Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull

Read these.  Just do it.

Wait, what are they about? Okay, I’ll tell you more.  These stories are about an sister named Kendra and her younger brother, Seth.  At the start of the first book, they are on their way to visit their grandparents while their own parents go on vacation.  Like all kids, they are not thrilled about going to hang out with people they don’t know very well, but they quickly discover that their grandparents aren’t exactly who they thought and that there are some old secrets in their family.  The book starts out seeming like this plot will be predictable, but flips it upside down!

Grandma and Grandpa live on a sanctuary for magical creatures, a place called Fablehaven.  It is well protected from the outside world, partly to keep people out, and partly to keep the creatures IN.  Kendra and Seth learn quickly that rules are meant to be followed here, no exceptions, or things can get dangerous in a hurry.  Not just regular dangerous, we’re talking end-of-the-world dangerous.  Seth, being a young boy and very curious, finds ways to bend the rules (technically he’s not breaking them, and if you’re a kid like Seth, you will recognize his strategies right away!)  He makes friends with some Satyrs (half man-half goats) who live in the forest.  These guys, Newell and Doren, love watching television, playing tennis, and sometimes taking advantage of Seth.  Together they often end up in trouble by showing Seth things he is not supposed to know about in the far reaches of the sanctuary.

Kendra, on the other hand, has encounters with fairies.  She ends up receiving some special gifts that allow her to have certain fairy-like powers.  She has the ability to see magical creatures for what they are, instead of drinking the magic milk from a giant cow, or eating walrus butter (!) like the rest of the family. Eventually Seth develops some talents of his own, but his powers lean more toward the dark side.  Will he be able to control his impulses and use his abilities for the right purposes?

Because these two are now insiders in this magical world, they become involved in fighting against a large organization which is looking to destroy these hidden sanctuaries all around the world.  There are journals and artifacts and clues to track down, other sanctuaries and guardians to visit, friends and foes at every turn, some clever time travel, and twists and tests for all involved in the cause.  You never know what will happen next and just when you think you know a character…

I loved every minute of this series and I felt like I read most of the last book while holding my breath.  They are so action-packed!  The characters of Seth and Kendra seem real, mostly because of the way they talk to each other. Seth can get annoying at times, but I promise you that he is the most interesting character because he changes so much during the series.  You can feel his frustration at being younger and not feeling as special as his sister, and you can see how that leads him to make some not-so-smart decisions.

Read these if you love fantasy stories and mythological creatures.  If you liked the Percy Jackson books, you’ll probably like these as well, even though this series is less well-known.  Also, if you like the Narnia books, where you are immersed in a whole different world with its own rules, these are for you.  The Fablehaven books aren’t really scary, but some of its inhabitants are definitely creepy.  For me, I like books where the alternate worlds are carefully planned out and the magical rules make sense throughout the whole story, so this book was just the right balance of being complicated and fun to read.  Try the first one and you’ll be hooked!  These are AR books that range from 4.8 to 5.6, and the points range from 11 to 21.

43 Old Cemetery Road (#1 and 2) by Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise

This is a little series of books written by two sisters; Kate is the writer and Sarah is the illustrator.  I read both of these books on Saturday morning before my family woke up.  They are small in size, but packed full of cool stuff.  The books are in the format of letters that the characters write back and forth to each other and newspaper articles that fill in the rest of the information.  The characters have very clever names, all very punny.  There are lots of pictures, too, and that is what first caught my eye because the first thing you see in the first book is a drawing and a map of a house, cut open like a dollhouse so you can look inside.  Who could resist that!?!  I was hooked!

A children’s author named Ignatius B. Grumply (I.B. Grumply, get it?) needs a place to hide out and write for the summer, so he rents a house in Ghastly, Illinois.  He hates everything, but especially children, even though he is a children’s author.  When he gets to his new house, he discovers that there is a boy already living there! His name is Seymour.  Seymour Hope.  (See More Hope? Awesome!) Seymour has a cat, and naturally Grumply is allergic.  Also, a ghost lives there as well, and she was a writer back in her day, too.  Her name? Olive C. Spence. (I Love Suspense…they just keep coming, and I’m only giving you three examples here.)  She has vowed to haunt the house until her work is published, and as a ghost, she’s not happy with Mr. Grumply because his own book series is called Ghost Tamer.  Pffft, as if a ghost could be tamed!  She’ll teach him a thing or two…

These three roommates are learning to live together when trouble befalls them, and they have to figure out what to do next when facing various roadblocks, such as saving their haunted house, getting Mr. Grumply’s next book published, and keeping poor Seymour from being abandoned by his terrible parents! Book #1 is called Dying to Meet You in which our characters become acquainted with each other, and Book #2 is called Over My Dead Body in which they become separated and go on a hunt to find Olive’s old manuscripts in order to save their house and Halloween!  I’m on the hunt for #3 and 4 now because these were such an enjoyable read! I immediately passed these on to my fourth grade nephew because I know he will get a kick out of the jokes and funny names.

Read these if you have read any of the other similar books by this author, Regarding the Fountain, and the rest in that series.  Those are also told all through letters and newspaper articles, making them great fun and easy to read.  If you like those big books that are interactive, like Dragonology or Pirateology or Spyology where you pull out little notes and get to solve puzzles or touch a dragon scale, then these are also for you.  (Even better, with these there are no pieces to lose!)  And of course, if you like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid-style books, where it is half-written and half-illustrations, you’ll probably enjoy this series as well.  Book #1 has an AR level of 4.9 and is worth 2 points.  Book #2 is at level 5.6 and is also worth 2 points.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Do you like a good mystery?  I’m not talking about some Scooby Doo, haunted amusement park-type mystery.  A real mystery that you can solve as you read, gathering clues just like the characters in the book.  Then this book is a must-read for you!

I had seen this classic mystery set-up referenced in another book, so I knew I had to go back and read this book.  It is an older book, from 1978, way back when I was a kid  before I was born.  It is also a Newberry Award winner, which is the mark of a book that would be considered to a “classic” in children’s literature.  This book has an AR level of 5.3 and is worth 8 points.  (I’ll talk more about book awards and my thoughts on AR later, but I’ve been providing this information because I know kids do use these levels to narrow down their reading choices.)

In this book, millionaire Sam Westing has died, and his will indicates that he was murdered.  A lawyer gathers up a group of seemingly unrelated people who all happen to live in the same new apartment building, and presents them with the Westing Game.  Whoever can solve the crime will inherit $200,000,000 dollars.  Oh and by the way, the killer is among them even as they sit and listen to the instructions!  They are split into pairs and given clues to work with, but it is up to them to decide if they want to share their clues.  They all interpret their clues and instructions in different ways and thusly take different approaches on how to figure out the mystery.

I did end up able to solve the puzzle at the end, but some readers might get frustrated with how jumbled up the story gets.  The reader is only allowed to know what each team of characters knows, which keeps the mystery going.  It is challenging to keep track of each character’s details, but that’s part of the game now, isn’t it?  You might like to jot down some notes to help you stay organized as you read.  (This would be a great time to use a thinking map, like the tree map, and you can play detective, too!) Reading this book is very much like playing a game of Clue in your head.

Read this book if you like The 39 Clues.  I personally haven’t read any of those yet, but I keep seeing these books linked together as I am reading more about The Westing Game.  Don’t go looking for the solution online— read the book yourself! No spoilers! If you like this one, you might like some Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books, or if you want something harder you could try a Sherlock Holmes story (though the language will be much more difficult because the writing is so much older and more formal.)  This collection might be a good place to start!

The View From Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg

This is a book by the author of one of my favorites, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a story in which a brother and sister run away from home and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  It’s a great story and since I’m always threatening to move to the British Museum in London, I totally understand the premise!  If you haven’t read that one yet, be sure and check it out.

The View From Saturday should have been just as captivating for me because it’s about a group of 6th graders (I teach 6th grade!) who bond together and form an academic decathlon team (I love trivia! I love quiz shows! I love Jeopardy!) under the guidance of their teacher, Mrs. Olinski.  It turns out that three of these children are already entangled in each others’ lives– Nadia’s grandfather married Ethan’s grandmother, and by a strange twist of fate, Noah ended up being the best man at the wedding.  Julian is the new boy, who is unlike anyone they have ever met, and he has a hard time adjusting to life at his new school.  Eventually they all become a solid group of friends and Mrs. Olinski picks them to be a part of her team.  Mrs. Olinski also has a connection to these kids, as Ethan’s grandmother was her principal at a prior school.

The good: the children are all awesome, quirky characters.  They each have a distinct way of speaking which helps to bring them to life.  They overcome challenges together, solve puzzles, and work well as a team.  I wanted to hear more from the children themselves.

The bad: for me, this book was arranged in an order that I found confusing.  The book is only 160 pages.  It shouldn’t be so hard to read!  The time-order jumps all around and the point of view changes in between chapters.  It was hard to keep track of who was narrating.    Grownups, if you’ve ever seen the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” this book is similar, where each student is asked a question in the Academic Bowl and then the story goes back in time to explain how he or she knew that answer.  It felt inconsistent to me though, and it caused problems with the flow of the story.  It took me a few days to read this book and I had to flip backwards several times to reacquaint myself with who was narrating and what they were talking about.  I loved the IDEA of this book, just not the format.  On the author page at the end of the book, she explains how this was based on several short stories she had already written.  Ah ha, that explains a lot!

This book is a Newberry Award winner from 1997, with an AR level of 5.9 and is worth 7 points.  I’m not sure if I recommend this book or not.  The individual stories are interesting, but as a book it fell flat for me.  Okay, I’ve got it: read this book if you are a writer and are interested in how dialogue reveals characterization.  That was my favorite take-away from this book.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockheart

Meh.  I think this book backfired on itself. Frankie Landau-Banks *should* be a kick-butt female character, but in the end, everything she thinks she is fighting against puts her back to being the girl who does everything to get a boy’s attention.

This is a boarding school book, which means that the characters all attend a fancy private high school where they live on campus in dorms, with no parents around, and little adult supervision.  Everyone likes to read these because it’s like a miniature college, or a pretend version of the “real world” but without any real responsibilities.  That said, because of this notable lack of adults, there are references to parties, underage drinking, and relationship issues.  (Like k-i-s-s-i-n-g! Eww! Well, it is a girl book after all. The book is published by Disney though, so there’s nothing too racy here.)

As a freshman, Frankie was mousy and nondescript, following in her older sister’s shadow. When she returns as a sophomore, she has changed over the summer and is ready to stand on her own and be noticed. The boy that she dates doesn’t really appreciate her intelligence; he basically pats her on the head and tells her how pretty she is and not to worry her pretty little head over things. Another boy also interests her because he challenges her intellectually, but he is unavailable and dating someone else.  He seems to be her enemy because he is constantly getting in between Frankie and her boyfriend, Matthew, and disrupting their dates.  It turns out that both boys are in a secret society on campus (which Frankie’s father had been a member of back in his day when he attended this private school, so she already knows about the society’s existence), but naturally it’s a boys-only club. Her goal is to get her boyfriend to tell her about the group and he won’t budge. She just wants him to admit that he is in the club, and that’s it.  She sees the club’s  pranks as being pretty lame, so she orchestrates an evil plot to take over the group from the outside.  She  sends the boys out on elaborate new missions via email by pretending to be one of the leaders.  The bothersome thing is that she does all of this tedious cloak and dagger, secret spy mission stuff to outwit the boys involved, but she is doing it to gain their attention and be acknowledged for her brain (and not just her looks.) She is working so hard at trying to prove herself to these guys that her motivation gets all screwed up and she loses sight of her purpose.  Her actions have unintended consequences, of course, and there is fallout for everyone. In the end, she comes off as being desperate and not a little crazy. Not a great role model. The book is full of feminist, girl-power messages, but she totally blows it.

Frankie does have one quirk that I did enjoy, and that is the way she uses words. She has a habit of removing prefixes from words and using the root words by themselves to create the opposite, even for words that don’t quite work that way. So if “disgruntled” means grumpy and upset, she’d use the word “gruntled” to describe feeling happy. I thought that was a clever quirk of her character, but otherwise her intelligence fails her as she gets wrapped up in her plot to gain attention from these two boys.

Read this book if you like to read about smart kids and you are interested in what it would be like to attend a school like this one.  It’s not a bad book, but I definitely didn’t love it.  I did enjoy the writing style, so that kept me reading through to the end.  This book is at an AR level of 5.5 and was a “top teen pick” on the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) 2009 list.

Summer Reading!

Here are some of the books I have hauled home to read over the summer.  Well, these…and then a few more that are still sitting on my desk at work.  And then whatever I find at the library.  Or at Barnes and Noble.  Or from the $1 book guy at the swapmeet.   Can I read them all?  I’ll certainly try!