Children’s Favorite

IDA B: . . . AND HER PLANS TO MAXIMIZE FUN, AVOID DISASTER, AND (POSSIBLY) SAVE THE WORLD by Katherine Hannigan

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Ida B spends most of her time with her mother and father in their Wisconsin orchard.   She has no brothers and sisters or neighbors to play with, but she has an incredibly creative imagination, and befriends all of the trees, the river, and the animals in the orchard.  She tried going to public school in kindergarten, but the rules and rigid structure of her strict teacher’s classroom were so suffocating to her that her parents decided to let her stay at home and be homeschooled.  But when her mother is diagnosed with cancer, everything changes for Ida B and her family.  They will have to sell part of the orchard—the trees who were Ida B’s friends—in order to pay for her treatment, and perhaps worst of all, Ida B will have to start public school for fourth grade.   Horrified by her parents’ betrayal, Ida B decides to harden her heart.  She will go to school, but she will not enjoy herself.  She will not make friends.  She will not allow herself to like her warm-hearted teacher.  She will feel nothing.  At least she will try. . . .

Although the premise may sound depressing, Ida B is an incredibly uplifting, funny, endearing book, with a spirited, witty narrator and the wonderful teacher who softens Ida B’s hard heart.  Its intended audience is upper elementary readers, although I suspect many adults will find it as relatable and touching as I do.  I highly recommend it!

PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

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Peter was the leader of the orphan boys at St. Norbert’s for several reasons.  First, he was the oldest—or at least he said he was.  He was also very smart and very brave.  And he could spit the farthest, which is an important qualification for leadership.  So when Peter, James, Prentiss, Thomas, and Tubby Ted end up as cabin boys on the rickety old ship the “Never Land” on their way to become snake food at the royal palace of King Zarboff the Third, Peter takes charge.  He leaves the rat-infested cabin every night to find the other boys some food.  That’s how he meets Molly, a girl who can talk to porpoises, and discovers the mysterious trunk that she is guarding—a trunk with the power to make rats fly and men feel light as a feather.  Molly is the daughter of a Starcatcher, in charge of protecting the trunk’s magic from the evil “Others” in her father’s absence.  But when Molly learns that her enemies are onboard the “Never Land,” she needs Peter’s help to keep the trunk and its contents safe.  And then, there are the pirates: Black Stache and Smee and the terrible crew of the “Sea Devil” who also want to get their hands on the greatest treasure ever to be taken on the sea.

This prequel to Peter Pan is a wonderful adventure story full of action, magic, and humor (it is very clear that Dave Barry is one of the writers).  It is the first in a series, followed by Peter and the Shadow Thieves, Peter and the Secret of Rundoon and Peter and the Sword of Mercy.   They are intended for an upper elementary/ middle grade audience, but this is one grown up who enjoys them very much!  There are also several “spin-off” books about the Lost Boys and the adventures of the Mollusk Indians: Escape from the Carnivale, Cave of the Dark Wind, Blood Tide, and The Bridge to Neverland.

A word on the series:  The first book can stand alone.  There are a few things that aren’t explained fully, but you can make the jump from the ending of Starcatchers to the beginning of Peter Pan pretty easily.  Shadow Thieves and Secret of Rundoon are a lot scarier than Starcatchers (I read Starcatchers aloud with a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old with a few minor alterations to pirate vocabulary and behavior, and they loved it, but I  did not continue on in the series because it would have been too scary).   It’s fine for 4-6th graders, who are the book’s intended audience, but just a heads up if you start it as a read aloud with younger kids—preview the Shadow Thieves before you jump in!  The fourth book, Sword of Mercy, breaks the prequel logic, unfortunately, because it occurs years after the first three end, and involves the Darling children, but does not fit into the original Peter Pan timeline.   So that disappointed me.  I might recommend only reading books 1-3.  But if you really enjoy the characters and won’t be bothered by the series becoming more “fan fiction” than true “prequel,” Sword of Mercy is a good book, too.

ARTEMIS FOWL by Eoin Colfer

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Artemis Fowl, Jr., is not your average twelve-year-old.  For one thing, he is the son of an incredibly wealthy crime lord and has grown up surrounded by advanced technology and bodyguards.  For another, since his father’s disappearance and the onset of his mother’s mental illness, Artemis has virtually no adult supervision, managing his own life and the family’s assets.  And most importantly, Artemis is a genius.  It is precisely his unique position on the boundary of childhood and very mature adulthood that allows him to perpetrate his latest scheme–because when he learned of the existence of fairies, he was just innocent enough to believe in them, and plenty brilliant enough to concoct a foolproof plan to extort their gold.

After stealing the Book of the People from an alcoholic sprite in Vietnam, Artemis returns to his home in Ireland to crack the fairy language and learn all of their secrets.  He then proceeds to Phase Two of the plan: kidnap a fairy and hold him for ransom, threatening to reveal their secret, underground world to the humans if the Lower Elements Police (LEP) do not comply with his financial demands.  Unfortunately for Artemis, he kidnapped Captain Holly Short, an officer in the LEP Recon division, and she just may be his match.  While Artemis uses his brilliant mind to stay one step ahead of Commander Root and the LEP technology, and his formidable bodyguard Butler keeps the perimeter secure, Holly tries to find a way to escape and take down the super-genius “mud-man.”

This book is a great blend of science fiction and fantasy, popular among upper elementary and middle grade readers (and certain nerdy librarians . . . ).  The characters are fantastic, there is a decent amount of action, and humor is blended in quite nicely.  I highly recommend this series to both eager and reluctant readers.  There are eight books in the series.

GREGOR THE OVERLANDER by Suzanne Collins

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If you are one of those people who believes that there must be a colony of gargantuan rats and cockroaches living under the streets of New York City, consider your paranoid fears vindicated. When Gregor’s baby sister crawls into an air vent in the basement of their apartment building, he follows her down a long dark chute and into the Underland.  Fortunately, they are found by the friendly giant cockroaches and not the malicious six-foot-tall rats.  The cockroaches bring them to the city of the Underland humans.  There, Gregor learns that his father who disappeared two years earlier fell down the same chute and ended up prisoner of the rats.  He also learns that he himself may be the warrior hero mentioned in an ancient Underland prophecy.  Together with the snobby young Underlander queen and her insufferable cousin, two loyal bats, two kind cockroaches, and the snarky, bitter traitor rat, Ripred, Gregor and his baby sister set off on a quest to save the Underland human race from destruction.

This is definitely one of my favorite children’s fantasy series.  The overall tone of the book is somewhat dark but also incredibly humorous.  Collins also uses the series to challenge some of the notions of right vs. wrong and heroism vs. barbarism that are often taken for granted in heroic fantasy literature.  And she is simply an excellent writer.  If you enjoyed the Harry Potter series, the Percy Jackson series, or Suzanne Collins’ other series, The Hunger Games, you should check out this book!   There are four subsequent books in the series:  Gregor and the Prophecy of the Bane, Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, Gregor and the Marks of Secret, and Gregor and the Code of Claw.  Personally, I think they get even better, the farther you get into the series!

THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY by Adam Rex

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What is the true meaning of Smekday–the day formerly known as Christmas, the day that the Boovish aliens arrived to colonize Earth, and the day the Boov left one year later?  This is the essay question that Gratuity “Tip” Tucci must answer.  The winning essay will be put in a time capsule that will be opened in 100 years. In her three attempts at writing the essay, Tip gradually reveals the story of the Boov’s arrival and the events that followed.

While trying to reach the human reservation in Florida by car, Tip and her cat, Pig, met up with a Boov criminal, who has taken as his Earth name J.Lo. (a name that he believes is a popular Earth name due to its frequent appearance in media publications).  Together they travel across the country searching for Tip’s mom, who was abducted toward the beginning of the invasion. Then Tip, J.Lo, and Pig join forces with a gang of boys who have been hiding in a secret tunnel system under Disney World, and together, they drive the Gorg (another set of invading aliens–much more evil than the Boov) out of Earth.  Throughout her story, Tip includes illustrations and pages of comics drawn by J.Lo who can’t write in English.

This book is both hilarious and poignant, a nice blend of hard- and soft-science fiction, approaching issues of race and prejudice through the blunt, sarcastic, witty voice of 11 yr. old Tip.  The book is written for an upper elementary/middle school reading level.  It is one of my all-time favorites.

THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY by Trenton Lee Stewart

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Reynie Muldoon is incredibly gifted at solving puzzles and logic games. Kate Weatherall is incredibly resourceful with the items she carries around in her beloved bucket; she can create almost anything. Sticky Washington can read at lightning speed and remembers everything he has ever read, heard, or seen. And Constance Contraire. . .well, Constance is stubborn. And for reasons that will not become clear until the very end of the book, Mr. Benedict insists that she is far more brilliant than the other children realize.

Mr. Benedict gathers this group of brilliant children together to form a team of secret agents who will infiltrate an institution for gifted children that is really a front for a madman’s secret plans for world domination. Although the implications of the madman’s plot are quite dark, the brain teasers and vibrant characters keep the tone of the book light.  The book is intended for a 4th-6th grade audience, but anyone who loves puzzles and codes and a bit of science fiction and mystery will enjoy it.  The Mysterious Benedict Society is the first in a trilogy, followed by The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey and The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma.