Getting young people reading

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Helping children find books that they are willing to read can sometimes be an arduous task.

My general rule is that very few children step outside of their comfort zone to read something that is unfamiliar to them, and this is especially true for struggling readers. Most children will read books similar to books they have previously read, which are recommended to them by someone they trust, or which they have generally heard about in the media or elsewhere.

Children feel intimidated by the size of a book, the lack of pictures, or the tightness of the words on the page. They are more easily willed into reading a graphic novel than a chapter book. A graphic novel is a fine first step--it makes the size of a book less daunting to a child--but keeping to graphic novels does sometimes delay… click here to read whole article and make comments



Story of childhood cruelty now on Kindle

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I am the King of the Castle
by Susan Hill
written for ages 13-16 | acceptable
published in 2014 (1970) | Long Barn Books

Warings, which is an isolated and "entirely graceless" country house belonging to a widower, Mr. Hooper, provides the main setting for I am the King of the Castle. The story begins with the arrival of Mrs. Helena Kingshaw and her son Charles to Warings. Mrs. Kingshaw has come to act as housekeeper to Mr. Hooper and his son, Edmund. Clearly the Kingshaws have fallen on hard times and Warings offers stability and money to Mrs. Kingshaw. However, the two main characters are Edmund Hooper, a disturbed 11-year-old and Charles Kingshaw the son of Mrs. Kingshaw. When Kingshaw arrives he is greeted with a hostile note from his opposite number Hooper. This note sets the tone of the troubled relationship of the two boys which, as the story progresses, steadily worsens.

Although Susan Hill has undoubtedly used a high standard of language content, I personally felt quite distanced from the characters in the book. At certain points especially I found it… click here to read whole article and make comments



Mother confronts youth entitlement

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Cleaning House
by Kay Wills Wyma
written for ages 18 + | recommended
published in 2012 | WaterBrook Press | 288 pages

Kay Wyma received a wake-up call one morning while driving her children to school. Her fourteen-year-old son started a conversation about luxury cars that demonstrated to her that somehow her lectures about the true happiness in life had not sunk in. Frustrated, Kay took a look at her home and her five children and realized that perhaps children learn better by doing than by hearing. A self-professed enabler, she decided to gradually transfer to her progeny the responsibilities she had never assigned to them. It was not just a matter of getting them to make their beds every day and keep their rooms clean, but an opportunity to teach them independence and a sense of self-worth through meaningful work.

Kay began a year-long "experiment" by which she introduced new chores to the children each month: managing their rooms, cooking, laundry, cleaning bathrooms and making small repairs around the house. While many parents may wonder how these kids got away with… click here to read whole article and make comments



WWII veteran’s return surprises family

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Just Henry
by Michelle Magorian
written for ages 13-16 | recommended with reservations
published in 2015 (2008) | Egmont UK | 720 pages

Henry, believing himself loyal to his dead father, initially despises certain other people and their ideals, but later learns that his father is less of a hero than he had thought and that the others deserve better from him. Mr Finch, his new schoolteacher, places him together with the two class outcasts: Jeffries, son of a deserter; and Pip, an illegitimate son with a somewhat fey manner. They also encounter Grace, a severely dyslexic girl with an unusual singing voice, better suited to smoky nightclubs than to the school assembly hall.

His father turns up alive and Henry's eyes are opened to many things, including his grandmother's selfishness and bigotry. It takes a while for everything to become clear to him but as it does, his friendship with Pip and Jeffries deepens, and he is instrumental in helping their families when they are evicted from their respective lodgings after his Gran makes trouble with their landladies.

Henry develops an eye… click here to read whole article and make comments



Classic children’s book elicits ambivalent reaction

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Island of the Blue Dolphins
by Scott O'Dell
written for ages 9-12 | recommended
published in 2010 (1960) | HMH Books for Young Readers | 192 pages

As a big fan of the classics, I sometimes find myself in a quandary about how to review one that I really did not enjoy. Such is the case with O'Dell's Newberry winner about Karana, a twelve year old girl who reluctantly stays behind when her tribe leaves their island home off the coast of California. Having read the book years ago, I thought I would give it another try.

Karana lives alone for about eighteen years, using her ingenuity and knowledge of nature, managing to build several shelters, to make her own clothes and even to survive a tsunami. O'Dell's writing is compelling. Told in the first person, Karana's story is so vivid and detailed, that the reader cannot doubt the authenticity of her description of her solitary life on the island. I am greatly heartened by Karana's eventual discovery that she does indeed long for human companionship. I suspect, however, that I simply cannot get past the tragic… click here to read whole article and make comments



Boy’s imagination opens mysterious gate

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Theodore Roberts & the Key to the Imaginary Door
by J.R. Robinson
written for ages 9-12 | acceptable
published in 2015 | London Publishing | 232 pages

Teddy has always had a vivid imagination. He doesn't mean for it to get him into trouble, and he certainly doesn't want to cause his mother any more grief now that his father is dead. Sometimes, however, Teddy's adventurous nature gets the better of him, and he cannot help himself.

