Sunday, December 8, 2013

2013 Goodreads Choice Awards

So it happened again. The 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards were announced this past week, and once again I haven't read most of the books that were nominated. Worse, I haven't read a single one of the winners. Sadly, it wasn't an unusual experience. I've been a member of Goodreads for a few years now, and since I joined I've voted on a few of the categories every year. My book choices have never been in contention. They usually don't even make the final round.

I suppose it's not the end of the world. I mean, if I'm being honest, the books I read usually aren't eligible to win the awards anyway. I'm so far behind on my to-read list that, most of the time, I don't read books until they've been out for a couple of years already. Books that qualified to win in 2013 had to have been published since late November of 2012, so you can see my dilemma. Most of the time, I don't know if my favorite reads from the past year were published in the past year. I don't expend much energy examining copyright dates. I certainly don't remember that information after I've finished reading.

In essence, my reading habits make me a lousy judge of the best books from a given year. Not that I'm discounting my opinion or advocating for the value of "highly-qualified" judges, but simply reading a lot doesn't turn someone into the ideal candidate to adjudicate which book deserves an award. If you've read my other posts on book awards, you already know I'm not a huge fan of the award concept to begin with. This is just for fun though, and a lot of people shared their opinion, so I'm willing to give the finalists and winning books a bit of respect. When I haven't read any of the books from my favorite categories though, it seems dishonest to state that I hold the honored books in high regard.

However, this year I've concocted a plan to do the Goodreads honorees some retroactive justice. It won't mean that my voting will be any better in the year to come, but it will mean I gave the books from this year's list a chance to impress me. I've decided to read all the finalist books from the picture book category and the winner and first runner up from the middle grade category in the coming months. I'm not going to create a timeline on when I'll finish, because all that invites is stress and disaster, but I plan to read House of Hades by Rick Riordan, Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman, and twenty picture books that I'm not going to bother listing here. I mean no disrespect to the picture book category, but twenty books is a lot for me to write and a lot for my few readers to read. I will say congratulations to picture book category winners Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffries for The Day the Crayons Quit. My father tells me that your book is wonderful, and I can't wait to read it as soon as I can nab his copy when he's not looking.

Picture book category winner
Well, I have a lot of reading ahead, but I'm up for it. I'll keep voting for the Goodreads Choice Awards in the years to come and if you've never heard of them, I encourage you to give them a look. Your opinion is as valuable as mine. If you find that you don't recognize any of the titles, don't be discouraged. You could always do what I'm doing. The way I see it, if I can't control the direction the ship is taking, at least I can analyze the resulting wreckage. There's my analogy for this issue. If you don't like it, feel free to substitute in something that you do like, and throw it in the comment section down below. Happy reading and enjoy your December everybody.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Season Greetings and a Few Season's Readings

I'm beginning to think I should rename this blog something like The Sporadic Reviewer or A Reader Writes Every So Often. After all, looking back on my posting history, I write in bursts of fervor that are immediately followed by dry spells that would leave the average reader wondering if I've been abducted by aliens (provided that they believe in that sort of thing). Here I am, back for another post, and it's been about six months since my last foray into the blogging universe. I hope you weren't holding your breath.

I suppose the irony of these blogging lulls is that they very rarely coincide with reading lulls. This summer and fall have been great reading times for me. I've read well over a hundred books since my last post. I've previewed easily three hundred more. That's something I've been doing a lot lately. I have a Nook Color e reader and I use the thing constantly, though I don't buy many books on it. Instead, I shop the Barnes and Noble marketplace for new and interesting fiction and I download the preview for books that I like. After reading the preview, I decide if it's a book that I'd like to buy a print copy of. The previews are free, so I get to do what I would do if I were allowed to spend all the time I'd like to browsing a bookstore.

For every misunderstood
super villain, there is a
chance for redemption.
I have a favorite book of the year. It was The Cloak Society by Jeramey Kraatz, a book about a super villain in training and the dilemma he faces as he comes to terms with the idea that he's been fighting on the wrong side his entire life. The young super villain is part of a collective of super villains that includes his parents, and his internal struggle of loyalty versus following his conscience is a emotionally charged roller coaster. Kraatz is a new author for me, but his debut blew me away. There's a second book in his Cloak Society series already, and I've been looking forward to picking it up for a while. I kind of can't believe that I have already.

