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.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Reporter's Review: Cicada Summer, by Andrea Beaty

Overall Grade: A-
Amulet Books; 2008

In this case, we want to start by airing our biggest complaint: whoever wrote the dust jacket blurb for Cicada Summer did Andrea Beaty a grave injustice. From the blurb, we expected a sickly-sweet, happy-go-lucky story about one girl’s exciting summer; in other words, we expected to hate it. We did not. The actual book was completely different from its description, being a meaningful story of dealing with loss and guilt in a way that is refreshingly uplifting and honest. The one disappointment was that the book’s very short length (at 167 small pages) left some loose ends in character development and plot that could have been tied up more effectively in a slightly longer work.

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

Possibly objectionable topics*: death of a child; a criminal parent.

Reporter's Review: Acting Out

Atheneum; 2008

This, by necessity, is a different sort of review. Acting Out is a compilation of six one-act plays by six Newbery medalists: Avi, Susan Cooper, Sharon Creech, Patricia MacLachlan, Katherine Paterson, and Richard Peck. Plays, for one thing, cannot be critiqued as books can be; and for another thing, it would take way too long to critique each play individually.
We’ve given an overall grade to each playwright, based on 4 factors: plot, character, dialogue, and one more… When the book’s editor spoke with the authors, he gave them one criterion: each other must pick one word, and each author must use all six words in his or her play. Our final grade is based upon how well each playwright completed this task…after all, if that’s their gimmick, they should be able to stand the consequences… The words were: dollop, hoodwink, Justin, knuckleball, panhandle, and raven.

Avi: “Not Seeing is Believing”
Plot: C- (Bo-ring…can’t imagine kids wanting to act it)
Character: C
Dialogue: B (Kind of trite, but there were funny bits)
Word Usage: B

Susan Cooper: “The Dollop”
Plot: B
Character: A
Dialogue: B (It would have been better if it weren’t for the talking rock…)
Word Usage: C (A rock that’s named, and repeats, “Dollop”? Seriously…)

Sharon Creech: “The Raven”
Plot: A (It’s pretty funny, kids would like the kooky twists)
Character: A
Dialogue: A-
Word Usage: B- (Some were good, but others…)

Patricia MacLachlan: “The Bad Room”
Plot: D (we saw a popular movie with the same plot two years ago…we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt that she never saw it and didn’t purposely plagiarize…but either way, it wasn’t all that creative)
Character: A-
Dialogue: B-
Word Usage: C- (Inserting the words as random vocabulary words was just too predictable…and came across as desperate.)

Katherine Paterson: “The Billionaire and the Bird”
Plot: B- (It was well executed, but she did take it direct from Hans Christian Anderson)
Character: A
Dialogue: A-
Word Usage: A (We especially liked her use of “panhandle”…read it to find out)

Richard Peck: “Effigy in the Outhouse”
Plot: A (Very original and interesting)
Character: A
Dialogue: B (The play format may have been a little stumbling block, because sometimes the dialogue did not allow the story to flow as smoothly as Peck’s stories do)
Word Usage: B+

Possibly objectionable topics* in all six plays: none.

Reporter's Review: The Boy Who Dared, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Overall Grade: B+
Scholastic; 2008

Susan Campbell Bartoletti is a wonderful researcher. In The Boy Who Dared, she found the story of a reluctant Hitler youth who is brave (and maybe stupid, as his family thought) enough to stand against the Nazis and risk his life for truth. Undeniably, the story itself is beautiful, although it is hard to give the author credit for that—after all, she only found it—the main character, Helmuth Hubener, is the real author of his story. It was well-told, however—not excellently, but not badly either. At times the character’s reactions were unbelievable, and Helmuth’s change from a young, excited Hilter-supporter to a angry, disillusioned Nazi-hater is jolting and confusing. The flashback style is interesting and the descriptions of the concentration camp are moving, if somewhat stylistically overdone.
Nonetheless, this is a book to be read. The author was brave enough to make a statement herself: the second world war was terrible for everyone. The atrocities committed against the Jews tend to have plenty of media—and as deserved as that is, it is enlightening to see the story from another perspective. Brave Germans—even ones such as Helmuth and his brother who were forced into serving the Nazis—also deserve to have their stories told.

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

Possibly objectionable topics*: war; violence (including torture and privations of a concentration camp); Nazi propaganda involving anti-Semitism (shown in a negative light, of course).

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Reporter's Review: Bewitching Season, by Marissa Doyle

Overall Grade: B
Henry Holt; 2008

In Bewitching Season, by Marissa Doyle, the twin sisters Pers(ephon)e and Pen(elope) Leland are caught in a jumble of social obligations, political intrigues, silk gowns, and sorcerer’s spells. Cleverly plotted and rich with interesting historical details of early Victorian England, the story is gripping and intriguing…it would have been really wonderful if it didn’t fit quite so easily into a prefabricated genre, easily fitting into the spin-off slot of either Harry Potter or Bewitched. Nonetheless, the historical elements and likable characters (particularly some of the secondary ones) saved it from mediocrity: it was good, fair and square.
Now, to continue to be fair, our pet peeves must be aired: Too much explanation of the way magic works, at unlikely moments in dialogue; Too much “cute” magic for which there is no cost, no consequence; Anachronistic (modern) dialogue in a historical piece; Stereotypical romantic situations. That’s all… They may seem like such trivial things to complain about, and they probably are—but thus they are also trivial things to fix in a manuscript before it is published. Without those few weaknesses, the believability and enjoyment of Bewitching Season would have been vastly improved.
We wouldn’t complain about them if the rest wasn’t good, however…So, Bravo to Ms. Doyle on her first venture into publication.

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

Possibly objectionable topics*: witchcraft and sorcery; gossip of adultery and illegitimate children.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Reporter's Review: Princess Ben, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Overall Grade: B+
Houghton Mifflin; 2008

Catherine Gilbert Murdock may have created one of the most original fairy tale princesses ever in her gluttonous, spunky, ill-behaved Princess Ben. She did an excellent job of making us feel for an imperfect character, enough to love her despite (and because of) her imperfections, and love her even more as she overcomes them. Unfortunately, the secondary characters shared neither this charm nor believability, but Ben was lovable enough to compensate. The plot was well-thought-out and creative; again, unfortunately not all aspects were as good as others. Sometimes the first-person narrator dramatized a situation at first telling, only for us to find out later that the whole issue wasn’t too big a deal, insignificant enough to be trivialized away in a sentence or two. We would have liked to see Ben resolve these issues, instead of having them resolve themselves. Overall, though: a worthwhile read.

Literary Quality: B (some anachronisms and inconsistent language detracted from style)
Plot: A-
Voice: A-
Originality: A
Descriptive Ability: A-
Humor: A
Illustrations: (none)
Believability of Characters: C (In particular, the secondary characters came across flat)
Believability of Situations: C
Overall Reading Enjoyment: A-

Possibly objectionable topics*: sorcery; “bawdy jokes”; warfare.

Reporter's Review: The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt

Overall Grade: B-
Atheneum; 2008

The Underneath is Kathi Appelt’s debut novel; her writing skill certainly indicates that it will be the first of many. Her words have a beautiful, poetic quality—our one complaint is that this style may have been slightly overused for a prose narrative, but we could certainly see future books succeeding very nicely in an unadulterated poetry format. And yet, despite its many excellent qualities (honest characters, beautiful language, stunning descriptions), we still can’t say that The Underneath was a book we enjoyed. Especially considering Ms. Appelt’s skill with words, we felt betrayed and disappointed that she chose to manipulate her audience to feel one emotion: the weight of tragedy. Or rather, depression, for tragedy involves a basically good character failing through one unfortunate flaw, whereas The Underneath’s sadness stems from basically bad characters –with one or two good traits—being true to their natures and making bad decisions. And, although the end promises redemption, it doesn’t make good on the promise. In the very last paragraphs, the character who is the cause of most of the catastrophe saves the lives of the protagonists by making one good decision. Supposedly this redeems her—but we would have to argue that this is not redemption…it is simply a character finally making the kind of choice any decent person would have been making all along. There is absolutely no sacrifice, no risk to herself, that is the essence of true redemption.

Literary Quality: B
Plot: C
Voice: A
Originality: C
Descriptive Ability: A+
Humor: C
Illustrations: A (by Caldecott winner David Small)
Believability of Characters: A
Believability of Situations: B
Overall Reading Enjoyment: D

Possibly objectionable topics*: death; violence, including child and animal abuse.

Reporter's Review: Wings, by E. D. Baker

Overall Grade: D
Bloomsbury; 2008

So, obviously you can tell by the grades that we didn’t enjoy this book very much. It can be difficult to be objective without sounding mean, but please believe that we offer this report not to put down the author but to provide her book with the only completely honest critique she may have received up to this point.
Let us begin by saying first of all that E. D. Baker’s Wings had some decent plot points. Unfortunately, the first half of the book did not reflect that, and it was over half-way through the narrative before anything other than the desire to finish the book made us want to keep reading. She had two main characters: Tamisin, a half-fairy, and Jak, a half-goblin. Once she started to show us Jak’s viewpoint, the story gained an interest that was lacking in Tamisin’s story. Presumably, Ms. Baker’s book was directed toward a female audience, but that is no reason to begin a story with a less interesting character, simply because she is the same gender as the majority of readers. Throughout the book, there is a strong tendency toward the predictable and clich√©, particularly in descriptions and character reactions; however, one or two quite good metaphors or lines of dialogue proved that Ms. Baker is capable of better. We would suggest—and this is a suggestion we proffer to all authors—that in future manuscripts, she elicit the help of a good critique group to help point out these failings, as it can be hard to see the obvious in something that has been staring you in the face for months. A fresh perspective always helps, as does forcing yourself to read your book, as one author said, as though it were not your own: force a fresh perspective on yourself. Having created a world like the one in Wings, we are sure that E. D. Baker has enough imagination to do so.

Literary Quality: D
Plot: C+
Voice: C-
Originality: C
Descriptive Ability: F
Humor: D
Illustrations: (none)
Believability of Characters: D
Believability of Situations: F (As in all fantasies, we are not referring to the fantastical situations, but the believability of the characters’ reactions to these situations and the logical progression from one situation to the next)
Overall Reading Enjoyment: D

Possibly objectionable topics*: pregnancy outside of wedlock; mild violence.

Reporter's Review: Ever, by Gail Carson Levine

Overall Grade: B
Harper Collins; 2008


Take a plot hook √° la Percy Jackson, add a best-selling Newbery-honoree, and you have the basic recipe for success with Gail Carson Levine’s newest book, Ever. Now don’t get us wrong, the book wasn’t terrible by any measure—but it was a letdown considering our expectations. The plot involves Kezi, a young girl from the land of Hyte, and Olus, the young god of the winds from Mount Akka. The twist: Kezi worships Admat—the One God—but through a tragic (and admittedly well-written) chain of events, is vowed to be offered as human sacrifice to her Lord. When she begins to fall in love with Olus, her faith is tested, but Olus devises a plan: Kezi must fulfill the test to become a goddess herself—that way, she can still be sacrificed, but never actually die. From a plot point of view, the end was disappointing. So, Kezi becomes a goddess—but she had to completely change herself and give up her family to do so. Maybe we just expected something more encouraging from the author of be-true-to-yourself Ella Enchanted. We were left feeling that Ms. Levine sacrificed something herself: meaning. By pushing an exciting, twisty plotline, she missed the opportunity to portray a meaningful message through her characters. The only message we were left with was: life is confusing, so don’t believe anything.
On a final note, we feel we should explain our grade of the voice. Technically, it wasn’t bad, except it seemed far too young for the Young Adult category that the book was placed in due to its subject matter. However, the author risked telling the story from two points of view, back and forth—and this flawed it. The voices individually were both fine—but they were exactly the same. Unless you payed close attention, you would forget who was speaking when. All the thoughts could have come from the same mind…which kept us from ever forgetting that, of course, they did.

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

Possibly objectionable topics*: semi-graphic violence including human sacrifice; bawdy innuendos; subject matter dealing with a multitude of gods and doubt in an omniscient God.