Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

Eleven-year-old Corinne La Mer lives on an island in the Caribbean with her father and is not afraid of anything. When she chases an agouti into the forest and sees yellow eyes peering at her, she rationalizes what she saw; whereas, anyone else would have said it was a Jumbie. When she spots two boys torturing a frog, she surprises them with scorpions that she has no problem holding in her bare hands. She's faster than most kids her age and adores her father. Corinne's mother died when she was four and Corinne sells the sweetest tasting oranges from their yard at the market while her father fishes during the day. It helps that their garden is closest to the forest and has the richest soil to grow vegetables. The family of two is comfortable and happy until the woman, Severine, comes into their life. Corinne is threatened by the loss of not only her father, but discovers she is of mixed heritage and that her village is being threatened by Jumbies in the forest, ancient magical beings that were on the island long before humans colonized the place. This Caribbean folktale twist is a quick read where the action snowballs into an exciting climax.

Corinne catches two orphan boys torturing animals when she decides to give them a taste of their own mischief. She rescues the frog that has more human characteristics than normal and replaces it with scorpions. An unlikely friendship ensues that shows these two brothers are resourceful and loyal to Corinne's plight when things go wrong. Corinne also makes friends with Dru, an Indian girl, that comes from a large family and is afraid of many things. Dru learns about bravery in more ways than one. She must choose between being Corinne's friend when she finds out she is of mixed heritage or be afraid of her like some others in the village.

The message of intolerance and whether colonization makes it right to take land is good for discussions. The witch asks Corinne hard questions when the Jumbies attack the humans. She is able to see both sides and does not choose one over the other, except when murder is involved. The Jumbies are controlled by Severine, the Earth mother. I wanted more of a mythological explanation of Severine's role. Why could she control the creatures in the forest? Corinne's mother used love to power the amulet, but where did Severine's power come from? If she could draw power from the earth like Corinne could make nature listen to her voice, then was Corinne's orange tree like the tree of life?

The boys torture animals and then become brave rescuers that are loyal to Corinne. Their transformation was too sudden for me to buy but they moved the plot forward as needed.  Dru is afraid of Corinne but changes her mind. I was not sure why. People are afraid of Corinne. The author shows at the end that not everyone is happy with her and that some blame her for the deaths of their family members. The resolution of this is not complete and made me wonder if the author is thinking of doing a sequel.

This fantasy is unique in that its roots are in Caribbean folk lore, but I wanted more explanation of its mythological roots. I don't know anything about it and I have more questions than answers. The fantasy or fairy tale has typical conventions with the hero's journey and quest to save the world. The witch is somewhat of a mentor and the other children help Corinne as she saves the world. While some good messages on tolerance, bucking social norms, and colonization are touched on they are not explored in depth. An interesting book but not one that will stick in my memory.

3 Smileys

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Terrible Two (The Terrible Two #1) by Mac Barnett, Jory John, Kevin Cornell (Illustrations)

When we moved to northern Minnesota the high school mascot was a potato spud. The students would try and modify it to "potato studs," but it didn't help when the mascot, that looked like Mr. Potato Head's twin, was leading cheers at sporting events. Darn funny, though. Miles Murphy is moving to the town Yawnee Valley where they revere their cows. The school mascot is a cow. The mayor is a cow. The founding father statue in the park is a cow. Dairy farms surround the town of 10,000 and the night air is not full of the sounds of crickets but cows mooing. The school marquee reads, "Welcome back bovines," and the principal has written a fact book about cows. Miles is pretty depressed until he goes to the first day of school and sees the ultimate prank, someone blocked the front doors of school with the principal's car. The only problem is that Miles was the Prankster at his previous school and there can't be two King pranksters in the same school. A prank war ensues where Miles learns he just might not be the James Bond of pranksters and friendships have more meaning than constant jokes. The slapstick humor and message of when taking jokes too far hurts others make this a keeper.

Miles Murphy needs to make a statement and top this principal-car-blocking-entrance prank. He invents a supercool fictitious student that is having a birthday party and invites 12 students who invite everyone else in the class. Miles plans to show up and surprise everyone with his prank by revealing it is him and taking off with the gifts. However, he gets upstaged by his James Bond prankster rival, who has revealed himself to Miles by this time in the story. Miles doesn't get some of the fundamentals in pranking as his rival points out. First, Miles wants people to know he did the prank. That's a no-no. Mile's desire for self-glory is one of the downfalls, as well as, he is supposed to prank a person that deserves it (the goat). Instead Miles is being mean to kids and turning them off. The James Bond prankster tries to teach Miles that showing up to a party and then running off with all the presents is not going to win him friends. Sometimes kids think they are being funny when they are really being mean.

