Nepotism undermines military strength

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Frontier Wolf
by Rosemary Sutcliff
written for ages 13-16 | recommended
published in 2008 (1980) | Front Street Press | 254 pages

Having an uncle in high places has its advantages. Alexios Flavius Aquila knows that he could never have earned a command of an entire cohort if his mother's half-brother were not governor of Northern Britain. Nepotism does have its down sides, however. Senior officers often resent the quick ascent of a young man with connections, and experienced soldiers have little respect for greenhorns. Worst of all, though, is promotion to a position beyond one's capacity in which one makes a bad decision resulting in the loss of many lives. Will Alexios ever live down his mistake on the German frontier?

Faced with a possible court martial, Alexios again finds himself grateful to Uncle Marius. A second (and perhaps last) chance to prove that he is worthy of his family's great military history, sends Alexios to the Northern Wall in Britain to command the Frontier Scouts, a motley crew of Romans and tribesmen known for their resourcefulness and unconventional ways. Alexios's… click here to read whole article and make comments



A mother’s embrace warms the heart

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The Everlasting Embrace
by Gabrielle Emanuel, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
written for ages 2-7 | highly recommended
published in 2014 | Viking Books for Young Readers | 40 pages

Inspired by the author's working experience in Mali, this picture book depicts the touching relationship between a mother and her toddler. The story, told from the child's perspective strapped to her mother's back, takes the two through a typical day of the work of an African woman. The little girl learns how to grind grain, carry water and shop in the market simply by observing her mother's activities.

Gabrielle Emanuel's first picture book grew from her desire to write stories for African children that display their own country and culture. The importance of the mother-child bond that Emanuel presents demonstrates the affection a mother has for her baby, as well as the powerful role she plays as primary educator. E. B. Lewis's watercolor illustrations fill the book with earth tones and lively hues that reflect the warmth of the sun and a mother's heart.

A former teacher, Jennifer Minicus is a full-time wife and mother living in Ridgewood, NJ.

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MONDAY, 20 JULY 2015

It takes a village - or a lighthouse

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Ms. Rapscott's Girls
by Elise Primavera
written for ages 9-12 | recommended with reservations
published in 2015 | Dial Books | 272 pages

Some parents are so preoccupied with work that they do not have time to raise their own children. That is why Ms. Rapscott founded her school for daughters of busy parents. They must simply mail their girls in the boxes provided to Ms. Rapscott's lighthouse, and she will raise them herself. At least, that is what the mothers and fathers of Bea, Mildred, Fay, Annabelle and Dahlia decide to do.

All the girls, except Dahlia, whose box seems hopelessly lost, arrive in a state of confusion and perfectly justifiable dismay. Surely being with their own parents, even if they are ignored, is better than being shipped off to a perfect stranger whose staff consists of two corgis. (Who better to supervise young girls than a pair of herding dogs?) Ms. Rapscott's strict structure leaves no room for exceptions, and the girls soon find they have no choice but to follow instructions. Their activities focus primarily on finding the missing Dahlia,… click here to read whole article and make comments


FRIDAY, 17 JULY 2015

This story strikes a blow for female independence

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The House in Norham Gardens
by Penelope Lively
written for ages 13-16 | recommended
published in 2004 (1974) | Jane Nissen Books | 153 pages

In the recent edition I read, a preface by Philip Pullman points out that this is a book about time. He was referring to Clare's awareness of the differences between her own environment and that of her great-aunts and great-grandfather, and of the contrast between the time-aware cultures of the West and the timelessness of the tribal way of life in New Guinea. Interestingly, from the perspective of 21st-century readers of a book written just before the last quarter of the 20th century, there is another temporal contrast: between Clare's world and our own. It may be because I was growing up in the 1970s but I find books set and written in that time especially interesting. (In passing, these same books I find fascinating now are in some cases the very ones I found boring and opaque at school, something I keep having to remind myself when reviewing from the perspective of a young reader). The 1970s strikes… click here to read whole article and make comments



The book was better than the movie

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
by Roald Dahl
written for ages 9-12 | highly recommended
published in 2007 (1964) | Puffin Books | 176 pages

Charlie Bucket lives with his family and both sets of grandparents in a small, very uncomfortable house. They are very poor, and the family experience hunger and poverty. Charlie daily sees other children at school take out chocolate bars to munch on while he has none, which is "pure torture". Even worse, he can see an enormous chocolate factory from his house. This is owned by Mr Willy Wonka, and as his bedridden grandad tells stories about the chocolate factory to the young Charlie, it takes on a mystery and wonder in his imagination. Then one day Mr Wonka advertises that five lucky children will be allowed to visit his factory with a personal tour and a behind the scenes look at the magical factory. Five golden tickets are to be found hidden inside the ordinary wrapping paper of five ordinary bars of chocolate. The lucky child will also be granted a lifetime supply of chocolates and sweets.

The story… click here to read whole article and make comments



Toy canoe sails the St. Lawrence

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Paddle-to-the Sea
by Holling Clancy Holling
written for ages 9-12 | recommended
published in 1980 (1941) | HMH Books for Young Readers | 64 pages

A young boy from the Nipigon country in Canada longs to travel to the sea. Since he cannot go himself, he carves a canoe with a Native American like himself in it. Naming the little man "Paddle-to-Sea", the boy sets it loose on the melting snow that runs into a mountain stream with a message carved on the bottom about the canoe's origin and destination. Paddle-to-the Sea makes his way through the Great Lakes, down the Niagara Falls and the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic, where his adventure continues.

This Caldecott Honor book is a perfect read-aloud companion for young students of North American geography. Holling describes landscapes, wildlife, the spring thaw, currents on the Great Lakes and a variety of industries associated with lake country. His illustrations are detailed and show the drama of the little toy's exciting journey.

A former teacher, Jennifer Minicus is a full-time wife and mother living in Ridgewood, NJ.

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Everything tastes better on a waffle

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Everything on a Waffle
by Polly Horvath
written for ages 11-14 | acceptable
published in 2008 (2001) | Square Fish | 176 pages

Primrose Squarp refuses to believe her parents are dead. Nearly everyone in Coal Harbour thinks her mother was irresponsible when she went out in a skiff to find her fisherman husband in a typhoon. When they first disappeared, Primrose stayed with a Miss Perfidy. Now that the town council has decided that the Squarp estate can no longer afford a babysitter, they have called in the girl's long lost Uncle Jack to take custody of her. As far as Primrose is concerned, her parents will return soon, so any arrangement is only temporary.

Uncle Jack, despite his sketchy past, makes a compassionate custodian. He manages to sidestep the advances of Miss Honeycut, school guidance counselor, and the poorly masked resentment of Miss Bowzer, local restaurateur. As the only person in Coal Harbour who respects Primrose's conviction that her parents are still alive, Miss Bowzer becomes the child's confidante and mentor. Primrose loves to cook, and Miss Bowzer teaches her to… click here to read whole article and make comments


FRIDAY, 26 JUNE 2015

Boy nearly dies after bee attack

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The Sign of the Beaver
by Elizabeth George Speare
written for ages 9-12 | recommended
published in 2011 (1983) | HMH Books for Young Readers | 135 pages

Soon after the French and Indian War, thirteen-year-old Matt and his father leave their family in Massachusetts to build a cabin on their new land in Maine. When the cabin is finished and the crops planted, Matt's father heads south to retrieve Matt's mother and sister while Matt minds their new home.

At first all goes well. Matt develops a routine for chores and grows accustomed to the silence of the forest. Still, he cannot shake the feeling that he is being watched. When he is stung by an angry swarm of bees, Matt discovers that he has neighbors who have indeed been following his activities. An old Native American chief and his grandson, Attean, save Matt from the attack. Matt tries to express his gratitude by offering them his copy of Robinson Crusoe, prompting the old man to ask Matt to teach Attean to read. Despite their mutual resentment, the two boys become friends and swap… click here to read whole article and make comments



Life is nothing but a board game

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The Homeward Bounders
by Diana Wynne Jones
written for ages 11-14 | acceptable
published in 2002 (1981) | HarperTeen | 272 pages

Jamie Hamilton inadvertently discovers "Them": a mysterious group controlling his world as a board game. He is himself discovered and is exiled as a Homeward Bounder, doomed to walk between worlds, forced to cross from one to another whenever a move finishes in its controlling game. He meets other Homeward Bounders and some natives and with their help starts a rebellion to overcome "Them".

A cross between science fiction and fantasy. The idea has interest; it's remarkably iffy if you choose to interpret as reality the notion of everyone's life being controlled as part of a sort of war game. The author manages to bring the legends of the Flying Dutchman, the Wandering Jew and Prometheus into the story quite skilfully, and the central character, Jamie, is portrayed well enough for one to have sympathy for his predicament at the end.

Tim Golden is a comptuer programmer living in London. This review first appeared on his website goodtoread.org.

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Feminists accuse author of mysogyny

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The Witches
by Roald Dahl
written for ages 7-10 | recommended
published in 2007 (1983) | Puffin Books | 208 pages

Author Roald Dahl unwittingly started a controversy a few years ago when he said in an interview about his book The Witches:

A witch is always a woman. I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch. On the other hand, a ghoul is always a male … both are dangerous. But neither of them is half as dangerous as a REAL WITCH.

For some reason this story about vicious witches, who masquerade as normal-looking women by day, has offended the sensitivities of people since its publication in 1983. Roald Dahl's witches hate children and want to rid England of every single child. Feminists have criticised it as being mysogynist because all the evildoers in the story are women. Libraries in England went so far as to ban it. Hollywood's most recent movie of the… 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 jennifer.minicus@mercatornet.com.

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