Keys to the Kingdom by Garth Nix
Though not a fan of fantasy, I do read it occasionally to keep up on what my students are reading. The richly imagined descriptions in this series made it one that I enjoyed reading. An asthmatic seventh grade boy, Arthur Penhaligan, is the hero for this seven book fantasy. Handicapped and with the odds always against him, he does not give up trying to do what’s right. A rich stew of surreal Alice in Wonderland-type imagery and characters, elements reminiscent of myths, an alternate universe, endless hair’s breadth escapes, grisly horror, and mystery, Keys to the Kingdom never lags. However, this series is not just a vividly imagined movie in print for a happy reader to follow. Keys to the Kingdom is a thinking kid’s fantasy. If one pays close enough attention, answers to the great questions of the origins of our world and our human natures might come close to being answered.
Well-liked by both boys and girls in my middle school classes, this series is favored by boys; and though written at a seventh grade reading level, is also well-liked by high school boys into about tenth grade. The interest level is rated at grade five through eight. Both the complexity of the plot and the at times nightmare-like imagery may keep this from being a book for fifth grade and under, unless a child in these years is looking to be challenged and a little frightened.
The series starts with Mister Monday and moves through each day of the week: Grim Tuesday, Drowned Wednesday, Sir Thursday, Lady Friday, Superior Saturday, and the eagerly awaited and yet un-named Sunday episode.
The Lightening Thief
The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan
Rick Riordan has melded the ancient Greek gods and twenty-first century American middle school perfectly in this book, the first of four in the series (Sea of Monsters, Titan’s Curse, and Battle of Labryinth). It is no wonder almost all of my middle school students for the past three years have loved this story about a twelve year old boy with a classic middle school wit and sense of adventure who discovers he is the son of Poseidon. Percy Jackson is a true hero: he has a set of middle school troubles-dyslexia, ADHD, poor grades, a mean step-father, teachers who seem to be against him- but once he finds out all his troubles are because he is a half-blood, son of a God and a mortal, he takes on all the tasks his destiny requires of him without flinching.
Well liked by both boys and girls, the four books in this series are written at a fourth grade reading level with an interest level of grades six through eight. Younger kids will be able to read it but may not fully appreciate the sense of middle school angst and wit that pervades the story. However, it is a great book for middle school students who have never found a book they liked as well as enthusiastic readers who enjoy Greek myth and stories of non-stop adventure. The three books that follow are as well-liked as the first which makes this an excellent book for getting a young reader started on a path of reading for pleasure.
Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, by Astrid Lungren
When you were a kid, did you ever fantasize about running away from your family and living off the land in a cave? I did. I even dreamed that I would tame wild horses and ride them every day through the beautiful woods. That is just one of the reasons why I loved this book. This is one of those books that I looked forward to reading every night at bedtime.
Astrid Lungren’s genius comes through in her sincere yet quirky characters combined with the underlying deep emotions. It is a sort of Romeo and Juliet tale of friendship that has a happy ending. If you have a child that has a strong but difficult relationship with their father, I highly recommend this book. The characters are stubborn, but deeply love each other. In the end, that is what it takes to bring a family together. Plus, in the meantime the kids get to have a wonderful adventure. This has a fifth grade reading level, but would probably only interest kids in 1st through 5th grades at the highest. It is a good one for both genders who are young readers with advanced skills.
Encyclopedia Brown Series, by Donald J. Sobol
There are no unsolved crimes in Idaville. After the spotless crime fighting record of the Idaville Police Department through over 20 Encyclopedia Brown books, you would think that those sneaky criminals would choose to go elsewhere. These mind-twisting page turners are the perfect instant gratification mysteries for emerging readers.
Encyclopedia (Leroy) Brown always solves the crime quickly (one mystery per chapter), but it is up to you to figure out how. The solutions are in the back of the book, but it still makes for great discussions before you give up and look in the back. My husband said it is the first book where he actually went back and re-read chapters to try and figure things out.
This series is great for emerging readers because they solve the mysteries so quickly, the kids don’t feel daunted about having to read the whole book. Although the main character is a boy, I have found as many girls who love the series as boys. Sally is Encyclopedia Brown’s partner and a very strong girl. So strong, the town bully is scared of her. I would recommend this book for kids from 1st through 4th grade. It is printed in smaller print and there are few if any pictures, but the writing is pretty simple without too many difficult words. It is rated at a 3rd grade reading level.
