Squidalicious Reviews


Book Review: Percy the Perfectly Imperfect Chicken
November 25, 2009, 8:49 am
Filed under: books, reading, review | Tags: ,

If you stock your kids’ bookshelves like I do, they contain a colorful mix of tales both fanciful and educational.  Books like Percy, the Perfectly Imperfect Chicken, Rick Rieser’s new FastPencil release about a chicken who doesn’t fit in.

I accepted a review copy of Percy with hopes that a book about creatures “perfectly imperfect” would carry a message of acceptance towards those who act or look in ways “typical” creatures find strange. I read Percy with my youngest daughter, who is almost-five, and we were both taken with Daniel Seward’s vibrant illustrations as well as the cute barnyard scene: an egg hatches! The chickens all gather round to greet the newest member of their flock!

Then a trio of older hens struts forth and scrutinizes Percy, declaring that they need to see him, as only perfect chickens are allowed to stay in their yard. Percy’s mom insists that her son is fine, and so he appears to be at first. Or is he? Unsurprisingly, I was hoping for an unsubtle special needs parallel … and was disappointed when Percy’s difference is revealed to be a matter of minor cosmetics. However, I am not a chicken, and I do not live in a world where a small variation in my appearance would get me ejected from my home.

Percy’s mom continues to protect him. When he reaches adulthood, he flies above the barnyard and is treated to views he’d never before encountered — including those of the three governing hens. From his new perspective, he sees that each hen has one of the forbidden imperfections, and confronts them.

I admit to a bit of discomfort with those scenes. We try to run a positive-thinking household, and pointing out someone’s else’s imperfections — even during self-advocacy — is not something we model. But it is also important that our children learn to recognize and reject hypocrites, especially those who wield influence or power. Otherwise, our kids will be taught to strive for that which they and indeed most people in their community do not represent (body image or materialism, anyone?). I want my kids to know that, as Percy’s mom says, “Perfect is something that doesn’t exist.”

Of course Mali doesn’t care about any of my analysis. She thinks Percy is an awesome book and reads it every day:

Coolness: Percy the Perfectly Imperfect Chicken was published through FastPencil.

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Review: Daniel X: Watch the Skies
August 22, 2009, 3:37 am
Filed under: books, Daniel X, James Patterson, Ned Rust, reading, ReadKiddoRead, review

When I found out that copies of James Patterson’s new young adult book Daniel X: Watch the Skies were available for review, I immediately asked my eldest child and Patterson fan, Iz, if she wanted me to snare her a copy. She said “yes, please,” so I turned around to my computer and wrote “yes, please,” too.

The book arrived. Iz gobbled it down. She liked it, she said, because it was never boring, it was funny, it was fast, and it had what she considered to be an interesting twist at the end. She also liked the back-end placement of teaser chapters from other, forthcoming Patterson books, and wanted to know when she’d be getting her complimentary copies of those? I told her I couldn’t guarantee anything but we never know.

Then I sat down with the book to see if I liked it as much as Iz did, and initially the answer was “no.” The story was creative and exciting enough, about an orphan teen alien hunter and his friends, both imaginary and real, battling a giant malevolent extraterrestrial catfish-like media producer who makes marionettes out of humans before exterminating them, all in the name of “endertainment” and TV ratings; the book features explosions, fast cars, motorcycles, spying, narrow escapes, and chases galore, plus lots of nose-thumbing at school administrators. But it reads like Michael Crichton for kids: an innovative but minimally padded story outline, and it’s peppered with too much of what seems like movie, songs, restaurant, and brands product placement. And the chapters were jarringly short — many were only two pages. Daniel X: Watch the Skies was all bam-bam-bam action, with no time to take a breath or let characters develop. I found it disorienting yet skimpy, and was surprised Iz enjoyed it.

Then I put the book aside and thought about its appeal, and the authors’ (it is co-written with Ned Rust) motivations some more. James Patterson is also the founder of ReadKiddoRead, a site devoted to getting kids to love books like the author does. And I get the sense that Daniel X, like the Maximum Ride series Iz also enjoys, is about getting kids to do that reading using any hooks necessary. From this perspective, Daniel X is a rich read — it’s full of such hooks.

Many older kids and teens, and indeed adult sci fi/fantasy fans don’t want character development. They want action. This book will give them that, in an extremely violent but still relatively sanitary fashion — people are melted into goo, but there is almost no blood or gore. And the book is so fast-paced and there are so many action scenes that readers don’t really have time to analyze what kind of violence & action they’re reading about.

The constant citing of contemporary brands might be more grounding and comforting for some readers than a book skirting the retail and cultural footholds of our era in a bid to remain classic. Daniel X: Watch the Skies might not age well, but then again it might remain very much a symbol of that which was 2009. We’ll see.

