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