Authors: Jory John & Mac Barnett
Illustrator: Kevin Cornell
The Terrible Two, vol. 1
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Miles really hates that his mom is moving them from his home near the ocean where everyone knew him as an epic prankster to some podunk Midwestern town that smells of cows . . . where no one even knows his name. Starting at his new school, he knows he’s going to have to act fast to solidify his role as an outstanding prankster before he gets stuck hanging out with the school tattle-tale suck-up, Niles. Only trouble is, this school seems to already have a resident prankster, one who seems to be two steps ahead of Miles at every turn–and one so good at hiding that the principal is convinced Miles is guilty of the pranks!
The Terrible Two is a fun, funny middle-grade story that I literally read in one sitting. It’s got great characterizations, relatable problems, and hilarious pranks. All told is a droll, matter-of-fact tone that just makes it even funnier, along with fabulous black-and-white illustrations that emphasize and elaborate on the story brilliantly. Oh, and it’s got cows. Lots and lots of cows. . . . But seriously, I really enjoyed the way the relationship between these two pranksters played out, going from annoyance and bafflement to outright antagonism and finally to this great bromantic pranking team. The Terrible Two is a lot of fun; recommended.
Author: T. Kingfisher
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Oliver knew he wasn’t very impressive, only a twelve-year-old minor mage with three spells, an armadillo familiar, and a bit of herb lore. But he was all his small village had, and he did his best by them. Which is why it hurt all the more when it stopped raining and his small community turned into a mob, ready to force him to go to the Cloud Herders in the mountains to go get rain–because scared and ill-prepared or not, he had already been packing to go.
I’ve heard good things about the work of T. Kingfisher (pen name of Ursula Vernon) in the past, and having read Minor Mage, I get why. This novella (or short novel, nearly) is a delightful fantasy tale in so many ways. The main character isn’t some big, impressive individual who has it all together. He’s just a kid who tries, who cares what happens to others and does his best. So the story has an approachable “everyman” sort of feel to it. The writing is approachable as well, comfortable to just dive into and enjoy. And what a tale poor Oliver gets himself involved in! He’s got monsters trying to eat him, bandits kidnapping him, and a crooked mayor falsely accusing his friend. But that’s just it–he makes a friend along the way, a really interesting individual as well. Plus, there’s the armadillo, whose sarcastic humor and insight are a blast. And really, who would write an armadillo familiar? It’s brilliant. As far as intended audience, I do have to side with the author in saying it’s a children’s book, although one that could be greatly appreciated by adults as well; however, I can totally see how most adults would consider it too dark and violent for kids as well so . . . parental guidance recommended, I guess. In any case, I would definitely recommend Minor Mage as a fabulous fantasy coming-of-age story, and I’m planning to try more of the author’s work.
Author: Bill Myers
The Incredible Worlds of Wally McDoogle, vol. 3
My rating: 3 of 5
Wally and his pals Wall Street and Opera get the chance to take a trip out to visit Wall Street’s older brother . . . which would be super cool and fun, except for the fact that her brother has forsworn the faith of his family and chosen a lifestyle that his family definitely doesn’t approve of. Which makes the whole trip just a bit AWKWARD. And of course, any given day isn’t complete without Wally’s notorious clumsiness and dorkiness getting him into some kind of trouble. So, naturally, when you expose him to great stuff like hot air balloon races, mad bulls, and the great outdoors, disaster is bound to strike. But somewhere in the midst of all the craziness, Wally and his friends may just find out what trusting God is really all about.
As I’ve mentioned before, this is a classic series that I’ve loved since I was a kid, and My Life as a Broken Bungee Cord definitely continues the trends of the first two volumes of the series. You’ve got a hilarious, slapstick story that’s just good fun but that has distinctive spiritual and moral undertones that are fleshed out through the experiences the characters go through. Plus, the tone of writing in Wally’s voice is just too funny. I think this particular volume isn’t my favorite just because there’s too much of a dichotomy. I mean, in this series, there’s always that contrast between the humor and the actual point the author’s trying to make. But in this book, between the arguments Wall Street’s family have and the weight of the whole turning away from the faith thing, it just gets pretty dark (for a light-hearted middle-grade story, I mean), and it just doesn’t seem to fit–or rather, the slapstick seems an awkward fit in comparison. Still, My Life as a Broken Bungee Cord is definitely a good Christian middle-grade story that I would recommend.
Author: Bruce Coville
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Susan is actually excited to be going back to school–mostly because this year (sixth grade) her class is being taught by Ms. Schwartz, possibly the best teacher ever. They’re even supposed to be putting on a play soon, which has Susan’s aspiring actress heart soaring. But when class starts back after spring break, they find Ms. Schwartz gone without explanation and a substitute, Mr. Smith, in her place. Mr. Smith begins to suck all the joy out of learning, and Susan hates the change of teachers. But then she finds out a secret that makes all her previous complaints about Mr. Smith seem insignificant–he’s actually an alien plotting to take a group of children back with him to space to study! Now she’s got to convince someone, anyone, of the truth before it’s too late.
Bruce Coville is a consistently excellent author that I just really enjoy reading. My Teacher Is an Alien is no exception. It captures the environment of a sixth grade classroom, the interpersonal dynamics, and the complications of trying to get adults to listen when you’re that age. And in the midst of that mundanity, you’re introduced to this suspenseful, incredible situation with aliens and force fields and missing teachers. It makes for a great mix. This volume is also kind of nostalgic to read, being written in the 1980’s; it’s kind of nice to look back to a world where you would actually have to bring a camera (using film!) to get evidence, and then wait overnight for it to be developed at the drugstore. There’s just a different atmosphere to stories set (and written) in that time period. I also enjoyed Susan and her friend Peter’s characters; they’re interesting individuals with well-developed characters. In general, the story’s just pretty engaging and fun–recommended.
Producer: Choice of Games
Author: Logan Hughes
My rating: 3 of 5
Pull out your magnifying glass and get ready to solve some mysteries. Okay, okay, you’re way too cool for that old-fashioned magnifying glass stuff. But when mysteries start popping up around your school, you are exactly the person for the case.
Sixth Grade Detective is another text-based game along the lines of Choice of Robots, utilizing the same game engine–so no music or visuals, just a story that your choices influence, powered largely by your own imagination. I really love the concept and have greatly enjoyed other games in this vein. This particular one is pretty decent, although generally a bit simplistic. The mysteries aren’t particularly hard, and although your choices certainly influence how the game progresses, there isn’t so much of a branching plotline as in, say, Choice of Robots. You get more choices as to what your attitudes towards events and authority are, what kind of relationships you’re going to build, who you take to the dance . . . that sort of thing. Not a ton of replay value, though. I do have to say that this would make a great introduction to this sort of game for a younger player; I mean, the main character is a middle-schooler, the story’s generally fairly clean, and the challenge level is approachable for a beginner. So yes, Sixth Grade Detective wasn’t my favorite of this game set, but it was interesting and would be a good choice for kids.
You can find out more at Steam or Choice of Games website.
Author: Bill Myers
The Incredible Worlds of Wally McDoogle, vol. 2
My rating: 4 of 5
It’s every kid’s dream, right? Get chosen to be in a movie, and instantly transform from all-school reject to everyone’s new best friend? When uber-klutz Wally McDoogle manages to land a role in an up-and-coming monster movie, his life certainly undergoes an extreme transformation. About the only person who doesn’t treat him differently is his best friend Opera . . . only Wally’s pretty sure he’s too cool to be seen around Opera anymore. The nerdiness may be catching, after all. But when the filming goes haywire (as it is so prone to do around him), Wally finds out just how valuable true friendship is–and how fleeting those “friendships” based on fame.
As with the first book in this series (My Life as a Smashed Burrito with Extra Hot Sauce), My Life as Alien Monster Bait is a great Christian middle-grade story that manages to teach important lessons without being stuffy or “preachy” in the slightest. Between Wally’s escapades, the offbeat stories he writes, and the quirky first-person writing, you’ve got a story that’s absurdly funny (even to an adult, but even more so as a kid). But in the midst of the humor, you’ve got some excellent lessons on pride, true friendship, and that more challenging concept to nail down–not treating people differently just because they have more fame or money or coolness points or whatever. Myers brings us a blatantly Christian story with solid life lessons . . . that’s also immensely enjoyable and laugh-inducing. Definitely recommended.
Author: Daniel Pinkwater
My rating: 4 of 5
Getting left with his Uncle Mel for 6 weeks over summer break wasn’t too bad–other than trying to survive solely on junk food. But then, when Uncle Mel got dragged away to Rochester for a 2-week training session for his work, Eugene got dragged along as well and found himself going mad with boredom . . . that is, until he saw a documentary movie with his uncle about a man searching Lake Ontario for a monster called the Yobgorgle. That’s when Eugene has the bright idea to get in touch with this guy, Ambrose McFwain, who (let’s face it) is rather mad but also quite interesting, and who hires Eugene as his assistant on the spot. The summer’s about to get a lot less boring and a lot more wacky.
Daniel Pinkwater is one of those underappreciated authors who can take the absolute zaniest things and make something absolutely captivating out of them. Yobgorgle is a tall tale about a kid and an inept monster hunter that gets taller the longer it goes. All told in first-person from a twelve-year-old’s point of view. And Pinkwater nails the twelve-year-old part impressively; there’s a dry, cutting observation to the way Eugene views the world, with none of the filters and social niceties that adults use in their way of expressing themselves. No, Eugene tells it like he sees it, for better or for worse. And the situations he finds himself in just keep getting more and more spectacularly strange as he goes. It’s all very funny and engaging. It’s also interesting to read this book today; it was originally published in 1979, and it’s telling. There are so many little cultural snippets that loudly proclaim that this is a story of a bygone era . . . the clothing, the emphasis on vending machines (Uncle Mel’s job is working on them), but perhaps most of all the way a twelve-year-old kid is able to just roam around Rochester, New York on his own. It’s an interesting peek into the past, although with the specifics of this book, it’s a past that never was. Still, another zany, all-ages-friendly offering from an amazing author; Yobgorgle definitely goes on my recommended list.