Saturday, August 31, 2013

Silver on the Tree (The Dark is Rising #5) by Susan Cooper

The strong ending saved me from abandoning this one as the plot felt like a dandelion gone to seed. Cooper tried to do too much and as a result the focus got lost several times. The three Drews along with Bran and Will must collect the Things of Power to drive the Dark away because it wants to control the earth by instilling fear and hatred in men. Will and Bran get the sword and the three Drews along with Merriman must meet at a special place to stop the Dark in a climatic battle.

The beginning has too much time travel that isn't grounded enough in the present. The different periods and strange overlapping of the past with the present was weird. I found it too confusing and distanced me from getting involved in the action. Then when something did happen to someone I wasn't sure if it happened in the past or present. It's the past. I did finally catch on. The shift in time and place had a jarring effect in the beginning. Funny, how it didn't bother me in the other books, but I think that's because Cooper spent more time with the characters in the present before slipping into the past. This felt like a breathless headlong race to cram as much information as possible in the book and the shifts were happening too quickly.

There is not much suspense or mystery in this novel. The poem states the quest and from the previous books it is known that the heroes will figure it out. The way the riddle-poem plays out is not predictable but I wasn't invested in the characters much; again I felt distanced from the plot. Perhaps there were too many characters and no depth could be achieved through one point of view. Or I'm tired from finishing my first full week working at school and teaching oodles of classes. Whatever the reason, this is what happened to me in the first book.

Rowlands was the character with the moral dilemma at the end and I found myself interested in the story at that point. Cooper shows how the human race can choose good or evil. It is each individual's free will to live as he or she chooses. This is reinforced with the theme of the senselessness of wars over the years. She shows the past Anglo-Welsh civil wars that killed so many people and were such a waste seeing that future people like Barney's ancestry comes from both sides. The scene where the bully is picking on an indian boy shows how these same prejudices are carried on from one generation to the next in a senseless, narrow-minded manner. While some gets a bit didactic I did like her message. Merriman at the end is particularly preachy as he exits on a note of warning.

Bran has an interesting twist as well at the end, but I never really got into his story. I liked the link between his mother and Wild Magic. She's described as a loose cannon and it fits. Cooper said she had Bran make his choice because she wanted to show that this is made by individuals. If he had chosen to go in the ship he would have been like martyr or Christlike figure which didn't reinforce the theme of choice. The theme of betrayal is linked through all the books and Will being isolated as an Old One as others memories are conveniently erased is also continued in this one. While I enjoyed the series, I'm glad to be done. On to the next stack of books.

3 Smileys

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Grey King (The Dark is Rising #4) by Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper is a terrific writer and I find it interesting how fantasy books have evolved since the 1970's when this series was published. While her books come across as too simple and childlike for older reviewers, they are an excellent study of world building in the fantasy genre, creating magical systems, characters with a quest, having an older mentor for the young heroes, a Dark Lord, and the struggle between good and evil. Granted it isn't as complex as much of the high fantasy available today, but it is accessible for young readers and is an engaging series.

Will has been sick with hepatitis and is recovering at his aunt's farm in the mountains. He must wake the Sleepers, who are like the Knights from the Round Table, in order to battle the Dark in a climatic end between good and evil. Will must find the gold harp (and no he doesn't climb a beanstalk) and gets help from his albino friend, Bran. Their friendship is forged through adventures and loneliness and the two can count on each other even after they have an argument. The twist regarding Bran's ancestry was a plot highlight.

Will isn't developed as a character much, but is more like an Old One than a young boy which makes him somewhat distant. He is focused on the quest and has compassion and understanding beyond his years when dealing with others. Merriman is absent for the most part and Will does this quest solo. John Rowlands plays the part of the wise mentor versus Merriman and there is an interesting conversation between him and Will regarding the fanaticism of following good or evil. John reminds Will to not forget his humanity and it is a good reminder that fanaticism for good can actually be evil. Just think of terrorists who are fanatical in their belief that murdering people is for "good."

The explanations of Welsh language and culture reminded me of living overseas. Will catches on quickly to the language and it is obvious the author is fluent in Welsh. Susan Cooper grew up in Europe and moved to America and she said her homesickness fueled writing these books. The setting is her grandparents farm and the details Cooper uses make the mountains and lake easy to picture in one's imagination. 

I preferred "The Dark is Rising" moreso than "The Grey King" because  I was more engaged with Will's internal journey and the amalgamation of myth and mythologies from all over the world that didn't focus on one myth, but blurred them into this odd, delightful mix that was unique in and of itself. "The Dark is Rising" (book 2) also reminded me of "A Country Doctor" by Franz Kafka. Not the content so much as the creation of a dreamlike state that connects with reality. Kafka's language is more fragmented but the ghostly horses, recurring motif of the Hunt, and the way the sentences gallop had me comparing imagery to "The Dark is Rising."  Books "speak" differently to different people and at different times in life. "The Grey King" is more traditional following the monomyth or hero's journey. I found that I could predict too much of the plot in "The Grey King" and it sapped the tension out of some action scenes. I also thought the ending was abrupt. It's setting up for the sequel, but it seemed too sudden. I think young readers will like this story the best out of the five books in the series because of the straightforward adventure and quest.

The good and evil in this series books is black and white making it more childlike and less complex than fantasy stories being produced today. There is no exploration of the gray areas with complex villains. Mr. Prichard is the closest we come to seeing a man who has chosen ill-will toward others and nurses his internal anger toward those he feels have wronged him to the point that it is like a sickness rotting his soul. The simplicity makes it good for young readers because it is less scary; however, it does take out quite a bit of tension. When Will is on his quest you know that he will be successful and the answers will just come to him. Some reviewers complain this makes the plot artificial but it also makes it less frightening because of a built-in safety cushion. While I am enjoying these books, my adult side wants them more fleshed out and complex. I can understand those that love the series and those that don't. You decide. They are definitely well-written and worth a try.

4 Smileys

Greenwitch (The Dark is Rising #3) by Susan Cooper

This book returns to Cornwall where Simon, Jane, and Barney are trying to recover the grail that has been stolen from the British Museum. Will has joined the group at the request of Merriman as the Dark tries to retrieve the manuscript linked to the grail and lost at sea in the first book. Some might find the start a bit slow if they don't get into the ritual of the Greenwitch, but afterwards there is a good ghost story and plenty of action. I did think the character development was better in this one than the first book and I was able to get lost in the fantasy world. The point of view is mostly Jane's and she is fleshed out more as an interesting character. She has a prominent role in defeating the Dark, as it is her compassion that touches the wild nature of the Greenwitch and compels her to willingly give up her secret.  This twist on what you wish for if you had any wish in the world would make for good discussions and reminded me of djinn stories.

Like its predecessors, this tale incorporates many literary and mythological elements that have no roots in one particular myth. The Greenwitch is created of leaves and branches by the womenfolk before being  cast into the sea as an offering to the sea goddess by the townspeople. The folktale is that Greenwitch is the daughter of Tethys, a Greek sea goddess, but the villagers call her "King Mark's Bride" which is a from Arthurian legend. In my mind, I imagined Greenwitch as a sea nymph but I'm more familiar with Greek mythology than Kind Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Greenwitch is a part of Wild magic that is neither a part of the Light or Dark. Wild magic was introduced in "The Dark is Rising" when the Wild Hunt happened at the end and the Dark was dispersed all over the earth.

The three Drew kids grow up some in this story. Simon is not happy about Will coming to Cornwall because he's jealous that Merriman asked Will to come and he wants to be the most important person in Merriman and his siblings lives. By the end he isn't so snarky with Will. Jane is developed more as someone who notices details about people and thinks about others feelings versus her own. She becomes less self-centered and more mature when dealing with others feelings and the fantastical world of Merriman and Will. She is much more developed and interesting than in the first novel. Barney begins to embrace that he has an artistic talent. He has "always expressed horror at the idea" that he is artistic like his mother, but is willing to sketch landscapes in this story. Will is a supporting character who acts like an adult being patient with Simon. Jane notices, "Simon wanted to quarrel and you wouldn't, she thought. You're like a grown-up sometimes." Jane is the most observant of those around her and notices when the adults and Will are communicating with their minds, even though she doesn't know what they are doing.

While the plot is pretty simple and there are not oodles of myth connections like book 2, I found the character development and adventure engaging enough to keep me glued to the story. I think some will like the ghostliness of the Greenwitch when she invades the village and the phantom ships that come ashore to seek revenge on the man who betrayed them in the past. The theme of betrayal is in every book and shows how hurtful it is when someone turns on another person. This is in contrast to Jane's act of kindness that emphasizes the impact of choices people make in their lives that are either good or bad. A terrific fantasy series.

4 Smileys

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Dark is Rising (The Dark is Rising #2) by Susan Cooper

Ask any Minnesotan - most will whisper that first winter snowfall is magical as it veils the world in glittering white stillness. Six months later that changes, but hey, it's a dazzling start to the winter marathon. Christmas is special too, as families feast around lighted trees nestled in warm houses. Susan Cooper not only captures the childhood magic of the first snow, Christmas, caroling, and more, but the magical alternate world Will Stanton falls into as he discovers that he is the last of the Old Ones, protectors of the Light that have the power to control time and weather. As an adult this type of writing stirs a certain nostalgia inside me as I slip into Cooper's fantastical world and experience that which was magical as a kid. While some might not like the simplicity of the the character, Will, whose quest is predestined and whose struggles are more external than internal; I found the references to past myths and legends marvelous, enough tension through fear to hold my interest, and the various themes creating a story that was extremely satisfying.

Will Stanton discovers on his eleventh birthday that he is the last born of the Old Ones, immortals with supernatural powers who fight the Dark. The Old Ones are led by Merriman and the Lady who represent the Light and struggle against the Dark Rider who wants the forces of the Dark to take over the world using fear, chaos and deceit. Will must vanquish them by collecting six Signs before the twelve days of Christmas are over when the Dark is most powerful. Will's powers manifest the day before his birthday with animals being afraid of him, a farmer giving him a mysterious iron, and a tramp being attacked by rooks. When he notices his brother forgetting the incident of the tramp in an unnatural way, he knows something is not right with the world. That night a fear comes upon Will that terrifies him: "Something creaked outside the half-open door, and he jumped. Then it creaked again, and he knew what it was: a certain floorboard that often talked to itself at night, with a sound so familiar that usually he never noticed it at all." The word repetition and creepy personified floorboard are a taste of the terrific tension Cooper uses to describe how evil attacks Will by playing on his emotion of fear. Like the ghosts in Scrooge, fear visits Will three times that night that is hide-under-the-covers-fun-scary reading.

Rich in symbolism and allegory this book is an amalgamation of many different classics, legends, folklore, and myths. Narnia came to mind a few times along with Dickens such as in the scene when they go back in time to the Christmas party and dancing. There is no Fezziwig, but there is a Merriman who is like Merlin, a Lady like the Lady of the Lake, Hawkin who's like a leprechaun, the name Mitothin which is another name for Loki, a Ragnarok-type battle between chaos and order or evil and good, Herne the Hunter and Wayland the Smith from folklore. Religious symbolism is also scattered throughout; I even thought of the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac as similar to Merriman willing to sacrifice Hawkin and Will willing to sacrifice Mary. Even the names of Will's siblings are biblical. This complex weaving of Celtic, Norse mythology along with Arthurian legend and English folklore is marvelous and was one element that was incredibly creative by the author. Cooper's story comes across as a brand new creation story, or potpourri of past storytelling, with no concrete mythical source singled out.

Will gets dropped right into the action and the author slowly peels back the plot. The tension comes from not knowing what is going on and feeling the confusion that Will is going through at the moment. Will's character is not flawed nor does he struggle much recovering the six Signs. His path is predestined by Fate with Merriman providing guidance when possible. I didn't find the tension so much in the quest as the author's intentional technique of omitting facts and focusing on Will's attempt to overcome fear. The descriptive writing and world building in a small village in Buckinghamshire, England, made it easy to envision Will as he time travels decades into the past before shifting back into the present. The surreal time-shifts emphasize that movement as such is not normal. The dreamlike quality adds to the magical elements of the story.

Susan Cooper took classes from J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis at Oxford University in England. The later writes about showing and not telling; that the simple text and focus on action is an obvious marker of children's literature. Perry Nodelman in "The Hidden Adult" elaborates on this: "If, as popular assumptions suggest, children see less and know less than adults, then a text with a childlike focalization - or any text with a child audience - will have less exposition, less detail of all sorts. It's author must, as Lewis said, 'throw all the force of the book into what was done and said.'" Cooper's book was written in 1973 and the influence of Lewis is apparent, as well as, showing common traits in children's literature. I personally prefer more character development, but I was not detracted from story. Adult readers might find this innocent hero somewhat boring. 

Themes of fear, loneliness, and betrayal are emphasized by Will's isolation. He can't talk to any other person about his quest. His siblings react in horror after witnessing his defeats of evil and their minds are "erased" of events so they don't remember. He can't tell anyone the reason for the unnatural weather or characters who have chosen to side with evil. Will discovers that rather than getting the freedom he thinks is the result of taking on adult responsibilities, he has burdens; thus, showing the transformation from childhood innocence into adulthood. His siblings describe him as "an old eleven" and "ageless" and it says, "He was not the same Will Stanton that he had been a very few days before." "This time, his fear was adult, made of experience and imagination and care." As he matures, Will loses his fear of the Dark and makes conscious choices to serve Light that requires sacrifice and alienation; a common hero trope found in high fantasy. His coming-of-age also shows that problems don't go away when children grow up, instead they learn to deal with them in their own unique way.

The character, Hawkin, is the tragic element that chooses evil because he is deceived into thinking he will be rewarded with position. He points the finger at Merriman and does not understand why he would consider sacrificing him for the Light. I did wish it was explained how the Light forced him to serve them along with Maggie's role. Perhaps the next books will shed light on the unexplained plot point. When Hawkin realizes that he has been blaming Merriman for his choice, it is poignant because he has spent so many years in misery and anger, rather than basking in the unconditional love Merriman has offered him all along. This is a good fantasy story for a young reader with high reading skills. I highly recommend it.

5 Smileys
Fountas & Pinnell: X
Reading Level: 7.0

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Over Sea, Under Stone (The Dark is Rising #1) by Susan Cooper

I wanted to like this but couldn't sink my teeth into the plot or characters. Jane, Simon, and Barney, go with their parents to Cornwall to visit their Uncle Merry. The three explore the old grey house and discover an ancient map that puts them on the quest for the Holy Grail. The forces of Dark want the map too for its unlimited power and with the help of Uncle Merry it is a mad race to see who can find it first.  The threesome are not sure who is good or bad and their innocent trust oftentimes leads them to dangerous situations. 

Not that the kids know the situations are dangerous. That's one thing I liked about the characters. They are kids with short attention spans who forget about their quest because they are distracted by a carnival or want to lay out in the sun. Their imaginations interfere with their focus at times and it is endearing and also diffuses what might scare some. Others might find it annoying because it slows down the plot and as a reader you might be tearing your hair and shaking the book saying, "What are they thinking? They have to hurry or the bad guys will get there!" 

I found myself more annoyed with the tension technique that comes from the kids or adults misleading the three kids on purpose or people miscommunicating with each other. This was used too many times and it is something I'm biased against. For instance, Jane should be telling Uncle Merry, Simon, and Barney about the vicar and his interest in the map but she doesn't because she doesn't think it is important. She's pretty bright through most of the story so I'm not buying that reasoning. Later, she makes the connection and it is pretty obvious the device was used to move the story forward. This happens again with other characters such as Barney and Mrs. Palk and I found it contrived and boring after awhile. 

