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 Galaxy Far, Far Away: All Things Star Wars

luke_skywalkerI saw the very first Star Wars film (now called A New Hope) WAY back in 1977, and was immediately hooked.  Much more than just another sci-fi flick, it was an EPIC to me:  think Tolkien with spaceships.  Like many boys then and now, I wanted to BE Luke Skywalker, to wield that lightsaber, to blow that Death Star to smithereens.

All things Star Wars — including books –are still hugely popular with guys.  And many of our library patrons are surprised to find we have a BUNCH of Star Wars books of all types, for virtually all reading levels.  Here’s an overview of some in our library.

Beginning Readers

luke_skywalkerLuke Skywalker’s Amazing Story, by Simon Beecroft (lexile: NA; AR book level: 2.3; 32 pp)

For young fans who are 1st- or 2nd-grade readers, here’s a VERY abbreviated version of all three of the first movies (New Hope, Empire, Return) in a few pages with pictures from the movies.  The author uses the clever device of ending many pages with an ellipsis that prompts the reader to guess the name of the new character introduced on the next page.  It even has a simple index that kids can learn to use!

There are other Star Wars beginning readers at various reading levels.  You can find all of them in our library system by clicking here.

Graphic Novels

new_hope_gnStar Wars, Episode 4, A New Hope (91 pp)

There are plenty of Star Wars graphic novel series, but this is my favorite.  Instead of drawings, these are illustrated with actual pictures from the movies, with the movie dialogue in speech bubbles.  Readers who know the movies will find these easier to read because the content is already familiar.  The others are:

Some other Star War graphic novel series:

kotor1Commencement (Knights of the Old Republic series #1)

This comic book-style series is set 4,000 years before Luke Skywalker’s days, and tells the story of Padawan Zayne Carrick, falsely accused of murder and a fugitive from the Jedi.  There are loads of battles, droids, wild characters and unique planets in the 10 volumes (each about 140-160 pp).  Click here for links to all the titles  in our library system.

droidsStar Wars Omnibus series

These are compilations of Star Wars comic books published by Dark Horse Comics.  Each volume contains400+ pages of comics centered around a single theme or time period in the Star Wars saga.  Some retell the movie stories, but most are stories that happened before, between, or after the movies.  For example, the Droids volume contains the adventures of C3PO and R2D2 before they met Luke Skywalker.  Click here for all the Omnibus volumes in our library system.  You can find a good guide to all the Omnibus volumes (28 so far) and their contents here at the Wookiepedia.

There are lots of Star Wars graphic novel series — click here to see all of them in our library system.

Enough for now.  I’ll save some other Star Wars stuff for a future post.

A Question: How can we make it better?

I’ve been blogging here since November of 2011, and the blog is getting BIG!  I’ve reviewed several hundred books.  If you click on “The List” at the top of the page, it will take you to the barely organized catalog of all the titles or series I’ve covered.

If you subscribe to, occasionally visit, or have just stumbled across this blog, I’d love to hear what you find helpful or interesting, and what you think I could add or change to make it better.  Particularly, I’d appreciate if it you’d click on the “Contact” tab at the top and answer any of these questions:

1) Who are you? — student, parent, teacher, librarian, space alien?

2) Is the blog useful? — Does it help you make good book choices for yourself or others?  Does it include the information you need?  What would you like to see added?

3) Is the blog useable? — Can you easily find what you want?  As the blog has gotten bigger, I’m thinking it might be time add some other way to search or organize the contents, maybe some additional lists of books by topic.

4) Is the blog fun? — Interesting?  Does it make you eager to read or share these books?

I know I enjoy writing the blog, and it helps me better serve the patrons of the library where I work.  If it helps others in Illinois, around the country, or even around the world, all the better.

Thanks for reading, thanks for your feedback!


My Life as a Stuntboy

stuntboyMy Life as a Stuntboy, by Janet Tashjian (lexile: 810; AR book level: 5.0; 256 pp)

One afternoon, twelve-year-old Derek Fallon and his best friend Matt head off to their favorite new playground — the nearby UCLA campus, where they like to skateboard and climb around walls and stair rails.  This particular day, however, Derek is noticed by a Hollywood stuntman, who offers him a job doing stunts for an upcoming movie!

This sounds like a dream come true, but there are complications.  First Derek has to get permission from his parents, and they require some things in return — like reading (which he hates, unless it’s Calvin & Hobbes) and taking better care of his pet monkey, Frank.  And his sudden fame creates friction in his friendship with Matt.  Plus doing stunts for fun is one thing, but doing them them with the camera rolling and a famous teen actress watching is quite another.

Derek’s narration is light and funny, from a perspective that will resonate with many 6th grade boys:

My parents have obviously forgotten what it’s like to be a kid with no money, no car, and no power.  Of course we say anything to get what we want — what else are we supposed to do?

This is actually the second in a series, but can be read on its own.  Based on reviews I’ve seen from kids and parents, the books have hooked a lot of reluctant readers who are attracted to a character a lot like themselves.  The look and tone are a bit Wimpy Kid, but with more plot and substance.  The wide margins are filled with Derek’s stick figure drawings, his trick for illustrating vocabulary words (actually drawn by the author’s son).  And parents will appreciate that Derek’s folks are savvy and supportive, and help him learn from his experiences.

The other books in the series so far:

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)