Just 7 days until the next Mama Panda Bear Virtual Book Club Meeting. All of Us With Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil at 8:00pm EDT, July 15th!

Join us via Google Hangout! We’ll have discussion questions provided by the author and a giveaway at the end of the session!

If you still haven’t purchased your copy of the book, get it here: All of Us With Wings You still have plenty of time to read it!

Backlist Middle Grade Book Review: The True Blue Scouts of the Sugar Man Swamp by Kathy Appelt – 5 stars!

I think it’s fair to say that my son and I read A TON of books together. That being said, it’s no small compliment to say that The True Blue Scouts of the Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt is our hands-down mutual favorite! This book is a frolicking romp through the swamp from two perspectives: that of a teen boy and that of a pair of raccoons. All of the protagonists have the same goal: to save the swamp from imminent development and destruction. How they try to go about doing so, however, is what makes the book so enthralling and absolutely charming!

Don’t tell the kids but this is actually a story about conservation. I’m sure that on some level, they know that, but it’s disguised as an adventure and coming of age story that doesn’t even remotely preach. Two forces of ‘evil’ threaten the swamp: the first is ‘bad guy’ Jaeger Stitch who wants to turn the swamp into Alligator Wrestling Arena and the second is a pack of feral hogs who are on the march and destroying everything in their wake. Attempting to save the swamp are Bingo and J’Miah (raccoon brothers who are the newest Information Officer recruits into the Sugar Man’s Scout organization) and Chap Brayburn (a young man whose mother owns a sugar pie cafe in the swamp area and whose grandfather has recently passed away.)

Tension builds as the raccoon try to wake the Sugar Man (who can save the swamp but hasn’t been woken in decades) and Chap does his best to fight off Stitch. The book has both a folksy feel to it (the audiobook is narrated by Lyle Lovett…OMG!) and great prose. It’s filled with fantastic vocabulary words that are colorful and lovely. We also truly loved the anthropomorphized personalities of the raccoons…one is brave while the other suffers from anxiety. They live in an old rusted DeSoto in the woods that is practically a character in the story itself.

The story is both funny and sweet. I was most impressed by its broad appeal. Not only was my son hanging on every word in this story…I was amused and entertained as well. I loved the characters and their unique personalities as well as the quirky, funny asides that make the story particularly wry!

I also loved the messages that this book conveys. There’s a lot of pluck in the raccoons and in Chap and they have to push through against lots of setbacks in their attempts to save the swamp. Lately, after reading Happy Campers (see this post: https://mamapandabear.com/tag/happycampers/ ) I’m obsessed with the idea of inspiring grit in children. The True Blue Scouts just personifies grit in so many ways!

I also loved the ‘protecting the Earth’ and ‘respecting your elders’ storylines. True Blue Scouts is nothing (as I said above) if not a parable about conservation and Chap’s fight to protect his mother’s bakery and his grandfather’s legacy also plays an integral part in the story. The fact that this book alludes so frequently to caring about things outside of ourselves and outside of the here and now is important to me: I love that this story is about something more than the immediacy of our wants and needs today.

I can’t say enough about Bingo, J’Miah and Chap and I can’t say enough about The True Blue Scouts of the Sugar Man Swamp. It’s charming, endearing and powerful. There’s plenty to enjoy and something to be learned. In the end, I struggle to imagine a more perfect book for the Middle Grade set. Lure them in with laughs and a rolicking adventure…imprint upon their hearts a story with true meaning and grit!

To get your copy today, please click the link below:

TV Review: Stranger Things for Tweens? New Season Starts Tomorrow – 7.4.2019!

While I realize that most of you will be celebrating America’s independence tomorrow, here in the Navin house, we have more than one thing to celebrate: that’s right, the third season of Stranger Things is available tomorrow on Netflix! As those of you who read my blog regularly know, my 11 year old son and I LOVE reading together but also tend to bond over binge watching certain TV series. Sometimes I struggle to find shows that are both moderately appropriate for his age and maturity and at least moderately interesting to me (see my posts about the Umbrella Academy and Riverdale) but Stranger Things has really set the bar pretty high for us. We both love the show and I find the content mostly appropriate for his age. Needless to say, we’ve been counting down the days to Season 3.

I have to admit…we were late to the party. Kids had at my son’s school were already dressing up as Eleven for Halloween before we got in on the game. Last year’s long winter days had us searching for something to watch together though and Stranger Things kept coming up as a recommendation. I wasn’t sure it was going to be appropriate…and I definitely wasn’t sure I was going to be into sci-fi (not really my thing) but we decided to give it a go. I’m really glad we did.

For those of you who don’t know, (where have YOU been?) the first season of Stranger Things centered around a local boy (Will Byers) who goes missing, leading to the discovery of a government lab, a nearby portal and some very creepy monsters. Inexplicably, a young girl with a shaved head (Eleven) also shows up in town. Will’s friends (Dustin, Mike and Lucas,) his Mom (Joyce Byers…Winona Ryder) and the local police chief (Jim Hopper) as well as numerous members of the boys’ families and the local community get pulled into the search for Will and for answers. The plot is creepy and twisted (but not in a way that would be too scary or mature for tweens) but the characters that we meet in Hawkins, Indiana are what really sells the show. I think my son cared a great deal about the mystery aspect of the plot while I was focused on caring more about the characters and their lives.

By Season 2, a few new characters have been introduced. The boys have a new friend (Max…a girl) and Joyce has a new boyfriend (Bob…you may know him as Rudy or Samwise!) and even more mysteries to solve. Although Will may have been saved in Season 1, the creepy elements that have taken over Hawkins have not been put to sleep. They are back…and with a vengeance! There’s a touch of a ‘young love’ plot and unlikely relationships form between some of the characters. Overall, the focus of Season 2 is ‘putting the genie back in the bottle,’ if you will. One of the most gruesome scenes in the series occurs near the end of Season 2 (even my son was yelling, ‘Never turn your back on the monsters!’) so you might want to cover some eyes as the locals try to get out of the lab! That scene even haunted me!

We are left with some level of closure at the end of Season 2 but, of course, we suspect that there is more to come (if only because Season 3 already had a release date! :)) Eleven is back where she belongs and I personally can’t wait to see more of her. Personally, my son and I loved both Eleven and Dusty the most. Separately, I have a soft spot for Hopper…his brokenhearted tough guy acts steals my heart every time! (I’m a total sucker!) We can’t wait to see what’s going to unfold in Season 3…the kids will be older and (supposedly) the portal is closed. So where will we find the creepiness this year?

To highlight just how much we loved Seasons 1 and 2, I have to admit: we watched all of the Behind the Scenes footage we could find and both seasons of Beyond Stranger Things which was filled with interviews with directors and cast. If you have extra time, it’s a fun watch if only to learn things like that Mille Bobby Brown (Eleven) is actually British and which cast member was nervous about his/her on-screen kiss! It filled some of the time we spent waiting for Season 3!

As you can see, both my son and I were thoroughly entertained by Seasons 1 and 2 of Stranger Things. But what about the maturity of the content? There is definitely a fair bit of swearing. If you have a problem with your kids hearing ‘bad words,’ this is a series to steer clear of. In general, the swearing is mostly what you would expect to hear from teens when their parents aren’t around (Dustin is the #1 culprit…he begins Season 1 with the phrase ‘We’re in deep shit!’) but it feels germane to the plot, the time and the characters. Expect words like ‘bitchin,’ ‘son of a bitch,’ ‘pissed off’ and the occasional ‘douchebag.’ There’s a bit of sexual innuendo throughout the series…several ‘making out’ scenes but no real nudity or actual sex.

If there were any consideration that might make me keep my kid from watching Stranger Things, it would be the violence. (I mentioned the gruesome scene near the end of Season 2…that’s as bad as it gets) Nonetheless, it’s nothing worse than one might see in Jurassic Park and, if you’re kid is one that plays Fortnite incessantly like mine…you’ve got nothing to worry about here.

As you can see, we truly loved Stranger Things and I thought it was a great series to watch with my son. The 80s throwback content was fun to discuss with him (references to things from my own childhood abound) and the fact that the show is filled with both action (for him) and character development (mostly for me) made it an overall winner across the board. As I said, I’m not sure what Season 3 is going to bring (and I don’t read spoilers so I hope not to know before we start watching!) but we are both truly looking forward to finding out!

To binge watch Seasons 1 and 2 and get ready for Season 3, click the link below.

Stranger Things

Backlist Book Review: The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman – 3.5 stars

It seems, if Goodreads is any indication, that this book is quite polarizing. Folks seem to love it or hate it. For me, however, The Two-Family House was simple a pleasant surprise. I was concerned that it might be formulaic and predictable but it didn’t, in my option, turn out to be that way at all. Cohen Loigman used a very interesting plot device to focus the reader on the long-term story arc (more about that later) and I was very grateful that she did! I truly enjoyed it and couldn’t put it down until I was finished!

The Two-Family House is the story of two Jewish families (Mort and Rose and Abe and Helen and their respective children – 3 boys/4 girls) who share an up/down duplex in Manhattan. The story begins in the late 1940s in a blizzard…the last of each couple’s children is due to be born any day and, unluckily, both children arrive in the world while the women are snowed in and can’t reach a hospital. The two children, one a boy and a one a girl, are delivered at home by a midwife while their fathers are out of town on business. The sisters-in-law have always been very close and have raised their children together so, it’s no surprise to anyone that they would deliver their last babies together.

Out of that weekend of surprises is born a secret that changes everything for the two families. Not only does the secret change the way that the two women interact, it has wide-reaching implications for the older children, the husbands and the new babies. What’s most interesting to me is that, Cohen Loigman does little to conceal the secret…by page 10, the average reader has it figured out…and focuses instead on the impact of that secret rather than allowing the reader to get caught up in the mystery. This transparency is the plot device that I referred to in my introduction and is critical, I believe, to ensuring that the book is not simply a predictable trope. While the initial secret that spawns this story doesn’t remain a surprise to the reader for long, there are still several plot points that caught me off guard. Because I always appreciate a story that can keep me guessing, I feel strongly that Cohen Loigman handled the story arc brilliantly. I was engaged with and delighted by her story from start to finish.

Two-Family is told from multiple perspectives: we read about events through the voices of Rose and Helen, Abe and Mort and Judith and Natalie (two of the daughters.) While some have complained that they found the changing perspectives confusing, I did not and really valued the opportunity to watch time pass and events transpire from the point of view of multiple members of this family. As the book is truly focused on what happens to these relationships over decades, it felt important to me to be able to understand important developments as they are happening to all of the family members.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Cohen Loigman’s book is the fact that it left me thinking: given the same set of circumstances, an opportunity and an understanding the potential outcomes, would I have made a different decision from the one that Rose and Helen make? In reading other reviews, I’ve found that many people are decidedly dismissive of their decision and have judged it inherently wrong. For me, it wasn’t quite that obvious…in a given place and time with certain pressures and interests, I can absolutely understand what drove their thinking. While I truly believe that making decisions that result in lifelong secrets is a bad idea, I put great value on writing that can make me question my own morals and judgements.

Multiple decades pass as we watch these two families grow together and fall apart…it’s a saga that allows the reader time to get to know each character and really understand what motivates them. There is no question that the adults in the story are not perfect…the men can be sexist and intractible (think Archie Bunker here), the women insufferable and selfish. There motives seem to me, however, to be good despite their genuinely flawed decisions. Ultimately, Cohen Loigman brings her story arc to a close by allowing reader to understand the impact of the women’s decisions on the lives of their husbands and, most importantly, their children.

One of the best books I read this year was This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell and I think a strong comparison can be made between these two stories. While O’Farrell is the stronger writer and her book is significantly more emotionally complex, both authors, to my mind, have created generational family sagas that follow the impact of a single decision through the years. The Two-Family House is an opportunity to plumb the human psyche and witness the impact of human fallibility over time and I think we all relish stories that give us a chance to appreciate how a single moment in time can change our lives and the lives of those around us.

To get your own copy of The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman, please click the link below:

Middle Grade Book Review: A Kind of Paradise by Amy Rebecca Tan – 4.5 stars

If you are a book nerd like me, you have to love a book that reads like love letter to libraries! Add in a quirky, lovable cadre of characters and a strong sense of what it means to be a middle schooler and you have the absolute winner that is A Kind of Paradise by Amy Rebecca Tan.

Tan’s story features Jamie, a middle school girl who has gotten into trouble (and been humiliated about it by a classmate) at the end of the school year. Because of her transgression, she’s been ‘sentenced’ to community service at the local library for the summer. Initially, Jamie dreads her service work and avoids even being seen out in public (so deep is her shame about the situation that she created at school…not-much-of-a-spoiler-alert: it involves a boy!)

As the summer moves along, however, Jamie becomes more and more interested in the library staff and its patrons and begins to develop deep and meaningful relationships with the ‘quirky characters’ I mentioned above. The local library in which she is volunteering is strapped for money and on the mayor’s chopping block. Jamie is uniquely situated to be able to see exactly what the library means to her community and the people within it and comes to discover that the library is extremely important to her too. Poignant and funny interludes between Jamie and the library crew abound in this book and are well worth the price of admission. You’ll come to love each member of the staff and ‘library regular’ that Jamie gets to know. As I said, if you love books…and especially libraries…you’re going to love this book!

I was also extremely fond of the way that Tan portrays Jamie. She’s mature for her age but also makes the kind of mistakes that someone in middle school would make. She’s beset with trouble from ‘mean girls’ who don’t want to allow her to forget her public humiliation from the school year and holding onto a serious crush on the brother of one of those girls. Having lived through a stage where I dreaded ‘mean girls’ every day, the way that Tan described Jamie’s comfort was absolutely palpable to me. If you’ve been tortured by your own set of ‘mean girls,’ you’ll understand Jamie right away…if you haven’t, there’s a phenomenal opportunity to understand the dynamic within this book!

Jamie’s parents and aunt are alluded to within the story but never present within the ‘action.’ Nevertheless, the relationship that Jamie has with her mother and the way she describes what she has learned from her is heartwarming and hopeful. While it’s clear that Jamie and her mom haven’t had it easy, it’s also evident that Jamie’s mom has worked very hard to raise her well and that the relationship between them definitely reflects that!

There are a number of subplots within A Kind of Paradise (a library romance, a couple of tragedies, a life rebound story and the story of saving the library itself) and all of them contribute to the color with which we see the library and it’s impact on the community. I sometimes find multiple ‘side stories’ distracting and unnecessary in a book with a strong plot but not this time: the subplots only added to the strength of the story of Jamie’s summer.

While this book is definitely appropriate and highly recommended for Middle Grade readers, don’t hesitate to read it yourself if you appreciate a good story, well told. A Kind of Paradise is sweet and satisfying…it will either bring back memories of a time of great growth in your own life or help you understand the growth trajectory of folks around you. Either way, it’s a quick read and a solid investment of time. Read it to enjoy…finish it to understand!

To get your own copy of A Kind of Paradise by Amy Rebecca Tan, please click on the link below:

Book Review: Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults by Audrey Monke – 5 stars!

If you’ve seen my other recent posts, then you know that we just sent my 11-year old son to overnight camp for the first time. It was quite the learning experience for all of us so I was extremely interested in reading Happy Campers by Audrey Monke. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect…was she going to recommend that we canoe every day and sing campfire songs every night? I must say, however, that I was absolutely delighted with this book. I read the entire thing with a highlighter and took away so many great parenting tips that I know I’ll need to keep this book on hand for a good number of years going forward!

Monke begins her book by establishing her credibility as a parenting expert. She has 4-5 kids herself but her real qualifiction comes in the form of having owned a summer camp since she was right out of college. First, I can’t imagine trying to own and run anything at that age…but I certainly wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to take on the business aspect of a summer camp at 22 (let alone responsibility for hundreds of other people’s children!) Her story is incredibly interesting and really establishes her as someone with incredible foresight and an amazing head on her shoulders!

As I said, I read this book with a highlighter…I got about 1/8 of the way through it and realized that I was going to want to keep track of a number of pieces of parenting advice that Monke was providing. Her book is broken into 9 primary chapters…9 seperate areas of advice that she recommends we focus on with our children. Each area feels distinct and important…she covers such topics as fostering independence and building grit. She also breaks each chapter down into the following sections:

  1. One Simple Thing – Identifies a small tweak that, as a parent, I can make to my own behavior.
  2. The Sticky Note Solution – One or two simple things I can do with a sticky note to drive home the lesson of the chapter for my child
  3. Make it Fun – Ways to bring fun into introducing the chapter topic to your family
  4. Around the Campfire – Suggestions for daily family sharing
  5. Family Meeting Topic – Ways to implement formal communication for the whole family on a given topic
  6. Diving Deeper – Ideas for creating substantive shifts in family culture

I really appreciated the way the book was broken up because it gave me a number of different ways to approach Monke’s suggestions. On some topics, I’m ready to make wholesale changes to the way my family handles certain things…one others, one simple thing is just about all I can handle. Either way, I feel like I have strategies for taking on the suggestions that I value right now. Give me a solution that is going to take weeks to implement and you might as well forget it, I’ll never get back to it!

Monke’s book is peppered with both solid advice and compelling stories. As a busy mom, it’s much easier for me to internalize her advice if I’m given a concrete example of how it applies. She not only provides examples of how she learned the importance of each of the areas she promotes at camp, she gives us practical examples of how to apply them at home. Monke has the advantage of having known thousands of kids over her years as a camp owner but also being the mom in a relatively large family. She can give objective positive and negative growth examples from camp but also explain how she has applied those learnings (for better or worse) to her own children.

One of the things I really appreciated about Monke’s writing style is that it is very personal. This is not a textbook. It’s also not judgy or mom-shaming. Monke is very open about where, as a camp owner and as a mom, she has succeeded and failed. Even in situations where she’s illustrating mistakes that she believes were made by parents of her campers, she takes the time to empathize with their decision making process and explain the rationale that might have led them to their thought process.

All in all, I walked away from reading Happy Campers with tons of food for thought and several pages of notes! I’ve already implemented one of Monke’s ideas: as a family, we share our daily high point and low point every night before bed. It’s been an easy way to learn more about what my son is experiencing day in and day out and to teach him that it’s important to ask and learn about other’s experiences as well! Happy Campers is applicable for parents of children of all ages (truly, I wish I had ready many of Monke’s suggestions earlier) and I highly recommend it as an easy-to-read, highly digestible way to evaluate some important parenting topics!

To get a copy of Audrey Monke’s Happy Campers for yourself, please click the link below:

Get Clear Skin Without Paying $165…I Got Unblemished and Saved $125! Before and After Photos Included.

So I’m letting you see this GIANT picture of my face without foundation or concealer (and NO filter!) so that you’ll believe me when I tell you I’ve cleared up my skin on only $20 per month!

I usually tell people that I’m doubly blessed: I’ve somehow managed (at 45) to develop both fine lines and acne! Trust me, it’s no fun. For the past 5-6 years, I have the lined face of a middle-aged woman and the hormonal acne of a teenager! Here’s a picture so you can see what I’m referring to:

Luckily for me, I was introduced to Rodan and Fields about 4 years ago and their Unblemish regimen was an absolute gift! As long as I regularly used the Unblemish Gentle Exfoliating Acne Wash and the Dual Intensive Acne Treatment, I was able to keep my face from breaking out. I was over the moon with that development but also out about $165 every other month for the full regimen.

