Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Night Gardener

Scary stories are difficult to write for a child audience. If your concept is too scary, it will no longer be a story for children. If your concept isn't scary enough, it will be GOOSEBUMPS, wildly popular, but more cheesy than scary. There is a fine line between too scary and GOOSEBUMPS.

Jonathan Auxier's THE NIGHT GARDENER rests right on that line.

THE NIGHT GARDENER is not for the faint of heart. It will undoubtedly give children (and some adults) nightmares. That being said, this is the best, most complex work of fiction I have read this year.

I can tend to be long winded, so I will keep my summary of this story short. Molly and Kip are the main characters of this story. They are orphans, working in a dilapidated Victorian mansion, for a creepy family, The Windsors. From the onset, Molly and Kip feel as if they should leave this place, but they have nowhere else to go. Then, scary stuff happens.

The visuals in this novel are incredible.

"But strangest of all was the tree.

The tree was enormous and looked very, very old. Most trees cast an air of quiet dignity over their surroundings. This one did not. Most trees invite you to climb up into their canopy. This one did not. Most trees make you want to carve your initials into the trunk. This one did not. To stand in the shadow of this tree was to feel a chill run through your whole body.

The tree was so close to the house that they almost seemed to have grown together--its gnarled trunk running up the wall like a great black chimney stack. Palsied branches crept out in all directions like a second roof--including a few that appeared to cut straight through the walls. 'It's almost a part of the house,' Kip said softly.

Why any person would build a home so close to such a terrible tree was beyond him."

Often times, whether or not a story ends up GOOSEBUMP material, depends on the handling of the bogeyman. All scary stories have a bogeyman, and the bogeyman makes or breaks the story. Kids either run and hide and have nightmares of the bogeyman, or they laugh at him because he's covered in slime. Take the movie Signs for instance, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. This taut, alien invasion story is all kinds of creepy until the final 10 minutes of the film. The fear and tension build off screen for the entire movie, then all of the sudden, this gangly, awkward, dumb-looking alien is standing in the family's living room and Joaquin Phoenix is beating it with a baseball bat. Movie, ruined.

THE NIGHT GARDENER does NOT suffer from this. That's all I'm going to say.

All aspects of this story are top notch. The description of the Victorian-era setting is fantastic. Each character is given their own arc making the character development highly distinguished. The twists and turns of the plot are dizzying, yet impressive. Just when you think one seed of a mystery has been planted, it sprouts, ripens, and is plucked from its vine within just a few pages. The plot moves along briskly, balancing so many questions and subplots brilliantly, never giving the reader more than they can handle and always giving the reader just enough answers to entice them along.

I could have finished this book in just a few sittings (it was that enthralling), but I found myself slowing down and savoring the story and the language. You will not find more descriptive sentence level writing and prose than Auxier's work in THE NIGHT GARDENER. As demented as it sounds, I didn't want it to end.

Word of warning though: You will want to read this one during the day time. Or with the lights on. Every light on.

And away from trees. Definitely away from any trees.

Nuts To You

A not-too-secret ambition of mine is to someday write a children's novel. An idea I've been stuck on for some time involves an obsessive-compulsive squirrel who's nuts have been stolen. I've always loved watching squirrels and with my novel idea, have even dreamed of writing the First Great American Squirrel Novel.

Lynne Rae Perkins seems to have beat me to the punch.

Perkins is a Newbery Medal-winning author, best known for her novels ALL ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE, CRISS CROSS, and AS EASY AS FALLING OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH. She has dabbled in juvenile fiction before but those three popular books all fall squarely upon young adult shelves, typecasting her as an author of more young adult fare. Suffice it to say, NUTS TO YOU seemed to me, to be a bit of a change of pace for Perkins, which I love seeing authors try from time to time.

NUTS TO YOU begins with Perkins herself, sitting on a park bench. A squirrel approaches her and begins to tell her this story: Jed the squirrel is captured and carried away from his village by a hawk. While contemplating his impending death, Jed miraculously escapes from the hawk's clutches and falls into a neighboring squirrel village, many many trees away. Jed's friend TsTs witnesses the entire thing and is determined to rescue him. She enlists fellow squirrel friend Chai to accompany her along the "buzzpaths" (electrical power lines) to rescue Jed and bring him home. Call it, THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY, just with squirrels instead of dogs and cats. 

