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)

Monday, January 2, 2017

2017 Newbery Predictions

The ALA awards will be handed out at the end of this month and the most popular among them, the Newbery and Caldecott Medals. I love making predictions!

To inform my predictions, I've studied the last seven years worth of Goodreads Mock Newbery lists, dating back to 2010. The Mock Newbery lists on Goodreads really informs my reading list each year because many of the contributors to the list are some of the most intelligent, voracious children's literature readers out there.

There was really no other reason to choose Goodreads to dive into, then because it's where I go often to get titles. To see what others are reading and suggesting. There is no correlation between the Goodreads lists and the actually Newbery committee within a given year. Every committee is different.

Having said that, I have noticed a few consistencies between the lists and the corresponding year's actual winners (Medal and Honors). For instance...

  • The top vote getter in a Goodreads mock list, has NEVER won the Newbery Medal. Ever.
  • In fact, in just two years (of the last seven), in 2016 and 2015, has the top vote getter in Goodreads even Honored (ECHO and BROWN GIRL DREAMING).  
  • This is misleading because of popular books like CATCHING FIRE and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, but never has the top rated book in the list won a Newbery Medal or Honor.
  • 2012 was the only year I studied where at least 2 Top 10 books from Goodreads wasn't a winner or Honor book. In 3 of the 7 years, at least 3 Top 10 books were recognized.
  • 6 times, a book just outside the Top 10 on Goodreads (11-16) has been recognized. 
  • Last year's LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET was ranked 66 on Goodreads Mock Newbery poll. As a picture book, I was impressed it was even on the list. Arguably, that wasn't the biggest upset. BREAKING STALIN'S NOSE in 2012 was 90th on the Goodreads list! And it received an Honor!
  • 29 books have been awarded in the last 7 years. 12 of them have come from the Top 5 of their year. 17 of 29 have come from the Top 10. 22 of 29 have come from the Top 15. 24 of 29 have come from the Top 20. Only 4 times out of 29 books, have outliers been rewarded. 
  • The numbers 2, 3, 5, and 11 are magic. That is, the books that are ranked those numbers on the Goodreads mock lists have medaled or honored three times! This year, that would be WOLF HOLLOW, RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE, GHOST, and SOME KIND OF COURAGE (Yay!)

If it looks like I'm stretching to find some correlation here, it's because I am! At least, it feels like I am. Some years, like 2015, were spot on. Three books (THE CROSSOVER, BROWN GIRL DREAMING, and EL DEAFO) were all in or near the top 5 in their Goodreads mock. 2014 saw the 3rd, 5th, and 6th ranked books recognized. 2010, in which WHEN YOU REACH ME was NOT the top vote getter in the Goodreads poll (CATCHING FIRE was), rewarded the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 11th Goodreads books. 

So I think it's pretty safe that 2-3 books sitting in the current Top 10 of the 2017 Mock Newbery list right now, will probably receive some Newbery recognition and if recent history has anything to say about it, my odds aren't on PAX (sadly, because I still love it). The current Top 10 on Goodreads are:
  1. PAX
  2. WOLF HOLLOW
  3. RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE
  4. THE WILD ROBOT 
  5. GHOST
  6. THE NINE LIVES OF JACOB TIBBS
  7. HOUR OF THE BEES
  8. BOOKED
  9. WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES
  10. THE INQUISITOR'S TALE

I think it's pretty safe to assume that 3-5 books will be recognized. I'm going to go in the middle and pick one winner and 3 runner-ups. Of those 4 books, I think 3 of them will come from the current Top 10 on Goodreads and one wild card will come from outside the Top 10.

Here we go. My predictions. Not my favorites. Not the books I would necessarily choose, but the books I'm predicting will win. Drumroll.

Honor Book #1

WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES
By: Julie Fogliano

Currently sitting at #9 in Goodreads.

My reason for picking: Consensus building is often the key. I think this book will easily build consensus.

Honor Book #2:

PAX
By: Sara Pennypacker

Currently sitting at #1 in Goodreads.

My reason for picking: Beautiful writing.

Two years in a row, the #1 voted for book in Goodreads has received an Honor. Before that, zilch. I think PAX keeps up the trend but sadly, I find it being too divisive around the Newbery discussion table to win. The writing is too good to ignore though.

Honor Book #3:

AS BRAVE AS YOU
By: Jason Reynolds

Currently sitting at #36 in Goodreads.

My reason for picking: Surprise! There's always some surprise in the picks. Sometimes it's in the winner. Sometimes it's in the Honors. Jason Reynolds has had a big year with TWO novels getting lots of buzz. GHOST seems to be getting most of the attention but I think AS BRAVE AS YOU will hold up better when being discussed.

