Thursday, February 16, 2017

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook

In late 2016, while many children's literature junkies were cramming for Mock Newbery discussions, I kept seeing this title pop up. I didn't see this book generating much discussion online, but it was a title that kept appearing places nonetheless. It received 22 votes on the Goodreads Mock Newbery list and currently sits at #14 on that list. Suffice it to say, ALL RISE FOR THE HONORABLE PERRY T. COOK by Leslie Connor seemed to fly under the radar in 2016 and that, more than anything, is what drew me to the title. That, and the fact that any book whose jacket cover boasts praise from the one and only Gary D. Schmidt (one of my favorites) is a book that deserves my attention!

Eleven-year-old Perry Cook lives an unusual life. Perry was born and raised inside of a minimum security correctional facility in Surprise, Nebraska. Perry is thoughtful and polite and his presence inside the facility has made a positive impact on its residents. To Perry, Blue River Correctional Facility is home. Life is turned upside down for Perry though when a well-meaning district attorney discovers his living situation while preparing for Perry's mom's upcoming parole hearing. Jessica Cook is nearing the end of serving out her sentence for manslaughter. Forced to live outside of Blue River now, Perry must get to the bottom of what his mom is hiding in her story and confession and figure out a way to derail the district attorney's plans of stalling her parole and extending her sentence.

I loved this book! The concept is highly original and the characters were all awesome. Perry's voice is perfect in a polite, socially awkward kind of way. He brings this positive energy and hopeful perspective to every situation and relationship he is in and it rings true to the sheltered kind of life in which he has been raised. Perry finds friendship in Zoey Samuels who is great as well. She stands up for Perry and helps him in many different ways and their friendship feels authentic. Jessica Cook is given her own point-of-view chapters scattered throughout, letting readers know there is more to her story. She is a beacon of light in Blue River and has impacted the lives of every resident in the facility.

My favorite character however, is the story's "villain," Thomas VanLeer. The district attorney seeking to extend Jessica's sentence turns out to be none other than (SPOILER ALERT)... Zoey Samuel's step-father! VanLeer is well-intentioned in his attempt at giving Perry a better life outside of Blue River (Perry moves in with Zoey's family while his mother's parole is delayed) but terribly naive. VanLeer is such a compelling character in so many ways. He's part Do-Gooder. He's part bumbling idiot. He's part public crusader. He's part self-serving. He really does want to help Perry, but is blind to the fact that Perry doesn't need his help. Perry needs his mother. If it weren't for VanLeer's prying, Jessica would be out. Inside Zoey's house, VanLeer is outnumbered as even Robyn, Zoey's mom and Thomas's new wife, sympathizes with Perry. Which begs the question... Given the number of arguments they have over the course of the book, what is Robyn even doing with Thomas?

VanLeer's presence provides the story with some interesting moral ambiguity for young readers to chew on. During Jessica's parole hearing, VanLeer actually raises some decent points worthy of discussion. Should a child be allowed to be raised in a correctional facility? If so, until what age? Who would be responsible if something happened to him? This is an interesting hypothetical that I think kids would have fun debating. I can see some kids seething mad at VanLeer's actions and I can see some kids cheering him on.

As far as the correctional facility goes, there is quite a bit of suspension of disbelief required. I don't have a lot of experience inside facilities like Blue River, but the place seemed way more PG-rated than I would realistically imagine. I know this is a minimum security correctional facility and this is a children's novel so expecting a scene out of OZ or THE NIGHT OF is probably a bit impractical, and I could see the argument that Perry's presence inside the facility has warmed the place, but still, a PG-13 type of setting would've made this a little more believable. I kept wondering if everyone inside Blue River was so happy? Everyone the reader is introduced to is always smiling and high-fiving and hugging Perry. Maybe a glimpse, even a brief glimpse, at the underbelly of the facility, would have made this setting a little more workable.

The theme of redemption is powerful and uplifting though and this coupled with characters I cared about made up for the cheery correctional facility setting. I am also drawn to mystery stories and while this novel is not a straightforward mystery, I found myself flipping pages faster and faster so I could get to the bottom of Perry's mother's case. Her story was compelling as were the stories of other residents of Blue River.

This was a story I wish I would have read earlier in 2016. I could have seen myself getting behind this on Heavy Medal, if anything, for the sake of discussion. The things this novel does well, like establishing a theme and delineating characters, it does better than many other novels I read in 2016. The areas it falls short, would have been interesting to discuss and weigh. Either way, I highly recommend ALL RISE FOR THE HONORABLE PERRY T. COOK.

Monday, February 6, 2017

1927: Smoky the Cowhorse

Poor, poor children of the 1920's, if SMOKY THE COWHORSE was the best children's literature had to offer. I started reading SMOKY THE COWHORSE nearly one year ago. I read one-third of it and couldn't bear it. It has sat on my desk at school ever since, bookmark holding strong. Recently, I felt compelled to get back to my Newbery reading so I mustered up all the focus and determination I could and pushed through...

It is difficult to summarize such a wandering epic story. Smoky was born wild, in western United States, He and his mammy are herded by a human and branded, but released. Smoky grows big and strong only to be kicked out of his own family when a black stud comes along and takes the herd for his own. Smoky roams the countryside with a lone buckskin and a strong pardnership forms. This is the first act of the book, and it does not unfold as quickly as I just made it sound.

Act II begins with Smoky being rounded up by the cowboy Clint, who immediately takes a liking to Smoky because of his wild, stubborn spirit. Clint is determined to break Smoky and over five years time, his hard work pays off. Smoky is loyal to Clint, and Clint alone, and earns a reputation as one of the best cowhorses around.

One winter though, while Clint is away during a wild snow storm, Smoky and his group get herded away by the horse thief. Thus begins a turbulent Act III. Smoky doesn't take to the horse thief too well. Smoky is beaten repeatedly for being stubborn and one afternoon, enough is enough and Smoky pounces on the thief and kills him. Smoky is found wandering the wild, taken in by a rodeo as a man-hating, bucking bronco nicknamed The Cougar and becomes famous. After years of headlining the sport, Smoky loses his spirit once again and finds himself as a downtrodden riding horse nicknamed Cloudy. In the end, after years apart, he winds up with cowboy Clint again and this raises his spirit.

Whew!

SMOKY THE COWHORSE was written by a real cowboy, Will James, so one can excuse the poor cowboy grammar throughout. It actually adds to the authenticity of the story. I heard Sam Elliott in my head, narrating. It's obvious that James loves his subject and his passion comes through in his careful detailing of every one of Smoky's behaviors and mannerisms. I read that Smoky was based on one of James's own horses and that makes sense to me after reading. He handles Smoky with a lot of care.

This did not read to me as a book for kids. There is not one single child character in the entire book! The violence in Smoky's journey is heartbreaking and definitely fits in among other sad-animal books for children. It read to me as a love letter from an adult cowboy to a horse he loved dearly. And apparently, according to Will James himself, was never published as a book for kids. This is interesting and raises questions about the crop of children's literature in 1927 considering the committee didn't choose any Honor books either.

I have mixed feelings about this book. Personally, I didn't like it. It took me a long time to finish. It isn't a genre I am interested in or enjoy and Smoky's roller coaster of a journey was a bit too much for me. On the other hand, I can appreciate Will James's authentic cowboy voice and the compassion he writes Smoky with. Smoky and Clint's relationship was nice, in a rough cowboy way and I am glad they found each other in the end.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

More 100 Word Reviews

A few more short, economical reviews, SAMURAI RISING being my personal favorite read of the three...

SAMURAI RISING
By Pamela S. Turner

SAMURAI RISING by Pamela Turner, tells the story of Morimoto Yoshitsune, one of Japan's most notorious and ruthless samurai warriors. Turner recounts Yoshitsune's early days as an orphan to his rise as a bold and reckless general in the Morimoto army. The story is taut with thrilling action and layered with 12th-century political intrigue. Readers beware: Few nonfiction books for children are as violent as SAMURAI RISING. Page after page, arms and heads are slashed from bodies. Some of the more famous deaths are treated honorably but most are somewhat dehumanizing. A thrilling and fascinating piece of historic literature nonetheless.

MAKOONS
By Louise Erdrich

MAKOONS is the fifth book in Louise Erdrich's Birchbark House series about a nineteenth century Ojibwe family living on the Great Plains. MAKOONS is considered a sequel to CHICKADEE, centering on twin boys Makoons and Chickadee. Intricate descriptions of the family's day-to-day routines, like their cleaning and utilization of the hunted buffalo, added to the authenticity of this text. I appreciated the amount of humor in the book (Gichi Noodin). I don't know many middle age readers who would get much out of this on their own, but a fun and thought-provoking look at Native American life in the 1800's.

THE KEY TO EXTRAORDINARY
By Natalie Lloyd

In THE KEY TO EXTRAORDINARY by Natalie Lloyd, Emma Pearl Casey is on a mission to discover her destiny. Every female ancestor in Emma's family has had their destiny revealed to them in a Destiny Dream, and when Emma's dream finally happens, her destiny is shrouded in mystery. Fans of A SNICKER OF MAGIC will feel right at home in Blackbird Hollow. Supporting characters and subplots are rich with quirky details and depth. Natalie Lloyd's whimsical writing draws comparisons to Ingrid Law's SAVVY. Unlike Law's books, Lloyds stories are stand alone and highly accessible, EXTRAORDINARY coming in at 227 pages.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

2017 Reading Goals

In my fifth grade class, I encourage my students to set goals for themselves as readers. These goals can focus on types or genres of books read, or quantity or amount of books read, or even reading skills and strategies. We check in on our goals frequently and adjust as needed or just simply, reflect. 

