Monday, March 14, 2011


Reviewed by Sarah
Title: Hoggee
Author: Anna Myers
Primary Audience/age group: Ages 9-12
Genre: Coming of Age, Historical Fiction
# Of pages: 180
Publisher: Walker & Company
Year of Release: 2004
Part of a Series? No
Rating: 5 (View Scale)
Recommend? Yes

Description: (from book jacket) Howard Gardner is starving to death. All spring and summer of 1837, Howard and his older, more charming brother Jack worked as hoggees, driving the mules that pulled boats along the Erie Canal. In a misguided attempt to outshine his brother, Howard chooses to stay behind in Birchport for the winter to save his traveling money and send it home to his family. After his winter job falls through, Howard fears that he might not survive the winter. As desperate as Howard is, he is haunted by the sadness he sees in the eyes of Sarah, the granddaughter of the man who keeps the mules. Even though she's older than her two sisters, she never speaks, and she seems completely disconnected from the world. Sarah's family won't discuss her problem with outsiders, but Howard longs to help her in any way he can, and his quest to do so eventually reveals to him how he truly compares to his brother.

Review: This book not only provides an unusual take on the Erie Canal – from the view of the mule driver – but tells the story of a young boy who matures into a man, learning to appreciate his own strengths and stand up for his own passions.

Rating: 5

Positive: In Howard’s words, Jack is “strong and quick. He always does what’s right and doesn’t make blunders.” Jack is very competitive – and always wins, so that Howard always feels inferior in comparison. However, what Howard can’t see is that he has  great heart – as shown by his sympathy for Sarah’s loneliness and dedication to teaching her sign language. Where Jack is overly competitive and arrogant, Howard wins friends through his quieter, caring nature. By the end of the book Howard ends his mental comparison to his brother, and is content with who he is. Although the family that owns the barn Howard sleeps in ignores him at first, they are kindly and invite him in for Christmas dinner, and take care of him when he needs help.

Howard finds a purse of money on the ground after Mac beats him up, and instead of simply keeping it out of revenge tries to return it to Mac’s employer, though she insists he keep it.

Spiritual Elements: When something bad happens (no details to avoid spoiler), prayer is mentioned, but it doesn’t play a large part in the book.

Violence: Howard’s brother defends him when he accuses a mean-spirited hoggee, Mac, of whipping one of the mules. Mac later beats Howard up out of spite. A bridge collapses.

Language: One use of the word “bloody”

Sexual Content: None.

Other: None.

Recommendation: Howard’s caring character and conquering of his unhealthy comparison to his older brother makes Hoggee an enjoyable read. This book would also be excellent for homeschoolers if you’re studying the Erie Canal or American Sign Language!

Howl's Moving Castle

Reviewed by Sarah
Title: Howl’s Moving Castle
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Primary Audience/age group: Ages 9-12
Genre: Fantasy
# Of pages: 329
Publisher: Harper Trophy
Year of Release: 2001 (first published in 1986)
Part of a Series? There are 2 sequels, but this book can easily be read alone.
Rating: 5 (View Scale)
Recommend? Yes

Description: (from book jacket) Sophie lived in the town of Market Chipping, which was in Ingary, a land in which anything could happen, and often did – especially when the Witch of the Waste got her dander up. Which was often.

As her younger sisters set out to seek their fortunes, Sophie stayed in her father’s hat shop. Which proved most unadventurous, until the Witch of the Waste came in to buy a bonnet, but was not pleased. Which is why she turned Sophie into an old lady. Which was spiteful witchery.

Now Sophie must seek her own fortune. Which means striking a bargain with the lecherous Wizard Howl. Which means entering his ever-moving castle, taming a blue fire-demon, and meeting the Witch of the Waste head-on. Which was more than Sophie bargained for…

Review: Once started, this book is hard to put down! In Sophie, Howl, Calcifer, and all the other characters in this book, Jones has created a unique, engaging book middle-graders up to adults will enjoy. I have read this book several times, and each time I notice new things/sentences that make me laugh. This would also be a great book to read aloud with the whole family.

There is also a movie of this book which many people may have seen – see my note about the comparison between the book and movie at the end of this review.

Rating: 5

Positive: This book can serve as an example of looking beyond someone’s exterior. From the outside, Sophie and Howl… in fact most of the characters in this book… are not who they appear to be from first glance. There are depths to their character that would be missed if they were simply taken at face value.

Howl is a multi-faceted character and certainly not your ordinary, clich̩ charmer Рa fact you could either love or dislike! Within his character though, there is a deep care for his family and a protectiveness for those under his charge.

Spiritual Elements: The force that moves Howl’s castle - and whose relationship to Howl plays a large part in the “puzzles” Sophie must figure out - is a “fire-demon” named Calcifer. I’m not sure why the author used the word “demon”, but this character is not a demon as we understand the word from the Bible. I didn’t find the name concerning because Calcifer was not a demon – there was no connection whatsoever to Satan or spiritual, demonic powers – in fact, he had quite another origin. (I’m trying hard to refrain from plot spoilers!)

Some parents may set down this book if they simply read the book’s back cover and notice the word “demon”, but I don’t believe the word is concerning – for the reasons stated above.

Violence: Howl battles another wizard, but there’s no gore, mostly just thrown fireballs. Someone’s beat with a stick. That’s about it.

Language: One “d**nation”, also “h***’s teeth”

Sexual Content: None

Other: There is magic in this book, but that’s pretty self-evident from the cover, etc. I didn’t find it disturbing as it’s a light-hearted magic – even the “bad guys” are not foul or too disturbing.

Howl has a skull sitting in his workshop. At one point Howl moves the castle and in order to do that chalks weird symbols all over the room. There’s a living scarecrow in the story, some younger children may find that image disturbing. Howl comes home drunk once.

Recommendation: This book is clean and enjoyable. Anyone from junior high students, to older teenagers, to adults, will enjoy Diana Wynne Jones’ quirky writing! You will fall in love with Sophie, Calcifer, Michael, even (okay, especially) the eccentric Wizard Howl! Make sure to check out the sequels.

As I mentioned above, there is also a movie “Howl’s Moving Castle”, made by Hayao Miyazaki (a sort of Japanese Walt Disney). Some people have only seen the movie, and never read the book. I have read/seen both the book and the movie and thoroughly enjoyed them both, and I encourage those who have only experienced one to read/see the other, as both mediums approach the story in different ways. My only comment for the movie is that those who are not used to Japanese movies may find it a bit odd – their techniques are different from our animated movies, a reflection of how their culture is different from ours. Not bad, just different.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Through Thick and Thin

Reviewed by: Shawna
Author: Sandra Byrd
Primary Audience/age group: 10-12
Genre: Contemporary Christian
# of pages 271
Publisher: Tyndale
Year of Release: 2010
Part of a series Yes, 2 of 4 (London Confidential Series)
Rating: 5 (View Scale)
Recommend? Yes

Description: Now that Savvy has landed a permanent gig on the newspaper staff as the anonymous advice columnist at her prestigious British high school, she is finally getting some recognition for her talent…Oh wait – anonymous -- meaning no one knows she’s the pen behind the ever-growing popular column. Since she really wants the credit she has a few ideas to gain a real byline, but will she abandon her Christian values in order to be recognized?

Review: Sandra Byrd’s second in the London Confidential series is just as fun-loving and witty as the first with a deeper glimpse into some of the secondary characters from the first novel like Penny, snobby newspaper staffer who rivals Savvy. Savvy continues with her advice column but gets so caught up in making a name for herself on the paper that she tries to be someone she’s not. She has to make a few hard choices, but in the end allows God to help her do the right thing. The book is a quick, fun read that will capture the attention of younger teens and help them learn a few valuable lessons.

Rating: 5 for good Christian values

Positive: Savvy learns some hard lessons about judging others based on outward appearance and about trying to be someone she’s not.

Spiritual Elements: Savvy uses her column to offer advice based from the Bible but isn’t really allowed to quote from Scripture in the paper although the Scripture references are given within the book. Savvy’s pastor talks about spiritual gifts, and she thinks hers is helping others. She feels the Holy Spirit speaking to her and encouraging her to do the right thing.

Violence: none

Language: none

Sexual Content: a quick kiss between two newspaper staff members

Other: Savvy mentions having to wear beer goggles in a class to show teens how dangerous drunkenness is. Savvy waits to confess a lie so that she wouldn’t be grounded from an upcoming event.

Recommendation: Savvy is a positive role-model who learns and grows through her mistakes. I think many teens will find the series a great read. I recommend it for any pre-teen and teen ages 10 and up.