Category Archives: Book Reviews

2013 Boys’ Life reading contest winners

Here are the winning essays from the 2013 Boys’ Life reading contest.


1st place: Nathaniel Carlson, Bloomfield Township, Mich.

timespiesI really liked Time Spies: Bones in the Badlands by Candice Ransom. In the Time Spies series, the main characters Sophie, Maddie and Alex travel through time using a magic spyglass and help someone. In the book Bones in the Badlands, they help famous archaeologist Walt Granger (a real person!) figure out who is trying to steal his fossils.

The three friends thought the bad guy was one of Walt’s helpers. In order to catch the bad guy, Sophie had the great idea of setting a trap. The three friends said they found an Allosaurus skull hoping to lure the bad guy, but he didn’t fall for it. Instead it was the stationmaster, Otto, who fell in the trap. I was shocked, but you find out later that Otto was with another museum trying to get its hands on the fossils. The awesome part about the trap was that the three friends actually did find a baby dinosaur bone.

My favorite parts of the book were the fact that the main characters have a magic spyglass, that there was a surprise ending and that it included some real history. The idea of a magic spyglass to travel through time was cool. If I had a magic spyglass, I would want to go where important baseball events happened. I would check out Justin Verlander’s no-hitter, Armando Galarraga’s near-perfect game and when Ty Cobb got into a fight with a fan. I would also like to see the very first Cub Scout pinewood derby race.

The book was even more interesting to me because I got to visit the Badlands in South Dakota this summer. On my visit to the Badlands, I saw dinosaur bones in the museum and attended a program led by a park ranger where we got to look for fossils. With the history included in this book, I got an even better sense of what the first discoveries in the Badlands must have been like. Overall, Time Spies: Bones in the Badlands was a wonderful book that I would recommend.

2nd Place: Timothy Swenka, Manchester, Iowa

I read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. What I like best about the book is the tree that is giving her stuff to the boy. She gives him her things because she loves him. The boy loves the tree and knows if he needs help the tree will be there for him. And even though the boy is gone for the long groups of time, he always comes back to the tree because they love each other.

I think this book tells boys and girls that they need to love each other and be together for each other and keep helping each other even if you can’t be together all the time.

The tree is good to the boy. She gives the boy her stuff so he can get the things he wants. When he was little he could climb on her and eat her apples and make her happy.

As he gets older she gives him her apples to sell so he can have money so he would be happy. She gives him her branches so he can make a home so he would be happy. She gives him her trunk so he can make a boat and sail away so he would be happy.

And when he is old she has nothing but her stump, but that is all he needs because he is old and needs to sit a lot, so now he can sit and just be with her and make her happy.

So we all need to help make each other happy because we should love each other.

3rd Place: Dorian Griffith-Shy, Snellville, Ga.

The best book I read this year was Up on the Housetop. I like this book because it has pictures and words to a song that makes me happy. The song makes me happy because it has nice words and is about Christmas. I love Christmas, and I like Christmas songs. I like Christmas because it is Jesus’ birthday.

The story talks about Santa Claus. Santa Claus put toys in the stockings of Nell and Will in the story. Will got a ball, a whip and a whistle in his stocking. He also got a hammer and tacks. Nell got a doll that can cry, laugh and shut her eyes. Nell also got a teddy bear. I learned that Santa comes at night and puts toys in your stocking. I never knew that he puts toys in stockings!

My favorite part of the book is when Santa jumps down the chimney. If he comes through the door then people will hear noises. It is much better to come through the chimney so nobody will wake up. Santa can put the toys quietly in the stocking.

Up on the Housetop is a good book and a good song. I would recommend it to my friends so that they can learn the words and see the pictures. I think Santa and the elves would make good Cub Scouts because they are also nice to other people.


1st place: Nick Habakus, Middletown, N.J.

phantomIn The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo went on an amazing adventure that changed his life. He used to be a sad and depressed kid. He didn’t enjoy anything, not even friends or toys! I would not want to be friends with Milo at the beginning of the book. It is hard to be friends with somebody who never wants to play.

I love adventure because I like to explore and I like surprises. Milo’s adventures were really great. He went to magical places, like Dictionopolis, where they eat words. He met strange people, animals and insects that could do amazing things, like Alec Bings, who grows down not up; Tock the Watchdog who makes time fly; and Chroma the Conductor who makes music appear in colors. The king called Milo an ordinary boy, but his life with the tollbooth was not ordinary. Sometimes I feel ordinary and I wish I could go on an adventure like Milo’s.

After his adventures, Milo completely changed. He became a more positive boy. He learned that trying new things is fun. I also know how it feels to be bored. I am bored when I am doing things that aren’t interesting to me. This is why I like books about magic, monsters and special powers. I like the way I feel when I’m reading a good book, and I don’t want to put it down.

Learning new things is boring when I have to do it someone else’s way. When I study math, I don’t like doing lots of equations and taking tests. But I do like math. In school, we played games to learn about estimating. In camp, we played a math game to earn the last piece of cake. In Pokémon battling, we have to do math calculations to figure out who will survive. These are fun ways to learn math.

Like Milo, I always want to find ways to learn. I would love to be in Milo’s adventure. I would keep the Mathematician in my pocket so he could teach me how to do any math problem. I would become friends with the Spelling Bee so I could learn how to spell words I don’t know. I would learn new stories from the Witch about things like Rhyme and Reason, and use them in them in my book reports. Kids can have fun and still learn lots of things.

2nd place: Joseph Nelson, Fullerton, Calif.

The best book I read this year is A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. It is an exciting tale of mystery, danger and survival skills. It is the story of an uncle and nephew who find a parchment in an old book that tells them how to get to the center of the Earth. They have to go to Iceland and hire a guide who helps them enter an old volcano to find the passage to begin their exciting journey. Right away that reminds me of Cub Scouts. We have a Cubmaster who acts as our guide and teaches us important lessons during hikes and camping trips.

This story taught me a lot of survival skills that are important to Scouting. First, the characters in the story learned how to find water underground. In the story, they heard rushing water and their guide taught them how to get to it. Since they didn’t have shovels, they used a crowbar to break through the wall and get to the water. The story also informs the reader of important tools needed for climbing and descending mountains. For example, they brought with them a pickaxe, a silk ladder, rope, a crowbar, a thermometer, a compass, lanterns and rifles. The Scouting motto is Be Prepared, so like Scouts, they were prepared for the journey. The story teaches the importance of rationing food when you have a limited supply. In the book, the characters were down to one drop of water and a scrap of food per meal.

In the end, the characters use TNT to blast loose rocks out of a hole, and the water rushes in and pushes them into a volcano. The water rises rapidly and they are blasted out. They were very lucky to not get hurt and get out alive. They go back home and show people evidence of life in the center of the Earth. They tell of their adventures and become very famous. I recommend this book to anyone who likes to read about mystery, adventure, surprises and happy endings. It is a great book!

3rd place: Samuel Tuggy, Fredonia, N.Y.

If you like reading and camping, you should read Camping & Wilderness Survival by Paul Tawrell, because it will help you to Be Prepared. In the first aid chapter, they tell you how to do the Heimlich maneuver, how to treat wounds, how to treat sicknesses and how to treat people with broken bones. The book makes it look easy. It is important to learn first aid so you can treat other people’s wounds and your own.

It also is important to learn how to pack your gear, because if you don’t pack the right stuff, you could die. You should always pack extra stuff like clothes and ponchos, in case one gets ripped, or you lose one. It also tells you how to make shelters in deserts and forests.

It is important to learn how to identify trees and other plant life. The book tells you what plants are poisonous and what plants are not poisonous. For instance, mushrooms are sometimes poisonous. The book also tells you what animals are dangerous. It is really helpful.

The book tells you important things like how to build a campfire, what tinder is best for fires and how to cook food over a campfire. It has a section on how to use a compass and what tools you should bring, like a Scout multifunction camping knife. Camping & Wilderness Survival is really helpful — all 1,060 pages. Be Prepared!


1st place: Joshua Max, Covington, Wash.

journeyThe best book I read this year was Jules Verne’s famous novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth. Its simple plot full of vivid imagery, detailed scientific descriptions, suspenseful adventure scenes and realistic characters captivated me for hours as I plunged deep into the bowels of the earth.

I especially enjoyed this book since I love science fiction stories that incorporate enough factual elements to make them appear well researched and realistic. The two main characters are Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel, who live during the 19th century. During this era, there was a common interest in the pursuit of dramatic new scientific discoveries through any means possible, several of which were quite daring and dangerous. Since Professor Lidenbrock is a renowned geologist at the local university, his occupation naturally encourages his unquenching thirst for the secrets and surprises of science while his fanatical personality makes him a perfect example of the overly zealous scientific curiosity typical of this particular time period in history. Axel, on the other hand, is quaint, timid and cautious. Their frequent arguments throughout the book provide snippets of interesting scientific theories that made me ponder whether such knowledge could actually exist. Captivating my imagination, this book felt more like peeking into the private diary of Axel as he trudged alongside his uncle on this dangerous and daring scientific expedition to the center of the earth.

While rummaging about in an antique store, the adventurer Otto Lidenbrock discovers an encrypted runic manuscript. Axel is able to decode a message that was written by an Icelandic alchemist named Arne Saknussemm, who had supposedly discovered a passage to the center of the earth years earlier. Motivated by his adventurous and courageous spirit for scientific discovery, Lidenbrock arranges an expedition to venture into the center of the globe and drags reluctant Axel along. The fantastic imaginary underground environment full of prehistoric animals, luminous caverns, vast subterranean oceans and dense forests of peculiar vegetation are particularly exhilarating. Inside the storyline, Verne explains the workings of many different scientific phenomena, while providing evidence for his emerging scientific theories.

