TV Show Review: The Umbrella Academy for Tweens? – 3.5 stars

After binge watching all of the seasons of Stranger Things (more on that in another post,) my 11 year old son and I found ourselves looking for another series to enjoy together. Enter The Umbrella Academy: A Netflix Original series inspired by a line of comic books. It definitely has a superhero/sci-fi bent as characters possess unbeleivable powers and dystopian and time-travel themes are prominent. The Umbrella Academy details the exploits of a team of superhero kids as they grow up in the home of a strange, manipulative, adoptive father. Let me get to the punchline: This is not a series for tweens to watch alone and it’s probably not a series for tweens at all if you are a squeamish parent who is unwilling to discuss some difficult topics. See details below.

The premise of the show is very interesting. In the late 1980s, a number of women around the world gave birth at the same time. None of these women was discernibly or knowingly pregnant. Seven of these children are unexplainedly adopted by an eccentric from New York City named Sir Reginald Hargreeves. He creates what is called ‘The Umbrella Academy’ to train them to be superheroes and calls them by numbers rather than their names. He also gives them a robot for a mother (Grace) who ultimately names them: Luther, Diego, Allison, Klaus, Ben and Vanya. For some reason, the fifth child never gets a name…he just goes by Number Five. Also mysteriously, Sir Reginald trains and puts six of the children to work fighting crime but keeps the last child, Vanya (Ellen Page) seperate and tells her that she has no ‘special powers.’

As they become adults, each of the children has a ‘real-world’ job (except for Ben who is a ghost and Number Five whose profession we never learn): Luther is an astronaut, Diego is a former policeman, Allison is a famous actress, Klaus is a drug addict (I guess that’s not really a job) and Vanya is a professional violinist. The siblings no longer live together but learn that Sir Reginald has died and come together for his funeral. Number Five returns from the future, revealing that an apocalpyse is on its way. The siblings begin working together to figure out the secrets of their childhood and put together clues about the impending apocalypse in order to try to stop it. As I said, it’s a pretty interesting (and crazy) premise.

While each of the siblings is fundamentally flawed in some way, most of them are extremely interesting and bring an element of their personality or skill to the story that is necessary to move it along. There are tons of side stories: a romantic relationship between two of the ‘siblings,’ exploration of Number Five’s time in the future, Klaus attempting to deal with his drug addiction, etc. Did I mention that the siblings also have a monkey who plays a role as their butler and confidante?

As for the appropriateness of this series for tweens…it’s a touchy subject. There is a great deal of violence, references to drugs (though those are perhaps mitigated by Klaus’s continual attempts to get clean and his sibling’s warnings about the ‘poison’ he is putting into his body) and a few sexual references. The language is definitely not clean but I suspect that most tweens have heard the words ‘boner’ and ‘hard on’ at school by the time they’ve reached that age. There are some disturbing scenes where a character is aroused by being strangled but that reference seemed to go right over my son’s head.

Interestingly, what didn’t go over his head were a number of the drug references. I found myself confused during a particular scene when some agents began dancing in the middle of a diner. When I expressed that confusion to my son, he immediately pointed out that something they had eaten had drugs in it. I inquired about how he knew that and he advised me that he had noticed a drug symbol on the package that the food was in. I was shocked (both that he recognized that symbol and that I had missed it) but quickly learned that it was something he had been exposed to in Operation Street Smart training at his school. Considering that he’s a rising 6th grader this summer, I’m now convinced that the drug references aren’t ‘too much’ for a kid his age.

Since we finished the series, my son has asked several times whether or not there will be a 2nd season. I just learned that The Umbrella Academy has been renewed though there is apparently no word just yet about the release date. There’s plenty of time to go back and watch the first season with your tween, if you are so inclined, and prepare for Season 2 in the near future.

While much of The Umbrella Academy is ‘out there’ and plays out like some kind of crazy acid trip…there is definitely a driving plot and some characters to love. As mentioned above, I’d venture to say that, if you are willing to watch with them and provide a guiding voice through some of the questionable parts of the story, it’s a good bet that your tweens will enjoy the show! If they enjoyed Stranger Things and you were comfortable with that level of content maturity…The Umbrella Academy may be just the ticket for your next binge-watching series together!

To check out The Umbrella Academy yourself, go to https://www.netflix.com/title/80186863.

Book Review: Nyxia Uprising by Scott Reintgen – 5 stars!

Two months ago, I had the opportunity to publish my interview with Scott Reintgen on the release date of his newest book: Nyxia Uprising. (https://mamapandabear.com/2019/04/16/author-interview-scott-reintgen-author-of-the-nyxia-series/ Uprising is the third and final book in his Nyxia Triad series and brings closure to the adventures of Emmett Atwater and the various Genesis crews. My son and I adored the first Nyxia books and were waiting expectantly for the final installment. Unfortunately, due to our crazy schedules in May and June, it took us two months to finish Uprising. We read at least one chapter together every night (but he had several nights at his grandparents and at overnight camp) so, while we enjoyed this book just as much as the last two, it did take us awhile to get through it! Definitely don’t take our speed of completion into account as an indicator of plot pace or our involvement in the story!

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Nyxia Triad…definitely start with the first book: Nyxia. It’s well worth it to get to know Atwater and his fellow astronauts and learn about the company that is sending them to a foreign planet: Babel. The first two books detail the background of the space mission and what happens when Atwater and his friends reach the targeted planet and meet its inhabitants. The third book is a culmination of all of that action, including how the astronauts fight for their survival against the enemy and whether or not they are able to return to Earth. While I sometimes find myself struggling to enjoy books that are appropriate for an 11-year old (and this one veers toward the mature side for his age) there is one sincere compliment that Reintgen deserves: his stories are such that both young people and adults will truly be sucked into the action and read them with great anticipation!

In his acknowledgements, Reintgen explains that, while it was exciting to write the first book and difficult to write the sequel, the final book in the series just flowed out of him as if it was meant to be. I have to acknowledge that it reads exactly that way. While not predictable, the third book addresses all of the suspense in the previous books and ties up the action in a satisfying and complete way. We experienced some of the same intensity in Uprising that we felt in the first two books but gained the satisfaction of closure that made sense to us and for the characters.

There are a couple of new, albeit minor, characters introduced in the third book, but all of our favorites were back (and with a vengeance!) Reintgen has a skill for differentiating his major characters and allowing the reader to invest in each and every one. Considering that there are probably 15 important characters in all three books, it would be easy for them to run together but, by focusing on their ethnicities and defining traits, Reintgen manages to deliver that large number of primary characters without it being confusing. We did struggle with the pronunciation of some of the foreign names (Roathy, anyone?) as we were reading aloud every night but just gave it our best shot and pushed through!

There are a couple of things about the Nyxia series that I loved (for myself but particularly for my 11 year old son):

  1. The women in Reintgen’s stories are STRONG. They know themselves and their strengths and weaknesses and harness those for the good of the group. There’s no question that any of Reintgen’s female characters could have ‘saved the day,’ as necessary, at any point in the action!
  2. Reintgen doesn’t hesitate to portray characters with all kinds of backgrounds and from all walks of life. There are Asian, European, Middle Eastern and American characters and some are rich while some are poor. Reintgen has stated in several interviews that he wanted to write books that were accessible to those who don’t normally see themselves on the page: truly, if you can’t relate to at least one of the characters in the Nyxia Triad, I would wager that you aren’t trying very hard!
  3. Reintgen gives his teenage characters agency without making them exceptionally precocious. The setting (together on a spaceship or foreign planet far from home) allows the characters to gain the knowledge and experience they need to master their responsibilities and not seem like they are unbelievably mature. Yet, Reintgen allows them to still behave like the teenagers they are: they have teen-like squabbles and crushes and tell immature jokes that allow the reader to really feel that they are genuinely teenagers who have been put in an exceptionally difficult and unusual situation.

Reintgen’s world building is also impressive. The ‘aliens’ that he creates are just recognizable enough to allow for interaction between themselves and the teens while being just foreign enough to show real creativity. I’m always impressed by an author who can create a whole new world with its own structures and rules and Reintgen really hit this one out of the park.

All in all, while my son and I were sad to see Atwater and company go at the end of Uprising, we were incredibly satisfied with the overall story arc and enjoyed the three books immensely. At between 300-400 pages a piece, reading the trilogy requires a commitment of time. I can’t however, stress enough, that, even if you started at the very beginning of the first book and read straight through, you’d be entertained from start to finish! Personally, we have no idea what Reintgen has planned next, but, whatever it is, we’ll be reading it!

To get your copy of any of the Nyxia Triad books, click on the links below:

Nyxia (The Nyxia Triad Book 1) Nyxia Unleashed (The Nyxia Triad) Nyxia Uprising (The Nyxia Triad)

Book Review: The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani – 4 stars

Don’t let anyone tell you that this book is formulaic and trite! I’ve read some other reviews and audiences are decidedly split: 1) Those who adore this book and 2) Those who thought it was predictable. I’m usually one to leave the opposing opinion alone but, in this case, I have to say, I heartily disagree with the latter group. And, I’m extremely sensitive to overused and predictable tropes!

I found The Storyteller’s Secret to be a rich, thoughtfully woven generational tale that touched my heart and completely held my attention. Badani frames the story from Jaya’s (a modern, married 2nd generation American of Indian descent) perspective and goes on to tell the story of three generations of Indian women (Amisha, Lena and Jaya). We learn early in the book that Jaya has suffered several miscarriages and its through the lens of that pain that we begin to learn about her family’s history.

Jaya’s relationship with her mother, Lena, is a loving but strained one. Her mother is attentive but closed off…Jaya never really feels that they know one another. Coincidentally, as Jaya’s marriage begins to fail, she learns that Lena has received a letter from her estranged grandfather in India. He is dying and wants to see Lena. Lena adamantly refuses. In her grief and loss, Jaya decides to go instead.

When Jaya arrives in India, instead of her grandfather, she meets the family’s servant (Ravi) who served her grandmother for many years. Her grandmother died when her mother was a small child and left Ravi entrusted with her story and a number of family secrets. Half of the book is told through Ravi’s story sharing with Jaya…the other half gives an account of Jaya’s current troubles. The time that Jaya spends with Ravi and the information she learns about the women who have preceded her changes the way Jaya sees her mother, her heritage and her modern life.

I love the way that Badani weaves Jaya’s current story into her mother and grandmother’s histories. She does an excellent job describing Jaya’s triumphs and pains: you can feel Jaya’s grief as you learn of the babies she has lost and how those losses have impacted her marriage. Badani depiction of the two older women during Gandhi’s time in India is equally powerful. Amisha and Lena come up against a number of very difficult decisions/circumstances in their lives and the quandaries that face are absolutely palpable to the reader.

Some of the reviews I’ve read about The Storyteller’s Secret focus on a claim that Badani gets some facts wrong about historical India, its culture and Hinduism. I have travelled to India and lived there for a short time but am no expert on the country. Unless you are intimately familiar with all of the details of the Indian culture (one reviewer complained that the book depicts a child begging as Jaya gets exits the airplane but asserts that there is airport security that would ensure that never happened), I feel strongly that any departures from reality don’t change the nature or quality of the story and probably only matter to those who feel the need for their fiction to never waiver from the absolute truth. To my mind, fiction is fiction and the author is permitted to take liberties!

I utterly enjoyed the female characters in the story. I thought they were rich and nuanced…brave and strong and vulnerable. I cared about what happened to them and appreciated Badani’s willingness to show us a variety of different women taking different approaches to the confines of their cultures. I fell in love with Ravi…he’s clearly a good man from the ‘untouchable’ caste who is wise, ambitious and incredibly funny. His relationship with Amisha is as touching as it is unexpected. Badani allows the two characters to become extremely close without feeling compelled to make their relationship an amorous one…that development, in my mind, would have been a difficult-to-believe trope!

