Category Archives: Adventure

More than Meets the Eye: What We Found in the Sofa

sofaWhat We Found in the Sofa and How it Saved the World, by Henry Clark (lexile: 730; AR book level: 5.1; 355 pp)

Nothing is quite what it seems.  Certainly not the dark green sofa that River, Freak and Fiona find one morning sitting at their bus stop, in front of the old Underhill mansion.  Nor the odd coin, zucchini-colored crayon, and double-six domino they discover between the sofa’s cushions.  All are keys to a much bigger mystery, involving an evil billionaire bent on taking over the world.

River, Freak, and Fiona are themselves more than they seem, too.  All three are middle-school misfits with difficult circumstances, gradually revealed as the story unfolds.  In fact, theirs are the only three families left living in a section of town nicknamed “Hellsboro” — so called because 12 years ago a chemical plant accidentally (?) set fire to the nearby underground coal seam, and it’s been burning ever since.

The action begins when Fiona (the science/internet genius) discovers online that the zucchini crayon is rare — so rare that someone might pay a lot of money for it.  So they decide to auction it on ebay, and the bidding soars into the thousands!  But what if the sofa — and its contents — actually belonged to old Mr Underhill?  So they try to contact him … and I’ll leave you the fun of discovering the rest.

This is Clark’s first novel (he has previously written for Mad magazine), and it is refreshingly original, clever, funny, action-packed, and very well written.  The plot is certainly a little wacko, but the three main characters are wonderfully-believable and likeable middle-schoolers.  In the end their quirks become their strengths, and their courage does, indeed, save the world.  There are hints of a sequel, which I hope will be just as much fun as this first book.


Adventure Runs Deep: Navigating Early

navigating_earlyNavigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool (lexile: 790; AR book level: 5.2; 306 pp)

Let the cover introduce Navigating Early: two boys, alone in a canoe, traveling down a wilderness stream.  Where are they headed?  You’re not quite sure, and perhaps they’re not, either; in the early dawn, fog obscures the path ahead.  But sunlight glows on the horizon — will they find what they’re seeking?

It’s 1945, just after World War II, and 13-year-old Jack Baker is suddenly uprooted from his native Kansas.  His mother has died, and his father, in the Navy, comes home just long enough to move Jack to a boys boarding school in Maine.  Jack feels a misfit in this new environment, but most challenging is getting to know Early Auden, “that strangest of boys.”  Early lives in the basement workshop rather than the dorm, goes to class when he chooses, and has a precise schedule for what music he listens to when (Billie Holiday when it rains).  Above all, Early sees in the never-ending digits of the number pi (3.14…) an actual story, of a character named Pi who is on a quest and is lost.  Jack can’t decide if Early is “straitjacket strange or just go-off-by-yourself-at-recess-and-put-bugs-in-your-nose strange”.

When the two boys find themselves by chance alone at school during a break, Early persuades Jack to head out with him on the Appalachian Trail, following the steps of Pi and seeking the great Appalachian bear that Early is sure exists.   Their sometimes harrowing adventures seem to eerily parallel those that Early sees in Pi’s story.  Along the way they’ll meet an array of strange, seemingly unrelated characters, whose stories Vanderpool expertly ties together in the end.  Ultimately, Jack and Early will each will find more than he was seeking, and just what he needed.

This story is multi-layered: on the surface, it’s an odyssey, the adventure of two boys on a quest.  Beneath, however, lie themes of friendship, self-discovery, father-son relationships, and dealing with loss, grief, and guilt.  And Vanderpool is an artist of a writer, with brilliant, memorable, almost poetic phrasing.  Kids — and adults — who are willing to plunge into an adventure that runs deep will enjoy Navigating Early.

Clare Vanderpool won the 2011 Newbery Medal for her brilliant debut novel, Moon Over Manifest.  And — here it is, my prediction — I’d say with Navigating Early we’re looking at the 2014 winner.  (Hey, I was right last year … why not two in a row?)

A Wild Ride Through Time: The Dead Gentleman

dead_gentlemanThe Dead Gentleman, by Matthew Cody (lexile: NA; AR book level: 5.7; 280 pp)

If you know where to look, the world is full of Portals — hidden doorways between worlds.  Eleven-year-old Tommy Learner is an unlikely member of the band of Explorers who are committed to finding and traveling through these portals.  As the story opens in New York City, 1901, Tommy and fellow explorer Bernard are preparing to check one buried in a basement.  But something goes very wrong …

Fast-forward to the present.  Twelve-year-old Jezebel Lemon decides to check out the creepy old basement of her apartment building.  And there she encounters a boy with a message:

“I don’t have much time. But you’ve got to be warned. Keep safe and trust your instincts. Be careful. Be smart. Be afraid. The Dead Gentleman’s coming.”

Suddenly he’s gone.  Maybe she was hallucinating — so she thinks, until that night when the monsters creep out of her closet.

