Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sky Watching

It is just too hot to knit. That is the sad and simple truth of it these days. All I can do is sit and gaze at the clouds, hoping that they will provide me with a little shade before I melt away altogether.

Since there is little to report on the Sticks 'n Strings front, why don't I do a book review instead? It's been a while since I stepped up for MotherTalk and I think I have one you might be interested in. Before I forge ahead, though, perhaps I should review the background behind these little side trips off the knitting path.

First, MotherTalk bloggers are charged with promoting books as much as they are with reviewing them. We are, to some degree, compensated for providing this service. At the very least, we receive a complimentary copy of the book being promoted. I also use the time spent on the project towards my teacher recertification credits. However, I am very careful to choose books that I feel I will be able to honestly and authentically recommend to young readers.

Secondly, my reviews are not from the parenting perspective. Instead, I discuss them using my background as a counselor, special educator and parenting resource consultant. While I've raised naught but cats and have little to offer in terms of mothering advice, I do have over twenty years of experience working with challenged readers in a variety of settings. I like to think I can provide something of use in that sense. However, I encourage parents to use their knowledge and expertise in the needs of their children when making decisions for them as young readers. No amount of professional experience can equal what a parent already knows.

That should cover the disclaimers on my end. Now...let's take a look at the book!

In this follow up to The Dangerous Days Of Daniel X, authors James Patterson and Ned Rust continue the story of alien hunter Daniel X. Orphaned as a very young child, Daniel must take on the job left by his parents and keep the earth safe from the threats that come from beyond the stars. Although a child by both human and alien standards, Daniel is armed with the ability to create almost anything he needs to continue working his way through the list of known trouble-makers, including replications of supportive friends and family.

This time, Daniel must stop a creature bent upon using the small town of Holliswood as the set for reality entertainment at its most horrifying. It will take all of his natural abilities, the assistance of his simulated associates, a little help from an attractive local girl and no small amount of luck to pull the plug on this made-for-alien-TV nightmare. But Daniel is more than up for the task.

The story is quickly paced, perhaps too much so for many adults. However, for young readers who struggle with longer novels or who have difficulty maintaining attention for extended periods, this is ideal. It is also appropriate for those who are sensitive to conflict driven stress and who require a quicker resolution in order to maintain a comfortable emotional level while reading.

As a character, Daniel remains as compelling and self-effacing as he first appeared in the series. One can't help but like him more for his flaws and the sense of humor he demonstrates over how they sometimes lead to failure. He seems to have grown up a bit after his experiences in the first novel. Then, I was struck by the depth of his loneliness and how he struggled with his singular nature on planet earth. This installment doesn't seem to connect strongly to the earlier events that brought Daniel to the place he is in the present and I couldn't help but wonder about that. However, focusing on the "here and now" aspect does make this more of a stand-alone book.

As always, I caution parents strongly against using "grade levels" as the sole means of determining the appropriateness of a book for their child. While it is helpful information, this is really only one piece of the puzzle and can restrict young readers if used inappropriately. I vividly remember being told by well-meaning librarians that I was "too young" to read certain books while still in first and second grade. ("Little Women?" Really???) I include reading levels to help parents make informed decisions about material, not to exclude readers. Children will often surprise us with their willingness to rise to a challenge if the story appeals enough.

I performed several informal readability tests on randomly selected passages throughout the book and the results varied greatly, ranging from mid 8th grade to early 11th. It should be noted that this process assesses only the text and not the content of the book. Lexile scores, a more comprehensive and thorough measurement, are generally not available on newer publications as it takes time to get them into the database. However, the first book is considered a 680 on the scale and I think that is a reasonable basis for comparison. Overall, I'd say that this novel falls into the category of "middle school reading." Again, I suggest you consider your own child's individual reading style and needs along with this data.

Those of us who work with children who have experienced challenges in their lives often have to be aware of the themes in the novels they are reading. Literature is a wonderful way to help children process life, but only if we are alert to possible minefields. Daniel confronts several issues that might bring up emotional reactions in some young readers. Among them, I would include:

Loss: Daniel lost his parents early and was a witness to their violent demise. This is handled very sensitively by the authors and could be a useful springboard for discussion. It could also be a painful thing for some children to read without support, especially if they have been victims of violence themselves.

Relationships: There are absolutely no overtly sexualized aspects to the book, however Daniel is a teenaged boy and experiencing the usual feelings one develops during that time. Again, this is handled very well and there is a rather charming innocence in how this character approaches the opposite sex.

Mild Violence: The very nature of the book requires that there be some physical conflict. It is certainly less graphic than other books in this genre and contextually appropriate. In addition, Daniel really does seem to try taking the high road when he can but this isn't often an option for him. Frankly, in a novel where the theme is good vs. evil, one can't help but destroy an enemy every now and again. I did not find myself overly concerned about the level of violence at any point, but sensitive children might find it to be overwhelming.

Possible Personal Agendas: PPAs are unavoidable. Who we are and what we value comes across in everything we do and writers are no exception. In fact, the best books are often those where the agenda becomes the vehicle for the plot and the author drives it along passionately. I couldn't help but wonder if there may have been some PPAs in this novel, especially around the issues of media and education. My strongest reaction, not surprisingly, was to the latter.

In two particular scenes, Daniel's "mother" must call him in as sick from school and her manner of dealing with the person who answers the phone is, at best, critical. I had a definite emotional response there. If the truth be known, my feelings were rather hurt. I've been on the receiving end of a few of those calls, the kind where you just happen to be in the main office so you decide to help out and pick up the phone then find yourself being blasted for enforcing policies you neither created nor have the power to change. And the thought of the person on the other end of the line being one of my favorite authors...ouch.

However, the research has shown clearly that comprehension is improved when the reader is actively engaged in the reading process. One of the tools authors can use to effectively engage readers is to evoke strong feelings or to cause them to remember similar circumstances. Further, this book wasn't necessarily written to meet my needs. Rather it was meant to be enjoyed by younger readers and, let's face it, what young person wouldn't be just a little proud of a mom who said the things they couldn't say to an adult?

Overall, this aspect of the book is a minor issue if, in fact, it even qualifies as that. Parents can and should use their own judgement around what may or may not be agenda-driven writing and how it fits with their own family values.

I was pleased to be able to read the second novel in the Daniel X series and believe that it is well written for its target audience. It should also be well-received by a wider readership in that it has some definite cross-genre appeal. All in all, a very good reading experience for me and one that I will definitely be sharing with my middle school classroom once school starts up in a week or so.

There you go! A nice little book review to make up for my most pathetic amount of knitting this past week. With any luck, our heat wave will break soon and I can get back to business over here. I still need to get a few things done before the first period bell rings, not the least of which being the set-up of the classroom!

Watch the skies and think good thoughts for me, 'kay?



Anonymous said...

Excellent review.

Sorry for the continued steamy temps in your locale. I keep expecting the cooler weather that we have had this past week to reach you. But the national weather map shows that our high pressure system seems to be blocked by that tropical storm off the Atlantic coast. (Did I sound like a *weather girl* there?)

Karen said...

Great review. The book sounds good too.

It has been very steamy hasn't it. I guess we shouldn't complain since early summer was so not summery. Normally I don't mind the heat, it's the humidity I dislike. I've been trying to remind myself that come January I will wish it was warm and humid but that doesn't seem to easy the feels.

Julia G said...

Too hot and sticky for knitting in southern Connecticut too— even dishcloths. Thanks for the review of Watch the Skies – my Reluctant Reader 12-year-old son is already halfway through it, and gives it a big thumbs-up as well. He also blazed through the Iliad (the Kingfisher version, retold by Nick McCarty for middle-school readers). I had to laugh at your reading Little Women in second grade, and agree a good story draws the reader regardless of age —by the end of third grade, I had read To Kill a Mockingbird so many times I had practically memorized it, but at the same time was happily reading Winnie the Pooh and memorizing the poems. A good book is a good book!

Knitting Linguist said...

Thanks for the excellent review! I've requested it from the library for my daughter - she has, so far, loved everything you've said is good :)

PICAdrienne said...

OK, no fraternizing with any Bill's, it is the weekend afterall.

You and the kitties are in my thoughts.

Cursing Mama said...

Great review - it's tough finding books for boys so I'm always thrilled when there is another to add to the list of possibilities.