Friday, April 27, 2012

The Book Thief

by Markus Zusak
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Copyright © 2006

“The Book Thief” is a dramatic and amazingly haunting story of ordinary people in Germany during World War II. The perspectives of this tale, however, are anything but ordinary.

Death, it is everywhere. Dying of old age or sickness is bad enough, but oh so often humans die at the hands of other humans. It is a wonder we haven’t exterminated ourselves. In this story we are taken to a time and a place where this had never been truer – Germany during World War II. It is in this hellish place that the personification of Death chooses to show why we (humans) are worth the effort, and it is through the story of a young girl.

Liesel is on a train with her mother and brother. They are bound for the town of Molching near Munich where the two siblings will be left with new foster parents. On the train ride Liesel’s brother dies and she and her mother are forced to get off at the next stop to arrange for his burial. It was in this place that she stole the first of many books.

After her brother is buried they board another train to finish their trip. Liesel is left with her foster parents, the Hubermann’s. Rosa Hubermann is a loud woman with a lethal mouth and Hans Hubermann is a quiet man with a kind heart. It is in this home where Liesel learns to read, and it is here that she learns that words can have great power for good and for bad. Poor Liesel will see both first hand as her life intertwines with that of a Jewish street fighter, the German Jesse Owens, various fanatical Germans, and of course her foster parents.

“The Book Thief” is a different take on an often written about time period. Many Holocaust novels seem to be written from the viewpoint of a Jewish person; however Zusak’s protagonist is a young German girl who is displayed as something of a heroine. This is interesting to me, because we generally like to pigeonhole Germans from that era as being horrible people who were rabid supporters of “the Fuhrer.” Zusak puts some cracks in that stereotype, to help us see that there were those who were likely very good people, who were caught up in a very dangerous situation. 

I also thought that the author pulled off an interesting twist in perspective, by making the narrator of this tale be the death personified, the grim reaper if you will. I don’t believe in the immortality of the soul as the author suggests it at times; however as a fictional storytelling device it works well as a way to insert an outside/otherworldly view or opinion. I’m not sure if this has been done before, but I genuinely liked it. I think the story would have been good without it, but it is such an emotional tale that it helps give the reader some distance and some foreshadowing to prepare them for what is to come.

Though this book was written for young adults, some books transcend age limitations. “The Book Thief” tells a story that portrays what is beautiful and what is ugly about the human creature, and the way in which we use words. This book should be on the must read list of anyone 13 to 113.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Distant Enemy

By Deb Vanasse
Published by Lodestar Books
Copyright © 1997

“A Distant Enemy” is the story of Joseph, a 14 year old Yup’ik Eskimo from Southwestern Alaska. When we first meet Joseph he is fishing with his grandfather even though Alaska fish and game has closed down the Salmon season early to preserve the stock. Joseph is very angry, because for longer than he has been alive the Yup’ik way of life has been encroached upon by the kass’aq, white people, and now they are putting a limit on how long his people can fish for salmon from the river. To Joseph the kass’aq is the enemy.

Joseph is so angry that when the fish & game officers come to their village he slashes the tires of their airplane. Joseph believes that no one has seen him, but he has been seen by the new kass’aq school teacher. This new teacher does not turn Joseph in and tries to help him. While Joseph has no choice but to accept the teachers offer for help he is still ungrateful; he views it as more kass’aq meddling.

Much of Joseph’s anger stems from the fact that he is half white, and his white father abandoned his family. Joseph’s uncontrolled anger continues to get the best of him and he ends up hurting and disappointing those who care for him. In the end his anger hurts him the most as it nearly costs him his own life.

Deb Vanasse has created for us very real character that likely embodies the feelings and struggles of many native peoples of Alaska and other parts of this country. Thankfully however, this book is not about injustice of the white man. It is instead about being non-judgmental and about how anger can eat you up inside until you ruin yourself (among other things). Though I was left with a few questions at the end, finding these lessons in such an entertaining story set in such a rich cultural and geographic backdrop was a pleasure.


By Jessie Haas
Illustrated by Jos. A. Smith
Published by Greenwillow Books
Copyright © 1996

I was born in Northwestern Massachusetts, just south of the Vermont line. This is still very much near the heart of maple sugaring country. As a matter of fact we only lived a few miles from Gould’s Sugarhouse which was on route 2 also called the Mohawk Trail. Living in rural New England spoils a lad when it comes to maple syrup; no Mrs. Butterworth’s or Log Cabin for me. Though I no longer live in New England I am very fortunate to live in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania which is also a maple syrup producing area. It is because of my love of maple syrup that I read the children’s picture book “Sugaring.”