A great Veteran's Day read.
I've read a few picture books that were equally impressive in the past few months. The Poppy Lady is the Veteran's Day picture book that I've been looking for for years. It tells the story of Moina Belle Michael, an obscure historical figure whose efforts to honor the efforts of WWI and WWII veterans resulted in the sale of poppies on Veteran's and Memorial Day to this day. I have to admit that when I read this, I didn't know anything about poppy importance and I'd certainly never heard of Moina Belle Michael. This one of those circumstances where I read, I called my fellow teachers up, and by that afternoon I had a lesson planned that involved reading The Poppy Lady to an entire grade level.

I wish I had the determination
of the bird in this story.
More recently, and on a far less serious note, I thoroughly enjoyed How Rocket Learned to Read by Tad Hills. Here is a book that every teacher can appreciate. Rocket is a dog that enjoys the dog life. He is simple-minded, content in his routine, and happy. Then he meets a bird that messes all of that up, and he's a lot better off because of it. The bird is what really won me over in this book. He's truly unflappable (excuse the awful pun) in his mission to make Rocket a reader. Rocket turns out to fit the prototype of reluctant readers to the letter. The bird wins him over with great literature that Rocket just can't ignore, which is usually the best way. For anyone who's ever met the kid that that just didn't want to like reading, no matter what you try, this book is here to reinforce your beliefs and reassure you that your efforts are worth it. It's a simple ten-minute read, but you won't regret it. I didn't.

Anyway, if this is the holiday season for you, have a good one. If it's not the holiday season, I hope that  these books brighten your winter months. Of course, if you're reading this in the southern hemisphere and the temperature is approaching that of boiling water, maybe an air conditioner is a higher priority at the moment. Give these books a look when you get a chance. Happy reading, everyone.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Lull in Reading

I have been in a stalling pattern for the past few weeks when it comes to reading. What's odd is that I haven't stopped interacting with my books. I've actually been spending more time with them than ever. I've been cataloging them on Librarything, renewing them at my public library, carrying a few of them with me wherever I go. I've continued to look at my account on Goodreads, adding innumerable books to my to-read shelf, while not getting any closer to finishing anything on my currently-reading shelf.

It's odd, since only a few weeks ago I was reading a blog post by Donalyn Miller wherein she commented on a sudden slowdown in her reading. She was primarily expressing her displeasure with the selection of books that she felt compelled to read after her recent change in grade level. I remember one comment being something about how little she thought of Geronimo Stilton. That one stuck with me since I think that equating Geronimo Stilton with the general quality of literature available for a fourth grader is about as fair as equating a Big Mac with the general quality of hamburgers available in restaurants. In case that didn't come off clearly, there are better books than Geronimo Stilton for fourth graders. I know that. Donalyn has to know that. Even Geronimo Stilton has to know that, and he's just a fictitious mouse.

Anyway, I left a comment on her post offering my support. That's not something I do very often, but I identified with her sentiments. Sometimes, reading even the easy things can seem hard. Mentally, I haven't been in the right frame of mind for finishing things of late. I pick something up, read a few pages, and I'm ready to move forward. For me, even a few picture books have been a little too much to endure. I'll come out of it though. I've been here before.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I've been working in the boring side of books for the past few weeks, cataloging materials for my library, staring at tiny print full of copyright dates and subject headings rather than diving into the text itself. Maybe it has something to do with my impending summer break and changes in weather, but whatever the case, my head's not in the game right now. So, my reading has dropped off. It's not completely gone. I still don't feel comfortable without a book being within arm's reach at all times (including as I write this post), but I'm not where I was a little less than a month ago. It'll come back though. Just you wait and see.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Lost States by Michael Trinklein

I wasn't expecting such an intriguing find when I wandered into the clearance section of a Barnes and Noble recently. I was there so my wife could pick up the latest in a paranormal romance series that she's been reading, and I wasn't planning on picking anything up for myself. I should have known better than to think I could wander into a bookstore and leave empty-handed. The clearance section is usually where they get me. This time, I happened upon Lost States, an anecdotal geography book on states that were proposed at different points in U.S. history, but didn't make the cut.

