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1. Review of the Day: Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

fivechildrenwesternFive Children on the Western Front
By Kate Saunders
Delacorte Press (an imprint of Random House)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-553-49793-9
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Anytime someone writes a new prequel or sequel to an old children’s literary classic, the first question you have to ask is, “Was this necessary?” And nine times out of ten, the answer is a resounding no. No, we need no further adventures in the 100-Acre Woods. No, there’s very little reason to speculate on precisely what happened to Anne before she got to Green Gables. But once in a while an author gets it right. If they’re good they’ll offer food for thought, as when Jacqueline Kelly wrote, Return to the Willows (the sequel to The Wind in the Willows) and Geraldine McCaughrean wrote Peter Pan in Scarlet. And if they’re particularly talented, then they’ll do the series one better. They’ll go and make it smart and pertinent and real and wonderful. They may even improve upon the original. The idea that someone would write a sequel to Five Children and It (and to a lesser extent The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet) is well-nigh short of ridiculous. I mean, you could do it, sure, but why? What’s the point? Well, as author Kate Saunders says of Nesbit’s classic, “Bookish nerd that I was, it didn’t take me long to work out that two of E. Nesbit’s fictional boys were of exactly the right ages to end up being killed in the trenches…” The trenches of WWI, that is. Suddenly we’ve an author who dares to meld the light-hearted fantasy of Nesbit’s classic with the sheer gut-wrenching horror of The War to End All Wars. The crazy thing is, she not only pulls it off but she creates a great novel in the process. One that deserves to be shelved alongside Nesbit’s original for all time.

Once upon a time, five children found a Psammead, or sand fairy, in their back garden. Nine years later, he came back. A lot has happened since this magical, and incredibly grumpy, friend was in the children’s lives. The world stands poised on the brink of WWI. The older children (Cyril, Anthea, Robert, and Jane) have all become teenagers, while the younger kids (Lamb and newcomer Polly) are the perfect age to better get to know the old creature’s heart. As turns out, he has none, or very little to speak of. Long ago, in ancient times, he was worshipped as a god. Now the chickens have come home to roost and he must repent for his past sins or find himself stuck in a world without his magic anymore. And the children? No magic will save them from what’s about to come.

A sequel to a book published more than a hundred years ago is a bit more of a challenge than writing one published, say, fifty. The language is archaic, the ideas outdated, and then there’s the whole racism problem. But even worse is the fact that often you’ll find character development in classic titles isn’t what it is today. On the one hand that can be freeing. The author is allowed to read into someone else’s characters and present them with the necessary complexity they weren’t originally allowed. But it can hem you in as well. These aren’t really your characters, after all. Clever then of Ms. Saunders to age the Lamb and give him a younger sister. The older children are all adolescents or young adults and, by sheer necessity, dull by dint of age. Even so, Saunders does a good job of fleshing them out enough that you begin to get a little sick in the stomach wondering who will live and who will die.

This naturally begs the question of whether or not you would have to read Five Children and It to enjoy this book. I think I did read it a long time ago but all I could really recall was that there were a bunch of kids, the Psammead granted wishes, the book helped inspire the work of Edgar Eager, and the youngest child was called “The Lamb”. Saunders tries to play the book both ways then. She puts in enough details from the previous books in the series to gratify the Nesbit fans of the world (few though they might be) while also catching the reader up on everything that came before in a bright, brisk manner. You do read the book feeling like not knowing Five Children and It is a big gaping gap in your knowledge, but that feeling passes as you get deeper and deeper into the book.

One particular element that Ms. Saunders struggles with the most is the character of the Psammead. To take any magical creature from a 1902 classic and to give him hopes and fears and motivations above and beyond that of a mere literary device is a bit of a risk. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve not read “Five Children and It” in a number of years so I can’t recall if the Psammead was always a deposed god from ancient times or if that was entirely a product from the brain of Ms. Saunders. Interestingly, the author makes a very strong attempt at equating the atrocities of the Psammead’s past (which are always told in retrospect and are never seen firsthand) with the atrocities being committed as part of the war. For example, at one point the Psammead is taken to the future to speak at length with the deposed Kaiser, and the two find they have a lot in common. It is probably the sole element of the book that didn’t quite work for me then. Some of the Psammead’s past acts are quite horrific, and he seems pretty adamantly disinclined to indulge in any serious self-examination. Therefore his conversion at the end of the book didn’t feel quite earned. It’s foolish to wish a 250 page children’s novel to be longer, but I believe just one additional chapter or two could have gone a long way towards making the sand fairy’s change of heart more realistic. Or, at the very least, comprehensible.

When Ms. Saunders figured out the Cyril and Robert were bound for the trenches, she had a heavy task set before her. On the one hand, she was obligated to write with very much the same light-hearted tone of the original series. On the other hand, the looming shadow of WWI couldn’t be downplayed. The solution was to experience the war in much the same way as the characters. They joke about how short their time in the battle will be, and then as the book goes along the darkness creeps into everyday life. One of the best moments, however, comes right at the beginning. The children, young in the previous book, take a trip from 1905 to 1930, visit with their friend the professor, and return back to their current year. Anthea then makes an off-handed comment that when she looked at the photos on the wall she saw plenty of ladies who looked like young versions of their mother but she couldn’t find the boys. It simply says after that, “Far away in 1930, in his empty room, the old professor was crying.”

So do kids need to have read Five Children and It to enjoy this book? I don’t think so, honestly. Saunders recaps the originals pretty well, and I can’t help but have high hopes for the fact that it may even encourage some kids to seek out the originals. I do meet kids from time to time that are on the lookout for historical fantasies, and this certainly fits the bill. Ditto kids with an interest in WWI and (though this will be less common as the years go by) kids who love Downton Abbey. It would be remarkably good for them. Confronting issues of class, disillusion, meaningless war, and empathy, the book transcends its source material and is all the better for it. A beautiful little risk that paid off swimmingly in the end. Make an effort to seek it out.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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2. Review of the Day: Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

cloud-and-wallfishCloud and Wallfish
By Anne Nesbet
Candlewick Press
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-8803-5
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Historical fiction is boring. Right? That’s the common wisdom on the matter, certainly. Take two characters (interesting), give them a problem (interesting), and set them in the past (BOOOOOORING!). And to be fair, there are a LOT of dull-as-dishwater works of historical fiction out there. Books where a kid has to wade through knee-deep descriptions, dates, facts, and superfluous details. But there is pushback against this kind of thinking. Laurie Halse Anderson, for example, likes to call her books (Chains, Forge, Ashes, etc.) “historical thrillers”. People are setting their books in unique historical time periods. And finally (and perhaps most importantly) we’re seeing a lot more works of historical fiction that are truly fun to read. Books like The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, or One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, or My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp, or ALL of Louise Erdrich’s titles for kids. Better add Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet to that list as well. Doing what I can only characterize as the impossible, Nesbet somehow manages to bring East Germany in 1989 to full-blown, fascinating life. Maybe you wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s certainly worth a trip.

His name is Noah. Was Noah. It’s like this, one minute you’re just living your life, normal as you please, and the next your parents have informed you that your name is a lie, your birth date is wrong, and you’re moving to East Berlin. The year is 1989 and as Noah (now Jonah)’s father would say, there’s a definite smell of history in the air. His mother has moved the family to this new city as part of her research into education and stuttering (an impediment that Noah shares) for six months. But finding himself unable to attend school in a world so unlike the one he just left, the boy is lonely. That’s why he’s so grateful when the girl below his apartment, Claudia, befriends him. But there are secrets surrounding these new friends. How did Claudia’s parents recently die? Why are Noah’s parents being so mysterious? And what is going on in Germany? With an Iron Curtain shuddering on its foundations, Noah’s not just going to smell that history in the air. He’s going to live it, and he’s going to get a friend out of the bargain as well.

It was a bit of a risk on Nesbet’s part to begin the book by introducing us to Noah’s parents right off the bat as weirdly suspicious people. It may take Noah half a book to create a mental file on his mom, but those of us not related to the woman are starting our own much sooner. Say, from the minute we meet her. It was very interesting to watch his parents upend their son’s world and then win back his trust by dint of their location as well as their charm and evident love. It almost reads like a dare from one author to another. “I bet you can’t make a reader deeply distrust a character’s parents right from the start, then make you trust them again, then leave them sort of lost in a moral sea of gray, but still likable!” Challenge accepted!

Spoiler Alert on This Paragraph (feel free to skip it if you like surprises): Noah’s mom is probably the most interesting parent you’ll encounter in a children’s book in a long time. By the time the book is over you know several things. 1. She definitely loves Noah. 2. She’s also using his disability to further her undercover activities, just as he fears. 3. She incredibly frightening. The kind of person you wouldn’t want to cross. She and her husband are utterly charming but you get the distinct feeling that Noah’s preternatural ability to put the puzzle pieces of his life together is as much nature as it is nurture. Coming to the end of the book you see that Noah has sent Claudia postcards over the years from places all over the world. Never Virginia. One could read that a lot of different ways but I read it as his mother dragging him along with her from country to country. There may never be a “home” for Noah now. But she loves him, right? I foresee a lot of really interesting bookclub discussions about the ending of this book, to say nothing about how we should view his parents.

As I mentioned before, historical fiction that’s actually interesting can be difficult to create. And since 1989 is clear-cut historical fiction (this is the second time a character from the past shared my birth year in a children’s book . . . *shudder*) Nesbet utilizes several expository techniques to keep young readers (and, let’s face it, a lot of adult readers) updated on what precisely is going on. From page ten onward a series of “Secret Files” boxes will pop up within the text to give readers the low-down. These are written in a catchy, engaging style directly to the reader, suggesting that they are from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who knows the past, the future, and the innermost thoughts of the characters. So in addition to the story, which wraps you in lies and half-truths right from the start to get you interested, you have these little boxes of explanation, giving you information the characters often do not have. Some of these Secret Files are more interesting than others, but as with the Moby Dick portions in Louis Sachar’s The Cardturner, readers can choose to skip them if they so desire. They should be wary, though. A lot of pertinent information is sequestered in these little boxes. I wouldn’t cut out one of them for all the wide wide world.

Another way Nesbet keeps everything interesting is with her attention to detail. The author that knows the minutia of their fictional world is an author who can convince readers that it exists. Nesbet does this by including lots of tiny details few Americans have ever known. The pirated version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that was disseminated for years throughout the German Democratic Republic? I had no idea. The listing of television programs available there? Very funny (did I mention the book is funny too?). Even the food you could get in the grocery store and the smell of the coal-choked air feels authentic.

Of course, you can load your book down with cute boxes and details all day and still lose a reader if they don’t relate to the characters. Noah could easily be reduced to one of those blank slate narrators who go through a book without a clear cut personality. I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case here. And I appreciated the Claudia was never a straight victim or one of those characters that appears impervious to the pain in her life. Similarly, Noah is a stutterer but the book never throws the two-dimensional bully in his path. His challenges are all very strange and unique to his location. I was also impressed by how Nesbet dealt with Claudia’s German (she makes up words or comes up with some Noah has never heard of and so Nesbet has the unenviable job of making that clear on the page). By the same token, Noah has a severe stutter, but having read the whole book I’m pretty sure Nesbet only spells the stutter out on the page once. For every other time we’re told about it after the fact or as it is happening.

I’ve said all this without, somehow, mentioning how lovely Nesbet’s writing is. The degree to which she’s willing to go deep into her material, plucking out the elements that will resonate the most with her young readers, is masterful. Consider a section that explains what it feels like to play the role of yourself in your own life. “This is true even for people who aren’t crossing borders or dealing with police. Many people in middle school, for instance, are pretending to be who they actually are. A lot of bad acting is involved.” Descriptions are delicious as well. When Claudia comes over for dinner after hearing about the death of her parents Nesbet writes, “Underneath the bristles, Noah could tell, lurked a squishy heap of misery.”

There’s little room for nuance in Nesbet’s Berlin, that’s for sure. The East Berliners we meet are either frightened, in charge, or actively rebelling. In her Author’s Note, Nesbet writes about her time in the German Democratic Republic in early 1989, noting where a lot of the details of the book came from. She also mentions the wonderful friends she had there at that time. Noah, by the very plot in which he finds himself, would not be able to meet these wonderful people. As such, he has a black-and-white view of life in East Berlin. And it’s interesting to note that when his classmates talk up the wonders of their society, he never wonders if anything they tell him is true. Is everyone employed? At what price? There is good and bad and if there is nuance it is mostly found in the characters like Noah’s mother. Nesbet herself leaves readers with some very wise words in her Author’s Note when she says to child readers, “Truth and fiction are tangled together in everything human beings do and in every story they tell. Whenever a book claims to be telling the truth, it is wise (as Noah’s mother says at one point) to keep asking questions.” I would have liked a little more gray in the story, but I can hardly think of a better lesson to impart to children in our current day and age.

In many way, the book this reminded me of the most was Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. Think about it. A boy desperate for a friend meets an out-of-the-box kind of girl. They invent a fantasyland together that’s across a distinct border (in this book Claudia imagines it’s just beyond the Wall). Paterson’s book was a meditation on friendship, just like Nesbet’s. Yet there is so much more going on here. There are serious thoughts about surveillance (something kids have to think about a lot more today), fear, revolution, loyalty, and more than all this, what you have to do to keep yourself sane in a world where things are going mad. Alice Through the Looking Glass is referenced repeatedly, and not by accident. Noah has found himself in a world where the rules he grew up with have changed. As a result he must cling to what he knows to be true. Fortunately, he has a smart author to help him along the way. Anne Nesbet always calls Noah by his own name, even when her characters don’t. He is always Noah to us and to himself. That he finds himself in one of the most interesting and readable historical novels written for kids is no small thing. Nesbet outdoes herself. Kids are the beneficiaries.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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3. Review of the Day: Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

RaymieNightingaleRaymie Nightingale
By Kate DiCamillo
Candlewick Press
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-8117-3
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

My relationship to Kate DiCamillo’s books is one built entirely on meaning. Which is to say, the less emotional and meaningful they are, the better I like ‘em. Spaghetti loving horses and girls that live in tree houses? Right up my alley! China rabbits and mice with excessive earlobes? Not my cup of tea. It’s good as a reviewer to know your own shortcomings and I just sort of figured that I’d avoid DiCamillo books when they looked deep and insightful. And when the cover for Raymie Nightingale was released it was easily summarized in one word: Meaningful. A girl, seen from behind, stands ankle-deep in water holding a single baton. Still, I’ve had a good run of luck with DiCamillo as of late and I was willing to push it. I polled my friends who had read the book. The poor souls had to answer the impossible question, “Will I like it?” but they shouldered the burden bravely. Yes, they said. I would like it. I read it. And you know what? I do like it! It is, without a doubt, one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but I like it a lot. I like the wordplay, the characters, and the setting. I like what the book has to say about friendship and being honest with yourself and others. I like the ending very very much indeed (it has a killer climax that I feel like I should have seen coming, but didn’t). I do think it’s a different kind of DiCamillo book than folks are used to. It’s her style, no bones about it, but coming from a deeper place than her books have in the past. In any case, it’s a keeper. Meaning plus pep.

Maybe it isn’t much of a plan, but don’t tell Raymie that. So far she thinks she has it all figured out. Since her father skipped town with that dental hygienist, things haven’t been right in Raymie’s world. The best thing to do would be to get her father back, so she comes up with what surely must be a sure-fire plan. She’ll just learn how to throw a baton, enter the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, win, and when her father sees her picture in the paper he’ll come on home and all will be well. Trouble (or deliverance) comes in the form of Louisiana and Beverly, the two other girls who are taking this class with Ida Nee (the baton-twirling instructor). Unexpectedly, the three girls become friends and set about to solve one another’s problems. Whether it’s retrieving library books from scary nursing home rooms, saving cats, or even lives, these three rancheros have each other’s backs just when they need them most.

DiCamillo has grown as an author over the years. So much so that when she begins Raymie Nightingale she dives right into the story. She’s trusting her child readers to not only stick with what she’s putting down, but to decipher it as well. As a result, some of them are going to experience some confusion right at the tale’s beginning. A strange girl seemingly faints, moaning about betrayal in front of a high-strung baton instructor. Our heroine stands impressed and almost envious. Then we learn about Raymie’s father and the whole enterprise takes a little while to coalesce. It’s a gutsy choice. I suspect that debut authors in general would eschew beginning their books in this way. A pity, since it grabs your attention by an act of simple befuddlement.

Initial befuddlement isn’t enough to keep you going, though. You need a hook to sustain you. And in a book like this, you find that the characters are what stay with you the longest. Raymie in particular. It isn’t just about identification. The kid reading this book is going to impress on Raymie like baby birds impress on sock puppet mamas. She’s like Fone Bone in Jeff Smith’s series. She’s simultaneously a mere outline of a character and a fully fleshed out human being. Still, she’s an avatar for readers. We see things through her rather than with her. And sure, her name is also the title, but names are almost always titles for Kate DiCamillo (exceptions being The Magician’s Elephant, The Tiger Rising, and that Christmas picture book, of course). If you’re anything like me, you’re willing to follow the characters into absurdity and back. When Beverly says of her mother that, “Now she’s just someone who works in the Belknap Tower gift shop selling canned sunshine and rubber alligators” you go with it. You don’t even blink. The setting is almost a character as well. I suspect DiCamillo’s been away from Florida too long. Not in her travels, but in her books. Children’s authors that willingly choose to set their books in the Sunshine State do so for very personal reasons. DiCamillo’s Florida is vastly different from that of Carl Hiaasen’s, for example. It’s a Florida where class exists and is something that permeates everything. Few authors dare to consider lower or lower middle classes, but it’s one of the things I’ve always respected about DiCamillo in general.

Whenever I write a review for a book I play around with the different paragraphs. Should I mention that the book is sad at the beginning of the review or at the end? Where do I put my theory about historical fiction? Should character development be after the plot description paragraph or further in? But when it comes to those written lines I really liked in a book, that kind of stuff shouldn’t have to wait. For example, I adore the lines, “There was something scary about watching an adult sleep. It was as if no one at all were in charge of the world.” DiCamillo excels in the most peculiar of details. One particular favorite was the small paper cups with red riddles on their sides. The Elephantes got them for free because they were misprinted without answers. It’s my secret hope that when DiCamillo does school visits for this book she’ll ask the kids in the audience what the answer to the riddle, “What has three legs, no arms, and reads the paper all day long?” might be. It’s her version of “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Now let us discuss a genre: Historical fiction. One question. Why? Not “Why does it exist?” but rather “Why should any novel for kids be historical?” The easy answer is that when you write historical fiction you have built in, legitimate drama. The waters rise during Hurricane Katrina or San Francisco’s on fire. But this idea doesn’t apply to small, quiet novels like Raymie Nightingale. Set in the summer of 1975, there are only the barest of nods to the time period. Sometimes authors do this when the book is semi-autobiographical, as with Jenni Holm’s Sunny Side Up. Since this novel is set in Central Florida and DiCamillo grew up there, there’s a chance that she’s using the setting to draw inspiration for the tale. The third reason authors sometimes set books in the past is that it frees them up from the restrictions of the internet and cell phone (a.k.a. guaranteed plot killers). Yet nothing that happens in Raymie Nightingale requires that cell phones remain a thing of the past. The internet is different. Would that all novels could do away with it. Still, in the end I’m not sure that this book necessarily had to be historical. It’s perfectly fine. A decent time period to exist in. Just not particularly required one way or another.

Obviously the book this feels like at first is Because of Winn-Dixie. Girl from a single parent home finds friendship and (later rather than sooner, in the case of Raymie Nightingale) an incredibly ugly dog. But what surprised me about Raymie was that this really felt more like Winn-Dixie drenched in sadness. Sadness is important to DiCamillo. As an author, she’s best able to draw out her characters and their wants if there’s something lost inside of them that needs to be found. In this case, it’s Raymie’s father, the schmuck who took off with his dental hygienist. Of course all the characters are sad in different ways here. About the time you run across the sinkhole (the saddest of all watery bodies) on page 235 you’re used to it.

Sure, there are parts of the book I could live without. The parts about Raymie’s soul are superfluous. The storyline of Isabelle and the nursing home isn’t really resolved. On the flip side, there are lots of other elements within these pages that strike me as fascinating, like for example why the only men in the book are Raymie’s absent father, an absent swimming coach, a librarian, and a janitor. Now when I was a child I avoided sad children’s books like the plague. You know what won the Newbery in the year that I was born? Bridge to Terabithia. And to this day I eschew them at all costs. But though this book is awash in personal tragedies, it’s not a downer. It’s tightly written and full of droll lines and, yes I admit it. It’s meaningful. But the meaning you cull from this book is going to be different for every single reader. Whip smart and infinitely readable, this is DiCamillo at her best. Time to give it a go, folks.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Song to Listen to With This Book: King of the Road
Alternative Song: I Wanna Hold Your Hand

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4. Review of the Day: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

WolfHollowWolf Hollow
By Lauren Wolk
Dutton Children’s Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1101994825
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now.

I am not what you might call a very brave reader. This is probably why I primarily consume children’s literature. I might puff myself up with a defense that lists the many fine aspects of this particular type of writing and believe it too, but sometimes when you catch me in a weak moment I might confess that another reason I like reading books for kids is that the content is so very “safe” in comparison to books for adults. Disturbing elements are kept at a minimum. There’s always a undercurrent of hope running through the book, promising that maybe we don’t live in a cold, cruel, calculating universe that cares for us not one jot. Even so, that doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes have difficulty with books written for, oh say, 10-year-olds. I do. I’m not proud of it, but I do. So when I flipped to the back of Wolf Hollow mid-way through reading it, I want to tell you that I did so not because I wanted to spoil the ending for myself but because I honestly couldn’t turn another page until I knew precisely how everything was going to fall out. In her debut children’s book, Lauren Wolk dives head first into difficult material. A compelling author, the book is making the assumption that child readers will want to see what happens to its characters, even when the foreshadowing is so thick you’d need a knife to cut through it. Even when the ending may not be the happy one everyone expects. And you know what? The book might be right.

It is fair to say that if Betty Glengarry hadn’t moved to western Pennsylvania in the autumn of 1943 then Annabelle would not have needed to become a liar later. Betty looks the part of the blond, blue-eyed innocent, but that exterior hides a nasty spirit. Within days of her arrival she’s threatened Annabelle and said in no uncertain terms that unless she’s brought something special she’ll take it out on the girl’s little brothers. Annabelle is saved from Betty’s threats by Toby, a war veteran with issues of his own. That’s when Betty begins a more concentrated campaign of pain. Rocks are thrown. Accusations made. There’s an incident that comes close to beheading someone. And then, when things look particularly bad, Annabelle disappears. And so does Toby. Now Annabelle finds herself trying to figure out what is right, what is wrong, and whether lies can ever lead people to the truth.

Right off the bat I’m going to tell you that this is a spoiler-rific review. I’ve puzzled it over but I can’t for the life of me figure out how I’d be able to discuss what Wolk’s doing here without giving away large chunks o’ plot. So if you’re the kind of reader who prefers to be surprised, walk on.

All gone? Okay. Let’s get to it.

First and foremost, let’s talk about why this book was rough going for me. I understand that “Wolf Hollow” is going to be categorized and tagged as a “bully book” for years to come, and I get that. But Betty, the villain of the piece, isn’t your average mean girl. I hesitate to use the word “sadistic” but there’s this cold undercurrent to her that makes for a particularly chilling read. Now the interesting thing is that Annabelle has a stronger spine than, say, I would in her situation. Like any good baddie, Betty identifies the girl’s weak spot pretty quickly (Annabelle’s younger brothers) and exploits it as soon as she is able. Even so, Annabelle does a good job of holding her own. It’s when Betty escalates the threat (and I do mean escalates) that you begin to wonder why the younger girl is so adamant to keep her parents in the dark about everything. If there is any weak spot in the novel, it’s a weak spot that a lot of books for middle grade titles share. Like any good author, Wolk can’t have Annabelle tattle to her parents because otherwise the book’s momentum would take a nose dive. Fortunately this situation doesn’t last very long and when Annabelle does at last confide in her very loving parents Betty adds manipulation to her bag of tricks. It got to the point where I honestly had to flip to the back of the book to see what would happen to everyone and that is a move I NEVER do. But there’s something about Betty, man. I think it might have something to do with how good she is at playing to folks’ preexisting prejudices.

Originally author Lauren Wolk wrote this as a novel for adults. When it was adapted into a book for kids she didn’t dumb it down or change the language in a significant manner. This accounts for some of the lines you’ll encounter in the story that bear a stronger import than some books for kids. Upon finding the footsteps of Betty in the turf, Annabelle remarks that they “were deep and sharp and suggested that she was more freighted than she could possibly be.” Of Toby, “He smelled a lot like the woods in thaw or a dog that’s been out in the rain. Strong, but not really dirty.” Maybe best of all, when Annabelle must help her mother create a salve for Betty’s poison ivy, “Together, we began a brew to soothe the hurt I’d prayed for.”

I shall restrain myself from describing to you fully how elated I was when I realized the correlation between Betty down in the well and the wolves that were trapped in the hollow so very long ago. Betty is a wolf. A duplicitous, scheming, nasty girl with a sadistic streak a mile wide. The kind of girl who would be more than willing to slit the throat of an innocent boy for sport. She’s a lone wolf, though she does find a mate/co-conspirator of sorts. Early in the book, Wolk foreshadows all of this. In a conversation with her grandfather, Annabelle asks if, when you raised it right, a wolf could become a dog. “A wolf is not a dog and never will be . . . no matter how you raise it.” Of course you might call Toby a lone wolf as well. He doesn’t seek out the company of other people and, like a wolf, he’s shot down for looking like a threat.

What Wolk manages to do is play with the reader’s desire for righteous justice. Sure Annabelle feels conflicted about Betty’s fate in the will but will young readers? There is no doubt in my mind that young readers in bookclubs everywhere will have a hard time feeling as bad for the antagonist’s fate as Annabelle does. Even at death’s door, the girl manages the twist the knife into Toby one last time. I can easily see kids in bookclub’s saying, “Sure, it must be awful to be impaled in a well for days on end . . . . buuuut . . . .” Wolk may have done too good a job delving deep into Betty’s dark side. It almost becomes a question of grace. We’re not even talking about forgiveness here. Can you just feel bad about what’s happened to the girl, even if it hasn’t changed her personality and even if she’s still awful? Wolk might have discussed after Betty’s death the details of her family situation, but she chooses not to. She isn’t making it easy for us. Betty lives and dies a terrible human being, yet oddly we’re the ones left with the consequences of that.

In talking with other people about the book, some have commented about what it a relief it was that Betty didn’t turn into a sweet little angel after her accident. This is true, but there is also no time. There will never be any redemption for Betty Glengarry. We don’t learn any specific details about her unhappy home life or what it was that turned her into the pint-sized monster she is. And her death comes in that quiet, unexpected way that so many deaths do come to us. Out of the blue and with a whisper. For all that she spent time in the well, she lies until her very last breath about how she got there. It’s like the novel Atonement with its young liar, but without the actual atoning.

Wolk says she wrote this book and based much of it on her own family’s stories. Her memories provided a great deal of the information because, as she says, even the simplest life on a Pennsylvanian farm can yield stories, all thanks to a child’s perspective. There will be people who compare it to To Kill a Mockingbird but to my mind it bears more in common with The Crucible. So much of the book examines how we judge as a society and how that judgment can grow out of hand (the fact that both this book and Miller’s play pivot on the false testimony of young girls is not insignificant). Now I’ll tell you the real reason I flipped to the back of the book early. With Wolf Hollow Wolk threatens child readers with injustice. As you read, there is a very great chance that Betty’s lies will carry the day and that she’ll never be held accountable for her actions. It doesn’t work out that way, though the ending isn’t what you’d call triumphant for Annabelle either. It’s all complicated, but it was that unknowing midway through the book that made me need to see where everything was going. In this book there are pieces to pick apart about lying, truth, the greater good, minority vs. majority opinions, the price of honesty and more. For that reason, I think it very likely it’ll find itself in good standing for a long time to come. A book unafraid to be uneasy.

On shelves now.

Source: Thanks to Penguin Random House for passing on the galley.

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5. Review of the Day: The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

InquisitorsTaleThe Inquisitor’s Tale or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog
By Adam Gidwitz
Illuminated by Hatem Aly
Dutton Children’s Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-525-42616-5
Ages 9 and up
On shelves September 27th

God’s hot this year.

To be fair, God has had some fairly strong supporters for quite some time. So if I’m going to clarify that statement a tad, God’s hot in children’s literature this year. Even then, that sentence is pretty vague. Here in America there are loads of Christian book publishers out there, systematically putting out title after title after title each and every year about God, to say nothing of publishers of other religions as well. Their production hasn’t increased hugely in 2016, so why the blanket statement? A final clarification, then: God is hot in children’s books from major non-Christian publishers this year. Ahhhh. That’s better. Indeed, in a year when serious literary consideration is being heaped upon books like John Hendrix’s Miracle Man, in walks Adam Gidwitz and his game changing The Inquisitor’s Tale. Now I have read my fair share of middle grade novels for kids, and I tell you straight out that I have never read a book like this. It’s weird, and unfamiliar, and religious, and irreligious, and more fun than it has any right to be. Quite simply, Gidwitz found himself a holy dog, added in a couple proto-saints, and voila! A book that’s part superhero story, part quixotic holy quest, and part Canterbury Tales with just a whiff of intrusive narration for spice. In short, nothing you’ve encountered in all your livelong days. Bon appétit.

The dog was dead to begin with. A greyhound with a golden muzzle that was martyred in defense of a helpless baby. As various pub goers gather in the year 1242 to catch a glimpse of the king, they start telling stories about this dog that came back from the dead, its vision-prone mistress (a peasant girl named Jeanne), a young monk blessed with inhuman strength (William, son of a lord and a North African woman), and a young Jewish boy with healing capabilities (Jacob). These three very different kids have joined together in the midst of a country in upheaval. Some see them as saints, some as the devil incarnate, and before this tale is told, the King of France himself will seek their very heads. An extensive Author’s Note and Annotated Bibliography appear at the end.

If you are familiar with Mr. Gidwitz’s previous foray into middle grade literature (the Grimm series) then you know he has a penchant for giving the child reader what it wants. Which is to say, blood. Lots of it. In his previous books he took his cue from the Grimm brothers and their blood-soaked tales. Here his focus is squarely on the Middle Ages (he would thank you not to call them “The Dark Ages”), a time period that did not lack for gore. The carnage doesn’t really begin in earnest until William starts (literally) busting heads, and even then the book feels far less sanguine than Gidwitz’s other efforts. I mean, sure, dogs die and folks are burned alive, but that’s pretty tame by Adam’s previous standards. Of course, what he lacks in disembowelments he makes up for with old stand-bys like vomit and farts. Few can match the man’s acuity for disgusting descriptions. He is a master of the explicit and kids just eat that up. Not literally of course. That would be gross. As a side note, he has probably included the word “ass” more times in this book than all the works of J.M. Barrie and Roald Dahl combined. I suspect that if this book is ever challenged in schools or libraries it won’t be for the copious entrails or discussions about God, but rather because at one point the word “ass” (as it refers to a donkey) appears three times in quick, unapologetic succession. And yes, it’s hilarious when it does.

So let’s talk religious persecution, religious fundamentalism, and religious tolerance. As I write this review in 2016 and politicians bandy hate speech about without so much as a blink, I can’t think of a book written for kids more timely than this. Last year I asked a question of my readers: Can a historical children’s book contain protagonists with prejudices consistent with their time period? Mr. Gidwitz seeks to answer that question himself. His three heroes are not shining examples of religious tolerance born of no outside influence. When they escape together they find that they are VERY uncomfortable in one another’s presence. Mind you, I found William far more tolerant of Jacob than I expected (though he does admittedly condemn Judaism once in the text). His dislike of women is an interesting example of someone rejecting some but not all of the childhood lessons he learned as a monk. Yet all three kids fear one another as unknown elements and it takes time and a mutually agreed upon goal to get them from companionship to real friendship.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, religion doesn’t usually get much notice in middle grade books for kids from major publishers these days. And you certainly won’t find discussions about the differences between Christianity and Judaism, as when the knight Marmeluc tries to determine precisely what it is to be Jewish. What I appreciated about this book was how Gidwitz distinguished between the kind of Christianity practiced by the peasants versus the kind practiced by the educated and rich. The peasants have no problem worshipping dogs as saints and even the local priest has a wife that everyone knows he technically isn’t supposed to have. The educated and rich then move to stamp out these localized beliefs which, let’s face it, harken back to the people’s ancestors’ paganism.

Race also comes up a bit, with William’s heritage playing a part now and then, but the real focus is reserved for the history of Christian/Jewish interactions. Indeed, in his wildly extensive Author’s Note at the end, Gidwitz makes note of the fact that race relations in Medieval Europe were very different then than today. Since it preceded the transatlantic slave trade, skin color was rare and contemporary racism remains, “the modern world’s special invention.” There will probably still be objections to the black character having the strength superpower rather than the visions or healing, but he’s also the best educated and intelligent of the three. I don’t think you can ignore that fact.

As for the writing itself, that’s what you’re paying your money for at the end of the day. Gidwitz is on fire here, making medieval history feel fresh and current. For example, when the Jongleur says that some knights are, “rich boys who’ve been to the wars . . . Not proper at all. But still rich,” that’s a character note slid slyly into the storytelling. Other lines pop out at you too. Here are some of my other favorites:

• About that Jongleur, “… he looks like the kind of child who has seen too much of life, who’s seen more than most adults. His eyes are both sharp and dead at the same time. As if he won’t miss anything, because he’s seen it all already.”
• “Jeanne’s mother’s gaze lingered on her daughter another moment, like an innkeeper waiting for the last drop of ale from the barrel tap.”
• “The lord and lady welcomed the knights warmly. Well, the lady did. Lord Bertulf just sat in his chair behind the table, like a stick of butter slowly melting.”
• “Inside her, grand castles of comprehension, models of the world as she had understood it, shivered.”
• And Gidwitz may also be the only author for children who can write a sentence that begins, “But these marginalia contradicted the text…” and get away with it.

Mind you, Gidwitz paints himself into a pretty little corner fairly early on. To rest this story almost entirely on the telling of tales in a pub, you need someone who doesn’t just know the facts of one moment or the next but who could claim to know our heroes’ interior life. So each teller comes to mention each child’s thoughts and feelings in the course of their tale. The nun in the book bears the brunt of this sin, and rather than just let that go Gidwitz continually has characters saying things like, “I want to know if I’m sitting at a table filled with wizards and mind readers.” I’m not sure if I like the degree to which Gidwitz keeps bringing this objection up, or if it detracts from the reading. What I do know is that he sort of cheats with the nun. She’s the book’s deux ex machina (or, possibly the diaboli ex machina) acting partly as an impossibility and partly as an ode to the author’s love of silver haired librarians and teachers out there with “sparkling eyes, and a knowing smile.”

Since a large portion of the story is taken up with saving books as objects, it fits that this book itself should be outfitted with all the beauties of its kind. If we drill down to the very mechanics of the book, we find ourselves admiring the subtleties of fonts. Every time a tale switches between the present day and the story being told, the font changes as well. But to do it justice, the story has been illuminated (after a fashion) by artist Hatem Aly. I have not had the opportunity to see the bulk of his work on this story. I do feel that the cover illustration of William is insufficiently gargantuan, but that’s the kind of thing they can correct in the paperback edition anyway.

Fairy tales and tales of saints. The two have far more in common than either would like to admit. Seen in that light, Gidwitz’s transition from pure unadulterated Grimm to, say, Lives of the Improbable Saints and Legends of the Improbable Saints is relatively logical. Yet here we have a man who has found a way to tie-in stories about religious figures to the anti-Semitism that is still with us to this day. At the end of his Author’s Note, Gidwitz mentions that as he finished this book, more than one hundred and forty people were killed in Paris by terrorists. He writes of Medieval Europe, “It was a time when people were redefining how they lived with the ‘other,’ with people who were different from them.” The echoes reverberate today. Says Gidwitz, “I can think of nothing sane to say about this except this book.” Sermonizers, take note.

On shelves September 27th.

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6. Review of the Day: Makoons by Louise Edrich

MakoonsMakoons
By Louise Erdrich
Harper Collins
$16.99
ISBN: 9780060577933
Ages 7-12
On shelves now

They say these days you can’t sell a novel for kids anymore without the book having some kind of “sequel potential”. That’s not really true, but there are a heck of a lot of series titles out there for the 7 to 12-year-old set, that’s for sure. New series books for children are by their very definition sort of odd for kids, though. If you’re an adult and you discover a new series, waiting a year or two for the next book to come out is a drop in the bucket. Years fly by for grown-ups. The wait may be mildly painful but it’s not going to crush you. But series for kids? That’s another matter entirely. Two years go by and the child has suddenly become an entirely different person. They may have switched their loyalties from realistic historical fiction to fantasy or science fiction or (heaven help us) romance even! It almost makes more sense just to hand them series that have already completed their runs, so that they can speed through them without breaking the spell. Almost makes more sense . . . but not quite. Not so long as there are series like “The Birchbark House Series” by Louise Erdrich. It is quite possibly the only historical fiction series currently underway for kids that has lasted as long as seventeen years and showing no sign of slowing down until it reaches its conclusion four books from now, Erdrich proves time and time again that she’s capable of ensnaring new readers and engaging older ones without relying on magic, mysteries, or post-apocalyptic mayhem. And if she manages to grind under her heel a couple stereotypes about what a book about American Indians in the past is “supposed” to be (boring/serious/depressing) so much the better.

Chickadee is back, and not a second too soon. Had he been returned to his twin brother from his kidnapping any later, it’s possible that Makoons would have died of the fever that has taken hold of his body. As it is, Chickadee nurses his brother back to health, but not before Makoons acquires terrifying visions of what is to come. Still, there’s no time to dwell on that. The buffalo are on the move and his family and tribe are dedicated to sustaining themselves for the winter ahead. There are surprises along the way as well. A boasting braggart by the name of Gichi Noodin has joined the hunt, and his posturing and preening are as amusing to watch as his mistakes are vast. The tough as nails Two Strike has acquired a baby lamb and for reasons of her own is intent on raising it. And the twin brothers adopt a baby buffalo of their own, though they must protect it against continual harm. All the while the world is changing for Makoons and his family. Soon the buffalo will leave, more settlers will displace them, and three members of the family will leave, never to return. Fortunately, family sustains, and while the future may be bleak, the present has a lot of laughter and satisfaction waiting at the end of the day.

While I have read every single book in this series since it began (and I don’t tend to follow any other series out there, except possibly Lockwood & Co.) I don’t reread previous books when a new one comes out. I don’t have to. Neither, I would argue, would your kids. Each entry in this series stands on its own two feet. Erdrich doesn’t spend inordinate amounts of time catching the reader up, but you still understand what’s going on. And you just love these characters. The books are about family, but with Makoons I really felt the storyline was more about making your own family than the family you’re born into. At the beginning of this book Makoons offers the dire prediction that he and his brother will be able to save their family members, but not all of them. Yet by the story’s end, no matter what’s happened, the family has technically only decreased by two people, because of the addition of another.

Erdrich has never been afraid of filling her books with a goodly smattering of death, dismemberment, and blood. I say that, but these do not feel like bloody books in the least. They have a gentleness about them that is remarkable. Because we are dealing with a tribe of American Indians (Ojibwe, specifically) in 1866, you expect this book to be like all the other ones out there. Is there a way to tell this story without lingering on the harm caused by the American government to Makoons, his brother, and his people? Makoons and his family always seem to be outrunning the worst of the American government’s forces, but they can’t run forever. Still, I think it’s important that the books concentrate far more on their daily lives and loves and sorrows, only mentioning the bloodthirsty white settlers on occasion and when appropriate. It’s almost as if the reader is being treated in the same way as Makoons and his brother. We’re getting some of the picture but we’re being spared its full bloody horror. That is not to say that this is a whitewashed narrative. It isn’t at all. But it’s nice that every book about American Indians of the past isn’t exactly the same. They’re allowed to be silly and to have jokes and fun moments too.

That humor begs a question of course. Question: When is it okay to laugh at a character in a middle grade novel these days? It’s not a simple question. With a high concentration on books that promote kindness rather than bullying, laughing at any character, even a bad guy, is a tricky proposition. And that goes double if the person you’re laughing at is technically on your side. Thank goodness for self-delusion. As long as a character refuses to be honest with him or herself, the reader is invited to ridicule them alongside the other characters. It may not be nice, but in the world of children’s literature it’s allowed. So meet Gichi Noodin, a pompous jackass of a man. This is the kind of guy who could give Narcissus lessons in self-esteem. He’s utterly in love with his own good looks, skills, you name it. For this reason he’s the Falstaff of the book (without the melancholy). He serves a very specific purpose in the book as the reader watches his rise, his fall, and his redemption. It’s not very often that the butt of a book’s jokes is given a chance to redeem himself, but Gichi Noodin does precisely that. That storyline is a small part of the book, smaller even than the tale of Two Strike’s lamb, but I loved the larger repercussions. Even the butt of the joke can save the day, given the chance.

Makoons2As with all her other books Erdrich does a E.L. Konigsburg and illustrates her own books (and she can even do horses – HORSES!). Her style is, as ever, reminiscent of Garth Williams’ with soft graphite pencil renderings of characters and scenes. These are spotted throughout the chapters regularly, and combined with the simplicity of the writing they make the book completely appropriate bedtime reading for younger ages. The map at the beginning is particularly keen since it not only highlights the locations in each part of the story but also hints at future storylines to come. Of these pictures the sole flaw is the book jacket. You see the cover of this book is a touch on the misleading side since at no point in this story does Makoons ever attempt to feed any baby bears (a terrible idea, namesake or no). Best to warn literal minded kids from the start that that scene is not happening.  Then again, this appears to be a scene from the first book in the series, The Birchbark House, where Makoons’ mother Omakayas feeds baby bears as a girl.  Not sure why they chose to put it on the cover this book but it at least explains where it came from.

It is interesting that the name of this book is Makoons since Chickadee shares as much of the spotlight, if not a little more so, than his sickly brother. That said, it is Makoons who has the vision of the future, Makoons who offers the haunting prediction at the story’s start, and Makoons who stares darkly into an unknown void at the end, alone in the misery he knows is certain to come. Makoons is the Cassandra of this story, his predictions never believed until they are too late. And yet, this isn’t a sad or depressing book. The hope that emanates off the pages survives the buffalos’ sad departure, the sickness that takes two beloved characters, and the knowledge that the only thing this family can count on in the future is change. But they have each other and they are bound together tightly. Even Pinch, that trickster of previous books, is acquiring an odd wisdom and knowledge of his own that may serve the family well into the future. Folks often recommend these books as progressive alternatives to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, but that’s doing them a disservice. Each one of these titles stands entirely on its own, in a world of its own making. This isn’t some sad copy of Wilder’s style but a wholly original series of its own making. The kid who starts down the road with this family is going to want to go with them until the end. Even if it takes another seventeen years. Even if they end up reading the last few books to their own children. Whatever it takes, we’re all in this together, readers, characters, and author. Godspeed, Louise Erdrich.

For ages 7-12

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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7. About Suzanne Lieurance, author of 'The Locket: Surviving the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire'

Thank you for following the virtual tour for my historical novel, The Locket: Surviving the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire from Enslow Publishers. Although the tragic event that is the basis for this book happened over 100 years ago, I think it is important for children today to know and understand what life was like for the garment workers in New York City back then.

Obviously, this book was designed for classroom use as a way to supplement the regular social studies textbooks when it comes to helping students learn about events in American history. But I think readers enjoy the book mainly because they get to know and like the main character, Galena, an eleven-year-old Russian-Jewish immigrant, who lives in New York City with her family and works at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory with her older sister, Anya. 

When I visit schools across the country I sometimes talk to students about using real events in history as the basis for creating fictional stories. I even have a workshop about this, so I can guide students to choose historical events to research so they can create fictional characters who witnessed these events.

I love to visit schools, libraries, and bookstores to talk about my writing and my books. I particularly enjoy helping teachers and school librarians see how they can use nonfiction to help students write better fiction. Teachers and librarians can find out more about my school visits at my website at http://www.suzannelieurance.com

If you’re a teacher, librarian, or a parent who homeschools, download a free Educator’s Guide for The Locket here now.

Here are a few short reviews of the book:

"The author has done a wonderful job on character development and the description of the fire in the factory was compelling."
"The fictionalization of a real historical event and the dramatization of early labor issues involves reader[s] in a fast-paced, gripping story hard to put down."
"This book will serve to inform readers on the working climate of the time as well as the struggles of immigrants to conform to a new country and new society."
"Woven together in perfect compatibility, the historical background and fictional plot give readers a clear insight into Jewish immigrants and ritual . . . and unfair labor practices, and there is excellent foreshadowing of the fire."
". . . brings American history to life through fictional characters and historically accurate plots."
". . . an insightful story that will appeal to young readers as well as providing them with a clear understanding of the working conditions at the time . . . a very well written book that will relate well to many young readers."
-----------------------------
Suzanne Lieurance is an author, freelance writer, writing coach, speaker and workshop presenter. She is a former classroom teacher and was an instructor for the Institute of Children's Literature for over 8 years.

Lieurance has written over two dozen published books and her articles and stories have appeared in various magazines, newsletters, and newspapers, such as Family Fun, Instructor, New Moon for Girls, KC Weddings, The Journal of Reading, and Children's Writer to name a few. She offers a variety of coaching programs via private phone calls, teleclasses, listserv, and private email for writers who want to turn their love of writing (for children and/or adults) into a part-time or full-time career.

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8. Review of the Day: West of the Moon by Margi Preus

WestMoon1 334x500 Review of the Day: West of the Moon by Margi PreusWest of the Moon
By Margi Preus
Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams)
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1-4197-0896-1
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now.

These are dark times for children’s literature. Pick up a book for the 9-12 year-old set and you just don’t know what you’re going to find. Whether it’s the murderous foliage of The Night Gardener, the implications of Nightingale’s Nest, or the serious subject matter of The Red Pencil, 2014 is probably best described as the year everything went dark. Don’t expect West of the Moon to lighten the mood any either. Like those books I just mentioned, it’s amazing. Dark and resilient with a core theme that simply cannot be ignored. Yet for all that Preus has tapped into a bit of harsh reality with her title that may give pause to all but the stoutest hearts. Fortunately, she tempers this reality with an artist’s license. With folktales and beautifully written prose. With a deep sisterly bond, and a serious consideration of what is right and what wrong and what is necessary in desperate circumstances. I don’t expect everyone to read this book and instantly love it, but I do expect people to read it. Slow to start, smart when it continues, and unlike anything you’ve ever really read before.

“Now I know how much I’m worth: not as much as Jesus, who I’m told was sold for thirty pieces of silver. I am worth two silver coins and a haunch of goat.” That’s Astri, discussing the fact that her aunt and uncle have just essentially sold her to Svaalberd, the local goat herder. Though she is loathe to go, she knows that she has little choice in the matter, and must leave her little sister behind with her foul relatives. Svaalberd turns out to be even fouler, however, and as she plans her escape Astri hits up on the idea of leaving Norway and going to America. With time and opportunity she makes good her plans, taking little sister Greta with her, protecting the both of them, and making difficult choices every step of the way.

I’ll just give away the game right from the start and confess to you that I’m a big time fan of this book. It’s sort of a brilliant combination of realism with folktales and writing that just cuts to the heart thanks to a heroine who is not entirely commendable (a rarity in this day and age). But I also experienced a very personal reaction to the book that as much to do with Preus’s extensive Author’s Note as anything else. You see, my own great-great-grandfather immigrated to America around the same time as Ms. Preus’s great-great-grandparents (the people who provided much of the inspiration for this book). I’ve always rather loved knowing about this fellow since most of the immigrants in my family disappeared into the past without so much as a blip. This guy we actually have photographs of. Why he left had as much to do with his abusive father as anything else, but I never really understood the true impetus behind leaving an entire country. Then I read the Author’s Note and learned about this “America fever” that spread through Norway and enticed people to leave and move to the States. It gives my own family history a bit of context I’ve always lacked and for that I thank Ms. Preus profusely.

On top of that, she provides a bit of context to the immigrant historical experience that we almost never see. We always hear about immigrants coming to America but have we ever seen a true accounting of how much food and staples they were told to bring for the boat trip? I sure as heck hadn’t! You can study Ellis Island all the livelong day but until you read about the 24 pounds of meat and the small keg of kerring folks were asked to bring, you don’t really understand what they were up against.

It should surprise no one when I say that Preus is also just a beautiful writer. I mean, she is a Newbery Honor winner after all. Still, I feel I was unprepared for the book’s great use of symbolism. Take, for example, the fact that the name of the girl that gives Astri such a hard time is “Grace”. And then there’s the fact that Preus does such interesting things with the narrative. For example she’ll mention a spell she observed Svaalberd reciting and then follow that fact up with a quick, “I’ll thank you to keep that to yourself.” You’re never quite certain whom she is addressing. The reader, obviously, but anyone else? In her Author’s Note Ms. Preus mentions that much of the book was inspired, sometimes directly, by her great-great-grandmother Linka’s diary. Knowing this, the book takes on the feel of a kind of confessional. I don’t know whom exactly Astri is confessing to, but it feels right. Plus, it turns out that she has a LOT to confess.

As characters go, Astri is a bit of a remarkable protagonist. Have you read Harriet the Spy recently? See, back in the day authors weren’t afraid to write unsympathetic main characters. People that you rooted for, but didn’t particularly like. But recent children’s literature shies away from that type. Our protagonists are inevitably stouthearted and true and if they do have flaws then they work through them in a healthy all-American kind of way. Astri’s different. When she recounts her flaws they take on the feeling of a folktale (“I’ve stolen the gold and hacked off the fingers and snitched the soap and swiped the wedding food. I’ve lied to my own little sister and left Spinning Girl behind, and now I’m stealing the horse, saddle, and bridle from the farm boy who never did anything wrong except display a bit of greed.”) But hey, she’s honest! This section is then followed with thoughts on what makes a person bad. Does desperation counteract sin? How do you gauge individual sins?

If I’ve noted any kind of a theme in my middle grade children’s literature this year (aside from the darkness I alluded to in the opening paragraph) it’s a fascination with the relationship between lies and stories. Jonathan Auxier explored this idea to some extent in The Night Gardener, as did Jacqueline Woodson in Brown Girl Dreaming. Here, Preus returns to the notion of where stories stop and lies begin again and again. Says she at some point, “soon I’ve run out of golden thread with which to spin my pretty stories and I’m left with just the thin thread of truth.” Astri is constantly telling stories to Gerta, sometimes to coax her into something, sometimes to comfort her. But in her greatest hour of soul searching she wonders, “Is it a worse sin to lie to my sweet sister than to steal from a cruel master?” And where does lying start when storytelling ends? There are no easy answers to be found here. Just excellent questions.

So let’s talk attempted sexual assault in a work of children’s literature. Oh, it’s hardly uncommon. How many of us remember the reason that Julie in Julie of the Wolves ran away to join a furry pack? In the case of West of the Moon the attempt could be read any number of ways. Adults, for example, will know precisely what is going on. But kids? When Astri sees her bed for the first time she takes the precaution of grabbing the nearest knife and sticking it under her pillow. No fool she, and the act turns out to be a good piece of forethought since later in the book the goatman does indeed throw her onto her bed. She comes close to cutting his jugular and the incident passes (though he says quite clearly, “Come summer, we will go down to the church and have the parson marry us. Then I’ll take you to my bed.”). Reading the section it’s matter-of-fact. A realistic threat that comes and goes and will strike a chord with some readers instantly and others not at all. There will be kids that read the section and go to their parents or teachers (or even librarians) looking for some clarification, so adults who hand this to younger readers should be ready for uncomfortable questions. Is it inappropriate for kids? That is going to depend entirely on the kid. For some 9 and 10-year-olds there’s nothing here to raise an eyebrow. Astri hardly does. Later she hates the goatman far more for baby lambicide than any attempted rape. For others, they’ll not care for the content. Kids are great self-censors, though. They know what they can handle. I wouldn’t be worried on that score.

If we’re going to get to the heart of the matter, this book is about grace and forgiveness. It’s about how even victims (or maybe especially victims) are capable of terrible terrible things. It’s about making amends with the world and finding a way to forgive yourself and to move on. Astri is, as I’ve said before, not a saintly character. She steals and tricks good people for her own reasons and she leaves it to the reader to decide if she is worth forgiving. This is an ideal book discussion title, particularly when you weave in a discussion of the folktales, the notion of stories vs. lies, and the real world history. It’s not an easy book and it requires a little something extra on the part of the reader, but for those kids that demand a bit of a challenge and a book that’ll make ‘em stop and think for half a moment, you can’t do better. Remarkable.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer – Few can weave folktales into text as well as Farmer, so naturally when I saw what Preus was doing here I thought of this epic series.
  • The Carnivorous Carnival by Lemony Snicket – Because if anyone understands how to bring up the notion of whether or not sinking to the level of the bad guys makes YOU a bad guy, it’s Snicket. And this was the first book in A Series of Unfortunate Events to come up with the notion.
  • The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier – These two books wouldn’t have a lot in common were it not for the fact that Auxier delves into the relationship between lies and stories as deeply as Preus and with similar conclusions.

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Interviews: KUMD spoke with Ms. Preus about her books and her work on this one in particular here.

Book Jacket: Oo!  In case you didn’t get to see the back cover . . .

WestMoon2 Review of the Day: West of the Moon by Margi Preus

Misc: For a look behind-the-scenes of the book check out this article Award-winning Duluth author pulls from folk tales, ancestral diary for newest novel from the Duluth News Tribune.

Videos: And here’s the book trailer!

West of the Moon / Margi Preus Book Trailer from Joellyn Rock on Vimeo.

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9. Review of the Day: brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

BrownGirlDreaming Review of the Day: brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodsonbrown girl dreaming
By Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen Books (an imprint of Penguin)
$16.99
ISBN: 978- 0399252518
Ages 9-12
On shelves August 28th

What does a memoir owe its readers? For that matter, what does a fictionalized memoir written with a child audience in mind owe its readers? Kids come into public libraries every day asking for biographies and autobiographies. They’re assigned them with the teacher’s intent, one assumes, of placing them in the shoes of those people who found their way, or their voice, or their purpose in life. Maybe there’s a hope that by reading about such people the kids will see that life has purpose. That even the most high and lofty historical celebrity started out small. Yet to my mind, a memoir is of little use to child readers if it doesn’t spend a significant fraction of its time talking about the subject when they themselves were young. To pick up brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is to pick up the world’s best example of precisely how to write a fictionalized memoir. Sharp when it needs to be sharp, funny when it needs to be funny, and a book that can relate to so many other works of children’s literature, Woodson takes her own life and lays it out in such a way that child readers will both relate to it and interpret it through the lens of history itself. It may be history, but this is one character that will give kids the understanding that nothing in life is a given. Sometimes, as hokey as it sounds, it really does come down to your dreams.

Her father wanted to name her “Jack” after himself. Never mind that today, let alone 1963 Columbus, Ohio, you wouldn’t dream of naming a baby girl that way. Maybe her mother writing “Jacqueline” on her birth certificate was one of the hundreds of reasons her parents would eventually split apart. Or maybe it was her mother’s yearning for her childhood home in South Carolina that did it. Whatever the case, when Jackie was one-years-old her mother took her and her two older siblings to the South to live with their grandparents once and for all. Though it was segregated and times were violent, Jackie loved the place. Even when her mother left town to look for work in New York City, she kept on loving it. Later, her mother picked up her family and moved them to Brooklyn and Jackie had to learn the ways of city living versus country living. What’s more, with her talented older siblings and adorable baby brother, she needed to find out what made her special. Told in gentle verse and memory, Jacqueline Woodson expertly recounts her own story and her own journey against a backdrop of America’s civil rights movement. This is the birth of a writer told from a child’s perspective.

You might ask why we are referring to this book as a work of historical fiction, when clearly the memoir is based in fact. Recently I was reading a piece in The New Yorker on the novelist Edward St. Aubyn. St. Aubyn found the best way to recount his own childhood was through the lens of fiction. Says the man, “I wanted the freedom and the sublimatory power of writing a novel . . . And I wanted to write in the tradition which had impressed me the most.” Certainly there’s a much greater focus on what it means to be a work of nonfiction for kids in this day and age. Where in the past something like the Childhood of Famous Americans series could get away with murder, pondering what one famous person thought or felt at a given time, these days we hold children’s nonfiction to a much higher standard. Books like Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s No Crystal Stair, for example, must be called “fiction” for all that they are based on real people and real events. Woodson’s personal memoir is, for all intents and purposes, strictly factual but because there are times when she uses dialogue to flesh out the characters and scenes the book ends up in the fiction section of the library and bookstore. Like St. Aubyn, Woodson is most comfortable when she has the most freedom as an author, not to be hemmed in by a strict structural analysis of what did or did not occur in the past. She has, in a sense then, mastered the art of the fictionalized memoir in a children’s book format.

Because of course in fiction you can give your life a form and a function. You can look back and give it purpose, something nonfiction can do but with significantly less freedom. There is a moment in Jackie’s story when you get a distinct sense of her life turning a corner. In the section “grown folks’ stories” she recounts hearing the tales of the old people then telling them back to her sister and brother in the night. “Retelling each story. / Making up what I didn’t understand / or missed when voices dropped too low . . . / Then I let the stories live / inside my head, again and again / until the real world fades back / into cricket lullabies / and my own dreams.” If ever you wanted a “birth of a writer” sequence in a book, this would be it.

At its heart, that’s really what brown girl dreaming is about. It’s the story of a girl finding her voice and her purpose. If there’s a theme to children’s literature this year it is in the relationship between stories and lies. Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener and Margi Preus’s West of the Moon both spend a great deal of time examining the relationship between the two. Now brown girl dreaming joins with them. When Jackie’s mother tells her daughter that “If you lie . . . one day you’ll steal” the child cannot reconcile the two. “It’s hard to understand how one leads to the other, / how stories could ever / make us criminals.” It’s her mother that equates storytelling with lying, even as her uncle encourages her to keep making up stories. As it is, I can think of no better explanation of how writers work then the central conundrum Jackie is forced to face on her own. “It’s hard to understand / the way my brain works – so different / from everybody around me. / How each new story / I’m told becomes a thing / that happens, / in some other way / to me . . . !”

The choice to make the book a verse novel made sense in the context of Ms. Woodson’s other novels. Verse novels are at their best when they justify their form. A verse novel that’s written in verse simply because it’s the easiest way to tell a long story in a simple format often isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Fortunately, in the case of Ms. Woodson the choice makes infinite sense. Young Jackie is enamored of words and their meanings. The book isn’t told in the first person, but when we consider that she is both subject and author then it’s natural to suspect that the verse best shows the lens through which Jackie, the child, sees the world.

It doesn’t hurt matters any that the descriptive passages have the distinct feeling of poems to them. Individual lines are lovely in and of themselves, of course. Lines like “the heat of summer / could melt the mouth / so southerners stayed quiet.” Or later a bit of reflection on the Bible. “Even Salome intrigues us, her wish for a man’s head / on a platter – who could want this and live / to tell the story of that wanting?” But full-page written portions really do have the feel of poems. Like you could pluck them out of the book and display them and they’d stand on their own, out of context. The section labeled “ribbons” for example felt like pure poetry, even as it relayed facts. As Woodson writes, “When we hang them on the line to dry, we hope / they’ll blow away in the night breeze / but they don’t. Come morning, they’re right where / we left them / gently moving in the cool air, eager to anchor us / to childhood.” And so we get a beautiful mixing of verse and truth and fiction and memoir at once.

It was while reading the book that I got the distinct sense that this was far more than a personal story. The best memoirs, fictionalized or otherwise, are the ones that go beyond their immediate subjects and speak to something greater than themselves. Ostensibly, brown girl dreaming is just the tale of one girl’s journey from the South to the North and how her perceptions of race and self changed during that time. But the deeper you get into the book the more you realize that what you are reading is a kind of touchstone for other children’s books about the African-American experience in America. Turn to page eight and a reference to the Woodsons connections to Thomas Woodson of Chillicothe leads you directly to Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Page 32 and the trip from North to South and the deep and abiding love for the place evokes The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963. Page 259 and the appearance of The Jackson Five and their Afros relates beautifully to Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven. Page 297 and a reference to slaves in New York City conjures up Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. Even Jackie’s friend Maria has a story that ties in nicely to Sonia Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano. I even saw threads from Woodson’s past connect to her own books. Her difficulty reading but love of words conjures up Locomotion. Visiting her uncle in jail makes me think of Visiting Day as well as After Tupac and D Foster. And, of course, her personal history brings to mind her Newbery Honor winning picture book Show Way (which, should you wish to do brown girl dreaming in a book club, would make an ideal companion piece).

It’s not just other books either. Writers are advised to write what they know and that their family stories are their history. But when Woodson writes her history she’s broadening her scope. Under her watch her family’s history is America’s history. Woodson’s book manages to tie-in so many moments in African-American history that kids should know about. Segregation, marches, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. One thing I really appreciated about the book was that it also looked at aspects of some African-American life that I’ve just never seen represented in children’s literature before. Can you honestly name me any other books for kids where the children are Jehovah’s Witnesses? Aside from Tom Angleberger’s The Qwikpick Papers I’m drawing a blank.

The flaws? Well it gets off to a slow start. The first pages didn’t immediately grab me, and I have to hope that if there are any kids out there who read the same way that I do, with my immature 10-year-old brain, that they’ll stick with it. Once the family moves to the South everything definitely picks up. The only other objection I had was that I wanted to know so much more about Jackie’s family after the story had ended. In her Author’s Note she mentions meeting her father again years later. What were the circumstances behind that meeting? Why did it happen? And what did Dell and Hope and Roman go on to do with their lives? Clearly a sequel needs to happen. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this.

I’m just going to get grandiose on you here and say that reading this is basically akin to reading a young person’s version of Song of Solomon. It’s America and its racial history. It’s deeply personal, recounting the journey of one girl towards her eventual vocation and voice. It’s a fictionalized memoir that nonetheless tells greater truths than most of our nonfiction works for kids. It is, to put it plainly, a small work of art. Everyone who reads it will get something different out of it. Everyone who reads it will remember some small detail that spoke to them personally. It’s the book adults will wish they’d read as kids. It’s the book that hundreds of thousands of kids will read and continue to read for decades upon decades upon decades. It’s Woodson’s history and our own. It is amazing.

On shelves August 28th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Reviews: Richie’s Picks

Misc: A look at the book and an interview with Ms. Woodson from Publishers Weekly.

Videos: In this opening keynote from SLJ’s Day of Dialog in 2014, Ms. Woodson talks about the path to this book.

Jacqueline Woodson keynote | SLJ Day of Dialog 2014 from School Library Journal on Vimeo.

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10. Review of the Day: The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis

MadmanPineyWoods Review of the Day: The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul CurtisThe Madman of Piney Woods
By Christopher Paul Curtis
Scholastic
ISBN: 978-0-545-63376-5
$16.99
Ages 9-12
On shelves September 30th

No author hits it out of the park every time. No matter how talented or clever a writer might be, if their heart isn’t in a project it shows. In the case of Christopher Paul Curtis, when he loves what he’s writing the sheets of paper on which he types practically set on fire. When he doesn’t? It’s like reading mold. There’s life there, but no energy. Now in the case of his Newbery Honor book Elijah of Buxton, Curtis was doing gangbuster work. His blend of history and humor is unparalleled and you need only look to Elijah to see Curtis at his best. With that in mind I approached the companion novel to Elijah titled The Madman of Piney Woods with some trepidation. A good companion book will add to the magic of the original. A poor one, detract. I needn’t have worried. While I wouldn’t quite put Madman on the same level as Elijah, what Curtis does here, with his theme of fear and what it can do to a human soul, is as profound and thought provoking as anything he’s written in the past. There is ample fodder here for young brains. The fact that it’s a hoot to read as well is just the icing on the cake.

Two boys. Two lives. It’s 1901, forty years after the events in Elijah of Buxton and Benji Alston has only one dream: To be the world’s greatest reporter. He even gets an apprenticeship on a real paper, though he finds there’s more to writing stories than he initially thought. Meanwhile Alvin Stockard, nicknamed Red, is determined to be a scientist. That is, when he’s not dodging the blows of his bitter Irish granny, Mother O’Toole. When the two boys meet they have a lot in common, in spite of the fact that Benji’s black and Red’s Irish. They’ve also had separate encounters with the legendary Madman of Piney Woods. Is the man an ex-slave or a convict or part lion? The truth is more complicated than that, and when the Madman is in trouble these two boys come to his aid and learn what it truly means to face fear.

Let’s be plainspoken about what this book really is. Curtis has mastered the art of the Tom Sawyerish novel. Sometimes it feels like books containing mischievous boys have fallen out of favor. Thank goodness for Christopher Paul Curtis then. What we have here is a good old-fashioned 1901 buddy comedy. Two boys getting into and out of scrapes. Wreaking havoc. Revenging themselves on their enemies / siblings (or at least Benji does). It’s downright Mark Twainish (if that’s a term). Much of the charm comes from the fact that Curtis knows from funny. Benji’s a wry-hearted bigheaded, egotistical, lovable imp. He can be canny and completely wrong-headed within the space of just a few sentences. Red, in contrast, is book smart with a more regulation-sized ego but as gullible as they come. Put Red and Benji together and it’s little wonder they’re friends. They compliment one another’s faults. With Elijah of Buxton I felt no need to know more about Elijah and Cooter’s adventures. With Madman I wouldn’t mind following Benji and Red’s exploits for a little bit longer.

One of the characteristics of Curtis’s writing that sets him apart from the historical fiction pack is his humor. Making the past funny is a trick. Pranks help. An egotistical character getting their comeuppance helps too. In fact, at one point Curtis perfectly defines the miracle of funny writing. Benji is pondering words and wordplay and the magic of certain letter combinations. Says he, “How is it possible that one person can use only words to make another person laugh?” How indeed. The remarkable thing isn’t that Curtis is funny, though. Rather, it’s the fact that he knows how to balance tone so well. The book will garner honest belly laughs on one page, then manage to wrench real emotion out of you the next. The best funny authors are adept at this switch. The worst leave you feeling queasy. And Curtis never, not ever, gives a reader a queasy feeling.

Normally I have a problem with books where characters act out-of-step with the times without any outside influence. For example, I once read a Civil War middle grade novel that shall remain nameless where a girl, without anyone in her life offering her any guidance, independently came up with the idea that “corsets restrict the mind”. Ugh. Anachronisms make me itch. With that in mind, I watched Red very carefully in this book. Here you have a boy effectively raised by a racist grandmother who is almost wholly without so much as a racist thought in his little ginger noggin. How do we account for this? Thankfully, Red’s father gives us an “out”, as it were. A good man who struggles with the amount of influence his mother-in-law may or may not have over her redheaded grandchild, Mr. Stockard is the just force in his son’s life that guides his good nature.

The preferred writing style of Christopher Paul Curtis that can be found in most of his novels is also found here. It initially appears deceptively simple. There will be a series of seemingly unrelated stories with familiar characters. Little interstitial moments will resonate with larger themes, but the book won’t feel like it’s going anywhere. Then, in the third act, BLAMMO! Curtis will hit you with everything he’s got. Murder, desperation, the works. He’s done it so often you can set your watch by it, but it still works, man. Now to be fair, when Curtis wrote Elijah of Buxton he sort of peaked. It’s hard to compete with the desperation that filled Elijah’s encounter with an enslaved family near the end. In Madman Curtis doesn’t even attempt to top it. In fact, he comes to his book’s climax from another angle entirely. There is some desperation (and not a little blood) but even so this is a more thoughtful third act. If Elijah asked the reader to feel, Madman asks the reader to think. Nothing wrong with that. It just doesn’t sock you in the gut quite as hard.

For me, it all comes down to the quotable sentences. And fortunately, in this book the writing is just chock full of wonderful lines. Things like, “An object in motion tends to stay in motion, and the same can be said of many an argument.” Or later, when talking about Red’s nickname, “It would be hard for even as good a debater as Spencer or the Holmely boy to disprove that a cardinal and a beet hadn’t been married and given birth to this boy. Then baptized him in a tub of red ink.” And I may have to conjure up this line in terms of discipline and kids: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, but you can sure make him stand there looking at the water for a long time.” Finally, on funerals: “Maybe it’s just me, but I always found it a little hard to celebrate when one of the folks in the room is dead.”

He also creates little moments that stay with you. Kissing a reflection only to have your lips stick to it. A girl’s teeth so rotted that her father has to turn his head when she kisses him to avoid the stench (kisses are treacherous things in Curtis novels). In this book I’ll probably long remember the boy who purposefully gets into fights to give himself a reason for the injuries wrought by his drunken father. And there’s even a moment near the end when the Madman’s identity is clarified that is a great example of Curtis playing with his audience. Before he gives anything away he makes it clear that the Madman could be one of two beloved characters from Elijah of Buxton. It’s agony waiting for him to clarify who exactly is who.