I model this by setting my own goals as a reader. I share these goals with my students and reflect on them frequently. For 2017, I have established the following goals:

1. Read 50 books.
2. Read 25 new books (published in 2017).
3. Read 5 nonfiction books.
4. Read 5 former Newbery Medal winners.

I have a mix of quantity and genre and have left some room in my total goal for other interests. I am currently reading 3 books that were published in 2016 and will count them in my goal for 2017 but they don't really fit in goals 2, 3, or 4. A current interest of mine is nonfiction but I don't know if it's a faze yet and a secret ambition of mine has always been to read every Newbery Medal winner so I'd like goal 4 to realistically be more than 5 by the end of the year. I'm sure when Fall comes around and the Newbery Medal is on everyone's mind, new books will dominate my reading so I hope to have some fun this summer stepping outside my comfort zone.

Next up... I close the door on 2016 and share my favorite 10 books from the past year.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Newbery Congratulations

For a number of years in a row now, I have watched the ALA Youth Media Awards live online. In the last few years, when that final screen has been displayed with the cover of the committee's choice for the Newbery Medal, a feeling of "meh" usually comes over me. It's either been the cover of a book I had never even heard of (MOON OVER MANIFEST), or the cover of a book I had read and didn't think much of (THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN), or the cover of a book that I almost read but didn't quite get to (THE CROSSOVER), or the cover of a book that made me scratch my head because a book of its type rarely, if ever, wins the Newbery (LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET). This morning, finally finally finally, a cover flashed across the screen that I had not only read, but loved and fully supported...

THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON by Kelly Barnhill.

First, I was shocked. I was stunned. This book is straight up epic, magical fantasy, with a swamp (bog) monster and a mini dragon and witches and babies left for dead in a dark and mysterious forest. Fantasy is a genre that does not typically fair well in the Newbery but a genre that is a favorite of mine. Second, I was ecstatic because I had actually read it and loved it! Recently, where the Newbery Medal was concerned, this had not always been the case. And finally, I was elated. For Kelly Barnhill, who seems like a genuinely great person and is from Minnesota (my neighbor to the North). 

In fact, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I had read, and could fully endorse all of the books the Newbery Committee awarded. Along with Barnhill's novel, the committee gave Honors to FREEDOM OVER ME by Ashley Bryan, THE INQUISITOR'S TALE by Adam Gidwitz, and WOLF HOLLOW by Lauren Wolk. All three are fantastic!

What a morning!

A few other personal highlights from this morning were all the great Sibert picks (as I've recently taken an interest in nonfiction books for children), THEY ALL SAW A CAT by Brendan Wenzel winning a Caldecott Honor, and WE ARE GROWING winning the Geisel Award (one of my daughter Charly's current favorite read aloud titles)!

But back to the showstopper... I have read two of Barnhill's other titles, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK and THE WITCH'S BOY. She's been an author I've kept my eye on and been interested in. While reading THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, I couldn't help but smile at random times throughout because I just had this feeling that I was reading something special. A work by an author who was coming into her own. A work by an author who had found her voice and knew she was creating something magical and rare. THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON was different from Barnhill's previous novels. It truly felt like this was the story she was meant to write. It felt as if all of her previous work was her playing around and tinkering with ideas, leading to the moment she would create her masterpiece. 

A little dramatic of me, maybe. But THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON is a dramatic book! Congrats to Kelly Barnhill and all the other authors receiving accolades this morning. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Ghost

It's been Jason Reynolds' year. I'm not sure there is a more popular name right now in children's literature. Reynolds came onto the scene a few years ago with a few killer YA titles (WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST, THE BOY IN THE BLACK SUIT, ALL AMERICAN BOYS) and garnered a lot of attention winning numerous literary awards. This year he released two middle grade fiction titles, AS BRAVE AS YOU and GHOST, and you will find both of them on most "Best of 2016" lists. AS BRAVE AS YOU is drawing comparisons to Christopher Paul Curtis's work (WATSON'S GO TO BIRMINGHAM primarily) and Reynolds' voice in GHOST is certainly similar, if not more edgy, electric, and raw. GHOST is the first title in a series Reynolds has planned, about a cast of characters on a middle school track team.

Castle Cranshaw cannot quite seem to get out of his own way. Ever since he and his mom left his father three years ago, it has been altercation after altercation in school. But after stumbling upon a group of kids his age practicing track, and impressing their coach, he is offered a spot on the team. Can Castle make the most of this opportunity and stay altercation-free in and out of school? 

There was a lot about GHOST that I liked. I liked that Reynolds has chosen to shine a spotlight on track. So often writers of children's sports literature choose to write stories about baseball, basketball, or football, to appeal to a wide range of kids. It was refreshing to see this sport featured in such a popular book. It should definitely fill a particular niche on library and classroom shelves.

I also enjoyed Castle's relationships with the various adults in the story. Castle loves his mother and understands her so well. He's realistically sympathetic to the hard work she puts into managing their life. He wants to protect her from his bad choices at school but is too impulsive to stop making bad choices. I liked his relationship with Mr. Charles, a grocery store owner too. Mr. Charles provided Castle and his mother with a place to hide from his father three years prior and Castle's obsession with sunflower seeds brings him back to Mr. Charles each day. But it's not really the sunflower seeds he's after. It's Mr. Charles's grandfatherly wisdom and friendship. Castle's relationship with Coach is the most powerful one in the story. For the first time in his life, someone besides his mother has taken an interest in making Castle's life meaningful. This resonates with Castle and he strives to impress Coach at every turn. 

Finally, I liked that Reynolds kept his story under 200 pages. That seems to be a rarity anymore in children's literature. Heck, Reynolds' other middle grade novel this year, AS BRAVE AS YOU is a whopper, coming in at 432 pages (hardcover edition). The plotting of GHOST is tightly structured and Castle narrates at a quick pace. Like the track topic, this was refreshing.

There are some things that frustrated me, however. Castle became a character I had a difficult time rooting for. There are moments where Castle is too smug and arrogant for his own good. I believe this was intentional on Reynolds' part, to show his insecurities, but I held back my empathy for him because of the voice. I also was a bit frustrated that things work out perfectly for Castle by the end of the story, given the mistakes he's made. I don't like the message this sends child readers. There is a moment near the story's climax where I applauded Coach's tough love. But a few flips of the page and it was all for nothing. All is forgiven, and even paid for! 

I was also bothered that Coach doesn't outfit Castle with the proper track gear after recruiting him. Having coached before, this seemed highly unlikely to me. After a few practices of Castle wearing jeans and worn out tennis shoes, it felt contrived (especially given Castle's horrendous decision later on) that Coach not offer Castle some proper practice gear. A man like Coach should be able to scrounge up a few t-shirts, or pairs of shorts, or old shoes. 

While Reynolds' talent is undeniable, personally, for me, GHOST didn't quite live up to the hype it has generated. It's still a good book and it should appeal to kids though. It's short and readable. It has a hopeful plot. Castle sounds like a real, contemporary kid and his first person narrative is definitely something fresh. And it's about track, a sport they don't read about every day. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

100 Word Reviews

In an effort to be less wordy (windy), I challenged myself to write about a few books I had recently read in 100 words or less. It took a little bit of effort and tinkering, but I was able to contain each to exactly 100 words!

Each of these three novels were fantastic, by the way!

MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY
By: John David Anderson

MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY follows 3 boys, Topher, Steve, and Brand as they skip school on a mission to find their sick teacher and make her day as memorable as possible. Their teacher Ms. Bixby, is "one of the good ones" and has cancer. She is meaningful to each of the boys in ways that are revealed throughout the story. The first person point of view alternates between the boys each chapter and each is given their own distinctly genuine voice. The chapters tend to read long, but the boys' narratives are engaging. An epic story of friendship and loss. (100 words)

UNBOUND
By: Ann E. Burg

UNBOUND is a powerful novel told in verse poetry. Because of her lighter skin and blue eyes, Grace is chosen to work in "The Big House" for her Master, leaving behind her slave family who work in the fields. Grace's tongue gets the best of her and the Missus puts forth a plan to split up Grace's family, selling them at auction. Grace and her family run for freedom in the Great Dismal Swamp. Grace's voice is beautiful while feeling raw and authentic. The unknown future of some supporting characters are my only selfish frustration. A sad, but uplifting story. (100 words)

GERTIE'S LEAP TO GREATNESS
By: Kate Beasley

GERTIE'S LEAP TO GREATNESS follows 5th grader Gertie Foy, who is on a mission to prove her importance to the mother who walked out on her father and her. She is determined to become the best 5th grader in her class but new girl Mary Sue Spivey keeps getting in her way, ruining her mission. Debut author Kate Beasley does a great job of taking a pretty tried and true coming-of-age story and injecting it with some wit and spunk. The unique third person narrative reads as if being told by a slightly more mature Junie B. Jones. (100 words)