A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

 

 “Once upon a time…” 

I love reading or hearing these words at the start of a story. They let me know that something incredible is about to happen, probably featuring some type of magic, or talking animals, or at least an epic adventure of some sort. They let me know it is time to suspend reality for a little while, and that whatever happens, it’s okay to believe it, no matter how UNbelievable it may be. 

My students and I read a few versions of Little Red Riding Hood the other day.  In one version, Red’s grandma gets eaten by the wolf, and in another, Red just goes home and nothing happens. Nothing! That was kind of a let down. So we talked about how these stories were supposed to scare children into doing what they were told. Red Riding Hood breaks all of her mother’s rules about 10 seconds into the story and as a result the wolf eats her grandma (and sometimes Red herself also gets eaten!) Don’t worry though, grandma has been swallowed whole, so when the woodsman comes to their rescue, she just steps right out of the wolf’s stomach untouched. Amazing, right?!?

So then we talked about how about how these fairy tales that have been Disneyfied over time really do have some very dark origins.  Grimm’s Fairy Tales are quite scary and gruesome. I mentioned that I had a book in the class library that addressed this darker aspect of the original stories, a book called A Tale Dark and Grimm that my previous students were really into. This launched a massive hunt through all of my books–“What color is it?” “What is the author’s name again?” “Which category would it be under?” A sign-up list was starting to form of who was reading it first and who it would go to next. An arm wrestling contest was about to break out to determine rankings.

We could not find it anywhere. Sad faces. However, because I am awesome, I jumped right online and reserved two copies at my neighborhood bookstore. How can I deny such a reading frenzy? I walked over to pick them up yesterday, plus a copy of book 2 for my speed readers, and then I started reading to be better prepared for Monday. A Tale Dark and Grimm follows Hansel and Gretel through several different fairy tales, while all along the narrator interjects with warnings about putting the book down, turning away, sparing the children from the bloody details, and overall lightening the mood so the book doesn’t go full-blown scary. I enjoyed it very much, it was a quick read, and watching the stories criss-cross each other was pretty cool. I will just say that Hansel and Gretel have a very rough start and ending, poor kids. Yikes! I can’t wait to pass these out in class tomorrow. 

A Tale Dark and Grimm has an AR level of 4.6 and is worth 6 points. It is quite violent and bloody, the author is very clear about this fact, so if you are easily upset these might not be for you, but the fantasy and magic aspect, along with the narrator’s humor, takes some of the edge off. There are three books in the series: the second is called In a Glass Grimmly, and the third is A Grimm Conclusion.  I also see that this book is in development for a movie, by the same director who made the Coraline movie. Exciting! 

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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Cover of "The Graveyard Book"

Cover of The Graveyard Book

This book was odd.  My experience reading it went like this:

Spooky! Interesting idea, okay, yes, yes, weird.  Weird.  Hmm, do I like this?  Who was the 33rd president of the United States? This book is weird and I’m not sure my students will get it.  Ohhhhkay.  Oh! Uh oh! Cool! Awwww. Happy/sad. The end.

I liked it, but I didn’t love it.  Until I read the afterword, which is actually the transcript of the speech Neil Gaiman gave when he accepted the Newberry Award.  And then, it was awesome.

So, the main plot is that in the first few pages of the book, a family is murdered by the man, Jack.  His work is unfinished though, as the toddler of the family manages to walk out the front door and escapes into the graveyard across the street.  The graveyard ghosts rally around to guard him from the killer and when the ghost of the baby’s mother shows up, they know they must keep him safe and protected.  A ghostly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Owens, adopts the boy and names him Nobody, or Bod for short.  Since they are ghosts, they cannot actually provide for him, so the caretaker of the graveyard agrees that he will bring food and clothes, and take care of the boy’s material needs.  Silas is a mysterious figure throughout the book; he can leave the grounds, but seems bound to it in some way.  (Can you guess his secret?)

Bod grows up with his ghostly family and he learns the ways of the graveyard.  He can see in the dark, make himself invisible by Fading, and pass through walls as if he was a ghost as well.  He is taught by poets and philosophers, meets witches, attends a ghostly dance ritual, travels to the underworld, and has an encounter with a real girl named Scarlett.  Unfortunately, the man Jack is still trying to fulfill the task of killing Bod, and he is constantly in danger from this mysterious man.

All in all, this is a book about finding one’s own way and growing up.  Bod must learn to walk among the living and the dead at the same time, and decide which life is preferable to follow.  Like any good hero, he is pushed to his limits at problem solving and cleverness, but he also gets himself into a bit of trouble along the way.

I love Neil Gaiman’s other writings.  I read a lot of British authors.  I hope to be British when I grow up!  My concern as I read this, since it is in my classroom library, was that I was not sure who I would pass this book off to next.  Normally I finish I book and then hand it directly to the next reader.  This one stumped me.  Would my students get the references?  Would they figure out the clues about Silas?  Would it feel stiff and formal to them? I spoke to our school librarian who confessed that she hated the book and didn’t finish it!  She also confessed to not liking Coraline either, so she agreed that perhaps she just didn’t like this author.  A couple of students saw me reading it and also gave it a shot, but I’m not sure if anyone finished it.  I’ll have to ask after vacation.  This book proved to be a bit of a conundrum, and the more I talked people, the more I realized it was a love it/hate it book.  As with any book, I say try it.  If you don’t like it now, try it again later.  You just never know!

At the end of the story is the speech Neil Gaiman gave when he won the Newberry Award in 2009.  In it, he talks about growing up in the library, getting lost in the stories he found there, and how reading allows us to escape and try to experience things outside of ourselves.

I had forgotten what fiction was to me as a boy, forgotten what it was like in the library: fiction was an escape from the intolerable, a doorway into impossibly hospitable worlds where things had rules and could be understood; stories had been a way of learning about life without experiencing it, or perhaps of experiencing it as an eighteenth-century poisoner dealt with poisons, taking them in tiny doses, such that the poisoner could cope with ingesting things that would kill someone who was not inured to them. Sometimes fiction is a way of coping with the poison of the world in a way that lets us survive it. 

And I remembered. I would not be the person I am without the authors who made me what I am–the special ones, the wise ones, sometimes just the ones who got there first. 

It’s not irrelevant, those moments of connection, those places where fiction saves your life. It’s the most important thing there is.

…..We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort.

And then I loved this book.

The Graveyard Book has an AR level of 5.1 and is worth 10 points.

Sequels!

Yesterday I realized that I am reading a different book in every room of my house.  I was reading in the living room when my husband called me from the kitchen.  I walked into the kitchen and immediately picked up another book as I entered that room.  There’s a book next to my bed, there is a pile on the dining table, there is a small stack here to the left of the couch.  There was a book on the floor, too, from where I had been reading until I fell asleep. (It’s really hot here and the floor was the coolest place in the house.)  Needless to say, when I went to the library yesterday, I only dropped books off and didn’t check anything out this time!  Well, that, plus the fact that I’m already waiting on an order from Barnes and Noble to arrive this week, ha ha!

So today, I’m just here to update with two more books that I finished this summer.  They are both sequels in two different series of books that I can’t stop reading.

The first is book six in The Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney.  I actually started this blog with book #5, if you scroll back to the beginning of my posts.  This one is called Clash of the Demons, and here we find Tom Ward, the Spook, Alice, Tom’s mother, and a host of allies all preparing to fight the Dark together.  They must travel to Greece to fight the Ordeen, who arrives every seven years through a fiery portal (as shown on the cover.)  It’s a dangerous task and some will not return.  Secret identities are revealed and once again, Tom has to make some decisions that will certainly have long-term consequences.  You really do have to read the all of the prior books to make this all matter, but you should anyway because it’s an awesome series.  I hope that Alice, Tom’s best friend who also happens to be a witch, finally is recognized by the Spook for all that she does to help Tom, even if the Spook disagrees with her connections to Dark magic.   This book has an AR level of 5.7 and is worth 10 points.

The next book couldn’t be more different! The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall has a much lighter storyline– no witches, goblins, or boggarts here!   This is book three about the Penderwick sisters.  Their father has gotten remarried and is about to go on his honeymoon.  The four sisters are split up for the first time when the eldest sister, Rosalind, goes on vacation with her friend to the Jersey shore, and the remaining three sisters go to Maine with their Aunt Claire.  Skye finds herself on duty as the OAP, or the Oldest Available Penderwick, which causes her much stress while she tries to manage her sisters and remember all of the rules.  Batty finds she has a new talent, Jane tries to fall in love, and their best friend, Jeffrey, joins them on vacation and even he learns a thing or two on this trip.  Everyone is growing up!  This book has an AR level of 5.6 and is worth 10 points.

Just a few more weeks of vacation left to go! Too many books, so little time, and soon I’ll have to get back to teaching again.  That’s okay though, because it really means I’ll have a whole new grade of students to share with and a new excuse to buy more books for my classroom library!

The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Apologies for my lack of posting! I’ve been on vacation to -get this-  a place with NO television.  For a week! (And my son said he loved it and would have liked to stay longer, go figure!)  I did manage to get quite a bit of reading done while I was gone, but I read a few grownup books in between getting to my stack of kid stuff.  I read a teenage book, too, but I didn’t feel it was appropriate for blogging here.  There are a ton of great older teen books out there, but I try to be particularly focused on middle school reads.  They may still address difficult topics about growing up, but are maybe more age-appropriate in language choice and some of the more graphic details might be more toned-down.  So when I post about a book, I try to choose carefully with the focus being on the story and the message, and if there is some questionable content, I’ll always warn you up front so you can choose what is best for you.

On that note, the book I have for you today was written by one of my favorite adult authors. Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a writer from Spain and all of his books are first published in Spanish and then translated into English.  It turns out that his first  four books were actually young adult books.  I had no idea!  These books were stuck in some legal dispute, probably with the original publisher, but recently became available for us to read here (and in English, which is a bonus.  Interestingly, he said that while his translator is amazing, if something doesn’t quite come across the same in the translation, he will completely rewrite that section in English so he can get the tone absolutely perfect for our version of the book. Cool! Be sure to read the interview at the end of the story because he has some fantastic ideas about reading and writing.)

The Prince of Mist is a spooky tale that takes place in a non-specific setting, but it seems to be England during World War II.  A family leaves the city as the war is becoming more intense, and they move to the seashore.  There are three children in the family: Alicia, Max, and Irina.  Irina finds a cat immediately when they arrive at the train station, and brings him to their new house on the beach.  The house has been unoccupied for a while, so it is dusty and full of large spiders.  Out behind the house is a curious garden.  In this locked and gated area, Max discovers a bunch of statues, all representing a variety of circus characters.  Max could swear he sees the clown move and runs back to the house, understandably scared out of his wits.  As the family is busy moving in, the father finds an old movie projector and reels of films.   The youngest sister, Irina, has a shocking accident…could the cat be involved?

Max and Alicia quickly make friends with Roland, the lighthouse keeper’s grandson.  Roland takes them around town, to the lighthouse, and out diving to see a shipwreck.  When Irina is sent to the hospital, and the parents are gone for a few days, Roland hangs out with the kids and they begin to share stories.  It quickly becomes evident that these new friends are now connected in a history involving the previous residents of the beach house, the lighthouse keeper, and Roland himself, though he does not know it.  While Max and Roland have a best friend relationship, Alicia and Roland become much closer and settle into the beginnings of a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. (Yep, there’s some kissing, but you can handle it.)  The lighthouse keeper’s tale is chilling, there are clues to be found in the old movie reels, the kids are tested by a dark force, and the climax of this book is intense!

Zafon is an expert at creating a dark, dusty, creepy mood in his writing and he truly succeeded here, even though the book is much smaller than his adult novels.   I read this one while on vacation at a house on Tomales Bay in northern California, where you can sit and watch a thick blanket of fog roll in every afternoon and where water lapped at the shore right underneath our house.  I was very much on edge as I read this book because it matched my situation perfectly.  I definitely recommend this book if you like a scary story where the author doesn’t solve all of the problems for you at once.  This one gets inside your head and haunts you for a few days.  The Prince of Mist has an AR level of 6.5 and is worth 7 points.

Zombie Kid Diaries by Fred Perry and David Hutchinson/Brian Denham

Last weekend I had the amazing opportunity to go to the 2012 ComicCon in San Diego.  If you don’t know what that is, ComicCon is this HUGE convention that takes over downtown San Diego for five days.  It is a giant gathering of movie studios, television channels, game companies, comic book artists, authors, and publishers.  Imagine everything you ever thought was cool, all in the same place at the same time! You can walk around and get sneak peeks at upcoming games and movies, meet favorite actors/authors/artists, spend tons of money on collectible items, get autographs from your favorite celebrities, and of course buy comic books.  I was down there for two days, spending one day walking around the outside of the convention and one day on the inside.  There are about a hundred million things to see and do, and the whole thing is slightly overwhelming.  Overwhelming with awesomeness!  I forgot to even mention the fact that all kinds of fans show up to this event, and lots of them wear amazing costumes that they have created themselves.  I didn’t wear a costume myself this time (maybe next year if I’m lucky enough to go again), so I put on my favorite Harry Potter shirt, and set out to see what I could find…

Of all the hundreds of booths in the convention hall, and of all the books that were on display and for sale, one caught my eye.  One caught my eye and made me stop walking, dead in my tracks.  I knew on first glance that this was a book I would have to check out immediately.  Zombie Kid Diaries has a cover that looks sort of like another book you may have read, or even seen as a movie.  Hmm.  Well, I love the Wimpy Kid books, too, so I got my hands on a copy and started reading!

Bill Stokes is  your typical middle school student.  He just wants to fit in, do well enough to stay out of trouble but not so well that he stands out, and he has plans to be a professional video game player.  His father was a bit of a jerk and ended up in jail, so now Bill is also adjusting to his mom going back to work.  Only it turns out that the job his mom was able to get is a position as a tester for new medications.  Working all the time makes her tired, but they are doing okay on their own.  Bill takes notes in his journal, so he can keep track of his gaming scores and the day-to-day things that might have influenced his game play, such as his breakfast or the weather.  These notes are what you read, and the journal is fully illustrated in that familiar cartoon style.

At school, Bill meets a weird girl who seems determined to be his friend, and he also unfortunately finds a bully.  Luckily, he still has his best buddy, Larry, on his side.  Things are going okay, except for his mother, who is stumbling around the apartment and falling down randomly.  Side effects from all those medications she has been taking at work maybe?  Then Bill starts noticing that HE feels different, too, and that everyone around him suddenly smells delicious… What do zombie kids eat for breakfast? How do they deal with pimples and showering in PE?  And speaking of PE, how do zombies run the track and play basketball anyway???

A couple twists and turns made this a very funny (and quick) book for a summer vacation read.  This book is illustration-heavy and has all of the middle school requirements like fart jokes and super-stinky BO.  The first book is called Zombie Kid Diaries: Playing Dead, and the second one is ZKD: Grossery Games.  The second book has a different illustrator and looks a little bit different in its style.  In this one, Bill has his sights on competing against a video game champ from Japan, only to discover that he has to go on a class field trip instead.  Maybe that’s okay because his newly developed zombie claws will just slow him down at the tournament anyhow.  Like the title explains, it’s all pretty gross, especially when Bill makes a gruesome discovery in the woods.

These books are not AR books yet, but they were pretty simple with no challenging vocabulary.  Read the Zombie Kid Diaries if you can imagine a combination of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books added to the Goosebumps series.  Funny and icky at the same time, but not especially scary.  Go find out what a “road pizza” is and decide if you would ever eat one!

The Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney

I’ll start with this series because I just bought and read book #5 , Wrath of the Bloodeye.   You all seem to like scary stories, so these are great and there will ultimately be 13 books once the whole series is done.  These should keep you reading for a long time!  These are AR books and they range from level 5.5 and up.

In these stories, we learn about a boy named Tom Ward. He is twelve years old in the first book, but most importantly, he is also the seventh son of a seventh son.  This birth order gives him the ability to see, hear and fight against those things that go bump in the night.  Because his family is so big, he is apprenticed to the county Spook, a man named John Gregory.  A Spook is kind of like a Ghostbuster; he travels around the country tracking and trapping witches and other dark creatures.  People call on him when they need to get rid of a ghost or a boggart, and John Gregory shows up to deal with their problems.  He starts teaching Tom all of the rules about each kind of haunting, the behaviors and weaknesses of the creatures, and how to deal with all sorts of spooky situations.  Tom tells each story and includes his journal notes at the end of each book.

I love an author who can create a whole world, with specific rules about how things work.  Some of these stories made the hair on the back of my neck stand up because they gave me the chills due to how creeptastic they were.  (Creeptastic? It’s a word!)  The characters are complex and everyone is more than they seem to be, which leads to questions as to who will be loyal and who is to be trusted.  Beware girls with pointy shoes!

Read these books if you ever shared the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark  books with your friends, but you are ready to take it to the next level of spooktacular goodness.  (Spooktacular, also a word.  I should know because I’m an English teacher!)  These are not the simple, predictable scares of the Goosebumps books either, so be forewarned.  As a bonus, the cover art and pictures inside are really neat, too.  Check out the website for more info, but turn your speakers down…unless you are braver than me. http://www.harpercollinschildrens.com/kids/gamesandcontests/features/lastapprentice/