Review of The Maze of Bones, by Rick Riordan


The Maze of Bones

The 39 Clues, Book One

by Rick Riordan

Scholastic, 2008.  220 pages.

This is not a book, it’s a product — but a good one.  Scholastic has gotten some outstanding children’s authors to write ten books in The 39 Clues series.  The captions on the back of the book say, “Read the Books, Collect the Cards, Play the Game, Win the Prizes.”  All the books come with collectible cards in the front (though they’ve been removed from the library copies).

I haven’t tried the game and haven’t seen the cards, so I will only comment on this story as a book.

The book is a good one.  Another fun adventure yarn for kids.  I probably shouldn’t have read it so soon after The Mysterious Benedict Society, Larklight, or Lionboy, but this book is right in that same vein.  A good clean adventure for kids.

The Maze of Bones has some of the flavor of The Da Vinci Code, without the religious aspects, because we have a powerful family with clues planted hundreds of years ago in actual places all over the world.

Amy and Dan Cahill thought they were their grandmother’s favorites.  But they aren’t so sure, when, at the reading of her will, a contest is announced.  Amy and Dan don’t seem to have any advantages.

They have a choice:  They can take a million dollars or the first clue.  The clue is regarding “a quest of vital importance to the Cahill family and the world at large.”  The winner may become the most powerful person in the world.

The Cahill family is enormous, and several teams form, choosing to take the clue.  How can Amy and Dan, two orphans without resources, possibly follow the clues and take on such powerful opponents?  Is there anyone they can trust to help them?

This book is well-written, and the adventure, full of narrow escapes and a trip to Paris, is compelling.  If Scholastic did half as good a job with their contest, this is an impressive feat indeed.

It’s interesting, though.  My reaction is not, “I loved this book,” but rather, “I think kids will like this book a lot.”  As I said, maybe I’ve been reading too many kids’ adventure novels lately, but although I enjoyed it, it didn’t really reach out and grab me.  And I wish that Amy and Dan’s relatives weren’t all so mean.

It will be interesting to see how well a varied group of authors can do in keeping the thread and feel of the series.  Gordon Korman has written Book Two, and I am confident he is up to the challenge.

I will definitely be watching how this series unfolds.

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Review of The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart


The Mysterious Benedict Society

by Trenton Lee Stewart

read by Del Roy

Listening Library (Random House), 2007.  13 hours, 17 minutes.  11 compact discs.

I had not one but two parents tell me that their kids loved this book.  When I saw it on audiobook, I thought I’d give it a try.  Audiobooks are working well for me for light-hearted fiction that I can enjoy in small doses.

Renny Muldoon is a brilliant orphan who knows he is completely different from other children.  When he sees an ad offering a test for gifted children looking for special opportunities, he goes to the test and begins the adventure of a lifetime.

Renny ends up on a team with other exceptional children who are offered a dangerous mission with the fate of the world at stake.  The mysterious Mr. Benedict explains why only children can save the world now.

The adventure yarn that follows is a lot of fun.  Sure, there are several coincidences and several places where believability is strained.  However, it’s definitely an entertaining and exciting story.

Del Roy’s voice sounds like a kindly grandfather telling you a story, and I quickly thought of his voice as coming from Mr. Benedict himself.

This book is excellent for upper elementary age children who will enjoy some good, clean, and clever fun.

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Review of Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things, by Lenore Look


Alvin Ho

Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things

by Lenore Look

pictures by LeUyen Pham

Schwartz & Wade Books, New York, 2008.  172 pages.

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things, reminded me of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, only for younger kids.  It has similar cartoon drawings generously illustrating the story, and a similar attitude toward school.

Alvin Ho is starting the second grade.  He does not like school.  He says, “If there were no school, my troubles would blast away, just like that.  I would dig holes all day.  I would play catch with my gunggung.  I would watch cooking shows.  I would keep an eye on things.  It would be fantastic!”

Alvin tells us that before he went to school, he was a superhero.  “I was Firecracker Man!  I ran around our house, full speed ahead, screaming at the top of my lungs while beating on a garbage can lid.  I was as noisy as a firecracker on Chinese New Year! . . .

