Danny the Champion of the World (Book Review)

Danny the Champion of the World (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
silly father-son stories hit the spot

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Danny the Champion of the World

By Roald Dahl

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Funny in both senses (haha and strange)

Roald Dahl’s books are morally fraught. They just are. They are a mixed bag of incredibly human impulses. If you try to sanitize his stories, you will erase the very heart of his characters. Danny and his dad are good guys, but (there’s no getting around it) they do some bad things. Funny things. But illegal and low-down, nonetheless.

If I’d known HOW morally mixed this story is, I may NOT have chosen it for our first summer read-aloud with my boys. But, it was a good opportunity for me to casually introduce them to the idea that sometimes the main characters in a book don’t always do the right thing.

What is so morally complicated here in this harmless children’s book?

Well, Danny and his dad are the two sweetest guys you’ll ever meet. They live a simple life in a camper next to the gas station that they own and operate. Danny is only 9 or so, still a kid. One day, his dad confesses that he’s a poacher. He wants to poach pheasants off of a rich neighbor’s land. The rich neighbor is a big, bad meanie, so who cares about him? Danny comes up with a brilliant idea for how they can poach over 100 pheasants in one night and ruin the rich man’s annual shooting party, embarrassing him in front of all his hoity-toity guests.

Um, that’s mean. And illegal. It’s robbing the rich to feed the poor, except nobody is starving, and Danny’s dad says outright that he loves poaching because of the thrill, not because he needs food. Danny and his dad are praised and never condemned for their actions or attitude. Their plot goes off with hilarious results…but the laughs are rather cheap.

Because Danny comes up with the grand idea for the poaching scheme, he’s dubbed the champion of the world. Sigh…this is wish fulfillment for kids. What kid wouldn’t want the grown-ups around him to lift him high and praise his brilliance? BUT…

…at the same time, I love how Danny is given independence. His dad doesn’t baby him. Danny isn’t a listless, depressed, anxious kid who feels like his life is meaningless. He is well on his way to maturity at the tender age of 9, knowing how to problem-solve, handle responsibility, and take calculated risks. There is a degree of merit here, especially for boys.

But, as a mom, I wanted there to be more of a reality check to balance this out.

Hey, it’s Roald Dahl, and you’ve got to know that going in.

3
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Book Review)

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’d like to read hands-down winner for best modern Christmas novel for kids

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

By Barbara Robinson

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A gang of troublemakers want to be in the church Christmas program. Hilarity ensues.

Seeing this play with my Brownies Troop was one of the formative events in my childhood. I still remember the girl who played Imogen swinging the baby Jesus doll around and Mrs. Robinson urging her to hold him like he was precious.

Reading this story was just as good as it’s ever been for me. It asks the question: What would happen if the neighborhood hooligans showed up at church and wanted to star in the Christmas pageant? What is a funny romp for kids is quite convicting for the parents who are reading it. At least it is for me.

My boys loved this book and laughed a lot. We read one chapter a day for a week, and it was a great experience.

Content warnings: The Herdman children smoke, steal, lie, and set things on fire, but it’s all melodrama, not real.

4.6
A Boy Called Christmas (Book Review)

A Boy Called Christmas (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to read a Santa-centric book to your kids.

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

A Boy Called Christmas

By Matt Haig

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

How did Santa Claus get to be Santa Claus? Here’s a cute origin story for ya.

This was pure fun. It’s an origin story for Santa Claus, as imagined by Matt Haig, author of The Midnight Library. There’s nothing about Jesus or the reality of Christmas—just the North Pole characters associated with the secular winter holidays. Despite lacking any faith element, it’s a cute, heartwarming story that reinforces the value of life, looking on the bright side, and finding joy in giving to others.

My kids know that Santa isn’t real. Every year, we read Gail Gibbons’s book “Santa Who?” because it discusses all of the different traditions and legends that have contributed to who Santa has become, starting with Jesus Christ, then moving to Saint Nicholas, and then beyond. We treat Santa as a character more than anything—like the Grinch or Scrooge. We visit Santa at the annual Christmas tree lighting. We lay out cookies and milk. I don’t want to deprive them of any childhood magic. But I’m not going to lie and tell them he’s real when he’s not. So, this book provided some Santa fun, and I felt that it helps to reinforce him as a fictional character vs. a reality.

We listened to the audiobook narrated by Stephen Fry, and it was adorable. He reads like Jim Dale, doing all the voices.

