Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Looking Back

Looking back at 2011, I feel like I've accomplished a lot of reading. My goal was to read 10 books published this year, in hopes of taking part in some good online discussions come Newbery time. Well, that time is upon us, Heavy Medal's shortlist has been released for a month, and I exceeded my goal of 10 books, and finished 19! And I currently have bookmarks in 3 others (WONDERSTRUCK, THE PENDERWICKS AT POINT MOUETTE, and ICEFALL). Here are the 19, what I call, "eligible" for Newbery discussion, titles I have finished (in the order in which I finished them):

- SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS
- THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA
- LUCKY CAP
- THE INCORRIGIBLE CHILDREN OF ASHTON PLACE: THE HIDDEN GALLERY
- AMELIA LOST
- CHIME
- JUNONIA
- INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN
- HIDDEN
- OKAY FOR NOW
- A MONSTER CALLS
- THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK
- LUNCH BOX DREAM
- SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE
- THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS
- TOYS COME HOME
- NO PASSENGERS BEYOND THIS POINT
- PIE
- HEART AND SOUL

The reason I list all 19, is so any potential follower can place my current top five reads of the year (which I am about to reveal) in context. I surely have not read everything out there. Not even close. But I am proud of the fact that I've read more current children's literature this year than in any other.

Along with the three I mentioned above that I am currently, I hope to finish at least a few of the many others in my to-read pile by the morning of January 23, which is when the ALA awards will be announced (namely BREADCRUMBS, BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX, ONE DAY AND ONE AMAZING MORNING ON ORANGE STREET, WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE, YOUNG FREDLE, THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING, and LIESL AND PO). With a potential 30 books under my belt, I may feel the need to revisit by top 5 at that time.

Anyways, without further ado, here are my current top 5 reads of 2011:

5. HIDDEN by Helen Frost - This is the best verse novel I read all year! (BTW, I only read two.)

4. THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS by Doreen Cronin - I will be welcoming future J.J. Tully installments with open arms and secret handshakes.

3. THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA by Jennifer Holm - Ms. Holm is one of my favorite working authors. I think we're going to have to start calling her the Newbery Bridesmaid! Which leads me to . . .

2. PIE by Sarah Weeks - I'm going to write my undoubtedly long review (ramblings, nonesense) about Sarah Weeks' clever little powerhouse in a few days. As it stands, PIE is my sleeper.

1. OKAY FOR NOW by Gary D. Schmidt - I feel the same way today as I did when I finished it this summer. I don't care that people are picking this book apart left and right. When Schmidt's book is at its best, it's better than anything that's come out in recent memory. Sure it comes with its fair share of lows, but I can't think of anything that can top its highs.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Heavy Medal Shortlist

Last week, Jonathan and Nina at Heavy Medal finalized their shortlist. Of their ten titles, I have currently read six, with my hands on the other four. My initial thoughts and reactions are listed below, as well as a few "snubs" I would've loved to see people discuss and argue over. I've ranked them as well . . .

1. OKAY FOR NOW: Read it and loved it. Hands down favorite. Nothing even compares.

2. THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA: Read it and loved it. I am a little biased because for some reason or other, I love Jenni Holm. Any other year, I'd champion hard for this book to win the gold. But my heart just can't rank it above OKAY FOR NOW. I just can't.

3. AMELIA LOST: Read it and liked it. I don't read a ton of nonfiction but Flemming did such an incredible job crafting this story, that it doesn't read like your traditional nonfiction book. I like how she balances the factual information she uncovered about Amelia with exciting stories of the rescue attempt when her plane went missing. It creates for an exciting read, even though we all know the outcome.

4. A MONSTER CALLS: Read it and liked it. Patrick Ness's book is brilliant, without a doubt. My only question is whether or not it's style is appropriate for children. My gut reaction is, it isn't. I definitely could not recommend this book to all children. Plus, there's an interesting debate about whether or not, due to publishing dates, this book is even eligible.

5. I BROKE MY TRUNK: Read it and loved it. However . . . I'm not sure I can be convinced that the text of this title alone is "distinguished" enough for Newbery consideration. If the Newbery Medal criteria would eliminate the gray area surrounding a book's illustration, and let entire packages of work be considered and discussed, then I'd be sold on this one. But as the criteria is laid out, I'm not seeing it.

6. SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE: Read it and liked it. Not sure if I can be sold that this particular brand of slapstick humor is Newbery worthy though. If the goal was to get an early chapter book on the table to see what kind of discussion it generates, I personally feel that THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS or TOYS COME HOME would've made better choices.

*7. WONDERSTRUCK: Not read yet, but I own it! I'm a little nervous because I feel as if I was the only person in the world who didn't love HUGO CABRET. The medium Selznick has invented is remarkable, I just didn't really care for the Hugo "story". The illustrations, the format, sure. The story, not so much. However, I've heard that WONDERSTRUCK is even better than HUGO CABRET, so my hopes are up.

*8. THE MONEY WE'LL SAVE: A picture book. Not read. Currently have it in my possession though.

*9. PENDERWICKS AT POINT MOUETTE: Not read. School library has it. Have not read any of the other Penderwick books. Actually started the first one a few years ago, and abandoned it.

*10. HEART AND SOUL: Another nonfiction book. Not read. Currently have it in my possession though.

There are only three books I would've liked to see on the shortlist that didn't make it. PIE by Sarah Weeks, HIDDEN by Helen Frost, and ICEFALL by Matthew Kirby. HIDDEN was a much more meaningful, and powerful verse novel than INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN. PIE was great, and I'll post my feelings on it soon. ICEFALL, I admit, I haven't quite finished yet, but I love it enough already to wish it it's day on the Newbery table.

It's exciting for once, to know that I will have read all the books on their shortlist. I look forward to the discussion each will generate.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Early Chapter Books

Over at Heavy Medal a week or so ago, a discussion of age-appropriateness raged on in regards to the Newbery Medal and I found myself reflecting on the children's books I choose to read. I've decided I need to branch out from time to time and try something for kids outside of my comfort zone. With school, wife, and child, I don't get to read near as much as I'd like so I still want to choose books carefully, but I've decided this can still be done even while branching out a bit within my own reading universe.

Earlier this summer I tackled CHIME, a beautifully written novel by Franny Billingsley. Since I fear it is far too old for Newbery consideration (not everyone agrees) I decided to try a few books on the other end of the spectrum, early chapter books, since it is also a genre I have very little expertise in.

First up, THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE by Gerald Morris . . . Morris has an entire early chapter book series on King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table and some of their more legendary stories. THE ADVENTURES OF SIR LANCELOT THE GREAT and THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GIVRET THE SHORT came first, back in 2009.

With this latest installment, Morris tells the tale of King Arthur's nephew, and one of his most celebrated knights, Sir Gawain. In his retelling for a younger audience, Morris writes with a current, witty humor all the while underscoring the importance King Arthur placed on courteousness and respect. Gawain goes from "the Undefeated" to "Once Defeated" to "True" in these pages. Transforming from somewhat arrogant, to humble.

I see boys in 3rd and 4th grade eating this up. It's slapstick comedy done very well for this age range. The book is so absurdly funny at times, ("Well really now! What would a dragon want with a damsel?"), that it's incredible how Morris has been able to preserve the original tales and do them justice at the same time.

Only once does his retelling veer off course for me. At one point, when learning an important lesson about keeping one's promises, Morris sidebars with: "Things are different nowadays. Nations are not founded on keeping promises so much as on bleak and gloomy things called economies, which expect people to do whatever suits them rather than what they've said they would do." It felt so out of the blue and ill-fitting compared to the rest of the pitch perfect sidebars, that it caused me to roll my eyes. But all in all, it's a minor complaint. THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE is mighty good.

Next up, I read THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS by Doreen Cronin. Cronin's probably most famous for her picture books DUCK FOR PRESIDENT; GIGGLE, GIGGLE, QUACK; and of course CLICK, CLACK, MOO: COWS THAT TYPE (a Caldecott Honor book). In THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS, Cronin introduces readers to J.J. Tully, a retired search and rescue dog, that narrates with a noir-like, hard boiled detective style.

I loved this book. I loved this book so much, I don't even know what to say about it, other than to quote some samples so you can get a taste yourself. Cronin's deadpan humor shines through from the opening paragraphs: "It was a hot, sunny day when I met that crazy chicken. So hot that sometimes I think the whole thing may have been a mirage. But mirages don't have chicken breath, mister."

What better way to get young readers familiar with the mystery genre than to put this little gem of a book in their hands. J.J. is cranky and rude, but loveable at the same time. When he first meets his "clients", he shrugs them off:

"Her name was Millicent. I called her Moosh, just because it was easier to say and it seemed to annoy her. She had two little puffy chicks with her. She called them Little Boo and Peep. I called them Dirt and Sugar, for no particular reason."

