"STOP wasting your time on fiction books that don’t enhance your knowledge."
(from the College Prep Genius site)
The VocabCafe Books:
IM for Murder
Operation High school
Summer of St. Nick
The intention behind the four VocabCafé books is to help students increase vocabulary and easily learn SAT-level words while reading a fun fiction novel. This is accomplished by embedding 300 SAT-level words within the text of each story, using them in context, highlighting them in bold print, and defining the highlighted words at the bottom of each page. At the end of each chapter, there is a word list, and at the end of each book, there is an index of all of the highlighted words and definitions.
These modern novellas (ranging from about 100-200 pages long) contain no foul language, no illicit sexual themes, and no sorcery. According to the product's website, they are to be considered wholesome. However, I think that is depending on your definition of wholesome, as one of the books contains a serial killer and references to acts perpetrated by that killer, and other books contain characters who lie, manipulate, and engage in risk-taking behaviors. While the storylines might be mild when compared to what some teenagers read and view today (did you check out the offerings in the movie theaters and bookstores by the middle of October? Ugh.), they aren't necessarily "promoting health or well-being of mind or spirit" or "sound in body, mind, or morals" as defined by Merriam-Webster's Dictionary (at least, not the morals we are trying to uphold at our house). That is just my opinion as it pertains to my family, though.
I have to say that I was excited when the opportunity to review this product came our way. At our house we are basically, well, book-a-holics. Bibliophiles. Book hoarders. We love to read...voraciously. That's a good thing! So the idea of having more books to read that claimed to have the power to increase our vocabulary sounded pretty appealing. I am all for big words. I don't always make the extra effort to use them, though I know quite a few, but I am always impressed when I see them and hear them used. I mean, I am an English teacher. Doesn't a love of words sort of come with the territory?
Have you ever listened to Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins? One year we were traveling from my parents' house back to our house (then, a 23 hour drive) and that story is what we had in our tape player (yes, I still have a tape player in my car). It was an incredible trip. Not just because the story was a joy to listen to, or because it had a solid moral message tied into an enchanting story line, but because we had to keep stopping the tape. Yeah, really. I loved it because the boys kept making me stop the tape...to define words they didn't know. Ms. Alcott used the best words in her stories. I think all people talked in a more educated fashion back when she was writing. Every word she used that the two boys (about ages 14 and 8 at the time) did not know was prime real estate in the dictionary, if you know what I mean. The coolest thing was that I heard several of those words pop up from time to time over the next weeks, until they became staples in my boys' natural vocabulary. It was an excellent way to learn new words, and we weren't even trying. We were just enjoying listening to a truly wholesome and superbly written tale that grabbed the interest of my kids, even though the main character is a girl and it was written over a century ago.
Anyway, back to the review. So, I believe that slipping in the learning of quality vocabulary words into a good story was the idea behind these four books. I truly do like the idea of highlighting the "hard" words and defining them at the bottom of the page. It's a fantastic idea...I know this because I remember how relieved I was the day I found a King James Defined Bible at the thrift store for Tex back when he was a young reader. His reading level exceeded his vocabulary level significantly. He wanted a "real" Bible, but some of the words in the KJV stumped him, and voila, a week after we identified that as a problem, God let us find that "defined" Bible for a dollar!! (It had the more difficult words bolded and defined at the bottom of the page, too.) After we found that Bible, church time and quiet time was so much easier for Tex and for us (he didn't have to keep tapping me and asking me what words meant, and I didn't have to keep telling him to go look them up in the dictionary).
However, I had a few problems with the execution of the idea in the form of these books. Keep in mind, though, that while we are not pure conservatives with our reading materials (we skip Harry Potter, whose books are filled with awesome vocabulary words, but love Percy Jackson...Let's not get into a discussion of why...it's all personal choice. Every family is different), we do have our standards for learning and entertainment materials. I generally pre-read anything I allow my kids to read (though Hubby was the one to pre-read the Eragon series...not me...and now I can read all of them in a row, no waiting for the sequels...LOL), and I just did not feel comfortable with the content of these books.
I will see if I can explain. First, the kids, while some of them make good choices, others have a tendency to lie, be rude, manipulate, etc. and there weren't always consequences to those behaviors. Granted, there were good deeds done by some characters. In The Summer of St. Nick, which Tex thought was okay, the main character finds some money and instead of using it all for himself, he gives it away to folks who need it, including a guy who is absolutely awful to him. See, it doesn't sound too bad, does it? But when your 14 year old remarks to you how rude the characters were and how the overall behavior of the people in the book bothered him, then I've got to say that the book is just not a good fit for us. He also read Planet Exile, which he also though was okay (it's about a delinquent who gets sent off-planet to an orbiting military school), but the topic did not interest him as much as The Summer of St. Nick. However, he is usually a fantasy-questing-adventure kind of guy, so that might have influenced his opinion (I guess finding a bag of free money is pretty fantastical...It's a fantasy of mine, anyway!).
The second thing that bothered me was the way the words were fit into the story. Okay, I am not trying to be harsh, but it is kind of like someone took a computer program that found nickel words (my term for simple words like "good"), and replaced them with fifty cent words ( better words such as "satisfactory" or "agreeable") or dollar words (flashy words such as "exceptional" or "stupendous") very randomly. By randomly, I mean that repeatedly I found the phrasing to be awkward. The words chosen did not necessarily fit into the sentence appropriately (ie. the usage seemed wrong, or at least atypical), or the rest of the sentence did not actually support the use of the BIG word substituted for the little word it replaced (ie. the other words were simple). The overall writing level of the books was, I think, about middle school. The sentence structures were not overly complex or varied, the words other than the 300 specially highlighted words were not particularly advanced. Overall, I felt the writing was just a bit awkward and hard to deal with.
Lastly, I am pretty picky about typos and there were enough throughout the series of books that it was distracting to me and detracted from their efficacy. I really think the entire series needs another edit. Someone should read through the books again, check the word choices carefully (do not sacrifice readability for fancy word choices), and re-format when needed (the dialogue formatting in Operation High School was different than anything I have ever seen before...if there is a new standard for writing dialogue, I am unaware of it. If there is, I apologize for not realizing that). I think the intent behind these books is excellent, but the execution needs a bit of polishing. Then, I believe the idea might really be able to shine the way it should.
One thing I'd like to see (if it is possible) is this idea used with classic novels...books like The Count of Monte Cristo and Little Women. I know nothing about publishing, so I don't even know what it takes to get permission to do something like that, but honestly, since there are only so many hours in a day, and days in a school year, I'd much rather my high schooler learn his SAT vocabulary words while reading a classic (especially one he already has to read for school anyway) and the best classics are full of SAT-level words (not to mention, timeless messages and superb writing).
Having been fairly hard on these books, I can still say that I really appreciated their disclaimer about content:
A WORD ABOUT CONTENT – These books were written with an intended audience of high school teenagers, although many parents find them appropriate for their middle school or younger students. As a family-based company, our goal is to make a quality product that can be enjoyed by everyone. Thus, these stories contain no magic, sorcery, swear words, illicit situations, nor do they encourage negative behaviors. However, we recommend that parents should read every book that they give their children (not just ours) to make sure the messages coincide with their beliefs and standards. The VocabCafé Book Series does contain boy-girl relationships (non-sexual), mild violence, and mature thematic elements.
Most book publishers these days just want to get your kids to read their books no matter what. This publisher is concerned enough and moral enough to make the effort to disclose the content of their books and to recommend that parents should read every book that they give to their children. Hats off to you for your high standard, VocabCafe, and thank you for being willing to set aside dollar signs and focus on the welfare of our children. I truly appreciated their suggestion.
While these books did not work for our family, they could work for other families who have a differing standard and genre preference. Teens who read much of what is on the best seller lists today would find these books mild in comparison, and could learn a few SAT-style words in a pretty painless way by reading these books. I did learn some new words as I read these books, though not all stuck with me. But then, I only read them once, and I did not quiz myself or try to memorize the words using the lists at the end of the chapters. A student who needs a bit of a nudge in the area of vocabulary might find some incentive among the pages of one of these books, so parents, if this sounds like something your high schooler needs help with, maybe you might want to give them a try. I could not find a sample of the text online to share with you, but some of the other Crew members took photos and included text samples in their reviews (mine is already long enough, I think!), and you can find their reviews HERE.
The VocabCafe books can be purchased individually for $12.95, or purchased as a set for $51.80. However, there is currently a three-for-one special, so the total on the set of four is $38.85. If you are interested, you can place an order HERE.
Disclaimer: I was given copies of the four VocabCafe books in order to write this review. The honest opinions you read here in this review are mine, based on my experiences (and those of my son, Tex) with these books. That does not mean that your experiences or opinions might not be different. If you have questions about these books that I have not answered here, please feel free to comment or contact me.