June Reading

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Fiction Read in June:

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
Perelandra by C. S. Lewis
Both of these were first time reads for me. I read them as research for the first unit I am planning for John for school in the fall. I think they are a little too complex for him right now. He could read them and if he picked them up to read on his own I’d be fine with it. But I think he’ll get so much more out of these complex books if he waits a few years. 

I Am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley
Flavia deLuce has definitely grown on me since I declared her too quirky and precocious on my first introduction to Bradley’s poison loving 11 year old girl chemist and sometimes detective. Count me a fan. 

The Pirate King by Laurie R. King (audiobook)
I continue to list to the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series on audiobook. This one was not my favorite, the setting of a 1920’s silent film and a cast of hundreds didn’t work as well for me. One fun thing: Pirates of Penzance is feature heavily in the plot and quoted throughout. Our homeschool co-op performed Pirates this spring so many of the references were very fresh in my mind. 

The Runaway King by Jennifer Nielsen
The Shadow Throne by Jennifer Nielsen
John and I have both enjoyed the Ascendance Triology by Nielsen. The Shadow Throne, the final book in the series, is a very satisfying end to the story of Jaron, the incorrigible, charming young king determined to save his country from destruction and war. 

Non-Fiction Read in June: 

The Rocks Don’t Lie by David Montgomery

The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne
It’s somewhat hard to sum up this book but I can guarantee you’ve never read anything like it. Unless you know of another book by a librarian who has Tourette’s syndrome. And is 6’7″. And enters strongman competitions. And who is LDS and writes openly and graciously about both the faith of his family and his own struggles with faith. I picked this one up on a whim off the shelf at my own library and was captivated by Hanagarne’s story. I have to love a guy who loves libraries as much as this:

I love to tell kids that everything in the library is theirs. “We just keep it here for you.” One million items that you can have for free! A collection that represents an answer to just about any question we could ask. A bottomless source of stories and entertainments and scholarly works and works of art. Escapist, fun trash and the pinnacles of the high literary style. Beavis and Butt-Head DVDs and Tchaikovsky’s entire oeuvre within ten feet of each other. Every Pulitzer-Prize winning book and National Book Award winner. Picture books for children. An enormous ESL collection…Art prints you can borrow and put on your wall for a month. A special-collections area of rare books. Full runs of ephemera from The New York Times to the original Black Panther newsletters.

If I could bring my bed, expand the fitness room, and kick everyone out, I wouldn’t need to pursue Heaven in the next world. I’d be there.

Read Aloud Thursday: Summer Reading

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Ok, I just realized that the post I wanted to write today for Read Aloud Thursday is technically not about read-alouds. But I think Amy will forgive me since it still fits with the overall kids and books theme.

We’ve participated in our local library’s summer reading program for years, since before John could read on his own (Aha! That’s the read-aloud portion of the post.) It’s fun but for the past couple of years I’ve wanted to figure out how to make it into something a little more challenging.

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John is a voracious reader. He reads all the time. In fact, just tonight we came home from a family dinner and couldn’t find him only to realize he’d stayed in the car to read. (Before, I get comments about children being left in cars, realize that he is 10 and fully capable of coming in the house by himself. He was just too absorbed in his book.) His genre of choice is fantasy and he reads deeply in that category. I’m a believer in letting kids read what they want. However, I also have felt like he could use some gentle “encouragement” to help him get out of the fantasy rut. Or at least to have him try some books in other genres. I also wanted to see him challenge himself a little more as a reader.

IMG_0818Hence, the Summer Book List was born. I made a list of 12 books. The poster is made from printing off covers found online and glueing them to a poster-board. Then I gave him the goal of reading one book a month from my list. He should (and will) read much more than three books over the summer, but he only had to read three from my list.

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David’s a very good reader but he isn’t as passionate about reading as John. That’s ok, they are wired very differently. This year he started many many chapter books that he never finished for various reasons. He reads a lot of picture books, which is fantastic. I love picture books. However, I’ve wanted to encourage him to stick with longer books as well. My goal for him this summer was to find longer books that he would truly love and that he would finish.

IMG_0819David also got a poster of 12 books and an assignment to read one a month from my list. So far, the lists have been a success. David just finished his June pick: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. He loved it and I think had a fair amount of pride in finishing a long-for-him book. John has finished three of the books off his list: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. He loved the first two (which were really in his preferred fantasy-adventure genre) and liked the third one pretty well. He’s also read several other fantasy books of his own choosing and re-read the entire Harry Potter series, so my assignments don’t seem to be slowing him down too much.

What are your kids reading this summer? Do you assign books or let them read at their own whimsy?