Character is king in the world of Mr. Curtis. A writer who manages to construct fully three-dimensional people out of mere words is one to watch. In this book, Curtis has the difficult task of making complete and whole a character through the eyes of two different-year-old boys. And when you consider that they’re working from the starting point of thinking that the guy’s insane, it’s going to be a tough slog to convince the reader otherwise. That said, once you get into the head of the “Madman” you get a profound sense not of his insanity but of his gentleness. His very existence reminded me of similar loners in literature like Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson or The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton, but unlike the men in those books this guy had a heart and a mind and a very distinctive past. And fears. Terrible, awful fears.

It’s that fear that gives Madman its true purpose. Red’s grandmother, Mother O’Toole, shares with the Madman a horrific past. They’re very different horrors (one based in sheer mind-blowing violence and the other in death, betrayal, and disgust) but the effects are the same. Out of these moments both people are suffering a kind of PTSD. This makes them two sides of the same coin. Equally wracked by horrible memories, they chose to handle those memories in different ways. The Madman gives up society but retains his soul. Mother O’Toole, in contrast, retains her sanity but gives up her soul. Yet by the end of the book the supposed Madman has returned to society and reconnected with his friends while the Irishwoman is last seen with her hair down (a classic madwoman trope as old as Shakespeare himself) scrubbing dishes until she bleeds to rid them of any trace of the race she hates so much. They have effectively switched places.

Much of what The Madman of Piney Woods does is ask what fear does to people. The Madman speaks eloquently of all too human monsters and what they can do to a man. Meanwhile Grandmother has suffered as well but it’s made her bitter and angry. When Red asks, “Doesn’t it seem only logical that if a person has been through all of the grief she has, they’d have nothing but compassion for anyone else who’s been through the same?” His father responds that “given enough time, fear is the great killer of the human spirit.” In her case it has taken her spirit and “has so horribly scarred it, condensing and strengthening and dishing out the same hatred that it has experienced.” But for some the opposite is true, hence the Madman. Two humans who have seen the worst of humanity. Two different reactions. And as with Elijah, where Curtis tackled slavery not through a slave but through a slave’s freeborn child, we hear about these things through kids who are “close enough to hear the echoes of the screams in [the adults’] nightmarish memories.” Certainly it rubs off onto the younger characters in different ways. In one chapter Benji wonders why the original settlers of Buxton, all ex-slaves, can’t just relax. Fear has shaped them so distinctly that he figures a town of “nervous old people” has raised him. Adversity can either build or destroy character, Curtis says. This book is the story of precisely that.

Don’t be surprised if, after finishing this book, you find yourself reaching for your copy of Elijah of Buxton so as to remember some of these characters when they were young. Reaching deep, Curtis puts soul into the pages of its companion novel. In my more dreamy-eyed moments I fantasize about Curtis continuing the stories of Buxton every 40 years until he gets to the present day. It could be his equivalent of Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House chronicles. Imagine if we shot forward another 40 years to 1941 and encountered a grown Benji and Red with their own families and fears. I doubt Curtis is planning on going that route, but whether or not this is the end of Buxton’s tales or just the beginning, The Madman of Piney Woods will leave child readers questioning what true trauma can do to a soul, and what they would do if it happened to them. Heady stuff. Funny stuff. Smart stuff. Good stuff. Better get your hands on this stuff.

On shelves September 30th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

First Sentence: “The old soldiers say you never hear the bullet that kills you.”

Like This? Then Try:

Notes on the Cover:  As many of us are aware, in the past historical novels starring African-American boys have often consisted of silhouettes or dull brown sepia-toned tomes.  Christopher Paul Curtis’s books tend to be the exception to the rule, and this is clearly the most lively of his covers so far.  Two boys running in period clothing through the titular “piney woods”?  That kind of thing is rare as a peacock these days.  It’s still a little brown, but maybe I can sell it on the authors name and the fact that the books look like they’re running to/from trouble.  All in all, I like it.

Professional Reviews:

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11. Review of the Day: Caminar by Skila Brown

Caminar 329x500 Review of the Day: Caminar by Skila BrownCaminar
By Skila Brown
Candlewick Press
$15.99
ISBN: 978-0763665166
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Survivor’s guilt. Not the most common theme in children’s books these days. Not unheard of certainly, but it definitely doesn’t crop up as often as, say, stories about cupcakes or plucky orphans that have to defeat evil wizards. Serious works of fiction do well when award season comes along, but that’s only because those few that garner recognition are incredibly difficult to write. I’ll confess to you that when I first encountered Caminar by Skila Brown I heard it was about a kid surviving Guatemala’s Civil War and I instantly assumed it would be boring. Seems pretty silly to say that I thought a book chock-full o’ genocide would be a snorefest, but I’ve been burned before. True, I knew that Caminar was a verse novel and that gave me hope, but would it be enough? Fortunately, when the time came to pick it up it sucked me in from the very first page. Gripping and good, horrifying and beautifully wrought, if you’re gonna read just one children’s book on a real world reign of terror, why not go with this one?

He isn’t big. He isn’t tall. He has the round face of an owl and he tends to do whatever it is his mother requires of him with very little objection. Really, is it any wonder that Carlos is entranced by the freedom of the soldiers that enter his small village? The year is 1981 and in Chopan, Guatemala things are tense. One minute you have strange soldiers coming through the village on the hunt for rebels. The next minute the rebels are coming through as well, looking for food and aid. And when Carlos’s mother tells him that in the event of an emergency he is to run away and not wait for her, it’s not what he wants to hear. Needless to say, there comes a day when running is the only option but Carlos finds it difficult to carry on. He can survive in the wild, sleeping in trees and eating roots and plants, but how does he deal with the notion that only cowardice kept him from returning to Chopan? How does he handle his guilt? And is there some act that he can do to find peace of mind once more?

This isn’t the first book containing mass killings I’ve ever encountered for kids. Heck, it’s not even the only one I’ve seen this year (hat tip to The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney). As such, this brings up a big question that the authors of such books must wrestle with each and every time such a book is conceived. Mainly, how do you make horrific violence palatable to young readers? A good follow-up question would have to be, why should you make it palatable in the first place? What is the value in teaching about the worst that humanity is capable of? There are folks that would mention that there is great value in this. Some books teach kids that the world is capable of being capricious and cruel with no particular reason whatsoever. Indeed Brown touches on this when Carlos prays to God asking for the answers that even adults seek. When handled well, books about mass killings of any kind, be it the Holocaust or the horrors of Burma, can instruct as well as offer hope. When handled poorly they become salacious, or moments that just use these horrors as an inappropriately tense backdrop to the action.

Here’s what you see when you read the first page of this book. The title is “Where I’m From”. It reads, “Our mountain stood tall, / like the finger that points. / Our corn plants grew in fields, / thick and wide as a thumb. / Our village sat in the folded-between, / in that spot where you pinch something sacred, / to keep it still. / Our mountain stood guard at our backs. / We slept at night in its bed.” I read this and I started rereading and rereading the sentence about how one will “pinch something sacred”. I couldn’t get it out of my head and though I wasn’t able to make perfect sense out of it, it rang true. I’m pleased that it was still in my head around page 119 because at that time I read something significant. Carlos is playing marbles with another kid and we read, “I watched Paco pinch / his fingers around the shooter, pinch / his eyes up every time . . .” Suddenly the start of the book makes a kind of sense that it didn’t before. That’s the joy of Brown’s writing here. She’s constantly including little verbal callbacks that reward the sharp-eyed readers while still remaining great poetry.

If I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, the destruction of Carlos’s village reminded me of nothing so much as the genocide that takes place in Frances Hardinge’s The Lost Conspiracy. That’s a good thing, by the way. It puts you in the scene without getting too graphic. The little bits and pieces you hear are enough. Is there anything more unnerving than someone laughing in the midst of atrocities? In terms of the content, I watched what Brown was doing here with great interest. To write this book she had to walk a tricky path. Reveal too much horror and the book is inappropriate for its intended age bracket. Reveal too little and you’re accused of sugarcoating history. In her particular case the horrors are pinpointed on a single thing all children can relate to: the fear of losing your mother. The repeated beat in this book is Carlos’s mother telling him that he will find her. Note that she never says that she will find him, which would normally be the natural way to put this. Indeed, as it stands the statement wraps up rather beautifully at the end, everything coming full circle.

Brown’s other method of handling this topic was to make the book free verse. Now I haven’t heard too many objections to the book but when I have it involves the particular use of the free verse found here. For example, one adult reader of my acquaintance pretty much dislikes any and all free verse that consists simply of the arbitrary chopping up of sentences. As such, she was incensed by page 28 which is entitled “What Mama Said” and reads simply, “They will / be back.” Now one could argue that by highlighting just that little sentence Brown is foreshadowing the heck out of this book. Personally, I found moments like this to be pitch perfect. I dislike free verse novels that read like arbitrary chopped up sentences too, but that isn’t Caminar. In this book Brown makes an effort to render each poem just that. A poem. Some poems are stronger than others, but they all hang together beautifully.

Debates rage as to how much reality kids should be taught. How young is young enough to know about the Holocaust? What about other famous atrocities? Should you give your child the essentials before they learn possibly misleading information from the wider world? What is a teacher’s responsibility? What is a parent’s? I cannot tell you that there won’t be objections to this book by concerned parental units. Many feel that there are certain dark themes out there that are entirely inappropriate as subject matter in children’s books. But then there are the kids that seek these books out. And honestly, the reason Caminar is a book to seek out isn’t even the subject matter itself per se but rather the great overarching themes that tie the whole thing together. Responsibility. Maturity. Losing your mother. Survival (but at what cost?). A beautifully wrought, delicately written novel that makes the unthinkable palatable to the young.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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12. Review of the Day: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War That Saved My Life
By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Dial Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin)
$16.99
ISBN: 9780803740815
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

As a child I was what one might call a selective reader. Selective in that I studiously avoided any and all works of fiction that might conceivably be considered “depressing”. Bridge to Terabithia? I’ll have none please. Island of the Blue Dolphins? Pass. Jacob Have I Loved? Not in this lifetime. Lord only knows what caused a book to be labeled “depressing” in my eyes before I’d even read it. I think I went by covers alone. Books picturing kids staring out into the vast nothingness of the universe were of little use to me. Happily I got over this phase and eventually was able to go back to those books I had avoided to better see what I had missed. Still, that 10-year-old self is always with me and I confer with her when I’m reading new releases. So when I read The War That Saved My Life I had to explain to her, at length, that in spite of the premise, cover (again with the kids staring out into nothingness), and time period this isn’t the bleak stretch of depressingness it might appear to be. Enormously satisfying and fun to read, Bradley takes a work of historical fiction and gives the whole premise of WWII evacuees a kick in the pants.

Ada is ten and as far as she can tell she’s never been outdoors. Never felt the sun on her face. Never seen grass. Born with a twisted foot her mother considers her an abomination and her own personal shame. So when the chance comes for Ada to join her fellow child evacuees, including her little brother Jamie, out of the city during WWII she leaps at the chance. Escaping to the English countryside, the two are foisted upon a woman named Susan who declares herself to be “not nice” from the start. Under her care the siblings grow and change. Ada discovers Susan’s pony and is determined from the get-go to ride it. And as the war progresses and things grow dire, she finds that the most dangerous thing isn’t the bombs or the war itself. It’s hope. And it’s got her number.

I may have mentioned it before, but the word that kept coming to mind as I read this book was “satisfying”. There’s something enormously rewarding about this title. I think a lot of the credit rests on the very premise. When a deserving kid receives deserving gifts, it releases all kinds of pleasant endorphins in the brain of he reader. It feels like justice, multiple times over. We’re sympathetic to Ava from the start, but I don’t know that I started to really like her until she had to grapple with the enormity of Susan’s sharp-edged kindness. As an author, Bradley has the unenviable job of making a character like Ada realistic, suffering real post-traumatic stress in the midst of a war, and then in time realistically stronger. This isn’t merely a story where the main character has to learn and grow and change. She has this enormous task of making Ava strong in every possible way after a lifetime of systematic, often horrific, abuse. And she has to do so realistically. No deus ex machina. No sudden conversion out of the blue. That she pulls it off is astounding. Honestly it made me want to reread the book several times over, if only to figure out how she managed to display Ada’s anger and shock in the face of kindness with such aplomb. For me, it was the little lines that conveyed it best. Sentences like the one Ada says after the first birthday she has ever celebrated: “I had so much. I felt so sad.” It’s not a flashy thing to say. Just true.

You can see the appeal of writing characters like Ada and Jamie. Kids who have so little experience with the wider world that they don’t know a church from a bank or vice versa. The danger with having a character ignorant in this way is that they’ll only serve to annoy the reader. Or, perhaps worse, their inability to comprehend simple everyday objects and ideas will strike readers as funny or something to be mocked. Here, Bradley has some advantages over other books that might utilize this technique. For one thing, by placing this book in the past Ada is able to explain to child readers historical facts without stating facts that would be obvious to her or resorting to long bouts of exposition. By the same token, child readers can also pity Ada for not understanding stuff that they already do (banks, church, etc.).

Ms. Bradley has written on her blog that, “I don’t write in dialect, for several reasons, but I try to write dialogue in a way that suggests dialect.” American born (Indiana, to be specific) she has set her novel in historical England (Kent) where any number of accents might be on display. She could have peppered the book with words that tried to replicate the sounds of Ada’s London accent or Susan’s Oxford educated one. Instead, Ms. Bradley is cleverer than that. As she says, she merely suggests dialect. One of the characters, a Mr. Grimes, says things like “Aye” and ends his sentences with words like “like”. But it doesn’t feel forced or fake. Just mere hints of an accent that would allow a reader to pick it up or ignore it, however they preferred.

Basically what we have here is Anne of Green Gables without quite so much whimsy. And in spite of the presence of a pony, this is not a cutesy pie book. Instead, it’s a story about a girl who fights like a demon against hope. She fights it with tooth and claw and nail and just about any weapon she can find. If her life has taught her anything it’s that hope can destroy you faster than abuse. In this light Susan’s kindness is a danger unlike anything she’s ever encountered before. Ms. Bradley does a stellar job of bringing to life this struggle in Ada and in inflaming a similar struggle in the hearts of her young readers. You root for Ada. You want her to be happy. Yet, at the same time, you don’t want your heart to be broken any more than Ada does. Do you hope for her future then? You do. Because this is a children’s book and hope, in whatever form it ultimately takes, is the name of the game. Ms. Bradley understands that and in The War That Saved My Life she manages to concoct a real delight out of a story that in less capable hands would have been a painful read. This book I would hand to my depression-averse younger self. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s one-of-a-kind.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Notes on the Cover: I may poke fun at the fact that this cover looks so much like the “serious” ones I avoided like the plague in my youth, but I should point out that it’s doing something that almost no other similar children’s books dare.  Inevitably if a book is about a kid with a physical ailment of some sort, that ailment will not make the cover.  Much as publishers avoid putting overweight kids on book jackets, so too do they avoid physical disabilities.  Here, however, the artist has shown Ada’s foot, albeit in a simplified manner.  It’s not particularly noticeable but it’s there.  I’ll take what I can get.

Professional Reviews:

Misc: The author stops by Matthew Winner’s fabulous Let’s Get Busy podcast to chat.

Video: And finally, see Ms. Brubaker Bradley talk about the book herself.

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13. Review of the Day: My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp

My Near-Death Adventures (99% True)
By Alison DeCamp
Crown Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Random House)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-385-39044-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Children’s historical fiction novels often divide up one of two ways. In the first category you have your important moments in history. In such books our heroes run about and encounter these moments by surprise. Extra points if it happens to be a Great Big Bad Moment in history as well. Then in the second category are the books that have opted to go a more difficult route. They may be well grounded in a time period of the past, but they do not require historical cameos or Great Big Bad Moments to transport their readers. Such books run a very great risk of, quite frankly, becoming dull. Read enough of them and, with the exception of a few, they all run together. Humor often helps me distinguish them from the pack. After all, would Catherine Called Birdy command quite so many hearts and minds if it weren’t also deeply amusing? Still, it’s rare to find fiction set in the past for kids that’s quite that original. It takes a certain kind of devious brain to hit on an all-new take. Enter My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp. Falling squarely into the second category rather than the first, this 1895 charmer utilizes plenty of visuals along with an unreliable narrator and classic comedic setting. I can say with certainty that your kids will never read a work of lumberjack fiction quite as fast and funny as this ever again.

Well, sir, it looks like Stan’s found himself in a heap of trouble. First off there’s the difficulty with his dead father. The problem? He’s not dead. He’s nowhere around, and now he seems to have divorced Stan’s mama, but dead he is not. Then there’s the fact that it’s the middle of winter yet Stan’s mama and his 95% evil Granny (her percentage fluctuates a lot) are packing him up and they’re all heading up to some godforsaken lumber camp in the middle of nowhere. Of course, that’s good for Stan since he’s been hoping to build up his manly skills so that he can support his mama. Unfortunately his cousin Geri, who seems to revel in torturing him, will be there as well. Can Stan fight off his mother’s multiple suitors, keep his eye on the lumberjack he’s dubbed “Stinky Pete”, and learn to be a man (if Geri doesn’t kill him first) all at once? If anyone can, it’s Stan. Probably.

