Yes, this one is just as funny as the other ones! This time Greg is happily looking forward to summer vacation.
“The way I like to spend my summer vacation is in front of the TV, playing video games with the curtains closed and the lights turned off.”
You know Greg’s Mom, she isn’t going to go for that plan. In fact, she has all kind of things lined up to keep Greg busy and none of her choices include staying inside playing video games. He tries to reason with her:
“I tell her that I’m just trying to protect my skin so I don’t look all wrinkly when I’m old like her…”
Huh. Of course, that argument doesn’t go very far with Greg’s Mom! He doesn’t get to laze in front of the TV all summer playing video games, he is forced outdoors and as usual, he finds a heap of trouble.
Ray and his sister Sally are on an orphan train in hopes of finding new parents out West. On the train, Ray realizes that Sally would stand a better chance at getting adopted if she didn’t have an older brother – so he jumps off the train to adventure on his own.
Ray has one thing to remind him of the life he used to have, a stone his father gave him. It is a lodestone, a magnetic stone used to make compasses. The stone is acting funny. It seems to be pulling Ray South, so Ray decides to go wherever the lodestone leads.
The stone leads Ray to Cornelius T. Carter’s Mystifying Medicine Show, a sideshow that travels in a steam train from town to town performing tricks and selling medicine oil. The band of performers includes a blind sharpshooter, a snake charmer, a fire-eater, a sword swallower and a strong man. Ray discovers that these performers are more than they first appear. The strong man, Conker, is John Henry’s son. John Henry was a legendary railroad worker who defeated a steam powered hammer, man against machine, in a contest. John Henry won the challenge, but then dropped dead from the effort. His stories are legends like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan.
Ray discovers that John Henry’s legend is actually real and that John Henry didn’t just win a competition, he defeated a demonic machine built by a man (the Gog) who is still determined to dominate the world with his evil mechanical inventions. Ray finds out that there is a band of heroes, called Ramblers, who have been fighting the Gog for years. Ramblers are like knights or rangers or aurors…their job is to protect the world from evil. Ray finds out his dad, a Rambler, helped John Henry beat the evil machine…but that the Gog and his evil machines are back. It is up to Ray and Conker and their friends to rally the remaining Ramblers and the Rambler’s children to do battle again.
This story draws a lot of characters and personality from tales of the American South, African American Folklore and tales from the frontier West. I liked reading about traveling by steam locomotive. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but back in those days there were trains owned by individual people that traveled all over the country – trains decked out like fancy RVs inside.
The story is science fiction meets the frontier meets steampunk. (Steampunk is a story that involves technology before that technology was actually invented. The evil gunius in this story uses robotic creatures that are built with technology not known in the 1800s.) Ray’s adventure is like Harry Potter because there is an ensemble cast of kids that have inherited the fight from a previous generation.
There are no unicorns or dragons or wizards in this magical story, but magic still, a kind of magic that has its roots in African-American history and the American South called hoo doo. People knowledgeable in hoo doo are called conjurers or root doctors. They make potions from herbs, animals, or items owned by a person. Sometimes, the hoo doo knowledge is what we might call a folk remedy. Hoo doo uses a bit of science and a bit of the spiritual unknown to conjure up its magic. Author: Claude Bemis Series: The Clockwork Dark
There is a really cool book about the song The Ballad of John Henry. The book traces the history of the song and takes a guess at who John Henry really was. This book is called Ain’t Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry. Generally, legends are based on at least a tiny bit of truth and this book shows the historical treasure hunt the author went on to track down the bits of truth in the John Henry story.
The video below is the blues artist John Jackson singing the John Henry song. Blues music came out of African-American communites in the South in the 1800s. Songs included spirituals and work songs and chants. A lot of times the songs told a story in a ballad – John Henry is a ballad and work song.
In A Dog’s Life: the Autobiograpy of a Stray, Ann Martin wrote about Squirrel, a stray dog. It’s a really emotional look into the life of a dog as it struggles to find the right home. If you liked that one, you will surely like Everything for a Dog. It is the story of Squirrel’s brother, Bone.
Bone’s story is also the story of two boys: Charlie and Henry. The chapters alternate between the three as Bone and the two boys tell their stories. Charlie is having a tough time because his older brother RJ died and his parents are all but falling apart. His only consolation is RJ’s dog Sunny, who has attached herself Charlie. Henry is a boy without a dog, and he wants one more than anything. Bone just needs a home. As the stories of the three unfold they don’t really seem related, except that they are about the attachments that occur between people and their pets.
Toward the end of the book the stories of Charlie, Henry & Bone come together in a really surprising way that fits just right. I love it when a story does that and it’s even better when I don’t see it coming. If you have ever wanted or loved a dog this story will speak to you. Author: Ann M. Martin
12 year old Alfonso sleep walks, but he doesn’t do normal sleepwalking things like walking into closets or making himself a sandwich. When Alfonso wakes up from sleepwalking he can be miles from his house, he can even be at the top of a tree precariously balanced on branches not meant to support his weight. It’s Alphonso’s challenge when he wakes up to figure out where he is and how to get home…without breaking any bones or getting arrested.
Alfonso also has a green thumb. He’s been tending a mysterious plant in his Grandfather’s greenhouse. The plant’s leaves change color, not like leaves in the fall, but from minute to minute.
When a stranger shows up at his house claiming to be his long lost Uncle Hill, Alfonso learns that he is descended from a kingdom of people who live in the town of Dormia, deep in the Ural Mountains, people born with talents like Alfonso’s. Alfonso’s people have the power to do extraordinary things in their sleep. They can solve puzzles, demonstrate incredible strength & speed, fight without tiring, shoot arrows long distances with bulls-eye accuracy and more.
The problem is, Dormia is wasting away and will disappear completely unless “The Great Sleeper” (Alfonso) returns with a special plant that will regenerate their town. If the plant is not returned Dormia and it’s people will die. Alfonso’s color changing plant is a Dormian bloom and he alone needs to return it to Dormia to save his people.
Alfonso and his Uncle set out on a dangerous journey – there are those who want Dormia and it’s people to die and will try to stop Alfonso from bringing the Dormian Bloom home. Like Percy Jackson and Harry Potter and Frodo, Alfonso collects some good friends along the way who make it possible for him to get to Dormia and join the fight for surival. Author: Jake Halpern & Peter Kujawinski
Adam Canfield, his best friend Jennifer, and their crackerjack newspaper staff are fighting to keep their school newspaper, The Slash, alive. Plenty of the adults in their town appreciate the journalism of The Slash but there are a couple powerful adults who have made sure the school will not pay to print The Slash anymore. (They didn’t much like The Slash publishing stories that exposed their bad behavior.)
Adam and Jennifer decide that their only option is to publish the paper themselves. Stories they have lined up are just too good to let go: what might be inflated state school test scores, a class president candidate that is buying votes by giving out free music downloads and a bicycle thief. To get these stories to the public Adam and Jennifer turn to the Ameche brothers, two street smart kid entrepreneurs who know how to turn a dollar into two dollars.
The Ameche brothers begin their fundraising by selling ads in The Slash. Adam and Jennifer can’t believe how fast the money comes in, until they realize the Ameches have been selling ads in exchange for favorable mentions in the paper – a practice that violates the ethical rules of The Slash. Much to the brothers’ disbelief, Adam and Jennifer turn the money down. After a quick lesson in journalistic ethics the Ameche brothers start over, but can they raise enough money in time?
Adam and Jennifer are just as smart and funny as ever. An interesting side story that I really liked is the profile Adam writes for the paper about staff member Shadow. Adam visits Shadow’s special education class as well as Shadow’s after school job. Adam interviews Shadow and the people who know him best to reveal a three dimensional personality who has a talent for proof-reading and fact checking. Author: Michael Winerip