The Shadow Thieves by Anne Ursu

the shadow thievesReading level: 5.4
Lexile: 850
Genre: Myth, fantasy
Series: Cronus Chronicles, book 1
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

See that girl, the one with the bright red hair, overstuffed backpack, and aura of grumpiness? That’s Charlotte Mielswetzski. And something extra-ordinary is about to happen to her.

Oh, it’s not the very cute kitten that appears out of nowhere and demands to go home with her. It’s not the sudden arrival of her cousin Zee, who believes he’s the cause of a mysterious sickness that has struck his friends back in England. It’s not her creepy English teacher Mr. Metos, who takes his mythology lessons just a little too seriously. And it’s not the white-faced, yellow-eyed men in tuxedos, who follow Charlotte everywhere.

What’s so extraordinary is not any one of these things….It’s all of them. And when Charlotte’s friends start to get sick one by one, Charlotte and Zee set out to find a cure. Their quest leads them to a not-so-mythical Underworld, where they face rhyme-loving Harpies, gods with personnel problems, and ghosts with a thirst for blood.

Charlotte and Zee learn that in a world overrun by Nightmares, Pain, and Death, the really dangerous character is a guy named Phil. And then they discover that the fate of every person — living and dead — is in their young hands.

Okay that summary was really long. But it was gripping, wasn’t it? The whole book is cleverly written with the reader hanging onto every word. But you’re probably thinking, “oh great, another Greek myth book.” This one is quite original and has more to do with the friendship between Charlotte and her cousin Zee and their maturity than gods and goddesses. I’d recommend The Shadow Thieves to students who want something else like Percy Jackson once the series is over or just students who have a great sense of humor and like a good, clean adventure story.

Aside from colloquialisms, it’s basically ELL-friendly. Key vocab words include shadow and underworld.

It’s also necessary to understand that the story starts in the middle and mostly focuses on Charlotte. Then it goes back in time and focuses on Zee. These transitions are quite clear and are expertly done. I didn’t expect to get Zee’s side of the story…or Grandmother Winter’s, which helps make all the characters well-rounded and loveable. Charlotte and Zee teach us to be ourselves and not worry about being like others while trying our hardest to accomplish our goals. And Grandma Winter demonstrates how to love one’s hardest.

It’s more of a middle school book because the main characters are in middle school and it’s a fairly simple story. But it’s also funny and snarky, which older students might enjoy, too. If you want to get students interested in this story, just read the goodreads summary of the first few paragraphs of the book. Kids will be hooked.

THE ENDING IS SO GORGEOUS. It concluds the book absolutely perfectly. Although it’s the first book in the series, it can certainly stand alone, but it’s one of those books that makes you want to keep reading because the characters are so fantastic.

The Shadow Thieves is my twenty-third book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Hit the Road, Helen! by Kate McMullan

Hit the Road, Helen!Reading level: 4.3
Lexile: 540
Series: Myth-O-Mania book 9
Genre: Myth, humor
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

When Paris and Helen decide to hit the road together, it means more trouble than they can imagine for both themselves and the people of Troy. But who says Helen is entirely at fault? Sure she had a face that launched a thousand ships . . . but she also had a little interference from the meddling god of love and his mother, Aphrodite. Think you know the truth behind the Greek myths? Think again. Hades is here to set you straight once more on the true story of the Trojan War.

So yes, here is yet another Greek myth book. With a reading level of 4th grade, it is a good (not to mention fun) alternative to the more challenging Percy Jackson series. This book is actually more of a parody of the Greek myths. Although we get the “real deal” with who’s fighting whom in the Trojan War, and who all those gods and goddesses are and how they are related, we get another, far more light-hearted version with this story.

While the reading level is low and it’s generally fine for ELLs, there are lots of gods, goddesses, and mortals. Even though we get a list at the beginning of the book of who’s who on both the Greek and Trojan side, it doesn’t list all the characters. I was feeling a little lost at times, but McMullan does a great job of reminding the reader who these people are. The spellings and pronunciations of these characters would also be hard for struggling readers, although there is a pronunciation guide and glossary in the back of the book.

The one and only aspect of Hit the Road, Helen! that I dislike is the lack of female agency, mainly Helen’s. I’m no expert on the actual myth, but I am assuming that the original Helen was pretty useless, which is how McMullan wrote her in this story, too. As the myth goes, the Trojan War begins because Paris steals Helen away from Menelaus. The war continues for ten years because Helen is so in love with Paris that she doesn’t care about the thousands of people who are dying to win her back for her first husband. Helen is nothing more than a pawn. Now, life in ancient Greece was probably kind of lousy for women (although I hear they was more gender equality than we would think), but I hoped that McMullan would have written Helen to be at least kind of cool.

While Myth-O-Mania is a series, the books don’t seem to build on each other. I have only read this book out of the whole series and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything.