I don’t regularly use toner and found that the Unblemish Moisturizer was super small and didn’t really help me any more than my usual moisturizer so I looked into just buying the two products I needed. Unfortunately, for just those two products, I was still looking at $144 and they never seemed to run out at the same time…so I was consistently having to meet up with my consultant or pay for shipping. Although it may sound trivial, I also struggled with the fact that the Dual Intensive Acne Treatment bottle is opaque and I could never guess when it was going to run out (not to mention that the bottle houses two lotions that come out seperately and mix together on your face and they ran out at different times too!) Because of that lack of predictability, I’d spend several days every other month without my products and my face would start to break out again.

I started to get frustrated with the cost and inconvenience about a year ago and that led me to start investigating the ingredients in the Unblemish regimen to see if I could replicate them at a lower cost. I knew that the primary ingredient in the wash was sulfur…so I started out by purchasing a sulfur ointment on Amazon for about $6. The ointment seemed to work just as well as the Unblemish regimen to alleviate my acne but it was greasy and smelly and I had to sleep in it every night. It just wasn’t very comfortable or convenient. As I said though, the price was right and now I knew that I could potentially find products that might meet my needs for less money!

I graduated to a sulfur soap (Amazon Affiliate links at the end of the post) with lanolin from Grisi. It cost $19.99 for 6 bars and worked almost as well as the Unblemish. I have skin that gets oily easily though and I just didn’t like the oiliness that was present with the sulfur and lanolin mixture. From there, I tried DermaHarmony’s 10% Sulfur 3% Salicylic Acid Bar Soap (also from Amazon and posted below) and found my winner! The DermaHarmony soap is less than $8 and lasts FOREVER! I use it every morning in the shower and every night when I take off my makeup. One caution: I’ve never been able to find sulfur soap at the drug store. I consistently and easily get mine from Amazon (I have a Prime subscription and it shows up within 2 days) but, in a pinch, I don’t think I could just run down to the store and pick up a bar!

Also, while I found the sulfur soap to be somewhat helpful with the fine lines, I had to admit that Unblemish was probably more effective in that regard so I ended up adding an additional product: Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment. The Differin Gel runs about $13 on Amazon and can be easily snagged at your local drugstore for a similar price. It seems to help with fine lines and also seems to reduce the chance that the Salicylic Acid in the soap will cause dryness for me. (I know…I said I have oily skin. Unfortunately, I also get dried out and flaky if I use certain products!) It’s a small tube of clear gel and I just apply it after I dry my face morning and night. I’m getting older and the lines are getting more pronounced as a do…but I feel like the Differin Gel has helped me stay just a little bit ahead of the game. Lines weren’t my primary concern anyway…I just really wanted to stop the breakouts!

So…as you can see, I’ve improved my acne and my monthly budget! I buy sulfur soap maybe once every 4 months and Differin Gel every 30 days. At that rate, I’m saving at least $125 every two months and not trying to hide my blemishes with tons of concealer and foundation. I have to admit: the Rodan and Fields Unblemish line is fantastic and it was there products that proved to me that my acne could be eliminated. If you, like me, however, can’t stomach the $165 price tag or are annoyed by the fact that you can’t predict when you’ll need replenishments, DermaHarmony Sulfur Soap, Differin Gel and Amazon Prime shipping might be just the trick to get you back to smooth, clear skin and fewer facial lines!

To get your own products to clear your acne for less, click on the links below:

Grisi Sulfur Soap for Acne – 6 pack DermaHarmony 10% Sulfur 3% Salicylic Acid Bar Soap 3.7 oz – Crafted for Those with Skin Conditions (1 Bar) Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment, 15g, 30 Day Supply

Don’t Forget! Mama Panda Bear Virtual Book Club 2nd Meeting – July 15th at 8:00 pm EDT.

You still have time to read All of Us with Wings for our July 15th virtual book club meeting! I’ll be setting up a Google Hangout for the meeting and will get that info published closer to the date. Listen to this though: a little birdie told me that the author of our book selection, Michelle Ruiz Keil, is going to participate in our event in some form or fashion! I’ve already been assured that she has some book club questions that she can share with us, at the very least! I’m so excited about this meeting! Take this opportunity to get your copy of the book ASAP:

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: