Sunday, November 5, 2017

Book Review: Max's Hallowe'en Adventure

It was the loveliest summer afternoon, perfect for a relaxing snooze... especially for a cat. Max was in the middle of a most pleasant dream involving being fed strips of smoked salmon by a very pretty girl when he smelled smoke! Smoke? Gasp! That meant fire! Fire? That meant danger!!! Maybe lives must be saved. Where was everyone? He had to save the book, the book that had started the whole series of adventures, with the twins’ parents becoming lost in the mists of time, trapped in the pages of history. He couldn’t let the book be destroyed, because then Mum and Dad would be gone forever. However, when he plunged (not very) bravely into the smoke, he found himself back in the past, in 1644 to be exact, and he just knew that somehow this involved another very uncomfortable adventure that he hadn’t asked for!

A snarky cat called Berry was waiting to take him back to a tumbledown old cottage that seemed strangely familiar, and in fact, he’d already been there in a previous side adventure of his own (Max’s Christmas Adventure). The whole place was quite spooky, and there was a weird old woman called Goodwife Clowes, who insisted he was necessary to help rescue her sister from an evil man. Combined with this rude cat’s annoying attitude (or should that be cattitude?), Max just longed to go home. Then the weird old woman told him that the evil man was a witchfinder and that’s why he was needed to rescue her sister. Witchfinder? Max asked himself (as did I) was that even a job? In a nutshell, the Witchfinder General (the man had even given himself a title!) was going from village to village, rounding up women who might be witches, or who people had accused of witchcraft. Many innocent people in the village of Mistley Thorn would suffer if Max didn’t help. Can he muster up the last remnants of what passed for courage to lend a hand?

Max has the unfortunate tendency to be thrust into situations that require great bravery and feats of derring-do when this is entirely not in his nature. Once again, he’ll have to pull out all the stops. A brief and memorably nasty encounter at the local jail reveals the enormity of the situation and the truly evil nature of Matthew Hopkins, who specialised in sniffing out witches, or in fact any old lady (like this one), with a broom and a beady stare. Lovely details place young readers right into the setting of All Hallows’ Even (which we know as Hallowe’en), with a suitably eerie atmosphere and an uncomfortable amount of danger. But the peril is too great, the Witchfinder and his men can’t be overcome by two mere cats, even talking ones. Inevitably, Max is sent back to his own era, to plan and return to defeat the Witchfinder. Now Max has the reassurance of Jemima, Joe, and brainy Charlie on his side as reinforcements! Watch out, Witchfinder. Max will be back!

Author Wendy Leighton-Porter, as always, has a treasure trove of extra detail for avid young fans of the series and this fifth mini adventure in Max’s side forays. The origins of Hallowe’en and the pagan festival of Samhain are explained, as are local suspicions of the time and details of why people were blamed for natural disasters and diseases. Lovely word play ensues as well with Max getting quite confused about names, although given the stressful situation, this is quite understandable. Max’s Hallowe’en Adventure is a delightful and deliciously scary prelude to the next adventure (the tenth) for Jemima, Joe, and Charlie, entitled The Shadow of the Witchfinder. It has a wonderfully spooky cover and I can’t wait to read it!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Book Review: Zesta and Friendship

Zesta and Friendship by Patricia Johnson is about a little boy, Henry Mandras, whose family relocates to Cialtro, Italy. Henry was a bit sad because he’d miss all his friends he’d be leaving behind. However, Zesta, the horse of many colours, was there to guide Henry in this time of great change. Zesta is a special horse, one with unique powers, a companion to all children to help them in those important moments in life, and in making decisions. Zesta reminds Henry that he’ll meet new people, see new places, and make new friends in this wonderful new life. Zesta also helps Henry while away the long hours of the plane trip. Cialtro is a beautiful place where all the houses are painted vivid colours that remind Henry of ice cream.

Once they’d settled into their new home, Henry saw children playing outside and, although Zesta encouraged him to go out and make friends, Henry stuck to his electronic games. However, he did notice a boy who didn’t join in with the other children and he wasn’t invited to be part of any of the team games. Henry also noticed the boy had a limp. When the boy looked at Henry, Zesta said Henry should go and say hello, but he did not. Henry’s mom also saw the boy and said he should come over to meet Henry, but the boy did not. What will happen between Henry and the boy? Will they both pluck up the courage to say hello and become friends? How will the story end?

This is a deceptively simple story with a wealth of thought provoking information for youngsters to ponder on, and for adults to use as discussion topics with children. I liked the idea of an invisible (to others) horse of many colours, who acts as a guide and sometimes a sounding board to help children make decisions or deal with life changing events. Decisions and choices can sometimes make for a bumpy or a smooth ride in life. Happily, Zesta is there to help children make the choice that takes them on a smooth path. Themes covered include relocation, leaving friends, familiar faces, and places behind, arriving in a new country, making new friends, and having the courage to take the first step to extend the hand of friendship. Since the boy has a limp and looks different, children will learn that friendship includes being open and honest with each other.

The most interesting aspect of this story, however, is the fact that the story events are repeated in a second story, but with a different choice made by both Henry and the boy, with a different and wonderful outcome. The idea of repeating the whole story is important, I think, for young readers, or children who are being read to. Children never tire of a good story, one that holds their interest, so repeating the story will be intriguing, especially if the parent or teacher tells the child there is something different about this story. An adult would jump straight to the end and ‘get’ the lesson. However, a child will enjoy taking that journey again with Henry and appreciating just where the turn in the tale happens, a turn of events that changes life for both Henry and the little boy, Pierre.

The images are just stunning, with simple yet effective drawings and brilliant, eye catching colours. The images also clearly depict the unfolding of events. The author includes a ‘moral of the story’ to repeat the life lessons learned for young readers, and which teachers and/or parents can use to ask the child their thoughts on the themes woven into the story. A lovely story to read at bedtime, or to use as a book for discussion in class.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Book Review: Feast For the Beast

Everyone loves a special holiday, a time when one can invite a few friends around, prepare some delicious eats, and everyone settles down to watch the parade on television. One is not supposed to sneak off and eat everything ... everything? Yep, everything. In Feast for the Beast by Russell Dorn, the unthinkable happens. Gummy the (toothless) werewolf just can’t wait for the turkey to be done to a golden brown; he has to stop that growling in his stomach. Before he knows it, Gummy has eaten the feast meant for everyone to enjoy. Aghast, he doesn’t know what to do as his hungry friends depart, saddened by his greed. Gummy has to make it up to them, but how? And then he has an idea! A brilliant idea!

What a lovely tale of mayhem behind the scenes as Gummy wades into the food and literally devastates the feast because he can’t stop at just one bite. Although the feisty fruitcakes fight back, they are no match for a hungry beast! Pumpkin pie, green beans, cocoa, candy bars, it all goes down the hatch. The illustrations by David Dorn are simply adorable! Bright and detailed, they almost tell the story in themselves. The simple but descriptive rhymes very adeptly paint the scene as Gummy quickly scoffs the food meant for everyone to share. Although some words might be advanced for a young reader, this is a perfect opportunity for the adult reading aloud to explain meanings, and build on the child’s vocabulary. I loved the play on words, such as ‘tomb-scones.’ Another fun educational aspect is counting the items that Gummy devours, such as ten slices of pumpkin pie and twelve cups of cocoa.

This holiday story, although set in winter, could suit any special festive day in the calendar. Thanksgiving and Christmas spring to mind, but what could be better than Halloween, given that the guest list features monster characters such as Felipe Femur the skeleton, Sunny Stoker the vampire, Runny Rotten the witch, and Gummy Garou the (toothless) werewolf. Apart from creating a fun monster story, the author has subtly included lovely life lessons for young readers. Gummy had let his friends and himself down, and when he realised his mistake, he made up for it. Friendship, sharing, accepting when you’ve made a mistake, thinking about consequences, and mending those broken bonds are themes that youngsters can learn from, since life is full of ups and down, and youngsters need to learn how to fix what has gone wrong, and that the solution is within their power. The end of the story includes more fun for young readers when they visit Felipe Femur’s website.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Book Review: Gregory the Spider

Gregory the Spider: Romping through the Year is an enchanting children’s picture book written by Cynthia Dreeman Meyer and illustrated by Marina Saumell. Gregory the spider takes young readers on a pictorial romp through the year, with significant dates and days of celebration cleverly woven into the full page, full colour illustrations. Gregory invites young readers to follow him as he turns the first page in a lovely adventure of seasonal fun. His friends, Max and Molly Mouse, take part in each month’s romp, and Gregory features significantly, often getting into the spirit of things by wearing a costume or hat. Through sunshine, rain, wind, snow, and ice, Gregory shows youngsters the seasons and significant holidays, special days, or moments in the calendar.

First, the illustrations are absolutely adorable and detailed. Readers will definitely spend some time poring over the images and making discoveries. The images are also deceptively simple because, as youngsters read with an adult, they can be encouraged to spot the clues hidden in each picture to indicate the name of the month and other fun features that make the month special. A check list at the end of the book will help young sleuths. The author invites readers to investigate further on her website for a full list of items to find in each picture, and their significance. However, it will be good for parents or teachers to let young readers try for themselves to find the important items and to guess the significance of each month.

The story itself is told quite simply, and possibly because not much wording is needed. The illustrations have a kind of energy that “romps” along as well as one turns the pages. Gregory is a surprise main character because spiders don’t usually end up in the spotlight. Gregory is a delightful “narrator” with his antics, his appropriate costumes, and his expressive eyes! The lovely cover promises a treasure trove of interesting details inside and young readers will not be disappointed. A lovely storybook to share with family members, or as a gift to a young reader, a book that will be read over and over again!