Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Wednesdays by Julie Bourbeau

Max is a clod. Even moreso than me, so of course, I loved him from the get-go. He turns blue after swimming, locks himself in a garbage can, dumps oil on his hair, and best yet... he sets his mom's hair on fire. As the queen of kitchen fires I particularly like stumbling across a character with disasters of monstrous proportions. It reminds me of the kids who love Junie B. Jones - she's so dumb it makes them feel smart. Max is so accident prone it makes me feel graceful.  Except Max is really being plagued by a Gremlin-like creature called, "The Wednesdays." Creatures that transform children into monsters who play mean tricks on humans. When the Wednesdays claim Max as their next victim, he puts forth a plan to stop their caper.

This fun read has a dark side that appeals to those who want a little scare, balanced with humor. The parapsychologist is a silly buffoon at first who actually helps Max resolve his situation at the end. He's great fun. Other characters are engaging and well-done with Max changing from a care-free mischievous boy to one who fights for his freedom. He also tries to understand the Wednesdays and even makes a connection with some so that they help him in his quest. The villain is one-dimensional and I found many of my questions unanswered as to why he was scarred and less human than the other Wednesdays.

The setting of Mount Tibidabo didn't come alive for me, but because the characters did, I didn't find myself distracted from the story. It just felt somewhat incomplete. I love the unique beauty of Barcelona's landscape and architecture, especially with cathedrals. I wanted to hear the squawking, obnoxious green parrots in Max's town, the church bells scattering pigeons as they rang, and see the beautiful fuschia bougainvilleas hanging like carpets down the sides of iron fences. These are my memories of Barcelona and I sort of wished the author had just made up any 'ole name for the town rather than use Tibidabo - then my brain would have stopped expecting more in the setting descriptions. I'm sure most readers won't notice this.

The plot has some interesting twists with Mr. Grimsrud and the little brother that kept me turning the pages. I did wonder at the end how the Wednesdays transformed and where the power source came from that caused their transformation. This debut novel leaves some loose ends that are not explained at the end. Perhaps a sequel is in order and that is why the explanation doesn't occur. Either way, this is a fun fantasy read. Enjoy!

Reading Level 5.8

3 out of 5 Smileys

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature by Leonard Marcus

Writer Lucy Boston describes editor, Margaret K. McElderry, "...she sailed forth, leaving me feeling like waste paper after royalty had passed." This awestruck comment gives a glimpse of publishing history during the early 1900's that reflects a time when editors had more authority and nurtured fledgling authors to create close relationships that inspired loyalty to each other that lasted throughout their careers. This editorial relationship and the evolution of bookselling is revealed over 300 years by Leonard Marcus. Peppered with funny and eye-opening comments from people in the profession, this is a great read for those interested in the history of publishing. More of a scholarly text than coffee table book, the density might deter some. If you want something more light and humorous then I would recommend, "Letters of a Genius" by Leonard Marcus.

Marcus begins with pioneers in publishing and the focus on moral instruction in children's books. As a young nation, the USA pirated many British books and there were no international copyright laws for foreign authors to take action. When this changed in the 1900's and the middle class emerged reading was seen as a way for self-improvement. The introduction of the Newbery Medal elevated children's literature and close relationships evolved between editors from different publishing houses and new authors. Television triggered the advent of commercialism resulting in the highly successful series and comic books that were pooh-poohed by librarians as being "subliterary."

Being a librarian, I found their place in bookselling interesting even if they usually looked like the dips or villains in the tale. Led by Anne Carroll Moore, Librarian of the New York Public Library, the most colorful quotes Marcus has are from Moore trying to sound literary but coming off as rigid, judgmental, and egotistical. She wrote that "Charlotte's Web" was a mongrel work that failed to adequately develop the main character and was a confusing read. Ouch! While she was a writer who won the Newbery Medal and reviewer with great influence, Marcus shows that she was not a risk-taker and unable to see progressive writing talent. Marcus shows librarians as book critics that influenced the industry to create taboo-riddled storybooks that suited their tastes and if it wasn't for the risk-takers such as Ursula Nordstrom, there would not be "Where the Wild Things Are" or "Stuart Little" or "Charlotte's Web" or "Stevie." Moore intrigued me and I rocketed off into cyberspace searching for more information on her. I would like to read a biography about her.