This is how, one day, he manages to find himself in a land of fairies, located just on the other side of an old rusty gate at the edge of his family's backyard. There he meets Essence, a beautiful fairy princess and soon finds himself journeying through her magical forest as the hero whom the fairies have awaited to set their land aright. Naturally it is Teddy's stronger than normal imagination that enables him to conquer the evil powers that have taken possession of the forest. His fairy friends explain that adults lose their ability to use their imagination because they are pre-occupied with too many things. Pre-adolescent Theodore learns… click here to read whole article and make comments



Man goes to great lengths to gain his love

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Esio Trot
by Roald Dahl
written for ages 7-10 | recommended
published in 2009 (1990) | Puffin Books | 64 pages

Mr Hopper is a shy, elderly man secretly in love with his next-door neighbour, Mrs Silver. She lives on the flat immediately below his, but knows nothing of his secret crush on her.

Upon finding that she wants more than anything for her tiny tortoise "Alfie" to put on weight and grow a bit, Mr Hopper goes to the pet shop and buys hundreds of tortoises of all different sizes. His intention is to find one that is just a little bit bigger and heavier than Esio Trot, then using an ingeniously designed claw arm, cleverly take the original tortoise, replacing it with the newer "improved" version! His cunning plan relies on stealth and risk because he must do this many, many times over without being discovered until the tortoise is fully grown. (The original Alfie does get re-housed on a lovely new farm.)

Mr Hopper's ingenious claw device to do this is written in a catchy and amusing style… click here to read whole article and make comments



International best seller is a must read for college women

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The Awakening of Miss Prim
by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
written for ages 18 + | highly recommended
published in 2014 (2011) | Atria Books | 272 pages

Prudencia Prim feels she was born in the wrong century. Although a self-proclaimed atheist-feminist, she longs for the time before cell phones and computers, when people were not so "connected", a time when people read and discussed life over a civilized cup of tea. Thus, she decides to answer an advertisement for a personal librarian in spite of the fact that she is highly over-qualified for the position. The small village of San Ireneo de Arnois seems to be the perfect place for a young woman interested in escaping the noise of city life and of her own mind.

Her would-be employer also appears over-qualified for his job as an elementary school teacher. Perhaps this is why she finds him in the middle of a lesson about Virgil's Aeneid - in Latin - actually expecting the children to understand. Despite his disconcerting idiosyncrasies, he appears to be a true gentleman, and so Miss Prim begins her tenure organizing the library… click here to read whole article and make comments



Famous illustrator highlights courage of WWI soldiers

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Along the Road to Gundagai
by Andrew McLean
written for ages 9-12 | recommended
published in 2014 | Omnibus Books

Andrew McLean has become one of the best-known illustrators in the world of children's literature. He is a pearl in an ocean of many, capturing genuine emotion so that the reader feels drawn into each scene. Many of his books have become classics, so grab a mug of hot chocolate and play the song that goes along to this picture book. It is a recipe for a good night for kids and parents!

In this new picture book, McLean juxtaposes a free and unencumbered childhood of play and the love of family life amidst peacetime, with the reality of war. Significantly, the first title page shows Australians crowding to respond to a sign that says: “Volunteer For King and Country; Will you join us?” There is no sentimentality or romance as a mother wraps herself in her soldier son’s arms to say goodbye at the train, and the father looks on somberly. It is good for Australian children to be… click here to read whole article and make comments



Local bookstore worker solves mystery

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Absolutely Truly
by Heather Vogel Frederick
written for ages 9-12 | recommended
published in 2014 | Simon & Schuster | 368 pages

Truly Lovejoy has grown accustomed to standing out in a crowd. Even in the big state of Texas, a twelve-year-old girl who is nearly six feet tall has a hard time maintaining "stealth mode". After her father returns from Afghanistan with a prosthetic arm, he has difficulty finding work. Thus, the Lovejoy family moves to Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire to take over her grandparent's bookstore with Truly's somewhat eccentric "Aunt True".

Pumpkin Falls couldn't be any more different from the town in Texas where the Lovejoys lived minutes away from Truly's cousin and best friend, Mackenzie. There is nothing to do in this small town where everyone knows everything about you. Still, shy Truly has no trouble making friends. When she puts the class clown in his place, the girls in her grade take a liking to her, and she is able to let her guard down. If only things were more peaceful at home. Adjusting to life back home… click here to read whole article and make comments


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Reading Matters is MercatorNet’s blog about children’s literature. Our goal is to enable parents and educators to find quality books for young people. For an explanation of our evaluation system, click here. We welcome reader input and new reviewers. We love comments on the book reviews. Write to us at

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highly recommended: you must read this!
recommended: age-appropriate and entertaining
acceptable: not outstanding but not problematic
some reservations: contains potentially problematic scenes or concepts
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