The setting has great descriptions and its easy to imagine this village on the harbor. The villains are one dimensional. They represent the Dark and sometimes appear nice and fun to the three kids. This is a good reminder that not everyone can be judged by outward appearances. The parents in the story are oblivious to what is happening with their kids and the quest. I wasn't quite sure why one villain had more power over the flunkies who served him. Perhaps the sequel will explain more of their relationships.

Jane is more stereotypical of a girl raised in the 1970's. She objects to her brother's dirty hands, wants to please those around her, it a bit of a sissy on the adventure having to be carried because she's so afraid, carries a spool of thread in her jacket, and who wants to tell parents about old manuscript. The mother is also presented as the stereotypical flakey artist. I did enjoy the voice of the characters with a Cornish accent, especially how they always said, "midear." 

The plot was predictable and the clues weren't very interesting. The fantasy elements are all there in this book, it just didn't grab my interest. I'm going to read book 2 because it won a Newbery award. Cooper must have nailed it better than this one. I'm sure hoping so!

3 Smileys

Friday, August 23, 2013

Ungifted by Gordon Korman

Middle school students hankering for themes such as rebellion against school rules and authority, burgeoning interest in girls, friendship issues, identity, and growing up will get all that and more in Korman's novel. The writing is well-done along with the character development and humor, but my adult brain wanted the issue of "gifted" tackled even more. Several Goodreads reviewers have pointed out, and rightfully so, that the gifted students in this story are presented as stereotyped nerds with IQ's over 130 and the average students as "normal." This seemed to bother adults more than the 12 middle school students I'm friends with on Goodreads who rated the novel roughly 3.5 out of 5 stars. Perhaps the author did the stereotypes on purpose to emphasize the point that labels limit people whether calling someone, "stupid, gifted, ungifted, class clown, nerd" or whatever other word your cortex spits out. While I wished the stereotypes weren't there, I do think that the overarching message that any person can accomplish great things when given opportunities to prosper regardless of IQ is important and worth a discussion. Our middle school teachers have been using this book as a forum for character education as well. Readers can muddle along with the book's cast of characters who alternately show courage, fear; kindness, meanness; and more as they make good and bad choices at school.

Donovan Curtis, the protagonist, is the class clown who pulls a prank that lands him accidentally in the Academy for Scholastic Distinction, a gifted program for students (and teachers) with IQ's over 130. An average student, Donovan feels like a stowaway on the Titanic, avoiding the Superintendent's witch hunt for him because his prank had some serious consequences. When the gifted students meet Donovan they like him for his "normalness." He humanizes the robot by naming it in robotics, is skilled at driving it, and helps the class avoid taking summer school because of an administrative error. Eventually, Donovan has to own up for his prank and the consequences are difficult for his classmates, himself, and his family. Through it all he becomes a better person and learns to face his own prejudices and weaknesses.

The different points of view round out the characters from the students to the teachers. Chloe interprets the world creating hypotheses that she further explores as she gets to know Donovan. Other hypotheses are just funny such as when she jokes that the gifted students study so much they have prison-pale faces and perhaps the computer monitors could become Sun-lamped enhanced for a false tan? She has a crush on Donovan, just like boy genius, Noah, is fascinated by Donovan who makes guesses and is impulsive. Some reviewers have argued that the gifted students are inaccurately portrayed as uncreative like Donovan. Donovan could be used as a foil to explore this issue, but I agree that the implied message that gifted students are not creative is erroneous. Abigail is not star-struck by Donovan and insists he doesn't belong to the school. Her ambiguous actions are interesting at the end. I liked the character, Noah, except the wrestling bit was out there. The plot got more unbelievable as the story went on with robotics competition and Noah. Realistic fiction kind of gets a bum wrap when it comes to believability. Fantasy can get away with anything, but throw in something exaggerated in realistic fiction and the reader goes, "Huh?" I had some huh-moments at the end, but it is still fun.

The robot's name, Tin Man, and the robotics teacher, Oz, from the "Wizard of Oz," mirror Donovan's situation that is similar to Dorothy's who was dropped into an alternate world. Like Dorothy, Donovan is permanently changed by the experience and makes close friends along the way. Ms. Bevelaqua even makes a parallel to Donovan passing the Academy retest to Tin Man getting a diploma. " Even though he passed, he was still failing her class and all the others in school. Donovan can't keep up with the gifted students academically but he realizes later that he learned quite a bit. I kept waiting for Oz to be more of a mentor to Donovan, but that doesn't happen. Instead, Donovan learns what it means to work on a team, something he doesn't get at the beginning when he makes a goofy rhyme up saying his basketball team will lose by 50 points. He also doesn't understand the power of labels at first, but does at the end of the story.

I've lived with people who have IQ's in the 140s and know several geniuses and the one trait they all seem to have is a great memory and the ability to work on the same task for long periods of time. Some were nerds but others were athletes. Some were shy and others were outgoing. Some were successful and others were not. While Korman does question and point out the negativity of separating genius from average in school and society putting too much emphasis on IQ, I would have liked to have seen the teachers at the gifted school help Donovan more with academics and recognized other variables of giftedness. Perhaps the story would have felt more authentic instead of extreme in the school settings. Of course, the extremeness maybe makes it more poignant and contrasting. I don't know. This is one of those books I should turn around and reread so I can process it more. Whatever you decide, it is a funny novel with a thought-provoking topic.

3 Smileys

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Captain Awesome to the Rescue! by Stan Kirby, George O'Connor

In the same vein as Roscoe Riley and Junie B. Jones, this book has a superhero theme that will appeal to the grade 2-3 crowd. The main strength of the story comes from eight-year-old Eugene McGillicudy's imagination as he deals with his fears of starting at a new school by embracing his fearless alter ego, Captain Awesome. When Eugene is given responsibility to take the class pet home, his classmate, Meredith, becomes jealous causing him trouble. Fortunately, Captain Awesome knows how to deal with villains in a bold way.

Students love comics and will relate to Eugene's infatuation with his superhero, Super Dude. When Eugene meets another boy, Charlie, who is just as crazy about Super Dude as him, they become instant friends and form a superhero club. Those who love Captain Underpants might take a liking to this tale as Eugene labels the villains in his life such as his baby sister, Queen Stinkypants, and Meredith, Miss Stinky Pinky. Teachers can use it as a lesson in name-calling and kindness, but most grade 2 students know the difference between being kind and mean. This might be a bit off topic, but I have yet to read a book where a teacher immediately punishes a kid for name-calling. Most teachers I work with in the lower grades have zero tolerance for name-calling in the classroom. Kids lose minutes on recess if they make that choice. Teachers can't build solid classroom communities if name-calling is allowed and yet I can't tell you how many books I read where kids are allowed to call other kids names. Kind of interesting.

When Eugene adopts his Captain Awesome persona it helps him deal with his emotions such as annoyance, belonging, and fear. His baby sister is his "archenemy ...Queen Stinkypants from Planet Baby!" and he wails at the thought of her drooling or wrecking his action figure toys. To protect his toys he dons his cape and mask to chase her away.  When Ms. Beasley asks him to say something in front of the class he becomes scared and thinks of her as a new villain named, "Miss Beastly." He feels bad when the students laugh at him and isn't able to talk in front of the class until he puts on his Captain Awesome costume. (Remember that trick next time you have to speak in public.) Again, I'm thinking at our school a teacher would have her morning meeting and students would greet each other and meet new kids in a structured way to build classroom community. Kids have a choice as to whether or not they want to talk. Sometimes it's hard to read books as an educator especially when teachers are presented as insensitive and in ways that don't reflect all the scaffolding that goes on in primary grades. 

For the most part, Eugene sounds young but there were times he sounded too mature for an eight-year-old. I think one of the hardest things with transitional readers is to get the right voice. An adult trying to capture a child's voice doesn't always come off and there can be didactic parts that stand out. When Charlie and Eugene talk about the meatloaf lunch they sound too old. I could see them attack it as superheroes and make a game out of playing with their food. At one point I thought the author might write more like the Junie B. Jones using grammar that little kids use such as when Eugene describes something as the "worstest, awfulest truth", but this doesn't happen throughout the book. So if you are an adult who can't stand reading Junie B. Jones out loud because of the incorrect grammar, don't worry, this only had a smidgeon of that on the pages. Eugene does use slang like "toldja" and dialogue that sounds like a kiddo. Remember, that I'm coming at this book from an adult perspective and biased educator. There aren't many choices of books for young readers and this one is going to "speak" to most youngins'. This is a good addition to any library.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle (The League of Princes #2) by Christopher Healy

Christopher Healy is the Groucho Marx of fractured fairy tales. His first book, "A Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom," was hysterical - sometimes at the expense of the plot - but this one strikes the right balance with more depth, solid plot, and a fun cliff hanger ending. Healy takes the delicate business of writing children's comedy and makes it a hoot for children and adults alike. You need to set aside your "doohickeys and dingle-dangles" and snort-laugh as the League of Princes reunite in order to rescue Liam who has been kidnapped by Briar Rose. Don't worry, the Princes Charming bumble plans that would do Elmer Fudd proud as their adventure leads them to recover the Sword of Erinthia from the Bandit King causing all sorts of "sparzle" or unpredictable twists and turns in the plot. A steady beat of wordplay highlights Healy's forte for clever dialogue, asides, and epigraph's that make for laugh out loud passages while poking fun at the hero concept. I like the made-up word "sparzle" because I can use it when I have writer's block. I"m sure you'll find your own word favorites. Perhaps you'll latch onto, "flash-fried" or "tchotchkes" or "String-Chi" or "Hwah!" Take your pick. If you liked book one, I guarantee that you'll love book 2. If not, call me "Humperdinck." (Did you know he wrote the opera, Hansel and Gretel in 1893?) "Huzzah!"

Prince Duncan is writing his book "The Hero's Guide to Being a Hero." He's not an ordinary hero being under five feet tall, an animal whisperer, and clod. The epigraphs before each chapter have the simple-minded Duncan making ridiculous statements that are either frivolous or bad advice to the "path to hero-hood." There are epigraphs that play on words and a few others from the ancient tome of Darian wisdom that gives villains mostly good advice on the path to power with some silly twist. Duncan gives useless advice such as a hero leaves nothing to fate which is why he or she must always have a coin to flip. The Darian book of wisdom stresses the importance of inducing terror in visitors down to a welcome mat that will haunt nightmares. Some epigraphs preface the chapter such as this Darian one, "They say laughter is the best medicine. Destroy the clowns!" The main theme of the book can be found in this hero epigraph, "When facing unbeatable odds, just think of yourself as unbeatably odd." I'd say that sums up not only Duncan, but everyone in the oddball League of Princes.

Duncan and Snow are perhaps the nerdiest couple in this book. Duncan tries to high five Gustav and accidentally slaps him in the face during a pep talk. "I'm just going to pretend that didn't happen," Gustav said. "Go, B Team!" Slapstick abounds like in this dialogue sequence: "'Dunky?' Snow called as she looked around anxiously. 'Where are you Dunky?' 'I am sorry, miss, but your donkey will have to wait,' Vero [a bad guy] said." Even though the two are hopeless ding-dongs, their friends truly care about them and they do make a difference in the mission's outcome. I like the subtle message of respecting others no matter how different they are from what's considered normal. Duncan's strange habit of naming animals is worked into the plot too. When Liam asks what JJDG stands for Duncan shouts, "Jimmy John Digglesford Garbenflarben!" (Next time I see a Jimmy John's commercial I'm going to yell the tongue twister, "Digglesford Garbenflarben!") When he names a rat, King Moonracer, it becomes his friend and chews his ropes when he's captured. I admire how Healy creates cartoonish characters that are endearing and doofy at the same time; plus their internal changes give them depth. Duncan learns to embrace himself and work with Snow when they storm the castle. He also realizes that all of his epigraphs aren't true so he needs to rewrite his book on heroes. He tells Snow that she's the "hero" at the end of this story. I can't wait to see the goofy epigraphs Healy creates in his next book.  Beneath the silliness there are messages of teamwork, courage, and acceptance.

 *Spoiler alert*
Liam, Ella, and Frederic's relationship is more complex. Liam is interested in Ella who is very much like him and Frederic doesn't think he's good enough for Ella even though they are engaged. Frederic is interested in Rapunzel, but it isn't clear if he wants more than friendship. This will probably be explored in book 3. When Liam hurts Frederic's feelings by not listening to his ideas, Frederic storms off determined to execute his idea. Ella is stuck with Liam and she's miffed at how he treated Frederic. Liam struggles with the definition of a hero and represents the classic hero for the most part. His problem is he is egocentric and enjoys the power that comes from leading others. He becomes so used to telling people what to do that he doesn't listen to others, which prevents all of the princes working together as a strong team. Liam doesn't particularly respect Frederic's opinion because he's a sissy and Liam is interested in Ella. In the end, his actions hurt all of them and he must either change or lose his position as leader. When he finds out what his dad did to him as a child he loses his self-confidence and isn't even sure what defines a hero. He makes peace with Frederic and changes, but he still doesn't quite get the hero gig as evidenced by the dialogue he and Briar Rose have at the end.

Briar Rose is the perfect foil to Liam and there is more depth to both characters than implied from their initial appearance in the story. Both grew up with the adulation of the kingdom's citizens and are used to getting their own way. Liam has lost his peoples' love for him, but has the respect of his friends. Briar realizes on her adventure that she wants respect, companionship, and to do the right thing so she can have someone who cares about her; a lesson Liam learned in the first book. Ironically, Liam doesn't understand this because he's too wrapped up in his own feelings and doesn't realize he's like Briar in so many ways. Frederic and Ella still don't seem sure about each other and at the end when it looks like they have reached an understanding about their differences, Frederic's father messes things up telling Ella to leave his castle because she keeps leading her son off on dangerous adventures. In the first book, Frederic has to face his fears. In this book he has to embrace who he is as a person and find the courage to stand up to his overprotective father. Frederic is growing up into an independent person who realizes that his father's unreasonable protectiveness is from Frederic's mother dying on a similar adventure when Frederic was young.

Gustav is still the courageous, cynical, not-to-smart brawny guy, who changes in that he has to learn to get out from the shadows of his sixteen successful brothers and find his own identity. When he decides to be a hero by helping people, it is evident that Rapunzel, the healer, has been his literary foil. He keeps messing up the sword-stealing mission by not knowing the meaning of words. In a laugh-till-you-can't-breathe part where he and Duncan have to talk to a bard to get critical information, Gustav argues with Duncan about how to say and spell, "Jeopardous Jade Djinn Gem (JJDG)" which Gustav pronounces, "Jepperjajinjam" and insists he heard only J's. When Duncan explains the D in djinn is silent he gives the snarky reply, "Stupid language." Later Liam and Ella survey how Gustav destroyed most of the bard's bedroom and Liam scolds him that they needed to proceed "subtly." Gustav insists he did. "Everything's quiet, the bard suspects nothing, and then subtly-BOOM!-we attack." "Gustav?" Duncan said gently. "I think you were thinking of 'suddenly.'" Gustav is the king of name-calling such as calling Lila, "Duchess Dictionary" to which she dryly responds "I think you mean 'Thesaurus.'" He was correcting Lila that Duncan was "fortunate" not "lucky." Let me punt you a string of Gustav's names that point out characteristics in others: Mr. Mini-Cape, Captain Specific, Mount High-Hair, Professor Textbook, Awful Clawful, Lady Twig-Arms, Hairy Scary, Capey, Tassels, Blondie, Furface, Goldilocks, Masked Marvel, and more.

The villains are a contrast in characters too. Deeb Rauber is the eleven-year-old Bandit King who punishes his flunkies by making them go "through the spanking machine." He's a villain that you won't find anywhere; a kid whose loyal followers are adults and whose diet is the candy pyramid. What person wouldn't love that? Don't call attention to Deeb's age or size. He's the kind of person that punishes friends and foes alike by dunking them in a vats of caramel sauce. The person that met this fate was talking about a "kid" goat, but Deeb is a dweeb who thought he was being called a name. In contrast to Deeb's innocence and self-centeredness, is the nasty Warlord of Darian. When Deeb invites the brutal Warlord Lord Rundark to his castle, Lord Rundark is amused, "We shall go. It is always fun to kill a novice king." Deeb is fascinated by Lord Rundark and doesn't realize how dangerous he is while Lord Rundark is fascinated that a young boy can command the loyalty of adults. The two try to thwart each others plans and create an interesting contrast between childhood innocence and maturity. The characters are one-dimensional but I did wonder if Rundark's statement that his "thirst for knowledge" was as great as blood might be further explored making him more multifarious. It isn't elaborated on in this book, but I hope it will play a part in the next book. I prefer a good bite out of a complex villain.

Healy is a maestro with words, poking fun at conventions, and describing colorful characters. Fairy tales have an oral tradition as exemplified in the bards or minstrels in the kingdoms who change stories to fit their audiences. This reflects the changing history of fairy tales that have evolved from an adult to child audience that is explained in the "Norton Anthology of Children's Literature." The bard, Reynaldo, changes the League of Princes adventures and name to make them more entertaining and improve the cadence and rhythm of a song (just like Healy has fractured several original fairy tales). When Gustav and Duncan break into the Reynaldo's room, he jumps into song: "Listen dear hearts to a tale most upsetting, four bumbling Prince Charmings who destroyed a wedding-" "Not that song!" Gustav growled. "And it's Princes Charming," Duncan added pointedly. "How many times do I have to remind people of that?" "But Princes Charming just sounds wrong," Reynaldo said. "No one would request my songs if I used stiff grammar like that." Not only do the metafictional elements make the story more interesting, but the anachronistic use of Internet slang such as Briar using, "JJDG," in her journal was a stitch as well. As an adult I laughed at this because I remember my daughter first using Instant Messaging abbreviations and going, "Huh? What's LOL mean?" And how can you not "sparzle" at his descriptions of characters such as Redshirt, "a thick-necked barbarian with a penchant for licking the edge of his ax." Or Maude, the big troll who was the villain in "Jack and the Giant Beanstalk" and has teeth like tombstones and eyebrows like untrimmed hedges. "Entire families could get lost in her forest of spiky gray hair."

The Gray Phantom character is a clever spoof on Grimm's fairy tale, "The Valiant Little Tailor." In Grimm's tale the tailor kills seven flies and goes out to seek his fortune. He makes a flashy belt that says, "Seven at One Blow" and everyone thinks he killed seven men with one blow. He uses his cunning to trick others and eventually marries the king's daughter. She hears him mumbling he's a tailor and he is chased out of the kingdom because he's a commoner. In Healy's tale, "The Tailor" adopts the alias "The Gray Phantom," after the Bandit King won't let him be a part of his crew because his weapon is using thread, which is just as silly as killing seven flies. The princes call the Tailor's skill, "String-Chi," because he's so good at disabling his enemies by tying them up. He has fooled them into thinking he is on their side and they have no clue that he is the Gray Phantom. Like Grimm's tailor, he is deceptive  and cunning. At the end String-Man (Gustav is rubbing off on me) meets a more gruesome end than in Grimm's story which I thought was funny because Grimm's original stories are known for their violence versus the conventionalized Disney fairy tale versions seen today. Not that this is a Disney-style fairy. Oof! It's more in the vein of "The Stinky cheese man and Other Failry Stupid Tales," by John Scieska.

Healy creates strong, empowered females that help balance the male characters. Below the surface humor is the subtle message to rethink old-fashioned views on gender and power. Ella knows her own mind and has amazing sword skills. We learn that Frederic's mom was an athletic person with an adventurous spirit. Snow keeps Duncan from getting lost and is encouraging. She's into frilly clothes, but so is her husband. Snow has the best throwing arm in the kingdom which in the end saves all of them from dying or being controlled by the Warlord. Troll Maude likes to crush things and contemplates squashing Gustav when he calls her "Big Mamma." Usually male trolls are presented like her. Kind Rapunzel is wise and saves many lives, not to mention, doling out advice to Gustav regarding why he's unhappy. Briar Rose is a champion at manipulating people, but wonders what it would be like to have friends.This basketful of supporting female characters helps bring some normalcy to the kooky male characters. Okay that's not completely true. Troll Maude is a bit extreme. Just don't expect any stereotypical characters in this tale.

So folks, read this book for it's "sparzle." (or "sparkle" if you are an automatic dictionary). Or read this book for its "rampage-and-wanton-destruction" type troll that can be found in Maude. Or read this book to study foils, wordplay, irony, epigraphs, characters, and fairy tale twists. Or read this book to write a glorious paper that explores the oral traditions of fairy tales and their function in cultural socialization processes. Just kidding. Or read this book for a good belly laugh. Do keep in mind that below all the silliness is a great story that challenges readers to examine their own lives and decide how they want to live through the choices they make each day. This is what shapes people of character. People who don't need capes to be called, "heroes."

5 Smileys

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

When my daughter was young I spent 10 years as a rosemaling artist selling painted wood with decorative flowers to local specialty shops. Scandinavians in the community had a nostalgia for crafts representing their heritage and the rosemaling I did reflected different areas of Norway. People liked that I could replicate rosemaling from Valdres, Rogaland, Telemark, Hadeland, and Gudsbrandal. I took many classes and tried to hone my craft, but I never quite had that flare that made my work stand above the rest. Not like the artist, Sigmund Aarseth, a Norwegian man whose work was so stunning it made me gasp and feel amateurish in comparison. Fourteen-year-old Mehrigul, in "The Vine Basket," is like the "Sigmund Aarseth" of basket weaving. She has that creative gift that makes her basket look original and museum-worthy. The problem is women were not basket weavers in her time; only the men in the village worked at this craft. When an American woman buys a basket Mehrigul made for quite a bit of money, Mehrigul must decide not only if she will make more baskets and break into a male-dominated tradition, but she must defy her father who has forbidden her to make more baskets because it will interfere with her chores.

Mehrigul's father needs her to help on the farm. Her family is facing a plethora of problems after her brother ran away upsetting her parents so deeply that her father has addiction problems and her mother is depressed, leaving Mehrigul responsible for the family. The family has also fallen on hard times and live in poverty. Mehrigul does her best caring for her younger sister, fragile grandfather, and farm. Her father has pulled her from school and she is in fear of being forced to work in a Chinese factory in the south. Things seem desperate until an American woman says she will return in three weeks to buy as many baskets as Mehrigul can make. But with all her responsibilities, a dust storm that has destroyed their winter storage of food, and an abusive father, the task seems impossible. It isn't until some of the adults stand up to her father that change and healing seem possible, as well as, the task of making a basket for the foreign woman.

Uyghur is located in East Turkistan where the Communist Chinese took over its inhabited lands in the 1940s suppressing the cultural, religious and ethical identity of the people. This story tackles issues of the Chinese conquering the Uyghurs taking their lands and eradicating their language and customs. Mehrigul's plight is desperate and her family's plunge into poverty creates a bleakness that lets up only when she deals with her kind grandfather, sweet sister, friend Pani, and creation of weaving baskets. Mehrigul is angry at her parents and the changes in her city. She learns to deal with it throughout the novel but it is not easy. She also doesn't recognize that she has mistaken what she thought was her father's anger to one of fear.

Mehrigul changes from a subservient girl who obeys her parents and does not talk back to one who recognizes that what they are doing is wrong and that she needs to find the strength to stand up for herself. I would have liked the father's character developed more so I could have more empathy toward him. He is shown as a man with a serious addiction and to suddenly be responsible at the end was too big of a turnabout. I like that he changed but it didn't seem authentic. However, what came across as very real is the struggles of the members of Mehrigul's family with a domineering father and the importance of having a son in Chinese culture; this is prevalent even in today's culture as it was in the past.

The plot was predictable, but there is plenty of tension as Mehrigul fears her father, the cadre, the destructive storm, the pain of farming, to name a few. I was a bit confused at first because the author drops into a close up of the action. Mehrigul's situation is slowly doled out to the reader as the political and family situation unfolds. This is a nice way to not overwhelm the reader with too many details but it can also be confusing. Or maybe it is just confusing to non-detailed people like myself. I thought Ana was Mehrigul's sister for quite a while before I learned it was her mother. I also wasn't sure how the farm and market worked. Did the family farm some days and go to the market others? Or did they go to the market in the morning and farm in the afternoon? Like I said, I struggled with the big picture at first, but eventually a setting began to form in my imagination and the questions were answered. It felt like I started out the story with a telephoto lens and as the story went along and the lens zoomed out, the plot came into focus.

There are quite a few details describing how Mehrigul makes baskets, but one element that seems missing in this craft process is a description of her grandfather being a superior craftsman who mentors her.  Learning a skilled craft is extremely difficult and while the story explains how Mehrigul helped her grandfather over the years, the actual leap from beginner to master artisan seemed to come too easy for someone who had just struck out on her own. What this book does portray well is a complex character and unfamiliar culture that avoids stereotypes and touches on current issues that are true even today. This is a dialogue worth having and would be a good book club choice for older readers.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Island of Thieves by Josh Lacey

Recommending authors to students can feel like hopscotch at times. They might latch onto one author such as Gary Paulsen, consume the shelf of twenty-plus books, then eagerly bounce around waiting for another great recommendation, like a puppy wanting a treat. I can't resist puppies and I don't want to let them down. The problem for me is finding that action adventure novel that isn't too difficult as they work toward reading fluency.  I can now file Josh Lacey's "Island of Thieves" to my action list. This nonstop page turner will satisfy the needs of students looking for a fun swashbuckling tale filled with danger, treasure-hunting, and thieves.

Tom Trelawney's parents are going on their first vacation without their three kids when troublemaker Tom burns down the shed causing the person he was supposed to stay with to cancel at the last minute. Tom's parents scramble to find someone who will take Tom and settle on his Uncle Harvey. Right after Tom's parents drop him off, Harvey says he's leaving for Peru on business and Tom can take care of himself all alone in Harvey's New York apartment. Tom doesn't like this "Home Alone" plan and convinces Harvey to take him with to Peru resulting in them both getting tangled with a notorious criminal and a plot to find a hidden treasure.

The plot is full of action, unbelievable (but fun) twists, and interesting characters. Harvey begins the story as an irresponsible adult who recognizes at the end that he shouldn't have endangered his nephew.  Tom is easy-going and saves Harvey multiple times. He doesn't change much and there is not much of an emotional arc to his character. He becomes more self-sufficient and realizes he can't trust his uncle, but he likes him all the same. There is so much going on in the plot that most readers won't notice the lack of character development. I did think the author did a nice job creating distinct characters with unique traits that had uncle and nephew bantering. Harvey always asks Tom to not call him, "Uncle Harvey," tries to get him to drink coffee, and tells him to not worry. Tom is Mr. Agreeable even if he's facing a notorious criminal, cracking jokes about wanting to stay in their house-prison for a month vacation.

Some of the humor is directed at adults making it an enjoyable read for all ages such as when they are running for their lives and his middle-aged uncle waves Tom to stop because he is gasping for breath or when they are on the plane and the uncle has an inflatable pillow, earplugs, and a mask, or the description of the cramped bathroom where Tom sat on the toilet and said his knees jammed against the bath. After living overseas and aging, I've experienced all of those things. Except in Barcelona the bathroom was so small my knees hit the wall (there was no bath).

The ending was a bit abrupt and the parents didn't really react in a normal way. You'd think they'd ground Tom for life and attack Uncle Harvey; however, it was consistent with Tom always being honest and doing the right thing. Or maybe the "happily ever after" was too corny. Like I said, it just seemed too abrupt. Some history is given on Sir Frances Drake and his exploration of South America. The pacing doesn't slow down and the information isn't in great depth since Tom and Harvey are too busy trying to not get killed through most of the action. The humor tempers the violence and Tom's innocence makes it appropriate for younger readers. If you are looking for humor, tension, and suspense then I highly recommend this one.

3 Smileys

Monday, August 12, 2013

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad! (Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales #2) by Nathan Hale

Book two continues the story of  Nathan Hale who is still trying to avoid the noose by telling stories from the future in this hilarious graphic novel that involves the invention of ironclad warships in the Civil War. The childish hangman is back along with the cynical British Provost. Backdrop from the first book has four characters discussing how Nathan Hale was to be hanged as a spy when a humungous history book swallowed him whole then burped him up giving him the mysterious ability to see into the future. An African American, Billy, brings a new rope to the platform and Nathan Hale tells him he will be the first African American international prizefighter. Hangman asks Billy to "show me your best punch" to which he obliges leaving Hangman to warble, "Ow. That story hurt." Nathan Hale asks if Hangman wants to hear another story to which he replies, "One with less face punching, please." The Provost says, "We might as well. But I don't want any more nonsense about the Americans beating the British in this war." The witty dialogue, action, and famous characters make this a page turner that I liked even more than the first book.

To keep all the characters straight the author uses catchy names and pictures such as Lincoln calling his Navy Secretary with a long white beard, "Father Neptune"; Stephen Mallory with his razor teeth and hair fashioned into a shark's fin is dubbed, "Sharkface,"; and last, Neptune's assistant, Foxy, is drawn as an actual fox. Toss in the Swedish inventor who blew up a President's cabinet before being given the job of making a warship made of iron; a prankster, Will Cushing, who uses this odd talent to foil the enemy; to Hangman, who interrupts the story because he has to go to the bathroom. My favorite line is when Hangman asks for all of Cushing's stories and Nathan Hale says he can't tell them all because there are too many. "I want to hear all of them," Hangman growls. "Well, you can look in the back of this book at the bibliography." "Oh! I'll do that!" Hangman says excitedly. "Do you even know what a bibliography is?" asks the cynical British Provost. "Of course I do!" Hangman winks at the reader and whispers, "I hanged a librarian last week!"

This book is in blue tones representing Union soldiers; whereas, book one is in red tones to represent the British redcoats. A nice aide to help readers keep straight that book one takes place during the Revolutionary War and book two takes place during the Civil War - not to mention it saves on publishing costs. The back of the book tells what facts the author made up and what was true. Yep,  "Sharkface" is made up, but Lincoln did call his Naval Secretary, "Father Neptune." The research babies are back with their crotchety attitudes complaining about Hangman, "Be careful with the research materials, you Philistine!" to showing disgust at a long title of a book in the impressive Bibliography. Guaranteed laughter.

