Kid vs. Squid by Greg van Eekhout is a wacky summer adventure with lots of ocean-themed mayhem. It’s fast-paced and has moments of good humor, but it was also a little hard to follow.
But perhaps the most unforgivable sin of false advertising: The title is Kid vs. Squid and there’s no squid until page 169.
And the kid vs. squid fight barely lasts a chapter.
And it’s not really the kid who fights the squid, but seagulls who do most of the fighting.
Sorry, but Kid vs. Squid sold me on this book. I saw that title and didn’t need to know anything more.
But you have to follow through on that glorious promise. Otherwise it doesn’t matter how good the rest of the book is, you’ve let me down as a reader.
I read this one aloud to my kids and they enjoyed it, though were also disappointed at the lack of squid.
Randi Rhodes Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit by Octavia Spencer is a quick mystery featuring a kid detective and her friends. I’m not a big mystery fan, so I need to be really impressed. Not so much with this one.
The characters were good. I liked Randi Rhodes and her friends. They’re realistic and relatable, dealing with real problems. The biggest is Randi overcoming the death of her mother.
But the mystery didn’t stand up to the quality characters. It felt a little too simplistic (though it is a kids’ chapter book) and relied on a big reveal at the end. The Time-Capsule Bandit really didn’t hold my interest, but Randi and her friends did.
I’d be willing to read another volume in this series just for the characters, though I hope the mysteries pick up.
Sideways Stories From Wayside School by Louis Sachar was one of my favorite books growing up.
I read it to the kids and it wasn’t as magical and hilarious as I remember. It’s still fun and definitely quirky, but it’s also disjointed and sometimes just weird (dead rats?).
It makes me wonder how much of my enjoyment came because one of my teachers read it to us and those books always seem to be better?
It was also written 35 years ago and what was considered off-beat and quirky back then is pretty tame today. We have a lot weirder and more off-beat now, so it seems like a halfway approach.
It could also be that I’m no longer 8 and don’t laugh at the same stuff.
Isabel is a slave girl during the American Revolution in Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, desperately searching for the freedom the rebels are fighting for. But neither the Americans nor the British are willing to grant freedom to a black slave.
It’s an eye-opening perspective on the complications of our Independence.
It reminds me of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing series, especially the second volume when war has broken out and Octavian joins the Brit’s Ethiopian Regiment for the promise of freedom. But Chains is much more direct and approachable. The Octavian Nothing series takes too long to get anywhere.
The American experiment in freedom and democracy is complicated when you realize how wrapped up it is in slavery. The fight for freedom wasn’t limited to the Revolutionary War. It would be nearly a century before blacks in America could taste freedom, and another century before they could truly practice it as equals.
There’s a contradiction at the heart of our nation’s founding that we’re reluctant to face. But it’s there. And 238 years later it still leaves a mark on our culture.
When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park is set in occupied Korea during World War II. It follows a brother and sister as the Japanese inflict more and more hardships.
The story itself didn’t blow me away, but the history was a perspective I knew nothing about. I don’t know much about Korean history, so it was fascinating to get this glimpse.
Much of the World War II story we get is the brutality of the Nazis. I’ve heard some about Japanese soldiers, but this viewpoint is more from a civilian point of view as Korea has been occupied by Japan for more than 30 years. The story chronicles many of the ways the Japanese tried to eliminate Korean culture, including banning the language and writing, forced renaming of citizens and even uprooting and burning the national tree of Korea.
The Japanese were working to homogenize their empire, crush the spirit of any resistance and wipe out any unique identifiers that Koreans could take pride in.
With this backdrop it becomes painfully obvious how offensive it is when non-Asians treat all Asians with a broad brush, confusing Koreans for Japanese for Chinese and then dismissing it all as meaningless.
The Last Wild by Piers Torday gives us a post-apocalyptic world where the red-eye virus has killed nearly all the animals. Save for a few holdouts, humanity has been pushed into cities and subsists on a synthetic formula.
It’s a bleak setup for a children’s novel. But it gets worse.
Kester Jaynes is trapped in a home for troubled children because he stopped talking six years ago. There’s your rejected outcast hero.
But then some of the remaining animals start talking to him, including a flock of pigeons and a fighting cockroach. They break him out and the adventure begins, a journey to cure the virus and save the last remaining animals.
It’s very British.
