Posts Tagged ‘kids books’

The Giving Field

May 15, 2013

As I stood out over my lunch hour looking at that cone-shaped stretch of muck, I might have just as well been looking in the mirror.

I wondered until that moment why when so many other coaches and parents cursed and/or ran from the thankless, back-rending effort of tending to a baseball field—especially when the county in its infinite wisdom has used red Georgia clay as the base on so many of our diamonds—I have leaped at the opportunity.  Indeed, I’ve dirtied the back of my formerly pristine Highlander Hybrid with such an assortment of gardening equipment that when I open the back, it puffs forth a cloud of dust Pig Pen would be proud of.

Now I understand.  It’s because the field and I are the same.

First off, we’re both introverts.  Now, when I say introvert, I know that brings immediately to mind the sullen stranger hiding at the corner at the party, wallowing in the misery of being in such proximity to actual socializing.  Introverts close the door and bury their heads in books or video games, preferring those worlds to the painful reality of human interaction.  Introverts don’t do this:

Thanks to TJ Arrowsmith

Thanks to TJ Arrowsmith

But of course they do.  For introversion or extroversion is not about what you do.  It’s about how you feel when you’re doing it.  An extrovert has a natural affinity for being around others.  Indeed, they derive energy from social interaction and seek it out.  I see it at my local school every day, watching as parents easily interact with others and seek out conversations; lingering around well after the kiddies have gotten their high-fives or hugs and scurry off to class.

We introverts can have that same conversation, the same smiles, and derive the same enjoyment out of social interactions.  The difference is that for us, it’s work.  Not “bad work” mind you, but work nonetheless.  It doesn’t come naturally for us, and therefore it drains our batteries rather than restoring them.  Being social is putting on the tux, while solitude is a sweatshirt and well-worn pair of jeans.

And that’s just where the field and I were, enjoying the mutual aloneness where we spend most of our time, but at the same time preparing ourselves for when the time comes for our children to come again and play.  All we want is to provide for them; to bring them unbridled joy in a couch of safety for a couple of hours.  Then, off they’ll go happily slurping their juice boxes.  And we’re a little more worn for the experience, but satisfied, too, because we know we were a part of bringing that delight despite the muddy footprints and aching muscles stamped upon us.

We need each other, and so I drag my oversized rake through its clotted soil, hunting for drier patches in which to fill holes and even out areas around the bases and plate made more worn by the nature of the game.  Each deeply imbedded footstep I erase feels like a bad hop avoided, like another chance for a child to play.  And when an hour-and-a-half later I look back upon the field, sweatshirt soaked and jeans caked with a plaster of orange earth, I felt as renewed as my partner looked.  Indeed, it felt almost empathic, as if I had taken its bumps and bruises into my aching, middle-aged bones to serve a greater good.

How many workouts can boast that kind of psychic benefit?  Eat your heart out, Tony Horton.

After I had taped-up a few signs around begging, “PLEASE do stay off the dirt infield and allow it to dry for games tonight,” the field and I parted ways as I went home to work, parent, cook, and get then get ready for the game.  I returned with both boys in tow.  As they munched on soy “chick’n” strips and then began to warm up in the outfield, I took out my field drag (yes, I’ve got one of those, too) and began to smooth out the surface.

And it was perfect.  Just soft enough not to be dusty, but it had dried enough to mask my footsteps as I towed my device around the field.  As I began my second pass, I quickly checked my watch to see if I was going to have enough time to really get my geek on.  In the trunk I had a bag of chalk, my cheap but functional liner, and my own clever creation, two planks of 1 ½ x 3 foot pieces of Styrofoam I sawed out from a larger piece left in our shed by the handyman, “because who knows when you might need it?”  Light, mobile, and when you put them together, it makes half the size of an official batter’s box.

And there was a sound of thunder.

Drop.  Drop.  Drop.

Drizzle.

Rain.

Pour.

Teem.

In ten short minutes, my field was a lake.  Streams of water rand through it, crying those saddest of words:

No Game Today.

As the sun flickered forth, I looked out at my partner in exasperation, and began to thumb an email to the team telling them not to bother coming out.  But at my feet was the heavy black bucket where I kept my field measuring equipment, including a long length of heavy string.

And the field spoke to me, saying, “There’s more to a tree than just its leaves.”  I looked and saw that the outfield was wet, but not a swamp.  Instead of the “forget it” email, I instead said, “No game, but we’ll be out here for a bit if you’d like to come down.”

