Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Orphan Island

The following is more of a rant than a review. It is specifically for people who have read ORPHAN ISLAND by Laurel Snyder... and it contains heavy spoilers!

Read online about why Laurel Snyder wrote ORPHAN ISLAND and you will discover that the novel is a bit of a passion project for the author. She felt like she had been writing novels for others, with the goal of entertaining, and had lost a bit of the childlike passion that comes with the craft. I can respect that. I think it's awesome that Snyder is at a point as an author where she can write something for herself.

The problem with criticizing someone's passion project is that Ms. Snyder doesn't care what I have to say about the book. Her fans probably don't either. She didn't write this book to entertain me, she wrote this book for herself. As I said, whether I enjoyed the novel or not, I can respect that. Many fans of Snyder and reviewers online have enjoyed this, so take my thoughts for what they are. My thoughts.

The hype surrounding this novel was pretty high. It got a lot of crazy love on Goodreads as advanced copies made their way into the hands of fans of children's literature and librarians. When it finally hit bookstore shelves weeks ago, it felt like anyone who is anyone had already read this and declared it a masterpiece.

In ORPHAN ISLAND, nine children live on an island. Once a year, a mysterious green boat arrives with a young child, snot faced and dripping wet. The oldest child on the island, the Elder, must then trade places with the new child and get inside the boat while the boat takes the child away from the island into the mist, never to be seen or heard from again. It's kind of like Survivor, meets Lost, meets The Truman Show, meets Cast Away, meets Jerry Spinelli's HOKEY POKEY.

The setup of the novel is really well done and highly intriguing. "Nine on an island, orphans all. Any more, the sky might fall." Chapter 1 is gripping. There is emotional tension as Deen climbs in the boat and argues with Jinny. Immediately, readers are hooked, wondering what is going on. Where does the boat come from? Where is Deen going? Why are the others staying? How long have they been here? Who else has been here? Sadly, while a few of those questions are answered, the big ones are avoided altogether. Snyder has not written a plot-driven book, but a character study about the blurring of lines between childhood and adolescence.

It's fairly obvious that ORPHAN ISLAND is meant to be absorbed as a metaphor. Jinny, the main character, asks a lot of questions about life. That's actually pretty much the plot of the story. Over 200 pages of a child on a mysterious island asking questions about life. Furthermore, some of the questions are not questions that I felt like Jinny should have been naturally asking (that happens alot, and I'll talk more about it in a moment). I felt the author working really hard at reminding readers this was a metaphor. The approach was too in-your-face, too heavy handed. I would have appreciated a little more plot, with a more subtle approach to the metaphor.

The problem with viewing this story simply as a metaphor, is that it's an easy way out for an author. The details of the world you are attempting to build don't have to add up because a) you're not revealing them all and b) it's a metaphor! I read an online interview where Snyder admits to writing a prologue to the novel that details the creation of the island and after a friend read a draft of the story and then the prologue, she advised Snyder NOT to include the prologue. This friend probably supported Snyder's "metaphor" approach. There's also a chance that that prologue was a let down and didn't deliver the goods, ruining the story. So why risk including it when you can just fall back on "it was all a metaphor."

Here's an example: When the green boat returns for Jinny and she initially doesn't get inside, the empty boat kind of freaks out. It nudges into her and shakes in the water and wants someone to get inside to take them away. Is this magic? How does the boat operate? It seems to know that only 9 kids can remain... So in the end when Jinny finally climbs into the boat with the injured boy, the boat sails away into the mist! What the heck?!? So could the kids have all climbed into the boat in the beginning and just sailed away? Why does the boat leave with two? The thing is, by not answering these questions, Snyder is telling us it doesn't matter because it's all a metaphor for growing up. But that's lazy storytelling. There could be some serious loopholes in the world Snyder has developed and we'd never know.

It became obvious as I read, that we would not be getting answers to the numerous questions arising in the text about the island but I kept reading anyway in hopes that I could piece together enough of the snippets we did get to come to a conclusion myself. But no. Just a lot of questions that might not have legit answers. That's not masterful writing to me. That's sloppy writing. Snyder could have provided these answers and still done so without catering to audiences.

