Sunday, October 28, 2012

Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun - Joshua Glenn & Elizabeth Foy Larsen

Title: Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun
Author: Joshua Glenn & Elizabeth Foy Larsen
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Children's Nonfiction
Started: October 26, 2012
Finished: October 28, 2012


Unbored is the guide and activity book every modern kid needs. Vibrantly designed, lavishly illustrated, brilliantly walking the line between cool and constructive, its crammed with activities that are not only fun and doable but also designed to get kids engaged with the wider world.

With contributions from a diverse crowd of experts, the book provides kids with information to round out their world view and inspire them to learn more. From how-tos on using the library or writing your representative to a graphic history of video games, this book isn't shy about teaching. Yet the bulk of the 350-page mega-resource presents hands-on activities that further the mission in a fun way, featuring the best of the old as well as the best of the new: classic science experiments, crafts and upcycling, board game hacking, code-cracking, geocaching, skateboard repair, yarn-bombing, stop-action movie-making, plus tons of sidebars and extras, including trivia, best-of lists, and Q&As with leading thinkers whose culture-changing ideas are made accessible for kids for the first time.

Just as kids begin to disappear into their screens, here is a book that encourages them to use those tech skills to be creative, try new things, and change the world. And it encourages parents to participate. Unbored is exciting to read, easy to use, and appealing to young and old, girl and boy. Parents will be comforted by its anti-perfectionist spirit and humour. Kids will just think it's awesome.

I saw this book receiving a lot of hype over the summer, and once I realized exactly what it was, I knew I had to buy it. A few years ago when The Dangerous Book for Boys was released (and subsequently The Daring Book for Girls), I bought so many of them as Christmas presents for both kids and adults. What I call 'compendium of information' books, they're chock full of a variety of stuff that appeals to almost everyone, and Unbored takes the format to a new high.

Unbored is full of activities, novel excerpts, how-tos, trivia, interviews and more, that are organized into four sections (You, Home, Society, Adventure). This book has a much more modern feel to it compared to similar titles, incorporating sections on blogging, geocaching, and using smartphone apps to make changes; while still bringing together classics like hand games, conkers, back-of-the-classroom games, decoupage, and making your own board game. My favourite section is Society, which includes pages showing kids how to take a stand against bullying, how to contact their political representative,  how to research, and even an old 4th-8th grade SAT quiz from 1922.

What I really like about Unbored is that it's gender-neutral. Boys and girls are equally featured in the book, dressed alike in jeans, hoodies and sneakers, and in neutral colours (goldenrod, green, grey, and red). The information in the book appeals to both boys and girls, even the sections on crafting feature boys knitting pacman ghosts on scarves and sewing eagles on the back of their jackets. I also like how the theme throughout the book is to urge readers to get involved with the world at large and how everything from the information to the activities gives kids the tools to participate in the bigger picture rather than stare aimlessly in front of a screen.

This is a must-buy for kids and teenagers (heck, even some adults would love this), I'd say ages 9-10 and up would be old enough to get the bulk of the content. I can guarantee any kid would be glad to get this come Christmas time.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the red cover with the shiny silvery font for the title, and even though all the stuff on the cover is pretty busy, it works somehow for this book.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Rock and The River - Kekla Magoon

Title: The Rock and The River
Author: Kekla Magoon
Publisher: Aladdin (Simon & Schuster), 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 290 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: October 23, 2012
Finished: October 25, 2012

From the inside cover:

The Time: 1968
The Place: Chicago

For thirteen-year-old Sam, it's not easy being the son of known civil rights activist Roland Childs. Especially when his older brother (and best friend), Stick, begins to drift away from him for no apparent reason. And then it happens: Sam finds something that changes everything forever.

Sam has always had faith in his father, but when he finds literature about the Black Panthers under Stick's bed, he's not sure who to believe: his father or his best friend. Suddenly, nothing feels certain anymore.

Sam wants to believe that his father is right: You can effect change without using violence. But as time goes on, Sam grows weary of standing by and watching his friends and family suffer at the hands of racism in their own community. Sam begins to explore the Panthers with Stick, but soon he's involved in something far more serious-and more dangerous-than he could have ever predicted. Sam is faced with a difficult decision. Will he follow his father or his brother? His mind or his heart? The rock or the river?

This was picked up in my need to read more historical fiction, plus I was intrigued by a young adult book involving the Black Panthers and wanted to see how the author handled that.

Sam and Steven (Stick) are the sons of civil rights activist Roland Childs in 1968. After watching their friends beaten unjustly by police in their Chicago neighbourhood and living through the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, Stick is even more set in his conviction that his father's beliefs are not his own, and he joins the Black Panthers. Sam, confused that his brother would associate with a violent group like the Panthers, feels pulled between his father's staunch devotion to nonviolent resistance and his brother's more militant approach to the issues their community faces.

There were a few things that really stood out for me. One was that the author brings up the issue of class and incorporates it into the context of the story. Sam is from a middle class family and lives in a better neighbourhood, and even though Mr. Childs and Stick are involved in the lower-income community, it takes Sam a while to even realize and sympathize with the hardships unique to that neighbourhood because he's not surrounded by it constantly.

Secondly, I have to give the author credit for showing a balanced portrayal of the Black Panthers. The main image held of the Panthers (at least by most people I know), is one of violence, and the author does an excellent job at showing all the good things the Panthers stood for and accomplished for their communities and you can understand why a need for that type of group existed at the time. Also, the author doesn't pass judgement on which movement was 'better', Stick even explains to Sam, "It's the difference between demonstrating and organizing...between waiting for handouts that aren't coming or taking care of each other the way we have to. It's the rock and the river, you know? They serve each other but they aren't the same thing." (pg. 233).

Lastly, even if you ignore the Civil Rights issues of the book, you have a story about a dominant father whose sons don't share his ideals. At the core, you have a book about two teenage boys trying to find out who they are and where they stand in regards to a particular issue; and how part of growing up is defining oneself and standing up for what you believe, regardless of who doesn't agree with you or support you.

Excellent writing, wonderful plot with great themes, rife with discussion, and a balanced portrayal of all the sides and issues. Truly an amazing novel.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like it. Sam's face is a little too close-up for my liking, but I like the pose and the fact that it was kept in sepia tones and the only thing in colour is the title.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Acts of Courage: Laura Secord and the War of 1812 - Connie Brummel Crook

Title: Acts of Courage: Laura Secord and the War of 1812
Author: Connie Brummel Crook
Publisher: Pajama Press, 2012 (Paperback)
Length: 261 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Nonfiction, Historical Fiction
Started: October 20, 2012
Finished: October 22, 2012

From the back of the book:

A war fought along a vast border, pitting friends and families against each other. A secret plan for an invasion that could decide the war. This is the true story of Laura Ingersoll Secord, from her early days in Massachusetts and her family's immigration to Upper Canada to her part in the War of 1812, when she undertook a dangerous thirty-two-kilometre trek to warn the commander of an impending American attack on the British outpost at Beaver Dams.

I always liked the story of Laura Secord growing up, it isn't common to read about a woman having a major role in wars, let alone a Canadian one a couple hundred years ago. Plus nowadays I get a kick out of explaining to my students that from a historical sense she has nothing whatsoever to do with ice cream (In Canada we have Laura Secord stores that sell chocolates and ice cream in malls). Considering that this year is the bicentennial anniversary of the War of 1812, I figured this would be an appropriate read.

The one thing I liked about this book was that it incorporates just a little bit of creative tweaking against the true story of Laura Secord, creating an almost non-fiction/historical fiction hybrid (the creative additions are clearly marked in the author's note at the end, so no worries about not being able to tell the difference).

The book begins with Laura Secord as a young girl in Massachusetts shortly before her father decides to move the family to Upper Canada in order to guarantee security for them in the aftermath of the American Revolution. This part of the novel drags a little bit, but things pick up in the second half when Laura and her family are settled in Upper Canada and she begins her courtship with James Secord. The third part that follows Laura's journey to relay her message to FitzGibbon is better still, you can actually feel the tension and the urgency.

The writing is well-done, the plot flows well, and readers will actually be engaged in the historical content...take that, history textbook!

Thoughts on the cover:
I gotta admit, this could be better. The view makes me think I'm five years old staring up at a giant Laura Secord's chest, plus the artwork leaves a bit to be desired. I would've liked to see a more dynamic image, like traipsing through the woods and the swamp complete with visible injuries.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Baby Experiment - Anne Dublin

Title: The Baby Experiment
Author: Anne Dublin
Publisher: Dundurn, 2012 (Paperback)
Length: 152 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: October 18, 2012
Finished: October 19, 2012

From the back cover:

Johanna is a fourteen-year-old girl who lives in Hamburg, Germany, in the early 18th century. She feels stifled by the daily drudgery of her life and dreams of seeing what lies outside the confines of the Jewish quarter. Johanna lies about her identity and gets a job as a caregiver at an orphanage. But when the babies start dying, she discovers that there's a secret experiment taking place.

