Tag Archives: Modern children’s books

Book Review: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

YES!!! Finally, the pile of books this author set out to review last year is DONE!!! Whoo-hoo!

Sorry to take so long to get here, readers. But with one thing and another, yours truly ended up going through these various analyses at a snail’s pace. Hopefully, that will be avoidable it in the future – but since life happens, we will have to wait and see how that goes. The important thing is that this particular novel is now on the table for discussion. Yay! 😀

It has been some time since I read The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, in full. However, that has not dimmed my love for this wonderful book. Despereaux is one of the best children’s stories ever written. Ms. DiCamillo is a truly good writer who is well-respected in the field, as shown by Dean Koontz’ many allusions to her novels (including this one) in his stories. They appear to agree on many things and seem to see life through a similar lens, which means that if you like the one, you may enjoy the other.

That being said, it is not a guarantee. DiCamillo writes for children, middle graders on up to high school level. Her focus isn’t on horror, though there is an undercurrent of dread in many of her novels. For the most part, she deals in fairy tales, though hers are different from the originals in many ways. The Tale of Despereaux is, as we shall see, a good example of this…

Within the walls of a castle in a far away land, Despereaux Tilling is the only surviving mouse in his litter. Born to Antoinette and Lester Tilling, the rest of his litter died at birth. Disappointed by this and how the stresses of giving birth keep ruining her beauty, Antoinette declares she will have no more babies. Staring at Despereaux, Lester Tilling sighs and states that he will be the last and that he will die soon, just like the others.

The reason he says this? Despereaux is an unnaturally small mouse. With the exception of his ears, this infant mouse is extremely tiny. But his ears are huge, much like Dumbo’s were. More disturbing to his father, this last son was born with his eyes open. On top of this, instead of dying, the little mouse lives. Though he hardly grows any bigger and becomes ill easily, Despereaux keeps on living happily in the castle.

Others, however, are not pleased with the youngest of the Tilling offspring. This is due almost entirely to the fact that Despereaux does not act at all like a proper mouse. He does not scurry, search for crumbs, or fear anything or anyone within the castle. Instead he stares at light streaming through the windows and listens to a music none of the other mice seem to hear.

And then things go from bad to worse. Despereaux learns to read in lew of chewing up and eating the glue in the books in the castle library. How he learns is a mystery; when his older sister takes him to the library to start chewing up the books, Despereaux looks at the open volume she wants him to start on and read the first line aloud.

He finds the story in the book enthralling.  It is about a knight rescuing a fair princess and goes back to read it every single day after his older siblings give up trying to teach him how to be a proper mouse. Although this is decidedly odd behavior for a mouse, his family leaves him to it. This allows him to spend the hours he is not reading exploring the world of the castle or staring at light streaming through windows.

In between readings and wanderings, Despereaux discovers the sound he is hearing is music. The music is played by the king for his daughter, the Princess Pea. Going to a crack in the wall of her room, Despereaux listens to the music from the hole. Then he sticks his head through the hole. Then his front legs, and so on, until he is right in the room at the foot of the king, where the princess sees him.

And then something amazing, wonderful, and utterly ridiculous happens. Despereaux falls in love with the princess. (Yes, he does. Really.)

Now the Princess Pea has her own story. A few years ago her mother died. This was due to shock. Arat, Chiaroscuro (Roscuro for short), from the castle dungeon snuck into the chandelier above the banquet hall and accidentally fell in the queen’s soup. Seeing him, the queen was so astonished that she could only say, “There is a rat in my soup,” before fainting and falling face first into said soup. That is where she died.

Following this sad event, the king outlawed rats, soup, and spoons to assuage his grief. His and the castle staff’s only solace now is the Princess Pea, to whom the king is singing and with whom Despereaux has fallen in love. Pea wants to have soup back in the kingdom just like everyone else, but she is still too sad over her mother’s death to do anything about changing her father’s mind in that regard at the moment.

Meanwhile, stuck in the dungeon below the castle, Roscuro is plotting his revenge on the princess for having him banished. Unlike most rats, Roscuro has a great love of light and beauty. Seeing the princess glaring at him after her mother’s death broke his heart, and now he wants to get back at her and everyone else in the castle.

