Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Where I Live by Eileen Spinelli

This novel-in-verse is a quick read that captures the emotional turmoil of losing a job, moving away from family and friends, and starting over in a new city from the point of view of an 8 or 9 year old. Diana's sun-drenched yellow house with white shutters, a maple tree, and daffodils is "stitched against the sky," providing comfort and security like the wren's nest cradled in the wreath on the front door. She wants a new bike for her upcoming birthday and has a lovable and annoying younger sister called, "Twink." Her best friend Rose wears a floppy purple hat and goes cross-eyed when Diana gushes about nebulas and stars. Diana's second passion is poetry. When she wins a poetry contrast Twink can't understand why since her poems "don't rhyme." When her father loses his job and her grandpa falls ill, Diana is upset by her parents decision to move in with grandpa.

While the words and imagery are not complex, making this book accessible to young readers, the complex situations and changes within the character, Diana, make it good for older readers striving for language fluency. The illustrations support the text and plot offering another reading aid. Diana's situation is relatable for many readers whether dealing with losing and making a friend or stressful situations resulting from a sick relative or financial difficulties. The anger that Diana expresses is authentic and her vulnerability makes it easy to get into the story. She changes from resenting her family's move to accepting it.

The younger sister offers comic relief from being sweet and annoying. When Twink sees that Diana is sad because she didn't get the bike she expected due to her father's job loss, Twink wraps her favorite stuffed toy, George, and gives it to Diana. Twink looks like she is about 4 years old and as most readers know, sharing is mighty hard for little kiddos. I laughed when she tells Diana she's "loanding" George and wants him back by the end of the day. The illustration of "itchy" Twink in the carseat with her mouth wide open complaining about the long ride is my favorite. Diana is giving her the evil eye that Twink is oblivious too. The next page shows Diana holding Twink as a baby who is stroking her cheek lovingly. The sibling dynamic of loving each other and fighting is well-done in the text and photos.

When Diana moves she meets a boy her age and struggles with being his friend because he is a boy. Even though Sam Peter Ling "...loves astronomy as much as I do," has a telescope, plays her favorite game "Scrabble," and has star parties, she doesn't like that he is a boy. Diana seems to be having an issue with gender segregation. She verbalizes it to Diana and Sam, who respond to her concerns by asking why does that matter? I like the simplicity of their response. Diana seems to agree with them because the next page has Diana getting a new bike and the subsequent page has her describing her new house and new friend. I did want a page of Diana deciding that its okay to have a friend that is a boy versus the reader having to infer it. In a nice circular ending, the last page has Diana describing her new house and plans she has made with her new friend.

The bird's nest on the door becomes home to three chicks named, "Snap, Crackle, Pop," by Twink and they move before Diana's family. The nest is a symbol of Diana's home and the birds are a symbol of Diana's family. She hopes that the birds will visit them in their new place. When she moves and her grandpa shows her a way to stay in touch with her friend Rose, she realizes that she doesn't have to say goodbye permanently. She and Rose can still communicate. Bird's are dependent in the nest until they learn to fly on their own. Diana is learning to be independent and make new friends. She is growing up and changing becoming more mature. Like the birds that flew away, she too, is learning to spread her wings and soar.

4 Smileys

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Nightingale's Nest by Nikki Loftin

This book was beautiful and disturbing. The first time Little John hears Gayle singing he describes, "The notes were high and liquid, a honey-soft river of sound that seeped right through me. I stopped when I heard the first notes and just stood there, dropping cedar cuttings at my feet. The song sailed over the fence, like it was meant for me alone." Little John is helping his dad with his business by cutting and removing Pecan trees at a rich man's house dubbed, "The Emperor," when Little John hears Gayle singing next door. She's the same age as his younger sister who just died in an accident. Gayle is a foster kid that is abused by her foster brother, Jeb Cutlin, and his mom, Mrs. Verlie Cutlin. Gayle hides in a nest that she built in a tree and sings to keep from despairing. She believes her parents can only find her in the nest. Little John and the Cutlin's live in poverty and life is difficult at home for Little John. His mom cannot accept her daughter's death and is not functioning on all cylinders. His dad drinks away his pain until he is in a stupor. When Little John makes a series of devastating mistakes he must decide between betraying his friendship with Gayle or saving his family from losing their home.

*spoilers - shucks, I can't seem to write a review without spoilers.*
I don't read any reviews or the blurb before reading a book. I don't want to be prejudiced in any way. I loved the magical realism and fairy tale link to Hans Christian Anderson's "Nightingale." It wasn't until the Emperor called his tape recorder a "cage" that I remembered the story and started to see the connections between the two. The reader first knows that Gayle's voice heals when she sings and the cut on Little John's hand heals. Later when she heals a deer that is near death, the reader knows that this story is part fairy tale. Because of this, the ending worked for me with Gayle's transformation.

Gayle can't heal everyone but she does make an impact on Little John and his dad, the latter smiling for the first time in ten months after he hears her sing. Mrs. Cutlin and Jeb are immune to Gayle's singing suggesting they are beyond curing. The characters are not completely one-dimensional villains. Jeb will vacillate between being a bully and showing glimmers of his humanity. The Emperor wants Gayle's voice for purely selfish reasons. Gayle said she could fix Little John inside. Gayle brings healing just like the Nightingale in Hans Christian Andersen's story. But this suggests that Gayle heals Little John by forgiving him; thus, allowing him to forgive himself for hurting Gayle and causing his sister's accident that killed her.

While Little John's family does not live in extreme poverty, they are poor and struggling at not making enough money to pay the rent. The death and funeral expenses of his sister has wiped out any savings and Nikki Loftin not only shows how poverty effects Little John's family decisions, but leads to insecurity, powerlessness, and susceptibility to violence in the community. Little John wants to do the right thing, but his family needs the money so badly that he intentionally breaks his promise to Gayle of never cutting down her tree or nest of refuge. In addition, Little John is so ashamed of his family's poverty that he breaks off his friendship with his best friend, Ernest.

The author presents some of the ugliness resulting in people's desperate need for money from the bruises on Gayle's arms and face to the whipping that Little John gets from his dad. The Cutlins take in foster children for the money only, not because they want to help or nurture children. When Little John gets beaten with a belt, his father doesn't ask Little John's side of the story; he is just angry about the money and believes the Emperor's side of the story. Money is always the priority for these desperate families; at the expense of character and doing the right thing. Later, the mom asks the dad why he's so hard on the boy and in a heartbreaking explanation the dad says it is the only way he knows how to parent. The physical abuse and harsh discipline might disturb some younger readers, but it is explained after-the-fact and there is no descriptive violence. I was most bothered by the Emperor coming across as a pedophile. He isn't, but the situation captures the difficulty of knowing when it is appropriate to take action as an adult or child. Little John should have talked to his dad about his suspicions. He does talk to the dad about the bruises on Gayle's arm and the dad agrees to let Little John spend time with Gayle. Even the adults don't take the right actions. Of course, his dad's job depends on him treading carefully and his dad can't cope with his daughter's death, much less whether or not his employer is a pedophile.

Little John struggles with the definition of saving people and being a man. He wants to atone for his mistake of causing his sister's death by saving Gayle, but realizes that he can't save her. He wants to protect Gayle from the Emperor, the Cutlins, and loss, but he fails miserably for the most part. The adults force him to compromise his morals for money, from the Emperor threatening to take away his father's job to his dad telling him to cut down Gayle's tree to save them from eviction. Ironically, Gayle loses her "nest" home at the expense of Little John keeping his. The Cutlins use stolen money to have Gayle's tree removed for a garden that will feed them. There is a cycle of violence surrounding money by the adults that disregards the feelings of Little John and Gayle and even Jeb. One reason Jeb is a bully is to try and have some power in his powerless life. This lack of authority reflects the nature of childhood. However, Little John realizes that he can make small differences when he stands up to the Emperor, "He had no power over me. He looked broken, kneeling there. As broken as Gayle. As broken as my dad."

Little John wonders what it is like to be a man and thinks of his dad and poverty and Gayle. He knows that his dad scrapes and bows to the Emperor even though he dislikes him. He doesn't want to be that way, but is forced to because his family needs a home. He knows that the only person who can give him work is the Emperor. However, when he asks for work, the Emperor asks him to have Gayle sing for him again. The first time he did this Gayle lost her voice and was devastated. Little John was ashamed that he used his friendship with Gayle to make her sing for the Emperor who gave him $500. When the Emperor asks a second time, Little John stands up to him and does what he should have done the first time. He says he won't have Gayle hurt again.

Little John wants to protect Gayle and while he is able to stand up to Jeb, his peer, throughout the novel, he learns how to stand up to powerful adults even if it means loss of money or home for his family or a whipping. In a nice scene that foreshadows the resolution, Little John tells Gayle she can't fix all the hurts and she says neither can he. In a beautiful parable called, "The Treasure Nest," at the end, Little John describes Gayle's singing that symbolizes him as a tree and her as a bird. They are both broken but find beauty in friendship and protection. Gayle teaches that, "Treasures don't come from the store, Little John." A subplot on Little John's friendship troubles with Ernest shows that he has learned that friendship is a "treasure" and that true friends forgive the mistakes of others.

Tree stumps symbolize Little John's (whose nicknamed, "Tree," by Gayle) growth internally. When Little John cuts down Gayle's tree, he gets sick over his betrayal of their friendship. He muses over the leftover stump a symbol of their injured friendship. The tree has not been completely dug up or burnt suggesting there is time to salvage the friendship. In another instance, Little John looks at a different tree stump that is in their yard - the one that killed his sister - and it painfully reminds him of her and how he caused her death when he jumped from the tree and his sister imitated him breaking her neck in the fall. His memories slowly turn from hating trees and himself to forgiveness. He is responsible for her death and must find a way to forgive his mistake. He's like the stumps. Broken and cut to the core, but from his friendship with Gayle, the singing nightingale, he can begin to heal. Little John looks at situations with a raw honesty that is moving and memorable. He refreshingly takes responsibility for his actions and admits when he is wrong. Forgiveness is a strong theme in this novel. Even the Emperor asks for Gayle's forgiveness, although he loses his voice as a consequence of his actions. When Little John climbs the tree to give Gayle the nest he made with his hair, he shows someone of great character that is willing to face his fears and live life in a positive way.

The writing is gorgeous in this book. "She nodded, her head bobbling like a heavy sunflower on a too-narrow stalk, and edged out a bit more on the branch. Her feet were bare, and dirty. Her toes were a thin as the rest of her, and kind of long - she used them to clutch the branch she was on just like a baby bird would." The contrast between poverty of the characters and the beauty of the singing helped balance what could have been a dark, depressing book. The author also shows the community trying to help Little John's family during their troubles by bringing them dinners and showing kindness. Amidst the desperation, hope shines forth. This rich and complex book has the elements of an award-winner that sings. Don't miss it.

5 Smileys

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

"She had expected magic to be simple and tidy, with people disappearing in puffs of smoke - not slowly, by degrees, in a lonely, aching way." What a great line. Not only does it describe the boy who is magically fading from the world, but it reminded me of illnesses and aging. My mom has Alzheimer's and I feel like she is fading by "...degrees in a lonely, aching way." Ophelia Worthington-Whittard, the 11-year-old protagonist, has recently lost her mom to cancer and her father and older sister are dealing with the loss in different ways. Her sister has become cranky and removed from the world while her dad is completely absorbed in work. He doesn't want to talk about their mom's death at all. The family moves to an unnamed icy-cold city where her father has been hired to curate an exhibition of swords that is opening in a short while for the city's museum. Ophelia explores the museum that is full of curious and odd collections. When she discovers the imprisoned Marvelous boy that has no name, she must decide whether to free him or not and save the world from being destroyed by the Snow Queen.

Ophelia does not believe in herself and this story is as much about her growing in confidence and learning to deal with loss, as going on a quest to free the Marvelous boy from his entrapment and save the world. Ophelia has asthma and deals with her fears by taking a puff on her inhaler when her life is in endanger. The plot is predictable as to what sword is arriving, what will happen when the clock winds down, what happens to Alice, who is the Snow Queen, and who is the One Other. The boy gives his background story as to how he ended up trapped in the room. It is given in small doses and interwoven into the storyline showing a lonely, self-centered king that makes friends with the Marvelous boy only to be bewitched by the Snow Queen. The setting creates a wonderful mood and the writing spoke to me about loss. The themes of friendship, self-worth, and grief add depth and complexity lacking in the simple plot. The author puts in enough mystery that I kept wondering until the end if Ophelia was making up the entire story in her head. Her dead mother was a famous writer who believed in ghosts, vampires, and strange creatures.

Ophelia struggles with denial during her quest to help the Marvelous boy. She counters her imagination and what is happening by talking about facts and thinking of Children's Science Society of Greater London; how the members would be disgusted with her for listening to the boy and believing in magic. As the story progresses Ophelia hears her mom's voice in her head guiding and encouraging her on the quest to free the boy and find the magical sword. Ophelia slowly puts faith in her imagination rather than always being pragmatical. When the Marvelous boy gives her the magical sword he commands, "Ophelia Jane Worthington-Wittard... I invest in you the power to be the defender of goodness and happiness and hope." When Ophelia wields it at the end it symbolizes her slaying unhappiness and moving on in her grief over the death of her mom. At the beginning of the story she rationalizes everything and at the end she learns to trust in her imaginative, emotional side.

The story of her saving the boy is so closely connected to her mom and her mom's voice inside her head that I wondered if Ophelia was making the entire fantasy up as a way to deal with her mom's death. Is she saving the Marvelous boy or her mom from dying of cancer? She misses her mom so desperately that she counts to the hour when she died. The boy has also lost his mom by having to go on a quest to defeat the Snow Queen. When Ophelia meets the ghostly girls I was wondering if her mom would make an afterlife appearance. This tension made me look forward to the ending even though the plot was predictable with the reader knowing well in advance the characters that are the One Other and Snow Queen. The mom being the storyteller and writer sets-up this dynamic in an unexpected way. Other details such as the coat pocket being a source of comfort when she thinks of her mom and later being ripped off symbolizes her mom being ripped from the family's lives.

A major theme is courage that is found not only in Ophelia's actions but the subplot involving Kyra and the magical owl, Ibrom. Both make choices to help others; the result being betrayal to the group they belong to. Both courageously act to help someone trying to do a good deed rather than blindly following their groups and not questioning decisions. Mobs, peer pressure, or following the group for the sake of belonging is not as good as thinking for oneself. Sometimes people must take a stand. Kyra does this by sacrificing her ghost life to save Ophelia, while Ibrom decides to serve joy and the good quest the Marvelous boy was on versus sorrow. The magical owls collect all the sorrows of the world for the Snow Queen and she stores it in her sword that she will use to destroy humanity.

Another theme is about not judging outward appearances. As the Marvelous boy puts it, "The biggest trap is to judge a person by their outer casing." The Marvelous boy sees good in Mr. Pushkinova and the girl has been learning to trust the boy's instincts throughout the novel. At the end she calls upon Mr. Pushkinova to help her find the boy because he believed in his goodness. Much of the story is around believing in others to do the right thing. Even the magical owl decides to help the boy as he is dying. The owl is tired of the Snow Queen destroying good things whether it is young children or adults. He thinks the Marvelous boy's quest is impossible against someone as powerful as the Queen, but when the boy says he's sorry for shooting the owl, Ibrom decides he wants a piece of the boy's goodness. The two exchange pieces (literally) of themselves and the boy receives a charm while Ibrom eats the boy's finger.

Some of the characters are references to classics such as the girls ghosts using "The Three Musketeers" motto, "All for one, and one for all" meaning they must remain loyal to each other no matter what. The twist here is that they are loyal to the Snow Queen that represents evil. Ophelia in Hamlet goes mad and the character in this book is thought mad by others when she tells her fantastical stories. The magical tree and garden are found in much folk lore and of course, the Snow Queen is based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Ophelia's sister, Alice, made me think of "Alice in Wonderland" although she's more like Susan in the Narnia Chronicles. However Alice in Wonderland plays with logic and the plot of Alice going down the rabbit hole into a fantastical world foreshadows Ophelia's crazy adventures.

This book taps into the aspect of children feeling powerless in the world of adults and trying to have an impact even though they don't have the authority. Ophelia has to obey her dad even though she must save the world and he thinks she's making the whole story up. The Marvelous boy is helpless against the King and Snow Queen. The two find ways to deal with this adult authority that will appeal to young readers. While this book has some uneven parts and I was looking for more of an internal resolution with Ophelia in the death of her mother, I found it a satisfying story. If you liked Anne Ursu's, Breadcrumbs, then give this one a whirl.

4 Smileys

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Hypnotists (The Hypnotists #1) by Gordon Korman

This fast-paced novel starts out exciting only to backfire like a sputtering car. Gordon Korman has terrific descriptions that involve all the senses and allow readers to get sucked into the plot like a "speeding jaggernaut." Chapter one was my favorite and reminded me of the movie, "Speed." The promising plot went downhill from there with its predictability and pacing that has the reader knowing long in advance what is happening before the protagonist does. I'm okay with a little bit of this but not pages and pages and at every major turning point in the plot. Jackson, who goes by the nickname Jax, was annoyingly naive at figuring out situations and reading people. What had potential became a frustrating read that had me skimming pages in order to finish it pronto.

Jax is playing in a championship basketball game when his team wins as a result of the opponent's superstar having a poor night shooting. Jax notices the star is off his game and dazed. Every time Jax makes a suggestion the star does what Jax says, such as missing a free throw or shots he'd normally make. While Jax thought it odd he didn't think anything of it. After the game, he tells his parents about visions he's getting and he goes to see a psychiatrist whose diagnosis is corny and irritating to Jax. Jax tells the psychiatrist to jump out the window which he promptly tries to do. They are on the 35th floor and while the reader knows what is going on Jax is still not putting two-and-two together. When Jax's best friend Tommy points out all the weird things Jax has done in the past convincing others to do things such as join the debate team or win over a girl, Jax still doesn't face the facts that he has the power to influence people. When Jax hypnotizes a hypnotist and still doesn't get the obvious, I was grinding my teeth at the dull-witted protagonist that is supposedly smart.

Jax gets invited to a school for gifted kids that shows an unhealthy competitiveness between students and a manipulative director. It would have been more fun trying to figure out if the director was a good guy or bad guy but it was so obvious that it took much of the tension out of the plot for me. "The Colossus Rises" by Peter Lerangis has a similar plot that kept me guessing well into the story the loyalty of the person who could be a villain or good guy. Jax's blind belief in what he sees on the surface with no thought as to different motives made him too simple at times and lacking in complexity which for me is what makes a character interesting. When Jax becomes involved in a political intrigue involving the future president of the United States, his entire family and friends become targets by the killers.

The descriptions are great and action scenes well written, it's just the plot is predictable in too many parts. While many will like the action, I doubt they'll be as irritated as me with Jax. Jax's superpowers are explained in depth and well. This was probably the most interesting part, although because he has so many visions (before figuring out his powers) that it got repetitive at times. It didn't make sense that Jax wanted Dr. Mako's approval so badly and blindly followed him. Mako was using a form of mind control on the students and while the other students talked about the school cynically, Jax still refused to believe things weren't right even though the evidence showed otherwise. While they followed Mako in some parts the end seemed contradictory when they scold Jax for not seeing the truth. After meeting Axel Braintree, Jax had some doubt regarding Mako, but it took 70 pages before he sees what the reader already knows. The slow pace and unveiling of the plot drove me crazy.

The authentic moments of being a teenager were well done such as the kids practicing hypnosis on each other even though it was banned which is like trying to "outlaw towel-snapping in a locker room." And Tommy tossing an airplane at girl and making a fool out of himself because he has a crush on her and doesn't know how to get her attention reminds me of the 5th grade girls and boys taking books from each other because they are starting to notice gender differences and want the opposite sex's attention.

The Guild meeting chapter is presented as too one-sided without showing the complexity of the situation. The abusers use their gift for personal gain and are trying to lead honest lives. But a Wall Street woman turning to waitressing? I don't think so. The dialogue showed that the group had no focus. The opposing forces could have been presented in a more politically balanced way such as Axel showing some of his brains that suddenly appear at the end. Actually at the end when Axel is explaining why he stole, the dialogue with Jax was more authentic and didn't make him look like a doofus that was too cryptic about Mako.

The subplot of Tommy didn't materialize like I expected. Tommy is a flat character that doesn't really get much depth through his dialogue with Jax. When Tommy helps Jax on the night of the robbery and later when Jax is suffering to the point of being debilitating, Tommy doesn't really help him in any meaningful way. I thought Tommy might go and get Axel or find the group but he lets Jax figure it out on his own. His character doesn't grow or change internally and fizzles a bit as the story continues and he fails to act.  I also thought the tie-in of his color-blindness and not being hypnotized by Jax to Jax suddenly being able to hypnotize him as too abrupt. 

When Jax makes a video and then doesn't do anything for a week I couldn't believe it took him so long to go to the only person that could help him. When he does I'm so disgusted with his character for waiting so long that I started speed-reading through ink. When Jax forgets his metro card, it was the frosting on my disgusted cake. Normally I like Korman and I know many kids will like the action in this book, but you'd have to hypnotize me to get me to read the sequel.

2 Smileys

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Quirks: Welcome to Normal by Erin Soderberg

The start of this book reminded me of "Savvy" with the Quirk family having superpower abilities that make it difficult for them to live a normal life. The Quirks live in the town of Normal where people live in identical houses and drive identical cars. What looked like a tall tale turns into a story of people with magical powers trying to live normal lives and fit in with other kids at school. As the story unfolds it loses the tall tale feel and focuses on magic and fitting in. A fun read that is good for grades 3 & 4.

Molly, the protagonist, is always trying to keep her family together. Her twin sister Penelope has so much magic, called a "Quirk," that whenever she imagines something it comes into existence. This causes all sorts of trouble and their mom ends up using her Quirk, which is the power of persuasion, to talk people out of believing what magic they just saw Penelope accidentally perform. Grandpa can rewind time, but Molly has no magic. Finn, the kindergartener, is invisible except to Molly who feels responsible for him since only see can see him. The father abandoned the family. This subplot isn't explored much - maybe questions will be answered in the sequels. This is the first book in a series.

Kids will like the constant silliness and pranks that Finn does to others. I got tired of them toward the end because he was crossing the line and hurting people. He dunks Charlie to the point that he needs to be rescued and he causes havoc at school because he is bored. If you want to discuss with a child how to not behave, Finn's behavior will give you plenty to talk about. If you want to live vicariously through a character doing pranks that you'd never have the guts nor ability to carry out, then you'll enjoy Finn. He's kind of endearing in a gross, self-centered and spoiled way.

The plot is simple and straightforward making the story easy to follow. The characters are not complex either. Molly seems to feel responsible for her family as if she is taking the place of her father, but I'm not sure of her motivations for being responsible for everyone else. If she's not fixing her sister, she's watching Finn like a mother or keeping an eye on grandpa.  Her twin, Penelope, is a bit mopey and insecure for someone with amazing powers. I got tired of Penelope's defeatist attitude, although it sets up for a nice message at the end about believing in oneself and thinking positively not negatively. The mom has the power of persuasion, but waitresses which didn't make sense since she's the breadwinner. Actually a few things didn't jive such as Finn being allowed to chew gum at school as a five-year-old. Or a sleepover party where the girls order mushrooms on the pizza. Neither of those things would ever happen. Finn's voice was too old at times too. The grandma is not developed as a minor character. She's a fairy godmother and hides out after being traumatized as the family fled from the previous town. She never speaks in this book but appears at the end in a way that I think she'll have a voice and part to play in the next book, " The Quirks in Circus Quirkus."

The start of the book describes the people of Normal as driving the same cars, living in identical houses, and sending the Quirks the same welcoming gift. This changes later and the reader will see that people have differences at school, how they dress, and how they celebrate a yearly event. I thought the beginning exaggeration of the town funny that would lead to the people being presented as caricatures of extreme conformity; thus acting as a foil to the Quirks odd ways. This doesn't happen and town life is depicted more realistic than I expected from the setup.

When the town has their "Normal Night" celebration where they try to break a world record by doing something really odd, it is evident that they really are not normal. I expected one of the author's messages to be celebrating individuality, but it is about fitting in and conforming in society. The Quirks want to lead a normal life. They are tired of moving and tired of the stress that comes from learning to manage their Quirks. Even the adults have difficulties managing their superpowers. The twins are trying to make friends at school while Finn is resisting the attempts to civilize him in every way possible. While I liked the start, the middle part slowed a bit, and the end picked up. A good story for kids that are new at school and trying to fit in.

3 Smileys

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Mister Orange by Truus Matti

Growing up I couldn't understand my dad's insistence that the walls of our house be white. Now I realize that as an architect he was influenced by the minimalist Bauhaus style. His company followed the Bauhaus movement that believed all arts should work together with design. My dad loves the Bauhaus bent toward clean lines, simplicity, and few decorations. He also had a few abstract paintings hanging on walls that usually had a design element I could not understand or see. I grew up seeing artists work similar to Piet Mondrian's on our walls. Strong horizontal and vertical lines with primary colors. Piet Mondrian's work was a part of the "De Stijl" movement that influenced the Bauhaus and I really enjoyed "Mister Orange" that has the protagonist, Linus, meeting the artist, Piet Mondrian. When Linus decides he's going to paint his walls white like Piet's, I was transported back to my white-walled childhood with my mom complaining to my dad,"You never let me hang wallpaper!" Linus's brother Simon's response to white walls reminded me of my mom. "'Paint them white?' ...'What's the point? This isn't a hospital.'" When Linus tells him the room will look bigger and brighter, Simon tells him it is a dumb idea.

Linus meets the artist, Piet Mondrian, after taking over the delivery route that Simon used to do. His parents own a grocery store in New York during the 1940s. Linus is the third child out of six and times have changed since his oldest brother, Albie, volunteered to fight in World War II. On the delivery route Linus meets Piet Mondrian but he cannot pronounce his name so he calls him, "Mister Orange," because he delivers a crate of oranges once a week to him. Linus learns that the artist fled Europe because the Nazi's would not give him the freedom to paint what he wanted to and banned his art. Art under Hitler was a propaganda machine not a form of artistic expression and abstract art did not further the Third Reich in any political way. Linus first thinks of war in a glorified way believing Albie has superpowers like the comic book characters he so loves to reads. He slowly learns from letters that Albie writes home that war is "wretched" and by talking about it with Mr. Orange Linus discovers that freedom of expression and imagination whether in art or any other form is worth fighting for.

The subplot of Linus losing his friend to a bully shows how fickle friendships can be. Linus is mad at him but then gets over it and later they are friends again. They don't really think too much about it or hash over it when they reunite and I found their actions authentic and spot on for their age. Some kids handle conflict like this and don't have the vocabulary to deal with it in what an adult might find as an immature manner, but I did wish Linus had asked why his best friend became friends with the bully.  The only explanation is Linus speculating that the bully is older in age and perhaps that had an appeal to his best friend. This seemed a bit weak even though I liked the portrayal of the boys friendship overall.

The other subplot of the superhero was unique revealing an interesting way that Linus dealt with his fears. Albie and Linus love comics and Albie even creates one called Mr. Superspeed. Linus talks to this imaginary superhero and expects him to protect Albie. It is through his imaginary conversations with Mr. Superspeed that Linus learns to face his fears about his brother being killed in the war and change in his understanding of how dangerous war is for not only Albie but other soldiers. When he talks to Mr. Orange about Albie and their comic creation, he is able to put together that Albie is fighting for the freedom to choose how to live one's life.

Linus questions Mr. Orange and the value of art when there is a war going on. Mr. Orange explains how imagination is the mother of invention. If people are not allowed to imagine then cities would not have been built. Nor subways invented. Then he talks about how art scares the Nazis. How they silence people whose art has different opinions than their propaganda. He also states, "Whenever people have their freedom taken away, they always fight back." Later in a powerful climax, Linus articulates his conversation with Mr. Orange by comforting his dad in an explanation of Albie using his imagination for a better future and doing the right thing for freedom.

I remember having a conversation with my dad about great architects in Barcelona after a jaunt around the city looking at Antonio Gaudi's fabulous buildings. My dad talked about how difficult he thought it was to take risks in designing a building. If it fails, it is an expensive eyesore for all to see. It is someone else's money. Many times the client has their own ideas that are at odds with the architect's. He felt that as the company's owner he couldn't take great risks. While this is not a message in this book, the topic of imagination between Linus and Piet, reminded of this conversation regarding great artists and architects. Writing a great book could be added to that discussion. It is fascinating when art blossoms throughout history. When the right people come together at the right time and their imaginations invent something completely new. Piet Mondrian is one of those people and  "Mister Orange" is book that will make you think.

4 Smileys

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Seven Stories Up by Laurel Snyder

When I stand in front of a class with a stack of 15 books my book talk is similar to an auction chant, "Here's a book 'bout a girl locked in a room. That's right, locked in a room. She's rescued by her granddaughter who's traveled back in time. Imagine that, grandma as a teen. Who wants to read this book? Do I see a taker? Adventures in a hotel. Explorations in dumbwaiters. Flights down fire escapes. Travels in laundry chutes. Again who wants to read this book? Do I see a hand? One hand up, do I see two, will ya give me two? Two hands, now three, will ya give me three? Going, going, gone! Sold, to the first person that raised her hand." Just kidding. I have never tried that before. Might be a good way to mix things up in the routine. Either way I will chant about "Seven Stories Up" in my next booktalk.

Annie Jaffin travels with her mom to visit her estranged grandma in a Baltimore hotel where she grew up. The grandma is hostile and mean making 12-year-old Annie wonder what happened to her in life to make her such a nasty, rotten egg. A strange storm hits in the night and Annie wakes up 50 years earlier in 1937 where she meets her grandmother, Mary Moran, a young girl who is locked in a room because she has asthma and her parents are afraid she'll die if she's around others. Mary, who goes by the name "Molly", wishes so hard for a friend that Annie magically appears there although Molly doesn't know Annie is her granddaughter. Annie knows that Molly will live to be old and talks her into escaping the "Lonely Room." The two have fun adventures that capture childhood and friendship and how small or large decisions can have consequences as to how a person will grow into an adult.

I have a folder labeled, "Great starts," to a novel. I added this book's beginning to that folder. The first pages hooked me with the tension and great description of setting and character. "You're supposed to cry when your grandma is dying. You're supposed to be really sad. But as Mom and I sped through the dark streets of Baltimore, I couldn't stop bouncing in my seat. At last I stuck my head out the window and leaned into the muggy night. My hair whipped around. The sharp rush of air felt good on my face." I was immediately drawn to the liveliness and energy of Annie that could not be contained. She sounds like a puppy who gets to go for a car ride and life is just too much fun to be sad. Annie's mom is mysterious about her past and Annie doesn't really know her grandma. Her character is such that she is brave and inquisitive, making her actions consistent throughout the entire story, which is necessary in the development of her relationship with Molly.

One of the best things about reading children's books is it reminds me of the fun kid-things I used to do such as playing games like "Jinx" that Annie and Molly play. The two also play hand-slapping games and have fun exploring the hotel.The laundry chute and dumbwaiter escape from the "Lonely Room" is great fun and the late night run for food that they dubbed, "Sneakypies," was something I know my best friend and I would have acted out if this book was written in the 1970s. The "Sneakypie" connection in the future at the end with the restaurant was a nice touch as well. I particularly liked it when the girls make a list of what they want to do for the next day that leads them into a pretend game of dreaming big. Annie says she wants to travel to Egypt. Molly says she wants to fly. They add famous people and pizza to the list. It is imaginative and shows how children don't set boundaries on themselves like adults do. When Annie adds to the list that she wants to save someone's life, meaning she wants to save her grandma from a lifetime of unhappiness, she is revealing the overall story arc. Every action points to Annie trying to help her grandma.

While the book references "Eloise" who lived in a grand hotel and the magic of the wardrobe in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," it is mostly patterned after "The Secret Garden." Mary Lennox in "The Secret Garden" was spoiled and unlikable to people. She is so lonely and isolated that her only friend is a maidservant. Molly in "Seven Stories" is also unlikable and mean toward her nurse at first before becoming friends. The relationship between Molly and her nurse felt rushed to me because Annie is telling it from her point of view. Molly's point of view would have given me a feel for what she was thinking and feeling. As is, Molly's bossy attitude toward her nurse changed because of Annie's scolding and it happened quickly. I kept expecting Molly to be more nasty and self-centered. She is more likable than the characters in "The Secret Garden."

Molly in "Seven Stories Up" has asthma and is so sick the parents think she will die. Colin in "the Secret Garden," suffers from some spine problem that isn't explained and confined to a bedroom just like Molly is in this novel. Colin is the most ill-tempered character of all having spectacular temper-tantrums. Molly is not as cranky as either Colin or Mary in "The Secret Garden," being more desperate for a friend to play with on a daily basis. Colin believes the garden can heal him because it has Magic. Molly believes a bottle of Magic potion will heal her from her asthma. While the garden was a symbol of rebirth for the two kids who lost their parents in "The Secret Garden", Molly's rebirth occurs from being saved by Annie who gives her the courage to stand up to her dad and not be locked in a room. Annie will turn Molly from the future unhappy grandma into a person who is not stunted by fear and loneliness. This message actually reminds me of  the Chronicles of Narnia where unhappy humans are portrayed as people that do not reach their potential; hence, they never find happiness in life and are stunted in their growth as individuals.

An interesting note by the author in the back explains how she had a grandma who owned a hotel and was a very unhappy person. While the story is not about the grandma it is the author's fantasy of changing her relative into a person that led a full life full of joy and happiness. This reminds me of "The Hundred Dresses" where the author wrote it to change how she reacted to a girl being bullied when she was little. In that book, she stands up for the girl and rights a wrong. Life can be full of regrets and disappointments. Books help readers and authors cope with life. Another book that is patterned after "The Secret Garden" is "The Humming Room" by Ellen Potter that readers might like. "Seven Stories Up" is a great addition to any library. Going, going, gone! Sold, to the "girl chewing her thumbnail."

4 Smileys

Monday, April 14, 2014

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord

My mother-in-law's photography hobby led her to tipping a canoe in a quagmire of lilypads and sending her expensive camera to the bottom of the lake. I've had my own adventures where my scared dog tipped the canoe jumping out, then tried to drown my husband by wrapping his body around his shoulders and head. Lucy Emery, the new kid, is not a klutz and while she takes pictures in a kayak and brings her dog with on one trip she is a cautious girl that doesn't have any disasters like me. She assimilates pretty quickly to her new life on the lake making friends with her friendly neighbors, the siblings Nate and Emily, who spend each day on Loon Patrol, their catchy phrase for observing the loons nesting on the lake. Like biologists-in-training, the two will report their daily observations to the Loon Preservation Committee office at the end of the summer. They let Lucy come with them to take pictures for a photography contest. Cynthia Lord is one of the few realistic fiction writers that can sweep me into a slower moving story. I admire how she crafts her plot, develops characters, writes memorable phrases, and creates tension through relationships. While the start is a little slow for me, it all comes together at the end with some strong messages.

As a twelve-year-old, Lucy is not new to moving to a new place. Her dad, a famous photographer, finds it hard to stay put in one place. When she moves from Massachusetts to a lakeside home in New Hampshire she struggles with being the new kid again. She knows that some will be interested in her at first only to go back to their old friends when they tire of her. When she meets Nate she finds that his childhood friend, Megan, is jealous that Lucy is invading her turf. When Emily and Nate invite Lucy to go on Loon Patrol it is easy to see why Megan is upset since she was the previous third wheel on Loon Patrol. Megan doesn't deal well with her anger and retaliates in a nasty way toward Lucy. Meanwhile Lucy wonders if Nate's friendship is real or temporary. When Lucy discovers her dad is judging a photography contest she decides to secretly enter. She wants her dad's unbiased opinion of her photography skills since she wants to follow his career path. She is full of doubts and insecurities about not being good enough in her relationships with others. Lucy justifies entering the contest by wanting to use the money to help Nate's sick grandma see the loons.

Lucy is shy and shows her uncertainty with making friends. She is sensitive to what others think of her. She texts Nate and then wonders if her one-word response was too blunt and adds another text. Her uncertainty captures what it is like growing up and learning to socialize, especially when a kid is somewhat interested in a boy. Lucy has never had a friend that is a boy and is somewhat conflicted, not recognizing her romantic feelings toward Nate. Nate helps Lucy with her photos for the contest and quite a bit of the dialogue and descriptions involve the art of photography. I liked the parallels between it and stories. "I imagined Dad beside me: 'It's pretty,' he'd say. 'But pretty isn't enough for  a great photograph. Show me why I care. What's the story?'" Storytelling is the same way. The reader must care for the characters and story for it to come alive and keep them reading. I have never stopped to think of photography in the same way as crafting a story.

Megan is not a one-dimensional villain and Lucy reacts to her meanness with kindness. She does this because she wants what is best for the loons and sets aside petty jealousy that is affecting her relationship with Megan. Both are interested in the same boy and Megan is rightfully upset about being excluded from the trio, she just reacts to it in an unhealthy way. When Megan sabotages Lucy's project, it is revealing that Lucy responds in a mature manner. Lucy never tattles on Megan and includes her in the project. She even uses her photos and compliments her. She doesn't stoop to the same levels as Megan even though she thinks some jealous thoughts. Instead she always keeps the big picture in mind which is what is best for the loons and how can the group accomplish this? Megan knows that she doesn't deserve Lucy's kindness and respect and in the end feels ashamed of her actions and apologizes to Lucy. The author shows the result of Lucy not reacting in anger to Megan that allows them to be civil to each other even though they both like Nate and don't want to share him with each other. Ironically, Nate is oblivious to their friction and mutual attraction to him.

Cynthia Lord does a nice job articulating feelings in regards to relationships that many readers might not know how to express in words. "I know what it feels like when you want to matter to someone and they don't notice. But I was still mad at Megan for deleting my photos and trying to take over my idea of the posters." While Lucy is mad at her she never retaliates in anger and the result is "Megan and I might not ever be good friends, ... but ...I was going to ...invite her. Because maybe we both wanted to try, and sometimes people are like shooting photos. It takes a bunch of misses before something good happens." Lucy knows her dad loves her but she wants her dad to notice her photography. And she wants to be good at it. She's afraid of failure and also brave at striking out and taking risks with her photography. When she uses the photo of Grandma Lilah, it took courage to choose it because she knew she'd be upsetting her friend, Nate.

The subplot of Nate's grandma losing her mind because of dementia is full of tension and authenticity. My mom is going through the same thing. She's in the phase of dementia where she recognizes that her mind is not working properly. Because I've experienced this illness in my personal life, I found the author's portrayal of Grandma Lilah very real and poignant. Nate is in denial of his grandma's illness and afraid of her not recognizing him. I know eventually my mom will also not know me. It fills me with sadness and is not an easy thing to deal with as an adult much less as a child. Lucy's actions force Nate to talk about it and deal with his grandma's illness in a healthy manner.

Friendship, family relationships, facing a loved one's illness, and being the new kid are just a few of the many themes the author splashes throughout the plot. Lucy's dad is a nice guy but is hard to live with as he likes to move and travel. As a famous photographer he likes change and the freshness it brings to his photos, "But really, I think Dad loves how good it feels to leave - to let go of the routine in an old place and start over somewhere else." I can actually relate to the dad. I enjoy change in routine because it makes me feel so alive. Luckily my husband has the same wanderlust as me giving me a best friend to traipse all over the world with. Lucy discusses with her dad photography because she knows it is what he loves and she does too. This shared passion helps her communicate with him although sometimes it seems one-sided. While her father loves her, he makes mistakes and isn't always sensitive toward her. The mother comes across as lonely and disappointed when Lucy doesn't want to do something with her. Yet, she doesn't force Lucy to come with on excursions. I wanted their relationship developed a bit more.

The reader will learn about loons and responsible behavior toward them. Boaters that get too close to loons scare them. The parents end up not feeding their babies enough food, spending too much time protecting them from the boaters and the result is the babies can starve to death. Lucy, Nate, and Emily decide to create posters to inform the public on appropriate behavior around the nesting birds. They eventually include Megan in the project and while she can be obnoxious, Lucy deals with her in a way that helps them reach a truce. Lucy is upset by an incident of a predator attacking the loons. I remember as a kid struggling with the death of bunnies and deer. I grew up on a nature center and it took me a long time to understand why the deer had to be shot periodically to reduce their numbers. This can open up discussions on the balance of ecosystems, human care and responsibility toward the environment, and human impact on animal habitation. If readers like this aspect, they can try other books with similar themes such as, "The One and Only Ivan," "Hoot," "Julie," or "Endangered." This book would make a great read aloud for grade 3 - 5 students.

4 Smileys

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes

This novel-in-verse tackles quite a few issues using a small amount of words. Nikki Grimes shows how word choice and metaphors can create a powerful story. Gabriella, is prone to daydreaming. When her parents divorce her daydreaming interferes with her classroom attention. Her teacher recognizes that she is coping with her parents separation through daydreams and he helps her to channel them in a productive manner. The adults recognize that Gabby's daydreams make her a vivid writer as Gabby learns to write she discovers her own voice and self in her words.

Gabby dreams in order to escape from her parents arguments. Later they take over her thoughts so much that she frustrates her mom and teacher who need her to focus more on tasks at hand. At first they try to get her to stop daydreaming altogether, but she becomes so unhappy the teacher tries a different approach telling her to "slide her daydreams in a drawer." He acknowledges the importance of dreams but tries to help her see the importance of paying attention when he's teaching a lesson. When he catches her writing a daydream down he is excited by the quality of it. He decides to give students 15 minutes a day to write down their daydreams. Gabby's mom also recognizes that her daughter's writing and daydreaming are a worthwhile activity. Gabby is powerless in school and her daydreaming gives her some control of the world around her. It was refreshing to have the adults learn from Gabby and reminded me of how much the students at my school have taught me or inspired me to be better at what I do.

The font changes in the story when the reader is in Gabby's dreams or she has a flashback to what it was like when her dad lived with them. These shifts have some gorgeous metaphors and word choices. One of my favorites is Waterfall: "Say 'waterfall,'/ and the dreary winter rain/ outside my classroom window/ turns to liquid thunder,/ pounding into a clear pool/ miles below,/ and I can't wait/ to dive in."  Talk about giving words wings. I love that image of "liquid thunder." This would make a good read aloud for grades 4-5.

4 Smileys

The Best-Loved Doll by Rebecca Caudill, Elliott Gilbert (Illustrator)

Dolls, figurines, and stuffed animals are integral to childhood play. I was just telling a class of students my attempt to design a parachute using my Barbie doll as a kid, testing the contraption by tossing it out a second story window. My brother later joined me strapping helium balloons to his G.I. Joe doll. I discovered I needed a much bigger parachute while my brother discovered one balloon wasn't enough to hold up Joe. When we tired of running up and down the stair to retrieve our dolls, we sat down and made-up pretend stories. Having imaginary friends, giving life and voices to inanimate objects, creating worlds and fantasies was crucial to our playtime. "The Best-Loved Doll" captures the power of pretend play as a way to explore the world and gain new knowledge. It not only shows the bond between a child and doll, but that winning a prize is not as important as following your heart. Betsy is not only loyal to the doll she loves the most, she doesn't care about its outward appearance. Thank goodness the author does not deliver this message in an overly sentimental way. Her simple language and focus on character actions makes for a powerful understatement. I highly recommend it.

Betsy has received an invitation to a birthday party that will give prizes to the oldest, best-dressed, and most talented dolls. Betsy has four dolls and three fit all those categories but she chooses to bring the fourth doll, Jennifer, with taped cheeks, a cracked nose, and tattered dress. She knows she won't win any prizes but takes her anyway because she loves her the most out of her dolls. She never says this out loud, but cleans the doll up and brings her with to the party. She watches three girls win a prizeand unemotionally thinks about her dolls at home that would have won the prize. Her reactions of kissing Jennifer and looking at Jennifer's "smile" show a child that is content with her choice. Betsy reveals she is not a show-off and her actions toward her doll show character traits of loyalty and friendship, something she can transfer in social situations as she grows older and develops her sense of self.

The mother hosting the party recognizes Betsy's well-loved doll and makes a medal that she pins to its dress. The other girls start to talk about their dolls at home that look like Jennifer, but that they obviously didn't bring. Betsy responds by kissing her doll. The black and white illustrations have a splash of pink on pages that give it a timeless feel. They remind me a little of the Madeline illustrations by Ludwig Bemelmans. The book was first published in 1962 and is 64 pages. It is a quick read. Good for ages 5-8.

5 Smileys