"They were half yellow, half white - like fuzzy popcorn kernels with feet. They were new enough to this world to be spitting up eggshell."

When the book's villain is revealed to be none other than a particular thorn in J.J.'s side, he grows to sympathize with the chicks and get to the bottom of their dilemma. But he doesn't lose the snarky attitude.

"There's an easy way to do a search and a hard way. The easy way is early in the evening with a cool breeze and a steady partner. The hard way is high noon with a crazy chicken clucking in your ear and two feather balls riding your tail. This search was going to go the hard way."

I could devote an entire post to this book (although I'd probably end up quoting way too much of it, thus ruining its surprise), but want to end with commending the subtle depth that Cronin provides J.J.'s narrative. I loved the following passage: "I got down as low as I could. The earth will hold on to your smelly secrets for a long, long time. And it will give them up to any dog who comes sniffing. Problem is, it gives up all its secrets at once. You have to be able to sniff through them to find the one you need. Bare feet. Barbecue sauce. Blueberries. It didn't take long to pick up what I thought was a chicken trail."

I'm sure 3rd and 4th graders will love J.J. Tully as much as I did and welcome future installments of this series.

Finally, I picked up another early chapter book with multiple starred reviews, TOYS COME HOME by Emily Jenkins. The full title reads: TOYS COME HOME: BEING THE EARLY EXPERIENCES OF AN INTELLIGENT STINGRAY, A BRAVE BUFFALO, AND A BRAND-NEW SOMEONE CALLED PLASTIC. Such a mouthful for early readers!

With a lovely "classic" feel, Jenkins tells the story of a toy stingray's awakening and how she makes her way through a world of people and new toy friends. I didn't realize that this book was actually the third of a series, serving as a prequel for the previous two.

Adorable comes to mind, when trying to think of a word to sum up this book. I love the depiction of StingRay's "awakening" in the beginning as she soaks in her new surroundings. I love her naive confusion as Bobby Dot instructs her on the routines in place within The Girl's room. I love her reaction to new feelings that pop up inside her, feelings she doesn't always have a name for. And I especially love the way StingRay struggles with, but ends up putting aside her jealousy near the end of the book, and welcomes Lumphy into her world ("You can puke on me.").

TOYS COME HOME, of the three early chapter books I read, may have the best chance of standing the test of time. I don't see many young girls getting as big a kick out of SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE as the boys will, and not all child readers will be able to appreciate the noir-like style with which THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS is written in. But with TOYS COME HOME, the themes of family, friendship, and jealousy will forever ring true for children of this age range and they couldn't be presented in a more clever, kid-friendly package.

Final Grades:

SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE: B+

THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS: A

TOYS COME HOME: A

Maybe I need to read more early chapter books!

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Monster Calls

I can only think of two ideal readers for A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness. A middle grade student with a terminally ill parent, and an adult reader, marveling at the brilliance of Ness's beautiful prose and storytelling ability. Other than that, while powerful and moving, I cannot say A MONSTER CALLS is a book for everyone.

At 12:07 am, Conor is visited by a monster. However this is not the monster Conor has been expecting. This monster has come to help Conor face a truth he has been avoiding. Conor and the monster strike up a deal. The monster will tell Conor three stories and then Conor in turn, will tell the monster the truth. If only it were that easy.

I would hate for a student to pick this book up expecting a frightful ghost story, something along the lines of Alvin Schwartz's SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. The creepy cover image and the incredible illustrations that wrap themselves around the text throughout the story may give that impression. Such a reader would be sorely disappointed.

What we get from Ness (inspired by an idea from the late Siobhan Dowd) is much more scary than ghosts and ghouls though. We are forced to witness a child learning how to let go of his mother when her cancer treatments begin to fail her. It's difficult to describe how well Patrick Ness has balanced his beautiful prose (reminiscent of Gaiman's THE GRAVEYARD BOOK) with some truly violent, raw, heart-wrenching scenes. But he does so in a way that is unlike anything else I've read in a children's book before.

I'm just not sure many children will get this, let alone like it. I think some could relate to Conor's smug tone, but I'm not sure many others would actually like Conor enough to care about him. Plus, the book is incredibly dark and dreary, with not a lot helping ease the feeling. One 'product description' I read somewhere used the word "funny" to describe this novel. I don't see it. Nothing about this book is funny or lighthearted. It's devastating actually.

But it is good. It's very good. One could learn a thing or two from Ness, in how to craft a story. It's an eerie character study of how one's impending grief can consume them like a monster. Of how the various stages of grief, some ugly, some mean, some fond and loving, can take control of us as those we love leave this world.

Final Grade: A-

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Mostly True Story of Jack

"Is this Heaven. No, it's Iowa."

The above quote is not from the novel THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK. It's from the movie The Field of Dreams. It's a quote Iowans know very well. For 29 years I've called Iowa home. I love my state. There's so much more to Iowa than pigs and cornfields and I am thankful for our understated way of life. However, it is always a little exciting when Iowa gets some play. I can probably count on my own two hands, the number of movies or books I've seen or read that feature Iowa as a prominent setting. Thanks to the rave reviews online and intriguing plot description, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK is a book I probably would have read anyway, but in discovering that it takes place in the fictional town of Hazelwood, Iowa, a bias was formed before I even opened to the first page! I just hoped author Kelly Barnhill (who lives in Minnesota) would do us proud.

Iowa is anything but Heaven for Jack. He is not excited about moving from San Francisco, CA to Hazelwood, IA to live with his aunt and uncle, and who could blame him? But Jack has no choice. His parents are splitting up and he and his younger brother Baxter are forced to stay with relatives while the mess gets figured out. From the first moment he arrives in Hazelwood, he can feel the electricity in the air. Things seem familiar to Jack, yet he knows he's never been to Hazelwood. The people of Hazelwood know Jack. Some respect him, some fear him. All this attention is foreign to Jack, who is used to being treated as if he's invisible. Even his family has always treated him as if he was invisible. Something strange appears to be brewing in Hazelwood, IA and soon, Jack realizes he may be at the center of it all.

THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK is a surprisingly dark novel. It sneaks up on you. I couldn't help but feel sad as soon as I finished it, and not sad that it was over. Sad for the characters involved. The inside jacket flap of the book describes it as "a tale of magic, friendship, and sacrifice. It's about things broken and things put back together. Above all, it's about finding a place to fit in." The description could not be more on the mark. While reading, I couldn't possibly figure out how all these deeper themes were going to come to fruition, but they eventually did and not a single plot thread was left dangling (which is rather impressive given the amount of questions one will generate while reading this).

Jack has always felt invisible with his family in California. For as long as he can remember, no one has ever paid attention to him. It takes moving to Iowa for him to finally realize just how lonely he truly was in California. He doesn't know how to react to a bully in town because he's not used to the attention. And when a friendship is formed with a girl named Wendy, he suddenly understands what has been missing in his life. I liked the bond that was formed between the child characters, Jack, Wendy, her twin brother Frankie (who is physically scarred from a mysterious disappearance earlier in his life), and Anders. It seems as if these characters know that there is more in store for Jack, more that he has yet to realize, and so they grow protective of him.

Which makes the ending of this story so incredibly sad to me. Jack finally discovers where it is he belongs, and sacrifices plenty to return to that place, but I get the feeling it's not necessarily a decision Jack is happy about. I think he finally knows where he belongs, but he wants to belong somewhere else. He wants to belong with Wendy, and Frankie, and Anders. And Clive and Mabel. I don't get the feeling that Jack wants to be where he is in the end of the book. On top of it all, Wendy has lost a good friend and the outcome in general is very gloomy. I'm not sure what kind of children are going to stick this book out, trudge through the confusion, and be satisfied in the end.

Part of the problem may be that Barnhill (while showing incredible talent) is somewhat sloppy and inconsistent in her description of the magic at work in this story. For instance, these children are able to sneak around right under the nose of these magical beings, and go most of the novel undetected. That rang false to me because these same magical beings are incredibly powerful and all-knowing. How would they not be able to see, and know about, every single move made by the kids? If the magic here was more concrete, more believable (I know, it's still magic though!), if the reader was able to understand the magic better, maybe they would have at least understood Jack's decision in the end. As it is, I think most people will just feel bad for his character.

It's a challenging read. I literally spent 3/4 of the book in total and utter confusion. It wasn't because I was missing things. It was because Barnhill wants you to be confused. She waits to show her cards until near the end. There's enough leading up to keep interest, but all is not revealed until very late. This is incredibly risky when writing a children's book because a child's stamina is not quite what an adult reader's may be. Luckily, Barnhill hooked me on her writing and her mystery. I'm not sure younger readers would stay the course though.

All in all, I was fully engaged in THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK and would recommend it to anyone willing. It's a complicated, heavy story, definitely not for everyone. But it's mystery and style appealed to me personally.

Final Grade: B

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Okay for Now

In 2005, Gary D. Schmidt's LIZZY BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY received a Newbery Honor. Many children's literature enthusiasts at the time cried foul, feeling it deserved a Medal instead. In 2008, Schmidt's THE WEDNESDAY WARS also received a Newbery Honor. The outcry in this case, was even more intense. The novel had an enormous following. Suffice it to say, Schmidt's WEDNESDAY WARS companion novel, OKAY FOR NOW, had some major Newbery buzz long before it was even released.

In OKAY FOR NOW, 14 year-old Doug Swieteck has just moved to Marysville, NY so his belligerent father could take a job at a paper mill, after losing his original job in a fit of rage. Doug feels out of place in "stupid Marysville." Doug feels out of place in his own family. His father thinks of him as a "chump". His oldest "jerk" brother Lucas, is off getting "beat up by Vietcong" while his other (unnamed at first) "jerk" older brother regularly abuses him at home. He loves his mother but feels terrible for her. It isn't until Doug meets Lil Spicer, that he begins to feel more at home in Marysville. Lil is a spunky girl who gets Doug a job with her father delivering groceries. Lil and Doug strike up a friendship and she introduces Doug to the Marysville Public Library which in turn, introduces Doug to the work of John James Audubon. Through Audubon's drawings of birds, Doug begins to find the courage to make something more for himself. If only his father wouldn't make it so difficult for him.

Doug Swieteck is the type of narrator you pay attention to. He's blunt and in-your-face rude at times, but he's also endearing. Doug's voice is the most impressive thing about Schmidt's novel. He often puts the reader on the spot. "So what?" He challenges the reader to pay attention to what he says. Many times he'll even check and see if you're still paying attention. There's a few brilliant examples of this. At one point in the story, Doug is learning how to draw a Large-Billed Puffin's foot so that it appears underwater. Just when he begins to "get it" his brother bursts onto the scene, making fun of his drawing before destroying it. "Can't you even draw a foot right," he says to Doug. "It looks like it's underwater." The scene plays out for a while longer and ends with a smile plastered on Doug's face, even though he should be upset with his brother. "If you were paying attention back there," Doug tells the reader, "you'd know why."

At another point in the story Doug is being talked down to by his school principal, Principal Peattie. Principal Peattie says something so defeating to Doug, that Doug is too distraught to even repeat it in his narrative. Many references are made to what Principal Peattie said throughout the chapter but the reader is left hanging. Then many pages later, when Doug's brother Lucas returns from Vietnam and the family finds themselves in the midst of a terrible protest, Doug reveals to us what Principal Peattie said, and it's timing could not be more impeccable.

I would say that Schmidt's one fault with OKAY FOR NOW is that he does try and cram a lot into this novel. And most of it, primarily the second half of the book, feels a bit rushed. I'm not suggesting Schmidt should have added even more to his 360 page story. I just can't help but believe that some of this could've been trimmed back. A somewhat unbelievable sidestory of Doug and Lil being cast in a Broadway musical requires some suspension of disbelief as does many other instances near the book's dramatic conclusion.

But Schmidt makes this suspension of disbelief easy. I believed every word Doug said. I believed in the way each plot thread was closed up and all the character transformations rang true to me. Even Schmidt's "villains" were allowed page space to grow and show depth. Mrs. Merriam the librarian; Coach Reed the "so-called" gym teacher; Principal Peattie; Doug's brothers; and even Doug's father. I also love the way that Doug compares many of these characters (as well as his feelings) to Audubon's bird drawings. Whereas THE WEDNESDAY WARS featured Shakespeare, OKAY FOR NOW introduces readers to Audubon, and the inclusion is terrific.

It's been a long time since I've read a book this engaging. In my opinion, it firmly lives up to the hype.

Final Grade: A

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Inside Out and Back Again v. Hidden: Two Novels in Verse

In any other given year, INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN by Thanhha Lai would be the sort of novel that the Newbery committee would drool over. Written in verse, with beautiful poetic language, it tells the story of 10-year-old Ha and her family as they leave their war-torn home of Vietnam to settle in the United States. Ha's father has been missing in action for 9 years and the transition to American culture is not easy. This kind of character drama is the stuff the Newbery committee loves. But this year, this particular free verse novel, has some pretty stiff competition.

HIDDEN by Helen Frost, is another free verse novel told from the point of view of two different girls, Wren Abbott and Darra Monson. When Wren was eight years old, a man stole her mother's car from a gas station and drove off. Unbeknownst to the man, Wren was in the backseat. Wren's next two days are spent trapped in the man's garage, hiding in his boat, eavesdropping on their family, and finding brief companionship in the family's cat Archie. Darra, the man's daughter, after seeing a news report of the missing girl, guesses that Wren must be hiding in their garage somewhere. Without telling her mother or father, she attempts to help by leaving food out for Wren. She even devises a plan to get her out unseen, but never gets to see it through. Wren is able to escape without the two girls ever actually meeting face to face. Six years later though, the two girls attend the same summer camp and those harrowing days Wren spent trapped in the Monson's garage come haunting back.

It's probably not fair to compare the two novels. They are each their own separate entities. However after reading both, Lai's attempt at free verse in INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN seems rather meager compared to Frost's intricate and brilliantly designed plot. With INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, I feel that there is no real reason to tell the story in verse. The language is beautiful and poetic, but I feel that if Lai would not have been somewhat confined to the artistic style she chose, there may have actually been more of a story here. What we have are feelings and events pieced together in a rather sparse, and sometimes sporadic manner. I'm sure the intent was to have these small, quiet moments in Ha's narrative stand out loud and clear when they weren't surrounded by much context. But instead, I found it to be quite the opposite. I just didn't think there was much to this piece and I can't find much to say about it. Plus, it's kind of boring.

In HIDDEN however, the free verse serves an important purpose. Both Wren and Darra share the role of narrator and each do it in their own brand of free verse poetry. This gives them two very distinct voices. Wren's narrative is similar to that of Lai's style from INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, a more traditional form of free verse. It's beautiful on the page and reads effortlessly. At times, Wren's free verse narration is even incredibly suspenseful. Darra's narrative is of Frost's own creation. It's more a heavier style of narrative poetry, detailed and descriptive and even kind of a puzzle. When solved it gives the reader further insight into how Darra experienced the same event six years ago.

There are a few plot particulars of HIDDEN that did hold it back from being perfect though. Eight year old, pink and pigtailed, delicate little Wren behaves with such maturity and resourcefulness when surviving in the Monson garage that some suspension of disbelief is required on the reader's part. Later in the book, when Darra finds out that her father is being released from prison in a few months, Wren coincidentally receives an "urgent" phone call from her parents, interrupting her final few weeks of summer camp, informing her of the very same news. "We thought we should let you know," says her father. Why exactly couldn't it wait a couple of weeks, I ask? Probably, convenience of moving the plot along. But I'm willing to forgive Frost those minor blunders because the end result is so powerful.

I understand that the two books are aimed at two entirely different age sets. INSIDE OUT AND BACK again is geared toward the younger Newbery audience members while HIDDEN is definitely written for the upper end. I appreciate the fact that Lai's novel introduces younger readers to the free verse form, but just can't get over how far superior Frost's book is.

INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN Final Grade: C+

HIDDEN Final Grade: A-

Friday, September 9, 2011

Junonia

I was a little leery of this Kevin Henkes novel for a couple of reasons. First, I believe Henkes is at his best when he's writing picture books about talking mice, kittens, gardens, and rabbits. Second, the few times I have read a novel of his I've been disappointed. OLIVE'S OCEAN and BIRD LAKE MOON were both depressingly dark and dreary. If LILLY'S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE, KITTEN'S FIRST MOON, and other picture book and early readers are his Summer Blockbusters of sorts, it feels like his novels are his creative, moody Indie flicks!

In JUNONIA, nine-year old Alice Rice travels from Wisconsin with her family to their vacation cottage on Sandibel Island in Florida. It's a trip Alice looks forward to every year and this year is no exception. Especially since Alice will be celebrating her tenth birthday with the summer "family" she's come to love. However when Alice discovers that many of the regular vacationers the family spends each summer with are not coming this year, she begins to worry that her special tenth birthday won't be so special after all.

On the surface, JUNONIA is a simple, quick read, with larger than normal text and only 176 pages of story. By story's end however, a lot of big ideas wash to shore. In a way, JUNONIA is about the loss of innocence. The moment in a child's life when they begin to realize they are outgrowing certain common comforts. Alice realizes this as she makes her way through a beachy graveyard at one point in the story, and ponders some of life's biggest questions (as only a ten-year old could). Of course the presence of the younger, more immature, Mallory forces Alice to behave and reason in a more grown-up way . . . but I felt that Alice was aware of these feelings the moment she stepped foot on Florida sand, long before Mallory even entered the picture.

One thing I've learned in seven years of teaching is that kids are thinkers. Their minds are always soaking in details and processing information and reacting to that information in one way or another. Kids are selfish, yet sensitive by nature and knowing how to react to all sorts of new feelings is not something they know how to do. One thing Henkes does so well in JUNONIA is depict how jumbled of a process this can be. Poor Alice is confused and frustrated and sad about so many things, and sorting out all of these feelings is new territory for her. Luckily she has a mother and a father who have the ability to read her face like a book and shown her the joy and release that can be found in letting go of things and accepting other people for who they are. So much in this book leaves Alice at a loss for words though, and Henkes does a marvelous job of portraying this.

I enjoyed JUNONIA. It's much more light-hearted than some of Henkes' more recent novels and the text has an airy, island feel to it. I loved the different descriptions of the many shells Alice collects and didn't even realize that there are so many different kinds of shells. In the end, I had hoped for a little more closure on Mallory and her situation, but I understand that this is Alice's story. Maybe down the road, Henkes will want to follow up on Mallory, but I'm afraid that story could only be a return to the dark and depressing Henkes I wasn't ever fond of. So for now, I'll appreciate JUNONIA for the junonia shell that it is.

Final Grade: B+

Friday, August 5, 2011

Chime

17-year old Briony Larkin deserves to be hung. Or at least she thinks she does. Because Briony is a witch and that's what happens to witches circa 1900 New England. Since Briony and her witchy ways were responsible for her stepmother's death and an accident that left her younger sister Rose damaged forever, she hates herself. That is, until a land developer Mr. Clayborne comes to town with his handsome son Eldric. Briony has a difficult time keeping her feelings for Eldric in check when he gives her attention she's not used to. When Mr. Clayborne's plan to develop a portion of Briony's Swampsea village threatens the magical "Old Ones" who live in the swamp, Briony sets out to save the "Old Ones", her family, and risk unveiling the very secret that could cost her her life.

I really had no business reading this book. First, take a look at the cover. I could have gotten beat up by a number of my friends for carrying this book around toting a cover like that. Second, this book is squarely rooted in the Young Adult realm of children's literature. That's not my forte. But I really wanted to give this book a chance. Step outside of my comfort zone for a moment. Every year some interesting discussions are had surrounding Newbery eligible titles and whether or not they are "too old" for Newbery gold. I can never take part in these discussions because I don't read YA. After reading a review that compared CHIME to the work of Elizabeth George Speare, I thought it might be worth the risk.

It wasn't. Not really.

This book doesn't have a snowball's chance in you-know-where at winning any sort of Newbery honor. With curse words scattered throughout, and a rather lengthy, rather sexual, inner conversation about girls' underpants, this book is definitely material for the Prinz and not the Newbery.

However, with that fact aside, I did read it, so I will review it.

CHIME is good, but not great. Briony is one heck of a narrator. Her snarky, wit is fantastic. From the opening sentence ("I've confessed to everything and I'd like to be hanged.") her self-loathe is felt, but definitely not shared, by the reader.

The plot is mysterious and eerie (especially a scene involving . . . SPOILER . . . an innocent girl being hanged while a village watches and waits for her to turn to ashes, which she never does) and the writing is top-notch. Check out some of these samples:
  • "You may call me Briony," I said, "which makes it awfully convenient because so does everyone else."
  • Silence clawed at my throat. It left a taste of burnt matches.
  • The roof was slippery with moonlight.
  • His voice hadn't undergone it's morning ironing.
There are times, when reading a book though, it becomes apparent that a setting was obviously so fully realized in the mind of the author, but not executed as such on the page. This is one of those times, for me anyway. I had serious troubling picturing the swamp and got lost in the endless adjectives used to describe it. The one area of the book that had the potential to be uber-distinguished just fell flat for me.

I also had an issue with the revelations made in the ending. For a book that takes itself so seriously, with such brilliant language throughout, to end in such a predictable way was simply a letdown. There wasn't a twist I didn't see coming thanks to some heavy, heavy foreshadowing throughout.

My troubles with this novel may result from it being outside the typical age range of stories I prefer to read. Which if that's the case, my final grade may need to be digested with a grain of salt. Many folks in the YA world will undoubtedly love this (it did already receive a Boston Globe Horn Book Honor Award) and I'm sure many Twilight teens will devour it whole.

Final Grade: B

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Summer Reading

Well, it's not much, but I have been reading some this summer. Our last day of school was June 9th and we start back up early August this year, meaning this teacher's summer has dwindled from roughly three months to two!

I have read AMELIA LOST, a nonfiction title getting lots of Newbery buzz this year. I'm trying to put together my thoughts on it and soon, very soon, will post a review.

I have read LUCKY CAP, my new favorite author Patrick Jennings' latest and didn't like it as much as GUINEA DOG, but it's still great.

I have broadened my horizons and read a young adult title, CHIME, that is also receiving plenty of buzz, and should spark some interesting discussions come Heavy Medal time! I will try to gather my thoughts and post on that title as well.

I have had in my possession but yet to read, INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, another strong Newbery contender. It's written in verse so should be a quick read. One I'd like to finish this week so I could move onto others before the school year starts back up.

A few I'd like to get my hands on yet (or read) before the year's end:
- YOUNG FREDLE
- LUNCH-BOX DREAM
- BREADCRUMBS
- OKAY FOR NOW
- THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK
- WONDERSTRUCK

More thoughts soon . . .

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart may be one of the more popular, recognizable women names in our history and Candace Fleming's new nonfiction biography of the famous flier, throws into question nearly everything we've ever come to assume about the woman. It's a rather fascinating read.

For instance, was it widely known that as a young lady, Amelia and her sister Muriel loathed their father and his alcoholism? "Each night the girls listened for their father's footsteps outside the house. A brisk step meant that a sober, loving Edwin was coming home; a shuffling pace meant the return of that angry, thick-tongued stranger who cursed and yelled."?

Or how many people have heard of the name Amy Phipps Guest? Guest is the fifty-five year old wealthy woman that Amelia owes all her fame and fortune to. Guest wanted to become the sixth woman to attempt (and first to achieve) flying across the Atlantic. When her age got the best of her she opted to foot the bill instead. Amelia was pretty enough and bold enough to meet Guest's requirements. The rest is history.

Is it written in other Earhart biographies that Amelia often powdered her nose or applied fresh coats of makeup after crashes (which apparently happened all the time in the 1920's), just in case reporters would come? Or that she purchased a knee-length leather aviator jacket and slept in it for three nights straight, just to look the part of a pilot?

It's such an unflinching look at Amelia's life and Fleming doesn't hold back in her presentation. In fact, upon finishing this, it's difficult to find much to like about Earhart! She was arrogant, brass, cunning, and stubborn and she loved hoarding the spotlight (even at a young age). She loved speaking passionately to crowds of women, urging them and inspiring them to strive for more than they were given at that point in our history. Yet Amelia herself was never about to let any other woman steal her fame.

The most interesting thing to me, according to Fleming's research, is that nearly everything the general public was ever fed about Amelia's life was heavily fabricated by her and her husband George Putnam, all in an attempt to turn Amelia into a celebrity of sorts. In fact, Amelia was a rather poor pilot. Putnam worked incredibly hard to cover this up! Fleming suggests that there were plenty of other more talented female pilots flying at the time, but that Amelia was the only one seizing the stage and demanding all the glory.

Fleming balances the biography portion of the story with intermittent scenes from the rescue mission for Amelia. The pacing is suspenseful and the backstory Fleming fills in is surprisingly depressing in that Amelia may have no one to blame for her demise but herself. In turning down radio training in preparation for her final flight, in favor of press conferences and photo shoots, she was left with little to no knowledge of how the radio of her plane worked. Leaving her stranded with no means of communication once her plane missed its destination.

It's a captivating read and one that sheds new light on one of America's first and most popular heroines. It's definitely worth a read, regardless of how you feel about Amelia in the end.

Final Grade: A-

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Hidden Gallery

I have to say for me personally, one of the more enjoyable reads I recall from last year (2010) was THE INCORRIGIBLE CHILDREN OF ASHTON PLACE: THE MYSTERIOUS HOWLING. It reminded me of Lemony Snicket's A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS! Fans of his, Pseudonymous Bosch, Trenton Lee Stewart, and Dr. Cuthbert Soup, I'm sure would agree. While the second book of the planned trilogy, THE HIDDEN GALLERY, doesn't answer any of the questions the first book raised, it does continue on in the same fashion, opening even more doors that will hopefully be explored (and closed shut) in the third and final book.

