Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

The (Book) Review: Sidekicked

September 4, 2013

As I bone up on what I hope to be “the competition” – a.k.a. Super Hero novels targeting the tween/young adult demographic – I thought I’d share my impressions of what I’ve read.  I’ve actually been simul-reading several novels, but here are my thoughts on the first one I finished.

Sidekicked-198x300The Book
Sidekicked, by John David Anderson, Walden Pond Press, published June 2013

Genre
“Realistic” Fantasy—Super Hero

Age Appropriate
7 and up.  Think Harry Potter for the Super Hero set.  Funny with mild, cartoonish violence and a focus more on how a real-life middle schooler would deal with the trials and tribulations of being something more (or perhaps less) than normal.  Romance plays its role, but in entirely the innocent sense of the word.  A little sprinkling of crude (though not foul) language and potty humor, but one couldn’t imagine anything else from a red-blooded American 12-year-old boy.  That said book reads a bit younger than the Harry Potter stories, so I am not sure it would have as much appeal to teen readers unless they are specifically Super Hero fans.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  While Anderson strives to capture the sensibilities and voice of a middle schooler, he doesn’t avoid some wonderfully descriptive language and puts together a very solid plot.  In many ways, he brings a sense of realism to the genre, moral conundrums and all, without falling victim to the “Dark Knight Disease” I mentioned in my previous post.

Book Availability
Widely available in hardback (it was just released this summer) and e-book in any number of forms.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Andrew Bean is an excellent middle school student, but as a Super Hero, he kind of sucks. His alter-ego, The Sensationalist, doesn’t have the incredible strength and speed of his friend Jenna, a.k.a. the Silver Fox, and he can’t turn his body into a lump of impenetrable rock like the new kid in class, who incidentally seems to be making a play for Jenna.

How does a super nerd compete with Super Cedric?

How does a super nerd compete with Super Cedric?

Instead, he’s stuck with the power to feel, see, smell and taste absolutely everything.  So while his fellow sidekicks in training are leaping all over the secret sidekick training center in the basement of their school, he gets to sit at a desk and sniff into test tubes to hone his “skills.”  And did I mention the rock guy with the chiseled abs is making a play for the one girl who actually seems to like him?

And if being the least super Super wasn’t bad enough, Drew managed to get paired with about the worst Hero you could imagine.  The Titan, his personal idol and once the city of Justica’s greatest champion, now had more battles with barstools than bad guys.  But Drew signed off on the sidekick’s code, and was determined to figure out how to prove his worth to worth to the world…and to Jenna. And when the most notorious band of baddies return, the very same gang that sent Titan into his unexplained tailspin, everything Drew thought he knew about his friends, his family, and even about being a hero itself, is called into question.

My Review (minor spoilers)

I’m a sucker for a good sidekick story.  It’s one of the reasons one of my all-time favorite Super Hero incarnations is The Tick.  In all its incarnations, while the big blue idiot may be the title character, the story is really about Arthur, the average guy trying to keep up in a super-powered world.  It’s his story that grounds the ridiculous world of Supers that makes the whole thing work so well. Anderson seems to be of that same school, and comes up with a wonderful way to bring that same sensibility and sense of humor to the middle grade market.

Hard to decide, but I think I loved the live action version most.

Hard to decide, but I think I loved the live action version most.

Drew is our Arthur, seeming the worst of the best; possessed of powers that are seemingly not very super at all.  Indeed, Drew’s abilities provide fertile ground for great description and very funny moments (who knew you could fart in a test tube?). Drew’s story is told first person, and I think Anderson does a very nice job capturing the voice of a brainy, nerdy, extremely self-conscious 12-year-old.  If I were to nit-pick, I think some of the descriptive language he uses feels like it goes beyond his narrator, which I think is the issue from time-to-time in choosing first person with a child’s voice.  That said, it never feels so overboard that I lost the feeling that I was hearing things from Drew himself.

For the first three quarters of the book, I thought Anderson did a brilliant job making all of the “super” problems Drew encountered into essentially the same problems just about any middle school kid has, only pumped up on steroids.  The handsome other boy with an eye on the girl he is into isn’t just handsome, he’s handsome and he can turn himself into living rock.  The feeling of anxiety about keeping secrets from parents, in this case super powers and being a sidekick to the greatest Super Hero in history (or, some semblance of him) is a powerful metaphor for that increased feeling of alienation that so many pre-teens start to feel as they change.  Now throw in the fact that his Super Hero idol is a shell of his former self, and Drew gives readers a surprisingly deep-dive into the way kids begin to emerge from the cocoon of childhood into the oft harsh realities of life.