John’s Book List

Hoot by Carl Hiassen
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Paperboy by Vince Vawter
Carry on Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
Nothing But the Truth by Avi

David’s Book List

Soup by Robert Newton Peck
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
Nim’s Island by Wendy Orr
Clementine by Sara Pennypacker
Tornado by Betsy Byars
Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary
Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill
When the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
Taylor Made Tales: The Dog’s Secret by Ellen Miles
Wolves of the Beyond: The Lone Wolf by Kathryn Lasky
Lionboy by Zizou Corder

Be sure to stop by Hope is the Word for this month’s Read Aloud Thursday round-up!

What We’re Reading

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Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good. This is often the case for me with blogging about books. I feel like I need to think about a theme or look for new books to blog about in order to make it worth the reader’s time. Sometimes that works well with what we are reading for school or sometimes I happen to have pulled off a bunch of cool new books off the new shelf at the library. But sometimes, the books we are actually reading neither fit together or are new and feel “blogworthy”. Such has been the case lately. So I decided to try a new thing: books we liked this week/what we’re reading.

The first book to share has been Ruth’s clear favorite for the past couple of weeks. Ballet Kitty by Bernette Ford and Sam Williams is about a kitty who loves ballet and pink and who is having a playdate with another purple loving princess kitty. I think that’s really all I have to say to explain why Ruth, age 4 LOVED this book. Loved, loved, loved it.

I think my favorite picture book this week was The Secret Olivia Told Me by N. Joy. I don’t typically like books that teach a lesson and this one has a lesson (the dangers of gossip and breaking a friend’s trust) but overall this one is so charming that the lesson isn’t too heavy-handed. Rhyming text tells what happens as a girl accidentally tells a friend’s secret. The real charm though lies in the illustrations by Nancy Devard. Done entirely in black and white silhouettes they are striking in their simplicity. A red balloon in the background gets bigger and bigger clearly representing the growing secret itself and providing a clever visual representation of the theme.

A Funny Little Bird by Jennifer Yerkes actually was off the new shelf at our library. Often we like the same books as a family. But sometimes we don’t. This was a case where several kids really liked a book that I just didn’t. The funny little bird of the title is white so that on a white page anything he stands in front of disappears. At first this makes him sad because he is ignored by everyone. But after venturing into the world he discovers that his ability can also help him hide new friends and himself from danger. I think it’s supposed to be about learning to like yourself and your quirks or unique abilities but something about the story just fell flat. The graphics are cool but not cool enough for me to make up for the story. I think I couldn’t get past figuring out if the bird was white or invisible or both or what the deal was. Like I said, earlier, my kids are more accepting and thought this one was really funny. Ruth asked me to read it several times to her and I saw her ask David to read it also. David read it to himself at least a couple of times. So, I’m including it here in the list of the books that caught our attention this week because from their perspective it was a clear hit.

All Joy and No Fun

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I admit that I expected to dislike this new book by Jennifer Senior. I’m not sure why; all the reviews I had read were good but something about the title or what I thought it was about rubbed me the wrong way. I thought it was going to be a “woe is me” essay on how parenting is so hard and how we just all need more me-time. However, I wanted to read it because I kept seeing it mentioned and it felt like the new parenting book that everyone was talking about.

In the end, I quite liked it. It’s honest and funny but also much more insightful than I expected it to be. It turned out to be one of those books that I kept feeling compelled to read parts of out-loud to H. Since it’s been more than two weeks since I finished it, I’ll abandon any attempt at a further “review” on my part and instead share some of those parts with you:

Today women have abandoned this form of domestic science, spending almost half as much time on housework as they did in {Betty} Friedan’s day (17.5 hours per week, to be precise, versus nearly 32 hours a week in 1965). But they  have become domestic scientists in another way: they’re now parenting experts….It was a woman in Minnesota who clarified this shift for me. She pointed out that her mother called herself a housewife. She, on the other hand, called herself a stay-at-home mom. The change in nomenclature reflects the shift in cultural empasis: the pressures on women have gone from keeping and immaculate house to being an irreproachable mom. (p. 154)

 

She said the evening ritual of guiding her sons through their {homework} assignments was her “gift of service.” No doubt it is. But this particular form of service is directed inside the home, rather than toward the community and for the commonweal, and those kinds of volunteer efforts and public involvements have also steadily declined over the last few decades, at least in terms of the number of hours of sweat equity we put into them. Our gifts of service are now more likely to be for the sake of our kids. And so our world becomes smaller, and the internal pressure we feel to parent well, whatever that may mean, only increases: how one raises a child, as Jerome Kagan notes, is now one of the few remaining ways in public life that we can prove our moral worth. In other cultures and in other eras, this could be done by caring for one’s elders, participating in social movements, providing civic leadership and volunteering. Now, in the United States, child-rearing has largely taken their place. Parenting books have become, literally, our bibles. (p. 180)

 

…happiness is an unfair thing to ask of a child. The expectation casts children as “antidepressants,” he notes, and renders parents “more dependent on their children than their children are on them.”
   Just as important…producing happy children may not be fair to ask of parents. It’s a beautiful goal- one I’ve readily admitted to having myself- but as Dr. Spock points out, raising happy children is an elusive aim compared to the more concrete aims of parenting in the past: creating competent children in certain kinds of work; and creating morally responsible citizens who will fulfill a prescribed set of community obligations. 
    The fact is, those bygone goals are probably more constructive- and achievable. Not all children will grow up to be happy, in spite of their parents’ most valiant efforts, and all children are unhappy somewhere along the way, no matter how warmly they’re nurtured or how stoutly they’re protected.
(p. 234)

 

Kids may complicate our lives. But they also make them simpler. Children’s needs are so overwhelming and their dependence on us so absolute, that it’s impossible to misread our moral obligation to them. It’s for life…But it also is our lives. There’s something deeply satisfying about that…..I suspect that parenthood helped reduce the number of existential questions she had…She knew what she had to do each day, and why she was here. (p. 264-265)

April Reading

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Fiction Read in April:

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Epic saga of brothers who grow up in India and then end up with very different lives. Lahiri follows the modern trend of using multiple perspectives and having each chapter be almost a short story in itself. This particular style always leaves me feeling slightly detached from the characters and it’s not my favorite format but still she writes beautifully and I’m not sorry I read it.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My book club picked this one to read (before it won the Pultizer, leading us to coin the term “book hipster” to express how we are on the leading edge of the book world, if not fashion world). This is a LONG book, and probably could have been edited. Still, for the most part it was a page-turner. Tartt tells a compelling story that is on one level a mystery/thriller centering around a stolen painting and on another level a coming-of-age story. And on yet another level it’s an exploration of big themes like whether good can come from bad and whether people can change and whether or not fate is real or things just happen for no reason. I’ve seen it compared to Dickens (especially David Copperfield and Great Expectations) and that’s a very apt comparison.

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B. J. Novak
Novak is probably best known to most people as Ryan from The Office. He was also one of the writers and producers of The Office. One More Thing, his first book, is a collection of short fiction. Some is very short (think more of a several lines joke), some are sketches and some are more traditional stories. Novak is clever, funny and obviously smart (he’s a Harvard grad in addition to his other accomplishments). His voice is cynical and acerbic and reading these altogether left me feeling slightly depressed. Some of these are quite funny: a short sketch starring Wikipedia Brown and an updated Aesop’s Tortoise and the Hare fable were favorites. I think I would have enjoyed the rest of the sketches more if I’d read them a few at a time, rather than all in one chunk. Unfortunately, it was due back at the library so I had to binge read and ended up feeling a bit hungover.

The Language of Bees by Laurie R. King (audiobook)
Continuing the Holmes/Russell series, this was the first one I’ve listened to that I hadn’t previously read. Just as good as the others. 

Non-Fiction Read in April:

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
I’ve been wanting to read this for awhile and it was worth the wait. Fascinating. I read huge sections aloud to H. and probably bored lots of other people talking about it. 

 

March Reading

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Fiction Read in March

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Dear Life by Alice Munro
I’m not a big short-story reader but I wanted to read this, the latest collection by the 2013 Nobel Prize winner for literature. Munro has been called a master of the short-story for good reason. I don’t particularly like the people she writes about, the situations she puts them in or the genre she uses. Yet she writes in a way that is compelling and true and beautiful and that makes all of that seem not so important. 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
This was the first time I’d read this classic thriller. I loved it and couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it before. 

The Art of Detection by Laurie R. King (audiobook)

The False Prince
by Jennifer Nielsen
Recommended by John, who loves fantasy books. He read this last year and then recently got it out of the library to re-read it which made me want to see what was so good. This mistaken identity story with a twist rises to the top of the crowded fantasy middle grade genre. I’m looking forward to reading the next two in the trilogy. John promises they are just as good. 