Still reeling from the events that transpired near the end of book one, Miss Penelope Lumley is in need of a break from Ashton Place. When she suggests to Lady Constance that her and the children visit London for the summer, Lady Constance jumps at the opportunity to relocate the whole lot of them! Ashton Place is in need of some serious renovations and Lady Constance can't stand the clutter and mess, so off to London they go. With a mysterious guide book (given to Penelope as a gift from her former teacher Miss Charlotte Mortimer) as their only resource, Penelope and the Incorrigibles set out to explore all London has to offer.

These books are not for everyone. In fact, when reading them out loud to my fifth grade students, briefly summarizing each chapter was of high importance. Maryrose Wood rambles quite incessantly and pulling out the key events and details (and clues) can sometimes prove tricky. My students' eyes definitely glazed over from time to time, but the mysterious elements to the plot kept their ears eagerly tuned in. My students, and I'm sure other avid fans would agree, desperately want to know where these children came from, and why Penelope Lumley became involved in their upbringing in the first place. That hook alone, is enough to keep them returning to the story. Which is quite the feat, if you ask me. It speaks volumes of Wood's ability to get her readers to care for her characters.

In the same fashion as Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, many mysteries are explored in book one, only to be briefly forgotten in book two so that even more mysteries can bubble to the surface. Where did these children come from? Why is Lord Frederick's almanac so important to him? What was hiding behind the attic wall in Ashton Place? Who was behind the sabotage of Lady Constance's Christmas party? Wood brilliantly doles out important information left over from book one at various times throughout this book. This way the first chapter or two are not wasted summarizing the information, as many sequels do.

Wood's writing is so good, it's difficult to pull out just a few examples. The entire book is filled with interesting phrases and clever uses of language. I loved this sentence:

- However, just as a carelessly spilled puddle of India ink blots out the line of practice cursive letters painstakingly written on the paper beneath, the anxiety-producing contents of Miss Mortimer's letter blotted out any other emotions Penelope may have had.

Here's another taste. Miss Charlotte Mortimer is Penelope's former mentor and teacher. We've heard so much about her and in book number two, we finally get to meet her! And her introduction, is awesome:

- Penelope wondered if it was a desire for secrecy that had prompted Miss Mortimer's choice of restaurant and not just an appreciation for ferns - but she did not have to wonder for long. With a flourish, the maitre d' held back an armful of foliage so that Penelope could enter the leafy, secluded room. There, at a charming table for two, with her only companion being the thin plume of steam that rose lazily from the teapot before her, sat Miss Charlotte Mortimer.

Talk about a grand entrance! It's a mouthful, I know. And as I said, this book and it's style is not for the average middle age reader. But for the above average middle age reader, who's willing to put a little extra effort into what they read, this book (and series) is a delight. It feels as if author Maryrose Wood has undoubtedly made it so some predictions are rather easy to make (ex. What is up with Lord Frederick? and Why is Penelope's strikingly natural auburn hair the exact same color as the Incorrigibles?) so as to keep readers' attention and let them feel some success. But I have a feeling that other answers are going to come out of left field and naturally blow us away. Who knows if all our questions will even be answered!

What was The Hixby's Guide and where did it come from? Where are Penelope's parents and will they return for her? Who has cursed the Incorrigibles and why? What exactly does Miss Charlotte Mortimer know that she's not letting on? When will the mysterious Agatha Swanburne's true intentions be revealed? And where did these three Incorrigibles come from? Book Three can't come soon enough!

Final Grade: A-

Friday, April 29, 2011

Patrick Jennings Visit

With the release of his newest novel LUCKY CAP this past Tuesday, Patrick Jennings has now authored 16 books. 16 books! And how is it that I am just discovering this man?

On Monday morning our fifth graders had the opportunity to sit down with Patrick (Or Pato as we are now allowed to call him because we are friends) and listen to him speak about writing books, wanting a dog, and the deaths of many pets. He was wildly engaging and the students loved him!

While reading GUINEA DOG, I was marveled at Jennings' dialogue and the way he was able to create such an authentic, realistic first person narrative. As someone who aspires to write their own novel(s) for children someday, this was my burning question I wanted answered. Give me tips! How do you get inside the mind of a pubescent boy? I didn't take advantage of the opportunity to ask him because I didn't need to. Within minutes of meeting the man the answer was obvious. He's a big kid himself!

A former preschool teacher, Jennings loves children. He hosts writing groups of children in his own home (Pato's Cave) and he admitted to learning more from them than they probably learn from him. The presentation he gave us was totally centered around the kids. No PowerPoint presentation. No bulleted outline to follow. Just Patrick Jennings and an easel. We arrived at 9 o'clock for an hour long experience (his first of many throughout the week) and at 9:45 he glanced at his watch and asked "How long do I have you for?" It felt like we had only been listening to him for 15 minutes! (We didn't leave until 10:20, stretching out 20 more minutes than we should have). He was so personable and so engaging. He really made the kids feel like he was there for them. He even jotted down some of their names to possibly use in future books! We were the first group ever, to hear him read from his novel LUCKY CAP, as it was only a day away from being released. He even shared some information on an upcoming novel of his (which he finished writing in our local coffee shop Cup of Joe!) about a group of kids investigating the mysterious (and somewhat out-of-this-world) disappearance of dogs around their community. I will be pre-ordering from Amazon as soon as publication is announced!

The following day, Tuesday, I ran into Patrick at our post office and as I'm doing a double-take toward the door he's fast approaching me, hand extended. "You're a teacher here, right?" he asked, shaking my hand. I never introduced myself to him on Monday! How is it that this man picked me out of the crowd? We chatted for a bit and he is incredibly down-to-earth (he rented a bicycle and was seen pedaling throughout town all week!) He is so interested in other people and very approachable. I returned Thursday night for his free-to-the-public book talk and as I entered the room he waved from the opposite corner and greeted me "Hi Jordan!" Well Mr. Jennings, you've got yourself a new mega-fan!

We have hosted a lot of authors through Cedar Valley's Youth Read and entering this year, Patrick Jennings was probably the one I knew the least about. That being said, he is easily the one I have enjoyed the most.

Now I have some reading to catch up on . . . 15 books worth!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Trouble With May Amelia

I have not read OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA by Jennifer Holm. My first foray into the world of Ms. Holm came in reading TURTLE IN PARADISE this past year. Historical fiction is not always my cup of tea and perhaps that is why TURTLE IN PARADISE impressed me so. A genre of book I don't normally read for pleasure, yet I couldn't get Turtle and her Diaper Gang of cousins out of my mind. Anytime a book catches a reader off guard in a good way, it tends to linger on and leave a lasting impression.

Written in the same spunky, first person narrative style as TURTLE IN PARADISE, THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA grabbed me with it's opening sentence:

My brother Wilbert tells me that I'm like the grain of sand in an oyster. Someday I will be a Pearl, but I will nag and irritate the poor oyster and everyone else up until then.

May Amelia is far from irritating to me as a reader, but to her father and family full of boys, she's nothing but trouble. She's witty, she's strong-willed, she's not near as proper as she's expected to be, and she never lets anyone get the best of her. She's learned how to survive as the lone girl in her small pioneer farming community of boys in 1900, Washington State and she refuses to take guff from any of them. That is, until a business man comes to Pappa with a proposition and he needs May Amelia to translate to Finn for him. Suddenly, May Amelia begins to wonder herself if she's good for nothing.

As with TURTLE IN PARADISE, the strengths of this book come in May Amelia's voice, Holm's impeccable characterizations, and her strong sense of setting. Details specific to the time period and setting (such as the Dunking Box at school) make the dark, damp, and chill of Washington State in 1900 come alive off the page. And through May Amelia's eyes, each character grows and develops in realistic fashion through the course of the book. Her siblings are almost as memorable as the Diaper Gang!

Life in 1900 was a lot of work and Holm sugar coats nothing. The manual labor of maintaining a farm was not easy and each child shares the load. Pappa's job at the lumber mill is dangerous and when some of May Amelia's brothers are forced to work there as well, the danger is intensified. Balancing this gloom with May Amelia's witty humor, is done exceptionally well.

The thing that impressed me so while reading TURTLE IN PARADISE was how Jennifer Holm's figurative language was so fitting to the narrator's voice. The same is true with THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA. Every word from May Amelia was a word I fully believed she'd say. Look at some of these writing samples:
  • My brother Wendell wants to be a doctor, so he doesn't hold to things he can't squeeze between his fingers.
  • Sunday is a day of rest but nobody bothered to tell the big bear who knocked down the fence in our field where our sheeps graze.
  • It's spelling time and I'm starting to see Berle's point of view. Not much use in knowing how to spell words on a farm. The cows don't care if we can spell "hay.' All they want to do is eat it.
  • Sorry about stealing your teacher away, Mr. Clayton says to me. A good wife is hard to find. A good teacher is even harder to find, I reply.
In terms of plot, THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA may be even better than TURTLE IN PARADISE. It's a little tighter and not so far-fetched (as TURTLE became near it's conclusion). I do realize it's a little unfair to compare the two, as Holm has authored a book about May Amelia previously and Turtle is not even in this same universe, but TURTLE IN PARADISE is the only other Holm book I've read and the similarities were so striking, it was hard not to be reminded of it.

I debated about whether to read OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA first but decided against it. Often times when discussing the Newbery Medal and "sequels" the debate of whether or not the title can "stand alone" is brought up. When Newbery discussions heat up this winter, I fully expect THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA to be brought up. Not having read this book's predecessor, I can now attest to its ability to "stand alone".

Jennifer Holm is no stranger to the Newbery (Honoring in 2011, 2007, and 2000) and here's hoping THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA only follows suit!

Final Grade: A

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cedar Valley's Youth Read

Each year, the public libraries in the Cedar Valley join forces and help fund an author visit for our communities' fifth grade students. Being a fifth grade teacher, I joined this committee and now get to meet our selected authors as well! My first year teaching, I met Christopher Paul Curtis. The next two years I met authors Cynthia DeFelice and Will Hobbs. Meetings with Gennifer Choldenko and Wendy Mass followed those up.

This year, we welcome Patrick Jennings to the Cedar Valley, author of OUTSTANDING IN MY FIELD, WE CAN'T ALL BE RATTLESNAKES, and our focus book for his visit GUINEA DOG, just to name a few.

I have to be honest, before this I hadn't heard of Patrick Jennings. A coworker had read THE BEASTLY ARMS and loved it and another coworker had read THE WOLVING TIME and found it to be "odd." I had seen OUTSTANDING IN MY FIELD grace the pages of our Scholastic book orders, but had never purchased it or given it a read myself.

Our committee was working on a tight schedule and wanted to lock someone in place for this year (as we have someone big locked in for next year). Jennings was available, he was an author, and he has published tons of kid-friendly books, so we snatched him up. Little did I know, he's incredible!

Last year blogger Betsy Bird reviewed GUINEA DOG and had this to say about Patrick Jennings:

You've read him, right? No? Well that's fine with me. It's like when you discover this cool underground band, and you get to be their biggest fan all by yourself. It's great. You walk around with this knowledge in your head of, "I am into something incredible that only I know about." That's how it is with Patrick Jennings and me. Problem is, I keep recommending his books to the kids in my library. And if I keep this up, I may end up unexpectedly creating a whole host of Jennings fans. Then he'll get hugely popular and go mainstream and I'll have to share him with the rest of the world.

She went on to include GUINEA DOG in her list of 100 Magnificent Children's Books of 2010. With her high praise, I approached GUINEA DOG with fairly high expectations.

GUINEA DOG tells the story of Rufus and his plight for a pet dog. His obsessive father works at home and refuses to give into Rufus' request. His mother, feeling sorry for him, compromises by bringing Rufus home a guinea pig. But Rufus wanted a dog. And no matter how dog-like his mohawked guinea pig Fido acts, she's still a guinea pig. How will Rufus' new pet be received by his classmates? By his best friend Murphy? Will he ever get a dog?

First person narratives are popular in children's literature, which I find a little odd, given that most working authors are adults. In my opinion, first person narratives can be tricky. It takes a special author to truly climb inside the mind of a young person and project their thoughts and see the world through their eyes. And do it in a believable way! Jennifer Holm is one of the best. Andrew Clements is a master at getting inside kids' heads. Well Mr. Jennings, I just may have to add you to that list.

I was so impressed with how Patrick Jennings captured Rufus' voice. Read aloud in my classroom, my fifth graders laughed hysterically numerous times. They felt that this was Jennings' strongest feat (and I agreed). My class felt as if Rufus was one of them. He's funny. He's wry. And above all, he's believable. That's not always easy to accomplish in children's literature but Jennings has. He really knows how to speak to kids. Even his adults are spot on.

While being an easy read, there are some surprisingly deeper themes at work here too, especially about friendship and acceptance. Rufus is friends with Murphy. Best Friends. Dmitri wants to be Murphy's friend because Murphy is incredibly popular and welcoming to everyone. Rufus and Dmitri are not popular. The tension between the three is well written and drew my students in almost as much as the hi jinks involving Fido did. That should tell you something!

I'm very excited to meet Patrick Jennings now. There are some particular plot details I'd love to hear his explanation on. For instance, the reasons behind Fido's dog-like characteristics are never fully disclosed. Why does Fido act like a dog? Is Fido's purpose to teach Rufus sometimes life surprises you when you least expect it to? And what about the mysterious pet store from which Fido is purchased . . . why does it disappear? Where does it go? Did it ever really exist? Where did Fido actually come from?

GUINEA DOG was a funny, clever, romp of a read. It would be a perfect fit with reluctant boy readers, around 4th and 5th grade.

Final Grade: B+

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Small Persons With Wings

I'm a slow reader. Each year, dozens of books are released that I would love to read and I only get around to reading about two of them. What happens then is I spend the next year reading books from the previous year while more dozens of new books are released that I want to read as well. It's a vicious cycle and I always feel so behind. So this year I set a goal for myself, to read 10 books published in 2011. I can fill the rest of my time spent reading with whatever I want and this way, still feel current. The first book I could get my hands on this year was Ellen Booraem's SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS.

When she was young, Mellie Turpin's best friend was a fairy. A fairy named Fidius to be exact. After announcing this to her classmates at school she's made fun of and called Fairy Fat, a name that sticks throughout the years and turns her into a social outcast. Little does she know (and soon does she find out), that her family serves as protector of an ancient fairy artifact known as the Gemmaluna, a moonstone ring that stores all of the fairies most natural, true magic (Magic Vera). The fairy community wants to get back to their roots and become one with their ancient magic once again, but to do so they need the Gemmaluna. Mellie's family is ready to rid themselves of the responsibility, but someone in the fairy community wants the ring for themselves. And they'll stop at nothing to take it.

With multiple starred reviews, this book has already caught the eye of some folks making early 2012 Newbery Medal predictions. Without reading anything else the year has to offer yet, I can definitely see why. It's very strong in voice and language. Mellie is cynical and witty. She's an outcast because of her weight (something not often found in children's books) and her belief in fairies. She's a hard person to like because she's such a smart aleck and even when people reach out to her, she lashes out keeping them at bay. Because of the way she's been treated in the past she's hardened. But this is what makes her such an endearing character too. Despite the wise-cracks and the sarcastic tone, Mellie is a girl longing for attention. A girl seeking approval even from those closest to her. She's a scrappy fighter and makes for a great heroine, although I did wish she'd take herself, and the plot, a little more seriously.

The writing here is top notch as well. I loved the following description:

It's a Saturday in October, one of those fall days that makes you think summer is overrated. The sky is so blue you wouldn't believe it if you saw it in a painting. The air is warm and sweet, smelling like dead leaves and the good kind of mold, the kind that stays outdoors.

Broken down to its sentence level, writing like this will undoubtedly earn Booraem props. It's fresh and witty and found throughout the book.

Often times being pleasantly surprised by a book causes the material to stay with you longer and to appreciate it more. I've got to be honest, the rave reviews drew me to this book, but the subject matter (fairies) and the girlie, glittery cover brought out my skepticism. At the heart of this story is a coming-of-age tale about an overweight girl growing into her grandeur. But beneath even that are some truly terrifying ideas I was astonished to find. The description of the real Gigi Kramer is frightening and the idea that the fairies can alter the way humans see reality is a scary concept. The way Gigi Kramer messes with illusions may keep some younger readers up all night. Scary stuff, and a little unexpected.

Not everything in this book worked entirely for me though and one example would be the development of Booraem's plot. It's quick and suspenseful, sure. And the pacing is rather effortless. I found myself burning the midnight oil as soon as Gigi Kramer's true intentions were revealed. However, I also found myself flipping back to previous sections for clarification. The fairy world that Booraem has created is very intricate and complex. Often, it's too imposing.

From what I understand, the fairies initially possessed a very natural, organic magic known as Magic Vera. Over time some fairies became bored with this and came up with Magic Artifica, a more sinister kind of magic involving illusion. As the entire community of fairies moved further in the direction of Magic Artifica they captured their Magic Vera and contained it inside the Gemmaluna, so as to never lose it. A third magic, Magic Mala then came along, more sinister and dark even than Magic Artifica, and it requires the power of a Circulus. The Circulus is a group of fairies spinning around very quickly, supplying the entire fairy community with a source power to draw from. Like a generator. Some fairies are good enough to perform Magic Mala (the ability to manipulate and move inanimate objects) without the use of a Circulus and that idea becomes very frightening to many fairies. Thus, a campaign to return to the days of Magic Vera. But for that, they need the Gemmaluna, which has been given to the Turpin family to look after for all these years. It's all very clever, and something I wish I could be clever enough to think of myself, but it's also incredibly confusing. It took a lot of rereading to get all that down and I don't even know if I have it all right!

I enjoyed this book and I think among students bridging the space between elementary school and middle school, or junior high, this book will definitely find a home. It's snarky, it's hilarious, it's heartfelt, and it's exciting. Plus it's well-written and it stands on it's own without the promise of future installments!

Final Grade: B

Bitter

Sadly, this morning, author Pete Hautman did not chose A TALE DARK AND GRIMM to advance in School Library Journal's second round of their Battle of the Kids' Books.

First off, let me start by admitting that I have not read TRASH, the book Mr. Hautman chose instead of A TALE DARK AND GRIMM. In fact, I hadn't even heard of it before the brackets were released. I have no doubt in my mind that it is worthy of advancing, and maybe even winning, this contest.

What upsets me is that I don't feel like A TALE DARK AND GRIMM got a fair shake. Mr. Hautman said he chose TRASH because in the end, it "cut deeper." I'm sorry, but I don't buy it.

Hautman praised Gidwitz's ability to take classic Grimm tales and weave them together and put a fresh spin on them. He also praised Gidwitz for making A TALE DARK AND GRIMM very readable for children, thus admitting that A TALE DARK AND GRIMM will have wide child appeal. But not once, did he mention anything about the themes buried beneath the amputations, the blood, and the gore.

A TALE DARK AND GRIMM is about sibling love. About growing up in a world that is confusing and scary. It's about the love and affection children have for their parents, and how important it is for that need to be met and returned. A TALE DARK AND GRIMM is about the importance of family. It's a how-to book (or a how-not-to book, depending on how you look at it) for parents. Yet Hautman mentions none of this. Which leads me to believe he took it at face value.

A TALE DARK AND GRIMM is so good that it would be easy to cast it off as popular and leave it at that. But when read carefully, it isn't too difficult to see that it's actually so much more than that.

Here's hoping it makes a comeback as the winner of the Undead Poll!

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Candymakers

First things first, I'm a big Wendy Mass fan. So be warned, I may be a little biased.

One of my favorite books of all time is JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE. After reading it, I discovered A MANGO SHAPED SPACE, HEAVEN LOOKS A LOT LIKE THE MALL, EVERY SOUL A STAR, and ELEVEN BIRTHDAYS. I think her novels do appeal more to the younger female gender (not me), but Jeremy Fink was so great that it is hard for me not to be impressed with the unique storytelling approach she takes in each of her books. She finds a way to change things up with each novel and explore some truly original ideas in an extremely kid-friendly way. In my opinion, she's one of the best, most popular, and consistent authors writing for children today.

Another reason I may be a little biased toward a Wendy Mass book . . .

I had the pleasure of meeting her when she visited our school district last spring. I'm on a small committee of teachers and librarians that help fund and plan and bring in a popular working authors for kids. The 5th grade classes in our district spend the week meeting with these authors and listening to their inspiring stories. Wendy was very down-to-earth and genuine and a big hit amongst our students. Plus, she thinks I rock!

At the time of her visit, THE CANDYMAKERS had not yet been released but she gave us a sneak peek of it. I had also been following it's creation on her blog. In similar Willy Wonka fashion, THE CANDYMAKERS tells the story of 4 kids each inventing a candy for a candymaking contest: Logan (the candymaker's son), Miles (allergic to everything), Daisy (daughter of a musician), and Philip (son of a rich businessman). The book is split into four sections, with each character getting a crack at narrating. Logan shares the story first, then we read Miles' version of the same happenings, then Daisy's, then Philip's. The book ends with with a fifth section of Logan tying up all loose ends.

Without being blown away, I was pleasantly surprised by THE CANDYMAKERS. Wendy Mass warns readers from the beginning to be on the lookout so it was obvious that not all the narrators were exactly who they seemed to be. However, some significant plot twists are thrown in that will surely thrill young readers.

If there's a theme present in many of Wendy Mass's novels, it's perspective. In A MANGO SHAPED SPACE she viewed the world through the eyes of a girl with synesthesia. In EVERY SOUL A STAR she viewed the world through three very different sets of preteen eyes. And in 11 BIRTHDAYS her two main characters, best friends, are in the midst of a terrible fight with neither considering the others' perspective.

The same is true with THE CANDYMAKERS. Logan is our guide through the first section of the story. He is innocent, sweet, and kindhearted. From this perspective it would seem that his only handicap in life is his lack of social experiences. He wants a best friend badly, but doesn't know how to go about it. A terrible accident in the past has led his parents to keep him sheltered and away from the world outside their candy factory's gates. By the time Miles takes the microphone however, the narrative is flipped upside down revealing the first of many surprises. It's not until we have stepped into each character's shoes that true perspective is achieved and Wendy Mass has a lot to say about judging a book by it's cover. I feel like she's captured their emotions and feelings perfectly, but their dialogue comes off a bit forced and unnatural.

I can't say this is Wendy Mass's best book, but it's easily her most ambitious. The text is easy to read and with short chapters in each of the five sections the book feels as if it goes by quickly. However with more than 450 pages, there's a lot of plot twists to digest and when the same story is told from four different points of view, there's a lot of information for young readers to juggle. Each section converges at the same cliffhanger and that leaves readers wanting more, but it couldn't keep my fifth grade class from became very antsy at multiple times throughout this book.

Wendy Mass is a popular author who knows who her readers are. She's one of my favorites even though this particular book wasn't.

Final Grade: B-

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Battle of the Books Predictions

Well, round one of School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids' Books is complete and my bracket looks terrible.

In round one, I correctly picked 4 of the 8 battles. Not too shabby . . .

But in looking ahead, things are pretty Grimm for me, as A TALE DARK AND GRIMM is the only book I picked correctly from round one that I have advancing beyond the second round.

So . . . I'm still pulling for A TALE DARK AND GRIMM to win it all and I'm still predicting COUNTDOWN (which was knocked out today by Laura Amy Schlitz choosing THE CARDTURNER over it) to be named the winner of the Undead poll (by a hair over A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Thank You R.L. Stine!

R.L. Stine and I go way back. When I was in elementary school and even into middle school, I read his Fear Street series quite regularly. They were campy, at times immature, but always entertaining. Alas, I knew the meaning of the phrase guilty pleasure even as a twelve-year old.

Seeing R.L. Stine's name on the list of judges for School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids' Books brought back childhood memories. Because of this sentimental, childhood connection I feel we share, I just knew he wouldn't let me down when it came to keeping my top pick alive.

Sure enough, this morning he chose A TALE DARK AND GRIMM over THEY CALL THEMSELVES THE KKK! And why wouldn't the master of kidlit horror choose a novel as bloody as Adam Gidwitz's?

Thank you for saving my bracket Mr. Stine! You made the right call!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Departure Time

I'm a sucker for surprise endings. Not necessarily straight-forward mysteries (although I do love those too), but novels that sneak up and surprise you in the end. Novels where you assume one thing is going on and in the end, something entirely different is revealed. Stories like WALK TWO MOONS (although maybe that surprise can be seen a mile away) and WHEN YOU REACH ME (didn't see that one coming). So when I emailed famed book blogger Betsy Bird asking for recommendations and she steered me in the direction of DEPARTURE TIME, a translated novel from the Netherlands, I undoubtedly had high hopes.

DEPARTURE TIME is a novel telling two stories, alternating from chapter to chapter. In one story, a girl wakes up alone in an abandoned hotel in a desert, with no knowledge of how she has arrived. Her only company is a talking rat and a talking fox who serve as host and maintenance for the hotel. Familiar music is playing in the background and torn paper littering the landscape. Who is this girl? Who are these talking animals? Why do they recognize her? Where is the music coming from? Who is hiding out in the attic of the hotel?

The other story is about a girl who is angry with her father, a traveling musician, for missing her birthday again. She writes him a scathing letter, letting out all her frustration, and sends it to him not long before he dies in a horrific boat accident. Later she receives a rough draft story from him in the mail, a story he wanted to write together with her. A story about talking animals.

What do these two girls have in common? Are they one in the same?

