Friday, February 25, 2011


The problem with many fantasy books today is that they all belong to a series. Stand-alone titles are not popular. I can't blame an author for having a lot to say about a world they've created and are passionate about or for looking for a way to cash-in on a clever idea, but it does get a little tiring. Reading a full series worth of books requires much devotion and patience. I've read books before that I've enjoyed (FABLEHAVEN by Brandon Mull, 100 CUPBOARDS by N.D. Wilson) but just couldn't find myself wanting to read the full series.

This is what made WINDBLOWNE so appealing to me. Here we have the promise of a soaring (excuse the pun) adventure, without the somewhat burden of future installments. A fully-realized fantasy world that can be devoured in one sitting!

Oliver loves kites. In the tree-hugging community of Windblowne, this is a good thing. Each year a midsummer kite flying festival is held and Oliver dreams of winning it. The only problem is he can't get a kite to stay in the air for more than a brief moment. When he discovers that his Great-uncle Gilbert is a former festival champion, he seeks him out for advice and help. What he uncovers instead is a Windblowne conspiracy, involving alternate universes, a timid red flying kite, bladed fighting kites, and an evil Lord Uncle trying to destroy everything Oliver loves.

WINDBLOWNE left me wanting more, and not necessarily in a good way. I know I opened with the problem of fantasy series books, but here's a case where I feel like more explanation was needed. The initial mystery is great! In fact, when Oliver was swept away to the alternate universe the first time, I liked where I thought the book was going. Were the two moons of Oliver's Windblowne going to come into play somehow? Two moons, two universes? No. Instead, we discover (SPOILERS - Gasp!) that there are many alternate universes, all being affected by evil Lord Gilbert's antics! I thought the alternate universes would've benefited from further explanation but then probably would've caused the plot to drag along worse than it already was!

I like the eco-friendly message (think Avatar meets Fringe, in a very naturalistic way) and I like how Oliver learns to adjust his hopes and dreams along the way, discovering his true potential. In the end, I feel like the concept was good, just not realized as effectively as it could have been.

Final Grade: B-

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

SLJ Battle of the Books

For the last few years, School Library Journal has hosted a Battle of Kids Books online. It's rather addicting . . .

Brackets are put together, famous authors are judges, books battle head-to-head until the Big Kahuna Round, when one book stands tall. Last year, that honor went to MARCHING FOR FREEDOM by Elizabeth Partidge. The year before it went to THE HUNGER GAMES.

This year, a few of my favorites are included in the bracket, namely THE DREAMER and A TALE DARK AND GRIMM.

While THE DREAMER remains my favorite book of 2010, for some reason I find myself rooting for A TALE DARK AND GRIMM here. I can't explain it. I don't have to!

So if anyone is reading this, follow this link and vote for A TALE DARK AND GRIMM. If it gets enough votes in the Undead Poll, and is knocked out of the competition too early (although I highly doubt it with R.L. Stine judging the first round), it could still be alive and reintroduced for the Big Kahuna round!

And if the Grimm Brothers and Adam Gidwitz are too violent for you, then please cast your vote for THE DREAMER.

Monday, February 21, 2011

What Happened on Fox Street

My wife teaches 4th grade, and she often complains that some of my favorite books to read aloud to my 5th graders go over the head of her 4th graders. It is only one grade level, but in our experience it would seem that the maturity difference between 4th and 5th graders in general, is surprisingly significant. Often she resorts to reading THERE'S A BOY IN THE GIRL'S BATHROOM, or SIDEWAYS STORIES FROM WAYSIDE SCHOOL. While these stories are good in their own right (and entertaining), she often wants to challenge her readers and struggles finding good books written for children in this age range.

Enter WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET. Aimed squarely at the 3rd-4th grade crowd, here's a book that could have wide appeal, while showing kids of that age what great writing looks like!

Mo Wren loves her house on Fox Street. The street itself may be in need of a makeover, but it's her street. It's where the memories of her dead mother reside. She wouldn't leave her house for all the money in the world. That's not to say her father wouldn't though. Her father works for the water department and dreams of owning a family-friendly sports bar and grill. And when a shady developer comes along looking to buy up the properties on this dead-end street, Mo panics. With the help of her best-friend Mercedes, who has moved away but still spends each summer with her grandmother on Fox Street, Mo decides that she won't go down without a fight.

This book just feels so authentic. Mo is a character many kids could relate to. Her single dad works too hard. Her "Wild Child" sister is a pain in the neck. And Mo herself is incredibly selfish. It's easy to picture her, in the flesh. To fight for her. To be angry at her. The growing-up she is forced to do, especially when the reader begins noticing that her friendship with Mercedes is changing, is a powerful theme many kids will find meaning in. Author Tricia Springstubb handles it beautifully. In addition, the dialogue, the phrasing of sentences, and the figurative language used are all so unique and original, the book could prompt some great discussions on the craft of writing.

The relationship between Mo and her father was a high point for me. Mo's dad is blue collar. He drinks beer. He plays softball. He gives his daughter leeway that many parents may scoff at. But as I said before, it feels so authentic. He doesn't go to work in a suit and tie. He doesn't drive a nice car. He doesn't read the newspaper in the morning. He and Mo are very real with each other. His love for her is genuine and felt on nearly every page. With his wife's passing, Mo is his girl now. I loved how their relationship grew throughout the story and I thought the resolution to their conflict was great.

Good books, aimed at this age range, are hard to come by. Thankfully authors like Tricia Springstubb are stepping up and trying to fill the void.

Final Grade: B+