Gift Guide 2018: Aspiring Sleuths Take Note

December 3, 2018 § 2 Comments

Elementary children may know that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in 1865, at the end of the Civil War. But do they know that Lincoln was almost assassinated by angry secessionists four years earlier, on his way to his own inauguration? That, if successful, the attack would have prevented Lincoln from becoming president and uniting the country? How about that he was saved by Allan Pinkerton, a self-made private detective who went on to inspire the creation of the Secret Service?

Um, I sure didn’t. « Read the rest of this entry »

Arthropods and Art Heists

October 29, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Masterpiece" by Elise BroachIn preparation for our recent trip to New York City, I wanted to select a chapter book to read to my eight year old that would inspire our itinerary. Last year, you might remember that we read two fantastic books which took us straight to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was amazing to watch JP anticipate what he would find in the museum, based on what he had read—and then to leave a few hours later with a skip in his step and an entirely different experience from what he had expected. This is the power of art: to transform, to surprise, to delight.

I was secretly hoping that I could convince JP to go back to The Met this fall, so I scrounged up another novel set in and around the museum. Beginning a few days before we left and concluding on the train ride home (where the woman sitting behind us remarked, as we were getting off, “Thank you for that delightful story!”), I read aloud Elise Broach’s moving and riveting Masterpiece (Ages 9-12), which features a boy, a beetle, and an art heist staged around a masterpiece on loan to The Met.

"Masterpiece" by Elise Broach

The art heist is fictional—as is the stolen drawing—but the artist at hand, German Renaissance master Albrecht Durer, is well represented in The Met’s permanent collection (to JP’s delight). Additionally, the novel is geeked out for art history lovers, packed with information about the most notorious art heists in history, as well as rich in discussion of what makes art worthy of our attention.

Does your child have to be interested in art to enjoy this novel? HECK, NO! Not only is the story about much more than art (mystery! adventure! defiance of authority!), it stars an eleven-year-old boy whose only experience with art is that his father is an artist—and who initially feels only disappointment when his father gifts him a pen-and-ink set for his birthday.

What our protagonist James does care about—what he yearns for—is connection. Connection to his divorced parents, who don’t see him for who he is, and connection to a true friend, whom he has never had. Elise Broach (who also authored the Superstition Mountain series, which I read to JP earlier this year) has a wonderful ability to showcase the inner emotional life of her young characters, by revealing how they interact with their surroundings. In this case, what we learn about this gentle, watchful, sensitive soul named James derives largely from his unexpected friendship with a cockroach.

"Masterpiece" by Elise Broach

A COCKROACH?! Well, OK, Marvin is technically a ground beetle, who lives with his family in a damp corner of the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink of James’ Manhattan apartment. But anyone who has ever lived in New York City can vouch that he might as well be a cockroach. No doubt Broach is anticipating our reaction and using this to underline how remarkable this friendship is between boy and bug.

Masterpiece deserves to be on a shelf with the best of them. Think Charlotte’s Web, or The Cricket in Times Square, but for a slightly older audience. Broach writes the relationship between child and animal with the same tenderness that E.B. White and George Selden brought to their respective classics. She envisions a “miniature” world (a world where beetles bum rides off their human’s vacuum cleaner) with much the same detail and fascination as fellow contemporary Richard Peck did in The Mouse With the Question Mark Tail.

Only Broach offers up more at stake. In Masterpiece, James’ chance for happiness, or at least self-acceptance, hinges on what happens as a result of his relationship with the animal world.

Early on in the story, Marvin (the beetle) stumbles upon the pen-and-ink set, lying abandoned on James’ desk. By dragging two feet through the little bit of ink left in the unscrewed top, he discovers that he can create a realistic rendition of the nighttime view outside James’ window. A drawing, as it turns out, with an uncanny likeness to the renowned sketches by Albrecht Durer.

When James awakens, he spots the beetle hiding beside the not-yet-dry picture. A friendship—“like a great work of art”—is quickly born, and James is determined to learn more about Marvin’s world.

"Masterpiece" by Elise Broach

But James is equally determined that no one should know Marvin’s secret but him. Herein lies the haunting ethical question posed subtly but frequently by the novel (and a big reason why this story lends itself to sharing aloud): Is James right to take credit for Marvin’s drawing, which creates an impressive stir as soon as it is discovered the next day by the adults? While James genuinely wishes to protect Marvin from his fellow humans (because he’s a cockroach)—and he knows no one would believe the truth—there’s no doubt that he benefits from the spotlight suddenly afforded to him by his father, who whisks him off to the The Met to show the drawing to his colleagues, thereby unwittingly casting both James and Marvin in a page-turning plot of art forgery, fueled by the FBI’s desire to catch a famous art thief.

"Masterpiece" by Elise Broach

At first, James’ inadvertent “lie”—that he is capable of such art—seems innocent enough; but as the story goes on, we begin to observe the devastating effect that it has, not only on James’ moral compass, but on his relationships with the adults in his life. Our heart breaks for him time and time again. “But he has no choice!” my JP kept lamenting, equally torn. Or does he? It takes the duration of the book for James to figure out how to free himself from this suffocating secret, while still remaining loyal to his six-legged friend.

Marvin may be the overt artistic hero of the book, but James is the one who inspires us to broaden our definition of heroism. Through his friendship with Marvin, James begins to discover and embrace his own, less visible gifts. He notices Marvin when no one else does—and this same power of observation also leads James to track down the art thief and rescue the stolen art. Most importantly, James’ watchful eye sees past the fronts, whether beautiful or ugly, that people and animals present to the world, the defenses we construct around us.

Marvin looked up at James, filled with a warm tide of something he’d never felt before. More than affection or gratitude. It was something deeper. It was the sense of being seen and loved exactly for who he was.

We weren’t halfway through the book when JP requested that we once again visit The Met on our weekend in New York (success!). We went straight to the Durer paintings, although JP felt that they paled in comparison with the sketches described in the book. We moved on to the twentieth century wing where, after looking around for awhile, JP asked if he could sit and sketch. “But I don’t want to draw any of these paintings. I want to do my own.”

As I watched my son change out color after color to form a bizarre geometric maze with his pencils, I started thinking about James, whose drawings would never measure up to Marvin’s. And yet, success is not always about making masterpieces, the book seems to reassure us in the end. It’s about the way that art brings people together—and the way that it inspires us to learn things about ourselves. When we liberate ourselves from the pressure to be something we aren’t, life gets a whole lot more enjoyable.

Other Favorite Chapter Books About Art Heists:
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg (Ages 9-12)
Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett (Ages 9-12)
Under the Egg, by Laura Marx Fitzgerald (Ages 10-14)

AND, if you child isn’t ready for the complexity of Masterpiece—or has listened to Masterpiece but wants something easier to read on his own—Elise Broach has recently launched a spinoff early-chapter book series, targeted at emerging readers and inspired by the everyday adventures of James and Marvin. The Miniature World of Marvin and James and James to the Rescue are charming quick reads.

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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Skulls & Ghosts & Black Cats (Oh My!)

September 24, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise BroachWherever you fall on the “free range” versus “helicopter” parenting debate, I think we can all agree that the former makes for much more exciting fiction. After all, kids do way cooler stuff outside the watchful eyes of their parents. When I was growing up, my favorite chapter books—spooky, suspenseful titles, like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Children of Green Knowe—starred children who were forever falling down the Rabbit Hole of grave danger. The appeal, of course, lay in watching them wrangle their way out again—oftentimes, without their parents even noticing that they were gone.

This past summer, my son and I were looking for read-aloud inspiration at our local bookstore, when we happened upon Missing on Superstition Mountain, the first book in a newly completed trilogy by Elise Broach (Ages 9-12). I have always heard wonderful things about Broach’s writing, but it was the subject of these books that quickly sold us. Three brothers (ages six, ten and eleven), having relocated with their parents from Chicago to rural Arizona at the dawn of summer, begin exploring the mountainous terrain in their backyard, more out of sheer boredom than owing to any strong desire to go against their parents’ stern warnings. Before long, the children find themselves in the center of a centuries-old unsolved mystery—involving murder, ghost towns, and buried treasure.

"Treasure on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

In short, these books seemed like the perfect ticket to a Summer of Literary Adventure.

Indeed, they were. And yet, with summer now behind us, I see no reason why these books can’t be your children’s entree to a Spooky Fall. After all, with October almost upon us, it seems only appropriate to arm your young readers with a ghoulish graveyard scene, or a black cat who may or may not have been reincarnated for the purpose of taking her revenge.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

This is where I feel obliged to insert a word of caution. These books are not for the faint of heart. There were more than a few moments when, as I was reading them aloud, my stomach began to knot for fear that I might be scaring my son out of his pants (certainly, I seemed to be scaring him under his sheets, for he listened to a good part of each book with the sheets pulled over this head). Still, as much as JP would gasp and shriek—Broach is a master of ending nearly every single chapter with a cliffhanger—he always begged me to read on.

As far as I know, he  never had any nightmares.

And, trust me: some of this stuff is the stuff of nightmares. How about coming face to face with rattlesnakes and mountain lions? How about nearly getting buried alive by a rock avalanche in an ancient gold mine? How about stumbling upon eerie warning messages inscribed in the dirt, or watching a rock splinter apart from a gunshot just inches from your head?

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

Or how about the fact that Broach has based her books (as the Afterward points out) on an actual real life place—Superstition Mountain—with a history of unsettling legends and folklore that involve the Apache Indians, Spanish explorers, and gold rush prospectors? That’s right. To my son’s absolute astonishment, what happens to these contemporary children could kinda sorta happen to anyone.

And yet, still no nightmares.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

I have a theory on why JP was able to grasp the classic horror elements of these stories without completely cowering. And this reason speaks to something prominent in much of the best middle-grade fiction (including, coincidentally, the Harry Potter books, to which Broach makes many references).

The charm of this trilogy lies in its rich and realistic character development.

Child readers will be able to see a bit of themselves reflected in every one of Broach’s young protagonists. The three brothers—along with a savvy girl-neighbor named Delilah, who quickly joins forces with the boys—react to situations as anyone of their age might. For starters, they never take no for an answer, and they never for one second stop asking questions.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

This is free-range parenting at its best (or most unrealistic—you can take your pick): a pack of kids, high on adrenaline and outside parental supervision, must become their best selves in order to survive. They must listen to one another; they must compromise; they must aid and support one another. They must decide when to be deliberate and when to be rash.

"Treasure on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

To accomplish this, they must also work through sibling dynamics (the pitfalls of being the eldest, middle, and youngest are keenly exploited here); they must question gender stereotypes (Delilah shows them up more than once); and they must make up their own minds about which adults to trust and which to doubt (starting with the nosy librarian with the saccharine-sweet voice).

Think of these books as a kind of moral compass for young readers.

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

Missing on Superstition Mountain, Treasure on Superstition Mountain, and Revenge on Superstition Mountain might make the hair stand up on the back of your child’s head—but, ultimaetly, they are stories about kids being kids and coming out on top.  Kindness, collaboration, curiosity, determination, resourcefulness, attention to detail: these are the qualities that prevail. These are the traits which feel so deliciously tangible to the young reader. They inspire, they comfort, and they give hope that each one of us possesses the power to make our own adventures—and then to find our way safely home again.

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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–because I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Digging for Mummies

January 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

The 5,000-Year-Old PuzzleWhile my son and I were on the subject of excavating fossils, it seemed it might be logical to jump from paleontology to archaeology. It didn’t hurt that, over winter break, JP’s teacher had emailed me about tracking down some good books about Ancient Egypt (see list at the end). And so, one snowy night, JP and I sat down on the couch to read the Treasure Trove that is The 5,000-Year-Puzzle-Old Puzzle: Solving a Mystery of Ancient Egypt (Ages 6-12), by Claudia Logan, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.

An hour later, we were still reading it, my daughter and husband had joined us, and I almost couldn’t tear myself away to meet my girlfriends for a scheduled drink. Almost. I can’t think of a better introduction, not only to Ancient Egypt, but also to the painstaking role that archaeologists play in unearthing clues about ancient life. While the American boy and his father in the book are fictitious, they join an actual historic dig, led by a Harvard team of scientists, which occurred in 1924 at the Egyptian site of Giza 7000X, where a secret and unusually well-preserved tomb was discovered. Through a combination of actual historic records and the young boy’s first-person narrative, we learn about the team’s efforts to excavate this ancient site over the course of a year—including their continual revisions to hypotheses over whose tomb it was and why it was constructed in such a way. « Read the rest of this entry »

Counting Down to Halloween

October 12, 2013 Comments Off on Counting Down to Halloween

Ten Orange PumpkinsOur decorations are up, the kids’ costumes are ordered, and earlier this week, right on cue, a streak of stormy weather moved in. All in all, the perfect time for getting out our Halloween-themed books and sharing tales of ghosts and goblins with my revved up trick-or-treaters (it’s not just about the sugar, my sugars). Honestly, I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by this year’s Halloween offerings. Of course, last year was particularly exceptional: we were treated to Creepy Carrots, The Monsters’ Monster, and Vampirina Ballerina—all three brilliant and all three enjoyed (since none actually mention Halloween) long past pumpkin-carving season. But speaking of pumpkins, it has been a long time since a great pumpkin book has entered the scene, and this year of slim pickings has at least given us that.

Stephen Savage’s Ten Orange Pumpkins (Ages 2-6) is billed as a counting book—and it’s true that there are opportunities to count on every page, as ten pumpkins become nine, become eight, and so on. But the “trick” of the book lies in how each pumpkin disappears, and the answers are (often quite subtly) revealed in the striking illustrations. « Read the rest of this entry »

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