This book reminded me of I AM THE CHEESE by Robert Cormier with equal parts WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead. It's an engaging, challenging read. As a reader, I spent 95% of this book utterly confused. Sometimes my confusion stemmed from the plot and not knowing how all the questions were going to be answered (if they even were). Sometimes my confusion stemmed from the fear that things could have gotten lost in translation from the Netherlands. I will say, that by the conclusion of the novel, most is revealed. However it is difficult to tell what is purposely metaphorical and what are just flat out loose ends. There are aspects of this book that I didn't truly understand (like the names in the book, Sky, Robin, Mouse) but would like to think are metaphors that could be cleared up with a second read. Then again, I'm not so sure. Maybe some readers will be able to dig deeper and find lots of meaning. Personally, I don't think I'm up for another go of it.

I guess my major feeling at this moment is disappointment. Lots of predictions flooded my brain early on. Is the girl dead? Is she in hell? Is she in a coma? Are the talking animals the talking animals in her father's story? (I mean, come on, it can't just be coincidence that her father's story included talking rats and a fox and in this alternate desert world, our girl Mouse is greeted by a talking rat and fox, can it?) The fact that one of these predictions was semi-correct, felt like a letdown. I was hoping to be blown away. I was hoping to be surprised. The ending is surprising, don't get me wrong, but the fact that the twist was something I had considered early on, meant that I wasn't taken by surprise as much as I would have liked. But, that's my fault, not Truus Matti's.

This book is definitely not for everyone. It would take a very special 5th, 6th, or 7th grade reader to carefully navigate this book in one reading. It would take an even more special reader to want to pick it up and do it all over again. I would love to read it, one story at a time. Read the odd chapters through first, taking in all of story A in the desert. Then read all the even chapters and take in story B. The problem with that is 3/4 of the way through the book, the stories begin to blend together, mid-chapter, ratcheting up the confusion!

As I said, it's an engaging read, and as Mouse moves from anger to acceptance over her father's death, the ride is thrilling enough without the mystery of the "alternate" desert universe unfolding. I think my hopes were just set a little too high for me to find any more enjoyment out of this than I did. Someone with more realistic expectations, may find it brilliant.

Final Grade: B-

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Outrage!

How dare you Barry Lyga, choose a nonfiction story about Barbie over Pam Munoz-Ryan's poetic powerhouse THE DREAMER in round one of SLJ's Battle of the Kids' Books!

To choose THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE BARBIE over THE DREAMER would've been acceptable had good reasons been given. But instead, Mr. Lyga cops out and steps into the shoes of the two main characters to make his decision. Of course strong, confident Barbie would never concede to a wimpy little daydreaming poet in Neftali.

Who cares what the characters think? What about the writing?

Boooooooooooooo!!!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

March Madness!

I don't mean to brag, but I've always been slightly-better-than-average at filling out NCAA March Madness brackets. Battle of the Kids' Books, is totally new territory for me though. Each year book blogger Eric Carpenter puts together a bracket challenge for fans to follow along and make predictions. This year I'm taking my first go at it. But since I have no idea what some of the author judges will be taking into consideration, and no clue as to what kind of novels appeal to them as readers, there's nothing to do but sit back and have fun with it. So here are my predictions:

First Round:

I'm picking AS EASY AS FALLING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH over THE CARDTURNER. In authors Lynne Rae Perkins and Francisco X. Stork (author judge) I see similarities in teen appeal whereas Louis Sachar is widely known for writing one of the greatest juvenile fiction novels ever, in HOLES. Call it a hunch . . .

I'm also taking COUNTDOWN over A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS. I know Megan Whalen Turner has a pretty voracious following, but I think COUNTDOWN has gotten enough buzz amongst readers this year to advance at least one round in this competition. (It wouldn't surprise me if the loser of this round rises among the Undead!)

I think (hope) Barry Lyga will choose THE DREAMER over THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE BARBIE. Although this is the pick I'm most unsure of, even though as you will soon see, I have THE DREAMER going quite far.

KEEPER seems like the type of book Susan Patron would dig, more so than HEREVILLE.

ONE CRAZY SUMMER is way too decorated to be knocked out by THE ODYSSEY in the first round, and I don't think Karen Hesse will look to stir things up.

Adam Rex does not strike me as a history buff, I could be totally wrong, but I just see him as an avid fantasy reader, therefore I think THE RING OF SOLOMON will be his pick.

Call me naive, but if there was a sure thing in the first round, it would be my favorite A TALE DARK AND GRIMM. R.L. Stine is its judge for crying out loud! If there was a book that was made for the Goosebumps and Fear Street creator to read and enjoy, it would be this book. Although, who knows what Mr. Stine will do. Maybe that's precisely why he'd throw people off by choosing THEY CALLED THEMSELVES THE KKK . . . I don't see it though.

I flipped a coin to finish the first round and came up with Mitali Perkins choosing WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON.

Second Round:

Laura Amy Shlitz will pick AS EASY AS FALLING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH because she is a great writer and I don't think she'll be fooled by the structure and display of COUNTDOWN. However, I don't think we'll have heard the last of Deborah Wiles' novel . . .

I also think Naomi Shihab Nye (poet) will take a whole three seconds to choose THE DREAMER over KEEPER. Sure KEEPER is written with it's own lyrical, poetic prose, but THE DREAMER seems to be a poet's book. If it can just get past that first round, I see it going very far.

I see Patricia Reilly Giff choosing ONE CRAZY SUMMER over THE RING OF SOLOMON.

And I see Pete Hautman choosing A TALE DARK AND GRIMM over WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON.

The Final Four:

Grace Lin will have a tough time choosing between THE DREAMER and AS EASY AS FALLING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH. I see her liking the latter but loving the former. In the end, I see Grace Lin more as a juvenile fiction author and think THE DREAMER speaks to her type of readers more than AS EASY AS FALLING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH. That's why I think she'll pick it.

As for Karen Cushman choosing between A TALE DARK AND GRIMM and ONE CRAZY SUMMER . . . I think ONE CRAZY SUMMER is just too decorated to walk away a winner here. It's my gut feeling that something other than ONE CRAZY SUMMER will win this. So now, is as good a time as any to fall by the wayside. A TALE DARK AND GRIMM will prevail.

The Big Kahuna Round:

At this time, COUNTDOWN will be revealed as the winner of the Undead Poll (with A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS coming in a close second). Richard Peck will enjoy having COUNTDOWN added to his small reading list because he's a historical fiction kind of guy, but in the end, will not choose it as the winner. He will be mezmerized by the sing-song prose of THE DREAMER but being a master storyteller himself, will be too blown away by Adam Gidwitz's Grimm Brothers re-imaginings.

A TALE DARK AND GRIMM will be victorious!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Windblowne

The problem with many fantasy books today is that they all belong to a series. Stand-alone titles are not popular. I can't blame an author for having a lot to say about a world they've created and are passionate about or for looking for a way to cash-in on a clever idea, but it does get a little tiring. Reading a full series worth of books requires much devotion and patience. I've read books before that I've enjoyed (FABLEHAVEN by Brandon Mull, 100 CUPBOARDS by N.D. Wilson) but just couldn't find myself wanting to read the full series.

This is what made WINDBLOWNE so appealing to me. Here we have the promise of a soaring (excuse the pun) adventure, without the somewhat burden of future installments. A fully-realized fantasy world that can be devoured in one sitting!

Oliver loves kites. In the tree-hugging community of Windblowne, this is a good thing. Each year a midsummer kite flying festival is held and Oliver dreams of winning it. The only problem is he can't get a kite to stay in the air for more than a brief moment. When he discovers that his Great-uncle Gilbert is a former festival champion, he seeks him out for advice and help. What he uncovers instead is a Windblowne conspiracy, involving alternate universes, a timid red flying kite, bladed fighting kites, and an evil Lord Uncle trying to destroy everything Oliver loves.

WINDBLOWNE left me wanting more, and not necessarily in a good way. I know I opened with the problem of fantasy series books, but here's a case where I feel like more explanation was needed. The initial mystery is great! In fact, when Oliver was swept away to the alternate universe the first time, I liked where I thought the book was going. Were the two moons of Oliver's Windblowne going to come into play somehow? Two moons, two universes? No. Instead, we discover (SPOILERS - Gasp!) that there are many alternate universes, all being affected by evil Lord Gilbert's antics! I thought the alternate universes would've benefited from further explanation but then probably would've caused the plot to drag along worse than it already was!

I like the eco-friendly message (think Avatar meets Fringe, in a very naturalistic way) and I like how Oliver learns to adjust his hopes and dreams along the way, discovering his true potential. In the end, I feel like the concept was good, just not realized as effectively as it could have been.

Final Grade: B-