Monthly Archives: October 2009

Bloody Jack

bloody-jackBloody Jack by L.A. Meyer

It is 1797 in London and a young girl has just been put out on the street. All of her family has died of the pestilence and she has nothing but the clothes on her back. Oh, wait! Soon she is robbed of even those by a gang of orphans in need of new clothes. The girl who has her new clothes looks back at her and says, “Well, come on then. And quit your sniveling.” The girl, who narrates this story, writes, “I snuffles and gets up.”

She weeps, she trembles, she mourns, but she keeps getting up throughout this highly entertaining story of a girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can become a ship’s boy, avoid being hung for thievery, and get enough to eat. I usually demand more than pure entertainment from the books I read–I want to be able to see the world in a new way or learn something thrilling–and I usually don’t like series books, but I finished this book with a single thought: I wanted the next book in the series.

The character of Mary who becomes Jacky leaps from the pages. The endless series of riotous adventurous never seem contrived. All resolutions feel perfectly apt. Danger never dissipates, but evil always gets its satisfyingly just desserts.

Bloody Jack will be enjoyed by kids who liked The Unfortunate Series of Events in their younger years, middle school and younger experienced readers who will not be confused by the occasional “guttersnipe” dialect of the narrator (“prolly” for probably; me mum and me pop, etc), high school readers who need a break from fantasy, teen-age angst, and vampire genres, and adults who just like to have fun reading. Attitudes towards the innate differences between the genders are of course amply explored and the romance is tender and true and not excessively graphic. I recommend not trying to find out if the author is male or female until you have read at least one book in the series.

Gaby Chapman


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Filed under 6-8 Grade, 9-12 Grade, Adventure, Enjoyable for parents, girls, Reluctant Reader, Series Books

The Fairy’s Return and Other Princess Tales by Gail Carson Levine

The Fairy's Return and Other Princess Tales

There are over 20 Million searches on the word princess on Google every month. It should come as no surprise that a search for princess books on Amazon also returned 230,639 results. A child could easily spend their entire youth reading only princess books.

So, here’s my confession, I love princess stories. I do, I can’t help it. And, my favorite princess books are all written by Gail Carson Levine. She is a master of creating new stories from ageless tales. If you are just going to dabble in princess stories, read one of Gail Carson Levine’s books such as Fairest, Ella Enchanted or the Sisters of Bamarre. However, if you want to limit yourself to just a short story here or there, The Fairy’s Return and other Princess Tales is perfect. These tales are delightful twists on ageless stories that will have you rethinking the traditional princess paradigm.

All of the stories take place around Snettering-on-Snoakes and the Kingdom of Biddle. The books starts out with “The Fairy’s Mistake,” a play on the traditional tale of one nice sister being given a blessing by a secretly magic old lady, while the evil mean sister is given a curse. In this story, the nice sister is given the ‘blessing’ of jewels spewing forth from her mouth whenever she speaks. Meanwhile, the mean sister is given the ‘curse’ of disgusting things like lizards, snakes and wasps jumping out of her mouth whenever she speaks. The beautiful and kind sister is, of course, immediately swept up and married by a handsome prince who just happens to be riding by. I mean, really, what self-respecting prince would not want to marry a girl who literally drips jewels every time she murmurs a word? The sweet sister is then instantly doomed to a life where she is pushed, prodded, and pulled in all directions. Her feelings are the last thing on anyone’s mind. On the other hand, the mean sister suddenly manages to get everyone to do her bidding. At the smallest hint of her speaking, people dash to meet her every whim. For, the second she opens her mouth, something horrible will come out. This was not what the fairy had in mind, but isn’t it funny how things sometimes turn out differently than we expect them to. Fear not, like all good princess stories, this has a happy ending. But, not before it makes all of us think a little about the meaning of blessings.

All of the short stories in this book are equally thought provoking and entertaining. While the stories are about a 5th grade reading level, the nature of the stories will appeal to all ages. It is a great book for reading aloud because the stories are fun and also provide great ideas for conversations about life.

If you too are a victim of the princess bug, I also recommend these other titles for middle schoolers: Princess Academy, Goose Girl, Rapunzel’s Revenge (graphic novel), as well as all of the books in The Royal Diaries series.

– Jessica Wheeler

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Filed under 3-5 Grade, Fables, Folk Tales & Myths, girls

Over and Under

Over and Under by Todd TuckerOver and Under

Paradise is being a fourteen-year-old boy and having a true friend to share complete freedom with–the forest is unspoiled and filled with wildlife and unexlored caves; the town is small and suitable for unsupervised explorations, and the bedroom windows are easy to climb out of at night. Though the summer of 1979 has more fodder for adventure than usual–a divisive labor strike, a deadly bombing, and a murderous drunk–it all serves as backdrop for the real story: the value and the power of a solid childhood friendship.

This authentic-feeling story is not represented as young adult fiction though it is written entirely from the perspective of one of the fourteen-year-old boys, essentially because it is about nostalgia–ah, the irretrievable days of youthful freedom! However, middle school boys and younger high school boys who like the outdoors and the freedom to roam and explore will enjoy this book. The adventure and excitement never ebb, and all the characters are richly drawn. The description of one of the boys in a drain pipe with a copper head snake by itself makes the book worth reading. It’s a great book for parents who like to read and enjoy the books their kids also read.

