Review: Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth

Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth, by Sandra Dutton

I was so excited when I saw the reviews of this book. Someone wrote a novel for kids about science and religion? AWESOME. I know a number of kids who feel tension between what their parents believe and what they learn in school – how great to have a novel where the protagonist is dealing with exactly that issue!

The good news is that Mary Mae competently tackles this problem. Mary Mae is a pleasant, relatable protagonist who is curious about her teacher’s world while remaining respectful of her family’s beliefs. The people she encounters in church, at home, and at school are, to a one, good and reasonable people with Mary Mae’s best interests at heart – they just have different ideas about what’s best. The conclusion Mary Mae eventually reaches is age-appropriate (i.e. she doesn’t suddenly launch into some lengthy, deep philosophical diatribe) and, again, respectful of her religious beliefs while remaining open to the possibilities of science.

So this book is a success, in that sense. BUT – and this is a big, important but – every sentence sounds like this: “But there’s this little crab a-setting in the corner all by hisself.” (Other examples: “Some of them pages is real old,” “His wife is a-setting off to the side,” “Don’t want nobody in the class to know I been crying.”)

I cannot tell you how incredibly distracting the dialect (Appalachian, I guess? What other dialects are there in southern Ohio?) is. If it were only present in the dialogue, or otherwise scattered throughout the text, I could have dealt with it. I might’ve even found it charming. But when every single sentence has multiple folksy-isms, it actually makes the book difficult to read. There were sentences I had to work pretty hard to parse – so how am I going to pass this off to a nine-year-old? Are they really going to have the patience to wade through the irritating writing to reach the book’s message? I don’t know. I barely did.

In short: This book is sort of a mixed bag. I like that it grapples with the tension between science and religion, and I like Mary Mae, but the dialect made reading the book feel like a chore.

Booklist: World War II Novels for 5th Grade

A brochure for a fifth-grade class reading World War II novels. Novels are split into categories: The United States (homefront, the atomic bomb, and internment), The World (war in Asia and the Pacific, war in Europe, and “during and after the war” – a sort of catch-all category for books that deal more with the aftermath of WWII), The Holocaust, and The Resistance. Download the two-page PDF here.

Review: Meet Wild Boars

I don’t normally review picture books, but I wrote this one for school. This is one of my all-time favorite picture books – it’s so much fun for storytime.

Meet Wild Boars, Meg Rosoff & Sophie Blackall

Meet Wild Boars is a picture book by Meg Rosoff, who is best known for her Printz Award-winning, controversial young adult novel How I Live Now. Meet Wild Boars is a huge departure from Rosoff’s work for older readers, but it is just as successful. This book does exactly what the title suggests: it introduces the reader to four wild boars, who are “dirty and smelly, bad-tempered and rude,” and who demonstrate their shockingly bad manners throughout the book. The boars – named Boris, Morris, Horace, and Doris – don’t like anyone, and they aren’t afraid to show it.

The first sign of their bad attitude is on the first page, which shows a young boy holding the door for Boris. Boris doesn’t say “thank you” – instead, he hits the boy with his tusks. Though Rosoff goes on to describe even more of the boars’ nasty behavior, the book later invites you to take pity on the boars. After all, “[n]obody loves them. Maybe just once they could come to your house.” A spread with five different pictures follows, showing the boars behaving nicely, as “[t]hey promise just this once they will try to be good.” Watch out, though – the boars will do no such thing. Instead, they’ll wreak havoc on your toilet, your puzzles, and your pets. Doris, who is the worst boar of all, may even “eat your very best whale, flippers and all.”

Meet Wild Boars is a wonderfully funny book. Kids love stories about disgusting and badly behaved characters, and the boars featured here are both. The illustrations are detailed and delightful – the four boars have a lot of personality, which shows in their mismatched, ill-fitting clothing; dirty fur; and mischievous expressions. The facial expressions on the children are understated, but will often reflect the reader’s reaction. When Boris tusks the little boy, he looks pained. When the boars come over to the children’s house, the kids’ expressions of horror, rage, and disgust make clear how the reader should respond.

The story is paced well, with the first half devoted to an explanation of the boars’ history of bad behavior, and the second half describing the chaos that will ensue should you invite the boars to your own house. Humorous and detailed examples of the boars’ behavior are present throughout the story. One highlight is a full-page image of Doris. The facing page describes her: “She is STINKIER than a stinkpot turtle. She is UGLIER than an Ugli fruit. She is BOSSIER than a Bossysaurus.” The text here is representative of the rest of the book: simultaneously matter-of-fact and hyperbolic. The text is funny, but the image says it all. Doris – who is differentiated from her male counterparts by the tiny pink bow on her head – wears a dirty pink dress with green stink waves emanating from it. With her tail, she holds a hand mirror up to her dirty rear end, while she sniffs the rear end of the previously mentioned stinkpot turtle. At her feet are pools of brown sludge. Her messiness is unparalleled, and kids will get a kick out of the disgusting illustrations.

Throughout the book, the pictures do a wonderful job of bringing the text to life. On one two-page spread, the text reads, “Poor wild boars. Nobody loves them. Maybe just once they could come to your house.” In contrast to the fairly understated text, the picture shows the four boars racing gleefully toward the house of an unsuspecting young boy. Two of the boars are looking out at the reader with narrowed eyes and a crooked smile – they are clearly looking forward to destroying the boy’s house. The text and illustrations work together perfectly, creating a story that engages children on multiple levels. Many children who cannot read yet will enjoy looking at the pictures on their own after hearing the story.

This is a picture book with very broad appeal. The story is simple enough that kids as young as three can enjoy it, but the humor and clever illustrations will appeal to older siblings and parents, as well. There are a couple of jokes about bodily functions, which are always popular, and the extreme misbehavior of the boars will entertain even the most staid six-year-old. In general, children enjoy reading about the misbehavior of others, as it allows them to vicariously enjoy activities that are forbidden to them. It also gives children an opportunity to correct the behavior of others, which isn’t something they get to do very often. Anyone who likes David Shannon’s No, David! and its sequels will enjoy this tale of bad deeds and misbehavior.

Meet Wild Boars would be a great addition to any public library’s story time cabinet, thanks to its relatively short length and broad appeal. For that purpose, the one potential drawback of this book is the detail of the pictures. It would be ideal in a large book format., as many pages have multiple images, and the larger pictures have a lot of fun details. With that said, the pictures feature lots of bold colors and movement, so while children at a story time may not get to enjoy every detail of the pictures, they can certainly appreciate the story. The book offers a lighthearted contribution to a story hour about manners, as the boars provide a great example of how not to behave. The sequel, Wild Boars Cook, is just as good as the original. A program that included these two books and a no-bake cooking activity – perhaps something involving chocolate pudding and gummy worms – would be a fun, if messy, activity for pre-schoolers and their caregivers. Since the boars are all about getting messy, it only seems appropriate.

Review: The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall

The Penderwicks, Jeanne Birdsall

In short: Super-retro tale of children running free during summer vacation and getting into adorable kinds of “trouble”. The four sisters are well-drawn and endearing, even if they fall neatly into Boxcar Children-esque sibling stereotypes, and the people they encounter while on vacation are just quirky enough to be interesting. The novel is old-fashioned in its language and plot, so it is really jarring when all of a sudden the girls’ dad pulls out his laptop. How many parents in 2009 are trusting enough to let their kids run wild around an unfamiliar area? (I mean, I did that as a kid, but that was a good 15 years ago, and in a small town with zero crime.) Of course, the whole book is set in an incredibly wholesome alternate universe (the most scandalous this book gets is when the oldest sister develops an incredibly wholesome crush on an older boy), so this is a good choice for parents who have concerns about what their kids are reading.

All in all, this is a really cute story – I’m guessing it’ll be enjoyed more by adults who want to indulge in nostalgia than actual present-day children, but that happens.

Read it if you like: The Boxcar Children, other slightly dated children’s series

Review: Kathleen: The Celtic Knot, by Siobhán Parkinson

Kathleen: The Celtic Knot, Siobhán Parkinson (Girls of Many Lands series)

So I picked this book up when I was making a St. Patrick’s Day display. I never read this series—or knew that it existed, actually—but it has a lot of the same charms of the original American Girl books. Kathleen is spunky, clever, and resourceful, taking care of her younger siblings and learning Irish dance in a Dublin tenement circa 1930-something. It’s a gentle, uplifting story, but there’s enough grittiness in Kathleen’s surroundings to stop the book from getting too syrupy. Towards the end, the plot weirdly echoes that of the Christmas Felicity book, but that might be a coincidence.

I appreciate that this book doesn’t try too hard to cater to its American audience. As a result, there are some references here that will be lost on the book’s target demographic—let’s face it, I’m better versed in Irish history than the average ten-year-old—but ideally, this is the kind of book that’ll encourage those kids to go and learn more. And I love how very Irish the book is—the writing and the dialogue are spot-on (at least, they sound just like twenty-first century Irish people; I obviously haven’t got a clue how people spoke in the 1930s, but at least they don’t sound American).

In short: Sweet, wholesome, educational—what you’d expect from an American Girl book.

Read it if you like: Irish culture and history; the other books in the series

Review: Peter and the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Peter and the Starcatchers, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

In short: This book is fun. It’s a prequel to Peter Pan, and gives us really fun, creative origins for all kinds of things, from Neverland to Tinkerbell to Peter’s ability to fly. Though pretty long for a kid’s book, Peter and the Starcatchers is fast-paced and (as you’d expect from Dave Barry) very, very funny, so it’s a good read. It also contains some really nice, period-appropriate illustrations. I should note that I’ve only read the first in the series, and usually I avoid writing reviews unless I’ve read all of the books (or at least all of the books that have been released), but I’m making an exception because I’m not sure that I will read the rest. That’s not a bad thing, though. This book stands by itself (especially because, you know, I already know how it ends), and I’m sure I’ll read the rest at some point, but I wasn’t particularly compelled to get the next one as soon as I finished the first.

Read it if you like: Peter Pan, pirates, adventures on the high seas

Review: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, by Rick Riordan

The Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series, Rick Riordan

In short: Speaking of series that are like Harry Potter…we have the fabulous Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan! Percy Jackson is a regular kid who gets into some weird kinds of trouble, but never expects that he is in fact a demigod (the son of a Greek god(dess) and a human) – at least, not until he gets sent away to Camp Half-Blood, where all the demigods, plus some satyrs, nymphs, and so on, spend the summer learning how to fight monsters and drive chariots. These books are great, the kids love them, and I can’t recommend them highly enough. There are a lot of similarities to J.K. Rowling’s series (the sort-of clueless best friend, the know-it-all girl – and this one’s even a daughter of Athena, the pre-teen finding out about magical powers and getting carted away to a special place to learn about them…), but I don’t mean that in a bad way. They don’t feel derivative at all, and Riordan does a terrific job pulling from Greek mythology so that that becomes the focal point. (Well, that and the epic, fast-paced adventures!) It’s tremendous fun for adults (and kids who like Greek myths, which I sure did) to see these famous figures (it’s Ares! it’s a Cyclops!) before the less-well-informed Percy figures out who they are. The last one is coming out in May, and I can’t wait.

Read it if you like: Harry Potter, Greek mythology, awesomeness