Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Middle School, mythology, Tween Reads

Pandora Gets Jealous, by Carolyn Hennesy (Bloomsbury, 2008)

Recommended for ages 10-13

Get ready for Mean Girls meets Clash of the Titans.

Pandora – Pandy to her friends – has no idea what to bring to school for her project on the gods’ presence in their lives. If she brings the piece of her dad, Atlas’, liver again, she’s totally going to fail. When she stumbles across a locked box hidden away, she knows she should not bring it. Her dad told her that she should never open it. But it would be perfect. When the mean girls at school tease her and tell her that the box is worthless, it somehow ends up being opened, and the seven evils escape into the world, and poor Hope ends up being locked in the box.

Zeus and Hera charge Pandora with tracking down and recapturing all of the evils she released in six phases of the moon, or else. Pandy sets off with her two best friends, Alcie and Iole, and a little stealth help from Olympus. Her first stop: Delphi, to recapture Envy.

Pandora Gets Jealous is the first in Ms. Hennesy’s Pandora series; each book features the evil that she and her friends must recapture. Aimed at girls, the writing starts off light, with Pandora appearing almost vapid, but the story becomes intense very quickly. The solid mythology in the book is a great way to bring these stories to a younger, female audience that may still see Greek mythology as something geared toward boys despite there being gods AND goddesses on Olympus. Like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, Ms. Hennesy makes Greek mythology contemporary for a new audience.

The author, actress Carolyn Hennesy, has a Pandora-focused website with a wealth of additional content on the series including teachers’ guides, book synopses, and a discussion forum.

Posted in Humor, Science Fiction, Tween Reads

Book Review: Aliens Ate My Homework, by Bruce Coville (Aladdin, 1993)

     Recommended for ages 9-12

Sixth-grader Rod Albright, better known as Rod the Clod among his classmates, is a target for the two bullies at school and the go-to babysitter for his toddler twin brother and sister at home. One day, while working on a science project for school, a miniature alien spaceship crashes into his window, and Rod is commandeered into helping the alien crew in their search for BKR, an intergalactic criminal infamous for his cruelty – and who just happens to be hiding out in Rod’s neighborhood. Can Rod, who is incapable of lying, keep his alien visitors a secret and help them succeed in their mission while getting his science project done on time?

Told from Rod’s point of view, Aliens Ate My Homework is a fun read for kids ages 9-12. As the first book in a four-book series, Coville sets up the story line and introduces the reader to a full cast of characters: Rod, Thing One and Thing Two, the toddler twins, their mother, the crew of the Ferkel, and BKR, the intergalactic villian. The crew of the Ferkel is a diverse group of aliens, illustrating that diversity is welcome in all parts of the universe; Grakker, the Ferkel’s captain, is a borderline hostile military man, but the crew and Rod all learn how to work with him – and vice versa. BKR, the criminal wanted across the galaxy, is guilty of cruelty. Says Ferkel ambassadaor Madame Pong of BKR’s crimes,  “Millions have wept.” There are lessons to be learned within Coville’s bright narrative – different personalities and people and capable of working together; cruelty is wrong; and every being, no matter how powerful or how small, needs help.

Aliens Ate My Homework is the first in Bruce Coville’s 4-book series, Rod Albright’s Alien Adventures; the other books in the series are I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X; The Search for Snout; and Aliens Stole My Body. Coville’s website also offers printable door hangers and bookmarks, crossword puzzles, and information about all of Coville’s books.

Posted in Fantasy, Post-apocalyptic/Dystopian, Science Fiction, Tween Reads

Book Review: A Boy and His Bot, by Daniel H.Wilson (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Recommended for ages 9-12

On a class trip to a Mek Mound, an ancient Oklahoman Indian land mound reminiscent of the Egyptian pyramids, sixth grader Code Lightfall discovers Mekhos, a manufactured, experimental world inhabited by robots and long forgotten by humans. The world is under the grip of the evil tyrant Immortalis, bent on the world’s destruction; it falls to Code and Gary, an atomic slaughterbot brought to life by Code’s imagination and Mekhos technology, to find the Robonomicon and save the day.

A Boy and His Bot is a journey to Oz tale for a more modern age, complete with beautiful and deadly surroundings like the Toparian Wyldes, the beautiful forest maintained by a race of robots who trim and sculpt anything in their way, their upkeep programming overriding any other directive. Where Oz has a benevolent wizard, Boy  has Immortalis, the evil overlord who pushes all robots to the day of The Great Disassembly, when all of Mekhos will be undone. Code’s main objective, beyond stopping The Great Disassembly from taking place, is to get back home.

