The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch

The Name of this Book is SecretReading level: 5.3
Lexile: 810
Series: Secret book 1
Genre: Adventure, humor
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Warning: this description has not been authorized by Pseudonymous Bosch. As much as he’d love to sing the praises of his book (he is very vain), he wouldn’t want you to hear about his brave 11-year old heroes, Cass and Max-Ernest. Or about how a mysterious box of vials, the Symphony of Smells, sends them on the trail of a magician who has vanished under strange (and stinky) circumstances. And he certainly wouldn’t want you to know about the hair-raising adventures that follow and the nefarious villains they face. You see, not only is the name of this book secret, the story inside is, too. For it concerns a secret. A Big Secret.

I may have overlooked this entire series had an 8th grader at my student teaching placement not pointed it out to me. If the description and title look a little wacky, you’re right. The Name of This Book is Secret was pretty fun, not to mention snarky. It compares to The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket with the author’s coming through to interject explanations along with abundant danger and mystery.

This story is geared towards younger middle school/upper elementary, yet the lexile range is fairly high, making it not very well suited for ELLs. The vocabulary is pretty sophisticated although the plot itself is not. I think that this whole series could appeal to kids who are reluctant readers if they aren’t below the 5th grade reading level.

I decided about half way through this book that I wouldn’t continue with the series. I’ve been bored with middle level YA lately, but I am still interested in how the rest of the stories play out. There’s just 1000000 more books I’d rather read. That said, the Cass/Max-Earnest duo is excellent. (Unfortunately Max-Earnest seems to have no similarities to Max Ernst.) They are unlikely friends, and they’re not perfect. However, they find ways to overcome their differences. And of course our villains are excellent. Very mysterious. 😉 This story teaches loyalty and bravery and does so in a clever way.

I’d recommend this book to (like I said) reluctant readers, kids with a good sense of humor, and those who like adventure/mystery.

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The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

the amber spyglassReading level: 6.7
Lexile: 950
Series: His Dark Materials book 3
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Lyra and Will are in unspeakable danger. With help from Iorek Byrnison the armored bear and two tiny Gallivespian spies, they must journey to a dank and gray-lit world where no living soul has ever gone. All the while, Dr. Mary Malone builds a magnificent Amber Spyglass. An assassin hunts her down, and Lord Asriel, with a troop of shining angels, fights his mighty rebellion, in a battle of strange allies—and shocking sacrifice.

So much is happening in this final book of the series. So much. And with all the plot lines, one would hope that everything (or at least something) would come together in the end and make sense. But it didn’t. Too many undeveloped characters alongside confusing plots that never really answer our questions or deliver on the prophecy made me pretty disappointed.

One of the plots (the major one, in fact) throughout the entire series is Lord Asriel setting out to kill god. He kills the all-powerful angel who was taking over, but is god actually ever killed? Wait, was he the really old angel who disappeared and was only briefly mentioned? This entire, huge chunk of plot just fell apart for me.

I’m thoroughly confused about whether Ms. Coulter is redeemed or not. I don’t know if she was lying about her love for Lyra and how she’d changed. And if she was telling the truth, what made her change? She was an excellent villain that morphed into a crying, desperate lump of a woman with confusing motives.

My final bone to pick is about the love between Lyra and Will. It happened so quickly and messily that I was rather repulsed, which was also due to them being something like 12 and 14 years old. When they realized their love for each other, Lyra became a fairly useless teenager unable to read the alethiometer and unwilling to tell lies and stories. I prefer to remember her as she was in the first book.

With all the characters and plots happening all over the place, I legitimately enjoyed Mary’s adventures with the Mulefa. I loved the world building and the emphasis on what evolution can do. I also enjoyed Will and Lyra going to the World of the Dead, which reminded me of the necromancing of The Abhorsen series by Garth Nix that I loved so much.

Finally, I did like the final “message,” if that’s what you can call it. In order to allow a window between the worlds to remain open, Lyra and Will must spread good deeds and help people be…good. Okay, I like that. Spreading the word of being nice to each other is a great message. I don’t understand how that prevents dust from escaping, but I’ll just add that to the list of plot holes.

Any commentary I could give on recommendations for kids and what to do with this book in the classroom can be found in my reviews of The Golden Compass and/or The Subtle Knife.

Running with the Reservoir Pups by Colin Bateman

Running with the Reservoir PupsReading level: 4.5 (ish)
Series: Eddie and the Gang With No Name book 1
Genre: Adventure, humor
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Eddie has a bad habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Otherwise, he never would have gotten mixed up with the Reservoir Pups, the scrappy gang of boys who rule the streets in his new town. And he definitely wouldn’t have agreed to their initiation mission: to break into the hospital his mom works at. It’s just Eddie’s luck that he stumbles upon some twisted baby-snatchers on the way. And just when it seems like life can’t get any worse, he bumps into the leader of the Andytown Albinos, the most fearsome gang of all. . . .

Running with the Reservoir Pups starts out on an interesting note with a new kid in town learning the ropes and getting into trouble by just being unlucky. The writing is snarky and clever, and it feels like it’s written to middle school boys rather than for them. I think middle school boys could really get into it.

Unfortunately, the further I got into the book, the less I liked it. As we get thicker into the plot, the sillier it becomes. And silly is fine, but I was led to believe from the first several chapters that it was a realistic story. What with kidnapping babies, boys beating up (at least verbally) on doughnut-eating policemen, and daring rescues with explosions, it just snowballed into utter goofiness. But like I said, that might be what some middle schoolers really love.

In addition to the silliness, I just don’t like Eddie. He is mean, simply put. Even though Scuttles (his arch nemesis and mom’s boyfriend) is obviously a good guy after we see how he cares for the babies, Eddie is still a complete and utter jerk to him.

Now, you may be wondering about the “gang” part of the book. The Reservoir Pups gang is clearly a menace but Eddie decides to try to join. We learn towards the end that apparently the only reason the Pups rescue a certain someone is because they would get paid. These kids are truly the worst of juvenile delinquents intent on doing nothing to help anyone but” themselves even when it means walking away from saving an innocent life. At the end, Eddie and his buddy decide to form their own gang and basically destroy The Reservoir Pups in the following books, which brings to mind violence, violence, and more violence.

I really don’t think this book would be contested, but I would argue that it’s fine to have kids reading it because none of the gangs seem very enticing, and I doubt kids would be inspired to join a gang because of it. Friendship, belonging, and camaraderie are the emphasized subjects more than joining a gang to wreak havoc on society. In addition, throughout the book, Eddie tries to get the help of the Pups, but they refuse him or only help with a heavy price, so they are clearly not people to be crossed or befriended.

For the most part, Running with the Reservoir Pups is ELL-friendly other than a few British English words, such as lorrie. I don’t think these words would do more than cause minor confusion because they are few and far between. The reading level is my best guess because Scholastic hasn’t leveled it.

If you’re looking for a pretty solid and not too serious middle level book that picky boy readers might like, this book could be it. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking and well-written story, you can do much better.

 

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife

Reading level: 7.6
Lexile: 890
Series: His Dark Materials book 2
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary

Having slipped through a newly formed astral portal, the intrepid Lyra finds herself in the beautiful, haunted world of Città gazze–a city where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and the wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky. But she is not without allies. For young Will Parry, in search of his father, has also stumbled into this strange new realm via a magic gateway.


Together the enlightened pair forge ahead on a perilous journey between worlds teeming with witches, angels, and sorcery–and uncover a deadly secret: an object of extraordinary and devastating power. But with every step, they move closer to an even greater threat–and the shattering truth of their own destiny…

I struggled to like this book as much as The Golden Compass, although I loved the parts with Lyra and Will. Lyra is an amazing heroine and I adore her, but we only have glimpses of her adventure…which brings me to perhaps my biggest issue: this story is very complex. There are several puzzle pieces with various characters and their adventures, locations, and goals, and I struggled to create a clear picture with these pieces. Because there are so many components of the plot, we get flashes of many, many characters. I kept hoping that Lyra would take center stage, but she never did.

With so many characters and so many pieces of plot came fewer opportunities for me to fall in love with the characters. I adore books where one or more characters become very dear to me, and I felt less of that in this book than I would have liked. But that’s just my personal opinion.

I do not blame Will for stealing the show, just to be clear. I quite like Will’s character although he scares me with his tendency towards violence. Will and Lyra teaming up made me love and appreciate Lyra even more, and while I love Will, I love Lyra much, much more. I truly hope that we get more Lyra in the final book, even if it means less of Will.

I’m unsure of how Lord Asriel plans to do this, but apparently he’s trying to kill God. I guess someone is taking Nietzsche a little too literally. Anyway, I certainly see how some parents could be upset by this concept. But like one reviewer on Goodreads said, these books are not anti-God or even anti-religion. They are anti-organized religion that make people do horrible things, such as cutting people’s daemons away in this fantasy world or speaking out against certain types of people (gay people, for instance) in our world.

