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Thursday, July 1, 2004

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The Supernaturalist," "The Reading Bug and How to Help Your Child Catch It"


"The Supernaturalist," Eoin Colfer, Puffin Books; June 2004; 291 pp.

It's official. There's an N.E.C.B. out there (a New Eoin Colfer Book, that is). And if you're not a first-time reader, this should have the same effect on you as it does on so many others, so get on the Internet, call your nearest bookstore, dash off to the library, beg, borrow, yes, steal if you have to, but get that book.

You're probably already wondering what that boy-criminal is up to now, but this isn't Artemis Fowl we're talking about. "The Supernaturalist" is made of sterner stuff. It works because it's still in Colfer's signature style -- action to compete with the slickest Hollywood flick, with some great dialogue thrown in. That it still leaves you pining for good old Artemis is another matter.

An orphan, 14-year-old Cosmo Hill (named after where he was abandoned by his mother), has spent his childhood trapped in the confines of the Clarissa Frayne Institute for Parentally Challenged Boys. He longs to escape, even though the world outside isn't much better. The atmosphere has been polluted by mega-factories; both dolphins and whales have long been extinct.

When Cosmo gets his chance to flee, he grabs it -- but things take a nearly fatal turn. As he teeters on the verge of death, he sees something terrifying: a blue parasite sucking out his life force. Is he hallucinating? That's what he thinks -- till a gang of kids blast the creature and save him. That's how Cosmo first meets the Supernaturalists, a select group of teenagers who, like Cosmo, can see these blue creatures that no one else can. Soon Cosmo has a family of sorts, though this is one with a mission -- to destroy the parasites and save human lives. Cosmo and his friends -- precocious group leader Stefan, mutant Ditto and feisty Mona -- are classic Colfer characters. They're survivors: tough, gritty and streetwise. As they battle the parasites, Colfer has a whale of a time, inventing enough smart technologies and deadly artillery to shame the CIA and MI6. His arsenal includes shrink wrap that coats targets in cellophane, chemical darts, and electrically charged slugs that can blast anything into oblivion.

"The Supernaturalist" is classic Colfer -- yet minus the trademark humor and almost savage wit that makes his Artemis Fowl books so enjoyable. There's just not much space for humor here. This is bleak, oppressive world where young orphans are used as guinea pigs, the rain is so acidic it can blind and a powerful corporate satellite runs the entire show.

Nevertheless, "The Supernaturalist" is taut storytelling, hurtling its way to its unexpected ending and even hinting at a sequel. It's not Colfer's fault that his "Artemis Fowl" series are such a hard act to follow for anyone, even for him.

For children 14 years and up. Available at Kinokuniya for 1,450 yen. For more on Artemis Fowl, see On the Book Trail May 1, 2003, and Sept. 13 and 27, 2002.

"The Reading Bug and How to Help Your Child Catch It," Paul Jennings, Penguin; 2004; 246 pp.

For some kids, reading comes naturally, but for others it's not so easy. Of course, "The Reading Bug . . . and How to Help Your Child Catch It" is specially recommended for parents whose children don't read. But even for parents of children who do, it should be illuminating.

Author Paul Jennings really knows what reading is all about. He worked as a special-education teacher and a speech pathologist before becoming a full-time writer.

There is no room for pain, he writes. There is no room for struggle. There is no place for boredom. In other words, for children to love books, reading should be fun. To instill a love for reading, Jenning suggests that parents let reading for accuracy take a back seat. Instead, let children read for the story, for the sheer joy of discovering what happens next. If some words are omitted or mispronounced, let it go, he says, and move on. The ultimate aim here is to let children shut out the world and lose themselves in a book. Jennings reassures parents that as children come to cherish the reading experience, accuracy will follow.

"The Reading Bug" is a minefield of suggested reading for all kinds of readers, from read-aloud books to audio tapes, from books for struggling readers to rhyming books. It's never too early to get your child reading (there are lists of board books for infants) or too late. Chapter by chapter, he puts to rest the concerns of every parent. Why is it so important to read to your child? Is it OK to choose books for your kids? How do you use phonetics to teach reading? Jennings comes up with ideas to grab the reluctant reader, emphasizes the importance of listening to your child read aloud, and suggests ways that children can be encouraged not just to read, but also to write.

The picture tells it all, he writes. And he certainly practices what he preaches. That his book is far from dull has as much to do with the writing as it does with Andrew Welden's humorous illustrations, which add punch to and poke fun at what the author has to say.

"The Reading Bug" is a gifted writer's passionate and convincing argument for indulging in books. As he puts it: "All good stories help turn us into good people. Children who don't like books are deprived of one of our most powerful humanizing influences. This is empowering advice for parents to become the best reading teachers in the world."

Available at Kinokuniya for 1,998 yen



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