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If your kid likes action, mystery, humour and the middle ages…

Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands Simon and Schuster…then try The Blackthorn Key, by Kevin Sands

Have you seen Merlin, on Netflix? That’s a pretty good comparison for what this book is like in tone, character and even plot, in some ways.

One of the blurbs on the book says the main character is “like Dan Brown and Percy Jackson had a child.” That’s not bad either, but I think my Merlin comparison is even closer.

The Blackthorn Key is set in the Middle Ages; the main character is an apprentice to the closest thing those ages had to doctors — an alchemist.

Most masters back then were pretty merciless to their apprentices, according to the book. But orphaned Christopher Rowe has managed to find a truly good master, Master Blackthorn, who teaches him and doesn’t beat him. Unfortunately (SPOILER!) he gets murdered pretty early on in the book.

And then Christopher is pretty much on his own, to navigate a cruel, Oliver Twist-ian world.

He’s got to find the murderers, prove it in a way that the King will believe, and then figure out how he is going to rebuild his life.

It’s a tall order, but the smart and always resourceful Christopher Rowe is up for it.

The book is exceptionally well paced. By that, I mean it’s slow where it should be, fast-moving where it should be, and full of action right when you want it–where kids will want it, too. The “world” is well-constructed, and the characters are interesting and likeable (or hateable, depending on the character).

Why to buy this book for your non-reading kid
Some kids like reading about knights and wizards–the Middle Ages tends to be a pretty good hook to get kids reading. And although the book is fairly long (my “advance reading copy” is 371 pages) it clips right along, with few exceptions, so it’s a fast read.

If you go to, you can read an excerpt of the book to see what you think. There’s even an audio file (scroll down until you come to it) where you can hear an excerpt–awesome. (Don’t bother with the video trailer–it’s fancy, but it’s only 27 seconds and it doesn’t say much except that the book is about “potions, puzzles, explosions… and muuuuuurder.”) The page also hints about another book in the series, but I can’t find anything online about that (The Blackthorn Key was published in 2015, so he’s probably still writing. Writing’s hard.)

Kevin SandsOh, and check out what Kevin Sands’ website says about him — it’s pretty interesting:
“Since escaping from university with a pair of degrees in theoretical physics, Kevin Sands has worked as a researcher, business consultant, a teacher, and a professional poker player. He lives in Toronto, Canada. The Blackthorn Key is his debut novel.”

Poker-playing, book-writing theoretical physicist. How cool is that? Very.

Simon and Schuster says the book is for ages 10 to 14, but of course younger or older kids would also like it, depending on the kid. And it seems to retail for anywhere from $10 to $25 for the hardback or about $11 for the e-book — although these days, it’s hard to tell how much any book retails for–do you find that, too? Here’s the book on so you can see what I mean.

Oh, and just for fun? Here’s the IMDb page on Merlin.

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The Iron Trial perfect for Potter fans

Iron Trial coverIf your kids loved Harry Potter, they’ll enjoy The Iron Trial, by heavy-hitting YA authors Cassandra Clare and Holly Black. If those names sound familiar, they should—Clare wrote the best-selling Mortal Instruments series for young adults and Black is co-creator of the popular Spiderwick Chronicles.

The Iron Trial is the first book in a planned five-book series, set in a magical world.

There are obvious parallels to the Potter series. It’s set in a school for magicians called (*cough* Hogwarts! *cough*)—sorry, something in my throat—Magisterium. It features a likable main character and his two best friends (a girl and a boy) who get up to all sorts of misadventures. And there’s a bad guy who threatens all life as we know it.

Since this website is about “Getting Kids Reading,” we view that parallel as a good thing. After all, if your kids liked Harry Potter and it got them reading, why fix what ain’t broke? They’ll probably like this book—and they’ll read. And that’s the point.

Brief synopsis
Young Callum Hunt (known as Call) has been told all his life that he should avoid magic school at all costs—it’s a dangerous place and you’ll probably die there. He attempts to flub the entrance exams but he’s forced to go anyway, much to his father’s chagrin. He meets and befriends two other “mage apprentices” and during his first year at the school gets into all kinds of trouble as he tries to bend the school’s rules fairly harmlessly. But there’s a good and sinister reason these kids are being trained. There’s a big baddie: the Enemy of Death (*cough* Voldemort! *cough*)—that darned throat of mine again—who is a threat to everyone at Magisterium.

Above it all it’s a coming-of-age story with a character who will come to learn who he is, how to relate to his peers, and how he can use his special gifts.

There are a lot of characters and back-stories to keep track of, but young readers never seem to have a problem with that, so it shouldn’t be an issue. In fact, it will probably make them enjoy the book even more.

It’s a quick read because it’s well-written and it has a fast-paced plot. So if you do have a Harry Potter fan, The Iron Trial is likely a good bet to get—and keep—your kid reading.

The Iron Trial is available September 2014; it’s about 300 pages long. Here’s some more information about the series from co-author Cassandra Clare. And here she has some excellent and quite detailed advice about writing.

Oh, and speaking of… if you do have a Harry Potter fan, have they read the new 1,500-word short story J. K. Rowling recently put on the Potter site, Pottermore? In order to get to it, your child will have to register on the website and sign in, and then go to ‘The Campsite’ Moment in Chapter 7 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Yeah, don’t ask me—your kid will know what to do.


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Zowie!! May 3 is FREE COMIC BOOK DAY

Free Comic Book Day logoThe first Saturday in May each year is free comic book day.


Go into most major comic book stores in North America (heck, maybe the world!) and get a free comic book.

Do comic books get kids reading? Heck, ya!

If you’re in Toronto, check out Little Island Comics (Bathurst south of Bloor) for younger readers or The Beguiling and pick up a free comic book. They’ll also have visits from comic book writers and artists. There are lots of other comic book stores in Toronto and area (like The Labyrinth, for instance) but those happen to be the ones I know fairly well.

If you’re not in Toronto — and I know that dozens of you aren’t — Google it! Find a store! Get a comic! Bring the kids! Biff! Baff! Zowie!

But don’t take my word for it, here’s Stan Lee to tell ya:

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The Tweedles Go Electric, by Monica Kulling

Tweedles Go ElectricIt’s the dawn of the 20th Century and everyone’s getting into the coolest technology–cars. Everyone, that is, except the Tweedles. They’re content with their bikes and their horse-and-cart.

Until one day, Mr. Tweedle makes an announcement: “We’re going modern. We’re buying a car!”

The Tweedles don’t buy just any car, however. They opt for an electric car. A green car.

Author Monica Kulling and illustrator Marie Lafrance take us into the world of the 20th-Century Tweedles and their wondrous green, electric car.

Kulling has written more than 40 books for children and is known for her Great Idea series of books on historical inventions.

Her writing is often delightfully subversive. By which I mean that she tends to quietly introduce the subversive notion that girls can do anything.

Meet, for instance, 12-year-old Franny Tweedle:

Like most girls, she is more interested in higher education. Speed gives Frances nosebleeds, and adventure seems to go along with getting lost, which makes her nervous. There’s only one place Frances puts her nose and that is between the pages of a book.

In The Tweedles Go Electric, Frances will end up discovering that she finds speed exhilarating. In fact, (spoiler alert), she saves the day in that electric car.

Oh, and later she will become so exhilarated by speed that she will drive right across the country, “from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” (Sub-ver-sive!)

This is one of those books that—through its weavy, clip-along plot and stylishly flat, folksy illustrations—helps you to feel, taste, smell and understand what went on in another century.

It’s a book that begs you to put your child on your lap for a thoughtful read-along.

The Tweedles Go Electric was written by Monica Kulling, illustrated by Marie Lafrance and published in 2014 by Groundwood Books which always makes such “beautiful and thought-provoking books” as they so correctly state on their website’s home page. Purchase the Tweedles online here.



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uKloo: Riddle Edition — another great uKloo literacy game

Microsoft Word - Riddle Edition Sales Oct29.docx

uKloo is a terrific literacy game. Incredibly–wonderfully–they somehow managed to top it.

Toronto game-maker Doreen Dotto recently launched uKloo, Riddle Edition.

The premise of uKloo is simple—it’s a treasure hunt. You (the parent) hide cards around the house that kids find and which lead them to the next clue.

For instance, the first clue is “look in your shoes.” The child goes to her shoes and finds the next card, which says “look on the kitchen table,” and so on.

It’s a brilliant strategy to get kids reading because it gives the child a fun reason to read (they want to find the next clue) as well as an instant reward (they find out where the next clue is hidden, and ultimately a grand prize). Fun + reason to read = reading.

Dotto has taken this simple equation and made it even more fun. And she’s added problem-solving to the skills the child will acquire without even knowing they’re learning.

With the Riddle Edition, kids find a card and have to solve a fun riddle to figure out where the next card is hidden.

Depending on the age of the child, the riddles are very easy or quite challenging.

For instance, a level one riddle: “When your hair is full of dirt, get it clean with just a squirt.”uKloo Riddle-cards

A level three riddle: “Not of shell, of turtle or snail, but made of cloth to hike a trail.”

Did you get those? The answers are at the bottom of this post if you want to double-check.

The wonderful thing about uKloo is the way Dotto has adapted it for various reading levels. If the child can’t figure out a clue, she can get a hint: “Lather up for shiny locks!”

If she still can’t quite get it, she can hold a special booklet (in which the answers are written backwards) up to a mirror and find the answer reflected there.

Three levels of clues, a hint and a fun solution give kids the success that is so important for new or struggling readers.

And with different levels, brothers and sisters of different ages or reading abilities can play together. It’s also great for playdates.

As with the original uKloo game, the Riddle Edition ends with a surprise that the parent provides. It could be a chocolate or small toy, or—as Dotto found out from one parent—it could be the announcement that the child is going to have a new baby sister.

uKloo creator Doreen Dotto

uKloo creator Doreen Dotto

uKloo Riddle Edition includes blank cards so parents can write their own riddles (Dotto provides tips on writing riddles) and it includes Surprise cards so that instead of a toy or candy the grand prize could be “a trip to the ice cream store” or “pillow fight with daddy.”

If uKloo is one of the most perfect literacy games, uKloo Riddle Edition takes it one step further. Both are must-get games for any parent who wants to get their kids reading.

uKloo retails for $15.95 and uKloo Riddle Edition for $18.95. Both are available at independent toy stores. You can also purchase them from the uKloo website, here.

You can also check out the new uKloo Early Reader App, currently free (that may change) in the iTunes App Store.

Read my review of uKloo here.

Oh, and I’m sure you figured out that answers are: Shampoo and Backpack.

Lastly, Doreen was on Dragon’s Den. Guess what happened? Check it out:


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The Legend of Ranger, the Reindeer Who Couldn’t Fly – by Alan Salisbury, illustrated by Roberta Baird

RangerHere’s a nice, literary way to do something good during the holiday season.

All of the proceeds from the sale of the book The Legend of Ranger, The Deer Who Couldn’t Fly (and related Ranger products) will go to the Antonia J. Giallourakis Endowed Fund in Art Therapy for Children with Cancer at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Ranger is a reindeer with a big dream–to help pull Santa’s sleigh. Alas, Ranger can’t fly.

When he goes looking for advice, he is told that “the secret lies within.” He eventually finds the secret for himself, while helping some sick reindeer.

It’s a lovely story, charmingly illustrated, with proceeds going to a worthy cause.

Find out more about Ranger and the Art Therapy fund.

Purchase Ranger at for $12.95.

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Great free, online game with words

RISE onomasticaThe online game Onomastica is what’s known as a “platformer.”

In other words, it’s one of those run-and-jump games, like Mario (except much simpler).

You make the character run or jump using the –> arrows on your keyboard.

With Onomastica, however, the character also interacts with simple words. When he encounters WALL, for instance, he has to push an S next to TAIR to create stairs that will get him over an obstacle.

It’s a super-simple, quick and easy game that kids will like.

And it might just get them thinking about words in a new way.


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Writing contest for Canadian kids grades 4 to 12

Madonna with Writing Child, by Pinturicchio, 1490s.

Madonna with Writing Child, by Pinturicchio, 1490s.

If you’re a Canadian kid in grade 4 to 12, you could win a great prize in a writing contest sponsored by the Canadian Children’s Centre and TD.

Here are some details:

  • Deadline is Feb. 1, 2013;
  • Fiction or non-fiction stories or poems;
  • Entries must be mailed in (no emails or faxes);
  • Must include an entry form — found here;
  • Prizes: $250 book gift certificate for a winner in each grade plus two honourable mentions ($50) from each grade.

You’ll find more details, the address to send your entries to and the entry form on the Canadian Children’s Book Centre website, here.

(Oh, the image? Yeah, that’s a child in the 1400s. He’s writing. In a book held by the mother of Jesus. Don’t worry, he’s not eligible for the contest–not Canadian. Phew!)




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Literacy games for in the car

By Julia Mohamed

Going on a road trip? Here are some great literacy games you can play in the car.

● One person begins by spotting a license plate and announcing the letters (not the numbers) on it.

● Everyone else, in turn, must come up with a funny phrase using the letters of the license plate, in order. So for example, KES could become “kiss every squirrel” or “knights eating steak.”

● Create a list of things to look for while you’re on the road.

● Your list can be adjusted, depending on where you’re travelling. For instance, a city scavenger hunt list may have: a flashing red light, someone talking on a cell phone, and a sign in a foreign language. A rural scavenger list could include: a horse, a tractor, road kill, a silo, a pond, and a gas station.

● Before the trip, buy a note pad and box of crayons for each child in the car.

● Every day on your vacation, or for each memorable event that occurs, have the kids draw a picture and write about it in their travel journal.

● Give them some suggestions to get them started (“how about drawing the beach we were on this morning”) but after that, let their imaginations run wild. Encourage them to use as many words as possible. They may want to do the art in the evening in the hotel room or campground, and add the words in the car while you’re driving to your next destination. Young children can write one or two words (“Beach” or “Playing frisbee”) while older kids can write descriptions and even leave out the pictures altogether.

Julia Mohamed is a freelance journalist. This was her first assignment for GKR and I’m hoping it will be the first of many articles from her. (Hint, hint Julia.)
Photo: Ian Britton,

Car literacy games? Literacy games in the car? Not quite right. Literacy games for in the car? Looks weird – sounds ok. It’s what you’d say but it looks wrong when you see it spelled out. I dunno – today’s not a good headline day for me obviously. Sorry, Julia. Harumph.
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France gives teens the gift of reading

Another way in which the French are awesome.

When kids in France turn 18, the government will give them a free one-year subscription to a newspaper of their choice, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Friday.

The free subscriptions are designed to instill in young people the habit of reading the news regularly. Apparently, there are fears that the younger generation isn’t as into daily newspapers as their parents and grandparents.

With falling ad and subscription revenues, it’s hoped that the move will help boost the French economy.

What a great idea. I love it when economics and literacy collide. Oh Mr. Harper…?

I got this picture of N.S. by Google Image-ing him. It’s from Foreign Policy magazine. It’s such a great shot. Can you imagine our leader looking this spritely, this charming? Ya gotta love the French.

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