With April vacation coming up, it seemed like a great time to share three excellent books on CD. If you’re going on a long trip, these are a great way for families to pass the time.
* * *
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg
By Rodman Philbrick, Read by William Dufris
4 CDs, 5 hours, 1 minute.
Homer P. Figg and his older brother Howard live in Pine Swamp, Maine with their horrible uncle, Squinton Leach. Old Squint doesn’t feed them very well, makes them do all the work on his rundown farm, and doesn’t allow them in his house…they have to live in the barn with the animals. That’s not the worst of it though. One day, Homer is so hungry that he eats some of the hogs’ food, and Squint becomes so enraged that he calls the sheriff. When Harold speaks up for his younger brother, Squint sells Harold to the Union Army. Harold is only 17, but it doesn’t matter that he’s too young to be a soldier, Squint lies about his age, and convinces the judge and the army recruiter to go along with it for a portion of the money he gets.
Homer is locked in the root cellar after he attacks Squint, trying to get his brother back. While Squint and his cronies drink their profits, Homer escapes and sets out to find his brother. Homer is prone to exaggeration, but he humorously chronicles his (mostly) true adventures as he encounters runaway slaves, underground railway conductors, con men (and women), traveling medicine shows, and famous leaders of both the Union and the Confederacy. Homer is an observant (and funny) first-person narrator as he shares his experiences in the search for Harold.
As Homer makes his way from Maine to Virginia, he finds new friends (and makes some enemies) along the way. He’s a kid with no experience out in the world, but his determination to find his brother and free him from his illegal conscription gets him through all the disasters he encounters along the way.
This was an engaging story in both the print and the audio versions. The CDs are narrated by Dufris, who was the original voice behind Bob the Builder. His Homer sounds like a twelve-year-old boy, voice changing with the moods of the story. The rest of the characters all have very distinctive voices as well, from the villainous deep voice of Stink Mullins to the fussy tones of the Reverend Webster B. Willow to everyone in between.
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg is probably best read by kids in fifth through seventh grade. For listening, you probably don’t want to go much younger. Although Homer’s adventures are often humorous, he does end up at the battle of Gettysburg, and spends some time with a surgeon in an army medic tent after a battle. The descriptions aren’t horribly graphic, but they would be difficult for younger kids. The story does bring history to life, and if you’re planning a trip to Gettysburg or studying the Civil War, this book will help young listeners into perspective. The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg was a 2009 Newbery Honor Book.
* * *
The True Meaning of Smekday
by Adam Rex, Read by Bahni Turpin
9 CDs, 10 hours, 38 minutes
It’s 2016, and eighth grade student Gratuity Tucci has been given a school assignment–to write about the true meaning of Smekday, and how it has changed in the year since the aliens departed. She can use her own experience of the alien invasion, and include pictures. The winning essay from her school will be entered into a contest for inclusion in a Smekday time capsule, to be buried and opened in a hundred years.
Gratuity (known at Tip to her friends) isn’t quite sure where to start her essay. Should she start on the day (Smekday) the alien Boov came to Earth four years ago, and everyone learned about them? Or maybe before that, when she realized her mother had a mysterious mole on her neck and was communicating with aliens? Or should she start at the beginning of The Move, when the Boov renamed Earth “Smekland” and everyone in the US was sent to live in Florida? But that would leave out the second invasion, her whole trip from Pennsylvania to Arizona, Roswell, and other parts of her incredible journey, like the Happy Mouse Kingdom.
So Gratuity decides to stop agonizing and just start the essay and see what comes out. She writes about deciding against taking the Boov transport ships and instead deciding to drive to Florida with her cat, Pig. Partway there, Gratuity almost runs over an angry Boov. When the Boov shoots at her, she drives off the road, gets a flat tire and hides in a MoPo. There, she meets J.Lo the Boov. After some misunderstandings (including laser-shooting eyeballs, exploding heads and a humansgirl-Boov fistfight) Gratuity and J.Lo end up on a road trip to Florida. The End.
Gratuity gets a C+ for her first try on the essay, but is encouraged to try again. She starts a second version, beginning several weeks earlier–before the Boov arrived on Christmas Eve (soon to be the first Smekday), when her mother was abducted by aliens. Try number two is longer, and does win a chance to get into the time capsule, but also leaves many, many questions unanswered. So, at a suggestion from one of the judges, Gratuity adds a third version, to try to explain everything. This version, however, is not for the people of 2015, but instead for the capsule that’s not to be opened until 2116; Gratuity doesn’t want anyone to see it when she’s still alive.
With her own unique take on an extraordinary situation, Gratuity tells the story of her adventures with Pig and J.Lo the Boov. Although this novel starts off as sort of a reluctant buddy road trip, with a science fiction ‘escape the aliens’ side story, in the end, it leaves the reader pondering some very deep questions about knowledge, and ownership, and race, and human (or alien) rights. Both Gratuity and J.Lo are alternately funny, prickly, completely wrong and spectacularly right. The people they meet along the way can either help and hinder them, and there’s no way to guess which way they will go. Ultimately, this is a story of friendship and family.
The story is great, and reading it is fun. When you listen to it though, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience! I just loved listening to The True Meaning of Smekday–I didn’t want it to end! I kept coming in and sharing with other library staff my favorite parts, the voices and what a great time I was having listening to it. Turpin’s voice fits Gratuity perfectly–she’s a wise-cracking kid with a vulnerable side who tries to sound tough. What I loved best though, was her take on J.Lo. The Boov are described as having voices like sheep on helium, and their grammar is…well, think Junie B. Jones crossed with Yoda, and you’ll get an idea of how they talk. (I have to admit, it was a little disconcerting to read, but listening to it was perfect.) Each character voice is clearly a different person (or alien) –so much so that you’ll forget you’re listening. I could picture the action taking place in my head.
Gratuity is writing the story in eighth grade, about something that happened when she was ten. The book is good for readers in grades five through eight. For listening, it could go a little younger–maybe third grade–but some of the concepts near the end of the book might be tough for that young a listener. Adults will enjoy listening as much as middle school students, so for a family car trip, it would be perfect. The True Meaning of Smekday won the 2011 Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production for children and teens, and it was well-deserved.
One thing…if you do listen to the story instead of reading it, look at the book too. There are illustrations throughout; some “snapshots” by Gratuity, some comic strips/graphic novels by J.Lo that run for several pages. Adam Rex is an illustrator; this is his first book for older readers. I certainly hope we see more middle grade/teen books from him!
* * *
Mrs. McMartin had owned the old Victorian mansion on Linden Street for as long as anyone could remember. When she died, it took a few days and the wailing of her three cats to alert the neighbors that something was wrong. Eventually though, the house was put on the market, complete with everything inside.
Olive Dunwoody’s parents wanted a house. Both are mathematicians, and aren’t really used to making spur of the moment decisions, or of thinking outside the box. They leave that to Olive. They’d always lived in small apartments, so furnishing a large house would take too much time and effort. Buying a house that’s already furnished fits right into their plans. Olive, however isn’t so sure.
Her new home is dark and gloomy, with old-fashioned furniture and funny wallpaper, but she does enjoy the paintings on the walls. They’re very unusual though, and when she discovers that the frames and the paintings inside are somehow attached to the walls of the house, with no way to remove them, she’s very puzzled. She becomes even more curious when she thinks she sees something small moving through one of the paintings. That’s not even the most interesting thing in the house though… that distinction would belong to Horatio, one of Mrs. McMartin’s cats, who shows up in Olive’s bedroom one night. How does she knows his name is Horatio? Well…he told her.
Talking cats? Horatio is quite mysterious, full of warnings about the house and about Olive’s adventures within it. When Olive finds an old-fashioned pair of glasses hidden in a drawer and puts them on…everything changes. Olive discovers the paintings are real…and as long as she’s wearing the glasses, she can go in and out of them! Some of the people in the paintings are quite nice, but others warn her about an evil that’s lurking in her new home.
Can Olive solve the mysteries of the house? Will Horatio help her, or is he more than what he seems? Is Mrs. McMartin behind this, or is there someone even more powerful? Join Olive as she tries to save her new friends and figure out what is happening in her new home.
This is a great mystery filled with creepy characters, foreboding warnings, gloomy atmosphere and a likable young detective. There’s also a touch of humor in the feline characters and Olive’s interaction with some of her new friends. Are they real, or are they just paint? Only the shadow haunting her house knows for sure…
This audio recording of The Shadows was downloaded from the Library’s Overdrive service, and transferred onto my i-pod. I thought it might be problematic, listening to on the i-pod, but it wasn’t. A couple times I did lose track of what was going on, and I had to it the backward button to get to where I was distracted. It wasn’t as easy as a CD that skips ahead on a timed basis, but it wasn’t difficult either.
The narration of this is crisp and fun. Olive’s voice is very much that of an eleven-year-old girl, and is quite distinctive from the narration of the action. Horatio and his two compatriots have wonderfully unique voices, as do most of the other characters. This is the first book of a projected series, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next one. Again, if you listen to this rather than reading it, check out the book for illustrations. They capture the mystery of the paintings and the gloominess of Olive’s new home perfectly. This title is appropriate for fourth through sixth graders, and the listening audience could be slightly younger. The Shadows won a Cybil Award for best juvenile mystery book of 2010.
* * *
So if you’re getting ready for a road trip, try one of these audio books, or ask any of our librarians for other suggestions. And check back here in a few weeks for another trilogy for your listening pleasure!