Kids Books

I’ve decided to include my opinions on several books for children that I’ve recently read to my five-year old son. Sadly, none of them are science fiction although nearly all of them are fantasy.

For discussion – is there good sci-fi for children of this age? I know the Iron Giant is supposed to be a good book (I haven’t read it yet) but I’m at a loss to think of any others.

Anyway – read on if you’re interested.


REVIEW: James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

REVIEW SUMMARY: Good books for kids, if a bit wild

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: James is a four-year old boy who loses his parents in a tragic rhinoceros accident. He’s forced to live with his abusive aunts until a bag of magic something (seeds?) causes a giant peach to grow on his lawn equipped with giant insects. James ends up on a wild adventure that has him crossing the Atlantic from England to New York City.

MY REVIEW: My son and I enjoyed this one quite a bit. I had read the story in my youth and forgotten most of it, so it was a treat to read it again. The book is overall very well written and James’ adventures were interesting to both of us. There are elements – mostly humorous – that are written for adults (mirroring elements in Dahl’s other works such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) that make it a fun read. I didn’t care for some of the story – mainly the abuse by his aunts. The death of his parents is so far over the top (a wild rhino!) that this wouldn’t distrub a kid – but the verbal and physical abuse by the aunts was too much – I had to edit some verbage while reading those parts.

PROS: The characters are good, the songs/poems are for the most part well done and interesting to children, the drama seems real

CONS: The abuse by his aunts had to be dulled for my five-year old – but then I have an aversion to child abuse, even in this setting.

BOTTOM LINE: This is childrens classic and loved by many. If you hit Amazon or the web in general you’ll find thousands who think Roald Dahl is a brilliant writer and that this is one of his best works. I can’t find much fault with that. Interestingly, Dahl must have been somewhat influenced by the following book as creatures from Julie Andrew’s The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles get mentioned in passing.

REVIEW: The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews

REVIEW SUMMARY: Very fun imaginative book, definately worth reading to your children

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Three ordinary children meet up with the local university professor and enjoy an amazing trip to Whangdoodleland and meet the last of the great Whangdoodles as well as other fantastic creatures on a wild adventure where each of the children learn they have unique strengths.

MY REVIEW: Julie does an amazing job creating a slew of fantasy creatures (both animal and plant) that really set this book apart. The children all get an opportunity to demonstrate their unique skills and qualities and that message played well with my son. It showed that each one, despite being different ages, had something to contribute. There are elements of suspence and danger that work (a tribute to the author’s writing abilities) as well as moments of elation and joy that help the reader feel good about the fun times the children have in the story.

PROS: Interesting story, fun creatures, good message for kids that they all have special qualities that are important.

CONS: Not much to dislike although this book doesn’t have any content just for the parent-reader like Dahl’s works.

BOTTOM LINE: This book doesn’t enjoy the same acclaim that others do (although it’s been in print for 30 years so it does have plenty of readers) but don’t let that hold you back – the book is worth reading. I’m surprised this one hasn’t been made into a movie – I could see Disney or Dreamworks making this one into a big hit.

REVIEW: Shredderman: Secret Identity by Wendelin Van Draanen

REVIEW SUMMARY: The school nerd manages to triumph over the biggest bully and shows that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword (or the fist in this case.)

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Nolan is a fifth grader with the nickname of ‘Nerd’ – at least that’s what the school bully Bubba calls him. But Nolan uses his brains (and plenty of technology!) to good back at him – but good. Nolan turns a class project (assigned by his pony-tail clad teacher) to create a newspaper page into an expose on Bubba on www.shredderman.com.

MY REVIEW: Is this a version of David vs Goliath for the new century? Our hero uses his digital camera (hidden in his backpack) and his PC to create his own web site in order to tackle the bully. Now this is an interesting tale to say the least. The humor in here is surprising and really funny – discussing Bubba’s breath as one of his major weapons, is a good example. The illustrations are simple but effective and add to the book’s charm.

PROS: Traditional story told for the current decade, humor used well, good illustrations

CONS: The book implies that Bubba is a bully because he’s bullied at home – again the specter of child abuse – what is up with this subject in so many childrens books?

BOTTOM LINE: You can’t go wrong with this one, although some of the material was a bit over my five-year old’s head. I loved the humor and modern treatment. Oh and in case you were wondering yes, the web address is live.

REVIEW: The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 1) by Lemony Snicket

REVIEW SUMMARY: An average childerens book with poor illustrations that does have a good way of introducing kids to new vocabulary.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A group of orphans (again, a theme in these books it seems – their parents died in a fire) age 14, 12, and 1 (!) are taken in by a money-grubbing relative after their family fortune. The children have to outwit him entirely on their own and only just manage to do so.

MY REVIEW: This book is not for a five-year old so that has influenced my rating. Because it got mixed reviews from other parents I read it first myself before attempting to read it to my son. This is probably a book for an 8 or 9 year old to read to themselves, although I think there are probably hundreds of better books out there. The children are resourceful and self-reliant which is good. The writing doesn’t seem special to me (not anywhere near Dahl’s level, for example.) The author does do a good job introducing kids to new vocabulary words (sometimes they are outright defined, but sometimes the kids in the story give the definition as part of the dialog.) There is some pretty well done sarcasm and some humor that works but the story isn’t all that imaginative.

PROS: Good use of vocabulary, funny parts work well

CONS: Illustrations aren’t very good, uninspired story

BOTTOM LINE: OK for 8+, but again I think there has to be hundred of better books for that age (the Harry Potter stories, for example) – many of them Sci-Fi to boot ;). I’m frankly surprised this series has taken off the way it has. Are kids of this age that starved for decent writing?

12 thoughts on “Kids Books”

  1. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any suitable stories for a five year old other than The Iron Giant. Most “young adult” fiction is geared towards 8 or older.

    A little Googling, though, found an article that mentions the difficulty of writing for that age group since a successful story needs to deal with something relating to their own lives. The article also mentions a magazine I?ve never heard of (go, go, gadget Google!) Spider (for ages 6 to 9) that sometimes publishes sf.

    Also, Bookcloseouts kid?s section, while not nearly possessing the inventory of Amazon, does let you search by target age and genre (in this case Kid’s > 2 – 6 > Children Fiction > Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Magic). Not much is there for sf, but they do list a series called Remnants by K. A. Applegate but I cannot attest as to whether it is age-appropriate. Unfortunately, Amazon has a “4-6″ category, but do not let you refine for science fiction.

    More Googling: The Reading for the Future project site includes The SF Reading List for Kids which contains Golden Duck Award Winners grouped by target age and member favorites.

    Also: Age-appropriate sf recommendations by the Los Gatos Library

    I even found a list of sf picture books!

  2. It’s not SF, but I’ve started reading “Ramona the Pest” to my (now) six year old daughter. She’s been following it with no problem. Each chapter takes about a half-hour to get through. Ramona is in kindergarten in the book, so Young Miss Laura can probably relate to the goings on.

    I think it really depends on the kid. I’ve seen some pretty young kids reading the Harry Potter books. I started a newphew, age seven, on the “Unfortunate Events” books and my sister reports that he is having no problem with them.

    On the other hand, when I help out with my daughter’s class, I see some kids that I know just aren’t getting support at home, so they are well behind the majority of the other kids in the class.

  3. Thought of a few other possibilities:

    The Narnia tales by C.S. Lewis.

    The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

    The various “Mushroom Planet” books (search your library, I was surprised to find several still on the shelves).

    A little older…

    A Wrinkle in Time and others by L’Engle.

    I’m sure more will pop into my head eventually.

  4. Interestingly I’ve already read The Hobbit and the Narnia books to my son. He really liked The Hobbit but didn’t care for CS Lewis as much (we read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian.)

    We tried reading Harry Potter but the language was just too hard for him at the time (just turned 5.) We agreed we’d try it again and I suspect after a little Kindergarten he’ll be able to tackle it.

    I don’t buy the argument that you can’t write sci-fi for kids because they can’t relate to it. Can they relate to fantasy creatures more easily than aliens? Because of the moon landing and space shuttle it would seem to make space-based adventures even more plausible. Although I grant that adventures that start in your bedroom closet do begin easier than ones that don’t begin on Earth.

  5. I would agree there is some fine SF for kids and I know that the Bruce Coville stuff is really geared towards that 2nd through 6th grade levels. Heck it was even on the suggested reading list for my son this year – we have one of the books, but he has taken an interest in some Chet Gecko novels by Bruce Hale (something about elementary aged animals playing out a 1920s detective is quite interesting.)

    As for Lemony Snicket – I think the first book is pretty weak – but the series as a whole is quite interesting. We listen to them as audiobooks in the car and the later books really do get a bit more interesting (although that also has something to do with Tim Curry doing the readings).

  6. I’ve found something for you. See if you can find William Sleator’s, _Into the Dream_ (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979).

    Two children aged about 8 have the same dream about a little boy in a field. They finally track him down, realise that all three of them are telpathic but that he is more powerful. It turns out that they were all visited by a UFO in Nevada years before, but the little boy was in the womb and so more susceptible.

    William Sleator is one of the few really good modern writers of sf for children, and this one is definitely that rare thing, an sf book pitched for children rather than pre-teens.

    My only other suggestion is that you check out Ellen MacGregor’s _Miss Pickerell_ books, and Richard Srimger’s scientific/metaphysical fantasies which I think can probably be enjoyed at different levels.

  7. And re Remnants.

    They are absolutely *not* suitable for anyone under about 12. They are some of the scariest children’s sf I’ve ever read. Everworld (K. A. Applegate’s fantasy sequence) might even be better reserved for slightly older kids.

  8. I first like to inform you that the bag of magic something as you refered to it as were glowing green worms. I also dont believe that you had a full understanding of the book. The Rhino if you would have payed attention is in the clouds. which in this case the Rhino was meant to represent a vicous storm. The aunts abuse had to be played up to give a better representing on James’s desperation to get away. and give an over all morale that good things can happen to you even in the worst situation. If you felt you had to edit the book to benifit your child it might have benifited your child more by wait till it was appropriate.

  9. Kelsey, Dahl does not definitively describe what the contents of the bag are. He refers to them as “thousands of little green things” and “slowly stirring about and moving over each other as though they were alive.” I chose to think of them as magic seeds (convenient for me since a peach grew out of them) where other analysis has referred to them as sperm-like or sand.

    Perhaps you are referring to fact that his aunts refer to him as a worm earlier in the chapter. They do, and thus I suppose you could assume that Dahl meant them to be worms to echo those thoughts. A lot of this book seems to be based on how a child would fantasize about things and imagining being given a magic bag of worms right after your so-called guardians referred to you as a “disgusting little worm” makes sense to me.

    Yes, you can interpret the rhino as a vicious storm if you wish. Others see the storm as merely supporting the Rhino – the storm comes in its wake. Still others took Dahl to again take the child’s fantasy view – where perhaps James saw a rhino in the clouds just before losing his parents (by mundane means) and now seems to associate their death with the rhino. All this makes sense, but I think we can agree this isn’t obvious symbolism. In any event, I stick to my initial observation that it’s a pretty absurd situation and serves to take the sting out of realising that James has lost his parents.

    I also certainly understand that the aunts play the foil – if James were to run away from a good home, it wouldn’t be as triumphant. I also admit that I’m especially sensitive to child abuse – it bothers me more than it affects others. Perhaps then I was editing it for myself. In any event, I included the statement so that other parents might decide to delay reading it, not to imply that Dahl should have written the book for my child at five.

    Just curious Kelsey, but why the strong sentiment here? Do you feel passionate about this book?

  10. I guess I will add a few books here that we have listened to/read with my son (who is now almost 9):

    – The Artemis Fowl series (4 books): I like to think of this as Harry Potter meets Tom Clancy in that you have fantasy elements combined in a modern world. We really enjoyed this series in that there are fantastical elements with wizardry, but the technology used by the fairy races is where its at. It has the right mix of humor and action, and Eoin Colfer does a fine job on these books.

    – The Supernaturals: This is another Eoin Colfer book and is much more SF in its tones. Its a bit darker and scarier than the Artemis Fowl books, and is designed for older readers in that the protaganist is about 12 to 13 years old. I read this and found it equally enjoyable.

    And I have stated before (if you read above) about Bruce Coville and there is a whole slew of SF books written by him for kids in that 3rd through 8th grade region.

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