Monday, April 24, 2006

Middle-Grade Fiction: The Roman Mysteries

My 11-year old son, Jamie, was assigned to read a mystery book and an historical fiction book for his 6th grade Reading class. Browsing the shelves of the library, we came across a single series that met both requirements, and we discovered a new household favorite.

Imagine if Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys traveled back in time to Ancient Rome, and you have a sense of
Caroline Lawrence's The Roman Mysteries series. The books succeed on two levels. They are fast-paced, suspenseful mysteries that keep you turning the pages way past bedtime, as well as fascinating and accurate accounts of life in ancient Rome.

The first book, The Thieves of Ostia, takes place in 79 AD in the Roman port city of Ostia. Twelve-year old Flavia, the daughter of a sea captain, meets her three new friends in this book: Jonathan, son of a Jewish doctor; Nubia, an African slave girl rescued by Flavia; and Lupus, a mute beggar boy. Yes, it seems like an unlikely group of friends, but it works. Lawrence makes the characters seem real and worthy of our attention.

Like most young sleuths of fiction, the four children encounter new mysteries to solve in each book, from determining who is killing neighborhood dogs in the first book to tracking down kidnappers and missing children in The Pirates of Pompeii
to finding the source of a plague in The Enemies of Jupiter.

While the mysteries are exciting, it's just as compelling to read about the children's daily lives. Woven into the books are many details of food, clothing, architecture, and culture. In book #2, Secrets of Vesuvius, we experience the famous volcanic eruption with the children; in The Gladiators of Capua, we witness the games and shows of the new Colosseum. The books also offer a broadening world view as they deal with issues like slavery and religious tolerance.

Lawrence's books have been acclaimed for their accurate historical portrayal. In some cases, this means dealing with issues that are violent or otherwise distasteful to our modern sensibilities, like the realities of slavery or the gory fate of many of the participants at the Colosseum. To counter these sometimes gruesome details, the main characters tend to react in ways that we would today - sickened by mistreatment of slaves or the "games" at the Coliseum, for instance. Some critics have complained that the main characters' actions (and, indeed, their unique friendship) mars the historical accuracy, but I like the way Lawrence deals with the unsavory aspects of the time by providing admirable heroes and heroines that modern kids can relate to and respect.

When we go to the library, Jamie immediately heads to the L's to see if any of Lawrence's books are available (they're often all checked out). He and I have both enjoyed reading this unique series, and Jamie is very excited about studying Ancient Rome in Social Studies now.

(1/09 Update: The series has become so popular that the author is now planning to write 17 books in in the series, rather than the original twelve. BBC has created a highly-acclaimed television show based on the books that currently airs in the UK and Australia (not yet in the U.S. or on U.S.-formatted DVD). The author has also published two volumes of mini-adventures (for younger readers), several quiz books, and a travel guide. Besides being a hit with kids, these books have become favorites of many teachers because of their historical accuracy in describing daily life in Ancient Rome. )

P.S. If you're a Roman Mysteries fan, check out the website and the author's blog.

Latest Release 1/09 - #16

Saturday, March 4, 2006

Middle-Grade Fiction: The Underland Chronicles

Life has been especially hectic lately, so I haven't had much time to myself for reading. One thing we always make time for, though, is our nightly ritual of reading to our two boys. At 8 and 11 years old, Craig and Jamie are both proficient readers on their own. In Jamie's case, voracious might be a better descriptor; he devours books in big, hungry bites, one after another. Even though both boys can now read independently, my husband and I still read to them at bedtime. Our selections over the years have evolved from Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry to lengthy chapter books, often infused with adventure and magic.

For several months now, all four of us have been thoroughly engrossed in The Underland Chronicles, a five-book series by Suzanne Collins. We have been so taken with this exciting, well-written series that I reviewed it for FamilyFun magazine (see the review in the May 2006 issue).

In the first book, Gregor the Overlander, Collins introduces us to the series' unlikely hero. Gregor is a typical 11-year old boy until the day that he literally falls into the Underland, a whole world existing underneath New York City. The Underland is populated by pale-skinned, violet-eyed humans, as well as human-sized bats, rats, and cockroaches.

I know what you're thinking...if anyone had told me I'd enjoy books filled with enormous creepy-crawlers, I'd have thought they were crazy. Besides having a fabulous imagination, Suzanne Collins is a talented writer, filling her books with suspenseful fast-moving plots, in-depth characters, and enough humor to offset the fright factor. In fact, I not only enjoy these books along with my boys, I've even come to care about many of the oversized critters.

Gregor and his two-year old sister Boots find themselves pulled into the conflicts of the Underland. Along the way, Gregor discovers he is a legendary warrior and joins an unusual team of Underlanders to fulfill a prophecy and find a clue to the mysterious disappearance of his own father.

In Book 2, Gregor and the Prophecy of the Bane, Gregor and Boots return to the Underland to help the humans head off a possible coup by the rats. Gregor has his own personal motivation for helping the Underlanders in Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods when a member of his own family is affected by a deadly plague in the Underland. In Gregor and the Marks of Secret, Gregor again fulfills his role in the Underland prophecies by helping the humans defend themselves against attacks by the rats. Through all of the action-packed books, Collins keeps us caring with her realistic portrayal of the young hero and keeps us laughing at Boots' typical toddler antics. At our house, we can't wait for bedtime to find out what happens next.
Recommended for ages 9 and up (there is some violence and death in all of the books, especially the 5th one).

(1/09 Update: The 5th and final Gregor book was published in 2008: Gregor and the Code of Claw. Our family loved the entire series, and the Gregor books remain among our favorite books of all time!)

Complete Series in a Boxed Set:

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Middle-Grade Fiction: Peter and the Starcatchers

I just finished reading PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. I had finished my last book and was searching the house for my next conquest. I have a stack of books I want to read on the bookcase in my bedroom but none seemed to fit my mood. I wandered into my son's room to check his bookcase. We receive a lot of middle-grade books to review, so he always has a stack of new arrivals. Actually, he usually plows through each book as soon as it arrives, and I'm usually lagging behind. I ended up ignoring some of the review possibilities to read this one just for fun.

PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS is a prequel to J.M. Barrie's PETER PAN. As the story goes, Ridley Pearson (a popular fiction writer) was reading PETER PAN to his daughter one night, and she asked him how Peter got to be Peter Pan. That got him thinking, and he ended up teaming up with Dave Barry to create their version of how Peter Pan came to be.

The book was just what I was looking for: an enjoyable escape. I loved how the book filled in the gaps of the well-known tale of Peter Pan, explaining why he can fly, how he got to the island, and how he made an enemy of the famed pirate. I thought that Ridley and Barry's imaginative pre-story was just right and fit J.M. Barrie's famous tale well. In fact, reading this book made me want to read the original PETER PAN, as I'm embarrassed to admit I'm only familiar with the Disney and Hollywood versions.

PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS is an excellent book for middle-grade readers (and grown-ups, too!), building on a well-loved character and filled with adventure, magic, and a touch of Dave Barry's signature humor. It was a pleasant and satisfying read.

(NOTE: Since this review was written, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson have written 2 sequels: Peter and the Shadow Thief and Peter and the Secrets of Rundoon).