Non-Fiction Read in March:

Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books by Nick Hornby

With the Kids:

The Dragons of Blueland by Ruth Stiles Gannett

Obi, Gerbil on the Loose by Michael Delaney

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

Ten Years in the Tub

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After the last book I read, I needed a very particular type of book. Non-fiction. I couldn’t get involved with other fictional characters after inhabiting Adam Johnson’s North Korea. I couldn’t have read something that was too sad or about the evil in the world. I also didn’t want something that was too funny or lightweight. So really my choices were down to some bland not-too-hot-and-not-too-cold book or one of the random catalogs that come in the mail. Luckily for me, I realized I had a third choice: Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub which happened to be on my shelf of books recently checked out of the library.

Ten Years in the Tub is one of my favorite kinds of books: a book about books. It’s actually a collection of columns Hornby wrote for The Believer magazine over the past 10 years. The title of the column is “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” and the skeleton of each column is just that: Hornby’s reflections/reviews of what’s he’s been reading. But you also get thoughts on football (soccer to those of us in the US), musings on art and relationships and parenting and best of all Hornby’s thoughts on the act of reading itself.

Hornby and I are really nothing alike. He’s a 57 year old British man who clearly leans much more to the left than me politically and who mentions once that although he won’t read Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials series because he doesn’t like fantasy and sci-fi, he’s ok with the “God being dead” idea. (What does it say about me that I was more bothered by the idea that he doesn’t like fantasy at all than his anti-religious feelings?) I’m not any of those things. I’m also not an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and author who is married to a director. Heck, I’d never even heard of the clearly hip and arty magazine that his column has been in for 10 (!) years. I do, however, share one important character trait with Hornby. We are both readers.

I could probably turn to just about any page of the book and find a quote by Hornby that I found funny, inspiring, intriguing or just plain true. Hornby’s approach to reading reminded me quite a bit of Alan Jacob’s in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction although their writing styles are quite different. Both Hornby and Jacobs are of the “read what you want” rather than what is deemed “important”. Read at whimsy. Read one thing and let it lead to another. Read because you want to rather than because you have to.

I thought about making a long list of all the books that I’ve added to my own to-be-read list just by reading this book. But that would be a little boring and to be honest, I didn’t actually make a list. I kept thinking about making a list. Just about each column had me thinking, “Ooh! That sounds good, I want to read that.” But I didn’t sit down and write down each and every book I thought sounded great while I was reading this one. I probably should have but I was usually too into reading to stop and take notes. Plus, I’m usually reading doing something like brushing my teeth or sitting at swim practice or curled up in bed at night. On one hand, I’m sad that I didn’t write them down because I feel like I’m certainly going to forget about that one book that I really really wanted to read. On the other hand, it feels right to not have kept a list. Keeps the door open for whimsy and all that.

One last testament to how much I’ve enjoyed this book. The book was due yesterday at the library but couldn’t be reviewed because it has a hold on it. I hate to have library fines. Not because I mind the money, I figure at about $1.00 I’m still getting a great deal. But because I feel like I’m betraying the other reader out there who is waiting patiently for his hold to come in. I rarely keep books out past the due date in this situation, sometimes I return them and then put them on hold again. But I’ve kept out Ten Years in the Tub. It’s just that good. So if you’re a Fairfax County library goer who has Ten Years in the Tub on hold, sorry. I promise I’ll take it back tomorrow.

 

 

 

The Orphan Master’s Son

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I’m not really sure I can do justice to this book in a review. Nor can I go the lazy way and share my favorite quotes with you because I had to return it to the library today. Since it won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was named a best book of the year by just about every major newspaper and even won the more quirky Tournament of Books in 2013, I’m not sure why I even feel the need to mention it here on my little ol’ blog anyway.

Probably for the reason that I’m fairly sure that when I look back at the end of the year this will be my best book of the year.

The story is of Jun Do, an North Korean orphan who grows up to be a kidnapper and spy. I don’t really want to give away more of the plot than that. It’s complicated and complex. The things it tells of are horrific and gruesome and sad. I never knew what was going to happen next because I’d never have been able to predict the mind-blowing horror of the North Korean prison camps or the sheer unbelievability of life in a totalitarian state.

My book club read this and when we chose it one of the women (who felt that our previous book was too emotionally difficult) asked, “Is it depressing?” To which we looked at her and said “Well, it is about North Korea.” If you are someone who is very sensitive to scenes of torture or violence I would not read this book.

And yet.

Somehow Johnson manages to tell a story filled with unspeakable evil and make it a page-turner. I don’t know how he does it. It’s never gratuitous in its depiction of violence. He tells you only what needs to be told and nothing more. It’s unbelievable but rings true. There is also a slim thread of redemption and even hope within Jun Do’s story. Not redemption as in happy ending with all the bows tied up neatly. (That’s not a spoiler; no one would ever read this book and think it was going to end happily.) But redemption as in there is a shred of hope for the future. It’s a shred but it’s there.

What more is there to say? Except maybe: Read it.

The Good Lord Bird

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I’ve heard this 2013 National Book Award Winner most often described as satire or even farcical. Satire, it is. Take a cross-dressing, wise-beyond-his-years, 12 year old slave who is kidnapped/rescued by John Brown. Mix in a rag-tag band of John Brown’s followers. Stir in a skirt-chasing Frederick Douglass, a slave rebellion in a whorehouse and a leader who prays for hours at a the drop of a hat and you’ve got a fast-moving, page-turning, thumping-good read of a book

Like all good satire, there is a heart underneath all the craziness. There were passages in this book that made me laugh out loud but there were also passages that just resonated as TRUE. And sometimes they were the same passages.

even though I’d gotten used to living a lie-being a girl- in come to me this way. Being a Negro’s a lie, anyway. Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows who you are inside. You just judged on what you are on the outside whatever your color. Mulatto, colored, black, it don’t matter. You’re just a Negro to the world.

and later….

But a spell come over me that night, watching him eat that bad news. A little bit of a change. For the Captain took that news across the jibs and brung hisself back to Harpers Ferry knowing he was done in. he knowed he was gonna lose fighting for the Negro, on account of the Negro and he brung hisself to it anyway, for he trusted in the Lord’s word. That’s strong stuff. I felt God in my heart for the first time at that moment. I didn’t tell him, for there weren’t no use bothering the Old Man with that truth, ’cause if I’d’a done that, I’d’a had to tell him the other part of it, which is that even as I found God, God was talking to me too, just like He done him, and God the Father was tellin’ me to get the hell out.

February Reading

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Fiction Read in February:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley-
Read as part of a co-op class that I assist with (assist meaning basically sit and listen and do nothing, not a bad gig). I had never read this classic horror story. I found it interesting and I’m glad I read it.

The Dinosaur Feather by S.J. Gazan
This debut mystery was awarded the best Danish crime novel of the decade (or something like that). In a bit of serendipity, I found it when searching for something unrelated for John for school. It looked intriguing so I put it on hold at the library only to later see it on many “best of” lists at the end of the year. I read a lot of mysteries and this one may have used the most ingenious (and creepy) method of offing the victim that I’ve ever seen. In some ways this felt similar to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in the Scandinavian setting, very liberal attitudes towards sex that seem to be the societal norm and use of many similar-sounding to my ear Danish names. It’s not as violent as Dragon Tattoo and overall I think I liked Dinosaur Feather better. 

A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley
I admitted last year that I had to eat crow after initially disliking Flavia deLuce and the series of mysteries she stars in. After reading the third in the series, I have to say these continue to get better and better. Quirky, endearing girl detective and chemist, small English village and clever murders make for a very enjoyable and fun read. 

Locked Rooms by Laurie R. King (audiobook)
I continue to enjoy listening to King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series in the car in the mornings. 

The Unwanteds: Island of Fire by Lisa McMann
The third in a middle grade fantasy series that John and I have read and enjoyed. It’s sort of a Hunger Games meets Harry Potter meets a bunch of other fantasy series that have been done before. But it’s well-written and always especially nice to discuss a book with John that he likes. These must be read in order to be appreciated. The author doesn’t do any summing up of the plot at the beginning of the second and third books so if you are interested, start with number one. 

Non-Fiction Read in February:

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher
A memoir/biography of the life of the author’s sister, Ruthie Leming. Dreher grew up in a small town in Louisiana but left as an adult to pursue a career in journalism. His sister stayed behind in the town and lived a very different kind of life surrounded by family. The difference in their personalities and life paths causes tension between the two siblings. Dreher deals with this tension as well as his sister’s life and death when he comes home to live in his hometown after Ruthie’s death from lung cancer. We read this book for my book club and although we all mostly enjoyed it, we all thought it would have been a better book if the author had waited a few years to write it. There are a lot of questions about the themes of community and calling and family that are left unexplored or that he might answer differently when the traumatic events of the book aren’t quite so raw. 

With the Kids:

My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
Like her brothers before her, Ruth is quite liking the tale of Elmer Elevator and his quest to free the baby dragon from the creatures of Wild Island. 

Obi, Gerbil on the Loose by Michael Delaney
We just started it but as fans of the Humphrey the hamster series, I think David will enjoy this one. He likes anything with animals and books that are funny. This story of a gerbil named after Obi-Wan-Kanobi seems to fit the bill so far. 

Peter and the Shadow Thieves by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson