Category Archives: Junior Fiction

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen

By Eric Berlin

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Copyright © 2007

Move over Encyclopedia Brown there is a new detective on the block, Winston Breen puzzle genius. 

Winston Breen is a 12 year old puzzle aficionado. He breathes, eats, and sleeps puzzles. He sees puzzles in the oddest places like on a piece of wrapping paper or on a pizza. Oddly enough the biggest puzzle he has ever come across is one that he did not know was there.

Winston buys a last minute birthday gift for his 10 year old sister at his favorite store, Penrose’s Curio Shop. Used to his puzzling ways Katie assumes that there is a puzzle hidden in her gift. Even though Winston didn’t provide a puzzle this year Katie still finds one. This puzzle created by a local inventor decades ago, is going to send them on a wild goose chase with an odd group comprised of two treasure hunting enthusiasts, the town librarian, and an ex-policeman. Can a puzzle that is very intricate and very old be solved by this group? With Winston and Katie’s help it can.

I really enjoyed this story. It was fun and mysterious from the very beginning. From the beginning it demonstrated that the best way to solve a problem is through teamwork. In addition it is chock full of puzzles for you to solve. I like crosswords, word searches, and I’ll do the occasional number puzzle so it gave me the opportunity to test my smarts. Some of the puzzles were easy and others were hard. I’ll be honest and admit I couldn’t solve some of them and others I didn’t even try. However I tried enough of them that it really did get me into the puzzling spirit of the book.

While I recommend this book for pleasure reading, the connection between puzzles and school is obvious. Puzzles help teach logic, reasoning, and observation; they fit in well in math and language arts classes. Here is a little puzzle of my own, see if you can find the Encyclopedia Brown connection as you read this book. While the writing style and story lengths are different, both Brown and Breen rely on knowledge and deduction. I think Eric Berlin has written a timeless character, maybe not quite on par with E.B., but a nice homage to him.

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Filed under Communities, Elementary/Middle School, Friendship, Games/Hobbies, Junior Fiction, Mystery

The Missing Book 3: Sabotage

By Margaret Peterson Haddix

Published by Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2010

Another Dare-ing adventure through time with JB, Katherine, and Jonah. Our time traveling trio will try to solve the history mystery of the Roanoke Colony.

Jonah and Katherine are set to take Andrea back in time to merge with her tracer and do what needs to be done to repair the timeline. Their destination is coastal North Carolina around the end of the 16th century where, and when, the Roanoke colony suddenly disappeared. There seems to be a change in the travel plans though when an unknown stranger causes a problem with the elucidator and they don’t get dropped where they should on the timeline. Not only that, but they lose the elucidator and they have no contact with JB. Does he even know where they are? Jonah, Katherine, and Andrea are going to have to figure out how to fix time on their own if they are to have any hope of escape.

Haddix has found a way to mix science fiction and social studies education together in a neat package with “The Missing” series. Many kids aren’t that interested in history itself, but what happens if you time travel and get dropped into the middle of history? Now that is interesting! I commend Haddix because she researches her history well and feeds the story pertinent information about it as needed to move story along. Nowhere does she add a history lesson for the sake of a history lesson. Kids would sniff this out in a heartbeat. Social Studies education is sorely lacking in American primary education today, and I applaud anyone who can include it in the creation of entertainment.

From a pure enjoyment stand point, children 8 years old and up will enjoy this series. They will love the time travel plot where it takes a couple of kids to save time. They will also enjoy its main characters. Haddix does a good job of writing the sibling interaction between Jonah and Katherine so children with brothers or sisters will really feel it. The author also helps the tone of her plot by not making the book too humorous. Part of the fun of time travel sci-fi is the childlike belief that it is just within reach of the realm of possibility, even though we know it isn’t. Too many laughs would probably keep pushing the story out of that realm.

For me personally, I loved the first book but I couldn’t latch on to the second and third wholeheartedly. This third book at 360 pages just moves too slowly for me with all the questions of what the characters should and shouldn’t do and explanations of time and tracer movement.  What keeps me going in this series is the history. I was interested in knowing how the author explained the Roanoke Colony’s disappearance, and I was quite pleased with that. I understand, however, how all the explanations help young readers to wrap their mind around the story and take it seriously. I would definitely recommend using this book in conjunction with language arts to bring more attention to history in our classrooms. Stories like this just might grab a child’s attention and make them want to learn on their own.

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Filed under Action, Adventure, Families, Fantasy, Historical, Junior Fiction, Love/Romance, Mystery, Native American, Science Fiction

My Life in Pink & Green

By Lisa Greenwald
Published by Amulet Books
Copyright © 2009
Who knew that the words makeover and green went so well together? “My Life in Pink & Green” shows us that you are never too young to look good and save the planet, at least in a small way.
 