Tommy and Jez are soon thrown together, and learn that the mysterious Dead Gentleman has set his sights on conquering Earth, the only world left where the dead stay dead.  And Tommy and Jez are the only ones left with any chance of stopping him.  The fast-paced tale includes all sorts of cool stuff, including a time-traveling airship, a clockwork bird, zombies, dinosaurs, an almost-toothless vampire, and a submarine called The Nautilus (with a nod to Jules Verne of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea fame).  The story builds to a dramatic, final battle outside New York City that kept me turning pages quickly.

Some time travel novels go to great lengths to explain the background story, how all the imaginary elements fit together in a consistent worldview (for example, The Book of Time series I’ve reviewed).  The Dead Gentleman doesn’t, which is OK.  It’s meant to move quickly.  Tommy and Jez are both bold characters, sometimes clashing, but a good team.  The ending is conclusive, but with hints of sequels yet to come.

Not your storybook fairies: Artemis Fowl

artemisfowlArtemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer (lexile: 600; AR book level: 5.0; 277 pp)

The fairy world is real, but these are not your storybook fairies of Tinkerbell and pixie dust.  They’re high-tech, sophisticated, and powerful, and centuries ago moved their entire civilization underground to avoid discovery by the “Mudmen” — that’s us.

One human, however, has discovered their existence: Artemis Fowl, 12-year-old criminal mastermind, genius, millionaire, and scion of a wealthy Irish family.  And Artemis has determined to restore his family’s failing fortunes by taking advantage of fairy rules.  If he can capture one, the fairies will be obliged to pay one ton of gold in ransom.

Artemis takes on more than he realizes, though, when he and his bodyguard, Butler (who “can kill you a hundred different ways without the use of weapons”), kidnap Holly Short, captain of the LEPrecon (Lower Elements Police Recon Unit).  She’s tough and smart, and together with friends Underground she may just be a match for Artemis.

The story is a fast-paced, fun mixture of magic and high-tech gadgetry, with memorable and likeable characters like Foaly the computer-geek centaur and Mulch Duggums, a kleptomaniac dwarf with a powerful digestive system.

Some reviewers dislike Artemis because he’s not much of a hero — he’s self-centered, cocky, and cold.  But he is still appealing, and so blatantly narcissistic that no reader who is not already a young millionaire genius is going to look to him as a role model.  And Artemis’ story doesn’t end with this first book.  One of the things I love about the series is the obvious transformation of Artemis Fowl into a much different young man, until the moving and powerful climax of the last book.  If you like Artemis, stick with him for a few books, and discover that it’s how you finish that really matters.  The other books, in order:


Last night I heard author Gordon Korman speak at the Chatham Area Public Library, and he was great.  (Based on all the raised hands and eager questions, I’d say the 100+ kids there thought so, too.)  His books are hugely popular with a lot of guys (and girls), but I realized I’d never featured one in the blog.  So here’s one of my favorites, and, according to Gordon, his #1 selling title:

swindleSwindle, by Gordon Korman (lexile: 710; AR book level: 4.9; 252 pp)

Sixth-grader Griffin Bing (“The Man With The Plan”) and his best friend Ben Slovak are spending the night in an abandoned (maybe haunted?) house that’s due to be demolished the next day.  While exploring the house, Griffin discovers an old Babe Ruth baseball card.  Could it be genuine?  Could it be VALUABLE?

To find out, they take it the next day to S. Wendell Palomino’s “Emporium of Collectibles and Memorabilia.”  Palomino tells them it’s just a copy, not worth much, and gives them $120.

Imagine their surprise to see S. Wendell (“Swindle”) interviewed later on TV about HIS prize Babe Ruth card that he expects to auction for ONE MILLION DOLLARS!  Griffin’s been SWINDLED — and he intends to get that card back!

So Griffin puts together an intricate plan worthy of a Mission Impossible movie.  Swindle’s store is a fortress, guarded by fence, fierce dog, and high-tech security, not to mention a nosy neighbor who’s always around.  Griffin will need the diverse skills of a team of friends to pull it off, and you can bet not everything will go as planned.

Swindle is fast-paced, and funny, and appeals to every kid’s sense of justice.  You want Griffin and his pals to succeed, and show Swindle he can’t get away with taking advantage of a kid.  And for parents who might worry that the story sets a bad example — stealing the card back wasn’t perhaps the best way to right the wrong — those lessons emerge eventually.  But the ride there is quite a roller coaster.  As one reviewer has said, this is Oceans Eleven with 11-year-olds.

Griffin and his team return in four equally fun books:

  • Zoobreak (lexile: 700; AR book level: 4.9; 230 pp)
  • Framed (lexile: 730; AR book level: 5.2; 234 pp)
  • Showoff (lexile: 740; AR book level: 5.1; 248 pp)
  • Hideout (lexile: 750; AR book level: 5.2; 275 pp)

Dragons Lite: Shorter Dragon Stories

In a recent post, I reviewed a classic dragon quest tale, Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider.  A great adventure, but at 500+ pages, a little hefty for some.  What if you’re just starting chapter books, or need a read-aloud for younger ones?

