Saturday, November 30, 2013

Binny for Short by Hilary McKay

Do you like the characters with mouthy, angry attitudes one minute who then flip from crazy to nice? I call it the Dr Jekyll teenage years. Meet Binny. She's angry, imaginative, vulnerable, sassy, hot-tempered, daring, and funny. Not as funny as her younger brother, James, who likes to charm old ladies, wants to be a farmer, wears a hot pink and green wetsuit around town stripping it off in public when someone questions his gender, and pees on the backyard fence like a flood level marker. Even though he sometimes sounds to old for a six-year-old I guarantee you'll get a laugh from his shenanigans at some point. He's balanced by his sister, Clem, and Mom who are practically perfect.

Gareth, the next door boy is like Binny. He's angry. While Binny is angry over the tragic death of her dad and her aunt who gave away her dog, Gareth is angry over his parents divorce and dad's girlfriend. Binny and Gareth don't pretend to be nice to each other. They are too self-centered and angry to be friends. But then a funny thing happens. They start to do things together and act like they like each other. A friendship blossoms, but don't ask them to confirm it. They'll deny that they are anything but enemies.

I struggled a bit with these eleven-year-old kids. The characters weren't quite right. When Binny is mouthing off in an incredibly rude way to her aunt I could understand because the aunt was rude back. However, when she sasses Gareth's dad and then mocks him it was too extreme for me. Yes, I could see her yelling at a parent, sibling, or relative, but Binny had never met Gareth's dad. I didn't think Binny's character was that out there or rotten. She also experiments with cigarettes, but knows they are bad and tells her mom that she'll never touch them again. You don't usually read about eleven-year-olds smoking.

The plot was straightforward and unpredictable in what the kids were doing. They have some kid-like adventures that are fun and daring. Perhaps that's why I couldn't buy the whole cigarette, anger, and nasty back-talking. It didn't seem to fit them. The author tries to show Binny as a roller coaster drama queen, but it didn't always work for me. The flashbacks were confusing and clunky. At first I thought they were her dreaming or having nightmares. Then I wondered if they were a metaphor or symbol of Binny's journey from anger to acceptance, but that didn't make sense as the story progressed. Once I realized they were flashbacks I was a bit annoyed that I didn't understand that from the get-go. They didn't work in with the storyline smoothly.

The characters are interesting but sometimes they seem too out-of-character. Take Binny's mom. Wouldn't she have said something to her Aunt Violet when she got rid of Max? It is explained at the end that she couldn't deal with it at the time and while I could buy that, I thought it was forcing the plot a bit. Not only did I think her mom would not have let that happen, but Clem, who is responsible and protective of Binny, would not have let it happen either. Of course, it had to happen because the overall point of the novel is Binny is trying to locate what happened to her dog. I just think the story hinges on a weak point.

In the end, I'm not really sure who the audience is for this book. It's entertaining but the characters vacillate from acting or sounding too old to too young. I thought James was older at the start then at the end. It wasn't until he was described as sucking his fingers that I realized I had him way to old. He's also described in his physical appearance way too late in the book. He's a stitch and toward the end reminded me of Batty in the "Penderwicks" who runs around with batwings. James runs around in a wetsuit and garnered the most laughs of all the characters for me. Binny seems young and kind at times and old and snobby at other times. Sometimes she's tough and other times she's vulnerable. It's hard to capture this age and for the most part the author does just that. An entertaining story.

3 Smileys

Friday, November 29, 2013

Wild Born (Spirit Animals #1) by Brandon Mull

Grade 4 has a fantasy unit and are always on the lookout for books at their reading level in this genre. Nice to find a newbie that I can recommend. In the same vein as the 39 Clues series, it has different authors for each book and cliff hanger endings. The ending does have some closure but much is left unanswered so the reader will want to buy the next book. A part of me resents this gimmick and a part of me understands the need to sell more books for profit. I do think the book would work as a read aloud because it covers four different characters who gain powers when they bond with spirit animals. The chapters are short and all the characters don't get together until the climax.

The land of Erdas is in danger as an evil presence, The Devourer, is rising again to take over the world. The Devourer was defeated in the past when four Great Beasts sacrificed their lives to imprison he and his minions. Humans bonded with the Great Beasts and were a part of this battle, but they are not talked about much. The focus is on the animals. The Devourer is attacking again after years of rebuilding an army and hiding them in cities. This background information isn't explained particularly well and I wasn't sure how The Devourer rose again to power but you get a clear picture of the villain, The Devourer, and the good guys, The Greencloaks.

When children reach the age of eleven they go through a bonding ceremony where they drink Nectar that reveals whether or not they will bond with an animal. At different bonding ceremonies all over the world, four youngsters bond with Great Beasts, something that has not happened in many years. The Greencloaks then recruit and train the children. When one of the children is kidnapped and tricked by the enemy to serve them, the other three hope to find her so she can help with retrieving the talismans before The Devourer. Of the four, one boy will help with the cause of saving the world from The Devourer but isn't sure he wants to be a Greencloak. He has trust issues and does not like authority. The four kids first task is to collect a talisman from a Great Beast with so much power and wildness the children can be killed. Many obstacles need to be overcome for the mission to be a success.

When people come of a certain age they reveal that they are bonded with an animal or not. Many don't bond. The bonding of humans with animals is somewhat reminiscent of daemons in "The Golden Compass" series that reflect a person's inner being. However the spirit animals in this book are more connected with an animal's physical aspect versus representing a character trait.  When four children bond with the four Fallen Beasts from the great war in the past, the Greencloaks or guardians of the peace in Erdas know that The Devourer has risen to reclaim the land. Specifically he wants the eleven Great Beasts talismans so he can have magical power to rule the world.

The characters learn to embrace their roles as heroes and learn to trust each other and the animals. This book follows the familiar fantasy conventions with world building, good versus evil, a heroes quest, and training to learn about acquired powers. Great depth in the story is not achieved because the plot is spread too thin trying to cover four characters in 200 pages. Each of the four gains powers and while the characters are slightly different and distinct in their own right, it is predictable that they will bond with a Great Beast. Brandon Mull does a nice job pulling in other elements to create tension that keeps the story interesting. There is plenty of action and many will find the fast-pace satisfying. I had an awful lot of questions at the end, but the idea is to find the answers in the following books.

3 Smileys

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Holly Goldberg Sloan has a way with words. Some author's create terrific images and sentence rhythm. She's one of them. Willow's unique voice shows that she is a genius and talks like a medical encyclopedia at times but it is balanced with beautiful metaphors, humor, and introspective thoughts.  Willow shows enough vulnerability to be interesting and there is enough emotional pull to keep the pace clipping along - even if some of the emotion is a bit over the top such as the mom's sickness on top of the tragic death. Sometimes the genius part drifts into the Land of Unbelievability such as when Willow talks about germs and salmonella as a kindergartener and the other students call her a "weirdo." Kindergarteners wouldn't even know what she was talking about in the scenario to even call her a name.  Willow also would have been identified at a young age as gifted and handled differently by the school system and her parents, but there are quite a few plot points that are not believable so just expect it when you read it and enjoy the characters. Funny how it's easy to forgive a messy plot if the character is engaging. And Willow is just that.

Willow is twelve-years-old when both of her parents die in a crash. As a genius and person who has socially avoided people, Willow is forced to connect with other people. She finds a new family when she is befriended by a Vietnamese girl she meets while going to see a student counselor. Willow learns to not only overcome her grief, but she changes those around her as well. Those who need healing as well, but in their own unique way.

*Spoiler Alert*
The plot is forced with Willow being accused of cheating. Based on her kindergarten experience the school would be onto her as a gifted kid. I don't think she would have been sent to the counselor but this is necessary for her to meet her Vietnamese friend. Quite a bit of the plot is forced and predictable. In order for Willow to talk to the Vietnamese family she teaches herself Vietnamese in three months. In order for Jairo to go to school he wins the lottery. In order for Pattie to live the in the apartment she becomes rich. The author takes the quick way out on quite a few plot elements which is a shame because she's a good writer. The most damaging plot shortcut happens in the last part with Pattie being rich (but hiding it) and living in a garage with her children causing them mental anguish which made no sense. Pattie's kind character takes on a cruel aspect and shows she cares more for Willow than her own children. It was out of character and undermines the message that building family relationships that are meaningful and creating a caring community can happen in any setting. The shift toward money as a cure-all to problems came across as a cop-out, especially after the community service the nursery-owner provides to the residents at the apartment.

Willow is not much of a flawed character and her arc mainly shows her dealing with grief and changing from being completely obsessive to more tolerant of things in life she can't control. She seems to have a form of autism, which comes across less at the end as she loses some compulsive behaviors. The point of view changes from 1st person narrative with Willow to 3rd person narrative with minor characters. I found the switch jarring at first but then settled into the rhythm later. It helps to get into other people's heads to round out the story and because Willow doesn't talk much it is necessary to be inside her head and 1st person allows that. I did like that we never go into the brother's head and that kept me guessing as to what he thought about Willow until the end when he states his feelings.

The plot is forced in many spots from relationships to money to learning a language in 3 months. I do have a bit of a pet peeve with that living overseas and even though I am a mutant at learning languages this isn't possible - even for a genius. You don't pick up a pictorial language with tonal differences in three months. But Willow does quite a few things that were impossible so just add this to the list and go with it. I did like how the lucky color "red" was carried throughout the story. Living in a Chinese culture I really notice the superstitions and emphasis on lucky numbers and colors. In general (and its always dangerous to generalize) our culture doesn't seem to believe in as many superstitions as a whole. Not that we don't have superstitions. We do. Just think of the pitchers in baseball and their lucky streaks attributed to uniforms, socks, jewelry, etc.

Dell is a dip. He's a counselor that has no business being a counselor at a school. He's a counselor in need of help and he gets it from Willow inadvertently. She doesn't mean to help him. She's just trying to survive and the situation ends up making Dell into a better person. I thought Dell was so cartoonish in the beginning that he was funny. He's Captain Underpants with an underwear wall. He lives in an apartment described as "interior shades of gray" a funny play on words that made me think of the book,"50 Shades of Gray." When the kids break glass and put them on a skylight I was transported to "La Pedrera," a gorgeous rooftop designed by Antonio Gaudi where broken glass, along with marble and tile, creates sculpture-like chimneys and prisms of light (George Lucas designed his storm troopers helmets based on "La Pedrera's" chimneys). Quang-ha, the brother, changes from an angry boy to one who giggles and does homework. The sister and Pattie don't change but they provide strength and stability for the family. That's another reason the money at the end that Pattie supposedly has doesn't fit the story pattern.

Willow is obsessed with skin conditions and germs. She's also crazy about plants. Along with the library these things give her comfort in a world that she doesn't particularly fit in. I thought Willow had a few too many answers by the end of the book analyzing other people in her life. It felt like the author was fleshing out characters by telling rather than showing. I did like this summing-up side to Willow - especially in the beginning when the observations were connected to her obsessions. I felt a bit like she was diagnosing me. The first three skin conditions she mentions I suffer from. Many people do. I thought it was kind of funny that I'm reading a book and have a blizzard of seborrheic dermatitis in my eyebrows and she's diagnosing people she meets with the same problems. Or worse skin conditions, as in Jairo's case. Can't say I've ever read a character that is quite like Willow. She's unique and fun.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

King George: What Was His Problem?: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn't Tell You About the American Revolution by Steve Sheinkin, Tim Robinson (Illustrations)

Steve Sheinkin has evolved into such a brilliant writer of narrative nonfiction that when I read his earlier books I'm a bit let down because I am expecting more fictional elements. Which isn't really fair of me as a reader. Even his straightforward nonfiction texts are well-done and interesting. I just don't gobble them up like I have his most recent books. After reading "Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales" graphic novel series, this book helped fill in the blanks as to the timeline of famous people in history giving an excellent overview of the American Revolution and key players in a grisly war.

