Pros: gets kids wanting to learn as well as keep reading the series
Cons: Mommy wants to read them, too.
After we decided that the Junie B. Jones series was giving my all-too-literal five-year-old daughter Beanie too many ideas for getting herself into trouble, I asked for suggestions from friends and family and got her the first four books in the Magic Tree House series, which she devoured like potato chips. When my mother asked what she could get Beanie for Easter, my immediate answer was "Well, the next four books in the series, of course!" The first of those four books is Night of the Ninjas, written by Mary Pope Osborne, and illustrated by Sal Murdocca.
::: And So the Next Story Begins... :::
At least the first eight books of the Magic Tree House series are written in story arcs that occur over a span of four books; while you can certainly pick up any one of the books out of order, a larger mystery is taking place over the four. In the series, 8½-year-old Jack and his seven-year-old sister Annie finding a magic tree house that could transport them to different times and places via books they find in the tree house. The first four books dealt with the mystery of who built the tree house, and at the end of Pirates Past Noon, the reader was left wondering if there were ever going to be any more tree house adventures, since Jack and Annie had discovered that the tree house was the work of none other than Morgan Le Fay, and she was leaving with her tree house and books.
However, Jack and Annie didn't give up, and neither should Magic Tree House fans, for the series was only beginning. In Night of the Ninjas, Osborne has created a new mystery. Jack and Annie hadn't seen Morgan or the tree house for days, when suddenly, Annie spots it again. The two rush to it, and immediately realize that things are different. For starters, there is a brown and white mouse in the tree house who runs immediately to Morgan's "M" on the floor when Jack and Annie arrive. They also find a note they believe might be from Morgan, letting them know that she is under a spell and needs help. They also find an open book, which they've never seen before. Annie impulsively uses the magic book to wish them to the time and place in the open page without stopping to realize that they are being sent to Japan, some time between the 14th and 17th centuries, when ninjas were fighting the samurai.
Jack and Annie (and Peanut, as they have dubbed the mouse) suddenly find themselves in the secret location of a ninja master. They learn that the ninjas were both male and females, and that many of their skills were a result of keeping close to nature. Jack refers to the ninja book for additional information along the way, and also takes notes in his trusty notebook about the things he is learning.
However, Jack and Annie are in danger, because the samurai are after the ninjas, and now think Jack and Annie to be ninjas as well. The ninja master gives them advice and sends them back to the tree house to go home, and they are able to do this following his advice to use nature, be nature, and follow nature. When they finally arrive back at the tree house, the ninja master is there, and gives them a moonstone, which is one of the things that will help Jack and Annie to help Morgan.
::: Why Mommy Likes It Too :::
Beanie was so happy with this book and the next three in the box set she received that she literally sat down and read them all in one night. She loves the books for the adventures, and Mommy likes the books for several reasons. For one thing, they encourage reading and note-taking as learning devices. While Annie may leap impulsively into each adventure, Jack takes the time to read the books, learn about the situations they find themselves in, and take notes to remember what he is learning. Mary Pope Osborne has to be the hero of parents everywhere who'd like their children to find out more about their interests by reading about them.
I also love the illustrations by Sal Murdocca. While they are only black and white drawings, they are usually full-page illustrations, and often spill over onto a second page around the text, and help children by supplementing their imaginations with a visual image of what Jack and Annie are seeing. Samurai and ninjas are a bit hard to picture when you have never seen them before, and he does an excellent job giving children just enough while giving them room to add on with their own imaginations.
I'd also be lying if I wasn't impressed with the story arcs. While each book is self-contained, and leaves children with a sense of accomplishment when done because that adventure has had an ending, it also encourages them to read on in the series to complete the entire mystery over the four books. What a crafty way to get children to read, and the mysteries are interesting enough that I wanted to keep reading to find out what happened to Morgan myself.
Night of the Ninjas is a perfect book for introducing chapter books to preschoolers by reading aloud, but also for getting beginning readers reading on their own. Amazon ranks it at an aged 4 to 8 reading level.