“But now I am Firecracker Man only on weekends and holidays.  There is just no time for it.

“Being a superhero is hard work.  You have to save the world.  But going to school is even harder.  You have to save yourself.  Most days I can hardly even make it to the school bus.  And when I arrive at school, I can’t think.  I can’t read.  I can’t smile.  I can’t sing.  I can’t scream.

“I can’t even talk.”

It turns out that Alvin has never said one word at school.  He can talk anywhere else, even on the school bus.  But at school, his voice simply doesn’t work.

Not talking at school makes it hard to make friends.  It makes it hard to avoid annoying girls who want to be your desk buddy.  It makes it hard to join in a game of Minutemen and Redcoats.  It makes it hard to explain to a substitute teacher why you aren’t responding to her questions.

This book is a lot of fun, with a nice set of school-related scrapes, and Alvin learning to confront his fears. 

I did think the chicken pox adventure, where the whole class gets chicken pox after paying to visit the first kid who caught it, was funny, but sadly out of date.  My 14-year-old son was required to get a chicken pox vaccination before he went to school, and I think that’s pretty standard now.  So today’s children, poor things, will never know the joys of two weeks off of school along with the fun of showing off ones spots.

There are some great quirky characters.  Alvin’s Dad likes to use Shakespearean imprecations when he’s angry.  The annoying girl Flea wears an eyepatch.  Alvin’s sister loves to dig holes.  And Alvin himself is a big collection of entertaining quirks.

Alvin Ho is longer than a beginning chapter book, but makes fun, non-threatening reading with lots of pictures for a kid ready to laugh at the trials and tribulations of facing scary things like school and bullies and girls.

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Review of Timothy and the Strong Pajamas, by Viviane Schwarz


Timothy and the Strong Pajamas

A Superhero adventure by Viviane Schwarz

Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), New York, 2007.  32 pages.

Starred Review.

This is the story of Timothy Smallbeast.  He wasn’t big.  And he wasn’t strong.  (But he really, really wished he was.)

Oh, how I wish this book was around when my own son Timothy was the same size as Timothy Smallbeast! 

Timothy tries to make himself strong, but to no avail — until his favorite pajamas fall apart, and his mother fixes them.  She fixed them so well, they were now Super Strong Pajamas, with Patches of Power and Buttons of Braveness.

Fortunately, it’s the weekend, and Timothy is allowed to wear his pajamas all day, ready and equipped to come to the aid of all who need him.

When Timothy himself needs aid, there’s a wonderfully satisfying solution, springing from the seeds of the good deeds Timothy has sown.

This book is utterly delightful, and will definitely feature soon in a Storytime.  I can’t wait to read it to a child.  (It doesn’t count that I brought it home to make my own son Timothy read it.  He’s fourteen, and did a fine job reading it aloud, but we need a small child around to fully appreciate it.)

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Review of November Blues, by Sharon M. Draper


November Blues

by Sharon M. Draper

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York,  2007.  316 pages.

Sharon Draper is the author of the amazing and moving book, Copper Sun, a story of escaping slavery.

November Blues begins as 16-year-old November Nelson discovers she is pregnant.  She knows when the baby started, since it was the night before her boyfriend died.

In some ways, this seems like just another story of teen pregnancy.  It’s good, and it’s absorbing — the writing pulled me in so that I checked it out rather than shelving it at the library, and then kept me reading until early morning — but in some places the dialog and situations felt stilted and stereotypical.

A teen pregnancy novel is a hard one to write.  Because the situation itself involves thousands of teens, but a novel must focus on one particular teen.  What happens to that one teen will feel symbolic of what happens to the other teens in that situation, and that’s a bigger burden than a young adult novel can necessarily carry.

Taken as a story, this is a fun high school tale, with some sobering things to think about.  The no-good backstabbing popular girl gets her comeuppance, and November learns who her true friends are.

November has to choose between keeping her baby and giving the baby up to her dead boyfriend’s rich parents.  I found myself wanting to shake them and say, “Isn’t there an alternative?  Can’t you let November keep the baby, but provide her support and be a huge part of your grandchild’s life?  Does it have to be all or nothing?”  Again, this was one particular story, but the situation felt so prototypical, I found myself wanting the author to present all possibilities, more than I would have cared in a novel about, say, choosing between a career in art or science.

