Sunday, June 12, 2016

Press Release - Building a Home Library List

Press Release:

Every two years, the ALA-Children’s Book Council (CBC) Joint Committee, with cooperation from ALSC’s Quicklists Consulting Committee, partner to create free Building a Home Library lists to provide guidance to parents, grandparents, and others interested in assembling a high-quality library for their children at home.

These lists — organized by age groups from 0 to 14 — include tried-and-true classics, under-the-radar gems, multicultural books, and notable new reads.

Download the lists by age group here.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The World of Septimus Heap

The World of Septimus Heap

My daughter is nine, and while she reads books on her own, I feel very fortunate that she still likes for me to read to her at night. We spent almost a year reading the Harry Potter series, had the Hogwarts-themed birthday party, watched the movies, went to Diagon Alley, listened to the audio books, etc. We suffered a bit from the “I finished reading Harry Potter, now what?” syndrome. We switched gears and read all of Kate DiCamillo’s books, which both of my kids loved but thought were sad. We read the Percy Jackson books, which inspired my daughter to ask for books on Greek Mythology. We started Michael Scott’s “Nicholas Flamel,” series, but it got a little too dark and a little frightening; so we’ve put that on hold for a while.

We love to read books in a series, and my daughter really wanted to read something with magic. I happened to discover the Septimus Heap books at a used book store. The premise seemed interesting and right up our alley, so I forked out $2.50 for a “well-read” copy of Magyk, the first book in the series. Fast forward a few months, and we’re on the sixth book. Spending that $2.50 was a risk worth taking.

WARNING: I have to give away the big reveal of the first book in order to really talk about the series, so if you don’t like spoilers, don’t read any further. Bookmark this page, and come back when you’ve read at least the first six books.

Premise in a nutshell

On a dark, winter’s night, The Longest Night, two babies are born: one a princess; and one the seventh son of the seventh son of a wizard family.  On that same night, the queen and her chief magical advisor, the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, were assassinated. Marcia Overstrand, the ExtraOrdinary Apprentice flees with the newborn princess, determined to get her to safety keep her location, even her existence, a secret. At the same time, Sarah Heap, the matriarch of the Heap family is told her newborn, Septimus, had died. On his way home from celebrating the birth of his seventh son, Silas Heap stumbles upon the newborn princess in the forest and is asked by Marcia Overstrand, now the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, to keep her safe and her identity a secret.

Fast forward 10 years. The Castle is ruled by the Supreme Custodian, a tyrant who rules under martial law. The Young Army comprises young, abandoned boys, referred to only by numbers. They are trained in strict conditions and are asked to be suspicious of “Magyk.” They patrol the streets of the Castle, reporting suspicious activity to their leaders.

Jenna Heap awakens on her 10th birthday, on a seemingly normal day. She’s surrounded by her parents and six older brothers in a cluttered, well-loved, one-room apartment and begins to sit down for her birthday breakfast, when Marcia Overstrand interrupts the festivities, telling the Heaps that Jenna’s true identity and location have been discovered and an assassin is on the way to kill her. She must take Jenna with her and flee the Castle to keep her safe.  Surprise – you’re a princess, and this isn’t your true family! As Jenna leaves the Castle with Marcia, some of her family members, and a Young Army boy rescued from the snow, the adventures begin.  

The World

The Castle is the main location in this world. At first, I thought it was one building, the place where the queen lives, but it’s actually the name of an entire village, fortified with stone walls and a moat to keep out “the witches, wolverines, and warlocks.” The Wizard Tower, an impressive multi-story building, lit up in purple, and topped with a pyramid library is the hub of “Magyk.” This is where Marcia Overstrand lives along with “Ordinary Wizards.”

It’s the central point of trade, and as the population grew, buildings and houses were added higgedly-piggedly, including the Ramblings, a huge stone building that housed many of the villagers, including the Heaps. Ghosts roam all over the castle and can converse with humans, but they choose when to appear and when to stay invisible.

In addition to the Castle, there’s the Port, inhabited by the evil Port-Witch Coven; the Forest, inhabited by the Wendron Witch Coven and three of the seven Heap boys; the Badlands, inhabited by weird human-eating worms and also the area; the Marram Marshes, inhabited by the White Witch, Aunt Zelda Heap, and various swamp creatures including brownies and boggarts.

In this world, wizards are both male and female and are identified by bright green eyes that develop as a wizard gets older. As expected, there are wizards of different skill levels, and you have to train and practice to hone the craft.

Even if you have “Magyk,” you aren’t required to become a wizard. For example, Nicko, one of the Heap brothers loves boats and sailing and works at the Boatyard. The interesting thing is that even if you’re not magical, you can still do simple spells with charms. For example, Septimus gives Jenna a chocolate charm that she uses to turn ordinary things into chocolate, a charm that actually saves her life in the second book.  

Most witches live in their covens outside of the castle and cannot be trusted, especially the Port Witch Coven whose witches are pure evil and wouldn’t hesitate to feed humans to their various creatures.

Those both with and without Magyk live among one another. The non-magical folk are not like Muggles – they know that wizards and witches exist and for the most part live harmoniously even though they may be a little suspicious.

Favorite Characters

There are many well-rounded, well-developed characters, but these are some of our favorites.

Madam Marcia Overstrand
One of the most compelling characters is Marcia Overstrand, who has many Minerva McGonagall-like characteristics. She’s the ExtraOrdinary Wizard – the head wizard in charge of the Castle.  Septimus becomes her Apprentice and lives in the Wizard Tower with her. She’s a very strict and no-nonsense type of person, but she is a very caring person, and sometimes surprises Septimus with hugs when he doesn’t expect it. She wears pointed, purple python heels that are tailor-made for her makes the shoe maker keep a purple python in his backyard specifically for the purpose of supplying the shed skin required to make the shoes, much to the shoemaker’s chagrin.

Aunt Zelda
Another character we love is Aunt Zelda.  She Septimus’s great aunt and lives in the Marram Marshes. She’s a white witch who is in charge of protecting the Dragon Boat, a well-kept secret for hundreds of years. Imagine the large aunt who smothers you in her bosom, fusses over you, and cooks tons of food. That’s Aunt Zelda.  She wears a large patchwork dress that has no shape, and is often mistaken for a walking, patchwork tent. She also grows and cooks lots and lots of cabbage and makes weird dishes like cabbage and eel casserole. Septimus, who grew up in the Young Army and had very meager rations, seems to be the only person who likes her cooking, and she often packs him a cabbage sandwich to take with him.

Marcellus Pye
Marcellus is a 500-year-old alchemist who developed a formula for immortality, except he drank the elixir before it was completely developed and couldn’t stop the body from aging. Septimus helped him regain a youthful appearance, but he has short-term memory loss, speaks in an “old-fashioned” dialect and wears ridiculous-looking shoes that apparently were in fashion 500 years ago.

Loose Ends

We have not finished reading the series, so I hope some loose ends are tied up. First, there’s a Dragon Boat, half boat/half live dragon that is injured very badly in the second book. In the third book, Jenna goes back in time and asks the white witch of that time to give her a potion to save the boat. However, we’re almost finished with the sixth book, and there’s been no reference to what happened with the boat.

Also, in the fourth book, there is a weird reference to items that are in the future and it makes it seem like the series is set way in the future. For example, there’s an elevator that is from the “ancient times.” There’s also a submarine that the characters say looks like a vehicle that was sent to the moon in the old days. There’s even a disdain for physics and physicians. Marcellus Pye was the last alchemist, and magic instead of medicine is used to cure illnesses. There’s reference to a big disaster that forced the wizards to create ice tunnels underground so that the Castle could survive. Is this a dystopian novel? It’s a plot point that is very undeveloped, so I’m interested to see where this goes.

Similarities to Harry Potter

I would be remiss to leave out the similarities to Harry Potter. The main character, like Harry, does not know his true identity or his magical powers until he’s 10 years old. There’s plenty of “Darke” forces that the characters have to battle. You have the trio of friends who adventure together:   Septimus, Jenna, and Beetle. There’s even a character named Bertie Bott – a little bit of a shout-out to Harry Potter.  Similarities aside, the characters do have their own personalities and the story lines are different enough so you don’t feel like you’re reading HP Fan Fiction.  Also, this series is geared toward a younger audience, so it’s not as dark and intense as Harry Potter can get.

I would definitely recommend this series to kids who like Harry Potter. It’s geared to the 9-12 age group. We are thoroughly enjoying the series and will read the TodHunter Moon spinoff next.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Children Read to Shelter Cats

I came across this article about children in grades 1-8 reading to cats in their local animal shelter. This is such a great idea to help children practice their reading skills while keeping lonely cats company. Maybe it could also result in a few adoptions. :-)

Read the full article here.