The mastermind prankster really wants to team up with Miles but he messes up by insulting Miles and being condescending. These two pranksters have a ways to go with setting aside their egos if they are to be friends, but they manage it in the end because as they admire different qualities in each other. Although Miles gets somewhat run-over in the process. He has to have a prank war that the reader knows he will lose. It is a spectacular loss though with some small recoveries that keep Miles from being completely humiliated and showing his own unusual talents. Miles is just outgunned in the planning area. He doesn't think through his pranks as well as his rival.

The banter is funny along with humorous illustrations. "Mom, what if I skipped this grade?" Miles asks. He says he'll spend a year working on projects. They go back and forth until she says he is not having a project year. "Maybe I could take this year to travel. You know I've been wanting to see the world! They say traveling is the best education." She responds in the negative. "Maybe I could take a sabbatical. Do you know what a sabbatical is, Mom?" /"Yes. Do you know what a sabbatical is?" /"It's basically a project year." /"No," she says as they pull up to the school.

Literature is full of archetypes that give text meaning and universal appeal. They are recognizable character types like the hero, trickster, mother, mentor, and more. Sometimes the archetype gives me comfort and other times it annoys me with its stereotyped character. Here, the authors setup from page one that this is an absurd tale so the archetypes fit in with the cartoonish feel of the entire story from the illustrations to the narrative. The cows are treated like famous citizens and the long list of how students try to fit in at school by adopting a persona that makes them stand out in the crowd fits right in with archetypes. This story is silly, dumb, and plain ole fun.

The principal, bully, and do-gooder are some archetypes found in this story. There is also the trickster whose identity is concealed for most of the story. Principal Barkin is a stitch. He wants power. He wears a red tie. He practices his power speeches. He eats "Breakfast of Barkins". He's the perfect "goat" for a prankster. He can't figure out how to move his car that is blocking the school entrance. He doesn't even recognize prank phone calls when he receives them while writing his power speech. He blames kids and punishes them based on circumstantial evidence, and he's raising a son to value power above all else. So often I find the bad principal archetype stereotyped and boring, but here it worked for me because the book is more like a cartoon with its slapstick humor.

The James Bond prankster is pretty easy to figure out early on in the story. The twists in pranks and funny ending bring the story full circle with the cows getting the last laugh. This reminds me of the book, "Pickle: The (Formerly) Anonymous Prank Club of Fountain Point Middle School," by Kim Baker except with a main character like Timmy Failure. I wonder if Mac Barnett and Jory John dreamed this plot up while milking a cow. Read this with a bowl of your Breakfast of Champions and snort-laugh milk through your nose while the cows moo in laughter outside your window.

4 Smileys

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A Nearer Moon by Melanie Crowder

Some writers make every word count. They are so succinct and efficient at the craft that what would leave others scrambling for extra sheets of paper, they can wallop a manuscript out in fewer words. Melanie Crowder does that in 150 pages. Her poetic prose is rich with meaning, characterization, and plot that makes for a satisfying read. Two sisters are playing together when an accident happens and one becomes ill with a wasting disease while the other does everything in her power to heal her out of love and guilt. This story looks at grief, disease, community and sisterhood and what it means to be resilient in the face of terrible odds.

Luna lives on a swamp where the water is dangerous. It wasn't always that way. Luna's grandma recalls when the river flowed clear and was swimmable until the day the earth shook and trees fell forming a dam that created an inky sludge of backwaters. The villagers put their homes on stilts and created swinging bridges as sidewalks to get around and used boats for transportation.  Any villagers that accidentally got swamp water in their mouths became infected with a wasting sickness and died three weeks from the day. Rumor is that the swamp is cursed and a creature lives below the waters, but Luna doesn't believe it.

Luna loves to pole through the waters on her boat with her younger, joyful sister Willow. One day the two are having a hey-ho time with Willow laughing hysterically as Luna spins the boat. Out of nowhere the boat dips down into the water and Willow gets the murky swamp water in her mouth. Sure enough, symptoms of the wasting sickness appear and Luna does everything in her power to cure Willow. While the reader knows what pulled the boat down, Luna does not and the reader is not sure why Willow was a target. The answers are slowly revealed and paralleled with two points of view.

Luna's story alternates with Perdita's, a sprite who loves to wander and adores her twin sister, Gia. The magical world of sprites is disappearing as more humans appear and dig metals out of the earth. Most metals poison sprites and they can no longer coexist with the humans so they portal to other worlds. The world of magic and make-believe exists in the vast imaginations of children. As they grow up they lose this to some extent as they gain scientific knowledge and explanations. In this story the adults no longer believe in magic and they can't help cure their sickness because they lack the imagination to realize a sprite lives beneath the waters.

At first Luna embraces science and tries to get a doctor to heal Willow. When the doctor says there is nothing he can do, Luna tries to drain the swamp. She goes through all the steps that others have tried and that have not worked. Sometimes science fails with curing or diagnosing diseases and a loved one dies. Luna faces this dilemma but it doesn't stop her. When she embraces the fact that something magical might be happening then she gets results. Unexpected results. Reading fantasy stories means believing in that which is unbelievable, but that can point to truths in everyday life.