Gaby Chapman

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Filed under 6-8 Grade, 9-12 Grade, Adventure, boys, Enjoyable for parents, Mystery & Suspense

A Curse As Dark As Gold

A Curse As Dark As Gold by Elizabeth C. Buncecurse

In a tight spot, in an end of the road absolutely everything will be lost tight spot, who among us would not turn to the supernatural for help, even at an extreme cost? And if it works, would we not turn to it again if misfortune pushed us again to the wall? This is such a common experience it is no wonder it is a theme of stories in many cultures over the centuries. In the story of Rumplestiltskin, a miller’s daughter must spin straw into gold or her father will die. Talk about a tight spot. But a little man appears and spins the straw into gold for her. He asks for a necklace at first but eventually it is her child he wants. She saves the child by finding out the little man’s true name.

Elizabeth Bunce has taken the hapless miller’s daughter and made her into a real force. Strong, sensible Charlotte takes over the mill when her father dies and throws herself into the impossible challenge of overcoming adversity on every side. When all her options vanish, she turns to the mysterious little man who can spin straw into gold. But it is not only his name she must discover to save everything she holds dear; she must use all her courage to discover where her forebearers went wrong and she must make it right.

This is storytelling at its best and a wonderfully rich version of a very old tale. The spells, the magic, and the curse from the dead are skillfully woven into a warmly realistic tale of millers of cloth in the years before the Industrial transformation. As I was reading this book, I heard mysterious noises in my house differently and experienced fleeting moments where I thought I might be in the presence of spirits. No wonder I liked fairy tales so much when I was a child. They break open thin windows onto alternate worlds.

Girls from age ten to ninetly will love this book. It is an advanced read for younger girls and though fairly scarey, has nothing that would be inappropriate for younger readers.

Gaby Chapman

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Filed under 3-5 Advanced Read, 6-8 Grade, 9-12 Grade, Enjoyable for parents, Fables, Folk Tales & Myths, Fantastic!, girls

The Animal Family

This is one of the most transcendentally beautiful children’s books I’ve ever read. As a poet, Randall Jarrell gives every word a particular grace and spaciousness, and the illustrations by Maurice Sendak are peaceful and evocative.

The story begins with a hunter who lives alone on an island. Although his world is lovely, he has no one to share it with. Jarrell gives a sense of the hunter’s loneliness in a particularly memorable paragraph: “One winter night, as he looked at the star that, blazing coldly, made the belt and the sword of the hunter Orion, a great green meteor went slowly across the sky. The hunter’s heart leaped, he cried ‘Look, look!’ But there was no one to look.”

One night, as the hunter stands looking out over the sea, he hears a kind of burbling laughter arising from the waves. He returns night after night, and eventually becomes friends with an adventurous mermaid who wants to see what living on land is like. Together they begin a kind of family, to which is eventually added a baby lynx and a bear cub. Without being anthropomorphized, the two animals are fully realized characters, capable of both great kindness and foolishness. The adventures of this foursome are often funny and always moving because of the great love that binds them together. One of my favorite details in this wonderful book is that the mermaid is not afraid of making mistakes; they simply make her laugh!

My uncle gave me this book on my seventh birthday, and I have read it at least once a year (43!) since. Although it is a wonderful book for ages six to eight, it will enchant readers of any age. In fact, I read it often during my teens when I needed to be reassured by its serene sweetness.

Alix Pitcher

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Filed under 3-5 Grade, boys, Classics, Enjoyable for parents, Fantasy & Other Worlds, girls

Ten Cents a Dance

Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcherten cents

It is 1941 in Chicago. Ruby is fifteen years old, her father is dead, and her mother’s arthritis has cost her her job at the meat-packing plant. Ruby has a choice: she can work in the plant stuffing pig’s feet in jars for below subsistence pay or she can pretend she is older, play a dangerous game, and make a lot more money.

Ruby narrates her story with a tone that suggests a fully grown woman looking back on her youthful foolishness. The suspense that swiftly turns the pages in this novel is the possibility that Ruby may get in too deep with bad boys and her own lies, that she may become irreversibly corrupted or worse.

Ten Cents a Dance reminded me of hard-boiled detective novels of the fifties in that it deals with the underbelly of life (nightclubs, crime, and blatant racism) and yet remains remarkably clean. As a modern young adult novel, it is a tale about a teenage girl under pressure to assume the dullest of adult responsibilities while in her heart she wants only to burst into a free life of romance and glamour. A strong will and an appreciation for friendship and family are about all Ruby has on her side. Teen-age girls will like this book–parents of younger kids might want to read it first.

Gaby Chapman

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Filed under 9-12 Grade, Easy Read, Easy Reading, Historical Fiction, Reluctant Reader

Silverwing Saga

Silverwing, by Kenneth Oppelsilverwing

When enough of my students tell me a book is good, I like to get around to reading it at some point–first because it probably is good, and second because I want to know what they like. I have a very low willingness to suspend disbelief when it comes to anthrophmorphic tales (aw come-on, would a wolf really say something like that) but I had no trouble with Silverwing. Shade, the endearing juvenile bat, and his enemy, the giant and cold-hearted carnivorous jungle bat named Goth, were both completely believable for me.

Shade is a runt and as such he has a relentless need to prove he is as brave and as tough as the other juvenile bats. This need leads him to make a terrible mistake that puts his entire clan in grave danger. In the first book of this trilogy, Shade shows great courage and intelligence as he strives to redeem himself and protect his clan. Goth is only one of the overwhelming dangers Shade must outwit; the adventure is non-stop, very visual, and well-paced.

Silverwing is perfect for kids in grades four through eight who like adventurous stories about other species, for reluctant as well as experienced readers, for boys and girls. It will make them want to read the rest of the trilogy and want to know more about bats–try Shadows in the Night by Diane Ackerman or some of the ones listed on Anastasia Suen’s 5 Books blog.

Gaby Chapman

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Filed under 3-5 Grade, 6-8 Grade, Adventure, Animals, boys, Fantasy & Other Worlds, Reluctant Reader, Reluctant Reader, Series Books