I have noticed that heroes in “boy books” often come from dysfunctional families, and Code is no exception. A shy boy, picked on by some classmates, ignored by others, Code is grieving the disappearance of his grandfather John a year prior. His parents are not in the picture. The only positive female force in the book is Peep, the little robotic probe that befriends him and leads him to the world of Mekhos. Gary the Slaughterbot plays the part of the all brawn, no brains protector with the heart of gold.

I wonder why it is that young male characters’ families are so flawed in YA literature. Is this an accurate reflection of the state of families today, or is this the newest hook to keep young boys reading? Is it a way to reach out to young boys that may be in crisis and refuse to speak?  The combination of robotic creatures, a manmade world on the brink of destruction, and an invention like the slaughterbot alone is enough to grab a boy’s attention on the surface, but Code’s background gives him a depth that should help boys and girls alike be interested enough in his journey to travel along with him.
Daniel H. Wilson, Ph.D. is the author of How to Survive a Robot Uprising, Where’s My Jetpack, and How to Build a Robot Army. A Boy and His Bot is his first YA novel, but he has also written Bro-Jitsu: The Martial Art of Sibling Smackdown, and his Robot books are popular with older tweens and teens. He maintains an author website.
Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Humor, Tween Reads

Book Review: Villain School: Good Curses Evil, by Stephanie Sanders (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Recommended for ages 9-12

What do you do when your parents are some of the baddest bad guys in history, and you just don’t match up? You get sent to Master Dreadthorn’s School for Wayward Villains. Dracula’s daughter, Jezebel, is there – she prefers hot chocolate to blood. The Big Bad Wolf’s son, Wolf, is in there, too – he saved a human child from drowning. The Green Giant’s son was expelled when they realized that his dad was just some green guy trying to get kids to eat their vegetables.

Rune Drexler, Master Dreadthorn’s 12-year old son, is at villain school, too, but he’s not getting any preferred treatment – quite the opposite; he can’t seem to do anything right in his father’s eyes. When his father calls him to his office and gives him a Plot – a dangerous and evil test to achieve his next EVil (Educational Villain Levels) level, Rune sees his chance to be the villain his father wants him to be. But can he and his two friends carry out the Plot without ending up being heroes?
The story takes a little bit of time to get started; Sanders concentrates on exposition early on in the story. Once the Plot is under way, though, the story becomes a fun read with just enough of a twist to take the reader by surprise. I did not feel cheated by the book’s end – I wanted to know what Rune was going to do next. Middle grade readers will enjoy the good-natured jabs that the characters throw at one another, and the idea of being good while you’re trying to be evil will show younger readers that there is something good in even the baddest of villains.
Posted in Animal Fiction, Fantasy, Fiction, Tween Reads

Book Review: The Tale of Desperaux, by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick, 2008)

Recommended for ages 9-12

I picked this book up post-hype and after not really watching more than about 10 minutes of the movie (there really is something to be said for the movie-going experience over the at-home one). My expectations were tempered with the worry that comes when a book has been so talked about and featured in the media as Desperaux, but I needn’t have worried.

Desperaux is a story with many layers. It’s a cute animal fable with an adorable hero. It’s a love story between our hero and a princess. It’s a story that addresses hate and it addresses the darker side of nature, and how even the darkest creatures can crave the light. I wasn’t expecting the depth of character that DiCamillo invested in her characters, and I wanted to keep reading.

Desperaux is the only surviving mouse in his mother’s final litter. Born small and with his eyes open, his mother and father both write him off, but he survives. He’s tinier than his siblings and is different from the start, preferring to read books rather than eat them. He falls in love with the Princess Pea. She is enchanted with the tiny mouse, but her father, who hates rats – and equates all rodents with them – chases him away. For allowing himself to be seen by and talk to humans, the mouse council – members of whom include Desperaux’s own father and brother – decide to punish him with a death sentence, and they send him to the dungeon, ruled in darkness by the rats.

In the basement, we meet Chiaroscuro, a rat who loves the light but is forced to live in the darkness after a brief trip up to the castle living area ended with a terrible accident. He seethes and plans his revenge in the darkness, using a slow-witted servant girl with her own tragic past as a pawn in his game.

This book won the Newbery Award in 2004, and as you delve into the book, you can see why. For a children’s book, the characters’ backgrounds are incredible in their detail and complexity. I was amazed at DiCamillo’s ability to create characters with such depth and yet still make them accessible to children. The story moved along at a pace that kept me turning pages; I wanted to know what was going to happen next. Timothy Basil Ering’s illustrations were stark and beautiful, adding more depth to the story by adding to the vision the author’s words painted in my imagination.

There are some very good teaching guides for Desperaux available. Candlewick Press offers an illustrated discussion guide. Scholastic’s reader’s guide considers the movie and includes some illustrations from the animated feature. Reading is Fundamental (RIF) also has a free, downloadable Teacher’s Guide.