Early spring is sugaring season, and Nora is collecting sap with her Gramp. The sap itself tastes like sweet water. And they can’t wait to get it back to their sugar shack to make it into something even sweeter, maple syrup. Nora also helps her Gramp as he boils down the sap. When they finally have maple syrup Nora thinks that the horses should have some since they did all the hauling.

“Sugaring” is entertaining and informative look at the charming and old fashioned process of maple sugaring.  It provides us with the simple details of how sap is collected and turned into maple syrup while at the same time telling the story of a girl who thinks that all workers, even horses, should be rewarded for their labor.

Of course, sadly, maple syrup is rarely collected with buckets, horses, and sleds anymore. Often they use tubing that is gravity fed down to the sugarhouse. And while wood is still used to heat the evaporators some producers use oil or other fossil fuels. If you are fortunate though you will still find an operation that keeps the old fashioned tradition of making maple syrup alive.

“Sugaring” is a great book to read with inquisitive children (ages 4-8) who want to know where maple syrup comes from. I plan on making its reading an addition to my own personal maple festival.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Free Book! - "Cliques, hicks, and ugly sticks" by KD McCrite

Free Book!

In general, GR8 RēDZ, which is really only one person who loves to read, is just a blog on which to put my book reviews. Sometimes, however I realize that I have more books than I'm going to be able to read, so you may find the occasional book giveaway. And who doesn't like a free book, right? So, here is one for you.

Cliques, hicks and ugly sticks
Confessions of April Grace Series
Published by Thomas Nelson
Copyright © 2011

“A clique of mean girls, a grandma – yes, you heard it – a grandma stuck in a love triangle, a church pageant run by a dictator, and a mom who is acting very mysterious – it all sounds like a disaster, but it’s just another day in the super funny life of April Grace Reilly.” (From the book cover)

I am giving away a signed copy of “Cliques, hicks, and ugly sticks” by KD McCrite to a GR8 RēDZ follower. To enter the giveaway be sure to follow this blog and then send an e-mail to with the words "Cliques Giveaway" in the subject line and just include your first and last name in the body of the e-mail.

The winner will be contacted soon after by e-mail. Since  GR8 RēDZ  pays for the shipping, this giveaway is limited to my readers within the US and Canada. I never distribute or sell reader's e-mail addresses or mailing addresses.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Explorer: The Mystery Boxes

Edited by Kazu Kibuishi
Published by Amulet Books
Copyright © 2012

“Explorer: They Mystery Boxes” is a beautiful, fun, and original collection of short graphic fantasy stories created by 8 excellent comic writers and illustrators.

Under the Floorboards (by Emily Carrol) is the story of a young girl who finds a box under the floorboards of her bed. In the box she finds a note and a wax doll. This doll is alive and while it seems helpful it soon lets its true colors show.

Spring Cleaning (by Dave Roman & Raina Telgemeier) is the story of a young boy who has to clean out his closet. His brother suggests that he sell some of his stuff online, but when he tries to sell an odd box it catches the attention of three very eager wizards.

The Keepers Treasure (by Jason Caffoe) tells the story of an intrepid treasure hunter who makes it through a land filled with dinosaurs, chest-deep bogs, and “glacial wastelands” only to find that his final destination comes replete with a Labyrinth and its guardian who will lead him to the box he’s looking for.

The Butter Thief (by Rad Sechrist) tells the story of a little Japanese spirit who likes to steal butter from the refrigerator until grandmother traps it in a box. That is when the fun really starts for her granddaughter who just has to see what she actually caught.

The Soldier’s Daughter (by Stuart Livingston w/Stephanie Ramirez)
is the story of two siblings who have lost their father in a war. The daughter feels a compulsion to seek vengeance for her father’s death. A stranger with a visionary box shows her what she must do.

Whatzit (by Johanne Matte w/Saymone Phanekham) is a comical tale of alien warehouse hi-jinks. When Deet gets a big promotion by his grandpa to help with stocking the Grand Universal Exhibition he finds that the job might be more than he can handle when he finds and opens a box marked “?”.

The Escape Option (by Kazu Kibuishi ) is a story about a seemingly random hiker and the extinction of the human race. James is hiking in the wilderness where he happens upon a huge mechanical floating box which sucks him in and gives him the option of saving himself from mankind’s fate.

Click to buy
Kibuishi has given us a collection of graphic stories/comics that are unique and different from each other in all ways but one. Each story contains a mysterious box. Whether it is the box, that is unusual or what is in the box, these writers/illustrators have created stories that are thoughtful, haunting, and even funny. Some of the stories have morals and some have punch lines, but all of them are well written and colorful. I particularly enjoyed “Whatzit” and “The Escape Option” because I don’t think there are enough alien stories anymore. Comics/graphic novel fans of any age will enjoy this compilation, but it is most suited to children ages 10 and up. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


By Roald Dahl
Illustrations by Quentin Blake
Published by Farrar • Straus • Giroux
Copyright © 1982

The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) is just another example of Roald Dahl’s childlike imagination combining with his social awareness, making for a moralistic tale that children can’t help but like.

Sophie lives in an orphanage. It is not a very nice place to live because the supervisors are very strict and love to punish children. One night Sophie could not sleep, and even though she knew she could be punished she got out of bed and tiptoed to the window where the moonlight was beaming through. When she looked out the window the homes and streets all around were quiet and there was nothing moving about. Soon however, she noticed a large shadowy figure looking into people homes. As he got closer to the orphanage Sophie went quickly back to her bed. But soon the large creature was at the orphanage and he reached in, grabbed Sophie, and ran speedily away.

Sophie was fortunate however, she had been kidnapped by the BFG. Had it been any other Giant she would have been eaten on the spot, but the BFG did not like to eat people.  He merely skulked around so that he could blow good dreams into children’s rooms. The BFG had to kidnap Sophie because she had seen him, and she certainly would have told everyone what she had seen first thing in the morning, and then they would have tried to capture him.

The BFG had problems enough back in Giantland without worrying about being caught by people. In Giantland the BFG was actually a runt; the other giants were twice his size. They were mean, cruel, and people eaters. They took every opportunity they could to bully the poor BFG, and every night they would run off to various countries and eat unsuspecting people. But now that Sophie was living with the BFG in Giantland this would have to stop.

In the BFG Roald Dahl tells the enjoyable story of an orphaned girl and a friendly and funny talking giant who become friends and find away to stop the mean giants. The funny made up words and names in this book are pure Dahl. While it is written from Sophie’s viewpoint, it is the BFG who steals the show because he is so silly and lovable. What I really enjoyed about this book was the lesson behind the story. While each creature has its own morality (rules for what is right or wrong) humans are the only ones that think it is okay to purposefully hurt others of their own kind. Giants would certainly never do this. Even though the other giants treat the BFG badly they would never kill him. This isn’t my favorite Dahl book, but it is one of my favorite morals. And this is a book that children 7 and up would likely enjoy.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Who Was First?: Discovering the Americas

By Russell Freedman
Published by Clarion Books
Copyright © 2007

We are all taught in grade school that “in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. Columbus is given much of the credit for discovery the Americas. We still have national holiday designated for his seeming accomplishment. But did Christopher Columbus really discover America?

“Who was first?” examines that question in relative detail providing accurate summations of probable discoverers of America prior to 1492. This list includes among others the Chinese and of course the Vikings. Though the evidence seems a bit light on the side of the Chinese the case is made that it is certainly within the realm of possibility. On the other hand there seems to be much more proof to crown the Vikings as discoverers of America which pre-dates Chinese exploration and makes it a moot point.     

However no discussion of the discovery of America would be complete without taking a look at the Native Americans who were already present in the time of Columbus and the Viking’s Leif Eriksson. The question is briefly posed: where did these natives come from? The Answer that we are familiar with is that they came across Beringia (the arctic land bridge) from Asia, but there is some thought that their may be some natives of European origin as well. While some may not agree with the Radio-carbon dates provided in this portion of the book, The Native migration order, fossil finds, and routes of travel are more or less accurate if not the dates.

“Who was First?” is a great educational book for the 4th through the 8th grade. It is even a good book for the adult looking for clear and succinct information on the subject, as it was a quick read and it kept my attention.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Thirteen Reasons Why

Thirteen Reasons Why
by Jay Asher
Published by Razor Bill
Copyright © 2007

This is one of the most compelling books I’ve read in a long time. Suicide is certainly not a pick me up, make me feel better subject. But Asher’s use of double narrative and the mystery of motive grab you and don’t let you go.

