Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Raymie Nightingale

Raymie Clarke’s father left town with a dental hygienist. Raymie is sure that if she wins Little Miss Central Florida Tire, her father will come home to her and her mother. In order to win Little Miss Central Florida Tire though, Raymie needs to learn how to twirl a baton and its at her baton twirling lessons where Raymie meets two other girls hoping to win Little Miss Central Florida Tire: whimsical Louisiana Elefante and saboteur Beverly Tapinski. Over the course of the summer, the three girls bond over the sadness in each of their lives.

In my opinion, the best way to talk about RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE is to pretend that Kate DiCamillo didn’t write it. That way, bias can be set aside. DiCamillo has a well-earned following. THE TIGER RISING and BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE are widely studied in elementary classrooms across the country. She has multiple Newbery Medals and Honors to her name. She’s a talented wordsmith and storyteller. But does that mean RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE is any good?

When you discover that you are not the ideal reader for a book, it seems a little unfair to continue reading it with a critical eye. DiCamillo’s fans will undoubtedly adore this book. I can’t say that I did. Maybe it’s because I keep trying to imagine Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly in my 5th grade classroom. I can’t imagine them fitting in socially with many other kids. This is why they are drawn to each other. They are equally quirky and desperate. Sure, the friendship they form is sweet, but it’s also clunky and convenient. Their lives are filled with sadness and the resolution of the story brings no real closure to their glum situations. They call themselves the “Three Rancheros,” but I’m not sure if they actually like each other, or if they are just forced to because they have no one else.

This was probably DiCamillo’s point, and if the plot of this story would not have been so thin I could have forgiven the similarly drawn characters, but events transpire for the sake of the story and not in a genuine fashion. I found myself caring for the characters only because they were drawn so sad and not because of their development or depth.

There is no question that DiCamillo is one of the best, but this sad little story of convenient friendship doesn't compare to her other accomplished work.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Wild Robot

I grew up in a small rural town in Iowa. Most of my friends and classmates were farm kids. Outdoor kids. I was not. I was content inside my house, building Legos, playing with action figures, and reading comics and watching movies. As I grew up, my love of the outdoors grew and instilling a love for the outdoors in my children through riding bikes, camping, snowshoeing, you name it, has become important to me. This is why I was drawn to THE WILD ROBOT. It felt as if it was written for me specifically. A blending of my childhood self with my adulthood self. My expectations were high.

When Rozzum Unit 7134 first boots up, she is packed tightly in a crate, washed ashore on a remote island. It doesn’t take her survival instincts, or programming, long to kick in as she notices broken crates and busted robot parts strewn about the beach. She is the lone robot survivor of a cargo ship accident and is stranded on an exotic island with no recollection of who or what she is or how she came to be. In order to survive so that she can function properly, Roz must learn how to be “wild” from the animal inhabitants of the island.  

I enjoyed THE WILD ROBOT, despite it not quite living up to my expectations. With 288 pages divided into 80 chapters (that’s roughly 3 pages per chapter), I was expecting a quick read. It was not a quick read however. I don’t know if it was the plot, or if the short chapters worked against the pacing, but the story dragged quite a bit. I enjoyed the descriptive opening chapters, as Roz was problem-solving her way around surviving the island, and I enjoyed the exciting closing chapters, as the Reco bots were closing in on capturing Roz. The middle of the story, where Roz mothers a small gosling, gave the story some heart, but this is where the pacing of the plot became drawn out and repetitive.

I have read reviews of THE WILD ROBOT that laud the deep questions Brown asks of his young readers. I had a difficult time pinpointing a coherent message though. The opening chapters stand out as Roz attempts and fails multiple times to understand her surroundings and I began to see this nature vs. machine theme take shape. But it doesn’t go anywhere. Instead, Roz discovers that her key to surviving the island is in befriending the animals that live there. The animals however, don’t behave like animals. They are very civilized and talk like goofy Disney characters. In order to survive, Roz wants to become “wild” like the animals but the animals she encounters are far from “wild.”

There are some tender moments where Roz learns to take care of a gosling and I could see a message coming through about acceptance and family, but then the final act of the book kicks into gear and violence ensues. The ending is rather unsettling and I’m not sure what Brown was going for. Is he saying it is ok to destroy someone (or something) in order to protect those we love? Pretty heavy for a children’s novel! The lack of a coherent message may result in a somewhat choppy story, but that may only bother adult readers. Kids may ask deep questions around each of these themes Brown touches on and maybe that was his point.

