Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

  • Title: Airborndownload
  • Author: Kenneth Oppel
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Year Published: 2005
  • ISBN: 0060531827
  • Page Count: 544
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: steampunk
  • Award(s): Printz honor

Author information: Kenneth Oppel is a Canadian author who has written more than a dozen titles for children of all ages. His website contains biographical information as well as frequently asked questions, information about his books, and upcoming news and events. He also has a portion of his website devoted to teachers, where they can find study guides for most of his novels.

Reviews:School Library Journal, Kirkus and Booklist gave this title positive reviews. They commented on the fact that this novel is full of action, adventure, and fun, and Kirkus also points out Oppel’s keen attention to detail when describing the workings of the airships. Booklist says that the reader will have to suspend disbelief when confronted with the concept of the cloud cats, but that overall it is an enthralling read.

Summary: Matt Cruse is a cabin boy aboard the Aurora, and since his father’s death it is the only place that feels like home, and his life goal is to one day be her captain. One day, Matt helps rescue a dying man and his airship and the man tells him about magical creatures before he takes his last breath. A year later, during a routine voyage, Matt meets this man’s granddaughter, Kate, who is determined to find what her grandfather saw. After being boarded and shipwrecked by pirates, Matt and Kate find themselves on the same island her grandfather spoke of, and see firsthand the creatures he wrote about. Headstrong Kate goes to increasingly aggressive lengths to document these animals so she will have proof when she returns home, but her antics ultimately jeopardize the entire airship and everyone aboard. A rescue attempt, led by Matt, will determine the fate of the passengers and crew.

Evaluation: I can understand why this book is so popular, but I was a bit surprised to learn that it won a Printz honor. Oppel does a fantastic job of world-building and placing the reader in the narrative, and the pacing is that edge-of-your-seat, what-happens-next style that is middle grade gold. I loved the setting and all of the descriptive passages, and I also enjoyed the fact that it felt like an old-school, classic adventure story a la Treasure Island, but with an updated backdrop. However, I didn’t think the characters were very compelling. Matt struck me as being very one-note: most of his interior thoughts are about how much he loves his airship and feels at home on it, which is important for character development up to a point, but I feel like that’s all we got from him. Kate bothered me even more. It feels as though Oppel needed to fill his Strong Female Character quota and so he created Kate, but she just ends up coming across as stubborn, selfish, and short-sighted. There is much to like here, and I know exactly the type of reader I could give this book to, but it sadly didn’t resonate with me the way I had hoped it would.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  The writing and descriptive passages of the book are engaging, but the plot is predictable and the characters feel more like caricatures than real people, especially Kate in her role as Strong Female Character (who actually ruins everything).
  • Popularity: 4/5  Readers looking for light action and adventure will enjoy this title. The steampunk setting, cloud cats, pirates, narrow escapes and ultimate triumph make this a title that’s easy to recommend, especially to younger fantasy/sci-fi readers who might not be ready for something heavier yet.
  • Appeal factors: steampunk, pirates, mythical creatures, action/adventure.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld is an obvious choice for readers who enjoyed this book. Both titles are set in a steampunk alternate past where airships rule the skies. Both have likeable young male protagonists and plucky female characters who aren’t content with their social roles. Leviathan has more of a war/political bent, whereas Airborn is more of a traditional pirate/adventure story.
  2. Another good steampunk recommendation would be Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines. Hester is clearly more of a badass female character than Kate, but there are some parallels between them, as well as between Tom and Matt, the male protagonists. Airborn is the lighter of the two, as Reeve doesn’t hesitate to kill or hurt his main characters, but both books showcase children/teens trying to save their homes and way of life (with varying levels of success or enlightenment along the way).
  3. Readers who enjoyed the traditional pirate/shipwreck story would likely enjoy a classic such as Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Pirates, swashbuckling, mysterious clues in the form of journals and maps, and tropical islands abound in both titles.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why does Matt feel so connected to the Aurora?
  2. Both Matt and Kate are limited by their circumstances: Matt is poor, and Kate is a girl. How do they work to overcome these obstacles? Do you think they get what they want by the end of the book?
  3. Why do you think Oppel decided to set this book in an alternate reality past? Does this work? Why or why not?
  4. On several occasions in Airborn, Matt disobeys the orders of his captain. What motivates him to do so?
  5. Is Matt a hero?
  6. Do you like the character of Kate? Is she strong? Selfish?
  7. In what ways are Matt and the cloud cat similar?

Reason for reading: This is one of those titles that has been on my to-read list for years. I like steampunk (Mortal Engines is one of my favorite young YA books) and Airborn has gotten pretty positive reviews from both my co-workers and the online community. What finally pushed this book to the top of my reading pile is the fact that I’m hosting a middle school book club at the library, and this is the selection for this month. This particular group also really loves steampunk and science fiction (we’ve done both Mortal Engines and Leviathan with them), so I expect this will also get a good response from them (but I will report back).

**Reporting back** I had 11 middle schoolers (most of them rising 6th graders) who attended our book club event for this title. 8 of them liked the book, 1 did not, and 2 didn’t finish it. The ones who enjoyed it liked the heavy action and the humor of the book, whereas the girl who didn’t thought it was predictable and didn’t feel engaged with the characters.

Additional relevant information: This book is the first in a triology. Airborn was optioned for a movie in 2012 with Oppel to write the preliminary script and be an executive producer, but I was unable to find any current information about this project.

Doll Bones by Holly Black

  • Title: Doll Bones
  • Author: Holly Black
  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 1416963987
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 256
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: horror/speculative fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor Book; Carnegie Medal Nominee for Young Adult

Author information: Holly Black has written a number of novels for both young adults and children, as well as some in a graphic novel format. Her website includes contact information, biographical information, appearance information, FAQs, as well as information about and links to all of her titles. She also includes links to her livejournal and blog, which discuss items of relevance in Black’s day-to-day life. She also has a section on her website discussing writing tips and techniques, complete with links and suggestions of other materials that might help an aspiring young writer.

Reviews: School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly all gave this title starred reviews. All of these reviews discuss the fact that Black does a great job creating characters that readers will care about, placing them on the precipice of leaving childhood behind. She portrays her characters realistically and readers will sympathize with their struggles. School Library Journal also articulates the fact that this book blends a wide variety of different genres and styles into one cohesive narrative, saying “this novel is a chilling ghost story, a gripping adventure, and a heartwarming look at the often-painful pull of adulthood”.

Readers annotation: Eleanor’s ghost wants to be laid to rest. And Zach, Poppy, and Alice must help her.

Summary: Zach has grown up with his two best friends, Poppy and Alice, and the three of them play elaborate fantasy game involving figurines, dolls, and action figures for years. Zach’s dad decides Zach is too old to be playing these games, so he throws out all of his game characters, which causes him to quit the game without explanation to Poppy or Alice. Although their game playing days might be over, Poppy confesses that she’s been having strange nightmares about the old china doll in her house, and she convinces Zach and Alice to accompany her on a real-life journey to put the ghost of the girl in the doll to rest. Nothing goes according to plan and the ghost becomes more sinister as the quest goes on, but eventually they are able to learn more about her past and locate the graveyard where she belongs and inter her remains. Along the way, they learn a lot about each other, growing up and leaving behind the innocence of childhood, and Zach reconciles with his father.

Evaluation: This novel defies easy categorization. It has elements of quest narratives, coming-of-age stories, horror, fantasy, and realistic fiction, all of which come together for a gripping and entertaining read. Zach’s struggles with growing up will resonate with all young readers who are trying to learn to navigate a new world in which they have more responsibilities, more freedom, and more anxieties about fitting in and being part of a larger social sphere. The relationship between Zach and his father is especially well crafted; the difficulties they have communicating and the confusion and resentment they both feel towards one another is believable, and the ending, in which they forgive each other and vow to work harder at their relationship, is an honest and not overly easy happy ending.  These struggles play out against an eerie backdrop of ghosts and late-night journeys that build suspense and keep the reader intrigued and wanting to read more. The ghost in the doll is truly creepy, and the way that the author refuses to decide for the reader whether the ghost and haunting the children experience is real or not leaves the story ambiguous enough that readers can come to their own conclusions.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5 The themes explored in this book are important and relevant to many children, the plot is entertaining with a perfect amount of spine-tingling scares, and the characters and their relationships are honest and believable.
  • Popularity4/5  The creepiness of this book may deter some readers who scare easily, but those who enjoy some horror and darkness in their novels will love this book. The pacing, characterization, and plot are sure to find many fans.
  • Appeal factors: horror, speculative fiction, growing up, troubled parent-child relationships, creepy dolls.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is a natural recommendation for readers who love a dose of spooky in their fiction. Nobody Owens, the protagonist, grows up in a graveyard raised by ghosts, and has to confront the man who murdered his family. Like Doll Bones, this novel emphasizes the relationships between characters and the idea of growing up.
  2. Fans of the undercurrent of menace and urgency in Doll Bones would likely enjoy Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee. Based on the fairy tale of the Snow Queen, this title highlights themes like friendship, courage, and perseverance.

Book talk ideas: The trailer for this book is delightfully creepy and would be a perfect introduction to a book talk about this book because it would let children know right away if the book will be too scary for them. If they love the trailer, the book will be a great fit for them, but if they thought it was too creepy, then it’s probably a good indicator that they shouldn’t check it out. After the trailer, talk about the friendship between the three main characters and how they decide to go on a modern day journey to put a ghost girl’s remains to rest. On the way, they learn a lot about themselves, each other, and growing up and leaving childhood behind.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Do you think that Eleanor’s ghost was real? Why or why not?
  2. How do you think each of the characters change over the course of their quest? Who changed the most?
  3. Why do you think Zach’s relationship with his father is so strained?
  4. In your opinion, what is the hardest part of growing up? What are Zach, Poppy, and Alice afraid to lose by growing up?

