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The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

I was really enjoying this “chapter book” by picture book author and illustrator Peter Brown.It’s rather odd in a way, and maybe pitched a little young for a middle grade novel. I’d say grades 2-4, and maybe fifth graders who want “short books”. But I liked the writing style, short sentences with somewhat robotic dialog, and the oddball storyline.

ROZZUM unit 7134, Rez for short, is stranded on an island when a hurricane sinks the cargo ship she is on. Accidentally activated by a group of inquisitive otters, Roz is designed to “move, communicate, and learn.” Over time, she will “find better ways of completing [her] tasks. [She] will become a better robot.” However, Roz is shipwrecked in an unexpected environment. She finds herself on an uninhabited island with only wild animals for company and instruction. So Roz learns to be wild and to live with nature. In fact, in an author’s note at the end of the story Mr. Brown calls this book “a robot nature story.”

As I said, I was enjoying the fairly simple sentence structure and the robot-in-the-wilderness plot right up until the final few chapters, in which the story takes a rather violent and disturbing turn. After Roz has been on the island for an entire year (spoiler alert!), her manufacturers send three RECO robots to find Roz and bring her back to the factory to be reconditioned and reassigned to a new work place. But Roz has become wild and made friends with the animals, and she doesn’t want to go anywhere. So Roz’s animal friends fight against the RECO robots (who are armed with silver-colored rifles) in a battle royal. Robots are killed; animals are injured. And Roz herself is damaged beyond the ability of the island animals to repair.

I wish Mr. Brown had been able to come up with a better ending for his robot story. After having anthropomorphized Roz by making her a friend to the animals, the slaughter of the RECO robots feels kind of ruthless and unnecessary because Roz ends up doing exactly what they wanted her to do before all the fighting started. I was getting ready to recommend this one to nature lovers and technology geeks among the younger set until the ending gave me pause.

I may have to wait a long time to find another robot nature story with as much initial promise. Sci-fi nature lovers, it’s a niche that’s waiting to be filled.

Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle by N.D. Wilson

I’m honestly not sure what I think about N.D. Wilson’s newest book, the beginning of a series called Outlaws of Time. The story is really dark and violent, and as with some of Wilson’s other books it moves too fast for me with too many layers of meaning. I feel as if I’m missing something when I read Wilson’s fantasy, in particular. Actually, I feel dumb. On the other hand, I loved Boys of Blur and Leepike Ridge, especially, and this one has some of the elements that I liked from those: a very American setting, brave kids, adventure, lots of good writing with good metaphors and similes. I just feel as if I have whiplash from trying to follow all the symbolism and hidden meanings and the time travel.

For example, Sam Miracle (his real name) begins the story as a resident (inmate?) of Saint Anthony of the Desert Destitute Youth Ranch, SADDYR. And it’s a sad place, governed by your typical fictional orphanage parents, Mr. and Mrs. Spalding. There are twelve boys at SADDYR, including Sam, and the others are Pete, Drew, Jude, Barto, brothers Jimmy Z and Johnny Z, Flip the Lip, Matt Cat and Sir T(homas), Tiago Lopez, and Simon Zeal. They’re all juvenile delinquents, but they have the names of the twelve apostles in the Bible, minus Judas Iscariot. Yes, I noticed that little naming trick immediately, and it’s kind of cool. But why? Why do Sam’s friends and cohorts have the same names as Jesus’ twelve disciples? What does it mean? Sam isn’t Jesus or a Christ figure, or is he? The priest, Father Tiempo, that Sam meets in the desert is kind of a Christ figure who gives up his life/lives to save Sam and the rest of the world through Sam, but then the priest turns out to be someone else, not Jesus at all. Sam is the one sent to save the world from the evil Vulture, El Buitre, but he’s a violent and at the same time, vulnerable, savior, sent to use his deadly snake arms to kill The Vulture. Even though he’s mangled and wounded by the bad guys in the story, and handicapped by his unreliable memory and his lack of confidence in his own abilities, Sam is a survivor, redeemed and resurrected multiple times. I suppose I’m trying to make the story too simplistic, the characters too allegorical. But allegory is implied in the names and actions of the characters. (I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’s professed hatred of allegory in all its forms while at least parts of his Narnia stories are clearly allegorical in nature.)