Badani does push the boundaries of the traditional mores in Indian within this book. I wondered a few times whether or not, in 1930s India, Amisha could really have gotten away with some of the escapades she embarks on in the book. I also questioned whether or not Jaya could really have eaten in a restaurant with an ‘untouchable’ in modern India. Nevertheless, as I mentioned above, any liberties of fiction that Badani took with her story did not detract from its power for me. She has built a story that captured my interest and characters that I came to know and grew to care about.

I found the end of the book quite satifying, though it is has met with mixed reviews from folks online. Jaya is given an opportunity to both assist Ravi’s family and make some of her own dreams come true. She has the means and desire to do those things and takes action. Some have described her assistance as indicative of a ‘brown savior’ complex…but Badani’s depiction of Jaya throughout the book made me believe that her situation and circumstances were just right for her to be able to make those decisions. I finished the book feeling that, given the same set of circumstances and an equal amount of resources, I would like to think I would have made the same decision. When an author creates a character with whom you can really relate in that way, you know they’ve done something right!

I’ve read reviews that compared The Storyteller’s Secret to a Harlequin romance or a Bollywood soap opera. Perhaps I’ve not encountered either of those things enough to know better, but I don’t agree. I love fiction that contains a strong story, well-told and rich, nuanced and empassioned characters. Badani delivered all that, and more, with The Storyteller’s Secret!

To get your own copy of The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani (currently free with Kindle Unlimited or $5.99 without,) please click the link below:

The Storyteller’s Secret: A Novel

TV Show Review: Riverdale for Tweens? – 3.5 stars

I thought I’d switch gears a bit and give some insight into things we do in our house besides read books! My 11-year old son and I also tend to find popular tv shows (some old, some new) and binge watch them together – 1 episode per evening. I think this tradition started with Survivor when he was about 9 and progressed through Lost, Lost in Space, Stranger Things, The Umbrella Academy and others but we generally have at least one series going at any given time. While he tends to watch movies with his dad, he and I seem more drawn to tv series – we like following the characters and having a consistent story to engage in over a long period of time. It’s a way (outside of books and some other activities) for us to unwind and bond each day.

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely challenges to finding tv series to binge watch with an 11-year old. Primarily, I find that:

  1. It’s difficult to know what’s going to be appropriate for an 11-year old prior to starting to watch, and
  2. It’s difficult to ensure that, if I find a show that’s appropriate for an 11-year old, it’s actually engaging for both of us! I definitely don’t want to spend weeks watching a show I can’t stand just because it’s appropriate for his viewing!

All that being said, this spring and summer, we’ve been dedicated to Riverdale. Let me say up front: unless you are dedicated to some pretty open conversations with your tween, Riverdale is not for you! He has a number of friends who watch it and I’m not sure how their parents handle it…I wouldn’t allow him to watch this show alone as I spend a fair bit of time asking him to pause it so I can explain rather mature concepts and we can have conversations about such topics as drugs, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, gang violence, etc. Given the storylines that Riverdale has embarked upon this season, I’ve also had to devote some time to talking about believability. While it’s definitely on the mature side of what I think is appropriate for my tween, Riverdale ticks most of my boxes for entertaining, appropriate viewing for both of us. *Note: it’s very important to me, however, that we watch this show together. I would never allow my son to watch Riverdale alone…there are just too many controversial topics that require guidance and discussion.

For those who don’t know, Riverdale airs on the CW (I believe at 8pm EDT on Wednesdays) but we wait until the season has concluded and watch it on Netflix. It covers the story of Archie, Jughead, Veronica and Betty and their escapades in high school and Riverdale proper. Warning: These are not the Archie, Jughead, Veronica and Betty of the comics of your youth. These are teenagers with a great deal more freedom and agency than they should have. 🙂 Nonetheless, my son and I really enjoy watching the four main characters (plus a host of really interesting side characters like Josie, Kevin, Cheryl and all of the parents) get in and out of trouble. Each season focuses on a ‘mystery’ that the teens get involved in solving and trust me, these are some strange and twisted mysteries! Everybody’s a suspect and (much like Game of Thrones) you never know who is going to die (or almost die) this week!

The show is kind of like a soap opera for teens with better acting and better film quality. The love triangles and quadrangles are intense…the politics and ensuing violence are disturbing…and the lengths to which the young people go to save each other and solve the season’s mysteries are unbelievable! Riverdale is not for those looking for a healthy dose of plotline or life lesson. It’s tv candy at it’s best. The rich kids are extremely rich and the poor kids seem to be pretty well off too! Even Jughead’s (who lives in a trailer with his alcoholic father) ‘poverty’ looks pretty attractive in this series.

My son and I have talked several times about the fact that none of the Riverdale characters are ‘good guys.’ Each character is intrinsicly flawed in one way or another and I’m sure to point out their misdeeds whenever possible. I think it’s important to point out that likable and ‘good’ are not necessarily the same thing. My son doesn’t seem to have a problem differentiating between the characters popularity and their moral compasses but, if that’s a concern for you, I would shy away from this show.

What can I say? We enjoy it. It gives us plenty of fodder for discussion about topics that I feel are super important for discussion. As my son becomes a teen, these topics will, I’m sure, get harder and harder to engage in so I’m taking this opportunity where I have his attention to draw lessons (almost all negative) from the Riverdale characters’ behavior. It’s a fun romp…we both recognize the parts of the show that are incredible (Veronica owns a diner and a speakeasy, Archie steals a car despite the fact that he’s supposedly never driven and doesn’t have a license) but are willing to suspend belief for the sheer entertainment value of the escapades. We aren’t prudes in this house, as you can probably tell. And, as long as you’re willing to allow your tween to view and discuss some mature topics with you, Riverdale might be just the ticket for spending some time enjoying a show with your son/daughter as well!

To check out Riverdale for yourself, head over to the CW’s website at: http://www.cwtv.com/search/?q=riverdale or start watching from the beginning on Netflix: www.netflix.com/title/80133311

Middle Grade Book Review: Wish by Barbara O’Connor – 4.5 stars

Some people just have an amazing grasp on what it means to be genuine and to be human. Barbara O’Connor is one of those people. Wish is the story of Charlie, an 11-year old girl from Raleigh, NC, whose father is in a ‘correctional facility’ and whose mother is having trouble ‘getting back on her feet.’ (We gather, as adults reading the text, that her mother might struggle with depression or alcoholism as we learn that she is disengaged and spends most of her time in bed or on the couch. Young readers may likely only understand that Charlie’s mother is somehow unwell) Charlie is sent to live with her mother’s sister, Bertha and her husband, Gus in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina while her older sister, Jackie gets to stay with a friend’s family in Raleigh.

Initially, the transition is incredibly difficult for Charlie. She’s lonely, misses her sister and sees the little town of Colby as a backwater filled with small-town ‘hillbillies.’ She struggles with her temper and with fitting in at school and really doesn’t feel that she belongs. She has a habit of making a secret wish everyday and searches throughout the day, every day, to find something to wish on (a first star, a dandelion, 3 birds on a wire.) The reader gets the sense, throughout the book, that Charlie wishes only to be returned to her family in Raleigh. Then, she meets Wishbone…a stray dog that she works to lure in and make her own. Her relationships with Wishbone, a local boy named Howard and Gus and Bertha begin to change her perspective and ultimately her life.

O’Connor’s characters are real, flawed and incredibly lovable. She doesn’t hold back from depicting the Colby ‘hillbillies’ just as they are: they have furniture on their porch and cars in their yard. But, she also perfectly depicts the love that exists in that town and in those homes and shows the reader (rather than telling him/her) why belongings and appearances aren’t what matters. Howard, the friend that Charlie reluctantly makes, has an ‘up down walk’ and a heart of gold. It would be difficult to read about this Owen Meany-like boy without falling in love with his spirit and his heart.

Bertha and Gus are good, simple people and Charlie is a amazing little girl who has simply experienced too much in her young life. If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you will recognize the Odom (Howard’s) family, the neighbors from church and Scrappy (Charlie’s incarcerated father.) Even Jackie, Charlie’s slightly rough-around-the-edges older sister is depicted with both street smarts and heart. Somehow O’Connor manages to depict the failings of each of her characters without abandoning their spirits…you’ll clearly understand what changes Charlie’s mind about Colby by the end of the book.

Wish’s plot is also extremely believable. While it would be easy to make this book trite and formulaic, O’Connor resists the urge and allows her characters to behave in ways both heroic, fearful and embarrassing. She doesn’t shy away from showing the vulnerabilities of each of her characters…you can see the difficulty of Charlie’s situation in her bravado, Jackie’s bragging and Bertha’s inability to stop talking! O’Connor’s depiction of the quandary that faces this little girl is raw without being too painful and hopeful without being sappy. Don’t be surprised, however, if some of Charlie’s triumphs and pain bring a tear to your eye!

As an adult, I read this book with relish because of the delightful characterizations of these small-town folks. I cared about Charlie and wanted to see what would happen to her. While I feel strongly that young readers will also feel that kinship with O’Connor’s characters, I also believe that the story and the lessons (‘Don’t judge a book by its cover. Home is where your heart is. Thank God for unanswered prayers.’) will resonate soundly with their sense of adventure and justice. While this may not be a book that I would have picked up to read by myself, I highly recommend finding a young person with whom to read it: any excuse will do to submerse yourself in Charlie’s story! You won’t regret it!

To get your own copy (currently $5.67 for the Kindle edition) of Wish by Barbara O’Connor, please click the link below:

Wish

Camp Review: Part 2 – Camp Woodward – Action Sports Camp for My PANDA?

As promised, I wanted to provide you with additional information about our experience at Camp Woodward now that my PANDA’S week has completed. You can review my initial post about camp prep and Day 1 here: https://mamapandabear.com/2019/06/03/camp-review-background-info-and-day-1-camp-woodward-action-sport-camp-for-my-panda/

I’ll admit, Spencer didnt’ make it through the whole week. Homesickness kicked in around Tuesday morning and by Wednesday bedtime, it was just too much for him. You have to remember though, he’s 11, this was his first time away from home with non-family and PANDAS anxiety definitely plays a part in how he responds in any situation. So, net/net, my opinion of Camp Woodward has not changed a bit and I’m sure we’ll be working to ensure that he can go back next year and stay longer!

In my last update, I had dropped him off on Sunday and had received one text (exhilarated) text on Sunday evening. I received a few additional texts on Monday: he loved the scooter instruction he received that morning and had gone out of his way to schedule a session of Go-Kart racing ($6.00) which he really enjoyed. Apparently, he had also signed up for paintball ($10.00) but decided it was a little too intense once he arrived at the paintball field and gifted his opportunity to a friend that was with him. I was perfectly ok with that – it’s up to him to decide what he can handle and what he can’t!

Monday night was the all-camp bonfire. By Tuesday morning, I had heard that the bonfire was GREAT although I hadn’t accounted for the fact that Spencer’s diet won’t accommodate s’mores so he felt a little chumped. When we do it again, I will be sure to provide gluten free graham crackers and dairy/dye-free marshmallows and chocolate so that he can fully participate in that activity.

Speaking of food…Spencer wanted to make sure that I mentioned that all of the food at Camp Woodward was excellent! I had spoken to Jan (who runs the dining hall) prior to our arrival and she assured me that there were plenty of gluten and dairy free options that he could request. He apparently had a lot of success doing so and, actually became friends with JoJo at the Grill (turns out, he’s the GM’s son) because he was spending a lot of time with him requesting specific foods!

Tuesday morning is when things began to take a turn for the worse. His first text to me Tuesday morning indicated that he was feeling homesick. Although he said he slept well, he had apparently been lonely at bedtime and was, again Tuesday morning, missing home. Interestingly, he never once mentioned coming home but just wanted to touchbase and let me know how he was feeling. He embarked on his day of instruction and photos assuring me that he was going to be fine.

About mid-morning, I received another text…apparently his homesickness was getting worse. I told him I’d find someone for him to talk to and called the camp to ask what I should do. I was assured that there was someone who could talk to Spencer immediately and that he would do so, and then call me back. About an hour later, I received a call from Ernie, one of the scooter directors who indicated that he had spoken to Spence, spent some time with him and that he was doing just fine. Unfortunately, having kept up a good show while communicating with my kiddo, I got pretty emotional on the phoe with Ernie…he reassured me that having a homesick can be pretty emotional for a lot of parents. It’s a pretty helpless feeling and I wasn’t the first parent who had cried a bit when talking to him. I left the call with Ernie feeling much better and confident that Spence would make it through the day!

Apparently, the rest of the day went pretty well. Spence finished his instruction for the day and participated in the horseback riding ($32.00) that we had scheduled for him at check-in. He loved that experience and, by evening, was texting me funny comments about having ridden a ‘Charlie horse.’ (His horse’s name was Charlie.) I think exhaustion from all of the activity started to get to him then as I didn’t hear anything else Tuesday night and learned the next day that he had fallen asleep before lights out at 9:45 pm.

Wednesday morning was pretty much the beginning of the end. He woke up homesick and began texting me right away. I suggested that he talk to one of the counselors but had little success in getting him to do that. I encouraged him to have some breakfast and attend instruction and assumed that, as soon as he got busy, he’d be fine. Unfortunately, mid-morning I received a text (he wasn’t supposed to be using his phone but was upset) saying that a kid was giving him a hard time during instruction (running his scooter into Spencer’s legs?) and that he didn’t know what to do and his homesickness was really bad. I wasn’t sure how to help him, so I called the camp again. I spoke to the same woman I had spoken to the day before and she assured me she’d get the homesickness counselor to go see him. She asked if I wanted a return call. Having been very satisfied with how the situation resolved itself the day before, I declined.

At lunch, I received a text from Spencer indicating that ‘Big White’ (whom I would later meet as Matthew…a soft-spoken Scooter Director who looks like the lead singer from FMLAO) had taken care of the situation with the other kid and promised to have dinner and ride with Spencer at 5. I assumed that all would be well at that point. Unfortunately, it appears that, after lunch, the campers have a fair bit of time that is unstructured. While there are TONS of activities that they can sign up for, Spencer forgot that he had registered for a ropes course and spent the afternoon hanging around and occasionally riding the tracks with friends.

Having a lot of unstructured time made homesickness worse for him. By 5pm, I was receiving more urgent texts and crying phone calls (from the cabin bathroom because he didn’t want anyone to see him) telling me how sad and homesick he was. Apparently, a situation had also transpired in the canteen where a kid had tried to make some other kids fall on the stairs and Spencer had pushed him. While the push resolved the situation (the kid knocked it off and went away) my kid is one who is just as traumatized by having to stick up for himself as he is by being bothered by another kid. It only compounded his desire to get away.

Throughout Wednesday evening, I continued to get texts from Spencer. Dinner was over and most campers were at the all-camp Hip Hop Dance Battle. Spencer had wandered down there but wasn’t particularly interested so he had come back to the cabin and was hanging out on the porch alone. His homesickness was incredibly ramped up and I couldn’t get him calmed down. I asked him several times to go find his counselor (Barrett), or Ernie or Big White but he claimed not to be able to find them and continued to get more upset. At the time, I was pretty concerned that he couldn’t find a counselor for a 2-3 hour period but I later learned that Spencer should have gone to the skate office for help! The counselors have assigned duties or off time in the evening but all campers are instructed that they can find a counselor at the skate office at any time. Either Spencer didn’t hear that or he just really wanted to go home because he never mentioned that to me and, as his parent, I was never given that information.

After 3 hours of increasingly escalated texts and phone calls, I decided that enough was enough. He wasn’t happy, it was getting worse and he was starting to make comments like ‘I’m just not sure I can keep doing this!’ I know my kiddo’s limitations and just couldn’t imagine doing 3 more nights of this kind of trauma for him. On Tuesday and early Wednesday, I had hoped that exhaustion and the time of week (newness wearing off but still several days to go) were contributing to the problem and that it would get better. By Wednesday evening, I realized that it wasn’t going to. It was also getting later (9pm) and I knew that it was going to take me 40 minutes to drive to camp. I didn’t want to be moving him out by flashlight in a cabin full of kids who were trying to sleep!

I finally offered to come and pick him up. He initially declined but then called back and took me up on the offer. I told him I needed to call the camp office and let them know. When I called, Rachel asked that I speak to Casey, the homesickness counselor, before coming out. I let Spence know that I would wait for Casey’s call and then head out.

After an hour of not having heard from Casey (as it turns out, he was in charge of dodge ball that night and didn’t get my message) I decided it was time to pull the plug. I called Rachel back and told her I was on my way and instructed Spencer to pack up his stuff. Casey did call me back but, by that time, I was already 15 minutes out from camp.

When I arrived at camp, Casey was waiting for me and had helped Spencer gather all his belongings. Spence was waiting for me in the main office. Rachel suggested that I sign him overnight and let him sleep at the hotel with me…that would give him the opportunity change his mind in the morning if he wished. While I took her up on the offer, Spencer teared up every time we mentioned it so I was pretty sure he wasn’t coming back.

I asked about the absence of a counselor for 2-3 hours that evening and that’s when I learned about the skate office and the availability of counselor there at all times. Rachel pulled Big White into the office to explain the situation to me and he was extremely apologetic about the miscommunication and assured me that he would have helped Spence if he had known he was struggling. Everyone I met was extremely professional, kind and supportive of Spencer.

Spencer and I headed back to the hotel…we didn’t arrive until just before midnight and I had to insist on him showering before bed (he hadn’t showered any of the days he was at camp…apparently not uncommon…and reeked of bug spray!) so we didn’t get to sleep until 12:30 am. Spencer slept over 9 hours (super uncommon for him) and woke up certain that he was done with camp for the year. I was super impressed that Casey called just after Spencer woke just to check on him and find out if he wanted to come back. I also received a call from Richie, the GM’s husband (co-GM?) wanting to check in on Spence and make sure I knew how to receive the photo package that I had paid for. Both guys were incredibly kind and disappointed that Spencer couldn’t stay at camp but assured me that these kinds of things happen. In fact, Casey let me know that one of the current lead counselors at Woodward had only made it to Tuesday on his first trip to camp!

As our day progressed on Thursday, we decided to stay in PA one more day and hang out at the hotel pool and see a movie. I wanted to make sure that Spencer’s trip ended on a high note and that he had positive feelings about Camp Woodward overall. He expressed to me several times during the day that he absolutely LOVED Camp Woodward and was super bummed that the ‘homsickness had gotten’ him.

We drove home Friday morning and, while on the road, received the 16 photos that were part of our photo package ($199…I misstated that they were $250 in my last post.) The pictures were incredible and you could definitely see how much Spencer’s skill at scootering had improved in only 4 days!

Spencer has continued to talk about his experience at Camp Woodward, the friends he made and the things he accomplished. He took on the asphalt pump track and the mega ramp (which looks terrifying to me) with success and learned a lot both about scootering skills and himself! I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything despite the fact that it was dramatic and exhausting for both me and him. I think he had a fantastic learning experience and grew a great deal! I also don’t regret picking him up…it was time to stop the torture…he’s a PANDAS kid and his anxiety was out of control. I don’t think it would have gotten better and I’m not convinced that there was anything I or the counselors could have done to make it work for him at that point. He had done was he was able to do and that was enough.

I learned a few important things as part of the process of taking Spence out of camp early:

1) For campers ages 7-10, Woodward offers 1/2 week camps. At 11, Spencer had aged out of the opportunity but it would probably have been the right fit for him. It also contributed a bit to his distress because some of his friends from the cabin (10-12 year olds) were 10 and left on Wednesday.

2) There is an opportunity for parents to volunteer to be ‘Camp Parents.’ Camp Parents can volunteer to be Camp Mom and Camp Dad to a cabin of 7-9 year olds, drive camp vehicles for camper pick-up, drop off and emergencies, or run the Woodward Canteen. A small portion of camp tuition is reimbursed to parents who chooses to/are chosen for these jobs. Given the way camp went for us this year, I think Spencer will be more ready next year. I also think it might be beneficial for him to have me there. Camp Parents are encouraged not to participate in their children’s activities and are not assigned to their child’s cabin but I still think that my presence would be reassuring to him and might allow him to stay a few extra days next time!

3) I needed to do a better job learning the policies and procedures at camp before drop off/my departure. Had I known about the skate office or the food at evening activities, etc. I would have been better able to guide Spencer when he was struggling. I assumed that Barrett, Spencer’s cabin counselor, would be constantly avaiable to him and his cabinmates unless a substitute counselor was present. That wasn’t the case and my ignorance left Spence in the lurch a couple of times.

4) I did the right thing by choosing to stay nearby for camp this year. I was concerned that Spencer wouldn’t make it all week or would have a medical flare so I didn’t drop him off and head 6 hours home. I camped out in a nearby hotel and was available to go get him when things became intolerable for him. While some might think that my availability (both in proximity and by phone) enabled his fear, I know my kiddo and the ‘dump and run’ just wouldn’t have worked for us. I would have ended up driving 6 hours through the night on Wednesday night. Making the decision to go get him was an extremely difficult one but I trusted my gut and I’m confident that I did the right thing. By pulling him out when I did, I left him with a positive feeling about Woodward and camp in general and I’m confident he won’t hesitate to go back next year!

Overall, I cannot say enough good things about Camp Woodward. The staff was incredibly positive, helpful and supportive and the facilities and programming are top notch! Spencer hasn’t stopped bragging about his accomplishments since we returned. I wouldn’t hesitate to sign any child up for a week of camp at Woodward and, with the right support and information in place, would highly recommend it as a place for a PANDAS kid.

For more information and/or to sign your child up for Camp Woodward, please click the link below:

http://www.campwoodward.com

Book Review: The Jumble Sale (Adventures of the Misfit Monsters Book 1) by Lily Rose – 3 stars

The Jumble Sale, by Lily Rose is the sweet story of a number of misfit monsters who find themselves in a predicament. The protagonist, Zadi (who is part fairy, part zombie and a little bit robot) leads the charge to help them overcome their struggle: they depend upon deliveries to the junkyard for their survival and there have been no deliveries from the humans in quite some time! Faced with a motley collection of misfit monsters (with as many diverse personalities as they have body parts), an overbearing mayor and a threat to the community’s well-being, Zadi is forced to come up with a way to get everyone to work together in way that will allow them all to survive. Enter the Jumble Sale!

Rose has written a book that will appeal to middle grade and younger readers with its collection of misfit monsters who are made up of all kinds of characters. None of them are particularly scary, although the mayor is a bit of brute! The story doesn’t explore how these monsters came to be or why they live in and survive on the goods from a junkyard but it does paint a picture of a race of very small creatures who have built their own society and are existing on the cast-offs of humans.

While the rules of society for the misfit monsters have generally worked well for them in the past, the mayor’s regulations about when and how monsters can hunt in the junkyard for needed goods begin to rub when the number of deliveries dwindles to zero. Monsters begin to fight with one another and their ‘each monster for his/herself’ mentality begins to become part of the problem.

