Review: Point Horizon

Ever since his family left Virginia for Colorado, Tommy has been at loose ends and out of sorts. He left behind him in Virginia not only his Aunt Maggie, but the pictures she taught him to see and all of his dreams. In Colorado, everything seems dreary, or hostile – the barren plains, the dusty town, the gang of teenagers who roam the neighborhood, each one with a strange new name. Even his dreams have turned against him.

Then one day, while exploring a canyon with a new friend, he is chased by the gang deep into a cave – and then down, down, down. He and his friend will end up in the Firmament – which is not quite where he wanted to go, but it may be better than where he’s been.

Point Horizon is a book for middle-graders, written by David Zelenka. Although a novel, its primary purpose is to give a vision of the world that blends an awareness of beauty, a knowledge of science, and spiritual vision. Point Horizon is a scientific book as much as it is an adventure. Zelenka, a teacher and a former Park Ranger, writes knowledgeably about the landscape and animals of Colorado and about the science of the Firmament’s special environment.

He also writes in a clear, vivid style that evokes the natural beauty of the places he brings his readers to. The spiritual vision of the novel is clearly and broadly put forth; the doctrines of Christianity are not delineated, but the spirit of it shines through.

Physically, the book looks good. The cover is eye-catching, the font easy to read, and the illustrations at the chapters’ openings are simple but enjoyable. The book is 40,000 words and totals up to just under two hundred pages – roughly half of an adult novel. Point Horizon is, as I said, written for middle-graders, and considering the length, content, and writing level, it is an excellent bridge for young readers transitioning from children’s to grown-up books.

The adventure side of the novel was not, I thought, quite strong enough. It needed something – more excitement, some additional danger or opposition to the characters. Despite this lack, Point Horizon is a well-written, imaginative book that shows knowledge and serious thought. Recommended for children about ten to twelve, especially children interested in science or other worlds.

Review: Catch a Robber

Skitter always was kind to Pibbin – talking with him, giving him beetle cookies, taking care of him after a bird pecked him. When – in an apparent case of mistaken identity – the rabbits held Skitter captive as a thief, and demanded the real thief and the stolen necklace before they would let her go – well, what was Pibbin to do?

The only thing a friend could. Catch a robber. Even, even if it takes him out of Friendship Bog and into Shadow Swamp.

Catch a Robber – the fourth Tale of Friendship Bog – is written by Gloria Repp. The book is 116 pages, and very nicely laid-out – with well-drawn illustrations, wide spacing, and a fairly large font. It’s sold for “Ages 8 and up”, and I think it’s ideal for children who are ready to stretch beyond picture books but for whom a full-length novel is still too daunting.

As in Trapped, the writing style is crisp, with few long sentences and probably no complicated ones. But the writing is skilled, and there are some lovely images and expressions. “Peeper-voices chimed like tiny bells in the bushes”; one passage had a snake that curled downward “like a smooth, shining ribbon,” and another that “arranged himself into a black coil and gazed at the rabbits with bright, hungry eyes.”

The story is good and the characters are excellent. Nisk, Keena, the shrews, the Big Red, Mee – all riveting, in their own way. (The bit with Mee was marvelous, building tension and intrigue through a fascinating character.) Gloria Repp excels with characters who are – how can I put this? – not quite normal. Nisk is good, I don’t doubt, and likeable as a character, but his mind is somewhere off the beaten the track.

It’s a little funny, on reflection, that among the main antagonists of this children’s book are rabbits. (Note that I don’t say villains; they’re not quite that.) But in the book itself, it completely works. I didn’t question it for a second, wasn’t drawn out of the story at all. In large part this is because Gloria Repp succeeds in framing the world as it is for her characters. To a little frog like Pibbin, rabbits are large and noisy and strong.

A word on the illustrations (done by Michael Swaim, I should note): They really are well-done, a very pleasant halfway point between a cartoon and realism. They are also appealing to children; I know because when I showed one of the Friendship Bog books to my youngest sister (four last month), she turned the pages, looking at the illustrations, and finally asked, “How do you read this thing?”

Catch a Robber is a superb children’s book – a good story with writing and characters adults can appreciate along with children. It’s also entirely wholesome, and I would recommend it to parents and teachers without reservation.

Catch a Robber is available on Amazon; to learn more about Gloria Repp and her work, visit her site.

I received a review copy of this book.

Review: Trapped

A blue star is a lovely thing. So lovely, in fact, that Pibbin would, for the cause of getting one, hop into a dark tunnel, unsure if he would meet a nice chipmunk or a hungry snake.

Until he stumbled into a net, and the shouting started. After that, it really was time to go home.

Trapped is the third book in the Tales of Friendship Bog, written by Gloria Repp and illustrated by Michael Swaim. It’s marked for children six and older. 109 pages, with a large font and generous spacing, and illustrations scattered throughout, Trapped is a book well-designed for children.

The plot is fairly simple, but engaging. The central conflict of the story – the disappearance of a baby squirrel, one character’s little brother – is quite enough to keep readers invested until the end. The characters are sympathetic; a few – such as Cheeco, Zip, and Nisk – you wonder about, but it’s the sort of wondering that makes them intriguing. And I have to say I found the peepers charming.

Trapped has a brief, forthright writing style, in keeping with the age both of its protagonists and its primary audience. But the images of the book, however brief, are still evocative, and I enjoyed them – the wind “stirring through everything on the ground”, a tunnel slanting “up again, as if it had remembered where it was going”, Pibbin fearing “a long, thin weasel creeping after him, with its quick paws and teeth.”

And then one of my favorites: “Moonlight still gleamed at the end of the tunnel, and the moss on the stump smelled wonderful, as if beetles lived in it.” Part of the fun of this one is that it takes you into the viewpoint of this little frog; obviously anthropomorphized frogs are fundamentally human in their viewpoint, but it’s fun to see a froggish touch, too.

Which brings me to another point: This story is intended for children, who will no doubt enjoy it more than adults would. But there is much in it that appeals to adults, and sometimes to adults even more than children. I think the befuddled and befuddling Nisk is at least as enjoyable to adults as to children, and the humor of Ma Chipmunk’s devastating emotional support has an adult sensibility.

Trapped is an excellent children’s story – heartfelt and engaging, with a charming style and likable characters. Highly recommended.

Trapped is available on Amazon; to learn more about Gloria Repp and her work, visit her site.

I received a review copy of this book.

Review: The Whipping Boy

Here’s a question: Which would you rather be – a rat-catcher or a whipping boy? On the one hand, rat-catchers catch rats. On the other, whipping boys get whipped. A lot.

At least they do when the prince is known throughout the kingdom as Prince Brat. And Jemmy, an orphan plucked from the streets to be His Highness’s whipping boy, knows which he prefers. If he had a choice, he’d exchange his silk and velvet for rags and be back in the sewers in a half-blink of an eye.

But he doesn’t have a choice. And then, one night, Prince Brat embarks on his greatest piece of mischief yet – running away.

The Whipping Boy, written by Sid Fleischman, is a classic of children’s literature. It’s a slim book – less than one hundred pages, with a large type and generous margins. The writing is direct, in both style and substance. The setting-up takes two chapters, a total of five pages – for unlike the book, we are not counting illustrations.

Brief the author may be, but his strokes are sure and bold. Characters leap brightly from the pages, knowable and entirely their own. Every once in a while, Sid Fleischman turns fine, evocative phrases in his short sentences – “a thoroughbred of the streets”, “fuming like a stovepipe”, the moon gazing “down like an evil eye”.

Places, too, are drawn out in a few vivid words – the great sewers, the dark, garlicky hut, the mist-filled forest (“Forests is creepy things,” the whipping boy says. “Gimme cobbled streets any time.”). The book is in written in that way: skilled, pleasing, and simple.

The king is unnamed, the kingdom and the city nameless, and the time is undefined. Details suggest the eighteenth century – but what does it matter? The Whipping Boy is, in this, like a fairy tale, and it breathes free of any place on a map or time in a chronology.

There is an abiding simplicity in The Whipping Boy. And simplicity, when done by a master, can be a marvelous thing. This story runs and dodges, treating us to adventure and comedy, and at its heart it is a sympathetic view of two boys – both, in their way, deprived. The Whipping Boy is a children’s book, but like all truly excellent works for children, it can be enjoyed by adults, too. No one is too old for the humor of this book, or the adventure, or the humanity.