I'm a bit of an anecdotal history buff. I don't read the big, thick tomes that would help me to truly understand the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt, or the Great Depression. I don't have the attention span for them. But give me a book with 100 stories about little known facts and events that changed the course of American history and I'm on it. Lost States is that kind of book. As author Michael Trinklein states in the introduction, "This book isn't meant to offer exhaustive detail on every unsuccessful statehood proposal; rather, the goal is to pique your curiosity, instill a sense of wonder, and enjoy a laugh or two." If that's not a winning sales pitch, I don't know what is.

So that's how I've spent the week after Easter, reading about states and republics that almost were, but didn't quite make the cut. There are a lot of interesting stories connected to failed statehood proposals. A few of my favorites are Adelsverein, the German colony in Texas that never came to be even after the Germans managed to strike a deal with the Comanche that lived in the area; Forgottonia, the western portion of Illinois that only really wanted an interstate to pass through so they could generate some local business; and Nickajack, the secessionists that tried to secede from their own states before they were forced into joining the Confederate States of America.

There are plenty of other stories that I found interesting in here as well. Popham, Franklin, and North Slope were equally deserving of a mention, as were many others, but that's something you'll have to find out by reading. The book does highlight a few concepts again and again.
  1. Rural populations and urban populations from the same state often have different interests, and in a lot of cases one of them feels like they're being misrepresented and mistreated by the other.
  2. While the U.S. Government has always had a profound interest in strategically locating military bases and military supply lines in such a way as to prevent the other world powers from endangering U.S. soil, they are happier to claim land as a U.S. territory than to grant it statehood.
  3. Native Americans and the country of Mexico have never been treated very well when it came to statehood matters. Canada has made out pretty well by comparison. Basically, racism has played a role in the failure of many statehood proposals.
  4. No one has ever known what to do with the American Midwest. It has been sliced up like a misshapen land pizza so many times, it's a wonder cartographers didn't just give up on the whole thing. The land between the Rocky Mountains, the Great Lakes, the Appalachian Mountains, and the Gulf of Mexico is a mess of strange borders, and it could have been a lot better.
If you're looking for some more insight on the matter, look into picking up your own copy of Lost States. It's entertaining, and even though it's not very difficult to read, it might make you think.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Game of Books

Today, for the first time in this blog's history, I venture into the world of online gaming. Now, I know I've never mentioned this before, but I've always had a love for gaming. From the countless mornings I  spent mastering the worlds of Zelda, Mario, and Metroid as a child to the hours I've lost to questing, exploring, and aimlessly dawdling in pixelated worlds as an adult, I've shown video games their fair share of devotion. My wife would probably tell you that I've given them more than their fair share of devotion. There is no telling how many more books I could have read had I not been staring at a screen for so much of my youth. I'm not saying that I regret my gaming habit. I am proud of my accomplishments as a gamer. But my life as a reader and a gamer have always seemed to be at odds with one another. You can't do one while you're doing the other. At least, you never could until now.

For those of you who have never heard of it, allow me to introduce the Game of Books, a recent arrival to the world of gaming. This online game is supposed to meld my two perpetually separate lives into one fluid experience. Won't my wife be pleased? Now I'll have a reason to spend even less time interacting with the real world.

The basic idea is that this game will be built around software that does for books what Pandora's Music Genome Project® does for listening to music; namely analyze a book's parts, catalog the qualities of that book, and compare that book's qualities against the qualities of every other book. If you create a profile on their website,, it uses the qualities of your favorite books to recommend other books to read with similar qualities. The software to do that part, called the Book Genome Project, has already been created. I've played around with it a couple of times, and I have to say that it's not bad. It's not perfect either. The recommendations it provides are okay, but its catalog doesn't contain a listing for many of my favorite books, at least not yet. The game itself will stem from that project.

Using data about your reading habits, the game would create an avatar that would explore a fictional world built around your reading interests. You would be assigned tasks that center around your reading. If you are a reader of mysteries, your gaming experience would incorporate the qualities of a good mystery story. If you read action adventures with dragons that would be the experience you would most likely encounter. The goal of the game would be to level up your character through reading. If you want to earn certain badges or XP points, you have to read books with certain characteristics. Basically, the more avid the reader, the more success they'll experience in the game. I like that set-up, and not just because of my out-of-control reading addiction, though that certainly does factor in.

Where I see this game as a boon is among children. Sure, adults can have their fun and there will undoubtedly be adult gamers who play the Game of Books, but I work with children for a living. When I see this game's potential, I see it in terms of making children want to read. Any person who has spent time with children is aware that the video game market is saturated with games whose target audience is children. I talk to children all the time who spend at least a couple of hours a day playing games on a computer or a video game system. This year, I've had numerous conversations about the merits of a game called Minecraft. I've never played the game, never even seen it, but I know quite a bit about it just from listening to kids tell me about how they spent their evenings. Children who play this game are totally engrossed by it. Some of them are avid readers. Many are not. But this game sucks them in equally. I can only imagine the effect of a game like the Game of Books taking hold of those same students. The library would be packed with kids clamoring over books that would help them to level up this way or that. That's the dream. It would make reading a primary pleasure activity. It could be one of those moments when we turn a roadblock to developing good reading habits into alternate route.

Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, the game should be ready to launch in some capacity by August of this year. I am excited for this. I hope it doesn't flop. Who knows how big a difference it could make for some readers? Until then, I just am going to wait with fingers crossed. If a video game turned out to be among our strongest tools for making children want to read, then I could finally claim that all the gaming I've done wasn't just wasted time. It was actually training for my job as a literacy advocate for America's youth.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Amazon BUYS Goodreads!?!

It was announced today that Goodreads, my favorite social network for readers, has been purchased by Amazon, a move that I thought would never happen. Honestly, actions taken by the two companies over the past few years led me to believe that Goodreads and Amazon were doing everything in their power to distance themselves from each other. In January 2012, Goodreads stopped accepting metadata from Amazon's API because they called Amazon's terms of use too restrictive, meaning that Goodreads users were responsible for providing all the background information about any book on the site. The layout of the book pages on Goodreads changed to prominently feature a link to Barnes and Noble's webstore rather than Amazon. Amazon stopped featuring Goodreads book reviews on their site at about the same time. Preface all that with the fact that since August 2008, Amazon has owned Shelfari, a direct competitor for Goodreads.

Needless to say, as a longtime user of Goodreads and an Amazon Prime customer, I am curious about what this means for my reading future. I don't know if I should be upset or excited. As anyone would expect, Amazon and Goodreads are celebrating this deal as a boon for their users/customers. Amazon's stock price went up today and just look at the cheery email I received this afternoon from my friends at Goodreads.

Today is a very big day for all of us at Goodreads. As you may have seen on our blog, we are joining the Amazon family.
We greatly appreciate all you do as a Goodreads Librarian so we wanted to reach out to you individually since you play an important role in our community.
You’ll be glad to know that this announcement is great news for our catalog. Amazon metadata will be returning to the site, and we will have an even more comprehensive record of self-published books, as well as more complete records of international books. We will continue to link to a variety of sites on our book pages, of course, including OCLC WorldCat for library data. All of your reviews and ratings will remain on Goodreads.
By joining the Amazon family, the Goodreads team will be able to invest more in the things that our members care about. We’ll also be working together on inventing new services for readers and authors. As part of this, we’ll be increasing the size of our team over time, and will be able to add lots of great new features that members and librarians will be excited about!
I can’t make this clear enough – we plan to continue growing Goodreads and investing in making it a great community for librarians, and everyone else.
We said in our blog post that our team gets out of bed every day motivated by the belief that the right book in the right hands can change the world. Now Goodreads can help make that happen in an even bigger and more meaningful way as part of the Amazon family.
Here’s to the next chapter!
Otis, Elizabeth, and the Goodreads Team

So everything is great, right? It certainly seems that way. And I certainly hope so. Honestly, I've put in too much time and effort to make my Goodreads account something that I can use to get great book recommendations and to monitor my reading progress to lose it now. This could result in a lot of positives for users of Goodreads. I'm kind of hoping that it will mean increased interactivity with Amazon's website. Since I've been reviewing books for a couple of years already, it would be great if the data that I've compiled in Goodreads would improve my shopping experience in Amazon. Amazon regularly attempts to improve the recommendations they make when I am shopping on their site. I can't help but believe that they could do a much a better job of recommending books for me if they knew all that I've read and recorded on Goodreads.

But enough about me. In every business deal like this, there are bound to be winners and losers. In this deal, Goodreads and Amazon both could make out like winners, but where does it leave Shelfari? Essentially, Amazon now owns two identical products that compete with each other. That's not going to last. Something is going to change. Does that mean that Shelfari and Goodreads will somehow merge into one site? I can't imagine how that would work. Does it mean that Amazon will sell Shelfari? That wouldn't make sense. Does it mean that Shelfari user accounts will migrate over to Goodreads? I don't know. That makes sense to me, but I don't work for Amazon, so I'm only guessing. Microsoft just migrated Messenger accounts to Skype and Hotmail accounts to, so it wouldn't be completely unheard of in this era.

Either way, it's going to be interesting. I'm wondering what will happen. I not going to say I'm worried, but it's going to take more than some cheery PR to put me at ease. I, like many others, will be watching and hoping for the best.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Oz, the Book and Movie Monster

I'm one of those oddballs who has read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and a couple of the sequels in the Oz series. Now, I know that in the world at large that hardly makes me unusual. Those books have been read by a lot of people. I'm not going to pretend that I have any idea just how many people that might be, but I know I'm in good company. However, among the people I spend my time with, I'm kind of alone in that capacity. Because of that, when I went to see Oz, the Great and Powerful with my wife and a friend, I was the only one who was quietly drawing comparisons between the book characters and the characters they'd developed for the movie. I knew being the guy that voiced all those comparisons to an unappreciative audience wasn't cool, so generally I tried to keep my thoughts on the matter to myself. In the case of this most recent movie adaptation, I was actually very happy not to bring it up. I was already aware that Oz, the Great and Powerful wasn't intended as an adaptation of one of the original books. If anything, I suspected this movie would do more to reignite interest in the books than draw comparisons to them. With that thought in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. It was a beautiful film with astounding visual effects and a heartbreaking love story carefully woven into the plot.

A new movie is hardly a revolutionary incarnation for the series though. Oz stories have been produced in nearly major medium in existence, dating all the way back to the days of L. Frank Baum who dabbled in plays, silent movies, and various other formats for his famous series. Not every attempt to present the series in a new way worked even then, at the peak of Oz's popularity, and Baum was dealt many failures during his lifetime. Luckily, setbacks didn't stop his writing. He wrote the first fourteen volumes in the Oz series. That's twice as many books as J.K. Rowling wrote for Harry Potter. Essentially, Oz is the series that keeps on giving. And I like that. I also like that the series didn't end at the time of Baum's death. As terrible as it is to lose the original creator of any series, the decision to keep the series going with Ruth Plumly Thompson assuming the author role meant that by the time I came along to read the books, I had an overabundance to choose from.

This is a wonderful series to pick up today. Despite its being more than a century old, Oz is still highly readable. The text hasn't become so dated that casual readers wouldn't understand what was happening, and the plots of the original books are right on par with the popular fantasy series of today. Better than that, if you are among the growing number of readers that read electronic books, most of the Oz series is available for free online. Be aware that not every book will revolve around Dorothy Gale, Toto, Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion. While those characters do return to the series time and again, new characters become the focus in every volume. The Marvelous Land of Oz, the second book in the series, does not incorporate Dorothy at all. New characters have their own quests, ambitions, vices, and allegiances. Also, realize that the land of Oz won't always by the setting. Ozma of Oz, the third book, is set almost entirely in another magical land called Ev. Despite it being just across the desert from Oz, Ev is its own land with its own creatures and leadership. Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz starts in an underground fairy world populated by vegetable people called the Mangaboos. Their city is called the Glass City.

All in all, this is the sort of series that you should try. If you're like many of my peers, the Oz you'll find in the books is a land that can allow that moment of escape when you need it. Not unlike Dorothy, you could probably use an occasional escape from the otherwise gray monotony of your lives. I know I do sometimes.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Book 10: Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxers

Well, I've finished book ten and I'm confused. The first piece that baffled me was the title. Other than the fact that Captain Underpants rips the robo-pants off of the third and final incarnation of Tippy Tinkletrousers, leaving him to give chase in a pair of boxers for a couple of chapters, robo-boxers weren't much more than a footnote. I suppose the "Radioactive" might have referred to the abundance of nuclear bombs used in this particular epic novel. The "Revolting Revenge" part might refer to the crazed acts of the three Tippy Tinkletrousers when they each discovered that in order to beat Captain Underpants they might have to blow themselves up and seriously effect the fabric of history in the process.

