Monday, December 21, 2015

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans by Don Brown

This short but powerful graphic novel has gorgeous illustrations that do not shy from the grisly details of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I read it on a Kindle Fire and the illustrations pop with their drama and bold line strokes. I have read several books on Katrina and discovered some new facts in this one. The trains offered to evacuate residents and the city declined as 200,000 people were left behind because they didn't have cars or were unable to leave for other reasons. Some illustrations show people who drown. Others show the desperation of families in the attics of their homes as the waters keep rising. The text says many drown. More than 100 police officers abandoned their posts in fear when the hurricane struck. People at the dome urinated while standing in long lines waiting for buses because they didn't want to lose their spots. (This fact is told not illustrated.) The dangerous water and smells are captured in illustrations. The horrors are contrasted with police and neighbors that stayed and helped others creating a balance between light and dark, but this is definitely for an older reader.

5 Smileys

A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Twelve-year-old Gerta's father and younger brother go to West Berlin to find a place for the family to live when the Berlin Wall is erected overnight dividing herself, mother, and older brother from them. Her father was involved in Resistance activities making her family under the constant scrutiny of the Stasi police as the war rages for four long years. While on her way to school Gerta sees her father pantomiming a dance on a platform and interprets it as a way to escape. As neighbors and friends turn against each other, Gerta learns who she can and cannot trust.

While I think Jennifer Nielsen is good at building tension, this story fell short for me in many ways. I've read so much on the Holocaust and World War II that much of the plot was predictable. I get frustrated when an obvious answer is available for the protagonist or minor characters and the incident it gets dragged out in order to advance the plot. This is when the plot feels forced and it happens quite a bit. For instance, why wouldn't Gerta go down into the cellar the first time? Why does Fritz doubt the picture when his character has believed Gerta up to that point? Other times the characters would spout platitudes that sounded like someone looking back on the war.  The fear and confusion was not really captured and carried throughout the narration at a steady pace.

Obviously, I liked the book enough to finish it so it does have its moments when it is interesting. I didn't really learn anything new about this time period and was not wowed by any in-depth historical research. The idea that children walking to school couldn't look toward the other side of the wall was an interesting concept. Nielsen does show the intimidation of soldiers. The story is entertaining but doesn't rise to the same levels as other books out there. Read "Echo" by Pam Munoz Ryan as an example of tension and fear during the war.

3 Smileys

Friday, December 18, 2015

Paper Things by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Eleven-year-old Ari moves out of Janna's house with her 19-year-old brother, Gage, who says he has a job and apartment. Janna is her guardian and argues with Gage. The two have lived together since Ari and Gage's mom passed away, but the two fight incessantly. Ari, loyal to family, follows Gage as he strikes out on his own. He says he has an apartment but when it is obvious he doesn't, Ari still follows him as they live homeless for  six weeks while he tries to find a job. The character arc and development carry a messy plot along in an engaging story that presents homelessness in a tamed down if somewhat inauthentic way. It makes the book appropriate for younger readers and deals with friendships and stigma that comes from being different.

While Ari is a well fleshed out character the relationships between Janna and Gage are somewhat fuzzy making Gage's decisions questionable and out-of-character at times. Ari is the star of the show and she shines as she tries to decide between living with her brother on the streets or being with Janna with a roof and stability. The author does a good job capturing middle school and how peers ostracize each other for clothes, hygiene, and looks. Ari has ratty shoes and greasy hair at times that makes her a target for bullying. The complication of Ari hiding her homelessness notched up the tension and kept me flipping the pages.

Ari and her brother hop from one friend's home to another sleeping anywhere. When they end up in a car one night and Ari's grades have been slipping she slowly begins to question if their choices have been the best or if her brother is just being stubborn. This part of the story was more authentic for me than the Reggie part. His homelessness and airplane business seem contrived to just move the plot forward. Also the relationship between Janna and Gage needed more development to give understanding as to why Gage would even take Ari from that situation. The explanation for Gage taking Ari was that their dying mother's last wish was that they always be together. This seemed weak as anyone with half a brain would know that a mother's last wish would not be to have her children sleeping out on the streets when they have a roof over their heads.

The ending is a bit pat. Kids will like it because everyone is happy but what bothered me was the quick resolution between Gage and Janna and Ari being empowered and reaffirmed by being in the media. I was pulled out of the narrative and felt like the author was teaching me a lesson. Not that it isn't a good lesson about acceptance and tolerance. All the same it made the plot less authentic. While I like the writing I think the story has too many miscues that keep it from being as strong as it could be.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Ali Benjamin sure knows how to infuse her plot with tense emotional situations. From death to changing friendships to bullying she captures middle school and all its ugliness and uncertainty with an identity crisis that brings about self-understanding and confidence for the main character. For the most part she does this well, but other times misses the mark a bit as Suzy becomes too extreme as the nerdy, factual character that is hopelessly inept socially - to the point that I thought something might be wrong with her medically. But then Benjamin pulls back and I was able to get absorbed by the story again. I can recommend this to students that like "Wonder," "One for the Murphys," and "Out of My Mind." A strong debut novel that will have me on the look-out for more books by this author.

Twelve-year-old Suzy Swanson has decided to stop talking to people after the death of her best friend, Franny, in a swimming accident. After seeing an Irukandji jellyfish on a school field trip, Suzy develops a theory that her friend drown because this venomous jellyfish stung her as a result of global warming and it being found in parts of the world never before. She researches everything she can on the fish and decides that an expert in Australia can help her prove her hypothesis.

Suzy tells the story with flashbacks to when she and Franny were friends. They had a falling out that is slowly revealed as the author unfolds details leading up to their split. The cruel killing of an amphibian might upset some readers. Flashbacks oftentimes do not hold my interest like the narrative, but that is not the case here. Benjamin does an excellent job weaving forward and back in time to create an engrossing story.

The study of jellyfish and Suzy's hypothesis of what happened to Franny makes for an interesting juxtaposition between nonfiction and fictional narration. Suzy is presented as a misfit along with Justin who has ADHD but understands it better than most his age. While I liked him as a character giving some relief to Suzy's seriousness, he seemed a bit too old and mature. Perhaps it was him poking fun at being ADHD and understanding how it affected others negatively. I grew up with an ADHD person and Justin's character lacked some authenticity for me. The bullying seemed a bit over the top. It makes the story more emotional but at one point I felt I was being manipulated and wondered how their friendship could have turned into something quite so nasty. And Suzy's justification of what she did back was weak. These are minor points and don't detract much from Suzy's character arc. Add it to your to-read list.

5 Smileys

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin

Steven Sheinkin is one of my favorite history writers for young readers. His narrative style creates characters with distinct voices along with brilliant craft at revealing plot elements that resemble a thriller. No dry history facts here, folks. This guy knows how to take the pertinent information in history and pull the reader into the story. Like "Bomb," this is more difficult to read than your ordinary elementary-book-fare but students in my Newbery book club that have read it really like it.

Four presidents didn't want to be the first person in history to lose a war and their resulting poor decisions were rooted in this fear. Daniel Ellsberg was an analyst for Rand Corporation, a think tank that studied international crises and helped government policymakers with decisions. He was extremely bright and brought on staff at the Pentagon to work for Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, in the 60s helping with the conflict in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh wanted to unite Vietnam but because he was Communist the United States backed the unpopular non-communist South Vietnam leader. War broke out on Ellsberg's first day on the job.

Sheinkin shows from the get-go all the errors made by leaders in the U.S. government as they went to war with Vietnam. Ellsberg was supportive of the government and believed in the war until it became obvious over twenty-three years that there was never a plan to win the war or end it but just continue to sacrifice lives so that the president in power could win the next election. Ellsberg decision to exercise civil disobedience was extremely difficult and Sheinkin shows his struggle with deciding if the people of the United States had a right to know about cover-ups or if he should maintain secrecy for the sake of national security. Ellsberg changed from thinking the Vietnam war was "noble" to one that was wrong from the start as he observed president-after-president lying to the people.

Ellsberg understood that he could not challenge policies in public - it was the code of an insider. Most leaders surround themselves with people that agree with them. He knew disagreeing publicly was not done and feared the consequences of taking action against the government. He knew he'd end up in jail. This made me think of the book, "Team of Rivals," and Abraham Lincoln's unusual cabinet where he let those close to him in government publicly disagree with him. Wouldn't it be awesome if Sheinkin wrote a book for young readers on Abe?

The second part of the story shows the Watergate scandal and comedy of errors that happened as a result of Nixon's actions. Sheinkin's novels are always sprinkled with tidbits I didn't know. Did you know they dropped three times the amount of bombs on Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam than they did in World War II? And that an estimated 2 million people died? Sheinkin doesn't give answers but asks important questions such as when is a person justified in leaking classified government information to expose wrongdoing? He ties it in with the more recent leak by Edward Snowden on the United States national security surveillance. He doesn't give his opinion, but lets the reader decide. The questions have no easy answers. A great nonfiction book.

5 Smileys

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Perilous Princess Plot (Buckle and Squash #1) by Sarah Courtauld

If you want to study the literary device of using parody to exaggerate the fairy tale genre for comedic effect, then I suggest picking up this book. Or if you just want to snort laugh your breakfast cereal out your nose, then I suggest this book again. Eliza and Lavendar live in Old Tumbledown Farm in The Middle of Nowhere in the land of Squerb, where Lavendar dreams of being a princess and Eliza dreams of strangling her neck. Just kidding. Eliza is stuck with all the chores and is just annoyed by her princess-loving sis. But honestly, first time we meet Lavendar she sees a man in the distance and cries out, "A knight upon the high road! I may faint!" It's a bald man named Bob. Lavendar then proceeds to faint and asks Eliza to rate her faint. This drama queen makes Anne of Green Gables romantic tendencies look tame in comparison. When Lavendar gets kidnapped by an archetype villain, it is Eliza who rescues her showing that Eliza will do anything for her cornflakey sister.

Eliza is a foil to Lavendar. While Lavendar wants to be more princessy than a princess, Eliza dreams of being a hero, defeating dragons and traveling to far off places. The cornucopia of  puns and play on words, and run-on sentences reminded me of the character voices in "The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom," by Christopher Healy. The villain sets out to kidnap a princess identifying her as a girl that sings badly, dances, pick flowers, and wears a pointy princess hat - all traits found in Lavendar. Except she also sings in the romance language, French. Badly. When Lavendar is kidnapped she gets it in her head that the villain is really a handsome prince disguised as an ugly person like in Beauty and the Beast. 

There are some fun twists and turns in this goofy tale. Eliza tries to change Lavendar into seeing how absurd all her prince dreams are while Lavendar tries to prove that they are true. By the end the two have adventures that have them understanding and tolerating each other a little more, but it isn't always easy. It is always funny though. This story is pretty outlandish. My favorite minor character is the grandma that tells bedtimes stories full of pestilence, murder, and death. She reminded me of Jon Klassen's picture books. 

Her story is about William who came down with the Black Death. "'And from that day on, he was covered in spots,' she said serenely. 'And then came the lumps. And then his skin started to wither. And then he collapsed. And then his fingers fell off. And then his legs fell off. And then he died.' she smiled. 'The end. Would you like another story?'"

Yes, please. I'm looking forward to more Squash and Buckles.

4 Smileys

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland

The illustration of a Hollerith machine reminded me of the IBM machine in our high school in the 80s. We were given a stack of punch cards that we had to code. We used it in math class for numeric computation. I'd punch the cards, run them through the machine and Blammo! it never worked for me. I really hated that machine. I took a DOS class in the 90s and it reminded me of the punch card days. One detail off and the whole thing-a-ma-jig would not work. Ugh! This book is a walk down nightmare machine lane. My brother bought one of the first Macintosh personal computers that went public in 1984 when Steve Jobs was still in his twenties. I thought that computer was the best thing since chocolate ice cream and my brother graciously let me use it whenever I wanted. Jobs was innovative, creative, and demanding and this book captures his quirks marvelously. The only strange bit is that it is geared toward young kids but mentions Jobs smoking pot and using LSD. Not sure why the editors put that in the book but be aware that it is there.

The style of the book is quite different with illustrations and hand-written font. One of the things Jobs loved was calligraphy and he was proud of the fonts option in his software program Macwrite. I remember that program. I'd put several disks in to boot the program because there was no hard drive and oftentimes the computer froze, but I'd give my left hip any day for a computer over my much-hated typewriter.

The book spans Jobs life and covers his personal life, career path, and idiosyncrasies. This is a more positive take on his contributions and does not explore his difficult personality as adult versions do. He was controversial and the book shows that but it focuses more on the technology, innovations, and Job's inventive mind.

One part of the book shows how Jobs and Bill Gates took Xerox PARC's ideas of graphical user interface and created an easy-to-use product for the public to consume. Jobs is accusing Gates in one illustration of stealing his ideas and Gates in turn accuses him of stealing Xerox's idea. Dewey did the same thing when he invented the library system. So did Edison when he invented the light bulb. Many of the great inventors just perfect or make better existing ideas. It is clear that Jobs attention to detail, design background, and perfectionism were what made him good at creating quality products.

The Kindle format made it hard to read all the two-page spreads but it was doable. I'm sure it wouldn't have been acceptable to Jobs if he had designed the eReader. Just kidding. The repeated line that Job's used, "Insanely great!" adds to the evidence of his innovative spirit. The layout and design of this book reminds me of Marissa Moss's illustrations. It is not quite a graphic novel, but it departs from narrative text with all the illustrations.

I've been reading conversations on this blog called, Heavy Medal, and they were discussing fatal flaws in books and how it can prevent winning a Newbery award. The controversy was around one paragraph in "The Hired Girl." This Steve Jobs book would be another one that seems to go in the same category. Why did the editors add the drug reference when it doesn't contribute to the focus of the story? When society has problems with underage drinking and drugs, why would you make it look like it is okay to do that? The blog discussions have made me think about fatal flaws and how my biases come into play. While I find the drug reference not appropriate, some of you will think no big deal. Decide for yourself.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Jackson likes facts. He is the perfect brother. Perfect son. He handles difficult situations with more maturity than most confiding in his imaginary friend, Crenshaw. At first he doesn't want Crenshaw's help because... I dunno, he's a cat that is taller than him and walks on two legs and likes purple jellybeans. But as Jackson's home situation gets worse, he tries stuffing his fear down, only it doesn't work as the perfect boy starts to unravel.

This story is great for grades 3-4, but I thought the pacing suffered mainly in the beginning. I am not a fan of flashbacks and I thought they slowed the action too much. Jackson's interest in science gives him a different voice and his friendship with Marisol adds to the story, but both characters' voices sounded old at times. It felt like the narrator, as an adult, was speaking to me the reader. This doesn't happen all the time but it did enough to jar me out of the narrative text.

Crenshaw is Jackson's imaginary friend who appeared in his life when he was seven but then disappeared after the situation was resolved. Jackson doesn't want to have anything to do with Crenshaw because an imaginary friend is far from science and facts. But as his situation gets worse, he turns to Crenshaw for advice and sympathy. 

Jackson's dad has multiple sclerosis and it has sent their family in a downward spiral with medical bills and job loss. His parents always try to look at the bright side and hide their problems from their two children, but Jackson knows the signs when they sell everything and start to talk about wanting a "money tree". Homelessness is presented in a way that won't frighten the young reader but as an adult it seemed glossed over to me. You'll have to decide for yourself. A quick read.

4 Smileys

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip M. Hoose

When Germany invaded Denmark in World War II, there was no resistance or fighting from the Danes. Knud Pedersen was fourteen and disgusted that his country did nothing in wake of the takeover. He and his brother met with other boys at their school and formed a resistance unit modeled after the Norwegian resistance and British Royal Air Force (RAF). They began fighting the Germans by switching up German signs confusing arriving soldiers with misdirections. With their bikes as their weapons, they added cutting the German communication wires next and vandalizing vehicles. Police offered a reward for the capture those responsible, but Knud and his brother moved to a different city starting a new club.

This club was named, "The Churchill Club," and the brothers along with eight boys targeted homes, offices, and stores of Nazi sympathizers vandalizing them. They left a calling card in blue paint whenever they struck. The club included about ten passive members that supported them with supplies and money, but who stayed out of the action. Their actions became bolder committing arson and stealing weapons from German solders before getting caught and sent to prison.

The story reads like a narrative from Knud's point of view. Text boxes containing facts, maps, primary photos, and Knud's sketches add to the depth and richness of the story. I read this on the Kindle and I would have probably preferred the book. The separation of text features is limited in space on the Kindle as it only shows one page at a time. I got the idea and saw the separation by a bold black line but I had to enlarge the photos to see some details and the maps were unreadable unless enlarged. You might want to consider what format you want to use when reading this book. A fascinating look at children making a difference in the world.

5 Smileys

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm

Sunny Lewin is shipped off to her grandpa's house in Florida because her brother is addicted to drugs. Her original plans to spend the summer with her best friend at a cabin are cast aside as the family seeks much needed help. Sunny shows up at her grandpa's in a retirement village where the people are gray-haired, slow-moving (with a grumpy old man), and rules to keep kids out of their retirement village unless they have a visitor pass.