That, for me, is the strength of this book. Marcus has so much information that I wanted to know more about certain people or publishing houses. This book is a great reference tool and launching point to look more indepth at the evolution of children's books if you want to. I would have liked it if Marcus had continued to the 21st century with a look at digital books and the impact of social networking. Marcus doesn't cover this but I did come across a New York Times article  that discusses Goodreads as a forum for recommending books and its influence on the book industry today.  Good food for thought.

4 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker

Imagine a bouncy five-year-old boy with a horribly runny nose dropping his books off at the library circulation desk and discovering his nose fits at just the right level to race it across the counter edge. He reminds me of the dwarf, Dopey, except on a sugar high as he deposits a viscous trail of snot down the entire countertop. I thought of this rascal while reading this book especially in the opening scene when hyperactive twelve-year-old Tugs Button wipes her nose on her shirt sleeve and overalls. She can be gross, nice, naive, blunt, cloddish, and smart - just the kind of character I love.

Tug's family does not come from the upper echelons of  society in the small town of Goodhue, Iowa. Tugs hangs out with her cousin, Ned, and doesn't have girl friends. She used to be friends with G.O. Lindholm but he has joined the small town gang and is not nice to her any more. When a classmate, Aggie, wants to make friends with Tugs, she begins to think about how she looks and acts and decides to change a few things about herself. "All I need is a bob. Can you cut my hair Mama?"  Tug's impulsive, no-nonsense attitude is mirrored in Mother Button who grabs a scissors and cuts off her hair. Mother doesn't take into account Tug's curly hair and when it dries it is way too short, but Tugs doesn't care. She bounds off like a puppy with a new collar. There are many laugh out loud moments in this short historical fiction book.

The Button family is known to be unlucky, but at the 4th of July festival, Tugs not only wins a ribbon at the three-legged race with Aggie, she wins the essay contest, and grand-prize raffle of a Kodak camera. Tugs thinks her luck has changed and she needs to aspire to the possibilities in life. She breaks her camera before the day is out, but not to be discouraged she's determined to fix it. As her confidence builds she pursues her suspicions of the town newcomer, Harvey Moore, who is collecting money from residents to launch a newspaper. The townspeople don't value the opinions of a Button, but Tugs is not one to give up and she tries all the harder to make them listen.

The rapid-fire dialogue suites the Tasmanian devil-like personality of Tugs, but at times I had to go back and reread to figure out who was talking. The first two paragraphs introduce six characters and I wasn't exactly sure who was who. Of course, I have Tug-like personality so I might have been reading too fast. I lost the characters again when the group's car runs out of gas. I goofed Granny with Gabby and Aggie with Aggie's mother, and Mother Button with Mother Goose. Just kidding. There is no Mother Goose, but my brain kept substituting names throughout reading the book... G.O. became B.O. ... Harvey Moore became Harold Hill ...Lucy the librarian was Marian the librarian ... Button was butt-on. (The last one wouldn't have happened except I was reading, "Chicken Cheeks," by Michael Ian Black to per-kindergarteners.) The plot is somewhat predictable but the characters drive this story and Tugs tenacious spirit; plus her imperfect qualities make her funny and fun to read.

Reading level 5.0
Fountas & Pinnell: T
3 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Writer's Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb

More of an introduction than in-depth look at the writing craft, I found this book a good refresher, especially with my teensy-weensy memory. I did skim some parts such as beginning, middle, end, conflict, and voice, but I did find some of the writing information helpful when it comes to analyzing stories as I read them. I didn't particularly like the first chapter that focuses on what she calls the "magic hour" which is basically your brain working on your story while you sleep. The following chapters are more concrete and helpful with examples regarding structure, characters, and plot.

I did like the part about the 6 stages of a hero's quest and vaguely remember studying Joseph Campbell's monomyth or hero's quest. While Nancy Lamb's explanation is simpler, I liked her example of "Catcher in the Rye." Two things I haven't really thought about with the writing craft is the subplot and premise. She covers this and it made me think of some of the reviews I've done in the past. The last chapter has some interesting tips to think about when writing such as eliminating all the "that's." I have not heard that one. 

I did find the swear words in Lamb's examples disconcerting, but many come from her reference to the book, "How to Write a Damn Good Novel" or examples from middle and high school novels. I was expecting only children's books but that isn't the case. 

The writing is easy-to-read and engaging. If you are looking for a quick read and want to remember what you learned in your English courses, then I recommend picking this one up.

3 out of 5 Smileys

Monday, February 18, 2013

When My Name was Keoko by Linda Sue Park

Writing reviews is like skipping a flat stone across a lake. At least for me. Sometimes the rock whirls like a Frisbee and I'm excitedly counting out loud each skip along the surface. Other times it hits the water with a thunk and sinks immediately with me quickly releasing another one to cover up my fuddy-duddy toss. Writing can be like that for some authors. A hit or miss. Then there are others who are so good at their craft they just fling rocks like Frisbees in rapid succession. I would put Linda Sue Park in the latter category. Her books are terrific.

Ten-year-old Sun-hee lives with her parents and brother in Korea during World War II with the Japanese occupying their land. The Koreans cannot speak their language, hold positions of power, grow the national tree in their yards, fly the Korean flag, etc. As World War II progresses, more is taken from the Koreans and they can no longer get rice or meat. Sun-hee's brother joins the war knowing the family will get more food, but an unexpected turn puts his life more in peril than being directly in battle.

Linda Sue Park alternates between two main characters points of view: Sun-hee uses first person past tense, while her brother, Tae-yul, uses first person present tense. Sun-hee begins with complaints of not being told anything because she is a girl. She views her brother as being disrespectful for not answering her questions but in the next chapter Tae-yul writes from his point of view, saying his sister is annoying with her questions and we find out that he doesn't know the answer which is why he says disrespectfully, "It's none of your business." The alternating viewpoints give multiple perspectives allowing the author to go out of the narrow confines of writing in first person that allows for only one person's thoughts. Using both viewpoints gives a more complete picture of their family and the war situation.

The tense shift mirrors the personality of the characters. Sun-hee is quiet and reflective and writes in the past tense which is more introspective; she's looking back at her experience. Whereas, Tae-yul is more impulsive and the present tense adds to the drama and action of his story. Sun-hee's uncle has gone into hiding and she keeps a journal that she wants to give to him when she sees him again. I went back and read only Sun-hee's chapters and they do stand alone, telling most of the story. Tae-yul fills in the blanks as to what happened to uncle and himself in the war. The journal shows how Sun-hee changes from an insecure young girl who is jealous of all the attention her brother gets for being a boy to a sister who is a confidante and trusted with Tae-yul's motive for volunteering to fight in the war. At the end, she even entertains Tae-yul's idea that she become a scholar. Tae-yul's story gives supporting details and depth to the story but isn't complete like Sun-hee's. It adds depth and rounds out the story.

I kind of wanted Tomo's viewpoint. The story is slanted toward the Americans and the Japanese are one-dimensional except for Tomo. He shows them as real people. Tomo is Sun-hee's best friend in the beginning but then they go to middle school and they no longer hang out. I missed his presence. There is a propaganda movie that is shown in middle school and afterwards Tomo and his friends are pretending to kill the Americans. Tomo shows some humanity or boundaries by saying they wouldn't kill babies, but if we could have gone into his mind it could have shown his turmoil at having a best friend who is Korean and thoughts on war. Later, Tomo tries to warn Sun-hee but it is cryptic and she struggles to decipher his meaning. Tomo seems like a decent kid and his father probably was too. Perhaps more of the Japanese family would have balanced it out. Or perhaps Tae-yul should have had a Japanese friend. Park does show at the end that there are no winners in war. 

The plot has some interesting twists such as Mrs. Ahn. The only loose end is answered in the Author's Note so make sure you read it. The characters all change from the father and mother to the children and made me engrossed in the storyline. I did wonder about the father and how he got the articles to the uncle. It seemed to contradict that no one knew where uncle was hiding and I would have liked an explanation regarding it.

Obviously, I'd like to skip stones more than sink them and this only takes practice. I decided to keep track of how much I read and write per month. In the book, Outliers, it says something to the effect that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. If I go by that number it will take me 40 years before I get good at this thing. Better up the writing time or you won't get an excellent review until I am in my 90s.

