Monday, June 30, 2014

Monster on the Hill by Rob Harrell

What a gorgeous graphic novel. I am a color girl. If you tell me your name it will most likely blip into the black hole region of my brain, but if you ask me what color shirt you were wearing when we met then I can give you the color and whatever do-dad was written on the front or hanging around your neck. Too bad I never had access to comics as a kid. Too bad they were considered low-brow literature by the school librarian. I have not read many graphic novels but the ones I have lately, such as Nathan Hale's Hazardous tales, Salem Hyde series, and now this one, have given me the motivation to add more to my repertoire. They are funny, clever, and down-right twisty fun.

This story starts with a monster terrorizing the town of Billingwood, England during the 1800s. Tentacular is a vision of terror and the residents are thrilled by the destruction and horror he paves through their town each day. Bragging rights are theirs for the best monster in the area. Tourism is up and residents are proud as peach of their monster. There is even a plush souvenir of Tentacular. Things are different in the nearby town of Stoker-on-Avon. Their monster, Raymond, is depressed. He can be found cowering in his cave versus rampaging through town. The town fathers hire a scientist, Dr. Charles Nathaniel Wilkie, to fix Raymond.

This author has great humor and play on words. Take "Stoker-on-Avon" and the town fathers. Immediately I think of Bram Stroker of "Dracula" and Shakespeare's Stratford-on-Avon which is supposed to be a lovely village outside of London. Timothy the town-crier looks like a character out of a Dickens novel. Mood and setting are established by references to classics. The town fathers are named Mr. Hawthorne, Mr. Stevenson, and Mr. Shelley, and it is delicious details like this that elevate the humor for adults and children. Nathaniel Hawthorne might be best known for "The Scarlet Letter," but his creepy "Twice-told Tales" would have put a smile on Edgar Allan Poe's face. Robert Louis Stevenson also wrote eerie short stories while Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" is familiar to most. While young readers might not catch the references, they are going to love the monsters and scariness mixed with humor and gags.

The scientist, Dr. Wilkie, has had his licensed revoked for questionable experiments. If he helps the down-and-out town dud of a monster he can have his lab for research back. The town crier, Timothy, stows along as he heads to the monsters cave.  Timothy is the perfect foil to the doctor adding humor and practical advice. He has a thicker British accent than the other characters making "'im one of me favorites." "I 'eard you conversin' with the sawbones. Sounds like you've got a bit of a confidence problem!" The doctor diagnoses the monster's problem and then says he can fix his melancholy by drilling a hole in his head to let the demons out. They ensuing sarcastic comments by Timothy and followup gags had me hooting or "bleedin' ecstatic." They go on a quest to help Raymond find the beastliness inside of himself. But Raymond finds much more. He discovers the meaning of friendship and faces his fears. Toss in the loyalty of an old friend and a villain much like the Wicked Witch of the West and you have a great story. The illustrations are terrific and color vibrant. A must for your library.

5 Smileys

The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story (ebook) by R.J. Palacio

I appreciate that the author attempted to round out the character Julian from her book, Wonder. He is the bully and is one-dimensional in the story. While an explanation is given, it lacked authenticity for me. I appreciated the attempt to show parents that were loving, but misguided in their parenting of Julian. I just didn't buy his character. The end had more power than the beginning and pulling in the Holocaust as an example of bullies is very powerful. Some might find the message too didactic. Palacio is good at manipulating emotions and she does it in this short story too. While I liked it, I know I will forget it in the future. My students seem to like it. 

The Misadventures of Salem Hyde: Spelling Trouble (The Misadventures of Salem Hyde #1) by Frank Cammuso

I was at the ALA conference and saw book two of "The Misadventures of Salem Hyde," and bought it without hesitation. Book one's clever play on words and subtle message made me want to see what the author did in a sequel. Salem Hyde is a witch that is supposed to hide her powers from ordinary people. When Shelly brags about being a good speller, Salem decides to convince her that she's a good speller too, except she is thinking of witch spells not spelling words. When she turns the old patrol woman, Mrs. Fossil, into a dinosaur, the assistant principal Mr. Fink is determined to get her kicked out of school. Her parents decide that she needs an animal companion to guide her with when to use and not use her magic.

Salem insists on a unicorn. Yep, a unicorn. Those adults out there with girls will snort-laugh at that one. My unicorn crazed daughter would have said that as well. Or Rainbow Pony. Ah well. Understandably, Salem is quite disappointed with her parents choice of a cat, "A witch and a cat? That's so unoriginal."  When her mom explains that the cat, Whammy, is there to help her she has a temper tantrum exclaiming she is independent and doesn't need someone else to boss her. Salem's tiger claws are out and she is determined to not be friends with Whammy. He in turn is not too thrilled with being her mate.

Whammy mentors Salem by giving her a series of tests. The first test is called, "Witch Test," so that whenever Salem asks what kind of test she's taking Whammy says, "Witch Test." She thinks he's asking "which test?" and the ensuing dialogue is hysterical with miscommunication and word play. When her second test is flying, the spit fire Salem shoots into the sky on a vacuum cleaner like a superhero. Whammy is afraid of flying and when the extension cord runs out they crash land as she yells at him, "Quit screaming scaredy-cat!" As they are hanging upside down from a tree Salem asks if she got an A plus. Yup, education and grades... be nice to get rid of 'em, wouldn't it? The assistant principal continues to try and get her kicked out of school only to be foiled every time he thinks he has proof.  

Salem is in school and is daydreaming when she accidentally enters the spelling bee. When the obnoxious Shelly tells her that there is no way Salem can win, Whammy interferes and begins to really mentor Salem as she make all sorts of funny mistakes. There is some adult humor that had me snorting. Soon it becomes apparent that Salem's spells are unpredictable and funny. She turns a rock into a butterfly and gets them into scrapes. While stuck in a tree, Whammy liken's Fergus, the toddler, to Moby Dick. Whammy changes the tale to soften its harsh edges for Salem and makes it a story of friendship versus revenge. In a nice climax Whammy, through the Moby Dick story reveals that friendship and spell casting requires patience and perseverance to learn. After the pep talk Salem is reading for the spelling bee. In the meantime Whammy has had a change of heart regarding Salem and working with her. In a funny climax they resolve their differences and learn to be friends. The drawings remind me of the comic strips I read in the newspaper growing up. I can't wait to read this out loud to 3rd graders.

4 Smileys

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

This ghost story is rich with layered meanings. A manifestation of themes involve facing fears, dealing with grief, and the affects of storytelling and lies on others. When fourteen year old Molly McConnachie and the aged Hester Kettle tell stories to people it is magical. Molly is so gifted that the woman, Constance, takes her on as hired help just so she can hear the end of her story that she spins on her doorstep. Likewise Hester can get food for free from vendors in exchange for a taste of her stories. When Molly and Hester meet in the story, Hester keenly asks the difference between a story and a lie. A creepy, gothic setting lightened with humor and great character voices and development make this a nose-pressed-to-the-pages type book. I won't be surprised to see this well-written novel on award lists.

Molly and her younger brother, Kip, were traveling on a steamer from Ireland with their parents when it sank. Both parents died and Molly keeps this hidden from Kip who was sick with fever on board. She leads him to the Windsor house where she has gotten employment from a man whose wife, Constance, does not want her help. Molly convinces Constance by telling her a story. The old house is part tree, part building and Molly and Kip soon learn that something is not right with the house. Each night the two have terrible nightmares and in the morning dried mud and leaves litter the floorboards. Constance's two children and husband have physically deteriorated like dead leaves on a tree. When Molly's red hair turns black and she too begins to sicken the two try to solve the puzzle of what is happening at night in the haunted mansion.

Kip is crippled and uses a crutch called, "Courage." He takes care of the yard and horse while Molly does housekeeping and cares for six-year-old Penny. Molly is protective of Kip because he is crippled and she thinks too young to know the truth about their parents dying in a shipwreck. This is a story about growing up and how protectiveness changes to independence at some point in relationships. For Molly and Kip, Kip accepts Molly's stories at first. Later, he wants to hear the truth and help Molly. Kip wants Molly to be honest with him. He's growing up and desires to share in the responsibility of making decisions. He changes from the young boy that accepts what Molly says to one that questions her and gives her advice by the end. Molly changes in letting go of her protectiveness and the two mature in their relationship.

Molly changes in the novel as she learns to deal with survivor's guilt. She blames herself for her parents'  deaths just as Kip blames himself for them leaving Ireland. He is too young to understand that their family left because of a devastating potato famine. He thought they had to leave because he wasn't strong enough to work the farm. His crippled leg makes him feel worthless and he must learn to deal with his disability. Meanwhile, Molly struggles with her parents making her and Kip take the last two seats on the life-raft while they sank with the ship. She feels guilty that they willingly died to save the two of them. Both children must face their grief and move on in life.

The youngster Penny adds humor to this somewhat dark story. The author does a great job balancing the dark side of this tale with some lightness. When Molly tells Penny that she has a dream, she means a goal in life, but Penny takes it literally and asks if she had a bad dream while sleeping that night. Molly is mature with how she deals with Penny. She either distracts her by asking a question or turns unpleasant tasks into a game. When Penny doesn't want her medicine, Molly asks her what her heroine would do. She suggests she'd make a hearty laugh and down the medicine. She's teaching Penny to face her fears. After Penny takes the medicine, she finds that the taste is actually yummy. Molly is showing Penny to have courage to face what scares her.

This trait in Molly is from her parents teaching her to face her fears. She describes how she heard a howling noise and wanted to hide but her parents taught her that if a monster was hiding under the bed, she needed to look under it to find out for sure.  She's plucky and courageous, grabbing a candlestick along the way as a weapon as she investigates the sounds. Kip is similar and talks about being afraid to hear the truth but embracing the fear. "True is still true, even if it's bad. That means I want to hear it." Kip is kind to Molly and likes her protection until he sees the house changing her physically and personality-wise. Later, he is affected too. The two become self-centered and callous. When the kind Kip says it is better a certain character was killed than them, it shows how much the haunted house has changed them both.

Alistair is a bully that Kip immediately recognizes as delighting in torturing smaller or younger people because belittling another makes Alistair feel powerful. Alistair's mother does not approve of his meanness, yet she can be cold and mean to Molly. Once in a while there is a glimpse of a kinder woman. Molly and Kip learn that even though the family is getting their wishes or heart's desire, it does not bring them happiness. Kip explains how the tree gives people their wishes or deep desires, but it doesn't improve their lot. He realizes that there is a difference between what people want and what they need. Kip doesn't want a crippled leg. Molly doesn't want her parents to sacrifice their lives for them. Kip also realizes that doing what is smart is not the same as doing what is right. Doing the right thing means risk. He needs courage to face the Night Gardener. Even Alistair who is mean and self-centered, learns what is means to take a risk for those loved.

The theme of storytelling has a unique twist exploring the difference between a tale and lie. Molly has had to tell fibs and gets progressively worse as the story goes on. Part of the time she's protecting Kip. Other times she's being affected by the power of the haunted tree. When Molly says her story was a lie, Hester asks what is the difference. Molly responds that a lie hurts people and a story helps them. When Hester asks what it helps them with, Molly doesn't have an answer. Molly doesn't understand the difference, because she turns around and lies to Kip in a way that is hurtful. Later on when Hester asks her, "What's a storyteller but someone who asks folks to believe in the impossible things?" Molly realizes that "A story helps folks face the world, even when it frightens 'em. And a lie does the opposite. It helps you hide." Molly, Kip and the Windsor family are all hiding from their fears.

The plot creates a menacing atmosphere, "Sometimes in the wee hours, there's a wailing sound come down the village road - the kind of scream that sets your every hair on end." Kip and Molly's Irish accents add voice that isn't confusingly heavy and creates memorable characters. They mainly say, "wee," "dinna," and "canna." While reading I did wonder why Molly makes everyone else get rid of their wishes, but she doesn't. This seemed forced and made it easy for me to predict one part. I also wondered why Kip didn't question Molly considering he watched every day for hours for the postman. I'll take Molly's advice to Kip, "We'll never know. And maybe that's the best. It's a bad tale that has all the answers."

The connection between oral history before written literature adds depth to the plot as well. In Ireland, storytellers were called, "bards" and various other names throughout Europe. The author cleverly weaves this history into his ghost story mentioning the famous Greek fabulist, Aesop. "Chanticleer and the Fox" is mentioned too which is a fable from the Middle Ages that centers around the harmfulness of too much pride.  This fable is thought to come from Aesops' "The Fox and the Crow" and I had fun connecting the references. Jonathan Auxier' is a moral story or fable too about greed and centers around how far people will go to get what they think they need. The doctor made me think of the moral fable too. He is racist toward Kip comparing Irishmen to baboons. He is so vain and bent on making a name for himself that Molly manipulates this weakness to serve her own purposes. The doctor is like the "Fox and Chanticleer" fable about pride. He is a buffoon and as a one-dimensional character adds humor. When Molly asks if he is treating Constance with leeches, he condescendingly tells her they treat with laudanum now. Pick your poison: leeches or opium.

Here is a great article where Auxier explains what books inspired him to write this nine-year labor of love such as Washington Irving, but I would add to his list "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. A major theme entails human greed and Bertrand has some Scrooge-like problems with money. When he's carrying a bag of coins and ""Molly thought to herself that it sounded more like a bag of chains," I thought of Scrooge chained to his money. The Windsor family is chained to the tree metaphorically. Kind Kip with his crutch reminds me of Tiny Tim and the ghostly Gardener reminds me of the Ghost of Christmas Past that used to scare the pastrami out of me. Don't pass this one up.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Middle School: Save Rafe! (Middle School #5) by James Patterson, Chris Tebbetts

It is hard to rise above the average fare of humorous books. The conventions of a teenager feeling awkward around girls and getting into trouble by making bad decisions or being in the wrong place at the wrong time are common. This book fits in this niche and while it has moments, it is not memorable. Books that stick with me have great character development and interesting plots with some in-depth themes. The more I read, the more I admire authors. What a complex craft with little monetary rewards for most. If you haven't noticed, this is book 5 in the Middle School series. I would recommend reading the first because not much background is given as to why Rafe is such a delinquent. The way he is presented in this book, I thought he seemed like a nice, insecure kid. I had to read some reviews of the first book to see a glimpse of his self-destructive behavior in previous books.

Rafe's art school is closed and he finds out he must go back to Hills Village Middle School (HVMS), but he's been expelled from the school because of a serious issue that isn't explained and seems to have happened in a previous book. Since Rafe has no other options he is required to go to an outdoor survival camp where he must past tests in order to even be considered for re-enrollment at HVMS. At camp he finds himself with a bunch of other delinquents that have issues.  They learn to white-water raft, rock climb, rappel, and mountaineer. While they don't become best of friends the group does learn to work as a team (a whiny team but they get the job done). More importantly, Rafe takes baby steps toward learning to stand up for himself against others.

Throughout the plot Rafe seems normal and nice and not a hard-core troublemaker which is how HVMS's principal and assistant principal treat him. I needed a bit more background to understand his situation. As is, Rafe seems like a nice kid being mistreated by stereotyped authority figures. Rafe's motivation for succeeding at camp is that he wants to make his mom happy and prove the nasty principals are wrong about him. The simple plot is easy to follow and the cartoons have Rafe either daydreaming or retelling the text. I preferred the cartoons that didn't retell but added to the development of him as a character. Rafe's brother that died as a toddler is in the cartoons as a sounding board for Rafe or to give him sympathy. I thought there might be more exploration about this, but there isn't. Rafe has a few Walter Mitty moments that are funny. The Loozer comic strip Rafe writes is mostly slapstick humor or Rafe daydreaming. I found some of them funny and most boring.

Rafe has a sister that is brilliant and the sound of reason. She is his foil. When she tries to show him how to talk to a girl even breaking the ice for him, he completely misses her cue and acts like a dork. His character arc is to gain confidence and stand up for himself. While his self-deprecation can be funny at times, it can also be painful. He thinks so little of himself. I wanted the Sergeant to give him some action steps for dealing with Carmen who is bullying him, but all he says is to stand up for himself. Rafe figures it out, but I find the mentor-type sub character more interesting than the one-dimensional Sergeant Fish. Every time I thought his character traits where developing into someone of interest, it was cut short. Which is basically why I'll forget this book. It wasn't memorable. While the book had potential it doesn't achieve the depth that can be found in similar books within this genre. A good one for readers intimidated by lots of text.

3 Smileys

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Tesla's Attic (The Accelerati Trilogy #1) by Neal Shusterman, Eric Elfman

Shusterman's books have an action-packed creepy factor that satisfies many of my 5th graders. Now I can add funny. I didn't expect the clever humor in this one along with the familiar scary plot. Add terrific character development and some adult humor that pokes fun at education, pop culture, and literature and I couldn't put this bugger down. When an antique heavy, chrome-plated toaster plunges down some fold-up attic steps gashing fourteen-year-old Nick's forehead, he is off to hospital for stitches adding excitement from the get-go. He has just moved into a run-down Victorian house that his dad inherited and has claimed the attic as his room, but it is so full of junk that when he pulls down the ladder a toaster bonks him on the head. While having a garage sale to clear out the antique junk, he notices some strange, obsessive, behaviors from people that are buying items. When a car careens into a tree in their yard he realizes that the lamp is drawing them in zombie-like droves to buy junk for more than it is worth. He discovers that the junk was the property of the mathematical genius Nikola Tesla and are wanted by an organization, the Accelerati, that believes they can control the world with its powers. With the help of some newfound friends, Nick tries to get the sold pieces back before the Accelerati retrieve them. When the end of the world threatens, both groups try to save it in unsuspecting ways.

The authors seem to have a blast with their odd-ball characters and clever humor. Take gloomy Vince, who dresses all in black and buys a wet-cell battery at Nick's garage sale. When Nick tells him its dead he replies that everything dies. "Batteries are no exception. I'll take it." In a humorous bargaining scene, Nick talks Vince down from his original offer of 10 dollars to 3 dollars. Mitch Murlo introduces himself in a nonstop stream of words finishing Nick's sentences for him. Nick dryly thinks, "But apparently Mitch only needed himself to carry on a conversation." The two become friends and Nick eventually gets some words in edgewise and discovers a real friend in Mitch. When Nick talks to Vince and Mitch about the strange properties of the antiques and swears them to secrecy, Vince sarcastically replies, "Secrecy is a key element of my existence. But Mitch here is the emergency broadcast system." Caitlin buys an old reel-to-reel tape recorder that she wants to use for her garbart project, an art form that combines recycled garbage with other art mediums. She's surprised meeting Nick who doesn't fall over himself for her like most guys. She's a bit full of herself at the start of the story and learns to face her superficiality by the end (with the help of the tape recorder she just bought).

The character arcs are varied and distinct. Nick is dealing with grief over the loss of his mother. Vince is obsessed with death and is a loner that learns to be friends with Nick and Mitch. Mitch has a brilliant father in a mess because he was betrayed by friends. Nick realizes that he must go with Mitch to see his father because it is something a true friend would do. Caitlin is insecure and angry. When she buys the magical tape recorder it shows her the truth of situations whether or not she wants to know it.  Petula, a student at their school with a crush on Nick, only helps if she knows she'll get something back from the other person. Mrs Planck (love that name - look up the physics measurement called, "planck units"; it adds another dimension to her character and ties in with the ending) is the observant lunch lady with hidden talents. Theo, Catilyn's boyfriend, adds comic relief. He is mostly dumb but has some astute moments such as realizing the flaws with his relationship with Caitlyn and manipulating Nick's dad. These characters have clever and humorous dialogues or monologues: "Nick and Mitch waited for the single overworked waitress to bring them menus, but Nick's mind wasn't on food. Nor was it on his upcoming baseball tryout. Once again his head was up his attic. Or, more accurately, not the things missing from it."

The plot has great twists and magical elements that make it unpredictable. The inventor Nikola Tesla left behind a bunch of inventions to Nick's Great-aunt Greta that was rumored to be romantically involved with him a hundred years ago.  Once Nick discovers the properties of the magical antiques he is able to determine Nikola had created a magnetic field and uses it to solve his problems. I'm not a science and math fan but I really liked how the authors tied in facts with the storyline. I wasn't overwhelmed by the physics and some are cleverly done such as the mathematical "imaginary number" tied in with Petula's character, as well as, the evil men with their "quantum business card" and how they view Tesla's inventions as scientific while most people would view them as magic. This reminds me of the debunking of many creation stories and myths by science in the history of literature. Trivia facts about famous mathematicians such as Archimede's running naked through the streets yelling, "Eureka," and Euclid proving the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but was habitually late made me laugh. And I don't even like numbers. I'm just mentioning a few connections between mathematics, physics, astronomy, and science. There is Principal Watt. The mathematician Godel. The Tesla versus Marconi controversy. Thomas Edison. Wireless electricity. And more. But nothing in great depth. Okay, 'nuff said on that.

I like it when authors put in references to issues and pop culture or literature without detracting from the story but adding more in-depth themes or a bit 'o funny for the reader looking for more.  When they make Mitch swear on the Bible Vince starts joking about his mom's Bible collection with the Thomas Kinkade illustrations, the Smurf Bible, or the Damnation Bible. The Accelerati is a play on words that is similar to the Illuminati that made me think of Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code". When Nick demands, "In simple English, with no Petulisms," I thought of Miss Havisham's havishamisms in "Great Expectations". Harry Potter gets a nod and the Horsehead Nebula in a picture frame that Nick found in his bed made me think of the movie, "The Godfather." That might be pushing it but once I get going I can't stop. It's like working a crossword puzzle - I'll find things the author didn't even intend.

Then there is just plain 'ole fun humor such as when the cranky neighbor returned the toaster and tried to get twenty dollars for it when she paid only five. Danny, Nick's younger brother, said he remembered she paid five and she snapped she'd sue him to which Nick replied, here's five and if you want more, "consult my lawyer," pointing to eight-year-old Danny. Or when Nick goes from talking about mass-energy equivalence and the endless variable to finding a carton of rotten juice and Danny cracking their dad's joke that Great-aunt Greta left a urine sample for them. Smart, clever lines to some potty humor. My kind of fun. When Nick's files go missing and he shows up with records from a school in Denmark, he comments that the school was happy to be able to claim him as an international student. The authors poke fun at education some, but I laughed the hardest at this one.

Not all of the questions are answered regarding Tesla's invention and the Accelerati's goals, but I was satisfied enough with the ending because the end of the world crisis was resolved and there was a nice twist regarding two characters. It also makes the Accelerati not look quite so one-dimensional as villains, which makes me excited to read the sequel to see where the authors' are going to go with the next plot. I am definitely going to need more copies of this book for my library. Students will be racing for it.

4 Smileys

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Clockwork Three by Matthew J. Kirby

Reading books can be like "chasing butterflies over hills." So often, I want to capture the beautiful turn of phrases or word combinations like I borrowed the author's "butterfly" simile from this book. For a "steam-driven" person that moves fast, cooks fast, and reads fast, I'm amazed when a writer can slow me down from a boiling to simmering temperature. Believe me, it rarely happens. This book did just that. I was caught up in the beautiful descriptions, setting, characters, and similes. What starts out as a fairly realistic story turns into an interesting fantasy. Some of the steampunk novels come across as surreal and I liked this Dickens-like setting, although it isn't really any particular city. Sometimes I felt like I was in Europe and others times in New York. The old time sounds of cobblestone streets and coal chutes along with child slave labor flavor the imaginary world with industrialization characteristics from the 1800's. Guiseppe is an orphan that works for a padrone, playing his fiddle on the streets for pennies. His is a harsh life where beatings and stealing is an everyday occurrence. Hannah is a maid at a hotel who is now the breadwinner after her father had a stroke. Frederick is an orphan who lives with a clockmaker as his apprentice after he discovered his talent for gears. When circumstances bring the three together, they become friends helping each to improve their lot in life.

The plot has the three characters points of view that are separate before their paths criss-cross. The author does a nice job keeping the action going and weaving the plot together. I do think that some of my less patient readers might find the pacing slow. While I found the author's word choices delightful, others might be impatient for the action to move along at a quicker pace. Some writer's are wordier than others so I will just have to make sure I let them know that when booktalking its qualities. In the beginning and most of the middle everything seems to be going wrong for the characters, but it wraps up well at the end. The automaton's voice is distinct and there are hints that a fantastical element will kick in which is does around the last third of the book. The magical green violin, the mysterious Madame Pomeroy and her bodyguard, along with the golem clay foreshadow what is to come.

The characters have distinct arcs. Guisseppe must decide how to live free of a life of enslavement. Hannah must face her anger over her circumstances. Frederick has to learn to trust others and let go of his fear of abandonment. I did want some more background information on Madame Pomeroy. She was an interesting character. She sure could reappear in a sequel if the author decides to go that route. Some nice themes have Hannah having to take responsibility for her actions and learning how to make momentous decisions. She seems to face more critical choices than the others and needs to think through her actions based on character. She must decide between good choices and bad choices. She makes both creating an authentic character. She also has to deal with shallow characters such as Walter, just as Guiseppe has to determine how to react to a betrayal by his friend. Many of the situations show characters having empathy for others and being slow to anger.

Here is Kirby's full description: "She leaned close to the pages, chin resting on her folded arms, eyes racing over words, like chasing butterflies over the hills, to catch as many as she could before going to work. She wondered at how such tales of magic could be contained by mere paper and ink for her to read again and again. Which she had." Add this one to your shelf.

4 Smileys

Monday, June 2, 2014

Guinea Dog by Patrick Jennings

Yay! I have a new series I can recommend to my guinea pig crazed students. Seems like a teacher always has one as a pet in the classroom and those "Humphrey" readers will like this Patrick Jennings book. While it is not from the point of view of the guinea pig, it has a hilarious narrator named, Rufus, who is in 5th grade. With a name like Rufus it is only reasonable that this protagonist desperately wants a dog. The problem is his dad's obsession for order and quiet along with his new job of working at home as an editor of an online golf magazine makes him twitchy and weird. Rufus's dad is absolutely, never ever, going to get a dog. They poop. They pee. They have fleas. When Rufus's mom gets a guinea pig for him because she feels bad he cannot get a dog, he and his dad are mad at her. When the guinea pig starts to act like a dog, Rufus begins to warm up to the idea, but he's afraid what his peers will think of him and his pet sow.

This humorous main character has a voice that reminds me of the snarky girl in "A Crooked Kind of Perfect" or the boy in "Skinnybones." This would make a great read aloud. The dialogue and internal monologue of Rufus is hysterical. He describes annoying adult attributes such as his mom treating him like a kid, "It's like living trapped inside Missus Rogers' Neighborhood. She can't seem to grasp that I'm not three years old anymore. I wonder if she ever will." He finds her crying (usually out of happiness) embarrassing and his dad too strict and weird about working at home. He describes his dad's installation of the front door keypad and cranky note: "There is no doorbell. Do not knock. To speak to residents, enter the security code, then press #. If you do not know the security code, please turn around and vacate the property." When Rufus gets home and finds out his dad had to listen to his screeching guinea pig all day, he says, "I could see Dad smiling in his creepy way. He has pointy canines, too. He looked pretty vampirelike." His dad was definitely out for blood that day. The whole book had me laughing out loud and engaged in the odd-duck characters.

Rufus is dealing with friendships and a bully at school. Murph is his best friend that loves to be the center-of-attention entertaining those around him. Murph loves to tease the gullible Rufus and he is popular with everyone at school. Dmitri, is the new kid that sees Rufus as a rival for Murph's attention and puts him down in order to build himself up in Murph's eyes. It doesn't seem to work as Murph just ignores Dmitri when he makes dumb comments. Eventually, Rufus and Dmitri come to a truce. He's still not the nicest guy but the reader has a better idea that his bully ways come from being insecure and parading money around to try and feel important.They aren't best buds, but Rufus isn't bothered by him at the end and understands he is the new kid who is afraid of not fitting in. Rufus's character arc shows him learning to accept himself and not worry so much what others think of him.

Like many people, Rufus envisions Murph as this perfect person with normal parents, a dog, and more friends than anyone in his grade. He compares his parents and makes them almost cartoonish in their oddities. It brought back visions of my thirteen-year-old daughter thinking we were the most dorky, uncool people in the world. When Rufus learns that Murph has problems, he realizes that outward appearances don't really show what is on the inside of people. Rufus becomes aware that he is afraid others will laugh at him and it gets in the way of making friends. By understanding that most of the students are trying to be popular and cool and are afraid like him, he is able to be happy with who he is whether it means having a pet guinea pig that acts like a dog or collecting Scrabble tiles and liking anagrams.

A subplot involves his mom inviting a girl with his family on a picnic that adds humor and shows the insecurities of kids when they become interested in the other sex. Rufus has no interest in this girl and she scares him, although he is mainly worried of what kids at school will say. But it also shows that budding interest between boys and girls and how awkward it can be getting to know others from the opposite sex. Rufus envies Murph's ease at talking to girls their age. This book is fun. This book is kooky. This book is weird. Take Rufus's description of his mom "...smiling from ear to ear. People use that expression a lot, but my mom really does smile from one ear to the other. The corners of her mouth were, like, a nanometer from her ears." Guaranteed to make you smile. Big.

4 Smileys