books about books

Readaloud of the Week: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

In brief: After years without a library, Kyle’s town is finally getting a library of its own—and not just any library! A library designed by the great game master Luigi Lemoncello. Kyle wins one of the coveted sleepover spots on the library’s opening night, and when the kids wake up after a night of gaming, they discover that the real game is just beginning: Now they’ve got to solve their way to library’s secret exit to win a fabulous prize. As Kyle teams up with friends old, new, and unexpected to puzzle out the clues in the amazingly interactive library, he discovers that the library just might be the coolest place in the entire world.

What makes it a great readaloud: Libraries! Puzzles to solve! Witty book references! While you shouldn’t look for nuanced character development, you’ll be so busy running around the library with Kyle and his allies to crack codes and unpuzzle puzzles, you will hardly miss it.

But be aware: One of the characters says “bro” so many times that it feels like Grabenstein was trying to write a drinking game into the book.

Quotable: “A library doesn’t need windows, Andrew. We have books, which are windows into worlds we never even dreamed possible.” 

New Books: The Wrong Side of Magic

The Wrong Side of Magic
By Janette Rallison
Words have power. People who know how to use them wield that power.

I feel that I should start out by saying that this book is not like The Phantom Tollbooth. A lot of the advance reviews I read compare The Wrong Side of Magic to Norman Juster’s childhood classic, but I think if you go into this book expecting it to be the next Phantom Tollbooth, you’ll be pretty disappointed. Which would be a shame because The Wrong Side of Magic is actually a charming little book.

Hudson’s neighbor Charlotte is odd. So he’s pretty annoyed when Charlotte convinces his little sister that the only way to cure her sick cat is to use Charlotte’s magical compass to travel to the world of Logos and collect the enchanted catflower that grows there. But when Hudson uses the compass himself, he discovers that Charlotte was telling the truth: Logos is real, and if he’s going to navigate the world of words and get rid of that nasty troll curse he managed to pick up, Hudson’s going to have to team up with Charlotte. Charlotte, though, is on a mission of her own: to restore the vanished Princess to the throne and get rid of the evil usurper Prince Varygran once and for all. Along the way, they’ll run into punctuation markets, marauding encyclopedias, unicorns, mermaids, magic, and more.

This is a fun quest story with lots of playful puns and clever wordplay. The land of Logos obviously owes a little debt to Dictionopolis and The Phantom Tollbooth, but it’s its own place with its own rules and inhabitants. Hudson is a pretty typical male protagonist, determined to fill his deployed father’s shoes by taking care of his mom and sister, while Charlotte has a Luna Lovegood wackiness that balances his seriousness well. They make a good team, putting together clues and braving hazards in their quest to save the kingdom of Logos from its evil ruler, always just a few steps ahead of his relentless army, and the evolution of their relationship—from reluctant allies to firm friends—rings true. Some of the scenes are hilarious word nerd fun (like the market scene where Charlotte and Hudson are looking for a word snack to share, and Charlotte explains they can’t share “to explore” since you can’t split infinitives).

The verdict: The Wrong Side of Magic would be a great family readaloud on its own with the bonus of launching fun conversations about language and grammar.

New Books: Worlds of Ink and Shadow

Papa was very wise when he called my writing a childish habit, and I think he understands that, for me, its a dangerous one as well.

Here’s the thing you should know about me: I cannot resist historical fiction. I eat it up. I cannot get enough. Honestly, I still credit much of my knowledge of actual history to reading Sunfire romances in middle school. (Caroline was my favorite.) Also, like a big chunk of the literary world, I am a little obsessed with the Bronte sisters. (Working on the Charlotte Bronte reading list for our spring issue was definitely one of the highlights of my year so far.) I tell you this so that you will know how sincere I am when I tell you that I wanted to love this book, which is historical fiction about the Bronte family. Sadly, for me, it didn’t quite do it—but if you haven’t spent as many years obsessing over the Brontes as I have, you might like it more.

Because, really, we know a lot about the Brontes. We know that their prim, parsimonious father was suspicious of their creative drives. We know that they grew up, poor and obscure, in far-from-London Yorkshire. We know that Charlotte was plain and passionate, and that Branwell was troubled and tempted by easy comforts. We know that Emily was a romantic drawn to the wildness of the moors, and that Anne was sensible. We know that the most lived parts of their lives were in their literary works. And we don’t really learn much else about the Brontes in the course of this book.

I liked the idea of Worlds of Ink and Shadow, which is that the imaginary worlds created by Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell become real. In their created worlds, the young Brontes are like gods, controlling the actions of their characters while lurking in disguise on the sidelines. (And in their imaginary worlds, you can see hints of great Bronte characters, like Jane Eyre’s Rochester and Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff, begin to emerge.) But the pull of the imagined worlds is too strong, and the siblings begin to lose their hold on reality and to realize that the price they must pay for their vivid imaginations may be too high. 

But the story falls flat—perhaps because Coakley’s Brontes feel like rough sketches of what most of us already know—there’s nothing revelatory or surprising about the internal lives of the four siblings. Even the mystery of how their imaginations come so vividly to life falls flat, trading a superstitious deus ex machina for a more nuanced examination of the cost of an authentically creative life. Some parts—the ever-present ghosts of their dead sisters, the angry criticism of their father, the hints of the Brontes’ novels-to-come—are well drawn. But in the end, I closed the book, unsatisfied.

I wanted to love this book and I didn’t—but it’s worth a spot on your YA library list to see if you feel the same way.

New Books: Book Scavenger

Book Scavenger (The Book Scavenger series)
By Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

If you know me, you know that I am a sucker for books about readers. (See also: Possession, Inkheart, the Thursday Next chronicles.) So when I read the concept for this book — a girl who’s obsessed with a global book-hunting online game and who may have discovered the first clue in its founder's new, hotly anticipated literary game — I was sold. Book Scavenger, you had me at ‘hello.’”

Happily, the book is pretty charming even if you aren’t obsessed with books set in the world of reading. Twelve-year-old Emily has just moved to San Francisco, her family’s ninth move and part of her parents’ blog-chronicled plan to live in all 50 states. Emily, unlike her freewheeling older brother Matthew, yearns to stay in one place long enough to get bored and make real friends — but every time a place starts to feel like home, her parents start loading up the minivan for their next adventure. Fortunately Emily has Book Scavenger wherever she goes, an online game where participants hide books, leaving clues for other Scavengers to find them — the more complicated the clue, the better. In Emily’s mind, the one good thing about moving to San Francisco is that it’s the home of Book Scavenger creator Garrison Griswold, who’s getting ready to announce his next big game. Maybe being in Griswold’s city will give her an edge.

To her surprise, Emily discovers that San Francisco isn’t such a bad place to live. She even makes a friend, her upstairs neighbor James who turns out to be a puzzle-solving pro. After Griswold is attacked at a BART station and hospitalized, Emily finds a curious book near the site of the attack that she thinks might be the first clue in Griswold’s now-delayed new game. With James’s and Matthew’s help, Emily starts to follow to clues, leading her through San Francisco’s literary history. Along the way, she runs into more than one roadblock, including two shady characters determined to get their hands on the Griswold book and the challenges of learning how to be a real friend when she's used to going it alone.

Book Scavenger is a fun read with nicely developed characters and lots of literary inside jokes. (Em’s parents, for instance, named their minivan Sal after a Kerouac character.) It’s targeted at middle grades readers, who will probably appreciate it, but I think younger and older kids who enjoy books like The Mysterious Benedict Society or The Puzzling World of Winston Breen will enjoy it, too.

Summer Reading: Seven-Day Magic

The best kind of book is a magic book.

Edward Eager is no stranger to reading lists. His best-known book Half Magic pops up on them regularly. (We even recommend it in our elementary school reading list.) But his other books often fall by the wayside, and I think that’s a shame, particularly in the case of Seven-Day Magic.

Like Eager’s other books, Seven-Day Magic features a cast of ordinary kids who happen to be avid readers, and their adventures are informed and shaped by the books they’ve read — and in one case, the books they’ve written. When Susan and John meet their new neighbors Barnaby, Abbie, and Fredericka, they’re introduced to the joys of reading, which have everything to do with exploring the treasures on their library’s shelves and little to do with homework assignments and book reports. (Sound familiar?) On one summer browsing expedition, Susan spots a funny little book on a bottom shelf. It doesn’t take them long to discover that the book is magic, and their literary adventures take them to the early days of Oz (maybe), an adventure on the frontier prairie, and even into an epilogue of sorts to Half Magic (which, in a cheerful postmodern twist, the children in Seven-Day Magic have read and loved). These gleeful references to other children's classics are just plain fun. The children's adventures are fairly tame compared to some modern titles — there are no magic wands, no menacing villains, and no super-powered magical objects — but the children are refreshingly ordinary: smart, well-read, and generally well-adjusted.

Seven-Day Magic isn’t action-packed, and its leisurely pace makes it perfect for a summer readaloud. The book is almost like a series of interconnected short stories, so it’s easy to pick up and put down. And its old-fashioned vibe feels just right today, when the world might be a better place if more of us still half-believed that magic is out there, waiting for its moment.


We’re reprinting some of Amy’s summer reading series favorites from Atlanta Homeschool magazine on the home/school/life blog.