Kind of a post-apocalyptic Narnian adventure. I give it kudos for imagination (and a killer cover). The middle-grade post-apocalyptic story is quite a challenge.
But I felt like the pacing was off. Quest stories have a difficult task: the author needs to keep the adventure moving but maintain the right balance of hope and despair. We have to keep the goal in mind and feel like we’re getting there, but there also needs to be the drama of the adventure—all the challenges that keep our hero from his goal and jeopardize the entire mission.
There has to be a rising and falling action, moments of intense danger when it’s all on the line, but then moments of rest and recovery when our heroes can gather their wits and prepare for the next challenge. I felt like The Last Wild never had any rest. It was all rise. That might work in a mix CD, but not in an adventure story.
Plus, it’s the first in a series, so we don’t get complete closure on everything.
Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow by Nathan Bransford is a boy-friendly space adventure story with plenty of wacky capers. Jacob is a troublemaker at school and he teams up with his best friends Dexter and Sarah for some non-stop fun, initiated when a man in a silver suit trades a spaceship for a corn dog.
Yep, that’s the kind of randomness you can expect from Jacob Wonderbar.
I thought it felt a little too directionless, but I read it aloud to Milo and he loved it. It’s turned into a series and I’m sure I’ll be reading the others to Milo.
Tonight at dinner for some reason he was talking about having children and Abby asked him what he would name his kids.
His answer? Jacob, Dexter and Sarah.
The cover of Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson looks like something my mom would read, but it’s Little House on the Prairie with a plot and girl power. 16-year-old Hattie is an orphan who inherits her uncle’s homestead in 1917 Montana and works to prove the claim on her own. The timeframe puts the story in the middle of World War I and anti-German sentiment is brewing on the prairie.
It’s a simple story that weaves together several complex threads to make a satisfying whole that focuses on faith, country and the power of what you can do when you have the strength of friendship.
The anti-German fury is disappointing, but the historical reality is that we have a long track record of demonizing our enemy by persecuting our neighbors. It’s maddening and you’d think a country of immigrants would learn. But we don’t.
The homestead details are very reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder, except of course it takes place nearly 50 years later, which gives an interesting insight into the Montana homestead experience. It also features a strong and young woman striking out on her own, which was based on a true story.
It’s a solid story that gives a full impression of a place and time, not leaving out the cold, hard realities.
When Julia and her friend Patrick team up on a state fair project, Julia is disappointed that the silkworm project is too Korean. She wants to do something more American.
Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park (author of A Long Walk to Water) is a simple story that touches on race and identity, but doesn’t drown in them. It’s an internal debate for Julia, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story. It’s actually refreshing to see her struggle with difficult questions, ask some awkward questions, and move on. It’s not one of these depressing novels about the horrors of institutional racism. It’s about everyday struggles, everyday problems.
That makes it a lot more relatable.
What’s weird about Project Mulberry is the between-chapter dialogues between Julia and Linda Sue Park, the author. The character and the author actually have a conversation. They talk about how the story is going, what Julia likes and doesn’t like, etc.
It’s a fun concept and an interesting way to teach kids about the writing process. But I’m not sure if it works. I felt kind of ambivalent about it, and it seems if something like that is going to work it really needs to be a positive addition to the book.
The Dyamonde Daniel series by Nikki Grimes features an in-charge and lively girl name Dyamonde (pronounced “Diamond”) who is confident in who she is. They’re really short chapter books that can be read in one sitting.
The opening book, Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel, was about moving to a new place and making friends. It was simple and good.
The second book, Rich, was surprisingly sweet. A poetry contest is announced at school, and while Dyamonde isn’t interested (math is her subject), her friend Free thinks he can rhyme with the best of them. Dyamonde makes a new friend who is also interested in poetry, Damaris Dancer.
Damaris lives in a shelter after her mom lost her second job and couldn’t pay the rent. She embarrassed and trusts Dyamonde to keep her secret.
For some reason I keep coming across fiction stories about homelessness (like 8th Grade Super Zero) and I’ve been impressed at the way it’s presented with dignity and grace. It’s too easy to rely on stock characters, easy answers or some kind of savior complex.
But Dyamonde is a true friend to Damaris and it offers a powerful example.
Plus there’s some good poetry and a nod to poet Eloise Greenfield and her book Honey, I Love. I know nothing about the poet or the book, but it’s always fun when books point you to more books.