For those who would like a simpler, shorter dragon story,  here’s one old and one new which are good choices.

fathers_dragonMy Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett (lexile: 910; AR book level: 5.6; 80 pp)

Though his mother doesn’t like it, Elmer Elevator befriends a stray alley cat, brings him home, and sneaks him saucers of milk.  In appreciation, the cat tells him of a far-off place he visited in younger days called Wild Island.  It’s populated by wild animals, and they have enslaved a poor baby dragon, tying him up and forcing him to ferry them back and forth across the river that divides the island.

Elmer decides to set out and rescue the dragon, and with the cat’s help carefully prepares for the journey.  The funniest part of the story is the strange array of supplies Elmer packs in his knapsack, including: chewing gum, two dozen pink lollipops, a toothbrush and toothpaste, six magnifying glasses, and seven hair ribbons.  It turns out, of course, that each is just the right thing to trick one of the animals on Wild Island so Elmer can get to the dragon and free him.  They become good friends, and the dragon is happy to fly Elmer back home.

This funny little dragon story was a Newbery Honor book in 1949, and is still popular over 60 years later.   There are two later sequels.  Elmer and the Dragon (80 pp), tells of their adventures on the way home from Wild Island, complete with an island full of canaries and a buried treasure.  In The Dragons of Blueland (80 pp), Elmer helps the dragon rescue his family from those who have discovered their secret home.  You can find all three in one volume, Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon.

thomas-dragon-queenThomas and the Dragon Queen, by Shutta Crum (lexile: 770; AR book level: 5.3; 267 pp)

A kingdom at war, a fierce dragon who kidnaps a princess, and a very unlikely knight who sets out to rescue her and in the process discovers his own strengths — all make up this simple fantasy quest with good characters and an unexpected plot twist.

Twelve-year-old Thomas is the oldest of nine children, and is always busy taking care of his younger siblings.  He dreams of being a knight, but he is small for his age, and only the son of a leathersmith, not a noble.  He gets his chance one day, though, when Sir Gerald happens by, and makes Thomas his squire.

Thomas learns his duties at the castle, but one day when all the knights are away, the princess is carried off by a dragon.  Thomas bravely sets out to rescue her — but he’s so small, he can only take a short sword, and has to ride a donkey instead of a horse.  In the end, however, it will not be his stature, but rather his courage, perseverance, quick wits, and good heart that lead to success.

This is a perfect read-aloud for younger children.  The storyline is not complicated, all of the main characters (including the dragon, it turns out) are good, and Thomas has loving, wise parents.  There are enough scary moments to make it adventurous, and a happy ending for all.

What Came From the Stars

came_from_starsWhat Came From the Stars, by Gary D. Schmidt (lexile: 930; AR book level: 5.5; 294 pp)

On a far away planet, the peaceful Valorim face their final moments as the evil Lord Mondus and his minions besiege their city.  As the fight comes to the  innermost tower, the last of their people forges all the combined Art of the Valorim into a single jeweled chain and casts it into space to keep it from Lord Mondus.  Across unknown galaxies it travels, until it lands — in the lunchbox of 12-year old Tommy Pepper, Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Tommy doesn’t realize what he’s received, but he has a lot of other things to distract him lately.  His mother died 257 days ago, his father and younger sister are each grieving in their own ways, and an unscrupulous real estate investor is trying to get their beachfront cottage.

Soon, however, Tommy’s friends and family notice that he is able to do some pretty remarkable things, like painting a picture that actually moves.  It all seems natural to him, like the memories he has of a planet with two suns.  But they know something strange is going on when someone starts breaking into homes and even the school, ransacking but never stealing.  Something sent from far away is trying to regain a lost treasure, and Tommy and his friends will need to fight to defend his family — and perhaps, though he doesn’t realize it, save a distant planet.

What Came from the Stars shifts back and forth between Earth and the Valorim world, as the two stories gradually come together.  It may be labeled science-fiction,  but it’s much more a story about grief, forgiveness, and friendship.  You will certainly like Tommy Pepper, his family and friends.  (And you may wish that — even for just a moment — you could wear the Art of the Valorim and do the unbelievable.)

Some reviewers really like the story of Tommy Pepper, but found the interspersed narratives from the Valorim’s planet difficult to follow.  Schmidt introduces a number of made-up terms in the Valorim language, and the picture of what’s going on there is painted in spare detail.  The reader does have to work, and the complete background story is not clear until the very end.  To me, that mystery was part of the appeal of the book, and fit the storyline.  Tommy and his friends had to gradually piece together what was going on, and so does the reader.  One of Schmidt’s many strengths as a writer is that he doesn’t tell you too much — just enough to hint, and leave you the “aha!” moment of discovery.