I hope that by now you're as confused as I was. If you've been reading along in my challenge up to now, you know that in my last post I mentioned the sudden and rather graphic demise of Tippy Tinkletrousers. Well, like many readers, I was tricked. I bought into the red splatter explanation for the end of Tippy. I thought things were looking bleak, not only for the world of Captain Underpants, but for the tenth epic novel. His creativity and cleverness were back, but his plot was running into one roadblock after another. Well, Dav Pilkey has a new trick up his sleeve. What I call retraction he calls misdirection. I'm not sure most magicians would agree with his label since most of them have made their entire career by building an act around real misdirection, but if he wants to call what he does misdirection, who am I to judge?

Anyway, it turned out that the world of Captain Underpants hadn't rid itself of Tippy Tinkletrousers (aka Professor Poopypants) just yet. He still was out to seek his revenge with some more robotic-man-to-superhero-man combat, all courtesy of more outlandish and contradictory time travel loopholes. If you're familiar with book nine, you're aware that a major undertaking of the plot was not to violate the Banana Cream Pie Paradox. If you're not familiar with this paradox, basically it means that you can't go from the present into the past and somehow change that past without seriously messing up the present that you left behind; furthermore, if you mess up the present you left behind, that messed-up present might mean time traveling to the past wouldn't have happened and time and all the events connected to time make no sense anymore. If that explanation confuses you, read the comic strip in chapter two of book nine and it will all become clear…or not. Bottom line, time travel is really messy business no matter how you look at it. So bring on the comic hi-jinx and throw logic into another dimension because this epic novel is intended to blow your mind.

Pilkey decided that the best way to make things really interesting was to have Tippy continually jump back and forth through time as he tries to avoid destroying the world while still attempting to destroy his arch-nemesis, Captain Underpants. Along the way, he meets up with a past version of himself who eventually multiplies through more time travel into a third version of himself. All three then set out to complete their task. The funniest part of the work of these three is that they don't work well together. Throughout most of their time together, they are their own biggest obstacle on their road to successful destructive behavior. They regularly attempt to one-up each other, slight each other, sabotage each other, and basically prevent each other from being the one that experiences the joy of finally defeating Captain Underpants. In a lot of ways, they beat themselves. By my calculations, their collaboration is also a complete violation of the Banana Cream Pie Paradox. However, if you look past that, it's not too hard to spot the better qualities of the story.

This is the first Captain Underpants epic to incorporate Ook and Gluk's cave people, thanks to some more time travel. This is also some of the more creative Flip-O-Rama in the series. You have the cave people to thank for that. I liked that he dabbled in alternative history, though the explanations for the start of the universe, the end of the dinosaurs, and the ice age were a little bit redundant. Nuclear bombs and ray guns can't be responsible for every important event in our history. Well, they can, but that gets boring after a while.

The ending was kind of predictable for anyone who had been reading all of Captain Underpants past encounters with Professor Poopypants/Tippy Tinkletrousers. He did go out with a bang at least. I won't say that I think he's really gone since that really seems to depend more on whether Dav Pilkey needs to squeeze a bit more mileage out of the villains he already created. At least Tippy is gone for now, and another adventure involving Melvin Sneedly seems to be in the works. Who knows what the future holds? For now, I'm all caught up.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Book 9: Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers

This was a refreshingly wild ride. Never mind the fact that the first chapter of book nine was basically a retraction of the final chapter of book eight. Never mind that the second chapter was a strange and comical demonstration of a time travel paradox titled The Banana Cream Pie Paradox. (By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed that demonstration.) Maybe it's the fact that I took a two-year break from the series, or maybe it's the fact that Dav Pilkey took a six-year break, but book nine has seemingly given the series new life.

It certainly wasn't the story I was anticipating. For one thing, I was expecting Tippy Tinkletrousers to take a larger role over the course of the story since his return was the focus of the title. Instead, his rampaging escape from prison and his brief quest for revenge against Captain Underpants were the focuses of chapters three through eight after which the reader could basically forget about him until he briefly reappeared in chapter thirty-one. He regained the spotlight in chapter thirty-two, but Tippy's role in the book (and presumably the remainder of the series) ended abruptly in the one-word chapter thirty-three. (I wasn't too crazy about the choice of illustration in chapter thirty-three.) He hardly seemed like a title character to me.