But enough about the ending, because to me, the shortfalls of this book are about so much more than just the open ended final page of the book. Jinny is the only real character that is given any depth and she's annoying. She's selfish and whiny and not near as endearing as I think she was intended to be. The other characters are pretty weak. Ess, the young girl who arrives on the island when Jinny's friend Deen leaves, becomes Jinny's responsibility to mentor and she too is rather annoying. She speaks like a frightened toddler throughout the book despite growing physically and becoming able to perform chores and tasks in her first year on the island.

The characters are too smart for their own good. As readers, we bare witness to two arrivals on the island and both children are very raw. Ess is whimpering, covered in snot, and can barely speak. She knows nothing (but mumbles "Mama"). The last boy to arrive (who I get the strong feeling is somehow related to Jinny, ironically) is similar to Ess, but mentally unhinged and hell-bent on damaging things. If they all arrive on the island this way, how to they learn anything? How do they become anything? The questions Jinny asks about life are questions a normal child would ask about life and growing up, not a girl stuck on an island, fighting each day to survive. Jinny behaves like a girl stuck on a really long vacation, not a girl who has spent years living on an island alone with a handful of other children.

It also bothered me that the children don't have to work really hard to survive. Things are comfy and routine on the island. They start fires, they prepare and cook food, they hunt and fish, they read bedtime stories together. How can they do all this? If they arrive on the island like Ess, how do they become like Jinny? The answer is probably the most problematic aspect of the book to me...

There is a library of books on the island (previously owned by some Annabelle) and the children read from these each night and credit most of their knowledge to what is contained in these books. This is highly problematic to me... How did these kids learn to read? Ess cannot read when she arrives. Neither can the other boy. It's revealed that hundreds of days pass between Deen leaving and the boat arriving for Jinny. And Jinny is the oldest of the nine. If you do the math, this means that Jinny has been on the island for anywhere from 5-9 years. Since she's at the start of her adolescent years, we can guesstimate her age at 12ish, which means the kids arrive on the island around the age of 7 or 8, or younger. And in a few short years, with only peers as mentors, they can read full novels and hunt and fish and prepare food?!? This is too contrived of a plot device for me and extremely lazy storytelling.

In the end, I found myself way more interested in the the mystery surrounding the island than in the characters inhabiting the island. The characters were nothing special to me. The island could have been but we'll never know. I think it's a copout to not provide some closure to the story after providing so much foreshadowing and so many clues to this story being about more than just a metaphor. I'm not sure a prologue (or even a prequel or sequel) could redeem this.

Ms. Snyder is a talented writer. There is sentence-level beauty in some of the passages here and I loved her previous works ANY WHICH WALL, BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX, and SWAN. After the hype this one seemed to gather, it just didn't work for me at all. I shouldn't say I wouldn't read a sequel (or prequel) but since she seems to have written this more for herself than for an audience, to pump out a second book to appease the masses seems highly unlikely so I won't hold my breath. I am really curious to see what child readers think of this.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Summer Reading

That is my summer reading pile. Ambitious, I know. I totaled up the pages in that stack of books and we're just over 4,000. If I started today and read until the second week of August, I would need to read around 50 pages a day. That's roughly an hour a day reading. With three young, active kids, and activities, and yard work, and school work, and Twins games, and vacations, etc, etc, etc. Furthermore, there are no former Newbery Medal winners in that pile and I want to get to a few of those read, and I know there a few newer releases I'd like to get my hands on that are not pictured in the stacks above (YORK, CLAYTON BIRD, ORPHAN ISLAND, BEYOND THE BRIGHT SEA).

Shoot for the moon, right? It's good to have goals.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Princess Cora and the Crocodile

What is it about?

PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE, written by Laura Amy Schlitz and illustrated by Brian Floca, is about a princess who wants to explore and have fun instead of prepare for her future responsibilities as a princess. 

How is it structured?

PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE is kind of a hybrid of a picture book and an early chapter book. It fits in your hand a bit larger than your typical novel or early chapter book but is much smaller than your typical picture book. The hardcover edition I purchased as 74 pages and the story is told across 7 chapters. Readability is fairly easy and charming, color illustrations are found on every page, sometimes filling the page, sometimes juxtaposed on white pages of text. 

