A reviewer must learn to roll with the changes

Have you ever experienced one of those moments when you look at what you are doing and where you are and realize how ridiculous you appear?

I’m in one of those situations as I write this column, and I would burst out laughing except I am in middle of a library. I came here to write a review of three children’s books. Accompanying me are my 9-year-old twin granddaughters. Maggie is coloring with crayons provided by the library and Annie is roaming the stacks, and they are with me because they are quiet and well-behaved and I knew I could write my review while they enjoyed the books, puzzles, and crayons. The plan was for them to stay in the children’s library and for me to sit at one of the tables in the library’s vestibule drinking coffee and writing my review. The plan was simple and solid, but like so many simple, solid plans it veered off the road and into a ditch. 

You see, being quiet and well-behaved in this library doesn’t count unless you are past the age of 10. The library requires an adult with to oversee children under 11. Because of this regulation, the vestibule with its large tables, my coffee cup, and view of the mountains is no longer an option. Consequently, I am writing these words seated coffee-less in a plastic yellow chair at a small table with an orange top. Five feet away a pregnant mom is overseeing two toddlers, and in the nearby activity room three boys with auburn hair are fiddling around with Star Wars light sabers.  It’s reasonably quiet, and I learned long ago to write in many different settings, but composing a review of children’s books surrounded by children and ensconced at a table made for children strikes me as hilarious.

On the table beside my laptop are three books for young people I originally intended to review here. Beside them is the stack of books and videos selected by Annie and Maggie. Inspired by their choices, I am changing the direction of my review, winging it for a just while to bring to your attention the books and movies chosen by my two junior partners. For the pre-school siblings in their home, Annie and Maggie have picked up a couple of classic books, Green Eggs and Ham, and Babar On Paradise Island, and two movies, “Where The Wild Things Are” and “Come Ride The Rails With Thomas the Tank Engine.” For themselves, they are toting home seven Magic Tree House books and two movies, “Anne of Green Gables” and “Stuart Little. “

Grandparents, uncles and aunts, godparents, friends: the Magic Tree House books are wonderful for third- to fifth-graders. The stories grab the attention of many young readers and are designed to introduce them to history, mythology, and famous people. Whether you’re looking for a gift for a lit-loving granddaughter or trying to entice your nephew into reading, you ought to give these books a shot. 

Reading aloud to youngsters is another way to bring them to books. This past week, the twins and I have read Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, a book new to them. James and the Giant Peach makes a great read-aloud story. The reason is simple: Dahl knows precisely when to end a chapter, leaving readers in suspense and driving them toward the next chapter. 

In James and the Giant Peach we meet James Henry Trotter, an orphan placed in the care of two wicked aunts, Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge. One day an old man gives James a paper bag filled with “thousands of tiny green things.” James accidentally drops the bag, the green things wiggle their way into the earth, and the boy falls into despair.

But then a peach on the garden tree begins growing ... and growing ... and growing. Soon James is aboard the peach, along with an assortment of giant insects: an earthworm, a glowworm, a centipede, a grasshopper, and a ladybug. Their adventures together commence when the enormous peach begins rolling downhill and drops into the ocean, crushing Aunts Spiker and Sponge in the process.

David Allmond’s Skellig was new to me. I checked it out of the library after reading Nick Hornsby’s review in Ten Years in a Tub. As promised by Hornsby, Skellig brings readers great gifts: fine writing, a fast-paced plot, and wonderful characters. 

Michael and his family move to a new house, but the illness of his newborn sister saps the strength of the family. She appears to be dying and spends much of the book in the hospital. Michael knows his parents love him, but feels abandoned in this new location. He has his friends from school, but they are now far across town.

Then in the old broken-down garage behind the house he finds a creature, Skellig, a being who first appears to be an old man, then metamorphoses into a young man, then into a bird or angel. While cares for this creature, Michael meets his neighbor Mina, a homeschooler wise in mythology and the ways of nature. As they nurse Skellig back to health, the two young people find themselves drawn into a close friendship. In this enchanting story, Allmond reminds us of the mysteries behind the world in which we live, mysteries of the heart and mind.

Cammie McGovern’s Just My Luck (Harper, 2016, $16.99, 230 pages) gives us fourth-grader Benny Barrows, whose father’s brain aneurysm and consequent incapacity have thrown the family into a hard place. Inept at bike riding and sports, and with his best friend having moved away, Benny struggles in school and at home. He tries to follow his mom’s theory that when bad things happen, you should try to help other people, but Benny can’t quite figure out to help people in need. Or so he believes. 

I’m halfway through with Just My Luck, which I picked from a library shelf last week knowing nothing of the book or the author. It’s a book about an outsider, a boy with a good heart trying to find his way in adverse circumstances. The story is real and warm, and a true pleasure.

The boys with the light sabers are gone, the pregnant mom with the patient face has moved with her toddlers and a friend into the activities room, the twins are busy at a crafts station featuring glue, paper, scissors, and more crayons, and I am finished writing and ready for a cup of coffee.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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