Here is an interesting part near the end that made my jaw drop. Seriously, I was in the car driving while listening to the audiobook and my mouth literally fell open. Mrs. Coulter is trying to get information out of Carlo, and she says, “You know I can please you more than this.” And then “her daemon’s little black horny hands were stroking the serpent daemon. Little by little the serpent loosened herself and began to flow along the man’s arm toward the monkey. “Ah,” says Carlo.  Um…wow. Not too subtle, there. In arguing that this book should be kept on school bookshelves, I’d say that very few young readers (middle school and younger, if not up through high school) would get the suggestive imagery, and there is absolutely nothing explicit. I just thought I’d let all the ghosts out of the attic in this review.

I’m about to start the final book of this trilogy, and I am hoping against hope that it’s better than this one and that I can leave this series with good memories more than mediocre ones.

Jack Black and the Ship of Thieves by Carol Hughes

Jack Black and the Ship of ThievesReading level: 4.5
Lexile: 680
Genre: Adventure, steampunk
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Jack Black is thrilled when his father, the captain of the largest airship in the world, invites him on the ship’s maiden voyage. Once aloft, Jack overhears a plot to sabotage the ship. But before he can tell his father, Jack falls, plummeting through the air to be caught in the sails of a pirate ship. Now Jack must try to convince a crew of thieves to rescue his father. . . .In this robust blend of fantasy and whirlwind adventure, Carol Hughes confronts the difficult, real-life issues of trust, loyalty, and deception.

So this is steampunk. Huh. I wasn’t expecting steampunk from the cover, which, honestly, is kind of dorky. There is an updated cover that is much more aesthetically appealing, especially for kiddos today. Overall, Jack Black is an engaging, fast-paced adventure story, great for middle school boys.

While I did enjoy the book and gave it 3 stars out of 5 on goodreads, there were many aspects that I didn’t like. The plot is formulaic, for one. I saw just about all events coming from a mile away, which is really saying something because I’m bad at that sort of thing. Second, I didn’t like Jack. Man, he really screws up everything, poor guy, and I wanted to shout at him to stop doing all sorts of things that were pretty clearly headed for disaster…but that also means I was invested and engaged, so I can’t complain too much. Lastly, there is a great deal of ship-specific vocabulary. Since I am not an expert in seafaring, I was frustrated and confused for being unable to visualize what was happening because. Readers can certainly get the gist of what’s happening (it’s a low reading level, after all), but the heavy vocabulary alone prevents me from recommending it to ELLs.

From this book, readers learn to be resilient and never give up, like Jack didn’t give up in his search for his father, and Captain Quixote didn’t give up in destroying Nemesis. An underlying theme is that making stupid decisions can pay off. For example, when Jack makes Giant Mistake #1, it apparently works out for the best. Serendipitous? Yes. Sending the wrong message? Perhaps.

Jack Black and the Ship of Thieves is my thirty-third book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Will in Scarlet by Matthew Cody

Will in Scarlet

Reading level: 6.0 (ish)
Genre: Adventure
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Will Shackley is the son of a lord, and though just thirteen, he’s led a charmed, protected life and is the heir to Shackley House, while his father is away on the Third Crusade with King Richard the Lionheart.

But with King Richard’s absence, the winds of treason are blowing across England, and soon Shackley House becomes caught up in a dangerous power struggle that drives Will out of the only home he’s ever known. Alone, he flees into the dangerous Sherwood Forest, where he joins an elusive gang of bandits readers will immediately recognize.

How Will helps a drunkard named Rob become one of the most feared and revered criminals in history is a swashbuckling ride perfect for anyone who loves heroes, villains, and adventure.

I’m not terribly familiar with the Robin Hood story, so I had no expectations going into this book, which I quite enjoyed. All I knew of the Robin Hood tale was the concept of stealing from the rich to give money to the poor, and Will, one of the main characters, does this with such purpose and urgency that it just about made my heart burst. Because there were so many characters and the focus went back and forth between Will and Much, we don’t delve deeply into Will’s character, but his actions speak volumes. Part of the reason why this story bears its title is because “Scarlet” comes from Will’s conscience being drowned in the blood of the suffering peasants (er, serfs?) under his family’s control.

In essence, Will realizes he has led a sheltered life and that the people under his father’s control have been suffering in poverty. He attempts to remedy the damage he feels responsible for by giving the serfs money that is stolen from rich people. Of course, these rich people are mugged and often wounded, but I guess it’s the thought that counts.

Much’s side of the story brings in a bit of Mulan: a girl disguised as a boy. I liked her fierceness and her need to protect Will (and vice versa) even if they didn’t trust each other until the end. Will teaches us about fairness and doing what is right while Much teaches about resilience, toughness, and being true to yourself.

I incorrectly assumed that Will would become our Robin Hood, because it’s his idea to give the stolen silver to a poor family in the first place. However, it turns out that it’s Rob that’s our Robin Hood (which, admittedly, should have been obvious just from the name…). Rob teaches us about having purpose in life. One question that never got answered, however,  was how Rob’s last name became “Hood.” Anyway, minor details…

Will in Scarlet is relatively new and not yet leveled with Scholastic. My guess at a reading level is 6th grade. Since it takes place in medieval times, some of the vocabulary is complex and specific to that time period, which makes it not particularly suitable for ELLs.  In addition, people’s titles (i.e. lord) might also be confusing. It’s more of a middle grade text, but I could see high schoolers enjoying it, too.

One aspect that might upset parents is Rob’s drinking. He’s a drunk for the first part of the book but transforms once he finds purpose, thanks to Will. I would argue that drinking is painted in a negative light; Rob’s drinking makes him useless and smelly. He comes alive only when he is sober, so, if anything, students are taught that drinking is a gross habit and does not solve your problems. To be really critical, some parents might have an issue with glorifying criminals, which the Merry Men are. First, the Merry Men live difficult and dangerous lives. Secondly, the Robin Hood story has been turned into a Disney movie. Lastly, kids play video games as criminals (I think?) such as Grand Theft Auto, so being on the side of the “bad guys” is nothing new, and it’s hardly the message of the story.

Will in Scarlet  is my thirty-first book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

the golden compassReading level: 6.7
Lexile: 930
Series: His Dark Materials, book 1
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the compass of the title. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.

My mom tried reading this book aloud to me when I was younger, but we just couldn’t get through more than a few chapters. Then, in college, I read it for a young adult lit class, and I didn’t think it was anything particularly special. But I kept hearing great things about it from students and adults, so I thought I would give it another, honest try but with audiobooks this time. The superb narration of Philip Pullman himself, along with a slew of cast members’ voices, made me into a fan.

I think that part of the reason I didn’t get into The Golden Compass as a young child and maybe even again in college is because the story is complex and not always incredibly interesting, much like The Lord of the Rings series. The writing is beautiful, the characters are excellent, but there were times when explanations just took too long! Maybe that’s just me having a short attention span. Luckily, the audiobook is done so well that I was interested in these duller moments that I probably sped through without care upon my first read-through.

Now that you know the history of this book and me, I will say that I will happily place this book and its entire series (going through the second audiobook right now) in my classroom library at either the high school or middle school level. There are two issues that parents may have, however:

1. Tartars. These are the scapegoated, faceless bad guys. Tartars were actual people, however. We wouldn’t tolerate such insensitivity if “African Americans” or “Jews” were put in the place of Tartars, would we? So why is this okay? Well, it’s not okay and it’s not excusable. However, this race of people no longer exists (says Wikipedia). I suppose it’s sort of like scapegoating “vikings.” In any case, Tartars as bad guys might be insensitive, but the issue is minor in my eyes.

2. Promoting atheism – say some sources. I don’t think it’s promoting anything or has any agenda (Pullman’s personal beliefs aside), but there are some bits that made me cringe. There is one point where Lord Asriel reads aloud a part from Genesis (straight out of the the Old Testament I assume), but some parts are changed to add in daemons, which some could see as blasphemy. While doing so may also have been insensitive to who take the Old Testament as the word of God, Pullman is using and adapting a text under his creative license. I also don’t feel as though Pullman is saying that all religious people are bad – just that people can look at religious teachings and texts to interpret them in different ways, some of which are harmful to others. This has happened in history countless times.

Even if parents get hung up on these issues, I would argue that the good outweighs the bad. The Golden Compass is an astoundingly well-written, intriguing story with rich vocabulary. It stretches readers’ mind to consider other words, and the character of Lyra is unlike any other: stubborn, brilliant, driven, resilient, loving…

It’s not ELL friendly due to complex vocabulary, however. It’s got a pretty high lexile considering it’s leveled at under the 7th grade. The Golden Compass is one of those books that younger readers can enjoy (although I didn’t, myself…) for the story while older readers can appreciate in all its intricacies, characters, and world-building. Needless to say, I’m happy to have fallen in love with this story at last.

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