Young Connecticut tween Lucy Desberg loves her family’s pharmacy and she loves the makeup and beauty products they sell there. But Lucy’s life isn’t all lip gloss and nail polish; the pharmacy and her family are struggling to make ends meet. It looks like they are going to lose their house and their business if things don’t change. Lucy isn’t sure what she can possible do to help until two fortuitous events happen. One, she helps the most popular girl in school with a major hair dilemma, and two, she joins Earth Club with her best friend Sunny. Soon she realizes that the way to save the pharmacy is to go “Pink & Green,” or in other words, focusing on beauty and environmentalism. The only problem is her mother, and grandmother, don’t take her ideas seriously, so Lucy is going to have to make them take her seriously.
 
“My life in Pink & Green” is a great story that relates how even young people can be proactive and ambitious and maybe even play a small role in saving the world. It is great to read a young female protagonist that knows what she wants and knows what she needs to do. It is also great that even though Lucy and Sunny do have crushes that boys are not the thrust behind their plans. Having a first crush is just a secondary theme and plot line.
 
Lisa Greenwald has written a story with realistic people and places, and realistic problems. Now, do I believe that the solution to the story’s problem is realistic? No, as an adult it seems just a little far out on the limb for me, but not utterly impossible. I also think that Lucy acts and talks more like a sixteen year old than a twelve year old, but what do I know, I’ve never been a 12 year old girl.  Those things being said I liked Lucy’s story. Whether farfetched or not, it is encouraging youths, especially young girls, to make a difference, to have ambitions, and to shop locally. This is a must read for tween and teen girls everywhere.

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Filed under Elementary/Middle School, Environmental, Families, Friendship, High School, Junior Fiction, Love/Romance, Single Parents

The Moon Over High Street

By Natalie Babbitt
Published by Michael Di Capua Books
Copyright © 2012
 
Renowned children’s author Natalie Babbitt has given us a simple yet charming story about being true to yourself even when someone offers you the world to change.
 
Twelve year old Joe Casimir lives inWillowickwith his Grandmother, and he is going to spend a few weeks this summer with his Aunt Myra down in the Southwestern corner of the state in a town called midville. He isn’t sure if he is going to have a good time being away from his friends, but that thought disappears when he meets Beatrice, the girl next door who just happens to be the same age.
 
While Beatrice is showing Joe around town she takes him up to High Street which is where all the rich people live. By chance Joe and Beatrice meet the richest man in town, Mr. Boulderwall, who turns out to be pretty nice. It isn’t long till Joe’s summer is turned upside down, because Mr. Boulderwall is going to make him an offer that will leave him set for life. Joe isn’t sure what to do and he is hoping that someone else will know. Somehow the answer to his dilemma seems to be hung from the moon.
 
“The Moon Over High Street” is simple tale in that it isn’t complicated with a multitude of characters, complex historical backdrops, or magic and fantasy. Babbitt just sets up a nice realistic fiction story, for children 10 years old and up, about a young boy fromOhioin the early 1960’s with a tough decision to make.
 
What I enjoyed about this book was that while Joe’s life must have had some sadness, the sadness isn’t the focus. In addition, the choice Joe needs to make isn’t a dire life or death, good or bad, kind of choice, but a “what do I want my life to be” kind of choice. At 12 years old Joe is forced to give serious thought to what he wants to be when he grows up, as compared to what Mr. Boulderwall wants him to be and what he thinks might be more helpful to his grandmother. Lastly, I love books with lessons and this one has a good one. Money is necessary, but is it the most important thing? This is a lesson that all people, not just children, need to learn.

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Filed under Coming of Age, Families, Junior Fiction, Loss/Death

The Twits

By Roald Dahl

Illustrated by Quentin Blake

Copyright © 1980

 

What happens when 2 of the meanest old people come up against 4 young boys, 4 monkeys, 1 roly-poly bird from Africa, and hundreds of European birds? They get outwitted.  

 

Mr. and Mrs. Twit are old, mean, and ugly. Mr. Twit has a long, unkempt, food littered beard and Mrs. Twit has a screwed up face and a glass eye that always stares in the wrong direction.  These two used to be decent looking people but years of bad thinking has made them look as ugly as their thoughts. Mr. and Mrs. Twit love to torture each other with mean spirited practical jokes. They like to catch unsuspecting birds and make bird pie. And they like to train monkeys to perform upside down. All of this meanness is going to catch up with the Twits when the birds conspire with the monkeys to give the Twits what they deserve.