Maybe I'm just juvenile myself, but I found myself cracking up occasionally throughout NUTS TO YOU. The redneck squirrels who rescue Jed are particularly funny ("Be loik wooter!"). I love how Perkins doesn't take her voice too seriously, keeping this tale light and swift-moving. Too serious of a tone and the reader would not care for these furry creatures as much. Instead, by showcasing them as the small-brained, short-attention-spanned, little animals that they are, allows the reader to have fun with them, and in turn, develop an affection toward them. I'm sure there are some readers out there who will find the squirrels annoying, but those readers probably don't like squirrels in general and they probably shouldn't pick up a children's novel about squirrels in the first place!

I thought Perkins captured the squirrels voices, thoughts, and actions perfectly. The squirrels themselves never fully realize the danger they are sometimes in, because they cannot focus long enough to be scared! There are surprising themes of friendship, acceptance, and adventure as well as an in-your-face lesson to humans about nature. Perkins' involvement in the story is clever too!

I found NUTS TO YOU to be a fun read. If you get a kick out of watching squirrels chase each other up trees, you probably will have fun with this book too. If you don't like squirrels, well, nuts to you!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Port Chicago 50

Steve Sheinkin is on fire! His thrilling, atomic bomb Newbery Honor book BOMB, was one of my personal favorites from 2013 and prior to that, THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD wowed readers not too long ago, in 2010. Sheinkin has become an author to take notice of. When I learned that he discovered the Port Chicago story while researching BOMB, and was passionate enough about it to immediately publish the story and get it out there, I was sold.

Everyone knows about the atomic bomb and its effects, so in BOMB, Sheinkin's storytelling abilities really shone. He took a topic many had extensive background knowledge of, and wove an intricate, yet thrilling narrative of the scientists and countries behind creating the atomic bomb. BOMB was recognized as distinguished by many because of the way Sheinkin crafted that story.

THE PORT CHICAGO 50 goes like this: During World War II, the Navy finally allows African-Americans to serve in roles other than mess hall attendants and cooks. What should have been an advancement in Civil Rights, quickly turned into further segregation as enlisted African-Americans were sent to California to load ammunition (sometimes "hot") onto ships. Someone had to do the job and the Navy thought it was the perfect job for their new black enlistees. Late one night, a cargo ship explodes, killing many, and soon after, the Navy marches the black groups back out there to continue loading ammunition. 50 men, "led" by Joe Small, refuse to load ammunition and are court-marshaled and tried for mutiny.

I'm willing to bet that not many have heard of the Port Chicago incident, especially younger readers. I'm in my 30's and I had never heard of it. So with THE PORT CHICAGO 50, Sheinkin has a head start in captivating his readers because the story feels so new. While he doesn't have to rely so much on his storytelling abilities to weave together the research and narrative here, he still proves to be a master at it. The character development of Joe Small and other members of the Port Chicago 50 is top notch, and the courtroom drama is on par with A Few Good Men.

This is a story that needs to be read. There is an extensive canon of civil rights literature out there, with heroes like Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and Martin Luther King Jr. Much like Phillip Hoose did with CLAUDETTE COLVIN in 2009, Sheinkin has uncovered a story that needs to enter that canon. I hope teachers wouldn't be too scared of the language (Sheinkin does drop a few censored f-bombs) to introduce this to young readers. Any 5th grader on up, learning about World War II or the Civil Rights Movement needs to read this story.

"These are the stories we think of as the foundation of the civil rights movement, and rightfully so. But it's important to remember that before Brown v. Board of Education or Truman's executive order, before Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson--before any of this, there was Port Chicago."

This is my top read of 2014, so far.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Absolutely Almost

I have always found books like ABSOLUTELY ALMOST by Lisa Graff, a bit disingenuous by default. In order to pull off the first person narrative effectively, the author must crawl inside the mind of a child. In ABSOLUTELY ALMOST's case, that child is a very complicated 10 year old boy. As much as adults believe we know what goes on in the mind of a boy like Albie, based on his actions and behaviors and responses to situations, the fact is, we don't.

Which makes the voice in a novel like this a tough sell. For the most part, Graff does a nice job depicting Albie, a socially awkward, learning disabled 5th grader. There are times however, where Albie comes across as too socially ignorant (think Sheldon, from The Big Bang Theory) for the sake of the narrative, a plot point here and there or a funny line of text. There are times where Graff writes Albie very black and white, yet there are times where Albie is able to see the gray between. Sometimes these moments come when the reader would least expect it. Which again, is because Lisa Graff is an adult, writing as if she was a 5th grade boy with a learning disability. As genuine as some of his voice may be, (certainly the intent behind the voice), Lisa Graff is not a 5th grade boy.

But none of that makes ABSOLUTELY ALMOST a bad book. It's actually far from being bad. It's a quick read because Albie narrates in blunt, short sentences. Its themes of friendship, fitting in, struggling in school, bullying, and working parents are very relevant. This book's child audience would find a lot to relate to.

I thoroughly enjoyed the supporting characters in Albie's world. His mother and father try as best they can to be loving parents, but instead are as ignorant of Albie as Albie is of others. Darren, the bully, is as mean as they come (and SPOILER, don't expect him to necessarily get what's coming to him either; Bullies in the real world don't always get what's coming to them). The Oscar for Best Supporting Actress however must go to Albie's babysitter for the majority of the novel, Calista. I loved Calista as much as Albie loved Calista. And my heart broke for Albie following the "sad day" Calista allowed him to have.

In a way, I feel like ABSOLUTELY ALMOST is Newbery bait. This feels like the type of novel the Newbery committee would love. Interesting first person narrative. Emotional learning disability. Bullying. Realistic fiction... Thankfully, I think many kids would enjoy it too.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Snicker of Magic

KEEPER by Kathi Appelt. SAVVY by Ingrid Law. THREE TIMES LUCKY by Sheila Turnage. All three of those novels have one significant thing in common: a charming, lyrical female narrator. (Well, Mibs from SAVVY technically hailed from the midwest, but lyrical and charming all the same.) The prose of those novels is sing-songy and magical and at times, tongue-twisty to read. Newbery committees of recent memory have rewarded all three of these female authors (Appelt for THE UNDERNEATH) for their contributions to the world of children's literature so a fan of Newbery season would be remiss not to include A SNICKER OF MAGIC by Natalie Lloyd in Mock Newbery conversations this year. Her novel fits right in with the trio of aforementioned books and it is dripping with the same kind of dreamy lyrical prose.

Felicity's mother has a difficult time staying in one place for too long. Because of this, Felicity has grown accustomed to life-on-the-go and making new friends in school. Something about Midnight Gulch feels like home though, and once Felicity befriends Jonah, "The Beedle," she doesn't want to leave. There's magic in the air and with a town history that draws her in, Felicity finds herself hoping that this is one place her mother won't want to run from again.

The problem with A SNICKER OF MAGIC is that I am not the ideal reader for this book. I understand that that is not really a problem with the book itself at all. Many of my 5th grade girls, who love to live in the clouds, are the ideal readers for this book. Being reminded of Appelt and Law's style of writing, made it really difficult for me to appreciate the language in the book, which I usually do not have a problem with despite not being a member of its ideal audience.

I do think Felicity is an interesting main character though. I can see a lot of 4-6 grade girls loving her voice. She collects words the same way boys collect baseball cards and bugs. The words she collects come from people and places and situations. It's similar to synesthesia in a way. In the following passages, she describes herself and this trait perfectly:

"Here's the thing: I see words everywhere, all around me, all the time. I collect them. I think about them. I say them fine if I'm talking to Mama or Frannie Jo or my aunt Cleo. But words are a mess when I try to say them to more than one person at a time. They melt on my tongue like snowflakes. They disappear right off the edge of my lips, and I end up standing there blinking, openmouthed, like the Queen of Dorkville."


"I might have walked off and left it there if I hadn't looked down and seen so many words spinning around the paper, thin as wire rings around a clay planet. The paper had a noise to it, too. Most words don't sound until they hit the air. But the paper hummed like an electric wire, right up until the second I touched it." 

It's obvious that Lloyd has talent. You can see that in just those few examples. That text would be right at home in Ingrid Law's SAVVY. In fact, I almost picture Lloyd sitting at her computer, typing this story, with a copy of SAVVY open in her lap! 

Which is my biggest problem with the book, personally. The back of the jacket of this book boasts a quote from Natalie Standiford, author of The Secret Tree, calling this book "original." However, I feel as if I've read this story before. Maybe not "this story," but this style of writing. Books with this kind of voice are becoming commonplace in children's literature. 

There is a good story here, regarding the mystery surrounding the town history in Midnight Gulch, and the cast of quirky characters are loveable and fun throughout, but at 311 pages, I found myself looking ahead at the pages left and counting them down until the end. And not in a good way! 

All that being said, based on recent history, I wouldn't be surprised to see this one honored come February.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Boys of Blur

I have always wanted to like N. D. Wilson, the author. I loved the language of LEEPIKE RIDGE and 100 CUPBOARDS and I wanted to enjoy those books more than I did. For some reason, I could barely trudge through those stories though. So much awesome prose, but so much confusion in plot. Wilson has a wildly descriptive voice that can at times, clutter up his narrative. He trusts that his readers are smart enough to infer details left out but with such wordy prose, that is not always easy to do.

While BOYS OF BLUR is similar to the unique style of prose in his other works, I have finally found an N. D. Wilson novel I can get behind! BOYS OF BLUR is a tour de force!

In Taper, FL, among the burning fields of sugar cane, football is life. BOYS OF BLUR begins with the funeral of historic Taper football coach Willie Wisdom. Coach Wisdom's death has affected everyone in the community. Charlie Reynolds is in town with his mom's new boyfriend Mack (one of Coach Wisdom's former players) for the funeral and Charlie can't help but notice his mother's uneasy looks and nervous apprehension. For Charlie's family, a return to Taper means a return to the place they left Charlie's abusive father. When Mack receives an offer too important to turn down, Charlie may be forced to remain in Taper for the time being. Little does he know, the community of Taper will soon need Charlie to save them from a muddy, deep rooted evil.

The setting in BOYS OF BLUR is one of the novel's biggest strengths to me. Wilson takes his time developing the southern setting and soon, he pulls you in among the burning cane and swampy muck and just like Mack, you feel compelled to stay. Of course the fantasy elements of the story are foreshadowed and hinted at early on, to entice readers, but the early pages of this book are entirely devoted to Taper and Charlie's family unit. This grounds the story in reality and makes the final epic resolution all the more convincing.

I was also impressed with Wilson's handling of Coach Wisdom's character. Often times, authors will introduce readers to a character that they wish to write as "larger than life." Coach Wisdom truly is larger than life. Everyone in Taper has a story to tell about Coach Wisdom and each story is unique to the character. He has impacted the lives of many young men in Taper, none more than Mack. At one point this is evident when Mack tells Charlie about Charlie's father:

"Your father made mistakes. We all do. But instead of working to set things right, he chose to protect those mistakes - he let them be. He even fed them, which made them so much worse. Mistakes don't just hang on the wall like ugly pictures. Mistakes are seeds." He thumped his chest. "In here. They grow. They take over. You make a mistake, you gotta make it right. Dig that seed out. Old Wiz used to say, 'Fruit rots, wood rots, but lazy-ass boys rot the fastest.'"

I like how Coach Wisdom develops as a character, even after his death. Furthermore, it was fun to watch Charlie grow throughout the story. His transformation from being wide-eyed and curious to becoming a sword-wielding hero was very heartbreaking but convincing.

BOYS OF BLUR may not be for everyone what it was for me. The fantasy elements may not interest every reader and the south Florida setting and Creole lore may be too specific to generate wide appeal. But you cannot deny Wilson's talent. No one writes prose like N.D. Wilson. I can also appreciate a solo effort (everyone writes fantasy trilogies these days) and fitting it all in under 200 pages is impressive as well!

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza

A disclaimer: I read this book as an experiment. I have never read a Joey Pigza book. There are multiple Joey Pigza books out there, even a Newbery Honor Joey Pigza book, but I've never touched 'em. I read this book, because often in Newbery Medal discussions, it is important to remove one's bias toward a novel that is part of a series, as past books in a series should not be considered when arguing for a book. I thought it would be fun to read THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA with no knowledge of any prior Joey Pigza books.

If the Cohen Brothers were to adapt a children's novel, I feel like Joey Pigza would be right up their alley. A little Raising Arizona, a little No Country For Old Men (for kids, of course), THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA is one wild, zany ride. There were so many moments where I wondered if things could get any quirkier or out of control for Joey and just at that moment, chaos and havoc would ensue! I'm not quite sure how Joey survived, let alone baby Carter Junior, but they did!

Joey Pigza is turning his life around. His baby brother Carter Junior has brought joy to his life and he is excited about a fresh start at school. Then postpartum depression sets in for his mother and Joey finds himself sacrificing a return to school for the time being in order to be the man of the house and take care of Carter Junior. Things get worse and worse for Joey as his father enters the picture wanting Carter Junior for himself.

While Joey's off-topic, rambling voice as a child with ADHD is rather impressive (his mother hid his only remaining med patches before admitting herself into the hospital), I immediately realized I was at a disadvantage in appreciating this novel without having any background knowledge on the previous Joey Pigza stories. There were too many lingering questions for me that maybe would be cleared up have I had read earlier installments. For instance, what in the heck is wrong with Joey's father's face? Why is he disfigured? Joey is surely sympathetic and forgiving of his father's past transgressions, but as a new reader, I'm left confused. Joey's father comes off as a cartoony James Bond villain. It's difficult to take the relationship seriously without the backstory.

"Here we go again. Just when I thought one good parent was better than two lousy ones I end up with no parents."

And is Joey's mother struggling with drug abuse? I realize she has checked herself into a hospital for what we are led to believe is postpartum depression (she calls Joey from school threatening to hurt Carter Junior), but it seems as if there is more here. Joey's mother is off, and it doesn't seem to be just the postpartum depression. But again, I don't have any background knowledge on Joey's mom. Gantos does a great job building her character ("A mother is supposed to give love, but I can't because I hate myself and now I'm so full up with self-hate I'm filling him with the overflow") but the potentially intentional feeling that it is more than postpartum depression ailing her is upsetting.

As I said, Joey's voice is pretty incredible, and it's hard not to root for him though. Joey has made me look at some of my own students with more patience and understanding. He has a fantastic positive attitude and is determined to rise above the deck he's been dealt in life. He has support from his blind girlfriend Olivia and their relationship is touching throughout the middle section of the novel, but it's not quite enough to change the overall gloomy, depressing tone of this story.

My issue with the story is not with Gantos's writing. Gantos's writing is very good. My issue with the story is that I couldn't really get over my dislike of the mother and father to appreciate Gantos's writing. A commenter over at Heavy Medal took comfort in the ending of the story, feeling that Joey will be able to rise above whatever trouble he may find himself in in the future. I'm not so sure about that. That isn't the feeling I walked away from this novel feeling. Joey is as proactive as they come (paws-i-tive) but it's only a matter of time before mother and father fall off the wagon again. And Joey has a number of more years at home yet!

Any child struggling to find focus in today's world, may find reprieve and solidarity in Joey Pigza. They could do far worse, in regard to writing and role model.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Fourteenth Goldfish

Kid Lit authors don't come much better than Jenni Holm. Her books have fun characters, are kid-friendly, and are filled with great figurative language. You can usually count on some fun history lessons too!

Holm has also had significant success where the Newbery Medal is concerned. She's made the shortlist three times (OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA, PENNY FROM HEAVEN, and TURTLE IN PARADISE) but has never brought home the gold. Her track record though, could suggest that it is only a matter of time.

At first glance, Holm's latest novel, THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH does not appear to be your typical Jenni Holm story. Her novels tend to be so rich in setting and developed in a particular historical time period. THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH is technically a work of science-fiction and set in present day. One similarity: it is as character driven as any of her previous novels. Fans of Holm's will not be disappointed.

Ellie is having a rough start to middle school. Her parents have separated and her best friend Brianna is forming new friendships with her volleyball teammates. Ellie is craving companionship but is too proud to admit it. Enter Ellie's grandfather, Melvin. Melvin is a scientist of sorts, obsessed with finding the cure to aging. And he does! In the form of a rare jellyfish that ages backwards. After injecting himself with DNA from the jellyfish, he ages backwards to Ellie's age and is forced to join her in middle school. The result is a heartwarming coming of age story about friendship and the circle of life.

THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH took some time to develop for me. Ellie's snarky voice was vintage Holm right out of the gate, but suspending my disbelief and accepting the quirky premise took a little more effort for some reason. The themes Holm seems to be exploring are so deep yet the plot of this story is rather zany. It wasn't a good match at first. In the beginning, Ellie's grandfather appeared so abruptly and his quick-forming relationship with Ellie seemed more of a plot device than anything genuine. By the end of the novel however, that changed. The relationship between Ellie and her grandfather is by far, the strongest element within the book. With her best friend slipping away, the companionship Ellie is seeking comes from the place she least expects it. The relationship between her and Melvin is heartwarming.

Jenni Holm could teach a fine workshop on figurative language. Her first person, prose always fits her character's voice so well. Take the following few examples for instance:

"Nicole has long buttery hair and looks like she should be in a shampoo commercial."

"Middle school is like one of those highway restrooms in the middle of nowhere. It's dirty and smelly, and it's crowded with strange people."

I also love the relationship between Melvin and his daughter, Ellie's mother. I like the comedic irony in Melvin the teenager, not relinquishing his responsibilities as Ellie's mother's father and in her retreating to the role of caretaker and guardian for her teenager father. Their banter provides some hilarious moments, especially as Melvin accompanies her on a date.

It's amazing how much depth Jenni Holm provides this quirky, absurd, Benjamin Button style story. The themes of friendship, family, and mortality are all expertly explored. On the surface level of this story is this bizarre plot about a teenager befriending her mad-scientist grandfather who has injected himself with a special jellyfish that has caused him to age backward. Underneath the absurdity though, is a touching story about finding yourself and the fragile nature of life.