Humor in historical fiction can come across as a case where the contemporary author is shoehorning his or her own beliefs onto characters from the past. Often when this happens it feels fake. I remember once reading a children’s novel set in the Civil War South where an enterprising young woman, with no outside influences, actually said, “Corsets don’t just restrict the waist. They restrict the mind,” or something equally out of left field. So to what extent are anachronisms a threat in books of this sort? For example, would someone like Stan really have called his cousin “Scary Geri”? For me, I don’t worry as much about the small details. If the language isn’t strictly of the late 19th century variety then who in the Sam Hill cares? (Forgive my language, granny.) It’s the big things (like mind restricting corsets) that catch my eye. With that in mind, I was somewhat relieved when I realized that Stan is a sexist jerk. He quite believably does not look on women’s accomplishments as something to commend (which, in turn, is an interesting way of building up sympathy for his cousin Geri). In other words, he’s of his time.

To bring the funny, DeCamp does two things I’ve not seen done in works of historical fiction before. The first involves a ton of late 19th/early 20th century advertisements. Using the conceit that this is Stan’s scrapbook, each image makes some kind of commentary on what Stan is describing. They’re also hilarious. I cannot help but imagine the countless hours DeCamp spent poring through advertisement after advertisement. One wonders if there were parts of the narrative wholly reliant on the existence of one ad or another. Hard to say.

The second clever and hitherto unknown thing DeCamp does with her storytelling is to make Stan an unreliable narrator with unreliable narration. Which is to say, you’ll be reading his private thoughts on the page when suddenly another character will comment on what clearly should have been kept inside Stan’s brain. The end result is that the reader will lapse into a continual sense of security, safe in the knowledge that what they’re reading isn’t dialogue (after all, there aren’t any quotation marks) and then, exactly like Stan, the reader will be shocked when someone comments on information they shouldn’t know anything about. It really puts you directly into Stan’s shoes and helps to make him more relatable. Which is good since he runs the risk of being considered unsympathetic as a character.

Unreliable as a narrator, potentially unsympathetic as a human being, Stan still wins our love. Why? He’s Kid Falstaff! A coward you root for and love, yet still don’t always approve of. Still, even in the depths of his own delusion, how can you not love the guy? He’s a Yooper Telemachus fending unworthy suitors off of his mama. And even when you’ve taken almost all you can take from the guy, you’ll find him saying something like, “This is the furthest I’ve ever felt from being a man. All I really want to do is cuddle up in bed and have Mama read me a book. Or play with the toy soldiers still lined up on my windowsill in the apartment house. But I can’t. Because that’s not manly, and being manly is the only way I’ll ever understand my father . . .” Poor kid.

A good author, by the way, allows their supporting characters some personal growth as well. It doesn’t all have to come from the protagonist, after all. In this particular case it’s Stan’s mama, a character that could easily have just been some passive, maternal bit of nothingness, who comes into her own. For years she’s been held down pretty effectively by her own mother. Now she has a chance at making a bit of a life for herself, choosing her own mate (or not choosing, as the case may be), and generally having a bit of fun. I know no kid reading this book is going to care, but I appreciated having someone other than Stan learn and grow.

I sit here secure in the knowledge that somewhere, at some time, an enterprising adult (be it teacher, parent, or librarian) will take it upon themselves to actually follow Mrs. Cavanaugh’s recipe for Vinegar Pie. The recipe is right there in black and white in the book, clear as crystal. If you have any goodness in your heart and you are tempted to tread this path, here is a bit of advice: don’t. It’s called Vinegar Pie, for crying out loud! What part of that sounds appetizing? You know what is appetizing? This book. Hilarious and heartbreaking and funny funny funny. You know what you hand a kid that gets the dreaded, “Read one work of historical fiction” assignment in school? You hand them this and then sit back to wait for their inevitable gratitude. They may never say thank you to your face, but you’ll be able to rest safe and secure in the knowledge that they loved this book. Or, at the very least, found it enticing and intriguing. 99-100% fantastic.

On shelves now.

Source:

Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews:

Videos:

Oo!  Peppy little trailer here, no?

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14. Review of the Day: Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia

GoneCrazyGone Crazy in Alabama
By Rita Williams-Garcia
Amistad (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0062215871
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

I’m a conceited enough children’s librarian that I like it when a book wins me over. I don’t want them to make it easy for me. When I sit down to read something I want to know that the author on the other side of the manuscript is scrabbling to get the reader’s attention. Granted that reader is supposed to be a 10-year-old kid and not a 37-year-old woman, but to a certain extent audience is audience. Now I’ll say right off the bat that under normal circumstances I don’t tend to read sequels and I CERTAINLY don’t review them. There are too many books published in a current year to keep circling back to the same authors over and over again. There are, however, always exceptions to the rule. And who amongst us can say that Rita Williams-Garcia is anything but exceptional? The Gaither Sisters chronicles (you could also call them the One Crazy Summer Books and I think you’d be in the clear) have fast become modern day literary classics for kids. Funny, painful, chock full of a veritable cornucopia of historical incidents, and best of all they stick in your brain like honey to biscuits. Read one of these books and you can recall them for years at a time. Now the bitter sweetness of “Gone Crazy in Alabama” gives us more of what we want (Vonetta! Uncle Darnell! Big Ma!) in a final, epic, bow.

Going to visit relatives can be a chore. Going to visit warring relatives? Now THAT is fun! Sisters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern have been to Oakland and Brooklyn but now they’ve turned South to Alabama to visit their grandmother Big Ma, their great-grandmother Ma Charles, and Ma Charles’s half sister Miss Trotter. Delphine, as usual, places herself in charge of her younger, rebellious, sisters, not that they ever appreciate it. As she learns more about her family’s history (and the reason the two half sisters loathe one another) she ignores her own immediate family’s needs until the moment when it almost becomes too late.

I’m an oldest sister. I have two younger siblings. Unlike Delphine I didn’t have the responsibility of watching over my siblings for any extended amount of time. As a result, I didn’t pay all that much attention to them growing up. But like Delphine, I would occasionally find myself trying, to my mind anyway, to keep them in line. Where Rita Williams-Garcia excels above all her peers, and I do mean all of them, is in the exchanges between these three girls. If I had an infinite revenue stream I would solicit someone to adapt their conversations into a very short play for kids to perform somewhere (actually, I’d just like to see ALL these books as plays for children, but that’s neither here nor there). The dialogue sucks you in and you find yourself getting emotionally involved. Because Delphine is our narrator you’re getting everything from her perspective and in this the author really makes you feel like she’s on the right side of every argument. It would be an excellent writing exercise to charge a class of sixth graders with the task of rewriting one of these sections from Vonetta or Fern’s point of view instead.

As I might have mentioned before, I wasn’t actually sold initially on this book. Truth be told, I liked the sequel to One Crazy Summer (called P.S. Be Eleven) but found the ending rushed and a tad unsatisfying. That’s just me, and my hopes with Gone Crazy were not initially helped by this book’s beginning. I liked the set-up of going South and all that, but once they arrived in Alabama I was almost immediately confused. We met Ma Charles and then very soon thereafter we met another woman very much like her who lived on the other side of a creek. No explanation was forthcoming about these two, save some cryptic descriptions of wedding photos, and I felt very much out to sea. My instinct is to say that a child reader would feel the same way, but kids have a way of taking confusing material at face value, so I suspect the confusion was of the adult variety more than anything else. Clearly Ms. Williams-Garcia was setting all this up for the big reveal of the half-sister’s relationship, and I appreciated that, but at the same time I thought it could have been introduced in a different way. Things were tepid for me for a while, but then the story really started picking up. By the time we got to the storm, I was sold.

And it was at this point in the book that I realized that I’d been coming at the book all wrong. Williams-Garcia was feeding me red herrings and I’m gulping them down like there’s no tomorrow. This book isn’t laser focusing its attention on great big epic themes of historical consequence. All this book is, all it ever has been, all the entire SERIES is about in its heart of hearts, is family. And that’s it. The central tension can be boiled down to something as simple and effective as whether or not Delphine and Vonetta can be friends. Folks are always talking about bullying and bully books. They tend to involve schoolmates, not siblings, but as Gone Crazy in Alabama shows, sometimes bullying is a lot closer to home than anyone (including the bully) is willing to acknowledge.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about needing more diverse books for kids, and it’s absolutely a valid concern. I have always been of the opinion, however, that we also need a lot more funny diverse books. When most reading lists’ sole hat tip to the African-American experience is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (no offense to Mildred D. Taylor, but you see what I’m getting at here) while the white kids star in books like Harriet the Spy and Frindle, something’s gotta change. We Need Diverse Books? We Need FUNNY Diverse Books too. Something someone’s going to enjoy reading and want to pick up again. That’s why Christopher Paul Curtis has been such a genius the last few years (because, seriously, who else would explore the ramifications of vomiting on Frederick Douglass?) and why the name Rita Williams-Garcia will be remembered long after you and I are tasty toasty worm food. Because this book IS funny while also balancing out pain and hurt and hope.

An interviewer once asked Ms. Williams-Garcia if she ever had younger sisters like the ones in this book or if she’d ever spent a lot of time in rural Alabama, like they do here. She replied good-naturedly that nope. It reminded me of that story they tell about Dustin Hoffman playing Richard III. He put stones in his shoes to get the limp right. Laurence Olivier caught wind of this and his response was along the lines of, “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting?” That’s Ms. Williams-Garcia for you. She does honest-to-goodness writing. Writing that can conjure up estranged siblings and acts of nature. Writing that will make you laugh and think and think again after that. Beautifully done, every last page. A trilogy winds down on just the right note.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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15. Review of the Day: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Wonderstruck
By Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press
$29.99
ISBN: 978-0545027892
Ages 9 and up
On shelves September 13, 2011

Hype. What’s the point? A publisher believes that a book is going to be big so they crank up the old hype machine and do everything in their power to draw attention to it long before its publication date. That’s what they did for Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck and I was sad to see it. As far as I was concerned, Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret was too tough an act to follow. Here you had a book that managed to get hundreds of librarians across the nation of America to redefine in their own minds the very definition of “picture book”. Cabret was remarkable because it combined words and pictures in a manner most closely resembling a film. Indeed the whole plot of the book revolved around filmmaking so what would be the point of writing another book in the same vein? If Cabret credits its success in part to its originality, doesn’t that give his Wonderstruck a handicap right from the start? You’d think so, but you might also forget something about Cabret. While the art was spectacular and the plotting just fine, the writing was merely a-okay. By no means a detriment to the book, mind you. Just okay. And maybe that’s partly why Wonderstruck works as well as it does. The art is just as beautiful as Cabret’s, the plotting superior, and the writing not just good, but fantastic. Where Cabret wowed readers with spectacle, Wonderstruck hits ‘em where it hurts. Right in the heart. For once, we’re dealing with a book that is actually worth its own hype.

Ben: Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, June 1977. Rose: Hoboken, New Jersey, October 1927. Ben’s Story – written: Newly orphaned when his mother dies, Ben comes to believe that he has a father, hitherto unknown, living in New York City. When an accident involving a telephone and a bolt of lightning renders him deaf, he sets out for the big city in search of clues to who his father really is. Rose’s Story – seen almost solely in pictures: A seeming prisoner in her own home, Rose too sets out for New York City to see the actress Lillian Mayhew for reasons of her own. The two children both end up in The American Museum of Natural History and both discover something there that will help to give them what they need to solve their own problems. And in that discovery, they will find one another.

I’ll just state right here and now that you could probably tell from the opening paragraph of this review that it’s extraordinarily difficult to talk about Wonderstruck without invoking Hugo Cabret in the same breath. This is mostly because of the unique written/image-driven style Selznick utilizes in both of these books. It’s not an unheard of technique, alternating written passages with visual ones, but it’s rarely done this well. What strikes me as significant, though, is that the style is chosen f

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16. Last Page in the Diary by Colleen L. Reece

*Middle-grade historical fiction with Christian themes (WWII)
*13-year-old girl as main character
*Rating: Last Page in the Diary will really appeal to girls who like historical fiction and like writing in their diaries. It is a great book to use in a home school or Christian school setting as so many tweens deal with this question: “How can God let bad things happen?” This book is especially great because it also teaches about history!

Short, short summary:

(From the Guardian Angel Publishing website (sorry! I am pressed for time tonight.): “Thirteen-year-old Patricia (Pat) Kelly bargains with God. If He will bring her best friend Mike (Yoshi Mizuki) home from a desert (Japanse Internment) prison camp and make things like they were before the war, maybe she can start trusting Him again. The war ends, but hate and persecution continue.” (There’s also a part of this book written in journal style!)

So what do I do with this book?

1. If students do not know much about the period of history this book covers, then have them research different things mentioned in the book, such as Pearl Harbor Day or the Japanese Internment Camps. Students can write reports, do Power Point presentations, create posters, or some other way to share information with students.

2. Have readers ever felt the way Pat or Mike do in the novel–either with their relationship with God or as a victim of bullying/racism? These are great journal writing topics and discussion topics for tweens. Through the characters in this book, tweens may feel more comfortable talking about and/or writing about these issues and comparing/contrasting their experiences with the ones in the novel.

3. If students were involved in an essay contest, what would they write about? And why? You can even hold your own essay contest if you want to. . .:)

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17. Review of the Day: The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone

The Romeo and Juliet Code
By Phoebe Stone
Arthur A. Levine (an imprint of Scholastic)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-545-21511-4
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

It seems unfair that my attention was first drawn to The Romeo and Juliet Code because of its cover. No book deserves to be held responsible for its misleading jacket and Phoebe Stone’s latest is no exception. Set during the Second World War, the book looks like a rejected shot from a GAP catalog more than a historical novel (pink Converse?? Really??). When ire was aimed at the jacket early on I remember many a supporter saying, “It’s such a pity it has that cover because the story is wonderful!” Willing to give it the benefit of the doubt (after all, The Trouble with May Amelia has a similar problem and is a magnificent bit of writing) I plucked up a copy from a friend and started to read. Oh my. No book, as I say, deserves to be held responsible for the sins of its jacket, but this book has sins of its own above and beyond its packaging. Ostensibly a kind of mystery for kids, folks with a low twee tolerance would do best to steer clear of this one. It is indeed beloved in its own right but this particular reviewer found its style to be strangely grating. As historical fiction goes, this does not go to the top of my list.

Flissy has found herself unceremoniously dumped. One minute she is living happily in her flat in England with her parents Winnie and Danny (though she doesn’t much care for the bombing going on outside). Next thing she knows they’ve managed to hitch a ride on a ship bound for America and she is left in the care of an unmarried uncle, an unmarried aunt, and a grandmother, none of whom she has ever met before. Her initial homesickness and loneliness are partly appeased when she starts uncovering the secrets lurking in the house. A hitherto unknown cousin by the name of Derek is found upstairs. Uncle Gideon is receiving strange coded messages and they seem to be coming from Flissy’s Danny. And why does everyone keep talking about the whispers in the nearby town? What other secrets can one family harbor? Flissy doesn’t know but with the help of her cousin she is bound to find out the whole truth.

I have an unattractive habit that comes out whenever a book starts to grow repetitive in some way. I count. Which is to say, I count the number of times that repetitive element appears. When I read Eragon for the first time I counted how many times a chapter began with some version of “Eragon woke up” (final count: twenty-one chapters do this). In the case of The Romeo and Juliet Code my weirdness was prompted by the author’s use of the term “ever so” as in “I was ever so interested in the number of times `ever so’ appeared in this book.” There are thirty-seven moments when the phrase pops up. In two cases the phrase appears twice on a single page. Reading an advanced readers galley of the book I was convinced that this had to be a typo of some sort. Surely the author got a little carried away and the copy editor would lay down the law before publication time, yes? Apparently not. On the child_lit listserv the book’s editor spoke about the ubiqui

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18. Review of the Day: The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker

The Luck of the Buttons
By Anne Ylvisaker
Candlewick Press
$15.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5066-7
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

There are kids out there that like historical fiction. I know that there are. I’ve met them. They come into my library and curl their lips in disgust at the covers with the shiny dragons and sparkly motes of dust swirling and whirling. The thing is, they don’t know the term “historical fiction” and even if you told them that was the kind of book they preferred they’d look at you like you were attempting to make them eat something green and leafy. All they know is that they like stories about real kids and if those kids happen to live in the past, so be it. Why slap a label on what they love? Because if I don’t make it clear that this is a genre that gets read we’re going to find less and less books of that ilk appearing on our library and bookstore shelves. That would be a real pity too since books like The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker are some of the best in the biz. A svelte little novel that’s chock full of plum, pluck, and vinegar, Ylvisaker gives us a heroine you can believe in but never pity. And the readability? Through the roof, man. Through the roof.

If you’re growing up in Goodhue, Iowa then you probably know the Button family. More to the point, you probably know that they’re just about the most luckless group of nobodies ever to place a foot on God’s green earth. This has been true for generations and there’s no reason to think that Tugs Button would be any different. Yet this year, she seems to be. First thing, Tugs wins the three-footed race with fancy Aggie Millhouse as her partner (Aggie’s another story right there). Next, she wins the essay content for a piece of writing she though she’d dumped in the trash. And then third, she wins a raffle for a real, honest-to-goodness, Brownie camera. A gorgeous camera that takes great photographs. If the luck of Tugs is turning around, she’d definitely going to need it. There’s a fast-talking newspaper man in town taking donations for a new paper, and Tugs is certain the fellow’s up to no good. The result is a story of a girl who’s been sleepwalking through her own life until, one day, she gets lucky.

There are two books out this year where smooth-talking shysters try to talk some money out of the local rubes. In The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm, the shyster gets away scot-free. In Luck of the Buttons . . . well, I shouldn’t give anything away. Suffice to say, Tugs is onto this Harold Hill wannabe, pretty much from the get-go. And part of what I respect about Ylvisaker’s writing is that Tugs has her reasons. She also has her handicaps. There is, first and foremost, the fact that she’s a girl, and second there’s the fact that her family lies on one of the lower rungs of their small town’s status. Who’s going to believe the suspicions of somebody that inherently (through no fault of her own) untrustworthy?

In fact, it’s the small town mentality here that I really loved. It’s easy to condemn small towns for their single-mindedness and stubborn memories. It’s also easy to hold small towns up as bastions of truth, justice, and the American w

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19. Review of the Day: The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Mighty Miss Malone
By Christopher Paul Curtis
Wendy Lamb Books
$15.99
ISBN: 978-0-385-73491-2
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

*Spoilers Included!*

Fact: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a new book from Christopher Paul Curtis is a great good thing.

Fact: There is a new book out there. It is by Christopher Paul Curtis.

Opinion: It doesn’t work.

When you hand a kid a Christopher Paul Curtis novel you can rest safe and secure in the knowledge that the book you’re handing over is going to have humor leavened with little moments of surprising heart and clarity. You know that the title is going to make an era from the past more real to the child reader than any number of history textbooks at school. You know this. And the remarkable thing about The Mighty Miss Malone, Mr. Curtis’s newest novel, is that it manages to accomplish all these things, and accomplish them well, without being a particularly good book. There are times when Mighty Miss Malone sparkles and crackles and comes to life on the page. Of course there are. This is Christopher Paul Curtis we’re talking about here. But those moments are buried deep beneath a plot that is at times quite slow, a protagonist that is passive, and a plot twist that seemed so nice he used it twice. Mr. Curtis is one of our finest writers for young people working today and this is not his finest work. It’s fine. Not great.

If you were paying close attention to the book Bud Not Buddy then you might have caught a glimpse of a girl named Deza Malone when Bud stopped in a Hooverville for a while. Turns out that there’s more to her situation than meets the eye. A formidable student and smart gal, Deza spends much of her time defending her older (yet shorter) troublemaking brother Jimmie. But when their father has a horrible accident out on Lake Michigan everything changes for the worse. The man who returns to them seems like their dad but there’s something different about him. Before they know it he’s left town to find work, their landlord kicks them out of their home, and their mother is determined to go to Flint, Michigan to find Deza’s dad as well as some work of her own. Sometimes the biggest plans are the most difficult to carry out, though. And sometimes help comes from the most unexpected of places.

A quick note: If ever you heard the words “Spoiler Alert” you are hearing them now. I have every intention of giving away every plot twist, every surprise ending, every little secret Mr. Curtis has tucked away in the folds of this novel. Should you wish to be surprised by ANYTHING in the book, cease and desist with reading this review right now. Seriously, I don’t want to ruin something for you that you might really enjoy. Go. Shoo. Scat. Off with you unless you’re fine with that (or have read the book already). All gone? Then let’s begin.

I think the key to the novel lies in its creation. In a note to the reader, Mr. Curtis recounts how the idea for this book came into being. He was invited to speak to an African American mother-daughter book club in Detroit about Newbery winner Bud Not Buddy. “Big mistake”. According to him the minute he walked in he was confronted by some of the moms wondering what exactly happened when that random girl in the Hooverville kissed B

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20. Jingo Fever by Stephanie Golightly Lowden

*Historical middle-grade fiction
*Girl as main character
*Rating: Jingo Fever is a well-written book, set in 1918. It is also universal in its themes–situations that Adelle has to deal with, such as racism/bullying, in the book are current in everyday life.

Short, short summary:

(FROM CRICKHOLLOW WEBSITE) This middle-grade historical novel is set in 1918 during World War I in a small Midwestern town. The story deals in a quiet, thoughtful way with the effects of anti-ethnic bigotry (towards German-Americans) during wartime conflicts abroad.

Young Adelle Klein is a German-American girl who has come from Milwaukee with her mother to live for the summer of 1918 with Uncle Mike in Ashland, a small town in northern Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Superior.

Adelle struggles to cope with the local patriotic fervor, in support of American troops abroad . . . but spilling over into a hatred of all things of German origin.

As she seeks friendships with local youngsters her age, she wonders how to deal with the bigotry of anti-German sentiment, which escalates with the approach of the July 4th celebration. In the meantime, she and her mother worry about Adelle’s brother, Karl, a young man of German-American who is fighting with the U.S. troops in France.

The summer’s events will teach Adelle about the importance of standing up for what’s right.

THEMES
Family & Friendship • Ethnic Heritage • Patriotism during War • Resisting Intolerance & Bigotry • Standing Up to Bullies

So, what do I do with this book?

1. In the beginning (and throughout), Adelle deals with bullying/teasing due to her German heritage. She becomes embarrassed by it. Even though this is set almost 100 years ago, children will be able to relate to Adelle’s feelings and actions. Ask students to journal about Adelle’s problems. Then ask them to write about if they have ever felt that way and what they did/felt/wanted to do.

2. Students may not understand why there is so much hatred toward the Germans. Some history may be needed to understand the story to its fullest. You can do a KWL (Know Wonder Learn) chart about WWI topics to see what your students/child already knows about this time period and what they are wondering. Here is a link to a good site that shows how to do a KWL chart: http://www.education.com/reference/article/K-W-L-charts-classroom/

3. Discuss the title of the book, Jingo Fever. Do students like the title? Do they think it is a good match for the book? Which characters in the novel have jingo fever? Ask students to give examples to support their answers. Does Jingo fever have a positive or negative impact on these characters’ lives?

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21. Review of the Day: A Girl Called Problem by Katie Quirk

GirlProblem 328x500 Review of the Day: A Girl Called Problem by Katie QuirkA Girl Called Problem
By Katie Quirk
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
$8.00
ISBN: 97800-8028-5404-9
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

Who says that mystery novels for kids all have to include the same tropes and settings? I tell you, half the time when a kid comes up to a reference desk asking for a mystery they think what they want is the standard white kids in suburbia model perfected by Encyclopedia Brown and his ilk. They’re wrong. What they really want is great writing and a good mystery with a twist they don’t see coming. So I will hereby give grand kudos and heaping helpfuls of praise to the librarian/bookseller/parent who hears a kid ask for a mystery and hands them Katie Quirk’s A Girl Called Problem. This book is a trifecta of publishing rarities. A historical novel that is also a mystery set in a foreign country that just happens to be Tanzania. Trust me when I say your shelves aren’t exactly filled to brimming with such books. Would that they were, or at the very least, would that you had as many good books as this one. Smart commentary, an honestly interesting storyline, and sharp writing from start to finish, Quirk quickly establishes herself as one author to watch.

The thing about Shida is that in spite of her name (in Swahili it would be “problem”) you just can’t get her down. Sure, her mom is considered a witch, and every day she seems to make Shida’s life harder rather than easier. Still, Shida’s got dreams. She hopes to someday train to be a healer in her village of Litongo, and maybe even a village nurse. In light of all this, when the opportunity arises for all of Litongo to pick up and move to a new location, Shida’s on board with the plan. In Nija Panda she would be able to go to school and maybe even learn medicine firsthand. Her fellow villagers are wary but game. They seem to have more to gain than to lose from such a move. However, that’s before things start to go terribly wrong. Escaped cattle. Disease. Even death seems to await them in Nija Panda. Is the village truly cursed, just unlucky, or is there someone causing all these troubles? Someone who doesn’t want the people of Litongo there. Someone who will do anything at all to turn them back. It’s certainly possible and it’s up to Shida to figure out who the culprit might be.

The trouble with being an adult and reading a children’s work of mystery fiction is that too often the answer feels like it’s too obvious. Fortunately for me, I’m terrible at mysteries. I’ll swallow every last red herring and every false clue used by the author to lead me astray. So while at first it seems perfectly obvious who the bad guys would be, I confess that when the switcheroo took place I didn’t see it coming. It made perfect sense, of course, but I was as blindsided as our plucky heroine. I figure if I honestly as a 35-year-old adult can’t figure out the good guys from the bad in a book for kids, at least a significant chunk of child readers will be in the same boat.

Now I’ve a pet peeve regarding books set in Africa, particularly historical Africa, and I was keen to see whether or not Ms. Quirk would indulge it. You see, the story of a girl in a historical setting who wants to be a healer but can’t because of her gender is not a particularly new trope. We’ve seen it before, to a certain extent. What chaps my hide is when the author starts implying that tribal medicines and healing techniques are superstitious and outdated while modern medicine is significantly superior. Usually the heroine will fight against society’s prejudices, something will happen late in the game, and the villagers will see that she was right all along and that she’ll soon be able to use Western medicine to cure all ills. There’s something particularly galling about storylines of this sort, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that Quirk was not going to fall into that more than vaguely insulting mindset. Here is an author unafraid to pay some respect to the religion of the villagers. It never dismisses curses but acknowledges them alongside standard diseases. Example: “Though Shida was certain Furaha should take medicine for malaria, she was equally certain she should guard the spirit house that night. Parasites were responsible for some sicknesses and curses for others, and in this case, they needed to protect against both.”

Quirk is also quite adept at using the middle grade chapter book format to tackle some pretty complex issues. To an adult reading this book it might be clear that Shida’s mother suffers from a severe form of depression. There’s no way the village would be prepared to handle this diagnosis, and Shida herself just grows angry with the woman who stays inside all the time. You could get a very interesting book discussion going with child readers about whether or not Shida should really blame her mother as vehemently as she does. On the one hand, you can see her point. On the other, her mother is clearly in pain. Similarly well done is the final discussion of witches. Quirk brings up a very sophisticated conversation wherein Shida comes to understand that accused witches are very often widows who must work to keep themselves alive and that, through these efforts, acquire supposedly witchy attributes. Quirk never hits you over the head with these thoughts. She just lets her heroine’s assumptions fall in the face of close and careful observation.

All this could be true, but without caring about the characters it wouldn’t be worth much. I think part of the reason I like the book as much as I do is that everyone has three dimensions (with the occasional rare exception). Even the revealed villain turns out to have a backstory that explains their impetus, though it doesn’t excuse their actions. As for Shida herself, she may be positive but she’s no Pollyanna. Depression hits her hard sometimes too, but through it all she uses her brain. Because she is able to apply what she learns in school to the real world, she’s capable of following the clues and tracking down the real culprit behind everyone’s troubles. Passive protagonists have no place in A Girl Called Problem. No place at all.

Finally, in an era of Common Core Standards I cannot help but notice how much a kid can learn about Tanzania from this book. Historical Tanzania at that! A Glossary at the back does a very good job of explaining everything from flamboyant trees to n’gombe to President Julius Nyerere’s plan for Tanzania. There are also photographs mixed into the Glossary that do a good job of giving a contemporary spin on a historical work.

Windows and mirrors. That’s the phrase used by children’s literature professionals to explain what we look for in books for kids. We want them to have books that reflect their own experiences and observations (mirrors) and we also want them to have books that reflect the experiences and observations of kids living in very different circumstances (windows). Mirror books can be a lot easier to recommend to kids than window books, but that just means you need to try harder. So next time a 9-12 year-old comes to you begging for a mystery, upset their expectations. Hand them A Girl Called Problem and bet them they won’t be able to guess the bad guy. In the process, you might just be able to introduce that kid to their latest favorite book.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Notes on the Cover:  Now was that so hard?  We ask and we ask and we ask for brown faces on our middle grade fiction and still it feels like pulling teeth to get it done.  Eerdmans really blew this one out of the water, and it seems they spared no expense.  The book jacket is the brainchild of Richard Tuschman who you may know better as the man behind the cover of Claire Vanderpool’s Newbery Award winning Moon Over Manifest.  Beautiful.

Other Blog Reviews: Loganberryblog

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

Misc:

  • This is utterly fascinating.  In this post author Katie Quirk talks about the process that led to the current (and truly lovely) cover.
  • And Ms. Quirk shares what a typical day for Shida might look like in this video.

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22. Review of the Day: When Thunder Comes by J. Patrick Lewis

WhenThunderComes Review of the Day: When Thunder Comes by J. Patrick LewisWhen Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders
By J. Patrick Lewis
Illustrated by Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonya Engel, John Parra, and Meilo So
Chronicle Books
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-4521-0119-4
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now

Poetry is of the people by its very definition. Though sometimes considered the property of the elite (usually by folks who were forced to eat poetry unfiltered in high school by bored teachers) at its best it is a format that any human with a sense of rhythm and/or timing can use to their advantage. Poetry is the voice of people who are oppressed. When Chinese immigrants found themselves detained for weeks on end on Angel Island, they scratched poetry into the very walls of the building. Not curses. Not cries. Poems. It seems fitting then that J. Patrick Lewis should cull together poems to best celebrate “civil rights leaders” both known and unknown. People of different races, creeds, religions, and even sexualities are celebrated in a book that can only be honestly called what it is: one-of-a-kind.

Seventeen people. That doesn’t sound like a lot of folks. Seventeen people turning the tide of history and oppression. Seventeen individuals who made a difference and continue to make a difference every day. And to accompany them, seventeen poems by a former Children’s Poet Laureate. In When Thunder Comes, J. Patrick Lewis highlights heroes of every stripe. And, in doing so, lets young readers know what a hero truly is.

WhenThunder1 234x300 Review of the Day: When Thunder Comes by J. Patrick LewisLewis isn’t phoning this one in. These poems are straight up honest-to-god works of poetry. Though the book is a mere 44 pages or so, its picture book size is misleading indeed. Consider this poem about Aung San Suu Kyi containing the following lines: “When a cyclone flicked off the roof of my prison / like the Queen of Hearts, turning my life to shame / and candle, the General had a mole removed. / When they added four words to the constitution – / my name – to bar me from ever running for office, / the General signed it with his fingernail made of / diamonds and disgust.” We’re on beyond nursery rhymes and patter here. There are also individual lines you just can’t help but admire. I like this one about Nelson Mandela in particular: “It is as if he’s landed on the moon / Five years before the actual event.”

The content is noticeably more mature as well. Kids have plenty of books to choose between when it comes to the Freedom Riders and Walkers, but the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner are dark as dark can be. That poem is told, not in broken up sections, but as a single long, square paragraph. Other ideas, like Muhammad Yunus and his microcredit system or Harvey Milk and his fight for gay rights require a bit more worldly knowledge on the part of readers.

WhenThunder2 300x178 Review of the Day: When Thunder Comes by J. Patrick LewisLewis makes some interesting choices along the way. He’s careful to include familiar names (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Robinson, etc.) alongside lesser-known figures (Aung San Suu Kyi, Helen Zia, Ellison Onizuka, etc.). Some are living, some long dead. Each person has a title (“activist”, “auntie”, etc.). For “the innocent” he names Mamie Carthan Till but not her son, Emmett. At first I was confused by the choice, but the end matter made it clear that it was Mrs. Till that insisted that her son’s funeral be an open casket affair. An act of rebellion in and of itself. And this is undoubtedly the first book for children I’ve read that made special note of Harvey Milk. I know that some smaller presses have highlighted him in the past, but it’s particularly satisfying in this day and age to see him properly named and credited. A sign of the times, if you will.

Another thing I like about the book is its ability to highlight individuals that should be, and are not, household names. If Sylvia Mendez truly paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education, why isn’t Mendez v. Westminster better known? Certainly the book is ideal for writing assignments. The poems vary in terms of style, and I can see teachers everywhere assigning even more too little lauded heroes to their students, asking them to cultivate poems of their own. It would have been nice if somewhere in the book it said what the types of poems featured were (villanelles don’t come along in children’s books every day, after all). Teachers hoping to make connections between some of the subjects then and now might also point out things like how Emmett Till bought candy prior to his death, not unlike a more contemporary hoodied young man.

WhenThunder3 300x191 Review of the Day: When Thunder Comes by J. Patrick LewisOf the various objections I’ve heard leveled against this book, there is the problem that each piece of art is not directly credited to its artist. Meilo So’s style is recognizable enough. Ditto R. Gregory Christie. But who did that image of Josh Gibson? Or Dennis James Banks for that matter? Now, the artists are listed on the publication page with references to their images, but since the book itself isn’t paginated this isn’t as useful as it might be. And some of the images work better than others, of course. While I wasn’t as taken with the images of Coretta Scott King, Mamie Carthan Till, or Dennis James Banks, I really liked Josh Gibson wearing his “Grays” garb, standing against a sky full of clouds. A different librarian objected to the fact that the three men murdered by the Klan in 1964 are featured with very similar, dark skin tones. I see the point, but since the shot is taken at night and the whole of the image is itself dark, this didn’t worry me as much.

In many ways the book most similar to this is Marilyn Singer’s recent Rutherford B., Who Was He?: Poems About Our Presidents Like Singer’s book, Lewis presents the poems and people first and then provides an explanation of who they were at the end. Both give new slants on old names. But for all that, Lewis’s book is unique. Maybe not 100% perfect, but chock full of better poetry than you’ll find in a lot of children’s rooms, highlighting folks that deserve a little additional attention. Certainly bound to be of use to teachers, parents, and kids with an eye towards honest-to-goodness heroism. A lovely addition, no matter where you might be.

On shelves now.

Source: Reviewed from library copy.

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23. Review of the Day: Written in Stone by Rosanne Parry

WrittenInStone 198x300 Review of the Day: Written in Stone by Rosanne ParryWritten in Stone
By Rosanne Parry
Random House
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-375-86971-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Finding books of historical fiction for kids about Native Americans is an oddly limited proposition. Basically, it boils down to Pilgrims, the Trail of Tears, the occasional 1900s storyline (thank God for Louise Erdrich), and . . . yeah, that’s about it. Contemporary fiction? Unheard of at best, offensive at worst. Authors, it seems, like to relegate their American Indians to the distant past where we can feel bad about them through the conscience assuaging veil of history. Maybe that’s part of what I like so much about Rosanne Parry’s Written in Stone. Set in the 1920s, Parry picks a moment in time with cultural significance not for the white readers with their limited historical knowledge but for the people most influenced by changes both at home and at sea. Smart and subtle by turns, Parry tackles a tricky subject and comes away swinging.

A girl with a dream is just that. A dreamer. And though Pearl has always longed to hunt whales like her father before her, harpooning is not in her future. When her father, a member of the Makah people of the Pacific Northwest, is killed on a routine hunt, Pearl’s future is in serious doubt. Not particularly endowed with any useful skills (though she’d love to learn to weave, if anyone was around to teach her), Pearl uncovers on her own a series of forgotten petroglyphs and the plot of a nefarious “art dealer”. Now her newfound love of the written word is going to give her the power to do something she never thought possible: preserve her tribe’s culture.

It’s sort of nice to read a book and feel like a kid in terms of the plot twists. Take, for example, the character of the “collector” who arrives and then immediately appears to be something else entirely. I probably should have been able to figure out his real occupation (or at least interests) long before the book revealed them to me, and yet here I was, toddling through, not a care in the world. I never saw it coming, and that means that at least 75% of the kids reading this book will also be in for a surprise.

I consider the ending of the book a bit of a plot twist as well, actually. We’re so used to our heroes and heroines at the ends of books pulling off these massive escapades and solutions to their problems that when I read Pearl’s very practical and real world answer to the dilemma posed by the smooth talking art dealer I was a bit taken aback. What, no media frenzied conclusion? No huge explosions or public shaming of the villain or anything similarly crass and confused? It took a little getting used to but once I’d accepted the quiet, realistic ending I realized it was better (and more appropriate to the general tone of the book) than anything a more ludicrous premise would have allowed.

If anything didn’t quite work for me, I guess it was the whole “Written in Stone” part. I understood why Pearl had to see the petroglyphs so as to aid her own personal growth and understanding of herself as a writer. That I got. It was more a problem that I had a great deal of difficulty picturing them in my own mind. I had to do a little online research of my own to get a sense of what they looked like, and even that proved insufficient since Parry’s petroglyphs are her own creation and not quite like anything else out there. It’s not an illustrated novel, but a few choice pen and inks of the images in their simplest forms would not have been out of place.

Now let us give thanks to authors (and their publishers) that know the value of a good chunk of backmatter. 19 pages worth of the stuff, no less (and on a 196-page title, that ain’t small potatoes). Because she is a white author writing about a distinct tribal group and their past, Parry treads carefully. Her extensive Author’s Note consists of her own personal connections to the Quinaults, her care to not replicate anything that is not for public consumption, the history of whaling amongst the Makah people, thoughts on the potlatch, petroglyphs, a history of epidemics and economic change to the region (I was unaware that it was returning WWI soldiers with influenza that were responsible for a vast number of deaths to the tribal communities of the Pacific Northwest at that time), the history of art collectors and natural resource management, an extensive bibliography that is split between resources for young readers, exhibits of Pacific Northwest art and artifacts, and resources for older readers, a Glossary of Quinault terms (with a long explanation of how it was recorded over the years), and a thank you to the many people who helped contribute to this book. PHEW! They hardly make ‘em like THIS these days.

I also love the care with which Parry approached her subject matter. There isn’t any of this swagger or ownership at work that you might find in other authors’ works. Her respect shines through. In a section labeled “Culture and Respect” Parry writes, “Historical fiction can never be taken lightly, and stories involving Native Americans are particularly delicate, as the author, whether Native or not, must walk the line between illuminating the life of the characters as fully as possible and withholding cultural information not intended for the public or specific stories that are the property of an individual, family, or tribe.” In this way the author explains that she purposefully left out the rituals that surround a whale hunt. She only alludes to stories of the Pitch Woman and the Timber Giant, never giving away their details. She even makes note the changes in names and spellings in the 1920s versus today.

I don’t know that you’re going to find another book out there quite like Written in Stone. Heck, I haven’t even touched on Pearl’s personality or her personal connections to her father and aunt. I haven’t talked about my favorite part of the book where Pearl’s grandfather haggles with a white trading partner and gets his wife to sing a lullaby that he claims is an ancient Indian curse. I haven’t done any of that, and yet I don’t think that there’s much more to say. The book is a smart historical work of fiction that requires use of the child reader’s brain more than anything else. It’s a glimpse of history I’ve not seen in a work of middle grade fiction before and I’d betcha bottom dollar I might never see it replicated again. Hats off then to Ms. Parry for the time, and effort, and consideration, and care she poured into this work. Hats off too to her editor for allowing her to do so. The book’s a keeper, no question. It’s just a question of finding it, is all.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Notes on the Cover: This marks the second Richard Tuschman book jacket I’ve reviewed this year.  The first was A Girl Called Problem, one of my favorites of 2013.  The man has good taste in books.

Other Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Misc:

Videos: Um . . . okay, I sort of love this fan made faux movie trailer for the book. It’s sort of awesome.  Check it out.

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24. Review of the Day: The Other Side of Free by Krista Russell

OtherSideFree 212x300 Review of the Day: The Other Side of Free by Krista RussellThe Other Side of Free
By Krista Russell
Peachtree Publishers
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1-56145-710-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Have you ever read the adult book How I Became a Famous Novelist? Bear with me for a second here, I know what I’m doing. You see, in the title the author decides that he wants to become a New York Times bestseller. In the course of his quest he runs across a variety of different authors who embody a variety of different types of novels. His own aunt decides she wants to be a children’s author and sets about doing so by writing a work of historical middle grade fiction. The book is about a girl living in Colonial America who wants to be a cooper. In only a page or two author Steve Hely puts his finger on a whole swath of children’s books that drive librarians like myself mildly mad. They find familiar situations and alter very little aside from location and exact year to tell their tales. The result is an increasing wariness on my part to read any works of historical fiction, for fear that you’ll see the same dang story again and again. With all this in mind you can imagine the relief with which I read Krista Russell’sThe Other Side of Free. Not only is the setting utterly original (not to mention unforgettable) but the characters don’t fill the same little roles you’ll see in other children’s novels. If you have kids that have tired of the same old, same old, The Other Side of Free will give them something they haven’t seen before.

We’ve all heard of how slaves would escape to the North when they wished to escape for good. But travel a bit farther back in time to the early 18th century and the tale is a little different. At that point in history slaves didn’t flee north but south to Spain’s territories. There, the Spanish king promised freedom for those slaves that swore fidelity to the Spanish crown and fought on his behalf against the English. 13-year-old Jem is one of those escaped slaves, but his life at Fort Mose is hardly stimulating. Kept under the yoke of a hard woman named Phaedra, Jem longs to fight for the king and to join in the battles. But when at last the fighting comes to him, it isn’t at all what he thought it would be. A Bibliography of sources appears at the end of the book.

There are big themes at work here. What freedom is worth to an individual if it means yoking yourself to someone else. If militia work really does mean freedom, or just slavery of a new kind. Jem himself chafes under the hand of Phaedra, though I think it would be obvious, even to a kid reader, that he’s immature in more than one way. But with all that said, it’s the lighter moments that make the book for me. Omen the owl is a notable example of a detail that makes the book more than just a work of history. In this story Jem adopts an owlet and raises it as his own. In your standard generic fare the owl would be a beloved friend and companion, possibly ultimately dying for Jem in a heroic scene reminiscent of Hedwig’s death. Instead, the owl is hell on wings. A nasty, chicken-snatching, very real and wild creature that is, nonetheless, beloved of our hero. Again, expectations are upset. I love it when that happens.

I liked the individual lines Russell used to dot the text as well. For example, in an early character note about Phaedra the book describes her construction of a grass basket. “Her fingers snatched at the fronds again and again, until each strip was bent and shaped to her will.” It’s worth noting that it’s Jem who is saying this about her. Almost the whole book is told through his own perspective and, as such, may not be entirely trustworthy. He has his own prejudices to fight, after all. I also like Russell’s everyday descriptions. “Adine handed each man a jug of water. They drank until it ran down their faces, leaving tails like gray veins down their throats.” Beautifully put.

Honestly it would make a heckuva stage play. The settings are necessarily limited, with Jem spending most of his time in Fort Mose and the rest of it in St. Augustine. Not having been familiar with the people of Fort Mose before, I found myself incredibly anxious to learn what became of them. Russell ends the book on a hopeful note, but you cannot help but wonder. If there were freed slaves in Florida in 1739 then what happened when that state became the property of the English in 1763? All Russell says at that time is “At this time, the free Africans of Mose relocated to Cuba.” Kids will just have to extrapolate a happy ending for Jem and his friends from that.

A great work of historical fiction does a number of things. It introduces you to unfamiliar places and people. It establishes a kind of empathy for those people that you otherwise would never have met. It puts you in their shoes, if only for a moment. And most of all, it surprises you. Upsets your expectations, maybe. For most kids in America, the history of slavery is short and sweet. Slaves came from Africa. They escaped North. They were freed thanks in part to the Civil War. What more is there is say or to learn aside from some vague info on the Underground Railroad? Russell challenges these assumptions, bringing us a tale that is wholly new, but filled with facts. If the rote and familiar don’t suit you and you want a book that travels over new ground, you can hardly do better than The Other Side of Free. Smart and original, it’s a one-of-a-kind novel. Hardly the kind of thing you run across every day.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Notes on the Cover: I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I can see what Peachtree was going for here. In this image you get the dense canopy of a Floridian forest. You even have a black boy on the cover (albeit completely turned away from the viewer, which is kind of a cheat). But all in all, whether it’s the art or the design or the color palette, this book is not the most visually appealing little number I’ve seen in all my livelong days. I’m having a devil of a time getting folks to pick it up of their own accord. One hopes that if it goes to paperback someday, maybe it’ll be given a cover worthy of its content.

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25. Review of the Day: Curiosity by Gary Blackwood

Curiosity Review of the Day: Curiosity by Gary BlackwoodCuriosity
By Gary Blackwood
Dial (an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-8037-3924-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves April 10th

Blackwood’s back, baby! And not a minute too soon. Back in 1998, the author released The Shakespeare Stealer which would soon thereafter become his best-known work. A clever blending of historical fiction and adventure, the book allowed teachers the chance to hone Shakespeare down to a kid-friendly level. Since its publication Mr. Blackwood has kept busy, writing speculative fiction and, most recently, works of nonfiction for kids. Then there was a bit of a lull in his writing and the foolish amongst us (myself included) forgot about him. There will be no forgetting Mr. Blackwood anytime now though. Not after you read his latest work Curiosity. Throwing in everything from P.T. Barnum and phrenology to hunchbacks, Edgar Allan Poe, automatons, chess prodigies, murder, terrible fires, and legless men, Blackwood produces a tour de force to be reckoned with. In the press materials for this book, Penguin calls it “Gary Blackwood’s triumphant return to middle grade fiction.” They’re not wrong. The man’s about to acquire a whole new generation of fans and enthusiasts.

Fear for the children of novels that describe their childhoods as pampered or coddled. No good can come of that. Born weak with a slight deformity of the spine, Rufus lives a lovely life with his father, a well-respected Methodist minister in early 19th century Philadelphia. That’s all before his father writes a kind of predecessor to The Origin of the Species and through a series of misadventures is thrown into debtor’s prison. Fortunately (perhaps) Rufus is a bit of a chess prodigy and his talents get him a job with a man by the name of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel. Maelzel owns an automaton called The Turk that is supposed to be able to play chess against anyone and win. With Rufus safely ensconced inside, The Turk is poised to become a massive moneymaker. But forces are at work to reveal The Turk’s secrets and if that information gets out, Rufus’s life might not be worth that of the pawns he plays.

Making the past seem relevant and accessible is hard enough when you’re writing a book for adults. Imagine the additional difficulty children’s authors find themselves in. Your word count is limited else you lose your audience. That means you need to engage in some serious (not to mention judicious and meticulous) wordplay. Blackwood’s a pro, though. His 1835 world is capable of capturing you with its life and vitality without boring you in the process. At one point Rufus describes seeing Richmond, VA for the first time and you are THERE, man. From the Flying Gigs to the mockingbirds to the James River itself. I was also relieved to find that Blackwood does make mention of the African-Americans living in Richmond and Philly at the time this novel takes place. Many are the works of historical fiction by white people about white people that conveniently forget this little fact.

Add onto that the difficulty that comes with making the past interesting and accurate and relevant all at once. I read more historical fiction for kids than a human being should, and while it’s all often very well meaning, interesting? Not usually an option. I’m certain folks will look at how Blackwood piles on the crazy elements here (see: previous statement about the book containing everything from phrenology to P.T. Barnum) and will assume that this is just a cheap play for thrills. Not so. It’s the man’s writing that actually holds your focus. I mean, look at that first line: “Out of all the books in the world, I wonder what made you choose this one.” Heck, that’s just a drop in the bucket. Check out these little gems:

“If my cosseted childhood hadn’t taught me how to relate to other people, neither had it taught em to fear them.”

“I was like some perverse species of prisoner who felt free only when he was locked inside a tiny cell.”

“Maelzel was not the sort of creator imagined by the Deists, who fashions a sort of clockwork universe and winds it up, then sits back and watches it go and never interferes. He was more like my father’s idea of the creator: constantly tinkering with his creations, looking for ways to make them run more smoothly and perform more cleverly – the kind who makes it possible for new species to develop.”

As for the writing of the story itself, Blackwood keeps the reader guessing and then fills the tale with loads of historical details. The historical accuracy is such that Blackwood even allows himself little throwaway references, confident that confused kids will look them up themselves. For example, at one point Rufus compares himself to “Varney the Vampire climbing into his coffin.” This would be a penny dreadful that circulated roundabout this time (is there any more terrifying name than “Varney” after all?). In another instance a blazing fire is met with two “rival hose” companies battling one another “for the right to hook up to the nearest fireplug.” There is a feeling that for a book to be literary it has to be dull. Blackwood dispels the notion, and one has to stand amazed when they realize that somehow he managed to make a story about a kid trapped in a small dark space for hours at a time riveting.

Another one of the more remarkable accomplishments of the book is that it honestly makes you want to learn more about the game of chess. A good author can get a kid interested in any subject, of course. I think back on The Cardturner by Louis Sachar, which dared to talk up the game of Bridge. And honestly, chess isn’t a hard sell. The #1 nonfiction request I get from my fellow children’s librarians (and the request I simply cannot fulfill fast enough) is for more chess books for kids. At least in the big cities, chess is a way of life for some children. One hopes that we’ll be able to extend their interest beyond the immediate game itself and onto a book where a kid like themselves has all the markings of true genius.

It isn’t perfect, of course. In terms of characterization, of all the people in this book Rufus is perhaps the least interesting. You willingly follow him, of course. Just because he doesn’t sparkle on the page like some of the other characters doesn’t mean you don’t respond to the little guy. One such example might be when his first crush doesn’t go as planned. But he’s a touchstone for the other characters around him. Then there’s the other problem of Rufus being continually rescued by the same person in the same manner (I won’t go into the details) more than once. It makes for a weird repeated beat. The shock of the first incident is actually watered down by the non-surprise of the second. Rufus becomes oddly passive in his own life, rarely doing anything to change the course of his fate (he falls unconscious and wakes up rescued more than once,) a fact that may contribute to the fact that he’s so unmemorable on the page.

But that aside, it’s hard not to be entranced by what Blackwood has come up with here. Automatons sort of came to the public’s attention when Brian Selznick wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Blackwood takes it all a step further merging man and machine, questioning what we owe to one another and, to a certain extent, where the power really lies. Rufus finds his sense of self and bravery by becoming invisible. At the same time, he’s so innocent to the ways of the world that becoming visible comes with the danger of having your heart broken in a multitude of different ways. In an era where kids spend untold gobs of time in front of the screens of computers, finding themselves through a newer technology, Blackwood’s story has never been timelier. Smart and interesting, fun and strange, this is one piece of little known history worthy of your attention. Check and mate.

On shelves April 10th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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First Line: “Out of all the books in the world, I wonder what made you choose this one.”

Notes on the Cover: And now let us praise fabulous cover artists. Particularly those creating covers that make more sense after you’ve finished the book. The glimpse of Rufus’s eye in the “O” of the title didn’t do much more than vaguely remind me of the spine of the The Invention of Hugo Cabret at first (an apt comparison in more than one way). After closer examination, however, I realized that it was Rufus in the cabinet below. The unnerving view of The Turk and the shadowy Mr. Hyde-ish man in the far back all combine to give this book a look of both historical fervor and intrigue. And look how that single red (red?) pawn is lit. It’s probably not actually a red pawn but a white one, but something about the image looks reddish. Blood red, if you will. Boy, that’s a good jacket.

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

Misc:

  • Care to read Edgar Allan Poe’s actual article for The Messenger about The Turk?  Do so here.
  • A fun BBC piece on the implication of The Turk then, now, and for our children.  It appears to have been written by one “Adam Gopnik”.  We’ll just assume it’s a different Adam than the one behind A Tale Dark & Grimm.

Videos: Want to see the real Turk in action?  This video makes for fascinating watching.

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