The Five Ancestors, by Jeff Stone
In 1647, the newly dominant Qing dynasty outlawed martial arts and killed all the warrior monks of the Shaolin temple. Author Jeff Stone bases his series The Five Ancestors on the premise that five young monks-in-training survived. In his version, each boy was trained in the fighting style and bears some personality traits of a certain animal: the tiger, the monkey, the snake, the crane, and the eagle. Each book in the series bears the title of one animal and recounts the adventures of the boy bearing that animal’s name after he escapes the destroyed temple.
The Five Ancestors has been described as graphic novels without the graphics. This visually descriptive quality makes these books perfect for young readers who like to imagine themselves as part of the action of a book. And action there is; fighting scenes abound with plenty of blood. But the violence is like that in comic books- quick and with lots of cool moves. Along with all the action comes a steady peppering of ageless wisdom: fight if you must, but only in defense; fear the one kick practiced a thousand times, not the ten thousand kicks practiced only once. As the adventures unfold, each boy struggles to manage his individual character weaknesses as he strengthens his ability to do what’s right, and to see things from the perspective of others.
With a fairly low reading level of third to fourth grade and an interest level of sixth to eighth, these books are favorites with boys who have limited pleasure reading experience. However, all kids, even older kids, with an interest in martial arts and Buddhism enjoy this series.
Sweet Treats by Williams Sonoma
Fun Food by Williams Sonoma
I think that the main reason my daughter loves to cook is that she usually gets to eat her creations. As a result, she has become something of a recipe hound. She cuts them out wherever she finds them and asks for cookbooks for every holiday.
The two books that stand out are by Williams Sonoma. They are called Sweet Treats and Fun Food each with ’25 Delicious Recipes Kids Can Cook.’ Sweet Treats is focused on the obvious including baked treats, frozen deserts as well as drinks. Fun Food is more healthy and, therefore, a little less popular. It has dinner and snack recipes that are simple and part of most children’s simple diets.
These books make cooking easy for kids. The layout helps kids get organized before they start. The steps are laid out with big numbers that are easy for the kids to follow. The visuals are particularly helpful. They use photographs so kids who can’t read can understand what they are supposed to do. This book helped Violet develop many skills she now uses in all of her cooking. It wasn’t until I opened the book for this review that I realized that was how she learned to make a graham cracker crust – by putting graham crackers in a baggie and smashing them. I like that the recipes are simple, relatively healthy and help develop skills as well as good eating habits.
I particularly recommend the Lemon Bar and the Plum Buckle recipes in Sweet Treats.
The Warrior Series by Erin Hunter
The Warriors Series were the turning point books for my daughter, Violet. Initially she looked on with contempt when I brought home Into the Wild, by Erin Hunter. First of all, it was huge. Up until this point she had struggled along with Geronimo Stilton and certainly was not interested in any book over 100 pages. Second, it was a book that I picked, so it had to be bad.
I started reading the book at bedtime, and by the third chapter both daughters loved it. After the fifth chapter ended and it was bedtime, Violet could not stand the suspense any longer and picked up the book herself and started reading. She became the girl who fell asleep every night reading, woke up early to read, and scrambled through her work at school at the opportunity to eek out an extra 10 minutes of free reading time. Sixteen books later, she plans her calendar based on when the next book will be released (Thanksgiving).
Needless to say, I highly recommend this series for emerging readers. It is generally considered a fifth grade reading level, but the story line captures the attention of children age 5 all the way up to 11. It is a story of a kitten that leaves his comfortable home to join a clan of wild cats. There is plenty of drama as the cats form alliances, develop enemies, fall in love and fulfill their destinies. At its core it is about good, evil, ambition, loyalty and friendship. Kids, especially animal lovers, absolutely love all 16 books. Gaby also finds that it is equally popular with girls and boys. It is particularly good for older children that are reading below grade level. Although there is conflict and death in the books as well as romance, the content is still appropriate for children as young as five.
– Jessica Wheeler