Friday, October 31, 2014

Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost

This novel-in-verse looks into the past when Native Americans were forced from their lands in the 1800s in the United States. I just happened to have finished the book, How I Became a Ghost, by Tim Tingle about the same topic except specifically, the Trail of Tears. These two books could be compared regarding the Removal Acts of 1830 and how they impacted the Native Americans. They are quick reads. Helen Frost captures the lifestyle of the Miami tribe at Kekionga and the trading post outside Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Two alternating viewpoints between twelve-year-old friends, Anikwa, a Miami boy, and James, a white boy, show two cultures at odds with each other. I got lost in the scenes where the two are trying to communicate and do not know each others language. I can relate with living overseas for the past ten years and having a concrete ear when it comes to learning languages. Some incidents are funny. Some frustrating. The subcharacter, Isaac, captured my attention least. He is one dimensional and used as a foil to show the common prejudicial view toward Native Americans. The two families of Anikwa and James, particularly the males, fluctuate between helping or hurting each other. I do think this plot was an ambitious endeavor and is going to be hard to pull off because it is a complex topic and poetry uses so few words to convey information. I admire Frost's efforts and at times she succeeds and other times falls short.

The verse in Anikwa's voice is in the shape of weaving, while James is in couplets. The author explains this in the notes and says that originally, James was supposed to look like the American flag. Side-by-side they look like a blanket in the process of being woven. This image of two cultures intertwined made me think of the modern day mix of ethnic cultures in the United States. Blanket weaving has such a rich history in Native American culture and the long hours put into creating a brightly colored blankets suggests that friendship and peace is possible one thread at a time but will take a time and patience.

This is set during a time of war where tensions run high and people are taking sides. Anikwa and James are friends. They fish together and hunt. While they can't speak together, they try to learn words and have an easy camaraderie. The author shows how the Native Americans tried to use appeasement and force against the white people taking their lands. Neither way works and in the end the Miami tribes lose their lands. It suggests that individuals can be friends even in the midst of war and while they can't make a change on a big scale they can on a small one.

This week I was particularly frustrated by the Taiwan government. They have had food scandal after food scandal. My husband and I have been drinking contaminated milk for 7 years. At our school, the incidence of cancer is high. To the point that people have wondered what is going on. I suspect tainted food and pollution. When I talk to the Taiwanese they shrug their shoulders and say they can't do anything. But I can do something. I will not buy food from the companies with shady practices. I can get imported foods. By making a personal action I feel like I have a choice. I can't control the government but I can protest as one small voice. If enough of us get together, it will have an impact on these companies. This is the message I get from this book. Even though only two families will not change the outcome of the war, they made a choice. And that choice is for tolerance and peace.

4 Smileys

Thursday, October 30, 2014

How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle

This action-packed mixture of a ghost story with historical fiction is a must for libraries that want diversity and are looking for themes regarding tolerance. Tim Tingle, descendant of the Choctaw Indians, writes with authenticity that counters stereotypes of Native Americans in this tale of a boy that knows he will die but has the courage to do what is right in the face of it. Don't worry I'm not spoiling anything... he tells the reader in the first line of the story that he'll become a ghost. The story is about the Trail of Tears where thousands of Native Americans die when forced to relocate from their lands. The unique rhythm and repetition of words reflects the author's background as a storyteller and person invested in his topic. Tingle's great-great grandfather survived the Trail of Tears and he is able to convey the Choctaw culture to readers with a unique insider's understanding of customs and lifestyles. While the plot has some holes, the writing is full of suspense and hope with many in-depth messages ripe for discussions.

Ten-year-old Isaac is a Choctaw Indian acting like any normal kid when he starts to see ghosts and wonders if he is going crazy. The tension mounts when he hears about a Treaty with white men. His people know that nothing good comes from treaties. When his village is set on fire by white men, his fears come true. He flees with other survivors of the village but they are eventually caught along with his family and forced to march with other Native Americans along the Trail of Tears. When people he loves start to die he finds hope in forgiveness and making his ancestors proud by rising above the oppressors and letting go of his anger.

Tingle presents this plot in a unique way. There are few historical explanations and much has to be inferred by the reader. I can see some readers being confused by the soldiers and what they did to the villagers. I think this is Tingle's way of sweeping the reader into the story and slowly giving out information on a dark historical episode in American history. If he jumped out with the injustices then it might turn readers off; however, the lack of information might require clarification for readers unfamiliar with Native American history. I know that I would have to explain parts to my Asian audience. That said, it would make as a great read aloud.

Isaac is a kind-hearted, nice kid and his innocence contrasts with the horrors of a forced relocation. He is not judgmental nor is he stereotyped as a primitive Native American. His village has a lifestyle that includes religion, a government or council, an economy with livestock and farming, and generations of families caring for each other. The magical elements of shape-shifting and seeing ghosts is a part of the rich customs and practices found in Native American culture. At 160 pages, Tingle doesn't explain this much and it keeps the pacing galloping through the storyline.

The cruel soldiers are not introduced until later and Tingle balances them with kind soldiers. By looking at the past in a fair way, his message seems such that he hopes that people today will not make the same mistakes and oppress other cultures.The female teenager that is rescued is brave and courageous. She risks her life; yet, is not so afraid that she doesn't insist on hugging her parents. The three heroes value forgiveness and when the ghosts of the Nation honor them it shows how this trait is healthy for the soul to have peace and move on. Death is also treated with hope and while many characters die their ghosts are able to interact with the humans and grief is eased in survivors. This seems to be a part of the Choctaw belief system. I would have liked some notes at the end explaining facts from fiction.

History of cultures displaced and oppressed by others is like a Black Hole when you start thinking about it. America oppressed the Native Americans and African Americans. The Japanese oppressed the Taiwanese, Koreans, and others. The Spanish leader, Franco, oppressed the Catalans. The German leader, Hitler, oppressed the Jews, dissidents, and more. I was talking about this book with my colleague, the Chinese librarian born and raised in Taiwan. She said with a rue smile, "You should look at China's history... it runs deep [with Conquerors]." Tingle's story is so important because it teaches tolerance and respect for other cultures. There is always hope that new generations will not make the recurrent mistakes found in the histories of the world.

4 Smileys

Monday, October 27, 2014

Phoebe and Her Unicorn: A Heavenly Nostrils Chronicle by Dana Simpson

When fourth grader Phoebe skips a rock across a pond and hits a unicorn in the face, she breaks the spell of the unicorn being stuck staring at her reflection in the water. This unicorn is vain and sarcastic with enough compassion to make her interesting as a character. She introduces herself, "I am Marigold Heavenly Nostrils." Phoebe is a dork with self-deprecating humor and enough wits to match the unicorn whether intentional or not. When Marigold grants Phoebe a wish she asks for her to be her best friend. The two show they were lonely before meeting each other and they slowly strike up a friendship.

Phoebe and Marigold braid each others hair, have a slumber party, go trick-or-treating together, and basically do all the fun things friends do with each other. Phoebe is the weird girl in class that gets called names and picked on. Her friendship with Marigold helps her gain confidence. When Phoebe has to share Marigold with another girl she isn't too excited, but she learns to not be so insecure. Marigold is constantly touting her superiority to humans and Phoebe usually makes some jab back showing that Marigold really doesn't get it.

One of my favorite parts is when Phoebe talks about liking her spelling partner in class. She says, "I want Max to like me, and now he prolly thinks I'm weird." So you like him," states Marigold. "Yeah, he seems cool," says Phoebe. "Yes, but when I say 'like,' you know what I mean?" Marigold continues, "You want to use his shoelaces to make a nest!" Marigold's nose is up in the air and her eyes are closed as Phoebe taps her neck and says, "You really don't get humans, huh?"

I have an advanced reader's copy and not all of the cartoons were finished in it. There are pages that are separate from the narrative story that I didn't quite follow at first. I found it jarring at first and wondered if the published copy would have some type of color or ink that would offset or show that the pages were outside the narrative sequence. The entire book is in black and white and the only indication that they were separate was a slightly bigger layout. I didn't always catch it. Of course, I'm not an expert graphic novel reader so I could have been missing other visual clues. Don't miss this one. Embrace your inner unicorn.

4 Smileys

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Girl and the Seven Thieves by Olivia Snowe, Michelle Lamoreaux (Illustrations)

It took me 40 minutes to read this book. The protagonist is 16 years old and it is written for readers learning English as a second language. The Fountas & Pinnell reading level is an "N" which makes it good for middle school and up with a high interest level. Our school is comprised of students where English is not their native language and there are not a ton of books at this lower level for older readers. This book fills a much needed void and the author does a fairly good job sticking with the classic fairy tale and putting her own twist on it.

Eira lives is from New York with her stepmom and dad. When her stepmom tells her to run an errand for her with Hunter, the chauffeur she grew up with, Eira doesn't think anything of it. When Hunter takes her out of his way to a bad part of town she realizes that something is wrong. He reveals that he is supposed to kill her and tells her to disappear. She flees into the streets but does not feel safe when a crowd of seven men start to follow her. As she wonders whether to run or not, she discovers their intentions are not sinister and Eira makes friends with the group hiding out with them. When her stepmom tracks her down it is up to the seven men to save her.

The illustrations have a Manga feel to them that will appeal to the Asian students at my school. Also, Eira and her boyfriend look somewhat Asian. Students will identify with the straight black hair and eye-shapes. The evil stepmom looks Caucasian and the seven dwarves or thieves look like a mixture of different cultures. The pictures have a diverse look that will appeal to a global audience. I am always on the lookout for illustrations that reflect the mixed heritage of my students. They are not easy to find and I wish there were more out there to choose from for our library.

There is very little room for character development in such a short book, but the author manages to show Eira as a strong female character that is also trusting and slightly naive. The abundance of dwarves works against the development in some ways because there are so many it takes away from any of them getting fleshed out. The author is stuck with having seven in order to parallel the classic. The plot follows Snow White's story giving the reader some background knowledge because so many countries have their own version of this particular fairy tale. I have found that working in Asia, many of the Western folktales are not necessarily a part of their culture, but this one is that is and therefore readers will be able to tackle the words and plot with ease. There is a little bit of romance and if you are looking for a complement to this "Twice Told" series but at an easier reading level, I recommend Stone Arch publishing's "Faerieground" series by Beth Bracken (F & P level: K).

4 Smileys

Shelter Pet Squad #1: Jelly Bean (Shelter Pet Squad #1) by Cynthia Lord

This story draws on a child's desire to have a pet. Second-grader Suzannah lives in an apartment that does not allow them so she volunteers at the local animal shelter. She is part of the Shelter Pet Squad, a group of kids in grades 2-6 that play with the animals and make things for them. When a family brings in a pet guinea pig to the shelter because they are moving, Suzannah is determined to find it a home. She rallies the Pet Squad into advertising at the school in hopes that some teacher will step forward and adopt the pet for his or her classroom. Our students in third grade work with animal shelter dogs and adopt-a-pet for their classrooms. I know that teachers will like this book for their library or as a read aloud.

I was confused at the start of the book because the illustrations make Suzannah look older than grade 2. I didn't discover her age until after Chapter 1 and had a hard time getting an image in my head. A sweet tale emerges that shows how one person can make a difference in the life of an animal. I snoozed a bit in this slow, sweet, realistic tale directed at intermediate readers. These type of books tend to have a limited vocabulary and simple plots and words as readers gain fluency. This is the nature of intermediate books and the result is I find them forgettable for the most part. Perhaps my hyperactiveness works against me and my bias toward humor, fantasy, and action are too influential. Either way, you'll have to decide for yourself what you think about its pacing.

I like Cynthia Lord's middle grade books because of the tension she creates and depth in themes. She is one of the few writers that can sustain my interest. She just doesn't here. I actually took more interest in the broken-hearted dog, Bandit, thinking that the story might be about Suzannah trying to make friends with him. But Bandit is just an aside to showing that the animals at the shelter can find good homes. The real star is the guinea pig, Jelly Bean. Ironically, my dad used to call me "Barbara Jean, Jelly Bean" because I was always doing gymnastics around the house. I loved to cartwheel and spin in circles. Alas, this book just didn't have enough twirls for me.

3 Smileys

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Be Careful What You Sniff For (Magic Bone #1) by Nancy E. Krulik, Sebastien Braun (Illustrations)

This follows the same vein as the Katie Kazoo series. The realistic story has a magical item that transforms the main character in a unique way. While Katie Kazoo has more of a Freaky Friday magical twist, this one has a rambunctious puppy that gets transported by a magical bone to another location. He bites his bone and ends up in cheer-i-o London. Except everyone is crabby and the cute pooch, Sparky, gets tossed into the dog pound with a bunch of bully bulldogs. He makes friend with a small dog like him and they plan their escape. While I'll get this series for my library I know I'll forget about it. Nothing quite stands out for me. The author does give Sparky specific traits such as him being a hyperactive puppy that uses three-word repetitions that might make it a better read aloud. It reminded me of Mo Willems, "Let's Go For a Drive" (drive, drive, drive-y, drive, drive) which kids love as a read aloud.

The animals have human characteristics and can communicate with each other but are limited in how they can communicate with their human owners. This adds humor and frames the story as the human owner of Sparky only appears at the beginning and end of the story. Notes at the end explain different places in London that Sparky explored. The facts are a good way to give some nonfiction facts in a fiction story. The illustrations should help the reader recognize Buckingham Palace and Big Ben and is a good intermediate chapter book series. Fans of some toilet-bowl humor will think Sparky's peeing at inappropriate times and puking on the floor funny. Can't tell you how many squirts I find in the library howling over books that have this specific type of tickle-your-bones humor. Or in this case it might tickle-their-magic-bone. Light, fun fare.

3 Smileys 

The Princess in Black (The Princess in Black #1) by Shannon Hale

After reading the Legends of King Arthur where the females are presented as dorks and the guys get all the fun being heroes, I have a new appreciation for stories that have girl heroes. What's unusual about this book is that it reaches that oh-so-hard-to-find group of readers that are transitioning from picture to chapter books. This fairy tale princess has a secret and when the kingdom's biggest busybody, Duchess Wigtower, comes to visit, the princess is called to don her mask and save the kingdom incognito without alerting the Duchess. Young readers will like the adventure as Princess Magnolia corrals a blue monster that looks a bit like the "Sulley" from Monster's Inc.

Princess Magnolia is stuck having tea with the gray-haired Duchess whose hair is piled on her head like a two-foot tall mini-tornado, when her secret ring goes off warning her that the kingdom is in danger. Not wanting to raise her suspicions, Princess Magnolia comes up with a lame excuse to go change into her black super hero costume and see what is up. In the meantime, a blue monster that lives underground with other monsters is trying to remember why he shouldn't leave his den but he is so hungry that he crawls out anyway. He finds some goats with a shepherd and immediately goes after one. The shepherd named, Duff, thinks the Princess in Black looks familiar and decides to come up with his own superhero costume, Goat Avenger. It would appear that many more adventures are in the making for the Princess in Black and that a sidekick might play a part as book one of a future series ends.

There are quite a few illustrations than one usually finds in this length of book. Or maybe that is because I just finished "Leroy Ninker Saddles Up" and it had noticeably fewer pictures than this one. The color pages add to the fun and gross humor. When blue monster eats a plate of toe-nail clippings I cringed and laughed at the same time. The two-page spread of Princess Magnolia's ninja moves on the blue monster adds to the action and excitement. Duchess Wigtower reminds me a bit of the Disney stepmother in "Cinderella" except her mountainous hair adds humor.  A great addition to Mercy Watson series in your library.

4 Smileys 

Leroy Ninker Saddles Up (Tales from Deckawoo Drive #1) by Kate DiCamillo

Looney Tunes flickered on my family's old black and white TV every Saturday morning. Imagine five kids squished around the grainy 13 inch screen, heads bobbing in laughter at some cockamamie episode.  Leroy Ninker would have fit in well with the cast of Looney Tunes. Deluded like Daffy Duck but lacking a massive ego, Leroy is probably closest to Yosemite Sam but more the Yin to his Yang. Yosemite Sam was a macho, hotheaded Looney Tune bandit; whereas, Leroy is a reformed thief. He is bored working his job at a concession stand and is gonna git hisself a horse and become a cowboy. His favorite line is "yippie-i-oh" and his illiterative curses like "Dag blibbler it" or "Flibber gibber it" will lasso a smile from readers all around. A memorable character that would make a good read aloud for emerging readers.

Leroy was the thief in Mercy Watson's Fights Crime but his dream is to be a cowboy. He sets out to find a his horse that he'll name, Tornado. Leroy is no Zorro even if he wants to be. He ends up with Mabelline a four-toothed horse that seems more suited to Big Anthony in "Strega Nona," with her penchant for spaghetti. She'll only move if Leroy compliments her with oodles of sweet words. Leroy's syrupy compliments become more sincere at the end when it becomes obvious that he has come to love his toothless wonder.

The 90 page illustrated book is slightly harder than Mercy Watson with repetitive text and high vocabulary. DiCamillo sprinkles words throughout that is similar to the style found in "Bink & Gollie." I particularly like how she creates word-building or makes up words like "instinctuals." It's obvious she has a hankerin' for the written word that gives her stories a snappy rhythm with distinct characters.

The illustrations are rich sketches that capture the goofy Leroy's love for Maybelline. He's so worries when the storm scares her that he's tooling around town in his stocking feet because he forgot to shove his boots over his socks. He's got two buck teeth and pinnochio-like nose (after it shrunk when he quit lying). Leroy's ecstatic face at riding his newfound love Maybelline helps support the text that he has fallen for his old mare and truly cares for her. His most "splendiferous horse in all creation" he states. DiCamillo knows how to pack a six shooter as one heckuva writer. Giddyup and git this one!

5 Smileys

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Blood of Olympus (The Heroes of Olympus #5) by Rick Riordan

I like Riordan's banter, his caricatures of the gods, nonstop action, monsters, dialogue, and stupid sense of humor. He seems to have so much fun and doesn't take himself seriously all the while teaching facts about mythology that is memorable. He makes learning history fun and his use of humor represents a type of controlled rebellion readers can live through in a vicarious way. His female characters are strong and heroes in their own right and even though he tries a bit too hard to represent every race on Earth at least his tolerance message doesn't seem as forced in this novel as the last one. I'm referring to Nico's sexual orientation and fears. In this book, Nico's point of view in the chapters shift toward him accepting himself, learning more about his powers, and moving on with his life. There is a whole lotta action and less internal changes which is fine by me. I like it better when Riordan doesn't go into great depth. He isn't particularly strong with the romantic subplots that all sounded very similar in the last book. Except Nico's and that felt inauthentic. He's back to the formula that I recognize and I blasted through his book with many guffaws.

Gaea, the Earth goddess, is rising and wants to destroy all humans. The gods are suffering from multiple personality disorders as their Roman and Greek counterparts within each of them cannot agree with each other. Gaea cannot rise unless the blood of some demigods is dripped on the soil. Traps are set to make this happen. Meanwhile the Roman camp is attacking the Greek camp and the demigods must stop their destruction first before halting Gaea. The prophecy says that one of the demigods will die. The heroes know that they need the help of the gods but are having a hard time getting their cooperation as they war within themselves. When Gaea creates a trap the demigods must split up to do the impossible of saving the world.

Jason, Piper, Leo, Nico, and Reyna are the narrators of this story. They are trying to figure out their destinies as Greek or Roman heroes and figure out their fatal flaws or physical weaknesses. Greek tragedies have heroes that have misfortunes happen to them because of some error in judgement. Riordan pokes fun at this concept as the demigods banter with the gods. The demigods don't usually make errors and Riordan seems to be following the Greek comedy more than any tragedy. The heroes find happiness at the end in one way or another. If you have liked the series so far, you won't be disappointed with this one.

4 Smileys

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Dragonet Prophecy (Wings of Fire #1) by Tui T. Sutherland

This fast-paced fantasy adventure is an entertaining read that students will scramble for at the library. The plot is not original, but the characters go through emotional arcs and have unique traits that make them memorable. The action goes gangbusters after the dragon escape and while parts are violent, the fact that it is dragons and not humans removes the reader to some extent. However, if you read other reviews some were offended by dragons biting off human heads and necks being broken. One felt it was gratuitous and you'll have to decide for yourself what you think. The world building is fine, although the beginning pours on the information too fast at times and makes for slow pacing. I found the Prologue confusing. The point of view of the dragons, the gladiator-type fights, the school setting to learn powers, and the evil villains vying for power over the world are common motifs found in fantasy stories.

Five dragonets are prophesied as ending the war between three dragon tribes. Clay, the protagonist, is one of the few kind dragons that worries about not being violent enough to save the world. Even though he is the biggest of the five dragons, he's been told by his teachers that he lacks killer instinct necessary to win the war. The adults that are training the dragons are cruel and untrustworthy. Each dragon has a unique trait and characteristic that the adults see as weaknesses. They also represent five different tribes that war with each other. According to the adults, Clay needs to find his killer instinct. He's too kind and loyal. Glory is a substitute dragon found to fulfill the prophecy after the intended one was intentionally smashed by an enemy. She has no worth to the adults. She's shy and accused of being lazy because of her need to nap every afternoon. Tsunami is the impulsive, courageous leader who will stand up to the adults and charge into danger with glee. Starlight is the know-it-all scholar who can read minds. Sunny is the smallest and the others protect her and are bad at listening to her. She's likable to others.

The dragonets have been hatched under a mountain and are being raised by three nasty adults that serve the Talons of Peace rebellion. The dragonets have not been raised in their tribes and by placing the dragonets together the adults have created a group that tolerates differences and hasn't been indoctrinated by tribal prejudices. When the dragonets finally do meet others in the outside world, the other dragons comment on how strange it is that these groups will mix, talk, and defend each other. The dragonets loyalty to each other is not based on appearance or culture, but on what is inside. They are friends. Hence they represent a global peace missing in other tribes. This is a strong message that can make for good discussions on tolerance.

When Glory's life is threatened the dragonets escape the mountain only to be caught by the cruel Queen Scarlet who is a caricature of vanity and cruelness. She has created an arena of gladiator games where dragons are forced to fight to the death. Her champion is the young Peril who can incinerate people with her volcanic touch. She becomes friends with the kind Clay causing her to question her life as a killer. In the outside world, some of the dragonets discover newfound powers after reacting with the environment in ways they were not able to under the mountain. The dragonets bond even more and the ending leaves plenty of questions about possible betrayals, other powers, and more adventures that will have readers scurrying for the sequel.

4 Smileys

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Magic Thief: A Proper Wizard (Magic Thief #3.5) by Sarah Prineas

I kind of like these little short books in between novels. It makes me want to pick up book 4 and it is a good review for my remiss brain that remembers details about as well as I cook. At least I don't blow things up cooking like Conn does with his experiments. Not only is Conn back, which I didn't expect since the trilogy wrapped up nicely, but he's still blowing things up. Yeehaw! The absent-minded risk-taker is hard-working and more observant than it would appear. He fools many by his appearance and when Verent, apprentice to a wizard that is seeking Conn's help on a magical problem, meets Conn he is ready to turn around and head home. Verent's elitist attitude is a turn off as the snobbish Verent wants nothing to do with the poorly dressed Conn and his low-class accent. But Conn isn't offended and he includes Verent in his experiments teaching him how to turn a mistake into a positive experience.

Verent doesn't know what to think of Conn and makes comparisons to the current wizard he's apprenticed to in the city of Danivelle. This is a nice study of character development as the author shows how to birth a one-dimensional character into a complex, three-dimensional one (sounds like an alien). Verent's views hide his insecurities about his lack of skills as a wizard. He is never praised nor encouraged in a steady progression of mastering wizardry skills. Instead he is shamed and browbeaten by his master creating a person that puts others down so that he can feel good about himself. Conn teaches him that he has worthwhile skills and must allow himself to make mistakes and take risks. Otherwise he will never reach his potential as a wizard. Prineas does a great job showing this through dialogue and action. Plus I got a refresher on Conn and Nevery's background. I forgot quite a bit because book 3 was published in 2010. My brain is befuddled with too many other books to remember that long ago. If you want a quick read (49 pages), a refresher on the series, and a little depth regarding mistakes and risk-taking then give this a go.

4 Smileys

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents Reports 1-6 (All The Wrong Questions #2.2) by Lemony Snicket

This goes with the book, "Who Could it be at this Hour?" You can enjoy it as a stand alone but I'd read the other one first to have a better background of all the kooky characters. A funny, quick read that gives the reader a chance to solve six mysteries along with the protagonist, super sleuth Lemony Snicket. The solutions require the reader to flip to a couple of paragraphs at the back of the book in order to see the outcome. I didn't figure out any of the mysteries, but then I was on the elliptical machine and have never been a stud at multitasking while exercising.  This is typical laugh aloud Snicket humor with puns and word plays. My favorite is "Bad Gang" where he references classics such as Edgar Allan Poe's "Tell-tale Heart." If you are teaching acronyms, puns, rhymes, word plays, famous names, this could work as a mentor text. I like how he names the Bellerophon brothers, Pip and Squeak. Bellerophon killed the Chimea in Greek mythology. He's up there with Hercules. Or the Pip and Squeak cartoon characters. Or... you can just read it to enjoy Snicket's twisted sense of humor.

Paintings are mysteriously crashing down walls, an obnoxiously loud territorial dog goes missing, a walkie-talkie shows up on the restaurant floor are just a few incidents that lead Snicket on a series of investigations at the Stained-by-the-Sea township. This novel has the first six incidents and Snicket asks questions and collects clues to each mystery. In case you missed that I said six incidents, not thirteen. Of course I missed the "Reports 1-6" first time I read it. I'm trying to help you speedy souls that are like moi. I also have no deductive skills whatsoever and did not figure out one of the mysteries. Good thing I didn't choose the path of being a detective.

Snicket knows his stuff combining literature and word plays to create a funny plot and characters. He makes it look easy and I admire his craft. He's great with dialogue and the clues are not that easy to solve in his stories. Although I'm not detailed. Maybe it is easy for you. If you liked the WCIBATH ("Who Could it be at this Hour?") book then you'll enjoy this one too! I just need to get the sequel with the next 7 mysteries.

4 Smileys

The Snow Queen (Hans Christian Andersen, Digitally Remastered HD) by Hans Christian Andersen, Imagine Brothers (Illustrator), H.P. Paull (Translator)

Hans Christian Andersen wrote "The Snow Queen" in the early 1800s. The man has not left his footprints on the fairy tale genre, he's left troll prints. Big, fat, long-toed ones that make me wonder why I am even reviewing this tale. Reviewing a classic is like jumping into a bowl of jello at a Norwegian potluck. Or Tator Tot hot dish. We went to those a lot at my Lutheran church as a tot. Even my wedding reception was a potluck. (They don't do that any more which is too bad considering it makes for an affordable wedding.) Unless you've been to a potluck before, you won't get my humor. Fairy tales lose a bit of their historical context in the modern world. While "The Snow Queen" reads kind of fragmented and odd today, it was different from conventional 19th century fairy tales. For one thing, Andersen wrote using colloquial language and was considered as a writer that was not didactic. He wrote at a time when literature was shifting from being strict moral tales used to indoctrinate children to ones of amusement. He also had a religious bent to the ending of this fairy tale that seemed out-of-place, but represents the time he lived when it was commonly found in literature. On the one hand, this tale came across as somewhat moral and pious for me as a modern day reader, and on the other hand it was also fascinating and ambiguous.

Some parts seemed jarring and fragmented and for me to really understand this text I should compare it to another. Others I didn't particularly get, such as the robber girl. The scripture references at the end had me lost and yet, in the 1800s, the readers probably got his meaning right away. The historical context can be hard to understand, but with his universal themes that deal with common emotions Andersen's fairy tales continue to evolve as tales where readers gain a sense of value and place in a community. I did do some research and Andersen is known for inserting more details into his fairy tales than others at the time. He was immensely popular and successful. "The Snow Queen" is considered a more conventional fairy tale with a happy ending versus other works he did where the protagonist dies. I'll take a stab at the shards of seven stories or chapters that make up the whole piece.

A wicked hobgoblin or demon invented a mirror that made the good in the world shrink to nothing and the bad in it look monstrous. Amused by his mirror that distorted reality, he took it to school and had everyone see mankind in its true form. The demons at school carried the mirror to Heaven and dropped it to earth where it shattered into fragments causing humans afflicted with it unable to see any good in the world.

As I was researching this I found a reference book that said Erik Christian Haugaard was their favorite writer because he was fluent in Danish and English. They thought he captured the colloquial spirit of Hans Christian Andersen better than any other translator. I decided to read it and I am really amazed by the difference in the first chapter alone. There are more details so that the story makes sense and the dialogue is not stilted. In this translation, the evil troll is called the devil and he is headmaster at the troll school. He made a mirror that showed all that was good as evil and all that was evil as good. He was most amused when anyone had a kind thought and looked in the mirror because a horrible grin appeared on his or her face in the mirror. The troll told the students that a miracle had taken place and they could see the truth about humanity. They ran all over the earth with the mirror showing that everyone could be distorted in it. They decided to fly up to heaven and poke fun at the angels and God. As they went up to Heaven the mirror laughed so hard it vibrated and they dropped it. Wow. What a difference. Haugaard's translation is double in length compared to this one. I recommend that you buy his over this one. The transitions are much better and the dialogue explains parts better, resulting in a plot that makes sense. For one thing, the religious language makes way more sense.

Back to this translation. The second chapter shows Gerda and Kay as happy children before a shard of glass pierces his heart and a grain of sand ends in his eye. Kay sees nothing good or beautiful in life and is abducted by the Snow Queen. When she kisses him he forgets Gerda. He seems to represent the human emotion of grief or despair. The Snow Queen's abduction is kind of creepy. It seems that a psychoanalyst could have fun with this fairy tale. I'm not going to go there. Chapters 3-6 are Gerda's adventures to find Kay. She meets a witch with a garden where the flowers all tell her their own story. Gerda must decide if she is going to find her own story. She seems to be stuck with some indecision at this point. Later she meets a robber girl that wants her as a playmate but later decides to free her so she can continue her quest. I'm not sure if this signifies friendship or what changed the robber-girl's heart. Gerda gets help and direction from others and a crow going to the Snow Queen's palace. She meets nice people and mean people. She is pure of heart.

In the last chapter she meets Kay and weeps on him melting the ice in his heart and eye. He wonders how he ended up in such an empty and desolate place as the palace. I really like Andersen's image of Kay working the ice puzzle but not knowing what he was doing. What a great metaphor for so many things in life. Kay turns back to the happy boy he was before and the two head home. This seems to show the triumph over grief. Gerda's quest and her character is one of purity and loyalty. The two become magically grown at the end and the Grandma quotes some scripture. It sounds like when Jesus said you can't enter the kingdom of God unless you have the heart of children. Gerda seems to represent the innocence of childhood. That's why I didn't really get it that they were grown up and married.

The illustrations are gorgeous from many different artists. I particularly liked Edmund Dulac's work that has great details and a darkness to them that reflects the text. Kay Nielsen has a couple of pieces of artwork too that differ stylistically from the others. Her characters are elongated and she has a dreamy, surreal feel to her paintings. She's also not quite as detailed as Dulac and some others. There are some terrific monochromatic sketches and I admire the detailed work of Arthur Rackham. His watercolors are so vibrant and detailed. His sketches add humor and energy to the text as well. While this translation is fine, I think I would begin with one like Haugaard's to have a better understanding of what Andersen was trying to do. The end has author's notes that talk about different legends by Caroline Peachy. I liked the start and then didn't quite follow the end.

3 Smileys

Monday, October 13, 2014

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana

Relationships are the centerpiece of this story that slowly builds like a tropical cyclone. Ten-year-old Armani is a cumulonimbus cloud full of sass, courage, and emotion. While her siblings irritate her, she would also do anything to protect them. When Hurricane Katrina hits the Ninth Ward and wipes out all that she knows, she has to deal with guilt and protecting her brothers and sisters that are younger than her.

Students will like this great adventure story. The start shows a loving, large family that is enjoying their daughter's tenth birthday when the wicked storm hits New Orleans. Armani adores her grandma and gets tired of sharing her with her other siblings. She fights the most with her older brother that teases her. Armani doesn't know how to handle it except to yell at him. In fact, she yells quite a bit at her siblings as a way of dealing with her frustration of sharing everything and everyone. Her heart is good though. If she's not protecting seven-year-old Sealy on the bus from bullies, she's teaching her infant twin brother and sister how to make the love sign, or comforting her scared grandma, or sticking up for her cousin against a drunk dad. Her hurricane-like personality can be ferocious at times.

The author slows down the writing in spots and brings in the senses making small moments special. One of my favorites is when Armani is doing the dishes and her baby sister rolls a mini-toy car over her foot. It's always fun when an author shows a non-stereotyped character such as the twin sister that loves her brother's cars while he has nothing to do with them. When the baby sister teases Armani, Armani playfully tosses a dishrag at her only to hit her grandma in the face. "I grabbed the wet, red-checkered dishrag out of the soapy water and threw it at her. But she scooched quick around the corner. Just then, Memaw [grandma] came walking toward me around that same corner. The slopping-wet rag slapped her smack in the middle of her face and stuck there like flypaper." The dialogue in the book uses a dialect that some might struggle with reading, but it adds to the unique character's voices. When the hurricane hits, the terror and smells come to life in the details that make the book hard to put down.

The author captures how young people don't always know how to communicate when their feelings are hurt and it would make for good discussions. At the table when Georgie laughs at Armani for believing a cow had a chicken, she screams at him because she is embarrassed. Later she shouts at her sister because her grandma was going to tell her something important about her cousin's mother and then was unable. (We never did find out the answer to that question.) As a middle child of five siblings, I remember being mean just because I was tired of sharing with them all the time. And tired of being picked on. Some days were survival of the fittest and I was nasty to protect my turf. Later Armani and her sister yell at each other but its because Armani thinks they will be separated. Hurtful things are said but later they make up. This is the heart and soul of this novel. How the family works together. They fight, but also care deeply for each other.

I didn't particularly like the start or the end of the book. On the bus Armani is annoyed with her cousin that is big, braggie, and bossy. She kept talking about her big butt and I thought... great we are getting a book with a girl that is a mean name-caller. Armani goes overboard at times and turned me off with her meanness, but then she shows how her attitude gives her strength and courage. She is a flawed character and it makes her more real and interesting in the end. Luckily the author balances enough of her mouthy, disrespectfulness, with redeeming qualities. I found myself admiring her for not collapsing in the midst of an incredibly stressful circumstance and being so young. She grows up quickly learning to be responsible and trust others.

The end of the book was somewhat abrupt. I had questions for Georgie about what happened with the dog and dad. TayTay had her own story that is never told. I wanted to find out what happened to Uncle T-Bone. I wasn't sure what was going to happen with the Bromans. By the way, it seemed that the older Broman, Matthew, was interested romantically in Armani. I think I might have mistaken the author's showing that Matthew just admires her. She is only a 4th grader and I was never sure of Matthew's age. I actually mixed him up with the fifteen-year-old boy in the shelter. I wouldn't think he was that old. Danisha was another character I wanted to meet again and I would have really liked some author's notes at the end explaining how she mixed her facts and fiction. I didn't know that the Dome was so dangerous. I looked up facts on my own and discovered what a mess it was inside there.

This book is like a levee of emotions flooding the reader. Its emotional pull is going to appeal to many of the students at our school. Oftentimes I recommend: Wonder, Okay for Now, One for the Murphys, Rules, Out of My Mind.  Now I can add this book to the list.

4 Smileys

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Curiosity by Gary L. Blackwood

This well-crafted book adds depth to the plot with its intricate layering of history and fiction that follows the real life of "The Turk,"a chess-playing automaton that came to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1835. The event led to crazy speculations of its inner workings in the media. The author captures the time period of the industrial revolution when children were used for labor and forced to work long hours and odd jobs that fit their size such as cleaning chimneys or as in this story working the mechanisms of a machine in a cramped space. The story is enriched by true historical details such as "Godfrey's Cordial," a mixture of opium and treacle, that was given to children by parents that couldn't afford to miss work because of a sick child. It was one of the many times I found myself researching a topic outside of the story. I also looked up the Battle of Trocadero, phrenology, automatons, certain historical people, and the King's Road. Historical books can't explain everything and Gary Blackwood does a terrific job dropping nuggets left and right that piqued my interest but didn't detract from the plot. Johann Maezal really did bring The Turk to America and references to Edgar Allan Poe, his wife, and P.T. Barnum make for a fun slip into the past. Then there is the chess playing brilliance of twelve-year-old Rufus Goodspeed. I don't even like chess but I felt like an expert experiencing it through his eyes.

Rufus is hired by Johann Maezal when he is spotted for his "freakish" ability at winning chess games. Maezel wants Rufus to run the automaton, The Turk, by stuffing himself in a box below it and operating the mechanisms to play chess with audience members in his show. No one knows a person operates The Turk and Maezal literally keeps Rufus a prisoner in a room because he doesn't want anyone to talk to him and try to pry out The Turk's secrets. Rufus agrees so that he can make money and get his father out of deptor's prison. The first person point of view adds to the claustrophobic feel of Rufus's situation of being in a box and imprisoned not only by Maezel, but others as well. Rufus spends his time with the craftsman and mechanic, Jacques, who repairs The Turk. Jacques is abusive and suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome after being in Franco-Spanish war. The two develop a tepid relationship where Rufus helps Jacques by getting him to talk and Jacques shows he cares for Rufus in his own way.

While the author's word choices and historical layers soar, the pacing is somewhat slow and dark in the beginning and Rufus is a character that might not appeal to some young readers. Rufus is curious and smart but he is passive and accepting of people that manipulate him. He's not one to take control of his destiny or put up a fight. I liked his dry and subtle sense of humor, but he is victimized much of the time due to a sheltered upbringing, hunched back and weak disposition. Of course he's stuck inside all the time so he is not strong. His slow progression toward standing up for himself is not fully realized as it is someone else that rescues him most of the time in dire situations. I liked it when he finally stands up to Maezel and uses his wits. Shortly after, he plays chess with daring abandonment during one session while operating The Turk. He moves back to his cautious ways but the incident shows some anger and grief motivating him to take control of his destination even if for a small moment in time. At the end, when he meets his friend that embodies the notion of free choice, I thought, at last, a final adventure will show Rufus finally taking full control of his life and not being a pawn to others. Unfortunately it is a stalemate. While he does progress some and he does show how he transcends his cruel situations, I wanted more at the end. Perhaps you'll feel differently.

The author creates interesting characters. They have distinct traits and unique voices. Maezel is into phrenology, a pseudoscience that determines characteristics of a person based on configurations of his or her skull. Maezel cannot relate to others and is a bully and cruel. He uses phrenology to try and understand people rather than using social norms. It shows how stunted he is in his relationships with others. In contrast, when Rufus decides to learn phrenology, he reads Maezel's book on it out of boredom and uses the knowledge to reveal how he feels about situations. He tries to read the skull of The Turk at one point in a funny, suspenseful scene. Other times he uses phrenology in a self-deprecating manner.

Jacques, as a character, suffers post-traumatic stress syndrome and does not get over it. His abuse turns to protection as he comes to like Rufus in his gruff way. The Turk's called "Otso" by Rufus and represents Jacques friend from the past. The last line is the same words Jacques said to his friend showing how closely machine and human are connected. Jacques also uses The Turk to communicate at the end of the story. Maezel has Jacques in the box telling fortunes for money. The Turk wears a sign saying "Swami" and Rufus calls Jacques a "swami" which means a religious leader that gains mastery over self. In an exchange Rufus learns that Jacques has not gained mastery over his nightmares. It suggests that Jacques cannot he is trying overcome his past but is learning to live with it by becoming The Turk.

Rufus at times can't control The Turk. When he wants to make a move that will allow a player to win, it won't let him. This mystical bend in the story shows how machine and human are interconnected. Rufus and Jacques don't have control of their lives. The end seems to suggest that while Rufus has freed himself from The Turk, Jacques has yet to do so. In the epilogue, The Turk collects dust like a long forgotten relic. I didn't really understand the ending and why Rufus risked his life for it. Maybe it was to show he could finally take action. Or perhaps it is supposed to symbolize the endgame like in chess. Or a stalemate. Or the curtain falling on the last act. I don't know. That's the best I can deduce from it.

Speaking of deduction, Edgar Allan Poe is worked into the plot as a journalist for a magazine where he wants to find out how the Turk works. He's a bit unscrupulous and his accomplice is a character that is a nice mixture of fact and fiction. Another tidbit that sent me hyperlinking through the Web and getting more information on Virginia Clemm. Like I said, I really liked how the author the sprinkled facts and references throughout the plot. Even a character with the name Fisher makes an appearance. It isn't spelled the same but still conjures up an image of chess champion, Bobby Fischer. Readers that liked "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick or "The Card Turner" by Louis Sachar should give this a go.

4 Smileys

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights by James Knowles

Harumph. I didn't expect that. I've read so many books based on the Arthurian legend that I thought it would be a sword and sorcery fantasy plot with the character development of King Arthur. Scrap that thought. Character development takes a back seat to a series of chain-linked mini adventures connected to the knights of the Round Table fighting battles or single combats. King Arthur is hardly even in it. Or Merlin for that matter. The sword and the stone, the quest for the Holy Grail, and the Guinevere and Lancelot tragedy are just small pieces of one gigantic story on fighting. I was mixing my fantasy tropes with legends and the two operate differently. While this legend has magic, the focus is on being a chivalrous knight at all costs. In King Arthur's world, a knight is a disciplined soldier who follows certain military strategies and functions as part of a national army, or in this case, King Arthur's army. From what others say James Knowles retelling is close to Sir Thomas Malory's, Le Morte d'Arthur, except it sounds like Malory used even more battle descriptions. There are so many variations on the tale that I did not realize it is a legend that has influenced fantasy versus the other way around.

Historically, there is no denying the importance of this work in literature, but this retelling is not going to appeal to most modern readers. The antiquated language and battles or single combat scenes get monotonous after awhile. The knights prove their valor, courage, and chivalry over and over again. I found it engaging, funny, irritating, fascinating, and tedious. The women are one-dimensional nincompoops. I guarantee you will be offended. They get their heads chopped off either for love or because the rules of the game (whether evil or not) require it. This is one of the major characteristics that defines a chivalrous knight. The rules are more important than death even if they are evil.

In one adventure, a good knight, accompanied by a woman, comes to a castle where dwells an evil knight and a lady. The evil knight insists that the beauty of the two be compared and the uglier one have her head chopped off by the winner. The good knight vehemently disagrees with the terms of this because it is an evil custom. He is the good and chivalrous knight, while the other is dishonorable. The two women's looks are compared and the good knight chops off her head because she did not speak against the evil knight's rules. Another adventure involves a knight who accidentally chops off a woman's head that was trying to protect her knight who had cried for mercy after losing a combat. The knight was dishonorable because he lost his head and was unable to stop. Honorable knights don't kill defeated knights asking for mercy. The errant knight is repentant afterwards and carries the woman's head on a rope around his neck to tell King Arthur of his foul deed. The women of King Arthur's court judge his actions and sentence him to protect them whenever they call upon him. He is their knight forevermore. Ugh. Welcome to the bloody Middle Ages folks, when this tale that was first put to paper. Not that the feminine portrayals are surprising. Male heroes dominated the legend genre in literature during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

According to Norton's Anthology of Children's Literature, legends represent historical times and have an oral tradition. Legends were a way of people understanding the unexplained and history of their country. To understand the variations, readers need to understand the sociohistorical context of the times. I won't get into all of that, but it helps knowing it because King Arthur wants to take over lands from the Romans and Saxons. The superiority and snobbery shows how he represents the feudal lord, with the knights as his vassals. No one knows if King Arthur ever existed. He might represent a warrior that fought against the Saxons in 600 C.E. The King Arthur of this legend doesn't make an appearance on paper until ca. 1135 when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of England). According to this tale Arthur killed hundreds of Saxons, married Guinevere, and held court at Caerleon. His nephew, Mordred, rose up against him and although Arthur defeated him, he was mortally wounded and carried to the island of Avalon. Successive writings added Merlin and the magical sword, Excalibar. Sir Thomas Malory's retelling during the Middle Ages is reminiscent of some heroes found in the Knights-Templar and British history. His books were transformed into short narratives called chapbooks for children in the 1800s. Later James Knowles wrote this particular version for children.

Some knights carry white shields or mantles with red crosses, the same clothing of the Knights-Templar, a group of elite knights considered the best fighters during the Crusades. The Templars protected Christians on pilgrimage to Jerusalem from marauders.  The knights of the Round Table seem to be a bit like them having religious ascetic ideals mixed with a military role. The knights' actions are always measured against a code of honor. They are flawed and courageous to the point of stupidity. King Arthur is warned to wait for Lancelot and not fight Mordred in battle because he would die. Arthur tries to wait for Lancelot, but a series of events put him in battle against Mordred's army. Even when Arthur's knight tells him to not fight Mordred single-handedly, Arthur does because it is the noble thing to do. He foolishly insists on killing Mordred with his own hands and dies as a result. While these are flawed heroes that make mistakes over and over again, their courage is commendable.

This legend is one to be studied in a historical context. It is not your typical read and requires some research. It helped me better understand the legend and what other children's authors were doing in modern versions. I want to reread Gerald Morris' satirical Knights' Tales series again. They are hysterical and would be even funnier now that I've read this retelling. The first book is The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great. A new book that has more of the fantasy element of King Arthur is The Eighth Day, by Dianne K. Salerni. The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland has King Arthur as a young boy struggling to find his path during the Middle Ages. He is the second son of a landowner and cannot inherit the land. He decides to become a squire and then a knight so he can own his own manor at some point. Next I want to read Mark Twain's version and T.H. White's, Sword in the Stone.

5 Smileys