Retro Reads

nancy clues

Something different today, as I have recently started a reading side quest. Background: when I was in second grade, I received the first three books in the Nancy Drew Mysteries Stories from an aunt (or second cousin, maybe?) in Pennsylvania. It was someone I didn’t know very well and she sent them for Christmas. I read those books and read them again and an obsession was born. Off to the library I went, only to discover that there were 64 original books in total, a mission I accepted whole-heartedly. My grandma was a serious garage sale-yard sale-rummage sale-anything sale shopper, so we made a list of the books and began hunting for them. To this day, I still keep my eyes peeled for those telltale yellow book spines when I am in a used bookstore. (The oldest ones have blue covers, FYI.)

The Nancy Drew books were originally written in the 1930s. Nancy is an 18-year-old girl detective, stylish, smart, driving her blue convertible around town as she has adventures and solves mysteries. Her father is a famous lawyer and she often helps him with his cases. Some of the details have changed over time as the books were edited to reflect current times, but overall the plots remain the same. Someone needs help, and Nancy and her friends work together to figure it all out. The cover art is amazing! The books were written by several different authors, but all under the name of Carolyn Keene.

For Christmas, my husband bought me this Nancy Drew puzzle, which I completed over spring break. It’s 1000 pieces and I finished it in three days! (I have a puzzle problem, clearly. I always do one during school vacations, it’s my thing.) IMG_0058

So this puzzle made me run off to the library yet again, where I have started a massive re-read of the series! I still love these books, and mostly because they are so old-fashioned. Everything is just so, proper, with formal dialogue, fancy clothes, and safe adventures. There have been a some more modern, spin-off series of the books, a TV show from the 1970s, a few movies, and plans for a new TV show that again puts an updated spin on the books. You don’t have to read these in order, but that’s my plan. I’ve got a little checklist going and I’ve got #4, 5, and 6 set aside for this weekend. The books are short and can be read in just a few hours. I’m loving this blast from the past! If you are wanting to trying something old/new-to-you, grab a copy at the library and join me. Next up on my list of things to do is clear some shelf space so I can display my collection!

The original books are around the 5.0 AR level and are typically worth about 5-6 points.


Shouldn’t You Be in School? by Lemony Snicket

schoolA new book from my favorite person! This is the third book in the All the Wrong Questions series. If you have already read #1 and 2, follow up with this one, but read carefully. Strange things are happening. Well, you know, stranger than usual. And while this book is just as clever as the last two, it feels much heavier. Much more dismaying, a word here which means the book takes us to several different locations around Stain’d-by-the-Sea but doesn’t bring us much closer to any answers. However, we do have all of our characters in the same place at once and our heroes have banded together in force to prepare for the fight against Hangfire, the villain. What does he want? Why? Is caviar really the salty jewel of the tasty sea? Alas, these questions are probably wrong. Look for some serious references to A Series of Unfortunate Events in this book! You will find them quite pleasing.

This book JUST came out, so there is no AR info to share. Doesn’t matter. You need to read this and then wait miserably with me until the next one comes out. In the meantime, watch this interview with Daniel Handler–

Then watch this one and follow the trail–

Doll Bones by Holly Black

doll bonesDo you like creepy stories? Not scary or gross, but just creepy. And creepy in that kind of “this could be a true story” kind of way. Do you think that porcelain dolls are unnerving? They are fragile, too realistic, and a little bit unfriendly? They are clearly up to no good at all. I’ve got a book for you!

This is a story of Zach, Alice, and Poppy, three best friends who have grown up together. They have a long-standing game of pretend that involves a story they have clearly been developing for quite a while, and they use action figures to design sets and act out these adventures about pirates and thieves and heroes and quests. Ruling over all of these stories is the Great Queen, an old porcelain doll who lives in a glass-doored cabinet in Poppy’s house. The Great Queen is apparently very valuable and the kids are not allowed to play with her.

One night, Poppy and Alice come to Zach’s house in the middle of the night. Poppy reports that she is being visited by a ghost of a young girl who is connected to the Great Queen– her cremated ashes are actually INSIDE the doll. (Ohhhhhkay, no thank you, ghost girl!)  She needs Poppy to bury the doll so she can be at rest. Alice and Zach are not quite sure if they believe Poppy, but they agree to embark upon a journey to complete this task. Odd things happen while they travel with the haunted doll.

All the while, the three are trying to deal with their changing relationships, as can sometimes happen at this age. Zach’s father has thrown out all of his toys so that he can’t play the pretend game anymore, but he doesn’t know how to tell the girls. Alice has a crush on Zach, which upsets her BFF status with Poppy. Is Poppy even telling the truth about the ghostly messages she’s received? So much uncertainty!

I really enjoyed this book and it was a fast read. I think those dolls are slightly scary anyway, so it was not hard to believe that this could actually happen. (Like Zach, Alice, and Poppy, I also have an excellent imagination!) It reminded me of a kind of reverse telling of The Doll in the Garden by Mary Downing Hahn. This book was also about growing up, taking risks, speaking up for one’s self, and loyalty to friends. I also liked the change that Zach’s father went through, which I could relate to and understand, from the perspective of a child and a parent.

Doll Bones was a Newbery Honor Book for 2014.  It has an AR level of 5.4 and is worth 7 points.


File Under: 13 Suspicious Events by Lemony Snicket

13 suspiciousThis past weekend, I attended the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which is held on the campus of the University of Southern California. It is a free weekend event which I highly recommend if you live nearby. There are all sorts of booksellers, in all sorts of categories, plus many other bookish things to discover and purchase, like posters, tote bags, journals, and nerdy t-shirts. All throughout the weekend, authors are giving talks, doing book signings, or teaching cooking classes, and there are people reading poetry, performing live music, puppet show-ing, and goodness knows what else! Some of the author panels, or “conversations,” require a $1 ticket to reserve a seat, but otherwise you are free to walk around and attend whatever catches your eye.

I attended two author conversations that were both very popular– John Green (The Fault in Our Stars, and several other titles, but he’s more of a 8th grade-and-up author), and Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket.) I saw Daniel Handler do a reading last year, but this time it was just him talking about how he got into writing and the surprising success of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and his new series, All the Wrong Questions. His panel was moderated by Ransom Riggs, author of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, another book I quite enjoyed reading, and together they made a great interview team. I met them both afterward to get my books signed. (Authors are my celebrities, what can I say? It’s all very exciting!)

This particular book takes place in the All the Wrong Questions world of Stain’d-by-the Sea, a town that once had a thriving ink industry until the sea dried up and the octopi that produced the ink disappeared. The town is now practically abandoned, except for a few locals who still live there. A young Lemony Snicket is stationed here with his mentor, but since she is pointless and no help at all, he begins working on some mysteries on the side.

Here we have 13 short mysteries to solve alongside Lemony Snicket. You can put your own detective skills to work as you read each story and then flip to the back of the book to see if you were right. This is in the style of the Encyclopedia Brown books I read when I was a kid, in which the neighborhood boy detective solved disputes by using his keen powers of observation, with the answers located separately in the back. (One of the character names actually refers to the Encyclopedia Brown creator, Donald Sobol!) In addition, watch for references to books that are mentioned, but never named.  I figured one out this morning as I was sitting down to blog, as a matter of fact.

These are fun to share and I started reading aloud as soon as we got into the car to drive home. This book is also important because it tells us about some of the other people who live in Stain’d-by-the-Sea, which is interesting since we have only met a few residents in the other books so far.  Will these people play a part in the larger mystery that Snicket is working on? We will have to wait and see!

HINT: Read the stories.  Read the solutions.  Then read the solutions again. I’m just sayin’.


Breadcrumbs/The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

breadcrumbs real boyHere are two very different books by the same author, presented for your consideration. They are similar and yet not at all, and I am still trying to decide if I liked one of them. Let’s investigate…

I had read about The Real Boy before it even hit bookstores and I was intrigued, especially by the cover art. I read this article about how the cover evolved and I knew I had to read it right away. When I went to purchase it, I also ended up buying another book by Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs, and I actually ended up reading that one first.

Breadcrumbs is twist on the fairy tale story of the Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, in which a boy is hit with a shard of glass from a terrible, magical mirror that makes everything he sees look ugly and hideous. Breadcrumbs takes place in a modern setting, with two best friends, Hazel and Jack as neighbors and best friends.  Jack is the mirror’s victim in this version, and he suddenly stops hanging out with Hazel at home and at school.  Hazel’s mother tries to explain that perhaps they have just reached an age where boys and girls don’t play together anymore and relationships tend to be awkward, but Hazel knows that there is something else wrong. When Jack vanishes into the woods, she decides to go after him because she has read too many books to let Jack’s strange disappearance go without investigation. Hazel enters into a new world, marked by a clearing that features a ticking clock, and embarks on a classic journey to find and free Jack. This world is wholly magical and wonderful to read, and I loved how Hazel knows how to negotiate through this world, something that imaginative kids do quite naturally. Of course her quest is to free Jack from the Snow Queen, but will that be enough? This is a powerful story about growing up and I highly recommend it.

Then I read The Real Boy, and I will be honest and tell you that it took me much longer to finish than I had anticipated. It is also a story about magic, but I had to work a lot harder at this one. Oscar is the main character, working for one of the land’s last magicians. He has a gift for working with plants and herbs, but he is very aware of how different he is from the other people in his town, preferring to work behind the scenes and befriending a score of cats who live in the workshop.  At one time, the land was seething with magic, but it seems to be dwindling and the children of the city are becoming ill. When the magician’s apprentice is mysteriously (and gruesomely) killed, and other awful things happen, Oscar and his very kind and patient friend Callie begin to search for the truth. There were a couple of gasp-out-loud moments as I read this story, as it has a very twisty plot. It is also beautifully written, as is Breadcrumbs. I found this magical world to be much more chaotic though, and it left me feeling unsettled at the end. The magic felt ominous, or maybe I was supposed to experience Oscar’s point of view of not fully fitting in with the world around him. (In that case, it worked!) The story I really wanted to know more about was the history that Oscar and Callie spent so much time researching. Perhaps that tale will show up as a prequel one day!

Naturally read these books if you like magic and fairy tales and friendship. Read Breadcrumbs for sure if you’ve ever grown apart from a best friend because Ursu absolutely nails what that particular sense of loneliness feels like, and then you can read it and not feel so alone. And that, kids, is why we read.  Enjoy!

Breadcrumbs has an AR level of 4.8 and is worth 9 points. The Real Boy has an AR level of  4.9 and is worth 10 points.

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

scorpionTwo posts on the same day! Go me!

Here’s a book that I just finished.  Like, 15 minutes ago just finished, and I though I’d better blog it right NOW while I’m already here!

The House of the Scorpion is a dystopian future-style book, though you don’t get the full impact of how strange the world has become until late in the book.  You get to go through the plot alongside the main character, learning as he learns, which led me to gasp out loud and make I’m sure what were ridiculous faces as I read this in class.  (My students think it’s funny when I read because I cannot keep my reactions to myself.)

This is a very twisty sci-fi novel about..well, it’s about a lot of things.  It’s about a boy, Matt, who is the clone of a man called El Patron, a terrible and powerful drug dealer in a country called Opium that runs along the border of the US and Mexico.  Matt has been grown in order to be spare parts for El Patron as he ages and become sickly.  Matt is actually the 9th clone in a long line of clones, and his time is running short.  Clones are considered no more than livestock, so he is treated poorly and has few rights.  Luckily El Patron favors him, so he is allowed an education and other privileges.  There is a dark undercurrent to this book, which made it super intriguing to read.  I knew things had taken a turn when Matt found himself in an “orphanage” where one of the mottos was “work is freedom” which sent chills down my spine.  “Work is freedom’ is a saying posted at many of the Nazi concentration camps during WWII and I remembered it immediately from going to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. last year.  There is a sequel to this book that I now *must* read.  I’m curious to know if Matt can overcome his own DNA or if he will give in to a history that is his by default.  Will he become what he must be destined for, or will he rise above his fate?  An interesting note from the author at the end expresses some of the moral issues that the book touches on, too. So good.

The House of the Scorpion has an AR level of 5.1, though I think it reads higher due to its science fiction characteristics, where you just have to press forward and trust that what you need to know will be explained to you in time.  Because it is complex, it is worth 15 AR points, an indication that you’re looking at a heavy plot.  Read this if you are a fan of other dystopian series like The Hunger Games, Divergent, or The Giver.

Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

IMG_0860I’d been hearing a lot of buzz on the internet about this book and how it would be a great read aloud story to share with a classroom.  I didn’t know much about it except that it took place in a library, so I decided to go find it and check it out.  I’m so glad I did, and now I AM reading it to my new students as we kick off the school year!

Kyle Keeley is a seventh grader in Alexandriaville, Ohio.  It’s a small town that hasn’t had a public library in twelve years, so kids who are Kyle’s age have grown up without a library their whole lives. Kyle has two older brothers; one is a jock, the other a genius.  Kyle excels at playing games of all kinds, but he’s not that into school, or sports, or reading.  Until…he finds out that the master gamemaker, Luigi Lemoncello is the man who is paying to have a brand new library built in Alexandriaville! Mr. Lemoncello is one of Kyle’s heroes and the creator of games such as Squirrel Squad, Family Frenzy, and the Indoor-Outdoor Scavenger Hunt.  He makes card games, video games, board games, puzzles, games with secret codes… you name it, he’s done it.  Suddenly Kyle has to scramble to finish that extra credit essay assignment that he blew off, because that essay was for a contest to be able to spend the night in Mr. Lemoncello’s new library!

Twelve twelve-year-olds are selected to experience the state-of-the-art library before the general public will be allowed inside.  The book is a cross between Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Night at the Museum.  The kids are becoming a part of an even bigger game, and the library is coming to life around them while they explore.  Mr. Lemoncello is very much like a Willy Wonka-type character, appearing randomly to give out clues and run the game. (Pay careful attention to how Mr. Lemoncello speaks in book titles and see how many you can identify.  That by itself is kind of like another side game while you read!)  Players are eliminated along the way (though nobody has to go to the juicing room after chewing blueberry bubble gum!) and competition grows fierce as the children race to collect the clues that will help them to escape the library.

Here’s the coolest part though: At the end of the book, there is a note from the author.  He says that there is another puzzle in the story, one that was hinted at, but not used.  The clues are there, and it is up to the reader to figure it out.  If you can solve the puzzle and email the author the correct answer, you can win books for yourself and your favorite library.  You have until January 1, 2014 to play, so get to reading!  I think I’m on the right track, but I’m not telling…

Read this book if you’re a Wonka fan, or if you love mysteries, puzzles, adventures, and balloons!  This is a fast book to read because it is so hard to put down and force yourself to stop.  I read it in a day when it was too hot to do much else than to lay around quietly and not move too much.

Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library has an AR level of 4.5 and is worth 7 points.