5 Smileys

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy (Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales #1) by Nathan Hale

The first read aloud I did with a graphic novel left me baffled after a few pages. I sputtered in front of the class, "Huh? That text didn't make any sense." A few grade 4 students laughed and one said, "You don't read it like a book Mrs. Middleton." "How do I read it?" I asked. "The square and circle speech bubbles are two different people talking and the pink means Babymouse [the protagonist] is dreaming." "Ohhhhh! Brilliant! I get it now!" We laughed together and I started over noticing a few other enlightened nongraphic-novel-reading-students like me.

Graphic novels are a great way to bridge literacies in young readers by using pictures to help students understand text. I have many students who love checking out books on famous battles, weapons, and wars; however, many express frustration over high vocabulary and complex topics. "One Dead Spy" is a fantastic book for those young history buffs that mixes elements of narrative nonfiction and fiction in a graphic novel form. Its illustrations and words contain just the right dose of odd tales about famous people, battles in the Revolutionary war, and rapid-fire shots of humor, facts, and action.

Nathan Hale was a Revolutionary War soldier who was captured by the British and hanged. Nathan is waiting to be executed when a giganto history book appears on the hanging platform swallowing him whole. When the book spits Nathan back out, he explains that he time-traveled into the future and tells the hangman and British Provost overseeing his hanging stories of famous people and battles to come. Comic relief comes in the form of the goofy hangman who gets wrapped up in Nathan's stories like a child listening to storytime, while the Provost is cynical and questions Nathan's claims regarding future events.  Each character has a distinct voice that makes it easy to follow the text and pictures.

The author balances humor with text to create a fast-paced book. The main character is going to be hanged and it is clever how the author throws in occasional metafictional elements to diffuse the intensity of Nathan's grim fate. This age appropriate tactic shows up with the characters talking to the reader by being outside the paneled picture. At one point the Provost says, "Enjoy your pictures now! Captain Hale isn't going to be around much longer!"Other times the hangman is just being funny such as when he asks Nathan, "What about George Washy-toes?" referring to George Washington.

You'll laugh out loud as Nathan Hale weaves in weird true facts with famous historical people. Take Henry Knox. He's huddled behind a wooden barrier surrounded by men ducking as cannon fire bombards them. "Yikes!" says one of them. "Hmmm..." says Henry Knox sitting up with a half-smile, "sounds like a 12-pounder, firing hollow shot..." "BOOM" the next picture reads. "Isn't this great?" Knox says to the guy next to him who is holding his hat as debris rains on him. "Huh?" the guy says, to which Knox replies with a huge grin, "I LOVE guns and artillery. "BOOM" is the next graphic. "I thought you were a book-seller," comments the guy. "I was. I spent all day reading books about guns and artillery!" "AAAGH! What happened to your hand!?!" The guy yells. "AAAAAAGH! AAAAAGH!" They both scream as Knox holds up a hand missing two fingers. "Ha-Ha-Ha!" says Knox with a sly look on his face. "Sorry. That was mean. I lost these fingers back in '73" "How?" asks the guy. "Playin' with guns," says Knox. "Of course," responds the guy with a dry look. The facts are Knox did own a bookstore, was mostly self-educated, and lost two fingers on his 23rd birthday. The playful, funny dialogue is Hale's brilliant way of making history interesting.

The graphic novel pares down text to its most basic elements and while it appears simple it is far from that. It's a great way to engage students in a pre-reading stage where details are found in visuals and dialogue that comes in the form of speech bubbles. The clear beginning, middle, and end along with character development and humor make me want to read more graphic novels, especially by Nathan Hale. The end tells much of what is true and what the author made up. Toss in some corny research babies who are Hale's correction team and you have a scapegoat for incorrect facts. I like this spoof on newspapers and correction columns. Oh! I almost forgot. The babies also show Hale [cartoon dude] Hale's [author's] bibliography. I know it's confusing. He's got some more metafiction going on... just read it. 'Tis funny. A great read aloud and companion to nonfiction texts on American history.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Beholding Bee by Kimberly Newton Fusco

Twelve-year-old Bee has a birthmark on her face that cause people to stare and tease her. She lives with Pauline, a young woman who cares for her after Bee's parents are killed in a car crash. They work at at a traveling circus under an abusive boss. When Pauline is forced to leave the circus by the boss to take care of business in a different city for him, Bee latches onto Bobby, another adult who works there. Bobby teaches Bee how to stick up for herself and run, but then he leaves because of a better job elsewhere. After the boss threatens Bee, she decides to run too. Bee is led by a mysterious woman in an orange floppy hat to a house where Bee learns what it means to have a family. 

The story is realistic with a twist of magic as the two woman are only seen by Bee. Themes of bullying, inclusion versus exclusion of special needs kids, handicaps, and standing up for oneself are some topics that can be discussed. The character of Bee seems too young at times, especially at the start of the novel, but she is socially stunted because of her birthmark, that makes her avoid people in general, so perhaps this was done on purpose by the author. 

Some might not like how Bee handles the bully in the story, although it is authentic in how kids handle situations like Bee's. Bee gets information on the bully and says mean and hurtful things right back because she's tired of being attacked verbally and physically. Bee reflects on her actions later with another adult and wonders if it was the best thing to do in the end. Many of the adults in the beginning of the story come across as one-dimensional and it isn't until the second half that some become more complex and interesting. A nice debut novel.

3 Smileys

Thursday, August 8, 2013

P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

As a kid, my brother would drop the needle on our Monkees' album and we would shout-sing, "Hey, Hey we're the monkees! We keep on monkeying around..." (not sure of the lyrics anymore since it was decades ago). I do remember my brother pretend throwing a football and me doing cartwheels (our version of dancing) before mom eventually hollered, " Uff-da! Turn that down! The house is shaking!" We were the "Heckle an Jeckle" in our family of seven just like Vonetta and Fern are in this story. I found myself smiling at the family teasing, dancing, and shenanigans that reminded me of my own clan. Delphine describes her sisters: "Heckle and Jeckle performed up a storm for Uncle Darnell. Heckle became Hirohito [the boy Delphine likes] writing letters about love and go-karts, and Jeckle became me and wrote back in letters." Many readers can relate as the three girls tease and argue with each other, oftentimes because they resent Delphine's authority as the older sibling. The author uses the 1960s as a backdrop to show how families are not perfect using humor and drama.

This sequel to "One Crazy Summer" has Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern flying back from California where they visited their mother, a poet, who abandoned them at a young age never getting married to their father. The threesome attend the Black Panthers summer camp and learn the injustices and struggles of African Americans in the United States. Feeling empowered by their new knowledge the sequel begins with the girls flying home and asserting their rights in ways that aren't always appropriate. The way they test the waters when using the bathroom not realizing the difference between being rude and assertive is funny and makes for good discussions with students.

When the three girls see their grandmother, Big Ma, who picks them up at the airport with Pa, they no longer think of her as authoritative but oppressive. This not only captures the changes in teenagers as they learn to be independent, but the social issues of African Americans as a suppressed minority group in the U.S. Big Ma was once a slave and her attitude toward white people shows fears that the three girls cannot understand. When the girls misbehave Big Ma overreacts telling to not make a "Negro spectacle" for all the white folks to see. She punishes the girls by hitting them in the face or with a belt. She also shows she loves her grandchildren by caring for them and taking them shopping for school clothes. The girls love her and are afraid of her which is a trait I remember many of my classmates exhibiting toward their parents back in the 60's & 70's. Stories varied from kids getting their mouths washed out with soap for swearing or getting paddled with a wooden spoon or having a belt taken to them for misbehaving.

Big Ma owns a house in Alabama. She grew up with white people lynching black people and her fears are understandable even if the girls don't understand it growing up in New York with their Pa. I was a bit confused by Big Ma and the amount of time she spent living with her grandchildren and sons, Pa and Darnell, in New York. Delphine talks about how Big Ma always buys her ugly clothes for school and Big Ma disciplines the girls like she has raised them, but then she also has a house down south. Perhaps this was in the first book and I just forgot. As is, I didn't really understand Big Ma's motivation for leaving the girls except that it was getting too crowded or Darnell was gone or she didn't want to hear the criticism of Darnell from the angry girls.

Not only did I want an explanation from Big Ma, but I wanted Delphine to get an explanation from Cecile why she left the girls when Fern was a baby. Big Ma says its because Pa wouldn't let Cecile name her Fern, but Cecile doesn't confirm this. In the first book Cecile tells Delphine she was homeless and her Pa found her on a park bench and took her into his home. They had three kids but never married. Whenever Delphine asks for the real reason why she left home, Cecile says she is too young to understand. I'm not sure what to infer from the text except Cecile doesn't want the responsibility of taking care of others.

I did wonder if the book, "Things Fall Apart," by Chinua Achebe might be a clue to why Cecile left the girls. Delphine's teacher, Mr. Mwila, loves this book and reads it during class and Delphine asks him about it. Simply put, this story is about a man in Nigeria who is very traditional and when white men enter his village they change his culture in a way that he can't handle and he kills himself as a result. Cecile is a member of the Black Panthers, a group that formed to protect African Americans from police brutality. She embraces change which is opposite of the book, "Things Fall Apart." This book relates more to Big Ma, the character who hangs on to traditions the most and finds it hard to accept change, versus Delphine who slowly accepts changes in her family as a part of her inner journey.

Delphine's teacher, Mr Mwila, makes her cry after criticizing her paper and reads his book, "When Things Fall Apart," after assigning kids to work in groups after a lesson. His teaching leaves much to be desired and his lack of kindness and responsibility toward his students is at times annoying. He isn't outwardly mean which makes him more real and his inexperience is shown subtlety. Most teachers circle the classroom and conference with students after a lesson instead of reading a book for pleasure like Mr. Mwila. When he does this, he is asking for his classroom to "fall apart." It is no surprise when Delphine gets detention along with some other boys after getting into a verbal fight. The author does a good job capturing middle school kids and a classroom community breaking down because of the teacher not doing his job.

The strong, distinct characters make this book memorable.  The family dynamics are constantly changing as the girls deal with their uncle's problems with coming home from Vietnam and their Pa's new wife. The adults fighting and struggles as the family changes, often leaves the girls confused and in the middle of issues they didn't understand. It isn't explained in the book why the new wife left the house angry for a week, and some readers might struggle with understanding how Pa and his new wife were fighting over parenting the three girls. Pa was basically saying they are his girls and not hers to discipline. This is not fair to his new wife and shows a lack of respect for her opinion in dealing with the issue of Darnell's theft.

The plot is more about relationships than surprising plot twists as Delphine learns to accept the change of a new mother. Some parts of the story were predictable, such as the stolen money and the boy's interest in Delphine. While the portrayal of family miscommunications and unclear meanings is a closer reflection of real life, I found myself wishing for more answers. Speaking of not understanding, I wondered about Big Ma calling the girls, "untrained chimps." Calling an African American a monkey or chimp is racist, so I was baffled by Big Ma's name-calling. Did anyone else have that thought?

The clever wordplay of Delphine calling her sisters, "Heckle and Jeckle," not only refers to the classic "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" but the postwar cartoon series about two identical magpies named, "Heckle and Jeckle." They were both aggressive and antagonistic with Jeckle being more devious than Heckle. The characters in this book imitate and compete with each other, Vonetta being a bit more devious than Fern. Their rapid-fire, slapstick dialogue is hysterical and the younger poetic sister trying to rhyme all the time as well as constantly tossing in "surely do" or some other "surely" response make the two original in their own right.

Delphine's character represents a minority group not only as an African American, but as a child. The struggle for children to have their voices heard in the world of adults and adapt to a society that constantly changes is just as applicable today as it was in the 1960's. How she interacts with others in the community to grow into a strong independent woman is a story for all. A terrific story.

4 Smileys

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Patty Jane's House of Curl by Lorna Landvik

"Uff-da, mayda," says Norwegian Grandma Ione in Lorna Landvik's tale set in Minneapolis. My Grandma had many variations on "uff-da." When the coffee was done percolating she'd jump up and run to the kitchen chirping "uff-da meg." "meg" means "me" and her "uff-da's" were similar to "oh no!" or "gracious me!" The Germans would use "achto lieber" in the same way. Landvik captures the 1950's focusing more on the Norwegian and Swedish immigrants who settled in south Minneapolis than the Germans.  My mother and mother-in-law grew up in the same area Patty Jane does in this tale. They, too, dealt with hardship and tragedy although Patty Jane has so much turmoil in her life it pushes the borders of credibility.

The characters are so off-beat they kept my interest as opposed to an interesting plot that was predictable in many spots. Except for Thor. Anyone who says they predicted that plot twist is lying. Patty Jane is a potty-mouthed, strong woman who works hard to raise her daughter after her husband abandons her days before the girl's birth. Her sister, Harriet, is a chain-smoking good friend and the two go through hardships together along with Thor's mother Ione. Patty Jane and Harriet take up most of the narration along with some interesting minor characters. The salon as being a place of female empowerment doesn't quite come to life. The characters needed a bit more fleshing out for me. I couldn't quite visualize it although the gist of a group of supportive women and a man does come through.  

I did feel that my emotions were being manipulated too much. The women pull their life together and then something awful happens. They come together again before another tragedy. And on it goes so that my sympathetic "uff-da's" changed to a disbelieving, "uff-da!" My brows were raised more than once. But heck, the characters are fun; the setting is my hometown, and the accents I get, resulting in a quick, enjoyable summer read.

3 Smileys

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist by Michael J. Fox

This story is more like looking at merchandise through a store's glass window than owning it. Michael J. Fox lives a different life than the average person and even with Parkinson's it is hard to relate to his experiences. What I like about children's books on disabilities, such as "Wonder" or "Paperboy," is that I can relate to the main characters and their feelings. In the end, they are just kids with feelings most kids experience - myself included. I can't do this with Fox. In the end, he's a celebrity with feelings that show a well-grounded, smart man but a man who has to deal with a public image and disability as he hobknobs with presidents, politicians, actors, singers, and athletes; a reminder to the reader that he is anything but "average." The entire book isn't this way. There are  parts where he talks about family and I enjoyed these the most. It's a tough balancing act as an author tackling a disability and being able make his or her experiences relative to the reader while at the same time revealing a disability that the reader will not have. Of course, I'm comparing this to fiction and this is a nonfiction book so maybe I'm not being fair, but for me, the fiction stories that are memorable rise above the disability to present the character so I forget they have a disability and see the person as having the same feelings as me. I didn't get that for most of this story. While it was entertaining, I won't remember most of it come six months from now.

Fox is funny and describes the Parkinson's symptoms humorously and in a self-deprecating way such as being like a "human whirligig" or trying to listen to Barack O'bama while unsuccessfully controlling "arms wheeling like a board-game spin-arrow." He mentions Lance Armstrong, Katie Couric and others that already date the book. Fox touches a bit on the phases he went through when dealing with Parkinson's such as denial, hiding the problem, then moving forward with a positive attitude. He covers the politics of stem cell research and the roadblocks encountered with the Bush administration. I thought I'd like the chapter on "Faith" the least but it was actually interesting because it didn't deal with his disease so much as look at the inclusive and exclusive nature of religion in different denominations. Fox has no bias toward any particular one and I found his factual, honest look at religion somewhat interesting.

My favorite parts were the funny phrases he'd use describing his children. Again, I could relate to this working with kids and having a child of my own. He quips, "Kids are like Labrador retrievers - show them a car with the motor running and the back door open, and giving no thought to the destination, they'll scramble in and hang their head out the window in anticipation of the wind blowing back their hair and whipping the spit off their dangling tongues." You can't help but like this guy when you read his autobiography even if he lives in a world quite different from yours or mine.

3 Smileys