Clay Jensen comes home from school and finds a package on his front porch addressed to him. His life has already bruised by the suicide of Hannah Baker, but what he finds in that package will shatter him.

Hannah Baker committed suicide a couple of weeks ago, and nobody knew why? She did though, and she decided to share those reasons. Not with the entire world mind you, not unless they forced her. She made a list of the thirteen people who had altered her life since she had moved to this town. She then recorded seven audio cassettes, one side per a person and told the story of their interaction. Before she kills herself she sends these tapes to the first person on her list.

At the very beginning of her recording she instructs the listener that when they are done with the tapes that they must send them on to the next person on the list or else there is a second set of tapes that will go public. Why does she do this? Because she wants everyone on the list to understand that what they do and say has an effect. Everyone and everything is connected in some way.

We see the impact of these tapes through the thoughts and reactions of Clay Jensen. Clay immediately wonders why he is on these tapes, because he can’t think of anything that he did to Hannah Baker. To the contrary he really liked her and was a bit too shy to talk to her the way he wanted. But he listens anyway and we listen along with him as Hannah narrates her story.

“Thirteen Reasons Why” is a bit mysterious and mildly disturbing. While the content of this book may be a bit mature in places, I think that this is a book that every teen (13 and up) should read at some point during their high school careers. This tale is not so much a rally against suicide as it is a rally for compassion. So many times we do and say things that we think will have no effect on others, and other times we are just outright selfish and don’t care about others. This book is begs you to think about what you are doing. This book is a call to action. If you see someone who displays suicidal tendencies show them that you care and don’t give up just because they push you away. Sometimes how hard you try shows how much you care.

Monday, April 9, 2012


By Jane Yolen
Illustrated by Mike Cavallaro
Published by :01 First Second
Copyright © 2010

Foiled is a wonderful new Graphic Novel. Aliera Carstairs is a fencing phenom. Her mom is a seasoned veteran…in shopping on the cheap. At one particular Tag Sale at a school Aliera’s mother finds her a practice foil for fencing class and purchases it for $2.00! It is a very good foil except for this tacky looking fake ruby on the end of the handle. Aliera wants to remove it, but she can’t.

While Aliera is hot stuff in fencing class, in High School, she is pretty much ignored. This doesn’t seem to bother her much until a new kid comes to school. He is absolutely gorgeous, beautiful even, and he ends up being her science partner. Aliera finds herself very attracted to him, but very irritated by him all at the same time. There is something not quite right about him, but she just can’t figure it out. When he asks her out on a date, she soon realizes that things are certainly not what they seem.

The lead character in this graphic novel is a strong independent female, but this book should appeal to boys with its sword play (sorry weapon play — read the book you’ll get the correction) and its hint of the supernatural. I really enjoyed the use of fencing for this novel; it is a very athletic sport that doesn’t get the attention it should. This is a great teen read.

Shakespeare Bats Cleanup

by Ron Koertge
Published by Candlewick Press
Copyright © 2003

I am a big baseball fan, and I just so happen to like poetry. There is something about the game of baseball that brings out the poet and writer in many men. The game has a soul. It’s contemplative. It’s youth at it’s core. Author, Ron Koertge, gives us just a little touch of that in this book.

 Kevin Boland loves baseball. Well baseball and girls – he is 14 hello. But baseball seems to be his life he is a great first baseman with a sweet stroke. But when he catches mono his baseball life is derailed. He is too sick and weak to play ball. Since he is pretty much confined to his house and tired much of the time Kevin picks one of his Dad’s books on poetry styles. He starts to write just to have something to do, but it isn’t until he gets better and he can do whatever he wants that he realizes what he really wants to do is write poetry. He hasn’t dropped baseball, but he realizes that he enjoys writing as well.

Kevin’s poetry is a reflection of his personal life. At first it is mostly about baseball, but soon he finds himself writing about the loss of his mother, his father’s coping skills, and of course girls.

This quick, but wonderful, read is especially great for tween and early teen boys. I think it really shows that while sports are fun, and to some extent important, they are not life. I also think that Kevin’s character shows that being sensitive doesn’t mean being week, it means being able to share how you feel. Great book!