Reading Level 5.0
Fountas and Pinnell: Y 
4 out of 5 Smileys

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Kite Fighters by Linda Sue Park

Like Seesaw Girl, this book deals with choices in life. Some choices we can choose: the choice of occupation, the choice of attitude, the choice of following traditions. Some choices we cannot choose: choice of being a boy or girl, the choice of siblings, or the choice of birth order. Young-sup is second to his brother, Kee-sup, where 15th century Korean traditions are such that their father treats the second son different than the first son. The firstborn is the only sibling that gets to go to the ancestors gravesite, study to become a scholar, and make decisions in the family. The unfairness of the treatment boils beneath the surface of Young-sup who wants his father to notice him the same as Kee-sup.

Kee-sup gets a kite for the New Year's celebration while the jealous Young-sup gets a board game. Young-sup begs to fly the kite with Kee-sup who says, no, at first only to relent as he tires of his limited success flying the kite. Unlike his brother, Young-sup is a natural as he launches the kite into the air almost immediately knowing instinctively when the wind is right and how much rope to reel in or let out. He teaches his brother how to fly and the two have great fun on the hillside each day with the new toy. When the kite gets damaged, Kee-sup rebuilds it and his skill in craftsmanship turns the tables where he teaches Young-sup how to make a kite.

The young king sees the boys kite flying and asks them to build him a kite to enter in the New Year's competition. The kite flying competition involves "fighting" where the kite flyers try to knock each others kites to the ground or cut the lines. The king wants Young-sup to fly it and Kee-sup to build it. Thrilled with the request, Kee-sup struggles over the construction of the kite while Young-sup and their father support him in his efforts. When the time comes for the competition, their father says that the oldest son should fly it causing Young-sup to angrily confront his brother about the unfairness of him being number one. He's really mad at the culture's traditional role of the firstborn son, but he can't discuss it with his parents and takes his frustration out on his brother. In an exciting climax the two figure out a way to use the traditions to their advantage, yet not be disrespectful toward their father.

The passion Young-sup has for kite flying is described in such vivid detail it made me think of those things I'm passionate about doing. The siblings show how they can have great fun together and great disagreements. Young-sup's anger is authentic afterwards he recognizes that he can't direct his fury at his father so instead he takes it out on his brother. Both boys are thoughtful, kind, selfish, and creative. Their well-rounded characters drive this story forward at a fast clip. Even the father and young king change in ways that made me vested in what happens to all of them.

The plot is wrapped up nicely. Park doesn't leave unresolved issues in her stories. Even the stall owner of the kites has a part I didn't expect. The brothers make many choices and while most are good there are other times they are selfish. This makes them all the more real to the reader and in the end, they show graciousness in winning, wisdom in dealing with their father, and courage to reach their goals. A terrific story that is going to appeal to all readers.

Reading Level 5.9

5 out of 5 Smileys

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Seesaw Girl by Linda Sue Park

This debut novel in 1999 has all the elements that I've come to love when reading Linda Sue Park's books: engaging characters, well-crafted plot, and interesting subjects. This tale is set in ancient Korea during the 1600's where wealthy women and children were virtual prisoners of their home. They were not allowed to leave the Inner Court and spent much of their days doing laundry and embroidering. Plus, doing the laundry didn't mean just washing clothes and hanging them to dry. It meant ripping out pant seams and resewing the pants back together. This not only got the "dirt out of the pockets" but was a way of sanitizing them from harmful germs. For leisure, the women did embroidery on cloth, purses, and panels. Only men were educated and allowed to be artists or writers, while the women managed the households.

I would have died of boredom like 12-year-old Jade Blossom. Not to mention I can't sew. The only part I liked on the sewing machine was pushing the pedal to the floor. In boring home economics class I was making a book bag when I looked out the window and pushed my finger right under the needle. The sewing machine jammed, pinning my finger to the bottom metal plate. The janitor had to come and disassemble the machine while a classmate threw-up looking at it (she later became a nurse). It was pretty gross. Weird thing - it didn't hurt. AND AS USUAL, I digress with a story of mine. Sorry! Anyway, back to Jade. She tries to spice up her days by playing pranks on others with her best friend, Willow. When Willow gets married Jade not only loses a kindred spirit, she can never see her again. Jade makes a plan to see Willow with unexpected results.

Jade is a mischievous, good-hearted character who talks to her brother, Tiger Heart, to get information, since it is not respectful to ask parents questions. Tiger is being groomed by Jade's father to be a scholar like himself who will advise the King in the future. While Tiger can be annoyed with Jade he comes across as tolerant and kind. He brings her sweets from the market and shares news with her. Willow seems somewhat immature for a 27 year old but living in a court doing laundry and embroidering but it is understandable given her lack of education and contact with the outside world. I did wonder how the women were trained at managing households. There are glimpses of it with the mother but I would have liked to see some of Willow's training at household management. Jade mentions some of the things Willow did before leaving, but not many details are given.