I grabbed that string and made a semicircular “fence” in the outfield.  Then I grabbed my plastic plate and bucket of whiffle balls and spent the next hour playing Home Run Derby with 10 eager boys.  We made the rules on the fly, the kids shagged the balls, argued about the foul line, and swung for the fences.  We high-fived, slurped juice boxes, and the kids stole my hat and made me chase them.  A sip of lemonade out of some very wet lemons.

As the rest of the gang had cleared out I began to walk over to clean things up.  I was struck that from my angle, the string had made the field smile. We had, together and alone, brought another kernel of joy to our little corner of the world.

And we were happy.

My Other Son

April 26, 2013

After birthing him from just an inkling of passion, it’s finally time to send him out into the world.

You’ve poured your soul into his development.  You remember arranging the playdates, a tinge of nervousness over whether he’d be liked, but still tucked away in the safety of your own control.  Even when he wasn’t quite right, it was always up to you to help fix it—to be his gentle guide toward completion.

IndyParty Skull Gus IIBut now you and are simultaneously so very proud and so absolutely terrified when it’s finally time to send him off, beyond the tentacles of your adoring care, into the arms of those charged with helping him become part of the larger world.  They can’t love him like you do.  See him like you do.  He’s so much a part of you that any issues, any hiccups, any failures can’t help but feel like a stain directly on your soul.

And yet, with that flutter in the belly that whisks your myriad insecurities with the intoxicating liquor of hope, you let go…

…and press the send button.

It’s funny that, even though I’ve sent more pitch letters to agents than I’d care to admit, it was only with today’s effort that I recognized the incredible emotional similarities between writing and parenting.

As checked my letter for the umpteen millionth time, the image of my doing that disgusting thing that all parents do—licking my fingers to get that smudge off my son’s face before school—darted through my mind.  As I noted the positive reaction that my “beta testing” group of 9 to 15-year-olds had to my manuscript, I was awash in memories of the G-men toddling with preschool friends while the parents passive-aggressively compared developmental statistics.

And the groaning strain in the pit of my stomach that leapt forth as soon as I clicked send?  Well, I have that same feeling just about each and every time Gus or Gunnar step to the plate.  Each ball that whirs toward them, each time they step gently forward and coil their hands in preparation to swing, the countless pitches I have thrown to them in the back yard circle around my gut like a whirlwind of abject fear and impossible optimism.

mightydoveThe biggest difference in sending AJ, the hero of The Adventures of…MightyDove!, off as compared to my other two boys (other than his non-living status, that is) is the fact that that Gus and Gunnar went off to a wonderful public school system where the experts are paid to help make the most out of their skills.  My other son doesn’t live in that socialist wonderland.  Instead, he faces the harsh reality of the marketplace.  No agent is compelled to take AJ in and help him grow up.  The boy of my brain has to earn his way into school even before trying to earn the grades to make him a success in life.

Dear Mr. Nathanson,

Thank you for your query. I’m sorry, but I have to pass on this one. While I appreciate the opportunity to consider your work, I don’t feel I connected enough with the material here to be the right agent for it. Please keep in mind that this business often comes down to personal taste, and another agent may feel differently about your project.

Again, thanks for thinking of me for this. I wish you the best of luck finding the right representation.

So that’s the latest one.  The nice thing is that AJ seems okay with it.  His Dad, however, is a bit more put out.  But then the faint sound of metal plinking soundly upon leather reverberates in my mind.  A ball struck solidly into the outfield, my boy making his triumphant turn toward second base.  I’ve thrown a million pitches and I’ll throw a million more to Gus and Gunnar in order to hear that sound…to have that feeling…once again.

And so I take a deep breath, reach back, and ready myself for another pitch.  After all, once you put the ball in the air, you never know what might happen.

Read It Then See It: Toothiana: Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies

April 23, 2013

Now that the Rise of the Guardians movie is out on DVD, I thought it well past time to post my review of the third in the Guardians of Childhood series.  Here are my reviews of the first two books, Nicholas St. North and E. Aster Bunnymund, and my review of the Rise of the Guardians film.

ToothianaThe Book
Toothiana: Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies, by William Joyce.  Published in 2012 by Atheneum Books

The Movie
Rise of the Guardians, DreamWorks Animation.  Now available on DVD.

Genre
Fantasy/Fairytale

Age Appropriate
6 and up.  You’ll note that I’m bumping this up a year from the first two.  While you could probably still get away with it at 5, the third installment takes on a bit of a darker tone.  Not in a Harry Potter way, but in introducing more tragic elements that, while brilliant, are a bit more troubling than the first two.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Oh my, YES. 

Book Availability
I have the hard copy, but this is now available on iTunes for $10.00.  I downloaded the sample and have to say that in this case, the wonderful illustrations lose a little something off the page.  There is something very classic and tactile about Joyce’s illustrations.  The book feels like some old treasure recently unearthed.  I’d go for the hard copy myself, though maybe I’m just showing my age.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
The evil Pitch’s defeat at the Earth’s Core has led the Guardians and the people of Santoff Clausen something close to a new Golden Age.  But while the children are free to plunge into the depths of their collective imagination, and the Guardians Nicholas St. North, E. Aster Bunnymund, and Ombric the wise deepen their friendships and skills, our heroine Katherine feels uneasy.  Caught between the world of children and her very adult responsibilities as a Guardian, she cannot shake the feeling that while Pitch may not be seen, he is not gone forever.  Indeed, her dark dreams seem somehow to confirm it.

Joyce captures Katherine's emotions so wonderfully that each drawing is worth well over a thousand words.

Joyce captures Katherine’s emotions so wonderfully that each drawing is worth well over a thousand words.

And in the world of dreams, one woman reigns supreme.  Toothiana, Queen of the Tooth Fairies, born of the joy of love and the tragedy of loss, raised by fairies to save the memories and joys of childhood stored in the teeth of children.  And when Katherine loses her very last baby tooth, Toothiana comes to collect this great prize.  But she is not the only one hoping to collect the tooth, or Katherine herself.

Flying monkeys!  Flying elephants!  The return of Pitch!  Yet, amidst all the action comes a connection that Katherine cannot deny—a seeming bond between her and the villain she fears the most.  And that bond may take more than just her life, but her very soul.

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
I tried to keep my summary to a mere tease, because you really NEED to read this book.  It is, without hyperbole, the Empire Strikes Back of this series.

Katherine’s more somber tone, one of a girl becoming a woman under the most unusual and difficult of circumstances, is absolutely brilliant.  Joyce mixes the confusion of youth with Katherine’s inherently good soul in a way that does have some similarities to Luke Skywalker’s coming of age (but with far less whining).  Her friend Night Light’s confusion and ultimate dismay over her transformation, and her dreams mimics how friends often feel when they see their friends change as adolescence sets in.

The touch of sadness in Toothiana gives her and the other characters a textured, real feel in a way not present in the film.

The touch of sadness in Toothiana gives her and the other characters a textured, real feel in a way not present in the film.

Toothiana herself was a real revelation.  Her tragic backstory was simply mythic, bringing in a more Oriental tone hitherto not seen in this series.  I also loved the notion, different than the film, that the tooth fairy armies are all actually her.  I don’t want to give away any more than that.

Also, a new force from our imagination emerges as a more neutral arbiter on affairs.  I won’t say who it is as the reveal I thought was brilliant.  What is so fabulous about this ethereal character is that it forces the Guardians to admit their own shortcomings—embracing the want to destroy the enemy over saving the good.  Only Katherine, even after everything, refuses to give in to hate.  But her refusal may well be her downfall.

Other than the fact that I feel like Nicholas St. North was being pushed more to the background here, which I didn’t love, there is simply nothing I can find in this book that isn’t absolutely remarkable, including one heck of a cliffhanger at the end.  It is a rich and very complex tale that brings an added depth to this storyline that, frankly I didn’t expect.  The fact that Joyce can continue to surprise is a testament to the depth of his imagination and talent.

Overall Read Score: 5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Joyce’s tale opens up a plethora of conversations to have with your children.  Here are a few I thought of, but this series is so thick with ideas you’ll need to brush them away from your face.

The Loneliness of Tweendom:  Katherine has entered that most difficult of phases of development, as she begins to say goodbye to childish things.  Her membership as a Guardian brings this plight into sharp focus, and it is a wonderful way to introduce this feeling of not fitting in, and the difficulty that can come with feeling “special” in circumstances that, while here have their root in age, can evolve into any number of directions.

The Road to Hell… Good intentions—that’s what the Guardians are filled with.  Defending the innocent.  Fighting evil.  But, in a very interesting reversal of the Batman Begins mantra, “It’s now who I am inside, it’s what I do that defines me,” this book really challenges not just actions, but the feelings that motivate the actions.  What an amazing gateway to discuss the importance of feelings and the paths that feeling “justified” can take us.

Much like Darth Vader, Pitch's evil look makes a great "Book/Cover" discussion.

Much like Darth Vader, Pitch’s evil look makes a great “Book/Cover” discussion.

The Bad Guy, Reconsidered:  The first two books begin to set up Pitch as a tragic character, but this one brings this plotline to a new level, connecting him and Katherine in a very interesting way.  So what at first is a very stark line between the light and dark becomes more blurred, but not in a “no one is really good or evil” kind of way.  Instead, Joyce is speaking more to the paths in both intention and action that lead us down the road to good and evil.  This is a wonderful way to bring in a reconsideration of the nature and how we should treat the person we consider “The Bad Guy.”  Katherine’s actions contrast with the rest of the Guardians very starkly, setting up a heck of a cliffhanger and a heck of a discussion.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars.

Looking forward to meeting the "real" Jack Frost soon.

Looking forward to meeting the “real” Jack Frost soon.

What to Expect from the Movie
Well, you can read my review of the film here.  I found it disappointing, and it seems I’m not the only one as it seems the flop cost a lot of DreamWorks employees their jobs.  Of course, I liked John Carter, and that was even more of a flop, so box office isn’t always the best barometer of quality.

That said, most of my friends whose kids enjoyed the movie said that they had seen that first, then immediately jumped into the books.  Now that the DVD is out, that might be another solid pathway to getting your kids interested in reading this modern day classic.  But do note that, with the 3rd book, there seems now to be a more definite rift between what is in the books and what the movie was all about.  Especially because we’re going to get a look at Joyce’s version of Jack Frost in the next one.  I for one can’t wait to find out what happens next.

The Book Review: The Dangerous Days of Daniel X

April 10, 2013

I’ve mentioned that I have written a manuscript for a novel about a Super Hero who finds out that he can’t use his powers violently, The Adventures of…MightyDove! (If you know of any good agents out there, let me know!).  As part of my process, I have been reading other books in the Super Hero novel genre.  I’ve been focusing on the “non-comic book” variety, so no Superman, Spider-Man, etc.  Given I’m reading ‘em anyway, I thought I might as well double my pleasure and blog about them too.  So here it goes…

Daniel X CoverThe Book
The Dangerous Days of Daniel X, James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge.  First in the Daniel X series (of which there are currently five books).

Genre
Science Fiction/Super Hero

Age Appropriate
9 and up.  Daniel himself is a teenager, but the story feels much more middle-grade to me.  The bad guys are super-nasty irredeemably evil, and we get a fairly intense scene in the beginning detailing his parents’ demise at the hands of one of the baddies.  Language and intensity probably a bit much for the younger elementary school set, but I would say by 3rd or 4th grade, this will work just fine.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Not Really.  I’ll get to this more in my review, but I felt that this story was very “by the numbers.”  Very little about it felt fresh or original other than the core concept of Daniel’s power.  It moves along just fine and I can see how younger readers who haven’t experienced stories like this before might enjoy it.  But for adults, I can’t say I’d recommend this one on its own.

Book Availability
I got mine on iTunes for $6.99.  But because this is the ubiquitous James Patterson, you can find these books pretty much everywhere.  I’ve seen them at Target and Costco, among other places.  There is also graphic novel and manga versions of the story, for those who like pictures to go along with their Super Heroes.  Oh, and there’s a Nintendo DS game in case you just wanted to dispense with words altogether.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
15-year-old Daniel doesn’t have a last name.  His parents were killed when he was just three.  And did I mention he is a super-genius with super powers?  And he’s not from this planet?

Yes, Daniel’s parents were sent to Earth to protect the planet from other aliens who might seek to enslave humanity.  But their demise left their young son alone, and in charge of the list of evil otherworlders whom he must somehow defeat.

His solitude is somewhat ameliorated by his greatest ability: the power to create.  With only his mind, he can bring into existence anything he can imagine, from his parents and sister to a group of friends.  As long as he’s focused, they are as alive and independent as you and me.  But, while they are more than figments of his imagination, they are fated to eventually leave him alone once again.

Baddies have a kind of MIB feel, but without the tongue-in-cheek fun.

Baddies have a kind of MIB feel, but without the tongue-in-cheek fun.

His projected parents are not happy when he decides to jump to the No. 6 rated villain on the list, telling him he’s not ready for such a battle.  But Daniel’s heard that this Ergent Seth has an imminent plan for worldwide domination.  He has no choice to leap into the fray.

But Daniel doesn’t realize that loneliness is his Kryptonite, and Seth uses it to entrap and enslave our hero.  There he learns that he is just the latest victim of the villain’s campaign to exterminate his entire race.  Daniel must now find a way out of his seemingly hopeless predicament, or see both of his worlds exterminated.

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
I think that if you have a child who loves video games, but isn’t as into reading, this may very well , as that’s really what it reads like.  From the two-dimensional banter between Daniel and the various baddies, to their boss-monster battles complete with discussion of “power levels”—it all feels pretty much like a video game in words.

Frankly, that doesn’t do too much for me.

Had my teenage self created a girlfriend, I believe she would have looked like this.

Had my teenage self created a girlfriend, I believe she would have looked like this. How ’bout you?

The central facet of the book is an interesting one.  The main power that Daniel has is this power of creation.  And the fact that he creates his friends, and even a love interest, is a clever device.  Unfortunately, the internal battle he faces with this power are dealt with in a very cursory manner, while Patterson and Ledwidge instead decide to focus more on the cool ways he can use his power to get out of particular situations.  Perhaps a deeper exploration into what it means to have the power (and the danger) of being able to create anything out one’s mind will come in later books.  But here it is kept at a very surface level.  I would say “juvenile” but frankly I think most juveniles are ready for a richer experience than what Daniel X has to offer.

One of the biggest issues I had with the book had to do with Daniel himself.  I understand that a major part of YA books is the search for understanding who you are through the difficulties of adolescence.  But the super-genius, four star chef, alien hunter seemed divorced from that struggle.  When we is forced into a high school environment, the relationship he developed seemed unreal, and when that relationship goes terribly awry, it does so in a way not only contrived, but further separating Daniel from a struggle we can in any way relate to.   Once Daniel goes off-planet, the plot drowns in a derivative cascade of Sci-Fi archetypes from The Matrix to Star Wars.  The adorable scamp, the wise sage, the people on the edge of destruction, the final battle—you name it, it’s there without a single toy surprise in the pack.  The only word that comes to mind to describe the story is lazy.

Overall Read Score: 2 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Frankly, I didn’t find this book worthy of a lot of discussion.  I think there are a number of other books that deal with the basic themes here of being an outsider, the hero’s journey, and overcoming evil that would be far more worth your time.

As I noted, however, the one somewhat original concept that emerges in this book is Daniel’s power of creation.  But rather than spend the time and money on this book to have that discussion, I’d instead recommend you recommend that you fire up the Netflix streaming and…

(Don’t) Read It (and Instead) See It

While I cannot find any evidence online, it seems to me that the “X” in Daniel X might be an homage to another teen with the power of creation seen back in the 1960s.  That “X” would be Charlie X, of Star Trek the original series.

When the crew of the Enterprise receive the teenage Charlie after he was orphaned on a desolate planet, they take him back and reintroduce him to human civilization.  What they don’t realize is that he has developed incredible telekinetic powers that, in the hands of a petulant teenager, endangers the Enterprise, and perhaps the Federation itself.

She won't be smiling much longer.

She won’t be smiling much longer.

60’s kitschy effects aside, I think this is a great episode of TOS to watch with your child, especially if you have a boy.  Charlie is an antagonist, but not an evil enemy.  He is to be pitied and feared, not hated.  And it is highly likely that your boy, especially if he is on the cusp of adolescence himself, may well relate to Charlie’s feelings and impulsive decisions.  It also has funny moments, like Charlie slapping Janice Rand (Kirk’s on-ship squeeze) in the keester, thinking it’s just the way grown-ups say “See ya.”

So while Charlie X rarely makes it to the top of many people’s A-list of TOS episodes, it is actually a fantastic show for this particular demographic, and, to me, an infinitely superior way of addressing the only intriguing idea that comes from The Dangerous Days of Daniel X.  If you want to go more modern the movie Chronicle goes in a similar direction with a darker, more angsty feel (and it sounds like there’s a sequel on the way).

So as any good parent would say, put the book down, turn on that TV, and go learn something!