Monday, January 31, 2011

The Boneshaker

Once upon a time, over a hundred years ago, some bicycles were referred to as "boneshakers" because of their uncomfortable rides due to metal frames, wooden wheels, and iron tires. I never knew this! So when I first heard about Kate Milford's steampunk novel THE BONESHAKER, and caught a glimpse of its somewhat creepy cover illustration, I never expected the title to be a reference to the bicycle Natalie is riding on the cover. I figured it had something to do with the scary man with fiery red hair who seems to be peering over his spectacles at potential readers.

The year is 1913 and strange things are brewing in the small rural town of Arcane, Missouri. Mostly since Dr. Jake Limberleg and his Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show rolled into town in their three-wheeled wagon. Natalie Minks' father is the town mechanic, of sorts, and promises to fix the wagon for the mysterious Dr. Limberleg, who in turn, decides to give the folks of Arcane a sneak peek at his show. The show soon becomes all the craze but Natalie knows there's more than meets the eye. Who is Dr. Jake Limberleg? What does he want with the people of Arcane? And how exactly does he make automata come to life?

Kids love to be scared. I can't tell you how many times I see a GOOSEBUMPS book in the hands of some of my students during silent reading time, or how many times DARE TO BE SCARED, DOUBLE DARE TO BE SCARED, and SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK are checked out of my personal classroom library. So naturally, where I became nervous when reading this aloud to my students, they became excited and thrilled! I wasn't sure how backstories involving characters making deals with the Devil (and the consequences of such deals) would be received by my students. But they loved it!

At 384 pages and with rather small font, this book is far from being an easy-read. But, the writing is incredibly descriptive and the plotting is undeniably taut. Intricate side stories of guitar players, deals made at a crossroads, missing wagon wheels, stranded ghouls, and medical quacks are all difficult to keep track of while reading, but are integral to the plot come story's end. For your average 5th grader, this book would be too much. But when read by and discussed with their teacher, my class of 5th graders couldn't get enough!

Great story of good versus evil!

Final Grade: A-

Friday, January 28, 2011

Turtle in Paradise

Christmas break was fast approaching and I had just finished a read aloud with my class. I was in need of a new book, preferably one that I could finish within a month's time. Sadly, I'd never read a Jennifer L. Holm book before but had heard great things about TURTLE IN PARADISE. With only 178 pages and 15 school days left before break, this one would suffice.

It's 1935, smack in the middle of the Great Depression, and Turtle's mother is in no position to turn away work. So when a job as a live-in housekeeper comes calling, and her new employer hates children, Turtle must travel to Florida and stay with her relatives for the summer. Thing is: Turtle hates kids too! And Shirley Temple.

My students and I had a blast reading this book together. I have never gotten as many genuine laughs from a read aloud as I did from this book. From the character names (Pork Chop, Beans, Slow Poke), to Buddy peeing his pants all the time, there were laughs on nearly every page. I loved Turtle's voice, so snarky and full of cynicism. Mucho props to Holm for bringing it out so sharply. Turtle, the Florida Keys setting, and the 1930s come alive through Holm's great use of figurative language and imagery. Get a load of this writing:
  • (After Mr. Edgit touts his new hair-growing serum Hair Today) "Can't you see the new hair, Turtle?" he asks, pointing at his shiny bald head. I don't see anything. It must grow invisible hair.
  • Mama's always falling in love, and the fellas she picks are like dandelions. One day they're there, bright as sunshine - charming Mama, buying me presents - and the next they're gone, scattered to the wind, leaving weeds everywhere and Mama crying.
  • It's so hot that the backs of my legs feel like melted gum, only stickier.
  • We've dug a dozen holes all over the key, and all we've found is a whole lot of nothing. It's like looking for hair on Mr. Edgit's head.
  • It's drizzling and we're all scratching at our mosquito bites. My face feels hot and tight. I wonder what Shirley Temple would do in this situation. Probably sing a song about how fun it is to be stuck on an island.
The only issue my students and I had with this book was the ending. The hunting for treasure on a deserted Florida key required a slight suspension of disbelief but left the reader on such an emotional high. As the summer comes to a close and Turtle's mother returns the reader fully expects all involved to live happily ever after. But not so fast. This is the Great Depression. People were desperate for money and a better way of life. I almost thought Holm was tricking us and a twist was coming. But then the story comes to a close and the reader realizes the surprise has already been revealed. It's such an emotional 180 degree turn, it sort of left me confused. I'd love to ask Holm why she ended the story the way she did . . .

But even that can't change how I feel about these characters and this story. Turtle's voice is so great, the setting is so strong, and the writing is just perfect. My class exploded in cheers and applause while watching the presentation of the 2011 ALA Youth Media Awards online, when TURTLE IN PARADISE was awarded a Newbery Honor, Holm's third such honor!

Final Grade: A-

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Sometimes a book hits you when you least expect it to. A few years ago, when I picked up the book RULES by Cynthia Lord (2007 Newbery Honor) I never thought I would enjoy it the way I did. I found it interesting that Cynthia Lord chose to tell her story from the sister's perspective, creating a sense of empathy for her, when in fact, her brother was the one who was autistic. The book opened my eyes and this feeling stuck with me long after the final page.

This may be why I chose to read MOCKINGBIRD, by Kathryn Erskine. Many of the books I read tend to fall in the genres of fantasy or mystery. I remembered the feeling of awareness that overcame me upon finishing RULES and wanted to expand my reading territories for a change. RULES made such an impression on me and as simple-minded as it may sound, the similarities I saw in the plot descriptions of the two, caused me to believe I could have a similar reading experience with this one.


MOCKINGBIRD is the story of ten-year-old Caitlin, a child with Asperger's, who is trying to find "closure" (very literally) in a world without her older brother Devon, after he has been killed in a tragic middle school shooting.

In theory, I see how this is an intriguing idea for a novel. A story told through the eyes of a child with Asperger's. On the page, I'm not quite sure it works. It's daring. It's bold. It's definitely risky of Kathryn Erskine to try this. It's just that Caitlin's voice is so confusing (and borderline annoying) that it makes this a difficult story to follow. I don't think it's a risk that paid off.

Maybe that was the point. Frustration, on the reader's part. And if anyone could write a story like this, it would be someone like Erskine, who has a family member with Asperger's. The problem is that climbing inside the mind of someone like Caitlin is like Mission: Impossible. At times it felt like Erskine tried too hard and Caitlin's rambling run-on sentences came off as gimmicky and often forced. I had the distinct feeling I was reading the work of someone trying to imagine what it was like to have Asperger's. Not reading the work of someone with Asperger's. Plus, there's just too much going on in the plot. Too much for poor Caitlin to sort out effectively. Too much to make this experience genuine for the reader.

Observing someone with Asperger's is entirely different than speaking for them. I surely can't blame Erskine for trying but in this case, effort and good intentions does not lead to success. At least in my opinion, as MOCKINGBIRD did win the National Book Award! Shows what I know! In the end, I just can't see many children being able to stick with this story, let alone getting much out it.

Final Grade: C

Friday, January 21, 2011


Keeper has had a terrible day! She ruined Signe's gumbo. She ruined Mr. Beauchamp's night blooming cyrus. And she ruined Dogie's two-word song. The only person who can make this day right is Keeper's mother Meggie Marie. One problem: Keeper's mother is a mermaid and she abandoned Keeper seven years ago to return to her mermaid skin. So under the glow of the blue moon, with her faithful friend and "Best Dog" BD by her side, Keeper sets sail in Dogie's stolen boat in search of her mother.

