Category Archives: Children’s Books

Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher (a Magic Shop Book) by Bruce Coville Book Review

Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher

Book Review by Debbie Winkler

Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville

Series: a Magic Shop Book
Author: Bruce Coville
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (November 2007)
ISBN: 9780152062521
Page Count: 176 pages
Format: paperback

Target Age Group: children ages 8 and up
My Ratingimage_thumb84_thumb1

Synopsis:

Jeremy is trying to escape some bullies when he stumbles across a shop he has never seen in his small hometown before.  It is some kind of magic shop, but the items for sale are unlike any Jeremy has ever seen.  A beautiful, colorful stone catches his eye and Jeremy persuades the shopkeeper to let him buy it.  Special instructions come with Jeremy’s purchase – instructions that tell Jeremy how to raise a dragon from the egg!  This stone couldn’t possible be a real dragon egg, could it?

Review:

Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher is the first book that I read in the Magic Shop Book series and it is still one of my favorites.  There is something so magical about having a dragon in your life for a short while!  The dragon, whom Jeremy names Tiamet, has a huge Dragon Eggpersonality and gets Jeremy into quite a bit of mischief while he tries to take care of her and learn all he can about dragons.  Jeremy does his best to keep Tiamet calm and quiet, but she can feel his emotions and definitely reacts when Jeremy has strong feelings about something!  To make matters worse, no one else can see Tiamet but Mary Lou (Jeremy’s arch-nemesis, aka the girl who has a crush on him at school!) so everyone thinks that Jeremy is acting a little crazy!  Tiamet accidentally destroys a dinner party, sets a teacher’s shoe on fire, and eats up all of Jeremy’s allowance in chicken livers and milk.  I couldn’t stop myself from smiling as I read about Jeremy’s adventures while trying to take care of Tiamet and believe that all pet owners will find something to relate to as they both learn how to take care of the other!  If you have ever dreamed of taking care of a dragon, you may be a little surprised to learn that it is a great deal more difficult than you think!

All of the Magic Shop Books have little morals to them, and Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher is no different.  According to all appearances, Jeremy is an ordinary 12-year-old boy.  He doesn’t have very many friends and some boys pick on him, but he gets by all right most of the time.  His father is a veterinarian and runs his office out of the barn in the backyard.  His mother is at work during the day and Jeremy is often left to his own devices.  The only thing that makes Red DragonJeremy special is that he loves to draw and has a real talent for art.  So it is especially frustrating for Jeremy that all of his school teachers like him – except for his art teacher.  Why does his art teacher always pick on him?  The other problem Jeremy is dealing with is what to do with Mary Lou, a fellow classmate who seems to have a crush on Jeremy.  What is Jeremy supposed to do to get rid of her?  These problems are normal and something that most 12-year-old boys deal with, but Jeremy is fortunate in that he gets an unexpected boost: a baby dragon.  When Jeremy decides to hatch the dragon egg, his new pet teaches him more than he ever thought possible, and helps him come to terms with his new problems.

The Magic Shop Books are perfect for younger fantasy readers who want some magical adventures, but are not ready for something longer.  Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher is one of the longer books in the series and is a quick, easy read for older readers, but an unexpected delight for readers who are first branching out from chapter books.  There is something exciting that happens in every chapter and the story moves along at a rapid pace so children should not lose interest.  This book is perfect for reluctant readers, especially boys!

Content:

This book contains scenes of teasing and bullying.  Recommended for ages 7 and up.

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Jennifer Murdley’s Toad (a Magic Shop Book) by Bruce Coville Book Review

Jennifer Murdley’s Toad

Book Review by Debbie Winkler

Jennifer Murdley's Toad by Bruce Coville

Series: a Magic Shop Book
Author: Bruce Coville
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (November 2007)
ISBN: 9780152062460
Page Count: 176 pages
Format: paperback

Target Age Group: children ages 8 and up
My Rating: image_thumb84_thumb1

Synopsis:

Jennifer is desperately trying to escape her fifth-grade nemesis, Sharra, the most popular and beautiful girl in the class, when she stumbles across a magic shop in her small town.  Needing a pet for a class assignment, Jennifer purchases a toad named Bufo.  Jennifer is absolutely shocked when Bufo starts talking to her on the way home!  She tries to keep Bufo’s abilities a secret, but events quickly spiral out of her control when Bufo’s kiss turns Sharra into a toad!  How will Jennifer be able to turn her classmate back into a girl?

Review:

All of the books in the Magic Shop series have a moral to them and, in Jennifer Murdley’s Toad, it is extremely obvious what the moral is: don’t judge people by what they look like.  Poor Jennifer struggles with self-esteem issues.  She may not be superficially pretty like her classmate, Sharra, but Jennifer is a sweet girl and is kind and helpful.  Unfortunately, she would give up just about anything to be beautiful.  Nothing hurts Jennifer’s feelings more than her mother’s description of her as “a kid in a plain brown wrapper.”  Just in case you miss the fact that Sharra is a spoiled brat (but beautiful) and Jennifer is unfailingly kind and willing to do whatever it takes to help her (but plain or ugly depending on who you talk to), Bruce Coville relates an old fairy tale.  He adapts it to suit his needs, but Diamonds and Toadsit is called “Diamonds and Toads” or something like that (Coville does not refer to it by name), but it is the story of two sisters.  One is beautiful and one is quite plain.  One day, a witch blesses the plain one for her kindness and now precious gems drop from her mouth whenever she speaks.  Determined to gain the same gift, the beautiful sister encounters the same witch, but is unkind.  Now the beautiful sister is cursed to have vermin like lizards, snakes, rats, and toads drop from her mouth when she speaks.  One of the toads that dropped from her mouth is Bufo, which explains his magical abilities.  Tied up in this fairy tale is a hint of “The Frog Prince,” as Bufo’s kiss turns the other person into a toad.  At first, I thought that his kiss turned Sharra into a toad because she is really an ugly person on the inside, but his kiss can be transferred to anyone and turns them all into toads.  Regardless, Bruce Coville is trying to relay an important message – it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside, it is what is on the inside that counts.  I think that every girl needs to hear this message and hope that young readers will find this series and enjoy reading it as much as I have.

While I love and appreciate the message found in this book, the plot can get a bit murky at times.  There is a lot going on and not very many pages to tell the story in.  Jennifer must find a way to transform Sharra back into a human girl.  Bufo wants Jennifer’s help to find his true love, a toad that disappeared several years earlier.  A mysterious beauty Do Not Kiss a Toad!shop owner seems to know more about Bufo than she should.  Jennifer’s little brother disappears and seems to have fallen into enemy hands.  And, the fairy tale Bruce Coville tells about the two sisters is more than just the background to Bufo and Jennifer will have her hands full when Bufo’s past collides with his present.  It is not complicated to follow everything that is going on, but it would have been nice to have a more isolated story that focused in on Jennifer and her problems.  I did like Jennifer and had no problem relating to her.  I felt like an ugly duckling when I was her age and still have days where I think that I am nothing better than plain.  I was so proud of Jennifer for facing her fears and refusing to give in the villain in the end!  Jennifer could have sacrificed her friends for beauty, but she was strong enough to realize that she would be a great deal happier living life the way she is.  Hopefully Sharra learned to be a little nicer through their adventures, too.

Even though Jennifer Murdley’s Toad deals with some serious issues, there is still plenty to laugh at.  Bufo has an interesting sense of humor and can mimic anyone’s voice.  This gets Jennifer into a bit of trouble at school, but I think it was worth it.  Bufo helped loosen Jennifer up and see the fun side of life, regardless of what she looks like.  Jennifer’s younger brother is a sweetie and has some funny moments, too, as he has no idea what is going on, but wants to be involved.  If you have a young reader at home who is looking for a fast-paced series, make sure to check out the Magic Shop Book series.  There are both male and female protagonists in the books and all of them are appropriate and enjoyable for readers who are of either gender.

Content:

There are some scenes of mild peril.  There are scenes of bullying and verbal teasing.  Recommended for ages 7 and up.

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The Monster’s Ring (a Magic Shop Book) by Bruce Coville Book Review

The Monster’s Ring

Book Review by Debbie Winkler

The Monster's Ring by Bruce Coville

Series: a Magic Shop Book
Author: Bruce Coville
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (October 2008)
ISBN: 9780152064426
Page Count: 128 pages
Format: paperback

Target Age Group: children ages 8 and up
My Rating: image_thumb83_thumb1_thumb

Synopsis:

Russell is the smallest boy in school and is always being picked on.  To escape another fight, he darts down an alley and finds himself in a magic shop he has never seen before.  Inside, Russell purchases a ring that claims to be able to turn him into a monster.  Russell doesn’t believe it will change him, but he follows the instructions for fun – and finds himself turning into a hairy beast!  Thrilled with his new purchase, Russell uses the ring for a Halloween costume, but finds that the ring changes more than his outside appearance when he uses it.  Will Russell be able to control the beast within?

Review:

This is one of the shortest books in the Magic Shop Book series and I wanted it to be longer.  I loved that it took place during Halloween and can definitely see little glimpses of horror books and scary scenes that Bruce Coville is so well-known for in his Goosebumps series.  All of the Magic Shop series deal with important morals and The Monster’s Ring is no different.  Russell hates Eddie, a bully at school.  Eddie trips Monster Ringshim, stuffs food in his face, punches him and just makes his life miserable.  Russell spends most of his time trying to avoid Eddie, but that isn’t always possible in a small town.  When Russell has the chance to get even with Eddie by transforming himself into a real monster, Russell doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of the situation.  He takes the time to absolutely terrify Eddie and now Russell knows what it is like to be a bully.  And he likes it.  Will Russell choose to continue along his beastly path or will he find that even bullies have their reasons for picking on others?  I think that this is a very timely book for children to read as bullying has been in the news a great deal lately.  While the children will not have a monster ring to help them out, The Monster’s Ring should help children see bullies in a different light and hopefully help them deal with their situation better.

This book has a strong moral, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t entertaining!  Russell gets himself into trouble pretty fast with the magic ring he purchases and doesn’t bother to follow all of the instructions he is given. “Twist it once, you’re horned and haired; Gargoyle MonsterTwist it twice and fangs are bared; Twist it thrice? No one has dared!”  Russell begins with one turn, but cannot resist two turns for a special Halloween party at school.  When Halloween arrives, Russell has to see what three turns will do and this is when the book gets really exciting!  Russell could hardly control his beastly impulses at two turns and is now a completely different person!  He gives the town some spooky moments that they will be talking about for years to come and completely changes his life in the process.  I would not be a bit surprised that to learn that children of all ages find themselves wishing for a monster ring of their own (though I would like a dragon egg myself!).

My main complaint with this book is that it is very short and there is very little character development.  Settings are sketched out with the descriptions of Russell’s monster and his actions take up the bulk of the book.  If you have a reluctant reader at home or a younger reader who is looking for something more challenging than chapter books, The Monster’s Ring is a great choice.  There is plenty of action and some deliciously spooky moments, but nothing too scary.  Bruce Coville has a knack for tapping into childhood dreams.  I wish that I had discovered these books when I was a child!

Content:

This book contains several scenes of bullying, many of which involve physical attacks.  Russell turns into a monster and acts like one for much of the book.  He has horns, fangs and fur, but doesn’t really hurt anyone.  Recommended for ages 7 and up.

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Cloaked in Red by Vivian Vande Velde Book Review

Cloaked in Red

Book Review by Debbie Winkler

Cloaked in Red by Vivian Vande Velde

Author: Vivian Vande Velde
Publisher: Marshall Cavendish (October 2010)
ISBN: 9780761457930
Page Count: 127 pages
Format: hardcover

Target Age Group: children ages 9 and up
My Rating: image_thumb83_thumb1_thumb

Synopsis:

We all know the story of “Little Red Riding Hood.”  A little girl in a red cloak goes through the dark forest to deliver a basket of food to her sick grandmother. Along the way, she meets a wolf, who rushes ahead to her grandmother’s cottage to ambush and eat the little girl when she arrives.  The woodcutter arrives just in time to rescue Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother and kill the wolf and they all live happily ever after, right?  Well, Vivian Vande Velde has reimagined this timeless classic into eight different versions.  Be prepared to read the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” in ways that you never expected!

Review:

I always enjoy reading books by Vivian Vande Velde and Cloaked in Red was no exception.  If you read this book, make sure that you take Little Red Riding Hoodthe time to read the author’s forward as it is hilarious!  I never really thought about it before, but Vivian Vande Velde asks a few pertinent questions about this children’s tale.  Why on earth did Little Red Riding Hood’s mother send her off into the woods by herself when she knew it wasn’t safe?  Why warn the little girl about not talking to strangers, but neglect to advise her to stay away from wolves and other dangerous animals?  Why didn’t the grandmother’s call out a warning if she was hiding in the wardrobe when Little Red Riding Hood arrived?  And why on earth is the little girl named after an article of clothing?  The author’s questions had me laughing and thinking about this classic story in a totally different way so I was ready to read some new and interesting versions of the tale.

There are eight different versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” in this slim volume and they are all pretty short.  I am not saying that they are all bedtime story material, as most of these stories deal with some Little Red Riding Hood #2grown-up subject matter, but I found the book a quick and easy read.  As with all short story collections, I enjoyed some of the tales more than others, but I was impressed with Vivian Vande Velde’s creativity in all of them.  The stories all feature the main characters of the fairy tale: Little Red Riding Hood, Little Red’s mother, the wolf, the grandmother and the woodcutter.  The author uses a bit of artistic license in some of the stories so you have to hunt a bit more to identify the characters, but they are always there.  For example, the wolf is a handsome, dangerous young man in one tale.  In another, an elderly man, graciously called the woodcutter (even though you are not allowed to chop wood and are more accurately referred to as a wood collector) collects wood as he travels through many fairy tales, including “The Gingerbread Man,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “The Three Little Pigs.”  All of the stories are told from a variety of perspectives and each character gets a chance to be the protagonist in the stories, including a memorable one by the red cloak itself!  Expect the unexpected and you will not be disappointed.  Well-written and interesting, Cloaked in Red will be sure to appeal to readers who enjoy reading mixed-up fairy tales.

Content:

This book contains scenes with mild sensuality and peril.  A wolf eats people and/or threatens to eat people in many versions.  Fantasy violence, magic and talking animals are featured.  Recommended for ages 12 and up.

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The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo Book Review

The Magician’s Elephant

Book Review by Debbie Winkler

The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

Author: Kate DiCamillo; Illustrator: Yoko Tanaka
Publisher
: Candlewick (March 2011)
ISBN: 9780763652982
Page Count: 208 pages
Format: paperback

Target Age Group: children ages 8 and up
My Rating: image_thumb83_thumb1_thumb

Synopsis:

Peter Augustus Duchene, a ten-year-old orphan, is sent to the market to buy a small loaf of bread and a fish for supper, but somehow finds himself spending the coin at a fortune-teller’s booth.  Peter asks if his baby sister is still alive and is stunned to discover that she is!  The fortune teller that informs Peter that the elephant will show Peter the way.  But there are no elephants in the town of Baltese!  When a magician accidentally conjures an elephant during a routine magic show, Peter knows that his life is going to change.

Review:

The Magician’s Elephant is a slim, easy read.  I was a bit surprised with the book, as it was not at all what I expected it was going to be.  Kate DiCamillo is a wonderful author in that she has a lyrical quality about her writing that is beautiful.  The Magician’s Elephant would be a wonderful story to read aloud to children!  The lovely writing style totally masks the fact that there is not a great deal happening in the book.

There are many characters in this book and the author uses them to briefly tell the story from a different perspective, as well as to tell their own stories.  We learn that Peter Augustus Duchene used to live with The Magician's Elephant - Peter Visiting the Fortune Tellerhis parents in a happy home until his father died on the battlefield and his mother died in childbirth.  Now he lives with one of his father’s old army buddies and believes that his sister is dead.  But Peter’s sister is not dead, instead, she lives in a nearby orphanage for young girls where she dreams of an elephant coming to her door and taking her away from there.  The magician, who is imprisoned after his greatest magical feat ever, relives the moment when he conjured the elephant over and over.  A grand lady, whose legs were crushed when the elephant fell on her, cannot help but visit the magician and repeat the same sentences over and over again.  Another grand lady, determined to become the social hostess of the season, purchases the elephant.  The elephant itself dreams of her family and being home.  A former stonemason, now caretaker of the elephant, remembers falling off the tower and then being unable to carve again.  A policeman regrets his lack of children and feels pity for poor Peter Augustus.  A nun dreams of failing to open the door; a beggar’s dog dreams of carrying an important dispatch like he did in the war; and a beggar dreams of warmth.  The author rather impressively gives a brief life synopsis of each character and then another piece of the mysterious story before moving onto the next one.

The black-and-white illustrations are lovely and add some nice detail to the story.  Children will delight in seeing the story come to life and you The Magician's Elephant in the Town Squarewill want to be sure to show them the pictures.  I think that this book would be wonderful to use as a bedtime story for children who are accustomed to having a bit of fantasy involved in most of their books.  I think that they will be the least likely to question how an elephant would randomly appear in a small European town and the most likely to identify with Peter Augustus.  As an adult reading this book, I found it to be magical, but a bit too mystical and open-ended for my tastes.  I enjoyed it, but not quite as much as I was expecting given all of the hype surrounding it.  Again, the strongest aspect of the book is the author’s writing style.  If she is able to latch onto a truly memorable story with an unforgettable character, Kate DiCamillo will be able to create a book that will be something special.

Content:

This book features a character who has lost both of his parents and is still struggling with their loss.  Another orphan lives in an orphanage, but the nuns are kind, even though they are always cold and hungry.  Many people do not have enough food or warmth in the wintertime.  The wealthy people look down on the poor and have the power to put others in jail.  Nightmares, poverty, and other social injustices are present.  Recommended for ages 7 and up.

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Over My Dead Body (43 Cemetery Road #2) by Kate Klise Book Review

Over My Dead Body

Book Review by Debbie Winkler

Over My Dead Body by Kate Klise

Series: 43 Cemetery Road #2
Author: Kate Klise; Illustrator: M. Sarah Klise
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (September 2011)
ISBN: 0547577133, EAN: 9780547577135
Page Count: 128 pages
Format: paperback

Target Age Group: children ages 9 – 12
My Rating: image_thumb84_thumb1

Synopsis:

Seymour, I. B. Grumply and Olive Spence are all living happily together at 43 Cemetery Road when an anonymous letter to IMSPOOKY (International Movement for the Safety and Protection of Our Kids & Youth) reveals the fact that Seymour is living there without a parent or legal guardian.  Seymour is sent to live at the Ghastly Orphanage while Grumply is committed to the Illinois House for the Deranged after revealing that his co-author is, in fact, a ghost.  Will Olive, their resident ghost, find a way to help Seymour and Grumply escape and return home or will the horrible director of IMSPOOKY succeed in ruining their lives and cancelling for Halloween for children everywhere?

Review:

At the end of book #1, Dying to Meet You, Olive and Grumply started selling a successful ghost-story series to Grumply’s loyal readers through a subscription service.  The money they earned enabled Seymour to purchase the house at 43 Cemetery Road and all seems to be set for a happily-ever-after ending until Grumply tries to explain Over My Dead Body Newspaperhow Olive, a ghost, helps take care of and teach Seymour.  Now that Grumply is in a mental institution indefinitely and Seymour is stuck in an orphanage until his parents come and collect him, the story subscribers want their money back.  IMSPOOKY is not only trying to cancel Halloween – they are trying to get children to burn all of their ghost stories and turn it into a book-burning day instead!  This story is not a complicated one and isn’t even particularly clever or original, but the method of story delivery is. The entire story is told through written communications, which the characters send to each other.  I am not talking about emails, I am talking about letters, postcards and newspaper articles.  Many of the letters include pen-and-ink drawings of characters and events that are taking place in the story.  The illustrations are supposed to be drawn by Seymour so they have a simplistic, childlike quality to them that really compliments the story.

I was not at all sure that I would enjoy a book that is not written in the normal manner, but, so far, I have found the 43 Cemetery Road series to be quick and fun to read.  I think that the manner of delivery is what sets this series apart from most other children’s books out there and Seymour's Illustrationsappreciate that this book can help children bridge the gap between reading chapter books with pictures and full-length books with text only.  The story moves quickly and even the most reluctant and slow readers should find the pages turning quickly as there is very little text on each page (if you ignore the letterhead, the return address and all the other foof that is found in a formal letter).  Children will be sure to cheer Olive, the ghost, on as she fights for children to have the right to celebrate Halloween by eating candy, trick-or-treating and dressing up in costumes rather than burning ghost books.  Parents or older siblings, if you choose to read this book with your child (and you totally should as it is a fun, fast read!), take the time to explain to them why book burning is always a bad idea.

Build on a clever, unique premise, the 43 Cemetery Road series is one that you will not want to miss – regardless of your age!

Content:

This book contains some ghosts and children may ask if ghosts are real.  One character tries to keep children from celebrating Halloween and even wants to get rid of all of the ghost books out there!  Nothing is too scary or difficult to understand for precocious readers.  Recommended for ages 7 and up.

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Dying to Meet You (43 Cemetery Road #1) by Kate Klise Book Review

Dying to Meet You

Book Review by Debbie Winkler

Dying to Meet You by Kate Klise

Series: 43 Cemetery Road #1
Author: Kate Klise; Illustrator: M. Sarah Klise
Publisher
: HMH Books for Young Readers (April 2009)
ISBN: 0152057277, EAN: 9780152057275
Page Count: 160 pages
Format: paperback

Target Age Group: children ages 9 – 12
My Rating: image_thumb84_thumb1

Synopsis:

It has been over 20 years since famous children’s author I. B. Grumply has published a book in his “Ghost Tamer” series and he is desperate to overcome his writer’s block.  Thinking that a change of scenery will help, Grumply rents an old Victorian mansion in Ghastly, Illinois.  Believing he is moving to a peaceful, quiet residence, Grumply is dismayed to learn that an 11-year-old boy, Seymour Hope, his cat, Shadow, and the ghost of the original owner of the home, Olive C. Spence, are all living there, too.

Review:

This is a quick, breezy read that will appeal to children of all ages, particularly reluctant readers or those struggling with a lack of Dying to Meet You Main Charactersillustrations.  Told exclusively through written communications, this book features letters, newspaper articles, and drawings.  I thought that this was a unique and effective way to tell the ghost story and enjoyed notices about missing library books, advertisements to sell the house and Grumply’s increasingly irate letters to his fellow roommates.  Each character is given their own type font so it is  easy to keep the characters separate.  Grumply types his letters on his computer, Seymour writes his by hand and Olive uses a breezy, light font that is lovely, but still formal.  The illustrations are simple pen-and-ink drawings that could have been drawn by a child (as Seymour is supposed to have drawn them), as well as small drawings accompanying the newspaper articles in the book.

The story is short and you should find yourself rapidly turning pages as there is not a great deal to read on each page (barring the newspaper Dying to Meet You Housearticles, which contain more information and a smaller type).  The plot is simple: convince Grumply that ghosts exist and help Olive get published so she can move on.  Seymour and Olive try a variety of things to get Grumply to believe in ghosts, with varying degrees of success, before they finally persuade him that Olive really exists.  Once Grumply passes through that hurdle, it is an easy step to write a book with Olive, a failed author in her own time (who ironically tried to write books very similar to Dying to Meet You), which completely changes his life.

Though brief, Dying to Meet You has all that a younger reader will be looking for.  Seymour is critical to helping Grumply overcome his writer’s block, Olive is a very interesting and likeable ghost, and Grumply is that grouchy old man who children will love to hate – at first.  If you have a slow reader or one who is struggling to bridge the gap between chapter books and full-length books, the 43 Cemetery Road series is a great choice for boys and girls alike!

Content:

This book contains a ghost and introduces two different sides: those who believe in ghosts and those who do not.  Be prepared to answer your children’s questions as to whether you think ghosts are real or not and what they can do in this life.  Seymour’s parents abandon him in their house and leave for a trip to Europe, claiming that they are just not cut out to be parents and have no intentions of coming back.  There is nothing too scary or over-the-top so precocious younger readers should have no difficulty reading this book.  Recommended for ages 7 and up.

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The Wishing Spell (The Land of Stories #1) by Chris Colfer

The Wishing Spell

Book Review by Debbie Winkler

Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

Series: The Land of Stories #1
Author: Chris Colfer; Illustrator: Brandon Dorman
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (July 2012)
ISBN: 9780316201575
Page Count: 438 pages
Format: hardcover

Target Age Group: children ages 9  – 12
My Rating:image_thumb84_thumb1

 

Synopsis:

After the death of their father, twins Alex and Connor Bailey find it difficult to pretend that life is normal.  Their mother is working all the time, Connor is struggling in school and Alex doesn’t have any friends besides Connor.  When their grandmother arrives to help them celebrate their twelfth birthday, she gives them The Land of Stories, a treasured fairy-tale book.  But this is no ordinary book of stories, it contains the tales of real-life people who live in a magical land.  When the book starts humming and glowing, Alex and Connor get sucked into it and find themselves on an adventure of a lifetime as they travel through their favorite fairy tales to locate the eight ingredients needed to create the wishing spell, which might be their only chance to go home.

Review:

This was a fun children’s book that fairy-tale lovers of all ages will appreciate and enjoy.  The Land of Stories is made up of several separate kingdoms.  The Land of Stories MapFairy Kingdom is the home of the fairies, including the Fairy Council, which helps govern and rule the entire Land of Stories.  Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother and Mother Goose are the most powerful members, but other fairies of all shapes and sizes also help rule.  The Dwarf Forests is the home of the seven dwarves who helped Snow White, along with their other brethren.  It is also the home of Froggy, a giant frog the size and shape of a man; the wolf pack, led by the son of the wolf who ate Little Red Riding Hood; the Book Starts to Glow - Book Illustration from Chapter 4witch’s gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel; Goldilocks, a felon wanted throughout all the kingdoms for her various crimes, starting with the Three Bears; and a host of other characters who prefer to live in darkness.  The Corner Kingdom is where Rapunzel’s tower can be found.  The Charming Kingdom is the home of Cinderella and her Prince Charming, the oldest of four Charming brothers.  Cinderella is expecting their first child at any time and the whole kingdom is thrilled.  Mermaid Bay houses the foam remains of The Little Sleeping BeautyMermaid and her mermaid sisters.  The Sleeping Kingdom is ruled over by Sleeping Beauty and her Prince Charming.  Their kingdom is still struggling to recover from Sleeping Beauty’s 100 years of slumber and people don’t get much done there.  The Red Riding Hood Kingdom is surrounded by a very tall wall to keep the wolves out.  Queen Red Riding Hood lives there, but she leaves all of the boring duties of a Queen to her grandmother.  She is in love with Jack, famous for climbing the beanstalk, which can still be found in this kingdom, but Jack only has eyes for Goldilocks.  The Old Woman Evil QueenWho Lived in a Shoe, Little Bo-Peep and Humpty Dumpty (or his wall, which is all that remains) can also be found there.  The Northern Kingdom is the home of Snow White and her Prince Charming.  Snow White is still struggling to understand what could drive her stepmother, the Evil Queen, to try to kill her so many times.  A Hidden Place is where the Evil Queen is hiding out, plotting to find the eight components of the wishing spell before the twins and The Troll and Goblin Territory imprisons the goblins and trolls who are always trying to enslave humans.  The twins will have to travel to all of these territories to gather the eight magical items that they need to cast the wishing spell and return home.

I loved the setting of this book and really enjoyed meeting my favorite fairy tale creatures.  Chris Colfer also cleverly inserts some additional, original fairy tales Cinderellasuch as “The Twisted Tree” and “The Walking Fish,” which the twins’ father told them when they were younger.  It wasn’t difficult to figure out who the twins’ father really was or who Froggy true identity, but that did not prevent me from enjoying this book.  What I did not enjoy about this book was the twins.  Alex really bothered me.  She is very book-smart, but people stupid and she made a lot of bad decisions in this book.  Alex is more interested in meeting her favorite fairy-tale people than in getting home and doesn’t seem to be that worried about how their mother might be feeling. Fairy Tale Woods Alex forces Connor to kiss a troll princess, then punches him for saving her life when he drags her over a cliff to jump into the ocean.  She can’t read the map that they have to get where they need to go, but finds a way to blame Connor for them getting lost.  Alex was very grating and not likeable at all.  She seems to focus on completely the wrong thing and, while she created more drama in the book, I could have done without her and been completely happy.  Connor, on the other hand, is not a book-smart boy, but at least I liked him!  He manages to find the courage to stand up to some very powerful people and say Little Red Riding Hoodwhat needs to be said.  Connor also has a fun, fresh take on life and I loved hearing his different perspectives of what fairy tales really mean.  He was a lot more adventurous and focused so that they could go home.  I am glad that they were together because, if Alex was the only hero in the story, I might have given up!

The book is well written and fast-paced.  There is a new adventure or fairy-tale creature around every corner and I loved that!  I also enjoyed the backstory that Chris Colfer created for the Evil Queen.  She became a real person instead of one-dimensional villain.  There are so many more villains out there – I can’t wait to see which one Chris Colfer tackles next!  In the end of the book, we learn that the twins truly do belong in the Land of Stories, but they also belong in the real world.  I am sure that they will be spending time in both and will have many more adventures together!

Content:

This book contains some scenes of mild peril and magical violence.  Some characters die by falling to their death, being shot with arrows, stabbed or eaten by wolves.  Some humans are enslaved by trolls and goblins.  Recommended for ages 7 and up.

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Circle of Heroes (The Familiars #3) by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson Book Review

Circle of Heroes

Book Review by Debbie Winkler

Circle of Heroes by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson

Series: The Familiars #3
Author: Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson; Illustrator: Greg Call
Publisher: HarperCollins (September 2012)
ISBN: 0061961140, EAN: 9780061961144
Page Count: 336 pages
Format: hardcover

Target Age Group: children ages 8 – 12
My Rating: image_thumb84_thumb1

Related Reviews: The Familiars #1 – The Familiars; The Familiars #2 – Secrets of the Crown

 

Synopsis:

Aldwyn, a cat, Skylar, a blue jay, and Gilbert, a tree frog, have discovered the secret to finding the Shifting Fortress and defeating the evil Paksahara, a hare, but they are running out of time!  Paksahara’s army of undead animals is spreading across the land of Vastia and destroying the ancient Glyphstones that are the key to her defeat.  With human magic lost, the fate of the entire kingdom of Vastia rests in the paws of the Prophesied Three.  The three Familiars must quickly assemble seven descendants of the most ancient and powerful animals before the last Glyphstone is gone.  But when Aldwyn uncovers a scroll that claims prophecies don’t always come true, he begins to doubt his place as part of the Prophesied Three…

Review:

This book picks up right where the second book, Secrets of the Crown, left off.  Fortunately, for those who have not read the first two books in the series, the authors include some helpful information so that new readers will not get lost.  I The New Prophesied Three and the Old Prophesied Threereally appreciated that they chose to include information from past books on an as-needed basis instead of trying to give a synopsis of everything that happened at the beginning of the book.  For those of us who did read the first two books (The Familiars & Secrets of the Crown), the action picks right back up again and you are off and running with Aldwyn, Skylar and Gilbert!  I think that the three books provide a very cohesive story that is really one quest with three different goals.  In the first book, The Familiars, our heroic trio uncover the identity of the true villain, in the second book, Secrets of the Crown, the Familiars uncover the key to the villain’s defeat and in the third book, Circle of Heroes, the villain is dealt with.

The pace of the third book is very quick.  There is a lot of action and a lot of traveling.  We don’t really learn very much about the characters in this third book, but their backstories and growth were covered in more detail in the first two books so this will not bother faithful followers of the series.  I was a bit surprised that the authors managed to rush through everything and give the book an ending, however, as the heroes do need to gather up seven animal descendants, which was not easy.  Some of the descendants came willingly, like the lightmare (a horse that runs so swiftly that sparks and fires light from their hooves), the howler monkey and the bloodhound while others require some persuasion like the golden toad, the mongoose, the king cobra and the wolverine.  However, each animal takes time to procure whether they come King Cobra & Mongoose Fightwillingly or not.  The howler monkey and the bloodhound were supposed to be the easiest because they used to be Familiars, but they became some of the most challenging.  The mongoose and the cobra were pretty easy to persuade, but they are mortal enemies so they spend the whole journey bickering and trying to blame the other for everything that goes wrong.  The lightmares hold a contest to see which of them is the most capable of continuing on the quest and saving Vastia.  The golden toad is imprisoned by a wealthy woman so they have to rescue her.  The Trio capture an unwilling wolverine to try to complete the seven.  All of these mini-quests could have and should have taken up quite a bit more of the book, but, with seven creatures to locate and persuade, the authors really had to rush through each animal to try to finish them all by the book’s end.  This was too bad as there were some great adventures in the book that I would have liked to see some expanded storytelling on.

In addition to recruiting animals, Aldwyn is struggling with feelings of self-worth.  While putting their Loyals (human wizards) into a safe place, Aldwyn stumbles across a scroll from a famous wizard who wrote about prophesied heroes who failed in their quests.  Aldwyn also uses the bloodhound’s special abilities to go back in time and see what would have happened if Aldwyn didn’t accidentally take refuge in a store that sold Familiars while trying to evade a Jack Selecting Aldwyn in the Familiars Shopbounty hunter.  What Aldwyn discovers comes as a complete shock to him and he is no longer sure that he is meant to be part of the Prophesied Three.  In addition, Gilbert saw Skylar killing him with a fiery spear in one of his puddle visions.  Is it possible that Skylar’s quest to raise her sister from the dead and to pursue knowledge at any cost has turned her to ally with Paksahara?  Aldwyn is not sure what to expect from his future, but he is determined to do his absolute best.  I think this is a very valuable subplot in this book.  It is important for children to realize that you can rise to an occasion that you don’t think you are capable of handling.  Also, I like Aldwyn’s character because he was raised as an alley cat and did not think he had any magical abilities whatsoever.  Even after he discovers that he can move objects with his mind, Aldwyn’s quick thinking and reflexes he needed to survive on the streets save the trio of animals more than once while they travel across Vastia.  It just goes to show that all skills can become valuable and that you never know where someone will end up, no matter how humble their beginnings.

I enjoyed The Familiars series very much and am hopeful that the authors are planning on continuing to write more books based in this world.  The story of Paksahara is wrapped up in this third book, but the animals get a feeling at the end of the book that they will have more adventures together.  I would love to Aldwyn Gazing Over Vastiasee them continue to explore Vastia and develop their magical powers, especially if their Loyals or human companions could accompany them.  There is a special relationship between Aldwyn and Jack that I would like to see more development on.  Aldwyn and Jack are both still young and magical apprentices so there is a great deal more for them to learn about.  The characters are likeable and fun to read about and the black-and-white illustrations will help younger readers get a fuller vision of what the world of Vastia is like.  Full of adventure, magic and mystery, The Familiars books are a delight for children young and old.

Content:

This book contains characters who are zombies.  Some characters die and others are gravely injured.  Recommended for children ages 7 and up.

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Secrets of the Crown (The Familiars #2) by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson Book Review

Secrets of the Crown

Book Review by Debbie Winkler

Secrets of the Crown by Adam Jay Epstein

Series: The Familiars #2
Author: Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson, Illustrator:Peter Chan & Kei Acedera
Publisher: HarperCollins (June 2012)
ISBN: 0061961132, EAN: 9780061961137
Page Count: 400 pages
Format: paperback

Target Age Group: children ages 8 and up
My Rating: image_thumb84_thumb1

Related Reviews: The Familiars #1 – The Familiars; The Familiars #3 – Circle of Heroes

Synopsis:

A month has passed since the three Familiars fought the evil Paksahara to save their Loyals from certain death.  Now the fate of Vastia once again rests in their paws.  Paksahara has stolen the Queen’s magical wooden bracelet and is hiding out in the Shifting Fortress, a tower that moves so frequently that no one can find it. Not only is the Shifting Fortress impossible to find, but all spells cast from the Fortress affect the entire realm of Vastia!  Now the power-hungry hare has cast a spell that removes magic from all humans, leaving them at the mercy of their animal allies.  The only way to find the Shifting Fortress is to locate the Crown of the Snow Leopard.  And the only way to find the Crown is to follow the clues in a children’s lullaby.  Will Alwyn, a telekinetic cat, Skylar, an illusion-casting blue jay, and Gilbert, a tree frog seer, be able to find the Crown before Paksahara unleashes her undead army on the magically defenseless kingdom of Vastia?

Review:

I was absolutely thrilled to discover that there were sequels to The Familiars, which I read a few years ago.  I really enjoyed the twist that Adam Jay Epstein created in the first book with animal Familiars saving the day rather than their magical Loyals (humans).  Now, not only are the Familiars needed to save the day, but they are the Prophesied Three, the only ones who can save Vastia from an evil hare who used to be the Familiar to the Queen herself!  I was intrigued by the little clues that the author gave the reader in the first book and was happy to see that he expanded on those teases here in the second book.  Aldwyn Reading the Stone PillarsHumans believe that all great magical feats, including the building of the Shifting Fortress, were performed by other human magicians, but such is not the case!  Powerful animal mages once ruled the land, led by the Council of Seven.  As humans grew in population and power, they demanded representation on the Council, which was granted, only to then be tricked and bullied out of the Council until a single human ruler remained.  I felt that this was an absolutely wonderful, creative way to encourage readers to care more about animals and the environment around them without being heavy-handed about it.  The animals in the book have been relegated to second-class citizens and are not respected or appreciated, even though they bear powerful magical gifts of their own.  Though the animals in our world do not have magical powers, that does not mean we do not need them any less.  Through care and appreciation for the animals and land around us, we can become even more powerful and much happier in our surroundings.

The other mystery that is solved here in this second book is the origin of Alwyn.  In The Familiars, we meet Alwyn as he is racing across rooftops to escape an animal bounty hunter.  Alwyn believes that he is just a common alley cat and has no memory of his parents or origins.  Through his adventures in the first book, Alwyn discovers that he is a true Familiar and has the magical ability of telekinesis or the power to move things with his mind.  In Secrets of the Crown, we learn about Alwyn’s mother and father and meet his uncle.  Alwyn literally Aldwyn Following His Father's Footstepsfollows in his father’s footsteps to try to recover the Crown of the Snow Leopard and learns a great deal about his father as he tries to save the entire kingdom of Vastia.  We also get a chance to visit Skylar’s home, much like we visited Gilbert’s swamp in The Familiars.  Skylar’s parents are extremely proud of their daughter, but concerned that she is still pursuing necromancy (raising the dead) to try to bring her sister back to life.  We also learn what the mysterious bracelet is that she wears on her leg.  We don’t really learn anything new about Gilbert.  Indeed, while Alwyn and Skylar seem to be growing in power and ability, Gilbert seems to be along mainly to provide comic relief and to get the three into even more trouble!

I really enjoyed the second book in The Familiars series!  This book is more like a treasure hunt than anything else and I loved reading the clues and trying to The Three Riding on a Whalefigure out what they were supposed to do as they traveled all over Vastia and Beyond in their search for the Crown.  Readers will delight in meeting new characters including animals and humans, both friend and foe.  The book is well written and full of adventure and intrigue.  I cannot wait to read the third book in the series, Circle of Heroes, as Secrets of the Crown definitely leaves you hanging at the end!

Content:

This book contains scenes of violence and death.  All of the characters that die in this book are animals.  Recommended for ages 8 and up.

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