Then there’s the time travel, enough time travel to make Hurley’s head hurt a lot (LOST reference, there). This book reminded me of LOST–way too much to figure out, and maybe half of it doesn’t mean anything, just the author playing around. Sam and his friend Glory travel though time, around time, behind time, on the edges of time, and through the cracks between times. I’m a straight-forward, A-Z kind of gal, and although I can handle one time jump, or maybe two, the ramifications of all the time travel in this book make me feel as if I’ve lost my grip on reality. Sam Miracle certainly loses his mind and memory and his sense of what’s real and what’s a dream quite often throughout the course of the story. And since Sam is the main viewpoint character, so did I.

PC critics are going to hate all the guns and all the bullets flying. Even though one of Sam’s snake arms, Speck, is a little bit goofy and doesn’t want to hurt anyone, the other one, Cindy, is “a killer, a nightmare.” Speck shoots the weapons out of the bad guys’ hands, but Cindy shoots to kill. Again, I’m tempted to draw allegorical parallels or symbolical confusion from the contrast between Sam’s left arm, vicious sidewinder Cindy, and his right arm, distractible pet snake Speck, but I will refrain.

Do I think kids will like Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle? Yes, I think so, but I’m not sure what exactly they will get out of it. Maybe that’s good. Maybe that makes me a little uneasy as a parent who’s tempted to give them a neat little book in which I know the “moral of the story”. Maybe one moral of this particular story is that life isn’t neat or predictable, and neither should the stories that we share with each other and with our children be unsurprising and tidily understood. Or maybe, like the authors of LOST, Mr. Wilson is just playing around, having fun with the names and the nicknames and the numbers and the times and the snakes and the guns and all the things that make me want to read the next book in the series.

However, I would warn the author that playing with guns can be quite dangerous.

“You know,” Glory said, watching. “There’s a difference between real life and books. Don’t act like they’re the same.”

“Sure,” Sam said. “Getting life right is a lot harder.”

The Hornet’s Nest by Sally Watson

In 1773, Ronald Cameron and his sister Lauchlin are busily waging their own private war against the oppressive Sassenach (English soldiers) as the two young Highlanders work and play around their Scottish home. Their parents fought the English invaders and supported the Stuart King Jamie and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Now Ronald and Laughlin believe it is their turn to carry on the struggle, especially when their elderly cousin Matthew from Virginia comes to visit and encourages their rebellion and love for liberty. However, when the sister and brother team get into real trouble with the occupation forces, their parents have no choice but to send them to Virginia to stay with their loyalist aunt, Lavinia Lennox.

The characters in Sally Watson’s Family Tree Series are all a part of the same family, the Lennoxes, and Cousin Matthew in this book is even studying his family genealogy. So there’s a running thread of family heritage and pugnacious, spunky traits that are handed down through the family, especially among the girls. The other books in the series are Linnet (London, 1582), Mistress Malapert (Shakespearean England, 1599), The Outrageous Oriel (English civil war, 1641), Loyal and the Dragon (English civil war, 1642), Witch of the Glens (Scotland, 1644), Lark (Puritan England, 1651), Highland Rebel (Jacobite revolution, 1745), and Jade (pirates in Colonial Virginia and the Caribbean). Read more here about how Ms. Watson’s books and characters are all related to each other.

I read at least some of these books when I was a kid of a girl, and I loved them then, especially Jade, the story of Melanie Lennox who frees a cargo of slaves headed for Virginia and becomes a pirate queen. The only ones of Ms. Watson’s books that I own are The Hornet’s Nest and Lark. But if any of you have any of her books lying around gathering dust, I would be happy to take them off your hands.