Historians cannot cover everything. They must pick and choose and many times I find myself thinking that I would like to explore something more in depth that is touched upon in whatever I am reading. Obviously Sheinkin had the same idea because he mentions Benedict Arnold in this book and goes off to write another book solely on him and his traitorous deed. I'd like to know more about King George. I didn't know he was only 22 years old when he became King. I've heard about his madness and didn't know it was from porphyia, an inherited disorder. Sheinkin shows how the stubborn young king made mistakes when dealing with the Americas. He also puts in other crazy facts and details that keep the reader chucking through each page. Take the British official, John Macolm, who tried to collect taxes from the Colonists. He was tarred and feathered and mailed a box to the British government that still had bits of his skin attached to the feathered tar. Gotta love those details. The short chapters make it easy to digest the facts and the famous quotes color the text.

Characters don't take on the shape that they do in Sheinkin's narrative nonfiction and that is what I miss the most when reading his books from almost a decade ago. They are full of interesting facts but he doesn't describe characters in depth as found in more recent books. Don't get me wrong. He does describe colorful figures, but he is covering too many people over too long a time to be conducive to a narrative nonfiction story that follows a few characters. In the back, he elaborates on 22 of the major players in the American Revolution titled, "Whatever Happened to... " That was my shot in the arm.

A strength of the story is that Sheinkin lays out the facts and keeps his bias out of the picture. He mentions the fact that the British thought the Declaration of Independence as hypocritical due to the phrase "all men are created equal" that was written by many men who had slaves. Good point. He also states that many of the British soldiers were young boys who needed money. The text gives a good overall picture of the why's and how's of the war flavored with the bizarre to make for good pacing. For instance, the part on Benjamin Franklin gives funny, ridiculous information about how John Adams and Benjamin Franklin had to share a bed and argued over keeping the window open or closed to showing that Adams didn't understand how Franklin's full social calendar was providing critical support from the French government needed for the Americans to win the war. He mentions African-American's contributions to the war and women doing brave things. A well-rounded, nonjudgmental look at the American Revolution.

4 Smileys

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt

The plot is a familiar one. A boy gets in trouble at school and has to journal about it. He muses about girls and his shenanigans with friends all the while learning and growing up into a better person in a middle school setting. What makes this story stand out is how the character humorously reflects on what is happening in his life to the classic stories assigned for English class describing his good and bad actions with a raw honesty that makes him believable and likable. He is supposed to be reflecting on a bullying incident he was suspended from school for but this specific event is not revealed until the end. The beginning shows that the character really is thinking about the incident but the reader has to connect the dots on his or her own. While there are some minor flaws in a weak historical setting and forced portrayal of a Spanish boy, the author nails the main and minor character voices in a terrific story that has some heavy themes balanced with plenty of laughs.

The story begins with Julian explaining how he will do anything for his friend and vice versa. This is a problem. Except Julian doesn't know it at this point. He doesn't think for himself and is more concerned with belonging to a group of friends. Throughout the course of the novel the friends fight over a girl and it leads to Julian thinking about what it means to not be associated with a friend. To be on ones own. To think for oneself. This is critical to him growing up and finding his own self-identity. When he is with his friends he does something really stupid and painful to another person who has a disability. The buildup throughout the novel shows that he is a nice kid. a likable kid. A kid who cries when he accidentally kills a bird with a stone. A kid who wants a "do-over" but knows he can't get it. In the end he seeks redemption and forgiveness from the person he hurt which is about all he can do after the fact.

People make mistakes. Adults, adolescents, and children. It is a part of life and learning to deal with them is difficult. One of the messages is how to live with the consequences of hurting someone else or making a bad decision. Julian is also getting out of writing a paper on Julius Caesar, which he ironically realizes reflects his life and how he and his friends betray each other by fighting over girls. No one gets stabbed but they do have a physical fight. Julian jokes about how ditzy his friends become once they fall for a girl, "One second he's good old Howie, yakking it up, and then the next second, he notices Beverly Segal walking up the block, and he's like a zombie, shuffling his feet back and forth..." and while their actions are hysterical it also shows them learning to deal with crushes on girls. Howie learns that his crush is a dream and his friends weren't honest with him. Lonnie learns the girl he has a crush on likes his best friend. Julian learns the girl he's sort of interested in has just manipulated him.

The last third of the novel has Julian realizing that he is just one of many people on earth. He repeatedly quotes Hamlet's comment on humans being the "quintessence of dust." Julian in many ways is a modern day Hamlet or at least a young adult from the 1960's. Like Hamlet, Julian doesn't know how to take effective action because he has a need for certainty which isn't going to happen in adolescence. When Julian starts talking about the "quintessence of dust" it is in situations where he doesn't believe he can act in a controlled and purposeful way. Like Hamlet, Julian thinks about actions in the abstract and oftentimes when he does act it is blind and emotional. In the end, he does learn to take reasonable action as shown in his gathering of friends to apologize to the person they were cruel to. In that regard he pulls away from Hamlet's obsession with death and chooses life. He is not a tragic figure. 

The beginning of the book shows how Julian will mindlessly do what his best friend asks him to do. Even though Julian is smarter than his friend, he is loyal and insists to everyone that begs to differ that Lonnie is a bright guy. Lonnie shows that he isn't bright and lacks the introspective quality that Julian has regarding his actions. Lonnie is insensitive about his mom's past, looks down on a kid with a disability, and usually comes up with the ideas that get Julian and his friends in trouble. It's hard because Lonnie isn't as sensitive as Julian nor does he appear to struggle with right and wrong like the Hamlet-like Julian. The girlfriend incident makes Julian realize that perhaps he needs to strike out a bit on his own and not "jump" at every suggestion Lonnie makes to the group. Lonnie leads the boys but they need to know when to stand up to him and when to follow. Eduardo is the foil that helps Julian realize this and was the only character that needed more fleshing out. Sometimes he sounded too old. Sometimes his English was too good. Other times he was funny. He's needed to show the character development and succeeds in doing just that. By the end, they all stand up to Lonnie in a funny and satisfying way. This well-written story would make a great discussion for any book club or classroom.

4 Smileys

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Royal Ranger (Ranger's Apprentice #12) by John Flanagan

An entertaining conclusion that comes full circle from the first book. Flanagan sticks to his usual formula of dry humor in the adult characters and a protagonist that grows up while facing dangers. While this story's pacing slows a bit in the middle because of the focus on training an apprentice, it picks up with an exciting ending. About 17 years has passed and Will Treaty is now middle-aged. Many of the characters from previous books have died or are dying. Others are doing well in old-age and have found happiness with a partner. Will has had a tragedy in his life that has left him grieving and unable to move on in life. When Halt comes up with a crazy plan for Will to apprentice the first girl Ranger, it's a challenge Will can't resist. It also helps him love someone again and begin healing from his own personal loss.

Flanagan creates strong female characters with flaws. Some might feel its slow as this girl Ranger grows up and makes mistakes while learning from them and changing. This part of the story which involves her training doesn't have as much action found in other Ranger Apprentice stories but I enjoyed the character development. It's Flanagan. I know the action will come on full force eventually. And it does. Will isn't as crotchety as Halt so there is less of a dynamic between the two, but Will is his own person and a good teacher. Will never got Halt's jokes in the previous novels but in this one he does get the girls. I kept waiting for that oddball humor to show up but it didn't. The horse humor does though. They are still talking to their anthropomorphic horses. I did laugh when Will got irritated with the girl for correcting him at times. Hmmm... imagine that... adults getting exasperated with kids. All-in-all good fun.

When the girl Ranger makes her first kill she is shocked and Flanagan shows this quite well. Then when she makes the second kill she isn't shocked at all and is glad her victim is dead. This didn't jive with the first reaction and I wondered how she hardened so quickly. I do think Flanagan does a nice job showing how a girl has to adapt to the physical differences of being a Ranger. She isn't going to be able to string a huge bow and must find a weapon that works for someone small and less muscular. She's quick and smart and it is these qualities that make her good. I did think it odd that she fell asleep in the middle of a battle. Wouldn't she have gone after Will right away? Or maybe that was showing she was a kid and not really a seasoned warrior. The series begins in book one with a boy apprentice who wants to be a knight but is too small and becomes a Ranger or spy. This last book comes full circle and has that same boy training the first girl Ranger. A nice ending to a fun series.

3 Smileys

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (Timmy Failure #1) by Stephan Pastis

In English classes, teachers often have lessons where students examine the reliability of a character's voice. Some tell the truth and some don't. Huckleberry Finn is an "unreliable narrator" who even says outright that sometimes he tells the truth, sometimes he lies, and sometimes he stretches the truth.  Take a look at Holden Caulfield in "Catcher and the Rye," another top-notch unreliable narrator spewing contradictory statements and hyperboles in most of his dialogue. Some unreliable narrators in children's literature are: "The False Prince" by Jennifer Nielsen, "Liar & Spy" by Rebecca Stead, and "Monster" by Walter Dean Myers. Add to that list, "Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made," except stamp some great comic book pictures along with text and a protagonist like Elmer Fudd and you have a comedic unreliable narrator that makes me think of the Looney Tunes cartoon characters I grew up with in the 60's and 70's. In some ways Timmy's character reminds me of Junie B. Jones who acts superior to others, calls people stupid, yells at adults, acts like a twit head, talks back, and is mean to most peers.  As the students say, "she's so dumb she's funny!" Timmy is so patently dumb he's funny too.

Timmy is a cathartic release of emotions for people who are either weary of making mistakes (like me) or afraid of making mistakes. Timmy makes mistakes. He drives a Failuremobile. He has a detective agency with a 1500 pound polar bear as a partner who never speaks in the book.  The first case mentioned in the plot involves a kid in Timmy's class who hires him to find his missing Halloween candy. Timmy sees the classmate's younger brother with wrappers and writes in his notebook that the kid "is not tidy." He's the world's worst detective and as a parade of characters continue so does the humor and evidence of Timmy's problems at home and school. One such character, Timmy's teacher, shows he shouldn't be teaching anymore. He lacks energy, enthusiasm, and calls Timmy, "Captain Thickhead." While the scene is funny, Pastis uses good comedic technique by observing or poking fun at the failures found in human nature. When the new creative teacher is hired, the contrast between the two is duly noted.

Timmy hasn't had an easy life and its his problems interspersed with the humor that make this book better than similar fare. His single mom has lost her job and is dating a loser boyfriend that puts Timmy down. His mom clearly loves Timmy, reading to him before bed, blowing in his ear trying to make him laugh, and disciplining him when necessary. He's a handful and she does the best she can but the two live in a one bedroom apartment and there is little space. His nemesis is a classmate, "Corrina, Corrina" who also has a detective agency, is smart, and has a more stable life. Timmy isn't even on her radar even though he thinks he is all she thinks about. He's failing school and his friend is the playground lady and polar bear that is either real or a figment of his imagination.

Pastis sure defies stereotypes. Take Flo the librarian that is short not for "Florence. It's short for 'Misshelve my books and the blood will FLOw." Timmy thinks that Flo gives him favors because he knows that he's a detective with connections to spring him from jail, need be. "And I, in turn, know he's looking out for the Timmynator." Flo looks like he belongs on a motorcycle wearing a leather vest with no shirt underneath and a World War I spiked German Helmet. Detective Timmy usually comes up with the most ludicrous reasons for solving his crimes and observing others. He notes that Flo reads dangerous books such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Emily Dickinson poetry. Timmy's delusional behavior hides the desperate side of his reality. I just saw a movie trailer for "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Timmy seems like the juvenile version of Walter Mitty.

One of my favorite parts is when Timmy has been grounded and forced to study because his mom got a letter from the principal saying he was failing grade level and would be held back. "I'm sitting there reading something about something when I see the pattern of the wood grain in my desk. And before I know it, I'm watching tiny me running through the maze." A funny illustration of big-Timmy and mini-Timmy tooling on the wood grain with big Timmy cheering "Go, me, go"  accompanies the text. Timmy's muses, "And away goes an hour. So I try to read again. But I hear a dog. Which makes me think of cars. Which rhymes with jars. Which hold mayonnaise. So now I'm eating a bologna sandwich. And two hours are gone. So I try to study again." I had a laugh-out-loud moment on the elliptical machine scaring the woman chugging away next to me.

Timmy is a bit of a kindred spirit. I sat down to write this book review and the sunshine slashed a bright path across the smooth tile floor. It radiated warmth. What goes with warm sunshine? A chocolate sundae. I looked in the freezer. No ice cream. Ah, but a handy-dandy ice cream shop is around the corner. I snuck there and and smothered my chocolate ice cream with M & M's. And there goes an hour. Then I looked at the kitchen table. The Pringles chips looked good. Which rhymes with tingles. Which made me go eat them. Which reminded me to make a dentist appointment. Which reminded me to pack my tennis bag and prepare a lesson for coaching tomorrow. And now two hours are gone. I'm back at my laptop. The sun is gone. Ah well. I'll try again.

When I was in college we used to stick popcorn up our nose and sing into our curling irons like microphones. And no, I did this perfectly sober. Okay... maybe I'm being an unreliable narrator with an unreliable memory, but that's besides the point. One of the things I love working with kids is they remind me to lighten up and be silly like I did as a kid (or young adult). When Timmy sticks three pencils up his nose because Rollo is so serious about studying I guffawed pretty loud while reading that on the elliptical machine. It was the second time I startled a girl exercising next to me. The text reads, "Here's how I teach Rollo" and the photo has Timmy with one eye looking dead on and the other slightly askew. A pencil hangs from each nose and one is sticking out of his ear with the speech bubble, "How'd those get in there?" Juvenile, silliness abounds with some heartfelt issues that Timmy is dealing with that make this quite witty and more memorable than the influx of Diary-of-a-Wimpy-Kid-wanna-be's. Stephen Pastis was a lawyer before becoming a syndicated cartoonist and is most known for the comic strip, "Pearls Before Swine." His adult wit and childish humor should make this popular with the middle grade readers. Toss in some really funny illustrations and you have a winner.  Move over Junie B. Jones. You've met your match.

4 Smileys

The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas by David Almond, Oliver Jeffers (Illustrations)

"Would you like my lads to see who is tooting' their hooter and put it to a halt?" asks Clarence P. Clapp regarding a car that is honking its horn at an "ossifer." Clarence is the king of malapropisms, mispronunciations, and misspellings in this goofy story by David Almond. While it nods it head at the great Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky using some literary techniques found in his works and even naming one of the characters after him, it is Almond's own creation with childlike and satirical human behavior. My brain kept trying to pull out fragments of Dostoyevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamzov, that I read decades ago. I repeat, decades. I have a fuzzy recall of Dostoyevsky using malapropisms and having an intrusive narrator that enhances the theme of truth just like Almond has an omniscient narrator that enhances the theme of choosing your own destiny to the point that the reader chooses the villain's ending, but I might be wrong. The unfinished ending that tells the reader to choose the villain's resolution might frustrate some readers and I've read a few reviews on Goodreads that express this exact disappointment, but personally, I thought it was funny and figured, of course, the daft Clapp who is full of crap would jump in with the piranhas. I'd eat him if I was a piranha. But what will students think of all the metaphorical silliness? That's the question I'm not sure how to answer. It might be just a bit too weird for them. Or they'll laugh their heads off.

Stanley Potts has quit school to help his uncle Ernie with his new business venture of canning fish. When his aunt gives Stanley money for his birthday and the day off he goes to the carnival and buys some goldfish that sets off a series of events leading to him running away from home. He works for the carnival goldfish stall run by the man, Dostoyevsky, and his daughter, Nitasha, where Stanley changes them into regarding the goldfish as something special and seeing the world as having possibilities. He gives them hope, which in turn, gives them joy. When Pancho Pirelli, the famous man who swims with the piranhas decides to take Stanley on as an apprentice, Stanley decides to forge his own identity and do what brings him happiness.

The many points of view give different messages and themes such as growing up, taking risks, dealing with nasty people, becoming independent, getting a first job, finding your identity, reinventing yourself, finding your special talent, finding something that makes you happy, creating your own history, and discovering the possibilities in life - to name a few. The silly, nonsensical Clarence P. Clapp is great satire on the theme that extreme behavior even when representing good or the law, as in Clapp's occupation, can be bad. Extremist views can justify actions that cross the line of justice to persecution and Clapp seems to show this at the end. He's destroyed Ernie's business but continues to zealously attack Stanley Potts and his family.  He's so convinced of his righteousness that he will swim with the piranhas because he thinks he understands them versus representing their ruthless feeding side more than anything else. Perhaps Stanley will save Clapp as he has saved so many people in the story.

At first I thought Gypsy Rose was going to follow the cliched, stereotypical path of the greedy gypsy, but she not only foreshadows Stanley's future, she philosophically tells him to pursue his heart's desires, forgive those who make mistakes, and to not be afraid. She uses a beam of moonlight as a means of payment and what started out as a minor character I wasn't sure about was one that became interesting as the story progressed. Come to think of it, I didn't like Dostoyevsky at first either. Many characters come across as cartoonish at first and get more interesting as the plot unfolds.

This book is very artistic and as a librarian with decades of reading literature, I appreciate what David Almond does in this tale. I don't know if young readers will delight in it. Is it too weird? Is the character too unapproachable? I admire Almond's piece of work and the risk he takes creating something quite different from the norm. There are many factors that prevent authors in general from pushing boundaries whether in children's literature or elsewhere. I had a conversation with my dad, an architect, who talked about how difficult it was for him to take risks with building designs because of potential client loss. To teach the value of making mistakes is not a part of the cultural norm. And what if the mistake costs oodles of money? Is this book a mistake, you ask? I don't think so. The nice thing about Almond is he has a strong following and can take risks. Okay. Enough musings. Oliver Jeffers illustrations and their understated simplicity complement the text quite well and add to the humor. Children's literature needs these type of books, but this one might need explaining by teachers to young readers.  Decide for yourself. Obviously, I can't.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson

Deborah Hopkinson knows how to pass on interesting historical facts. While I've read her nonfiction books, this is the first fiction book of hers that I've read and I'm not surprised that I found the story lacking a bit in character development, but full of great facts. Hopkinson presents an interesting study of how an epidemic spreads throughout a community as a medical professional, with the assistant of an orphan, studies patterns and causes in an effort to determine the origin of a disease.

Eel is an orphan in 1854 London who has gotten a job at the Lion Brewey, a lucky break that pulls him away from full-time mudlarking, a type of scavenging for junk from the Thames river to sell to traders. Eel has a secret and must make more money than the average mudlarker. When his stable job is threatened and the townspeople around the Broad Street Water pump get sick with cholera, Eel finds himself helping Dr. John Snow a man who believes previous theories of the disease being air-borne as incorrect. Eel isn't sure he can help Dr. Snow prove his theory but he is willing to help him.

Eel begins the story with a heavy accent while talking to Jake. This gets lost later in the story and he sounds more educated as the story goes on, especially at the end with Dr. Snow who is trying to teach him to think like a scientist in regards to the patterns of cholera in the neighborhood. I thought that perhaps knowing the source of cholera would take too much tension out of the story, but it is more about solving where the original source of the contamination occurred and the process for mapping it out.

The subplot with Eel and his mysterious money was predictable and didn't interest me as much as the main story. It adds to the story as a whole and is necessary but I thought it was too predictable and I wasn't vested in those characters as much as the process for figuring out the disease. I have always found epidemiology fascinating and the manner in which scientists determine what causes an outbreak and its source is a bit of a mystery. This story helps give a glimpse of evidence-based decisions in medicine that lead to improved public health. Normally I am drawn to a story by the characters rather than the nonfiction elements, but that was not the case here.

3 Smileys

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

Vampirism as an epidemic. An interesting premise that doesn't quite work in Holly Black's latest book. Tana wakes up after passing out at a party to find everyone violently murdered by vampires. They missed her because she was behind the shower curtain in the bathtub. When she finds her ex-boyfriend, Aiden, and a vampire, Gavriel, chained in a room, she helps them escape as the vampires return to the crime scene. If you are looking for light entertainment with not many plot twists, fair world-building, and a vampire love story then you'll enjoy this one. The gory, violent start grabbed my attention with a main character who seemed unhinged because of her guilt over causing the death of her vampire mother as a young girl; however, the story sputters later in the novel and doesn't come together in a satisfying way for me.

Tana was scratched by a vampire along with Aiden who was bitten at the party. After their escape, they traveled to Coldtown knowing their vampire symptoms would show in 48 hours. Coldtowns were cities where vampires and humans were trapped and quarantined after an outbreak of newly turned vampires infecting too many humans as a result of the side effect of crazed bloodlust. Outside the cities vampires were hunted and killed, but inside they were left alone. Coldtowns showed how vampires and humans lived side-by-side glamorizing the immortal life of vampires and broadcasting to the world lavish vampire parties and decadent lifestyles. Daily deaths were common in these towns and not broadcast with the vampire as predator and the human as prey. The Coldtowns were supposed to keep vampires and people from leaving but Lucien's gang managed to leave and return. Humans could leave with a marker but that was a rare occurrence and not always honored by authorities.

Tana knew that if infected by her scratch at the party, she and Aiden had another chance to not become vampires by spending 88 dangerous days dealing with the infection quarantined in Coldtown.  No cops or bounty hunters would come looking for them and she wouldn't put her dad and sister at risk of getting infected. Also, the success of this method was not guaranteed. Tana, Aidan, and Gavriel picked up two humans who wanted to become vampires in Coldtown. The one girl was addicted to her celebrity online status and was choosing to be a vampire for all the wrong reasons. Her twin brother questioned the intelligence of their actions but followed her anyway.  They represented those who found the thought of being immortal tantalizing and basked in the glow of an online presence that gave them an identity. Tana's younger sister was lured by the Coldtown glamor while their father thought of vampires as monsters, no longer human. When Tana got there she found that the humans were easy prey for the vampires and it was difficult to survive at the bottom of the food chain. She did find good people in Jameson and Valentina who became trapped when the quarantine happened, but they are the exceptions not the rule.

The world-building explained the Coldtowns and politics of vampires, but human prejudices toward vampires and vice versa could have been clearer. Tana valued her humanity above all else and the overarching message of "is a vampire human" and according to Tana, yes, got muddied at the end of the story.  Gavriel was attracted to Tana because she saved him and showed kindness, while her fatal attraction was tied in with the guilt of causing her mother's death and being bitten once. Tana's father was the character most prejudiced against vampires seeing them as monsters but his point of view wasn't explored in-depth. Instead he seemed to be in denial over the horror of how he protected their family. At the end when Tana started acting more like a vampire who kills, versus a human the overarching message of being prejudiced against those who are different was lost. When Tana setup a camera at the end, I thought she was really out of character reminding me of Midnight and Lucien who were into the celebrity status. Yes, she was also trying to show how to detox her vampire poisoning or whatever you want to call it, but someone had already done that on the Internet so wasn't she showing the same self-narcissism the others showed? The whole "you are now famous," for killing a vampire seemed contradictory to what she represented as a human being. Then throw in the lack of remorse when killing other vampires and she seemed like the monster or more like her father.

Holly Black has written many novels and is skilled at the craft. I thought the book was interesting until everyone went their separate ways in Coldtown. That's when the plot weakened for me and the love story didn't quite work. Gavriel was an ancient vampire and up to that point Tana kept surprising him by being unpredictable. When Tana's motivation became to save her sister it pulled the story away from Gavriel and Tana's romance creating two story lines that weren't as interesting as Tana's self-destructive behaviors found in the beginning. Or perhaps too many characters started to dilute the main and secondary ones. I wasn't particularly interested in Valentina and Jameson although I understand they were supposed to represent "good" people in a dystopian society. I would have preferred the annoying Aiden getting more page time.

I struggled with this book's use of flashbacks to give the back story of vampires. Flashbacks interrupt the narrative and I have a personal dislike for most that I come across. This is more personal taste and they have to be really well done for me to not skim. I tend to feel annoyed because something exciting was happening in the plot and blammo, I'm back hearing some ancient vampire history. Then I buzz through the chapter to get back to the action and miss some crucial detail that would fill in the gaps of the world-building because of my impatience. I say this because I might have done that with this book and that is why I wasn't sure how Lucien's minions got out and perhaps I misinterpreted the overarching theme. I should read it again but it just didn't sustain my interest enough.

2 Smileys

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz

This is not an action-stuffed animal, but instead a thought-provoking drama that would make for good discussions with grades 5 and up. When an escaped convict flees to Annie, Rew, and Gran's house taking the family hostage, the threesome examine their lives, the definition of a criminal, and making ethical choices. What at first seems black and white to Annie and Rew's childlike view, becomes fuzzy as they get to know the convict and his history. Unsure what to do with their new knowledge, Annie and Rew must decide what is the right thing to do and in the process grow up and mature quickly.

Eleven-year-old Annie is a well-developed character as the story is told from her first person point of view. While her internal changes and struggles are clear, Rew and Gran suffer a bit more in the tale. Gran seems to be suffering from depression and while Dad and daughter discuss if she's broken and do not think so, I thought her grief from losing her husband and the trauma of her son's situation meant she needed some counseling and/or medication. She was a mess. Rew suffers from anger issues, and while Annie reminds the reader of it, he seemed to be slamming his bedroom door repetitively. The climax shows him being transformed by an incident in a way that clarifies the extreme stubbornness.

When the convict escapes from the jail by their house and takes them hostage, the three know he is a murderer. As Annie learns his story over a period of time, her view of him changes from one that is "bad" to one that has "made a mistake." She finds that her hate has turned to empathy and she isn't sure she likes it. While the circumstances surrounding the randomness of the convict happening to find their house stretches the imagination, not to mention that it contradicts Gran's attempt to erase their existence to the point a lawyer can't find them, it is necessary for the plot to move forward. While a bit weak in plot structure, the strong character development makes up for it.  

The chapters are short and the book is roughly 200 pages. while I wasn't convinced that the girl wouldn't tell someone in the beginning about the convict, I was convinced later on as she learned the convict's story. The author addresses this by her worrying that the family would get shot like the hostages in Iran. The parallels between Rew and Annie's situation and the pirates in "Treasure Island" was an interesting touch in showing how the two cope with anger and neglectful adults. Annie is self-reliant and forced to be more grown-up than most children her age. She talks about how her Gran as being an excellent liar and not being so bad at it herself. She lies to the social worker because she doesn't want to be separated from her family and makes the best of her situation. More importantly, she learns the importance of facing problems, acceptance, and forgiving mistakes in others.

4 Smileys

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Boy On The Porch by Sharon Creech

This beautifully written book reads like an adult short story. The child, Jacob, in the story is mute and the point-of-view comes strictly from the adults. Jacob plays, draws, and interacts with the people and animals, but he never speaks out loud. It reminds me of the book, "The Prince Who Fell from the Sky," that has a boy who has no dialogue in the story. This technique makes me identify with the adult voice and seems off-kilter for the target audience of children. I liked the adult perspective on the uncertainties of being a parent, but will young readers connect with the characters and plot? I'm not sure. The pacing might be slow for some young readers, but oh-my, I do like how Sharon Creech puts sentences together. Just as Jacob taps out songs and sounds on any object he can find, Creech has a rhythm to her sentences that makes me want to sing. My only question is the audience and what students will think of the book.

John and Marta find a six or seven-year old boy, Jacob, abandoned on their porch with a note asking them to look after him. The note says the person will come back and get him, but as time passes it seems very unlikely. Because Jacob can't speak, John and Marta cannot find out any information from him about his past and who wrote the note. Months go by and they come to love the boy like their own child making them fearful of him being taken back and marring their happiness as a family. A nice message regarding what makes a family.

This story is about the transformation of John and Marta from a childless couple to learning what it means to love and care for a young boy. John is worried Jacob isn't boyish enough while Marta worries about him not having friends. They nurture his talent for music and painting and do not bully or criticize him. In return, he loves them unconditionally. The two struggle with telling the authorities about the lost boy because they don't really want him to be found by the person who left the note. They eventually do the right thing, but almost lose the boy over their choice. Creech shows how their decision was from a good heart, even if misguided. The story also shows the lack of laws in place to protect children from parents who don't know how to parent. In this regard, it might be a good book for a book club with grade 5 students. The story is only 150 pages so it is a quick read. The plot is well organized and the tension from wondering when or if the parents will come back for the boy kept me turning the pages. Like I said, I just don't know if students will take interest.

4 Smileys

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

A second grade teacher was asking for book recommendations that she could read out loud with her first grade son. I can't wait to put this one in her hands. It enters an age range of books that is oh-so-hard to find in elementary libraries. Picture books. Check. Early readers. Check. Transitional readers. Ummm... half a check. And boy protagonists? A fourth a check. "The Stories Julian Tells" comes to mind, along with "The No. 1 Car Spotter," and the Roscoe Riley series, but honest-to-Pete there are not a ton of choices. I usually feel relieved when the child moves on to the next level in reading fluency because I know I'm running low on recommendations. This must be a difficult age range to write for as an adult, especially creating an authentic character. The author needs to capture the emotional development of a child who is just beginning to recognize his or her individuality and attempt to learn self-control while adapting to other adult ideas of behavior. Henkes not only encapsulates Billy's 7-8 year-old age range, but he shows Billy's three-year-old sister as dealing with parent separation anxiety, tantrums, and sibling issues. I highly recommend this well-written book.

Billy is worried about going to second grade especially when he overhears his mom express her concern over a fall he took that gave him a concussion. When school starts he has problems dealing with his classmate, Emma. As their confrontation escalates he makes an inappropriate gesture at the teacher and tries to fix it by being kind. He's learning what it means to behave toward others and how he fits in the classroom community as an individual. At home Billy realizes that his father isn't happy and knows it has to do with being an artist but doesn't really understand why until he makes a diorama for a class project. Unhappy with his project, he realizes that his dad feels the same way about his artwork. He doesn't express it this way but tells his dad what a great artist he is and asks him to make some dioramas because he liked them. One difficulty in creating a young protagonist is that they can't sound like an adult and Henkes does a terrific job showing Billy's growth that reflects his immature age.

Kids are trying to gain confidence at this age and the adults in the story nurture and help Billy in his growth of understanding himself as a person. As he thinks about growing up and being older he decides that he will no longer call his dad, "papa," and mom, "mama," because of peers teasing him and wanting to sound older. His sister annoys him much of the time and he likes to act superior to her, but when she tries to stay up all night with him, he decides she is not so bad. He even recognizes that she needs his pearl because she believes it is magic. He knows that it isn't magic and that he doesn't need it like she does, although when he has to go speak in front of a microphone he borrows it for confidence. He also likes to say "mama" and "papa" once in a while. This back-and-forth between acting older and younger makes for an authentic protagonist.

Two items stood out for me and please think of them as observations rather than criticisms. If I had a book club, I'd discuss my first question with them. Or I'd bring it up to get their experiences. They might look at me cross-eyed or agree. Who knows? I thought Billy's sister would have a tantrum when Billy asked for the pearl back and that their mom would have to interfere because of a fight but that doesn't happen. His sister just gives it back because she knows it is Billy's toy. Most three-year-olds I've dealt with have no clue how to share and express emotions physically. Billy's sister doesn't seem to represent the norm that I've dealt with, but I have not spent a lot of time around three-year-olds as of late. It doesn't take away from the story, I'm just curious if anyone else had similar thoughts. The other question I had concerned the poetry unit Billy was doing in grade 2 where the teacher was doing free verse, Limericks, and Haiku. My experience is that this unit is too advanced for that age in general. I know in first grade students only learn to read poetry, not write it. Second grade would just be learning to write it and the unit would be simpler. When Billy wrote his poem it was age appropriate and beautiful in its simplicity so in all fairness even if I'm right the unit is just a minor thing that makes no difference in the end.

The writing is beautiful and Henkes creates a mood and imaginative world that comes to life. He shows how young kids worry about things quite different than adults through the eyes of Billy. When we meet the dolls called, "The Drop Sisters," that Billy's sister has to have seats for at a restaurant, we are reminded of the imaginative play of toddlers that is so real to them. In the chapter where Billy invents a dragon called, "Coughdrop," that coughs when answering "The Drop Sisters" it is brilliant. Billy starts out the chapter annoyed with his sister who is having a tantrum and ends with a fun imaginative playdate late in the evening in his sister's bedroom.  Billy feels comforted by his sister's presence considering there is a monster under his bed. A gorgeous book.

5 Smileys

The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell

A student asked me to read this and while I can see why she liked it with the romance and adventure, I know I won't remember it a few months from now. The lack of characters changing internally and missing background knowledge for the setting made parts confusing.  My imagined characters kept changing as details slowly leaked out of the storyline. At times not enough information was given and at other times the details were rushed when the author should have zoomed in on an important point. The mish-mash of myths, fairy tales, and folklore made for an interesting combination but in the end failed to rise above the pitfalls of pacing and background set-up.

Reveka is the daughter of a gardener at the castle where there is a curse on the Prince's daughters, the twelve princesses, who have to dance each night until they have holes in their shoes. The Prince has offered a reward to anyone who can break the spell, but people who try to save them either fall into an enchanted sleep or disappear. Reveka is apprenticed to a monk and studies herbs. She's trying to break the curse because she wants the reward to establish her own herbary and further study it as a career. With the help of another herb apprentice, Didina, they uncover clues that leads Reveka into the Underworld where she must make a choice to save those she loves.

The plot. Where to start? Not enough information was given up front resulting in too much confusion. The beginning has a barrage of princesses and princes and one with a "tavern wench accent." I am going to give some spoilers but I think they will help in understanding what is going on; otherwise it isn't really clear until the very end of the book. The princesses are not sisters but half-sisters. I think the prince slept with someone in a local tavern, but how the heck they ended up in the castle and what mom thought about it is not explained. And mom is called, the Princess Consort. I know some students will be confused by that not being familiar with the term. I think the Princess Consort should have been used more to give background details as to the history of the royal family. As is, I felt like I was piecing together a quilt but missing half the pieces. Many things did not make sense.

My confusion continued with the introduction of the cowherd boy Reveka's age who is described as having "forget-me-not-eyes" and a "rosebud mouth." He sounds like a child or girl by that description. My image of him was way off and I had to go back and reread to figure out his age. At times the dialogue was awkward and I wasn't sure who was whom such as when Didina appears in the book. I thought she was a princess at first. The sleepers are poorly explained and I misread it as being two people. There were many sleepers and I needed more of an explanation of how they got there and what the tower looked like visually. The plot is moved forward with Reveka having dreams but they seemed clumsy and just an easy way out rather than a clever plot technique. Or maybe I'm just tired of that device. Or maybe it was overused in this story. Then when Pa goes from gardener to soldier I was really confused. Not to mention the whole convent, lying, no mother backdrop that was not clearly presented.

There are two separate stories, the first a fairy tale and the second a myth. I found the second story more interesting than the first which follows the fairy tale too closely. I thought the second was going to be a Beauty and the Beast retelling, but the author varies it enough that it is different from the classic. The characters don't really change much internally and while the villain becomes slightly more complex in the second half the tension is lost on him being scary. Nor is enough of his background explained as to how he became Lord of the Underworld. The author keeps the tension up by throwing in "darkness" as the new villain. However, this wasn't enough to give the characters depth. Their motivations are never fully explained from their past and the ending just seemed rushed. Not enough teasers are given nor was I vested in the characters enough to be interested in reading a sequel. In the end, this just didn't reach its potential.

2 Smileys