Book Review: The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White


Author: T.H. White
TitleThe Sword in the Stone
Narrator: Neville Jason
Publication Info: Naxos AudioBooks (2008), originally published in 1938

Summary/Review: For a long holiday road trip with my son, I thought he’d enjoy this introduction to Arthurian mythology.  I did it with some hesitation, as The Once and Future King was one of my favorite books as a child and I feared it may not hold up to nostalgia.  I’m pleased though that this first installment of the tetralogy is still an enjoyable, modernist spin on the story of King Arthur, filling in the story of Arthur’s childhood. Of course, I always thought the The Sword in the Stone was the best of the four parts.  One thing I didn’t know is that White actually made major changes when he incorporated The Sword in the Stone into The Once and Future King, and while I can’t really remember enough to recognize most of the changes I was surprised that Disney didn’t actually make up the duel between Merlyn and Madame Mim.  Another thing I didn’t notice is a kid was just how blatant the anachronisms are, with Meryln living backwards in time making them a running gag.  Knowing how much White loved hunting, I also noticed that he puts a lot of detail into his descriptions of hunts throughout the book, something I must have glazed over as a child.  What remains the same is that the book contains a lot of humor, adventure, animal lore, a cameo by Robin Hood (er, Robin Wood), and surreptitious pacifist social satire.  And my son, well he covered his ears a lot during the scary party, but insisted we keep listening to the story and that we move on to The Witch in the Wood next.

Recommended BooksThe Dragon Stone: A Tale of King Arthur, Merlin & Cabal by John Conlee, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, and The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck
Rating: ****1/2

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Book Review: Ted & me: A Baseball Card Adventure by Dan Gutman


Author: Dan Gutman
TitleTed & me: A Baseball Card Adventure
Publication Info:  New York : Harper, c2012.
Summary/Review:

Joe Stoshack is a kid who can travel in time by touching baseball cards which take him to the time and place of the player in the photo.  In this installment of the series, the FBI learns of his ability and send an agent to convince him to go back in time to warn Franklin Roosevelt of the Pearl Harbor attack and prevent the United States entry into World War II.  The person to help Stosh on this mission is Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, an appropriately patriotic figure who gave up five seasons of his career to serve in WWII and the Korean War.  The characterization of Williams is well done since it captures a person who could be alternately an abrasive jerk and good-humored and generous.  Williams is also impulsive enough to take Stosh under his wing, and after finishing up the season in Philadelphia ensuring his .406 batting average, takes Stosh on a road trip.  There are a few stops along the way which I won’t spoil, but add to the characterization of Williams and his bond with Stosh.  Obviously, Stosh doesn’t prevent World War II, but it’s interesting to see some of the historic detail through his eyes, including a frightening encounter at an America First rally with supporters of Charles Lindbergh, something you wouldn’t expect to see in a children’s book.  It’s a good adventure for kids who are fans of baseball and American history.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain


Author: Mark Twain
TitleThe Prince and the Pauper
Narrator: Kenneth Jay
Publication Info:  Naxos AudioBooks , 2001
Summary/Review:

I remember enjoying this book as a child (although I can’t remember what age) and since my son is interested in Mark Twain, we listened to the audiobook on a recent road trip.  It was a little bit more complicated than I remembered, and frankly we both had trouble following parts of the story, but perhaps that is a challenge of audiobooks compared with print.  The basic story is well-known in which the poor and abused Tom Canty meets Prince Edward and discovering they resemble one another, swap clothing.  Through a comedy of errors, they are separated and end up with Tom unwillingly becoming king and the prince having to live life at the very bottom of society.  All works out in the end, and Twain is probably too kind on Edward VI’s actual legacy as king, but the book delves into some of the gritty realities of impoverished masses and the court intrigues of the elites.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne


Author: A.A. Milne
TitleWinnie the Pooh
Narrator: Peter Dennis
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc., 2005
Summary/Review:

I listened to this audiobook on a recent road trip with my children.  It had been a long time since I read Milne’s book with many viewings of Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh in the intervening years.  The surprising thing for me is just how much of the dialogue for the film is taken right from the book.  Of course there are many differences as well.  Rabbit seems to be a meaner character and by the time he plotted to have Kanga and Roo removed from The Hundred Acre Woods, I figured he was the type who voted for Brexit.

The kids enjoyed listening to this book and there was much laughter.  I especially enjoy Milne’s playful narration that has the seemingly omniscient narrator interacting with a child presumably listening to him reading, much as a parent may when making up stories using a child’s toys.  And Peter Dennis’ audiobook narration is delightful.  A forever classic in any format!
Rating: *****

Book Reviews: Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney


Author: Jeff Kinney
Title:  Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Publication Info: Amulet Books, 2007

Title:  Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever
Publication Info: Amulet Books, 2011

TitleDiary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel
Publication Info: Amulet Books, 2012

TitleDiary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down
Publication Info: Amulet Books, 2016
Summary/Review:

I started reading these books with my 9-year-old son and then more surprisingly my 5-year-old daughter took an interest.  So I dove deep in Wimpy Kid books for a while.  The books are purported to be the journal of  middle-schooler Greg Heffley complete with hand-drawn illustrations.  The books are generally a series of humorous events as Greg gets himself into various scrapes.  While depicted as an unpopular weakling and thus a sympathetic character, Greg can also be arrogant and insensitive to others.  In short, a typical teenager.  Greg frequently is embarrassed by/tries to change his nerdy friend Rowley to help him fit in, although the irony is that Rowley by being cluelessly unreflective of himself, ends up more popular.  These are funny books that occasionally touch upon more serious issues (dating, puberty, honesty, responsibility, etc.).  I expect I’ll end up reading more.

Book Review: I Survived the Shark Attacks of 1916 by Lauren Tarshis


Author:Lauren Tarshis
TitleI Survived the Shark Attacks of 1916 by
NarratorP. J. Ochlan
Publication Info: Scholastic on Brilliance Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

I listened to this gripping audiobook with my son.  It’s based on the real events of a shark attacking and killing 4 people and injuring one on the Jersey Shore, including a more inland attack on the Matawan Creek.   The book though is a fictional novel about a 10-year-old boy Chet who is living with his uncle and trying to fit in with the kids in his new community.  The story a child just trying to make friends and not succeeding in a series of pranks leading up to the actual shark attacks is actually well-told and relatable.  The shark attacks are hard to believe, but as noted, they’re the actual true story!

Recommended books:
Rating: ***

Book Review: Frozen: The Cinestory by Robert Simpson


Author: Robert Simpson
TitleFrozen: The Cinestory
Publication Info: Joe Books Inc. (2014)
Summary/Review:

I read this adaptation of the Disney musical Frozen with my daughter over the course of several bedtimes.  It’s essentially scenes from the film arranged in a comic book format.  Strangely enough, none of the lyrics to the songs that made this musical famous are included in the book.  Instead the same basic ideas are related in the dialogue.  I don’t know if this is a licensing issue or if they just thought it would work better in comic form without the songs.  Nevertheless, if you and your children enjoy Frozen, this is an enjoyable read.

Rating: ***

Book Review: George by Alex Gino


Author: Alex Gino
TitleGeorge
Narrator: Jamie Clayton
Publication Info: Scholastic Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

This novel tells the story of George, a fourth-grader coming to terms with identifying as a girl when presenting as a boy.  It’s set against a class performance of Charlotte’s Web in which George desperately  wants to portray Charlotte.  There are a lot of stock characters in the novel, including the school bully, and the former friend who now hangs with the bully. And there’s a temporary falling out between George and her best friend Kelly, as much over Kelly getting cast in the staring role as George outing herself as transgender.  But the novel shows even how people with good intentions can hurt – from George’s mother who doesn’t want George to put herself at risk of discrimination, to George’s older brother who was more ready to accept a gay sibling, and George’s teacher who hides behind the idea of fairly parceling out roles in the play to boys and girls.  At the end of the novel, George and Kelly get to enjoy a perfect day out with George presenting as a girl for the first time, which is a delightful outcome for the fictional character, and one I hope real life transgender children get to enjoy.

 
Favorite Passages:

“My point is, it takes a special person to cry over a book. It shows compassion as well as imagination…Don’t ever lose that.”

“The play will begin at six sharp. Parents and family, I hope you’ll stay for the PTA meeting that will follow.” A few parents coughed in response. George knew that coughing was the adult equivalent of groaning.”

Recommended booksEvery Day by David Levithan, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell,  and Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Celery Stalks at Midnight by James Howe


Author: James Howe
TitleThe Celery Stalks at Midnight
Narrator: Victor Garber
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2004
Summary/Review:
A more direct sequel to the first novel as Bunnicula escapes from the house leaving a trail of dead, blanched vegetables in his wake.  Chester’s suspicions are again aroused and he draws in Harold and the new dimwitted puppy Howie into his investigation, leading to mayhem.  It’s very silly and funny.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Howliday Inn by James Howe


Author: James Howe
Title Howliday Inn
Narrator: Victor Garber
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2004
Summary/Review: To build on my belief that this series should be called “The Harold and Chester Mysteries,” Bunnicula doesn’t even appear in this story.  Instead, the Monroe’s go on vacation and Harold and Chester are sent to a kennel called Chateau Bow-Bow.  There, Chester immediately begins to share his suspicions of the other dogs and cats and their human caretakers.  It turns out that there is something suspicious going on even if Chester’s earliest assumptions were way off base, but it does lead up to a wonderful Holmes and Watson moment for Chester and Harold.  Another fun book with a bit of mystery.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery by Deborah and James Howe


Author: Deborah and James Howe
TitleBunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery
Narrator: Victor Garber
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2004
Summary/Review:
My family enjoyed listening to this book on a long Thanksgiving road trip.  The premise of this series is that the Monroe family discovers and adopts a young rabbit with fangs who apparently can escape his cage and drain the vegetables in the kitchen of their juice and color.  But in all honesty, Bunnicula is a minor character in his eponymous book and this series could be called “The Harold and Chester Mysteries.”  Harold is the good-natured family dog who narrates the book and Chester is the egoistic and conspiracy-minded cat who stirs the pot with his suspicions of Bunniculas’ vampiric powers.  All in all, it’s a funny and entertaining family tale.
Recommended booksBeezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary, Stuart Little by E. B. White, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
Rating: ***

Book Review: Who Was John F. Kennedy by Yona Zeldis McDonough


Author: Yona Zeldis McDonough
TitleWho Was John F. Kennedy
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2005.
Summary/Review:

Continuing our way through the “Who Was…?” series with my son.  This book again shows the series’ ability to be age-appropriate, but to also offer honest appraisals of their subjects.  I was particularly impressed by the details of Kennedy’s pre-Presidential life.

Rating: ***

Book Review: What Was the First Thanksgiving? by Joan Holub


Author: Joan Holub
TitleWhat Was the First Thanksgiving?
Publication Info: Grosset & Dunlap (2013), 112 pages
Summary/Review: This is a simple but honest children’s history of the settlers of Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag people and what really happened on that first Thanksgiving.  There’s a fair amount of myth-busting as well as using surviving records to determine actual events.  There’s also a short history of how Thanksgiving became an American holiday and a detailed chapter about visiting Plimoth Plantation (very useful to my son and I since we’re taking a field trip there next month).

Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Who was Franklin Roosevelt? by Margaret Frith


Author: Margaret Frith
TitleWho was Franklin Roosevelt?
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2010.
Summary/Review:

A good introductory biography of one of America’s greatest Presidents.  It’s not warts and all, but like many books in this series it includes some of Roosevelt’s failures as well as his success.  Another great historical read with my son.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: What was the Alamo? by Pam Pollack


Author: Pam Pollack
TitleWhat was the Alamo?
Publication Info: New York, New York, USA : Grosset & Dunlap, an Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., [2013]
Summary/Review:

The Alamo is something this northeasterner only knew the vague details about, so I was pleased to read this children’s history book with my son.  Interesting details include the infighting and poor planning of the “heroes” of the Alamo that contributed to their defeat, as well as a broader picture of the conflicts among the Mexicans and American settlers in Texas.

Rating: ***

Book Review: What Were the Twin Towers? by Jim O’Connor


Author: Jim O’Connor
TitleWhat Were the Twin Towers
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, an imprint of Penguin Random House, [2016]
Summary/Review:

Following on the Hurricane Katrina book, my son and I read this history of the World Trade Center in New York City.  The book is a full history of the Twin Towers dating back to its conception by David Rockefeller in the 1960s and deals with controversies such as the removal of Radio Row by eminent domain.  There’s a lot of detail about the design and construction of the buildings, and fun stories such as Philipe Petit’s walk on the wire.  The book also dedicates a chapter to the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.  The September 11 attacks are of course a major subject of the book, and again done in a clear manner appropriate to the age of the reader.  There is also a chapter on the memorial, museum, and new One World Trade Center building.  On the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, this was a good way to remember the events of that day with someone to young to remember it himself.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: What Was Hurricane Katrina? by Robin Koontz


Author: Robin Koontz
TitleWhat Was Hurricane Katrina
Publication Info: New York New York : Grosset & Dunlap, An Imprint of Penguin Random House, [2015]
Summary/Review:

I find it easier to work through difficult issues through books so I was impressed when my son picked out out this history of Hurricane Katrina written for children.  The book does a good job of setting up the history of New Orleans’ location and the necessity of levees as well as a primer on hurricanes and other storms.  The details about the storm and the flooding are clear and not sugar-coated (without being overly graphic) and it does not shy away from the poor decisions of political leaders.  There is also a chapter on the role that climate change played in the disaster.  All in all it’s a good introduction for children to one of the great tragedies of recent years, but something that may seem a long time ago to them.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who is Dolly Parton? byTrue Kelley


Author: True Kelley
TitleWho is Dolly Parton?
Publication Info: New York, New York, USA : Grosset & Dunlap, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, [2014]
Summary/Review:

I finished this children’s biography with the sense that Dolly Parton is one of the kindest, most optimistic, and hardest working people in show business.  And that’s all probably true, too!  Also pretty impressed that my son who never listens to country music chose to read this book, but Dolly is also responsible for The Pirates Voyage (among many other things).

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who Was Louis Armstrong by Yona Zeldis McDonough


Author: Yona Zeldis McDonough
TitleWho Was Louis Armstrong
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2004.
Summary/Review:

The life of musician and icon Louis Armstrong is explored at a kids level, focusing mostly on his early life up to the 1930s.  Armstrong grew up in poverty in New Orleans and spent time in a reform school although he claimed that it saved him as it introduced him to the cornet.  Armstrong is celebrated both for his musical talent and innovation and for breaking down barriers for black people.  It’s an interesting book about a fascinating person, and it doesn’t shy away from some of the nuances of race such as when critics called him an “Uncle Tom.”

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who was Johnny Appleseed? by Joan Holub


AuthorJoan Holub
TitleWho was Johnny Appleseed?
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2005.
Summary/Review:

Another children’s biography that I read to my son that ended up teaching me about someone I knew little about.  John Chapman, Massachusetts born, moved to the frontier to raise apple orchards and sell seeds and seedlings to the pioneers who didn’t have time to time raise any apples themselves.  Both an eccentric and a genius of self-promotion, Johnny Appleseed left his mark on the American landscape.  If there’s one downside to this book is that it glosses over the fact that the apples were primarily used to make an alcoholic beverage, something I don’t think needs to be hidden from the kids.

Rating: ***