An enjoyable story about a typical teen in a difficult situation.

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Review of First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover, by Mitali Perkins


First Daughter

Extreme American Makeover

by Mitali Perkins

Dutton Children’s Books, 2007.  278 pages.

Sameera Righton’s father is running for President of the United States.  She’s leaving her international high school in Brussels to join him for the last several months of his campaign.

Right from the start, his campaign staff are planning changes for Sameera, starting with her name.  Her family has always called her Sparrow, but the campaign manager thinks that “Sammy” sounds “more American.”  Sparrow was born in Pakistan and adopted when she was three years old, so she doesn’t look like her parents.  Are the American people ready for that?

What’s more, Sparrow, who’s long prided herself in her thoughtful blog posts for a small circle of friends, is now asked to let a supposedly media-savvy campaigner write her official blog.  “SammySez” ends up sounding like a mindless shopping-crazed TV addict.

Sparrow tries to keep a semblance of normal life during the crazy campaign months.  She does her usual summer trip to her grandparents’ farm, and tries to take some of the load off of her recuperating grandma.  At least until the press finds her.  I love her strategy for sneaking out of their Washington, DC, hotel in a salwar kameez.  I think it would work!

This book is fun reading, and perfect for this summer before the election.  Mitali Perkins has posted a real blog for Sparrow at  On it, she keeps track of news stories about the children of the real-life presidential hopefuls.  I wonder how much their experiences are similar to Sparrow’s.

I do like the way Mitali Perkins weaves in some tasteful discussions about faith into her work.  I met her nine years ago at a writer’s conference in Paris, and she mentioned that her faith was an important part of her writing.  Her characters express that faith is important, but don’t claim to have all the answers.

I also liked the international flavor to the book.  Sameera grew up overseas, as her parents were an ambassador to NATO and a human-rights activist.  Having met Mitali in Paris when she was living in Asia, I wasn’t surprised to read that she was born in India and lived in many different countries growing up.  The part of the book dealing with international relations definitely had an authentic ring.

This is a good book about a teenager thrust into the limelight, and it also gets the reader thinking.  What makes a person American?

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Review of The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett


The Uncommon Reader

by Alan Bennett

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2007.  120 pages.

It was the dogs’ fault.  The Queen of England’s dogs lost control of themselves and ran into the City of Westminster travelling library.  Once there, the Queen felt obligated to borrow a book.  Once she had the book, the Queen started reading it.  Once she started reading, she finished it.

“That was the way one was brought up.  Books, bread and butter, mashed potato — one finishes what’s on one’s plate.  That’s always been my philosophy.”

One book leads to another, and another. . . .  The Queen learns all kinds of places and times she can fit reading into her life.

“She’d got quite good at reading and waving, the trick being to keep the book below the level of the window and to keep focused on it and not on the crowds.  The duke didn’t like it one bit, of course, but goodness it helped.”

Unfortunately, the Queen’s new habit causes great consternation among her staff.  Then drastic changes in her habits, her conversations, and even her outlook on life.

This book was chosen as the All Fairfax Reads selection for 2008.  It celebrates the joys of reading and the way reading can change a life.  The book is short and humorous and good fun.  Some food for thought as well!

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Review of Ask Me No Questions, by Marina Budhos


Ask Me No Questions,

by Marina Budhos

Simon Pulse, 2007.  First published in 2006.  162 pages.

Fourteen-year-old Nadira is from Bangladesh, but she has grown up in America.  Her father’s visa has expired, and they tried to get legal residency, but their money was taken by a lawyer running scams.  It didn’t seem to matter — everyone else seemed to be in the same situation.

Then September 11th happened.  The INS was cracking down.  Rumors were flying. 

Nadira’s older sister, Aisha, is a senior in high school and the star of the debate team and every teacher’s favorite student.  She has applications in to prestigious schools, but she can’t apply for financial aid unless their legal status changes. 

They hear a reliable (they think) rumor that they should go to Canada and apply for asylum.  The result is disaster.  The Canadians do not let them cross the border, and they are promptly detained.  Nadira’s father, Abba, is arrested and held in a detention center.  They have no idea how long he will be held or if the whole family will be deported.

Nadira and Aisha have no choice but to go back home to New York and go back to school.  They will stay with their cousin.  Aisha doesn’t have a license, but she drives them back.  Ma must stay at the border to try to get Abba’s case heard.

So begins Ask Me No Questions.  Can Nadira and Aisha help in any way to get their father’s case heard?  How can they go on with ordinary high school life?  How can Aisha focus on tests and college interviews?

Nadira says:

Tuesday morning Aisha and I are back at Flushing High as if nothing happened.

We’re not the only illegals at our school.  We’re everywhere.  You just have to look.  A lot of the kids here were born elsewhere — Korea, China, India, the Dominican Republic.  You can’t tell which ones aren’t legal.  We try to get lost in the landscape of backpacks and book reports.  To find us you have to pick up the signals.  It might be in class when a teacher asks a personal question, and a kid gets this funny, pinched look in his eyes.  Or some girl doesn’t want to give her address to the counselor.  We all agree not to notice.

I remember when I was little, crouching in a corner of the playground and hearing a group of girls chant:  Ask me no questions.  Tell me no lies.  That’s the policy of at school.  Ask me no questions, we say silently.  And the teachers don’t.  “We’re not the INS,” I once heard one of them say.  “We’re here to teach.”  But sometimes I feel like shaking their sleeves and blurting out, Ask me.  Please.

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Review of Peeled, by Joan Bauer



by Joan Bauer

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008.  248 pages.

Hildy Biddle is a girl with an obsession.  Hildy’s obsession is to report the news, to let people know the truth, to make their high school newspaper shine.

But when a scare starts at the old Ludlow house, with a death and rumors of haunting, the town newspaper only seems to want to fan people’s fears.

Can Hildy and her high school friends stand up for what’s right against the interests of powerful adults?

In many ways, this feels like the same story Joan Bauer has told in her other wonderful books, like Hope Was Here and Rules of the Road.  A teenaged girl with an obsession stands up for what’s right against powerful interests.  However, I can’t complain — This story Joan Bauer is telling is a good one, makes fun reading, and does stick with you.

I do think I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t had the vague feeling I’d read this before.  However, I will still highly recommend it to young teen readers.  Joan Bauer tells a good story, and Hildy Biddle joins her cast of strong young women who stand up for what’s right and entertain the reader while doing it.

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Review of Forever Rose, by Hilary McKay


Forever Rose

by Hilary McKay

Margaret K. McElderry Books, New York, 2008.  291 pages.

Starred Review.

Although I admit to often staying up later than I should in order to finish wonderful books, it’s been awhile since a book lured me into finishing it in the morning before going to work.  Fortunately, I was close to the end, because I don’t think I would have been able to stop once I picked up Forever Rose and thought I’d just read a little more….

The Casson family is back, as wonderful and chaotic as ever.  Rose is having some rough times.  Her teacher is so mean, he won’t even let the class celebrate Christmas.  In fact, school is no longer a peaceful place where you can catch up on your daydreaming.  Her family never seems to be at home.  And then her brother’s big friend who always seems to be in the way starts showing up at their house, looking for a place to keep his drum set.

What’s more, Rose learns that when your friend says, “Promise you will help, please promise you will help!”  You should NOT answer, “Of course we will!”  Instead, you should say, “Help you with what?”

Rose is also having trouble with reading.  She explains, “If you finish one book, they make you pick another.  And as soon as you finish that, they send you off to the book boxes again.  And each book is a little bit harder than the one before.  It’s called Reading Schemes and it’s just like a story Indigo once told me about a dragon with two heads.  And when the dragon’s two heads were cut off, it grew four.  And when they were cut off, it grew eight. . .”

If you haven’t yet become friends with the artistic and lovable Casson family, you will want to start with the first book, Saffy’s Angel.  If you already know and love them, I am happy to report that the latest installment in their story is as quirky and delightful as ever.

I did finish the book before going to work – the perfect way to ensure starting my day with a smile.

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