Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘Children’s and Young Adult’ Category

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre

Posted by nliakos on November 4, 2017

by Gail Carson Levine (Harper 2017)

When I was at the library recently, I picked up two books for myself (neither was on my to-read list, but they looked interesting) and this one for my daughter, who loves The Two Princesses of Bamarre. I gave up on the two “adult” books (The (Fabulous) Fibonacci Numbers by Alfred S. Posamentier and Ingmar Lehmann; and Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel) and instead read The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. 🙂 And enjoyed it.

Gail Carson Levine has written many books inspired by popular fairytales, such as Ella Enchanted (Cinderella) and Fairest (Snow White, sort of). The two Bamarre books are set in a fairytale world of Carson Levine’s own imagining, but there are elements of familiar tales; for example, the heroine, Peregrine (aka Perry), has hair which grows very rapidly and very long; when her adoptive father imprisons her in a tower with no door, Perry uses her hair to enable her friend Willem to climb up to her with food. Other examples are the seven-league boots which she uses to travel from place to place, the magic tablecloth that produces rich, delicious meals for its owner, and the snail shell that enables a person to hear conversations from a great distance. (The boots and the tablecloth also appear in The Two Princesses of Bamarre.)

Perry is a Bamarre, but the Bamarre have been conquered and subjugated by the fierce Lakti. (They are just too kind and empathetic to resist with violence.) As a baby, she is taken from her parents by the barren wife of Lord Tove, a Lakti aristocrat. They take her older sister Annet along for good measure, to serve as Perry’s nurse, leaving their parents bereft. Perry grows up believing herself to be a Lakti, undergoing the harsh training required of all the Lakti, both male and female, to turn them into fierce warriors.

The story takes place mostly when she is about fifteen. A fairy appears to her and reveals the secret of her birth, and announces that it is Perry’s destiny to liberate her people. Most of the book narrates how she manages to do this. There are dragons, gryphons, ogres, and other monsters to fight in the land beyond the Eskern Mountains where the Lakti came from originally, and in New Lakti (the kingdom stolen from the Bamarre by the invading Lakti), there are cruel Lakti, especially Lord Tove, whose all-encompassing love for his daughter turns to murderous hatred once he finds out the secret of her birth.

The treatment of the gentle, polite Bamarre people by the arrogant Lakti is reminiscent of the treatment of African slaves in America by white landowners. Lord Tove considers the Bamarre to be dirty, simple, and animal-like, and thinks nothing of subjecting them to ever-harsher laws. Perry has grown up with this racism, and must confront it in herself before she can accept herself and her birth family. She also has to learn to exist in a very different culture, where no one tells anyone else what to do and everyone’s speech is sprinkled with “Begging your pardon’s”. I enjoyed the small cultural details such as these that Carson Levine invents for her peoples.

There is only one character who appears in both Bamarre books, and that is Perry’s younger brother Drualt, who appears in The Two Princesses of Bamarre as a legendary hero. Presumably, that story of how Princess Addie saves her sister Princess Meryl from the Gray Death takes place many years after the Bamarre escape the persecution of the Lakti by crossing the Eskerns to resettle Old Lakti for themselves.

There’s a lot of suspension of disbelief required for all Carson Levine’s books, and this one is no exception!


Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

A Christmas Carol

Posted by nliakos on December 25, 2016

by Charles Dickens (edited by Jane Gordon; published by American Book Company in 1904)

Every year on Christmas Eve, my family and I watch the 1984 movie of A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott–it’s our favorite of many versions. This year, after watching the movie, I decided to reread the original novella, which I have in the collection called Christmas Stories (from “Eclectic School Readings”). The book originally belonged to my great-aunt, who was a teacher. I suppose she may have read some of the stories aloud to her classes. Anyway, I was a bit disappointed to realize that the story was edited. (Here is one of several unedited versions I found on Google Books; I should read that!)

Anyway, I read the edited version, since that is what I have. It omits some scenes  (like Scrooge’s visit to the pawn-broker’s shop with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) which both the film and the original story include. But it’s still a wonderful story, a classic. Everyone should know it, whether by reading the story or watching one of the movies based on it.

Like Miracle on 34th StreetA Christmas Carol manages to be all about Christmas without ever mentioning Jesus, apart from Tiny Tim, who thought “it might be pleasant to [the people in church] to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

Posted by nliakos on September 13, 2016

by Nujood Ali, with Delphine Minoui; translated by Linda Coverdale (Broadway Paperbacks, 2010; ISBN 978-0-307-58967-5)

Nujood Ali was a child of 9 or 10 (she does not know her birthdate) in 2008, living in poverty in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Unable to feed his family, her underemployed, khat-chewing father arranged for her to marry a man from their ancestral village.  He claimed that the man (who was about 30 years old) had pledged “not to touch” her until a year after she got her period. This promise was quickly forgotten, and Nujood was brutally raped the night they arrived at her husband’s family home in the village, which was far from Sana’a and almost completely inaccessible. That night, and the next night, and the next. . . . despite her pleas and screams, despite her attempts to run away and hide from the man she began to call “the monster.” She was in constant pain and felt “dirty inside”. She thought of nothing but how to escape this horrible life and return to her family and her school.

Nujood got her chance on a rare visit to her family in Sana’a. She ran away and went to the courthouse, where she somehow managed to be seen by a sympathetic judge by the name of Abdo. Judge Abdo was appalled when he realized that this little pre-pubescent girl was married and suffering the worst kind of abuse. At that time in Yemen, girls could not legally marry before the age of fifteen; but according to the book, in rural Yemen, this law was frequently broken. Nujood’s case was not at all unusual. What was unusual is that Nujood refused to submit to her fate. She managed to escape; she found her way to the court (taking unfamiliar buses and a taxi), she insisted on seeing a judge, and she persisted until the divorce was granted. Following her historic divorce, the age of marriage in yemen was raised, other Yemeni girls found the courage to seek divorces from older and abusive husbands, and even an eight-year-old Saudi girl was granted a divorce. Nujood Ali is a role model and a hero for many women and girls. For herself, Nujood simply wanted to return to her family and to go back to school, where she was resumed her third-grade studies, but now with a specific career goal in mind: to become a lawyer like Shada Nasser, who represented her in court, helping other girls and women to win their rights. Fortunately, the income from this book has enabled her family to have a somewhat better life; at least, the children are no longer reduced to begging on the street.

Young adults and English language learners should be able to understand the fairly simple style and vocabulary in the book, and they will be inspired by the simple courage of this young child who refused to deny her humanity in order to follow the customs of her culture.


Posted in Autobiography, Children's and Young Adult, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Secret Garden

Posted by nliakos on September 6, 2016

by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Harper Trophy; originally published in 1911)

Vicki and I recently watched two movie versions of The Secret Garden; one from 1987, and the other from 1993. This made me curious as to which one was more faithful to the book, so I reread it.  I very much enjoyed revisiting the story of spoiled Mary Lennox, her equally-if-not-more-spoiled cousin Colin Craven, and the strange Dickon Sowerby, who can communicate with wild animals and seems to know everything about animals, gardening, and human nature.

When Mary is orphaned in a cholera epidemic in India, she is sent to live with her eccentric uncle Archibald Craven at Misselthwaite Manor, in Yorkshire. Mr. Craven is still grieving the death of his wife ten years before, is rarely at home, and does not wish to see Mary or anyone else even when he is there.

Mary is an obnoxious child who has been indulged, but never loved. When she follows the sound of crying to her hidden cousin’s room, she meets her match, and so does he. Mary is the first person to refuse to kowtow to Colin, and they become fast friends. Mary finds a way into the locked garden where Colin’s mother had the accident ten years previous that resulted in her death; Dickon helps the two younger children to restore the garden to its former beauty, and Colin finds a reason to live.

It’s a lovely story about the redemption of two lost souls by the eponymous garden. On the negative side is the implication that the climate in India can make people sickly, lazy, and stupid, whereas the climate in England restores them to good health and renders them energetic and clever.

I always wonder why film directors make gratuitous changes in the details (I understand about the changes they have to make to bring a story to the screen.). For example, in the book, Mary’s father was Mrs. Craven’s brother, but in the 1993 film, Mary’s mother was Mrs. Craven’s twin sister, and in the 1987 film, Mary’s father was Archibald Craven’s friend–they weren’t even related. Why not stick to the “facts” as written in cases such as this? Overall, the 1993 film is truer to the book; the 1987 film kills off Dickon in World War I and has Mary and Colin fall in love when they grow up!

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction | Leave a Comment »

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Posted by nliakos on August 13, 2016

(Parts One and Two) by Jack Thorne, based on a story by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne (Scholastic 2016, ISBN 978-1-338-09913-3)

I’m not actually sure who wrote what here. J. K. Rowling never published the story on which Jack Thorne’s play is based. Did all three people conceive the story together? This is not clear to me. And if this is Parts One and Two, does that mean Parts Three and Four are coming later? Who knows?

Anyway, the book is supposedly the “Special Rehearsal Edition” of the play being performed in London; it is written in the form of a play, with minimal stage direction, so a lot is left to the reader’s imagination. I kept thinking I would rather be watching it than reading it. That said, it sort of satisfied my wish to return to Harry Potter’s world (especially the flashbacks to the story we already know of Harry’s time at Hogwarts and what preceded that, such as the murder of Harry’s parents by Voldemort).

This is the story of Harry’s younger son and youngest child, Albus Severus (named for Profs. Dumbledore and Snape). Albus hates being the son of the famous Harry Potter. He is sorted into Slytherin House instead of Gryffindor, where he befriends Draco Malfoy’s unhappy son Scorpius, who is more cautious and gentler by nature than the impulsive and reckless Albus, who is constantly hatching plans and attempting to execute them without thinking them through–which lands him and Scorpius, and the entire wizarding world, in big trouble, which Harry and his friends (which now include a somewhat reluctant Draco) must sort out.

I hope someone will make a movie of it soon!

English language learners who have read the previous books in the series will probably find this one easier to read because of the screenplay format.


Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | 1 Comment »

Between the World and Me

Posted by nliakos on April 2, 2016

by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau 2015; ISBN 978-0-8129-9354-7)

In this three-part essay addressed to his 15-year-old son Samori, Ta-Nehisi Coates considers the condition of being African American in the modern age. His focus is on the physical vulnerability of blackness in a racist nation: how the American culture of violence, and especially violence against blacks, robs black people of their time and energy (spent trying to stay out of the way) but most of all, of their bodies, which can be taken from them (beaten, raped, killed) by “the people who believe themselves to be white” (and equate this with perfect), whom he dubs “the Dreamers”–but the American Dream, if that is what he means, is built on the dead bodies of black people, the plunder of our history.

The danger which haunts Coates is personified by the fate of his college friend, Prince Jones, who was followed by a plain-clothes Prince Georges County police officer (also African-American) through Washington, D.C., and into Virginia, where the officer fatally shot Jones, in  a case of mistaken identity. Jones was in his early twenties, engaged to be married. The officer was not charged with murder and was allowed to continue working as a police officer. In this era of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others, African-American boys and men killed ostensibly because their killers felt threatened–in this era of Black Lives Matter, Coates details for us all what it actually feels like to grow up and live in the toxic atmosphere of American racism. He points out that race is just a fiction, anyway–an excuse to exploit, to kill, to discard. He comes back again and again to the killing of Prince Jones, as if he were trying to process it. Towards the end, he visits Jones’ mother, a doctor, a woman who clawed her way out of poverty to bring up her children in luxury and privilege–only to find that in the end, none of it mattered. The only thing that mattered was the color of their skin.

As a white person reading this book and feeling Coates’ justified rage, I felt chastened. I would have to agree with Toni Morrison’s comment: “This is required reading.”

(P.S. I wish someone would explain to me how Ta-Nehisi came to be pronounced as if it were spelled Ta-Nehasi.)


Posted in Autobiography, Children's and Young Adult, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Magician’s Nephew

Posted by nliakos on October 26, 2015

by C. S. Lewis (Macmillan 1955; ISBN 0-02-758360-0)

This is both the first and the last book in the Chronicles of Narnia; the prequel that Lewis wrote to explain how Narnia came into being, how the White Witch came to be there, and how the relationship between human children (“sons of Adam, daughters of Eve”) and that magic world started. (I wonder if the word “prequel” existed when Lewis wrote his prequel.)

Digory Kirk (who grew up to be Professor Kirk, whose house the famous Wardrobe stood in) and his friend Polly Plummer are sent by Digory’s evil uncle into a place between worlds, where they inadvertently free the witch from an enchanted slumber, escape with her back into their (our) world, and in their effort to rid the world of her, take her (and the hapless uncle) into Narnia as Aslan is creating it, thus ensuring future strife and eventual doom. Aslan keeps the Witch at bay with a magical tree; Digory cures his mother’s illness with an apple from that magical tree; and the wood from the tree that grew from the seeds of that apple was eventually made into the Wardrobe through which the Pevensie children go to Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (which Vicki rightly points out should be called The Wardrobe, the Witch, and the Lion, as that is the order in which they are introduced in the story).

If you have no idea what I am talking about, never mind!

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction | Leave a Comment »

Two more Narnia Chronicles

Posted by nliakos on October 2, 2015

by C. S. Lewis

(1) The Silver Chair – The Pevensies’ cousin Eustace and his school friend Jill Pole are drawn into Narnia to help find Prince Rilian, son of King Caspian (who is now very old) and heir to the throne of Narnia. Rilian disappeared ten years ago soon after his mother was killed by a strange serpent. Eustace and Jill, together with a peculiar Narnian being called a marsh-wiggle (neither human nor animal), follow Rilian’s trail under the ruined city of the giants and must battle an evil witch to set Rilian free of her enchantment.

(2) The Last Battle – Eustace and Jill are called (technically, blown) back to Narnia to participate in its a final battle for the soul of Narnia. A greedy ape and a simple donkey have been manipulated by the evil (dark-skinned) Calormenes into betraying Narnia. The Narnian King, Tirian, and his friend the unicorn Jewel join with Eustace and Jill and a few loyal Narnians to fight the Calormenes, but it is impossible to save Narnia. Aslan returns for a Day of Judgment where everyone gets his (or her) just deserts.

Did I really read these forty years ago? I barely remembered anything.

The stories are pretty simple, plot-wise, and the Christian references are fairly obvious (but according to this very interesting article by Meghan O’Rourke in Slate, not primary). I suspect some latent racism in the depiction of the evil Calormenes as dark-skinned–Lewis actually calls them Darkies! But the books still have an appeal, as O’Rourke says in her article. One more to go (the first: The Magician’s Nephew) before I complete my tour of all the Chronicles.

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Leave a Comment »

Three from the Chronicles of Narnia

Posted by nliakos on September 15, 2015

by C. S. Lewis (Harper Collins, 1951 – 1954)

When C. S. Lewis was writing the Narnia books, I was a child, but I never read them as a child; I discovered them as an adult. I don’t remember how, but it may have been after I read and enjoyed Out of the Silent Planet, which is still one of my favorite books (although I did not care for the two sequels in that trilogy). In any case, I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and followed that up with the remaining six in the series. Since then, I have re-read The Lion… and seen the movie a couple of times, but I never re-read the other books. Now that I am retired, I decided to revisit them.

I began with Book 3, The Horse and His Boy (published in 1954). This story of the boy Shasta (not his real name!) and the talking Narnian horse Bree takes place during the reign of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy as kings and queens of Narnia following the defeat of the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Having nothing to lose, Shasta sets out with Bree to escape his native country of Calormen. They join forces with the Princess Aravis and the talking mare Hwin, and together they have many adventures before ending up in Archenland, a country to the south of Narnia.

Next, I read Book 4, Prince Caspian (1951). This one takes place one year after the four children have returned to England, but in Narnia, hundreds of years have gone by, and Narnia is undergoing dark days again, having been conquered by the Telmarines, a human race. The talking animals and dwarves of “Old Narnia” have gone into hiding. Prince Caspian should by rights have succeeded his father Caspian IX as king, but his evil uncle Miraz has usurped the throne, and Caspian is forced to flee for his life. However, he is able to summon Peter and his siblings from England to help him defeat Miraz and restore Narnia to its magical subjects. The movie follows the plot pretty closely but is more violent than the book.

Book 5, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, was published in 1952. In this Odyssey-like voyage, Edmund and Lucy are drawn into Narnia with their annoying cousin Eustace, and all three accompany Caspian (now King of Narnia), the mouse Reepicheep, and other Narnians on a voyage to the end of the world. On the way, they explore a number of islands, where they encounter some extremely strange beings and situations. When they find themselves in really sticky situations, Aslan always rescues them. We are going to watch the movie on Friday.  Like the movie of Prince Caspian, the movie looks much more exciting than the book!

After reading these three of the Narnia chronicles, I am kind of underwhelmed. I remember them as better than I am finding them this time. They are OK, but there is little that is amazing.

English language learners who enjoy fantasy will not find these difficult to understand.


Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Now I’ll Tell You Everything

Posted by nliakos on September 13, 2015

by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (Atheneum 2013)

As some readers of this blog may know, I am a big fan of the Alice McKinley series, and I’ve been meaning to read this, the last in the series, ever since it came out, but it took me two years to get around to it. Maybe I was worried that it would disappoint.

There were no big surprises. Each chapter covers so much territory; whereas previous books in the series only covered four months of Alice’s life, this one takes her from her freshman year at the University of Maryland until about age sixty, when Alice and members of her seventh grade class dig up the time capsule they buried 48 years earlier. Alice graduates from college, gets engaged, breaks the engagement, gets engaged again. She has sex for the first time. She gets a job. She gets married, moves into her first apartment, buys a home (in Chevy Chase), has kids, deals with problems at work and at home, moves away, moves back to Maryland. Members of her family grow old and die; Alice herself confronts a cancer diagnosis. It’s a whole adult lifetime; a lot happens, but none of it surprised me (not that I really wanted it to). It isn’t as funny or as poignant as the other books because Naylor doesn’t really have the time to build up any suspense about any of it.

It may sound as though I didn’t enjoy it, but that’s not true. I tore through all 511 pages in two days. Although I would not have missed it, I would not recommend it as a stand-alone book. It’s like a love letter from the author to all of her Alice fans, like the one who wrote to her wondering how people would ever know if Alice married Patrick if Naylor happened to die before she finished the series, which prompted her to write a draft and lock it up with instructions to publish it if anything should happen to her.

Incidentally, Naylor lives right here in Gaithersburg, and the book I borrowed from the Gaithersburg library was inscribed, For FOL Gaithersburg–Best wishes, Phyllis Naylor, Jan 2014. The book is full of references to the Washington, DC area, the University of Maryland, and other places Alice and her family live or visit. I was aware of only one gaffe: as far as I know, nobody refers to the UMD student union as “Adele Stamp” (it’s “the Stamp” or just “Stamp”).

Finally, projecting forty years into Alice’s future results in a kind of time warp (because Alice is always contemporary to her readers). But anything else would have been fantasy. And as Alice’s fans know, Alice is real!

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »