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Luke on the Loose. by Harry Bliss. 2009. Candlewick. 32 pages. ISBN: 9781935179009
Luke on the Loose is a TOON Book - a story for new readers told in comic format by Harry Bliss. At the park, Luke gets tired of listening to his father’s boring adult conversation with a friend. Unable to take it any longer, he takes off after some pigeons, calling out “Yaaaaah!” as he goes. While his dad enlists the police to track him down, Luke knocks over a bicyclist, interrupts a marriage proposal, and finally climbs onto a roof to take a nap, creating a frenzy at every point on his journey.
Luke on the Loose is one of the best and funniest easy readers I have ever read. It captures not only the boredom of a child waiting for his parents to stop talking, but also the explosion of happiness associated with freedom from that boring situation. “Yaaah!” is the perfect sound for Luke to make - it tells us everything we need to know about his feelings, and it’s great fun to say out loud. All along the way, subtle comments from animals and people alike add to the humor of Luke’s wild run through the city. Pigeons call him “Coo Coo.” A cat peering out the window thinks to himself, “I’ll never let my kittens chase pigeons.” A mouse even suggests that Luke is just another city pest. These deadpan statements perfectly juxtapose the slapstick humor of the illustrations, making the laughs come that much faster.
Luke on the Loose reminds me a lot of Nina in That Makes Me Mad. Both celebrate the individuality of children, and celebrate their independence and emotions. Just as kids relate to the things that make Nina mad, they will relate to the fun of Luke’s sprint through the city and they will be comforted by his safe return to his parents in the end as well. Recommend Luke on the Loose to little ones with lots of energy, and laugh along with them! I read the TOON Online Reader version of Luke on the Loose on the TOON Books website.
Wedgieman to the Rescue. by Charise Mericle Harper, illustrated by Bob Shea. February 12, 2013. Random House. 48 pages. ISBN: 9780307930729
Wedgieman to the Rescue is a level 3 easy reader from Random House’s Step into Reading series. In his second adventure, Veggieman (aka Wedgieman) comes up against Bad Dude, a villain keen on zapping the playground and forcing all the kids to work in his factory. Not only does Wedgieman come through to save the kids, but the kids give Bad Dude a toilet-themed nickname of his own.
I like Veggieman as a character, and I think the tone and illustrations of this book are spot-on for the target age group. Unfortunately, I think the assumption that kids are bad spellers, and that the only jokes they laugh at are related to underwear and poop, is a major weakness. Kids reading at this level know about the silent E at the end of certain words, and they would know better than to pronounce “dude” as “doodie.” I think the average child likes at least some vegetables, so trying to use toilet humor to make them more palatable doesn’t really work either. While Veggieman isn’t really an objectionable personality, I don’t understand why the hero of a children’s book is this man who lets kids bully him and call him names, and who seems to think so little of their intelligence. Odd choice.
Wedgieman to the Rescue might appeal to fans of the first book, but it’s not among Harper’s best. As an alternative superhero series, try Marvel’s Superhero Squad series, two titles in which I have reviewed.Wedgieman to the Rescue will be published on February 12.
I received a digital ARC of Wedgieman to the Rescue from Random House via Edelweiss. For more about this book visit Goodreads and Worldcat.Add a Comment
The Birds' Christmas Carol. by Kate Douglas Wiggin. 1886. Houghton Mifflin and Company. 69 pages.
Born on Christmas Day, Carol is the youngest member of the Bird family and the only girl. At age ten, she is gravely ill and confined to her bed, expected not to live much longer. Rather than pitying herself, however, Carol is ever mindful of the needs of others, particularly her next door neighbors, the Ruggles family. On the day that turns out to be her last Christmas, Carol hosts a Christmas party for the Ruggles children, complete with dinner and gifts, which the Ruggleses could not have afforded to get for themselves.
This is a saccharine holiday story that would make a perfect Hallmark movie. Only two things prevent it from being unbearable - the language, which is beautiful, especially to read aloud, and the characterization of the Ruggles brood, which is both humorous and sweet. The story's message of love and giving is very transparent, and only a reader who has never read a book before would be able to read the first couple of chapters without guessing at the ending. Carol has absolutely no flaws outside of her health problems, and her acts of constant charity with no regard for personal gain are admirable, but not very believable. There is something irritating about a perfect fictional child, even one who is very sick, and I think most kids would find Carol pretty dull, even if they might like to attend her party.
The Ruggleses, though, are more down to earth. Like the Herdmans in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, they lack many of the social graces and luxuries Carol has been given, and their reaction to a formal dinner is one of nervousness and confusion. Their mother warns them to use their best manners, but as most children do from time to time, they manage to forget much of what she told them when they're in the moment. Of everything in the story, kids will relate to these characters most closely, which might make them feel irritated, as I did, that Carol looks upon the Ruggleses with such pity. Their is a definite sense of condescension toward the "less fortunate" in this book that somewhat cheapens the holiday spirit of the story. I'm all for promoting selfless giving, but this book takes it to an extreme.
Christmas books are, by definition, somewhat hokey, and the strength of the author's writing abilities really makes this a story worth reading, even if the drama of it all is somewhat over the top. Keep tissues on hand, as even the most stoic reader is likely to be moved to tears, but also expect to groan in certain places at Carol's purely perfect behavior and personality. (And please note that for all my complaining, I did give this book five stars on Goodreads. It reads like a classic, and I can forgive it for a lot of its flaws because it's truly a story from another time period, and because it's just so well written.)
A Swiftly Tilting Planet. by Madeleine L'Engle. 1978. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 288 pages. ISBN: 9780374373627
A Swiftly Tilting Planet is the third book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet. Based on comments here and on Goodreads, I expected to like this book, but I can’t believe how disappointing it was.
It is Thanksgiving, and a pregnant Meg Murry is celebrating the holiday at her parents’ house with all of her brothers and her mother-in-law, Mrs. O’Keefe, while Calvin is away at a conference. The phone rings and Meg’s father receives the news that Mad Dog Branzillo is about to wage nuclear war on the world. Mrs O’Keefe, who is typically not very social, suddenly turns to Charles Wallace, recites an Irish rune, and informs him that he must be the one to save the world from nuclear destruction. Charles Wallace wanders out to the star-watching rock, and meets Gaudior, a flying unicorn who will help Charles Wallace travel through time and go “within” various members of Mad Dog Branzillo’s family. If he can find out where one of them went wrong, he should be able to keep Mad Dog Branzillo from blowing things up. In the meantime, so as not to be left completely out of the action, Meg lies in bed with a newly found dog and kythes with Charles Wallace.
There are so many problems with this book that I find it hard to even summarize it without making fun of it. Some of them are minor - such as the fact that the government would call Mr. Murry to tell him the world’s about to blow up, and he would react so calmly and matter-of-factly, and carry on with Thanksgiving dinner, or the fact that Meg, formerly our heroine, is such a passive part of the plot, lying in bed and watching from a distance. I probably could have ignored just these small issues, but there is a whole host of major flaws that make it impossible for me to enjoy the story on any level.
Time travel, for example, is suddenly the easiest thing in the world. Just jump into the wind and let it take you where it wants you to go! A Wrinkle in Time spent time building Meg’s world and explaining how tesseracts operate. To suddenly describe time travel like it’s no big deal cheapens its significance in the first book of the series. I will admit that I’m not naturally a fantasy or science fiction reader and that I don’t like being asked to suspend my disbelief, but this just seems like lazy writing.
Names are also an issue. Every character in Mad Dog Branzillo’s family line has a name that is a variation on someone else’s name from the past. This is obviously meant to highlight the connections between generations, which is interesting, but it takes Charles Wallace, a child genius, nearly the entire novel to figure out that these names are all connected, while I had it figured out very early on. It’s fine to throw in all these connections; it’s silly to assume that the reader won’t notice them, or that Meg and Charles Wallace would need a long time to decode them. The story should not hinge so heavily on a revelation that is right in front of us the whole time.
Even Mrs. O’Keefe’s rune poem started grating on my nerves. Phrases like “the snow with its whiteness” and “the rocks with their steepness” sound very childish, and I had a hard time buying into the idea that reciting these words could have any impact on anything. I understand L’Engle’s desire to connect the natural world to the events and people of the world, but there isn’t enough in the story to explain how steepness, whiteness, deepness, or starkness actually help Charles Wallace. This rune is apparently based on an Irish prayer called St. Patrick’s Breastplate, which makes me wonder why L’Engle didn’t just use the original instead of writing her own.
I am so glad to have this book behind me. Thank goodness this isn’t the first L’Engle book I ever picked up, and or it most assuredly would have been my last. A Wrinkle in Time is a wonderful book, but so far none of the others in the quintet have been able to live up to it. I’m very glad that the next book on my list is A Ring of Endless Light. After all this time being irritated by the Murry O-Keefes, I’ll be thankful to be back amongst the Austins.
I borrowed A Swiftly Tilting Planet from my local public library.
Messy Bessey. by Patricia and Frederick McKissack. 1987. Children's Press. 31 pages. ISBN: 9780516270036
One of the most popular easy readers at my library is a Rookie Reader by Patricia and Frederick McKissack called Messy Bessey. It is a rhyming story about the mess in a young girl’s bedroom, which she cleans up in order to make her room reflect her clean and beautiful self.
I think the subject matter in this book is appealing to both kids and adults, which might be one of the reasons this book is so frequently checked out from my branch library. Kids like to see just how messy one little girl can be, and parents like books that encourage good behavior and self-reliance. The illustrations are also endearing. Bessey is a cute little girl and her look of combined shame and surprise as she takes in each of her messes is subtle, but effective.
What puzzles me about the book, though, is the rhythm of the text. It starts out with a strong sense of rhyme and meter: “See colors on the wall, books on the chair, toys in the dresser drawer, and games everywhere.” A few pages later, though, it starts to unravel. There is a glaring omission of a comma on page 12 (“Bessey look at your room” instead of “Bessey, look at your room”), and the authors attempt to pass off “window” and “pillow” as rhyming words. The second half of the book is difficult to stumble through because the rhythm doesn’t match the pattern established in the first few pages. I also wonder why the book uses an alternative spelling of Bessey, when that extra E might throw off an uncertain or inexperienced reader.
Messy Bessey is a gentle story that preschoolers and emergent readers tend to love. Adults looking to branch out might try other tales of mess-making such as Karen Beaumont’s I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More, which has a great sense of rhyme and rhythm, and Mouse Mess by Linnea Riley. Though both are picture books, they have simple enough text for new readers to tackle, and the text in both stories is more precise and easier to read aloud.
I borrowed Messy Bessey from my local public library.
One Tough Chick. by Leslie Margolis. January 22, 2013. Bloomsbury. 176 pages. ISBN: 9781599909615
The Annabelle Unleashed series by Leslie Margolis began in 2008 with Boys are Dogs. Annabelle, a seventh grader, who has previously attended an all-girls school finds herself in a new co-ed school, surrounded by obnoxious boys. As she trains her dog, she realizes that the same behavior modification techniques also work on the boys at her school, and she uses this fact to help her and her new female friends get used to middle school. Girls Acting Catty (2009) and Everybody Bugs Out (2011) continue Annabelle’s wholesome adventures navigating the halls of her middle school. By the time One Tough Chick begins, she has established a core group of friends, acquired a new stepdad and stepbrother, and started dating a cute boy named Oliver. The plot of this fourth book continues with many of the threads established by the previous titles, but it focuses chiefly on Annabelle’s role as a judge in the talent show and the dilemmas she faces when people assume she will vote based on her relationships with the performers, rather than from an objective point of view.
What is so nice about this series is that Annabelle is a true role model. In each book, she shows girls that it is possible to make it through the various challenges of middle school without compromising on what matters to them. There is bullying and teasing in these books, but time and again, Annabelle rises above it and helps her friends to do the same It’s not that Annabelle is perfect - she has her flaws - but that she doesn’t apologize for being herself and doesn’t bury her head in the sand and avoid intimidating situations.
This particular book is not the strongest of the series, but it takes on a very important topic for girls in their early teens - first boyfriends. The story provides a very sweet and realistic road map for that first dating relationship. Both Annabelle and Oliver are shy and awkward, but also kind and respectful to each other. Girls who follow Annabelle’s example will be in good shape when they start dating! It’s also nice that girls can grow up with Annabelle, the way they do with Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice or with Lauren Myracle’s Winnie. Annabelle’s stories are somewhat tamer than Naylor’s, Myracle’s, or Judy Blume’s, but because of that they are probably more likely to reflect real life for many readers of the series. Annabelle’s positive attitude and the comforting atmosphere of each book might also appeal to girls who are hooked on the American Girl books, especially the contemporary stories about the Girls of the Year.
One Tough Chick was published on January 22, 2013.
I received a digital ARC of One Tough Chick from Bloomsbury via NetGalley. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
Dragon's Merry Christmas. by Dav Pilkey. August 1, 1991. Orchard Books. 48 pages. ISBN: 9780439548489
In this 1991 easy reader by Captain Underpants creator Dav Pilkey, Dragon prepares to celebrate Christmas by selecting the perfect Christmas tree, making a wreath out of candy, making a Christmas list, and giving things away to friends who need them more than he does. I had never seen this book before, despite its age and the fact that it came from my own library’s collection, but I recognized it instantly as one of the best holiday books for kids I’ve ever read.
The story is touching in some places, but laugh out loud funny in others. The tone is sincere rather than saccharine and Dragon is a childlike protagonist in whom child readers can easily see themselves. The brightly colored and cartoonish illustrations give visual cues and Dragon’s body language and facial expressions provide emotional context for the events of the story. Dragon reminds me of beloved easy reader characters such as Cynthia Rylant’s Poppleton and Arnold Lobel’s Owl, who get confused and upset but ultimately do the right thing.
The humor is perfect for early elementary school audiences. At least two of the chapters have surprise endings, which caught me off guard and made me giggle out loud. I think kids will especially crack up when Dragon puts his mittens in his coat to keep from losing them, and then loses his coat. I think we all know kids who habitually lose things, who would understand Dragon’s problem all too well. The story also works in the usual lesson about the true meaning of Christmas, but not in an obnoxious or heavy-handed way. Kids will swallow the lesson easily because they enjoy Dragon and will be more likely to internalize it, I think, within the context of such a fun story.
Dragon’s Merry Christmas is a perfect holiday reader for fans of Elephant and Piggie, Frog and Toad, Fly Guy, and any of Dav Pilkey’s other books.
I borrowed Dragon's Merry Christmas from my local public library.
Finicky. by Karla Oceanak. illustrated by Kendra Spanjer. September 1, 2012. Bailiwick Press. 160 pages. ISBN: 9781934649244
Glitch. by Karla Oceanak. illustrated by Kendra Spanjer. November 1, 2012. Bailiwick Press. 160 pages. ISBN: 9781934649251
The Aldo Zelnick Comic Novels are my favorite read-alike for the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and recently, two more volumes were published: Finicky and Glitch. Finicky focuses on a change in the cafeteria lunches offered at Aldo’s school. Gone are Pizza Mondays and Aldo’s beverage of choice, chocolate milk. In their place, the school has introduced bad-tasting healthy options as part of a new program called FEAST - Food Energy and Sensational Tastes. With his friends Danny, Jack, and Bee, Aldo begins a protest campaign, begging the school to reconsider. As the campaign progresses, Aldo learns that his BMI is a little bit high, and he and his dad work to bring more exercise into their daily routines.
In Glitch, Christmas is coming, and Aldo decides to maximize his chances of receiving all the gifts he wants by composing a very long Christmas list and sending a piece of it to each of his family members, including his aunts and uncles. To satisfy Griswold, the gnome his parents have always put out to keep an eye on Aldo and his brother and report back to Santa, Aldo also becomes heavily focused on giving gifts, figuring this will provide the good Christmas karma needed to ensure he will receive everything he asked for. There are a few glitches in his plans, though, and what he actually finds under the tree on Christmas morning is a huge surprise.
There’s lots to love about both of these books, so I’ll list just a few.
Highlights from Finicky:
The school’s cafeteria lunch overhaul inspires an art project, wherein Aldo and his classmates create self-portraits out of food in the style of Arcimboldo. Aldo’s creation is dubbed Arcimbaldo and graces the cover of the book, something he refers to in the story itself. I love that these books consistently promote learning, but in a subtle way, by incorporating interesting things into the stories themselves.
The illustrations are filled with references to F words. Each time we see Aldo or one of his friends in an illustration, the character has a shirt on showing something different that begins with F - ferris wheel, fly, fly swatter, fan, funnel, etc. I don’t think this has been done in every book, but if it has, I missed it in Dumbstruck and Glitch. It’s a great idea, though, and I especially like that the reader has to discover it for himself. The book gives no instructions about looking for F words in the pictures.
Aldo has interesting and varied relationships with adults. Karla Oceanak does a nice job of portraying adults through the eyes of a child. My favorite this time around is Mr. Fodder, the “lunch lady who’s a guy.”
Highlights from Glitch:
I loved getting a glimpse into the Zelnick family’s holiday traditions, and I really enjoyed the way Bee used Griswold to try and guilt Aldo into doing the right thing.
There is a wonderful textual and visual reference to the Grinch on page 28. Aldo talks about having “A wonderful, awful idea.” and the image beneath this sentence shows Aldo with decidedly Grinchy facial features. This series does a consistently wonderful job of not beating jokes to death, and this subtle allusion works so well.
Aldo, who knows very little about the Jewish religion, joins his best friend for Hannukah, and he describes the experience in perfect child-like terms, but without being offensive. I could imagine a kid like Aldo thinking of yarmulkes as bowl hats and calling dreidels weird, but I appreciated his realistic reaction to learning about his best friend’s traditions.
Each chapter begins with a picture of Aldo’s chocolate Advent calendar, with funny commentary from his gerbil and snake. These pictures keep the reader informed about where Aldo is in time, and also serve to number the chapters. I thought this was very clever, and kids who have Advent calendars of their own will certainly relate to the growing anticipation as each little window is opened.
Greg Heffley might be more popular these days, but I think the Aldo Zelnick books are consistently better written and better illustrated than any Wimpy Kid book. I am always impressed by the strong writing, and these two books really highlight the wonderful job Kendra Spanjer does with the illustrations. Aldo is a loveable character with realistic child-like thoughts, and his stories have lots of heart and learning opportunities, and they’re lots of fun to read.
Finicky came out in September, and Glitch was just published on November 1st. The previous titles in the series are Artsy-Fartsy, Bogus, Cahoots, Dumbstruck, and Egghead. The series has a website at aldozelnick.com where readers can find the A-Z Audio Dictionary of all the words Aldo has collected as well as information about the characters and creators of these wonderful books.
I received finished review copies of Finicky and Glitch from Bailiwick Press.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. by Barbara Robinson. 1972. Harper Collins. 90 pages. ISBN: 9780060250430
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is a book I always intended to read as a kid, but then never did. Like some of the characters in the story, I was intimidated by the bad behavior of the Herdmans. Me, read a book about kids who smoke cigars? I didn’t think I could do it. What I missed as a middle grade reader is that this book is the perfect embodiment of the true meaning of Christmas.
When the pageant director falls ill, the narrator’s mother steps in to take over. The Herdmans, who have typically been left out of Sunday school activities in the past, decide they want in on the pageant this year, and they sign up for all the major parts in the production, without even really knowing the story of Jesus’s birth. Though most people are horrified by the involvement of these badly behaved kids in an important religious event, the Herdmans surprise everyone by being so willing to engage with the Christmas story and its various significant figures.
I think kids and adults alike are equally guilty when it comes to passing judgment on others. My disapproval for the Herdmans kept me from even reading the book as a goody two shoes kid, and the main character and her friends worry about what will happen to their pageant if kids like the Herdmans get involved. What this story does for us is slowly peel away the layers of our disgust and concern and show us the good at the heart of the Herdman kids, and the way their sincere and honest way of interacting with the world actually makes them better suited to playing out the Christmas story than almost anyone else.
Like the Horrible Harry books, this story shows us the “bad” kids through the eyes of a “good” kid, but though the story focuses on the actions of the Herdmans, it’s the “good” narrator who is changed and enlightened by the story itself. Barbara Robinson’s writing style makes this type of storytelling look easy, and I was amazed by how easily and willingly I was carried along by the events of the story. The ending, where they finally perform the pageant all the way through from beginning to end, has some of the funniest and most poignant moments of any children’s novel. The Herdmans don’t know much about Christmas, but we all learn something from their learning process.
Though The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is now 40 years old, it still holds up really well, and it’s the perfect book to make a part of your family’s Christmas traditions.
I borrowed The Best Christmas Pageant Ever from my local public library.
The Last Holiday Concert. by Andrew Clements. 2004. Simon & Schuster. 176 pages. ISBN: 9780689845253
The Last Holiday Concert is a heartwarming holiday tale by Andrew Clements. Like his other books, this is a school story, and the focus is on that yearly tradition well known to so many families with elementary school kids: the holiday concert. Mr. Meinert, the music teacher at Palmer Intermediate School has lost his job due to budget cuts. His students, including popular sixth grader, Hart Evans, aren't aware that they'll be losing their choral director, however, so for them it's business as usual. They don't take chorus - or their upcoming holiday concert - seriously at all. Hart even goes so far as to amuse himself during rehearsal by shooting a rubber band at the ceiling. When he hits Mr. Meinert, however, things take a surprising turn. Next thing he knows, Hart is in charge of the holiday concert, and it's up to him whether the sixth grade chorus will sink or swim in front of its audience.
Before this year, the only Andrew Clements book I had read was Frindle. This year, I added No Talking, Troublemaker, The Landry News, and About Average to my list, and it has been a real pleasure getting to know an author who writes such wonderful realistic school stories. The Last Holiday Concert combines a lot of the signature elements I have come to associate with Clements's work. The story provides the point of view of the main child character as well as of some of the key adults in his life. Family scenes appear now and then, when necessary to the plot, but most of the action takes place within the school setting and focuses on Hart's relationship with Mr. Meinert. Though putting a student completely in charge of a holiday concert seems like an unlikely thing for a teacher to do, Clements makes it really plausible by putting so much realism into the book. Hart and his classmates behave as real kids do, and Mr. Meinert's thoughts and actions humanize him as something more than just that strict chorus teacher the kids don't really like. As in his other books, Clements promotes change in his main character by taking him out of his comfort zone and presenting him with a true challenge.
The ending of the story is definitely heartfelt, and the way Clements describes the kids' concert is dramatic enough to bring a few tears to the eyes of the reader, especially if that reader is an adult who works with kids. This is a bit of a spoiler, only in the sense that I'm telling you something that doesn't happen, but I was pleased to see that the story's happy ending didn't tie up every loose end. Mr. Meinert never gets his job back. Hart makes a difference, for himself, and for Mr. Meinert, but Clements keeps us grounded in reality by avoiding that It's a Wonderful Life - esque ending, and the book is stronger for it.
The Last Holiday Concert is not just a Christmas story, and the events of the story closely mirror holiday celebrations at many public elementary schools, so this would be a good non-denominational read-aloud for diverse elementary school classes. Those who have also read Clements's The Landry News will note some parallels between Hart's experiences with Mr. Meinert and Cara's with Mr. Larson - it might be interesting to compare and contrast the two relationships to understand better how Clements builds his stories. Whatever the time of year, and whatever the subject matter, you truly can't wrong with a novel by Andrew Clements. I look forward to exploring more of his backlist in 2013, and I can't wait to read more of his future school stories as well.
I borrowed The Last Holiday Concert from my local public library.
Killer App. by Michael Dahl. 2012. Capstone. 63 pages. ISBN: 9781434232311
Killer App is very different from most early chapter books I have read, because although it is written at a first or second grade reading level, the intended audience is actually grades 4 to 8, and maybe even older. Stone Arch Books publishes a good number of series of Hi-Low novels like this one, which tell stories about high interest topics for older readers who read below grade level. Though I am not familiar with the Return to the Library of Doom series, of which this book is a part, Killer App really impressed me, and I enjoyed reading it.
The storyline centers on a Smartphone app that allows its user to download horror stories.The catch, though, is that this killer app also downloads whatever creepy creatures appear in the selected horror story. As Ivan and his best friend Mark drive along with their girlfriends, Mark’s girlfriend downloads The Raven, and almost instantly they find themselves running from a flock of angry birds. Their only hope of escape is to summon the Librarian from the Library of Doom, who will know how to counteract the birds’ attacks.
What I like most about the book is its design. The cover doesn’t really catch my eye, but the interior illustrations definitely grabbed my attention right away. Many pages have full-color illustrations which have a style similar to a lot of comic books, but even the pages that only have text on them have interesting notations and changes of font that enhance the appearance and meaning of particular words and phrases. When the phone sits gleaming on the asphalt, “gleams” is surrounded by simple images of stars, showing how the word shines. Words like “angry” and “scary” are written in large capital letters with little squiggles under and around them to help decode their meaning. When the boys laugh, the word “Ha!” appears several times around that sentence, visually representing the sound of laughter. These visual cues are so useful to new readers, and to readers who might be learning English for the first time as middle school or high school students.
The use of Smartphone technology adds to the high interest level of this book. Kids are practically addicted to their phones these days, so they will relate to characters who share that obsession, and by demonstrating that phones can be used to download books, the story subtly models print motivation. Kids who struggle with reading might have negative associations with it, but by tying their phones into the reading process, kids might start to see reading books as a more relevant activity. I also appreciate any book that shows librarians as something other than quiet ladies with buns who shush their patrons and punish them for losing their library books. The library in this book is basically a superhero, and he is literally the master of all books.
Though Killer App shares a Guided Reading Level with booksfrom serieslike Henry and Mudge and Frog and Toad, it is not a story for the typical early reader. Rather, Killer App is an adventure story for tweens and teens, written on a level more easily tackled by kids who don’t yet read proficiently. I think this is a great addition to any library serving ESL students, and for school libraries serving kids at a variety of levels. I don’t know enough Hi Low titles offhand to recommend read-alikes, but pairing this book with English lessons on the works of Edgar Allan Poe would be a great start.
I received a finished copy of Killer App from the publisher.
NOTE: This book was nominated by the publisher for the 2012 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. I am a first-round panelist in this category, but this review reflects my opinions only, not those of any other panelist, or the panel as a whole. Thanks!Add a Comment
Ballet Stars. by Joan Holub, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. June 26, 2012. Random House. 24 pages. ISBN: 9780375869099
Ballet Stars is a level one easy reader which is part of Random House’s Step into Reading series. In simple sentences author Joan Holub describes for the reader the process of presenting a ballet recital, from getting dressed and warming up to dancing on stage and taking final bows.
This is a book I think adults can easily dismiss because the front cover makes it out to be just another pink ballerina book. There are so many pink-covered books about ballerinas, and after awhile, it starts to feel like one is as good as another. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, when the text of Ballet Stars turned out to be nearly flawless.
There are sometimes as few as two words in a sentence, but Holub makes every word count. The story rhymes, which is normally a huge drawback for me, but Holub is skillful at matching up rhyming words that fit the story, rather than just throwing in random words because they happen to rhyme. When the ballet dancers get dressed, the text reads: “Sparkly ribbons. Ballet shoes. Bright white tights. And new tutus.” When describing the dancers’ movements, Holub writes, “Ballet arms. Ballet feet. Toes point out and fingers meet.” Both these excerpts show the strength of Holub’s writing abilities. The words she uses perfectly describe the clothing and motions associated with a ballet recital, and even without the support of the illustrations, these sentences would still evoke strong mental images. Holub even manages to work in some figurative language. There are two similes in the book, when the dancers “Twirl like snowflakes” and “sway like trees.”
The illustrations by Shelagh McNicholas make the book visually appealing, and they give great context for Holub’s writing. I appreciate McNicholas’s decision to include a male ballet dancer in the class, as well as her inclusion of characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. I also love the way she drew the dancers’ families and even their piano accompanist on the page depicting the moment before the curtain goes up. It’s one of the few detailed drawings in the entire book, and it provides nice insights into characters who don’t really have individual personalities otherwise.
Kids who are into ballet books will probably take one home from the library with them whether it’s truly well-written or not. That’s just the nature of kids and their obsessions, whether it’s ballet, trains, dinosaurs, or something else. This book really raises the bar, though, and shows what a truly well-written book for beginning readers can accomplish. Girls, especially, will love Ballet Stars, but parents and teachers will be just as thrilled by the learning opportunities it presents.
I borrowed Ballet Stars from my local public library.
Nothing Special. by Geoff Herbach. May 1, 2013. Sourcebooks. 290 pages. ISBN: 9781402265075
Nothing Special is the sequel to Stupid Fast. This second book about Felton Reinstein deals with the aftermath of the physical and emotional changes he undergoes in the first book, and delves into the effects of his behavior on those around him, especially his younger brother Andrew. Felton tells the story in the form of a letter to his girlfriend, Aleah, who has taken a break from their relationship. He writes the letter on a trip to Florida, the purpose of which becomes clearer as the story he tells progresses. What we do know early on is that Andrew has run away, linked up with his dead father’s family, and caused Felton to miss football camp so that he can sort the whole thing out.
Though the story is told in Felton’s voice, it belongs just as much to Andrew. I believe it is meant to be his photo we see on the cover of the book, and “Nothing Special” refers to the way he feels about himself compared to his older, bigger, more athletic brother. Because the story belongs to both boys, the story is structurally pretty sophisticated. I give Geoff Herbach a lot of credit for switching so effortlessly back and forth between Felton’s activities at the time he writes the story and the events in the past that he is writing about. Though we never enter Andrew’s mind, Felton’s secondhand knowledge of his brother’s feelings very effectively helps the reader understand his difficulties and motivations for running away.
I have to admit that for the first few chapters, I wondered whether this sequel was such a good idea. Felton was so hilarious and so much fun to read about in the first book, and when this book wasn’t instantly just as funny, I felt myself losing interest a little bit. Things do pick up, though, and the story turns away from the sarcastic humor a little bit to show us a softer, more emotional side to Felton. Not only do we get to know more about his dead father, but we also meet a cousin who is very much like him, and we see his friendship with Gus go through some challenges and come out that much stronger. Since Felton didn’t spend very much time considering other people’s feelings in the first book, it only makes sense that he would need to repent and think about the emotional side of things a bit more in his second book.
Stupid Fast is one of the best YA novels I have ever read, and for me, it would be impossible for this sequel to live up to it. That said, Nothing Special is a strong follow-up, and readers who love Felton and the people in his life will enjoy finding out how things have turned out so far. I am looking forward to the third and final book about Felton, I’m with Stupid, whose expected publication date is May 1, 2013.
I borrowed Nothing Special from my local public library.
Secret Water. by Arthur Ransome. 1939. Jonathan Cape. 376 pages. ISBN: 9780224606387
After the real-life adventure of the Walkers in We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea, it was hard for me to imagine how Arthur Ransome could continue to write exciting stories about these characters. After all, was not their journey to Holland on their own in a borrowed boat a final exam of sorts, the challenge toward which all their make-believe had been building? Thankfully, Ransome has a bigger imagination than I do, and his eighth book in the Swallows and Amazons series is just as engaging as any of the others. Though the Walkers more or less mastered sailing in the last book, in Secret Water, they become true explorers. Their father drops them off on an island with a blank map, announces they are marooned, and leaves them there with one assignment: to explore uncharted territory and complete the map. Not long after, the Walkers are joined by the Blacketts, as well as a new group of “savages”, the Eels, who serve as guides among the islands and teach the Swallows and Amazons all about human sacrifice.
There are a number of things about Secret Water that demonstrate the development of the characters, especially since the first book. Bridget, who was once known as baby “Vicky” is now a member of the expedition. She’s about four years old, and she constantly reminds her siblings that she is old enough to participate in the same things they do. I think most authors tend to portray youngest siblings like Bridget as annoying tag-alongs who hold everything up and make messes, but Bridget is a formidable little girl, and she has her share of shining moments. Roger and Titty, previously the youngest members of the expedition, are now old enough to venture off on their own and take responsibility for themselves and for Bridget. The spirit of imagination and make-believe is most alive in them this time around, though Nancy also gets excited, especially when it comes time to have a corroboree with the Eels.
Susan is still the mother figure, and she plays that role much more completely when Bridget is around than in the past. John, who has in the past been just as much a part of the make-believe as anyone else, seems more fatherly in this book and also more concerned with impressing his own father. While Nancy worries about blood oaths and sacrifices, and Roger and Titty imagine themselves as Israelites and Egyptians, John focuses on the task at hand. We can see the beginnings of manhood in John, and I wonder whether we’ll see as much of him in the rest of the books of the series. Surely at some point Susan and John will outgrow the games of their childhood. I keep wondering whether their coming of age will figure into any of the stories.
Secret Water is a great follow-up to the adventure of We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea. The story rewards the Walkers’ safe journey home with another, more controlled opportunity to explore their independence and we get to see just how much they all love, admire, and want to please their dad. The new characters - Don, the Mastodon, and Daisy, Dum, and Dee, the Eels - are a lot of fun, and again completely different from Dot, Dick, or any of the Walkers or Blacketts. I was also amazed that Ransome described things like changes in the tide and sailing routes in language that made it possible for me to imagine them and follow along.
As curious as I am about the four remaining books in the series, I am disappointed that I’m two-thirds of the way through it already. I’ve come to really love these characters, and I’ll be sad when I finish the last book. That said, though, I’ve heard that book nine, The Big Six, is a detective story, and I’m really eager to see what that will be like, so I know it won't be long before I jump right into the next one.
The copy of Secret Water I read for this review is part of my personal household collection.
Amy and the Missing Puppy. by Callie Barkley. January 1, 2013. Little Simon. 128 pages. ISBN: 9781442457706
In this first book in the new Critter Club series, Amy is on her own for the week, while her friends spend Spring Break out of town. Luckily, Amy is an animal lover and her mom is a vet, so there’s lots for her to do to the pass the time. In fact, after just a couple of days, Amy finds herself involved in a mystery. Local billionaire Marge Sullivan has lost her dog, and Amy starts tracking the clues to find him. When her friends return home, they, too, have a hand in solving the mystery - and all the girls come together to find a way to help all the local animals who need them.
There is no doubt that this new series is directed at little girls. All the kids in the story are girls, and they’re into horses, dogs, and playing MASH (the game that determines a girl’s future husband, house, etc.). The cover shows hints of purple. The illustrations inside have a clear heart motif. The entire layout of the books is very stereotypically girls, and visually, I already know it will appeal to girls who are reading Cupcake Diaries, Rainbow Magic, and other similarly packaged chapter books.
Despite the fluffy appearance, though, this is a book with substance. Amy is a well-rounded character whose personality comes through in details like her constant blushing when she’s embarrassed, and her love for Nancy Drew mysteries. The story is realistic enough that it actually does seem believable that Amy could solve a case like this on her own, and that makes trying to solve it alongside her that much more fun. Readers will be able to put the clues together on their own - the author doesn’t play any tricks or withhold any information.
This is a solid start to a new series sure to win over 8-year-old animal lovers everywhere. Amy and the Missing Puppy will be published on January 1, 2013, along with the second book of the series, All About Ellie. In the meantime, check out the adorable trailer below, and take a look at this graphic excerpt on Simon & Schuster’s website.
I received a digital ARC of Amy and the Missing Puppy from Simon & Schuster via Edelweiss.
Wedgieman: A Hero is Born. by Charise Mericle Harper, illustrated by Bob Shea. August 7, 2012. 48 pages. ISBN: 9780375970580
Wedgieman: A Hero is Born is a level 3 easy reader from Random House’s Step into Reading series. (In this series, Level 3 is for readers who can read independently, and the back of the book promises engaging characters, easy-to-follow plots, and popular topics.) Though the title suggests comparisons to the Captain Underpants series, I am happy to report that Wedgieman is somewhat less gross than the famed chapter book hero. In fact, Wedgieman starts out as Veggiebaby, then Veggieboy, and finally Veggieman, a superhero who wants to help kids eat their vegetables and stay healthy. (I like to think of him as Captain Vegetable for the 21st Century.) Wedgieman only gets his new underwear-inspired nickname after a mix-up with the letter on his uniform and a run-in with some kids who are fond of toilet humor.
While I don’t necessarily think the plot of this book is the most original thing in the world, I have to say that the telling of the story and the artwork really stand out from other easy readers. Charise Mericle Harper’s sense of humor is perfect for early elementary school students, and Bob Shea’s illustrations give the book the cartoonish feel it needs to draw in superhero fans. Harper makes great use of alliteration early in the book when she describes the shapes Veggiebaby can build out of his food (broccoli bears, spinach spiders, etc.) and again when she talks about the mess Veggiebaby makes while eating (peas in his pants, cabbage on the cat, etc.) Though the story doesn’t give a lot of room for description, Harper works in a few great lines showing, rather than telling us, about things like Veggieboy’s strength. “He held a bus full of chattering grandmas high in the air” is just about the best sentence I can imagine to convey a superhero’s super abilities.
The underwear humor in the second half of the book isn’t my cup of tea, but I know a lot of kids - both boys and girls - who are in that stage right now who will laugh themselves silly when they read this book. I also think there is something appealing about a bumbling superhero character who isn’t as smart or as savvy as the kids around him. That kind of humor works well for this age group, even if I do think the kids’ gossiping and name-calling is a bit mean-spirited.
All in all, Wedgieman is a promising new series sure to appeal to fans of other funny easy reader series like Fly Guy, George and Martha, and Elephant and Piggie as well as to readers who enjoy the Super Friends and other Marvel and DC comics easy readers.
I borrowed Wedgieman: A Hero is Born from my local public library.
For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
NOTE: This book was nominated byLoriAfor the 2012 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. I am a first-round panelist in this category, but this review reflects my opinions only, not those of any other panelist, or the panel as a whole. Thanks!
Walking the Dog. by Linda Benson. September 21, 2012. Musa Publishing. ISBN: 9781619373426 Walking the Dog is a story of friendship between Sophie, the new girl in class with a history of abuse, and Jared, whose parents have forbidden him to spend time with Sophie because of her premature knowledge of sexuality. The two bond over their love for a new puppy who belongs to the school therapist, and their friendship later blossoms when they volunteer together at an animal shelter. Jared isn’t forthcoming with his parents, however, and he finds himself telling more and more lies and risking more and more trouble just to spend time with his new friend.
I have to say that the overall premise of the story - that Jared’s parents would forbid their son to spend time with Sophie because of her history - really rubbed me the wrong way. I can’t really imagine a set of parents who would blame Sophie for what happened to her, or assume that she would somehow taint or endanger their own child in any way. Perhaps such an ignorant set of parents exists, but the ones in this story seemed otherwise so normal and reasonable that it was hard for me to buy into their prejudices. By the same token, I found myself wondering whether the mentions of Sophie’s sexual abuse were appropriate for the book’s audience. Ultimately, I think the story requires some hints at her past in order to explain her behavior and Jared’s parents’ response to his interactions with her, but I think those moments are more mature than the tone of the rest of the book. I could see a third grader being interested and starting to read this book and suddenly being totally thrown off by the mentions of sexual abuse. The book just struck me as younger than its content.
All of those issues aside, though, I think this is a truly well-written story that conveys the complicated emotions kids feel when they know they’re doing the right thing even when an adult says differently. Jared is there for Sophie, no matter the consequences, and in return, Sophie is also there for him, especially when it matters most. Their mutual love of innocent, overlooked, and neglected animals mirrors their affection for each other and provides a great lesson in caring for the weakest among us without judgment or reservation. I appreciated the fact that Sophie’s bad situation gets a fairly positive resolution, but one that is still believable. I also think the story does a nice job of redeeming Jared’s parents, but the redemption felt forced for me since I didn’t really buy into their attitudes toward Sophie in the first place.
Discounting the brief passages about the abuse, this book would make a nice read-alike for some of Andrew Clements’s school stories, and for more serious, literary books like As Simple As It Seems by Sarah Weeks and The Last Best Days of Summer by Valerie Hobbs. It’s also a valuable story to share with kids who are overcoming abusive situations, or to kids who are trying to help friends in similar situations. For middle school kids who like Chris Crutcher, Walking the Dog is another fast-paced friendship story about a kid in a bad situation whose life improves when she makes a good friend.
I received a digital review copy of Walking the Dog from the author.
Hello... Wrong Number. by Marilyn Sachs. 1981. Scholastic. 97 pages. ISBN: 9780590327283
Hello... Wrong Number is a short and sweet paperback YA novel originally published in 1981. A teenage girl named Angie intends to call the object of her affection, a boy named Jim McCone, but when she dials the wrong number, she gets a different Jim. In a series of phone calls, Angie and the wrong Jim become quite close, sharing confidences and saying things to each other they’d never say to anyone else. But they have never met face to face. Will Angie, who can be quite shallow about boys, still like Jim if he doesn’t look as she imagines?
I chose to read this book because it reminded me of a book I loved as a kid, Phone Calls by R.L. Stine. Like Phone Calls, Hello... Wrong Number is a story told almost exclusively in dialogue between the main characters. Though the story is very lighthearted and easily zipped through in one sitting, the dialogue is well-written, bringing the characters right off the page. Both characters’ voices are very strong, and I could almost hear the way they might speak to one another.
Most kids have cell phones now, and caller ID makes it pretty easy to avoid wrong numbers, so it’s hard to say if today’s teens would relate to the story or not. I certainly don’t think most high schoolers in 2012 would name KC and the Sunshine Band as their favorite band, or compare a boy they like to Elton John, as Angie does. Still, Marilyn Sachs is a great author for fans of Paula Danziger, who also always wrote short, fun, romance novels for younger teens. Hello... Wrong Number would work well in a lesson about writing dialogue, and I think it would be fun to hear kids talk about how phone calls have changed since their parents were kids. It's also just a great escapist read for anyone missing the 80s! I purchased Hello... Wrong Number from my local used book store. For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat.
Stupid Fast. by Geoff Herbach. June 1, 2011. Sourcebooks Fire. 311 pages. ISBN: 9781402256301
I am neither male nor sporty, but I have always loved young adult realistic fiction with male narrators and sports themes. How I managed to miss last year’s Stupid Fast, even after it won a 2011 Cybils Award, completely blows my mind. Thankfully, though, a representative from Sourcebooks visited my library system recently, and included in the presentation was a plug for all three of Geoff Herbach’s books about Felton Reinstein.
Felton is fifteen, and lately he’s been dealing with some changes. For one thing, he can’t seem to stop growing, and every inch of him suddenly has hair. His mom, a hippy who insists on being called Jerri, is also starting to lose her mind, a problem which may or may not be related to Felton’s dad’s suicide ten years before. Pretty much overnight, Felton discovers he is fast, and the football team suddenly starts asking him to work out with them even though he’s never played before in his life. On top of that, Felton’s best friend has gone away for the summer and staying in his house is an African-American piano prodigy, whose talent catches Felton’s eye as well as that of his little brother, Andrew, who is also talented on the piano. The entire story is told from Felton’s point of view on one night late in summer when he just can’t fall asleep.
I think the biggest thing that makes me love a book is the main character’s voice, and Felton has one of the best YA voices I’ve read. He reminded me, at times, of some of Chris Crutcher’s characters, like TJ in Whale Talk, and Moby from Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. At other times, I was sure he was channeling Karl Shoemaker from Tales of the Madman Underground or Guy Langman from Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator. Felton is self-aware and self-deprecating, funny even when he thinks he’s not, sometimes selfish, sometimes giving, very talkative, even if only inside his own brain, and messed up in the way that all people are messed up when they’re trying to survive puberty. Being inside his thoughts for 300 pages was a treat, and even now, having finished the first book and not yet moved onto the second, I am carrying Felton around with me, still sometimes seeing the world from his point of view instead of my own. His voice is infectious, and it lingers for a while after the book is over.
Plot-wise, Stupid Fast is just as engaging as its protagonist. Felton’s journey from the weird kid everyone calls “Squirrel Nut” to a confident and competent member of a sports team is interesting enough on its own, but family dysfunction and romance really add to the reader’s interest and keep the pages turning. Jerri’s slow retreat from her duties as mother and Andrew’s strange behaviors in reaction to the loss of his mother actually made me worry for their future, and concern for Felton’s relationship with Aleah after his mom makes a fool of herself in the neighborhood, kept me up until 2 AM when I finally finished the book and felt satisfied.
In addition to the 2011 Cybils Award in Young Adult Fiction, Stupid Fast also received well-deserved recognition from YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, the Junior Library Guild, and the American Booksellers Association. It is one of the funniest books I have ever read, and a great read-alike for books by Allen Zadoff, Josh Berk, Chris Crutcher, Eric Luper, and Rich Wallace. The second book about Felton, entitled Nothing Special, was released in May 2012. I’m With Stupid, the third in the series, will be published in May 2013.
Geoff Herbach can be heard reading the beginning of Stupid Fast (with a few differences from the published text) here - it’s a great preview of the book and just as fun to listen to even if you’ve already read the whole story.
I borrowed Stupid Fastfrom my local public library.
Not Exactly a Love Story by Audrey Couloumbis. December 11, 2012. Random House. 288 pages. ISBN: 9780375867835
Vinnie is fifteen, and his life has undergone some recent major changes. First, he and his mom move to a new town, leaving behind the girl Vinnie has loved from afar for years. Next, his mom falls in love with his new gym teacher, and decides to marry him. Then, Vinnie starts to get interested in a girl in his neighborhood named Patsy, and he makes an obscene phone call to her house to try to get her attention. Patsy is more intrigued than horrified by the call, and soon Vinnie is calling Patsy every night at midnight and the two teens are telling each other things they’d never tell anyone else. There is just one problem with their late-night friendship. Vinnie, who is also getting to know Patsy during the day, has never revealed his identity as the midnight caller, and he’s afraid if he ever does, Patsy will no longer care for him.
Not Exactly a Love Story is set in 1977, which is what makes possible the anonymous phone calls at the heart of the story. In 2012, with cell phones and caller ID, it’s a lot harder for teens like Vinnie to make untraced phone calls to the girls of their dreams, so I imagine that this is why the author chose to set the story in the past. I hesitate to truly call it historical fiction, as it reads similarly to a lot of contemporary YA books, but some references to pop culture and clothing, along with the phone calls, give it a 70s vibe, even if the time period is not of major importance.
Vinnie is a likeable character from the very first page. This is especially important because he’s so isolated and in his own head for much of the story. Being new in school has made finding friends difficult, so there’s not the usual best friend character for him to bounce ideas off of. His mom and the gym teacher play their supporting roles well, but for the most part, the reader is in Vinnie’s head as he sorts out his phone call persona from his true self. Many sections of the story are simply debates Vinnie has with himself over what to say or do next. Thankfully, these debates are interesting and raise a lot of questions, not just about communication, but about identity and honesty. Vinnie also makes observations about Patsy, the boys she dates, and her group of friends, which are among the best parts of the book. I love the way he calls Patsy’s boyfriend Biff, and refers to one of her best friends as Brown Bunny based on how she looks.
Some story threads seemed to me to be left unresolved. Patsy reconnects with a girl named Sissy early in the book in a scene that felt significant in some way, and I kept waiting for Sissy to reappear again later on in some final twist. This did not happen, and I was left wondering why Sissy was in the story at all. I felt the same way about the girl Vinnie leaves behind at the start of the book. Why bother starting the story there, when Patsy is the girl we’re meant to care about? It’s fine to have a story that doesn’t package everything up neatly, but in this case, I felt these story lines had been forgotten rather than intentionally left ambiguous.
Not Exactly a Love Story will appeal to girls, of course, because of the romance angle, but there’s also a lot for teen boys to relate to. Vinnie is similar to other great male narrators from this year: Guy Langman (Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator), Sanskrit Zuckerman (Since You Left Me), and Felton Reinstein (Nothing Special). Fifteen year old boys from any time period can relate to Vinnie’s desire to get the girl of his dreams, and they will sympathize better than anyone with the mistakes he makes on the road to getting what he wants.
Not Exactly a Love Story was published yesterday, December 11, 2012.
I received a digital ARC of Not Exactly a Love Story from Random House via NetGalley.
Turtle and Snake and the Christmas Tree. by Kate Spohn. 2000. Penguin. 32 pages. ISBN: 9780670888672
Turtle and Snake and the Christmas Tree is a Level 1 title in the Viking Easy-to-Read series. The book jacket recommends this reading level for ages 4 to 7, or Preschool to Grade 1 - kids “getting started” with reading.
The story focuses on next door neighbors, Turtle and Snake, who go out on a snowy day to find a Christmas tree. At the tree farm, they become very particular about the types of trees they like. All the trees they find are too tall, too skinny, too wide, or too short. Only when they come back home, disappointed, do they realize the truly perfect Christmas tree is right in their backyard all along.
The text in this reader is very basic, making it perfect for those brand-new readers with just a few sight words under their belts. Sentences are kept short and simple, and certain words are repeated for emphasis. There is a definite pattern to the segment of the story where the two friends point out what they like and dislike about certain trees, where the same structure is repeated four times. The author also makes effective use of lists in the latter half of the book, presenting information in a consistent, predictable way.
The full-color illustrations fill the pages from top to bottom, which gives the book strong visual appeal, even if the animals themselves look sort of unusual. Turtle and Snake aren’t very expressive in their facial expressions, which is too bad, but the color scheme and Henkes-esque mice make up for that and draw the reader into the book anyway. For an adult who is familiar with all types of writing, the story might seem simplistic, and the ending cheesy and predictable, but for those new readers still learning about story structure, reading this book will be a perfect first experience with independent reading.
Share Turtle and Snake and the Christmas Tree with kids who have read the Biscuit books and are ready for a tiny bit more of a challenge. When the holidays are over, also check out the rest of the Turtle and Snake series, including Turtle and Snake Go Camping and Turtle and Snake at Work.
I borrowed Turtle and Snake and the Christmas Tree from my local public library.
Love and Other Perishable Items. by Laura Buzo. December 11, 2012. Random House. 256 pages. ISBN: 9780375870002
Amelia is fifteen years old, and she works at a grocery store in Sydney, Australia. Her mother struggles to work, keep the house, and raise Amelia’s little sister, while her father travels for work and fails to pull his weight. Chris is twenty-one years old, and he too, works at the grocery store, which he calls The Land of Dreams. He’s had his heart broken, badly, and in his notebooks he now documents his quest for the perfect woman, as well as his dilemma over what to do with his life after college graduation. Amelia is deliriously in love with Chris. Chris wishes Amelia were older. Can there be any hope for romance between them?
This book is one of the best contemporary YA novels I have ever read. Typically, in stories where the point of view alternates between two or more characters, there is one point of view that I prefer over the other. In this case, both main characters are so compelling, it’s impossible to choose a favorite. I related so closely to Amelia, whose longing for Chris’s affections mirrors the unrequited love of fifteen-year-old girls everywhere. Many times I wanted to shake her and tell her that there is no way someone six years her senior would fall in love with her, but at other times, I wanted it as much as she did. On the flip side, I could understand completely Chris’s desire to be out on his own, to find a woman who will love him, and to stop hanging around a grocery store filled with high school kids. Amelia and Chris represent two ends of an adolescent spectrum, both of which are part of this “young adult” category. I thought it was such a good idea to bring them together in one story, which will appeal to a wide audience, but whose meaning will change depending on the age and experience of the individual reader. If I’d read this book at fifteen, I would have loved Amelia and misunderstood Chris. If I’d read it at 20, Chris would have been the character I loved most, and I would have dismissed Amelia as annoying and immature. Reading it now, at 30, after having lived through both high school and college, my view of the story is more balanced.
Aside from the strong voices, what impressed me the most about this book was the structure. Amelia’s chapters relate events in her life one month at a time. Then we get to look at Chris’s notebook, where he relates some of the same events, and additional ones that matter to him but not to Amelia. While Amelia’s sections feel like confessions directly to the reader, reading Chris’s chapters made me feel like I was eavesdropping, getting the full story without his knowledge. Knowing in every scene that I would eventually get the other character’s side of the story kept me in almost constant suspense, and I loved the way Chris’s chapters often changed my perspective on what happened in Amelia’s chapters, or vice versa. I also thought it was great that Chris had so much more going on his life that Amelia didn’t know about, but that her crush was still so vital to her day-to-day existence.
The Australian setting was also a treat for me. It was neat to experience Christmas as a summertime holiday, for example. I also appreciated that the US edition of the book wasn’t too Americanized, though I know some changes were made, even to the title. (The Australian title is Good Oil.) I was also thrilled by the grocery store setting. I have been trying for years to write a decent story set in a grocery store, but have never been able to get the details right. Thankfully, Laura Buzo nails it.
This is a great YA novel with lots of emotional depth and detail that rings true for the high school experience and the end-of-college experience. There is some language, drug use, and drinking, but nothing too graphic. I’m pretty sensitive about stuff like that, and the only thing that gave me pause was Chris’s cocaine use, mostly because it seemed to come out of nowhere. Literary allusions and discussions of feminism and philosophy abound in Amelia’s interactions with Chris. I bookmarked many references so I could find out more about them later on. Amelia is fifteen, but I hope that doesn’t put off older teen readers, as this is a sophisticated story that deals with many important coming of age issues, from dating and love to family and careers. I truly can’t recommend this book highly enough, and I hope my readers will share it widely with teens they know and love.
I received a digital ARC of Love and Other Perishable Items from Random House via NetGalley.
A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'Engle. 1973. Square Fish. 240 pages. ISBN: 9780312368593
I have to be in a certain mood to read L’Engle’s books about Meg Murry, which is why it took me a while to get to the next one on my list, A Wind in the Door. The story opens with one of the most memorable lines in children’s literature: “There are dragons in the twins’ vegetable garden.” Charles Wallace is indeed seeing strange creatures in the garden, but that’s the least of his troubles. He’s also being bullied at school where the principal, Mr. Jenkins, fails daily to protect him, and he might be suffering from a disease of his mitochondria, which are endangered by something called farandolae. Meg is very worried about Charles Wallace, so when she is approached by a being named Blajeny, who calls himself a Teacher, and assigned to be partners with a cherubim (a singular being so large he is basically plural) named Proginoskes in the completion of three tests, she accepts the challenge and follows her new allies on a quest to save Charles Wallace and many others from being unnamed by the evil Echthroi.
I give Madeleine L’Engle a lot of credit for being able to keep all of these strange words, beings, and places straight in her mind, because even trying to summarize her books gets tricky quickly! I was iffy about this one at the start - it’s difficult for a realistic fiction reader like me to settle into worlds where large dragon-looking cherubim appear in gardens! Once I did get my bearings, though, I enjoyed reading of Meg’s high-stakes struggle against evil. The concept of naming someone or something in order to show one’s love for it really appealed to me, as did the separation of acts of love from feelings of love. The concept of kything as a means of silent communication is also interesting, and I like the way it adds this subtle layer of closeness to Meg’s relationship with Calvin.
At times, I felt that this book really came close to being too mushy and emotional, but for the most part it walked the line fairly well between too much and just enough. As in A Wrinkle in Time, it’s hard not to consider the religious themes and implications of the story, and I appreciate L’Engle’s willingness to continually take on those big issues. I’m also hugely impressed that she could do so much with a setting - Charles Wallace’s mitochondria - where everything is immersed in darkness and no one moves physically. Everything that happens in the characters’ minds is so interesting and dramatic, and much happens even when it seems like almost nothing is happening. I enjoyed it, too, when L’Engle starts writing in free verse toward the end of the book. I may be a bit more cynical now than I was as a teen, so my reaction was a little bit snide after a while, but I know my fifteen year old self would have related strongly to those sections.
I have read A Wind in the Door once before - in library school- and I remembered it as the best book of the Time Quintet. I didn’t have the same reaction this time, but I did like it, and I plan to continue on with my L’Engle reading list until it’s done. Next up is a story featuring Polly O’Keefe, Dragons in the Waters.
I borrowed A Wind in the Doorfrom my local public library.
Audition & Subtraction. by Amy Fellner Dominy. September 4, 2012. Walker & Company. 272 pages. ISBN:9780802723
Audition & Subtraction is the latest middle grade novel from OyMG author Amy Fellner Dominy. This time, Dominy takes her readers into the world of middle school band competition. Tatum is a clarinetist, and Lori plays flute. They have been best friends forever, and Lori has always been there to play duets with Tatum so she doesn’t have to face the District Honor Band judges on her own. This year, though, there’s a new clarinetist in town, Michael, and not only does he present serious competition for Tatum, he also starts dating Lori. As Lori becomes more and more focused on her relationship with Michael, Tatum worries that she will be more interested in helping her boyfriend succeed than in making sure Tatum plays well at their audition. Tatum thinks the solution might be to play a solo this year instead - after all, her teacher and her good friend Aaron both think she can do it - but it will never be possible until Tatum believes it herself.
I, too, was a middle school clarinet player, and though I never willingly entered any sort of competition, I could relate to Tatum’s desire to play well, and to her fears about doing so on her own in front of strangers. I think the author did a wonderful job of capturing the details of the middle school band environment. I loved the way Tatum and Aaron subtly goofed off during rehearsal, and I nearly cheered when I saw a mention of “Air for Band.” (To this day, when I hear that piece, I am transported back to 7th grade symphonic band. Listen to it here.)
Aside from the wonderful details about band life, I also appreciated the depth of the emotions experienced by Dominy’s characters. Tatum’s doubts in herself are the doubts of every tween girl, which gives the book this great universal girl appeal, but Lori and Michael come across as complex and flawed individuals as well. Lori revels in her newfound attention from boys after her recent weight loss, and Michael frets over the opinions of his professional musician father, who promises to come visit only if his son gets into the Honor Band. The characterization is the strongest aspect of the story because Dominy takes the time to add layers to each character, not just to the protagonist.
The last couple chapters of this book are a little sappy, I won’t deny that, but the ending is so satisfying. I think girls will really see themselves in Tatum, and root for her, and when they finally see her learn how to stand on her own, I hope they feel the same relief and love for her as a character that I felt. I got a little bit teary-eyed reading this story; anyone who had a tough time in middle school will probably do the same.
Audition & Subtraction is a logical read-alike for How to Rock Braces and Glasses, Ten Miles Past Normal, and Notes from an Accidental Band Geek, since all three books have a strong musical theme. It also compares well to some of Lauren Barnholdt’s tween fiction, which also focuses on friendships and dating, but not as much on sex or puberty. (Fun fact: The cover illustration for Audition & Subtraction was done by Nathalie Dion, who also does the covers for Lauren Barnholdt's tween novels!) Audition & Subtraction is a perfect bridge book between things like the Cupcake Diaries and the Baby-sitters Club and the more mature themes of books by authors like Lauren Myracle and Judy Blume. It’s one of my favorite books from this year, and I can’t wait to see where Amy Fellner Dominy takes us next!
I borrowed Audition & Subtraction from my local public library.
Peanut. by Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe. December 26, 2012. Schwartz & Wade. 216 pages. ISBN: 9780375965906
Everyone at Sadie’s new school knows she’s allergic to peanuts. She wears a medical bracelet on her wrist, and a bronzed peanut from her boyfriend, Zoo, around her neck. She promises the nurse she will always have her epi-pen on hand, and she doesn’t buy the peanut butter cookies at the school bake sale. Everyone knows about her allergy. What they don’t know is that it isn’t real. In this forthcoming graphic novel, Sadie learns what happens when a girl desperate for attention weaves a web of lies so thick she can’t find her own way out.
The most outstanding feature of this book, hands down, is the artwork. The illustrator, Paul Hoppe, makes great use of shadow, expression, and perspective in telling the visual component of this story. Though the figures are obviously cartoons and not life-like portraits, they come across as very real, and their different body types and faces reflect the diversity of most large American high schools. I love the way his drawings show the action from different angles - the ceiling of Sadie’s bedroom or the school hallway, Sadie’s point of view as she reads a note from Zoo, or behind Sadie’s computer monitor as her eyes scan internet search results. These different perspectives make the story very dynamic, even when what is happening in the text doesn’t necessarily require a lot of physical movement. I also think it’s great that Sadie’s shirt is colored red while everything else is black, white, and gray. It made it so easy to keep track of her in every scene, and it also just makes the book more visually appealing.
The story itself is also strong at the start. The suspense builds gradually and naturally, and the reader becomes more and more aware of the stress on Sadie as she tries not to reveal the truth about her fake allergy. Unfortunately, I think the resolution comes about too quickly. It is obvious all along that the lie must come out eventually, but the way it happens is predictable and over too soon. The denouement also felt strange to me. Things between Sadie and her mom are resolved way too easily, and I can’t figure out how Zoo’s actions in the final moments of the book relate to his realization about Sadie’s lies. Pacing and plot issues aside, though, the dialogue and characterization are perfect and evoke the everyday details of the high school environment, complete with sexual innuendo and angst.
Peanut seems like a natural choice for readers who have loved Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Drama, though it is a bit more mature than Telgemeier’s tales of middle school. I think it also compares well to books published by the DC Minx imprint such as The New York Four,Good as Lily, and Emiko Superstar. For other books about bending the truth, check out my Pants on Fire reading list.
Peanut will be available on December 26, 2012.
I received a digital ARC of Peanut from Schwartz & Wade via Edelweiss.