Guest Blog: Vince’s “As I Read It” – The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins

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I have asked my 15 year-old son, Vincent, to write some book reviews. He is very well-read for his age, and can always be found with at least one book in hand. He has been known to walk into inanimate objects because he had his nose in a book. He prefers fantasy books, but has read a lot if other styles. What follows are his words. Enjoy!

My reviews will be divided into four sections, besides the rating, which itself will be how many stars out of five the series deserves. The first is Basic Protagonist. This one gives a few glimpses at the hero’s basic characteristics, to help determine whether the book would appeal to you. The second is Basic story, to acquaint my readers even to just the setting of the book. The third section is Possible Problem Areas. As the name suggests, this section covers any possible problems with the books. The final section is Good Areas. This area lists all the things concerning style and skill that the author excels at. As I am an avid lover of books, trying to list every positive portion of a book would require several pages of writing, so I have summarized my opinion of the book’s level of readability and enjoyability in the rating. You will never see a rating of 0 stars, since if a book is bad enough to merit that rating, I won’t be making a review of it. The lowest rankings you will ever see in this review are 3 or maybe 2 stars.

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The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
4½ stars
Basic protagonist – The hero is a down-to-earth, sensitive, and kind boy, who gets frustrated with racism, inequality, and hatred, even going against his friends when he believes that he has found inequality of any kind. He is highly respectful in almost all circumstances, the only exception being when he loses his temper over some injustice, and even then he is never aggressive just to attack the object of his anger. He doesn’t like politics at all, struggling with the bureaucracy and red tape around him. He hates violence, but is forced by circumstances to fight in a bloody and horrible war, portrayed as such by the author.

Basic Story – A New York boy who is bored because he has to stay home from summer camp falls through a grate with his little toddler sister, and they wind up in a dark world miles beneath New York City, populated by various giant night creatures, like rats, roaches, spiders, and bats, as well as a race of humans that went down there centuries before. Upon arriving, he is almost immediately identified as the foretold warrior, and the rest of the series describes his undertakings in that calling.

Possible problem areas – The series shows a completely original version of racism, racism between different species of animals, with humans the proudest and most arrogant of all, but it is still unmistakably racism to the eyes of a mature reader. Romance doesn’t even make an appearance until the fourth book, and then the worst it gets is a kiss between two characters who expect to die soon. The series is about medieval-level war, so there is a lot of fighting with swords. The main character participates in many battles, and causes many injuries and deaths himself. He discovers that he has great talent as a warrior, and is capable of killing instinctively, without training. He struggles with this, as he hates killing, but he still uses his skill in war and kills many hundreds in combat. At the end of the series he is haunted by dreams, a result of the danger he has been in and the horrors he has seen. His family is there to support him, but he still finds himself trying to survive with their help. He suffers many wounds, and by the end of the series can’t wear shorts or even short sleeves because people would see his scars and wounds from the many, many conflicts he has taken part in. The book shows the horrors of war, but it does offer a hope for better things.

Good Areas – The author is a master of emotions, and with practice can summon any feeling she wants from her readers. She constructs events well, in every book building up to a tipping point and then holding that tipping point for some time before letting the reader back down from the peak of emotions. She constructs good, three-dimensional characters, several of them with complex and painful backstories that help explain their motives and actions. The only really bad thing I can say about the writing style is that the series has a horrible ending, with an important side character’s death. The main character begins the healing process necessary to cope with losing someone that close, but it is still a soul-rending ending, one of the most crushing I have ever read.

(Note: The first book in the series, which is also the author’s first book, is not even close to good writing. Keep reading. It gets much, much better.)


Guest Blog: Vince’s “As I Read It” – Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan

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I have asked my 15 year-old son, Vincent, to write some book reviews. He is very well-read for his age, and can always be found with at least one book in hand. He has been known to walk into inanimate objects because he had his nose in a book. He prefers fantasy books, but has read a lot of other styles. What follows are his words. Enjoy!

My reviews will be divided into three sections, besides the rating, which itself will be how many stars out of five the series deserves. The first is Basic Portagonist. This one gives a few glimpses at the hero’s basic characteristics, to help determine whether the book would appeal to you. The second is Basic story, to acquaint my readers even to just the setting of the book. The third section is Possible Problem Areas. As the name suggests, this section covers any possible problems with the books. The final section is Good Areas. This area lists all the things concerning style and skill that the author excels at. As I am an avid lover of books, trying to list every positive portion of a book would require several pages of writing, so I have summarized my opinion of the book’s level of readability and enjoyability in the rating. You will never see a rating of 0 stars, since if a book is bad enough to merit that rating, I won’t be making a review of it. The lowest rankings you will ever see in this review are 3 or maybe 2 stars.

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Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan

5 stars
Basic Protagonist – The narrator in that series is a first-person, rather down-to-earth New Yorker, and he speaks with a complete disrespect to any authority that doesn’t deserve his respect. He always treats his mom with honor and respect, of course, but those who just want to control him for their own purposes he treats with total disrespect and dismissiveness. He always fights for his friends, and he will never leave them to face problems on their own, no matter the danger.

Basic Story – A dyslexia and ADHD diagnosed New York boy has led a life going from school to school and getting expelled from each one because of his problems, occasionally seeing strange things and events that no one except his mom believes. Then, after one final incident, he discovers that he isn’t just another troubled kid, but is in fact the son of one of the ancient Greek gods, who are now in America, the new heart of western civilization. And not only that, but there are dozens of others just like him. He soon is chosen to go on a quest, and it is just the first of many in this five-book series, during which he tries to battle the rise of an ancient evil and still stay alive.

Possible problem areas – There are several trips to the afterlife, and a boy raises the dead, being a child of Hades, the god of death. There is some romance, but nothing more than kissing. The series centers for the most part about a showdown between good and evil, so there is some fantasy violence. Characters, including the protagonist, are injured, several others are killed non-graphically, and monsters dissolve upon being wounded. The only other problem related to violence is that the main character realizes that his stepfather has hit his mother. It doesn’t describe the action more than that; it just says that it happened. There are only two other things that may put some people off of the series. For one, its founding core premise is that Greek mythology is real, so that may be a problem for some. The other issue is that the way the heroes of the series are born is by affairs between gods and humans. The author doesn’t dwell on this topic, or touch on whether or not it’s moral. It is necessary for the story to move, though, so he leaves it.

Good Areas – The story has a great storyline and gripping plot. The author’s blunt, choppy mode of writing appeals perfectly to preteens, and his imaginative twists on Greek mythology will interest anyone who has had any exposure to or knowledge of it. The main character has an acerbic wit, perfect timing, and a wonderful sense of humor, resulting in several very humorous exchanges between characters. But it isn’t all humor. The hero is very serious about his duties, helping tie in slightly more serious readers and giving the reader have an immense desire to have the hero succeed.

(Note: This review does not apply to the sequel series, The Heroes of Olympus, which I may review at a later date. Don’t be surprised if you try to read that one and don’t find it to be the same as the original series.)


The Curriculum I Use: A Review of Rod and Staff English

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I use Rod and Staff’s English program to teach grammar and some writing.

This curriculum uses a very traditional approach to grammar and writing. In this approach lies both its strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s first look at what I consider to be its strengths.

Nouns, verbs, subjects, predicates, objective, subjective, tense, punctuation, diagramming, and many other details are all taught. Each grade level goes into a bit more depth, sometimes leading the student to think they already know the lesson when in actuality there is a little new information at each level. By the time they get to seventh grade, they are learning about coordinating conjunctions and adverb phrases, but since they’ve been studying conjunctions and adverbs for years, they are not overwhelmed.

Diagramming is taught from a very young age. This helps the learner to see the sentence and its functional parts in a different way and, though it’s challenging, teaches at a level that cannot be equaled.

Now let’s move on to its weaknesses. In my opinion, these books are extremely outdated and limited in their presentation.

This series is blatantly conservative Christian. It may be surprising that I list this as a weakness because I myself am also blatantly conservative Christian. However, the lengths to which they go to address EVERYTHING from a Christian lens gets old quite quickly. I do not have a problem with them using scripture references occasionally and talking about Christian values in some examples, but in my opinion they are out of balance and use it way too much, at times almost exclusively. They also teach KJV English along with modern English. Included in pronoun lessons, for example, are instructions on how to use “thee” and “thou.” This is not a real problem, but it can be distracting for kids who don’t use a lot of the KJV. 

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Also, being Mennonite, which is not too far from being Amish, most of the few examples that are not scriptural or religious are rural in nature. Farming and country life is often the subject of the exercises, and since my kids have only set foot on a farm a few times, and then only for a few hours, they have a hard time relating to sentences about fields and cows and  harvesting.

Also, some of the lessons have more to do with etiquette and nothing to do with grammar or writing. In my opinion, lessons on how to answer the telephone or how to introduce people to each other do not belong in an English book.

This curriculum teaches not only grammar but writing. Since it is coming from such a rural Mennonite setting these writing exercises mainly address paragraph structure, book reports, and letter writing. Essay writing or writing for any academic setting is not developed at all. Any college-bound student is going to need additional training in how to write for an academic setting.

So why do I use it? I continue to use this curriculum because I haven’t found anything that teaches grammar in such a robust way. I use a separate writing program and skip most of the writing exercises in Rod and Staff. We also skip the outdated and irrelevant etiquette lessons. I wish that I could find a more modern program with a higher-level writing program. Until I do, I will make do with this one, picking and choosing, adding and subtracting, making it work for us. I will accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.