Big Red

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Big Red
by Jim Kjelgaard
written for ages 9-12 | recommended
published in 2011 (1945) | Holiday House | 254 pages

Danny has lived in the woods of the Wintapi and hunted with his father for as long as he can remember. His knowledge of the region and its animals enables him to help the wealthy Mr. Haggin track his lost cattle. When Mr. Haggin asks Danny to train his prize winning dog Red, Danny is elated. Even if he could never afford to own such a dog, he knows he will certainly enjoy working with him. Danny soon discovers, however, that Red is the only dog smart enough and brave enough to track Old Majesty, the bear that has been raiding the region's ranches. How can he keep a born hunting dog from following its instincts just to keep his appearance pristine for dog shows?

Kjelgaard's classic story is sure to enchant readers. Danny and Red become best friends, understanding each other as only a boy and his dog can. In the process of training Red, Danny learns what it… click here to read whole article and make comments



A Waltz for Matilda

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A Waltz for Matilda
by Jackie French
written for ages 15-18 | highly recommended
published in 2010 | HarperCollins Australia | 496 pages

I really loved this book. It covers so many poignant things about the history of my country (we celebrated Australia Day a few weeks ago), and it’s well told with wonderful characters that you really get to know. They are real characters, each one independently taking the story where they will, you never feel that there’s an overbearing author pushing everyone about. 

Jackie French is renowned for highly readable historical fiction with an Australian flavour, and this novel explores Australia’s early years as an emerging nation, around 1900 ( young!). It centres around twelve-year-old Matilda O’Halloran, who in 1894 leaves the city slums to go and find her father who is making his living on the land. It’s a time of unrest: drought and desperation have strained the relations between workers and landowners, the poor and the wealthy, and Matilda’s own father is wanted by the troopers. 

French has taken inspiration from the well-known poem by A… click here to read whole article and make comments



Alex Rider Series

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Alex Rider Series
by Anthony Horowitz
written for ages 11-14 | acceptable
published in 2008 | Puffin

Upon his uncle's death, Alex Rider discovers that his only living relative led a double life and may have been training Alex to follow in his footsteps. The series focuses on Alex's life as an unwilling yet effective secret agent in the employ of MI6. A friend of mine, upon reading my review of the Cherub Series, suggested that I may have been a little too harsh in my mention of Alex Rider. After due consideration, I now have to admit that she was right. Alex Rider, with all its weaknesses, is better than I thought it would be.

The main reason for my change of mind is the main character: Alex Rider. Unlike many boys his age, Alex does not want to be a spy. This is because he grasps the consequences and parameters of the occupation including the killing, violence, fear and risk. Despite a lack of positive role models, Alex is also more upright than his employers… click here to read whole article and make comments



Liesl & Po

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Liesl & Po
by Lauren Oliver
written for ages 9-12 | acceptable
published in 2011 | HarperCollins | 320 pages

Liesl is the classic victim of wicked step-mother malice. After murdering the child's loving father, Liesl's step-mother locked the young girl in the attic. Now Liesl has given up hope of ever seeing the outside world again, until she is visited by a ghost named Po. Po still possesses the ability to visit the living because he has not earned the right to pass to the permanent dwelling of the dead. Liesl befriends and Po searches for Liesl's father, so that she can say good-bye to him one last time.

When Po does find Liesl's father, he learns that he wishes to be buried next to her mother's grave. Determined to grant her father's wish, Liesl escapes from the attic with Po's help. Liesl thinks she has her father's ashes in a jewelry box. However, a careless mistake by another abused child (Will) mixes up two similar boxes. Before they know it, Liesl, Will and Po find themselves pursued by… click here to read whole article and make comments



The Boy Who Wanted to Cook

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The Boy Who Wanted to Cook
by Gloria Whelan
written for ages 2-7 | highly recommended
published in 2011 | Sleeping Bear Press | 34 pages

What a special little book! Like Gloria Whelan's tales for older children, this one is far richer than your average picture book.

A young boy is the son of a renowned chef, the patron of a well-reputed restaurant in France. The boy's love of fine cooking is described with mouth-watering detail, and his ingenuity in helping his father prepare for an important guest at the restaurant is impressive.

The French setting is beautifully evoked through both the refined literary style and charming illustrations.

But how is it that this story about cooking can bring tears to your eyes? Whelan's expert storytelling transforms it into an inspiring tale of nobility, creativity, love for one's work and appreciation of the work of others. Highly recommended.

Clare Cannon is the editor of and the manager of Portico Books in Sydney.

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The Boy Soldier Series

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Boy Soldier, Avenger, Meltdown
by Andy McNab and Robert Rigby
written for ages 11-14 | recommended with reservations
published in 2005 | Doubleday

Although I haven't read any of the adult equivalents, this series is obviously intended to be a cut-down version of the "true-life" Special Air Service operations genre of action thriller. It is full of military-sounding abbreviations and codewords, carefully explained in a glossary, and does not stint when it comes to violence. Aside from being a reasonable page-turner it offers little of any worth.

Danny's perseverance in finding, following, helping and ultimately rescuing his grandfather (Fergus) whom he initially believes to be a traitor is praiseworthy, but his motivation is difficult to understand. Elena's solid support of Danny is more straightforward. She does, however, electronically break-and-enter into several websites and a mobile phone tracking site to help him. She hesitates a little first, but goes ahead in any case.

This is the most worrying aspect of the books: the extent to which the reader is confronted with the way of life of a soldier in the field, and especially SAS… click here to read whole article and make comments



Midnight in Austenland

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Midnight in Austenland
by Shannon Hale
written for ages 18 + | not recommended
published in 2012 | Bloomsbury USA | 288 pages

Shannon Hale can tell a charming story, but reading about a divorcee flirting Austen-style is like watching the desecration of your favourite artwork. 

Austenland - a holiday destination where people can go to dress up like Austen characters for a week or two - is a nice idea. But it hasn't turned out well in this series for young adults.

There is no subtlety in the romance, once again we have a 'heroine' who isn't anybody special, yet the guys come flocking. Add to that the jarring romantic twists that come out of the blue and you get an extremely unsatisfying romance. The heroine can insist all she likes that the developments feel 'so right', but the convoluted relationships are nothing like their Austen counterparts.

Mystery moved the plot along well, but the resolution was artificial and contrived. The twists were so unbelievable that at the end I wouldn't have been surprised at anything.… click here to read whole article and make comments



When I Was Young in the Mountains

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When I Was Young in the Mountains
by Cynthia Rylant
written for ages 2-7 | recommended
published in 1993 (1982) | Puffin | 32 pages

Inspired by her own childhood, Cynthia Rylant wrote this warm book about a young girl and her brother who live in the mountains with their grandparents. They lead a simple but happy life in which both grandmother and grandfather demonstrate a deep love through many small acts of kindness and sacrifice. Diane Goode's homey illustrations make this Caldecott Honor Book perfect for cozy bedtime reading.

(N.B. This book is probably more appropriate for children ages 4-8.)

Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher currently living in Ridgewood, NJ.

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The Dante Club

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The Dante Club
by Matthew Pearl
written for ages 18 + | highly recommended
published in 2006 (2004) | Ballantine Books | 464 pages

When a string of Boston murders mimic the punishments described in Dante's Inferno, it is up to literary legends Longfellow, Holmes and Lowell to find the culprit and save lives, including their own.

The Dante Club is, without a doubt, the most clever novel I have read in a year. The author has achieved a seamless weave of history, literature, mystery and suspense by utilizing two important talents. First of all, Pearl has researched his setting and his characters well. Secondly, he has collated his findings and painted a picture with words that show a good deal of literary knowledge as well as his own craftsmanship. The result is an intelligent and enriching novel that not only explores the lives of real characters both accurately and realistically but also grips the reader through humor and suspense.

The only warning I would have for readers is that while very limited violence takes place 'on the page' the fates of victims are… click here to read whole article and make comments



The Adventures of Mark Twain by Huckleberry Finn

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The Adventures of Mark Twain by Huckleberry Finn
by Robert Burleigh
written for ages 7-10 | recommended
published in 2011 | Atheneum | 48 pages

A highly unconventional and entertaining picture book told by a well-known fictional character: Huckleberry Finn. It is now he who writes about his author's life, Mark Twain.

"Everyone knows the story of the raft on the Mississippi and that ol' whitewashed fence, but now it’s time for youngins everywhere to get right acquainted with the man behind the pen. Mr. Mark Twain! An interesting character, he was... even if he did sometimes get all gussied up in linen suits and even if he did make it rich and live in a house with so many tiers and gazebos that it looked like a weddin’ cake. All that’s a little too proper and hog tied for our narrator, Huckleberry Finn, but no one is more right for the job of telling this picture book biography than Huck himself. (We’re so glad he would oblige.) And, he’ll tell you one thing—that Mr. Twain was a piece a work! Famous for his sense of humor… 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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