Hit the Road, Helen! is my fourteenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan

the last olympianReading level: 4
Lexile: 620
Series: Percy Jackson & The Olympians book 5
Genre: Adventure, myth
ELL-Friendly: Mostly
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

All year the half-bloods have been preparing for battle against the Titans, knowing the odds of a victory are grim. Kronos’s army is stronger than ever, and with every god and half-blood he recruits, the evil Titan’s power only grows.

While the Olympians struggle to contain the rampaging monster Typhon, Kronos begins his advance on New York City, where Mount Olympus stands virtually unguarded. Now it’s up to Percy Jackson and an army of young demigods to stop the Lord of Time.

Aw man, it’s over. 😦 Well, kind of over.

Some spoilers below:

This series has been so. much. fun. I thought The Last Olympian was the best of the series. I definitely laughed out loud more than I did with the others, which is really saying something. My favorite part may have been “peanut butterrrrr!”

It was intense throughout and sweet at the end (but not soppy). Luke’s redemption was…interesting. While he died a hero, I wonder if his last moments excused his previous actions. I’d say not. However, I did appreciate how he becomes “good” in the end. Called it!

When I have finished the few hundred books already on my to-read shelf, I will dive into the Heroes of Olympus series, which I hear is great as well. The Percy Jackson series is one that is meant to continue, whereas some series (such as Harry Potter) needed to end when they did, so I’m glad there’s more to read.

If there are too many holds on these books at your library, try the audiobooks. Jesse Bernstein is a fantastic narrator.

I bought the first and last book at a book sale a few years ago, so The Last Olympian is my third book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan

The battle of the labyrinthReading level: 4
Lexile: 590
Series: Percy Jackson & The Olympians book 4
Genre: Adventure, myth
ELL-Friendly: Mostly
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Percy Jackson isn’t expecting freshman orientation to be any fun. But when a mysterious mortal acquaintance appears on campus, followed by demon cheerleaders, things quickly move from bad to worse.
In this fourth installment of the blockbuster series, time is running out as war between the Olympians and the evil Titan lord Kronos draws near. Even the safe haven of Camp Half-Blood grows more vulnerable by the minute as Kronos’s army prepares to invade its once impenetrable borders. To stop the invasion, Percy and his demigod friends must set out on a quest through the Labyrinth – a sprawling underground world with stunning surprises at every turn

I listed to this audiobook over the course of a month and half, so my memory is fuzzy, but I thought this book was just as good as the rest. I’m relieved that the series hasn’t tanked as it’s progressed.

I also remember thinking that this book in particular was more complex than the others with the love interests, the complicated and secret emotions of Annabeth, Nico being a little evil brat, uncertainty about friends vs. enemies, not to mention the constant danger and action. In those ways, it was engaging and intense with its usual humor.

Oh and the ending was so sweet. The higher gods have been, well, mysterious, so it was interesting to see Poseidon’s soft side, if just for a moment.

Nico’s turnaround was pretty interesting. I never particularly liked the kid…but he’s just a child.It was sweet of Percy to be so kind to him despite Nico being hostile towards him. I’m interested in what the son of Hades does in the last book of the series.

The Titan’s Curse – Rick Riordan

titan's curseReading level: 3.4
Lexile: 630
Series: Percy Jackson & The Olympians book 3
Genre: Adventure, myth
ELL-Friendly: Mostly
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

IT’S NOT EVERYDAY YOU FIND YOURSELF IN COMBAT WITH A HALF-LION, HALF-HUMAN.

But when you’re the son of a Greek god, it happens. And now my friend Annabeth is missing, a goddess is in chains and only five half-blood heroes can join the quest to defeat the doomsday monster.

Oh and guess what. The Oracle has predicted that not all of us will survive…

The fun continues! Seriously, these books are a hoot. I saw many of the twists and turns coming, but several of them got me right in the feels.

For example, the ending made me tear up on so many levels. We think Luke is dead for a little bit (I don’t understand how he’s still alive, honestly), and it’s so sad because he was never redeemed. Plus, Thalia and Annabeth were so close to him. He was their legitimate friend whom Thalia died for. I love that there is still hope for Luke and that Annabeth and Thalia hold on to that hope even if Percy doesn’t.

The message of acceptance between the demigods and hunters was very well done, I thought. Just like we learned to accept people who are different, like Tyson, we learn to appreciate the strengths of people who might be obnoxious or egotistical. Zoe Nightshade did get on my nerves a little bit, but her unwavering commitment for Artemis was touching. Okay, it was more than touching because I teared up at her death scene.

The very ending was particularly good as well. Hades has kids? What has become of the di Angelos? Also, have we seen the last of Thalia now that she’s joined the hunters?