Determined to escape, Johanna kidnaps one of the babies and sets off for Amsterdam. She faces many dangers on her journey, including plague, bandits, and storms. Johanna has courage and determination, but will it be enough to save the baby and reach her destination? Will she finally find a place where she can be free?

My historical fiction reading has been rather lacking lately, so when I came across this at the library I decided to give it a go.

The plot of The Baby Experiment includes several issues which makes for an interesting story. Johanna belongs to the Jewish community in Hamburg in the early 1700s, which means her family endures horrible anti-Semitism on a daily basis and their life is severely restricted compared to the non-Jewish community. Her area has also dealt with plague outbreaks, which killed Johanna's brother, sister, and grandfather. The orphanage where Johanna ends up working was set up solely as a social experiment regarding language where the caregivers are not allowed to speak to the babies. The lack of interaction means the babies experience failure to thrive and start dying, prompting Johanna to run away with one of the babies in her care.

The themes in the book are wonderful, but overall I felt like it was too short and could've benefitted from being longer and elaborated on things a bit more. I would've liked to have seen more about Johanna's life before the orphanage and the anti-Semitic measures they had to endure, those kinds of scenes make for great classroom discussion. Usually I hate 'journey narratives' because I find them boring, but the section on Johanna's journey from Hamburg to Amsterdam felt rushed and a little too convenient.

Wonderful premise with a great wealth of historical themes, but not executed as well as it could have been.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the pink on black colour scheme and the old-fashioned etching-like illustration is a nice touch as well.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

My Name Is Parvana - Deborah Ellis

Title: My Name Is Parvana (4th the The Breadwinner series)
Author: Deborah Ellis
Publisher: Groundwood Books, 2012 (Hardover)
Length: 198 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: October 10, 2012
Finished: October 17, 2012



On a military base in post-Taliban Afghanistan, American authorities have just imprisoned a teenaged girl found in a bombed-out school. The army major thinks she may be a terrorist working with the Taliban. The girl does not respond to questions in any language and remains silent, even when she is threatened, harassed and mistreated over several days. The only clue to her identity is a tattered shoulder bag containing papers that refer to people named Shauzia, Nooria, Leila, Asif, Hassan -- and Parvana.

In this long-awaited sequel to The Breadwinner Trilogy, Parvana is now fifteen years old. As she waits for foreign military forces to determine her fate, she remembers the past four years of her life. Reunited with her mother and sisters, she has been living in a village where her mother has finally managed to open a school for girls. But even though the Taliban has been driven from the government, the country is still at war, and many continue to view the education and freedom of girls and women with suspicion and fear.

As her family settles into the routine of running the school, Parvana, a bit to her surprise, finds herself restless and bored. She even thinks of running away. But when local men threaten the school and her family, she must draw on every ounce of bravery and resilience she possesses to survive the disaster that kills her mother, destroys the school, and puts her own life in jeopardy.

A riveting page-turner, Deborah Ellis's new novel is at once harrowing, inspiring and thought-provoking. And, yes, in the end, Parvana is reunited with her childhood friend, Shauzia.


I read the first book in this series, The Breadwinner, when I first began teaching and before starting this blog. The Breadwinner continues to be used in elementary school classrooms in my area for a good reason: the author is excellent and she writes about children persevering through adversity. The Breadwinner series got me hooked on Deborah Ellis as an author, I read anything she writes and usually end up loving it. 

The Breadwinner series tells the story of Parvana, a young girl living in Afghanistan with her family during the Taliban rule. The books follow through Parvana dressing as a boy in order to go out and support her family when her father is imprisoned (when women were not allowed outside unaccompanied), fleeing to Pakistan after she is separated from her mother and sisters, and living in a refugee camp in Pakistan not knowing if she'll be reunited with her family. 

