Monday, December 21, 2015

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans by Don Brown

This short but powerful graphic novel has gorgeous illustrations that do not shy from the grisly details of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I read it on a Kindle Fire and the illustrations pop with their drama and bold line strokes. I have read several books on Katrina and discovered some new facts in this one. The trains offered to evacuate residents and the city declined as 200,000 people were left behind because they didn't have cars or were unable to leave for other reasons. Some illustrations show people who drown. Others show the desperation of families in the attics of their homes as the waters keep rising. The text says many drown. More than 100 police officers abandoned their posts in fear when the hurricane struck. People at the dome urinated while standing in long lines waiting for buses because they didn't want to lose their spots. (This fact is told not illustrated.) The dangerous water and smells are captured in illustrations. The horrors are contrasted with police and neighbors that stayed and helped others creating a balance between light and dark, but this is definitely for an older reader.

5 Smileys

A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Twelve-year-old Gerta's father and younger brother go to West Berlin to find a place for the family to live when the Berlin Wall is erected overnight dividing herself, mother, and older brother from them. Her father was involved in Resistance activities making her family under the constant scrutiny of the Stasi police as the war rages for four long years. While on her way to school Gerta sees her father pantomiming a dance on a platform and interprets it as a way to escape. As neighbors and friends turn against each other, Gerta learns who she can and cannot trust.

While I think Jennifer Nielsen is good at building tension, this story fell short for me in many ways. I've read so much on the Holocaust and World War II that much of the plot was predictable. I get frustrated when an obvious answer is available for the protagonist or minor characters and the incident it gets dragged out in order to advance the plot. This is when the plot feels forced and it happens quite a bit. For instance, why wouldn't Gerta go down into the cellar the first time? Why does Fritz doubt the picture when his character has believed Gerta up to that point? Other times the characters would spout platitudes that sounded like someone looking back on the war.  The fear and confusion was not really captured and carried throughout the narration at a steady pace.

Obviously, I liked the book enough to finish it so it does have its moments when it is interesting. I didn't really learn anything new about this time period and was not wowed by any in-depth historical research. The idea that children walking to school couldn't look toward the other side of the wall was an interesting concept. Nielsen does show the intimidation of soldiers. The story is entertaining but doesn't rise to the same levels as other books out there. Read "Echo" by Pam Munoz Ryan as an example of tension and fear during the war.

3 Smileys

Friday, December 18, 2015

Paper Things by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Eleven-year-old Ari moves out of Janna's house with her 19-year-old brother, Gage, who says he has a job and apartment. Janna is her guardian and argues with Gage. The two have lived together since Ari and Gage's mom passed away, but the two fight incessantly. Ari, loyal to family, follows Gage as he strikes out on his own. He says he has an apartment but when it is obvious he doesn't, Ari still follows him as they live homeless for  six weeks while he tries to find a job. The character arc and development carry a messy plot along in an engaging story that presents homelessness in a tamed down if somewhat inauthentic way. It makes the book appropriate for younger readers and deals with friendships and stigma that comes from being different.

While Ari is a well fleshed out character the relationships between Janna and Gage are somewhat fuzzy making Gage's decisions questionable and out-of-character at times. Ari is the star of the show and she shines as she tries to decide between living with her brother on the streets or being with Janna with a roof and stability. The author does a good job capturing middle school and how peers ostracize each other for clothes, hygiene, and looks. Ari has ratty shoes and greasy hair at times that makes her a target for bullying. The complication of Ari hiding her homelessness notched up the tension and kept me flipping the pages.

Ari and her brother hop from one friend's home to another sleeping anywhere. When they end up in a car one night and Ari's grades have been slipping she slowly begins to question if their choices have been the best or if her brother is just being stubborn. This part of the story was more authentic for me than the Reggie part. His homelessness and airplane business seem contrived to just move the plot forward. Also the relationship between Janna and Gage needed more development to give understanding as to why Gage would even take Ari from that situation. The explanation for Gage taking Ari was that their dying mother's last wish was that they always be together. This seemed weak as anyone with half a brain would know that a mother's last wish would not be to have her children sleeping out on the streets when they have a roof over their heads.

The ending is a bit pat. Kids will like it because everyone is happy but what bothered me was the quick resolution between Gage and Janna and Ari being empowered and reaffirmed by being in the media. I was pulled out of the narrative and felt like the author was teaching me a lesson. Not that it isn't a good lesson about acceptance and tolerance. All the same it made the plot less authentic. While I like the writing I think the story has too many miscues that keep it from being as strong as it could be.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Ali Benjamin sure knows how to infuse her plot with tense emotional situations. From death to changing friendships to bullying she captures middle school and all its ugliness and uncertainty with an identity crisis that brings about self-understanding and confidence for the main character. For the most part she does this well, but other times misses the mark a bit as Suzy becomes too extreme as the nerdy, factual character that is hopelessly inept socially - to the point that I thought something might be wrong with her medically. But then Benjamin pulls back and I was able to get absorbed by the story again. I can recommend this to students that like "Wonder," "One for the Murphys," and "Out of My Mind." A strong debut novel that will have me on the look-out for more books by this author.

Twelve-year-old Suzy Swanson has decided to stop talking to people after the death of her best friend, Franny, in a swimming accident. After seeing an Irukandji jellyfish on a school field trip, Suzy develops a theory that her friend drown because this venomous jellyfish stung her as a result of global warming and it being found in parts of the world never before. She researches everything she can on the fish and decides that an expert in Australia can help her prove her hypothesis.

Suzy tells the story with flashbacks to when she and Franny were friends. They had a falling out that is slowly revealed as the author unfolds details leading up to their split. The cruel killing of an amphibian might upset some readers. Flashbacks oftentimes do not hold my interest like the narrative, but that is not the case here. Benjamin does an excellent job weaving forward and back in time to create an engrossing story.

The study of jellyfish and Suzy's hypothesis of what happened to Franny makes for an interesting juxtaposition between nonfiction and fictional narration. Suzy is presented as a misfit along with Justin who has ADHD but understands it better than most his age. While I liked him as a character giving some relief to Suzy's seriousness, he seemed a bit too old and mature. Perhaps it was him poking fun at being ADHD and understanding how it affected others negatively. I grew up with an ADHD person and Justin's character lacked some authenticity for me. The bullying seemed a bit over the top. It makes the story more emotional but at one point I felt I was being manipulated and wondered how their friendship could have turned into something quite so nasty. And Suzy's justification of what she did back was weak. These are minor points and don't detract much from Suzy's character arc. Add it to your to-read list.

5 Smileys

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin

Steven Sheinkin is one of my favorite history writers for young readers. His narrative style creates characters with distinct voices along with brilliant craft at revealing plot elements that resemble a thriller. No dry history facts here, folks. This guy knows how to take the pertinent information in history and pull the reader into the story. Like "Bomb," this is more difficult to read than your ordinary elementary-book-fare but students in my Newbery book club that have read it really like it.

Four presidents didn't want to be the first person in history to lose a war and their resulting poor decisions were rooted in this fear. Daniel Ellsberg was an analyst for Rand Corporation, a think tank that studied international crises and helped government policymakers with decisions. He was extremely bright and brought on staff at the Pentagon to work for Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, in the 60s helping with the conflict in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh wanted to unite Vietnam but because he was Communist the United States backed the unpopular non-communist South Vietnam leader. War broke out on Ellsberg's first day on the job.

Sheinkin shows from the get-go all the errors made by leaders in the U.S. government as they went to war with Vietnam. Ellsberg was supportive of the government and believed in the war until it became obvious over twenty-three years that there was never a plan to win the war or end it but just continue to sacrifice lives so that the president in power could win the next election. Ellsberg decision to exercise civil disobedience was extremely difficult and Sheinkin shows his struggle with deciding if the people of the United States had a right to know about cover-ups or if he should maintain secrecy for the sake of national security. Ellsberg changed from thinking the Vietnam war was "noble" to one that was wrong from the start as he observed president-after-president lying to the people.

