Category Archives: Communities

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

Tall Story

By Candy Gourlay

Published by David Fickling Books

Copyright © 2010

 

Not your typical tall tale, but “Tall Story” delivers on the tall in a giant way. Michael Jordan eat your heart out.

Bernardo and Andi are brother and sister, but they haven’t seen each other in 10 years. The reason for this is that Bernardo lives with his Aunt and Uncle in the Philippines, and Andi lives with her mom and dad (Bernardo’s step dad) in London. Bernardo has been waiting for the day that the British government will tell him that it is okay to come and live with his mom in London, while Andi grows up on the other side of the world hoping this long lost brother will come home soon and will like basketball as much as she does.

 

As Bernardo gets older his wish to go to London gets much more difficult. A strange chain of events has cast him in the role of the local savior, and he worries that if he leaves it will bring doom to his friends and family in the town of San Andres. The sheer weight of this is often too much for Bernardo. Only when he finally gets to London will this weight be lifted for good.

 

Written from the viewpoint of both Bernardo and Andi, Candy Gourlay has written a story with so many levels that I almost don’t know how to describe this book. While reading it I sometimes lost focus on what the story was about or what the author was really trying to say. Is it about family relationships, miracles, legends, basketball, illness, being different, or etc. There is just so much going on I couldn’t really get a clear message from the story.

 

That being said the story did hold my attention and was generally enjoyable. I think the thing that I like most about “Tall Story” is that while it is full of sadness Bernardo seems to have such a positive attitude, at least when he isn’t blaming himself for the way things turn out.  There are the death of a mate, a child being left behind, the struggle to be reunited, bullies, sickness, and earthquakes all in one story. There is so much to be depressed about and yet Bernardo comes off as relatively happy, even if conflicted. This book is set in the Philippines and the United Kingdom, and the main characters are big on basketball. This book is definitely worth a read for kids 10 and up who are interested in basketball or foreign countries.

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Filed under Communities, Cultural, Families, Junior Fiction, Multicultural, Myths & Legends, Sports

OKAY FOR NOW

Okay For Now

By Gary D. Schmidt

Published by Clarion Books

Copyright © 2011

Doug’s father has lost his job again and he has an offer of a job in a paper mill in a little town in upstate New York called Marysville. Doug isn’t really enthused about moving away from the city and his favorite team the New York Yankees, but it is no use to complain because his father will probably yell at him and pop him in the mouth. Things are going okay for Doug he makes a few friends, learns he has a talent he didn’t know he had, and even gets a job of his own. But if there is anything that Doug knows it is that when things are going too good something bad is bound mess it up. His brother and his dad seem more than willing to oblige and make things worse for Doug. Doug’s father has no problem stealing from his own son, and his brother, who has a habit of making the wrong impression, gets a reputation that unfairly attaches itself to Doug. Can Doug find a way to deal with his dad, and prove everyone in town wrong?

“Okay For Now” is complex tale of survival and betterment. Set in 1968 against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the Apollo space missions, and of course Doug’s beloved baseball player Doug Pepitone playing for the Yankees, Doug not only has to learn to Navigate a new town with new people but he has to navigate his home life with an abusive father and brother and the return of his oldest brother who comes home from Vietnam with life altering injuries. To cope with this Doug throws himself into his job of delivering groceries, learning to draw from the works of John James Audubon, and ultimately taking up his mission to make a special book whole again. In addition to all of this “Okay For Now” tells a tale of how important it is not judge people or places by their appearance, relations, sex, career, or etc. because often the conclusion that we come to are the furthest thing from the truth.

I found this book to be a moving and occasionally funny book of survival, recovery, redemption, and so much more. As I’m reading this book I’m thinking how badly I want Doug’s father to get what’s coming to him, however Gary Schmidt even finds a way to weave some redemption in there for him giving Doug hope for life to improve. This was one of those stories that once I got started I just had know how every thing would be resolved. I finished it in a day; it was that good. I highly recommend this book for children ages 10 and up.

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Filed under Art, Coming of Age, Communities, Elementary/Middle School, Families, Friendship, Historical, Junior Fiction, Loss/Death, Love/Romance, Nature/Animals

The Star Maker

Laurence Yep

Published by Harper Books

Copyright © 2011

Artie is the youngest in his family and one of his older cousins gets great pleasure in picking on him. During one such occasion Artie lets his pride, and his mouth, get the best of him and he promises to get everyone firecrackers for Chinese New Year. The only problem is that he doesn’t have any money, and when he gets money he usually spends it too quickly. Fortunately for him his Uncle Chester steps in and promises to help him. Uncle Chester is a nice guy, everyone around town likes Chester, but Chester isn’t very good with money either. Before New Year Chester falls on tough times with some bad bets and it doesn’t look like he is going to be able to help Artie. Artie is more worried about his uncle than he is about his fireworks.

As usual, Yep’s story takes us inside the Chinese American life informing us on Chinese Culture, lore, and history while telling an enjoyable story.  While I don’t think this is his best effort (I was a big fan of Dragon Road) this is a nice multicultural story for children ages 8 and up that focuses not just on culture, but on such topics as not gambling, not letting your mouth get you in trouble, learning not to pick on others, along with other topics.

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Filed under Communities, Cultural, Families, Historical, Junior Fiction, Love/Romance, Multicultural

Odd and the Frost Giants

Odd and the Frost Giants

By Neil Gaiman

Illustrations by Brett Helquist

Published by Harper

Copyright © 2009

Odd was a young man of twelve who had a peculiar way of making people angry – he smiled. It wasn’t the smile that angered people, it was that his was a knowing smile, in that he knew but he usually didn’t tell anyone what he knew. In a small Norse village where everyone knew everything about everyone else, especially since there wasn’t much else to do in the dead of winter, Odd’s smile and quietness didn’t always sit well. Given this, and Odd’s miserable circumstances, he decides to leave the village for his father’s cabin in the woods. On his first day there he meets a fox, an eagle, and a bear. Oh wait… I mean a talking fox, a talking eagle, and a talking bear, and from this point forward his life will never be the same.

Neil Gaiman has a written an imaginative novel inspired by Norse Mythology. Odd, who lives in a small village in Ancient Norway, has fallen on tough times and he feels it is time to leave the village and his mother whom he loves. He will take a journey that bridges his home in Norway and the realm of the God’s, Asgard. I really enjoyed this book not just for the incorporation of myth and legend, but because the protagonist has a certain thoughtfulness about him. Odd lives in world where men are MEN; they drink and fight and they don’t have much use for thinking or feeling. Odd, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be blessed with the size and strength of most Norsemen, in fact he is basically crippled, and yet he is able to save large animals and defeat giant foes without the use of force. Odd reminds me a little bit of Hiccup in the movie “How to Train Your Dragon.” (Sorry I haven’t read that book series yet. So many books so little time.)  If you liked the story in that movie then you should enjoy this book as I did. I must say, I would love to see this book as a movie, but I would settle for Neil Gaiman writing a sequel to this book.  Before I finish, kudos to Brett Helquist for some great black and white illustrations that helped us to visualize many of the characters. I don’t really analyze illustrations all that much, but I know what I like and Brett’s work is first class. Great addition to a great story. Recommended for children ages 9 to adult.

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Filed under Adventure, Coming of Age, Communities, Cultural, Fantasy, Junior Fiction, Loss/Death, Multicultural, Myths & Legends

Chasing Vermeer (must read)

Chasing Vermeer

By Blue Balliett

Illus. by Brett Helquist

Published by Scholastic Press

Copyright ©2004

“Chasing Vermeer” is the story of Calder and Petra, two 6th graders in the same classroom, who live on the same street only houses apart, and who have never really spoken to each other outside of school. For some reason though they both get caught up in a mystery for the ages that has entangled nearly everyone they know.

A very famous painting by Johannes Vermeer has been stolen as it was in route to Chicago from Washington D.C. Three people in the Chicago area have been notified of this heist, and eventually the world is made aware of it. The purpose the thief says is to bring the truth to light. You see there are some paintings credited to Vermeer which may not have in fact been painted by him. When a old book of unexplained occurrences bring Calder and Petra together, strange coincidences seem to thrust them into the thick of the search for answers. With their deductive skills, the help of an eccentric old woman, their intuition, and a bit of good fortune they are hot on the trail of the missing painting. But, will they find it in time?

“Chasing Vermeer” is a riddle, wrapped up in a mystery, inside of an enigma. This book was totally enthralling and enjoyable. It featured smart, young, multicultural characters that are resolute in their determination to solve the mystery and find the truth. Balliett adds levels of intrigue to this big with a riddle that can be solved by hidden clues in the illustrations of Helquist, as well as coded letters written between Calder and his friend Tommy who moved to New York. This book will keep you occupied for hours. I love absolutely loved Calder’s use of pentominoes and I had to learn more about them. If you go to the books website you can actually play a pentominoe game, which is harder than it looks.

Great book from start to finish and beyond! I can’t wait till I have time to read some of his other books.

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Filed under Adventure, Communities, Cultural, Elementary/Middle School, Friendship, Junior Fiction, Mystery, Uncategorized

Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret UFOs

Encyclopedia Brown and the case of the Secret UFO’s

By Donald J. Sobol

Published by Dutton Children’s Books

Copyright © 2010

In this latest installment of Encyclopedia Brown Mysteries, E.B. foils the plots of many a perpetrator using his encyclopedic brain and super memory.

While I love the E.B. series I found this one to read more like “Encyclopedia Brown – Better Business Bureau.” Three quarters of the cases in this book revolve around him stopping cheats and liars from swindling children out of their money. While I like these stories I can only take so many in one book. That being said there were some stories that I really liked including: The Case of the Stolen Stamps, The Case of the Scrambled Eggs, and the Case of the Missing Medallions.

This is a great book for beginning readers, and for the Encyclopedia Brown Mega-Fan.

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Filed under Communities, Elementary/Middle School, Junior Fiction, Mystery