Anyway, the part of this story that I was able to get into was the flashback to five years ago, when George and Harold were in kindergarten and were confronted by an over-the-top bully problem. I read in another blog that this was Dav Pilkey's attempt to address bullying. I don't know if I'd call what he did addressing bullying as much as using bullying, which in a variety of ways has been an ongoing theme of the series, as a mechanism for driving the plot. He certainly doesn't recommend any positive strategies for dealing with bullies, though I wouldn't expect him to under the circumstances. Another running theme of the series has been a general dysfunction among the entire adult population forcing George and Harold to rely on themselves to solve their problems, so he certainly couldn't have had the two of them go to a grownup for help. I expect that if Dav Pilkey really wanted to address bullying in a way that would actually help children react and cope, this wouldn't have been his preferred method of doing so.

That said, I enjoyed the part of the story that dealt with George and Harold bonding and building a plan to fight back on the behalf of their fellow kindergartners. The combination of the intricate planning they went through to execute their plans and the comical reactions of their parents when they came upon the plans being carried out made for entertaining reading. The bullies gullibility and predictable overreactions to George and Harold's plans added to the fun. The intent of the series is absurdist humor and this volume achieves that goal with wonderful ease. It also fleshes out some of the back story of the boys' friendship, though I honestly never gave much thought to the origins of their friendship. All in all, I think it's safe to say that Pilkey is back on track with this installment. I look forward to reading book ten, though the conclusion of book nine touts ten as the final epic novel in the series. I don't know what to think about that. Is Pilkey looking for an exit strategy? Is he ready to move on, or is this just a ploy to leave readers like me wondering? We'll find out in the next epic novel, I suppose. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

My Terrifying Return to Captain Underpants, Renewing the Underpants Challenge

In April of 2011, I embarked on a quest to read every Captain Underpants book in existence. At the time, that meant eight books. I was able to complete that task at a one-a-day pace, a feat that I took great pride in at the time. To my surprise, the books weren't that bad. I recall concluding with the thought that  the series had received an undeserved bad rap. Sure, some of the humor had been rehashed and reused a few times too many, but the books were reasonably clever and funny in their own way. I went from being a librarian that scoffed at the books' literary merit to a reader that could, at the very least, understand and appreciate the books' popularity.

Well, fast forward almost two years and the long-awaited books 9 and 10 have finally arrived. There are rumors of a book 11 perpetuated by another last page teaser with a coming soon advertisement. I'm not going to believe that rumor until I can actually hold book 11, but since I have managed to fall behind on the series, I can't think of any better use of my time than to renew my Captain Underpants challenge and read books 9 and 10. If book 11 does happen to come out before Dav Pilkey sends the series into another six-year hiatus, I'll be sure to give that a review as well.

Anyway, this is bound to be interesting. It's been a while since I've given these books a close look. I'm curious about whether the books will seem as entertaining as they were before. I'm hopeful, but I won't know until I've given Tippy Tinkletrousers a fair shake. It took long enough to get here.

If you're new to my challenge and would like to catch up; below are links to my earlier posts in this series. Additionally, if you'd like to read along and join me in the fun, feel free to share your thoughts in comment section on my posts.

April, 16, 2011 Today, I Embark on Underpants
April 17, 2011 Book 1: The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey
April 17, 2011 Book 2: Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets
April 18, 2011 Book 3: Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies From Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds)
April 19, 2011 Book 4: Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants
April 21, 2011 Book 5: Captain Underpants and the Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman
April 21, 2011 Book 6: Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 1
April 22, 2011 Book 7: Captain Underpants and Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 2
April 23, 2011 Book 8: Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Where have you been all this time? The joy of rereading favorite titles.

I recently picked up my copy of The House with the Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs. Please understand, the books of John Bellairs have a special place in my heart. Maybe it has something to do with the memory I have of my father reading Bellairs year after year, to class after class of students. Maybe it has something to do with how identifiable Lewis Barnevelt has always been to me. Maybe I just have a strange addiction to the thrill of stories about social outcasts that regularly find themselves mixed up with supernatural forces that are out to get them. I didn't say it made sense, only that I felt it.

Anyway, I've read The House with a Clock in Its Walls, the first book in the Lewis Barnevelt series, at least a half dozen times in my life, and yet I still found myself drawn back into its pages recently. What is it about books like that? They sit on my shelves for months or even years, completely untouched, and then BAM! It's 12:30 A.M. on a weeknight and I can't stop reading because I'm in the middle of a chapter and I know a good part is coming up. The joy of a book like that never dies.