Reason for reading: This book has been getting a lot of attention recently (not only did it win a Newbery Honor, but a lot of blogs have been talking about it, and it shows up on a ton of lists of “best children’s books of 2013) and I wanted to know what all the buzz was about. I also wanted to read something that was a little scarier, because I feel like I don’t have a lot of good recommendations for books when it comes to young readers who like reading books that will scare them a little. I felt this book would definitely fall into that category, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Additional relevant information: Holly Black also recently published a YA vampire book that has received positive reviews. Publisher’s Weekly interviewed her about this title, and she talks about why she decided to write a vampire book as well as her inspirations and writing process.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

  • Title: When You Reach Me
  • Author: Rebecca Stead
  • Publisher: Yearling
  • Year Published: 2009
  • ISBN:0375850864
  • List Price: $17.20
  • Page Count: 208
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: mystery/speculative fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Award winner; more here.

Author information: Rebecca Stead has written three books for young readers. Her website is clearly geared towards this young audience and features a huge visual component. Her website has links to information about all of her books, a biography, a link to her blog which includes information about upcoming appearances and what Stead is currently reading and doing, and a link to resources for teachers. Amazon has an interview with Stead in which she discusses her creative choices for When You Reach Me, such as setting the book in the 1970s, writing in short chapters, and the use of A Wrinkle in Time in the novel. One of her reasons for setting the book in the not-so-distant past is that she wanted her characters to have a level of autonomy that probably would no longer seem authentic in modern day New York City.

Reviews: This title received starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and the Horn Book. The consensus among these reviews is that the plot is suspenseful and Stead does a fantastic job of keeping a high level of suspense while wrapping everything up in a satisfactory way at the end. Both PW and Horn Book suggest that this is the type of book a reader will want to start reading again immediately after finishing it, so that they can pick up on all the clues they may have missed. Booklist also compliments the rich characters Stead presents, saying, “the characters, children, and adults are honest bits of humanity no matter in what place or time their souls rest”.

Readers annotation: Miranda is receiving unusual notes from a mysterious stranger. But who are they from and what do they mean?

Summary: Miranda is a sixth grader who lives with her mother. Her best friend Sal gets punched in the face by Marcus, another boy, for seemingly no reason, and then Sal stops talking to Miranda. Miranda makes other friends, and even gets a job during her lunchtimes with them serving sandwiches. Although these seem like the ordinary occurrences of a middle schooler’s life, Miranda’s life is anything but normal. There is a strange laughing man who hangs out on the corner of her street and she keeps getting strange letters from somebody who seems to know a lot about her life. This all begins to make sense when Marcus, while trying to apologize to Sal for punching him, scares him into the street in oncoming traffic. The laughing man sacrifices his life to save Sal, and Miranda discovers that the laughing man is really a time-traveling Marcus who has come back to make things right.

Evaluation: The strength of this book lies in the subtle clues that are interwoven in the narrative that lead the reader to the surprise reveal at the end. Throughout the story, the reader knows that something strange is going on, but the conclusion will still be surprising to most readers. Miranda is a likable character, and even though she is dealing with some extraordinary situations, such as receiving mysterious notes and being at the center of a time travel rescue mission, she still has typical middle school problems. Her struggles to make friends and make sense of her collapsing friendship with Sal will resonate with young readers dealing with similar trials as they grow up and navigate school. The time travel twist at the end is set up expertly and supported throughout the story, making the ending reasonable and satisfying to readers. However, though I found this title to be enjoyable, I also found it to be one of the least memorable books I’ve read this semester. I think that it excels in being an entertaining and quick read that will engage readers, but it lacks enough substance to warrant re-reading (at least for me) and the details of the story are easily forgotten.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality:  3/5  An engaging and light read, with plenty of twists and a satisfying ending that readers will enjoy. Although it touches on more serious topics, like friendship, family relationships, race, responsibility, and fitting in, this title still seems to be more of a fluffy read.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Because of the mysterious plotline and the clues that are peppered throughout the narrative, readers will love trying to solve this mystery before the book ends. The characters are likable and the conclusion fits perfectly with the rest of the novel.
  • Appeal factors: time travel, friendships, mystery, speculative fiction.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who enjoyed this novel may also like Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. This title is mentioned throughout Stead’s book, and takes a similarly scientific approach to time and dimension travel.
  2. Wonder by R. J. Palacio might be a good fit for readers who liked reading about Miranda’s struggles to make friends after being ignored by Sal. Palacio’s protagonist, Auggie, is physically deformed and has to deal with the difficulty of building relationships and being “normal” in spite of his looks.

Book talk ideas: I think the premise of this novel will really grab potential readers. Explain that Miranda is a typical middle school girl growing up in the 1970s in New York City, but she suddenly starts receiving urgent and mysterious notes from a stranger that seems to know a lot about her life. Talk about how this is a great book for those who like solving mysteries and that little clues are scattered throughout the book, leading to a surprising but satisfying conclusion that wraps everything up nicely.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What does this book suggest about relationships and making friends? Do you think Miranda’s relationships are stronger by the end of the book?
  2. In what ways does the author’s use of A Wrinkle in Time enhance the storyline? If you haven’t read it, what do you think this book might have to do with Stead’s story?
  3. Do you believe in time travel? If so, where are all the time travelers?
  4. What did you think of the ending? Were you satisfied?

Reason for reading: This title kept popping up on a variety of lists. Whenever I searched for “best Newbery winners” lists, I consistently found this book, so I decided I should read it. The descriptions of the plot were very vague, so I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into other than that a lot of people seemed to love this book.

The Story of Mankind by Hendrik van Loon

  • Title: The Story of Mankind
  • Author: Hendrik van Loon
  • Publisher: H. Liveright
  • Year Published: 1921
  • ISBN:9780871401755
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 505
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: historical non-fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Medal Winner (first)

Author information: Hendrik van Loon was a journalist, historian and author who wrote over fifty books in his lifetime. The Story of Mankind was written at the behest of his publisher and van Loon completed it in two months. He won the first Newbery Medal for his efforts. Due to his journalistic work, he was banned from Nazi Germany when Hitler took power. More information about van Loon can be found here.

Reviews: Due to the age of the title, it was difficult to find reviews of the book. The Wall Street Journal and Kirkus both reviewed the ninth edition of this book, which published this past December (2013). Both reviewers comment upon the original work and its influence. Wall Street Journal sums up the purpose of Van Loon’s work thusly: “Van Loon was not pretending to be comprehensive but comprehensible, to give an account of human dynamism and progress so that young readers—he dedicated the book to his grandchildren—might share his enthusiasm for the intellectual wealth and ferment from which they spring. Adding gaiety to his already lively prose, again at the urging of his publisher, the author sprinkled black-and-white sketches throughout “The Story of Mankind” to give us glimpses of, among other things, Hannibal crossing the Alps, Luther translating the Bible and the Napoleonic army’s retreat from Moscow.”

Readers annotation: Everything you ever wanted to know about human history.

Summary: The premise of this book is that it is a concise history of mankind beginning with prehistoric times and ending with World War I, an event that had ended not long before this book was written. It goes through major milestones in Western Civilization, such as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power and subsequent fall, and the invention of the motor, to name a few. The author says that he focuses mainly on events that had significant bearing on contemporary American, which is one reason why the bulk of the book focuses on European events.

Evaluation: Although there is much to commend in this book, it likely will not appeal to the average young reader of today. Van Loon’s writing style is personable and friendly, reminding the reader of a kindly grandfather who sits you down to tell you stories about times past, peppered with asides and comments about his own life and ideas. For the time period, the book is remarkably well balanced; when I began reading it I expected there to be glaring inaccuracies or outdated information and biases, which I did not find. Van Loon begins the book with the concept of evolution, and discusses religious leaders and sects without seeming to favor one over another, and devoting the same amount of time to Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, and Confucius. Of course, given the time period, there are moments of political incorrectness or unsettling thinking, but considering this book was written nearly 100 years ago, I expected it to be much worse. The author freely admits that he hasn’t given a comprehensive account of the history of mankind, having omitted the stories of Africa, Asia, and Australia almost entirely, but he justifies this decision by saying that his primary purpose was to highlight events that have strong bearing on the lives of American children at the time of the book’s publication. Certain subjects, such as the treatment of African Americans after the Civil War, are not discussed in any detail, but again, this book was published in 1921, when many significant civil rights events still had not taken place. He acknowledges his inability to properly discuss the effects World War I had on the world due to the fact that it was still too recent to understand the influence the war had, which is likely why his analysis of the events of the early 1900s lacks the same depth and conviction that his discussion of earlier time periods had. Overall, this is an enlightened and self-aware text that has wit and charm. However, both the length of the book and the density will likely dissuade modern readers from picking it up. Although each chapter is fairly short, the entire book is over 500 pages, and covers the whole history of civilization. It paints with broad strokes, so readers do not get a comprehensive and fulfilling look at any single time period, which can be discouraging. The narrative voice is genial but can also be dry, and this text may feel too much like a homework assignment to most readers. The artwork has a similar homespun charm to it, with each picture looking like something a relative might draw hastily on a napkin to punctuate a story, but these pictures can be confusing and the text is small and sometimes difficult to read. Excerpts from this book might be used in a classroom setting and receive a positive reaction, because the information in each chapter is easily digestible and can be taken out of context without suffering in quality, but any librarian or parent would find it challenging to find a modern audience for this book outside of scholars or those with a particular interest in Newbery Winners.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  Van Loon is a delightful storyteller and creates a mostly impartial narrative that spans millenia. The scope of the book is impressive, but because of its broad and scattered nature, it often loses momentum.
  • Popularity: 1/5 Although it is easy to see why this may have been popular at the time of publication, modern readers will find this title to be dry and lacking suspense or any driving force to keep them engaged.
  • Appeal factors: history of the world, first Newbery winner ever.

Read-alikes: Because of the scope of this tome, no other children’s titles feel appropriate to suggest as read-alikes. Rather, for children who enjoyed learning about the history of civilization, I would recommend the DK Eyewitness books, which is a series with a variety of titles on different time periods in human history. These books are complete with stunning photographs sure to capture the reader’s attention and they are full of interesting and odd facts.

