Legend

By Marie Lu

I’m a member of the online art community deviantArt; I’m sure some of you have stumbled across that website in the past, and it showcases some incredible instances of art. One the artists I followed early on was an artist and aspiring author, mree. She’s a very talented artist, and spent a lot of time developing character designs for her written characters.

Well, congratulations mree (aka Marie Lu)! You need aspire no more!

Around Christmas 2011, Marie’s debut novel, Legend hit shelves. It’s very on-trend right now; a dystopian world reminiscant of The Hunger Games where all children must go through a Trial at the age of 10. The score you receive at the Trial will impact what happens to you later on – labour camps, drudgery job, or elite. Allow me to assure you that this is not The Hunger Games. I really enjoyed the setting, the characters, and how Lu creates a world that sucks you in.

Legend takes place in a future where the United States of America no longer exist. Instead we have the Colonies (as yet unseen), and the Republic. Our story takes place in the Republic, and splits between Day and June. Day is a criminal in the vein of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich, derailing the Republics plans, and helping provide for his family. June is a prodigy with a perfect Trial score, slated to be one of the most elite Republican soldiers. Their paths cross when June is tasked with tracking Day down, an endeavor that has so far proved futile for the army.

The biggest plus of Legend is the setting. It takes place in California, but it could be anywhere. And yet, there are ties to the physical place, and hints of the old USA. While a fairly short story (all things considered), the world feels comfortable, like you could visit it. There’s nothing shoved in there to make it fit, like some stories I’ve read. The plot reads well, and everything flows into each other. A lot of plot threads are left unanswered, but I will wait for the sequel(s), and assume that they will be answered there.

I admit, I wasn’t eager to pick up Legend. I did, however, recommend it to my chiropractor, who bought it as a Christmas present for his wife. After she read it, she started gushing about it, and lent it to me to read. I was completing my final semester of my Masters at the time, and didn’t have the time; I’m ashamed to admit I held onto that book for almost 3 months. When I finally did pick it up, my initial feeling was “meh”; I felt that it was generic. Then I really got into it and changed my mind. That’s what I would call the trick to this novel: don’t get stuck on thinking it’s a Hunger Games knockoff. It’s not, I promise.

Lu gives us a story of two star-crossed lovers, two 15-year-olds trying to find answers to what their leaders are doing and why. There’s romance, action, scheming, tragedy and the promise of more. Many of the plot threads are left hanging, with the promise of resolution in later books. I look forward to sequels, and seeing the future adventures of June and Day. I hope that Lu can continue with what makes her book unique, and avoids the cliches that dominate the market today.

Edit: Marie just released the news of her sequel in the Legend trilogy. The second book will be titled Prodigy, scheduled for release on Jan 23rd, 2013.

The Secret World of Arrietty

I am a huge Hayao Miyazaki fan. I watched his older movies (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Totoro, Castle in the Sky) long before the explosion of awesomeness that was Spirited Away ever hit North American shores. And while I love the newer movies, I admit they don’t hold the same magic touch that they used to. Howl’s Moving Castle is fun, but Ponyo just confused me. His latest offering, a remake of The Borrowers by Mary Norton, had me very excited. I loved the 1997 movie, so add that with my favorite movie maker, and I was right there in line!

I’ll admit up front: I was disappointed again. Not because it was a bad movie; it just confused me.

Having only read synopsis’s of The Borrowers online, The Secret World of Arrietty seems to follow the pattern pretty well. A young boy, Sean, is sent to his Aunt Jessica’s house to rest before a critical heart operation. Meanwhile, small Arrietty is preparing for her first borrowing. You can probably see where this is going, and Ariretty ends up being seen silouetted through a tissue. Having seen a little person, Sean is now intent on finding her and making friends.

Another person bent on finding the little people is Aunt Jessica’s housekeeper Hara. Hara is, to be kind, a few slippers short of a shoe closet. She is insane. Without much/any proof that Sean has seen a little person, she starts to follow and spy on him, trying to catch him talking to a little person. When she discovers a hole in the floor that leads to the Borrower’s house, she traps Homily (the mother) to prove to everyone she’s not crazy. But magically, all the proof she’s collected disappears and she’s left looking certifiable to the pest control operatives and Aunt Jessica.

I have two big criticisms about this movie: one is the relationships the characters have; the second is the pacing.

The character interactions sometimes border on the cartoonishly weird, only they’re not funny (sometimes). Sean is a very deliberate, slow-moving, calm sort of person, but it comes off creepishly stalker-esque when he meets Arrietty for the first time. Pod is strong and stoic and communicates primarily through grunts. Homily is a basket-case of worry, but that seems true to the book, and she’s actually my favorite character. Hara deserves her own special post, I can’t even describe how little sense she makes. And Spiller, who makes two appearances in the movie, is reduced to a caveman, albeit, a caveman who can fly with his magic flying-squirrel cape or…something.

I saw the movie when it was populated primarily with small children. I will give them credit, for a bunch of 6-year-olds and under, they were quiet and engrossed in the movie (except for one little boy in my row who decided that beating up the chair in front of him was more important, but hey! he never talked). This astounded me, because the movie takes a lot of time to show us the boring, mundane tasks of the two houses. That’s not a bad thing, and the movie is set up well. The problem comes when you realize they’ve spent an hour and a half to set up the movie before trying to cram action and resolution into 30 minutes. Homily’s capture and rescue by Sean and Arrietty is really the only tension in the movie, and daddy Pod is missing from the entire act! Deciding the home isn’t safe anymore, the Borrower’s move out, and into another house. This, after the movie spends a good deal of time talking about how there’s a dollhouse built specifically for the borrowers. They never use it. Why?!

Despite how much vitriol I’m spouting, I did not dislike this movie. It has the traditional Miyazaki touch, with beautiful artwork and animation. There’s nothing scary about it (unless you count Hara’s over-the-top villain antics) which makes it good for the kids. They might get bored, though, especially on repeat showings when they realize nothing’s happening.

Go check out this movie. Or even any of the other Miyazaki movies from the beginning if you’ve never seen one before. There’s something in them for everyone, old and young.

Dragonsong

By Anne McCaffrey

One of the great things about fantasy books is that it can make the transition into reading adult fare much easier on the young reader. In a lot of cases, authors who transition from YA fare to adult (or vice versa) aren’t changing much of their style – the only difference is the length. (I have a 600+ page YA novel on my floor that says young adults can read books over 300 pages, publishers!) Patricia Wrede falls into this category, and so does Anne McCaffery, who served as my indoctrination into the genre of fantasy.

Most times, children fall into books (possibly a series) in their early years and move into the adult books because they enjoy the author and have run out of “age appropriate” material to read. In my case, I went backwards; one of the librarians showed me Ms. McCaffery in the adult section and that was it. I tried to read every one, adult or not. Until very recently, I don’t believe I even realized Dragonsong was a YA book.

Dragonsong is McCaffery’s second series set on the Pern. The protagonist is a young woman named Menolly, who is a gifted musician and singer who is not valued by her fishermen parents. When her mentor dies and she cuts her hand, it looks like any dream she ever had of becoming a harper (musician) is lost. All this changes the day she runs away and discovers a clutch of fire-lizards, miniature dragons, who imprint on her and become her second family.

The primary antagonist of the Pern books is a vicious thing called Thread, a silvery, worm-like matter that falls from the sky and devours anything organic until there’s nothing left. Being caught outside during Threadfall is a death sentence, and this is exactly what happens to Menolly one day while foraging. Trying to out-run the Thread she is saved by a Dragonrider, who takes her to a Weyr (where the dragons and dragonriders live). From there, she is discovered as by the Masterharper himself, and it seems that her dream to become a Harper might become a reality.

