Monday, June 24, 2013

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell

In my quest to find new fairy tale versions I discovered The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell a new series, which I didn't realize until I started researching a sequel is written by a Glee star.

The book starts as many time travel or alternate adventure stories for children do, you must take characters from one place and take them to another. In this version those characters are fraternal twins Alex and Connor Bailey. Both children are recovering from the loss of their father and the emotional and financial upheavals that loss has created.

Alex is the stereotypical smart girl with her hand always in the air waiting for the teacher to call on her. Connor struggles more with school and misses the father who helped him make sense of his life with stories and lots of patience. Early in the story, we realize the twins are struggling not only with the loss of their father, but in many ways with the loss of their mother who now works constantly to support them.

The children's teacher at school is doing a unit on traditional fairy tales. I was curious about the teacher and thought she might have a larger role in the story. While many schools do teach units on traditional tales at this age, this teacher seemed to be very focused on having the Bailey children understand the meaning behind the stories. After reading the book, I'm left wondering if this was a false lead or if this will come up later.

As with many of these travel books, the mode of travel always seems awkward to me. This one is a common tool used in fantasy travel. However, I am not sure there is a believable way to travel to another dimension. Therefore, I think the awkwardness is rather expected.

For an audience exposed to the TV show Once Upon a Time this provides some interesting alternate back stories and alternate answers to the questions about the fairy tale realm. What happens after happily ever after? Who are the princes in the stories? What happened to Snow Whites stepmother to make her so mean?

There are some interesting political and romantic issues to resolve, too. In this land, the Happy Ever After Assembly is created from of stories Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White. Red Riding Hood is also a member as the only elected Queen. There are other areas not ruled by fairy tale Queens, the Dwarf Forest, The Elf Empire, and The Troll and Goblin Territory. However, even here readers will discover familiar names. We discover that Goldilocks has been set up and her boyfriend is a hero from another fairy tale. Her betrayer is not the typical evil suspect you might expect. As their teacher was trying to explain, fairy tales teach a great deal about the human condition.

The children discover there is a magic spell that will grant any wish. It can only be used twice and it has already been used once. A good portion of the story revolves around the journey they take to find the items they need to cast the spell, allowing them to interact with a variety of fairy tale characters and story lines. The children have a journal from the first person to follow the quest and it was this that led me to guess the outcome of the story.

The end of the quest was a bit different than I expected. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the children do find a way home, but there is a twist. I rather expected this answer when the children started reading the journal.

This was a good start to the series. I heard that the next one will be out in August. If the second one is as good, the books will be headed off to a couple of Christmas trees this year.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Guns for General Washington

It seems that there are many children's books that seem to cluster around certain events in the American Revolution. These books seem to leave other events barely mentioned or forgotten. I love finding interesting books that cover those left out time periods in interesting ways. I have always found it disappointing that few books cover Washington's defeat of the British troops in Boston. Even the few I've reviewed and listed seem to have the munitions magically appear as if the trip from New York to Boston in winter was nothing. Guns for General Washington: A Story of the American Revolutiontells the story of how Colonel Henry Knox first has to convince Washington to let him attempt the journey and then how he and his brother William manage the trip.

Growing up in this area with all the references to the Knox Trail I thought I was familiar with the history. However, I did learn a few things. One of the most interesting was how they thickened the ice to provide them with a better chance of getting their heavy sleds over the water.

The author does a great job at making this journey accessible for children. In a day with trucks and trains that can move equipment with the assistance of machines to load and unload them it is hard to imagine the challenge of moving Knox's artillery from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston. The physical and financial challenges of the terrain, weather, and war conditions can be hard for children to understand. The author does a great job of painting the scene and stressing the importance of the mission. It is only with Colonel Knox’s successful mission that the Colonial troops were able to take Dorchester Heights and force the British to leave Boston.

This is one of the author’s greatest strengths. He is able to write about military strategy in a way children can understand. Other books I have reviewed clearly indicate the strategic advantage of Washington moving artillery to Dorchester Heights. Some even write of the challenges and hardships that the British faced in leaving Boston as quickly as they did. This book presents Washington's military strategy and why it worked in terms children can easily understand. That is a topic I have not previously seen adequately addressed.

This is a historical account, not historical fiction as many of the previous novels I have reviewed. The adventure is an amazing accomplishment, but it may require more encouragement to get reluctant readers into the story without the time travel, added spies, interesting personal connections, and other devices historical fiction and historical fantasy use to engage readers. However, it is a short book only about 140 pages. It should not prove too daunting a task considering the amount of information provided. I think it is a worthy journey for parents or teachers who are willing to take it with their children or students.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Orphan of Ellis Island

The Orphan Of Ellis Island (Time Travel Adventures)Review hereis part of Elvira Woodruff's Time Travel Adventure series.

This is a departure from the time traveling characters introduced in her previous novel George Washington's Socks (Time Travel Adventures) that spent two books visiting the American Revolution. She also takes a different approach to visiting the past in this book.

Our hero in this novel is a foster child, Dominic Cantori. Dominic has just left another foster placement and arrived at a new home and school in time for a trip to Ellis Island. Feeling left out and uncomfortable he tells a lie about knowing something about his family history and fears being mocked by his new classmates. In order to avoid their rath, he ducks out of the tour and hides out falling asleep in his hiding place, awaking after the museum has closed for the night.

While exploring, he returns to an exhibit he visited earlier in the day, which has telephones one can pick up and hear the voices of immigrants who tell of their experiences coming through Ellis Island. Frustrated and alone, he hopes one will answer him back and finally one does, leading us to his time travel adventure. This is where the story is less convincing than the previous novels she wrote. The other two are based on old themes of time travel portals in the mist. This one leaves the reader wondering if the boy time traveled or had a psychic experience connecting to the people who went before him. At the end, even he wonders if he has had a dream. That was one of harder parts of the book to accept as real.

The story itself was better. Dominic finds himself in Italy and most readers will likely understand who he is with long before the author tells you at the end. He meets up with a group of orphan boys who the local priest has found homes for in American. Their need to travel is heightened when the boys run into some legal trouble. Tragedy strikes and Dominic finds himself taking one of the boy's places on the trip to America.

For someone looking for information on Ellis Island, this book covers more of the immigration experience than the experience at Ellis Island. The detailed descriptions of the challenges the children faced in Italy, their reasons for leaving, and the conditions of their journey are great background information. However, for a book that has a title of The Orphan of Ellis Island, one would expect more information about the actual experience of getting through Ellis Island. This was almost an afterthought. The information is minimal. I also would have liked more resolution to Dominic's story after he leaves Ellis Island. While I did not expect a fairy tale ending, it would have been nice to know what happened to him in his new foster situation.

Over the years, I have read a few novels geared for children about Irish immigration. This is one of the first I have read about the journey for Italian immigrants. Parents and teachers who are looking to provide children with information about that experience may want to read this before using it with their children, but I would recommend it for that purpose.

Monday, June 3, 2013

A Spy in the King's Colony

A Spy in the King's Colony (Mysteries in Time (Silver Moon Press))is a short historical fiction novel from the Mysteries in Time series. This book is set during the occupation of Boston.

When I first read the name of the series, I thought it might be another time travel series, but it is not. The mystery in time refers to a mystery story set in a historical time. Not a time travel mystery, like the two previous books I reviewed.

This is a short easily read chapter book. It takes place during the time the British troops occupied Boston during the Revolutionary War. One of the strengths of this book is that it helps to illustrate the divisions that occurred among families and friends over loyalties. This is often emphasized when children study the Civil War, but less so when they read about the Revolutionary War. This story is told from the point of view of eleven-year-old Emily Parker. She and her family are loyal Patriots. Her father has taken great risks for the cause. However, she has doubts about a lifelong friend of the family and fears his loyalties may be in question.

Her adventure of discovery provides children with some understanding of how confusing it must have been for children who moved among friends who might also be foes. A misplaced word or confidence for a child on either side could have dangerous consequences for the child's family or friends.

The book provides some interesting historical details regarding the use of spies during the war. It also provides more details about how the colonists prevented the British from discovering Knox's movement of munitions to Boston. The details are not great, but the rhyme in this book is one of the few mentions in a children's book I've seen of Framingham. In all I have not discovered too many children's books that focus on how Washington forced the British to leave Boston. The main story seems to be Lexington and Concord. While those events are important, the British troops leaving should not be ignored.

I also like this book because there is a strong girl as the main character. While woman's positions in the Revolution were limited do to women's situations in society, it does help modern girls to connect to the material when you bring female characters to the story who are strong interesting females engaged in telling the story. I have had complaints from younger female relatives that all I ever find are "boys" stories when I find adventure historical fiction. They want the girls to have adventure, too. This story fills that requirement.

It appears this book is currently out of print. However, I found my copy at the local library. I suspect there are several used book sites that also may have it if your local library does not have a copy.