Zadi, who isn’t much for following the rules in the first place, realizes that something must be done to change the rules…but she has no real power or influence to do so and continues to have run-ins with the Mayor who punishes her for pushing the boundaries. With the help of a number of friends, Zadi comes up with a solution for the misfit monsters problem: rather than continue to fight for dwindling resources, the monsters will engage in a jumble sale where they can trade items amongst themselves. The sale will allow everyone access to the items that they need while teaching each monster how to assign and attribute value to what they make and trade.

Some lessons in the story are straightforward: Rose shows young readers that, by working together, the misfit monsters are much better off than they were when they were each fighting for themselves. Others, however, are a bit more subtle (and these were some of my favorites): In watching Zadi and her friends work with their neighbors, young readers learn a great deal about what it’s like to try to gain consensus amongst a very disperate group of people. (The subcomittee meeting that is held to determine when hunting should be allowed reminds me of the world’s worst ever PTA meeting!) Insight abounds into what it takes to get people to cooperate…listening skills, the ability to convince others and the willingness to engage in trade-offs are all part of the process!

Finally, a subtle lesson about being willing to stick your neck out for the good of the group is embedded in the story. Zadi is expected to fall in line and the misfit monsters’ society doesn’t initially value sacrifice for the greater good. But being a bit of a rebel and seeing a problem that needs to be resolved, Zadi goes forward with speaking out and standing up in front of her peers to make a change. In the end, she’s able to save the day and we see that there is value in stepping forward even when it’s scary.

I really enjoyed Rose’s depictions of the misfit monsters and the occasional character illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. The writing is occasionally off-putting…some of the grammar used is awkward and certain words are repeated unnecessarily. (How many times do we need to read the words hessian sack? What is a hessian sack? Oh! It’s a burlap bag? Ok…still. Isn’t it just a sack? Do I really need to read that it’s hessian 15 times?) I can’t be sure, but I almost felt as if the writing might have been done in the author’s second language…it was just a little stilted in places and I couldn’t seem to grasp why.

Overall, however, I was charmed by Rose’s story of Zadi and her misfit monster friends. At 84 pages, it’s a quick read with a storyline that moves along in an endearing and easy-to-follow way. Young readers will be enchanted with Zadi and her rebellious ways and amused by the cast of characters that make up her friends and neighbors. There’s something to be said for a story that can entertain while it imparts a lesson…The Jumble Sale is able to do that and more. Young readers will finish this book eagerly looking forward to the misfit monsters next adventure!

To order your own copy of The Jumble Sale (Adventures of the Misfit Monsters Book One) by Lily Rose (Free with Kindle Unlimited and $3.99 without at the time of this writing,) click the link below:

The Jumble Sale (Adventures of the Misfit Monsters Book 1)

Book Review: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen – 5 stars

I’m not sure how I’ve gotten so far in my life without reading this book, but I was definitely missing out. My son read this one for school and really enjoyed it so I decided to give it a spin! I was really glad I did. Written as a Middle Grade read, I found this book incredibly appealing as an adult: it not only includes adventure and suspense, it examines the human spirit and what it takes to survive in difficult circumstnaces. That’s a topic that anyone can enjoy reading about!

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, was published in 1987 and was awarded the Newbery at that time. It’s definitely a classic (How are things that were populat when I was in school now considered classics? Ugh!) and is encouraged reading in classrooms across the country. It explores the story of 13-year old Brian Robeson whose parents have recently divorced. Robeson is flying on a private, prop plane from his mother’s to his father’s house in Canada when the pilot of the plane has a heart attack and dies. The plane crashes and Brian is left alone, in the Canadian woods with the clothes on his back and a hatchet that his mother gifted to him right before take-off.

Robeson experiences the entire range of feelings that one would expect if stranded alone in the woods and Paulsen does an amazing job of keeping the reader attuned to his thoughts and feelings. Robeson experiences a number of trials as he endeavors to stay alive and healthy. Paulsen peppers the story with just enough action that the book reads like an adventure story while actually being more of a study of human capabilities and endurance.

While the tirals that Robeson is forced to face are amazing…they remain believable. It would have been easy for Paulsen to veer off into fantastical feats for a 13-year old boy. He doesn’t, however, and we see how very much Robeson struggles to find ways to survive. Even the fact that he is stranded in the woods with a hatchet doesn’t seem contrived. Robeson is protrayed as an intelligent and resourceful kid but is required to call up every one of his mental, physical and emotional resources to endure the challenges that come up in the woods.

Robeson is also not a ‘perfect’ character. He makes plenty of mistakes and experience deep and powerful shame, loneliness and despair. Paulsen allows his reader to feel the degree to which Robeson’s faith is tested while driving home the point that, even though he is only a child, he remains capable, resilient and strong! I was further impressed that Paulsen draws Robeson in such a way that he is appealing for both boys and girls. Robeson’s story of survival is one of being human…not necessarily being a ‘tough guy’ or demonstraing uber-masculinity!

I was somewhat concerned that the book’s ending would be a disappointment for me. A last-minute, unbelievable rescue and tidy happy ending would have really disenchanted me. Instead, however, Paulsen finds an ending for Robeson that feels genuine and believable…it’s hopeful without being sappy. I didn’t realize, upon my initial reading of the book, that it is based upon a true story…so I guess I should have known that actual reality would provide a satisfactory story ending of its own.

Paulsen is an incredible writer…Robeson’s surroundings are palpable – from the gaseous smells in the plane as the pilot becomes ill to the sights, sounds and smells of the wilderness, Paulsen clearly knows his setting and paints it beautifully for the reader. He also has a gift for character: as I mentioned above, Robeson is real – he experiences both failure and triumph and responds to each in ways that are authentic and relatable. As a book that centers almost exclusively on one character, Hatchet provides a picture of that character that contains both depth and relevance for the reader.

I loved Hatchet, as did my 11-year old son. It’s a slender volume at only 220 pages and a fast read. There’s much to love including an afterward that gives some insight into the true story upon which the tale is based. Perhaps even better news: Hatchet is part of a series so, if you love it as much as we did, you can immediately embark upon reading such titles as The River, Brian’s Winter, Brian’s Return and Brian’s Hunt. Paulsen is also a prolific writer…the other books (such as DogSong, Woods Runner, Winter Dance and the like) that he has written will provide lots of fodder for young and mature readers who enjoy Hatchet’s focus and style.

To get your copy of Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, please click the link below:

Hatchet

Book Review: York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby – 4 stars

I had heard such wonderful things about Laura Ruby’s York: The Shadow Cipher! And, knowing that the 2nd book in the series, York: The Clockwork Ghost was releasing on May 14th, I just had to dig into it and find out what all the fuss was about! I really was not disappointed! This book was intriguing and entertaining for me and is a definite winner, in my opinion, for the middle grade/young YA reader!

The Shadow Cipher begins with a flashback to the time when men used walking canes and street lamps were lit by oil. We are introduced to a set of genius twins, The Morningstars, who are responsible for amazing mechanical creations that have changed the face of New York City and the world! Their inventions include everything from mechanical bugs that clean the streets to elevators that can move diagonally. Before the twins died, they created a cipher for the public: solve the riddles and find the treasure! Unfortunately, however, people have been trying to solve the cipher for hundreds of year unsuccessfully!

Enter another set of twins (modern-day Tess and Theo Biedermann) and their friend Jaime Cruz. All 13 years-old, the kids are in a situation where their current apartment building is about to be sold to a wealthy New York real estate magnate. When they intercept a mysterious letter addressed to their grandfather (a famous cipherist who has been trying to solve the puzzle his whole life!) they begin to suspect that there is a second set of clues to the cipher that have, as yet, been undiscovered. (Thus, the title: The Shadow Cipher.) They decide that the only way to save their building is to solve the cipher and find the treasure!

Tons of hijinks ensue…the kids are led all over the city searching for clues related to history, New York City and the Morningstars. While all of that is happening, strange things are occurring in their apartment building…the real estate magnate’s henchman are searching the building, members of their grandfather’s cipher society are getting involved and clues are turning up in unexpected places. Ultimately, the kids’ quest to solve the cipher is exciting and fast-paced, if sometimes a little to dependent on coincidences to drive the plot!

As I’ve mentioned before, I can’t read books out of order so I picked up this one to prepare myself for the release of York: The Clockwork Ghost. Knowing that there was a sequel to The Shadow Cipher somewhat prepared me for a cliffhanger at the end of the book, but I was slightly disappointed about the lack of closure that the book provided. While it left me anxious to find out what happens in the The Clockwork Ghost, I would have preferred a bit more effort to tie up the initial storyline without it. I really don’t like being left hanging! The prevalence of ‘coincidence’ as a plot driver and the lack of a satisfying ending were the only things that kept me from making this a 5-star review!

I must say, I loved Ruby’s writing. Her creation of a ‘better’ New York combined with the descriptions of the New York I know and love were incredibly compelling. She is also a very smart writer: there are tons of nods to history and subtle jokes throughout the book. As a kid, I loved being able to pick up on subtleties that an author embedded in her story. Not much has changed in that regard since then! Finally, the ‘world building’ that Ruby undertakes with her inventions and technological enhancements in the story are impressive. She folds mechanical inventions that do not exist today into the New York that we know and makes the whole thing hang together in a way that is coherent and believable.

Ruby definitely has a feminist agenda of sorts in her book as well. (And don’t get me wrong, I’m ALL for that!) There are many references debunking gender sterotypes and lots of female characters (young and old) who are depicted outside of cultural female norms. Tess and Theo’s mom is a detective while their dad loves to bake, Cricket (a neighborhood 5 year old) is dedicated to all kind of gender-bending in her wardrobe and Tess herself is, by far, the braver and ‘stronger’ of the two twins. As an adult, these feminist-type references were pretty obvious to me but, for the Middle Grade set, I think Ruby does a nice job folding the message seamlessly into the story without making her intentions too overt.

I must also commend Ruby for her characters: Tess, Theo and Jaime are interesting and distinct. Jaime is Latinx and cultural identities are explored occasionally via his relationship with his grandmother. There are sly references to the potential for a budding romance between Tess and Jaime and interesting passages that describe what it’s like to be a twin. While I found the 13 year olds a bit mature…they seem to only make good decisions and have a great deal of freedom to move about the city alone…as individuals, I understood their motivations and found them unique and likeable. Jaime’s struggle with his father’s absence and his identity as an artist were as compelling as Theo’s ‘Rain Main’-like mathmatical abilities and Tess’s struggle with anxiety!

The other characters within the book are, unfortunately, somewhat less distinguishable from one another: there are about 20 neighbors who live in the apartment building and another 10 members of the cipherist society and many of their identities tend to run together. Nonetheless, the important characters seem to distinguish themselves, when necessary. Cricket (as mentioned above) is hilarious and plays a key role in helping the kids with their quest while Mr. Stoop and Mr. Pincher (ridiculously funny names for super tall and super slouched guys) are both evil and idiotic as henchman should be!

Overall, this book has an incredible amount to recommend it. I won’t disclose the ‘message’ that is finally delivered to the kids in the closing chapter of the book as it would go too far in spoiling the ending but, suffice it to say that (despite the book’s lack of closure) there is something to be learned from everything that happens to Tess, Theo and Jaime. Young readers ages 9-12 (and potentially older, in my opinion) as well as adults will enjoy this wild romp of a read that brings a fantastical premise and setting together with some real, determined and lovable characters! I can’t wait to see what The Clockwork Ghost has in store!

To get your copy of York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby (Free with Kindle Unlimited at the time of this writing and $7.99 to purchase without,) please click the link below:

York: The Shadow Cipher

2nd Mama Panda Bear Virtual Book Club Selection: All of Us With Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil!

Thank you to everyone who voted in my poll for our next read! It was close but All of Us With Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil is our selection. Don’t forget to dial in to discuss this terrific YA read on July 15th at 8:00pm! More details to come!

To get your copy of the book, and lease click the link below:

All of Us with Wings