Thursday, February 16, 2017

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook

In late 2016, while many children's literature junkies were cramming for Mock Newbery discussions, I kept seeing this title pop up. I didn't see this book generating much discussion online, but it was a title that kept appearing places nonetheless. It received 22 votes on the Goodreads Mock Newbery list and currently sits at #14 on that list. Suffice it to say, ALL RISE FOR THE HONORABLE PERRY T. COOK by Leslie Connor seemed to fly under the radar in 2016 and that, more than anything, is what drew me to the title. That, and the fact that any book whose jacket cover boasts praise from the one and only Gary D. Schmidt (one of my favorites) is a book that deserves my attention!

Eleven-year-old Perry Cook lives an unusual life. Perry was born and raised inside of a minimum security correctional facility in Surprise, Nebraska. Perry is thoughtful and polite and his presence inside the facility has made a positive impact on its residents. To Perry, Blue River Correctional Facility is home. Life is turned upside down for Perry though when a well-meaning district attorney discovers his living situation while preparing for Perry's mom's upcoming parole hearing. Jessica Cook is nearing the end of serving out her sentence for manslaughter. Forced to live outside of Blue River now, Perry must get to the bottom of what his mom is hiding in her story and confession and figure out a way to derail the district attorney's plans of stalling her parole and extending her sentence.

I loved this book! The concept is highly original and the characters were all awesome. Perry's voice is perfect in a polite, socially awkward kind of way. He brings this positive energy and hopeful perspective to every situation and relationship he is in and it rings true to the sheltered kind of life in which he has been raised. Perry finds friendship in Zoey Samuels who is great as well. She stands up for Perry and helps him in many different ways and their friendship feels authentic. Jessica Cook is given her own point-of-view chapters scattered throughout, letting readers know there is more to her story. She is a beacon of light in Blue River and has impacted the lives of every resident in the facility.

My favorite character however, is the story's "villain," Thomas VanLeer. The district attorney seeking to extend Jessica's sentence turns out to be none other than (SPOILER ALERT)... Zoey Samuel's step-father! VanLeer is well-intentioned in his attempt at giving Perry a better life outside of Blue River (Perry moves in with Zoey's family while his mother's parole is delayed) but terribly naive. VanLeer is such a compelling character in so many ways. He's part Do-Gooder. He's part bumbling idiot. He's part public crusader. He's part self-serving. He really does want to help Perry, but is blind to the fact that Perry doesn't need his help. Perry needs his mother. If it weren't for VanLeer's prying, Jessica would be out. Inside Zoey's house, VanLeer is outnumbered as even Robyn, Zoey's mom and Thomas's new wife, sympathizes with Perry. Which begs the question... Given the number of arguments they have over the course of the book, what is Robyn even doing with Thomas?

VanLeer's presence provides the story with some interesting moral ambiguity for young readers to chew on. During Jessica's parole hearing, VanLeer actually raises some decent points worthy of discussion. Should a child be allowed to be raised in a correctional facility? If so, until what age? Who would be responsible if something happened to him? This is an interesting hypothetical that I think kids would have fun debating. I can see some kids seething mad at VanLeer's actions and I can see some kids cheering him on.

As far as the correctional facility goes, there is quite a bit of suspension of disbelief required. I don't have a lot of experience inside facilities like Blue River, but the place seemed way more PG-rated than I would realistically imagine. I know this is a minimum security correctional facility and this is a children's novel so expecting a scene out of OZ or THE NIGHT OF is probably a bit impractical, and I could see the argument that Perry's presence inside the facility has warmed the place, but still, a PG-13 type of setting would've made this a little more believable. I kept wondering if everyone inside Blue River was so happy? Everyone the reader is introduced to is always smiling and high-fiving and hugging Perry. Maybe a glimpse, even a brief glimpse, at the underbelly of the facility, would have made this setting a little more workable.

The theme of redemption is powerful and uplifting though and this coupled with characters I cared about made up for the cheery correctional facility setting. I am also drawn to mystery stories and while this novel is not a straightforward mystery, I found myself flipping pages faster and faster so I could get to the bottom of Perry's mother's case. Her story was compelling as were the stories of other residents of Blue River.

This was a story I wish I would have read earlier in 2016. I could have seen myself getting behind this on Heavy Medal, if anything, for the sake of discussion. The things this novel does well, like establishing a theme and delineating characters, it does better than many other novels I read in 2016. The areas it falls short, would have been interesting to discuss and weigh. Either way, I highly recommend ALL RISE FOR THE HONORABLE PERRY T. COOK.

Monday, February 6, 2017

1927: Smoky the Cowhorse

Poor, poor children of the 1920's, if SMOKY THE COWHORSE was the best children's literature had to offer. I started reading SMOKY THE COWHORSE nearly one year ago. I read one-third of it and couldn't bear it. It has sat on my desk at school ever since, bookmark holding strong. Recently, I felt compelled to get back to my Newbery reading so I mustered up all the focus and determination I could and pushed through...

It is difficult to summarize such a wandering epic story. Smoky was born wild, in western United States, He and his mammy are herded by a human and branded, but released. Smoky grows big and strong only to be kicked out of his own family when a black stud comes along and takes the herd for his own. Smoky roams the countryside with a lone buckskin and a strong pardnership forms. This is the first act of the book, and it does not unfold as quickly as I just made it sound.

Act II begins with Smoky being rounded up by the cowboy Clint, who immediately takes a liking to Smoky because of his wild, stubborn spirit. Clint is determined to break Smoky and over five years time, his hard work pays off. Smoky is loyal to Clint, and Clint alone, and earns a reputation as one of the best cowhorses around.

One winter though, while Clint is away during a wild snow storm, Smoky and his group get herded away by the horse thief. Thus begins a turbulent Act III. Smoky doesn't take to the horse thief too well. Smoky is beaten repeatedly for being stubborn and one afternoon, enough is enough and Smoky pounces on the thief and kills him. Smoky is found wandering the wild, taken in by a rodeo as a man-hating, bucking bronco nicknamed The Cougar and becomes famous. After years of headlining the sport, Smoky loses his spirit once again and finds himself as a downtrodden riding horse nicknamed Cloudy. In the end, after years apart, he winds up with cowboy Clint again and this raises his spirit.


SMOKY THE COWHORSE was written by a real cowboy, Will James, so one can excuse the poor cowboy grammar throughout. It actually adds to the authenticity of the story. I heard Sam Elliott in my head, narrating. It's obvious that James loves his subject and his passion comes through in his careful detailing of every one of Smoky's behaviors and mannerisms. I read that Smoky was based on one of James's own horses and that makes sense to me after reading. He handles Smoky with a lot of care.

This did not read to me as a book for kids. There is not one single child character in the entire book! The violence in Smoky's journey is heartbreaking and definitely fits in among other sad-animal books for children. It read to me as a love letter from an adult cowboy to a horse he loved dearly. And apparently, according to Will James himself, was never published as a book for kids. This is interesting and raises questions about the crop of children's literature in 1927 considering the committee didn't choose any Honor books either.

I have mixed feelings about this book. Personally, I didn't like it. It took me a long time to finish. It isn't a genre I am interested in or enjoy and Smoky's roller coaster of a journey was a bit too much for me. On the other hand, I can appreciate Will James's authentic cowboy voice and the compassion he writes Smoky with. Smoky and Clint's relationship was nice, in a rough cowboy way and I am glad they found each other in the end.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

More 100 Word Reviews

A few more short, economical reviews, SAMURAI RISING being my personal favorite read of the three...

By Pamela S. Turner

SAMURAI RISING by Pamela Turner, tells the story of Morimoto Yoshitsune, one of Japan's most notorious and ruthless samurai warriors. Turner recounts Yoshitsune's early days as an orphan to his rise as a bold and reckless general in the Morimoto army. The story is taut with thrilling action and layered with 12th-century political intrigue. Readers beware: Few nonfiction books for children are as violent as SAMURAI RISING. Page after page, arms and heads are slashed from bodies. Some of the more famous deaths are treated honorably but most are somewhat dehumanizing. A thrilling and fascinating piece of historic literature nonetheless.

By Louise Erdrich

MAKOONS is the fifth book in Louise Erdrich's Birchbark House series about a nineteenth century Ojibwe family living on the Great Plains. MAKOONS is considered a sequel to CHICKADEE, centering on twin boys Makoons and Chickadee. Intricate descriptions of the family's day-to-day routines, like their cleaning and utilization of the hunted buffalo, added to the authenticity of this text. I appreciated the amount of humor in the book (Gichi Noodin). I don't know many middle age readers who would get much out of this on their own, but a fun and thought-provoking look at Native American life in the 1800's.

By Natalie Lloyd

In THE KEY TO EXTRAORDINARY by Natalie Lloyd, Emma Pearl Casey is on a mission to discover her destiny. Every female ancestor in Emma's family has had their destiny revealed to them in a Destiny Dream, and when Emma's dream finally happens, her destiny is shrouded in mystery. Fans of A SNICKER OF MAGIC will feel right at home in Blackbird Hollow. Supporting characters and subplots are rich with quirky details and depth. Natalie Lloyd's whimsical writing draws comparisons to Ingrid Law's SAVVY. Unlike Law's books, Lloyds stories are stand alone and highly accessible, EXTRAORDINARY coming in at 227 pages.