The Sea of Monsters – Rick Riordan

the sea of monstersReading level: 4.7
Lexile: 740
Series: Percy Jackson & The Olympians book 2
Genre: Adventure, myth
ELL-Friendly: Mostly
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

The heroic son of Poseidon makes an action-packed comeback in the second must-read installment of Rick Riordan’s amazing young readers series. Starring Percy Jackson, a “half blood” whose mother is human and whose father is the God of the Sea, Riordan’s series combines cliffhanger adventure and Greek mythology lessons that results in true page-turners that get better with each installment. In this episode, The Sea of Monsters, Percy sets out to retrieve the Golden Fleece before his summer camp is destroyed, surpassing the first book’s drama and setting the stage for more thrills to come.

Rick Riordan’s done it again. There’s always the fear that books will get worse as the series progresses (The Hunger Games, anyone?), but The Sea of Monsters was pretty much golden. I did like The Lightning Thief better but only because it was our introduction to this magical world of gods and goddesses, and the introduction is always magical (okay, I’ll say it: Yer a wizard, Harry).

I’m enjoying our trio of characters becoming a cohesive unit, even if silly Grover is absent for most of the book. I wasn’t sure about Annabeth at first (like I wasn’t sure about Hermione who was, let’s face it, an annoying know-it-all), but she’s definitely becoming friendlier and like-able. She’s got her rough spots, but her soft spots are starting to show through.

And who doesn’t adore Tyson? I absolutely love the message of acceptance that we learn by Percy being friends with him and finally accepting him as his true brother. Here’s a reminder that everyone needs a friend and to belong somewhere.

We hate Luke. We’re supposed to hate Luke because Luke is a terrible person. But he’s just a kid, really. The author brilliantly sets us up to hate him while fanning a small flame of an idea that Luke can be saved. I’m a big fan of bullies turning nice. At this point, I really don’t know if Luke will turn into the ultimate evil or return to being a regular demigod.

I’m also wondering about Clarisse. We hate her too. Will she ever be redeemed? She’s a jerk, but she’s no killer like Luke, although there’s really nothing likeable to her. I’m guessing we’ll see some soft spots in Clarisse’s armor, much like we do with Drako Malfoy near the end of the Harry Potter series. There is hope for our villains yet.

Then there’s Percy. He’s a funny guy, making me smile or laugh quietly myself as I listen to the audiobook. I appreciate that the author wrote him with some flaws like not listening to authority, ADHD, and dyslexia. Percy embraces his weaknesses but moves beyond them, not letting those flaws define him. Like Harry Potter, he jumps at the opportunity to save his friends and/or the world, never giving his decisions a second thought, because he knows what’s right.

For commentary about appropriateness for ELL and grade level recommendation, see The Lightning Thief.

The Lightning Thief – Rick Riordan

The lightning thiefReading level: 4.7
Lexile: 740
Series: Percy Jackson & The Olympians book 1
Genre: Adventure, myth
ELL-Friendly: Mostly
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Percy Jackson is about to be kicked out of boarding school… again. And that’s the least of his troubles. Lately, mythological monsters and the gods of Mount Olympus seem to be walking straight out of the pages of Percy’s Greek mythology textbook and into his life. And worse, he’s angered a few of them. Zeus’ master lightning bolt has been stolen, and Percy is the prime suspect.

Now Percy and his friends have just ten days to find and return Zeus’ stolen property and bring peace to a warring Mount Olympus. But to succeed on his quest, Percy will have to do more than catch the true thief: he must come to terms with the father who abandoned him; solve the riddle of the Oracle, which warns him of betrayal by a friend; and unravel a treachery more powerful than the gods themselves.

Yer a halfblood, Percy.

Okay, yes, The Lightning Thief is quite similar to the Harry Potter series: two boys and one girl set of on an adventure, there’s a magical camp (like Hogwarts), Percy’s stepdad is like Harry’s uncle/cousin, and the gods co-exist with humans.

That said, though, I LOVED THIS BOOK, and so do a lot of my 6th graders, especially the boys. I was skeptical because I didn’t think it’d be convincing enough to draw me in. Like, the Harry Potter world is plausible (uh, kind of ) to me! As it turned out, Percy Jackson’s world is brilliantly crafted, and I was immediately drawn in. The writing itself is quite well-done, too.

Needless to say, I’ve already started the 2nd book.

Something I found weird is that Percy is clearly very close to his mother. But even when he believes his mother is dead, he’s pretty much fine. He’s like, “Yeah, Camp Halfblood is fun. Yeah, friends! Oh, right, I’m a little sad about my mom…” However, he does go to great lengths to get this mom back, but still. I’d be pretty frantic if I were him.

I learned a lot about the Greek gods – like, who’s the god(dess) of what. Riordan definitely did his homework.

ELLs may struggle with all the Greek names, but that’s really the only problem that I see. It’s a low reading level, and all the gods (and an occasional goddess) are explained as they are introduced.