Characteristics of Ms. Watson’s heroines: outspokenness, a passion for justice, courage, over-confidence to the point of foolhardiness. These rather willful girls, mostly girls, make for interesting, exciting, adventurous stories, and of course, that’s the best kind. If you run across any of Ms. Watson’s novels for young people, I recommend them—even the ones I haven’t read yet.

The Hill of the Red Fox by Allan Campbell McLean

Spies. Lies. Danger.

That’s the subtitle teaser on the cover of my copy of The Hill of the Red Fox, a Scottish book, first published in 1955, but now available (2015) in a new paperback edition from Floris Books, in the series Kelpies Classics.

“The Kelpies are a highly-respected and much-loved range of children’s novels set in Scotland and suitable for 8 to 12 year olds. The Kelpies range includes classic children’s novels by Kathleen Fidler and award-winning contemporary children’s fiction by Lari Don.” from the website for Kelpies.

I think these books are available in the U.S. from:

Steiner Books Inc
c/o Books International
22883 Quicksilver Drive
Dulles, VA 20166
Telephone: 1-800-856 8664
service@steinerbooks.org

Maybe The Hill of the Red Fox is available from other sources, too. (Yes, click on the book cover picture for a link to Amazon.) I got my copy as an ARC for possible review.

And I did like the novel. It’s a Cold War spy novel. Thirteen year old Alisdair is of Scottish descent, but he’s grown up in London. He knows very little about actual life in rural Scotland, but he is unexpectedly allowed by his mother (father is dead) to go to visit an old friend of his father on the Isle of Skye. On his way to the Isle, a stranger gives Alisdair a mysterious message. Soon Alisdair is caught up in an old family feud and in a web of danger and espionage that may claim his very life.

The 1950’s setting is key to my enjoyment of this book. Alistair is given the privilege of traveling to the Islae of Skye alone on a train from London, and although his mother is somewhat concerned about him, she gives him lots of instructions and lets him go. Then, the events of the story conspire to mature Alisdair even more, and although he is a typical thirteen year old who makes some horrifically dangerous but well-meaning decisions, the author doesn’t tidy thing up for Alisdair. Events play out just as one would expect them to with the impetus of such risky and immature decisions, and Alisdair learns what it means to be a real man in a dangerous and risky world.

The spy/espionage part of the plot is a little hokey, but it’s not too bad. And I can’t believe that Alisdair doesn’t feel a wee bit of guilt for his part in how things turn out in the end. The descriptions of Scotland and of Scottish customs and characters such as the “ceilidh” (house party) and the “cailleach” (old woman with second sight) are fascinating and fit right into the story. The descriptions of the landscape and the sprinkling of Gaelic words and phrases through the book are fun, too.

If you want to read a book set in nearly modern day Scotland, and you like spy stories, I would recommend this one. It’s somewhat heart-rending, but really good.

Some other Kelpies I’d like to read someday:

The Blitz Next Door by Cathy Forde. “Pete’s new house in Clydebank near Glasgow would be fine if it wasn’t for the girl next door crying all the time. Except, there is no house next door. A vivid adventure story based on the Clydebank Blitz of 1941.”
The Nowhere Emporium by Ross MacKenzie. “When the mysterious Nowhere Emporium arrives in Glasgow, orphan Daniel gets drawn into its magical world.”
Pyrate’s Boy by E.B. Colin. “Silas, pyrate’s boy on the pirate ship Tenacity, has adventures from the West Indies to the west coast of Scotland.”
The Sign of the Black Dagger by Joan Lingard. “Four children, two hundred years apart, must uncover the secret of the Black Dagger in this fast-paced mystery by award-winning author Joan Lingard. Set in and around Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.”
The Accidental Time Traveller by Janis Mackay. “Saul has to work out time travel to return Agatha Black to 1812.”

Dealing With Dragons by Patricia Wrede

Dealing with Dragons is Book One of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and I’m eagerly anticipating my reading of the remaining four books in the series. That’s a pretty high recommendation right there.

Cimorene is a princess in the kingdom of Linderwall, “a very prosperous and pleasant place.” Her six older sisters find being a princess quite a satisfactory lot in life, but Cimorene hates “princess stuff” and wants to learn fencing, Latin, magic, cooking, and economics, even though such pursuits just aren’t proper for a princess.
So Cimorene does the best she can with the hand she’s been dealt and runs away to volunteer as a dragon’s captive princess. The dragon she finds to take her on, Kazul, is a bit unorthodox herself, and the two renegades get along swimmingly until the world intrudes in the form of meddling wizards, rescuing knights, and other discontented captive princesses. But whether its finding the ingredients for a fireproofing spell or serving up some cherries jubilee for her dragon’s dessert, the strong-minded (same say stubborn as a pig) Cimorene is up to the task.

The humor in this book reminded me of The Princess Bride for some reason, sort of wry and unexpected. Cimorene herself is an unexpected kind of princess, or rather a princess who defies conventional expectations. The dragons are suitably grumpy and and a bit volatile, hence the need for a fire-proofing spell, but generally likable enough if you don’t stir them up or cross them too much. Cimorene’s fellow princesses in captivity run the gamut from weeping to preening to friendly, and there is a helpful witch named Morwen who lives in the Enchanted Forest.

“Cimorene was surprised to hear that Kazul intended to take her along on the visit to Morwen, and she was not entirely sure she liked the idea. She had heard a great deal about the Enchanted Forest, and none of it was reassuring. People who traveled there were always getting changed into flowers or trees or animals or rocks, or doing something careless and having their heads turned backward, or being carried off by ogres or giants or trolls, or enchanted by witches or wicked fairies. It did not sound like a good place for a casual, pleasant visit.”

If that short excerpt appeals to your sense of humor and whimsy, you should check out the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Since I’ve only read the first book, I’m not sure the rest of the series holds up to the high standard the first book sets, but I’m certainly hopeful. A friend recommended this series to me, and I’m certainly thankful for the tip and passing it on to my readers, young and old. After all, I’m 50+ and still finding children’s books that tickle my funny bone and enhance my imaginary reading world. I’m adding Cimorene and her Enchanted Forest world to the landscape of my own fantasy world, which includes Prydain, the Shire, Narnia, Oz, Neverland, Wonderland, Earthsea, Pern, Lilliput, Shangri-la, Slipper-on-the-Water in the Land Between the Mountains, and Aerwiar, just to name a few of the places I’ve visited time and time again. (Can you name the book or series for each fantasy world or country?)

May in Scotland

I’ve decided, in honor of the musical theater production, based on George MacDonald’s romance novel Malcolm (aka The Fisherman’s Lady), that my girls are involved in this month, to make a quick, imaginary visit to Scotland during the merry month of May. I thought I’d link to some old posts about books set in Scotland and read a few new ones.

First the old:
Wee Gillis by Munro Leaf. I just read and posted about this picture book a couple of weeks ago.
The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley. Also a recent read, this novel is historical fiction set before, during and after the Jacobite attempted restoration in 1715 of James III of England and James VIII of Scotland, the Pretender, to the throne of Scotland.
Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett.
Queen’s Play by Dorothy Dunnett.
The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett.

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett.
Rescuing Seneca Crane by Susan Runholt.
The Island of Mad Scientists by Howard Whitehouse.
Hamish McBeth mysteries by M.C. Beaton.
The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith.
Caledonia, Legend of the Celtic Stone: An Epic Saga of Scotland and her People by Michael Phillips.
44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith.

I’d like to read some of the books from this list during May and post about them for my hurried trip to Scotland:
Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter.
Mrs. Tim Gets a Job by D.E. Stevenson.
The King’s Swift Rider by Mollie Hunter.
The Fields of Bannockburn by Donna Fletcher Crow.
Martin Farrell by Janni Howker.
Waverley by Sir Walter Scott.
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott.
Valiant Minstrel: The Story of Harry Lauder by Gladys Malvern. Sir Harry Lauder was a vaudeville singer and comedian from Scotland.
Malcolm, or The Fisherman’s Lady by George MacDonald.
The Marquis’ Secret by George MacDonald.
Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald.
How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman.
The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett. I’d like to finish this fifth book in the Lymond Chronicles, but my huge city library system doesn’t have this one. I may have to actually purchase it.
Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett. And the sixth and final book in the series.
The Hornet’s Nest by Sally Watson.
Highland Rebel by Sally Watson.
The Anatomist’s Wife by Anna Lee Huber.
The King’s Swift Rider by Mollie Hunter.
Scottish Seas by Douglas M. Jones III.
The Flowers of the Field by Elizabeth Byrd.
In Freedom’s Cause: A Story of Wallace and Bruce by GA Henty.
Meggy MacIntosh: A Highland Girl in the Carolina Colony by Elizabeth Gray Vining.
Mary Queen of Scots and The Murder of Lord Darnley by Alison Weir.
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole.

Then, here are some Scottish flavored books I’ve read but not reviewed here at Semicolon. I remember all of these as books I would recommend:
Immortal Queen by Elizabeth Byrd. Historical romance about Mary, Queen of Scots.
The Iron Lance by Stephen Lawhead.
The 39 Steps by John Buchan.
Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush by Ian MacLaren.. A collection of stories of church life in a glen called Drumtochty in Scotland in the 1800’s. Recommended.
The Little Minister by J.M. Barrie. I get this one mixed up in my head with the Bonnie Brier Bush because both are set in rural Scotland among church people, and both are good. Also recommended.
The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald.
The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald.
The Queen’s Own Fool by Jane Yolen. Mary, Queen of Scots again.

Recommended by other friends and bloggers:
The Tartan Pimpernel by Donald Caskie. Reviewed by Barbara at Stray Thoughts.
Robert Burns’ poetry, highlighted at Stray Thoughts.
Thistle and Thyme by Sorche Nic Leodhas. I actually have this collection of Scottish folktales in my library, and I must read it this month.
Heather and Broom by Sorche Nic Leodhas.
Claymore and Kilt : Tales of Scottish Kings and Castles by Sorche Nic Leodhas.
The Scotswoman by Inglis Fletcher.
Guns in the Heather by Lockhart Amerman.
The Gardener’s Grandchildren by Barbara Willard.
Duncan’s War (Crown and Covenant #1) by Douglas Bond.
Outlaws of Ravenhurst by M. Imelda Wallace.
Quest for a Maid by Frances May Hendry.
Little House in the Highlands by Melissa Wiley.
Bonnie Dundee by Rosemary Sutcliff. “The beginnings of the Jacobite rebellion when King James fled to Holland.”
The Stronghold by Mollie Hunter.
The Lothian Run by Mollie Hunter.
The Three Hostages by John Buchan. Recommended by Carol at Journey and Destination.
Scotland’s Story by H.E. Marshall.

Movies set in Scotland:
Brigadooon. I like this one partly because of Gene Kelly, partly because it takes place in Scotland, and partly because Eldest Daughter was in a local production of Brigadoon several years ago.
Stone of Destiny. Recommended by HG at The Common Room. I enjoyed this movie based on a true incident in 1950 when four Scots student stole the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey and returned it to Scotland from whence it came back in the thirteenth century.
Braveheart. William Wallace and all that jazz.

Scots poetry:
Young Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scott.
From Marmion by Sir Walter Scott.
My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns.
In the Prospect of Death by Robert Burns.
Lament for Culloden by Robert Burns.
Beneath the Cross of Jesus by Elizabeth Clephane.
O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go by George Matheson.

If you have anything posted at your blog that tastes of Scottish heritage or culture, let me know, and I’ll add a link to your book review or post in this round-up of all things Scots. Or if you have a book or even a movie to recommend, leave me a comment. I’ll keep this post on the front page during May, and I’ll be adding to it as my journey progresses. You are welcome to travel to Scotland with me this month, and we will see what there is to see.

Seven Things That Made Me Smile in April

April was a difficult month, but I’m not going to tell you about all the things that made me do the opposite of smile in April. (Hint: for one, initials are DT, and police were involved in another frown-maker.) Instead, I’m going to play Pollyanna and tell you about the stuff that made me smile, sometimes through the tears, this month in the grand old year of 2016.

1. Speaking of Pollyanna and the the “glad game”, this post at Living Books Library, called “Are You Glad?” made my day a little gladder (gladder or more glad?) when I read it.

2. Randy Acorn’s book, Happiness, was a compendium on the subject of happiness from a Biblical perspective. He quotes practically everyone from the Bible itself to St. Augustine to Matthew Henry to John Piper, and most every Christian writer or thinker in between, all on the subject of happiness. I didn’t finish the book because I had to return it to the library, but I think I need a copy of my own anyway so that I can dip into it whenever the frowns and grumps seem to be gaining the upper hand.

“Being happy in God and living righteously tastes far better for far longer than sin does. When my hunger and thirst for joy is satisfied by Christ, sin becomes unattractive. I say no to immorality not because I hate pleasure but because I want the enduring pleasure found in Christ.”
~Randy Alcorn, Happiness

3. Podcasts. I am truly glad to have discovered podcasts a few months ago. They have made my driving times and other times much more enjoyable. I found a couple of new-to-me podcasts to add to my growing list of favorites. Here’s the list of favorites, which I notice that I have never before posted here on Semicolon:

Read Aloud Revival. The lovely Sarah MacKenzie talks all things reading aloud with your children. She’s interviewed such guests as Sarah Clarkson, Andrew Pudewa, N.D. Wilson, Anne Bogel, Melissa Wiley, and many more. Excellent podcast.
Homeschooling IRL with Andy and Kendra Fletcher. “Discussing the topics that you might not find covered at your local homeschooling convention, veteran homeschooling parents and bloggers, Andy and Kendra Fletcher, use humor, honesty, and grace to pull the veil back on Christian homeschooling.” Good, encouraging, real stuff here.
The World and Everything In It, a daily, Monday through Friday, news update from the people at WORLD magazine.
What Should I Read Next? with Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy. I wrote about this new-to-me podcast here.
Two from NPR: This American Life and The Moth Podcast.
Two from the CIRCE Institute Podcast Network: The Mason Jar, about Charlotte Mason’s ideas on education, and Close Reads, a book discussion podcast.
Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth.
Tea or Books? with Simon of Stuck in a Book and Rachel who blogs at Book Snob. This one is velly, velly British, and I’ve just listened to one episode so far. But I like it–if I can understand what the two podcasters are saying, what with my hearing loss and their accents.

What podcasts do you recommend to make me smile?

4. My youngest daughter will be acting in a musical called Malcolm at the end of May, based on the book by George MacDonald of the same name. The book was edited by Michael Phillips and republished as The Fisherman’s Lady, and it has a sequel, The Marquis’ Secret. These updated versions of Macdonald’s romantic novels are, I’ve been told, quite well done and useful for modern day readers who might have trouble with MacDonald’s use of Scottish dialect and Victorian language. I’m already smiling to think of watching Z-baby and her friends in the musical version of Malcolm, and I hope to read The Fisherman’s Lady and perhaps another one or two of MacDonald’s books in May.

5. I would take a picture if I could of the lovely books that I was able to purchase at Half-Price Books this week, a few additions to my library. But a list will have to suffice:
God King by Joanne Williamson.
Abigail Adams (Childhood of Famous Americans) by Jean Wagoner.
Rosa Parks (Childhood of Famous Americans) by Kathleen Kudlinski.
Elizabeth Blackwell (Childhood of Famous Americans) by Joanne Landers Henry.
*How Do I Love Thee? A Novel of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Nancy Moser.
Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool.
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema.
*The Sword and the Flame by Stephen Lawhead.
*The Dolphins of Laurentum by Caroline Lawrence.
*Dealing With Dragons by Patricia Wrede.

I’m smiling about the ones I’ve already read and can now give to my family and library patrons and about the ones that I’m looking forward to reading (*).

6. WORLD magazine’s latest issue features children’s books, including an article about the WORLD Children’s Book of the Year, Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley, an interview with John Erikson, author of the Hank the Cowdog series, a discussion of Victorian author GA Henty and reading historical books in cultural context, and lots and lots of book suggestions. I was on the committee that picked the middle grade fiction Book of the Year and the runners-up, so I definitely had a smile on my face as I read the many articles about children’s books in this weeks issue of WORLD magazine.

7. I had three library open house dates for my private subscription lending library that I run out of my house here in southeast Houston. Several families came to visit, and it looks as if several will join the library. I really, really enjoy having a library for children and adults (mostly homeschoolers) and sharing my books with them.

The Roquefort Gang by Sandy Clifford

We’re three for one
and one for three.
The Roquefort Gang
is who we are!
Though danger’s near
we think not twice
What’s there to fear?
ARE WE NOT MICE?

What is it about mice? They make excellent book characters. Illustrators can dress them up in all sorts of costumes, and authors can give them human personalities and have them walk around on their hind legs while brandishing swords or canes or other tools and weapons with their tiny front paws. They’re just cute little animals—at least as anthropomorphized in books. Favorite mouse characters include Reepicheep (Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis), Stuart Little (E.B. White), Bernard and Bianca (The Rescuers by Margery Sharp), Ralph S. Mouse (Beverly Cleary), Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien, The Tale of Despereaux by Kate diCamillo, Mouse Minor (The Mouse With the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck), Ben Franklin’s mouse friend Amos (Ben and Me by Robert Lawson), Norman the Doorman by Don Freeman, Mary Mouse (The Orphan and the Mouse by Martha Freeman).

Of course, there are many, many more. And now Giovanni, Sid, and Marlowe, the three mice of the Roquefort Gang, join the crowd of my favorite mouse characters. In this short book, 79 pages, the French immigrant mouse, Nicole, meets the Roquefort Gang in the dangerous Wild-berry Lot, and the four mice go on a rescue mission, similar to the one in the book/movie 101 Dalmatians or in Mrs. Frisby.

For any reader who might enjoy the books in the list above and others like them, The Roquefort Gang would be an easy read in this same category. I thought it was lots of fun, and I was sorry to see that Ms. Clifton only wrote this one book about the gang. It was interesting to me to see, however, that CBS had a Saturday morning animated series called Storybreak back in the 1985, and one of the episodes was based on The Roquefort Gang by Sandy Clifton.

Just Like David by Marguerite de Angeli

Jan Bloom writes in her authors’ guide, Who Should We Then Read?:

“From her earliest days, Marguerite had a desire to draw and paint. When not yet two years old she experimented with some pastels she found next to a portrait her father was sketching. She knew she must not touch the face so she did a border around it, using every color in the box of pastels. Her parents were stern, but loving. She was scolded but not punished for her artistic expression.”

Marguerite was a professional singer before she married, but after her first three children were born, she began drawing, hoping to become an illustrator. The first drawing she sold was to a Sunday School publication. Her first book, fourteen years later, was Henner’s Lydia, about an Amish girl. Marguerite de Angeli won the Newbery Award for her story of a boy handicapped by polio during the Middle Ages, A Door in the Wall.

I found Just Like David on the shelf in one of the local thrift stores that I frequent, looking for bargain book treasures. I had never heard of this particular de Angeli title, but I knew from looking at the illustrations and sampling the story that it would be good. The book is 122 pages long with nice large print, hardcover and lots of pictures; it’s we would nowadays call a “beginning chapter book”. Just Like David tells the story of a five year old boy, Jeffrey, who wants to go to school like his older brother, David. But Jeffrey is not old enough to attend school in Pennsylvania where his family lives. However, when the family decides to move to Ohio for Father to take a new job, there’s a chance, just a little “if”, that Jeffrey might be able to go to school, too, just like David.

Most of the story is about the car trip from Pennsylvania to Ohio. It’s quite an adventure for Mother and Father and three small boys (baby Henry is two years old). That the journey takes place in another era (the book was published in 1951) is obvious from the details: no seatbelt, no carseat for Henry, tollgate tickets, and thermos bottles. Some of these details would need to be explained to present day readers or listeners, but it would be fun to read along until you came to an unfamiliar word or phrase and then discuss. Father explains many unfamiliar concepts to David and Jeffrey as they go on their long car trip and then later as they explore their new home and it environs: things like courthouses and county seats and turnpikes and Indian arrow heads and fossils and many other discoveries that the boys make along the way.

Similar to Ms. de Angeli’s other books, Just Like David is a gentle story about a child growing up in a loving family. It might be a little slow for today’s media-fed children, but if Mister Rogers and Carolyn Haywood and Laura Ingalls Wilder are about your speed, Just Like David might be just right, too.

I thought it was a delight, and I learned a new expression: “put your mouth!” I tried to look up this idiom, used several times in the book by Jeffrey, David and their family, on the internet, but I got some rather nasty results and nothing that defined the term as they used it. From context, I think it means something like “unbelievable” or “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” Maybe it was something the de Angeli family said or an expression people in the midwest used back in the 1950’s. I rather like it and think I’ll try to revive the saying.

“I have eight of Mrs. de Angeli’s lovely books in my library now, and I’d be pleased as punch to have the rest of them!”
“Put your mouth!”

Code of Honor by Alan Gratz

Kamran Smith, football star, West Point applicant, and homecoming king, has spent his entire life admiring, following, and emulating his older brother, Darius. But now Darius is accused of a heinous crime: Darius’s face is all over the news, and he’s acting like a terrorist. Can an Army Ranger, West Point graduate, and all-around good guy like Darius really be brainwashed or persuaded into joining al-Qaeda or some shadowy group of radical Muslim terrorists?

Code of Honor is a timely and opportune look at honor and treachery and the psychology of the family member of an accused terrorist. The action in the book is pretty much non-stop, and yet Kamran has time to think a lot about trust and and loyalty and commitment and whether or not people are good or bad or some mixture of the two. Karan’s unrelenting faith in his brother is a little hard to swallow since by all appearances Darius has changed and become an adherent of jihadism. And Kamran’s escape from a secure government facility (CIA prison) was really difficult to read without a large dose of suspension of disbelief. However, I went along for the ride and enjoyed it for the most part.

The book could have taken a deeper look at what makes someone decide to become a jihadist or terrorist, but that’s not the direction the author chose to take. Instead, it’s an action thriller for young adults with an understated moral lesson about not judging by appearances and keeping faith with friends and family. I can deal with that.

Other YA books about Afghanistan, terrorism, American military in Muslim countries, etc.:

If You’re Reading This by Trent Reedy. As his senior year in high school begins, Mike receives a series of letters from his father who died in Afghanistan when Mike was eight years old.

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy. The fictional story of Zulaikha, a Muslim girl living in northern Afghanistan, based on the story of the real Zulaikha and on the stories of other people Mr. Reedy met during his time in Afghanistan.

Bull Rider by Suzanne Morgan Williams. When Cam’s brother, Ben, returns from Iraq with TBI (traumatic brain injury) and confined to a wheelchair, Cam sees only one way to impress Ben and get him to work at his own recovery: a bull-riding challenge.

The Last Thing I Remember by Andrew Klavan (and sequels). A thriller series that celebrates faith, karate, self-defense, and American values without being didactic or cheesy.

If We Survive by Andrew Klavan. Teenager Will Peterson and three friends, along with their youth director from church, go to some unspecified country in Central America to build a school. While they are there, a revolution takes place, and Will and his group are caught up in the violence and politics of the country.

The Terrorist by Caroline B. Cooney. Eleven year old American Billy is handed a mysterious package in a London Underground station, and his family’s lives are changed forever.