Two Books: One for the Adults and One for the Kids

This one is for the big people:

If you want to understand court intrigue in 16th-Century England, and the power that came with title, wealth, and ostentatious display, read Murder by Misrule: A Francis Bacon Mystery by Anna Castle.

It might help readers understand the goings-on these days in state and federal capitals. It’s a rich man’s game.

Tudor rulers weren’t the first to use religion as a tool of control, but the fight between the Catholics and the Church of England during the reigns of Henry VIII’s two daughters was bloody and anything but holy. The author of this historical mystery has certainly done her homework on the topic.

And this one is for the kids:

Kids without supervision, a missing locket, spies, an unreliable uncle, and a science lab make for a good story. Along with the story are some really cool science experiments.

Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab is the first title in a series by Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith. Kids will eat it up, like 200 cans of chicken noodle soup. Okay, you’ll have to read the book to understand that reference.

I read the e-book, but I’m buying a hard copy for my grandson. Lists and diagrams are easier to read in the hard-copy versions, and I expect he’ll need the lists and diagrams to build an electromagnet or a rocket squirrel.


The best children’s literature is sophisticated, imaginative, and literary. But literary and sophisticated aren’t enough. For kids to bother with it, a story has to move.

The Dragonbreath series by Ursula Vernon has it all! Imagine yourself laughing out loud as a dragon and a nerdish iguana battle ninja frogs. And Vernon draws you into the story so well, you willingly suspend disbelief when were-wieners battle their arch nemesis, biting potato salad.

Not feeling it yet? Listen to this excerpt from Curse of the Were-Weiner:

“Wendell exhaled. He wanted to say, Are you sure? Or maybe Do we have to?

But it was Danny, and Danny was always sure, even when he was completely wrong.”

Kids will love these stories. So will discerning grownups.

Building Empathy

Over the holidays I read Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead. Yeah, some of my stack books have been waiting for years.

It occurred to me as I read that the only thing better than experience for building empathy are good stories. Fiction must be part of the school curriculum. It is essential to building critical thinking skills and it lets students walk in someone else’s shoes.

Nonfiction is important, but it isn’t more important than fiction.

Liar and Spy gave me the same feeling I got the first time I read Harriet, the Spy. I’d never had the run of an apartment building and Harriet probably never watched her grandmother wring a chicken’s neck and fry it up for lunch, but we were the same kid anyway.

If we can’t travel, we can read. If we can’t meet our other selves, we can still find them in a book. Books in the hands of kids are as important to the future of the world as adapting to climate change will be.

Rural Oklahoma kids need to read about a boy in a Brooklyn apartment as much as they need to read about an Afghani girl who must disguise herself as a boy to work in the market. They need to read about a Sudanese boy escaping a civil war and a Midwestern boy surviving the Chicago fire, both coping with loss. They need to know the how and the why of a Somali boy on a pirate ship and of a young slave who will risk her life to learn to read. They need all this to see that we are all as alike as we are different, to understand how circumstances shape each of us.

As for Rebecca Stead, she deserves every award she gets. Read her stories for her storytelling skills and for literary excellence. You’ll even build your vocabulary. Painlessly.

Midwest Book Review, Children’s Bookwatch

“Froggy Bottom Blues” is a delightful origin of the blues tale with friendly froggy, bird, and animal characters for musicians. Loosely based on the biography of W. C. Handy, composer of “Memphis Blues” and early blues performer and collector, “Froggy Bottom Blues” follows the odyssey of E. Z., a froggy daughter who traveled [up] the Mississippi to follow a dream of becoming a great blues singer, inspiring other animal friends to become blues musicians along the way. Child-like illustrations present the characters of E. Z., Pelican, Woodpecker, and Cat, animal friends who also become blues musicians with E. Z.’s encouragement. One of the most beautiful aspects of “Froggy Bottom Blues” is the theme of sharing as a basic component of blues and perhaps all great music. Simply told and creatively illustrated, “Froggy Bottom Blues” tells a compelling tale about the birth of the blues, in the eyes of a talented, determined frog female who becomes a successful blues singer. It is a perfect introduction to the blues and the rich cultural background of blues musicians on the southern trip [up] the Mississippi River.

Froggy Bottom Blues
Sharon Edge Martin, author
Timothy Lange, illustrator
Doodle and Peck Publishing
P.O. Box 852105, Yukon, OK 73085 9780998930275 $9.99

The Gift of a Good Story

As a Christmas gift to myself, I am reading. Whole novels. Big ones. Little ones. And drinking cups of coffee while they are still hot. Yes, there is still work to be done, but for chickens and family to feed, most of it is less important than stilling my mind of anxiety and diving into story.

Yep, that was a cheesy way to introduce Matt De La Pena’s The Living. The writing is, of course, superb, and the characters people in which to believe. If you like apocalypse and politics and romance, you won’t go wrong with this, the first book in a series…or maybe a miniseries.

Here’s a sample:

“He did nothing more than tread water in the dark for several minutes, battling his own thoughts. What if he was stranded for good? Nothing to eat or drink, no one there when he died? What if he never saw anything but water again? He felt like he’d been shown the truth of the world. The absolute power it held. People just meaningless specks that came and went as easily as flipping a switch.”

You want something a little sweeter? Read Wishtree by Katherine Applegate. I cried. I don’t care much for tearjerkers, but this beautiful little story made me feel cozy and hopeful. Yeah, and I want my own wishtree.

A Two-Novel Week!

This was a good week, with only minor distractions. I not only wrote every day, but I managed to find quiet time to read two of the middle grade novels on my tottering stack.

First, Teddy Mars: Almost an Outlaw by Molly B. Burnham.

I picked up the first Teddy Mars novel, Almost a World Record Breaker, when it won the Sid Fleischman Award for humor from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I loved it so much, I decided to read it aloud to my fourth-grade Reading Lab boys. They loved it so much, they said I should invite the Reading Lab girls next door to join them. Almost an Outlaw, the third book in the series, lives up to expectations. Find you a reading spot where it’s okay to laugh out loud.

Second, Nooks and Crannies by Jessica Lawson.

I had expectations here, too, because I’m a fan of Lawson’s The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher.

How would I classify Nooks and Crannies?

It takes place in the early 1900s in England, during the reign of King Edward, so we can call it historical fiction.

The wealthy can afford electricity and motorcars, and the house where most of the story takes place has clever hidden passages. This gives the book a steampunk feel even though it’s a half dozen years into the 20th Century.

It is definitely a mystery, well plotted and fast paced, but it has such quotable lines. I see no reason that good genre fiction can’t be literary fiction, as well.

The main character, despite her Dickensian life is smart and good. If you love a good mystery, settle in and read.

I heartily recommend both books for your own middle grade stacks. And if you don’t have a middle grade stack, I suggest you start one.

Lauren Tarshis on the American Revolution

If you’ve read any I Survived books, you know before you start that the main character will suffer and that he or she will survive. It’s predictable, and that suits most upper elementary readers. What’s not predictable is how much you will enjoy reading a novel with a not-really-all-that-predicable ending, how passionately you will root for characters that feel like real people, and how much you will learn.

The latest offering from the series author, Lauren Tarshis, covers the Battle of Brooklyn, aka the Battle of Long Island. I won’t tell you how the battle turns out. I recommend that you read the book. Once you’ve read it for yourself, read it again with a kid and discuss its weighty questions.

I intend to find a fourth grade class with whom I can share the story.

Ms. Tarshis suggests you read the following books, as well:
The Seeds of America trilogy by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Fighting Ground by Avi
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
The Keeping Room by Anna Myers
Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen