We started reading stories to my daughter when she was tiny, and at the time when we were reading board books we got in the habit of reading two books a night. Eventually when she progressed to chapter books we had to limit it to two chapters a night … and then when the chapters themselves got longer we just decided we’d read “some amount.” Although I won’t be breaking Alice Ozma’s record (we do skip nights when it’s late), my wife and I both enjoy the nightly ritual of reading with our kids — especially now that our younger daughter is old enough to share the same books.
My wife is currently on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and I’m reading The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, so there’s a mix of drama and humor there. But some of the books I’ve enjoyed reading out loud the most are the ones that have my girls rolling with laughter. Here are some of our favorites from the past few months.
The Castle Sisters and the Impossible Darkness – Jason Krumbine
Jason Krumbine has two nieces, Faith and Summer. His nieces were fascinated by the fact that their uncle was an author, but most of his writing wasn’t for kids. So he decided to write a story for them, about two sisters named Faith and Summer (and their cool uncle Jacen), filled with over-the-top action and lots of humor. My daughters, who are about the same age as Krumbine’s nieces, loved the Castle sisters and could never get enough of it.
Faith is twelve years old and a technological genius. She always has a plan, and usually a few back-up plans, just in case. Summer is nine, afraid of nothing (except bears), and tends to act first and think later. When their uncle gets kidnapped by the evil Agent Dark, the sisters spring into action. That leads them further and further into the machinations of the mysterious Tancredi Group. Along the way they end up on a Caribbean island hideout, Antarctica, another dimension, and the Mall of Eternity.
The Impossible Darkness is actually five books in one, and is available in paperback or for the Kindle. You can also get the five individual books on Kindle only — the first book is a buck, but the others are a little more, so it’s a better deal to get the entire volume. All five stories are interconnected and form an overarching plot, though each one can be read individually. The book is a lot of fun to read: you get a lot of villain/secret agent cliches, but the idea of two little girls taking on a secret organization is great — especially if you happen to have two little girls. Summer is particularly funny — she’s nine, like my daughter, and she’s very flighty and her conversations with her older sister are hilarious.
One reason we could never quit reading (we blasted through the nearly 500-page volume in a month or so) is that almost every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. They’re nice, short chapters, great for being able to read one or two or five depending on how much time you have, and each one left my daughters eager to hear what came next. Faith is almost a mini-MacGyver, slapping together solutions from stuff in her backpack, and Summer is just a firecracker (or maybe a loose cannon).
My only complaint is that Krumbine could really use a proofreader. The book is self-published, so I realize that he’s probably doing everything on his own, but sometimes I wanted to take a red pen to the book. My daughters and I are all hoping that he’s writing more Castle Sisters, because we really want to see where the girls go next. Find out more about the series at Krumbine’s website.
The Templeton Twins Have an Idea – written by Ellis Weiner, illustrated by Jeremy Holmes
Although Lemony Snicket wasn’t the first snarky narrator in a children’s book (see, for example, Peter Pan), he’s probably the inspiration for many of today’s intrusive narrators (e.g., the Secret Series by Pseudonymous Bosch). But that may not be a bad thing, because when it’s done well, it’s still really funny. The Templeton Twins is about John and Abigail, 12-year-old twins with a somewhat absent-minded inventor for a father.
John is practical, and likes to play drums. Abigail is a thinker, and loves cryptic crossword puzzles. A former student of their father’s shows up, kidnaps them (and their annoying dog), claiming responsibility for one of their father’s inventions. But, of course, the twins are clever and together they outwit the kidnapper.
What makes the story shine, though, is the narrator. In this case, the narrator is arrogant and belligerent, often issuing ridiculous challenges to the reader, or giving answer to presumed questions that the reader would raise. My daughter picked up on the oft-repeated “LET’S MOVE ON.” Also included at the end of each chapter is a section of Questions for Review, such as “Explain, in fifty words or less, why you believe the story will actually get started, and why it will be wonderful.” or “Would you like Nanny Nan Noonan to be your nanny? Well, maybe it isn’t up to you.” For a small taste of what the narrator is like, you can actually follow The Narrator on Twitter.
The illustrations by Jeremy Holmes have a blueprint-like feel to them — they are blue, for one, but there are little diagrams of inventions with arrows and labels and little gizmos. Oh, and there’s a recipe for meatloaf, which we tried, and it’s pretty good.
If you’ve got smart (or maybe smart-mouthed) kids, they’ll get a kick out of The Templeton Twins. Book 2 is coming in September, though I can’t tell my kids that yet or they’ll start begging for it now.
Potterwookiee: The Creature From My Closet – Obert Skye
Potterwookiee is actually the second book in The Creature From My Closet series, but I’d somehow missed the first, Wonkenstein. Twelve-year-old Rob Burnside has a strange closet: his dad bought a door at a garage sale for it, and the gold doorknob has a weird bearded man on it. The weirdest thing, though, came after he cleaned his room and shoved a bunch of things inside. After some disturbing noises, the door popped open and out came a tiny little man who was half Willy Wonka and half Frankenstein. That was in the first book.
Eventually, Wonkenstein went away into the closet and vanished, but in this book another strange creature came out: half Harry Potter, half Chewbacca. The plot is all over the place: Rob tries to learn more about Harry Potter and Star Wars by reading the books (he’s seen the movies, but that’s it). He tries (unsuccessfully) to hide “Hairy” from his friends, and tries out for the Average Chef TV show. (“I’m nothing special, and you can be too!”) There are annoying younger siblings, the cute girl next door, the bully at school … and throughout all of this he has to keep this small smelly Latin-speaking Potterwookiee a secret.
My kids have only seen one and a half Star Wars movies so far (we had to stop because of Lando’s mustache) and have read just over half of the Harry Potter books, so at least enough to catch most of the references. But combining the two, particularly since they’re such different characters in different worlds, makes for a juxtaposition that my kids found incredibly entertaining. The story is told from Rob’s point of view, and the drawings do look like they could have been done by a twelve-year-old: a bit cruder than the Wimpy Kid drawings. I wasn’t really impressed with the drawings themselves, but my older daughter was quite amused.
I think Potterwookiee isn’t the sort of kids book that I’d end up reading on my own, but as a read-aloud to my kids, it was a blast.
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made – Stephan Pastis
You may know Stephan Pastis from his comic strip, Pearls Before Swine, featuring a clueless pig and an arrogant rat. Timmy Failure is a mix of the two: clueless and arrogant. He’s an eleven-year-old boy detective, but the catch is that he’s an idiot, and can turn anything into a mystery that needs to be solved. He has a pet polar bear named Total (thus the name of his detective agency, Total Failure, Inc.) and rides around on the Failuremobile (his mom’s Segway that he’s never allowed to use). In his debut, Timmy is hired to solve a case of missing Halloween candy, Molly Moskin’s missing shoes, and even the missing Failuremobile. (At which point he has to resort to the Totalmobile, pictured above.)
If you’ve read Pearls Before Swine, then you already know that Pastis is good at writing really funny comics. Well, this book shows he’s also good at writing really funny stories for kids — ones that grown-ups will enjoy, too. The book has a ton of drawings, and Pastis uses his cartooning skills to great effect, making the drawings an integral part of the story rather than just illustrating something that’s already been described in the text.
What my kids loved about it is that they can catch all the really obvious things that Timmy is oblivious to, like the little brother with a face smeared in chocolate, surrounded by empty candy wrappers and a plastic trick-or-treat pumpkin… Could this be the candy thief? No, he has an alibi: he was eating candy at the time.
Speaking of boy detectives, Steve Brixton is back in another adventure: Danger Goes Berserk. Back out of retirement, he has a new office now — the doghouse left behind by the former owner of his house — and has not one, but three cases to solve. He’s been hired by Danimal the surfer dude to retrieve his stolen surfboard from the Berserkers, a surf gang that’s been terrorizing the locals. But there’s also the mystery of the vanishing freighters — could it be pirates? And on top of it, somebody’s been stealing sixth-grader Brody Owens’ gym shorts.
I’ll read the Brixton Brothers books even when my kids aren’t around, but they get a kick out of them, too. Barnett once again pulls off the balancing act between the absurdity of a kid who can solve crimes that adults can’t figure out and the reality that Steve’s a dorky kid who got all his sleuthing tips from a series of boy-detective novels.
There aren’t as many excerpts from those Bailey Brothers novels this time around, which is too bad, because Barnett also does a pretty good impression of Hardy Boys writing, but the trio of mysteries keep you engaged in the story.
Jo Schmo is a fourth grade girl (like my older daughter) who gets a superhero cape in the mail (also like my daughter) which grants her super powers (unlike my daughter). With her retired-sheriff grandpa Joe, she trains and becomes a crime fighter, keeping San Francisco safe. In Dinos Are Forever, she battles the evil Dr. Dastardly and his Re-animator Laminator gun. And then in Wyatt Burp Rides Again! she goes back in time to fight Wyatt Burp, a bandit with powerful sarsaparilla-powered burps. In Shifty Business, due out in July, she’ll start learning to shape-shift, but I haven’t read that one yet.
The stories are pretty silly, and while the narrator isn’t quite as intrusive as in The Templeton Twins mentioned above, it is a pretty silly narrator nonetheless, using cliched phrases and then undercutting the cliches. The series falls into the category of books that are really fun to read aloud to your kids, but aren’t quite as entertaining for adults. My kids particularly liked Jo’s dog Raymond, whose superpower appears to be drooling, and the evil-but-dimwitted villains are crowd-pleasers, too. The Jo Schmo books are also fairly slim, at about a hundred pages each, so they’d also be fun for younger readers to tackle on their own.
Well, that’s my most recent list. How about you: what books get your geeklets giggling?
Disclosure: GeekDad received review copies of all the books reviewed except The Impossible Darkness; an electronic version of Book 1 of the Castle Sisters was provided.