Wednesday, November 28, 2012

May B. by Caroline Starr Rose

I blew through this novel in verse like a blizzard on the prairie. This pleasant, fast hour and a half read will be great for students; however, it didn't quite work for me. May lives with her family on the Kansas prairie and is pulled from school so she can make money working for a newly married couple. The bride is young and surly toward May. It isn't clear if she is a mail-order bride (she says she isn't but it seems that she is) or daughter of someone wealthy. I wasn't sure the significance of the red dress except it was impractical. The bride came from Ohio and is depressed living isolated on the prairie in a leaky-roofed sod house. Seems like she was a city girl (or saloon girl in a red dress). I wasn't sure if May was supposed to be a companion to the bride or just a house maid. May isn't happy to be in the new household working either. She wants to be in school learning and longs to be home with her parents and brother. I thought the two lonely females would be drawn to each other, but that is not to be. When things go horribly amuck with the newlyweds, May has to learn to survive in a hostile environment.

The author does a nice job with the feel of the prairie and remoteness.  I was a little confused as to the stories time-frame  At the end of the book it said May was gone for five months which let me calculate that May went to the other family in August. May's family needs money which is why she is sent to work 15 miles away. Before going, we see the rapport she has with her brother and the nice mixture of sibling rivalry with her being jealous of her brother at times and them enjoying each others company at other times. 

I needed more tension between characters. I was interested in the bride and May but the interaction ended too soon. Their unresolved feelings left me with wanting more. I did like the twist at the ending in regards to the bride's husband. My interest waned in the middle when the action dropped and the story-line switched to flashbacks about dyslexia and teachers shaming May. The flashbacks aren't really crucial to moving the story forward and it seemed like old information as a result. That's why I lost interest in it anyway. You decide for yourself. 

I haven't read many novels in verse and it seems very difficult trying to provide a tangible setting and well-rounded characters as opposed to prose. The limited use of words in a poetic format make it easy to not give enough information. Add to that the challenges of line breaks and rhythms that make for a clear narrative arc and I have to say I admire those who tackle this type of structure when writing a book. As a reader, I have noticed that with novels in verse I look for the overall effect of both the story and words. Some books I notice the poetic images and words; whereas in other books I notice the narrative arc and not so much the words. Others I notice both. In May B. I noticed the plot more than the stanzas. In the end, I found that I just wanted more to the story with the plot and characters.

Reading Level 3.7
3 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery

The first time I heard the fireworks go off at the Chinese temple next to school, the deafening noise made me cover my ears and flee to the quiet indoors. It sounded like the start of World War III. When Temple Grandin hears noises they are amplified; a ringing school bell can sound like the Chinese fireworks did to me. She has autism and describes the pain loud sounds cause her. Autism can cause a super sensitivity not only to sound but light, touch and other senses. For Temple the touch of clothes hurts her skin. Temple compares her nervous system to an animals. She explains how this allows her to think and feel like an animal; plus she sees images in her head instead of words which is how animals process the world around them. Her autism is what makes her unique and has led to her inventing world-class facilities designed for livestock being slaughtered that are cruelty-free and humane. Her story explains how she has become one of the most influential people in the treatment of livestock today.

This biography traces Temple's life from a young girl to successful professor with a powerful narrative that allows the reader to see more closely what it is like for an autistic person dealing with hypersensitivity to the world around her, as well as, having difficulties understanding other people's thoughts and expressions. The author addresses misconceptions about autism and explains that the causes of it come from the brain growing too fast at the wrong time which creates problems in the cortex. Temple is also painted as a person who doesn't care what others think, does not give up, and works hard.

Honestly, I didn't think I would like this book so much. But I did. Much of this is due to excellent writing. The narrative of the story shows how Temple made friends and was teased when growing up. The author's voice is not preachy or even apparent, at least to this reader. The emotional punch comes from the story itself and the seamless intertwining of facts with the narration make for a fast and fascinating read.

I've read a quite a few great books recently with covers that have adult-appeal, not kid-appeal. Crow. No Crystal Stair. Now this one. How the heck am I supposed to sell a book with that kind of cover to a 10-year old? Cows? Come on... really? I hate it when I have a great book but know that I'm going to have to book talk and gush about it ad nauseum to get any kid to read it. Too bad they don't use the Internet and survey kids with different covers getting their input on what makes an attractive book. I know that my adult perspective is quite different than theirs and find it fascinating when I solicit them. That might make a fun lesson. Have students say what they like about covers of books and write a persuasive essay to a publisher on what makes a good cover. Ummmm, I'm drifting off topic, aren't I? Anyhoo, read this book. Temple is quite a firecracker. Har. Har.

5 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, November 26, 2012

One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson

Our three-year-old daughter named her favorite stuffed dog, "pee-pee." When we got a real dog we wouldn't let her name it that so she called her, "Peach." Although "pee-pee" would have been a better name. Thirteen years I scrubbed up after that darn dog and her pea-sized bladder. Argh! But I digress. Most people have dog stories and our family is no exception, so when I started this book which is about a boy named, Hal, who begs his parents for a dog, it was a walk down memory lane. And when I got to the part of the collie herding sheep, I chuckled as I remembered our border collie rounding up 12 laughing and whimpering and what's-going-on four-year-olds  in a small, tight circle at my daughter's birthday party. But back to this story...

Lonely Hal begs for a dog and when his rich parents say, "yes," he is over the moon. Only problem? His shallow parents have actually rented a dog named, Fleck, for the weekend. They think Hal will get tired of the dog after 3 days. Instead he bonds with the dog and loves him deeply. Not wanting to tell Hal that Fleck isn't for keeps, the parents sneak him back to the rental place while Hal is at the dentist. Hal comes home, discovers the trick and is devastated. And angry. Ooh... he is one mad dude. He goes to the rental place, takes Fleck and runs away with the help of a friend on an adventure where he discovers not only how to make dogs happy, but his parents as well.

This light story has a happy ending, exaggerated characters, predictable plot and will be liked by animal lovers.The adults are dumb and buffoonish in most cases, except the grandparents. There are quite a few unbelievable spots but it is all in good fun. The story was a little slow for me but I'm not exactly a patient reader. I did enjoy how it made me think of our doofy dog and how much I loved her and hated her peeing all over the place. If you are getting a dog, whatever you do, DON'T give it a name that starts with that piddly letter "p."

Reading Level 6.3
3 out of 5 Smileys

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ruins by Orson Scott Card (Pathfinder book 2)

In French class I could never roll my "r's" properly so my teacher would have me practice holding my lips together and blowing air out to make a sputtering sound. I never could make my lips sound like a motor boat. I ended up spitting all over the desk and sputtering all right. Sputtering... I can't take it anymore. I'm sputtering at this book the same line. I finished it, but was relieved when it ended. If you love philosophy, physics  science, genetics, epidemiology, sociology, biology and lots and lots and lots of internal monologue than you won't sputter over this book. I needed more action and less yadda, yadda, yadda. Don't get me wrong, the yadda was interesting in parts. But other times it left my head spinning.

Rigg, Param, Umbo, Olivenko, and Loaf have escaped being murdered by the queen by going through the wallfold into one of the 19 territories that split in a time travel experiment. Rigg, Param, and Umbro have learned how to better use their gifts of time travel and they spend time exploring the colony of Odinfold. As they argue with each other and try to learn from their flaws, others are trying to kill them. They do not know who to trust and who not to as they try to save the world. They must learn to trust each other before they can make any progress on their quest.

The world building is brilliant and is one of the reasons I kept turning the pages. The effects of parasites and disease on cultures was done really well, not to mention the different scenarios involving the different territories was complex and intertwined with other plot elements. I admire how the author tackles the complexities of parallel societies and how they evolved over time.

My complaint is the characters. They change internally which adds tension, but the author tells and doesn't show. At times the characters sound preachy and the three young characters sound too much alike. I wanted their voices to be more distinct, like Loaf. His tell-it-like-it-is sarcastic voice is quite distinct from the others. I also got sick of the three teenagers arguing ad nauseum. And having too many philosophical merry-go-round discussions. I finally started skimming those parts because they were exhausting and didn't accomplish anything in the end. When one of the character's explains he hates philosophy because you talk and talk and talk but in the end you don't know any more than when you started I was nodding my head in agreement. Or nodding off to sleep.

I do wish I could walk through a wallfold and learn a language like the characters in the book. I ended up dropping French class and never learned to roll my "r's." I switched to Norwegian. Yah, I can talk like dat, you betcha. Maybe this book was too sophisticated for my brain. Try it! Decide for yourself.

Young Adult
3 out of 5 Smileys

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Carolyn Lawrence

Giddyup! A western/detective story for kids with nonstop action, great characters, and nice plot twists. Pull out your imaginary pistols and enjoy this surprising book. Our hero, P.K. Pinkerton begins this tale from the bottom of a cave because he is about to be killed. He has witnessed the murder of his ma and pa who were scalped by Whittlin' Walt and his 'pards in search of a document that will make them rich. Twelve-year-old P.K. holds that document and is on the run as they hunt him down.

P.K. lands in Virginia City where he meets a host of characters who help him and steal from him. While it looks like most are just varying degrees of badness, they are really helping P.K. learn to socialize and read people. P.K. has a problem. He can't decipher people's facial expressions or emotions. He is more than just too trusting and naive. While in the 1860's there was no such thing as Asperger's, it would appear that P.K. is autistic. I didn't pick up on this at first because of the humorous way it is presented and the fact that I miss details like P.K. reads people. There is an excellent NY Times review on the book.

There are some great plot twists especially at the end. I did get a little tired in the middle of P.K. making silly mistakes (if I had thought about the autistic angle then I probably wouldn't have), but they move the plot forward as he learns to socialize. The characters are interesting enough that I kept going but I did put it down just before I got to the part on Jace. Poker Face Jace is fascinating in the way he helps P.K. and it wasn't until I got to his character that I had my "ah-ha" moment and saw what the author was doing with the characters to help P.K. grow up and become more independent.

There is some adult humor that young readers are not going to get and some of the violence unnecessary, but I did laugh. At the humor not the violence... The narrator tones down or filters the cursing saying that he won't write it because it is not fit for publication or misspells the word leaving out vowels. This was on a some Newbery prediction lists but it can't win because it was published in the U.K. and Lawrence doesn't live in the U.S. Rats! A terrific book.

Reading Level 5.8
4 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Lure of the Dead (The Last Apprentice book 10)

Me loves a good scary monster! Delaney creates some awesome predators in his horror books. Book 10  of the Spook Series has Tom working more on his own as a Spook; he's no longer the apprentice. He has discovered that he must retrieve a sacred object and make a sacrifice of someone he loves before getting rid of the Fiend. I thought they had gotten rid of the Fiend when Grimalkin chopped off his head but, alas, he is not gone from the world. Even with his head in a sack being carried by Grimalkin, the Fiend can still speak out loud and manipulate his servants to pursue Alice, Tom, and Grimalkin in an attempt to attach his head to his body and achieve world dominance. Even his talking rotted head that resides in a sack can strike terror in the hearts of the heroes. Except Grimalkin. No one can scare Rambo-woman. She just sticks his head near the fire and toasts him a little to show who's in control. Gotta love that assassin. This sacred object/sacrifice of a loved-one quest looks like the storyline but it isn't so don't read it like I did thinking, "When are they gonna get the sacred object?" Instead this story is about Tom and the Spook going to fetch some books for a library only to find servants of the Fiend trying to bring forth powerful old gods of the dark to create an army to take over earth.

The strigoica and strigoi are the monsters this time with lizard-like vampire features and appetites. They move so fast that victims are dead before they can lift an arm to defend themselves. Tom continues to muse about how he has to use the dark to fight the dark. The Spook no longer gives speeches about the dangers of this, but then the Spook ends up in a horrible predicament that forces Tom to rescue him. He must enlist the help of one who betrayed them, along with Grimalkin and Alice. He is terrified that the prophecy of the Pendle Witches regarding  the Spook have come true.

Delaney does a great job with creating monsters, tension, and violence. This book has more decapitations than I can count, along with stabbings, and blood-sucking creatures. The prose is on the boring side and there was very little character development in this book. Actually there is very little seen of the character, Alice. I missed her. Her voice is different and she's more in-your-face sometimes good, sometimes bad. She's too good and accepting in this book. The Spook seemed out-of-character at the end giving up. I could buy him being weak from his ordeal but I couldn't buy him retreating so into himself. There needed to be a better explanation than just turning old.

This plot wasn't as unpredictable as others. It was pretty obvious the power of the Strigoica's illusion. As always, the monsters shine. They are creepy and unpredictable. They usually have something odd or different about them that makes them not quite your stock vampire or shape-shifter. This book is similar to the others but the plot wasn't as complex and the characters didn't have much internal changes as in previous ones. It was less interesting with the loss of the mentor-apprentice tension that came from Tom learning the trade. Instead the tension was supposed to come between Judd and Tom with his betrayal; however, Judd's situation was too horrible to hate him for his actions. That tension is filled up instead with nonstop action as the plot moves forward and beasts and monsters attack the heroes. Enjoy this fast read and don't read if you have a queasy stomach.

Reading Level 5.7
3 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

"I think I can. I think I can." This little engine that could is chugging through the 2013 Newbery Medal list mentioned in a previous post. My non-picky appetite seems to stack the most recently devoured book on the top of the pile making it number one for my own personal list. Argh! My top 5 are pretty much interchangeable. So many terrific books!  Glad I'm not judging the "most distinguished" book of the year... Right now I'm guessing: Splendors and Glooms, Crow, Starry River of the Sky, and The One and Only Ivan. What's your pick?

While Splendors and Glooms meets the Newbery criteria with its unusual and complex plot, characters, themes, and language; it might not be all that likable to folks not hankering for the Victorian mood and language that slowly builds at the start entwining different plot points into an exciting climax. Not that this matters when choosing a Newbery - that falls under personal taste which is not measured in winning books. The book is creepy and depressing in parts with Lizzie Rose and Parsefall being abused and Clara neglected, to humorous scenes with the wacky dog and Pinchbeck reliving her acting days with Lizzie Rose. Remember the hubbub surrounding The Tale of Despereaux because of the violence in it? I think this might rile up some for the same reason. On the blog Heavy Medal the discussion about the pacing being slow and boring just goes to show some are gonna love it and some are not. It's worth deciding for yourself.

The first chapter introduces Clara Wintermute, the sole survivor of cholera that took the life of her four brothers and sisters. Life is one mournful event after the other with trips to the family mausoleum at Kensal Green cemetery for holidays and birthdays. Clara feels guilty because she lived and her parents neglect her in their grief. When Clara sees a marionette troupe she convinces her dad to have them perform at her birthday party. She likes the girl who plays the music, Lizzie Rose, and the boy, Parsefall, who works the puppets, but she is frightened of Mr. Grisini, owner of the show. Clara disgraces herself at the performance and soon after vanishes. Grisini is the prime suspect but when he disappears, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are left trying to survive with no money.

Circumstances force them to flee London to Strachan's Ghyll, a frigid place that contrasts wonderfully from the smoggy London atmosphere. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are befriended by a witch who is by no means a one-sided villain. She is an interesting study of manipulation and loneliness. All the characters have interesting changes except Grisini, who remains the one-sided villainous character from beginning to end. Lizzie Rose tries to control her environment through cleanliness and caring for those around her. She responds in kindness and rejects hate. Parsefall is a victim who finds relief through the craft of puppetry.  His view of people is what motivates him at the end of the novel. All of the buildup and multiple viewpoints are essential to the plot and characters' actions that leads to an exciting climax.

The Dicken's-like orphan Parsefall adds to the Victorian feel and is a masterful example of character voice. He calls an expensive gem a "gewgaw" and tells Lizzie Rose to not involve the "coppers" with Grisini because "You don't know 'im the way I do." He is a streetwise, illiterate boy who is not as tough as he tries to appear. The witch is another fascinating piece of character building who is vicious and vulnerable. Only Lizzie Rose can truly see her lonliness, but then only Lizzie Rose can truly see the loyalty of Parsefall. Loveable Lizzie Rose is like the comical dog she hauls around who has unconditional love for all the odd (and normal) characters she crosses paths with. Clara becomes friends with Lizzie Rose and must decide whether or not she'll help the children in the end, as well as, forgive her parents and herself in order to move forward with life.

Some of the content to know about beforehand are: a kidnapping, two swear words, characters attacked - one child maimed, a female character having to deal with unwanted male attentions, lots of characters with child abuse and neglect issues, hint of a suicide (due to magic), and many deaths (all except one happen in the past). This gothic tale is best for older readers.

Slow? Boring? Violent? Newbery possibility? Decide for yourself. This one definitely distinguishes itself.

Reading Level 5.5

5 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, November 17, 2012

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

This interesting twine of factual and fictional material brings to life the charismatic bookseller Lewis Michaux who pushed for education and literacy in the Harlem community. He believed that the power of knowledge that came from reading would move blacks from being victims of injustice to educated citizens producing leaders in the community. He created an institution with his bookstore that not only sold books "for black people, [books] by black people, books about black people here and all around the world," but a library where people could read for free and intellects or leaders would gather to change society such as Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammed, and a Ghana president to name a few. Michaux believed that Africans who had been stripped of their identity and culture through slavery needed knowledge to reclaim their identity because "you gotta know who you are before you can improve your condition." Books meant knowledge and knowledge meant power, a sense of history, pride, advancement, and respect.

The author who is Michaux's niece, notes that the years of research and contradictory information made writing this book difficult, but she pulls it together in an unusual and powerful way giving the reader a sense of Lewis' legacy from the 1900's to 1970's. Lewis had a rough start being caught for stealing over and over and whipped for it as a fourteen-year-old and later jailed for the crimes. The author hints that perhaps Lewis felt white people had robbed him and his people of their past through slavery; hence, he had no qualms about robbing them in the present. Later he had a gambling house and then worked for his brother Lightfoot's church before finding his passion and purpose in life.

Lewis was a brilliant man with little education who tenaciously held onto his individuality. He was not going to let religion swallow his uniqueness and while he respected his brother who was a pastor, he also said "you have to be smart about religion. You have to look closely at who's claiming it and how they're using it."  Even when Lightfoot funded his bookstore then withdrew the money in order to force Lewis to buy books Lightfoot felt were appropriate, Lewis didn't give in. When he became friends with Malcolm X and Lightfoot protested cutting him out of his will, Lewis didn't compromise his beliefs and give up his friendship.

Through the collective voices of many different characters Lewis emerges as an energetic, witty man with a purpose of educating black people. He was called The Professor but did not think he was better than others. Lewis admired Malcolm X because he was common, not like the highly educated Martin Luther King Jr, "King has a wonderful program and there's beauty in his words. But he's so educated, a common man has to carry a dictionary in his pocket to find out what the hell he's talking about." I was afraid that I would not be able to keep track of all the different points of view, but the author weaves the dialogue together in such a way that it is easy to remember who's who.

Some of the voices are real and some are fictitious and I found the author's notes at the end revealing. Two of the characters I particularly liked, the reporter and Snooze, were completely made up. Snooze shows how Lewis changed his life from the day he introduced Langston Hughes poem about "no crystal stair" that inspired him to finish high school, to when he joined The Black Panthers, to his pride at finding a job as an adult. The reporter gives a detached view of Lewis that shed a different light on his personality.

This wonderful book is more appropriate for middle or high school students than elementary students. Younger students need to have some historical background to understand the different leaders that Lewis deals with at his bookstore. A long period of time is covered and while the historical events are explained some, I can see young readers being bored or confused without knowing some black history.

Here's a great line in the book to all of you Goodreads authors who are passionate about reading, "When I'm home, I read. I stick to my business. I've found out that if you have a crop to grow, you tend it." On another interesting note when I was in Beijing, Goodreads was blocked by the government. Knowledge is power.

5 out of 5 Smileys
Young Adult

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Crow by Barbara Wright

Last spring, I accidentally tripped over a Goodreads Newbery 2013 prediction list. This small gem of a list has had me blazing through many great novels the past few months. Actually I was blazing a few months ago. Now I'm snatching time here and there. Anyhoo... check out Crow...a worthy recommendation! It is my latest, all-in-good-fun, guess for the Newbery winner.

I have found it fascinating to read how professional reviewers look at Newbery predictions and discuss the details of what might make or break a Newbery winner as it competes in a pile of high quality contenders. For instance, one reviewer said that The One and Only Ivan had language that was too flowery or contradicted the fact that the gorilla claimed to be simple and plain. Another claimed that Wonder had a point of view that didn't forward the plot. A third stated that Three Times Lucky had plot points that were too unbelievable and clues that didn't always add up. Crow was critiqued by a reviewer who felt the plot was forced with Moses presence at every historical event. Some of these details discussed by reviewers I noticed on my own. Most I didn't. I'm not so great with the details. I tend to go for the overall story. Did I like it? Did it move me? Is the author a stylesmith? Did the plot move forward? Did the characters change? Were their voices strong? Was the story unique? My answer to those questions with Crow is yes, yes, and yes! I'm no good at guessing Newbery winners but I have found the discussions from professional reviewers quite fascinating and it has opened my eyes a crack as to what the process entails in choosing the best fiction book for the year.

Sixth grader Moses lives in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1989, where a black middle class has emerged and holds government and city positions of power. Moses father is the brilliant editor of a black newspaper and a city leader. Moses friend, Lewis, comes from a wealthy black banking family, but Lewis thinks he's more important than Moses because of his dad's position and he is bossy to Moses as they play together in the neighborhood. But Moses doesn't care, he has fun with him and puts up with his attitude. When Johnny, an uppity black boy whose dad runs the port, decides to be friends with Lewis he purposefully excludes Moses and is outwardly prejudice toward him because he is not as wealthy as Johnny or Lewis's family. As Moses deals with the every day issues of friendship there are hints that all is not well in the city. That racial tension is high and hatred simmers under the surface of daily living.

Mose's Grandma, Boo Nanny, foreshadows bad things to come when buzzards appear in the sky. Moses peaceful life is turned upside down as hatred builds in the city to the point where the government is illegally disposed of by a white supremacist group that seizes power. People are murdered in the street, businesses burned, and the black middle class leaders driven out of town during this grim period of history.

The strong characters and inspiring prose kept me flipping through the pages and while the topic is dark it is filled with hope and love as evidenced by Mose's family. The contrasting strong personalities of Boo Nanny and Mose's father add wisdom and depth to the story and while Moses is a good kid, he doesn't always make the right choices. He's very real and I chuckled when he got back at Johnny, then felt ashamed for his behavior afterwards.

The theme of prejudice is not only between races, but between humans regardless of color. People are prejudice because of differences such as status, education, or physical disabilities. The author captures the dichotomy of Boo Nanny being illiterate but a survivor with more street smarts than her highly educated son-in-law, Mose's dad, who fights to create a better future for blacks but doesn't always seem to grasp the extent of people's hatred toward his race. He even tells Moses that hatred can't be fought with reason and he's at a loss as to how to deal with it in the community. But he does deal with it. He insists on fair treatment of colored people in small ways whether that be refusing to step down as Alderman or using a front door instead of a servants door. Boo Nanny, on the other hand, is illiterate and blind; however, when Moses reads an article and marvels that while he understands the words he doesn't get the meaning; whereas "Boo Nanny seemed to grasp it immediately, though she didn't know half the words." Boo Nanny grew up as a slave and she's seen so much hatred she refuses to talk about her past. When Moses is distressed at their quarreling his mother says, "So when your daddy and Boo Nanny quarrel, I want you to think: I'm the luckiest boy alive. 'Cause I got myself two ways of looking at a thing, not just one."

Words are shown to have power and Moses father teaches his son new words from the big dictionary in their house, as well as, shows the value of words that make laws for governing and providing freedom of speech. Words can also hurt and keep people in their place from the mean comments the boys fling at each other to the derogatory comments from white people in the community calling blacks, "Sambo," forcing them to use a different coach on the train, telling them to leave their white neighborhood, and more. Moses dad uses small steps to change people's attitude and not back down when others are not being fair or doing the right thing. He chooses his battles and tries to fight injustice with words. Moses changes throughout the story as he learns to emulate his father.

There is one section regarding the father of Mose's mother. I am not sure kids will understand it because it involves Boo Nanny and her previous slave owner.  It isn't explained but an adult can infer what happened; the detail moves the plot forward by showing Boo Nanny's horrible suffering as a slave. Yet... there is an unfinished feel by having no explanation. I'm torn. I really don't want the details but it seems like something should be said. I would love to be a fly on the wall at a Newbery committee meeting.

If you liked Lions of Little Rock, then you'll love this book too. My only complaint is the cover. I think it's ugly. On the positive side many Newbery winners have ugly book covers. I have to really talk up The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Bud Not Buddy to get students to read it.  Don't let the cover turn you off. Grab this winner!

5 out of 5 Smileys

Reading Level 4.6

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Firegirl by Tony Abbott

This slim realistic novel is about 7th grader Tom who learns to deal with fear and friendship when a new girl, Jessica Feeney with a face and body so horribly burned in an accident that her skin looks "melted," becomes a member of their class. The story centers around Tom and his friendship with Jeff whose parents recently divorced and has left Jeff madder than heck at the world. Jeff's anger has made him uncaring toward others, including Tom. Tom gets frustrated with Jeff's hate-the-world attitude but it isn't until Jeff acts cruel toward Jessica that Tom wonders about their friendship.

The characters didn't come alive for me in this book. The first person narrative was too limiting. I wanted to hear Jessica and Jeff's thoughts. Jeff didn't seem fleshed out enough. I wanted more in the chapter with the sports car. Jeff tries to care about Tom, going so far as to get his uncle to make a special trip so Tom can ride in his Cobra sports car, but his fear of Jessica made him run away. I found the half-finished unsaid sentences confusing and Jeff somewhat one-dimensional. I also needed more build-up with Jessica and Tom's friendship. I found Tom crying at the end unbelievable because they didn't know each other well enough. I also kept waiting for the teacher to show more wisdom when dealing with the students telling them how to react to the girl and treat her as normal, but that never happens. The teacher is just as uncomfortable as the students. One last thingy, although I think I am nitpicking. Jessica would not jump into a prayer circle when late for class and hold hands with two boys. She would have found two girls.

The plot doesn't have too many surprises. I liked the twist with Jessica's mom and how Jessica changes internally. Actually Courtney, Jessica, and Tom show nice changes while Jeff remains stuck. There is a small glimpse into his weekends with his dad that made me sympathetic. The ending is a tearjerker, but because I wasn't relating to the characters it didn't touch me. Maybe the story was a bit too short for me. I will have to recommend this to students who liked "Wonder" and see what they think.

3 out of 5 Smileys
Reading Level 4.1 / Fountas & Pinnell: V

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin

Taiwanese workers have been fixing the leaking hot water pipes in our apartment. Custom is to not wear shoes inside apartments, but I cringe thinking they will slice open their foot on the shards of bricks, concrete and tiles scattered on the floor. I point to the tennis shoes I'm walking around in and say, "Okay... shoes." Then I give the thumbs up. They laugh and I noticed over the course of a week them eventually wearing shoes inside the apartment. While I like this custom of removing shoes, I think exceptions are okay too. The joy of living overseas is this sharing of cultures and I love how Grace Lin mixes Asian customs and blends cultures in a seamless way in her novels. This story takes Chinese folklore and weaves it into a storyline so masterfully that if you aren't familiar with them, you would think Lin made the stories up. 

Rendi has run away from home and ends up in a remote village as a chore boy at an Inn. He is horribly angry with his father's choices. At the village Inn Rendi meets people who care about each other and who are also dealing with their own problems. Peiyi's mom has died. Master Chao fights with his neighbor, Widow Yang, and his son left after they had a horrible argument. MeiLan, Widow Yang's daughter, must secretly be friends with Peiyi and is in love with Master Chao's son. Mr. Shan is an old man who eats at the Inn every day and is getting more and more confused as the days go by. Worst of all the moon is missing and Rendi hears the night wind moaning and groaning so he can't sleep. When the mysterious Madame Chang arrives at the Inn she tells stories that not only entertain the guests but help heal their troubles. When Rendi joins in with his own stories he finds healing in a way he didn't expect.

Grace Lin's use of images such as prayer beads, dragon's pearl, lychees, peach symbol of longevity, and more, creates a setting rooted in Asian culture. Yet the themes are universal and abundant. Characters are searching for peace, acceptance, family, wisdom, belonging, and forgiveness. While this is mainly Rendi's story, she entangles all the stories in such a way that I found myself going back to reread what happened in a previous story because it applied to a future story. The complexity of how Lin interconnects these stories and characters makes for a terrific plot. 

Those who read Lin's book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, will recognize Magistrate Tiger, the White tiger, and the old sage, but this story seemed more complex because of the plotting.  Lin's character's are engaging and interesting from the tension caused by their internal changes. Rendi has to make choices on his attitude toward others, the way he wants to live his life, and decision to forgive others, and what it means to "return home." Rendi grows into a better person from his experiences and I can't help but think of my own life of living overseas, growing as an individual, and eventually "returning home." 

There's a lot of Newbery buzz around this one. I can see why.

5 out of 5 stars
Reading level 5.8