Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The World According to Humphrey (Humphrey #1) by Betty G. Birney


What a delightful read!

Humphrey is a kind, open-minded hamster who makes friends easily. He is fiercely loyal and quick to go out of his way to lend a helping hand - or paw, as Humphrey would say!

Through this first-person narrative from the perspective of a classroom pet, young readers will see that first impressions are not always accurate; that people are multifaceted, and you can't really understand a person until you see all aspects of his/her life; that sometimes, when people have problems, it takes an outsider - like Humphrey! - to open their eyes to a solution.

I love that this book is multicultural and inclusive. There are all sorts of ethnic-sounding names - Art Patel, Sayeh Nasiri (whose mother doesn't speak English well), Aldo Amato - and there's even a physically handicapped character. It's just nice to see diversity being matter-of-factly represented.

I think I alone would have given this book 4 stars, because I really liked it, but I didn't LOVE it. Still, since it was able to hold Sebastien's interest - despite having no pictures - I think it's worth an extra 1/2-star.

Overall, this book was a pleasant read with nothing objectionable to worry about. It's just the first in a series, and it'll be fun to see what other adventures and lessons are in store for Humphrey!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Confectionately Yours Roundup

I really enjoyed this series! I would even go so far as to recommend them! The main character, Hayley, "keeps it real". She has realistic problems, and everything doesn't just fall together nicely in the end.

The format of the book is particularly fun. Cupcake recipes are interspersed among the chapters, and every now and then, a "Confession" chapter sheds light on how Hayley REALLY feels in reaction to some events that are unfolding in her life.

Something New (Confectionately Yours #4) by Lisa Papademetriou


In this installment, we follow Hayley as she finishes up seventh grade.

One of the things I liked best about this series was how relatable Hayley and her friends were. They were just average kids, and unlike the protagonists of many other books, they weren't particularly "special". Hayley did have a talent for baking cupcakes, but that point was central to the theme of the series. Now suddenly, Hayley was excelling two years above grade level in Spanish. And we knew that Artie could sing, but along the way, she turned into a natural performer of all kinds of stage talent, plus she was exceptionally artistic! And boy-next-door Marco became a brilliant photographer and videographer. That's all good and fine, but they all just became not quite so relatable as before. They're only in 7th grade, after all. They could have remained more relatable, if say, Marco showed an interest in photography, without automatically being incredibly talented at it.

As usual, the author works in some kind of angle to open young readers' minds. This time, volunteering makes an appearance. I like that the series seems to make a point of highlighting diversity and well-roundedness.

I also continued to be impressed with how well the author was able to capture the essence of being a teenager. Even though Hayley makes some bad decisions, I kind of felt I could understand why she made them, even though it was clear she knew what she ought to have done.

Surprisingly, Hayley showed a real lack of ambition, and at first I couldn't decide how I felt about her attitude. Was it a bad thing if she didn't want to pursue every potentially positive opportunity presented to her? After a while, I realized that I found Hayley's priorities remarkably reasonable. In a world where students are constantly over-scheduled, trying to maximize their commitments in order to pad their transcripts for college, it was refreshing that Hayley knew what she liked - baking cupcakes and helping her Gran at the Tea Room - and actually prioritized her commitments so that she wouldn't have to give up those interests. It's not like she was passing up opportunities out of laziness.

Anyway, overall, this book - and the whole series - is just a really fun read about middle school life. Seventh grade ends on a good note for Hayley. A lot of loose ends are tied up, and my only disappointment at the finish was not understanding why Gran was so unhappy about the poetry book Mr. Malik gave her.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sugar and Spice (Confectionately Yours #3) by Lisa Papademetriou


Lisa Papademetriou delivers again with another fun book about Hayley and her 7th grade existence.

Diversity continues to be a theme. This time, we have a foster family and a charity fundraiser. However, as much as this series makes an effort to open readers' eyes to various differences of people within a community, I can't get past the inaccurate portrayal of anaphylaxis. In this book, Hayley's allergic reaction in the last book was recapped, and still there was no mention of an ER visit, which is standard procedure in case of anaphylaxis. A "shot" is mentioned, but there's no indication that Hayley was prescribed an EpiPen, which is also standard procedure if someone is diagnosed with a life-threatening allergy. It just seemed like the author was trying to spread some allergy awareness, but spreading incomplete or misleading information really doesn't help. I think I would have given this book 5 stars if the depiction of anaphylaxis, and its treatment and aftermath, had been fleshed out more.

Anyway, other than that one shortcoming, I really enjoyed this book. Annie doesn't make an appearance, and I found myself feeling glad about that.

Hayley continues to "keep it real". Having given up on her crush, she finds herself confused by her own emotions in regards to Marco and Kyle. Her relationships with Artie and Meghan continue to develop, and she realizes that while she's been going through a lot of big deals herself, so have the people around her - like Artie and Chloe. As Hayley points out on page 118 of my edition, "What may be a big deal to one person isn't a big deal to another. Or maybe some people are good at handling one kind of big deal, and bad at handling others."

I was really pleased to follow the evolution of Hayley and Artie's friendship, and a revelation was made that really shed light on the whole situation.

There was one development that bordered on over-the-top. I think it was meant to be an unexpected twist, but since it was actually predictable, I didn't mind it.

There are definitely loose ends that I hope will be tied up in the next installment!

Trouble According to Humphrey (Humphrey #3) by Betty G. Birney


Sebastien really enjoys reading Humphrey books! Or at least, he enjoys having them read to him. He gives this book 5 stars for sure! I'm not exactly sure what it is that Sebastien finds appealing, but I know that he thinks the picture of Humphrey on the cover is super cute. More than once, when we read a particularly well-described scene, he lamented the lack of pictures in the book.

This book is the third in the series, but we read it first because it was the earliest book in the series available at our local library. It does make mention of people and events from the first two books, and though we weren't by any means confused, I think it would be more fun to read the series in order, starting from the beginning.

I really appreciated the empathy and compassion that Humphrey showed for the children in his classroom. What a great way to introduce young readers to a wide variety of individual troubles and family dynamics. I love the idea that some readers may see themselves in the book's characters, while others may have their eyes opened to what other kids might be going through.

Probably one of the most appealing things about this book, for me, is that it teaches life lessons while keeping the reader entertained. Young readers of this book may learn a thing or two about kindness and caring from the way Humphrey looked out for his friends. Also, Humphrey went through quite an ordeal as he came to realize the importance of taking responsibility for his own actions.

Still, I must admit, I feared that perhaps Humphrey was TOO concerned about his friends! The poor hamster didn't eat, for all his worrying over Miranda! As a chronic worrier myself, I'm not sure I liked the idea of any young readers finding validation in the act of worrying. Maybe I would have preferred it if Humphrey cared, but just didn't dwell so much - if he didn't experience so much anxiety. True to its title, this book is about all sorts of "troubles", and at times, the trouble seemed to go on just a little too long, making it kind of a downer.

I especially liked that this book explored the difficulty of doing the right thing, even when you already know what the "right" thing is. I liked how, in the end, Humphrey made the right decision, even though it meant sacrificing something very important to him. I thought it was unfortunate, then, that after Humphrey made the sacrifice, it turned out that everything worked out so that actually, no sacrifice was necessary. The sequence of events certainly made for a happier ending in the book, but given that this Humphrey series is big on teaching real world lessons, it seems like it would have been a worthy lesson to learn that real world sacrifices are not so easily replaced. If Humphrey had been forced to live with his sacrifice for just a little while - it could have been restored in a later book - I think it would have made for an even better lesson.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Taking the Cake! (Confectionately Yours #2) by Lisa Papademetriou


In this sequel to Save the Cupcake!, Lisa Papademetriou continues her commitment to diversity. Besides fleshing out some characters with autism and food allergies, she also introduces a new character who is Latino.

I liked that Hayley continued to be relatable. She's just a regular kid, trying to deal with regular middle school problems. Okay, she has a particular talent for baking cupcakes, and happens to be able to sell them in her grandmother's cafe, but otherwise she really seems normal. While struggling through her parents' divorce, she loses her two best friends, she pines over a crush, and she finds herself the victim of mean girl behavior. She just doesn't know what to do. To be honest, there really isn't a lot of cheer in this book, other than the hope that comes with a couple budding friendships.

I found it particularly interesting that in this book, Hayley made a series of bad decisions, the kinds that are probably typical among teenagers. Papademetriou did a great job depicting the way a teenager might really justify engaging in behavior that they know to be wrong. I also liked that Hayley doesn't really get away with anything, and has to face the consequences of her actions.

Finally, I will note that while I totally appreciate the author's efforts in promoting food allergy awareness, I think the incident of anaphylaxis as described in the book doesn't really do a good job of spreading accurate information. In the book, when a character has an anaphylactic allergic reaction, she is taken to a doctor's office. In real life, it is generally recommended that 911 be called immediately, and the patient be taken to an ER. Ideally, an EpiPen would have been administered if one had been available, and it's unfortunate that the author didn't at least include a mention of EpiPens. I dare say I might have given this book 5 stars if not for this sketchy portrayal of how to deal with anaphylaxis.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Save the Cupcake! (Confectionately Yours #1) by Lisa Papademetriou


*** WARNING: This review contains spoilers!!! ***

I am surprised myself that I am giving this book 5 stars! There are so many cupcake-themed books that I honestly never stopped to consider that any one or other might really be a worthwhile read. I can't keep up with all the books Isabelle brings home from the library, but she found a recipe in this book that we tried - the Spicy Mexican Chocolate "Hotheads", sans the spices so that we actually made regular molten chocolate cupcakes - and they were amazing!! So, I figured I'd give the book a shot.

First, let me commend the author on her commitment to diversity! Not only is the protagonist's grandmother British, but her sister has an African-American friend, her father has a Thai girlfriend, they have a Pakistani neighbor, a Jewish friend with a gluten allergy has a crush on a Muslim, another friend has a sister with autism, and a classmate is BLIND! Seems like that's a pretty impressive cast considering the main characters are Caucasian.

Second, I really liked the authenticity of Hayley's voice. I could totally appreciate her perspective. The "Confession" chapters strewn throughout the book were very effective in illustrating how kids growing up have to reconcile their past experiences and real emotions with new experiences that they aren't sure how to process. Hayley is entirely relatable in the way she has to put up a front with her friends and classmates, not because she is in any way "fake", but because life is complex, and she's still figuring things out.

I was surprised that this book dealt with real issues that many middle schoolers could probably identify with. While other books in the same genre may tend towards the over-the-top, this book seemed to keep it real. Hayley struggles with her parents' divorce, and she needs to come to terms with friendships that are evolving and devolving. Plus, when Hayley and Meghan fight to "save the cupcake", we actually got a realistic ending, not the fairy tale ending that I feared.

In fact, it was interesting that the story was set in Massachusetts. This book was published in 2012, and though many readers may not be aware, MA actually passed a law in 2011, in response to health concerns, to restrict the foods that can be distributed and sold in schools. While the plot of the story required a confrontation between those for and against the ban, it sort of seemed to me that the author didn't really want to take a side on the issue. The main arguments for each side were delineated, but not especially fleshed out. Both sides had good points, and events unfolded probably much like they would in real life. I will say, though, that as the mother of a child with life-threatening food allergies, I have seen the look of disappointment when my son (still in elementary school) can't eat the birthday cake that everyone else is eating. He always gets his own safe special treat, but it's not the same as the birthday cake, and like Hayley said (on page 147 of my edition), "Not everyone can handle [being different]."

Monday, August 11, 2014

Fudge Roundup

This is a great series for kids with younger siblings! Peter Hatcher is wholly relatable, and Judy Blume keeps it real with Sheila Tubman's drama and Fudge's misbehavior. A few more "out there" elements (e.g., Jimmy's father's fame, the Howies) make the series as a whole kind of less realistic, but it's entertaining nonetheless.

While Fudge is certainly one of the most memorable characters in these books, I do sort of wish the series wasn't named for Fudge. All the books except Sheila the Great are narrated by Peter, and it's really his experiences and perspective that we're reading about.

Double Fudge (Fudge #5) by Judy Blume


Well, here we are, at the finish. Our visit with Peter and Fudge started in 1972, and though we followed them through four years of their childhood, it took 30 years to tell their stories. Published in 2002, this book keeps up with modern times, including references to Harry Potter and instant messaging.

Fudge continues with his antics, though he gets a taste of his own medicine when the Hatchers meet their long-lost relatives, a family with a little boy who gives Fudge a run for his money. Peter's friendship with Jimmy Fargo continues to develop, but mostly this book is about Fudge and the Howies, as Peter calls the long-lost relatives. Following the trend of the last couple books, the whole business with the Howies and the Heavenly Hatchers was just so over the top! Entertaining, yes, but not quite as relatable as the earlier books in the series.

Fudge-a-Mania (Fudge #4) by Judy Blume


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers!! ***

I have to admit, it does seem like Peter wasn't treated entirely fairly by his parents. They really ought to have told him about the shared summer home!

For the most part, what I've really liked about this series is its relatability. Characters are realistic, and events are more or less believable. (Even when Fudge swallowed Dribble, I had read that it was inspired by a true news story!) In the last book, Frank Fargo's painting just happening to show up in Peter's new neighborhood was a little out there, but a coincidence within the realm of possibilities. But now they have a retired Red Sox player for a neighbor, and a wedding just three weeks after the couple meets... It's all happy and fun, but more over the top, more along the lines of "only in a book" instead of "fiction reflecting real life".

Still, I think Judy Blume did an excellent job depicting Peter's emotions. He's just a kid, and he doesn't always think rationally, but his perspective is valid. I think many young readers would be able to relate to how he felt like a loser for having made mistakes in front of what seemed like the whole world, or how he felt jealous and left out when his best friend actually got along with his sworn enemy, or just how disappointed he was when nothing was going the way he imagined it would.

But hopefully, readers would also see how Peter came to realize that having a good friend and a supportive family are more important than most other things, and they really can cheer you up.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Superfudge (Fudge #3) by Judy Blume


Just as with Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, I was disappointed that this book had clearly been updated for modernity. Despite being published in 1980, this book has Peter Hatcher asking for a laptop computer and an MP3 player for Christmas! The charm of reading well-written books is knowing that they are timelessly relatable, regardless of when they were written, and I would really have preferred to find out what a sixth grade boy growing up in 1980 would have wanted for Christmas.

I was also a little put off by the title of this book - and the two following books in the series as well. Yes, Fudge is probably the most dynamic and memorable member of the Hatcher family, but the book is still written in Peter's voice. The book explores Peter's emotions as the eldest child, and we follow him as he learns to navigate old and new friendships. More than once while reading this book, I thought, "Poor kid! Peter really does get unjustly overlooked by his parents!" His parents expect a lot from him, hardly ever asking how he feels about the changes and responsibilities foisted upon him. I almost feel bad for him because even "his" books are named after Fudge!

Anyway, Peter tells it like is. So much so that one chapter in this book makes it clear that Santa doesn't exist! Isabelle, at age 8, had suspicions about Santa, but I dare say this book actually confirmed them. Since this book is recommended for children ages 7 and up, it's worth noting that a child probably should not read this book - or have it read to them - if they don't already know the truth about Santa.

Also, there is a great deal of talk about "Where do babies come from?" The book brings up the question, but doesn't actually answer it. Isabelle knows a bit, but certainly not all the specific details. I was surprised that she didn't ask more questions after reading this book...I would actually recommend this book for ages 10 and up - or whatever age you think is appropriate for potentially fielding questions about procreation!

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great (Fudge #2) by Judy Blume


First of all, I have to say, I really enjoy it when books hint at the time period in which they were written. I think it gives the book charm. So, imagine my surprise when, reading this book that was published in 1972, I came across references to CD players and personal computers! Clearly, the version I read had been updated for modern technology, and that bummed me out.

I think Sheila Tubman offers a lot in terms of giving young readers a character to relate to - her volatility and flair for drama rang true to me! - and yet, I didn't find her very likable. But maybe that was the point? On the one hand, her tendency to over-compensate for her perceived short-comings, and to flaunt her perceived talents, was annoying and obnoxious. On the other hand, she was confident! She was bold! Despite her stubbornness, she conquered a fear! Part of me wished she learned a lesson about being humble and honest, but then again, it was satisfying to see her being true to herself - she is who she is! As she pointed out (on page 93 of my edition), "sometimes it is better to sing loud and be heard [even if you don't sing well] than to sing very nicely like Maryann, who nobody could hear."

I liked that Mouse didn't fall for Sheila's lies and exaggerations, but she also didn't judge her. She called Sheila out on her behavior without making it into a big confrontation. She seemed like a really good friend.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (Fudge #1) by Judy Blume


I have clear memories of reading this book as a kid. Isabelle borrowed the whole series from the library, so I picked them up for a re-read. It turns out, the last two books were published well after my childhood years, so I think I must have only read the first three growing up.

What I like best about this book is just how very relatable Peter Hatcher is. Even though Isabelle is not yet in fourth grade, and her little brother is a few years older than Fudge, I could see elements of their relationship in Peter and Fudge's. I am sure that Isabelle identified with how annoyed and frustrated Peter was by his little brother! And I think the book's first-person narrative from Peter's perspective was really convincing.

I like how Peter "knew better", so that whenever he was in a difficult situation with grown-ups, he remained well-mannered. He set a good example for proper behavior.

Despite thinking of himself as a "nothing", Peter actually had a very important role in the family as Fudge's big brother. Even though the book didn't explicitly discuss any epiphany on Peter's part, I hope even young readers will come away with that realization.

I really enjoy it when books hint at the time period in which they were written, so it was fun to see this book make mention of supermarket trading stamps - which I am mostly familiar with because of a Brady Bunch episode. Also, a drop-off party for 3-year-olds! It's just not so common these days. :P

Another thing that surprised me was a casual mention of "dope-pushers". This book was published in 1972, and it reminded me of how From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, published in 1967, also made mention of "dope addicts"! I think it's strange that books that are recommended for kids as young as 7 or 8 would make mention of drugs. So far, I think the only exposure that Isabelle has had to drugs is from these two books, though my sister says that her kids' school system starts DARE in kindergarten!

Finally, I'm no germaphobe, but I researched pet turtles for Isabelle a couple years ago, and found out they put people at risk for Salmonella. So, in light of that, I had difficulty suspending my disbelief in terms of how casually everyone (especially Fudge!) handled Dribble!

Epic (2013)


Super kid-friendly! A fun and entertaining movie.

There's not much to scare a little one. Characters do die, but not in very scary ways. Bad guys do look ugly, but they are more "yucky" than frightening. The only weapons - other than magical powers - are swords and bows and arrows.

There is a bit of romance, but the story doesn't revolve around love like a Disney princess movie.

Occasionally, I laughed out loud. There are some pretty hilarious bits of humor ("I hurt my elbow!"), and the comic reliefs Mub and Grub - a slug and a snail - were my favorite characters.