By Chet Yarbrough

This is an overview of recent best-selling books that are popular with young readers and/or parents that read to their children.  The reviews are a sampling of books that reflect on what entertains and enlightens the young, while reminding one of what it is like to be a child learning about life.

looking for alaskaLooking for Alaska

By John Green

Narrated by Jeff Woodman


JOHN GREEN (2006 Printz Award Winner-Born 8.24.77)

John Green writes a coming-of-age story about a naïve rich boy, a poor boy, and an ingénue. The rich-boy is an inexperienced innocent; the poor-boy is a leader, and the ingénue is an objectified sexual fantasy.  All three are highly intelligent.  The hook for reader’s interest is the ingénue, a girl named Alaska.

Green builds his story around the naïve rich boy, Miles “Pudge” Halter.  Pudge is infatuated with Alaska.  He is also mesmerized by the rule-breaking team leader, Chip Martin, known as “the Colonel”.  The Colonel is the planner, thinker, and organizer of a team of pranksters; e.g. Pudge, Alaska, and two others, Takumi and Lara.  As a pastime, they prank their way through high school’s junior year, the rich boy’s first year in a private school.

Pudge is growing up.  He is becoming an individual, differentiated from parents, and responsible for his own actions and decisions.  Green tells a story about life and death in “Looking for Alaska”.  Private-school connotation, Pudges’ wealth, and primary characters’ extraordinary intelligence detract from the book’s universal meaning but Green’s story speaks to every person that makes choices in life.


the book thiefThe Book Thief
By Markus Zusak

Narrated by Allan Corduner


MARKUS ZUSAK (Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Children's Literature-Born 6.23.75)
MARKUS ZUSAK (Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Children’s Literature-Born 6.23.75)

Markus Zusak uses the Grim Reaper to tell the story of Liesel Meminger’s life.  The irony of Death telling a story of life is clever but Zusak’s character development makes the story great.

Liesel is an abandoned Jewish child, adopted by a non-denominational family living in a small German town during WWII. Liesel grieves for a dead brother and lost mother but lives through her grief and hardship by developing close relationships with her new family and a young boy named Rudy.  Rudy is a war refugee hiding in her adopted family’s basement.

“The Book Thief” is Liesel Meminger. Her first stolen book is at the grave site of her dead brother. The book is dropped by a grave-digger that is learning his trade from a hand book about grave digging. Liesel is illiterate but the theft of a dropped book begins her obsession with written words. This obsession is a re-birth of her journey through life.

Like the “butterfly effect” that says a storm begins with the flap of butterfly wings, the incident of the dropped grave digger’s handbook changes Liesel’s life.


the one and only ivanThe One and Only Ivan

By Katherine Applegate, Patricia Castelao

Narrated by Adam Grupper

-8-12 Year Olds- 

KATHERINE ALICE APPLEGATE (Dororthy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award, Kids' Choice Award for Favorite Book--Born 7.19.56)
KATHERINE ALICE APPLEGATE (Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award, Kids’ Choice Award for Favorite Book–Born 7.19.56)

I am Ivan.  I am a silverback gorilla.  Katherine Applegate tells a story about me.  Katherine writes about animals in the wild, at the circus, and in the zoo.  I like Katherine because she makes me feel important. I talk about life in the circus.

Katherine makes me look smart. She shows that I learn things.  I learn that my circus domain is really a cage.  I talk to my animal friends, a homeless dog that sleeps on my belly; my best friend Stella—a circus elephant, and a newly arrived baby elephant that loves my best friend.

The story is stormy in the beginning, cloudy in the middle, and sunshiny in the end.  My best friend dies. I tell my best friend, before she dies, that I will protect the baby elephant.  But, what can a caged gorilla do?

Katherine offers an answer that gives my story a sunshiny end. A gorilla seems to know a lot about the difference between a domain and a cage.  You will like Katherine’s story about me.



By R. J. Palacio

Narrated by Diana Steele, Nick Podehl, Kate Rudd

-8 Year Olds & Up-

R. J. PALACIO (First Book)
R. J. PALACIO (First Book)

Reading “Wonder” is like watching a re-run of “Leave to Beaver”. Palacio creates a June Cleaver’ family with a perfect dad, a girl named Via, a boy named Auggie, and a dog named Daisy.

Palacio writes a story that reminds one of middle’ and high school’ tedium and trauma.  The bland and horrific social experience of school is magnified by a neonatal genetic disease that mal-forms Auggie’s face.  The inherited disease makes Auggie look scary.

Auggie has eyes that are too low on a face with ears that look like cauliflower and a mouth that dribbles food when he eats. But, Auggie’s social experience resonates with every child that leaves home to attend a new school or camp for the first time.

Palacio cleverly jumps between different first-person accounts of common social experiences to show how each person feels and thinks about the same incidents.  First-person accounts reveal human’ strengths and weaknesses–readers laugh out loud, hold their breath, or cry as Auggie trudges through middle school and Via adjusts to high school.

Palacio’s “Leave it to Beaver” story challenges believability; not enough to kill enjoyment, but enough to make the story a little too sweet.



By Veronica Roth

Narrated by Emma Galvin

-Young Adult-

VERONICA ROTH (Debut Novel--Born 8.19.88)
VERONICA ROTH (Debut Novel–Born 8.19.88)

Veronica Roth creates a dystopian world made up of four human stereotypes called factions; i.e. the honest, the selfless, the brave, and the intelligent. Sixteen-year-olds are taken from their families to become educated in one of these factions which are meant to benefit society.  Families theoretically become superfluous when children reach the age of sixteen.

Aptitude tests tell sixteen-year-olds which group they are best-suited to pursue.   When they choose, they are separated from their families to attend a kind of boot camp conducted by the chosen faction.  If they fail boot camp, they are classified as “factionless”, an appellation inferring homelessness, unworthiness, and disposability.

A “Divergent” is a sixteen-year-old that fits no basic faction.  The “Divergent” threatens structured society because a “Divergent” crosses boundaries between factions. A “Divergent” is unpredictable.

Roth is an imaginative writer but her character development is not equal to her imagination.  The heroine of the piece, Tris, is a “stick-figure” until the story nears its end.  Roth’s imaginativeness is confirmed by movie plans for her book. One hopes a movie playwright and actress playing Tris offer a more fully developed heroine.


the fault is in our starsThe Fault is In Our Stars

By John Green

Narrated by Kate Rudd

-Young Adult-


John Green tells a story of an erudite sixteen-year-old with stage IV cancer, and a cancer remission patient. These are extraordinary characters that convey the normal and tragic lives lived by cancer stricken families.

At a support-group meeting, the erudite teenager, Hazel Grace Lancaster, is struck by Augustus Waters’ handsome looks. Waters is dazzled by Hazel’s perceptive intelligence.  From first introductions, readers care about Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters. Readers are seduced into identifying with their fates.

A binding element in John Green’s story is Hazel’s obsession with a fictional author and how he writes the end of her favorite book.  The author’s story is about a young person that is critically ill, but the book ends without knowing the fate of its ill heroine.  Hazel is obsessed with knowing what happened to the fictional character.

Hazel and Augustus find the expatriate author in Amsterdam. In a “Make a Wish” trip to the Netherlands, they question the author.  They ask what happened to the character that was ill.  Hazel and Augustus are dismayed to find the author is a broken down alcoholic with rambling answers.  The answers only make sense at the end of John Green’s heart rending story.


goodnight, goodnight, construction siteGoodnight, Goodnight Construction Site

By Sherri Duskey Rinker

Illustrator- Tom Lichtenheld

-1 year olds and up-

From Crane Truck to Excavator, each truck has his duties and when they are done it is sleepy time, both for the tough trucks and the reader!

Sherri Duskey Rinker has written an excellent book for preschoolers. It’s intuitive fun for a parent to read to a son or daughter at the end of a busy day.  All of the vehicles know their duties in a sing-song, gentle rhyming mode–smiling while they work.

All are ready for a “good night” when the day is over.  For those who have children who love trucks, and love playing with trucks, this will take the roughest, toughest listeners and relax them before bed time.

There is a “work ethic” lesson repeated throughout—all vehicles had a job to do before they rested. Tom Lichtenheld, the illustrator, does an amazing job with facial expressions on “tough trucks”. Their human characteristics are uncanny, down to the Crane Truck’s “hands” holding his Teddy Bear before he shuts his eyes to sleep; i.e. “Shhh…goodnight Crane Truck, goodnight.”



By Victoria Kann

-5-8 Year Olds-

Fifth in the “series” (Pinkalicious, Purplelicious, Goldilicious, Silverlicious) Emeraldalicious is the amazing story of Pinkalicious turning an “ordinary place” into an Emeraldalicious world.

If that’s not enough “liciouses” for you, the books are described as “readalicious”! Victoria Kann spins a wonderful tale about the wanting, the wishing, and the making it happen, for a child and her friend.

Recommended for ages 5-8, Emeraldalicious has an awesome beginning when Pinkalicious snaps her wand in half. For all using wands on a regular basis, you know you can’t be without one, it is difficult, right?

Pinkalicious commandeers a vine, plus a flower, to become her new wand. Then with rhyme and “love”, when asking for what you want, you can turn even a garbage dump into a “greentastic garden”.

With finite adult wisdom, one can see the point—try asking for things in a nice way; want what is good, and believe you can make positives happen….and they will.

Pricey at $17.99 BUT every parent I asked had at least one of the Pinkalicious books in their child’s book collection! Also a parent commented, “The Pinkalicious books also have a ‘small chapter’ series for young readers.”


the care and keeping of youThe Care and Keeping of You, The Body Book for Younger Girls

By Valorie Lee Shaefer, Cara Natterson-MD & Medical Consultant

Illustrated by Josee Masse

-8-10 Year Olds-


Millions of girls wonder what is happening to their bodies and minds between the ages of eight and ten. This is a great time for them to understand what the changes are/will be and how to take control of their health and well-being.  The sections are self-explanatory like Body Basics, Reach and Big Changes.

In keeping with the idea of the book, the primary goal is to get information into the hands of young girls that need to know what is or will be happening to their bodies as they mature. My wife put the book in the hands of her favorite eleven year old, Lindsay, for evaluation.

Lindsay said, “I would recommend this book because you learn more about your body as its growing.”  Lindsay added, “This book is useful if you don’t want to ask your mom some of those questions.”  However, Lindsay felt the book should be for girls between 9 and 12.   Lindsay disagreed with the book’s recommended ages of 8-10.   Lindsay suggested reading a book is “way easier” than consulting female adults in some families.

The realization is that difficult questions about the human body are hard for some children to ask parents.


the care and keeping of you 2The Care & Keeping of YOU2

By Dr. Cara Natterson

Illustrated by Josee Masse

-5 Out of 5 Stars for 8-12 Year Olds=


“The Care & Keeping of YOU2” moves forward in the development of young girl’s bodies and minds. Again, my wife asked a couple of 13 year olds she knew to critique the book.

Katie’s comments–“This is a great book for teenage girls. The book answers questions that girls might have about their bodies, but are embarrassed to ask someone.” “Teenage girls should definitely read this book.” ‘“The Care and Keeping of You 2’ has a lot of information.”

Maddie’s comments–“This book was very interesting.” “It is very helpful for girls who don’t like to talk to their parents about their body.” “This book taught me a lot and I think that mothers should buy this book for their daughters, but I think they should give this book to 11-12 year olds because, as a 13-year-old, I already have learned about this, and this stuff has happened to me.” “It would be helpful for the girls that haven’t gotten their periods and it would help younger girls learn more and help them prepare if their moms don’t talk to them about it.”

Dr. Natterson’s book is not for boys but a book about a boy’s growing body and its care and keeping seems like a good idea.

the perks of being a wallflowerThe Perks of Being a Wallflower

By Stephen Chbosky

-12 Year Olds and Up-

STEPHEN CHBOSKY (Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature-Born 1.25.70)
STEPHEN CHBOSKY (Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature-Born 1.25.70)

This is a short book telling the story of a 15-year-old’s first year of high school. The 15-year-old is exceptionally bright and observant.  He writes a series of letters to an anonymous friend about his perception and experience of high school.

The writer’s name is Charlie.  He is gathering information from his family, his teachers, and a small group of friends to help him understand his and other’s lives.  Readers voyeuristically observe Charlie’s thoughts by reading his letters.

Sam and Patrick become Charlie’s best friends even though they are seniors when he is a freshman.  Sam is a beautiful girl who Charlie wishes for as a girlfriend.  Sam has a relationship with a college freshman, whom she breaks up with, when he confesses to other relationships.  Patrick is Sam’s gay stepbrother.  Patrick has a relationship with a high school jock named Brad.  Brad breaks Patrick’s heart by punching Patrick in the face to protect Brad’s straight reputation.

Charlie experiments with his identity by kissing both Sam and Patrick without clearly understanding his own sexuality. Friendship encompasses both kisses which gives weight to “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”.


my parent has cancerMy Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks

By Maya and Mark Silver

-12 Year Olds and Up-

I have friends (close) and relatives (distant) with cancer.  I did learn a few things from this book.  There is useful information for all ages; particularly for those in the teenage’ years.


From “Cancer 101”, to “Losing a Parent”, to “Life after Cancer”, this book gives real-life’ situations and information about living with cancer.  There are chapters like “Dealing with Stress and Seeking Support” that apply to any serious illness in a family.

However, the book has too many redundancies.  How many times does one need to hear there are added responsibilities at the beginning of a parent’s illness?

In an effort to make quotes and highlights stand out, pages have different fonts and type sizes.  Font changes and seemingly arbitrary page divisions make the book difficult to read.  The style of writing is like an internet page with distracting links.  I found the variety of fonts and “boxed” formatting off-putting.

On balance, the book’s content trumps some of its disjointed delivery by asking and answering difficult questions about cancer.  Those questions and answers are important and need to be known.

(A Version of this Article is Posted in the “Las Vegas Review Journal” 7/14/13)

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