Saturday, January 31, 2015

Loot by Jude Watson

After teaching 16 classes the past three days, I just wanted to zone out with a fun book over the weekend. This was perfect. The strong characters, humorous dialogue, and piston-pumping action had me wanting to practice a C grip (a wrist to wrist acrobatic move).  Jules is a circus performer that meets up with her twin brother, March, when a jewel heist goes wrong and their dad is killed. The two did not know about each other until March's Dad, Alfie McQuin, tells him to "find Jules" which March thought was "find jewels." Following his father's clues he finds his twin sister is the "jewel." Both are wary of each other after first meeting, but they set aside their differences. When they discover they each have the same spooky dream of falling off a cliff and March tells Jules about a prophecy that says they will die before they turn 13 years old, which happens to be in a couple of weeks, it's only natural that Jules teaches March how to catch another body in mid-air using the C grip. She's been living with her aunt performing in her circus as an acrobat. March, on the other hand, has been living in and out of hotels most of his life with his master thief father, Alfie. March is helping Alfie on a big heist when Alfie falls or is he pushed? off the roof setting into motion a chase to find seven priceless moonstone gems that are also known to be magical. 

The two siblings don't completely trust each other and are sent to a foster home where they meet Darius and Izzy, two people desperate enough to get out of the foster system and willing to take dangerous and illegal actions to help them. Of course, being offered a million dollars each to help them is motivation enough. A crazy old heiress has approached the four about giving them seven million dollars if they recover the moonstone gems. This reminds me a bit of the 39 Clues series or "Ocean's Eleven" movie. The plot is outlandish and fun. The supporting characters of Darius and Izzy add humor and depth to the theme of four orphaned kids wanting a "normal" home life more than anything. Darius makes up careers for his father that are so out-there everyone knows he's lying to cover up the truth. Izzy is an abused foster kid that is brilliant and protected by Darius. I think the criminal Hamish, a fence - that is one who makes a profit selling stolen merchandise - steals the show. . He is calling the kids, "little yogis" and tries to hide a mistake saying he knows nothing "...I'm so Zen." When he tells Jasmine to cover the cash register she responds that he told her to work on her e-commerce orders and that "Change messes up my aura." She doesn't want to watch the desk. "The universe has many paths, and yours leads to the cash register," Hamish said. "Peace out," she replies. 

The plot is formulaic with the heroes trying to steal back from nasty villains. The heists take place in exotic locations and the kids have access to private jets and money thanks to the heiress. They almost die several times by falling and have a running gag about it that is entertaining. Darius's mother is a hoot too. She's an easy corn flake to love. None of the adults are responsible and they work as nice foils to the kids. A nasty competition between the teenage thieves and a hardened criminal thief ensue that had me rooting for the foster kids. 

March, Jules, Darius, and Izzy all wish they had a grown up in an average home with two parents and it runs through the story like an undercurrent giving the reader empathy for the kids. They haven't had it easy being neglected by the adults in their life and not able to go to school. March is a trained thief while Jules is a trained acrobat. Even though they steal it doesn't give them happiness. Jules talks about wishing for a normal life while March responds that they can make a home if they pull off a heist. That is why March's attitude toward the heist against Blanche seemed hypocritical. Blanche is presented as a stereotypical rich woman that doesn't deserve her money because March said it was unearned and inherited. He has no conscience stealing against a rich socialite and spends it like a rich person buying an entire apartment building and talking about his pool and spa. Jules says that money can't buy happiness but the end shows that it does. In a twist he uses the money to help the person that killed his uncle and another person that tried to kill him. But this is really following the wish fulfillment fantasy of a fairy tale where characters get what they want and are happy about it in the end. I shouldn't take it seriously... 

Every good con novel has a twist and the author sure delivers on that expectation. March and Jules score big but not in any predictable way. The short chapters help make this a page turner and the wham-bam action reminds me of "Stormbreaker" by Anthony Horowitz and "The Great Greene Heist" by Varian Johnson. While most of the story is realistic with nonstop action and adventure there is a slight fantastical element. The gemstones are considered magical and said to influence dreams and the future. The heiress has supposedly defied death twice and claims it is because of the stones.  Part of the novel's fun is it allows kids to live vicariously through the characters making their own rules and being independent. Shoot, adults like to throw off the shackles of responsibility and pretend for awhile too. The orphan story is a familiar trope found in children's books that is a vehicle for gaining independence and living free from authority. It is one reason it is so popular and a blast to read. This adventure had me doing handstands against the wall. Enjoy!

4 Smileys

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, Shane Evans (Illustrations)

Diverse books are necessary to the children's literary landscape and there are not enough of them, but I know I won't remember this one in the long haul. It isn't that the verse isn't beautiful or the setting not memorable, it is the fact that the secondary characters don't come alive giving depth to the main character's journey. I kept wanting her to form a relationship with a minor character to help push the story's action forward. The plot stalls for me in spots and just when I think an interesting minor character and relationship is going to bloom, it moves on to another one too quickly. Amira's sister, Leila, interested me the most because of her grit and determination as a cripple, but she flits through the vignettes like a butterfly out of reach. Also, the Sudanese conflict in Darfur isn't explained enough and I found myself looking up answers in the encyclopedia to fill in gaps. That said, there are some interesting themes on creativity, grief, close-mindedness, and traditional values.

Darfur has been a war zone for many years with African and Arabs fighting for land. Thousands of people have been murdered and displaced and this story is about one family's life as refugees. Amira farms with her loving family in South Darfur, Africa. She has a younger sister that is crippled and enjoys a close relationship with her progressive-minded father. When the Janjaweed militia come through her village her father is killed and she must flee with other villagers to the city of Kalma. She secretly desires to be educated in a country that doesn't educate girls. Traditions are such that girls do household chores and marry, they do not need to be educated. Amira sees another girl her age married to a rude older man and can't help but notice the girl's unhappiness.

One of my favorite books is "Things Fall Apart," by Chinua Achebe. It shows the break down of traditional values in a village and how it tears apart the main character, an African man. In this story, war seems to break down traditional values, but it doesn't pull the main character apart, it makes her stronger. The limited point of view, told only from Amira, keeps the story from showing the complexity of the war going on around her. Amira doesn't understand it and while it is emotional with her grief, I wanted to get to know more of the other characters. The verse makes the plot seem sparse at times. Amira likes to draw in the dirt with a stick and her father values education. It is hinted that he wants Amira to run his farm. Amira comments on her mother's close-mindedness to her being educated. "Muma's strong beliefs/ are as blinding as a sun/ that makes her squint at new ideas." Her mother slowly changes as Amira opens her eyes to the joy of writing. When Old Anwar teaches Amira to write in secret she starts to heal from the war.

Andrea Davis Pinkney explains in an author's note that she used verse to distance the story's violence from the reader and while it does do that making it age appropriate, it also hurts the flow of the story making facts choppy along with relationships. She does show how the "toob" or Sudanese traditional dress that covers a women from head to toe, is tied in with cultural identity. It adds a richness to the text and meaning to Amira. Her mother shows her toob from when she was married while Amira passes on her toob to her sister. This generational passing down of a cultural costume gives the women a sense of identity. The reader also sees it is a symbol of economic wealth and status in the richness of Miss Sabine's dress when she comes to the refugee camp. The illustrator captures its cultural importance in the illustrations. The toob is more than a stylish dress. It represents national pride and heritage dating back hundreds of years.

Amira grieves the loss of her father and is traumatized to the point of not talking. It isn't until her pencil disappears that she regains her voice. The pencil is a symbol of changing the future and a reminder of her father who gave her a sharpened twig on her birthday so she could write in the dirt. Writing heals Amira and gives her hope for a different future. She is not interested in getting married and finding a husband. Her father and Old Anwar recognize this and mention her intelligence. She overhears her father telling Old Anwar that he will teach her, but then he dies. Old Anwar teaches her in secret when she asks him. My favorite verse is "Sweet Invitation" where Old Anwar tells her that learning isn't "...chasing the wind" but "...stirring it up." Amira sees new possibilities for the future by getting an education and is determined to change her present situation. The abrupt ending makes me wonder if there will be a sequel. This might be a nice companion to Linda Sue Park's "A Long Walk to Water" that shows the importance and difficulty of getting water in Sudan and the role of girls in getting water for the family.

3 Smileys

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. by Greg Pincus

I ate way too much chocolate reading this book and I blame eleven-year-old Gregory Korenstein-Jasperton and his friend, Kelly, who eat pie every day after school at Kelly's mom's bakery called, The Slice. I think the author was having a bit 'o wish fulfillment here. It was pure torture reading his passages of Gregory and Kelly dissolving on their tongues boysenberry, apple, and chocolate-filled pies with sighs of contentment "perfectly tuned" to the sound of forks clinking on plates. They moaned in bliss, while I just moaned. Toss in Gregory's fear and hatred of math and I almost started anxiously chewing my nails like the old days when I was in high school math class. His family is a bunch of mathematical geniuses that would make the average person dizzy with their round-the-table dinner talk on complex math theories. His dad and mom want Gregory to go to Magic is Math Camp, but Gregory wants to go to Author Camp with Kelly. He loves to write, but is afraid to tell his parents. When Kelly tells him she is moving, life gets more complicated and he keeps telling fibs to make the people around him happy. Eventually he will have to face the truth with his friend and parents.

Gregory is failing math and his teacher gives him a math journal asking him to write about math. To Gregory's surprise, he pulls together poetry and Fibonacci patterns creating what he calls, Fib poetry. The contrast of math and poetry make for a surprising twist as Gregory reflects on how math is important in every day life. He uses his love of language to express Fibonacci numbers in metaphors and truths. While this adds depth to his character it doesn't drive the plot's action. That happens through his relationship with Kelly. The two have been best friends from birth and she is practical and level-headed helping to keep Gregory on task and giving him cues (usually a kick in the shin) at school when he's about to make an idiot of himself. Gregory is devastated when he finds out she's moving and responds by not being completely honest with her about attending camp.

Gregory's lie isn't intentional but more rooted in him not wanting to tell her about his failures. It's never fun to fail at things in life and hard enough discussing it aloud, but if you come from a family of math whizzes there is some shame and denial going on with Gregory in being that bad at math. He tells Kelly his parents will let him go to camp when he hasn't asked them. He tells his parents that he loves math. He enters a huge city-wide math contest because he knows his parents will be so happy even though he hates math. This is a contest that his dad has won once and brother has won multiple times. Gregory is so busy trying to please everyone around him that he makes himself unhappy and procrastinates on getting things done due to big-time lack of motivation.

His math teacher sees right through him and knows that he has no love for math. He also taps into the subject Gregory loves which is writing. When writing his journal, Gregory has no problem being honest. He tells the teacher why he thinks math is useless. The teacher asks questions back causing Gregory to look more closely at math in real life and slowly sparking an interest and appreciation for it. As deadlines approach, Gregory worries about letting people down, but he doesn't give up as he makes connections between math and writing. At the end, he shows that he has changed when he doesn't care about the outcome of the contest. He has publicly shared the truth about being a non-math lover and while he wants his parents support and approval, he knows that whether he has it or not he will always love writing. His courage to go after what he loves takes a bit of time all the while grieving about his best friend moving away.

Two recent books I've read, The Dumbest Idea Ever, by Jimmy Gowley and Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff, are similar to this one about finding whatever you are passionate about in life and sticking with it; although Absolutely Almost is more about not being good at anything, but having great character. This story reminded of Pam Munoz Ryan's book, The Dreamer, about a boy that wants to be a poet but his dad wants him to have a profession that will give him a steady income. The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. has more humor; whereas, The Dreamer is more dramatic. Just a word of warning: Don't read this book when you are hungry. I'm off to my chocolate addiction support group.

4 Smileys

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Strike Three, You're Dead by Josh Berk

Lenny is a doofus that is easy to love. My favorite scene is when Maria, a girl Lenny has just met, grabs his bike from him when he offers to give her a ride. Maria makes Lenny sit on the handlebars while she pedals like the figurehead of a ship. He is wearing a helmet that matches the Mikes. That's right. He has two best friends named, Mike and Other Mike. A nice play on words for a kid who is terrific at announcing baseball games. In fact, he's so good that he won a contest to announce the 6th inning of a Phillie's game. When a 19-year-old upcoming pitcher drops dead on the mound, Lenny and the Mikes decide to solve the mystery of his death. Lenny's not much of an athletic. When Maria takes off racing the Mikes on their bikes with Lenny on the handlebar she causes Lenny's head to fling back like he's on a roller coaster. Maria keeps smacking the back of his helmet and she wins the race easily. I appreciate authors that upend stereotypes. These quirky characters are guaranteed to make you laugh with their witty descriptions, silly dialogue, and close friendship.

Time out. Can I tell you a story? Good. The reason I love this novel's bike scene is that it reminds me of the my first scooter ride with my husband when we moved to Taipei, Taiwan. His midlife crisis was to buy a sporty red scooter. I bought a metallic pink helmet. Very kicky. We'd never owned a scooter and the first ride into the mountains on a summer day was stressful. After starting the engine, he held the scooter while I tried to launch myself behind him. I got half a leg and thigh over before almost topping us to the ground. "Holy Cow!" he yelled barely keeping it upright. By the time I got on the back he took off only to have his Minnesota dairy cow-of-a-wife whack her cute pink helmet against his. I tried to wrap my arms around him, but like two bobble-heads we kept thunking helmets every time he changed speed. Thunk, thunk, thunk went our helmets just getting out of the parking lot. "Man, would you stop hitting me?" My husband said over his shoulder. "Put your visor up!" I'm thinking there is no way in bloody 'ell that I'm gonna put my visor up unless I have a mouth guard. We get into the street and I start to perspire. Not the slight perspiration you get from a brisk walk, but the run-down-the-leg-in-a-stream sweat. Taipei is littered with a bazillion scooters, buses to dodge, cars pulling in and out willy-nilly, and people everywhere. I had visions of us being road kill. "Ugh... you're sweating on me," he muttered. I only slid off the back of the bike once going up a switch back. The scooter has since been sold. But I digress. Honest, this book will have you snorting food out your nose. When Lenny tries to seal a spit-handshake with Maria he can't project enough saliva so he licks his hand. (That reminded me of Junie B. Jones licking her patent leather shoes clean so they'd shine.) The author cleverly uses baseball metaphors and similes throughout the book to strengthen the setting and characters that firmly anchors the baseball plot.

This isn't like a sports novel where the character is playing the game, it is about the character that loves the game. Lenny is an avid fan who loves trivial facts about the game, watching the game, and pretend announcing the game. It is through this skill that the boys are able to solve the mystery of the dead pitcher. Lenny would like to grow up and be a sports announcer. His father and mother are both cardiologists who would like him to go to med school. So often kids are at odds with their parents' vision of a career. The librarian calls Lenny and the Mikes, Cerberus, because they like answer in unison, wear matching bike helmets, and can act like three-headed monsters at times. When Maria joins the trio he changes their name to Brahma, the four-headed god. He mocks, "'Instead of the three of you guys acting as one, now you're a four-headed beast. What dangers hath I wrought?' he said. Then he smiled. Librarians are sort of weird."

The author fleshes out these characters with unique voices. When Lenny makes a video for an announcing contest he paints a mustache on his face with a marker then delivers some witty lines. The author balances wit with silly humor that readers will love, such as "pee" and "fart." This week I had 3rd graders changing the html code from "TAS Lower School Library" to "Poop is Awesome." The "poop" word just tickles their funny fecal bone. They would have liked Lenny's joke about and IP address as an I pee address. Although the Lenny trio doesn't enter the poop joke zone. The great descriptions of characters had me sitting through a faculty meeting thinking, Oh look, those two look like the number 10. "Mrs. Other Mike was always laughing. She was as plump and short as Mr. Other Mike was tall and skinny. Standing next to each other, they looked like the number ten." While describing a ball player's huge hands Lenny says they looked like "five magic wands." Then there is the goofy Other Mike that adores Warlock video games and doesn't really like baseball.

The entire novel has baseball metaphors that enrich the text in serious and humorous ways. When he is laying down in bed trying to sleep he can't because questions are zooming through his head like "fastballs crossing the plate. Zoom! Did R.J. Weathers really have a heart attack? Whoosh! Is that possible for someone so young and so healthy? Whiz! Could it be possible that he was killed? Zip! Was that crazy PhilzFan1 somehow involved?" The plot is stretched in some places but it is so dang funny, I didn't care. The villain could have been fleshed out more and the ending felt a bit rushed too, but there is a sequel, so I went online and ordered it for our library.

Maria is a strong character and even Courtney, who appears stereotypical at first, is an atypical babysitter. Different themes add depth to the plot such as inappropriate use of the Internet and untended consequences. Maria is not careful with her wording on a fan site and it is misconstrued getting her in trouble. Another theme involves the difficulties that Cuban players face trying to get into United State's major league baseball. Also, when Mike is told to go out for catcher on the school team, Lenny has to deal with his feelings about why this makes him unhappy. He's rude to Mike until he acts like a true friend that wants what is best for Mike. Josh Berk has great command of his fastball in this "razzle-dazzle" novel. Add it to your book shelves.

4 Smileys

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill

The power of words. They hurt, heal, and create. When they come together in a story it is like magic. Kelly Barnhill uses this imagery throughout her book in many different ways. Words are used to belittle Ned in the beginning of the story. He is the surviving twin of a boat accident that leaves him stuttering and the villagers cruelly saying the wrong boy survived. His mother uses magic that is in the form of words to bind the soul of the dead twin to her brother. She repeats to Ned that magic has unexpected consequences. If the magic represents words then she implies that words have unexpected consequences too and this notion is prevalent in the story. Ned's mother usually uses words to heal others in the village and not for personal gain; however her grief made her use magic to keep her dead son's soul from leaving earth and the consequence is Ned's loss of words causing him to be ostracized by the community. The story takes from different fairy tales and mixes them into the author's own creation where friendship is hard to come by and magic represents the good and evil in all of us.

I sink into my favorite chair and lose track of the real world when I have a Barnhill book. She is a strong writer when it comes to creating fantasy worlds - actually she is on my burn-the-dinner book list. I make sure I start her book early in the day because I know I won't put it down. Her books have layered themes and layered characters. In this one, Ned struggles with not being able to talk, but he is also much better than the average person at observing others around him. When he sees a newcomer at a village gathering to see the Queen that is stealing from people's pockets, he is frustrated by his inability to warn them with words. At the gathering, the Queen falls ill and Ned's mother saves her with magic. The newcomer has a pendant that glows strangely and Ned is uneasy about his flushed face watching his mother save the queen's life. He dismisses the idea that there is nothing for the newcomer, who happens to be the Bandit King, in the village.

The word, "nothing" is repeated throughout the novel and signifies how people can strive for personal gain but in the end it is for nothing. Meaning in life is not gained through materialism or power but through giving to others first. Aine, who is the same age as Ned, lives over the mountains and beyond an enchanted forest in a Kingdom that Ned's villagers no nothing about. They believe the world ends and that there is nothing beyond the woods. Here nothing means ignorance; just like Ned ignorantly believes the Bandit King will do nothing. When Aine's mother dies she lives in the city by the sea until she has sold all their goods. She tells her father that they have nothing which triggers him from his grief so that he takes Aine to the forest where he grew up. Here nothing signifies power for her father. His wife kept him from using magic and stealing from others. With her gone, he turns back to his life as a bandit and slowly transforms into a greedy man that loses sight of the importance of raising his daughter and showing he cares about her. Aine wants nothing to do with magic. She is very practical and tries to show that she doesn't care but she forms a deep friendship with Ned in the end.

When the Bandit King tries to steal the magic from Ned's mother while she is away, Ned ends up being engulfed by the magic where it resides on his skin in the form of words. The words can be calm if he commands them or they can burn his skin and hurt terribly. He repeats over and over to think nothing so the magic won't control his thoughts. He is tempted to use it for personal gain but knows it can kill him if he gives in. He empties his thoughts as the magic pressures him to use it for selfish reasons. Ned feels like he has nothing because his dad won't look at him. Aine feels like she has lost her father's love as the pendant twists his mind. Both discover that their fathers' love them, but not without suffering first through neglect. At the novel's end, Aine tells the bandits she has nothing and burns down her house and barn symbolizing a rebirth for her and newfound independence. Just like the words in a book magically give birth to a story. Words make the characters feel like nothing at times. Ned's community belittles him and strips him of his humanity because he stutters. They don't want to show they care. Their abuse to him and his mother show a lack of compassion and caring. Aine tries to act like she doesn't care, but she does. The magic is in the form of words and after it leaves Ned, he is scarred permanently. Words leave scars. Words can be said for good or for evil.

Magic represents the good and evil in all of us. A subplot involves nine stones that talk to each other and are tied to the magic affecting Ned. I got confused as to whether or not they were good or bad. Sometimes they seemed good and other times they did bad things. While it was clear that the magic pot was good and evil, the stones vacillate. If you remember that the stones represent the good and evil in all people then it is less confusing. Also, once I knew they were connected with the clay pot magic I could see where the author was going.

The stones remind me of the Stonehenge history and myths showing it as a place of healing, religious, celestial, and magical properties. Today, archeologists can use advanced techniques to determine more about the stones; thus, taking some of the magical mysteries out of the equation. The stones in this story lose their magic and leave the world too. When the stones pick up the characters and carry them on their shoulders, it reminded me of the hobbits traveling on the trees in The Lord of the Rings movies. Fairy tales of enchanted forests, bandits, and witches had me making references throughout the book. If you liked the theme regarding the power of words then try, A Snicker of Magic, by Lisa Graff.

4 Smileys

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

Whether I want to admit it or not, there is a certain amount of wish fulfillment going on when I watch movies or read fantasy, spy, or science fiction books. I'll never be a butt-kicking warrior but that doesn't mean it isn't fun pretending I am for a couple of hours. This book will satisfy most middle schooler's alter ego of pretending to buck authority and outsmart the powers-that-be. It's fun. It's heady. Plop in some humor and action and ya gotta whole lotta fun. Turn over a few stereotypes and add some subtle racism while you are at it and ya gotta whole lot to talk about.

Jackson is a middle schooler who comes from a family of cons. His dad is a lawyer now and is on to Jackson every time he starts a scheme. Grandpa taught his grandsons the art of duping others. While, Samuel, Jackson's brother is off to college, Jackson is just coming out of a four month grounding due to some con job he pulled at school the year before. A job that went all wrong. He lost Gaby, his best friend and girlfriend, and has to meet with Principal Kelsey once a week for behavior reports. He's not your typical con man. He wears a red tie to school and runs the Botany club. He's sworn off con jobs and has supposedly gone clean. When his ex-girlfriend runs for Student Council president and his arch enemy, Keith Sinclair, gets on the ballot after the deadline, Jackson knows something is up and comes out of stealth mode.

An elaborate heist ensues that is believable enough to keep me flipping the pages waiting for the twist at the end. In an unpredictable climax, Jackson is saved in an unlikely way and the answer to the previous con job gone awry is pretty funny.  I kept thinking I was reading a sequel because of the way the author unfolds the plot. He jumps into the action and characters so that it isn't clear what happened during the fallout between Jackson and Gaby. Bits and pieces are tossed to the reader until the very end when it comes together. While I liked how this added tension throughout the story, I felt confused at the start by the references to characters involved in it.

Strong female and male characters make for a multicultural mix that is global. Jackson is African American, while Gaby is Latino. Both are excellent basketball players and care about school. Gaby is passionate about the environment and Jackson likes horticulture. Their classmate Carmen is odd but that doesn't mean Gaby doesn't see her strengths. Gaby is willing to work with her and Carmen becomes invaluable to the campaign with her great manipulation of crowds through different media. Hashemi and Victor are Asians that are perhaps more stereotyped but I was thrilled to see two Asian minor characters so I don't give a hoot. Hashemi is the tech wizard on the team that turns into a drooling mess around classmate, Megan, until they start talking Klingon together. Honest. Didn't see that coming. Megan is a cheerleader, Caucasian and president of the Tech club. I get a bit tired of the stereotypical mean, narcissistic cheerleader, so it was great seeing Megan break the mold. She adds great humor by responding to stressful situations by speaking Klingon. Hashemi starts to interpret at one point. The first time she calls Jackson a not-so-nice name in Klingon, he wisecracks, "Didn't know the school offered that language elective." Gaby's brother is Jackson's best friend and he loves to make up names for everything giving it pizazz. So does Bradley, another member of the heist team. My favorite is when he says, "Three cheers for Gang Greene."

The author mentions the movies, "Ocean's 11" and Star Trek, as influencing him. For sure he mirrors the diverse cast in those movies with his characters. He works in his admiration through his characters, especially Star Trek. The pop culture references added to the humor for me and it was subtle enough to not take away from the plot. The racism of others is subtle too and I liked how the author handled that as well. Jackson goes into the administrative office and the secretary asks if he is there for his weekly meeting or is he in trouble again because "boys like you" do that. "Jackson looked at his skinny brown hands. He never quite knew what Ms. Appleton meant by 'boys like you.' He hoped she meant something like 'boys named Jackson' or 'boys who are tall,' but he suspected her generalizations implied something else."

While Principal Kelsey is more of a one dimensional villain, Keith has more depth. Keith begins like a buffoon willing to rely on the Dr. Kelsey, but becomes increasingly paranoid, sneaky, and tactical as the story goes on. His motivations are understandable, but misplaced as he wants to cheat the system rather than be honest. Principal Kelsey shows that he has a different agenda toward the end that makes for an interesting plot turn. He is confident, corrupt, and powerful becoming more and more greedy as time passes. Jackson, Keith, and Dr. Kelsey are all trying to outsmart each other and their power play moves become more desperate and unpredictable by the end. Of course, in a good heist they've played into the hands of the hero if the reader is familiar with this type of trope. But all three of the men are somewhat dorks in the end and Gaby gets the last laugh. She says that boys are as "dense as a box of rocks." A fun book. Go Team Gangrene!

4 Smileys

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Bracelet of Bones (Viking Sagas #1) by Kevin Crossley-Holland

Solveig is with her Viking father, Halfdan, in a valley in Trondheim, Norway, where he is telling her of his experience in the great the Battle of  Stiklestad in 1030 when King Olaf died and Norway fell under Danish rule. Halfdan and another man saved King Olaf's son, Harald's life and promised to serve with him in the Varangian guard in Miklagard when he sent for him. The Varangian guard were personal bodyguards to the Byzantine emperors. Harald sends for Halfdan many years after the battle, and Halfdan tells his daughter that she can go with him to Miklagard only to secretly leave in the morning without her. Solveig does not get along with her verbally abusive stepmother and one stepbrother that seems to teeter on being violent. The other stepbrother is kind and she gets along with him. The thought of spending time without her father is unbearable and Solveig sets out on a journey from Trondheim to Miklagard, (Turkey) to find him. While the historical details are well-done, the plot is somewhat weak and the pacing suffers as a result.

Solveig takes a skiff to Kiev where she is helped by two traders to find a boat that is traveling close to Miklagard. She becomes a part of Red Ottar's crew where she makes friends with the English slave woman, Edith, and Torsten who met her father. She becomes friends with Vigot only to find a dark side to him. Their friendship never seemed authentic to me. Vigot comes across as a snake and when Solveig voices her regret at confronting him, it didn't seem real. Edith and Solveig's relationship is quite authentic and real.

The theme of religion gets a bit messy because the author has Muslim, Christian, and Norse mythology competing with each other. Add in a healthy dose of superstition and it made it hard to determine motivations. Solveig believes in the old Norse gods and Christianity and her thoughts reflect more Christian beliefs. Bergdis devoutly believes in the old gods while Edith is a Christian. Mihran is Muslim. The other characters are a mismash of beliefs. I did not understand why the crew turned back from the trade port when they were 11 days out due to superstitious beliefs. Even with the leader dead, I would have thought the lure of making that much money in trade would have overridden their fears. I also kept waiting for Bruni and Torsten to duke it out, but that never happens. Torsten has taken his brother's feud with Bruni, something that is historically true but in this story the two are not unreconciled. Usually payment is made or revenge sought. I thought Red Ottar might mitigate but it doesn't come about. Maybe this will happen in the sequel.

The plot doesn't have enough challenges in it as the character progresses. She suffers hardships, but conveniently finds someone (usually a man) to help her on her journey. She never has to do the seeking. Even Mihran happens to know all these kings and helps Solveig. She never earns her way except rowing a boat and carving items out of different bones. As a result, she never comes alive for me. I wanted her to be more fierce and independent. Instead she is usually saved by a man. She does show gumption portaging and also when she stands up for Edith, but even then it is a man that saves Edith, not Solveig.

The Vikings believed in Fate which is represented in the Norse myths, but their views were far from fatalistic. Life was expected to be a struggle and they tried to rise above it with bravery, loyalty, and hospitality. The prophecy represents this Fate although it seemed to be the easy way to work in tension. I think prophecies are an overused writing technique. Solveig and the others use folk tales and Norse myths to keep their courage up or explain that which is unexplainable. This and the ancient Norse verse adds a richness to the story and setting.

The ending was a bit rushed. The themes of friendship and treachery, clash of religions, and father-daughter relationship lacked enough depth to draw me into the story. Perhaps the author was trying to do too much. I'm not sure. While I loved the historical detail, the story just fell flat. If you have not read this author before then I recommend his Arthur trilogy.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Life of Zarf: The Trouble with Weasels by Rob Harrell

My older brother called me "Barbie" until I barfed up Welch grape soda in the car on a road trip from Minnesota to Texas one summer (no air-conditioning... not a pretty picture... not a pretty smell... and a permanent gross purple stain on my pillow). Even though I was five, those are the childhood fiascoes that lead to family nicknames such as "Barfie." We had a Buick station wagon with two rows of seats and a third row that flipped up facing each other. Being fourth out of five kids I got shoved to where the trunk should be like a "flumpfruit". When I puked orange soda I made it to the front. I remember snuggling with mom liking my move up the ranks to the front seat. Needless to say I love the troll-boy Zarf. His name rhymes with barf too. Except his nickname is "Stink Dragon." The illustration of Zarf reminds me of my 1977 faddish troll doll with electrified-looking pink hair I had as a kid - they were called, Dam trolls, after the Danish guy who created them, Thomas Dam. No kidding. (Mom wouldn't let me call mine that.) Zarf is picked on at school and mistreated by the Cotswain's community. He too, is at the bottom of the social hierarchy like me in my family. People don't like trolls. They are unpredictable and hot-tempered, going berserk at times. Add in features such as size-22 hairy feet and a liking for poo-poo berry fritters and fish and ye have a silly olde story. The nonstop slapstick, play on words, and poking fun at fairy tale conventions, (and schools, and popular movies, and music, and technology... you get the idea), reminded me of "The Heroes Guide to Saving the Kingdom" or the movie, "Shrek." Adult and kid humor makes this a zinger.

When Zarf loses his temper while at middle school, he beats up the king's son for cheating in a joust. Not only does Zarf angrily lose control, but his vision turns red and his arm becomes a fist-pumping piston. (That might be a slight exaggeration, but I liked the word combo. A more accurate description is a fist-slapping-punching combination.) When he regains his sanity he is ashamed of his actions and runs home feeling like "frog goop." Yes, the king's son is a bully, but Zarf can't go flailing away at every twit he meets. His grandpa, who is the famed troll that got duped by the "three billy goats gruff", explains that Zarf comes from a long line of infamous Belfords known for their frenzy in battles, but that he needs to learn to use his anger "ta help others." When the king is kidnapped by the evil Snuffweasels, his son takes over the kingdom and immediately imprisons Zarf for beating him up. Zarf decides to rescue the king who has been kind and tolerant of trolls changing laws for their benefit. A wild adventure ensues with honey bogs, Snuffweasels, and dragons.

Zarf's best friends are Chester Flintwater, Jester-in-training that can't make a joke, and Kevin Littlepig, one of the three little pigs that makes the cowardly lion look brave. The three misfits learn about friendship and are willing to risk their lives for each other. Even Kevin overcomes his fear to save Zarf. Goldie, the lunch lady, is a spoof on Goldilocks. She's ladling soup and joking with Zarf that it is "just right." The other kids are afraid of her with her skull cap and fierce ways. Rumor has it she's a witch or serious bear hunter. The ogres seem like stereotyped henchmen, but this author reminds me of when I thought I was getting a mint, strawberry ice cream cone in Taiwan and ended up with a red bean, green tea flavored cone. He constantly surprises the reader!

The gags are delivered using illustrations and prose, each one playing off the other adding to the humor. When they go into the dark forest a sign reads, "Ye Olde Snarly Tangle Enter at Ye Own Risk" with Chester looking on saying, "Daaang!" in a speech bubble. When Chester slices off the dragon's toe the prose has the dragon grabbing his toe and screaming "My PINKIEEEE!" while the illustration shows Chester holding a sword saying, "And this little Piggie got none." Or when Zarf is so scared he says it was making his "teeth shimmy" and the picture next to it is a crazy-eyed human heart doing a cannonball.

The setting is rooted in kingdom and fairy tale lore. "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," "Hansel and Gretel," and "King Arthur" as a comic book hero are just a few of the many hilarious references to classics. The anachronistic use of a cell phone and references to pop culture from music such as "Eye of the Tiger", "Red Bull" drink, to word-plays such as the movie, "Dead Man Walking," for "Dead Troll Walking" make for funny running gags. My favorite line captures a mix of the two when the ogre is asked who his phone provider is when he can't get reception at the honey bog. "'Grimm unfortunately.' Kevin threw his hands up in disgust. 'SEE? Grimm is the worst! I told you guys.'"

The story is not all gags. Themes are layered in laughter. Zarf learns how words can hurt and heal, but that he has to not lose his temper. He is continually bullied and hurt throughout the story, but when he finally shows at the end that it doesn't get to him and he walks out of the room, he has become mature about his temper. Although I do think the king was out of character. Or perhaps the author really wanted to cement the community's intolerance for trolls as unchangeable.

The intolerance of the community is tempered by a few characters that genuinely like Zarf such as the Knoble Knight and Goldie. Again, the ending didn't quite work for me because I thought the Knoble Knight would stand up for Zarf. While I understand the attempt to show Zarf maturing, the about-face actions of the King and other adults didn't make sense. Perhaps a bit more of an explanation could have shown their motivation or lack of it in the final scene. Or perhaps the author is making a mockery out of aristocracy and adults. I just had a "Huh?" moment at the end. You'll have to decide for yourself. The theme of controlling your anger and not fitting in at school can be explored as well. There is plenty to talk about. Just plan on snort-laughing through discussions.

Rob Harrell's graphic novel, "Monster on the Hill," pokes fun of fantasy conventions while this one does at fairy tales. It too, has an odd quirky wit similar to his graphic novel. Both are funnier than heck. Rob Harrell writes syndicated comic strips and is a talented artist. I'm glad he's entered the foray of children's books. If you have a kid or students that won't set down their graphic novels to try prose, then I highly recommend this book. Actually, I would recommend it to everyone. Even my brother that still calls me "Barfie" once in a while. "Ladies and Germs," this is one "Daaang" funny book.  Don't miss it.

4 Smileys

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Emily's Fortune (Emily #1) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

I got hooked into this story like a fish to a bait. Luella, the wealthy owner that Emily's mom works for loves order and quiet, except when she picks up the carriage reigns. Then she's "Looney Luella" that drives like Mario Andretti. My father is like that wanting things done in a particular way and when he gets behind the wheel of a car he's yapping about engine sizes and flinging the car around asphalt at high speeds. I'd purposefully not wear a seat belt on the leather surface in the back seat because I thought it so much fun playing pinball with the side doors. Dad never killed anyone, but Looney Luella did. She killed herself and Emily's mom in a carriage accident. Shucks, this should be tragic, except when Emily sees Mrs Ready, Mrs. Aim, and Mrs. Fire, you know things are going to get silly and they do when the threesome can't understand a word Emily says when she explains she has an "Aunt Hilda in Redbud" to which they respond, "What?" You have an "anthill in bedbug?" Add to that the large billboard type western letters in large font at the end of the chapters with cliffhangers where Emily is "flippin' flapjacks" or "tumblin' tarnation," or "blinkin' bloomers" surprised by what she sees and you know you have a rippin' adventure that will make you laugh.

The social services show up to take Emily to the orphanage just as Mrs Ready, Aim, and Fire decide Emily should take the train and stagecoach to Redbud. Emily's explains that she doesn't want to live with her uncle that doesn't like children and has only taken money from her mother. The social services woman who drives around in a carriage with the name, "Child Catching Services," on the side wants to send Emily to her uncle because it is the only way she can get a bonus. With the help of the three straight shooters, Emily sneaks off and catches the train.

When Emily boards the stagecoach she is befriended by another orphan, Jackson, who helps her with the newness of everything and teaches her to climb trees. He spots a flyer saying Emily has inherited (Looney) Luella's 10 million dollar estate. Soon people both good and bad are looking for Emily and she disguises herself as a boy trying to get to Redbud. When her Uncle Victor shows up on the stagecoach, she overhears him telling someone else that he has come into money and she knows for sure that all he wants is her money. While in disguise it becomes apparent that the villainous Uncle Victor thinks only of himself and is afraid of woman. He tries to hide from the two women in the stagecoach that find him attractive making for some humorous scenes. This balances his nasty side and shows he's human not pure evil. An exciting climax will have you yelling "hokie smokies" instead of "holy smokes."

Emily's character arc shows how she gains confidence through her adventures and has grown enough to stand up to her frightening Uncle Victor. When Emily is first at Luella's she is forced to be quiet and is not allowed to go to school or play outside. Luella wants Emily to be a mouse, "seen-and-not-heard" and she complies. While Luella means well she overprotects Emily and doesn't expose her to the world. Emily is so shy that when Mrs. Ready, Mrs. Aim, and Mrs. Fire ask her questions they misunderstand her whispering responses.

The balance between danger and humor makes this good for grades 2-5. It's a quick read at 150 pages. If you want to introduce the Wild West and the uncomfortableness of riding in a stagecoach then this would be a good read aloud. I particularly like the humor in this story. I do like a good laugh. It lightens my day and helps me not take myself to seriously. I know my students love it too. Don't miss this "super-duper-dinger-zinger" of a tale. And don't drive your carriages too fast.

4 Smileys

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Dumbest Idea Ever! by Jimmy Gownley

I went to the smallest elementary school in our district that had about two class sections per grade. I was the fastest runner in my class and when I got to the much larger middle school, I was devastated to find out I was really not the fastest runner in town. The protagonist, Jimmy Gownley, has a similar experience when he's the star of his basketball team in a Catholic school before he comes down with the Chicken Pox and pneumonia, resulting in the team losing the championship and blaming him to some extent. His grades start to slip at that time as well and he struggles with feeling average. He loves comic books and creating them and decides to give his friend, Tony, one that he has made in his spare time. Tony tells him it is not very good and that Jimmy should write about the two of them. Jimmy's response? "That's the Dumbest Idea Ever!"

Jimmy mulls over the suggestion and decides to write a comic in high school. He self-publishes the book and the townspeople living in his small mining town go crazy about it. He's in the news and on television. He gets a cute girlfriend in school. He's feeling special again until he goes on a field trip to the Metropolitan Art museum. He breathes in the Monet's and Van Gogh's of the artist world and realizes that he is not that good of an artist in comparison. But, Jimmy's a positive person. A person who is happy when his basketball team loses because he can see his progress. A person who doesn't give up. He's a hard worker and loves drawing comics so much that he is intrinsically motivated to continue regardless of the obstacles that come his way. And whether or not he is a great artist, he is okay with that.

The author's note at the end explains how he actually self-published a comic at age 20 and mailing a copy to Tony who was battling leukemia. He died shortly after. Gowley explains that his book is about new beginnings. He shows that perseverance and doing what you love in life is reward in itself even if you are only average. Generally speaking, people who stick with something for a long period of time tend to get better and better at it. Tony didn't have such a dumb idea after all.

4 Smileys

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Diamond in the Desert by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

Twelve-year-old Tetsu's life in California is uprooted when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and he is forced to relocate to Gila River camp in Arizona. His father is sent to North Dakota because the government suspects him of being a spy. Tetsu's father is incarcerated with no due process for years while Tetsu, his mom, and young sister, Kimi, go to the internment camp. Tetsu was a ball player and he meets others players at the camp. When a baseball team is formed, he finds some happiness until a disaster befalls his sister. I love the story of a Japanese man that built a baseball field in an internment camp during World War II and while it is not the focal point it is worked into the storyline. It's such a wonderful example of the human spirit rising above injustices and bad circumstances to bring hope to others. While the details and plot are well done, the characters are not particularly memorable; however, this is a story worth telling and noting.

The plot is solid and looks into the unique friendships formed under harsh conditions. Tetsu is at first bullied by a boy who later makes peace with him when he saves him from drowning. Another boy, Horse, is a large boy that never talks. He has been traumatized by an event and Tetsu is determined to find out why he won't speak. Horse is loyal and kind, connecting with Tetsu's younger sister who seems to intuitively understand his pain. The historical details are interesting and the camp loosely run. The guards are Japanese and sympathetic toward the inmates, turning a blind eye as kids repeatedly sneak out of the fenced-in camp. Violent dust storms seep into one room homes and desert animals become pets to lonely children. Some detainees built ponds by their homes and put fish in them. The bathrooms are communal and life is difficult with long slow days. Building a baseball stadium gave purpose to many of the people's lives and relieved their boredom by providing entertainment.

The characters fell short for me with the exception of Kimi. I liked her spunk and wisdom presented in the simplicity of a child. I really wanted more of the culture represented in the book. It doesn't capture the Japanese customs much and complexity of the culture. The Japanese forced into the camps were first and second generation Japanese, so I would have expected more customs and language prevalent at the camp. When Tetsu built the pond, I was expecting some elaboration on the importance of the garden in architecture and religion. The baseball was somewhat glossed over and could have revealed the emotional relief and joy brought to the internment camp. The chapters are extremely short and while this makes it accessible to the reluctant reader, it makes for less depth and texture.

Like I mentioned before, most of the Japanese put in internment camps were American citizens and second-generation. In 1980, the Japanese American Citizens League put pressure on the government to redress the wrongs done to them during this period. The result was Reagan signing the "Civil Liberties Act" in 1988 that apologized on the behalf of the U.S. government for the wrongful internment and awarded $20,000 dollars to camp survivors. While the past cannot be undone at least this is a move in the right direction toward healing a wrong.

3 Smileys

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Riverman (The Riverman Trilogy #1) by Aaron Starmer

"Spoiler alert." Beep. Beep.

We all bring our own biases and expectations to stories that make us subjectively like or not like a book. Some might not like the unconventional ending of this book because it doesn't neatly wrap up the story. I thought its ambiguity gave the themes more depth. Was the world of Aquavania all pretend? Was it a metaphor for romantic love and saving a girl in distress? Was it a symbol of the protagonist growing up and leaving the imaginative world behind to face reality?

Twelve-year-old Alistair's neighbor Fiona suddenly shows up at his door one day and asks him to write her biography. She explains that his creative story in 6th grade made her choose him because he can believe in the impossible. Her story involves a gateway in their basement into an alternate world called, Aquavania, where stories are born and children can create any world they think up. An evil being called, Riverman, has invaded Aquavania and is taking the souls of children so that they cannot return to the mortal world. Fiona wants Alistair's help finding the Riverman and stopping him. The problem is that the more she reveals about Aquavania, the more it relates to real life situations and less real it seems as the story goes on. Alistair wonders if Fiona is imagining Aquavania as an excuse to run away from home.

The content is gritty, crude (at times) and scary. Aaron Starmer's book is well-written. I couldn't put it down, which says a lot because I wanted to put it down. Starmer captures middle school in all its ugliness. The crude sex jokes. The drinking parties. The bad kid's like Kyle that carry knives and are violent. I really did not like that time of my life when I made good and bad choices and felt more awkward than comfortable in my own skin. Middle school can be a time when your crowd of so-called friends turn on you for no reason. It can be a time when peers toy with drinking, drugs, and sex not really understanding the consequences. When Alistair, Kyle, and Charlie play a game of hiding in an large empty box in the middle of the road to see if a car would run them over, I thought, "Yep, that reminds me of some of the stupid things I saw in middle school."

A subplot has Alistair falling in love for the first time with Fiona. He is more interested in the mystery of Fiona than finding out about her. His love is immature and focused on saving her from the Riverman. The Riverman steals souls and stories. In real life the Riverman stole Alistair's story suggesting he uses Alistair for his own personal gain and glory. I did want more character development on the Riverman and his motivations which I hope occurs in the sequel. The ending teases many possibilities but gives no answers. The Riverman preys on children's emotional needs in both worlds; however, if he doesn't exist then maybe he is a symbol of first love. Alistair admits he has no real friends at school and made me wonder if he wants a girlfriend to feel like he belongs to a group. What is striking about the story is how realistic it is inspite of having an alternate fantasy world. Charlie makes crude sexual references at a girl and later Alistair is asking for protection for Fiona but its sounds like he wants sex with her when he is referring to physical protection.

The author layers many messages throughout with many ambiguous answers. Starmer's book is the opposite of an idyllic world and represents today's unsafe world that is riddled with school shootings, terrorists, and technological warfare. This is not a book meant to protect the child from the world. It presents its harsh realities and looks at adolescent reactions and emotions. Even Aquavania is not free from evil. It starts out looking like paradise but when Fiona wishes a marsupial into her rainforest she upsets the ecosystem causing the giraffes to die off. People try to slip into alternate worlds to find happiness whether it is in gaming or the creation of Aquavania, but their idyllic worlds never come to fruition. They are only temporary escapes from reality.

Kyle is a violent character that is not completely bad. He just makes bad choices over and over again. He is a foil to Alistair who can't embrace the bad-boy image completely. Charlie as the Riverman is the one that left me scratching my head. Why is he so obsessed with Alistair? Is it because of Alistair's writing ability? Or is it because as his best friend he can't tolerate Alistair with another friend replacing him? Or is he in love with Alistair? Is he an old person in a young boy's body? Time changes differently in Aquavania than in on Earth. Fiona tells Alistair she's been gone 12 years, but to him it is one day. Charlie wants Alistair to win his video game so badly he won't let him stop playing it. Is life a game and he's so power hungry he has to be on the top at all costs? The Riverman appears to like controlling Alistair and their friendship. He steals souls and stories. He stole Alistair's story in the real world. The Riverman preys on children's emotional needs. Is he a symbol of Alistair feeling like he has no real friends at school and wants a girlfriend to feel like he belongs to a group? There is plenty to talk about with this book with its ambiguities and open-ending. The sequel comes out in March. I'm hooked. I wonder where the heck the author is going to go with this plot.

4 Smileys

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Complete Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

As a kid, I loved Tom Sawyer's imaginative adventures and bucking of authority. He had the nerve to run away and didn't care if he got in trouble. I envied his manipulation of adults and kids. When Tom talks the neighborhood boys into painting the fence for him because it was fun, I remembered wishing I had his smooth talking ways so I could convince my neighbors to help me rake what amounted to 100 bags of leaves - an endless fall chore of mine and my siblings. Not only does Tom psychologically motivate the neighborhood boys into begging him to paint the fence, but he convinces them to barter their most treasured possessions to participate in doing his chore. I lived vicariously through the mischievous Tom who pulled pranks and snuck out his bedroom window at night. He gave me ideas too. I had adventures based on favorite books, made blood oaths, and giggled my way out the bedroom window with my best friend on sleepovers.  Like Tom, we purposefully made our adventures harder to represent the literature. We'd forsake a flashlight for candles, make a raft out of cattails (that sunk), eat clam chowder and Velveeta cheese (think plastic cheese) because that was what we thought pirates ate, chiseled a port hole in a wood door that was our ship, built a tree house out of shingles (what a spectacular fall when that broke), used a Swiss knife to chisel holes out of ice on a hill pretending we were mountain climbers, and more. Reading Mark Twain's books as an adult, I see his serious themes, satire, and  how he is capturing a nostalgia for imaginative childhood play.

The Romantic pastoral emerged in Europe as a reaction to the burgeoning industrial revolution and Twain represents an American counterpart movement. The pastoral genre is a look back on simpler times in an idealized way. Heroes are oftentimes alone, powerless, and alienated from society. Whereas Tom Sawyer is satirical and entertaining and creates an idealized childhood, Huck Finn shows an outcast boy that wants to live within social conventions but can't because he morally struggles with them. Nothing is cut and dry with Twain. His messages are ambiguous and what I like so well about Huck is his internal struggles with his friend, Jim, a black slave and how Huck can't treat him in the way society deems correct. Huck thinks he's sinful and doesn't question societies' ethics or morals, he just recognizes he can't follow them with a clear conscience. He's a fascinating character because he flips back and forth from racist thoughts and prejudices to ones that see Jim as a human being that deserves better. One minute Huck is concerned about Jim, his friend, and later he is telling a white woman that a steamer cylinder blew and no one was hurt. As an afterthought he tells her a black man was killed, assigning slaves to a subhuman status once again. Twain's creation of the character of Jim, the slave, is also ambiguous. On the one hand, Jim gives deep and rich answers to some of Huck's actions or questions, and on the other he is a complete buffoon. This makes me wonder is Jim relegated to a stereotype because he is just protecting himself from whites or is the author reflecting the attitudes of his time? Nothing is clear-cut which makes this such a fascinating read. But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let's back up and look at Tom's story first.

Tom is depicted in a series of events in the American West during the 1840s that romanticize small town life on the frontier. Tom gets together with his buddies and plays pranks on them, the school teacher, and acts out books. His guardian is exasperated by his rebellious behavior but loves him all the same. When the school master "whups" him, Tom doesn't feel bad about it nor does he think of the injustice of it. In the face of tyranny, Tom represents freedom and he seems to have this idyllic (pastoral) life and attitude. He bucks social conventions but always goes back to Aunt Polly; thus, never coming across as a complete rebel or delinquent. When Tom acts out his imaginative adventures many come true. When he dreams of being a pirate and finding treasure, it happens in real life. When he fantasizes about his own funeral, it happens. When he has mock-battles and wars, he witnesses a murder. Tom's belief in his swashbuckling tales shape his world and the adults in it are as childish as him often mirroring his actions. When he's in church teasing a pinch-bug that torments a stray dog, his amusement is mimicked by the congregation. The adults are hiding their boredom and going to church as a social convention following peers rather than out of pleasure. While children have to go, the adult church-goers intentions appear hypocritical. When Tom has to recite scriptures for Sabbath School, there is a guest of honor that the adults and children respond by "showing off." This satirical look at adult hypocrisy shows a deeper level than just a child's story about imagination and friendship.

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" take a darker turn where Tom Sawyer's imaginative play-acting takes on a cruel aspect and Huck is confronted with the morally corrupt institution of slavery. At the end of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," Huck is living with the Widow Douglas who is good to him  and he is rich from the treasure he and Tom discovered in the caves by their town. When Huck's drunken pap gets wind of the wealth he comes after Huck, kidnapping him and locking him in a cabin. Huck doesn't mind at first but as his father gets more violent he flees the cabin on a raft where he meets up with Jim, a runaway slave that doesn't want to be sold to another family. Jim dreams of being free and reunited with his wife and kids. Huck does not want to be civilized and is running away from the controls of society.

Huck and Jim have adventures on the raft that has become their refuge from society. They meet a wealthy family, the Grangerfords, that is having a feud with another family, the Shepherdsons. When the daughter of one family runs off with the boy from the other family, a brutal shoot-out occurs that shows the senselessness of the family's code of honor that makes Huck sick at heart. Next Huck and Jim get wrapped up with a couple of con men who claim to be a Duke and King. Huck tries to fix the immoral actions of the two in some humorous scenes as they try to swindle others out of money. Twain seems to be ridiculing aristocratic pretensions reflected in certain Americans, as well as, reflecting the carpetbaggers that came from the North to the South during the reconstruction trying to seek monetary gains at the expense of others.

Huck's journey with Jim is a moral quest or crisis of conscience resulting from interactions with others and Jim himself. He starts to see Jim as a human being and not how society views slaves, but interestingly enough, Huck never questions the institution of slavery; instead he always blames his decision to help Jim and not sell him as being a product of him not being civilized and sinful. The last third has Huck abandoning his quest and enlisting Tom Sawyer's help to free Jim. Jim becomes a caricature of a docile and ignorant slave while Huck and Jim let Tom act out his fantasies that are more harmful and less innocent as in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." Huck cared about Jim's feelings and vowed to never play tricks on him again while they were on the river, but with Tom he doesn't seem to care anymore letting Tom turn Jim's escape into a game. His development seems to have come full circle with Huck acting childish again. The ending makes it impossible to determine if the novel speaks against racism or merely reflects racist attitudes in society. It is understandable that some view the novel as a satire on racism and others can't reconcile the stereotypical depictions of slaves.

Twain wrote burlesques a popular form of parody that were favorites of working-class theatergoers in the 1840s and it is evident he uses the same technique in the subplot involving the Duke and King and Tom's escape game. Burlesques were a form of satire and Twain pokes fun at a host of people and subjects: religion, African Americans, upper classes, Britain, Native Americans, education, to name a few. While some might find his stereotypes disturbing, others might find them funny and enlightening. There's a good reason his book consistently shows up on banned book lists. It's controversial and it makes for good discussions. If we want to recognize racism, then we have to discuss it.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Norse Myths (Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library) by Kevin Crossley-Holland

This is quite the scholarly feat. Kevin Crossley-Holland takes different sources with conflicting versions of Norse myths and creates a medley of 32 stories that are interesting and confusing. His copious notes at the end clarify the contradictory elements and he captures the flavor of the unique poems from that period of time. Kennings are a form of Anglo-Saxon poetry that are very difficult to decipher and understand. The author presents scaldic poetry in a rich manner that's oral background becomes clear. I personally found some of the short tales a bit boring (especially the long lineage stanzas the author kindly pared down but were still long), but understand why people needed to hear it as this was the passing of history from one generation to the next. I abandoned a few of those poems. I did make it through the flyting that Loki gives but that was emotionally charged as he levels all the gods by airing their flaws. He rants and insults everyone to the point that they kill his son and use his son's guts to tie him to a rock before stringing up a venomous snake that drips poison on Loki's face. I was more engrossed in the book's tales and how the author brings them to life with rich details adding dialogue, sounds, and smells. This is not a kid's book with its ribald and violent tales. If you love Norse myths and want a literary and cultural perspective, then I highly recommend it.

The introduction begins by explaining the Viking culture and three-tiered strata. Crossley-Holland explains that Myth 5 in his book explains this strata and that the eddaic poem, "Rigsthula," is the source of information. Viking lifestyles and religions are touched on giving the foundation for how the literature sprang from the culture. I went back to reread the introduction and got more out of it the second time. While reading the myths I flipped back and forth between each story and the notes in the back of the book. I found that when I was confused as to who was whom, the author explained the contradictions as well as put the myth in an understandable context. The myths are not always sequential and sometimes the peoples names changed or I wouldn't understand that it was Odin in disguise. I had many "ah-ha" moments. Overall I enjoyed the book, but it took more concentration than usual and I found by the end I just wanted to finish it. At least the story goes out with a bang. Literally.

5 Smileys

Monday, January 5, 2015

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal

I"m not a gamer, but I am a player of games from sports to board games to game-format lessons for students. Games are fun. Games are motivating. Games in cultures are thousands of years old. This book is about computer and video games. Video games have a bad rap in the U.S. The media has bombarded the public over the years about the negative effects of game addiction and violence. Lately, my students have been talking about Minecraft. They make good connections with the picture books I read and the game all the time. They've piqued my interest, especially when they were talking about architecture and buildings. It is the first time I've wanted to teach myself a video game. Before that, students have talked about Halo. Before that, World of Warcraft. Video games are here to stay. I picked this book up for a better understanding of the games that my students have passionately discussed over the years. I was not disappointed. Jane McGonigal gives compelling evidence that good game design connected with theories from positive psychology, cognitive science, philosophy, and sociology, make life more meaningful for gamers. 

This book gave me ideas for improving some of the current games I've designed for library skill lessons. I took stock of the competitive versus cooperative ones and even how they tie in with character education programs. McGonigal lists games that enhance kindness and courage citing positive psychology research from the Values in Action Institute on Character. She defines from different sources and subject fields what motivates gamers and how it makes them happier by giving their life more meaning. Don't expect much of the negative side to gaming in this altruistic approach to gaming. Her book is meant to persuade the reader that gaming improves the quality of life, prevents suffering, and creates happiness. It takes courage to try and prove the world can be changed by gamers and go beyond escapist entertainment. This might be too out-there for some readers, but I was inspired. More importantly, it made me look at the games I use in the library and gave me ideas to create my own.

What makes a good game, according to McGonigal, is one that focuses on intrinsic rewards that are emotionally satisfying. McGonigal quotes a ton of research on what motivates and makes people happy. The main components of good game design are: clearly-defined goals with hard and interesting obstacles, fair rules, varied and intense feedback systems, and voluntary participation. She cites many examples on how to achieve this through games that address pyschological, social, and emotional issues. I hadn't thought about how hard obstacles are important to the goal in gamer satisfaction or how failure in a game can be positive versus negative because if the avatar dies spectacularly, the gamer finds it funny. Also, the real-time data in a game shows progress that results in the gamer focusing on the performance, not the outcome. You maybe died spectacularly, but you made it 30% through the game and these are your strengths and weaknesses. This made me think of how in sports, research shows that top athletes and good coaches get players to focus on performance and not winning which makes their internal talk positive; therefore allowing them to overcome obstacles that occur in games.

McGonigal is trying to prove that games can be a platform for change, but in order for that to happen they need to move from the virtual to the real world. In an amazing statistic, she says that by the time teenagers reach the age of 21 they will have spent 10,000 hours on gaming versus 2,000-3,000 hours on reading. The 10,000 hour threshold is quoted from Malcolm Gladwell's book, "Outliers," that says the key to success is logging in this many hours on a task in order to have great success. McGonigal says the strength of gamers is working together collectively or "crowdsourcing" and that when harnessed they can accomplish huge tasks such as Wikipedia or the 2009 British parliament scandal. She explains how Wikipedia is set up as a game and how they get volunteers and information at scholarly levels; how in eight short years this cognitive technology created a collective wealth of information that would otherwise be unachievable. The British scandal, she explains, involved members of parliament making illegal expense claims and the Guardian newspaper uncovering the story. The problem was it required the newspaper to go through almost 500,000 scanned claim documents. The Guardian created a game and enlisted gamers to help go through the claims. In three days, more than 200,000 players analyzed 170,000 documents. All of it was voluntary and resulted in the resignation of many politicians. Games, McGonigal argues, can help the common good and be catalysts for change.

McGonigal wants to go beyond entertainment games and create antiescapist or alternate reality games (ARGs). ARGs are designed to be linked to intrinsic rewards that bring people the most happiness. Good game design for ARGs, McGonigal explains, gives more meaning in life because it is connected with a much larger goal that helps improve the quality of life and is for the common good of all. Research shows that people are the most happy when they are serving others and not themselves. ARG games should create satisfying work, inspire hope for success even if the goal seems impossible, and create strong social connections. She does make it clear that no single ARG exists that is changing the world; however, they are making differences in cancer research, hunger, and energy conservation. ARG's designed to appeal to cognitive, social, and emotional capabilities in humans make them a powerful source of enacting change with the masses.

While this book focuses mainly on positive aspects of gaming, it does give bits and pieces of the negative. Her book tries to counteract cultural taboos associated with the negative aspects of gaming. I would have liked more discussion on both sides of the issue, but I appreciated the inspirational effect of the text that targets positive aspects of gaming. What I did not expect was how her book made me think of ways to teach mundane skills in a more exciting way. If you've ever had to teach kids how to find books using the Dewey Decimal system, it can be unmotivating and boring as all-heck. I turned it into a board game and kids now ask me if they can play it. I'd like to create a video game that teaches how to shelf books or use Overdrive. It would be so much fun to tie a shelving game in with particular books. Maybe a student has to shelve Charlotte's Web and if they fail Charlotte can wrap them in a cocoon and put them in the rafters of the barn. McGonigal shows how failing spectacularly is one of the joys of video games. Whether you embrace it or ignore it, video gaming is a huge part of our culture. Game on!
5 Smileys