The Neverending Story, Michael Ende

The Neverending Story is one of the few movies I have strong memories of as a kid. It’s a wonderful story about an awkward, self-conscious kid who finds his confidence through the magic of a book.

Firstly, if you’re a parent, this is a fantastic book for your children to read. I’d say age 8 is probably old enough to read it, though I don’t have kids of my own, so it’s hard for me to judge maturity by age. I think it would be a fun adventure to read together.

The story is about a little boy, Bastian, who is bullied by some kids around his town. When he is running from them before school in the opening, he takes refuge in an old book shop. Inside is a grumpy old man with a large leather-bound book. When the old man runs to answer a phone call in the other room, Bastian does something against his character and steals the book, leaving the shop before the owner returns. When Bastian gets to school, he can’t bear to go to his classes, so instead he runs up to the attic to read his new treasure.

The text is broken up by italics, where Bastian’s story is italicized and the story in Fantastica is in regular type.
The book is about a grand adventure in the land of Fantastica, which is ruled by the childlike Empress. She is deathly ill and in dire need of help, so she sends out her beloved medallion to a young boy named Atreyu, so that he may be able to find her cure. Atreyu is met with many friends and foes on his journey, and Bastian is as invested in the story as any young kid possibly could be.

Halfway through the book the tone changes entirely; it almost seemed like there were two books, the first half Atreyu’s adventure, and the second half, Bastian’s (once he is transported into Fantastica). Honestly though, Bastian’s part of the story dragged and it took me forever to finish it.

The ending, however, was very good. The adventure solved all of Bastian’s confidence problems, and mended the boy’s relationship with his father, and even made him a new friend, in the form of the book shop owner, who we find out had also travelled to Fantastica once, a long time ago.
I would call this story an epic adventure. Fantastica stretches literally as far as imagination will allow.

Ende does a fantastic job revealing the themes in this book naturally and beautifully. Using his story within a story we are able to see Basitan realize truths about himself and find his own importance in the world, which causes the reader to re-evaluate their own self-worth and confidence. This book also celebrates a child-like imagination by creating the (biggest) villain of Fantastica to symbolize the idea that lack of imagination and adventure is what brings negativity into our lives. I also think these virtures come into full fruition within the first half of the book, and that the second half could have been severely edited or left out entirely, honestly.

I like this book because it sends all the right messages without being too obvious or too ‘kiddie’. I love that over all, The Neverending Story is about how a book can change your life. I can see this book becoming beloved by a child reading it for the first time, especially one who had not yet seen the movie (which stops at the halfway point in the book).

The first half exceeded my expectations, but the second half really never seemed to end. Never End. Get it?

Emma.

Hatchet, Gary Paulsen

A young boy’s parents are divorcing. His mother, who has a ‘secret’ (affair), gives her son a Hatchet as a sympathy gift before he boards a rickety old two passenger bush plane to fly across the Canadian forest to visit his father. The pilot has a heart attack and dies right in front of him, in mid-air. The boy, Brian, grabs the stick and is able to fly for a few hours….until the plane runs out of fuel. Brian struggles with the strategy of landing with no landing strip in the middle of nowhere, Canada. The plane goes down, and he survives. This is the story of his survival.

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Hatchet was first assigned to me to read in my fifth grade class, which, by the way, was my favorite class ever. My teacher, Mr. Call, was into space and science and great works of literature. I learned more academically in that class than I did in all of middle school (and got some tomato seeds that had been in space – seriously).

I really enjoyed reading this book then, with class discussion and a big imagination. This book is perfect for that age, probably from 9-12 years old, or that reading level. For anyone older, the beginning may be hard to get through because of all the repetition and pre-adolescent angst. Anyone younger, and they may not be able to handle the intense drama of what Brian goes through in the forest all alone. He encounters swarms of bugs, which infest his eyes and mouth, bears, wolves, a tornado, not to mention the man dying right in front of him. He also has to eat raw eggs, and has an encounter with a porcupine and a skunk, neither of which are pleasant. Because of the hardship Brian faces there in the wilderness, with no hope of rescue, he becomes quite depressed at one point, and contemplates taking his own life.

Despite all of the obstacles Brian faces, he overcomes them all and survives for 54 days in the Canadian wilderness before finally being rescued. This book was written in 1987, but is reminiscent of all tales of survival despite trivial circumstances. I think it’s a great lesson for all kids to see what a marvel the human spirit can be, and it’s inside all of us.

This book won The Newberry Award in 1987, a prestigious award for children’s literature. You can find this book right now at BN.com (Barnes & Noble) for $7 either in paperback or ebook format. If you have a child between the ages of 9 and 12, this would be a great book to get them to round out their summer reading this year.

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The Hunger Games #3

This book has taken me a long time to complete, but, as promised, this post has made it in July! This is the second time I’ve read this series, for those of you who don’t know, and you can find my posts on the first two books here and here.

Through the first third of the book, I hated it. The whole thing seemed strange, irrational, convenient…I didn’t mind that District 13 existed, and I actually loved the ending of two, but it all just seemed so…strange. Like too much had been left to explain too quickly. I also felt like it was trying to be a little bit too much like The Hunger Games – why would they think Katniss had to be all dressed up and whatever, isn’t that part of the grotesqueness of the Games? Wouldn’t that be counter-productive to what they were trying to accomplish. I think it’s stupid that went on for so long. It was like they just stumbled into a straight up military base ready for attack. That’s convenient. It’s also convenient that though they are so small of a forgotten district that they are somehow in control of orchestrating the entire rebel movement in ALL districts. I didn’t like it much, basically. Until…

When Katniss first got out to one of the districts. Sure, it was a stupid reason for going – for a glorified photo shoot – but it turned into something much more. Something worth fighting for. Before that point Katniss was not a part of the fighting, not really a part of the war further than a symbol. That is where she finds her motivation for her country – where it becomes more than just a personal vendetta against President Snow himself.

What happens to Peeta is terrible. It’s terrible. But it’s war. I also don’t like how Katniss goes back to Gale and Collins is always writing about ‘kisses’. All throughout these books it’s all about ‘kisses’, that’s as personal as it gets. Well ‘kisses’ sounds like something sweet ten year olds would do. These kids are old enough to be more than a peck on the cheek anyway, but further matured by what they’ve all been through. This is one thing that made me roll my eyes consistently throughout the last quarter of the first book. At least describe the kiss. ‘His lips found mine’ ‘The warmth of his lips against mine finally made me feel safe’ or something! I’m not saying turn it into an erotic novel or that they should even get on with ‘it’…but just saying ‘kisses kisses kisses’ makes everything seem much more kiddy – which this series could definitely do without.

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Overall, I was satisfied with this book. When I started it, I changed my Goodreads rating from a 4 to a 3. But when I finished, I switched it back again. Although the beginning of the book was clumsy and jam packed with things that could have been explained better, the book manifests in another great action adventure that comes to a satisfying conclusion. I still think the ‘production’ that 13 is always trying to put on is silly, but overall, it did work.

For the series as a whole, judging by what it is: A young adult futuristic dystopia trilogy, this series impresses me, and will hopefully be around for years and years and years. Anything that gets kid’s minds thinking about real world problems – seeing what there is in the world and what may become (because even though this is fake, it really isn’t that far-fetched considering history throughout the world and other fiction like 1984) – it’s a good thing.

Keep reading young ones, and keep your minds open.

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Reading Journal – Old Magic

Something about this book. I must have read it at a very impressionable age, because ever since that day, around nine years ago, this book has been lingering somewhere in the depths of my mind. It’s not that I think of it often, but it’s there, never fading from my memory with time, like nearly every other book I’ve read.

I reread Old Magic a few years ago now, and I didn’t like it -at all. Now, how could that be? Did I highly romanticize the thing in my mind until it became something else, something more real to me and therefore more acceptable? Could it have possibly been the ‘mood’ I was in when I reread it, or the age difference between readings? I would have thought all of things things had a part in the change in opinion – until I started reading it again this week.

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I’m not sure if it’s wisdom or just the ‘phase’ of reading I’m currently in, but when I read something now, it’s like I’m thinking like a writer. Yes, the ideas are there, but if just this happened, or this was omitted and this emphasized, then it would be more focused and more successful… I guess that’s more like an editor, right? Either way, it’s made me more accepting of certain works, like this one, and quite less so about others (Up in the Air by Walter Kirn, which I didn’t bother finishing).

I’ve come to the personal conclusion that in my, lets call it ‘critical’ phase of reading, when I must have reread Old Magic the first time, I was so disappointed by the hype my own brain had created because this is young adult fiction, and I was no longer a young adult. That about sums it up, really. Young adult fiction is much more fast paced, and a little less logical, sometimes. Less explanation in some places and way too much in others – the young imaginations make up for the rest.

This book jumps straight into a scene that is perhaps a bit overkill. Can a boy not show signs of possessing magic powers without literally creating a localized storm in a high school lab class that destroys everything? I think it could have been more subtle and still have been successful, but the author accomplished what she needed to – established the characters through a traumatic experience, in the very first chapter. Accepted. While I’m reading young adult fiction now-a-days, it’s almost like I have to de-focus my lens a little bit to enjoy it, and look at the bigger picture. The plot in this book works, it’s a great story. So the action is a little jam-packed together…I can get past that. What we’re looking for here is the story, not the analytical timeline of events. It’s easy to say ‘that’s impossible’, but why are we reading it in the first place? To be entertained by a good story – to open our minds to something new – to perhaps even learn a little bit more about ourselves. This book accomplished that for me.

So as I go on, working my way through my bookshelves, I will try to keep this experience in mind. While the technical writing skills may not be there up to my standards, that doesn’t mean the author doesn’t have an incredible story to tell. Why should a few messy sentences and loose organization bar me from reading a story that could catch my imagination on fire? That’s what I’m really reading for, isn’t it?

Keep Reading,
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P.S. – I’ve finished it now, and it was wonderful. Didn’t impress me as much as the first reading, how could it, I’m 24 now…but it awakened in me some of the original feelings I had for this book. There are definitely some unforgettable scenes. Eh, I’ll probably read it again every few years forever ;-)

James & The Giant Peach, Roald Dahl

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Perusing the old bookshelves at my mother’s house, I came across an old copy of James & the Giant Peach in remarkably good condition, and then begged to take it home with me. I’ve actually been debating on whether to spend the $7 it costs currently at Barnes & Noble in order to read it again – but alas, I didn’t have to! — Destiny!

I added Roald Dahl onto the ‘bonus’ section of my Classics Club List, because I have fond memories of his stories. My favorite was always Matilda, a girl after mine own bookworm heart ;-)

The thing that surprised me first of all about this book was how seriously horrible James’ two aunts are. Sponge & Spiker verbally and physically abuse the kid constantly – treat him either as if he doesn’t exist, or as if he exists only to do their bidding and nothing more – whichever is most convenient for them at the time. I’m sure this type of child hardship would be a little bit harder to publish now-a-days, for sure.

The story progresses, however, when James meets a small hairy little wizard who seems to know exactly who he is, and brings him a gift of magic beans/rice/pebbles. Clumsily, James trips and spills the magic bits under the peach tree where peaches never grow, where the magic works on everything except him, who was not fast enough to pick up the bits before they buried themselves in the ground.

The peach tree grows a gigantic peach (go figure), and several insects who ate some of the bits are blown up to ‘Life’ size, and take up habitation in the peach pit. After feeling a ‘calling’, James makes his way to the peach, finds there is a tunnel leading to the center, and discovers all of these full size, terrifying bugs.

It doesn’t take long, however, for James to realize that the bugs are not scary after-all – in fact they’re much nicer than his aunts, and he is glad to stay with them as their adventure begins. All that holds the peach in it’s place is the stem that connects it to the tree. The centepede quickly gnaws through that, and they tumble through country and towns…and beyond.

Honestly I think one of the main aims of this chapter book is to show kids that even things that scare us are there for a reason – particularly bugs. Each character reveals a quality that actually helps the world that James was previously unaware of, which makes him – and the reader, sympathetic towards them. The spider especially, who helps save them from a gang of sharks and then shares the story of the horrible murders of two of her immediate family members by James’ Aunts. (I don’t even want to start on how many heinous spider murders I’ve committed over the  years.)

Other insects included in the peach are: the old man Grasshopper (who plays his legs/wings like a violin), a lady Glow-worm (who lights up the inside of the peach like a lighbulb), a sleepy Silk-Worm (who also helps with the shark situation as well as capturing seagulls), a caring Ladybug (who are a delight to farmers everywhere for eating pests), a useful and confident spider (who cleans up more pesky bugs like flies and gnats), and a centipede, who is just a pest, and while he doesn’t have much of ‘real life application’, he does come up with some pretty catchy songs which he sings and dances to for the entertainment of the rest of the group. He’s pretty darn feisty.

The tale twists and turns as you’d rightfully expect, and of course, there’s a happy ending. It’s short, sweet, and simply worded , the next poetical entertaining step up from Dr. Seuss — It’s an adventure your children will not soon forget.

The Hunger Games #2

The first time I read Catching Fire, I was still on a reading high from The Hunger Games – I downloaded it on my nook about 2 seconds after I finished the first book, and dove right in. That is probably why, on reflection, I didn’t remember much if book two before rereading. All I could pull out of my memory was a vague idea of the ending, and that was it. Now that its renewed in my mind, I find I actually like it better than the first book. It’s true, the second book could never exist in its own space without book one…there isn’t enough back story to support it, but the ‘live action’ was much more interesting for the reader, lots of moving parts.

Again, this book wasn’t written perfectly to my taste – too much tween drama/romance, which only intensifies (completely needlessly) throughout the series, which is a huge deterrent for me, and generally, my age group and beyond (then again, 50 Shades of Grey did outsell Harry Potter, and although I’ve not read it personally….I think we all know it wasn’t a masterpiece of literature by any means). I think that of the entire story, Katniss’ silly back and forth between boys was by far the most unrealistic and absurd.

What I did enjoy about this book was the ‘behind-the-scenes’ activity. Because we see the story through Katniss’ eyes, we are only given small hints throughout the novel of the ‘bigger picture’, many of which Katniss takes the wrong way, misleading many readers – for a greater payoff in the end. This book is also the start of the greater plot, the rising action – book one was the intro, where there are hints at the unrest, but book two maps the scale of the issues and the major conflict of the series.

Catching Fire begins exactly where The Hunger Games left off: Katniss and Peeta are getting settled to their new homes in the Victor’s Village, now next door neighbors to Haymitch, the only other living victor from 12. They then have to prepare for the tour of the country every victor makes after winning the hunger games, and Katniss is realizing exactly how much trouble she has really created by outsmarting the Gamemaker in the last book.

I won’t go into any more plot details and leave your head exploding with spoilers – but if you read number one, keep going!

I started book three awhile back and put it down for a few weeks – be expecting that review next month!

The Hunger Games #1 – Suzanne Collins – A Reading Journal

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about The Hunger Games on this blog. Granted it was two years ago and the post is gone now, but I’m re-reading the series, and I’ve been noticing a lot more details now on my second read through that I think warrant a new review regardless.

To ease any confusion, I am posting only about the first book in the trilogy here, which shares the same title as the whole series.

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It’s a good book, basically, and I think its worth a read, no matter your age or reading snobbish-ness (of which I admit I have some level of myself). Yes, its a young adult series, but the themes are universal. On this second read through, I noticed a lot of details and writing tendencies that really got to me in an annoying, cliché way. It’s amazing what slips your notice when your interest is peaked. Once you know the story though, it seems like your mind snags on each of the flaws in the writing and the plot.

First, the good…
The concept of this book is incredible. It scopes so many human and governmental truths that shine out as bright and as un-ignorable as Orwell’s classic dystopia, 1984. It’s almost as if the foundation of the story The Hunger Games is more powerful than what actually occurs in the first book. Corrupted government relying on what I would practically call slavery from the districts, and maintains power through fear and zero tolerance. The set-up is meticulous – the flaws of this story are in the [young] characters.

For the record, my favorite character in the series (and movie) is Haymitch. Here is a guy who sees reality for what it is, can’t handle the atrocity of it, yet is responsible for orchestrating the success of all the major moving parts. He’s real. He’s funny. He’s tragic.

The Bad
Its been about a month since I finished this book for the second time, and what is sticking out in my mind is how much better it could have been. The writing itself seemed overly simple – of course this is for the younger readers, but I feel so much more could have been done if it hadn’t been.

I absolutely hated the ‘fake’ romance between Peeta and Katniss. It was very frustrating ‘seeing though Katniss’ eyes’ for much of the book. I actually don’t think she’s that likeable of a character. She’s whiney, annoying, and stubborn to the point of fury. It’s like she is incredibly conscious of exactly half if what goes on, and through the writing, us as readers catch on to the rest. How can she be so conscious, and yet so unaware of everything at the same time? It’s like a split characteristic, and something I find very often in these ‘cult’ media fascinations (Twilight included, Harry Potter not) – everything seems very annoyingly convenient. It’s enough to give it a bad recommendation, publishers/editors-take note.

The Ugly
After watching some of the special features on the DVD (I love special features! The DVD was a fantastic invention!!), and the interviews done with the publisher, I realized this wasn’t a book born organically, not really. It was born out of the publisher’s knowledge of what kids were reading now-a-days, and tailored exactly to them. Of course, the series was a smash-hit, so I guess they proved very right in this instance, but the idea of it just really irks me. On the one hand, it might churn up some inspiration for the writers and get their ideas moving, but once that happens, it seems they’re very limited from there – like the story couldn’t take them wherever it wanted, it had to stay in specific guidelines, provided by the publishing house. Not that it showed up in this story…I’m just saying.

So if by now you still haven’t read The Hunger Games, I dare you to do it. What could you possibly lose? A few bucks and one day of reading time? It’s worth that much, at least.