In the end, I did enjoy THE WILD ROBOT. I love Brown's sense of humor and I liked the black and white illustrations of Roz, looking out of place on the island. The sci-fi/adventure/survival blend is right up my alley and I can really see kids digging this book. Readers should check out Brown's blog where he details the process of creating this book and getting it published. Quite the inspiring labor of love.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


PAX is the type of book I would have stayed away from as a young reader. My 4th grade teacher read WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS to my class and it almost turned me away from reading. It ruined animal books for me. My family did not have any pets and looking back, I wonder if part of the reason was because we were a sensitive bunch, and hated the thought of losing them someday. Sensitive readers, like me, will have a difficult time with PAX.

Peter rescued Pax as a kit and the two have been inseparable ever since. That is, until Peter’s father heads off to war and makes Peter release Pax back into the wild before going to live with his grandfather. Shortly after arriving at his grandfather’s house, Peter finds a photograph of his father as a boy. In the photo, his father is with a pet dog Peter never knew he had. His grandfather tells him they were “inseparable.” Filled with anger and guilt for abandoning Pax when he knew it was wrong, Peter leaves his grandfather’s house in the middle of the night and starts out on a journey to get Pax back.

PAX is a difficult book to digest because it is filled with such visceral, raw, emotion-packed scenes. Pennypacker leaves nothing to the imagination. A pair of foxes are brutally and graphically slain, right in front of the reader’s eyes. Another animal loses an appendage in a terrible way and that same appendage reappears as the story nears its conclusion. Blood scatters the landscape and a creepy fear permeates many of Peter’s scenes with Vola, an isolationist that rescues Peter after he suffers a major (and also graphic) setback on his journey. If you struggled through Kathi Appelt’s THE UNDERNEATH, which is the most recent comparable I can think of, you will struggle with many of the images in PAX.

The chapters alternate from Pax’s point of view to Peter’s point of view. Pax’s chapters are filled with wonder and confusion, as he discovers things about the wild and as he learns more about the behavior of humans. Not all humans are like his boy Peter. As the bond between he and Bristle and Runt grows stronger, the happy reunion readers may hope for becomes less likely. Pennypacker’s writing is best in these scenes with Pax. Peter’s chapters are filled with anxiety and dread as he suffers setback after setback in his journey to find Pax. Vola is a fascinating character. If Pennypacker had any interest in centering a prequel around her, I believe it would find some interested readers.

If I had one small gripe with PAX it is that Pennypacker’s themes often seem a bit heavy handed and spelled out for the reader. War is bad. Humans ruin everything. What were the humans even fighting for? What was the war about? By keeping these issues vague, Pennypacker turns them into statements instead of plot points. The political statements Pennypacker seems to be making are very overt and sometimes they held me back from enjoying the story unfolding or investing in the characters.

Perhaps a more subtle theme in the story is the loss of the family unit:

"It hadn't happened for several years, but sometimes at the end of the day, his humans would sit together on his boy's nest. The father would lay a hard box, flat and thin and made of many layers of paper, across his lap. Paper, like Pax's own bedding, but not shredded, and with many marks. His humans would peel these layers, one by one, and study them. Pax remembered that his humans were most linked together on those evenings, and with their harmony he could let down his guard."

When Peter chooses to make right his mistake of leaving Pax in the woods, he's doing more than going against his father. He is going against what his father stands for. He is realizing that sometimes, the apple does fall far from the tree. He recognizes the mistake his father made when he was a boy and vows to not make the same mistake. Which makes PAX above all, despite the heart-breaking, gut-wrenching narrative, a story of hope. Hope for a more harmonious future.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Goodbye Stranger

I have been told that girls are easy to raise while they are young. Being the father of two little girls, that is comforting to hear. I have also heard that while girls are easy to raise in their elementary years, they are nothing but headaches in their junior high and high school years. A fellow, more experienced father once told me that as his daughter grew older, he found himself worrying about her safety and well being far more than he worried about his son's. That makes me feel stressed and anxious, and let's just say up front, that reading Rebecca Stead's GOODBYE STRANGER did nothing to quell my fears!

Bridge, Tab, and Em have been best friends for a long time, and they don't fight with each other, by rule. Bridge survived a horrific accident when she was eight years old and often questions why she was left on this world. Tab is stubborn and opinionated and is beginning to see through the stereotypes present in society and the mean games kids play with each other. Em is growing into her teenage frame rather nicely and is even beginning to receive attention for it, from boys and girls. And she kind of likes the attention! As their interests and situations change, these three girls struggle to maintain their friendship.

One of the biggest strengths of GOODBYE STRANGER is its supporting cast of characters. Characters that seem to be secondary at first, begin to play larger roles as the story progresses. No one is exactly who they seem to be either. Sherm is a boy that befriends Bridge. Their friendship and chemistry is strong but neither can tell if they want to be more than friends. Patrick is an older boy who begins flirting with Em through texts. One of his requests causes things to spiral out of control for everyone about halfway through the book. Jamie, Bridge's older brother, competes tirelessly with his frenemy Alex at ridiculous bets. Adrienne is the new barista at Bridge and Jamie's father's coffee shop. She takes an interest in Bridge. Celeste is Tab's older, wiser sister, who imparts wisdom on the girls. All of these characters play integral roles in the girls' developing and changing friendship.

And then there's the Valentine's Day girl... an unnamed character narrating chapters in the near future in second person ("You wake up. You head down the stairs. You put your headphones on.") From the moment this unnamed character is introduced, we are drawn in, wondering who this person is and how they are connected to the story. This character is skipping school in the near future because something bad has happened. As the novel steamrolls toward it's closing, bits and pieces of details are referenced in these chapters that have been mentioned in the novel elsewhere. How do they fit? How did things come to this? How do we know this person?

If GOODBYE STRANGER seems like a lot to keep track of, it is. Because it is Stead though, it is worth it! It can be a confusing read. The three main girls are different, yet so similar that it was hard to tell them apart in the early pages. There are so many other characters in the story and it can be difficult at times to remember what was said by which character, because they all do so much talking! Dialogue is another one of Stead's strengths though, and she understands kids.

GOODBYE STRANGER is a book that needs to be read by teenagers. There is a scene early in the novel where the students gather in a gymnasium and sign up for a theme club. The existential crossroads these students are at in their lives parallels this scene nicely. It is the primary theme of this novel. Friendships change. People change. We change. How do we navigate it all? How do we not lose sight of ourselves while everyone and everything around us is changing? Stead is one of the best working today and her style and approach to these themes should prove to be poignant with young readers.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Graphic Novels: Sunny Side Up and Roller Girl

Some year soon, a graphic novel is going to win the Newbery Medal. The day is coming. A graphic novel has received an Honor in each of the last two years (EL DEAFO and ROLLER GIRL) and this year a picture book took home the Medal (LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET). As children readers change and interests widen, and as more authors begin exploring this medium, I envision the quality of stories being told to only get better and better.

Two popular graphic novels from 2015 were SUNNY SIDE UP and ROLLER GIRL. Both are designed in bright, friendly packages and both include a selling quote from Raina Telgemeier. Despite these physical similarities the stories inside these covers are very different from each other.

SUNNY SIDE UP was written by Jennifer Holm who is no stranger to the graphic novel format (BABYMOUSE series) or the Newbery Medal (she has Honored three times with OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA, PENNY FROM HEAVEN, and TURTLE IN PARADISE). SUNNY SIDE UP is her first graphic novel that is not a part of her BABYMOUSE series.

In SUNNY SIDE UP, Sunshine Lewin heads to Florida for the summer to stay with her single grandfather in his over-55 retirement community. She has dreams of Disney World and playing in the pool but instead, gets trips to the grocery store and early-bird buffet dinners at Morrison's Cafeteria. She meets a boy named Buzz who introduces her to comic books and his company begins to help her take her mind off of the real reason she is in Florida with her grandfather.

SUNNY SIDE UP is a quiet story. It has the feel of an Alexander Payne film. It is a quick read. I read the entire graphic novel in about an hour. Not a lot happens and Sunshine doesn't say much, but often times her expressions do the talking, as do the flashbacks to time spent with her troubled older brother Dale. There is humor in the book, in a fish-out-of-water kind of way, but most of this humor resides in the shadow of the much heavier plotline of Sunshine's older brother's issues. Sunshine loves him but feels partly responsible for what is currently happening to him (which is a mystery to readers at first, but unfolds through the flashbacks). Kudos to Holm for addressing this subject matter and not watering it down. This will probably find a niche among younger sibling readers.

ROLLER GIRL by first time author and former roller girl Victoria Jamieson, is an entirely different story. It's similarly serious but a much bigger story. In ROLLER GIRL, Astrid and Nicole have been best friends forever but during the summer before middle school, their interests change. Astrid impulsively attends a roller derby camp and falls in love with the sport while Nicole heads to dance camp. Astrid struggles with losing Nicole as a friend, making new friends, and riding out the (literal) ups and downs of learning the sport of roller derby.

ROLLER GIRL is as much about friendship and growing up as it is about the sport of roller derby itself. Jamieson does an awesome job of using the book to introduce the sport to readers without devoting pages and pages to rules and terminology. We learn the ropes as Astrid learns the ropes. Her struggle with the sport is a great parallel to her struggle with losing Nicole and making a new friend. Astrid is an imperfect, yet endearing character and you can't help but root for her as she discovers herself. ROLLER GIRL is the type of book that could be loved by grade 5-8 girls for a very long time.

While I would never want to separate the text from the illustrations, hypothetically ROLLER GIRL is the type of story that could survive and be just as endearing without the graphic novel format. I'm not sure the same can be said for SUNNY SIDE UP. Holm doesn't provide us with an inner monologue the way Jamieson does with Astrid. SUNNY SIDE UP is told primarily through parse character dialogue and pictures. This isn't a bad thing at all, just a different thing. Astrid's thinking is present on every page of ROLLER GIRL which gives the text an extra depth. While the illustrations are great, they just add to an already distinguished coming-of-age story. I enjoyed SUNNY SIDE UP thoroughly because I enjoy everything Holm does! ROLLER GIRL however, caught me by surprise and completely lived up to its Newbery Honor hype.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

1926: Shen of the Sea

In 1926 for a second year in a row, the Newbery Committee recognized a collection of folktales as the most distinguished work in children's literature. Just as Charles Finger brought TALES FROM SILVER LANDS out of Latin America in 1925, Arthur Bowie Chrisman brought SHEN OF THE SEA out of China in 1926.

Arthur Bowie Chrisman developed a love of Chinese lore and culture while living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1920’s. He befriended a few older Chinese men who told him stories. SHEN OF THE SEA is his collection of some of these stories, as well as a few of his own original tales snuck in for good measure. Many Chinese historians have not found any of Chrisman’s humorous tales to be grounded in any real Chinese folklore, so it’s difficult to tell which of the tales were told to Chrisman and which of the tales are from his own imagination.

SHEN OF THE SEA contains 16 short stories, told as Chinese folk tales. Six of the stories could be categorized as tales of invention, where characters haphazardly stumble upon the invention of random items. For example, in the story “Chop-Sticks,” Ching Chung and Cheng Chang were good friends. Ching Chung was charismatic while Cheng Chang was a fantastic cook. Ching Chung loved Cheng Chang’s roasted duck and promised him one day, if he was ever fortunate enough to be king, that he would make Cheng Chang a wealthy man. As luck would have it, Ching Chung was in fact named king but decided that Cheng Chang’s roasted duck was so good that he deserved to be king instead. Cheng Chang’s nasty wife begins abusing her power as First Lady by promoting her brothers to undeserved positions. When Cheng Chang denies her requests at dinner, her and her brothers toss silverware at him. Fearing for his life, Cheng Chang outlaws knives and forks and replaces them with two thin sticks, thus chopsticks are born.

Other stories detail the invention of the printing press, gunpowder, a kite, tea, and fine China, all in similar fashion. Most of the other stories in the book are humorous tales of irony where characters use their clever wit to escape from situations or simply learn lessons. For example, in the story “Many Wives,” an Emperor was tired of his kingdom always being threatened by attacks so he asked a wise old soothsayer what he should do. The soothsayer replied, “marriage.” So the Emperor set out to find a wife. He called for any potential wife to come live in the palace and he would choose the most suitable bride. Many women came to the palace, including Radiant Blossom, the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. Since the Emperor could not tell the women apart, he hired an artist to paint portraits of them. Ying Ning, the ugliest woman in the palace, bribed the artist to portray her as beautiful and Radiant Blossom as ugly, so the Emperor chose Ying Ning as his wife and assigned Radiant Blossom to be married to his enemy. As Radiant Blossom was being transported, she disappeared never to be heard from again. The Emperor learned the truth of what had happened and assigned men to search the kingdom for her, but she was never found.

I seem to be in the minority among Newbery Completionists, because I didn’t mind SHEN OF THE SEA, whereas others continually rank it near the bottom of Medal winners. The stories were humorous and entertaining and were for the most part, easy to read. Unlike TALES FROM SILVER LANDS, these stories actually resemble folk tales, and each story progresses with a moral discovery or lesson learned. I even think children today would find humor in these tales, if read aloud by a proper storyteller.

In researching a bit about Chrisman, I feel that history has been unnecessarily harsh on him and his work. He was open about where he heard some of these stories from and he was honest about adding some of his own original stories to the collection. He never claimed to have traveled to China. He just loved Chinese stories and this collection was an homage to the stories he had been told while living in San Francisco. In regards to what it set out to do, I think SHEN OF THE SEA accomplishes its goal rather well. And while some of the character names and themes in the book could poke fun at the Chinese culture, it’s obvious that it is a culture that Chrisman was genuinely passionate about.  

Thursday, January 7, 2016

1925: Tales From Silver Lands

TALES FROM SILVER LANDS is a collection of folktales from author Charles J. Finger. This 1925 Newbery Medal winner, the fourth ever book to win the gold, is comprised of nineteen short stories that the author picked up while traveling throughout Central and South America. After a few long snoozers and an old-fashioned pirate epic, nineteen short stories was a welcomed sight for my attention span. Besides, who doesn’t love folktales?

The first tale, titled “A Tale of Three Tails,” tells the story of how the tails of the rat, the deer, and the rabbit came to be. Typical folktale kind of fare. Instead, the story has something to do with an evil spirit and its pet owl who tricks a father into beheading his two sons for failing to complete work that the evil spirit had assigned to him. By the end of the tale, I figured out how the rat, the deer, and the rabbit got their tails, but wasn’t sure what the moral or lesson was. Isn't that the point of a folktale?

The rest of the tales featured in the book, were similarly bizarre. Most featured strange, fantastical creatures, magic spirits, talking animals, wise old men smoking tobacco, etc, etc. There seemed to be a theme of good versus evil present in most of the stories (“But evil, though it may touch the good, cannot for ever bind it.”), but often times the evil that transpired was so unusual and dark, that it was difficult to find any good left in the end. 

Take the third tale, “The Calabash Man,” for example: A young married couple travels to the bride’s land to rid it of an evil spirit that is possessing her father. The father forces the son-in-law to complete a lot of impossible tasks and upon completing the final task, the father screams and runs off into the forest never to be seen or heard from again, taking the evil with him. The couple meanwhile, lives happily ever after. Huh?

In “The Tale of the Lazy People,” Christians are warned that monkeys in tree tops will toss nuts and branches at their heads while walking through the forest. This is in revenge of being mistreated earlier in the tale. Or tricked. Or something. I don't remember. So are Christians the lazy people or the monkeys? Who is good and who is evil? The good versus evil theme doesn’t seem to carry evenly throughout the tales.

Another fault I found with many of the folktales was the lazy ways in which some of the stories were resolved. Instead of the characters learning from their mistakes and figuring out their own problems, something unexpected often happened, resolving the story for the characters. Too much deus ex machina. This was present in the seventh story, “El Enano.” “El Enano” is a story about an old woman whose home is taken over by a mischievous impish creature, hell bent on eating her out of house and home and wreaking havoc upon all her neighbors. The creature gives the people its reasoning and just when you think the people of the old woman’s village are going to find a way out of their predicament, a silver fox strides into town and saves the day in some ridiculous fashion. What is the takeaway here?

I keep trying to picture school librarians in the 1920's, sitting around and discussing this book. It's not Charles Finger's fault that none of the tales make a lick of sense. He's just passing along stories he heard while traveling through Latin America. But what are the school librarians excuses? The only way I can imagine them selecting this was due to an extremely weak crop of children's literature available. The publishers of the Scholastic Apple Paperback version I got my hands on didn't even want to be associated with it. Look at the image chosen for their cover:

Click on that image and view it a little larger. Check out the look on the kids' faces! The camp counselor with the preppy polo on the cover doesn't even look like he's enjoying telling these stories to these four unlucky souls!

It took me longer to finish this book than any of the other three. Here's to hoping SHEN OF THE SEA has more to offer.