What does all of this have to do with poor Despereaux? Unknown to him, he has not met the princess unobserved. One of his older brothers sees the princess touch Despereaux on the nose. Convinced he is, at least, a goner, this brother reports everything he has witnessed to the council of mice that run the mouse community in the castle.

They are not happy that the little mouse has been seen. Part of this is for practical reasons – if the palace staff starts seeing too many mice around, or the king gets upset about seeing a mouse, the entire community will be chased out of the castle or banished to the dungeon with the rats. But most of the reason the council is unhappy is because mice do not fraternize with humans; it “simply isn’t done.”

So now you can imagine how they react to Despereaux’s declaration of undying love for the Princess Pea, can’t you, readers?

Ah, ah, ah! Those are all the spoilers that you are going to get! I’ve given too much of the story away as it is. If you want to know more, borrow or buy The Tale of Despereaux today. Worth its purchase price many times over, this is a book no shelf should be lacking!

Until next time. 😉

Advertisements

Book Reviews: Star in the Storm by Joan Hiatt Harlow

Image result for star in the storm by joan hiatt harlow

Wow, am I behind on my book reviews! Today’s novel is set in Newfoundland, or The Rock, as those who live there call it. You can see my review of another book set in the same place, and at roughly the same time, which I did last year here.

Star in the Storm focuses on Maggie Wells and her Newfoundland dog, Sirius. Newfoundland dogs, for those of you who don’t know, are big dogs with webbed paws and thick fur. Native to the island, they have been used by fishermen and to rescue swimmers caught in the ocean. They’re a very beautiful, loving breed and make great pets.

Today Maggie is out walking Sirius when she meets her cousin, Vera. The two go up to their secret hiding place, which is a cave in a cliff or quidnunc behind Maggie’s house. Here they have stashed mementos from earlier years, which they decide to air out this fine morning. While they are up there, wild dogs attack a herd of sheep being guarded by a different girl, Tamar Rand, in a meadow below. One of the sheep is chased off the cliff into the water and Sirius, wonderful Newfoundland dog that he is, goes after it.

Unfortunately, he is too late to do any good. The fall kills the sheep, which was about to yean. Tamar accuses Sirius of killing it and threatens to have the dog shot. None of Maggie’s or Vera’s factual defenses changes her perception of the event, and Tamar runs off to get her father to put the dog down. Luckily, Mr. Wells is able to talk Mr. Rand out of shooting Sirius, and things seem to calm down.

Image result for star in the storm by joan hiatt harlow

Key words being “seem to”; the Rand family manages to have a law passed that requires all dogs which aren’t used for sheepherding killed. Since the Wells have no sheep for their dog to herd, this puts Sirius’ life in jeopardy.

Determined to protect her beloved pet, Maggie hides Sirius in the same cave where she keeps her childhood valuables. But then a storm blows up, and a steamer crashes into the rocks in the bay. With a hundred passengers aboard who may die without help, Maggie has to make a choice: keep Sirius hidden, or send him out to help rescue the people trapped aboard the ship.

I like Star in the Storm a great deal, but I think That Fine Summer was probably better written. This is nothing against Joan Hiatt Harlow; she writes fairly well and tells a good story. That Fine Summer was just written better.

Harlow explains at the back of the book that the law was passed in real life, but it didn’t include Newfoundland dogs, which makes a lot of sense. Who would want to kill a Newf? The story about the steamer was also true, but adapted by the author to fit her particular tale.

While Star in the Storm is a children’s book, it is one of the better ones to come out in modern times. Though the writing isn’t excellent, it is good, and the story works well. If you want to learn more about The Rock, readers, Star in the Storm is an entertaining place to start. ‘Til next time!

Image result for star in the storm by joan hiatt harlow

Book Review: The Menagerie Trilogy by Tui and Kari Sutherland

Image result for the menagerie

Did you know that unicorns and mermaids actually have superiority complexes and are mega-jerks?  If you have read the Sutherland sisters’ The Menagerie trilogy, then you know that and more!

Logan Wilde and his father moved to Xanadu, Wyoming, back in the summer.  After his mother sent them a postcard saying she has left them for a new job opportunity, Logan’s dad packed them up, quit his well-paying legal job in Chicago, and moved them to Xanadu.