The chapters in My Name Is Parvana alternate between two points of view: Parvana narrating in the present day where she is being held prisoner by American forces in Afghanistan suspected of being a terrorist, and her looking back over the past few years while she and her family operate a school for girls in post-Taliban Aghanistan. The book brings up several issues, mainly the hostile environment for women and girls in Afghanistan even after the Taliban, and the treatment of the Afghani people by American forces. Parvana's voice is wonderful here, very real and gripping, it's impossible to put the book down. 


Wonderful addition to The Breadwinner series due to its discussion of post-war Afghanistan and the issues that plague it, particularly concerning women and girls. Obviously there are sensitive topics here, so you'll likely want to discuss this with children as they read it depending on their age and maturity level. 

Thoughts on the cover:

I like the new cover redesigns that have come out recently, I like them so much better than the painting-style covers from when I first bought the books. The photo of the model as Parvana fits well with the flowery patterns (they almost seem like fabric?) above and below the image.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Nobody Knows - Shelley Tanaka

Title: Nobody Knows
Author: Shelley Tanaka
Publisher: Groundwood Books, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 143 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: October 5, 2012
Finished: October 5, 2012


It’s autumn in Tokyo, and twelve-year-old Akira and his younger siblings, Kyoko, Shige and little Yuki, have just moved into a new apartment with their mother. Akira hopes it’s a new start for all of them, even though the little ones are not allowed to leave the apartment or make any noise, since the landlord doesn’t permit young children in the building. But their mother soon begins to spend more and more time away from the apartment, and then one morning Akira finds an envelope of money and a note. She has gone away with her new boyfriend for a while.

Akira bravely shoulders the responsibility for the family. He shops and cooks and pays the bills, while Kyoko does the laundry. The children spend their time watching TV, drawing and playing games, wishing they could go to school and have friends like everyone else. Then one morning their mother breezes in with gifts for everyone, but she is soon gone again.

Months pass, until one spring day Akira decides they have been prisoners in the apartment long enough. For a brief time the children bask in their freedom. They shop, explore, plant a little balcony garden, have the playground to themselves. Even when the bank account is empty and the utilities are turned off and the children become increasingly ill-kempt, it seems that they have been hiding for nothing. In the bustling big city, nobody notices them. It’s as if nobody knows.
But by August the city is sweltering, and the children are too malnourished and exhausted even to go out. Akira is afraid to contact child welfare, remembering the last time the authorities intervened, and the family was split up. Eventually even he can’t hold it together any more, and then one day tragedy strikes…
Based on the award-winning film by Kore-eda Hirokazu, this is a powerfully moving novel about four children who become invisible to almost everyone in their community and manage — for a time — to survive on their own.


When I was a Japanese major in university, one of the courses we could take was a Japanese film class. One of my favourite movies from that class was the one that this book is adapted from: Nobody Knows. Like many Japanese films, it's very sad and heartfelt, and the book of course captures the spirit of the film perfectly. 

The book reads as almost a script of the movie. Akira and his mother move into a new apartment and smuggle in his three younger siblings. Their mother doesn't allow the children to go to school (due to fear of Japanese cultural taboos about children born out of wedlock and/or without a traditional family structure), so the kids spend their days doing chores and generally lounging about. When their mother finds a new boyfriend, she takes off for longer periods of time before she leaves altogether, leaving money for Akira to take care of things while she's gone. Expecting his mother to return, Akira is amazingly responsible and, together with younger sister Kyoko, actually manage the household on their own. When the money runs out and the utilities are shut off, Akira and the others come to the slow realization that their mother isn't coming home. 

I'll warn you right off that this plot is immensely sad, especially regarding events towards the end of the book (it involves a death). What makes the film particularly poignant is when you apply an understanding of Japanese culture to the scenes. It helps readers understand why the children don't attend school, why the mother chooses to abandon her children rather than simply make it clear to the boyfriend that her and her kids are a package deal, why the multitude of characters (both children and adults) don't take any steps on the children's behalf to rescue them from neglect, and why Akira is so adamant that he and his siblings not be split up (and why there wouldn't be a place where all 4 siblings could stay together). It would make for a wonderful discussion in a social studies class, especially if the relevant cultural notes are made. 


The book version captures the spirit of the film nicely, so both formats could be used simultaneously if desired. The content is extremely sad (I cannot stress this enough), so probably not the best choice for sensitive readers. 

Thoughts on the cover:

The cover uses a still shot of Akira from the film. It's kind of a 'meh' cover since there's not much else that would realistically be used.