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:




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