We don't do stars...
We don't do thumbs...
We read children's books and grade them in 10 categories:
literary quality
descriptive ability
humor (if attempted)
illustrations (if present)
believability of characters
believability of situations
overall reading enjoyment

There is no grading curve. There are no points for classroom participation. There is no extra credit.
If you disagree, come speak to us after class.

The Grading System

A+.....this means (guess what) we think it's great. So great it surprised even us.
A.....this means it's pretty darn good. A book we'd recommend to just about everyone we know.
B.....better than most. Not exactly Shakespeare for kids, though, if you get our drift.
C.....mediocre. Like the color beige, it didn't stand out.
D.....we didn't like it. There were more bad aspects than good ones.
F.....it reeked of badness. We read it over and over when we are in dire need of hysterical laughter.
F-.....We're pretty sure Dante had a circle of hell for the people who wrote these...and a lower circle for those who published them.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Reporter's Review: The Case of the Bizarre Bouquet, an Enola Holmes Mystery, by Nancy Springer

Overall Grade: C-
Philomel; 2008

If you are going to try and recreate one of the most beloved literary characters of all time, you had better do a good job of it. Nancy Springer, in her newest Enola Holmes mystery, The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets, did not. The portrayal of the legendary Sherlock Holmes was nothing less than literary libel. Not only was Sherlock inextricably muddled in logic, Ms. Springer took it upon herself to portray him, along with every other man of Victorian England, as an adamant fighter against the freedom of women. We liked the idea of throwing a strong, feminist character such as Enola into a male-dominated world, but there is a difference between feminism and unconstrained gender-bashing. Certainly, if a male author had made such condescending and condemning remarks about women as a sex, he would be blackballed from every publishing house in the country…not to mention the country itself. We must give Ms. Springer the benefit of the doubt, however. Perhaps she really believes that the average man would condemn his wife to an insane asylum could he not divorce her. Perhaps she finds it logical to suppose that men made women wear long skirts for centuries so they could not do anything. Perhaps all the men she has ever met in her life are complete losers. That would explain a great deal.
The writing of the book was mediocre—full of run-on, convoluted sentences and forced usages of archaic words. One use of “frisson” in a period book is acceptable, but two? And three instances of “proboscis”? Perhaps Ms. Springer should spend a little less time burying her own proboscis in a thesaurus, and a little more time putting it to the grindstone to whittle her sentence length down. Here’s some statistics: we took a sentence at random and counted 74 words (10 of which had 9 or more letters), 7 clauses, 4 commas and 2 dashes. Feel free to disregard this review if you do not agree that such an example screams of writing eccentricity just begging to be tamed.
One last thing we must mention… Mysteries should be solved by cleverness and intelligence, not by chance. Certainly not because you happen to be in the right place at the right time to hear the right conversation—for no better reason than you thought you’d take a stroll at the moment. Certainly not because you throw together some mad coincidences and act upon them as though they were flesh-and-blood clues.
Ms. Springer was right about one thing: Sherlock Holmes would have been horrified at his sister’s behavior. This book was elementary, indeed.

Literary Quality: C
Plot: C
Voice: B
Originality: B
Descriptive Ability: B
Humor: C
Illustrations: (none)
Believability of Characters: D
Believability of Situations: D
Overall Reading Enjoyment: C

Possibly objectionable topics*: Abandonment of child by parent; Several references to prostitutes; One instance of mildly crude humor; Strong anti-male sentiment.

Reporter's Review: A Curse Dark as Gold, by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Overall Grade: A
Arthur A. Levine; April, 2008

You tread upon dangerous ground when you decide to re-write a fairy tale; why mess with something that has satisfied readers for hundreds of generations, after all? We suppose the only reason is that you could do it better—and Elizabeth C. Bunce turned Rumpelstiltskin into something it has never been before. Although A Curse Dark as Gold is written for young adults, “old adults” would do well to read it and consider its themes. Who would have guessed that an old fairy tale could become a vehicle for a profound story about family, friendship, marriage, perseverance, and forgiveness?
While the evil pervading the story was at times a little unsettling (you tread on even more dangerous ground when you thrust a fairy tale into the “real world,” curses, witches and all), the main characters’ goodness was so overwhelming and so honestly portrayed that it made up for the bad stuff…and a lot of bad stuff happened to these poor characters. The story is of a cursed family trying to keep their generations-old wool mill alive against all odds…so don’t read it if you’re not prepared for some heart-wrenching moments when terrible things happen just when you were expecting the storm clouds to clear away.
But rest assured, they do clear away at the end in true fairy-tale fashion… You know how some writers are beginning writers—with this amazing first chapter that pulls you in right away and instantly links your life to the characters? And some are middle writers, developing plot twists that make your head spin? Elizabeth Bunce is an ending writer. Few people can pull off an ending this good, and it’s more than worth a slightly slow beginning to get to it.

Literary Quality: A
Plot: A
Voice: A+
Originality: A
Descriptive Ability: A+
Humor: (none, not factored into grade)
Illustrations: (none)
Believability of Characters: A+
Believability of Situations: A-
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A

Possibly objectionable topics*: Two brief illusions to sex—the first in a very respectful reference to marriage, the second referring to the illegitimate parentage of a character (Neither are in any way graphic or crude); witchcraft; curses; violent death of multiple characters (again, not graphic)

Reporter's Review: Eleven, by Patricia Reilly Giff

Overall Grade: C
Random House, Wendy Lamb Books; 2008

Eleven, from Newbery Honor recipient Patricia Reilly Giff, was pretty disappointing. There isn’t much actually bad to say about it—our biggest specific complaint was that she had characters cry when this seemed a little over the top. The saddest thing about this book was that nothing—at all—stood out. The plot was mediocre and predictable, the tension seemed contrived, the characters weren’t vivid enough. For a book that on the surface seems to be all about relationships (Sam’s relationship with his grandfather, with the new girl at school, with his reading teacher, with his neighbors), the relationships were very vaguely recreated…and the problem is it didn’t turn out to be about anything else either.
Eleven wasn’t a bad read, wasn’t an unpleasant way to spend a few hours…but we probably won’t remember it by this time next week.

Literary Quality: B
Plot: C
Voice: C
Originality: C
Descriptive Ability: B
Humor: C
Illustrations: (none)
Believability of Characters: C
Believability of Situations: C
Overall Reading Enjoyment: C

Possibly objectionable topics*: Vague memories of child abuse.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Children's Book Reporter: Book Reports for Children's Books

Have we mentioned why we're here? We've noticed a striking lack of book reviews that analyze children's books in any depth. When we want to find a good book to read, we want to know a lot more about it than whether someone "liked" it or not--liking, you must agree is extremely subjective. We hope to provide reviews that give more information than this. Yes, we will say whether or not we liked it...but we will also tell you why in as much detail as we can put and still be entertaining.
Please post a comment here and let us know what you think of our system!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Reporter's Review: The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, by Jeanne Birdsall

Overall Grade: A-
Knopf; 2008

There is a character mentioned in The Penderwicks on Gardam Street who claims to have been all sorts of people in her past lives: Mary Queen of Scots, Mary Magdalene…lots of Mary’s. If we believed in reincarnation, we’d have a list of people Jeanne Birdsall might have been in a past life: L. M. Montgomery, Eleanor Estes, Elizabeth Enright, Hilda Van Stockum. Her book had an old-fashioned (in a good way) charm that permeated the entire story and made it altogether lovable despite a somewhat predictable plot and a horrible dust jacket—but the latter wasn’t Ms. Birdsall’s fault, poor woman. The characters’ development was believable and meaningful, and you can’t help but love them all. Their problems are those of an innocent lot of girls, without so many problems found in most contemporary novels—which was nice to find. Having had pretty innocent childhoods ourselves, it was refreshing to see a modern children’s book that actually acknowledged such childhoods as normal. A quote from the aforementioned L. M. Montgomery comes to mind: “Don’t be led away by those yowls about realism. Remember—pine woods are just as real as pigsties—and a darn sight pleasanter to be in.” The Penderwicks, etc was a very pleasant book to find oneself immersed in—it will be on our shelf years from now for our children to enjoy—with our hearty recommendation. Not to sound hackneyed, but just make sure not to judge this book by its cover!

Literary Quality: A
Plot: B+
Voice: A+
Originality: B
Descriptive Ability: A
Humor: A
Illustrations: F (We hate to do it, but the dust jacket was possibly the worst we have ever seen on a children’s book. It looks like someone not artistically-inclined printed it out from Microsoft Publisher.)
Believability of Characters: A (This has emotional honesty at its best)
Believability of Situations: A+
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A+

Possibly objectionable topics*: Death of a parent

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Reporter's Review: The Willoughbys, by Lois Lowry

Overall Grade: A
Houghton Mifflin; April 2008

Once upon a time there was a clever woman named Lois Lowry who wrote a great many children’s books and won gold medals that got printed into stickers and put on the covers of two of them. Then one day, she decided to flout all convention and write a book called “The Willoughbys” about four children who wish they were orphans with two parents who wish they were childless. Both teams work at their goals with great spirit and determination, but the children prevail. With their fairy-tale billionaire benefactor and odd (but not really odious) nanny and a couple random children thrown into the mix, they live happily and parentlessly ever after. The End.
The strangest thing about this book was how much we liked it. Considering how recognizable the name of “Lowry” is in the insightful, complex, thought-provoking branch of the Children’s Literature World, her sense of humor was so surprisingly wonderful in this book that it left us smiling long after we finished shaking our heads in disbelief at the Willoughby parents (un)timely demise near the end. No one in the past or present world of books seemed safe from the narrator’s sarcastic wit, and we loved it—but let us note that Lowry owes a profound debt to Roald Dahl. If he hadn’t been so insanely clever—and perhaps plain insane—she not only would have missed out on a few jokes but would have left us with our mouths gaping open at her irreverent humor. After all, we’ve seen squished aunts, devoured parents, malevolent toddlers, and unbalanced candy-makers…so we can put up with a little more lunacy now.

Literary Quality: A+ (It’s Lois Lowry—what did you expect?)
Plot: A
Voice: A+
Originality: A
Descriptive Ability: A-
Humor: A (We wanted so badly to give it an A+…but there was this one lame joke… Oh, why did you do it, Dear Author? Considering how short the book is, it is simply unforgivable to use more than one page to lead up to a joke about NOT naming a candy bar Baby Ruth.)Illustrations: A- (Despite the proviso on the cover they were not ignominious, but added to the spirit and interest of the story)
Believability of Characters: A (For a farcical work, that is; everyone was developed well and the emotional honesty of the main characters—though not always the secondary ones—was absolutely top-notch)
Believability of Situations: A (See above)
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A+

Possibly objectionable topics*: Neglectful parents; Parents abandoning their children; Children planning their parents’ death; Unhappy marriages.
As a warning: anyone without a developed sense of sarcasm should be carefully monitored during the reading of this product.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Reporter's Review: The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, by Trenton Lee Stewart

Overall Grade: B+
Little, Brown; May 2008

OK...so it has the longest name of any decent book we've read since From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but the point is: it's decent. It's refreshing to read a book where the author treats his readers with respect, dropping words like "phalanx" without a pause for breath or explanation. Overall, it fell into the category of sequels that don't live up to "the first one"; the beginning was very slow, and the conflict was non-existent for the first 70 pages. On the other hand, it kept us laughing almost constantly, with ridiculously lovable characters and brain-stimulating humor on practically every page. On the whole, the book was almost as clever as its protagonists.

Literary Quality: B+ (We got oh, so tired of all the parenthetical comments and repetitive back-story)
Plot: A
Voice: B+ (It jumped around so much from one character to another that we got confused...)
Originality: A
Descriptive Ability: A
Humor: A
Illustrations: B
Believability of Characters: B+
Believability of Situations: B
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A

Possibly Objectionable Material*: None we could find