It is October now, and Logan has yet to make any new friends in school.  His father also has yet to find his mom.  So it is a big zero all the way around for the two Wilde men.

One morning, Logan wakes up to find feathers scattered all over his room.  His first thought is that his cat, Purrsimmon, had a midnight snack on the floor of his bedroom.  Except his cat is hiding on the top shelf at the back of his closet, and she shredded his sweaters while she was up there during the night.  His betta fish and pet mice are similarly distressed; the mice are hiding in a corner of the terrarium, and the fish is swimming madly about the tank.

Confused, but in a hurry to get to school on time, Logan changes and grabs a Pop-Tart on his way out of the house.  But he never checks under his bed to see if there is anything there….

On his way to school, Logan sees more feathers, along with damage caused by something all over town.  To add to the perplexities of the day, he meets two of his classmates on his way to school:  Blue Merevy and his friend Zoe Khan, the weirdest girl in school.  Zoe looks like she is in the middle of a panic attack she is desperately hoping no one will notice.  Blue, in contrast, is as cool as a cucumber.  Logan asks what the problem is and Zoe says she has lost her dog.  Logan offers to help her find it, but she dismisses his offer as politely as possible.

The day gets weirder when he learns someone ate all the food in the school cafeteria.  (Except the lettuce – that is virtually untouched.)  But the day takes a turn for the magnificent when Logan gets home and finds a griffin cub hiding under his bed!!!

Logan soon discovers the cub’s home is behind Zoe’s house.  After sneaking in, Logan finds the place is a big zoo filled with mythological creatures:  dragons, unicorns, griffins, hellhounds, a yeti – and a whole lot more!

Image result for the menagerie dragon on trial

Zoe, however, is somewhat horrified to find the new kid from school has gotten into her family’s top-secret Menagerie.  A bad experience with her older sister’s boyfriend has made her family crack down on absolutely ever letting anyone know of the Menagerie’s existence.  The rules were already strict before this fiasco, but afterward, they are even tighter.  How is she going to explain this to her parents?!

The return of the griffin cub mollifies her somewhat, but it does not solve the problem entirely.  See, Logan is only part of the problem.  The bigger problem is that there are six cubs missing from the Menagerie.  If any of the other five are spotted in town, the secret is out.

And that will be THE ABSOLUTE END OF HER WORLD AND THE MENAGERIE!!!!

One of the wonderful and frankly unexpected things I found enjoyable in this trilogy is that all but one of the characters comes from an unbroken family.  Blue’s parents are divorced, but Zoe’s and Logan’s parents remain true to each other throughout the trilogy, as do their friends’ parents.  Since one of the writers is the author of the Wings of Fire series, where almost none of the main characters have an intact family, this is something of a happy surprise.  It is nice to know the broken family cliché can actually be tossed aside by modern writers.  It is a bit of an over-relied upon plot device in my opinion.

These are all the tantalizing tidbits that you are getting out of me today, readers.  If you want to learn more, grab The Menagerie and its sequels – Dragon on Trial and Krakens and Lies as soon as you can.  You will want to borrow all three books at once, because you will not be able to put these books down of your own free will.  They are gripping!

Happy Griffin Tracking!  ; )

Image result for the menagerie krakens and lies

Book Review: The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz

Image result for the night fairy laura amy schlitz

Did you know that fairies make bad parents?  Neither did I until I read Miss Schlitz’ The Night Fairy.

The Night Fairy revolves around Flory, a Night Fairy who loses her wings to a bat when she is three months old.  And these are not ordinary wings, like most night fairies’.  They usually have nondescript, bland wings.  Flory’s were like a Luna moth’s wings, which is why they got bitten off by the bat.

Without her wings, Flory has to make do walking.  Also, without her wings, she has to be even more careful of the large animals in the woods that can hurt her.

Image result for the night fairy laura amy schlitz

Eventually, Flory sets up shop in an abandoned birdhouse.  She makes herself a set of clothes and befriends a squirrel named Skuggle.  Using Skuggle’s weight, Flory helps him to get seeds from the local “giantess’s” birdfeeder.  In exchange, he lets her have some of the seeds for her food stores.  In order to get these seeds, Flory has to learn to work in the day time, going between the day-lit and moonlit worlds, unlike most Night Fairies.