Daniel X has much for a parent to approve of in that it celebrates love and responsibility towards family, friends, the environment, and even animals. It’s also quite tame when it comes to teen relations. There are funny feelings in tummies, there are kisses and swooning — but naught else. Parents or guardians concerned about all that sexy sex pervading teen literature should be pleased.

That tameness makes it rather strange, though, that the authors keep mentioning Stranger in a Strange Land as a pillar of literature, one of the Best Books Ever. I have already been teaching my kids about Stranger in a Strange Land concepts like the Fair Witness and grokking — but consider the book itself inappropriate for my ten-year-old Iz, who’s on the younger end of the Daniel X readership. What are kids to think about Daniel X when they discover the book he adores says it’s usually a girl’s own fault when she gets raped? That it depicts sixties-style free love? This is a bit of a misstep, in my opinion.

I could also do without the unsubtle preaching about the evils of technology and media and how they turn people into mindless consumer bobbleheads, but I suspect readers who enjoy Patterson’s books are willing to put up with that quirk in return for a rip-roaring bit of chaste ultraviolence with the likeable, resourceful, cheerful teen alien hunter Daniel X. They might smirk a bit, though, if they’re reading his story on a Kindle.

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MotherTalk sponsored the Daniel X Book Tour. In addition to putting yet another volume on Iz’s groaning bookshelf, they provided reviewers with modest Amazon gift certificates. I look forward to using our certificate to replace my son Leo’s loved-to-shreds copies of My World, Hop on Pop, and Everyone Poops.



Bee Yourself, but Bee Sweet
July 31, 2009, 5:22 am
Filed under: apiary, autism, BeeKind, confidence, empathy, reading, review, t-shirts

The nice folks at Bee Tees sent each of my three kids shirts. I’m not sure if they did so because they read this blog and thought my sometimes cantankerous trio could use good behavior reminders, but the shirts are cute as hell and my kids think they’re great.

I especially appreciate a kid with autism like Leo getting to run around town with a t-shirt that declares: “Bee Yourself”! And the fact that the BeeTees folks also do custom Bee-Cause designs for fundraising. SEPTAR could certainly benefit from a design option you might easily guess.

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Big sister Iz swiped his shirt later on. She says she’s the one who is entering middle school in a few weeks and needs tools like a “Bee Yourself” shirt to remind her about priorities and bucking peer pressure. Her shirt actually fit him better, so I didn’t mind letting them swap.

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Mali got the same shirt design Iz was supposed to wear, “Bee Sweet.” I think it’s appropriate. Mali has full-tilt Defiant Little Sister Syndrome, so anything that reminds her to be nice is appreciated (Bee Kind, Bee Happy, and Bee Good would also be options; as her mom I consider Bee Unique self-evident).

Sweet?

Iz complained that Leo’s the one who needs the Bee Sweet shirt anyhow, as he’s been going after his little sister again. I let him wear it not because of her griping but because most eight-year-old little brothers could use such a reminder. Plus at Leo’s team meeting today, we had two main discussion points: 1) How close he’s getting to reading — we think he might be doing some real work by the end of the year, in which case shirts with one or two words on them can help reinforce reading skills, and 2) The importance of using very firm and direct language and a commanding tone of voice with him when he misbehaves, to help him understand when he is doing something that is not okay. If we want him to be sweet, we have to be firm.

Regardless, these are truly very cute shirts, and I’m glad to know about them before the holiday shopping season starts. I know quite a few kids who could use or would appreciate them. And I might just get a Bee Unique shirt for myself.

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The kids and their BeeTees in front of a bee mural at the BeeKind apiary products & supply store in Sebastopol.



Double Daring Book Review

Before I had children, I would obsess about a theoretical future daughter and the critical information I simply had to impart to her. Epiphanies would strike — Fair Witness! She’ll need to know how to be a fair witness! — and I’d pull the car over, write my revelation down, and then daydream about compiling a D’Artagnan-Rosenberg infostream manifesto to hand to that girl, once she appeared and when she was ready.

Lucky me, I got my daughter — and a spare (and a handsome son as well). I never put together that manifesto, but also no longer fret about it: Andi Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz let me off the hook two years ago, when they published their own compendium of core girl knowledge, The Daring Book for Girls.

Lucky us, they’ve now published a second collection: The Double Daring Book for Girls.

Do I love their Daring books? Yes I do, passionately, and so does my ten-year-old daughter. She squealed when our copy of The Double Daring Book arrived (the good folks at Houghton-Mifflin sent a complimentary copy), immediately dispatched the whole thing, and dove straight into the activities. Here’s her first attempt at Calligraphy (p. 256):

Found Item: Zelly's Steak Calligraphy

I too read the entire Double Daring Book (though a bit more slowly than my daughter), and was delighted. Look how many pages I dog-eared, so as to remember the best of the best of its activities, biographies, and histories:

Honestly, I want to hand this book to every girl I know, and the boys as well (pink typeface and Girl label be damned, this book is a powder keg of information and ideas for any kid). I am pleased that it contains overlaps with that imagined manifesto of mine, e.g., batik techniques and history (p.99), commonly confused words like imply and infer (p. 141), and the specifics of quality private eye work (p. 177).

What I truly appreciate, and what makes the Daring books transcend the How To label, is the activities’ historical and often rebellious context. Why should our kids want to know how to waltz (p. 78)? How about because it was considered scandalous — the dancing partners touched! And vulgar, forbidden — it was easy to learn and didn’t require a dance master!

Mostly, I am dazzled by the amount of good, hard, enticingly written information amassed in this book. I want kids to know everything in it. I want them to know exactly who Eleanor of Aquitaine was, and how startling her long, accomplished, independent life was compared to most women of her era. I want them to know the fundamentals of rhetoric, how to make a raft, the story of Ada Lovelace, how to join the circus, how to say thank you in scores of languages, how to make snowglobes, how to conduct an orchestra, and how to make rope ladders.

One quibble: The entry on Running a Magazine (p. 204) never mentions the word “zine,” or how those handmade magazines helped drive the relatively recent Riot Grrrls feminist movement, which is perplexing, but I suppose in keeping with the book’s overall timeless and classic feel. Don’t let this one item keep you away.

The Double Daring Book for Girls is buoyed by positivity, and focuses on cultivating competence, independence, willingness to experiment, and open-ended fun. It provides multiple short biographies of women whose lives exemplified these attitudes. These role models and this book are antidotes for heavily-marketed (and in some cases marketing-originated) books like the one pictured below, the title of which I will not type here, which my daughter and her friends crave, and in which junior high-aged girls live lives of insecurity, negativity, and cruelty, while obsessing about label-spangled fashion, unrealistic body images, and social machinations. Ptui.

If you want your girls to value knowledge and abilities like they do store-bought items, get them The Double Daring Book for Girls. I truly believe it has the power to inspire and edify any child with a curious mind, while simultaneously countering media-induced materialism. It is a treasure.



Persian Girls
January 9, 2008, 12:06 pm
Filed under: books, mother talk, nahid rachlin, persian girls, reading, review

A MotherTalk Review

Persian Girls Cover

Nahid Rachlin has taken her own story, interwoven it with the plight of women in Iran and contemporary Iranian history, and given us an intelligent memoir that will satisfy even those who usually crave frothier fare. Persian Girls is so beautifully and lucidly written that I kept hiding in the bathroom to binge-read it.

Nahid and her sister Pari were outspoken, free-thinking girls in a family that allowed its sons to embrace the Shah’s love of all things Western but held its daughters to more traditional Iranian values. Pari in particular dreamed of America and of being an actress, but as the older daughter was pressured into marrying a man who considered acting on par with prostitution. Nahid, who wanted to become a writer, managed to persuade her father to send her to college in the United States, where she married an American and became a citizen herself. From childhood through adulthood, the sisters’ love for and delight in each other is clear, despite their divergent paths.

While Persian Girls is an autobiography of Rachlin, it is also a portrait of women and girls in urban Iran in the decades before the Islamic Revolution. Rachlin makes tangible the intellectual agony of living in a society that considers women chattel, in which even during Rachlin’s lifetime allowed men to marry nine-year-old girls, and in which women’s behavior is still legally restricted. Sometimes it was even more heartbreaking to read about her sister Manijeh — malicious as she was to both Nahid and Pari — who behaved exactly as society and her parents expected her to, and yet was still blindsided and crushed by her arranged marriage. And, as the mother of a special-needs child, I couldn’t help but sob at the description of a woman who was pressured by a suitor to abandon her blind toddler.

I was also heartened by Rachlin’s many descriptions of women creating their own societies and taking care of each other. Rachlin’s beloved aunt Maryam, who was the author’s adopted mother from infancy through age nine, raised Nahid in a loving and traditional Islamic community of women, one in which the rhythms of their daily routine created a comforting cocoon. Even Pari found some solace in her neighborhood female friends, though it was not enough to alleviate her depression after losing custody of her son Bijan to her cruel first husband.

In the Iran Rachlin describes, women can never depend on men, but they can sometimes depend on each other. And sometimes, that is enough.

A final note: while I have gobbled up many memoirs by Iranian women, including Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and even Firoozeh Dumas’s Funny in Farsi, I have never before encountered such a vivid description of life under the Shah, and the American and European complicity in his corrupt rule. I would like to thank Nahid Rachlin for helping me to be a little bit less ignorant.

Want more Persian Girls information? read Ms. Rachlin’s Persian Girls Backstory, or discuss Persian Girls in the MotherTalk Book Club.

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