What did I like?

There is a lot to appreciate about PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE. Let me start with the illustrations. Brian Floca's illustrations are really the star of this vehicle. They appear to be outlined in thin black and filled in with light pastel water colors. The characters are drawn simply, yet their facial expressions are packed with the perfect emotion for each situation. The book's entire packaging is really charming.

I also appreciate that Laura Amy Schlitz has set out to create something completely original. There's a lot of rehashing of Grimm stories these days, but writing in a medieval setting is right in Schlitz's wheelhouse and this has such a classic feel while being wholly original. And while some of Grimm's stories have broad, and somewhat dated today messages, Schlitz's message is timely.

A sidebar: A parent of a student once told me that forcing their oldest children into organized sports at a young age was one of their biggest regrets as a parent. Because in hindsight, they realized they could never get back the time their child spent traveling with friends and practicing sports. It was more of a social experience for the parents. They told me they adopted a different philosophy with their youngest child. They were going to enjoy her for who she was, savor their time spent together as a family, and not pressure her into any sports, but encourage her if she was interested of course.

I feel like this parent would really enjoy PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE because the message is very similar. The King and the Queen will never get back the time they spent teaching their little girl science or drilling her as she ran laps. I like this modern fairy tale with a clear message that children today (and parents) can take away loud and clear.

What did I dislike?

There wasn't much I disliked about PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE per se, but I couldn't help but think, "That was it?" when I finished reading it. The plot was straightforward, clean, and well-structured, but nothing about the book really wowed me. Other than Floca's illustrations. In fact, I actually wondered if a no-name author could pass this manuscript off and attract a talent like Floca to sign on. It's a cute story, but without Schlitz's name attached, I wonder if this would have ever seen the light of day.

I was a bit bothered by the ending. In typical Grimm fashion, the adults come off as bumbling, dim-witted villains. I didn't read them as parents who had made mistakes and learned from them, if that was the intention. They are adults who are making a child do work. The problem I see, is that many kids today don't know how to work hard. When they read this, they will see adults making a child do work. This will speak to them. They will also see that child leave that work behind and teach the adults a lesson and by the end of the book, call all the shots. Princess Cora, the child, is in charge. That is a dangerous notion and I'm not sure how much it helps children today. The message is loud and clear for adults. But for kids?

Final verdict?

In the end, PRINCESS CORA AND THE CROCODILE is a cute story from a highly celebrated children's author and a highly celebrated children's illustrator. It will be read and enjoyed by many. Personally, I was expecting a little more.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Me and Marvin Gardens

ME AND MARVIN GARDENS by Amy Sarig King is about an environmentally conscious boy named Obe Devlin. Obe's obsession with taking care of the environment, especially his family's land, leads to social problems as some of the land begins to be developed for a new housing community. Obe also discovers a new species of animal on his family's land and wrestles with keeping the discovery a secret.

ME AND MARVIN GARDENS is a middle grade fantasy novel disguised as a realistic fiction novel. It classifies as fantasy because Obe discovers a new species of animal in a creek on his family's land. The animal eats plastic and leaves toxic scat throughout the housing development.

The novel is written in first-person, narrated by Obe. Breaking up the narrative, scattered throughout the book, are short chapters on gray pages, detailing what life was like 100 years ago. These sections begin vague but become more and more specific to the plot and the Devlin family as the novel nears its end. There is some mystery that strings readers along in subplots, like why Obe tends to get bloody noses easily, what happened to his friendship with Tommy, and what led to the Devlin land being taken away.

ME AND MARVIN GARDENS reminds me of children's novels like HOOT by Carl Hiaasen and OPERATION REDWOODS by S. Terrell French. Children in general, love the environment and are sensitive to taking care of it when educated at a young age. My 7-year-old daughter is a testament to that. Stories like this appeal to children. I can just imagine my students trying to draw Marvin, and take a genuine interest in protecting him. Likewise, Obe was a thoughtful, endearing narrator who was easy to root for.

