May 14, 2009


Since J.K. Rowling released the first of her Harry Potter series in 1997, children's literature has been reinvigorated by a new breed of children's novel ~ sophisticated, complex, sometimes dark...sounds like we're describing a new kind of chocolate bar. But the point is that the dumbed-down stories with plot lines flimsier than a Hollywood marriage are no longer the only books on the shelf. Kids weren't the only ones lined up in front of stores at midnight awaiting the next adventure of Rowling's boy-wizard. And you needn't be the age where overalls still look cute to enjoy any of the following books on our list. In fact, if you make these books a part of your family reading over the summer (and we hope you do) you may just find it hard to stop from reading on even after your kids have fallen asleep.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick: This beautiful "novel in words and pictures" tells the story of young Hugo Cabret, an orphan living in a train station in 1930s Paris. Selznick's silvery pencil drawings and elegant writing style give this book the romantic quality of early silent movies. In fact, Selznick weaves film history, art, literature and mythology in to this captivating mystery. In the story, movies are described as being, "like seeing dreams in the middle of the day." The same could be said for Selznick's masterpiece of words and drawings.
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (Books 1-13): This series chronicles the misadventures of the Baudelaire children; orphaned and bounced from one unusual circumstance to another; all the while being pursued by the nefarious villain Count Olaf as they chase down the truth behind their parent's death and the mysterious organization known as VFD. Snicket combines irreverent humor, wit and dramatic irony in a page turning mystery that follows the Baudelaires over many years. The story is rich in sophisticated vocabulary and is an entertaining primer for acronyms. An underlying theme of the series is that of the importance of pursuing knowledge, reading, and feeding the intellect. The story's heroes are writers, thinkers, inventors and explorers, while the villains are lazy philistines prone to book burning and jumping on bandwagons.

Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett: The story is set in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood at the University of Chicago's Lab School, where Balliett was a teacher. There, outsiders Petra and Calder become friends as they try to find out what happened to a missing Vermeer painting. That's really all the plot one needs to know. More important are Balliett's purpose in writing and the way she has structured her story. The former seems to be to get to children to think--about relationships, connections, coincidences, and the subtle language of artwork. To accomplish this, she peppers her story with seemingly random events that eventually come together in a startling, delightful pattern." Booklist Review

Of course, great children's literature is really nothing new. Try these oldies, but goodies:

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster: " Norton Juster received (and continues to receive) enormous praise for this original, witty, and oftentimes hilarious novel, first published in 1961. (...) As Milo heads toward Dictionopolis he meets with the Whether Man ("for after all it's more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be"), passes through The Doldrums (populated by Lethargarians), and picks up a watchdog named Tock (who has a giant alarm clock for a body). The brilliant satire and double entendre intensifies in the Word Market, where after a brief scuffle with Officer Short Shrift, Milo and Tock set off toward the Mountains of Ignorance to rescue the twin Princesses, Rhyme and Reason. Anyone with an appreciation for language, irony, or Alice in Wonderland-style adventure will adore this book for years on end." Review

A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L'Engle: The adventure begins as, "Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger."Wild nights are my glory," the unearthly stranger told them. "I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me sit down for a moment, and then I'll be on my way. Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract."A tesseract (in case the reader doesn't know) is a wrinkle in time. To tell more would rob the reader of the enjoyment of Miss L'Engle's unusual book. A Wrinkle in Time, winner of the Newbery Medal in 1963, is the story of the adventures in space and time of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O'Keefe (...) They are in search of Meg's father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government on the tesseract problem." ~ Amazon

From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg: In this 1967 Newbery Medal winner, Claudia and brother Jaime run away from home, hop the train to NYC and camp out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (a theme that probably wouldn't fly in a book written for today's world). But while '67 may have been a very different time, the adventure has a timeless appeal. As the story develops, the children learn more about themselves, each other and become consumed with solving the mystery behind a sculpture attributed to Michelangelo. Before we even finished the book my daughter was asking when we could go to the Met, hoping to not only see the artwork richly described in the book, but to seek out the places where Claudia and Jaime hid. The story may have a charm that seems a bit old fashioned, but it is sure to ignite a very current interest in visiting our nation's great museums and exploring the rich history of art ~ chaperoned by an adult of course!
The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder: "The first time Melanie Ross meets April Hall, she's not sure they have anything in common. One look at April's upswept hair, false eyelashes, and ragged fox-fur collar is enough to convince Melanie that April won't have an easy time fitting in with the sixth graders at Wilson School. But April has some surprises in store, like the fact that she enjoys reading and playing imagination games just as much as Melanie does. The two even discover that they both love anything to do with ancient Egypt! In a storage yard behind the A-Z Antiques and Curio Shop, Melanie and April start to play the Egypt Game. Before long, there are six Egyptians instead of two. They meet to wear costumes, hold ceremonies, and work on their secret code. Everyone enjoys the game until strange things begin to happen. Has the Egypt Game gone too far? With a touch of charm and a whole lot of imagination, Zilpha Keatley Snyder transforms an abandoned junkyard into an Egyptian court in this Newbery Honor-winning mystery." ~ summary complements of the Simon & Schuster website

Did we mention that you can find these titles at your local library? Check-it-out (seriously, no pun intended there). Libraries rock! Support your local library! Rook No. 17 does.


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