and roast beast. The Grinch just puts me in the Christmas spirit. Maybe I’ll watch the cartoon version before I finish decorating… Now that’s a wonderful, awful idea.

Book Review: The Knights’ Tales

Sir Larrabee on his third birthday

I recommend Gerald Morris’ The Knights’ Tales series to any kid who ever donned chain mail or brandished a sword.

The books in this series are The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great, The Adventures of Sir Givret the ShortThe Adventures of Sir Gawain the True, and The Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated. All four are retellings of Arthurian legends for young readers.

Both of my boys read these books to themselves, but they would also be great for reading together. They’re a quick read and they’ll make you laugh out loud.

And Gerald Morris also has a series of books for older kids called The Squire’s Tales. We haven’t read them yet, but we’d love to hear from you if you have.

Boys of Summer

Photo credit: Douglas P. Mitchell

In honor of the end of the baseball season, I thought I’d pass along Blaine and Larrabee’s favorite baseball books of the past summer.

Blaine’s Pick:  The Closer: Young Readers Edition by Mariano Rivera with Wayne Coffey and Sue Corbett.

You don’t have to be a Yankees fan to enjoy pitcher Mariano Rivera’s autobiography. From his childhood in Panama to his long Major League career, Rivera’s story is interesting and inspiring. Blaine particularly liked his descriptions of life in the Yankees clubhouse.

By the way, I do not know how the Young Readers Edition differs from the original. We just happened to find this one in the library.

Larrabee’s Pick: Ted & Me by Dan Gutman.

Ted & Me is the 11th book in the 12-book Baseball Card Adventures series about a boy named Joe Stoshack who can travel through time using baseball cards.

In this adventure, the FBI gives Joe a Ted Williams card from 1941 and asks him to warn President Roosevelt about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Larrabee likes history and baseball, so this book was right up his alley. He especially liked the (true) Ted Williams tips about hitting and fly fishing and has quoted them often.

Retelling Cinderella

screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-2-52-20-pmI love retellings of fairy tales, myths, and other familiar stories. By mixing well-known plot elements with a new setting, genre, or perspective, an author gives us a story that is both comfortingly recognizable and surprising.

My favorite type of retelling is the “inside scoop” variety. The story that tells you what really happened.

So I was intrigued by the opening of The Rat Prince by Bridget Hodder:

“When you hear the tale of Cinderella, do you ever wonder about the rats who were turned into coachmen by her fairy godmother?… Now settle yourselves in comfort, and be sure you’ve plenty of provisions upon which to nibble, for you are about to hear the true story from Cinderella herself… and from me. My name is Char. In former days, they called me the Rat Prince.”

Larrabee will be the first to admit that he’s no expert on Cinderella. He’s seen the Disney movie, of course. And he loved Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine this summer–although he was well into the book before he realized it was a Cinderella story. Recently, his 2nd grade class read two very different Cinderella stories–Trollerella by Karen Stegman-Bourgeois and Bubba, the Cowboy Prince by Helen Ketteman.

He agreed to read The Rat Prince with me, and we both enjoyed it. Prince Char of the Northern Rat Realm is an excellent addition to the story–and a worthy hero. Who knew that the rats in the castle were such interesting characters?


Shh… It’s a Secret

The author known as Pseudonymous Bosch is a very mysterious fellow. He is pictured here (in disguise) at a bookstore that might or might not be Bookshop Santa Cruz. I can’t say.

The narrator of his five-book Secret Series is even more mysterious. In the first book, The Name of This Book Is Secret, he can’t reveal the setting of the story or the characters’ real names. Here is a brief excerpt from Chapter One: “Xxxx xxx xxxx xx xxx.” I’m not kidding.

I read this book to both boys a couple of years ago. We all enjoyed the intriguing tale of the Symphony of Smells, the missing magician, and the Midnight Sun.

The book is also full of side comments addressed to the reader, which make it extra fun to read aloud. For example: “If you’re sleepy, go to bed and save the next chapter for tomorrow. For the magician’s story, you must have all your wits about you. No wandering minds allowed.” Needless to say, we had trouble stopping after just one chapter.

Book or Movie First?

In line to see a 3D movie (not based on a book)

Are there really two sides to this debate? Book first!

Whenever possible, I read the book with my kids before we see the movie adaptation.

Books are longer and more detailed. Movies have to leave out characters, scenes, sometimes whole subplots. Books can reveal a character’s thoughts and feelings. Movies can only show a character’s external reactions.

Reading the book first adds to the fun of the movie for my kids. They can’t resist whispering their comments. They remark on whether or not the characters look the way they imagined them. They predict what scene is coming next and note any changes in the plot. Knowing the ending in advance doesn’t seem to spoil the movie for them at all.

On the other hand, seeing the movie first can take the fun out of reading the book. Friends tell me that seeing the Harry Potter movies inspired their kids to read the books. I can believe that. But Harry Potter must be the exception. I can’t think of any book my kids picked up after seeing the movie version.

If you’re looking for a summer read-aloud/movie combination, here are a few recommendations:

  • Andy Weir’s The Martian is not a kids’ book (and it contains some profanity), but older kids would enjoy it. Blaine did. It’s a sci-fi thriller that kept me reading late into the night and made me laugh out loud. And the movie is excellent too.
  • Even if you’ve already seen The Hobbit movie trilogy, it’s worth reading the classic fantasy novel that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote for his own kids in the 1930s. Mark read it aloud to the whole family years ago, and I intend to read it again to Larrabee. Baggins, Gandalf, Gollum. Precious!
  • Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy is a bit dark for young kids, but Blaine and I devoured it. It has an intriguing heroine and a compelling plot. The four movies are good fun too.
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is another good choice for older kids. Blaine and I read it together before seeing the movie version. I didn’t love the rest of series, but I like this one a lot.

And if you’re a Roald Dahl fan, you may want to put The BFG on your summer reading list now, so that you’ll be ready for the movie adaptation on July 1.

Encyclopedia Brown

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 12.58.37 PMMy whole family likes Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books. Here’s a true account of a conversation we had in the car last weekend:

Mark:  Hey Larrabee, whatcha reading?
Larrabee:  Encyclopedia Brown.
Mark:  Oh, I loved those books when I was a kid.
Beth:  Me too.
Blaine:  Me too. Wait. What? I had no idea those books were that old.

Ouch! Well, it’s a compliment to Donald Sobol anyway. There’s a kind of timeless quality about young Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, Sally Kimball, Bugs Meany, and the other folks in Idaville. The series actually includes a total of twenty-nine books published over a forty-nine year period. I’m sure Mark and I missed some of the later ones.

These books—starting with Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective—are great fun to read aloud together or for kids to read to themselves. Each book consists of approximately ten short mysteries with the solutions at the end of the book. I still remember some of the facts I learned from reading them!