A similar conundrum to Man of Steel, but far more deftly handled.

A similar conundrum to Man of Steel, but far more deftly handled.

Anderson also does an excellent job playing with some of the core messages behind the Super Hero convention.  What makes a bad guy bad?  What are the ethics of being a hero?  Is “Thou shalt not kill” an essential part of a hero’s code?  How do the non-supers feel in a world filled with “freaks?”  All those are covered in a way that in no way feels preachy, as the middle school prism helps make these questions feel fresh and resonant.

As taken as I was by the setup, I have to say that the finish was not quite what I had hoped for.  It was still good, but it felt fairly conventional.  I felt like I was going from reading something entirely original to a solid copy of many stories I had read before.  The villain’s final reveal didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, but I was okay with that.  The rationale for the villain’s behavior, however, felt a bit staid.  But, as a discussion point, the blurred line between good and evil is an excellent one.  Better yet because it is NOT told in the “shades of gray” way that so many Super Hero stories today are told.  It is a real moral dilemma, not simply another ode to nihilism like we see in so many of today’s Super Hero stories.

In all, Sidekicked is a welcome addition to the genre and antidote to the growingly grim path Super Heroes have been taking.

Overall Read Score: 4 out of 5 stars.

Opportunities for Discussion
I’ve already noted a number of questions that the book takes in my review.  On top of that, Anderson himself has done parents and teachers alike a favor with a nice little discussion guide you can find on his website (.pdf).  As I noted, the book does a nice job of keeping the humor going through the book so that the very interesting and serious points being made about power never feel like an after school special.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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Read It and See It: Ender’s Game

February 8, 2013

As I have intimated in past posts, I’ve never been a huge supernatural fantasy fan.  I like the genre, but the Sci-Fi nerd in me always chafed when somehow magic and science get lumped into one category as if because you dig one, you must naturally love the other.  So I’m always delighted to see when a true science fiction story comes along to meet my RI&SI format.

Enders GameThe Book
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Originally published in 1985 with revisions in 1991.

The Movie
Ender’s Game, Lionsgate. Release Date, November 1, 2013.

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
10 and up.  While this book begins with the main character at six-years-old, it is by no mean a story for children.  Indeed, it is very much a story about what happens when children have their childhood taken from them.  While not as brutal, there is a lot of Lord of the Flies in this book. So think about that as you consider whether it’s appropriate for your child.  On the other hand, there are a LOT of themes of feeling alone, bullied, different, and the struggles of a young mind to adapt to a grown-up world that are very prescient for kids.  So by no means is it just a book for grown-ups.  I am encouraging my 11-year-old to read it.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  This is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning book.  Serious nerd cred right there.

Book Availability
I read mine on my iPhone and I know it’s available on Google Books as well.  If you’re picking it up in hard copy, I’d suggest making sure it’s the new 20th anniversary version, as Card’s new introduction has some interesting insights on both his creation and reaction to the book that’s worth reading (though frankly, better read after reading the book).

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Andrew “Ender” Wiggin isn’t supposed to exist.  On an overcrowded planet where population is strictly controlled, even second children are almost unheard of.  But as the commanders of the International Fleet (IF) search for the genius who can help them save the Earth from an insectoid alien race known pejoratively as “buggers” the Wiggin family are given permission to have a “third.”

Their first child, Peter, was absolutely brilliant, but certifiably sociopathic.  The second, Valentine, was perhaps even smarter, but she was too sensitive in the mind of the IF to be a capable leader.  And so Ender was tracked since his government-sanctioned birth (literally, as they implanted a camera in his neck) with the hopes of his being the right cocktail of the first two.  After beating back a group of bullies in his school, Commander Hyrum Graff decides that, at the ripe old age of six, this child is the one he’s been looking for.  Ender is commanded to leave his family, and the Earth itself, and train to become part of the International Fleet.

Definitely some Starship Troopers vibe going on.

Definitely some Starship Troopers vibe going on.

Once separated from his family, Graff has only one mission: shape this boy into a leader brilliant enough to defeat a bugger onslaught that may well be even worse than what legendary commander Mazer Rackham was barely able to defend against decades ago.  In addition to learning how to deal with the zero gravity battle room like all other students, Ender is forced to face isolation, depravation, and peer menacing all carefully orchestrated against him.  His only escape is into an immersive computer fantasy game, which, of course, is yet another test.