This is, of course the first in the Harper Hall of Pern series; the first two books follow Menolly’s growth, and the last follows one of her friends in his maturity. Gender themes and coming-of-age abound in these books, but they strike the right balance. Menolly’s parents are believable, though you aren’t meant to like them, and for me that’s one of the most important parts. You don’t sit there and roll your eyes and feel like Menolly is a spoiled brat; you feel that she has been wronged and is right to get away. At the same time, you realize that her parents do love her, but they cannot understand her. To their too-practical eyes, her music is useless in a Hold where one needs all hands to deal with the catch.

McCaffery does well at keeping her characters real, and I love her depiction of Pern. I love a good world, and Pern is one of the best. Including the other series and standalones that center on the Dragonriders of Pern, McCaffery has created one of the best worlds I’ve ever seen, complete changes in the times, circumstances and technology.

Mind you, these books are quite old; most were published in the 1970’s. I read them in the 1990’s, 20 years later, and I still thought they were fantastic. Sometimes the old is the best, and McCaffery is certainly one of the major players in this genre, despite the age of her books. If this appeals to you, but you’re not sure you want to read something possibly so dated, I suggest The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, or Eragon by Christopher Paolini, as some options for teens.

Recommended ages: 9-12+

The Muppets Christmas Carol

I admit, I’ve never been much for the classics. I’ve never read them, except for when forced to by school, though I think most of us are in the same boat. Safe to say, however, that I’ve never read Dickens, and have never really had an interest. I’m sure he’s a wordsmith, but he’s never made my list of books I want to made. Jane Austen barely made it, and she’s as girly as it gets. A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that has been adapted and re-adapted dozens and dozens of times; I could pick any version from screen or stage to review, and I think everyone has their favorites. My – and my family – have laid our favorites in the child-friendly muppet version, the aptly named The Muppets Christmas Carol.

This is the movie we always watch on Christmas Eve; that’s our tradition. The Muppets Christmas Carol is a musical, done with muppets, puppets, and people. You might start cringing when you think about muppets doing their take on a serious Dickens work, but I’ve always thought the managed the line very well. They balance kid-friendly comedy with Rizzo the Rat and the Great Gonzo with the serious themes of death, rejection, and hopelessness.

The movies starts lightly enough, with some moody acting from Michael Caine (as Scrooge), balanced by the eternal optimism of Kermit (playing Bob Cratchit). There are sad moments from the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, but the appearance of the ghost of Christmas Future is quite intimidating and terrifying, at least as far as the Muppets go. Even the narrators – Gonzo and Rizzo – run away until the finale, breaking the fourth wall as they go.

The songs are a great part of the movie. The opening song “Scrooge” is very enjoyable, introducing the main character while showcasing the traditional Muppet group-singalong. Caine’s introduction is delightfully chilly. The second song, “One More Sleep ‘Til Christmas” is the reason my family watch this movie on Christmas Eve – it’s only one more sleep ’til Christmas! And we all sing along with Kermit, naturally. This is balanced by the beautiful, sad song Belle sings at the middle of the movie; a song that, sadly, has been cut from some versions of the film. I’ve never been sure why; perhaps because it does not, technically add to or move the plot forward.

The puppeteering is, as always, fantastic. The Muppets have some of the most talented puppeteers around, and each Muppet has their own look, personality, movement and life on-screen. I’ve always loved the Muppets, and this movie only increases their nostalgic power.

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope your holidays are restful, festive, and full of excellent food! And remember: only one more sleep ’til Christmas.

The Polar Express (2004)

Christmas is, if nothing else in my books, the season of traditions. Every year at the preappointed time we start pulling out the same songs, the same books, the same movies, and I love it. Tradition is the thing that makes family. Every one of you reading this can tell me at least one tradition your family has, whether it be centered around Christmas or another event. One of my favorite family traditions are the movies we watch every year, and the order we watch them in.

The movies that we watch are the same ones now as they were when I was small, and that is, in part, what makes them so awesome. As part of a special Christmas present from me to you, I will reveal every Christmas movie we watch between now and Christmas Eve, so make sure to check back every day!

Now, since you can both read the above title, you know the first movie I’m going to talk about is The Polar Express, that 2004 Tom Hanks vehicle of an adaption of a beautiful book.

I have mixed feelings about this movie. While the book ranks as one of my all-time favorites to read, the movie leaves me ambivalent. Part of the reason for that is the animation. I love computer animation, but sometimes I just can’t stand it. One of my favorite movies, Hoodwinked, has some of the worst animation I have ever seen. The Polar Express strikes me as the same. Not because the animation is bad, no, not at all. It’s because I find the characters expressions… apathetic. Sure they move and smile and look pretty realistic, but no one in the movie gives any real expressions, and that makes me feel disconnected from the story. I wish they had instead gone with a more traditional form of animation, or just picked different character forms.

If you can get past the zombie-people, the movie is beautiful. The backgrounds are beautifully rendered, and the train is a thing of beauty. And that scene with the ice train on the ice? Or that up-shot of bell through the ice? Be still my beating heart! They do ice incredibly well, along with snow. Which is good, seeing as this is, in fact, a Christmas movie set in winter. The way the environment moves around the characters is enough to almost suck me in, so long as we don’t go to a close-up too often.

I would also like to add a caveat to my character-hatred: the way the characters are written is fine. There’s nothing too stiff or stilted about them; in fact the Hobo ranks as one of my favorite characters from a children’s movie. The train engineers are hilarious and I wish they had more screen time. The main trio and annoying kid are all stereotypes, sure, but that’s what kids movies do to their main characters, so I’ll let it slide. At least they all get some character growth and go home a little different from when the train picked them up. So maybe just squint your eyes when the camera shows a person then go back to admiring the gorgeous scenery.

I also love the music. There are a few exceptions (“Hot Chocolate” springs to mind; Tom Hanks, I love you but you can’t sing), but when they get the music right, they nail it. Alan Silvestri provides a brilliant background soundtrack, and the moving “When Christmas Comes to Town” is one of my favorite Christmas songs.

It’s easy to see why, on one hand, the movie did mediocre at the box office; it can be really hard to embrace a movie where the people look like manikins, and it’s a Christmas movie so how many times do you really need to see it in theatres? By the same token, I also understand how it has since gained a cult following. If you watch it enough, you learn to look around the bad character capture/design and just appreciate the beautiful source material. Or you could read the book; same thing.

There are a lot of good points to this movie, and the plot sticks relatively close to the book (now if we could just cut the part with her ticket; why was that even included??). The Polar Express takes you on a wild ride from Michigan to the North Pole and back again, and teaches you, like the book, to believe.

(Man I wish I could make that word sparkle for you all.)

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship

By Arthur Ransome

I think folktales are the best kinds of stories. Not only are they great for kids – heck, they’re practically tailor-made for our little ones – but they’re great for adults too. There’s nothing like sitting back and sharing an old-fashioned folk tale. They’re the first stories we hear, the basis of our inspirations later in life, and can be found almost anywhere if you look hard enough. Even more, they’re a universal the world over. Just look at the world-wide variations on Cinderella that can be found.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is a retelling of a Russian folktale. This book was the first time I ever saw the word “Czar” (we will not get into how long it took my parents to teach me how to pronounce that, or how confused I continue to be at how many different ways there are to spell this word), “moujiks” (peasants), or “faggot” (as in faggot of wood, not the derogatory term). Isn’t it great how books teach us new things?

This book is pretty long as far as children’s stories go. It starts with the Czar sending messengers all over the land, offering his daughter’s hand in marriage to any man who brings him a flying ship. The messengers bring news to a small hut in the woods, wherein lives a family with three sons. The first two, smart and clever boys, decide they want to go out and try their luck. Their father gives them fine clothes, and their mother bakes them white rolls and gives them corn brandy before sending them off. The third boy, known only as the Fool/Fool of the World, says that he would like to follow. Sick of him, the mother gives him dry crusts and water and pushes him out of the house.

So the Fool walks along, merry as can be, when he comes across an ancient. They share a meal, and the old man tells the Fool how he can get a flying ship. Obeying the ancient’s instructions, the Fool finds himself with a flying ship. As he goes across the country, he starts collecting all manner of strange folk. First, there’s the man who listens; the man who can run around the world in one stride; the man who can shoot things at an incredibly far range; the man who can never get enough to drink; the man who can never get enough to eat; the man with the faggot of wood that turns into soldiers; and the man with the straw that turns the hottest day to winter. Quite the collection, really.

Upon arriving, the Czar looks out and sees the flying ship, but he is far from happy to see that his daughter will be marrying a peasant. He decides to present the Fool with challenges that will run the Fool off and leave the Czar with the flying ship. Of course, each challenge plays to the strength of one or more of the Companions, and the Fool ultimately bests the Czar, marrying the princess. The last page tells us that the princess and the Fool fall madly in love, the Czar and Czarina think very highly of their son-in-law, and the Fool becomes a very clever man.

I’ve always been a bit thrown off by that ending; when you call someone a Fool, I never think of them as smart. I suppose he could be a savant, or maybe he just needed some guidance and education to become an enlightened man. Perhaps he wasn’t a fool at all, and was just a very kind, naive man who thought the best of everyone, and Fool was a bit of a misnomer. Yes, I think I like that one.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is a Caldecott Award Winner. The pictures are interesting for kids; it certainly has a distinctive feel. I remember the pictures as well as I remember the text, and while I don’t think the art is spectacular, it does have a folksy, Eastern-European feel, which fits with the text very well. They are simple illustrations with bright colours. There is never a page without action; in almost every page there is someone walking, or flying. It gives this long book an pace and keeps the children’s attention grabbed.

Suggested Ages: 5-9

Archie Comics

Comics are a touchy subject with parents. Kids love them; parents view them as beneath the reading level/intellect of their child.

A word to you, parents: never worry about your child’s reading level, so long as they are reading. I’m not saying don’t push or encourage them, but if they enjoy reading comics, don’t freak out. Comics are still valuable in their own way.

I believe this comic-hatred is a throwback to the parents of the 50s. My father wasn’t allowed comics as a child; one time his parents found a collection he’d borrowed from a friend under his bed and threw them out despite his panicked protests (no word on if the friendship survived that incident). While the standards were relaxed for my sister and I, I do not think my dad loved us reading comics; in his mind we could do better, and we were pushing ourselves enough. Mostly because we looooved Archie comics. Well, I say we but it was mostly me, myself, and I. Every time we went to the grocery store I would grab a new one and beg my parents to buy it for me.

For being the worlds oldest teenager, Archie still speaks well to a young audience. The core five (Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie and Jughead) each represent a general stereotype; you’ll always find someone to associate with.

I couldn’t tell you why I loved these comics so much as a kid. Probably because they were short, sometimes funny, occasionally touching or education. When you’re young, short little tidbits will help hold your attention longer then a well-thought, lush and beautifully executed plot. Sad but true.

When it was new (to me), I don’t think Archie comics set out to be multicultural or educational. It’s largely Caucasian-centric (just look at the main group), with a less then 3 African-American supporting characters (or other nationality). The vocabulary was largely easy-access, and the stories focused on comedy. In recent years, however, Archie Comics has made a change towards consciously inserting a new vocabulary word per book as well as inserting a larger multicultural cast. A good idea, to be sure, but the characters are entirely superfluous; there are so many of them that they cannot be characters on their own.

While each character has a basic personality, there was no consistency from story to story. In one, Veronica can be a rich kid with a heart of gold, willing to share and just wanting to be loved; in another she can be cold and heartless, out to ruin her best friend. Spread this out over several decades of stories (since Archie comics often reprint stories; in recent times I have not seen a single book that has given me entirely new content) and perhaps hundreds of authors, and you understand the inconsistency. It does make it hard for the children to follow, howver.

These comics are a good idea for younger children. Whatever you think about comics, Archie is a great introduction. It can innocently teach your child vocabulary and other important lessons while entertaining them at the same time. Don’t go overboard; try to find them at old fairs or yard sales, since they are expensive. I found that I outgrew them in my teens, but they were still a large and valuable part of my childhood, and certainly contributed to my reading ability later in life.

Suggested for ages 6+

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Sea of Monsters

By Rick Riordan

To see Percy Jackson & The Olympians: the Lightning Thief here.

Percy Jackson returns in his second book, The Lightning Thief. Another quest, a new family member, and the return of old favorites.

Trouble is brewing in Camp Half-Blood again. The tree that keeps the Camp safe, Thalia’s tree, has been poisoned, and the camp activities direction, Chiron, has been accused of this travesty and been fired. Amongst all this, Percy is having dreams of his friend Grover, dreams that include conversations. Realizing they’re real, Annabeth and Percy realize that Grover has found the Golden Fleece, which can be used to heal Thalia’s tree. Requesting that someone be sent to find the Golden Fleece (and Grover), the new activities direction elects to send Ares’ daughter, Clarice, rather than Percy and co. Not about to be left behind, Percy, his half-brother Tyson and friend Annabeth to help their fallen friend.

If you enjoyed The Lightning Thief, you’ll love The Sea of Monsters. It has all the same trademarks of humour, wit, mythology, and action. Sea of Monsters is a fast-paced adventure, with a deadline (the demise of a tree), a recurring villain (Luke and Kronos), traps, interfering Gods, and tribute to various Greek gods, demigods, titans and monsters.

For children roughly 9-12, this is a great book for boys. If you’ve read this site at all, you’ll understand that it can be hard to find books for boys; when you find one, hold onto it and make sure they read it all. The Percy Jackson is great because it targets all the things boys enjoy which still being accessible and enjoyable for girls. If you’ve enjoyed these books, I’m going to throw in a quick recommendation to look up Rick Riordan’s The Kane Chronicles (starting with The Red Pyramid). They are similar to the Percy Jackson books, only they focus on Egyptian mythology and feature a brother-sister team.

Eyeshield 21

Written by Riichiro Inagaki, Illustrated by Yusuke Murata

Eyeshield 21 is a multi-volume saga in manga (comic) form. Specifically, Eyeshield 21 deals with American Football, a sport that does garners about as much enthusiasm and understanding in Japan as it does among North American women.

The hero is bullied Sena Kobayakawa, a tiny, blindingly fast boy whose idea of success is just being accepted to high school. Tricked/bullied into joining the two-man American Football team by the demonic Hiruma, Sena becomes the star of the team with his lightning-fast reflexes and speed.

The pace of the story is excellent, as is the character development is exquisite; and all of it built around the development of an underdog football team.

Suggested Ages: 12+

Inagaki, R., & Murata, Y. (2005) Eyeshield 21: Volume 1. Viz Media LLC.

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WALL-E

The movie is set in 2805, where Earth is abandoned to trash and humans have retreated to space. WALL-E, is a lonely robot, until he meets EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). After innocently showing his new friend a plant, EVE grabs the plant and shuts down, leaving WALL-E to pine over his love. Will he ever finish his directive?

WALL-E has it all. The story is unique and incredibly clever – over half the movie is completed without real dialogue. Yet it’s still engaging for both children and adults. I can’t recommend this movie enough for its touching theme or environmental message.

Suggested Ages: 4+

Morris, J., & Stanton, A. (2008). WALL-E. United States of America: Walt Disney Pictures.

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