I also thought Obe's relationships with his family and peers were very realistic and children will be able to relate to this as well. His friendship with Annie is sweet and awkward and his trouble with Tommy is all to common among kids. Choice Tommy made as a friend have damaged his relationship with Obe (maybe even for good) and this is important for children to read. Furthermore, I liked how each member of Obe's family was portrayed as their own person with their own interests and personalities and how tuned into this Obe was. At one point, Obe wonders if his father would have been his friend when he was younger or if he would have gravitated to boys like the boys in the new development. How painfully insightful! Obe knows the members of his family all have different interests but also discovers in the end, that they are there for each other. I liked the nuanced, non-cliched way this was portrayed.

Finally, I really liked the fantasy take on a story that really wasn't a fantasy. I also appreciated King's ability to be didactic about the environment without this book feeling overly didactic.

The discovery of Marvin is the only aspect of this story that classifies it as fantasy, and to me, it might be the weakest part of the story. Marvin felt a little too silly and goofy. I like that King tried to make Marvin as realistic as possible (dog shape and size, rhino-like skin) but the multi-colored scat and the role his scat played in the story was just a little too much for me. Marvin eating plastic was a strange subplot that was a little more farfetched than the idea of Marvin in the first place. Marvin is used more as a plot device to get Obe to move from point A to point B as a character, so I understand the lack of explanation into his being and his future, but it would have been fun to explore him a little more. The fact that King didn't, seems like a bit of a copout.

ME AND MARVIN GARDENS is a unique coming of age story. While the fantasy elements of this story were a little weak, Obe's relationship drama, with both family and peers, was well done and middle grade kids should be able to relate to him easily.

Monday, April 3, 2017


What is it about?

SHORT by Holly Goldberg Sloan is about a middle school student (who is short for her age), discovering the confidence to embrace who she is during her stint as a munchkin in a summer production of The Wizard of Oz.

How is it structured?

SHORT is written in first person, narrated by Julia Marks, a middle school student who is short for her age. The narrative is pretty straightforward, beginning at the start of summer as Julia and her younger brother Randy audition for and prepare for a local university production of The Wizard of Oz, and ending at the close of the production near the end of summer.

The narrative wanders quite often, as Julia veers off topic rather easily. One situation will lead her to go off on multiple tangent thoughts causing her to ramble on and on. Julia is also still mourning the loss of her pet dog (who died prior to the opening of this novel), and many situations cause her to reminisce about him.

SHORT clocks in at just around 300 pages.

What did I like?

Julia is an endearing protagonist. Her voice is somewhat emotionless, but witty at the same time. There are a lot of clever one-liners in this book. She plays dumb in many situations but understands more about people and relationships than she gives herself credit for. For the most part, she read like a realistic twelve-year old to me.

I also really enjoyed the quirky supporting characters. There is subtle depth to each one of them, from Julia's brother, to her parents, to the adults she meets and interacts with during the production. Julia learns a lot from paying attention to the adult mentors in her life, like Shawn Barr, the director; Olive, the dwarf actress; and Mrs. Chang, her elderly neighbor turned costume designer.

I also thought the setting was great. The behind-the-scenes theater preparation was very descriptive and authentic. This is probably a testament to Goldberg's experience in theater and film. There is no detail left out as the group rehearses for the production and readers learn a lot about the management and hard work that is involved in putting on a play/musical.

What did I dislike?

While I found plenty of witty humor in Julia's rambling narrative, at times, I great annoyed with her. Sometimes she would go off on tangents for no reason other than to go off on a tangent. Didn't always feel genuine.

She's also a bit of a loner. She's rather up front about alienating herself from her peers in the production and hogging all the spotlight she can. She talks about a few friends and reminds herself to reach out to them throughout the summer but she never does. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, in an attempt to show us how isolated she is from her peers. The adults in the production fell in love with her and I'm sure adult readers would find her endearing, but I often wondered if kid readers would like her or be interested in her. Many of the students in my class would probably not have the patience for the many tangents in her narrative. I got the strong feeling while reading that she was written with adults in mind.

Another thing that slightly bothered me, was the revelation that she was not that short. In fact, Julia does not really even spend that much time in her narrative worrying about being short. She picks Olive as a mentor and is fascinated by the confidence she exudes as a dwarf, but for the most part Julia being short seems like a minor detail instead of being significant to the overall theme of the story. The lessons Julia learns tend to be more about being less selfish than being content with her height.

Final verdict?

SHORT is a sometimes humorous, often times thoughtful book about growing up. It's more character-driven than plot-driven and Julia Marks is an interesting, reflective character. If Julia was a student in my class, I think I would love her. I'm just not sure if the other students in my class would.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Scar Island

I recently became caught up on SLJ's Battle of the Kids Books and really liked Mexican-American author-illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh's clear and straightforward critique of FREEDOM IN CONGO SQUARE and FREEDOM OVER ME. I thought this format would help me get through my own thoughts on SCAR ISLAND, Dan Gemeinhart's latest...

What is it about?

SCAR ISLAND is about a group of juvenile delinquents attending a reformatory school on an Alcatraz-like island.

How is it structured?

SCAR ISLAND checks in at a relatively slim 249 pages. The story unfolds over 30 quickly paced chapters and the third person narrative focuses on Jonathan Grisby and his arrival and assimilation at Slabhenge Reformatory School for Troubled Boys. Interlaced occasionally between the chapters are letters Jonathan is forced to write home to his parents.

The story begins in a creepy way, as Jonathan arrives at Slabhenge by boat during the onset of a big storm. He is introduced to the villainous Admiral and his cast of grotesque adult minions and it is clear that Jonathan's extended stay at Slabhenge is going to be anything but pleasant. The plot quickly twists however, when a freak accident leaves all the adults on the island dead and the boys left on their own. There is some psychological intrigue as the boys wrestle with their longing to return home, and their desire for independence and freedom after being treated so horribly.

There are a few mysteries that string readers along, such as what is lurking behind The Hatch, a mysterious, century-old metal hatch buried deep in the tunnels beneath Slabhenge, and the reader is left in the dark about what Jonathan did to find himself in Slabhenge (although there is plenty of foreshadowing along the way).

What did I like?

The opening chapters of SCAR ISLAND are fantastic. Gemeinhart does a great job of pulling the reader into this very grim, atmospheric setting. He writes "a dark and stormy night" really, really well! It feels a little bit dated (we are never given a time period, the characters speak with thick, almost archaic accents, the Admiral carries a sword, and Slabhenge feels like a centuries-old castle) and I liked this obscure feeling.

Once we get to Slabhenge, Jonathan's arrival is filled with tension. The Admiral is so creepy that you naturally start fearing for Jonathan's well-being. He had the makings of a great villain. Likewise, Jonathan's first night in his cell is wrought with suspense.

I also liked the confusion among the boys once they were left alone on the island. Some boys wanted to stick around after being mistreated and experience some freedom and have some fun. However, others just wanted to go home. This confusion felt genuine and I was intrigued by the moral dilemma they found themselves in. There's a line where Sebastian and Jonathan are talking and Sebastian says, "You want to stay so you can be nothing. I want to stay so I can be something." I thought this was a great line and summed up their motivations.

What did I dislike?

Unfortunately, the wheels of the story come off when the adults die. In fact, I almost found myself wishing they hadn't and that Gemeinhart had a different story to tell. Sebastian's rise to power among the boys happened so quickly and I found myself highly doubting that any single boy in that situation, surrounded by so many like-minded boys, would be able to wield so much power so quickly. It did not feel genuine to me, the way the other boys just went along with everything Sebastian commanded. Especially when he starts to punish other boys publicly.

Likewise, I did not find myself connecting to Jonathan. This is the problem when you shroud so much of your protagonist's life in mystery. Readers will want to keep reading for the sake of getting to the bottom of the mystery, but there's not a lot of the character to grab onto. By the time we find out the truth about Jonathan, I found myself not caring much about him. Furthermore, we really don't find out much about any of the boys' pasts. We get tidbits from time to time but without any real glimpses into their past, it makes redemption impossible because we don't even know what they are redeeming themselves from! Being mistreated at Slabhenge for one chapter? I needed more...

Overall, I did not think the story was very exciting or suspenseful. At least, not as much as it was disguising itself to be. The boys acted so stupid, blindly following Sebastian as the hurricane approached, that I didn't really care if they made it out or not. I thought the Librarian character was just plain weird and given way too much page-time and I was disappointed when the mystery surrounding The Hatch turns out to be not much of a mystery after all. I had a difficult time picturing the facility. I also wanted more closure in the end than we are given.

Final verdict?

SOME KIND OF COURAGE by Dan Gemeinhart is one of my favorites in recent memory so my hopes for this one were high. It had all the makings of a HOLES-type book, but fell short of that because the characters (outside of Colin), just weren't very likable. I'm sure some students will find this very enthralling (Gemeinhart is a very good writer), but it just didn't work for me.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

1928: Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon

It is generally difficult to explain to others my motivation for reading all the Newbery Medal winners. It is especially difficult to explain it to a 5th grader who is eyeballing you from across the room and can't for the life of him understand why anyone would spend time reading a 100 year old story about a pigeon, when they could be reading Rick Rjordan's latest adventure novel!

In GAY-NECK: THE STORY OF A PIGEON, a baby pigeon (Gay-Neck) is born on a rooftop in India to a young boy. Gay-Neck's mother and father teach him to fly but soon, both die and Gay-Neck is hurried off to the Himalayan Mountains with his master (author Dhan Gopal Mukerji as a boy) and Ghond, a hunter. In the mountains, Gay-Neck faces many of his fears and eventually trains as a carrier pigeon to be used by Ghond in World War I. Gay-Neck and Ghond are both sickened by the death and carnage they witness in the war and in nature and reflect on the meaning of it all.

Kids love animal stories, especially when the animals can talk and are placed in interesting situations. On the surface, GAY-NECK checks off those boxes! Maybe kids in the 1920's saw those characteristics in this title and appreciated it like the Newbery Medal committee apparently did. I can tell that author Dhan Gopal Mukerji has put more thought into his presentation for a child audience than let's say, Will James did with the previous year's winner SMOKY THE COWHORSE, but that's not saying much...

GAY-NECK: THE STORY OF A PIGEON felt like an old house with good bones, but in desperate need of a remodel and fixing up. There are components of the story that I can appreciate, but in the end, the age of the language and the clunky pacing of the plot bored me.

So what is there to appreciate in GAY-NECK? Dhan Gopal Mukerji treats his subjects (Gay-Neck the pigeon, and the Himalayan Mountains) with tenderness and care, again, similar to the way that Will James treated Smoky the horse. Mukerji is very descriptive in his detailing of Gay-Neck's travels and the natural beauty of the Himalayas. The fact that he gives Gay-Neck a voice in some chapters, allowing him to tell his own story, is also evident of this. I appreciated how this was done in a realistic way, instead of an anthropomorphic way. Gay-Neck doesn't "speak" to Ghond or Mukerji in the text, instead we get a peek inside Gay-Neck's head for certain parts of the story where Gay-Neck wanders off and the two humans aren't present.

I was semi-interested in the idea of carrier pigeons, too. I thought this was an intriguing topic for a children's novel. The idea of carrier pigeons helping in WWI is kind of fascinating because it seems somewhat archaic. A quick Wikipedia search however, provides you with tons of information that supports Mukerji's story. The scenes of Gay-Neck training for the war were somewhat humorous, in a Top Gun for pigeons kind of way. There was also some humor in "The Mating of Gay-Neck" chapter, in which Gay-Neck comes out of his wartime funk by getting romantic with another pigeon!

For the most part though, GAY-NECK was a bore. I had a very difficult time understanding what was happening. The long paragraphs and rambling narrative were mostly to blame for this (look for a paragraph break in the photo... you won't find one!). Furthermore, there were issues of consistency with Gay-Neck's voice that I don't think would have made it past Newbery discussions today. For instance, in one scene, Mukerji works hard to make Gay-Neck sound like a pigeon, unaware of what he is witnessing in the war. He refers to airplanes as "metal eagles" that "spit fireballs" yet later, he refers to them as "aeroplanes with sharpshooters." The naivety of Gay-Neck's animal voice did not always ring genuine.

Mukerji's heart is in the right place in GAY-NECK, whether I enjoyed the story or not. There are some relevant themes present throughout about the costs of war and the violence we inflict on each other. Above all, Mukerji wants readers to stop and reflect on the beauty of the world that is preset all around them in nature. I can certainly appreciate that.