Sitting at one page shy of 400, and with a whopping total of 120 chapters, this book's narrative style shares many similarities with Appelt's other work, THE UNDERNEATH (if it wasn't for Neil Gaiman, Appelt may have even won Newbery gold for that one). I love Appelt's unconventional approach to storytelling (and many kids will too) but couldn't help but wonder if this could have been trimmed down some. It takes this book a long time to get going. Like her previous novel, there's a lot of bouncing back and forth in time within the narrative. Readers will undoubtedly realize early on that details are being kept from them on purpose but the amount of loose ends and the multitude of flashbacks can be confusing for younger readers. It's a lot to keep track of! Plus, the waiting for Keeper to set sail in search of her mother becomes unbearable. I found myself anxious and wishing that Appelt would just get on with it!

Eventually, she does. The climax of this story is extremely suspenseful as harsh realizations begin to settle in. I will say, I thought I had this puzzle put together. I also thought it had been done before, and done very well (ex. WALK TWO MOONS). But I was shockingly surprised by the end of the story and loved the way Appelt blurred the line between fantasy and fiction.

My one minor gripe with this book is its age appropriateness. At first glance, based on the vocabulary and short phrasing, it would appear that this book is more accessible, more kid-friendly than THE UNDERNEATH. But the issues Appelt brings up and the subject matter of particular subplots certainly raised some red flags. I read this book aloud to my class of 5th graders and many of them cringed at the somewhat graphic scenes depicting Keeper's birth. The romantic relationship Mr. Beauchamp recalls throughout the story also brought on many snickers and sneers. Even the explanation behind the disappearance of Meggie Marie becomes somewhat heavy. The way Appelt weaves these issues into her narrative is impressive, but I don't know if children will be able to truly appreciate the writing.

Above all, this book has alot to say about family. Keeper can't help it that her mother, her only real family, is a crazy mermaid who abandoned her. She needs Signe just as much as Signe needs her. Sometimes family is what you make of it. Keeper, Signe, Dogie, and Mr. Beauchamp may not be related by blood but they have formed their own family and what holds them together may even be thicker than blood.

Final Grade: B+

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Dreamer

Pam Munoz-Ryan's novel THE DREAMER, depicting the childhood of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, is not the type of book I normally find myself picking up.

So rewind to April of 2010. I'm scanning the rows of books at my public library when this book jumps out at me. Looking at the cover I immediately thought of Lois Lowry's THE GIVER for some reason. I pulled the book off the shelf and checked it out. Having not heard of the story (or even read the inside jacket flap) I hopped online to see if it would be worth my time. What I discovered disappointed me.

Sadly, I had never heard of Pablo Neruda, or read any of his poetry. I don't dabble in nonfiction too often (even though this isn't exactly straightforward nonfiction) and instantly feared this wasn't the right book for me. But, the rave reviews intrigued me, I opened up to the first page, and was lured in by the dreamlike description of the falling rain outside little Neftali's window.

If someone was ever to write a book capturing my life in words, I could only hope that it be as creative, artistic, and thoughtful as this is. The author's respect for the subject is quite obvious in the care she takes in telling his delicate story. The way Neftali slips in and out of reality is seamless. The vivid sensory details allow the reader to see the world through Neftali's eyes, in a way so unique and unlike anything I've ever read. I especially like the way the author ends each section with thought provoking questions, in the same style of Pablo Neruda's poetry (The Book of Questions).

At one point in the book I questioned whether or not children would be able to appreciate the beauty in Pam Munoz-Ryan's work. Would the high page count turn readers away (384 pages but very large font)? Would children find the artistic elements of the author's style too much? I think in the end, there is just so much in Neruda's story to engage young readers. The message is surely something all kids can relate to. And I love when Neftali questions how he can be "absentminded" when there are so many thoughts in his head!

One of my favorites this year. Glad I "accidentally" stumbled upon this! Final grade: A

Friday, January 7, 2011

One Crazy Summer

Rita Williams-Garcia's ONE CRAZY SUMMER is the story of three little girls traveling from Brooklyn to Oakland to spend their summer with the mother that abandoned them years earlier.

Heaps and heaps of critical praise have been piled upon this book but I can't dole it out. I don't know if I can effectively explain why, but I will sure try! Some of the reasons this didn't sit well with me . . .

The voice. The one element of this novel that is praised by many is the one element of this novel that felt insincere to me. Delphine is our narrator, the oldest of the three, and she's taken on the role of caretaker in her mother's absence. The problem is, there is absolutely no reason for her to do so. Delphine and the girls live in Brooklyn with their loving father and their loving grandmother. We know they care for these girls and have taught them well because the girls tell us so throughout the book. They are constantly reminded of some words of wisdom bestowed upon them by either their grandmother or their father. They've been taught well. So why does Delphine feel this added pressure?

I would overlook this if it wasn't a major part of the story. But it is. Cecile, the girls' mother, is a terrible mother. She is not thrilled by the girls' visit and she doesn't want them to be involved in her life. The one thing that Cecile teaches Delphine in the book is to be selfish, take time for herself, and to let go of being so protective of her younger sisters. Delphine learning this from the mother she detests, her selfish mother, is a pretty big moment in the book, given that Delphine has tried very hard to not be like her mother. But it's cheapened by the fact that Delphine's protective instincts are self-imposed for no believable reason. Which leads me to another reason this book fell flat . . .

The message. I have a difficult time finding anything in this book that is uplifting, or positive, for children readers. Maybe that is the point. Families don't always get back together. Sometimes parents suck. If so, I'd love to ask Rita Williams-Garcia why she ended the story so optimistically then. By doing so, her message becomes very conflicting. Is she trying to paint the Black Panthers in a more positive, non-violent light? Is she trying to say it's okay for parents to abandon their children as long as they have the greater good of the people in mind?

By story's end, the girls and Cecile have come to terms with each other . . . but I don't see how. Cecile changed very, very little while the girls stayed with her. Sure she took baby steps in warming up to her daughters, but nothing worthy of their forgiveness or redemption. When the girls forgive her, I found myself scratching my head. I surely wouldn't forgive her! Cecile is selfish and distant. The fact that the reader turns the final page with a hopeful feeling of reprieve, is off-putting to me. I'd have had far more respect for the book if Delphine would not have been fooled and left Oakland as angry as when she arrived!

I honestly don't think I could put this book in the hands of my 5th grade students and hold their interest. I'm sure that many could relate to Delphine, or Fern, or Vonetta, and their situation, but I don't think that alone is enough to propel them through the book. The length of the book is reasonable, but the plot is slow moving, and the title incredibly misleading. The writing is good and for the most part, the author stays out of the story, but historical fiction and mother abandonment have been done so much better before.

My final grade: C+

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mr. H Reads!

For a few years now I've wanted to break onto the KidLit blogging scene. I even think I've had a few good ideas . . .

I thought about starting a blog about middle grade books for boys. Someone told me there is an absence of this in the blogosphere and it could be an easy void to fill. However I discovered a few problems with this idea: books that rise to the top of my To-Read list are not always books that would appeal to middle grade boys. And to start a blog aimed at getting boys to read books would be to acknowledge that boys don't like to read and I'm not sure that's true. Some of my most voracious readers in 5th grade have been boys over the years. In the end, it may have found a place in the blogging world, I just didn't know if it was for me.

I actually did start my very own blog about the Newbery Medal. I have read plenty of Newbery Medal winners already but I set out on a mission to read every Medal winner starting with the first and ending with the most recent. I wanted it to give me perspective on the award and it's history. After the first three titles (the three oldest), I was bored to tears! I reluctantly abandoned the idea . . . for now. Who knows. Maybe someday I'll be inspired to revisit it.

Which brings me to this. This one's gonna work! Because I'm not going to have a theme. I'm just simply going to write about whatever I'm reading. Or whatever is on my mind, regarding children's books.

I've tried really hard to make a kidlit blog work for me and I've discovered that maybe that is the problem in and of itself. I need to stop trying so hard!

So here goes nothing . . .