 

Giving mean and obnoxious people consequences of their actions is what Roald Dahl Does best. In “The Twits” Dahl gives us two people who are laughably mean. The practical jokes that they play on each other pretty old fashioned and low-tech by today’s standards, but still very funny. That said, however, the retaliation of the monkey’s and birds was in general predictable, so the first half of the book was more enjoyable than the last half.

 

After reading this and many other Roald Dahl books, I have to say that to me his writing style seems very giddy. It is not always pleasant to read because bits and pieces are always added, and sometimes you never do realize why they are there. I think this is what makes his stories enjoyable for children though, because when they read his books, they read as if a child was telling the story. That, I believe, is a hard thing to accomplish, and that is why he remains one of the most loved children’s authors of all time.

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Filed under Animal Personification, Fantasy, Junior Fiction, Nature/Animals

Danny the Champion of the World

By Roald Dahl

Illustrated by Quentin Blake

Published by Puffin

Copyright © 1975

Champion of the world? Well, maybe the champion of a small town and a patch of forest full of birds. But, it’s good clean fun nonetheless; at least if you are old enough to know better.

Danny lives with his dad (William) in a little caravan behind a filling (gas) station and garage.  It isn’t the most beautiful home in the world but it is warm and snug. William loves Danny very much. He has taken care of him by himself ever since his wife died. William protects Danny and teaches him everything he knows. One of the things he teaches Danny is about poaching pheasants, and this is going to make Danny the champion of the world.

While, in my opinion, some of the characters are a little flat or unnecessary (e.g. Danny’s school teachers) and the chapter that ties in the story of the BFG was a little pointless, I still thought this was a good example of Roald Dahl giving us a little champion with a big heart. (With that in mind click here for a blog post about Dahl’s stories and rural class structure in Post-WWII England. I thought it was very interesting.)

I have some hesitations in recommending this for very young children because the moral is a bit skewed. A father and son love each other immensely (good). The dad teaches his son a skill (good). They fight against the oppression of a self-important, upper class, jerk (good). They bond (good) by working together (good) to steal from the aforementioned upper class jerk (bad). My mother always taught me that two wrongs don’t make a right, and that it is never okay to steal. These are two things that I still believe in.

That being said the audience for which this is intended, kids age 7 and up, should already be grasping principles of right and wrong and will understand that it is a work of fiction. Besides that, there are so many pointless and horrible books out there that I don’t believe this one can do much damage. “Danny the Champion of the World” has a really likeable main character, some mild adventure, and a bad guy getting what’s coming to him. How could any child or adult not like a story like that?

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Filed under Families, Junior Fiction, Nature/Animals, Single Parents

The BFG

By Roald Dahl

Illustrations by Quentin Blake

Published by Farrar • Straus • Giroux

Copyright © 1982

The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) is just another example of Roald Dahl’s childlike imagination combining with his social awareness, making for a moralistic tale that children can’t help but like.

Sophie lives in an orphanage. It is not a very nice place to live because the supervisors are very strict and love to punish children. One night Sophie could not sleep, and even though she knew she could be punished she got out of bed and tiptoed to the window where the moonlight was beaming through. When she looked out the window the homes and streets all around were quiet and there was nothing moving about. Soon however, she noticed a large shadowy figure looking into people homes. As he got closer to the orphanage Sophie went quickly back to her bed. But soon the large creature was at the orphanage and he reached in, grabbed Sophie, and ran speedily away.

Sophie was fortunate however, she had been kidnapped by the BFG. Had it been any other Giant she would have been eaten on the spot, but the BFG did not like to eat people.  He merely skulked around so that he could blow good dreams into children’s rooms. The BFG had to kidnap Sophie because she had seen him, and she certainly would have told everyone what she had seen first thing in the morning, and then they would have tried to capture him.

The BFG had problems enough back in Giantland without worrying about being caught by people. In Giantland the BFG was actually a runt; the other giants were twice his size. They were mean, cruel, and people eaters. They took every opportunity they could to bully the poor BFG, and every night they would run off to various countries and eat unsuspecting people. But now that Sophie was living with the BFG in Giantland this would have to stop.

In the BFG Roald Dahl tells the enjoyable story of an orphaned girl and a friendly and funny talking giant who become friends and find away to stop the mean giants. The funny made up words and names in this book are pure Dahl. While it is written from Sophie’s viewpoint, it is the BFG who steals the show because he is so silly and lovable. What I really enjoyed about this book was the lesson behind the story. While each creature has its own morality (rules for what is right or wrong) humans are the only ones that think it is okay to purposefully hurt others of their own kind. Giants would certainly never do this. Even though the other giants treat the BFG badly they would never kill him. This isn’t my favorite Dahl book, but it is one of my favorite morals. And this is a book that children 7 and up would likely enjoy.

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Filed under Fantasy, Friendship, Junior Fiction