Neighbors give Sunny a macrame Barbie doll on a toilet roll and Grandpa's big outings involve going to the grocery store or post office. Sunny remembers times she spent with her brother in flashbacks where they went swimming and . This time the adult swim is made fun of. There were some weird clothes, crafts, and events during the seventies and I the poking fun at it stood out awkwardly, like the plaid pants of the time. This support of the character arcs is weak. For instance, Sunny's brother is rebelling against adults so he thinks the adult swim at the pool is stupid.

Sunny's character arc shows her covering for her older brother as he skips school, drinks, and smokes. He asks her to keep his secrets and she adores him so of course she helps him hide things from their parents. When she stays with her grandpa, he's hiding cigarettes and at the climax decides to confront him. She's not going to keep secrets when they are hurting the people she loves. I was most bothered by the stereotypes of retired people. Sunny doesn't change in her attitude toward them but they change in their attitude toward her.

The alternating stories of flashbacks with her brother and grandpa didn't quite work. The brother story was far more interesting than the stereotyped older grandpa story. Sunny meets a friend and they find ways to make money and read comics. The end felt rushed in its resolution and both stories lacked the depth that I usually come to expect from a Jennifer Holm's book. It's not bad, but it is not memorable either. This graphic novel is a quick read.

3 Smileys

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Ah. To be perfect. To not suffer. To not have anxiety. What if you were promised that all your troubles would go away and you could have the perfect life if you agreed to one thing. Would you be tempted? Steve is. See his baby brother is horribly sick. He might die. He might not talk. He might not walk. He needs an operation on his heart and no one is sure how his baby brother will grow. And that's not all of Steve's problems. He sees a therapist for his own problems. When an angel appears in Steve's dreams promising to take his troubles away, it is easy to see why Steve agrees to the angel's request. Only this dream quickly becomes a nightmare, his angel a wasp, and Steve realizes that perfection doesn't exist. Worse, he has agreed to something he cannot take back even though the cost is someone's life.

What a creepy horror story. The slow buildup of tension and odd characters make this book hard to put down and the science behind wasps make them the perfect villains in the story. Toss in a suspicious man that sharpens knives for a living, a live voice on a toy phone, and you have a great setup to spread shivers among readers of all ages. I would love to try this as a read aloud.

The character arc shows Steve wanting all his troubles go away. A sympathetic motherly figure appears in a dream and smooth-talks her way into getting Steve to go along with her plan that seems innocent at first but becomes more sinister and evil as time goes on. The wasp that can sting its victim over and over is a great metaphor for the suffering that Steve and his family have endured with the birth of a baby brother that is "broken" inside. Steve just wants a normal life and it isn't until the end that he realizes that there is no such thing as normal. I didn't realize that Kenneth Oppel is Canadian. I had this book on my Newbery list and it doesn't qualify. It's really well-done. A good one for your collection.

5 Smileys

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Hollow Boy (Lockwood & Co. #3) by Jonathan Stroud

There's plenty of action in this creepy third book as Lockwood & Co. have more clients than they can keep up with on a daily basis as a result of their previous successes. They hire Holly as an assistant but Lucie doesn't like the change in dynamics and there seems to be a bit of jealousy as she has feelings for Lockwood. George and Lockwood love the change. Holly cleans up and keeps them organized and when she goes on a haunting spree, to Lucie's horror, she saves her life. Not that Lucie can show she is grateful. She's usually rolling her eyes at her while Holly makes her own jabs at Lucie's lack of style and cleanliness. Then there is the ghost in the jar that Lucie talks to but hides from Holly. Lucie is changing in that her ability to connect with ghosts and as her skill grows deeper she begins to threaten the lives of her team.

This is a series that you want to read from the start to fully enjoy the character arc of Lucie, the state of London's ghost plague, and understand the different levels of ghosts. Lucie is extremely talented as a ghost hunter but unorthodox and empathetic toward them. She's also attached and attracted to Lockwood in a way that is more clear having read the previous books. In this story she's frustrated with Lockwood as he shuts people out of his life and keeps them at a distance. He always has but Lucie thought after he opened up about his sister's death he'd not go back to being the way he was previously. But old habits die hard and Lockwood crawls into his shell while Lucie tries to deal with her feelings of rivalry with the new hire.

The pacing felt a bit choppy as the team kept taking on what seemed like random cases, but eventually the direction becomes clear. When Holly joins the team, she and Lucie bicker at a tiresome rate and it is pretty clear a confrontation will happen. I just didn't expect it to happen like it did. Jonathan Stroud is good with surprises. The ghost in the bottle is sarcastic and adds humor to the story that balances the dark side of what is happening in London. He's like the djinni in the Bartimaeus trilogy. The horrors would be oppressive without his voice. He's also unpredictable because sometimes he is helpful, but usually he is doling out bad advice to Lucie. Like telling her how to kill Holly while on an assignment. Good fun with an ending that will make you scramble for book four.

4 Smileys

The Copper Gauntlet (Magisterium #2) by Holly Black, Cassandra Clare

The first time I was on a jet ski I squeezed the levers slowly making sure I could maneuver it through the choppy water. It bucked as I learned the right amount of pressure, but I like speed and it didn't take long before I was bouncing over waves with a thud and wondering if the fly that bounced off my cheek would leave a red mark. I read this story like I drive a jet ski. Slow at first before hitting the gas and skimming along. It was an action thrill-ride that reminded me a lot of Harry Potter's plot. And while it was fun, I won't remember most of it a month from now.

Thirteen-year-old Call is with his dad for the summer but their relationship is strained. His dad suspects Call is evil and when Call finds a nasty trap made by his dad he runs away to the Magisterium. Only there, the Alkahest, a copper gauntlet that can remove chaos magic from magicians, has been stolen. Call with the help of Tamara, Aaron, and an unlikely third person goe after the person Call suspects stole it. Some interesting twists occur at the end and Call has to learn to trust his team.

This is your familiar fantasy/school story with kids on a quest fighting good and evil. Call is a reluctant hero and there is less world-building in this book than the first one. The magic has been established and only the gauntlet adds a new mix in their world of magic. Alex and Kimiya's relationship didn't advance the plot and I wasn't sure why it was in there. I thought it might hint at some sequel at the end or maybe Alex was the mole in the Magisterium, but their story is not resolved or it is just tacked in as filler.

Call is jealous of Aaron and the attention he is getting as a Makar or chaos-making magician, but even that changes by the end. This will remove a lot of the tension from the plot which may be why Jasper's character has come more to center stage. He might be filling in for Aaron in creating future tension. Call and Jasper always have great tension in their dialogue. I wasn't sure Tamara was acting in character racing off to tattle on Call. That seemed a bit off but I have not read "The Iron Trial," in a year. I suggest reading book one before this as it gives more world building. The lizard keeps telling Call that "the end is closer than you think" but I couldn't help but think it wasn't close enough for me. Not bad. Not great. Just entertaining.

3 Smileys

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

Sheesh... have you read all the hoopla over this book? It is quite fascinating. And exhausting. If not, read the Heavy Medal blog or Betsy Bird's blog. I picked a good year to start a Newbery contender book club at our school. The blogs are terrific insight into discussions on what makes a book exemplary or not. Case in hand, The Hired Girl, has no one arguing about the terrific character development and literary elements, but they are questioning how children will read it in regards to the unreliable narrator's prejudiced views. Laura Amy Schlitz tackles so many themes and does it quite well with setting, historical accuracy, craft, and more. The story is distinguished and worth discussing. Some think the plot's action too convenient. Some think the pacing is slow. Some think the Native American comment a fatal flaw. Some think it is brilliant literature. I was wowed by the depth and layering of themes and characters. As with all these reviews it comes down to ones own opinion.

The main character, Joan, is 14 and runs away from her cruel father who has pulled her from school to work the farm. Her views of the world are from reading books and they are skewed, to say the least. She's an unreliable narrator with a propensity toward being melodramatic and romantic as well as smart, kind, and wants more in life than being a servant. She reminds me of Anne of Green Gables, annoying and endearing at the same time. She is a strong character and a survivor. Joan, a Christian girl, gets hired by a Jewish family as a servant. The story shows her character arc as one who embraces her Christian beliefs while learning to respect the religious differences of the Jewish family she lives with and who has been kind to her.  The story is layered and complex and full of controversy because Joan is so ignorant and says prejudiced things at first. At its heart, Joan is embracing Catholicism and in the process she tries to convert a young Jewish boy. She does it in innocence and doesn't realize until later that it was an act of betrayal to those that let her live under their roof. In the process she learns how to respect the Jewish religion and embrace her own beliefs without judgement. Ironically it is a message of tolerance; however, the author has a statement in the book that seems to be intolerant.

The offending paragraph that has caused an uproar isn't about Joan's comments on Jews because her character arc shows how she changes. The offense is taken by this statement: “It seemed to me–I mean, it doesn’t now, but it did then–as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there are Indians out West, but they’re civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any.” The argument is that with race and culture in combination with literary analysis, does this statement work for the reader or hurt the young reader that can't tell that it is prejudiced? Joan is interested in clothes and spatters narrow-minded statements throughout the narrative text. Much of it is funny. Here the unfortunate word choice of "civilized" is a stumbling block. But does it taint the whole book? Will a young reader be able to distinguish her naivety? The only part of this passage that I see playing in her character arc is that she is fascinated with clothes for the first time in her life. She shops with Mimi and discusses clothes at length. Joan's only understanding of Native Americans is from reading the book, "Ivanhoe." Her views up to this point have been clearly established as unreliable. But I'm not Native American and I'm not a young reader so I can understand the arguments or offense against it.

I know adults read books differently than children. We come at it with more experience and background. That's why I'm enjoying my book club with grade 5 students. One girl loved this book while two others abandoned it because of the "slow" beginning. Others have commented on the epistolary format and wondered if it affects the pacing. I was fine with it. I found some of Joan's emotions so painfully raw and honest and also hysterically funny. Would a younger reader feel the same? Joan's conversion to religion was particularly well-done and it is not something I have ever read in any children's book. All I can say is that you readers that are not adults, please give us your take on the story. I'm listening. Meanwhile, this goes on my Newbery list.

5 Smileys

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

What a unique crafting of a story by a talented artist, writer, and storyteller. Brian Selznick mixes wordless pictures with text to create a moving story about a boy finding a family that is diverse and loving. In 1766, The Marvels, a theatrical family, was entertaining a ship's crew at sea when a storm sunk the ship stranding two brothers on an island. The pages show the ensuing generations of Marvels that have adventures, mysteries, and careers that tell a story without words but create characters whose emotions are clear in close-ups and graphite sketchings.

The magic and mystery intensify as narrative text replaces illustrations about a boy, Joseph, who has run away from boarding school with a friend that has since disappeared on him. The two were headed for his uncle's house in London. Joseph makes his way alone to his uncle's place who is not happy with his appearance on his doorstep. More mysteries reveal themselves as Joseph explores the house that seems to be from a time long past and the stories of the Marvels becomes more complex. Strange sounds, half-finished meals, and decor from the past suggest magic or hidden people in the house. A series of events reveal the truth and Joseph learns what it means to be loved and find happiness.

A subplot shows Joseph making friends with a girl that lives by his uncle whose brother died when she was very young. It tore their family apart and affected Joseph's uncle who knew the boy well. Selznick leaves clues that makes the story unfold like a mystery. The story is based on a real person that lived in a similar house in New York and if the reader knows that story I can see it making the plot direction more predictable than for someone like myself who has no background knowledge. I wasn't sure if it was going to turn into a fantasy at one point and I was delighted by the unexpected turns in the plot. Good plot surprises are like a tickle.

So many themes emerge from this book from creating art, finding a family, grief over the death of loved ones, friendship, gender identity, and more. When I grew up stories about families made up of partners that were not heterosexual did not exist in children's literature. Today, there are more diverse books that allow for self-identification for readers. In a time when hate and violence seen in the imagery of the aftermath of terrorist bombings and wars are so prevalent in the media, the message of tolerance seems even more urgent. While Selnick's book doesn't get into any specifics on the AIDS epidemic or gender identity like young adult books, it is a subplot that can either be discussed or not. More importantly, it shows that there are many different types of families in the world.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

MiNRS by Kevin Sylvester

Science fiction over the years has reflected the fears and concerns of society. In the 50's, 60's, and 70's there was hype over landing on the moon and exploring space, the fear of alien invasions and nuclear war. The cold war fizzled in the 90's and the war on terrorism and technology exploded. Books such as "Fahrenheit 451," by Ray Bradbury reflected fears over the invention of the television while more recent novels like, " Hunger Games," by Suzanne Collins mirrored reality-TV shows and the Iraqi war. From biotechnology to artificial intelligence, science fiction dances across a gamut of topics exploring scientific, political, and social implications in a speculative society. Kevin Sylvester's book, "MiNRS," shows the political ramifications of one company controlling resources needed by a future Earth that has been destroyed by humans. When a war breaks out, the story unfolds from the viewpoint of one boy who is trying to survive and make sense out of violence.

Christopher Nichols appears like a typical kid, going to school and thinking about homework while adults run a mining operation for metals and minerals in his town-like setting; however, there is one itty-bitty detail that is far from typical... Christopher's "town" is a small space colony plopped on the asteroid named, "Perses." For a kid with a slant toward science and math, his life is not only cool, he absorbs the information and world around him like a hygroscopic substance. Perses threatened to collide with Earth until a scientist, Hans Melming, was able to use rockets and gravity to propel it into a habitable part of orbit. He terraformed the planetoid's surface and sent up humans to mine the ore. About twenty children live on Perses and Christopher is one of them.

As time passed, Earth depleted its resources and left Melming Mining Company with the golden rod or rock of invaluable resources. The colony seems unaware of the target on its back but some are worried, like Christopher's parents. Christopher has everything he needs and leads a privileged life with his parents who work as supervisors at the mine. He idolizes Melming and every year the school watches a propaganda movie about the great contributions Melming has made to the survival of Earth.

The inhabitants on Perses are readying for a blackout caused by solar interference and know that communications with Earth will be knocked out for a month. The colony is protected by the Melming Mining Company from Earth but the blackout means no protection or warnings. Their worse fears are realized when they are attacked by "Landers," an unknown group from Earth, intending to steal the ore. They bomb the facility and the adults are killed with only a few children able to seek shelter underground. Christopher's mathematical and scientific brain immediately goes into survival mode and makes plans. His parents had a backup plan if something went wrong during the blackout, except the plan was in code and Christopher is having a hard time deciphering it. With the aid of his friend, Elena, the two seek help from Earth and retaliate against the Landers.

Futuristic or science fiction novels speculate what the world would be like in a different setting. A common trope in these novels is an authoritarian government that is in control with a naive protagonist that accepts the status quo. The government is seductively attractive until the protagonist unravels serious flaws in the system. Such is the case as Christopher believes the propaganda at first before slowing realizing that all is not idyllic. Others are in forced labor and oppressive conditions but this has been hidden from the 20 children. When discovered, most of the other privileged children don't see what is wrong with it but slip into superior, prejudiced views that do not value other human beings. As Christopher's ideal world is exposed to harsh realities, he has to choose right from wrong and it is these internal battles that give the novel depth. Not only is Christopher dealing with problems on a personal level, but he has to analyze and think critically about the political and social issues of how the asteroid was governed and maintained by the adults.

The surviving children are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. They have seen family members blown up by bombs and shot at and respond in different ways. Elena tries to take comfort in military strategies and attacking the enemy. Christopher makes plans and tries to think of the survival of the group. Another character cares medically for the others, while another hoards food. Everyone reacts differently to traumatic events and it adds to the authenticity of the characters. The attack and subsequent deaths are traumatizing making it difficult to move forward each day.

The world-building is well-done and not so scientific that young readers can't follow it. The reader never discovers who the enemy is and the end suggests that the government is seriously messed up down on Earth. I wanted more back story but enough was given to tease me along. While I would normally want to know who the attackers are rather than have these faceless, pirate villains that never interact with anyone, I didn't think it detracted from the novel. I think it was left out to entice the reader to the sequel, but I would have preferred more clues as to who the Landers were that so violently attacked Christopher's community.

The subplot of Christopher's budding romance with Elena adds another emotional element to the story, but is not overpowering. Elena's jealousy of the grinder is never realized in this novel and the cliff-hanger ending leaves more than just that question. The adults that Christopher thinks he sees raises new questions as well. This reminds me a little of the book "Shipbreaker," but less violent. Not that this one isn't. It is. The action adventure will appeal to many of my students along with Christopher's ability to use math and science to survive in dire circumstances.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #1) by Rick Riordan

If you liked Percy Jackson, you will enjoy this first book in a series that follows a similar pattern with a snarky protagonist, humor that balances violence, great monsters, a demigod, mythology-based fantasy plot, mnemonics to learn foreign words, a cross-over with a character (Annabeth Chase appears), and a first person narration. Why mess with a good thing? Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series has sold in the millions. Magnus Chase will satisfy loyal fans. Yah... sure.

Magnus Chase is sixteen and homeless. His mom died protecting him when two monsters burst into his apartment. When Magnus discovers two people looking for him he breaks into the home of his uncle setting in motion a hunt for an ancient and powerful sword. He learns that his dad is a god which gives him the ability to retrieve the sword. And don't cha know, good and evil beings want this sword and once he calls it to him he sets in motion events that signal not only the end of the world, but life as he knows it. That's right. He's killed. This isn't a spoiler. He tells the reader in the first paragraph using the oh-so-familiar Rick Riordan hook. I bit. As Magnus learns what it is like to be a ghost warrior in Valhalla, he tries to save the world with the aide of a Valkarie of Arab descent and two disguised homeless men. The action snowballs to an exciting climax.

In Norse mythology, the gods know that their destiny is inescapable and doomed to a bloody epic battle called, "Ragnarok," that will leave them and humanity dead. From the ashes will rise two people that signify the regeneration of life. The myths show life as cyclical with gods and human beings not in despair over their fate, but attempting to hold it off. Loki points this out when he tells Magnus: “Well what you do is change the details. That’s how you rebel. That’s how you change the narrative. I know how I’m going to die, but between now and then I’m going to make my own game.” You betcha.

Magnus reminds me of the Germanic heroic code found in medieval literature such as Beowulf and the Icelandic sagas where death is heroic and not tragic and destruction is final not life-giving. The heroic code means that Magnus places honor above death and dies saving the lives of strangers. He decides at the last minute to make his death count by taking out a fire demon. Magnus displays courage in the face of overwhelming or impossible odds and remains strong in the face of death. This hero understands that Fate will take everything - power, family, wealth - gained in the world, but it can't take the hero's character. Out of this mentality comes the literary trope where the Germanic hero dies with a quip taking light of the situation. Magnus does not have wealth, fame, or power and he puts his own spin on the heroic code calling the fire demon, "Fire Dude,"and acting like a rebellious teen taunting him and giving him the finger, but he does reflect elements of this type of hero.

Don't worry. All my Minnesota speak that comes from German and Scandinavian immigrants is not in Rick Riordan's book. He does have a deaf person in it that uses sign language to communicate with others. That character is unique and worked into the plot in interesting ways. He does have several characters use Old English that enhances voice and setting, but don't expect to find kennings and alliteration found in Beowulf and the Icelandic sagas. That's probably a good thing for the younger reading audience. Kennings are confusing. Although I do like how Riordan makes it easier to memorize the names of gods using mnemonics. If he could come up with a way to wade through the murky waters of kennings that would be amazing.

The character of the Valkarie that is Muslim-American is a nod to 10th century writer, Ibn Fadlan, an Arab traveler who was part of a delegation sent by the Caliph in Baghdad to help establish Islam for the king of the Volga Bulghars in Russia. Fadlan wrote about the "Rus" or Vikings that had settled there for trade and goes into detail the funeral rites involving a ship burial and human sacrifice. Riordan has the Valkarie character descending from this family. Ironically, Fadlan was a theologian and thought the Rus Vikings were vulgar and primitive. I doubt Fadlan would appreciate his descendant being loyal to the Norse gods; however, no religion is revered by these characters, especially Magnus.

Fadlan's account about Viking funeral practices have been somewhat generalized and it might not be how a funeral was conducted in Scandinavia during the Viking reign. Fadlan met a band of select warriors who became merchants and that adapted to a new culture in Russia. I'm not an archeologist, but I don't think there is an account of Viking funeral rites in Scandinavia. Don't quote me on that. Sorry. This has nothing to do with the book. I'm digressing into my fascination with Viking history. Maybe that is my clue that I've written enough book reviews on Rick Riordan's series. Time to move on.

3 Smileys

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

This book is like a slow boiling pot of noodles. I'm always impatient for the quiet pool of water to heat up. I forget about it and then suddenly boiling water is rushing unexpectedly to the top, steam hissing as it touches the dry sides of the metal pan before spilling over the edge onto the burner. "Circus Mirandus" simmers at the start with the nasty Aunt Gertrudis that cruelly manipulates her nephew, fifth grader Micah, from seeing his dying grandfather. The story erupts at the end with oodles of action as Micah matures into a young man willing to take risks and find happiness in whatever situation life gives him. The writing has beautiful figurative language that had me writing down favorite lines and themes that spilleth over like my pasta pot - although I found it hard to latch onto one. Good book. Thought-provoking. Just hard for me to write about in a cohesive manner. My fragmented sentences truly reflect my thoughts on this one.

Micah Tuttle has heard his Grandfather Ephraim's "Circus Mirandus" stories all his life, but when he finally gets to enter the world of stories for real, he finds magic in illusions that give him hope when things look bleak. His grandpa is dying and Micah needs a miracle to save his life. Micah knows that the Lightbender promised Ephraim a miracle as a young boy that he never used. Micah wants Ephraim to use that miracle now for a cure so he doesn't die and Micah will have to live with the unimaginative and mean-spirited Aunt Gertrudis. Grandpa Ephraim cashes in his "ticket" for a miracle and most of the story is spent seeing what that miracle is. Micah makes friends with Jenny, a girl in his class that doesn't believe in magic but science. She's a loyal friend and grounds Micah in reality as he gets lost in the world of magic.

Illusion in Circus Mirandus is suppose to inspire hope and good-will for children that represent the future. Not everyone understands the power of illusion. Aunt Gertrudis felt deceived by the world of illusion as she never got to see Circus Mirandus. Victoria believes that magic is power and should be spent on oneself and not children. She uses magic for the wrong reasons. Micah and his Grandpa believe in the good and joy that magic brings to their lives. The Lightbender is the master of illusion and a metaphor for storytelling.

Micah and Ephraim tell the Lightbender that he has "changed" them. Storytelling in its own right is a form of illusion with the goal of changing the reader. Readers must be able to enter another world and identify with the characters. In that alternate make-believe world they can interpret what is happening in the plot, apply it to themselves and develop new understandings of themselves in a complex world. In this case, Micah is dealing with death and the choices he makes in life. He realizes that he can't control the adults around him, but he can control his attitude and beliefs. Storytelling is passed from generation to generation and as Ephraim passes his stories on to Micah the tradition and history of this craft is highlighted. Stories as a form of entertainment, socialization, ethics, and education can be found in every culture from ancient times (i.e. Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Vedas, Shijing) to the present.

The friendship between Jenny and Micah reveals the complexity of relationships from acquaintances to interpersonal bonding. Jenny is skeptical of magic and at times embarrasses Micah with her lack of understanding when she meets others from the circus. She's not sensitive to what she is saying and only realizes something is up because Micah seems upset. But Micah doesn't abandon their friendship because of a fight. She helps settle him down during emotional moments and gives sound advice at critical moments. Micah knows this and reminds himself of her strengths when he feels let down or angry with her. The two disagree but they are respectful of each others opinions.

Aunt Gertrudis is an archetype like Dicken's Scrooge or more accurately Roald Dahl's Aunt Spiker. She is wicked and more of a caricature that represents human qualities than a three-dimensional character. I understand that hyperboles are a good way to to point out the details of characters, but it doesn't work for me if the character is cliched or stereotyped. Aunt Gertrudis is neither, but she was plain ole frustrating with her lack of compassion and use of authority to keep Micah from seeing his grandpa. I thought the plot's action got slightly repetitive as she kept preventing him to see his grandpa.

Aunt Gertrudis' description is delicious: "On the inside, Aunt Gertrudis was probably cough syrup. She wore her dust-colored hair twisted into a bun so tight it almost pulled her wrinkled skin smooth, and she starched her shirts until the collars were stiff enough to cut. She made black tea every day in a bright steel kettle. The tea was scalding and bitter, a lot like her, and she wouldn't let Micah add sugar because she said bad teeth ran in the family."

Now compare the above description to Aunt Spiker in Roald Dahl's book. "Aunt Sponge was enormously fat and very short. She had small piggy eyes, a sunken mouth and one of those white flabby faces that looked exactly as though it had been boiled. She was like a great white soggy overboiled cabbage. Aunt Spiker, on the other hand, was lean and tall and bony, and she wore steel-rimmed spectacles that fixed on to the end of her nose with a clip. She had a screeching voice and long wet narrow lips, and whenever she got angry or excited, little flecks of spit would come shooting out of her mouth as she talked. And there they sat, these two ghastly hags, sipping their drinks, and every now and again screaming at James to chop faster and faster. They also talked about themselves, each one saying how beautiful she thought she was."

Grandpa Ephraim explains to Micah that if you hold on too hard to something you break it. When something becomes too important in life such as magic, money, power, fame, it leads to self-centered choices that are distorted in reality. Victoria thought she was so important and special that she murdered animals to prove a point and didn't see anything wrong with it. For her, the future did not exist in the children she brought happiness to but existed in satisfying her own needs and wallowing in her magical powers. She desires to be special, to stand out. Like Aunt Gertrudis she is an archetype  villain whose perspective is distorted in the quest for power.

Circus Mirandus nutures magic. But magic is what is inside of people. For Micah, magic is in the knots he can tie that reflect the complexity of others. For Jenny, magic is in her friendship to Micah and ability to be open to new ideas. Magic for the Lightbender is to create fantastic illusions that give hope in the impossible. Magic is the part of a person that is too big to keep to himself or herself and must be given to others in order for a person to reach his or her potential. Magic is a metaphor for giving to others. Individual talents are not for personal gain but used to nuture and share with others. Like I said, I had a hard time pulling out one strong overall theme that the character development points back to. I think its magic. In the end, I feel more like Big Anthony who loses control of his pasta pot. Perhaps someone else can take my mishmash and make sense out of it. I'm done drudging through my thoughts and I'm hungry for spaghetti.

5 Smileys

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Perfect Place by Teresa E. Harris

Treasure has more on her plate than the normal kid. Her father periodically abandons his family and she is usually left with taking care of her sister while her mom struggles to get out of bed. As of yet, her dad always comes back. However, this time, it has been longer than normal so her mother goes after him leaving Treasure and her younger sister, Tiffany with Great-Aunt Grace, a.k.a. GAG. Grace is a curmudgeon with a tender heart that doesn't reveal itself until later in the story. She's been single her whole life and doesn't quite know how to handle Treasure and Tiffany. One sasses back and the other wails. Both girls long for the "perfect place"; a permanent home to live in without a father that always moves them every few months due to his restless, meandering personality.

As the two girls adjust to Grace, Treasure makes friends with another new kid, Terrance. Treasure can't admit he is a friend, she doesn't want to become attached to anyone as she knows her "homes" are always temporary. The two are "associates" and while Treasure has a tough exterior, Terrance knows how to reach her in a nonthreatening way. Treasure is a prickly kid. She loves her younger sister and looks out for her, but with others she talks back and is sarcastic making for a strong female character that reminds me of the Gaither Sisters series by Rita Williams-Garcia or "Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere."

The characters have strong voices that are distinct from each other. Mom swears quite a bit. Grace is harsh at first and softens toward the end. Tiffany offers comic relief along with Treasure's sarcasm. Grace and her friend, Moon, can smoke up a blue streak but Grace shows she's willing to change her ways when she sees Treasure have an asthma attack. As you can see, this is not the perfect family. People lose their temper. They are disrespectful toward each other. And in the beginning everyone is plain ole' miserable about everything.

Treasure is a bright kid that loves words. So does her father. He isn't a villain in the story. It is clear that Treasure really loves him and that he loves her. This offers hope at the end when things don't go the way they want. At one point Treasure tries to remake herself by changing her name to her middle name. She doesn't want people to know that she is related to Great-Aunt Grace who is not liked by the any townspeople except Moon. This part of the story needed a little balance as Grace owns a store in town and she would have some customers she gets along with; however, every character met is up against her.

The plot has some nice twists, especially with Treasure's asthma. Other parts were slow. And other parts were funny. The woman running the Bible camp yells at Treasure, "This is Camp Jesus Saves for God's sakes!" Another fun dialogue is between Grace and Treasure: "'I wish we could stay here,' I say... / 'But you can't, because y'all don't listen,' she says. / 'You don't clean'/ 'You got a smart mouth.'/ 'You can't cook.' / 'You talk back.' / 'I kind of like you,' I say. / 'I kind of like you, too," Auntie says. 'Now, go on, git.'"

Strong character arcs show the protagonist changing in some way emotionally as well as through events that happen in the story. The author creates a strong emotionally charged character that changes throughout the story and this kept me more engaged in the narrative than the plot. I found some of the events sort of slow, but Treasure's slow acceptance of a friends and her relationship with GAG as the two bumble along like stubborn fools until they start to get along made for great tension. The asthma added more strength to the plot when the author used that as a twist. If you are looking for a realistic book that does not have the perfect family (or perfect place) then give this a go.

4 Smileys

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

Eleven-year-old Corinne La Mer lives on an island in the Caribbean with her father and is not afraid of anything. When she chases an agouti into the forest and sees yellow eyes peering at her, she rationalizes what she saw; whereas, anyone else would have said it was a Jumbie. When she spots two boys torturing a frog, she surprises them with scorpions that she has no problem holding in her bare hands. She's faster than most kids her age and adores her father. Corinne's mother died when she was four and Corinne sells the sweetest tasting oranges from their yard at the market while her father fishes during the day. It helps that their garden is closest to the forest and has the richest soil to grow vegetables. The family of two is comfortable and happy until the woman, Severine, comes into their life. Corinne is threatened by the loss of not only her father, but discovers she is of mixed heritage and that her village is being threatened by Jumbies in the forest, ancient magical beings that were on the island long before humans colonized the place. This Caribbean folktale twist is a quick read where the action snowballs into an exciting climax.

Corinne catches two orphan boys torturing animals when she decides to give them a taste of their own mischief. She rescues the frog that has more human characteristics than normal and replaces it with scorpions. An unlikely friendship ensues that shows these two brothers are resourceful and loyal to Corinne's plight when things go wrong. Corinne also makes friends with Dru, an Indian girl, that comes from a large family and is afraid of many things. Dru learns about bravery in more ways than one. She must choose between being Corinne's friend when she finds out she is of mixed heritage or be afraid of her like some others in the village.

The message of intolerance and whether colonization makes it right to take land is good for discussions. The witch asks Corinne hard questions when the Jumbies attack the humans. She is able to see both sides and does not choose one over the other, except when murder is involved. The Jumbies are controlled by Severine, the Earth mother. I wanted more of a mythological explanation of Severine's role. Why could she control the creatures in the forest? Corinne's mother used love to power the amulet, but where did Severine's power come from? If she could draw power from the earth like Corinne could make nature listen to her voice, then was Corinne's orange tree like the tree of life?

The boys torture animals and then become brave rescuers that are loyal to Corinne. Their transformation was too sudden for me to buy but they moved the plot forward as needed.  Dru is afraid of Corinne but changes her mind. I was not sure why. People are afraid of Corinne. The author shows at the end that not everyone is happy with her and that some blame her for the deaths of their family members. The resolution of this is not complete and made me wonder if the author is thinking of doing a sequel.

This fantasy is unique in that its roots are in Caribbean folk lore, but I wanted more explanation of its mythological roots. I don't know anything about it and I have more questions than answers. The fantasy or fairy tale has typical conventions with the hero's journey and quest to save the world. The witch is somewhat of a mentor and the other children help Corinne as she saves the world. While some good messages on tolerance, bucking social norms, and colonization are touched on they are not explored in depth. An interesting book but not one that will stick in my memory.

3 Smileys

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Terrible Two (The Terrible Two #1) by Mac Barnett, Jory John, Kevin Cornell (Illustrations)

When we moved to northern Minnesota the high school mascot was a potato spud. The students would try and modify it to "potato studs," but it didn't help when the mascot, that looked like Mr. Potato Head's twin, was leading cheers at sporting events. Darn funny, though. Miles Murphy is moving to the town Yawnee Valley where they revere their cows. The school mascot is a cow. The mayor is a cow. The founding father statue in the park is a cow. Dairy farms surround the town of 10,000 and the night air is not full of the sounds of crickets but cows mooing. The school marquee reads, "Welcome back bovines," and the principal has written a fact book about cows. Miles is pretty depressed until he goes to the first day of school and sees the ultimate prank, someone blocked the front doors of school with the principal's car. The only problem is that Miles was the Prankster at his previous school and there can't be two King pranksters in the same school. A prank war ensues where Miles learns he just might not be the James Bond of pranksters and friendships have more meaning than constant jokes. The slapstick humor and message of when taking jokes too far hurts others make this a keeper.

Miles Murphy needs to make a statement and top this principal-car-blocking-entrance prank. He invents a supercool fictitious student that is having a birthday party and invites 12 students who invite everyone else in the class. Miles plans to show up and surprise everyone with his prank by revealing it is him and taking off with the gifts. However, he gets upstaged by his James Bond prankster rival, who has revealed himself to Miles by this time in the story. Miles doesn't get some of the fundamentals in pranking as his rival points out. First, Miles wants people to know he did the prank. That's a no-no. Mile's desire for self-glory is one of the downfalls, as well as, he is supposed to prank a person that deserves it (the goat). Instead Miles is being mean to kids and turning them off. The James Bond prankster tries to teach Miles that showing up to a party and then running off with all the presents is not going to win him friends. Sometimes kids think they are being funny when they are really being mean.

The mastermind prankster really wants to team up with Miles but he messes up by insulting Miles and being condescending. These two pranksters have a ways to go with setting aside their egos if they are to be friends, but they manage it in the end because as they admire different qualities in each other. Although Miles gets somewhat run-over in the process. He has to have a prank war that the reader knows he will lose. It is a spectacular loss though with some small recoveries that keep Miles from being completely humiliated and showing his own unusual talents. Miles is just outgunned in the planning area. He doesn't think through his pranks as well as his rival.

The banter is funny along with humorous illustrations. "Mom, what if I skipped this grade?" Miles asks. He says he'll spend a year working on projects. They go back and forth until she says he is not having a project year. "Maybe I could take this year to travel. You know I've been wanting to see the world! They say traveling is the best education." She responds in the negative. "Maybe I could take a sabbatical. Do you know what a sabbatical is, Mom?" /"Yes. Do you know what a sabbatical is?" /"It's basically a project year." /"No," she says as they pull up to the school.

Literature is full of archetypes that give text meaning and universal appeal. They are recognizable character types like the hero, trickster, mother, mentor, and more. Sometimes the archetype gives me comfort and other times it annoys me with its stereotyped character. Here, the authors setup from page one that this is an absurd tale so the archetypes fit in with the cartoonish feel of the entire story from the illustrations to the narrative. The cows are treated like famous citizens and the long list of how students try to fit in at school by adopting a persona that makes them stand out in the crowd fits right in with archetypes. This story is silly, dumb, and plain ole fun.

The principal, bully, and do-gooder are some archetypes found in this story. There is also the trickster whose identity is concealed for most of the story. Principal Barkin is a stitch. He wants power. He wears a red tie. He practices his power speeches. He eats "Breakfast of Barkins". He's the perfect "goat" for a prankster. He can't figure out how to move his car that is blocking the school entrance. He doesn't even recognize prank phone calls when he receives them while writing his power speech. He blames kids and punishes them based on circumstantial evidence, and he's raising a son to value power above all else. So often I find the bad principal archetype stereotyped and boring, but here it worked for me because the book is more like a cartoon with its slapstick humor.

The James Bond prankster is pretty easy to figure out early on in the story. The twists in pranks and funny ending bring the story full circle with the cows getting the last laugh. This reminds me of the book, "Pickle: The (Formerly) Anonymous Prank Club of Fountain Point Middle School," by Kim Baker except with a main character like Timmy Failure. I wonder if Mac Barnett and Jory John dreamed this plot up while milking a cow. Read this with a bowl of your Breakfast of Champions and snort-laugh milk through your nose while the cows moo in laughter outside your window.

4 Smileys

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A Nearer Moon by Melanie Crowder

Some writers make every word count. They are so succinct and efficient at the craft that what would leave others scrambling for extra sheets of paper, they can wallop a manuscript out in fewer words. Melanie Crowder does that in 150 pages. Her poetic prose is rich with meaning, characterization, and plot that makes for a satisfying read. Two sisters are playing together when an accident happens and one becomes ill with a wasting disease while the other does everything in her power to heal her out of love and guilt. This story looks at grief, disease, community and sisterhood and what it means to be resilient in the face of terrible odds.

Luna lives on a swamp where the water is dangerous. It wasn't always that way. Luna's grandma recalls when the river flowed clear and was swimmable until the day the earth shook and trees fell forming a dam that created an inky sludge of backwaters. The villagers put their homes on stilts and created swinging bridges as sidewalks to get around and used boats for transportation.  Any villagers that accidentally got swamp water in their mouths became infected with a wasting sickness and died three weeks from the day. Rumor is that the swamp is cursed and a creature lives below the waters, but Luna doesn't believe it.

Luna loves to pole through the waters on her boat with her younger, joyful sister Willow. One day the two are having a hey-ho time with Willow laughing hysterically as Luna spins the boat. Out of nowhere the boat dips down into the water and Willow gets the murky swamp water in her mouth. Sure enough, symptoms of the wasting sickness appear and Luna does everything in her power to cure Willow. While the reader knows what pulled the boat down, Luna does not and the reader is not sure why Willow was a target. The answers are slowly revealed and paralleled with two points of view.

Luna's story alternates with Perdita's, a sprite who loves to wander and adores her twin sister, Gia. The magical world of sprites is disappearing as more humans appear and dig metals out of the earth. Most metals poison sprites and they can no longer coexist with the humans so they portal to other worlds. The world of magic and make-believe exists in the vast imaginations of children. As they grow up they lose this to some extent as they gain scientific knowledge and explanations. In this story the adults no longer believe in magic and they can't help cure their sickness because they lack the imagination to realize a sprite lives beneath the waters.

At first Luna embraces science and tries to get a doctor to heal Willow. When the doctor says there is nothing he can do, Luna tries to drain the swamp. She goes through all the steps that others have tried and that have not worked. Sometimes science fails with curing or diagnosing diseases and a loved one dies. Luna faces this dilemma but it doesn't stop her. When she embraces the fact that something magical might be happening then she gets results. Unexpected results. Reading fantasy stories means believing in that which is unbelievable, but that can point to truths in everyday life.

Luna learns the satisfaction of trying to do everything she can and that alone gives her peace at the end. It is not the goal so much as the process that is important. When playing soccer the teams that do the best are the ones that don't think about the score but focus on doing what they can and working together as a unit. The same happens in this book except Luna has to work with her best friend, Berry, and less so with the rest of her family. Her uncle gives her a book with a tip on dealing with magic, but people don't really believe in magic anymore. Her mother is so absorbed in her grief and anger that she cannot see how Luna is hurting or her harshness. Luna's grandma refers to moon charts hoping for a cure. In their own way, the family is trying to deal with the hurt and grief but Luna takes the most action out of everyone. She tries the hardest and that is a message we all need to hear over and over again.

Luna's mother has already lost her husband and the thought of losing another family member has put her over the edge. She spends her days in the chapel and has given up hope. Unlike Luna who feels guilty that Willow got sick on her boat, she takes action while the mother seeks comfort in religion. One poignant line shows the difficulty of grief: "Mama had left early that morning taking her frightened fury up to the chapel where it wouldn't lash out like a bent branch and strike Luna's already bowed back." Paralleled to Mama's grief is Perdita's or Perdy's. She has let sorrow turn her into something ugly. She can't stand to see joy in others so she snuffs it out of their lives.

The heart of the story is the bond between sisters. The alternate story strengthens Luna's as it shows how Gia did everything in her power to create a link between herself and her sister so that she could call her home whenever she was wandering. This metaphor reminded me of the parable of the lost son a bit as Perdy is lost but redeems herself when found again. The powerful bond of families and siblings is another theme. Just talk to a grieving person as they talk about going "home" to see the loved ones that have died before them. Just like Gia and Perdy are separated by worlds, so are humans by death from those they love.

Members of the community didn't leave when the river changed, because it was home where their grandparents and "...great-great grandparents had first taken a felled tree and carved a boat to winnow through the streams." Luna's community came together during the river crisis and they helped each other and cared for each other. They still do. I feel a bit like Perdy. A wanderer. One that uses Skype as my magical locket to see those I love. Home for me will always be where I grew up; where my great-great grandparents first migrated to the United States. But home is changing now. My daughter lives in a different state with my grandson. I've lived in different countries. But the one constant has always been my family and that is ultimately what this story is about - being loved, having a home, and doing your best.

5 Smileys

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Hilo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick

I grew up in a family of five like the protagonist, D.J.'s, with constant chaos in the kitchen as everyone hovered around the fridge trying to snarf down whatever morsels were available. We ate so much that my mom stored 16 boxes of cereal in the stove one day because they couldn't fit in the cupboard. I preheated the oven for my pan of brownies and lighted a boo-scary bonfire. Smores were more in order than brownies. Judd Winick captures not only big-family life, but the difficulty of trying to find yourself when you have no outstanding qualities in a household of talented siblings. D.J. doesn't know it, but he has plenty of character - good character - and this is oftentimes more important than talents. Not until Gina moves back and the superhero alien, Hilo, crash lands into D.J.'s life does he start to accept who he is inside.

As D.J.'s family is grabbing food in the kitchen, they become suspicious of his new friend, Hilo, especially when Hilo starts eating a napkin. The quick-thinking D.J. distracts everyone by revealing his older brother has a girlfriend. Yes! It is always fun to draw parental attention to the older sibling as they are usually the one getting the more unsophisticated younger sibling in trouble. Can you tell I was low on the totem pole like D.J.? Don't read this book while scooping spoonfuls of cereal into your mouth. Superhero Hilo will have you snort-laughing milk through your nose.

Like I said before, ten-year-old D.J. believes he is not good at anything in his family of five siblings where everyone else is spectacular at something. He was good at being a friend to Gina but she moved away. Hilo (pronounced high-low) missiles from the sky to earth making a crater where he is discovered by D.J. in only a pair of silver underwear. D.J. befriends Hilo whose "memory is like a busted book" and takes him home to give him some clothes. Hilo is pretty clueless about how to dress and greet people, but has a golly-gee attitude that makes him never become negative whether he is facing robot insects destroying Earth or being smashed into the ground like a cartoon character in Looney Tunes.

Running gags and great pacing add to the nonstop humor. While this story is different in plot and characterization, it reminds me a bit of "Timmy Failure" and "Monster on the Hill" although Timmy is a complete dork and Monster on the Hill has a boy trying to help a monster find his scary side so the town will be proud of him. Timmy is a dumb cluck, the monster story is full of irony, and this one brims with a spunky superhero that is endearingly weird. What they all have in common is they will make you laugh, laugh, laugh and the illustrations are terrific. Judd Winick, who is well known for his successful superhero adult comics, says that he read Jeff Smith's Bone series with his son and decided to create a comic for the younger fare. As Hilo would say, "Outstanding!"

When D.J. first meets Hilo he screams, "Aaah!" to which Hilo says, "Is that a greeting? I like it! Aaah!" Everytime he meets anyone Hilo yells, "Aaah!" Hilo keeps scaring D.J. in different situations but thinks his "Aaah's" are hellos making me laugh every time. When he meets Gina who has returned after three years Hilo greets her with a, "Aaah!" When he meets D.J.'s classmates he says "Aaah!" followed by his gee-shucks, "I love that greeting," to the annoyed teacher's face who wonders who this smart-aleck is in front of the class. Meanwhile D.J. is sitting at his desk covering his face in embarrassment. When Hilo burps for the first time he thinks it is the coolest thing. When he burps a second time he and D.J. laugh hysterically like typical kids. D.J. says, "Repeat business," to which they laugh so hard they are holding their stomachs and stomping their feet. The burping continues periodically in the story to which Gina at one point comments, "Why do boys always laugh at burping?"

Hilo thinks everything is "outstanding" and Gina, D.J. and Hilo like the word, "Holy Mackerel!" When Hilo sees a robot monster he says, "Octoped! So wanted to use that word in a sentence today and Boom! Octoped!" Later he is shoving a giant foot in a club house where he cheerfully says, "This is great! And not just because it perfectly fits a giant metal foot and smells like squirrel poop. It's cause it's overrun with a ton of spiders." D.J. knows immediately what Hilo means and turns to Gina, "Octopeds." With a fist pump in the air, Hilo exuberantly shouts:"Octopeds! Hello, my eight-legged brothers!" Repeating words can sometimes get annoying but the author handles the comedic elements with aplomb.

The humor is balanced with D.J. learning that he is not a boring person but a brave and loyal friend. Even when Gina moves back to town he feels inferior to her as she's been in many sports and is good in science. He doesn't see his worth or value until Gina points out how he didn't hesitate tossing a robot off a cliff, jumping into a deep hole after Hilo, and fighting a Robo-bug with a stick. He doesn't seem to get it that having a superhero for a best friend is the exact opposite of boring. Although Gina makes it clear that she didn't think he was boring before Hilo. And D.J. isn't the only one sorting out issues. Hilo ran away from his problems and realizes that he has to face them.

The illustrations remind me of Calvin and Hobbes, particularly the facial expressions. While Winick's characters have more details and color than Calvin and Hobbes, Winick's faces look a lot like Calvin's when things go wrong and the characters' eyes engulf their head and pupils instead of showing up in a normally pupil-less face. D.J.'s stand-up hair looks like a bolt of lightning went through him as he watches Hilo do crazy things such as drop a raccoon in the school office. It adds to his facial expressions and creates energy with the angles. The adults are panicked with bug-eyes and big mouths in their shock of having a furry animal show up out of nowhere. The man with the pail on his head, broom in hand and leg up in the air looks like he's trying to dance out of the way of the raccoon. The staffer crouched behind the counter looks like she's trying to hide behind a paper clutched in her hands and a grimace on her face while a bald man is running in the opposite direction with a screaming mouth. Winick packs a punch in each frame and they are a delight to study. This cliffhanger ending will have you buzzing for book two. Don't miss it.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Flora Segunda (Flora Trilogy #1) by Ysabeau S. Wilce

Flora Segunda Fyrdraaca is almost fourteen and preparing for her Catorcena, an event where she will go off to Barrack school to become a soldier, like all of the famous Fyrdraaca's before her. Her mother, the General, runs the city of Califa and while mother has to whack delinquent people on occasion to make them behave, Flora is not comfortable with it. She wants to be a ranger or spy like her hero, Nini Mo, whose words of wisdom help Flora deal with her own problems in life such as a mother that works too much and a dad that is literally mad. As Flora's father trashes the house and keeps setting her back with getting everything done for her Catorcena, Flora meets Valefor, the banished house butler, who promises to help her if she gives him some of her Anima or Will. Flora doesn't really know what she's getting into and when she and her best friend, Udo, decide to free Nini Mo's sidekick, the Dainty Pirate, everything turns into a "pigface psychopomp" as the two "snapperheads" like to snip at each other. Funny, strong characters, and a great voice carry this tale to an exciting finish.

Things go spectacularly bad for Flora and Udo. They make plans, that fail or semi-fail. One mess leads to another to the point that Flora wants to give up. Of course, her Will is being siphoned so it makes sense she has some really low moments. Udo picks her up and supports her until she finds the courage to face the mess she has made as well as the unforeseen consequences. Even her dad tries to help in his own crazy way. Messages range from resilience to taking responsibility, to parents insisting their children tell the truth but then hiding it from them to protect them, to figuring out what you want to do in life and having the courage to tell an adult.

Flora's alter ego is Nini Mo, a famous Ranger, whose adventures were published in yellowback novels, many owned by Flora. They resemble the Penny dreadfuls mass produced in the UK during the 1800s. Nini Mo wrestles with problems in a bull-headed, calm fashion as nothing is too massive for this hero to overcome. Flora quotes Nini Mo when she is in a tangle or on the verge of a meltdown. This reminded me of "Utterly Me, Clarice Bean" by Lauren Child where Clarice has an alter ego detective and the boy who wants to be a knight but becomes a spy in Rangers Apprentice by John Flanagan.

Some great lines had me hooting, "Persistence may be good for a general, but it is not such a happy quality in a mother." "Valefor sniffed. 'That's awful tripe, you know [refering to Nini Mo novel Flora's reading]. You should read something more educational. I have a lovely book on eschatological extensions and their role in im-manentizing the-'" Flora describes the polished floors of the building where her mother works: "It's perfect for sliding down if you sit on a file folder, but if someone opens a door while you are flying it's off to the Post Hospital and ten stitches in your grape. Believe me, I know whereof I speak." 

I wasn't quite sure by the end where Flora's magical words were coming from. At first I thought it was Valefor, but it is not really explained. Also, the house is alive at the start, but then the focus shifts to the butler's magic. The Houses of the city have power with an Adept or magical entity that is tapped into that power. The Adept is controlled by the owner of the House, but seems to vary in Houses and I'm not sure who controls the "live" house. The Bilskinir House lost its owner so the Adept controls it. Or does it? It wasn't clear to me what was happening in that house. There is a sequel that will probably hash out my questions.

In Flora's culture women are equal with men. Flora is not beautiful and is slightly plump, but it makes her no less appealing than some svelte character. No one questions that mom is the General. Flora also takes responsibility for her actions when things fall apart on her. Udo loves fashion and is not condescended to by others and Valefor tells Flora he'll become a girl if she wants. The periodic neutralizing of genders was interesting. I may not always know whereof I speak, but me thinks this novel is worth noting. Oye.

4 Smileys