Luna learns the satisfaction of trying to do everything she can and that alone gives her peace at the end. It is not the goal so much as the process that is important. When playing soccer the teams that do the best are the ones that don't think about the score but focus on doing what they can and working together as a unit. The same happens in this book except Luna has to work with her best friend, Berry, and less so with the rest of her family. Her uncle gives her a book with a tip on dealing with magic, but people don't really believe in magic anymore. Her mother is so absorbed in her grief and anger that she cannot see how Luna is hurting or her harshness. Luna's grandma refers to moon charts hoping for a cure. In their own way, the family is trying to deal with the hurt and grief but Luna takes the most action out of everyone. She tries the hardest and that is a message we all need to hear over and over again.

Luna's mother has already lost her husband and the thought of losing another family member has put her over the edge. She spends her days in the chapel and has given up hope. Unlike Luna who feels guilty that Willow got sick on her boat, she takes action while the mother seeks comfort in religion. One poignant line shows the difficulty of grief: "Mama had left early that morning taking her frightened fury up to the chapel where it wouldn't lash out like a bent branch and strike Luna's already bowed back." Paralleled to Mama's grief is Perdita's or Perdy's. She has let sorrow turn her into something ugly. She can't stand to see joy in others so she snuffs it out of their lives.

The heart of the story is the bond between sisters. The alternate story strengthens Luna's as it shows how Gia did everything in her power to create a link between herself and her sister so that she could call her home whenever she was wandering. This metaphor reminded me of the parable of the lost son a bit as Perdy is lost but redeems herself when found again. The powerful bond of families and siblings is another theme. Just talk to a grieving person as they talk about going "home" to see the loved ones that have died before them. Just like Gia and Perdy are separated by worlds, so are humans by death from those they love.

Members of the community didn't leave when the river changed, because it was home where their grandparents and "...great-great grandparents had first taken a felled tree and carved a boat to winnow through the streams." Luna's community came together during the river crisis and they helped each other and cared for each other. They still do. I feel a bit like Perdy. A wanderer. One that uses Skype as my magical locket to see those I love. Home for me will always be where I grew up; where my great-great grandparents first migrated to the United States. But home is changing now. My daughter lives in a different state with my grandson. I've lived in different countries. But the one constant has always been my family and that is ultimately what this story is about - being loved, having a home, and doing your best.

5 Smileys

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Hilo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick

I grew up in a family of five like the protagonist, D.J.'s, with constant chaos in the kitchen as everyone hovered around the fridge trying to snarf down whatever morsels were available. We ate so much that my mom stored 16 boxes of cereal in the stove one day because they couldn't fit in the cupboard. I preheated the oven for my pan of brownies and lighted a boo-scary bonfire. Smores were more in order than brownies. Judd Winick captures not only big-family life, but the difficulty of trying to find yourself when you have no outstanding qualities in a household of talented siblings. D.J. doesn't know it, but he has plenty of character - good character - and this is oftentimes more important than talents. Not until Gina moves back and the superhero alien, Hilo, crash lands into D.J.'s life does he start to accept who he is inside.

As D.J.'s family is grabbing food in the kitchen, they become suspicious of his new friend, Hilo, especially when Hilo starts eating a napkin. The quick-thinking D.J. distracts everyone by revealing his older brother has a girlfriend. Yes! It is always fun to draw parental attention to the older sibling as they are usually the one getting the more unsophisticated younger sibling in trouble. Can you tell I was low on the totem pole like D.J.? Don't read this book while scooping spoonfuls of cereal into your mouth. Superhero Hilo will have you snort-laughing milk through your nose.

Like I said before, ten-year-old D.J. believes he is not good at anything in his family of five siblings where everyone else is spectacular at something. He was good at being a friend to Gina but she moved away. Hilo (pronounced high-low) missiles from the sky to earth making a crater where he is discovered by D.J. in only a pair of silver underwear. D.J. befriends Hilo whose "memory is like a busted book" and takes him home to give him some clothes. Hilo is pretty clueless about how to dress and greet people, but has a golly-gee attitude that makes him never become negative whether he is facing robot insects destroying Earth or being smashed into the ground like a cartoon character in Looney Tunes.

Running gags and great pacing add to the nonstop humor. While this story is different in plot and characterization, it reminds me a bit of "Timmy Failure" and "Monster on the Hill" although Timmy is a complete dork and Monster on the Hill has a boy trying to help a monster find his scary side so the town will be proud of him. Timmy is a dumb cluck, the monster story is full of irony, and this one brims with a spunky superhero that is endearingly weird. What they all have in common is they will make you laugh, laugh, laugh and the illustrations are terrific. Judd Winick, who is well known for his successful superhero adult comics, says that he read Jeff Smith's Bone series with his son and decided to create a comic for the younger fare. As Hilo would say, "Outstanding!"

When D.J. first meets Hilo he screams, "Aaah!" to which Hilo says, "Is that a greeting? I like it! Aaah!" Everytime he meets anyone Hilo yells, "Aaah!" Hilo keeps scaring D.J. in different situations but thinks his "Aaah's" are hellos making me laugh every time. When he meets Gina who has returned after three years Hilo greets her with a, "Aaah!" When he meets D.J.'s classmates he says "Aaah!" followed by his gee-shucks, "I love that greeting," to the annoyed teacher's face who wonders who this smart-aleck is in front of the class. Meanwhile D.J. is sitting at his desk covering his face in embarrassment. When Hilo burps for the first time he thinks it is the coolest thing. When he burps a second time he and D.J. laugh hysterically like typical kids. D.J. says, "Repeat business," to which they laugh so hard they are holding their stomachs and stomping their feet. The burping continues periodically in the story to which Gina at one point comments, "Why do boys always laugh at burping?"

Hilo thinks everything is "outstanding" and Gina, D.J. and Hilo like the word, "Holy Mackerel!" When Hilo sees a robot monster he says, "Octoped! So wanted to use that word in a sentence today and Boom! Octoped!" Later he is shoving a giant foot in a club house where he cheerfully says, "This is great! And not just because it perfectly fits a giant metal foot and smells like squirrel poop. It's cause it's overrun with a ton of spiders." D.J. knows immediately what Hilo means and turns to Gina, "Octopeds." With a fist pump in the air, Hilo exuberantly shouts:"Octopeds! Hello, my eight-legged brothers!" Repeating words can sometimes get annoying but the author handles the comedic elements with aplomb.

The humor is balanced with D.J. learning that he is not a boring person but a brave and loyal friend. Even when Gina moves back to town he feels inferior to her as she's been in many sports and is good in science. He doesn't see his worth or value until Gina points out how he didn't hesitate tossing a robot off a cliff, jumping into a deep hole after Hilo, and fighting a Robo-bug with a stick. He doesn't seem to get it that having a superhero for a best friend is the exact opposite of boring. Although Gina makes it clear that she didn't think he was boring before Hilo. And D.J. isn't the only one sorting out issues. Hilo ran away from his problems and realizes that he has to face them.

The illustrations remind me of Calvin and Hobbes, particularly the facial expressions. While Winick's characters have more details and color than Calvin and Hobbes, Winick's faces look a lot like Calvin's when things go wrong and the characters' eyes engulf their head and pupils instead of showing up in a normally pupil-less face. D.J.'s stand-up hair looks like a bolt of lightning went through him as he watches Hilo do crazy things such as drop a raccoon in the school office. It adds to his facial expressions and creates energy with the angles. The adults are panicked with bug-eyes and big mouths in their shock of having a furry animal show up out of nowhere. The man with the pail on his head, broom in hand and leg up in the air looks like he's trying to dance out of the way of the raccoon. The staffer crouched behind the counter looks like she's trying to hide behind a paper clutched in her hands and a grimace on her face while a bald man is running in the opposite direction with a screaming mouth. Winick packs a punch in each frame and they are a delight to study. This cliffhanger ending will have you buzzing for book two. Don't miss it.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Flora Segunda (Flora Trilogy #1) by Ysabeau S. Wilce

Flora Segunda Fyrdraaca is almost fourteen and preparing for her Catorcena, an event where she will go off to Barrack school to become a soldier, like all of the famous Fyrdraaca's before her. Her mother, the General, runs the city of Califa and while mother has to whack delinquent people on occasion to make them behave, Flora is not comfortable with it. She wants to be a ranger or spy like her hero, Nini Mo, whose words of wisdom help Flora deal with her own problems in life such as a mother that works too much and a dad that is literally mad. As Flora's father trashes the house and keeps setting her back with getting everything done for her Catorcena, Flora meets Valefor, the banished house butler, who promises to help her if she gives him some of her Anima or Will. Flora doesn't really know what she's getting into and when she and her best friend, Udo, decide to free Nini Mo's sidekick, the Dainty Pirate, everything turns into a "pigface psychopomp" as the two "snapperheads" like to snip at each other. Funny, strong characters, and a great voice carry this tale to an exciting finish.

Things go spectacularly bad for Flora and Udo. They make plans, that fail or semi-fail. One mess leads to another to the point that Flora wants to give up. Of course, her Will is being siphoned so it makes sense she has some really low moments. Udo picks her up and supports her until she finds the courage to face the mess she has made as well as the unforeseen consequences. Even her dad tries to help in his own crazy way. Messages range from resilience to taking responsibility, to parents insisting their children tell the truth but then hiding it from them to protect them, to figuring out what you want to do in life and having the courage to tell an adult.

Flora's alter ego is Nini Mo, a famous Ranger, whose adventures were published in yellowback novels, many owned by Flora. They resemble the Penny dreadfuls mass produced in the UK during the 1800s. Nini Mo wrestles with problems in a bull-headed, calm fashion as nothing is too massive for this hero to overcome. Flora quotes Nini Mo when she is in a tangle or on the verge of a meltdown. This reminded me of "Utterly Me, Clarice Bean" by Lauren Child where Clarice has an alter ego detective and the boy who wants to be a knight but becomes a spy in Rangers Apprentice by John Flanagan.

Some great lines had me hooting, "Persistence may be good for a general, but it is not such a happy quality in a mother." "Valefor sniffed. 'That's awful tripe, you know [refering to Nini Mo novel Flora's reading]. You should read something more educational. I have a lovely book on eschatological extensions and their role in im-manentizing the-'" Flora describes the polished floors of the building where her mother works: "It's perfect for sliding down if you sit on a file folder, but if someone opens a door while you are flying it's off to the Post Hospital and ten stitches in your grape. Believe me, I know whereof I speak." 

I wasn't quite sure by the end where Flora's magical words were coming from. At first I thought it was Valefor, but it is not really explained. Also, the house is alive at the start, but then the focus shifts to the butler's magic. The Houses of the city have power with an Adept or magical entity that is tapped into that power. The Adept is controlled by the owner of the House, but seems to vary in Houses and I'm not sure who controls the "live" house. The Bilskinir House lost its owner so the Adept controls it. Or does it? It wasn't clear to me what was happening in that house. There is a sequel that will probably hash out my questions.

In Flora's culture women are equal with men. Flora is not beautiful and is slightly plump, but it makes her no less appealing than some svelte character. No one questions that mom is the General. Flora also takes responsibility for her actions when things fall apart on her. Udo loves fashion and is not condescended to by others and Valefor tells Flora he'll become a girl if she wants. The periodic neutralizing of genders was interesting. I may not always know whereof I speak, but me thinks this novel is worth noting. Oye.

4 Smileys

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Story of Owen (The Story of Owen #1) by E.K. Johnston

I struggled with this one. Most of the action takes place off the page. The idea is interesting but the execution made the pacing slow and action secondhand. Owen is the son of two famous dragon slayers that retire to the country. The world is being destroyed by dragons that are drawn to carbon emissions and dragon slayers are the only ones that can protect cities. Owen's aunt, Lottie, is a world-famous slayer that worked for a huge corporation in the city before receiving a serious injury that forced her to retire. In rural Trondheim, Canada, she makes a home and battles dragons on a much smaller scale with the help of her brother and wife. Owen is in training and goes to school where he meets Siobhan McQuaid, a talented musician that he makes his bard. Lottie wants to go back to the old days when dragon slayers protected rural towns for free and were not concentrated in cities with corporate and publicity contracts. When dragon attacks start to pick up at an alarming rate in Trondheim, Siobhan, Owen, and others try to learn the reason and stop their threats.

Teen Siobhan is Owen's bard or poet and tells of his epic battles in a "Once upon a time" frame. At first I thought the book had roots in Icelandic folklore because of Owen's Viking heritage, but then Siobhan would be his skald and there was not much reference to this culture. Then I thought maybe it was going to follow the Viking hero and Beowulf story like "Heroes of the Valley" by Jonathan Stroud. Instead St. George is introduced and Hannah is a smith so I thought the text would lean toward medieval works but it is set in modern times so perhaps it was headed toward a plot like, "Boys of Blur," by N. D. Wilson. The dragons do not talk and are not characters in the book so the "Once upon a time..." really solidifies it as a fantasy with no saga references and a bard comes from the Celts culture.

The bard idea is clever and Siobhan is a musician so it works to some extent. The book at this point started to remind me of "Seraphina," by Rachel Hartman. The bard manipulates the public so that the masses are socialized as to how to behave during dragon attacks. "The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom," spoofs this notion if you are looking for some belly laughs. Owen and Siobhan joke back and forth along with the adults providing some comic relief. What doesn't work is the bard sometimes tells the story twice, is giving information secondhand which removes the immediacy of the action, and the world-building comes at the expense of character development and pacing.

Once the action picks up and I start to settle into the story, whomp, the blithering bard has to tell her tale and halt the movement with a back story dump. I wanted to ring her bells. Maybe if she was Shakespeare I would have been interested, but she is no Shakespeare. This book has won awards and many of the reviewers that I agree with gave it a high rating. I always wonder when that happens what went sour in my filtering system. You'll have to read it yourself to see what you think. I'm a fan of high fantasy, medieval texts, and just about anything but this came across too garbled.

2 Smileys

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wish Girl by Nikki Loftin

Nikki Loftin has realistic, gritty plots with a touch of magic in her books. Her first book, "Nightingale," shows poverty and how it affects lives and decisions tied in with the Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale. This book shows two kids that don't fit in with their peers and a protagonist that isn't accepted by his family. The magic in this story is an oasis where nature soothes the soul and heals. While entertaining, this one doesn't come together particularly well in character development and plot.

Peter Stone's family has moved from the city to the countryside so Peter can get a fresh start. Something terrible happened to him and while his family is supportive on the outside, they keep trying to change him on the inside. His mom and dad fight more than is healthy and Peter has to get away from the noise. While wandering the countryside he finds a peaceful valley that literally speaks to him through the animals and insects. He meets Annie Blythe, artist extraordinaire, with a cancer riddled body. Together they face their problems trying to overcome bullies and adults that subvert their voices.

Peter's family comes off as neglectful at first then overly protective later. They don't communicate with Peter and the parents are having marital problems since his dad lost his job. The beginning presents the parents as not really caring about Peter who goes off for hours and no one notices. Then they suddenly notice and everyone is worried to the point he is grounded. Peter is supposedly fragile but his internal voice seems awfully clear-headed to me. I didn't see him as having serious problems. The author shows his fears and inability to speak, but that is it. I wanted more. The one-dimensional bullies never really come to life either and while it is revealed their parents abuse them and one of them is not as cruel as the other, I thought the accident would expose them and their parents with a telling scene. That action is left hanging and unresolved.

Sometimes the plot is predictable and other times it is not. The magic is conveniently used when the plot needs to move forward or the humans make a bad decision. This made it feel contrived and at the end when Peter talks to his family he doesn't come across as a broken kid that has learned life lessons, he comes across as a kid that has been wronged by the adults in his life who have misunderstood him and forced him to do things that he didn't want to do.  He says some mean things to Annie but I think the first person narrative worked against giving the reader a well-rounded view of who Peter really was and what he had dealt with in the past. He's not very melancholy or raw emotionally. Instead he tells too much versus showing it.

The artistic Annie has some interesting insights into art. She tries to teach Peter that art transforms and he is transformed to some extent by their friendship. At the end the resolution happens off the page and the wrap up was a bit anti-climatic. The bullying Annie endures doesn't make sense either. Again, I think the point of view worked against rounding out the characters in a more sympathetic way or in a way that I could get sucked into the storyline. As is, I kept noticing the craft which kept me from magically disappearing into the story.

I kept thinking the story might be like "No Fault in the Stars," but it does not look at cancer in the way that one does. It does remind me of the Romantic writers of the 1800's, such as Frances Hodgeson Burnett's, "The Secret Garden," that uses nature to the extent where it is almost a religious experience for the characters in its power to heal. While I like Loftin's word choices and voice, I just couldn't get into this one like her other one.

3 Smileys

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold, Emily Gravett

My daughter's imaginary friend, "Fred," lived in her little finger and she would talk to her pinky on a daily basis. Fred helped her deal with different emotions. Her imaginary friend was her way of working through reality. "Fred, that's a no-no," she'd scold. "You get hurt." She'd be mimicking me at times or working through socializing with a playmate that was two years old like her. Years of research shows that imaginary friends are important in child development and here is an unusual book that creates a character, Amanda Shuffleup, who is so good with her imagination that she dreams up an imaginary friend, Rudger, who blurs the line between what is real and what is not. Her creative play draws the unwanted attention of an evil man, Mr. Bunting, who feeds off others imaginations.

Amanda's imaginary friend, Rudger, gets annoyed because she doesn't care about his thoughts and feelings, especially in the beginning. This irony adds humor as he is not real and she doesn't really have to think about his feelings. When a creepy man, Mr. Bunting, starts to stalk Rudger he can't get Amanda to listen to his fears. It isn't until Mr. Bunting tries to suck his being into his mouth that Amanda realizes her creation is truly being threatened. She tries to save his life only to get separated from Rudger. In a fun twist, he ends up being someone entirely different. It seems that all is lost until Rudger is saved by a patch-work cat, Zinzan, and finds refuge with other misfits in a library. He regroups and learns more about the evil Mr. Bunting and his devilish assistant before seeking Amanada once again.

This creepy book reminds me of kids that love to share ghost stories and use their imaginations. There is a dark side to the story, although I laughed when Rudger bit off an imaginary's finger that attacked him. Perhaps I'm a classic person who has become desensitized by social media violence or perhaps I never forgot that these are children and this is all pretend. If you read other reviews, you'll see that some thought it crossed a line. Mr. Bunting reminds me of the Boogie Man stories my brothers would tell me. This is the type of story they'd make up to scare me. You'll have to decide for yourself.

The villain, Mr. Bunting, hunts those with powerful imaginations like Amanda's because they feed his insatiable hunger. He describes the flavor of swallowing imaginaries whose fear and panic add spice as he inhales them into his being. Afterwards Mr. Bunting feels "whole, complete, and satisfied." Mr. Bunting would be the equivalent to my childhood, Boogie Man, or perhaps he is a metaphor of an adult that has lost his or her imagination. The author suggests that a healthy person has a strong imagination while an unimaginative person has an insatiable hunger and takes the creative products from others to try and satisfy himself or herself. This type of person is shriveled inside and empty.

Imaginary friends are a part of natural child development and years of research encourages parents to support kids that create these imagined companions. Amanda's mom does just this in the story; whereas, Julia's mom does not. Julia is a friend of Amanda's from school whose mom freaks out when Julia starts talking to an imaginary friend, "Victoria." The mother's reaction is to bring Julia to a psychologist who "cures" her. I think most psychologists would enlighten the mother that this is a normal cognitive development in children, but the author would lose her foil and tension. I understand how it moves the plot forward even though it is unlikely. Later Julia's mom offers to give Amanda's mom the psychologist's phone number. The two parents represent opposing viewpoints but it is obvious which one the author supports.

Emily Gravett's illustrations are gorgeous and add to the story but her image of Amanda was older than the one I had in my head. In the beginning Amanda doesn't show empathy for Rudger or much self-awareness and she reminded me of the 6 to 7 year old children at my school. Also, my daughter's two year old friend had me picture someone younger. But once Rudger is threatened and Amanda sees it with her own eyes, then she became older in my head because she does respond with empathy. The author doesn't give her age, or at least I couldn't find it, but maybe that's good because kids pretend at many different ages and in different stages. I think this is a case where working with children went against me because I couldn't get a clear picture of the protagonist until well into the book and my distinctions are probably more sharply divided than someone that doesn't work with children every day ages 4-11. Her characterizations are good so it didn't distract me from the storyline.

Amanda's mom enters the world of make-believe when Amanda is choking. As soon as she believes then she can see the imaginary things that are hurting her daughter. Adults use their imaginations but on a limited basis compared to children. The real world makes it impossible to be in the land of make-believe as much as a kid. But it is an important quality to not lose. Rudger understands the temporariness of being an imagined being. "Imagination is slippery, Rudger knew that well enough. Memory doesn't hold it tight, it has trouble enough holding on to the real, remembering the real people who are lost." How true. As an adult, this slipping of my memories frustrates me more than anything. And childhood now has some big gaps for me. I know what I remember are fragments slapped together much like the patched fur of Zinzan.

Working with children allows me to see raw creativity on a daily basis. To be in a profession that allows the nurturing of this is satisfying and fulfilling. To let children explore, think, imagine, and generate new ideas brings an electrical current to the air where learning is fun and the future is full of potential. It is a constant reminder that creative potential exists in all of us no matter what the age and that a person doesn't have to be a genius to reach this potential. Instead, they need to take risks, be allowed to make mistakes, be supported, be encouraged, and let their imagination erupt. This is the message I got from this author. See what you think.

5 Smileys

Monday, September 7, 2015

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones

I admire authors that can pull off well-written epistolary novels. To find the right balance between epistle and narrative without losing the reader is tricky to say the least. Too many internal thoughts by the character and you threaten to bore the reader. Too many flashbacks and you lose the immediacy of the action. Too few points of view and you wonder what motivates the other characters. If I were a writer I would think the chances of writing a boring, passive story would skyrocket with this format. Not so for Kelly Jones. She manages the technique well creating a strong character voice with humor and using few words creating a strong narrative arc and setting. Not easy, but she kept my interest throughout the story. Some might feel ping-ponged by all the chicken facts. However, Jones nicely ties them in with Sophie's superstitions of what she thinks she is seeing and the scientific facts. A clever juxtaposition, but we will get to that later.

Twelve-year-old Sophie Brown has moved from Los Angeles to a farm that her family inherited from her mother's great-uncle. Her mom knows how to run a farm but she is working full-time and can't help explain things. Sophie's dad lost his job and he's somewhat useless at figuring out equipment or even pruning. Sophie's got more smarts doing research at the library and contacting experts by writing letters when she's faced with a problem. Her dad could learn a thing or two from her. Sophie explores the farm on her own finding a hen pecking around a hen house. She names her hen, Henrietta, and is off to the library to learn how to take care of chickens. Sophie finds an advertisement in the barn for the Redwood Farm Supply company and writes them an old-fashioned letter, when she can't find them on the World Wide Web, asking for advice on caring for chickens. When a woman shows up at the farm saying she lost a chicken that looks like Henrietta, Sophie does some research only to find out things are not as they seem. Sophie meets another kid her age and gets help solving her chicken mystery.

Sophie writes letters to her dead grandma and Uncle Jim. The epistolary format works well in this regard as it helps keep them alive and shows that Sophie really misses them. My mom died this summer and I find myself talking to her in my head, much like Sophie's letters. I do the same thing with my grandma who I was close to when she was alive. Kelly Jones creates a strong and funny voice as Sophie corresponds with them. They don't write back so it's important when the author adds the correspondence with Agnes at the Redwood Farm Supply company. Her letters are full of typos and there is something fishy about them even though her advice is sound. The author does a great job balancing internal monologue with action and dialogue to keep my interest going.

Sophie's mom is smart, her dad struggles with problem-solving, and Sophie dives right into things not feeling sorry for herself nor lacking courage to try new things. She's terrified of speaking but recognizes when she needs to say something even when her knees are clanging together. Her mixed heritage and the townspeople's racist stereotyping is subtly shown in different situations. Sophie doesn't take it personally. She expects it and recognizes that comments were made in ignorance versus maliciousness. The comments range from people assuming Sophie's mom is from Mexico when she was born in the United States and is as American as them or the librarian assuming Sophie is a migrant worker.

Sophie describes the chickens like magic. One floats. One disappears. One is like Medusa. Eventually, Sophie learns all the unusual characteristics of the chickens from scientific facts. I was a bit confused by this at first like Sophie but it becomes clear as the author shows right after each incident the reason it happened such as the floating chicken. If the explanations didn't come right away I would have been really lost and it helps setup for the twist at the end. I did think the motivations of the villain were not clear. The explanation at the end was somewhat weak, but it doesn't take away from the other fun plot surprises.

Our library doesn't have bucketfuls of children's epistolary novels. The few I can think of are "Dear Mr. Henshaw" or "Stargirl." Actually more picture books spring to mind such as "The Day the Crayons Quit" or "I Wanna Iguana" or "Dectective LaRue: letters from the investigation" or "The Jolly Postman." Teachers like the picture books as mentor texts so I might be more in tune with them than fiction. Whether the epistolary novel is hard to write or not, or few and far between, Kelly Jones hatched a winner with this one.

5 Smileys

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Rebecca Stead is brilliant with her characterizations and intricate plots that have you wondering where the heck she is going with her stories, and this one won't disappoint, but for me, it missed the mark. If I had not read her previous books I would have not slogged through the first fifty pages, but abandoned it. If you are a patient reader who is sustained by great writing and like details that show how complicated relationships are, then you probably won't have the problem I did. I'm just not patient with slow moving setups. That said, I really want to use this for book club to see what other students think of it. The depth of the messages range from self-identity, to changing relationships, to changing bodies, to social media messes, to feminism, to bullies, to choices... you get the idea. Themes pile on themes like a skyscraper.

Bridge, Emily, and Tab are seventh graders that have been friends since elementary school. They swore on a Twinkie that they would not have any fights but it has been difficult this year. The three are changing. Bridge survived a car accident in 3rd grade that should have killed her. She wonders why she didn't die. Emily is a soccer star that has matured physically and is getting attention from boys in school. Tab is inspired by a feminist teacher in school and breathes her ideals sometimes like an annoying puppet, sometimes foolishly, and other times with some wisdom. As the three change they manage to hold onto their friendship with respect and support each other in some trying situations.

An alternating viewpoint has a mystery narrator that has ditched school for the day and has done something terrible to another friend. Written in a second person narration, this story thread didn't hold my interest as much as the main story with the three friends. I admire Stead's daring use of the second person and actually I would have probably been even less interested in this mystery person had she used the third person narration found in the rest of the story. I just found the mystery character boring. She's skipping school so the tension is there. She's done something awful and I should be eager to find out what is was, but I never got vested in her crisis. The incident took too long to unfold for my bouncy brain. I was more interested in the three twinkle-toes and their drama.

And once the drama got rolling, boy, did the beat get loud. Em has an 8th grade boy that is interested in her and they begin by sharing photos of each others body parts. A foot. A shin. A thigh. But this head-and-shoulders-knees-and-toes song loses its innocence along the way and the two get in heaps of trouble when an inappropriate photo leaks to other classmates phones. This is one media blitz that Em did not foresee nor want and her friends are there sometimes helping and sometimes making the situation worse.

I'd be pretty dippy if I didn't mention some of Stead's great lines. Like I said she's a great writer... I just struggled at slipping into this storyline. I did eventually, but it was like a dragged-out warmup before soccer practice. "Life was a too-tall stack of books that had started to lean to one side, and each new day was another book on top." Or when Em is complaining about her four-dimensional zit. Tab asks if the 4th dimension means it smells to which Em replies, "Ew, no. The fourth dimension is time. This thing has been here for two weeks!" Done laughing? Here's a serious one about time, "Life isn't something that happens to you. It's something you make yourself, all the time."

Book reviews come down to opinions. I will read this novel again for book club. Who knows? Maybe the second time I will love it. I remember an English teacher telling me she hated Wuthering Heights until her third year teaching it. She said with each go-round she picked up on more and more themes, craft, and characterizations. I think that could be the same for me. It has been bonkers this fall, so all my interruptions and reading two chapters here-and-there might have kept me from getting into this plot as quickly as I normally do when cranking through books. Either way, it is worth reading and making your own conclusions.

Two fantastic reviews can be found on Betsy Bird's SLJ blog and Mike's blog.

5 Smileys