Ifflepinn Island by Muz Murray

In Ifflepinn Island, Iffleplum, also known as Plumkin, loses his elfin heart (the true heart, not the machine that pumps blood) because he is not careful with it. The story follows his quest to regain his heart which brings him into contact with various peoples from other parts of his world and some from other realms. Learning that he is considered to be a mythical creature and subject of a prophesy, Iffleplum attracts a great deal of attention with many folks trying to influence world events for better or for worse, or sometimes just for their own personal gain.

Ifflepinn Island is “a read aloud fantasy… for green growing children and evergreen adults,” which is a fair description of the target audience. The style, based on great children’s literature of a century ago combined with the rhythm and whimsy of Dr. Seuss, may be difficult for readers unused to the formal tone or who struggle with unfamiliar words. It’s an excellent choice for your fourth grader who reads at an eighth grade level for whom there are incredibly few books that are both challenging and appropriate. Written and beautifully illustrated by yoga master Muz Murray, Ifflepin Island is a philosophical story and some may find it challenging to their world-view. But then, that’s what philosophy is supposed to do.

Sometimes the right book finds you at the right time. Ifflepinn Island is one of those books for me. Designed to be read aloud at family reading time, it suits my dramatic style of reading (yes, even when reading silently in my own head) and I found it loads of fun. Being a philosophical story, it is a great read for young people developing their world view or those older among us who are willing to be challenged in our thoughts. It guides us to be thoughtful with ourselves and with others, judging only those who set out with the goal to do harm.

You can find this book or CD on the author’s own website MuzMurray.com

Into the Hare Wood by Tonya Macalino

On her last day of school Hannah Troyer finds an honor guard of neighborhood cats lining the street as she walks home. This is the first in a series of strange events that include a neighborhood tramp, a violent storm and a family legacy that her father never taught her.

The Gates of Aurona series would fit in nicely in any school library. The reading level is matched perfectly to the upper elementary interest level with a professional appearance that is becoming more common in independently published books. Hannah’s social difficulties are left vague and are ancillary to the story, giving any child who feels they are on the edges of their family or friends group someone to relate to without pathologizing those feelings.

I enjoyed Into the Hare Wood more than most of the light fantasy books I read to my own children. Too many middle grades books either ignore the difficulties of real life or have the story focus too heavily on those difficulties. Hannah can feel lonely but still know she is loved. The family can make sacrifices when dad loses his job and remain grateful that they didn’t lose the house, a very real possibility for many families in similar situations. The family pulls together when things get scary with mom neither being the Great Problem Solver nor absent and ineffectual. The realism is a nice counterbalance to the fantastic plot.

For part two of the story read:

All books can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on their images.

The Art of Literacy

Literacy is more than a set of skills, it is an art.

This goes against everything we’ve been taught. We are told that literacy consists of knowing sight words and decoding longer words. It means having a good vocabulary and understanding idioms. It sometimes requires prior knowledge. And we believe what we are told because it makes sense. But in our hearts we know there is something more. And we don’t teach that something when teaching our children to read.

Just after starting this blog I got sick. It was pretty bad and required hospitalization. Before I knew something was wrong I stopped being able to read. I did not lose any of the skills listed above and my eyes worked normally. But I could not make sense of the stories unfolding on the pages. I barely managed to get through the first nine reviews I had planned before giving up and listening to podcasts and books on tape. I wondered if I would ever be able to return to the activity that defined me for so much of my life.

A lot of people I know have gone through this at some point. It usually coincides with a drop in creative energy, which makes sense. Reading requires creating people and places. We create sights and sounds and even touch and smell from nothing more than squiggles on a page. It is just as creative as drawing a picture or performing a piece of music, but the art is for ourselves.

Understanding that there is an art to reading is vitally important to parents and teachers and librarians as we teach our children. Charlotte Mason, the 19th century British educator, understood this. She recommended reading a single page from a story each day so the children could fully focus on what was read. Because they were not given the end of the story along with the beginning they could spend time developing their creative reading brains as they imagined what might happen next. Homeschooling parents influenced by Mason report that their children will often come to them several times a day to discuss what is being read.

This level of engagement is not possible with the predictable, formulaic books that publishers love because they are easy to sell and educators love because they fit neatly into reading levels. If we are going to teach our children the art of reading they need complex stories in which the characters do unexpected things. We need to ask our children what they might do before getting to the end of the story. We need to share what we feel when we enter the story.

Don’t think I am opposed to teaching the technical aspects of reading. I am all for teaching phonics and grammar and vocabulary to give children the tools they need to become skilled readers. I am even a rare defender of Direct Instruction as a method of teaching technical literacy. But as teachers of the next generation we have to remember the most important lesson of all, the one we learned from Reading Rainbow. We have to teach our children why to read. And we can only do that if we teach them to connect reading to their hearts and to how they navigate the world.

I have fortunately recovered from my illness, both physically and creatively, and will be returning to this blog with new reviews each Thursday.

See you next time!

No One Needed to Know by D.G. Driver

Sixth grade, with its changing social dynamics is hard. It’s especially hard for Heidi whose 16 year old brother Donald is autistic and is bullied by the other kids at his high school. When Heidi’s friends learn about Donald, she also becomes a target of ridicule. This loosely autobiographical story follows Heidi as she comes to understand her brother while learning to navigate the social mine field of sixth grade.

No One Needed to Know is geared toward third to sixth graders. It tells a more nuanced story than is normally written for that age group, making it less appropriate for precocious readers and a good choice for below level middle school students. Adults who remember reading books by Katherine Patterson and Paula Danziger will recognize the honesty with which it is written.

When I started this book I felt it was dated. The casual abuse of people with disabilities is no longer acceptable as it once was. Halfway through I changed my mind. All young people deal with bullying, whether or not it is directed at them. No One Needed to Know beautifully tells a story of how one girl learns to balance a complex situation at home with a complex situation at school. It shows how we well-meaning adults can make things harder when we are trying to help. There is a full cast of complex human beings and so the author can side with all the kids, even the mean ones. They are all trying to find their way. In the end some of them do.

This book can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on its image.

Blade of the Sea: Book 1 by Jesse Nethermind

Trish longs for something more adventurous than hunting chickens in her small village. So when a mysterious stranger arrives with a harrowing tale, she jumps at the chance to help. Learning that things aren’t always what they seem, Trish embarks on an adventure to keep the dangerous Blade of the Sea out of the hands of the power hungry Carmine and his group of bandits, Roger, Mac and Chiese. But can a lowly villager be a hero as great as the legendary Steve?

This book will appeal to Minecrafters and punsters of all ages but is geared toward seven to eleven year olds. It’s filled with Minecraft references that might seem strange to readers not familiar with the game. It’s universal appeal makes it a great choice for older children and teens who read at an elementary level while still being appropriate for reading aloud to young children.

My entire Minecraft experience consists of building a house on a hill with a garden. I found survival mode too scary. But that little bit was enough for me to understand most of the references in the book. I’m sure some went over my head but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything.  This book was a lot of fun and while it stood nicely on its own, your young readers will likely want the rest of the series. With a main character who exemplifies bravery, ingenuity and perseverance, without ever being even a tiny bit preachy, parents will be happy to oblige their kids and buy it.

For the entire Blade of the Sea series:

All books can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on their images.

Apprentice Cat by Virginia Ripple

When Toby is paired with Lorn Ribaldy to begin their apprenticeship and lifelong magical partnership, they aren’t told it is a conditional acceptance to the elite magic academy. Some believe only cats of aristocratic backgrounds belong in the school. And then there’s the fact of Lorn’s uncle, found plotting against the Counsel, his cat partner murdered by his hand and in complete mental breakdown. Toby and Lorn seek to prove the innocence of Lorn’s uncle and learn to trust each other, all while keeping up with their school work.

This book is listed for kids 9 to 18 but I would recommend it for middle school kids as it may be thematically complex for younger readers and a bit predictable for older readers. It will appeal to kids who enjoy modern fantasy novels.  There is a strong focus on values from a specifically Christian viewpoint with subsequent books encouraging truth seeking over blind following.

The first chapter of the book is more of a prologue, the kind often found in popular genre fiction. Not expecting that, I found it confusing. Also, I hate cats. I put the book down with no intention of picking it up again. But my brain kept reminding me of the quality of the writing so I gave it another go. Apprentice Cat is not only well written, it is an excellent story. The author balances the adventure of the main story line well with Toby and Lorn’s struggle to find their place in a new school.

For parents of precocious readers: Just as the Harry Potter series got darker in book four, the second book in this series may not be appropriate for younger readers. Fortunately, the first book stands on its own and parents can “discover” the rest of the series when their child is older.

Follow the continuing adventures of Toby and Lorn:

All books can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on their images.

The Treacherous Secret (Fairendale Book 1) by L.R. Patton

Theo and his sister Hazel come from a family poor in material things but rich in generosity. Prince Virgil is their closest friend. He loves them because they never treat him different for being a prince. But Theo has a secret, he is a boy who can do magic. In a land where girls are gifted with magic and practice it openly, a boy with magic is dangerous because he can challenge the throne. The king and his eldest son are supposed to be the only males born with the gift. When Theo makes a mistake and Prince Virgil learns his secret, the prince is torn between fear of losing what is his and love for his friend.

The Fairendale series is written for 8 to 12 year olds. The writing style is a little old fashioned and may turn off young people accustomed to the fast paced, dialog heavy books common to modern children’s literature. However, kids who enjoy the fantasy genre or classic novels will appreciate a book that doesn’t speak down to them. The complex story with interweaving storylines will also appeal to parents and maybe even teens.

While most new fairy tales are either derivative of stories we already know or have an ironic tone and modern sensibility, Fairendale feels like a place L.R. Patton discovered while wandering in the enchanted forest where such stories live. And as all fairy tales did before the time of Disney, it shows that life is complex and things can go wrong even when you try to do what is right. And don’t we all need to know we too can get through even when it seems like everything is against us?

Readers will be eager to learn what happens next so be prepared to get the rest of the series upon completion of The Secret.

All books can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on their images.

Yaakov the Pirate Hunter by Nathaniel Wyckoff

In this near future adventure Yaakov Peretz, his family and their collection of robot helpers travel to the island of Djerba to keep the world’s oldest Torah scroll from being stolen by pirates. If this sounds like the plot for Raiders of the Lost Ark, you’re not far off. However, set in the year 2025, the book appeals to scientists and inventors as much as is does to historians.

Yaakov the Pirate Hunter is one of those rare books that is written at a middle school level but appropriate to younger children, making it an excellent choice for kids who read above their grade level. Its focus on Jewish history and customs may be interesting to a child preparing for their bar/bat mitzvah to help develop a greater sense of Jewish identity in the modern world. With an exciting story line, it is accessible to a broad audience and parents of any faith will appreciate the focus on values.

The nerd in me loved this book. The author gave us a glimpse of the future of graphene technology, the history and culture of the Jewish people, and robots. While the writing may be a little dry in places for reluctant readers, many will quickly become immersed in the story and wonder when they will be able to own the same devices as the Peretz family.

Follow the continuing adventures of Yaakov Peretz and his family:

All books can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on their images.

Jaden Toussaint, the Greatest Episode 1: The Quest for Screen Time by Marti Dumas

Jaden Toussaint spent 10 glorious minutes on his father’s cell phone and now he wants more. JT starts a campaign to get more screen time, with his kindergarten teacher an unknowing accomplice in his scheme. Using a combination of scientific analysis, ingenuity and ninja dancing, will Jaden Toussaint be able to achieve his goal?

Marketers may find this book problematic because it’s above the level of most entry novels, but the protagonist is in kindergarten, making it difficult to define a target audience. Families who love reading will ignore the marketers’ dilemma and enjoy a well told story. The lively text makes it fun to read aloud, but be certain everyone can see the illustrations by Marie Muravski. It is possible to miss the tone and meaning without them. This book may best be enjoyed by precocious readers with an advanced sense of humor who share Jaden Toussaint’s outrage at the lack of homework in kindergarten.

I loved this book and read it out loud to my family. My teenagers rolled their eyes. How could they take a book seriously when the main character wanted homework? No one wants homework. My kids clearly don’t remember creating their own homework assignments at that age. But even they admitted that despite the unbelievable premise, the book was lots of fun. The only concern is that the pictures don’t always line up properly with the text in the Kindle version so it is best to get a hard copy if you can.

You may also enjoy these continuing adventures of Jaden Toussaint:

All books can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on their images.

PI Penguin and the Case of the Missing Bottle by Bec J Smith

In this book P.I. Penguin helps his dolphin friend find his missing bottle. They ask questions and follow leads until the lost bottle is found. Along the way we meet many denizens of the deep, drawn in brilliant colors with a child-like aesthetic. While PI Penguin is able to help his friends, he has spent the past five months unable to find his missing parents, adding a sorrowful note at the end of an otherwise uplifting story.

This read aloud book is rhythmic with different rhyming words on each page. While many books can seem pedantic with iambic tetrameter couplets, P.I. Penguin sprinkles the rhymes generously throughout each page, making it fun to read and providing emergent readers more opportunities to connect sounds with letters. There is a glossary of tricky words to help children grow their vocabulary along with their reading brains.

The book is gorgeously illustrated by Adit Galih, with pictures simple enough to be traced/copied by young readers but rich enough to bring the author’s vision to life. The writing is quick paced and engaging, lending itself well to using different voices for the characters. While the story line is sweet and contains a positive message, some parents may be concerned about certain aspects. Unlike some books for young children, this does not gloss over the realities of wildlife and P.I. speaks first to a shark and then to creatures the shark wanted to eat. Some people might be concerned about the unresolved missing parent sub-plot. Assuming that this is resolved over the course of the series, the best way to address this may be to buy all four books. I think the investment is worth it.

Final note: P.I.Penguin is written in a dyslexia friendly font, making it accessible to struggling readers.  I first learned about such fonts five years ago and have seen a few. This is by far the most elegant and could bring such fonts into the main stream. If you are interested in more books designed to meet the needs of readers with language disabilities you may want to check out the publisher at Aulexic.

You may be interested in the rest of the P.I. Penguin series:

All books can be purchased through Amazon by clicking on their images.
Okay, for some reason these images aren’t showing up. But you can still get to the books from the funny little squares.