Ender succeeds, but at a tremendous cost to his soul.  And when he is promoted to command school even before his twelfth birthday, the doubts about what he has done begin to overwhelm him.  That is when Mazer Rackham himself comes to begin a new game, one where the stakes may well be more than Ender could ever have imagined.

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
There is a LOT to chew on in this book, despite its straight-forward narrative style.  At its heart, however, this story is about the benefits and burdens of being gifted.  It is about the curse of high expectations, and the cognitive disconnect that adults have, or will even force themselves to have, between intelligence and emotional maturity.

As I noted, the prose is written functionally, which Card says was intentional as he wanted this to be a book that wasn’t artistic or impenetrable, but a morality play that children can also access.  In that, he doesn’t present as gripping or fantastic a story of the formation of brilliance as a somewhat similar tale, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.  For while both the stories heavily involve the relationship between a child and a fantasy computer game for learning and development, Stephenson’s plot is far more delicately pieced together, while Card is pretty much using a sledgehammer to make his points.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a YA book, but I can understand why it might frustrate older readers.

Without doubt, Ender’s experiences in battle school are the highlight of the book.  Card sets things up well so you pull for the kid from very early in the story, and slyly allows you to condone the violence he does, only to make both you and Ender reconsider that position.  I also very much liked the very vague understanding of “the buggers” that everyone had.  The fact that no one really knew what they were really like, even after two wars, so they were preparing to fight an enemy they really didn’t understand, was an outstanding and thought-provoking concept.

The sections where Card decides to take a break from Ender and focus on his siblings back on Earth felt odd and unnecessary to me.  I understand that they are supposed to be deeper explorations into the minds of brilliant children, but I didn’t see a lot of additional insight or, alternatively, a solid device to drive the plot forward.  Indeed I found myself very much desiring to return to Ender during those chapters.

And when we do return, and Ender goes to command school, the book returns to its strength, and reveals its most major and interesting point about the morality of war.  Questions about whether preemptive war is right, whether genocide is ever justified, and what it truly takes to lead are all explored in a very engaging and challenging way.

Don't do it, Steven!  Just fade to back!

Don’t do it, Steven! Just fade to back!

My only major issue with this book, actually, is with what I call the “Spielberg Effect.”  For from AI to Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg just can’t seem to help but tack on an ending to make sure that you absolutely knew what the point of the movie was, leaving the viewer no room to be a participant in his creation.  This is actually something that I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve written my own book; trying to ensure the dénouement doesn’t strangle the reader’s own interpretation of what transpired.

I feel that, most unfortunately, Card does exactly that.  He decides that we absolutely MUST know the true feelings and emotions behind the buggers and give Ender some emotional closure.  If that had been the central point of the book, that would have been fine.  But it was not, and by forcing each loose end into a square knot, Card took away a number of the lingering questions and doubts about what Ender had done that turned it from a thoughtful morality play into something that felt more sadly apologist.  This really squelched my ability to intellectually interact with the story; something, ironically, the author stresses he wants from the reader at the end of his new introduction.

So in all, a worthwhile read, though the ending almost made me revisit that conclusion.

Overall Read Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
As I’ve already noted, this book is filled-to-the-gills with interesting discussion opportunities for parents and kids.  Here’s a smattering of ones that I’ve come up with, but I’m sure you’ll come up with more:

The Curse of the Special Child:  Once a child has been designated as gifted, are there responsibilities that come along with that?  What is the balance between maximizing a child’s gift and ensuring that child has the right to a childhood?  How can and should adults push children to ensure that their talents come to the fore?

The Needs of the Many…  Ender is forced into his situation because of the perceived imminent threat of another bugger invasion (which is not exactly what it seems).  At what point are we allowed to use or endanger others, especially innocents, when a “greater good” is on the line.  This is a debate we are certainly having right now as regards issues such as drone strikes that have civilian casualties.

And do the Ends Justify the Means?  This particular question is asked in two different ways in the book.  The first is in the use of Ender—to do whatever it takes to form him into the kind of leader humanity needs at its darkest hour.  But then, the question is raised as to whether this is truly humanity’s darkest hour, which lends real complexity to the story, and the potential discussion.  It provides geopolitical, parenting, and playground jungle possibilities for talking about whether fighting to prevent a fight is ever justified.

Can't go wrong with a Horta!

Can’t go wrong with a Horta!

Ender Hears a Horta: There is very much an underlying theme here about assuming an adversary is an enemy.  It is very similar to one of my all-time favorite episodes of Star Trek, Devil in the Dark.  While in many ways I actually feel like this part of the plot actually took away from the quality of the overall book, it is very present and well worth discussing.

Is Humanity a Weakness? As Ender is “toughened up” his trainers chip away at his aversion and guilt toward violence.  Is building this kind of thick skin something that everyone should do?  What secondary ramifications of building up scar tissue toward the inhumanity of violence? What can that do to your perception of such positive human traits as love and compassion?

Violence in Video Games: This is the low-hanging fruit of the book, but is an interesting discussion to have with kids, especially if they dig Call of Duty or some of the other hyper-violent games.  Should video games be used to acculturate kids to adult realities?  Does it desensitize?  How can video games be used to help or to hurt kids?

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars

What to Expect from the Movie

Looks like they're aging up Ender to get one actor into the whole role.

Looks like they’re aging up Ender to get one actor into the whole role.

My understanding is that Card has been heavily involved with the film project, including writing the screenplay.  Star Trek (2009) scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are producing, and Rendition and X Men Origins: Wolverine director Gavin Hood is at the helm.

The book in many was feels made for the screen, as it’s “kid against the world for the fate of civilization” is simple enough to be translated without many tough editing choices to the screen, I’d think.  And with Harrison Ford and Ben Kinglsey in the two adult male lead roles, one can see that there is some Hollywood gravitas behind the project.

I have to say, however, that the studio synopsis doesn’t make me overly excited:

In the near future, a hostile alien race (called the Formics) have attacked Earth. If not for the legendary heroics of International Fleet Commander Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), all would have been lost. In preparation for the next attack, the highly esteemed Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and the International Military are training only the best young children to find the future Mazer. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a shy but strategically brilliant boy, is pulled out of his school to join the elite.

Arriving at Battle School, Ender quickly and easily masters increasingly difficult war games, distinguishing himself and winning respect amongst his peers. Ender is soon ordained by Graff as the military’s next great hope, resulting in his promotion to Command School. Once there, he’s trained by Mazer Rackham himself to lead his fellow soldiers into an epic battle that will determine the future of Earth and save the human race.

The description makes it feel more like “Young Starship Troopers” rather than “Searching for Bobby Fisher…in Space” which is the spirit of the book at its best (though I admit, Lionsgate marketing probably doesn’t see the latter as particularly effective).  I’d guess given Card’s involvement, however, is that the underlying themes will remain intact.  Of course, I would love to see them fiddle with the ending, but Card’s involvement would likely mitigate against that as much as it would to help save what made the book effective.

Next in this series: Back to the “Spook”-y magic stuff.

The Review: Rise of the Guardians

November 27, 2012

Hey everyone, sorry it’s been so long since I’ve posted anything.  I’ve been eye-deep working on my book (more on that soon) so blogging had to take a back seat.  But I’m back as the G-men and I took their Savtah and Grandpa to the movies over Thanksgiving weekend as we were very curious to see the film version of our very favorite new book series—The Guardians of Childhood.  Here are my Read It Then See It posts on the first two books, Nicholas St. North and E. Aster Bunnymund.  I am in the middle of reading the third in the series, Toothiana, now and will post about that as soon as I’m done.

The Movie
Rise of the Guardians, Dreamworks Animation

The Book(s)
Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King
E. Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at the Earth’s Core
Toothiana, Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies
By William Joyce

Genre
Fantasy

Age Appropriate
The bad guy, Pitch Black, could get a little scary for very young children, but given he’s the Boogeyman, he’s actually pretty tame.  The main character is also resurrected from drowning in a frozen lake, but it is also handled with a very deft touch.  I think this film would work for any child 4 and Up.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Generally.  It’s a fairly simple fairytale, but not too cutesy and insipid.  Solid voice acting and CG animation make this a fine couple of hours for the grown-ups.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
A few things here for those that are a little more sensitive.  When Pitch first begins to do his dastardly deed, he perverts a dream that a little girl is having about a unicorn and turns it into a black, flaming-eyed stallion.  That could be a pretty disturbing image, but you can tell your child that the unicorn will get her revenge in the end.  Also, Pitch manages to overwhelm the kindly and powerful Sandman, and seems to destroy him.  Again, you can assure your child that no one can truly destroy dreams, so no doubt he’ll be back to help save the day.

Evil, but in a very British way

Finally, the aforementioned origin of Jack Frost, near the end of the film when he finally remembers his past shows him saving his little sister and falling through the ice and drowning, only to be brought back as the spirit of the cold by the Moon itself.  It’s pretty mild, but young kids might be a little scared by seeing his human form sinking into the icy water.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (light spoilers ahead)
The fantasies of our youth: Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman have been chosen by the Man on the Moon to serve as the guardians of our dreams, hopes, and imagination all fueled by the power of children’s belief.  Jack Frost, a new spirit on the block, can make mirth and mischief, but, unlike the Guardians, cannot be seen by children, as even the kids consider him just a fantasy.

The Man on the Moon, however, elevates Jack to full Guardian status despite the resistance of the gang, as the notorious Boogeyman, Pitch Black, has arisen again intent on turning all the dreams of children into nightmares, and stamping out all the belief in the world in magic and wonder, replacing it with a faith in the inky fear that he feeds on.

Jack resists being made part of the team, but when he finds out his true purpose with the help of the one boy who resists Pitch’s bid to stamp out joy in the world, he is able to free the Guardians and, in a final battle with the villain’s minions, drive him back into the shadows and free children to dream again.

My Review
It is impossible to fully separate my opinion of this film from that of the books, as this sort of serves as a quasi-sequel though a number of changes were made to the main characters, most notably the Easter Bunny that went from high-browed intellectual to Crocodile Bunn-ee.

Gus’ favorite thing about the movie was that “New Kirk” was in it, as Chris Pine provides the voice of Jack Frost

To me, it’s a bit surprising that William Joyce was so involved in this movie, as it has the feel of someone who had taken some wonderful books but said “it’s too complicated” and mucked with the whole formula in order to dumb it down for a mainstream audience.  I guess they felt they absolutely had to have all the Guardians in the first film, so better to have the origin story of a new character (Jack Frost) than to try and cram in the introductions of everyone else.

Okay, I generally get that, and the film itself is nice enough.  At it’s center, it is about a person finding his purpose in life, and understanding the worth of bringing joy to others.  The general sentiment as brought to the fore by all the Guardians is nice, and each character has an interesting edge (Santa being a sword-wielding Cossack, Bunny being a boomerang-throwing badass, Tooth Fairy’s obsession with nasty bloody teeth, etc.).  The elves play the now all-too-predictable Minion role from Despicable Me.

The voices, most notably Alec Baldwin’s Santa, are all very good, and the animation is first rate.  The story itself is fine, and there are a number of laugh-out-loud lines and pratfalls, but definitely plays second fiddle to the visual spectacle.  At some points, it also felt like the story was struggling to decide if the journey was Jack Frost’s or the human boy who helps him.  But all in all it is light, fairytale fun.

But as an avid reader of the books, especially the absolutely stunning Nicholas St. North, I cannot but decry the missed opportunity here.  People LOVE good origin stories, and in the first book, you have the origin of Santa himself, as well as other beloved favorites from a nightlight to a bookworm to the Man on the Moon.  I cannot for the life of me understand why there was a need to cram every character here into one film when you had THE classic childhood fantasy figure’s origin story that deftly mixed magic and science fiction with something very profound to say about how we see the world.  In the holiday season, I think that would have been just as, if not more successful than what they came up with here, and would have far better set up sequels more easily adapted from the source material.

So, overall, a respectable piece of holiday fluff, but no more than that.

Overall Score: 3 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
My big fella who has been avidly reading the books with me absolutely detested this film.  He was SO shocked and disappointed that they changed the characters, that there was no Katherine, the heroine of the books, and that the real dream-like magic of the stories was replaced with a frenetic action-hero styling.  I have to say I struggled with that myself.

However, this does make me thing that for those who see and enjoy the film, it might actually be a great gateway into the books as prequels.  I would guess that many kids who liked the film will really be captivated by the books and the many unexpected places it goes, and it will help round out the film’s story, rather than it feeling like a pale imitation as it does when you read the books first.

So, indeed, if your kids have not read the books yet, this is one where I highly recommend a See It Then Read It approach.  Same goes for grown-ups, too.

Read It Then See It: The Hobbit

September 21, 2012

Okay, when hit with the preview for the upcoming movie in front of the IMAX of Raiders of the Lost Ark (still the greatest action adventure film of all time, for my money), I will finally bow and write up my long-promised take on the iconic story.

The Movie
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Jouney, New Line, Release Date December 12. Part 1 of a three film series based on the book and various appendices.

The Book
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by JRR Tolkien, originally published in 1937.

Genre
Children’s Fantasy

Age Appropriate
Six and up. Unlike the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit truly is a piece of children’s literature, told very much like a bedtime story.  Some of the language may be complex for younger children, and there are battles a-plenty, but the levity, song, and general general silliness remove any real feeling of danger or dread from the book.

Book Availability
I actually read this book as my own bedtime story, mostly on my iPhone.  I bought the enhanced version for $11.99 which has links to audio files of Tolkien himself singing some of the songs, and alternative photos.  Frankly, I just wanted to read it, so unless you are a huge Rings-o-phile, save the two bucks and get the regular version that’s available for around $10 on both iBooks and Google Books.  Hardcopy available pretty much everywhere.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Between the Dawn of Faeries and the Dominion of Men lived a group of peaceful, earthy little folk called Hobbits.  But despite their general antipathy toward the complicated and dangerous world of the big folk, a Wizard named Galdalf the Gray chooses a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins to go on the adventure of a lifetime.

Silly Dragon, Rings are for Hobbits!

After reluctantly hosting a band of 13 Dwarves (take that Snow White!), Bilbo discovers that he has been chosen as the “thief” to help them recoup the treasure stolen from head Dwarf Thorin Oakenshield from the dastardly dragon, Smaug.

At Gandalf’s urging, Bilbo reluctantly leaves the comfort of Bag End to join the dwarves on this adventure.  The group is almost immediately beset by danger, from hungry trolls to vicious goblins.  After being lost in a Goblin’s cavern, Bilbo stumbles on a creature called Gollum, and a simple but attractive gold ring.  He tricks Gollum into helping him escape with the added aid of that magical invisibility ring.

Bilbo puts that ring to good use in order to outwit hungry giant spiders, greedy and mistrustful elves, and Smaug himself.  But pride and avarice bring men, elves, and dwarves to the brink of war with one and other.  Only the common enemy of a massive attack from the forces of evil are able to bring them together to defend the treasures of the Lonely Mountain.  Redemption is found, for some, found in death, and Bilbo finds himself back at Bag End, but forever changed by the experience.

Quickie Review
It’s funny, for my own grown-up pleasure I’m currently reading A Dance With Dragons, the latest in the Song of Fire and Ice series (better known as the HBO series Game of Thrones).  You can so easily see Tolkien’s influence on George RR Martin’s writing, everything from the grand descriptions to the breaking out in song.  For when it comes to the fantasy genre, you are hard pressed to find an author who isn’t a Tolkien prodigy in some way, shape or form.

But while Martin’s series is extremely adult, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series is an epic work that is also quite adult, The Hobbit is a bedtime story, and is written in that exact way.  He in his style will set up side plots, but dismiss them as “a story for another day.”  He will come out of the narration and made editorial statements about the characters, and he uses poems and song to add the kind of improvisational levity to the story that you would absolutely expect with milk and cookies.

I will admit that I am not a huge Tolkien fan.  I believe that is because he spends a tremendous amount of time giving me the lore of his huge and imaginative world, but I believe it is at the expense of the story (indeed, I find the same fault with Martin’s work).  This is definitely a personal taste, as I know many fans who absolutely adore the rich and insanely imaginative world Tolkien created with Middle Earth.  But I find if you’re not interested in geeking out on the histories of elves and goblins, many of the details can be ponderous and clash with the child-like narrative.

I also have to say that the 13 Dwarves killed me.  I simply could not keep up with which character was which.  Given their names weren’t Happy, Grumpy, Sleepy, etc., they became mix-and-match to me and made me simply not care about any of them.  I also found his use of song, which is even more pronounced here than in the LOTR books, to be extremely heavy-handed and took away from the drama.

Great rendering by illustrator Alan Lee

The one part I did LOVE was Bilbo’s interaction with Gollum.  Extremely well paced and you really feel the sinister, pained character from beginning to end.  The riddle contest which ends up being Bilbo’s salvation is a lot of fun (some of those riddles actually made their way into Gus’s LOTR party).

So if you’re looking for tightly written and gripping fantasy tale, I don’t think this is it.  But as prologue to an epic adventure, helping to establish the iconic world of Tolkien, I believe this is a book worth reading.  Okay, Tolkien fans, flame away…

Overall Read Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Doctoral theses have been written on the meaning(s) contained within The Hobbit.  So I’m going to keep it a bit more simple and invite others to add to the conversation.

Everything Changes: At its essence, Bilbo’s story is about a man who fears change learning to embrace it.  Kids have these feelings all the time, mine most recently when going to a new school.  Bilbo’s story can help you to parallel times when your kids faced a new experience.  This can either add empathy for your kids to the story, or by using Bilbo as a guide help them to see change as a positive.

Fun With Riddles: As I mentioned, I think the most cleverly written part of the book is Bilbo’s interaction with Gollum.  If your kids feel the same, what a wonderful way to get them hooked on riddles.  Brain-stretching riddles are excellent cognitive, social, and linguistic development tools.  From problem-solving, to understanding the art of word play, to the development of that all-important funny bone, Gollum will do your kid a big favor if these get her/him jazzed to riddle me this.  Especially if you are reading to your children, you can take the opportunity to stop at the riddle and work with them to figure out the answer to the riddle before you move on with the book.

Greed Ain’t Good: Perhaps this won’t sit well with the Ayn Rand set, but from Trolls to Dwarves to Dragons to, yes, even the sainted elves, Tolkien tells the tales of comeuppance for those who only want more.  What is good in this is that greed is not the exclusive providence of the wicked.  Thorin Oakenshield himself succumbs to it much to his own downfall, and, yes, even the woodland elves’ leader Thranduil was known for his greed.  It’s a good basis for discussion about how avarice can blind you to more important things in your life.

Big Things… One of the most obvious things, yet still perhaps the best lesson of the Hobbit and the whole LOTR saga is that even the smallest of creatures can have a major impact on the world.  Bilbo’s journey goes from him feeling very small and useless to finding the full extent of his courage and usefulness.  This story is a great gateway for discussion on how everyone can have a voice and an impact on the world, and no one should be underestimated or discounted in that regard.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie
Well, you probably know at this point that director Peter Jackson has decided to turn this tale into not one, not two, but three movies.  From the trailers, I think you can see that he is very much attempting to keep with the darker, more adult tone of his LOTR trilogy, though he does say that he has attempted to keep some of the whimsy of this children’s story intact as well.

It seems that the first film, An Unexpected Journey, will be Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain.  The second, The Desolation of Smaug, will focus on the rise and fall of the dragon, and the third, There and Back Again, will climax in the Battle of the Five Armies.  Seems like a reasonable way to split them up.

I actually preferred the LOTR films to the books, as I felt Jackson kept to the spirit of the books but cut a lot of expositional fat that I did not enjoy in Tolkien’s writing style (though I’m still fuming at the removal of the man and the myth, Tom Bombadil).  It will be interesting to see what happens here, as this trilogy seems to be less The Hobbit and more a piecing together of Tolkien’s appendices with The Hobbit’s story meshed in to try and paint a fuller picture and more direct bridge between these films and LOTR.  In many ways, this will likely get compared to Star Wars with a prequel trilogy.  I’m hopeful that Jackson will succeed where Lucas failed, but he is definitely more out on a limb this time from a storytelling perspective than he was with the Rings trilogy.

After all the back and forth about New Line itself, and potential changes in directors, I’m very glad it ended up being Jackson himself that took this on.  It will be fun to see his whole vision played out on screen.  I think Martin Freeman, who is amazing as Dr. Watson in the new Sherlock! series on BBC was an inspired choice, and, especially with the added layers to the story not seen in the book (most notably, the story of the Necromancer) we should see a lot more of Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Gray (rather than the more stick-in-the-mud Galdalf the White).  That in itself will be worth the price of admission.

So hit the book, then get that Fandango App warmed up, as I have no doubt this is going to be a great ride, and a lot of fun to compare to the book because there will be a lot of changes.  Happy reading!

The Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

August 7, 2012

A weekend trip to West Virginia and the splendor of Coal Country Mini Golf kept us from seeing this opening weekend, but the G-men and I checked out the third installment of the DoWK film series yesterday.  You can check out my take on the two books this film was based on, The Last Straw and Dog Days, in my Read It Then See It post here.

The Movie
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, Fox.

The Book(s)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, by Jeff Kinney.  Originally published in 2009.

Genre
(Very) Juvenile Fiction

Age Appropriate
6 and up, but with one very important spoiler that will save your younger child a potential scream and cry.  See my Spoilers for Younger Kids section below.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  Don’t expect Shakespeare, but some very solid physical comedy with an increased focus on Greg’s Dad, played by most excellent comedic actor Steve Zahn, makes this a perfectly fun ride for we who are growing out rather than up.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
Everything in this movie is just fine for all ages.  A little rude language and a scene of the Heffley family’s new dog staring at Greg while he’s sitting on the can is about a close as it comes…save one scene.  When Greg and the gang are on a camping trip, the hilariously strange Fregley decides to tell a scary story about the “Muddy Hand.”  Totally classic, but I didn’t realize until half way in that my little guy had never heard a ghost story before.  And when the inevitable hand came out of the tent (ended up being one of the grown ups just exiting the tent), Gunnar jumped in his seat, screamed in a tone of abject terror I had never heard before, and went fetal.

This would be about the time to shut those little ones’ eyes.

He recovered quickly and showed no ill effects after the movie, but I would HIGHLY recommend either covering your younger kids’ eyes for this scene or spoiling it for them (“Watch, a hand is going to come out of the tent, but it’s only one of the grown ups.  Silly, huh?”) rather than give your child a trial by fire (literally) as I did.  If I can save one nightmare, then I feel like I’ve done my job…

Quickie Plot Synopsis (light spoilers ahead)
Rising 8th grader Gregg Heffley’s idea of a great summer includes two things, playing video games and getting a chance to hang out with the girl of his dreams, Holly Hills—preferably at the same time.  But when Holly misses out on giving him the last two digits of her phone number, Gregg embarks on a wild ride from taking him from hairy backs at the public pool to terror on the country club tennis court in an effort to win Holly over.

Patti’s scenes are getting smaller but are always memorable

At the same time, Gregg is running into more and more of a problem with his Dad, whose efforts to get him out of the house causes him consternation until Gregg lies about getting a summer job at the country club.  When Gregg is caught in the lie, he learns an important lesson in the difference between having people angry with you and disappointed in you.  A trip to the woods, defending his father’s honor against the block bully, and one spectacularly horrific concert by his brother’s band Loaded Diaper, and Gregg ends up with even more than he could have ever expected for his summer break.

My Review
I have to say I continue to be impressed with the creative team, especially director David Bowers and screenwriter Maya Forbes, for taking what I believe is the incredibly thin and somewhat mean-spirited material in Jeff Kinney’s books and turning it into fun, family fare with some heart, all while not abandoning many of the slapstick gags that make the books so popular.

Much of what I enjoy about the book is what is NOT there.  Gone are the scenes of Gregg really abusing Rowley’s friendship, from the “time machine” to their attempt to do a lawn service together.  These were the kind of antics that Gregg did in the first film, and while in the book he just continues on the same path, in the movies Gregg is actually growing and changing.  Even though his continues to make (hilarious) mistakes, the movie Gregg is, at his heart, a good kid.

SO much more sense than the book

Also gone was Gregg’s mysterious choice to essentially drop Holly Hills in favor of attempting to woo his big sister, Heather.  Instead, the film wisely continues to grow the Gregg/Holly relationship, and includes Heather as a super-spoiled teenage antagonist.  The puppy-love relationship for Heather is instead put on Rodrick (who Gregg actually helps get an opportunity to “land” Heather—another example of Gregg growing in the movie in a way entirely absent from the books), which makes far more sense.

While it was a bit harder to see Zachary Gordon as a wimpy kid given he’s grown about a foot since the last film, and has a lanky but muscular young swimmer’s build, he managed to win me over as a goofy kid just not comfortable in his own rapidly growing body.  The tennis scene, where Rowley and Gregg get clobbered by Holly and Gregg’s continued physical nemesis Patti has a lot of laugh-out-loud moments and is good example of the broad, physical comedy that actually plays well in this film throughout.

Zahn and Gordon really play well of each other in this one.

The best choice in this movie, however, was to heavily play up something that was more of a side story in the books, and that’s the relationship between Gregg and his Dad Frank.  Partly, playing this up gave the movie more of a soul, as it became a morality play about responsibility, deception, consequences, and redemption.  But, really, it was a great choice because it allowed more screen time for Steve Zahn, who plays Frank.  I think Zahn is an undervalued commodity in Hollywood, as his physical acting, from body use to facial expressions, is one of the best in modern comedy.  The “dinner scene” where the dog gets hold of the family roast, is hilarious only because of how Zahn and Gordon play it.  Zahn’s performance, to me, makes this movie even more than the sum of its parts, and the best yet in the series.

Overall Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
See the movie.  Skip the book.  If for some reason the movie inspires a desire to read the series, do check out my Read It Then See It post as I think I’ve come up with some ideas about how to make a very thin book into something you can actually have a good talk about with your kids.

Oh, and one other plus for the movie is that it has a great trailer to The Hobbit in front of it.  That happens to be next up for the Read It Then See It series, so stay tuned for that one coming soon.