And the Newbery Medal will go to...

RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE
By: Kate DiCamillo

Currently sitting at #3 in Goodreads.

My reason for picking: DiCamillo. Everyone loves DiCamillo. I wasn't the biggest fan of the novel, but her writing is as good as it's ever been and lots of others seem to love this. I think it could build consensus. This could be her third Medal, making history!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Moo

Disclaimer: I liked this book before I even read a word of it.

Why? Because I love Sharon Creech. She's like Jerry Spinelli for me. I will never dislike a Spinelli novel or a Sharon Creech novel. I can't explain it so I might as well lead with it. For Spinelli, it's a thing of nostalgia. I loved his novels as a kid. For Creech, it's something different. I didn't discover Creech until I was a school teacher and I got so much joy out of studying her novels WALK TWO MOONS and LOVE THAT DOG in my 5th grade classroom that both are still permanent staples of my curriculum. Former students often return to visit and many reminisce about WALK TWO MOONS. Creech is an author with a distinct voice, like Spinelli, like DiCamillo. You know when you are reading a Creech book by the feel of it.

In MOO, 12-year-old Reena and her seven-year old brother Luke have moved with their parents to Maine. Leaving their busy life in New York City behind for a quieter setting requires some adjusting but it doesn't take long for Reena and Luke's interest to be piqued in Beat and Zep, two odd but friendly, teenage farmhands. Beat and Zep soon come in handy, because Reena and Luke's parents volunteer them to help their elderly neighbor Mrs. Falala with her farm chores, which includes looking after a stubborn cow, Zora.

MOO is written in the same freeform, verse-style of poetry as LOVE THAT DOG and HATE THAT CAT. Fans of those two novels will surely love this book too. Instead of Sky, the yellow dog, or a stray black cat, we have Zora, an Oreo-cookie Belted Galloway cow. The text isn't as much straight forward verse like those two books. There is more of a mix of prose and verse. Creech plays around with the arrangement of her words and their font styles and sizes, making the most out of the space available on each page.

Reena's relationship with her younger brother Luke is sweet. These are two easy going, good-natured kids who embrace the change their family is experiencing and they dig in with both hands (literally) to help the transition go smoothly. They appreciate each other and they look out for one another as they soak in their new surroundings together. It was refreshing to read a relationship like this, instead of one of sibling rivalry like you can find in so many other children's novels today. Reena and Luke are siblings, but friends above all else, and you get the sense that they would be able to adjust to, and make the most out of any change their parents thrust upon them.

I connected with the humor in Reena and Luke learning how the farm functions. I grew up in a rural community, but not on a farm. Farm life was more foreign to me than it should have been given that most of my friends and classmates lived on farms. The humor in the novel eventually subsides and routine is established. Reena's own determination to break through to Zora, the stubborn cow, eventually gives way to genuine love for the animal and this is mirrored in Luke and Mrs. Falala's relationship as he teachers her how to sketch the animals on her farm.

A little more depth could have been added to this story by exploring Mrs. Falala's background. There are a number of unanswered questions at the close of the story. The reader is able to infer much about her past but concrete answers are not given. Despite this, MOO was a comfortable, enjoyable read. I'd really say the same about any Creech novel though.

On a side note...



Here is another example of my bias reading this book. No, that is not Reena. That is in fact, Mrs. H, my wife! Interestingly enough, she is 11-years old in this photo, close to Reena's age in the novel. That trophy in her hand was her prize after showing her cow at our County Fair. I remember sitting in the stands with my younger sister (not in this particular year but in later years), watching her, knowing nothing about what she was doing but being in awe regardless. I don't remember her ever having to struggle through a showing like Reena does with Zora, but it was hard work nonetheless, and lots of hours were devoted to preparation.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Wolf Hollow

There is no shortage of books about bullying out there today. Publishers know this is a relevant topic across the country and it seems that multiple strong works of fiction are released each and every year on the issue. Often times, an author will approach the subject by creating empathy for a character who is being bullied. Usually, the bully learns some acceptance along the way. Sometimes even, an author will attempt to create empathy for the bully, by showing where their behavior stems from.  

WOLF HOLLOW is definitely a book about bullying, but it is different than your typical bullying book in a number of ways. For one, the bully in this book is evil to her core. There is no sympathy to be had for Betty. Zero. She is pure evil. Also, the victim in this book doesn’t ever put up with the bullying. She doesn’t learn how to stand up for herself.  Annabelle is fighting back from the first moment we’re introduced to her. The lessons Annabelle learns in this story are not just about bullying. And finally, another way this book is different from other bullying books out there, is that it is set in rural Pennsylvania, in 1943. Many bully books are set in modern day, so they can speak to today’s students.

A synopsis: 11-year-old Annabelle’s life is pretty normal in rural Pennsylvania. She works hard to help out on her family farm and watches over her two younger brothers on their trek to school each day. Her life is simple. Until Betty moves to town. Betty is immediately cruel to Annabelle, bullying her out of sight of adults on their way to and from school. Betty’s threats (and later, her actions) prove her to be dangerous and Annabelle begins fearing for her safety. Until she discovers that she has a bodyguard. Toby, a misunderstood, reclusive World War I vet and family friend, is watching from the shadows, protecting Annabelle. However, Annabelle's world is rocked when Betty suddenly goes missing and Toby is suspected of foul play.

You would be hard pressed to find a better written book this year than WOLF HOLLOW. From the structure of the story, to the foreshadowing throughout, down to the individual sentence, Wolk's writing is beautifully descriptive. My first reaction upon finishing it however, was that it was a book written for adults that featured a child narrator. I wasn't shocked when I read up on author Lauren Wolk and learned that she began the story as a novel for adults but changed her mind about its audience later on. I loved the book. I was enthralled by the story. But I couldn't help but wonder if kids would get it. Since then, a 5th grade boy in my class read it as part of a book club at our local public library. He loved it. I saw a 6th grade girl walking down our hallway the other day holding a copy of WOLF HOLLOW in her hands. I called to her, "Isn't that book awesome?!? Isn't Betty just pure evil?!?" The girl's face lit up and she talked a blue streak about the book for 10 minutes! This first hand experience tells me that I needn't be concerned about WOLF HOLLOW's kid appeal!

What had me worried was Wolk's voice. Annabelle is a mature 11-year-old girl. She is responsible and wise beyond her years. There is an edge of maturity in not just her dialogue with other characters but in the way she narrates scenes and shares her thinking. Wolk really trusts her child readers to connect to Annabelle and in the end, I suppose this is easy because like most kids, Annabelle is not perfect. She makes decisions that she probably shouldn't. She reacts from her gut and from her heart and gets herself into trouble. She lies. She hides truths. But she also has compassion. Despite all of Betty's viciousness toward her, Annabelle is compelled to help her in the end. I found myself looking out for Annabelle in a fatherly way as the book reached its climax and resolution. I wanted nothing more than for her life to return to some normalcy.

Another thing that worried me about a child audience was the violence. WOLF HOLLOW isn't necessarily a violent book, but there are times it reminded me of a Martin Scorsese movie. A chapter would be going along, I would get the feeling that Betty would do something bad, and then BAM! Out of the blue, something very, very violent would occur and make me cringe. The violence comes and goes but it is the result of these violent moments that is sad and stays with you. Even for a character as mature as Annabelle, there is a loss of innocence in a few of these violent moments that is heartbreaking. Lives are changed forever because of this evil, evil girl. I wasn't sure if kids could handle this, but in talking with a few, I think they can. I think they need to.

Betty ranks right up there with Hannibal Lecter, Hans Gruber, the Joker, and Lord Voldemort. She is that sadistically bad to the bone. But to say that she gets what is coming to her would still be insensitive of me. The ending of this story is dark and sad. Sorry for the spoiler. There is no happy ending here. Not really. Life will go on for these characters, but not without some deep, deep scars.

I can't say enough about WOLF HOLLOW. The plot is nerve-wracking, the setting is vividly described, and the characters are all richly drawn, even the supporting characters like Annabelle's aunt Lily and Betty's boyfriend Andy. The layered story pulls you in and the beauty of Wolk's writing leaves you in awe.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Booked

Sports books for kids are a tough sell. Typically, the ideal audience for a sports book is a boy who likes sports and in my experience, boys who like sports are often reluctant readers. In other words, the ideal audience for children’s sports books, are boys who would rather be out playing sports than reading about kids playing sports! The sports genre bookshelf in my classroom is widely untouched as boys who enjoy reading tend to choose fantasy books and nonfiction books. Dan Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventure books are read, while Mike Lupica is not. When Kwame Alexander’s THE CROSSOVER won the Newbery Medal a few years ago, I tried selling kids on it and found that it had some appeal. The verse style of narrative makes for a quick read and boys who read it felt they were reading something sporty and distinguished at the same time. It lifted them up as readers. Can the same be said for Kwame Alexander’s follow-up, BOOKED?

Nick is 12 years old and loves soccer. Nick’s father is a wordsmith, college professor and Nick’s mother does not work but was once a promising race horse trainer. Nick and his best friend Coby are friendly soccer rivals and are excited about playing for the prestigious Dallas Cup, albeit against each other. Nick has a serious crush on April, who he attends ballroom dancing lessons with (on the behest of his mother), but the bullish twins Dean and Don keep getting in between the couple. Amidst all of this, Nick’s attempt to keep his sanity when his parents announce they are separating, is challenged greatly.

The problem with marketing BOOKED as a sports book or a soccer book, is that it is not really about sports or soccer. I would describe BOOKED as a middle grade coming-of-age story about a boy who happens to like soccer. The book has a lot going on, arguably too much. It’s deeper than most sports books tend to be and it includes very little actual soccer playing. The soccer scenes are few, fast, and fleeting. I think Nick would love to devote more time to playing soccer or thinking about soccer, but he has so much else going on in his life with his parents impending separation, his anxiety around April, his competitiveness with Coby, and putting up with the bullying behavior of the twins Dean and Don. Soccer is tossed in for good measure but it’s one of many things going on in this book.

So BOOKED is not really a sports book. That’s fine. I don’t want to complain about what the book isn’t. It has a lot to say about friendship and family. I like Nick’s relationship with Coby. Their friendship feels genuine to me as does their competitive rivalry. They seem like realistic kids. I also appreciated Nick’s shy nature toward April. In fact, this brought back middle school memories!

Verse novels are hard to read when the voice does not feel authentic, but this is not the case with BOOKED. Nick seems like the kind of kid that I could imagine thinking thoughts in verse. Because of his father’s linguistic background, Nick is a wordsmith himself, as his teachers discover. There’s depth to him. Depth that pours out in the slam poetry style narrative. It seems that Kwame Alexander has found his niche with this style of writing.

My praise ends there though. My main problem with BOOKED is that the story underneath the brilliant verse poetry, is rather boring. Nick is not all that compelling of a character and his supporting cast is rather thinly drawn. Kids with separated parents may be able to relate to some of the inner thinking Nick works through but all of the other problems Nick faces are very normal, boring middle school problems. He likes April but doesn’t know how to act confident around her. The twins pick on him but they are obviously just jerks. Nick isn’t mistreated by anyone else. Everything about Nick and his story is pretty ho-hum. Kwame Alexander attempts to raise the stakes at different times throughout the story but these attempts seem unnatural.

Kwame Alexander's voice is so different than anything else that is out there for kids right now. The man has talent. While I wasn't personally compelled by BOOKED, I admire and appreciate the style. I'm intrigued to read THE CROSSOVER now and see if the hype for BOOKED was well-deserved!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Heavy Medal Shortlist

This morning, Heavy Medal released their Mock Newbery shortlist. The list is:

  1. FULL OF BEANS by Jenni Holm
  2. GHOST by Jason Reynolds
  3. JUANA & LUCAS by Juana Medina
  4. PAX by Sara Pennypacker
  5. SAMURAI RISING by Pamela Turner
  6. SOME WRITER: THE STORY OF E.B. WHITE by Melissa Sweet
  7. WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES by Julie Fogliano
  8. WHEN THE SEA TURNED TO SILVER by Grace Lin
  9. WOLF HOLLOW by Lauren Wolk
I have read four of these titles (FULL OF BEANS, PAX, WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES, and WOLF HOLLOW). PAX remains my personal favorite but WOLF HOLLOW contains the best writing. I am still blown away by the poetry in WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES and find myself cheering that title on.

These Mock Newbery groups are great because you can really get a sense for how difficult it is to build consensus around a title. For that reason, I am betting that PAX falls. Its early hype has simmered and the discussion around it on Heavy Medal was surprisingly divisive. The initial conversation around SAMURAI RISING proved to illicit divisive feelings as well. Age appropriateness seemed to be an issue with WOLF HOLLOW

GHOST seems to be gaining hype among kidlit types online and everyone seems to love WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES. As a Jenni Holm fan, I'm excited for the conversation to begin on FULL OF BEANS because my initial instinct was that it was okay. Grace Lin always seems to have a fan base and I've read some positive thoughts about Melissa Sweet's E.B. White book. I haven't heard much about JUANA & LUCAS.

I would have loved to see Adam Gidwitz's THE INQUISITOR'S TALE or Kelly Barnhill's THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON make the list, but Jonathan noted that their long length makes it a challenge to include them on a list of this nature. 

For now, my money is on GHOST or WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES.