Thursday, February 21, 2008


THE NEDDIAD by D. Manus Pinkwater (Houghton Mifflin)
I have read all the reviews of this book so far. Most of the reviewers liked it pretty well. Did any of them get what it's about? Not really. Do I know what it's about? Well, I'm the author. Am I going to say what it's about? Nope--that would be telling. I hope you will read it, and make up your own mind. If you hate the book, you can always make it a present to someone whose taste you don't respect, or use it for pressing flowers, or a doorstop.

So sayeth D. Manus Pinkwater in an autobiographically written Amazon review, but I'm afraid I won't be using his latest novel for a doorstop anytime soon; then we would miss all the fun of traveling alongside Neddie Wenworthstein, who is making an elegant cross-country trip from 1940's Chicago to Los Angeles, land of the LaBrea Tar Pits and hat-shaped restaurants, courtesy of the bankroll made big by his father, scoring a fortune in shoelaces. Separated from his family on route, Neddie encounters a shaman who puts him in possession of a turtle carved from a meteorite, a fun little chochkie that is all that separates humanity from the end of civilization. Hang on to it, Neddie! Pinkwater takes us cross-country in this expansive, genuinely imaginative and original novel. This is an author that knows its audience well enough to throw in a woolly mammoth that can perform a circus trick, aliens from outer space, and a ghost. And this is the author who can make you believe it could have happened...and that it could happen to you. (9 and up)

Also of interest:
I have been getting a few e-mails asking why I don't review more fiction. Well, to tell you the truth, I only like to recommend books that hit a home run, and when I read novels, it's harder to find books that get past second base in terms of consensus by their intended audience of kids 9-12. They take along time to read and to share, and even after best efforts, many are met with a youthful ambivalence, an eye-rolling distaste that only a tweenager can fully manufacture. Throw in the desire to find books worthy of read-aloud to older kids, maybe something they will even read by romantic flashlight, and you've got quite the tall order. Still, a few funny, thoughtful titles have lately made the grade, and I am happy to present some smart chapter books for smart kids:

ALCATRAZ VERSUS THE EVIL LIBRARIANS by Brandon Sanderson (Scholastic) Are you so bad at something, you're almost good at being bad at it? For Alcatraz Smedry, he is world-class at being clumsy, but his greatest fault may be a life-saver when faced with the cult of Evil Librarians, who abscond with a precious bag of sand, an inheritance given to him on his thirteenth birthday, setting off a truly epic quest that happens almost entirely in the library. This book has laugh-out-loud slapstick, zany characters, and a meticulous plotting that keeps imagination from becoming mayhem; in fact, I have yet to meet a child (or a librarian) who didn't like this book, probably because it sizzles with magic, and gives readers hope that whatever fault you may have can be turned to an advantage. The tempo of the storytelling has been widely compared to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai in the 8th Dimension, so fasten your seat belts. (9 and up)

THEODOSIA AND THE SERPENTS OF CHAOS by R.L. LaFevers (Houghton Mifflin) What to do, oh dear, what to do when your parents are archeologists and fall under Egyptian curses? Par for the course, it seems, for savvy, sharp-tongued daughter Theodosia, a turn-of-the-century butt-kicker who is on the prowl for a powerful amulet that World War I bigwigs are gunning for. It's hard to say who is an ally and who is an enemy, but luckily, Theodosia trusts none. Enthusiasts of historical fiction (especially WWI and Ancient Egypt) will find an erudite book with a vocabulary and wit that doesn't talk down to its audience for a New York (ahem, make that a Cairo) minute. Smart stuff. (11 and up)

THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY by Trenton Lee Stewart (Little, Brown) "ARE YOU A GIFTED CHILD LOOKING FOR SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES?" After answering this unusual ad, Reynie finds himself in the company of three equally unusual associates: small, sad Sticky, still heartbroken over the avaricious nature of his parents; adventurous Kate, who really ran away to join the circus; and cantankerous Constance, who is clearly good for something, if we can only discover what. Together, they choose to unite in a secret mission and take down the nefarious force at the Learning Institute of the Very Enlightened, the hub of messages that are being subliminally sent into the minds of the masses. Carefully paced and full of very clever puzzles and challenges that the children undertake, this book will happily confound followers of Balliet's CHASING VERMEER series, and fans of Georgia Byng's MOLLY MOON'S BOOK OF HYPNOTISM will appreciate the carefully drawn pathos of each of the characters, plenty of underdogs worth rooting for. (10 and up)

THE SEEMS: THE GLITCH IN SLEEP by John Hulme and Michael Wexler (Bloomsbury USA) How do you think things run in the world? Who makes the weather? Who designs dreams? Filling the position of "the Best Job in the World," Twelve-year-old Becker Drane becomes a fixer, a cog in the The Plan which keeps things running smoothly. Some disconcerting glitches are occurring, maybe instigated by the Bedbugs who handle Nightmares, or perhaps a secret organization bent on dismantling the structure altogether? Whatever the cause, Draner better mend the problems of the world, or have the Fabric of Reality ripped away. Fans of Juster's THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH will appreciate the humor and wordplay throughout. A truly great fantasy creates an alternate world and makes us believe in it; with page-turning speed, this book sure enough seems to deliver. (9 and up)

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Jen Robinson said...

I think that is a fine list of smart chapter books for smart kids. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Hi Esme!

I really like your blog and you seem to be just crazy enough to make reading work in kids' overly digital lives. I am the author of the children's novel Evil King and was wondering if you would take a look at my site (the illustrations are beautiful) and, if it interests you, I would love to send you a copy and be part of your blog. It is tough being a new author, but people like you are making a difference! Stay whacky!


Esme Raji Codell said...

Thanks! The book looks really lovely, but at this time I do not review self-published books on PlanetEsme,com; they have to be in general distribution in the U.S. Review guidelines are posted if you scroll down at . All the same, kudos to you on a job well done and for the achievement of getting a book out there in the world!


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