Book talk ideas: This would be a tough book to convince young people to read. The best approach would be to tell them if they want to learn about the entire world and the history of everything, this book would be a great place to start. Then, if they find a subject or historical time period that really excites them, the library would be happy to provide suggestions that meet their interests. Overall though, this one is a tough sell.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. If you had to add a historical event to van Loon’s book, what would it be and why?
  2. In which of the time periods discussed would you most want to live? Why?
  3. How does the artwork impact the telling of the story?

Reason for reading: I really wanted to read this book for this class because I felt that reading the very first Newbery winner would give me insight into the award and help me see how its evolved over time. Although it took me quite a while to make it through the entire book (about half the semester, interrupted frequently by other reads), I think it was well worth my time. After finishing the book, it seems that the award originally placed more emphasis on didactic value and honoring books that were “good” for children in some way–in this case, Van Loon presents an informative and understandable account of all of civilization. This contrasts with more recent winners, such as Flora and Ulysses and The One and Only Ivan. Although these books do have great messages and strong themes about friendship, they seem less directly educational and more accessible. Both of these recent winners also use innovative narration techniques, such as Flora‘s integration of comics into the storytelling or Ivan’s short paragraphs told from the perspective of a gorilla. In The Story of Mankind, Van Loon is very present and addresses his audience directly, making it more difficult for the reader to become absorbed in the story and feeling much more like a school lesson.

Additional relevant information: This book has been updated many times, both by Van Loon and by his son, to include more up-to-date information. The most recent version covers events all the way up to the 1990s. The version I read was the original, so I cannot speak to how these updates have affected the integrity of the original text.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz

  • Title: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village
  • Author: Laura Amy Schlitz
  • Illustrator: Robert Byrd
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • Year Published: 2007
  • ISBN: 0763615781
  • List Price: $19.99
  • Page Count: 96
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Medal Winner; more here.

Author information: Laura Amy Schlitz is a librarian, playwright, and children’s book author. She does not have a website, but her publisher, Candlewick Press, has a short biography of her. Schlitz has been a school librarian for over thirteen years and cites the children she works with as a source of inspiration for her. She also spent time touring the country with a children’s theater company. Publisher’s Weekly did an interview with Schlitz after the release of her Newbery Honor book, Splendors and Glooms. In the interview, PW asks her many questions about her new book as well as questions about her writing habits. She admits that she sometimes finds it difficult to sit down and focus on writing, but she has a 30 minute trick to keep herself motivated. She forces herself to write, with no distractions, for a full half hour. After that, if she is uninspired she allows herself to stop, but if she’s in a groove she will keep writing. Schlitz also says that she would never quit her school librarian job to write full time because the children there are her inspiration and give her energy.

Reviews: Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist all gave this title starred reviews. All of these reviews comment upon the fact that each character has a distinct voice that separates him or her from the others while still maintaining a cohesive flow to the book. They also comment on how the artwork enhances the monologues and the fact that the historical asides and pages of background information are lively and unobtrusive. Booklist says, “although often the characters’ specific concerns are very much of their time, their outlooks and emotional states will be familiar to young people today”.

Readers annotation: Ever wondered what life was like in a medieval village?

Summary: This book depicts what life was like in medieval times through the use of 23 unique characters, all with a monologue or two person scene devoted to their perspective. These characters range from nobility, such as Isobel, the Lord’s daughter who is angry and hurt by the fact that one of the village children threw mud at her, to the lower classes, such as Giles, a beggar boy who swindles locals with his father. Other voices include those of a glassblower’s apprentice, a varlet’s child, the Lord’s nephew, and the money-lender’s son, among others. Each of these characters offers a look at life during the medieval period from their unique points of view, which sometimes overlap or contradict each other. Interspersed with these stories is background information about the time, such as the experience of Jews in medieval society or the purpose of pilgrimages.

Evaluation: This book has left me more conflicted than any others I’ve read for this class so far. The style can initially be daunting; in order to preserve historical accuracy, all of the characters speak in a manner similar to Shakespearean English, which takes a few monologues to get used to. Also, most of these monologues are written in verse, which can also discourage a youth reader. However, this book is wholly charming once the reader adjusts to the format. Each character has a unique place in this constructed medieval town, and each faces his or her own trials due to his or her status. Some of these tales overlap in ways that allow the reader to get multiple perspectives, such as when the Lord’s daughter laments the fact that a stranger threw mud at her, and the following monologue is told from the perspective of the downtrodden, hopeless girl who did the throwing. The historical back story that is given after some of these scenes enriches the reader’s understanding of the time period, and the medieval-style artwork also helps set the tone of the book and make it feel authentic. It is easy to imagine how this book could be used in a classroom setting, and I believe that students would really enjoy acting out different roles and playing them for an audience of their peers or parents. Although I think children would enjoy it in this context, I don’t believe that many children would choose to read this book for pleasure, especially considering the abundance of easier to read, faster-paced titles that are available.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  This book has a clever format that helps the reader fully imagine what life would be like for different members of a medieval community. The characters are, on the whole, likable and sympathetic, the artwork is charming, and the background information is useful and interesting.
  • Popularity: 2/5  As mentioned above, it is difficult to imagine a child choosing this book for pleasure reading. However, if this title were used in a classroom setting, children would enjoy the fresh approach to the topic and their ability to become involved in the story by acting out one or more of the scenes within the book.
  • Appeal factors: theater and drama, historical fiction, multiple perspectives.

Read-alikes: 

  1. This book is very difficult to select read-alikes for due to its unique nature. For readers who enjoyed learning about the different occupations and lifestyles of the different characters, Archers, Alchemists, and 98 Other Medieval Jobs You Might Have Loved or Loathed by Priscilla Galloway could be a good fit. This book looks at a variety of different professions during this time period and what each of them would have entailed.

Book talk ideas: Start by telling readers that this is an unusual book; it shows the reader what life was like in medieval Europe through monologues and scenes from 23 different characters. Because the strength is in the voices of each of these characters, perhaps read a short monologue from the book to illustrate the dynamic voices that appear. Tell readers that this book provides great insight into a time period where people lived very different lives than we do now, and let them know that the book is full of interesting and weird facts about the times that are interspersed throughout the scenes.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. If you had to read one of these monologues or be one of these characters, which would you choose?
  2. What was the most surprising thing you learned about medieval times from this book?
  3. Which character do you think had the best life? The worst? Why?

Reason for reading: One of my co-workers recommended this book to me when I mentioned that I was taking this class. She told me it was a series of monologues and plays set in a medieval context, and that the author also wrote Splendors and Glooms, which I loved. Although I wasn’t sure how I felt about the format of the book at first, I decided to try it out.

Additional relevant information: Schlitz decided to write this book because The Park School, where she works as a children’s librarian, was studying the time period and wanted to do some sort of a performance, but nobody wanted a small part, which inevitably happens with traditional plays. To remedy this situation. Schlitz decided to create a series of monologues and two person scenes that they could perform, that way each student would get an opportunity to be center stage and the star of the show.

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

  • Title: Princess Academy
  • Author: Shannon Hale
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury
  • Year Published: 2005
  • ISBN: 0756981808
  • List Price: $17.60
  • Page Count: 314
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: fantasy
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor book; ALA Notable Children’s Book; full list here.

Author information: Shannon Hale has written many books for young readers, most of them with female protagonists at the forefront. Her website includes her biography, contact information, writing history, and book recommendations as well as a links to information about all of her books. Her site also includes links to her blog, upcoming appearances, and tips about writing and links to games and stories that her fans may enjoy. Hale also has a blog post in which she discusses how many in the YA field are sick of certain tropes (love triangles, absent parents, complaining protagonists), but that these are used for a reason: they resonate with and represent a teenager population in a way that is true.

Reviews: School Library Journal and Kirkus both gave this title starred reviews, and Booklist also gave it a positive review, all of which can be found here. SLJ says, “each girl’s story is brought to a satisfying conclusion, but this is not a fluffy, predictable fairy tale, even though it has wonderful moments of humor”, and both other reviews also highlight the spunk and intelligence of the female characters and how those qualities help this book stray away from the traditional fairy tale genre.

Readers annotation: Miri has the chance to be a princess. But the question is: is that what she really wants?

Summary: Miri has always felt out of place in her village. While everybody else spends their days working in the quarry to produce enough linder to trade for supplies, she believes she is too small and weak to contribute, and she is deeply ashamed of this fact. Her life changes when dignitaries come to her rural mountain village with news that all young girls must participate in a Princess Academy and the kingdom’s prince will choose his bride from among the graduates from the Academy. Miri does not like the way the girls are treated at the Academy and protests, getting herself and others into trouble, but she does become a top student and learns a lot that can help her village and gets her selected Academy Princess. When she finally meets the Prince, she isn’t impressed, and he leaves the Academy without choosing a bride, which means that all of the girls have to stay at the Academy for another season. During this time, bandits attack their school and Miri once again shows her courage and quick thinking by saving everyone, using the villagers’ ability to “quarry speak” to alert the village to the girls’ plight. Eventually it is revealed that one of the girls grew up with the Prince and is in love with him, and when he returns to find her among the Academy girls he happily chooses her as his bride. Miri finds contentment in remaining in her village and teaching others all she has learned, and is happy at the prospect of a romance with her childhood best friend.

Evaluation: I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. The title, Princess Academy, gives the reader a preconceived idea about what this book will be about, and for me, the title immediately turned me off to the book. Once I began reading, however, I found much to applaud. Miri is a complicated protagonist who struggles with feelings of inadequacy and a desire to fit in, but she also displays strong positive traits, such as courage, loyalty, intelligence, and self-sacrifice. She struggles with the question of whether she actually wants to be a princess and what that would mean, and ultimately she decides that she would rather improve her community and stay with her friends and family than move away for the glamour and glory of being royalty. Many of the other female characters are portrayed with similar complexity; Katar, an older girl, makes it clear that her desire to be princess has nothing to do with wanting to marry a prince, but rather is because she wants to travel and see the world. Portraying girls at a Princess Academy who have more ambition than just getting married to a prince is gratifying and one of the highlights of the book. However, much emphasis is placed on the romantic aspect of the book and prevents the characters from reaching a fully developed point. Even though Miri does not want to be a princess and marry the prince, she still has a love interest and it’s clear that Peder is one of her major reasons for choosing to stay in the village. Similarly, Britta, the girl who grew up with the prince, turns into a shaky, sick mess when he comes to visit and can’t even force herself to get out of bed. We discover that her backstory is that she was sent to the mountain specifically to participate in the Princess Academy and be married off, and even though it’s clear she’s a pawn in her father’s power games, she’s more than content to go along with it so that she can marry her prince. Also, the entire idea of a Princess Academy, from which a prince gets to select his bride from any one of two dozen willing girls, may rub some readers the wrong way, especially since the Academy ends up working exactly as intended and the prince does choose his bride this way. Overall, this novel does a good job of portraying strong female characters within the confines of a male dominated society in which they have no true agency, but Hale had the opportunity to do more to make this novel more empowering for girls and show that falling in love and getting married isn’t the only path a girl can take. This book was fun and stronger than I expected, but could have done more with its premise.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5 This book is entertaining and has some complex female characters, but while it bends the expectations of the traditional princess genre, it never breaks them. The pacing of the novel and the obstacles and perils Miri and her friends face keep the reader engaged until the final page.
  • Popularity3/5  The title is the major deterrent of this book. Very few boys will even consider reading something with “princess” in the title, and some girls may balk at the prospect as well. Those who do read it will identify with Miri’s insecurities and will root for her success, and they will enjoy reading about her relationships with the other characters as well as her courage dealing with difficult situations.
  • Appeal factors: princesses, strong female protagonists, magical elements, romance.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine is a natural recommendation for readers who enjoyed a princess story with a little more substance and a stronger than usual female character. Like Miri, Ella takes control of her own fate and displays traits of ambition, intelligence, and courage.

Book talk ideas: I think the best way to book talk this book is to focus on how it differs from traditional princess stories. Ask the potential readers: what if you were forced against your will to train to be a princess, even if you weren’t sure you even wanted to marry a prince? What if you were locked in a closet with rats if you disobeyed, and soldiers guarded the gates so you couldn’t return home and see your families? This is what Miri faces when she’s told a prince will be coming to her rural mountain village to select his bride from the eligible girls of the town. Miri must use her quick thinking and courage to protect herself and her friends from the obstacles they face at the Princess Academy, and she has to decide what it is that she really wants.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Miri says the most precious thing she owns is the week after she was born when her mother held her. Why do you think this is?
  2. All of the girls at the Academy have their own reasons for wanting to marry the prince. What are some of these reasons? What are some other ways they can achieve these goals?
  3. What do you think happens after the novel ends? Choose a character and write another chapter about what this character does once the book is over.

Reason for reading: This book was recommended to me by one of my co-workers, who is also getting her MLIS and has taken a class in which she had to read quite a few Newbery books. She said that this book was one of her most surprising reads because, due to the title, she didn’t expect to get much out of it or enjoy it very much. Based on her suggestion, I decided to check it out. When I was leaving the library with the book, another librarian saw I was carrying it and mentioned that she had read it and was surprised at how much she liked it. I had seen this book on lists of award winners but never even considered reading a summary of it because of the title, and it seems that I’m not alone in being put off by it, but I do agree that the book itself is much better than the title would imply.

Additional relevant information: This book would be an ideal candidate for a Blind Date with a Book/Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover display. The cover (and, thankfully, the title) could be covered with a brown paper bag that has words and phrases about the book written on it. I think that someone would be more likely to pick up a paper bagged book that said things like “bandit attacks”, “there’s magic in the rocks”, and “spunky protagonist” than a book called Princess Academy, but then again, it’s impossible to deny that some girls just really love reading about princesses.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

  • Title: The Westing Game
  • Author: Ellen Raskin
  • Publisher: E. P. Dutton
  • Year Published: 1978
  • ISBN: 014240120X
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 192
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: mystery
  • Award(s): Newbery Award Winner

Author information: Ellen Raskin (1928 – 1984) wrote and illustrated many children’s books, including another Newbery honor title, Figgs and Phantoms. Because of the age of this novel and the fact that she died thirty years ago, there is a dearth of information about Ellen Raskin available online. Cooperative Children’s Book Center has a biography of the author, using many quotes from Raskin herself, which talks about her upbringing and how she created characters from an early age.

Reviews: Kirkus called The Westing Game “confoundingly clever, and very funny”. It applauds Raskin’s colorful characters and many plot twists, and the review contains many plot spoilers. This novel was voted #9 on School Library Journal’s list of Top 100 Children’s Books, due to the fact that its writing is smart and its characters are crazy without losing their charm or believability.

Readers annotation: Sixteen people have been named in millionaire Sam Westing’s will, but only the ones who discover who murdered him will get his money.

Summary: The Sunset Towers apartments are full of an eclectic set of people who seem to have very little in common, until they are all named in the will of the mysterious millionaire Sam Westing. The will pairs all sixteen heirs into teams of two and states that whichever pair of heirs solves his puzzle and discovers his killer will inherit his fortune. Thus begins a frantic search full of secrets, deceptions, bombings, and self-discoveries. As the teams search for the answer, they discover that nothing is what it seems, and all of their relationships to Mr. Westing and the Westing estate are called into question. Turtle, a resourceful, shin-kicking child, finds the answer to Mr. Westing’s puzzle and becomes his protege and heir, but even though the other heirs lose and never find out that Turtle uncovered the real mystery, all of their lives are enriched by playing the Westing Game.

Evaluation: Both plot and characters in this novel are exceptional, and they blend together to make an entertaining read that will make readers want to dive headfirst into the mystery genre. Each character perfectly flawed, with his or her own set of fears, insecurities, hopes, and uncomfortable relationships, but each of them has a unique voice, so the reader is always aware of who the narration is following at any given time. The diversity of the cast is also commendable–while Mrs. Hoo can be somewhat of a caricature at times, the other characters are diverse, from J.J. Ford, who is an African American female judge, to Mr. Hoo, who is an inventor and reluctant Chinese restaurateur to the Theodorakis family, who are of Greek decent but have varied interests and hobbies that extend far beyond their ethnicity. These characters even acknowledge the racism of each other on numerous occasions, such as when Judge Ford thinks Mr. Westing is taunting her with racist clues, or when Mr. Hoo comments on Grace Wexler’s derogatory comments and assumptions about him based on his race. Few books that I’ve read for this class (and otherwise) do such a good job of including race in a conscious, thoughtful way without making it a major plot point of the novel. Additionally, Raskin’s pacing and plot were engaging and gave the reader enough hints to make guesses about what would happen next without letting the story line become too predictable, and the cliffhangers at the end of each chapter made it difficult to put the book down. All of the characterization, plot, and humor in the novel underlie serious themes–such as family, self-identity, the importance of money, and good vs. evil–that the reader will be grappling with even after she finishes reading.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  Although there are sixteen prominent characters, Raskin juggles them with minimal confusion and the reader gets a very clear sense of who each character is. The pacing of the novel keeps the reader engaged, and the reveals at the end are superb and satistfying.
  • Popularity5/5  It’s hard to imagine a child who would not be captivated by Mr. Westing and his unusual game, or who wouldn’t love trying to solve the puzzles in the novel before Raskin reveals the answers. Because of the variety of characters, there is somebody for every type of reader to root for, and even readers who are not normally drawn to mysteries will be eager to know what happens next.
  • Appeal factors: mystery, murder, strong cast of characters, plot twists.

Read-alikes: 

  1. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart would be a good suggestion for readers who enjoyed unraveling the riddles in The Westing Game. The cast of characters in this novel is reminiscent of the quirky and eclectic group in Raskin’s story, and more than money is at stake–the fate of the world rests in the hands of the young protagonists.
  2. For readers who enjoyed Mr. Westing’s decision to incorporate a variety of people into a life-sized game, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein is a perfect fit. Mr. Lemoncello is the world’s most famous gamemaker, and when he designs a library and invites twelve children to an overnight at the library, they find themselves locked inside until they solve his mystery.

Book talk ideas: The characters in this book are a strength, so start with short biographies, perhaps even on some kind of handout mocked up like trading cards, explaining who everybody is. Then tell them about Mr. Westing’s game and offer–that they have to work in teams and that the team who discovers his murderer will win his inheritance. If this were a chosen book for a weekly read-aloud, kids could even vote for who they think the murderer is or who they want to win the money, and track their progress as the story continues.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Who was your favorite character? Why? Who was your least favorite? Why?
  2. What is the significance of the way the characters identify themselves when signing documents for the game (example: Angela first gives her occupation as “none” and then as “person”; Theo changing from “brother” to “writer”)?
  3. What did Turtle’s braid mean to her? What is the significance of her losing her braid toward the end of the novel?
  4. How did you feel about the end of the novel? Were you satisfied with how everyone’s life turned out?

Reason for reading: I’ve read a lot of Newbery winners and honor books as a child–I was the kid who would get the bookmarks from the library that listed all of the winners and methodically cross them off as I read them–so I was shocked to see The Westing Game on so many lists as one of the greatest Newbery winners of all time when I had never heard of it. When it kept popping up on must-read lists, I knew I needed to get this title under my belt. I checked it out of the library knowing nothing about it other than that people adored this book and that it was some type of murder mystery, so I had very little idea what I was getting myself into.

Additional relevant information: Roberto de Leon, an elementary school teacher, posted an article on the Nerdy Book Club blog about The Westing Game. He talks about how the compelling characters and plot can attract reluctant readers, and gives an example of a student he recommended the book to who had never read for pleasure before who loved it and wanted to read more books because of it. Commenters on the article cite this book as being a great selection for a read aloud and being a great illustration of character development for this age group to study. Here is another thought-provoking take on this book from the writers at The Book Smugglers. They examine what they love and don’t love about the novel, and talk about some of the themes of the novel and how they resonate with today’s readers.