As teenagers, my friends and I often rely on videogames to provide indoor excitement when we can’t be outdoors with Scouts. Reading this great book full of adventure and scientific jargon turned out to be just as exhilarating as gaming, while still helping me develop my own imagination. Since I want to be a scientist one day, I will need the resilience to try something, possibly fail, try something else, and hopefully succeed eventually. Being transported into a magical world full of captivating circumstances and characters helps develop that tenacity in an entertaining way. The next time I seek the thrill of a videogame, I will first further my future success by seeking the thrill of a good book.

2nd place: Ethan Smith, Moorhead, Minn.

The best book I read in 2013 was The House of Hades by Rick Riordan. The heroes of this book face plenty of difficulties in their effort to defeat a seemingly unconquerable foe. Themes of commitment and courage emphasized in the Scout Oath and Scout Law are integrated throughout the novel.

The House of Hades is the fourth book in The Heroes of Olympus series, a follow-up to Riordan’s previous Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. The Heroes of Olympus takes place after the war with the Greek titans was won and a new threat has shown itself: the Giants. Gaea, the Earth herself, is out to topple the Greek gods and is almost awake. She has accumulated forces of the Giants, some titans, monsters and even some demigods (children of a god and a mortal) of the past. The key advantage the enemy has is that when one of them is killed, he quickly comes back to life. In the Heroes of Hades Percy and his demigod friends must take a journey to close the “Doors of Death” so that their enemies do not quickly revive after being killed.

The House of Hades is a truly captivating novel, as are the books preceding it. Riordan weaves fantastic tales of friendship, heroism, romance and more. He paints pictures with words that draw the reader in to live the book, rather than simply read it. When reading these books, I am oblivious to my surroundings due to my spellbound state.

While the story engages the imagination and piques the interest of readers, there are elements of it that hold a different sort of appeal than action and fantasy. As readers learn of the characters’ personalities, they can see what they admire about the character and can translate that to the kind of person they want to be. They may see Percy’s unwavering dedication to helping others as he treks through Tartarus, and strive toward that ideal that is also seen in the Scout Oath. Readers may notice the bravery, loyalty and thriftiness of the heroes, qualities in the Scout Law, when faced with so many bleak situations. I find the inspiration toward self-improvement and introspection is an appealing aspect of many quality novels.

The House of Hades is a wonderful book, shown in multiple facets of its plot and characters. It prompts the use of imagination. It stimulates introspection. Anyone and everyone who has any appreciation for fantasy novels should definitely read this book and find the adventure that awaits.

3rd place: Ian Habakus, Middletown, N.J.

The best book I read this year was The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. In literature and popular stories, there are many examples of the ordinary person who goes on an adventure and is transformed. He solves a mystery or saves the world while also revealing new qualities, like strength, courage and wisdom. Jonas in The Giver, Alex Rider and Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth come to mind. The Lightning Thief follows the same format. The difficulties that Percy Jackson experienced completely altered the way he looked at the world. They changed Percy’s understanding of his own life. Percy doesn’t get swept away by these events; he learns from his exploits and holds control over his own destiny.

During Percy’s quest to save the world from war, he learned some important ideas that develop his character. One of these big ideas is the courage to stand up for ourselves and fight back. Two examples come to mind. First, Percy proved that he wasn’t a thief by finding and returning the master bolt to Zeus. Second, when Ares played a trick on him, Percy challenged him to a duel and won.

Another big idea is Percy’s realization that he has the ability to accomplish great things. At first, Percy didn’t think much of himself. He was passive and insecure. After discovering that he was a half-blood, however, he stopped a world war. During the quest, Percy learned that he was capable, intelligent and powerful. He saved Grover and Annabeth multiple times. He even rescued his mother from death.

I am a little like Percy, so I could relate to him. I know how it feels to be bullied. Instead of enduring spitballs and a revolting stepfather, I was teased and tripped on purpose. Percy and I both endured bad treatment and learned how to stand up for ourselves. I loved it when Percy confronted his bullies and beat them. I was cheering Percy on.

Percy switched from Yancy Academy to Camp Half-Blood. I also switched schools. Changing environments and trying new things can make a big difference. Percy mastered sword fighting, breathing underwater and talking to animals. After moving to a more supportive school, I also tried new activities that I never would have tried at my old school. I played organized sports for the first time. I didn’t like baseball as much but I contributed to the team and finished the season. I really enjoyed basketball and improved tremendously! Similarly, Percy tried new things, didn’t like some of them (i.e., wrestling), and made great progress in others (i.e., sword fighting).

Percy is a good role model. He refused to be a victim and he also helped other people. Only a brave and daring kid would face down his fears and take on the things Percy did. I like to think that I can also be brave and daring. Just because I’m scared doesn’t mean that I can’t try new things and excel at them, too.

Star Wars Fans: Taketh a Look

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See the Star Wars universe in an all-new way with William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back by Ian Doescher. The remaining of George Lucas’s Star Wars saga returns to the star-crossed galaxy far, far away, following Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia in their epic struggle against Lord Vader and his evil Empire — all in flawless iambic pentameter. Not crazy about Shakespeare? Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of Jedi action.
William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back by Ian Doescher. Quirk Books, $14.95 hardcover. Get it HERE.
Check out the trailer HERE.
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