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
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
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.)
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.
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?