To recreate 17th century Korea in a story would be difficult and Linda Sue Park's bibliography shows the extensive research she did. The story of the westerners who were shipwrecked and taken to the King is based on a true story and I liked how it was intertwined with Jade's family and her conversation with her dad. Jade's attempt to see Willow causes a loyal servant to lose his job and when she takes responsibility her father says, "...the path to wisdom lies not in certainty, but in trying to understand." He uses these same words in his speech to the King about a dispute the council is having as to whether the captured westerners should be killed or freed.

Jade's mother indulges her and I wondered if it was because she understood how smothered Jade felt by their way of life or if she wanted to enjoy Jade to the fullest since she wouldn't see her ever again after marriage. Perhaps it was both. When Jade switches to painting which is forbidden by girls, I wondered what path this new secret rebellion would lead to. The ending seemed abrupt because that question wasn't answered. I thought perhaps Tiger Heart was going to help Jade with her painting or give tips. Perhaps he'd like a piece of her work and pass it on as his own to the Schoolmaster. Wouldn't it be ironic if it was hailed as great work, put on display, and then Jade would have to keep secretly painting for Tiger? Then she'd be able to be creative in a very uncreative and stifling position. Of course, then she'd get married and that would be the end of that. Maybe the ending is just right. You decide.

Irony abounds that this girl who is so rich in material goods is so poor in freedoms with a yearning for adventure and education in politics, arts, and more. Add to that theme her curious, spunky, and courageous attitude and it is easy to root for this likable protagonist. I have read some adult books like this story that capture the unhappiness of women in this type of setting with a nasty pecking order, but this tale caters more to the young reader and is not ugly at all. Jade's mom is a good woman who is sad at times but makes the best out of each day and the house seems full of joy. Jade, while impetuous and ignorant of consequences, is willing to take responsibility when she causes harm to another person. I did find it sad how Jade invents a way to espy the mountains outside her court. While Jade doesn't feel sorry for herself, I felt downcast by her predictable future. For all she was missing. For not having the freedom to live like she wants. For not being able to get an education. For being an oppressed minority. A wonderful story.

Reading Level 5.0
3 out of 5 Smileys

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Prince Who Fell From the Sky by John Claude Bemis

A well-known fact in the Forest is that humans no longer exist because the wolves killed them off in the great Rising. When a starship crashes and a toddler gets off the plane no one can believe it and the coyotes who stumble first on the scene decide to kill the small boy. Mama bear, Casseomae, sees the altercation and protects the boy hatching a plan to adopt him for all her cubs have all died. She reasons that she can teach the boy the ways of the Forest; however, the presence of the boy upsets the fragile pact between the wolves and bears and she must flee from enemies who want to kill him. The journey to find a safe place for the boy is tough, but with the help of a rat, Dumpster, who carries knowledge of the humans; and Pang, a dog, who is a faithful companion to the human race, they give it a go.

Dumpster loves to use the word "scratch" or "scratchin'" in his sentences, "Scratch if I know old bear" or "Not a scratchin' word, Cass." Helpful and caring inspite of his ornery talk, he loves to call Casseomae a "mushroom-brained bear" and in one funny dialogue he's calling the dog and Cass "beetle brains," "pebble brains," and then "birdbrains" as the two ask him questions. Young readers will like the dumb questions dog and Cass ask as they learn about humankind such as, "What's an alley?" or "What's fern-of-chip?" to which Dumpster replies, "Furniture, idiot." Add to the silly dialogue romp Dumpster giving wrong answers such as how a fire escape works and you have a fun read. Other puzzles readers will like solving are the descriptions of different types of animals where no English words are used to describe it.

The creepiness factor amps up with the wolves and their Gateway of Bones and Field of Fallen. Add a great villain in Ogeema whose "...voice was not the gutteral snaps typical of a wolf. The words were whispered, but the power in that barely present voice unnerved Rend to her core" and you have a nice scary story. The pecking order of the coyotes and wolves increase the fear factor, since Rend knows that Ogeema kills randomly and cruelly regardless of whether or not he is getting assistance.

The limited point of view was fascinating and well-done but it also kept me removed from the story and didn't answer all my questions. The author has the animals and boy communicate without words but with touch and descriptions. The boy "chirps" at Cass so we know he's old enough to talk. The animals and child manage to communicate and the authenticity of this elevates the story. While the author does it admirably, I wanted to hear the boy's thoughts and wanted to get in his head. If the reader had the boy's thoughts then I could have found out more about his world and how he came to be on a ship that crashed in the Forest or what happened to humankind.

I was reading this eBook on a flight to Vietnam and maybe I wasn't getting enough oxygen because I struggled with the age of the boy and I kept mixing up the vora's and viand's - the names are too similar (of course, I've lived in Taipei 6 years and know about as much Chinese as an infant - memory is NOT my strength). It did make me wonder if kids would get confused with some of the world building like me. Probably not. I can hear Rat calling me names, "You scratchin' birdbrain, write it down." I liked the character so well he's talking to me now. A unique story. Enjoy

Reading level 5.7
3 Smileys

Friday, February 8, 2013

Freaky Fast Frankie Joe by Lutricia Clifton

Ever bike in 32 degree weather? I have. I thought I was shaking my fist at old man winter. Then I hit a patch of ice, found my body levitating from the ground before gravity took over and slammed me to the pavement. I should have cracked my head on the ice. Or at least knocked the wind out of my lungs, but the padding from my backpack stuffed with clothes, two hats, two scarves, two mittens, two pants, and thick insulated parka cushioned my landing like a mattress. Freaky fast Frankie Joe is much more coordinated and younger than me so when he bikes year round making money on a delivery service, he doesn't have to worry about snow and ice slowing him down. In fact, biking is the only good thing that has happened to Frankie Joe. His mom's in jail and he's been sent to live with his dad and four stepbrothers. He has missed so much school that he's a few years behind the other kids in his class. Being 5 feet 9 inches tall doesn't help. When he's put back from 8th to 5th grade, his alpha male 5th grade brother, Matt, is bent on humiliating him. Matt was number one before Frankie Joe bumped him down to number two and he has no qualms about letting Frankie Joe know he's mad, from stuffing his shorts down the toilet, to insulting him, and more.

The development of the characters is one of the strengths of this book and the fact that Matt is a well-rounded antagonist who changes and learns from his relationship with Frankie Joe makes this story interesting and full of tension.The dad's rules-oriented personality is annoying but loving toward his son that he's trying to get to know after being out of his life until now. The dad goes a bit far with the responsibility rules but it makes him more real. Mandy is very outgoing and at times insensitive which is typical of young kids and Elsie Peachcott is a no-nonsense old lady who is quite endearing and also learns from her relationship with Frankie Joe. Frankie Joe's mom is insensitive but in a self-centered, irresponsible way. She reminds me of the mom in Turtle in Paradise, by Jennifer Holm. The teachers at the school are insensitive and humiliate Frankie Joe. I hate this type of character, unless they are a buffoon. I know kids like teachers being dopes in books, but it hits too close to home for me as a librarian who teaches 42 classes every 10 days. Have I accidentally embarrassed a kid? Have I been unfair?

The only thing that made me scratch my head regarding the plot was that the librarian and Frankie Joe read, Kidnapped, together but according to the principal, Frankie Joe could only read at a 4th grade level after being tested. Kidnapped is not an easy read and Frankie Joe would have had a higher vocabulary than he displayed in the chapter where he read out loud in class. It doesn't take away from the story. I just wondered about it.

The emotional pull of this story, along with the humor to lighten it, will make it a winner with readers. The line where Frankie Joe says, "I cry because mom sold her remembrance of me" and the climax where Matt gets buffaloed by the fact that Frankie Joe doesn't want to be number one are touching. I even liked the information on farming - of course, the author weaves it in the dialogue and internal changes of the characters in a way that is very interesting. This is a well-written book and I will be looking to more tales from this author to stock our library shelves.

I did debate on getting studded tires on my bike, but decided I'd let old man winter get the last laugh. Except now I'm living in a subtropical climate so maybe I did get the last laugh.

Reading Level 3.9
4 out of 5 Stars

Monday, February 4, 2013

Pickle: The (Formerly) Anonymous Prank Club of Fountain Point Middle School by Kim Baker

Pranksters at my high school made life exciting by doing stuff like plugging a stick up the ketchup dispenser so when the victim, such as myself, pushed down on the pump, the stick went sailing out like a blow dart spraying the victim with ketchup. First time it happened to me, I had to go home and change pants. When the ketchup dispenser was out for a lunch meal, I had to watch out for the blow dart prankster. When toilet paper draped the ten oak trees that sit in my parents' front yard, I thought it was pretty. My dad who is an architect was not happy, especially when an ice storm raged the next night freezing the toilet paper to the branches for 5 months as winter settled in the frigid northern city of Minneapolis. The flowing streamers from the first night looked like used toilet paper by then and it was definitely NOT pretty. But when does a prankster go too far? At our school it was when some students thought spraying the locker room with several fire extinguishers would be hilarious. Most pranks are funny and annoying but it seems that when damage is done to property or another person gets hurt by the caper the laughter stops.

This is just one of the many themes that Ben Diaz and his secret group of pranksters, The League of Pickle Makers, learn as they spice up school life with their shenanigans. On paper, the school club makes pickles which they plan to enter in the Pioneer Fair Days, but their true motive is to covertly pull pranks against everyone at school. The tomfoolery begins when Ben finds free goods online in the Classifieds. He can't resist filling his school classroom full of a bunch of stinky, used bouncy balls that the owner of the local Pizzeria wants to get rid of. Kids at school think this is so funny and exciting that Ben decides to form a club thats antics include dry ice in the bathrooms, Saran Wrap over the bathroom sinks, and more.  The pickle club is having a hey-ho time until one of the members goes rogue causing damage to school property.

Students will love this book with its silly pranks, goofy characters, and friendship conflicts. Ben's best friend, Hector, just can't stand up to his grandma, the principal of their school. He's so afraid of her that when she accuses him of something he didn't do, he admits not only to the crime, but worse, he tells her Ben did it with him. When Hector wants to join the club, Ben questions his trustworthiness along with other members, and Hector is refused admittance, causing hurt in their friendship.

Ben's heritage is interweaved nicely throughout the story, particularly when the club looks into the diet of Mexican pioneers when they first came to their city. It is terrific fun seeing how the author creatively ties pickles into the plot with the students and adult characters. And I had to laugh at the reference to "The Joy of Pickling." My parents generation did a ton of canning, with pickles being one of the mainstays, and my mom loved her "Joy of Cooking" book. I even got two of those cookbooks as wedding presents it is so beloved by the older folks. Kids won't get that joke but who doesn't love a mixture of adult and kid humor in a book?

While the pacing clips along through the middle and end of the book, the start has too many subject pronouns that begin with "I" effecting sentence cadence. The last paragraph in the first chapter has nine sentences starting with "I." This is a little nitpicky on my part and most readers are not going to notice it enjoying a very likable main character whose pranks are fairly harmless. The goofy supporting characters held my interest and after a couple of chapters the sentences started to vary in rhythm and more themes were introduced adding nice tension to the development of the story.

The plot becomes more complex as the story progresses and Ben excludes his best friend, Hector, who wonders if he wants to remain friends with him. The students stand up for their First Amendment rights and the adults act authoritarian about the whole incident. I wanted this more hashed out but most readers are not going to care. The first person point of view can be tricky because it limits the view of the protagonist and sometimes I wanted more information from Ben about the supporting characters. Angry Sienna is struggling with her parents divorce and while I like that she fesses up and takes responsibility for her actions, the situation is not resolved. Also, I expected Hector to stand up to his grandma after he stood up for Ben. I wanted Hector to confront her about her bullishness and address her interference with his friendships and interrogating him to the point where he was confessing to crimes he didn't commit. But he doesn't. I thought the story would have been stronger if Hector's grandma showed some willingness to change in how she treated Hector and that she would try to be a better parent and administrator. In the end, she remains more one-dimensional and less interesting to me as the antagonist.

If you are like my dad who saw absolutely no humor in toilet paper hanging from the trees, then I recommend passing on this book. As a kid, I loved books where anarchy prevailed, the adults were idiots, the characters were funny, and exciting adventures oozed from the pages. This book delivers all that and more. I also loved to act out books with my best friend. Good thing this book wasn't around! We'd be dreaming up all sorts of mischief!

A great addition to your library.

Reading level: 5.7
3 out of 5 stars