As an educator, I have a habit of reliving similar reading experiences many times. Anyone who stays at a job for more than one year consecutively will experience at least some degree of redundancy at some point. For me, that means reteaching the same concept more than once, rereading the same books, answering the same questions innumerable times, but knowing all the while that I might be the only person in the room for whom the experience isn't entirely new. If I'm teaching place value to the twelfth or twentieth different group of students that I can remember teaching place value to, it doesn't mean that class hearing it or experiencing it for the twelfth or twentieth time too. It would be wrong of me to teach it the way I'm feeling it. Sadly, that might mean I'm masking boredom around my students some of the time. And part of the time that I'm hiding my boredom might be while I'm reading a book that I've read enough times to recite it from memory. I don't want to mention any of the titles that float through my head when I write that, but some books are better off read once, but not twice.

That said, some books stand the test of time, and others don't. I've read the poem, "Homework, Oh Homework" by Jack Prelutsky, to enough students that I don't even need to pull out The New Kid on The Block to refresh myself on the order of the lines anymore. That's despite that fact that I am about as talented at memorizing as I am at bull fighting on the Moon. You would think "Homework, Oh Homework" would have lost some of it's former appeal, but I still laugh at the line about wrestling a lion alone in the dark almost every time. I can't prove that's to you in this medium, but trust me. It happens.

Every time I read Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls, I laugh when the monkeys get Jay Berry drunk, and I cry at the end. I'm referring to the book, not the horrific Disney movie adaptation. I'm sure the Disney movie would make Wilson Rawls cry, but not for the reasons that Disney might hope it would. I've reread that book enough times that I could probably write you a pretty good Cliff's Notes edition, but I don't regret it even once. I love the predictability of knowing just how a chapter is going to strike me. I love the relationship between Jay Berry and his Grandfather and it comforts me to read something so familiar, genuine, and goodhearted. It's truly one of the finest books I've ever read. I don't want to hit you with any spoilers, but if you don't tear up at least a little in the last scene of that book, I would recommend that you get some therapy because you're probably bottling up your emotions in a dangerous fashion.

I'm not alone in this rereading habit either. My entire family, with the exception of my wife and my mother, rereads favorite books. I don't try to figure out why two of the most important women in my life don't reread. I suspect it has something to do with their questionable taste in reading material. Rereading can be a powerful experience. It can give us a powerful jolt of nostalgia. It can change our perspective on something we thought we knew pretty well before. Certainly, rereading books that we remember from our childhood can provide us with a different outlook on the text or our younger selves. I recently reread a book by Bruce Coville that I was enamored with as an eight-year-old. I worked through the entire My Teacher is an Alien series in late elementary school. Upon rereading, I discovered that I still enjoyed the book, but a character that I remember liking when I was younger now seemed flawed and cowardly. I don't know how I didn't see that the first time I read, but time changes everything, I suppose, including perceptions.

I feel like rereading has a bad wrap among many readers though. I'm not saying rereading is always great. Rereading can be a strange and unproductive experience too. I know someone who rereads the entire Harry Potter series again and again without taking a break for other reading in between. Last I heard, she was on her fifteenth broomstick ride through Hogwarts. I don't know what can be gleaned from a record number of consecutive loops through the same books, regardless of how good the story was a first, second, or third time around, but I have to admit that as I went through the books and then the movies, more than once I returned to some moments in the books that I really enjoyed. Rereading is like a second look at something to enhance the first impression.

That said, I'm moving back through the three series by John Bellairs right now. If you haven't taken a look at John Bellairs' writing before, I highly recommend it. The three series that he created are that of Lewis Barnevelt (my personal favorite), Anthony Monday, and Johnny Dixon. Because Bellairs died with unfinished work, two of his series were continued by Brad Strickland. The Strickland books are equally entertaining in my opinion, though my father and I have discussed the matter extensively and have never come to a complete agreement. They are all realistic fantasy, as though that label isn't entirely befuddling. They contain elements of magic, macabre, horror, mystery, and adventure, all while being set ordinary, small towns in the mid-1900s. All three characters are likable to the reader, though they are generally unpopular with their own peers. They are the sort of protagonists that you root for despite remaining acutely aware of their outsider status at all times. If this is the sort of story that sounds like it could worm its way onto your reading list, then don't hesitate, but don't be surprised if you find it making its way back into your hands a few times after that first read. Rereading is probable.