But the big change comes when she sees her first hummingbird.  From then on, Flory wants nothing so badly as to ride a hummingbird, entranced by their beauty as she is.

However, hummingbirds are not the nicest, most friendly birds in the air.  Flory can hardly get any of them to talk to her, forget about giving her a ride.  By the time she actually gets to make a complete request of a female hummingbird, she is firmly and sharply rebuked, since the hummingbird has no interest in being the slave of a fairy, night or day.

Things sort of grow from here, readers, but this is all I can tell you.  The Night Fairy is a short children’s story, and if I say any more I will tell you the whole adventure – and that would never do!

Pick up The Night Fairy from your local library when you can.  It is a relaxing read, and any young girls you know are sure to love it!

Later,

The Mithril Guardian

Image result for the night fairy laura amy schlitz

Book Review: The Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall

Image result for the penderwicks

Here we have another book review, readers!  This review, however, focuses on a series which can loosely be referred to as The Penderwicks, from the title of the first novel.  If you know any young girls (or girls who are young at heart), start taking notes!

Mr. Penderwick is a professor of botany.  His wife died roughly four years ago, but she did not leave him alone.  Together, Mr. and Mrs. Penderwick had four daughters.  The last and youngest, Batty, was born just before her mother died of cancer.

The first Penderwicks novel – The Penderwicks – mentions that the family’s old vacation house was sold at the last minute.  This meant they could not rent it, as they had in years past. And so it appeared that the family would be stuck in Cameron, Massachusetts, for summer vacation.  Cameron is great, but summer vacation usually includes at least a little trip outside of town for a few days.  Right?

Luckily, Mr. Penderwick finds a replacement cottage where the family can spend their summer in the nick of time.  Off the family drives, going out on the adventure of a lifetime…!

Until they become hopelessly lost, that is.

Who are the Penderwicks, you ask?  The first and oldest daughter is Rosalind.  Twelve years old (in this novel), Rosalind has been mothering her sisters since their real mother died.  She keeps them all running on schedule and makes sure they do not roughhouse too much.  (Or she tries to do that.)

Next is eleven year old Skye.  Blue eyed and blonde, Skye is the only Penderwick who directly resembles the deceased Mrs. Penderwick.  All the other Penderwick girls have brown hair and brown eyes.  Skye is a tomboy; she loves science and mathematics, and keeps everything neat and orderly.  However, despite all this, she has the most ferocious temper of the sisters.  Any little thing can set her off, and a mountain of little things is a recipe for a lot of trouble from Skye.  Cross her at your own peril!

Then there is Jane.  Dreamy and disorganized, Jane’s half of the room she shares with Skye is painted purple and looks like a dozen girls live in that part of the two sisters’ domain.  Ten years old, Jane and Skye tend to get into a lot of arguments.  Skye cannot stand Jane’s tendency to romanticize the mundane every waking minute.  With the dream of becoming an author someday, Jane has very little filter between her brain and her mouth – yet another reason she is almost always at odds with Skye.

Finally, there is Batty.  The youngest of the sisters, Batty was born four years ago.  Shy and quiet around strangers, Batty can hold her own when it comes to sisterly battles of temper.  Otherwise, she is the sweetest and most innocent of the Penderwicks.  During the first book, she never goes anywhere without wearing a special set of butterfly wings.  A lover of animals, Batty seems to be considering a career as a vet – though she is awfully young to settle on an idea as yet.

Ooops, I almost forgot a member of the Penderwick family!  That would be Hound, the family’s big, black, goofy dog.  All the sisters love him to pieces and coddle him unmercifully.  Hound knows nothing but that love, and so he is a very friendly dog.  Just make sure you do not feed him road maps.  Or pizza.  Or pie.  Or meat loaf.  He has a tendency to regurgitate that sort of stuff, and at the worst times!  He is also Batty’s constant companion.

Following The Penderwicks are three sequels:  The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, and The Penderwicks in Spring.  They are all wonderful books; something like Little Women and every novelization of the adventures/relationships any set of siblings has ever experienced.

There is no way to recommend this series any more highly than this, readers.  It is likely that your local library has copies of the books, but if they do not, you should request them.  And if they do not buy them, then I promise you that this series is worth your money.  It is practically impossible to go wrong with Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks series!

Vale!

The Mithril Guardian

Related image