Ellsberg understood that he could not challenge policies in public - it was the code of an insider. Most leaders surround themselves with people that agree with them. He knew disagreeing publicly was not done and feared the consequences of taking action against the government. He knew he'd end up in jail. This made me think of the book, "Team of Rivals," and Abraham Lincoln's unusual cabinet where he let those close to him in government publicly disagree with him. Wouldn't it be awesome if Sheinkin wrote a book for young readers on Abe?

The second part of the story shows the Watergate scandal and comedy of errors that happened as a result of Nixon's actions. Sheinkin's novels are always sprinkled with tidbits I didn't know. Did you know they dropped three times the amount of bombs on Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam than they did in World War II? And that an estimated 2 million people died? Sheinkin doesn't give answers but asks important questions such as when is a person justified in leaking classified government information to expose wrongdoing? He ties it in with the more recent leak by Edward Snowden on the United States national security surveillance. He doesn't give his opinion, but lets the reader decide. The questions have no easy answers. A great nonfiction book.

5 Smileys

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Perilous Princess Plot (Buckle and Squash #1) by Sarah Courtauld

If you want to study the literary device of using parody to exaggerate the fairy tale genre for comedic effect, then I suggest picking up this book. Or if you just want to snort laugh your breakfast cereal out your nose, then I suggest this book again. Eliza and Lavendar live in Old Tumbledown Farm in The Middle of Nowhere in the land of Squerb, where Lavendar dreams of being a princess and Eliza dreams of strangling her neck. Just kidding. Eliza is stuck with all the chores and is just annoyed by her princess-loving sis. But honestly, first time we meet Lavendar she sees a man in the distance and cries out, "A knight upon the high road! I may faint!" It's a bald man named Bob. Lavendar then proceeds to faint and asks Eliza to rate her faint. This drama queen makes Anne of Green Gables romantic tendencies look tame in comparison. When Lavendar gets kidnapped by an archetype villain, it is Eliza who rescues her showing that Eliza will do anything for her cornflakey sister.

Eliza is a foil to Lavendar. While Lavendar wants to be more princessy than a princess, Eliza dreams of being a hero, defeating dragons and traveling to far off places. The cornucopia of  puns and play on words, and run-on sentences reminded me of the character voices in "The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom," by Christopher Healy. The villain sets out to kidnap a princess identifying her as a girl that sings badly, dances, pick flowers, and wears a pointy princess hat - all traits found in Lavendar. Except she also sings in the romance language, French. Badly. When Lavendar is kidnapped she gets it in her head that the villain is really a handsome prince disguised as an ugly person like in Beauty and the Beast. 

There are some fun twists and turns in this goofy tale. Eliza tries to change Lavendar into seeing how absurd all her prince dreams are while Lavendar tries to prove that they are true. By the end the two have adventures that have them understanding and tolerating each other a little more, but it isn't always easy. It is always funny though. This story is pretty outlandish. My favorite minor character is the grandma that tells bedtimes stories full of pestilence, murder, and death. She reminded me of Jon Klassen's picture books. 

Her story is about William who came down with the Black Death. "'And from that day on, he was covered in spots,' she said serenely. 'And then came the lumps. And then his skin started to wither. And then he collapsed. And then his fingers fell off. And then his legs fell off. And then he died.' she smiled. 'The end. Would you like another story?'"

Yes, please. I'm looking forward to more Squash and Buckles.

4 Smileys

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Hartland

The illustration of a Hollerith machine reminded me of the IBM machine in our high school in the 80s. We were given a stack of punch cards that we had to code. We used it in math class for numeric computation. I'd punch the cards, run them through the machine and Blammo! it never worked for me. I really hated that machine. I took a DOS class in the 90s and it reminded me of the punch card days. One detail off and the whole thing-a-ma-jig would not work. Ugh! This book is a walk down nightmare machine lane. My brother bought one of the first Macintosh personal computers that went public in 1984 when Steve Jobs was still in his twenties. I thought that computer was the best thing since chocolate ice cream and my brother graciously let me use it whenever I wanted. Jobs was innovative, creative, and demanding and this book captures his quirks marvelously. The only strange bit is that it is geared toward young kids but mentions Jobs smoking pot and using LSD. Not sure why the editors put that in the book but be aware that it is there.

The style of the book is quite different with illustrations and hand-written font. One of the things Jobs loved was calligraphy and he was proud of the fonts option in his software program Macwrite. I remember that program. I'd put several disks in to boot the program because there was no hard drive and oftentimes the computer froze, but I'd give my left hip any day for a computer over my much-hated typewriter.

The book spans Jobs life and covers his personal life, career path, and idiosyncrasies. This is a more positive take on his contributions and does not explore his difficult personality as adult versions do. He was controversial and the book shows that but it focuses more on the technology, innovations, and Job's inventive mind.

One part of the book shows how Jobs and Bill Gates took Xerox PARC's ideas of graphical user interface and created an easy-to-use product for the public to consume. Jobs is accusing Gates in one illustration of stealing his ideas and Gates in turn accuses him of stealing Xerox's idea. Dewey did the same thing when he invented the library system. So did Edison when he invented the light bulb. Many of the great inventors just perfect or make better existing ideas. It is clear that Jobs attention to detail, design background, and perfectionism were what made him good at creating quality products.

The Kindle format made it hard to read all the two-page spreads but it was doable. I'm sure it wouldn't have been acceptable to Jobs if he had designed the eReader. Just kidding. The repeated line that Job's used, "Insanely great!" adds to the evidence of his innovative spirit. The layout and design of this book reminds me of Marissa Moss's illustrations. It is not quite a graphic novel, but it departs from narrative text with all the illustrations.

I've been reading conversations on this blog called, Heavy Medal, and they were discussing fatal flaws in books and how it can prevent winning a Newbery award. The controversy was around one paragraph in "The Hired Girl." This Steve Jobs book would be another one that seems to go in the same category. Why did the editors add the drug reference when it doesn't contribute to the focus of the story? When society has problems with underage drinking and drugs, why would you make it look like it is okay to do that? The blog discussions have made me think about fatal flaws and how my biases come into play. While I find the drug reference not appropriate, some of you will think no big deal. Decide for yourself.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Jackson likes facts. He is the perfect brother. Perfect son. He handles difficult situations with more maturity than most confiding in his imaginary friend, Crenshaw. At first he doesn't want Crenshaw's help because... I dunno, he's a cat that is taller than him and walks on two legs and likes purple jellybeans. But as Jackson's home situation gets worse, he tries stuffing his fear down, only it doesn't work as the perfect boy starts to unravel.

This story is great for grades 3-4, but I thought the pacing suffered mainly in the beginning. I am not a fan of flashbacks and I thought they slowed the action too much. Jackson's interest in science gives him a different voice and his friendship with Marisol adds to the story, but both characters' voices sounded old at times. It felt like the narrator, as an adult, was speaking to me the reader. This doesn't happen all the time but it did enough to jar me out of the narrative text.

Crenshaw is Jackson's imaginary friend who appeared in his life when he was seven but then disappeared after the situation was resolved. Jackson doesn't want to have anything to do with Crenshaw because an imaginary friend is far from science and facts. But as his situation gets worse, he turns to Crenshaw for advice and sympathy. 

Jackson's dad has multiple sclerosis and it has sent their family in a downward spiral with medical bills and job loss. His parents always try to look at the bright side and hide their problems from their two children, but Jackson knows the signs when they sell everything and start to talk about wanting a "money tree". Homelessness is presented in a way that won't frighten the young reader but as an adult it seemed glossed over to me. You'll have to decide for yourself. A quick read.

4 Smileys