Content warnings: Nicholas is mistreated and betrayed, but there is nothing troublingly graphic here. I also want to emphasize that this book is secular and unconnected to any other Santa myths that I know of. There is no mention of religion of any kind, not even St. Nicholas.

I haven’t seen the movie—have you?

3.9
Goblabet (Book Review

Goblabet (Book Review

You’ll love it if
you enjoyed the movie Labyrinth, and you can’t resist a puzzle to solve

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Goblabet: An Alphabetical Murder Mystery

By Ken Priebe

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Can your kids crack the case of who killed the Goblin King?

What a fun concept! The Goblin king has been poisoned, and 26 suspects are called to defend their innocence. Three are guilty of murder, but which three? The answer is encoded into the book.

One goblin for each letter of the alphabet. One short poem per goblin. One simple code to crack. This is a fun, interactive book for kids.

My 8-year-old had fun decrypting the code and solving the case. But I think he had more fun pouring over the illustrations of each goblin, which are so expressive and flawlessly executed, even though they’re presented as “courtroom sketches” and, as such, are done in rough, sketchy form. They’re so funny and original.

The code is easy to crack, so that will appeal to younger kids, but the poetry is advanced, which will appeal to older kids. It would be fun to use this book as part of a poetry exploration for our homeschool—using the author’s concept to write original short-form poetry with a mystery embedded.

4.5
Twenty and Ten (Book Review)

Twenty and Ten (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you can’t resist a tight, tense WW2 story

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Twenty and Ten

By Claire Huchet Bishop

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Can a group of 20 French kids protect a group of 10 Jewish kids during WW2?

My two boys were RIVETED to this story. Granted, it starts slow, but by the end, they were hanging on every last word. This book contains five short chapters. You could read the whole thing in an hour or two, and it’d be well worth your time.

The story is simple. Twenty French children have been sent away to live in the safety of a convent during World War II. One day, the nun in charge introduces them to 10 new children, Jews. She tells them that the Nazis want to hurt these children, and they must all keep them safe and hidden. She makes each of the 20 French kids solemnly promise not to betray the 10 Jewish kids—no matter what.

All goes well until the Nazis pay a surprise visit when the nun is away on an errand. What will the children do when faced with this pressure and without any adult protection?

The story is told in the POV of one of the French girls, and this works so well because we’re better able to relate to her dilemma—things get tricky when the Nazis show up, and the kids have to think on their feet.

The book crescendos at the climax, where you’re not sure how things are going to play out, and then everything comes full circle, and you’re glad you read that first chapter, which started off slow, because it makes the ending all the more satisfying.

Content warnings: It’s made clear that the Jewish kids will be in danger if they are caught.

4.6
Book Uncle and Me (Book Review)

Book Uncle and Me (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’ve got a bookwormy kid who needs an easy read

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Book Uncle and Me

By Uma Krishnaswami

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Can one little girl save her neighborhood lending library?

This was one of the read-alouds that came with our homeschool curriculum. It was very quick, and my boys liked it, but it’s not going down as a family favorite.

The most interesting part of this story is the setting in India. A lot of our recent read-alouds have been set in the U.S. or in fantasyland, so this was a nice change, and it gave us a chance to discuss how things are different in other countries than they are here.

The main character is a young girl, Yasmin, who loves to read. She gets a new book every day from Book Uncle, a retired teacher who has a lending library on the street corner outside her apartment complex. When he’s forced to close up shop, Yasmin rallies the neighborhood to make Book Uncle a campaign issue in the mayoral election.

Thankfully, this didn’t get TOO political, and I think that the message here is “If it matters to you, then make it known” versus “Protest anything you don’t like.” With this being a presidential election year, it was a good way to get words like “election,” “campaign” and “vote” into the vocabulary of my very young children.

There were friendship and family issues in the book that helped balance out the focus on politics. And, in the end, readers are warned against putting their trust in political figures, which is something I agree with.

The book is written in Yasmin’s childish voice, and it’s very sweet and appealing for the younger set. It wasn’t too long and didn’t try to be “too much.” Overall, a good book, but not a standout.

Content warnings: None.

3.4
The Puppets of Spelhorst (Book Review)

The Puppets of Spelhorst (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you enjoyed the Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Puppets of Spelhorst

By Kate DiCamillo

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A collection of puppets go on a gentle adventure

By now, I know what to expect from Kate DiCamillo when it comes to a book like this. The Puppets of Spelhorst felt a lot like The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. It’s about a collection of puppets, and things happen to them, and they are changed. Very similar to Edward Tulane, who is a toy that things happen to, and he is changed.

It’s got big-time Velveteen Rabbit vibes, let’s just say that.

This book is charming, and like DiCamillo’s other books, the scope is intimate, but the themes are big. Although the puppets are inanimate, they have an inner life in which they think and communicate with one another (but they can’t move around or speak aloud like in Toy Story).

The big theme revolves around stories and their power. What is a puppet made for if not to tell a story? But the puppets don’t know who they are or what their story is.

All of the puppets start out by defining themselves in terms of what they have (a crown, sharp teeth, real feathers, etc.). But each puppet has a desire for something more (to have a real experience of some kind), and this desire is achieved in a small way by the end of the book. Of course, this led me to ask myself to what degree are we all puppetlike creatures who exist to play a part in a much larger story that we can’t control?

This book uses repetition like the Mercy Watson / Deckawoo Drive books do, and I can see why this might distract or exasperate some readers, but, for me, it slows me down and makes it crystal clear what the author wants me to pay attention to.

I read this book to myself in about an hour. I’m wondering if my boys will enjoy it, too, or if it’ll fly over their heads and leave them wondering what it was all about.

Content warnings: None

4
A Question of Yams (Book Review)

A Question of Yams (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to read a missionary-themed book with your young kids

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

A Question of Yams

By Gloria Repp
Illustrated by Roger Bruckner

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Great for kids who are starting to read on their own

This short book came with our homeschool curriculum, and my little boys enjoyed it. They easily could’ve read it themselves. It’s perfect for early readers (big font, few words on a page). And it has a strong Christian message.

Our protagonist, Kuri, is a young boy who lives in an African village where missionaries have converted his father to Christianity. It’s customary to pray to the spirits when planting your yearly yams, but Kuri’s father prays to Jesus instead. He gets pushback from the village Head Men, who warn him that the spirits will blight his crop.

The book is about what happens to Kuri and his family. Does God come through for them?

I like that this book shows that, after becoming a Christian, your life isn’t perfect, but you have God to turn to when tough times come. I also really liked how Kuri’s father prays for the Head Men instead of expressing hatred.

This wasn’t overly satisfying in the plot or character departments, but for a Christian kids’ book, it stands above the crowd.

3.8
The Ordinary Princess (Book Review)

The Ordinary Princess (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you enjoy fractured fairy tales (but gentle ones)

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Ordinary Princess

By M. M. Kaye (author and illustrator)

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

What would happen to a fairy tale princess if she were simply ordinary?

This book came with my homeschool curriculum. I didn’t think my 7- and 8-year-old boys would be interested, so I swapped this one with The Secret Garden, which they loved. That didn’t stop me from reading this tiny book for myself, though.

My copy came with a preface by the author, and I’m glad I didn’t skip it. She says that after going on a fairy-tale-reading-spree, she realized that most of the princesses fit a certain model—beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed, and graceful. This is only to be expected in fairy tales, right? But, the author, like so many before and after her, wondered how the story might change if the princess in question were ordinary. She said that she sat under a tree and wrote the whole thing by hand in one sitting.

This book isn’t exactly a retelling of any single tale (that I can think of). It nods mightily to Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, but it’s not a spinoff. It stars Amy, the seventh and youngest daughter of a noble kingdom, and she’s cursed with ordinariness.

Because she’s nothing special to look at, the king and queen can’t marry her off. Amy becomes so weary of the endless string of suitors who arrive, take one look at her, and then awkwardly contrive early departures. So, she must figure something out—and that something is her future.

The curse turns into a blessing. Amy learns the virtues of independent thought, hard work, and healthy physical exertion out of doors, all of which (come to think of it) line up neatly with The Secret Garden.

This book is short and takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to fairy tales, mildly mocking them. It reminds me of About the Sleeping Beauty by P. L. Travers. It’s long been fashionable to recast these timeless tales to suit modern tastes, pointing out how sexist and violent the originals are, and aren’t we much better in this day and age? But, we’re not better, and it does no good to scoff at folklore, myth, and fairy tales. But it’s okay to look at them and wonder why. Wonder how and if. What else are they for if not that?

4
What the Moon Said (Book Review)

What the Moon Said (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you loved Sweet Home Alaska or any of the Little House books.

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

What the Moon Said

By Gayle Rosengren

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

How will 10-year-old Esther survive now that her family must move from the city to a farm due to the Great Depression?

What a sweet, heartfelt book! I read it in just over a day, and it’s perfect for kids who love pioneer or homesteading books.
It’s the Great Depression, and we see one year in the life of 10-year-old Esther. All she wants is to earn her mother’s love. Her Russian immigrant mom is exacting and superstitious. She scolds easily, worries constantly, and hugs not at all. What can Esther do to make Ma love her?

When Esther’s dad loses his job in Chicago, the family moves to a Wisconsin farm to try country life. How will Esther adjust?

This story has two strong journeys: the outer journey: Will the family make it on the farm? And the inner journey: Will Esther at long last receive her mother’s love? This makes it a simple yet layered growing-up tale.

It is a sweet story, with lots of emotion. I got teary-eyed a few times. I appreciate how the book doesn’t villainize the city or the country. I also love how there is a faith element. The family prays and goes to church. Ma and Pa also carry a lot of superstitions from the Old Country, and it’s interesting to see how that’s handled.

The reading level is low, so younger kids should be able to tackle it. The plot touches on many universal “kid dilemmas” that anyone can relate to, and it also opens a window to a distinct time in history and how people lived back then.

I got this book recommendation from this list of page-turners.

Content warnings: Nothing graphic or overly scary. However, one character has a medical emergency that requires hospitalization. One character chokes on food.

4.6
The Big Wave (Book Review)

The Big Wave (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want a discussable short story for kids that’s set in Japan

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Big Wave

By Pearl S. Buck

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

How do you live between a tsunami and a volcano?

This book is really more of a short story. I can’t remember how this tiny paperback came to me—my LFL? Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth was a formative reading experience for me in my 20s, so anything with her name on it gets my attention. This story, however, was…hmm…

I’m not sure exactly what it’s trying to say. What was Buck, a Christian missionary, trying to capture here? I get the sense that she’s not necessarily portraying her own view as a Christian but perhaps giving a snapshot of an alternate cultural viewpoint…

The story takes place in a Japanese seaside village. The fishermen and their families have a deep fear of the ocean, even though it’s what sustains life for them. They know that, at any moment, a storm or tsunami can devasate them and take their lives. They build homes with no ocean-facing windows because they don’t want to…face the fear, I guess? Inland, there’s an active volcano that causes earthquakes. The people know that, between the ocean and the volcano, it’s just a matter of time before disaster strikes. This is true of life, no matter where you live or how safe you may feel.

The characters conclude that living in a dangerous place makes them brave and helps them better appreciate times of peace and happiness. I guess this is true in a general sense. We can see the light because of the darkness kinda thing. I just wish there was a clearer, firmer foundation to build on than what Buck offers here. The ending of the book sees one of the main characters literally building a house on sand. What are we supposed to make of that?

The best element of the story, for me, is when Jiya must decide whether to live with the poor farmers or the rich old gentleman. On the one hand, he can claim a life of safety, plenty, and opportunity. On the other, he can live humbly but also in the midst of uncertainty and possible privation. Most people don’t get to make this choice, but if they did, what would they choose?

Lots of potential for discussion here. But not a big favorite.

3.4
Timmi Tobbson: Legend of the Star Runner (Book Review)

Timmi Tobbson: Legend of the Star Runner (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’ve got a clue-loving kid who can’t resist an interactive mystery

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Legend of the Star Runner (Timmi Tobbson)

By J.I. Wagner
Translated by Tracy Phua
Illustrated by Cindy Foehlich

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

At the end of each short chapter, there’s a clue to solve that moves you a step closer to uncovering a mystery.

That made me curious enough to give this book a try with my 7- and 8-year-olds. They have short attention spans, so we read one to two chapters per day, and we had fun solving the little clues. Some were easy and satisfying, but others were tough enough to flex our mental muscles.

The story is written from the POV of Timmi Tobbson, average kid. He has two friends, Lilli and Marvin. One summer day, they realize they need to help save Lilli’s grandpa’s house from getting repo’ed. This leads them on a wild goose chase through many crazy locations in their historic town.

The fun thing about the clues is that you must look closely at the illustrations that appear at the end of each chapter, and those pictures give you clues to help you answer the accompanying “clue question.”

The concept of this book is just wonderful. The clues and illustrations are very well done. The writing and story elements were not quite as strong. We do have the second and third books in the series, so my boys will see how the series unfolds if they choose to read these independently. I won’t be continuing the series as a read-aloud.

3.3