July 31, 2012

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by Douglas Adams (Crown, 2004 - Anniversary Edition)
GENRE: Science Fiction
HONORS: Multiple Best-Seller Lists Over Multiple Decades

REVIEW: One morning, Arthur Dent wakes up to find a  construction crew with a bulldozer outside of his house - the location for a new interstate. It is also the day that Earth has been scheduled for demolition to make way for a new intergalactic highway. Luckily, Arthur's friend, Ford Prefect, is not what he seems. He is a Hitchhiker and he knows where his towel is. Just as the Earth explodes, Ford, with Arthur in tow, snags a ride from a passing ship, escaping the Earth's destruction and landing them in a series of comic misadventures across the galaxy. With a cast of characters that have come to personify the ridiculous (in a really funny kind of way), Adams's now classic adventure is true must-read, particularly junior high boys - not to discriminate against junior high girls, it's just that, even thirty years later, adolescent males seem to take special joy in quoting any number of Adamsisms at length. Expertly paced, tonally perfect and truly quirky, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy may be science-fiction lite, but it's still must-read science fiction, even at the risk of exposure to Vogon poetry.

OPINION: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the kind of funny that relies on timing, word play and healthy dose of the ridiculous. It swings along and before you know it, you're halfway through and ignoring chores. Though not for readers that take themselves terribly seriously, most adolescents will enjoy Arthur Dent's slow inculcation into the Hitchhiking way of life. If a library doesn't have this book, there is very likely something wrong...

IDEAS: A great suggestion for parents looking a book they can read with their tween. A lot of parents will remember reading it when they were adolescents and would probably share it, with great enthusiasm, with their own kids. The humor has more than held up.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING by Catherynne M. Valente; Illustrated by Ana Juan (Square Fish, 2012)
GENRE: Fantasy / Fairytale
HONORS: Andre Norton Award

REVIEW: While washing pink and yellow teacups in her kitchen sink, September is offered the chance to ride the Leopard of Gentle Breezes to Fairyland with the Green Wind, a natty and mischievous individual. September, who is not only tired of washing teacups, but of Nebraska and of normal life in general, accepts, embarking on an adventure that takes her to Pandemonium, (the capital of Fairyland) and the home of the evil Marquess, to the Autumn territories where it is always Halloween, around the whole of Fairyland in her titular ship and finally to the Lonely Jail, where all is explained. Along the way, she meets a girl made of soap, a Wyverary (a Wyvern that is half  library), witches, pookahs, alchemists, velocipedes, a boy named Saturday and her own Death. While drawing liberally on motifs and themes from multiple fairy tales, Valente manages to construct a story that is both linguistically beautiful and completely unique. September's journey lands her in unexpected and oddly familiar places, while the climax, though (in hindsight) is perfectly, constructed and inevitable, still manages to surprise. A gorgeous and truly special book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a lovely, jewel of a thing, full of enough adventure and emotional resonance to have readers gobbling it up like fairy food.

OPINION: This is, so far, my favorite book of the semester. Valente's narrative voice is playful and sure, drawsing on old-fashioned language and conceits (such as asides to the reader) that in her hands feels fresh and new. Everything about September's story vibrates with energy and color, but what makes it stand out, particularly, is the emotional depth operating beneath the visual and linguistic loveliness. Themes of loneliness, fear and regret play out gracefully to the end, making The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making much more than just a charming face.

IDEAS: A good suggestion for slightly older tweens with the ability to focus on language. While not a difficult read, it does require a bit of focus and maturity from the reader. It would be especially fun for tweens who enjoy fairy tales and classics like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as Valente refers to many of them thematically and stylistically throughout. Also a wonderful choice for a library or school book club, where an adult could help lead discussions on any number of possible topics.

The Mummy's Mother

THE MUMMY'S MOTHER by Tony Johnston (Blue Sky Press, 2003)
GENRE: Adventure / Humor
HONORS: None

REVIEW: Ramoses is a 4, 010 year old mummy (4, 010 because he was 10 years old when he was mummified 4,000 years ago). For all that time, he and his mother, the Queen, have been tucked quietly in their tomb, waiting for the Afterlife, until one day, nefarious thieves steal his mother's mummy away. Though young, inexperienced and a bit physically fragile (one good thump could crumble his ancient bones), Ramoses heads off in pursuit, undertaking a journey that leads him through the desert on a cranky camel, to a ship where he makes friends and plays ping-pong and finally to New York, where his mother is being displayed in a museum. Ramoses is a sweet and earnest protagonist, whose vulnerabilities (both emotional and physical) are nicely balanced by his bravery and his ability to rise to every occasion. Johnston keeps things moving without unduly rushing the narrative. The result is a well-paced little story that lingers just long enough on each of Ramoses's adventures for humor or tension to bloom, without interfering with the pace.

OPINION: The Mummy's Mother makes up in humor and pacing for what it lacks in depth. Still, given that it is aimed at younger adolescents, a slight lack of depth could be considered a plus. It is especially humorous that Ramoses, who looks like a typical mummy, never arouses the suspicion of adults, most of whom assume he is a normal boy wearing bandages for some reason. This fun and funny suspension of disbelief contributes greatly to the book's charm. As an added benefit, Johnston weaves in a lot of aspects of Ancient Egyptian history and mythology, which will likely pique the interest of young readers and perhaps prompt them to learn more.

IDEAS: A great suggestion to younger tweens interested in Ancient Egypt or quick adventures with a gentle dose of humor. Also a nice supplementary reading for classrooms who are doing a unit on world mythology as the names and functions of Egyptian gods are featured throughout.

July 27, 2012

The Giver

THE GIVER by Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin, 1993)
GENRE: Science Fiction - Dystopic
HONORS: Newbery Award

REVIEW: Jonas lives in a community ruled by "Sameness". People are assigned jobs and spouses, they apply to have children (a maximum of one boy and one girl, dispensed when the "new child" is 1 year old). It is a society that doesn't know war or pain or hunger, but they also cannot love. There is no collective memory. All of the community's memories reside in The Receiver, a person of great honor, and Jonas is selected to replace him. As the old Receiver becomes The Giver, passing memories of joy and pain into the boy, Jonas faces the painful isolation of awareness. He alone knows about colors and snow and war and love. Ultimately, Jonas must decide whether to stay in a community that becomes increasingly horrific in his eyes, or to risk the wilds "Els subtle ewhere"for a chance at an honest life. With a masterful, light touch, Lowry constructs a world that grows increasingly unsettling over course of this short book, dispensing knowledge more through implication than stated fact. Jonas journey of awareness is painful and inevitable, and the choice he ultimately makes is the perfect criticism of a society based on rigid homogeneity.

OPINION: The Giver is a subtly overwhelming book. Lowry blends the tender (the naming ceremony) with the creepy ("comfort objects"; the "Releasing Room") to paint a picture of life in a society that, though safe, is hardly a life at all. Jonah is a brave protagonist who grows rapidly over the course of the book, gaining wisdom through the memories The Giver transfers to him. As a meditation on societal control, "sameness", the importance of shared history and the nature of love, The Giver is, quite possibly, the perfect adolescent novel. It most certainly contains a perfect dystopia, if such a thing could exist.

IDEAS: Used in middle school and junior high English classes everywhere, The Giver is made to be discussed, with serious themes and issues woven carefully through its straightforward narrative. A great suggestion for tween fans of dystopic fiction and science fiction, it's also a wonderful introduction for young people not yet familiar with the genre.

The 13 Clocks

THE 13 CLOCKS by James Thurber; Illustrated by Marc Simont; Introduction by Neil Gaiman (New York Review Children's Collection, 1950)
GENRE: Fantasy / Humor / Fairy Tale
HONORS: None

REVIEW: High up in a castle, an evil Duke (who is so cold that even the hands of his 13 clocks have frozen at "ten minutes to five") lives with his beautiful niece, Princess Seralinda. Loathe to lose her to marriage, the Duke devises all manner of impossible quests for the suitors who come knocking at his castle door. It is only when Xingu, a "knight who is not a knight" learns of the lovely Seralinda and undertakes a quest to win her hand in marriage, that the Duke overthrown and justice served. Thoroughly intelligent and charmingly ridiculous, The 13 Clocks takes full advantage of an entire host of fairy tales. Though it won't appeal to every reader, for those who enjoy a touch of the ridiculous, light romance, fairy tales or complex puns it is a wonderful, surprising read.

OPINION: The 13 Clocks is a quick read that works on several levels. For younger adolescents, the story alone, with it's fabulous villain, lovely princess and intrepid knight, is a fun romp through territory littered with familiar fairy tale motifs. For older tweens, or those who read more closely, Thurber's word play and internal pacing give The 13 Clocks and extra degree of interest. One could read this book several times and still not catch every double-meaning or subtle joke, making it a subtly ridiculous, utterly engrossing read for a wide range of tweens. Neil Gaiman's introduction adds a nice bit of context for the modern reader, as well.

IDEAS: Great for fans of Roald Dahl's satirical style and work play. Also an unexpected suggestion for fans of fairy tales and knightly romance, particularly for those who enjoy a dash of humor and a touch of the ridiculous. In the classroom, a nice vehicle for discussion about folklore and fairy tale motifs and themes.

Jane Eyre

JANE EYRE (Film Adaptation) directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga; Starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. Based on the novel by Charlotte Bronte. (Focus Features, 2011).
GENRE: Romance (Gothic) / Historical
HONORS: LA Film Critic's Assoc. Award for Best Actor (Michael Fassbender - won); National Board of Review Spotlight Award (Michael Fassbender - won); British Independent Film Best Actress Award (Mia Wasikowska - nominated)

REVIEW: Few films capture the tone and feel of a classic as well as Fukunaga's 2011 adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Orphaned Jane goes to work for the mysterious Mr. Rochester as a governess. Before long, she begins to notice odd things in the expansive house - strange noises, sudden fires and unexplained injuries. All the while, Jane becomes increasingly fascinated by her mercurial, challenging employer. But though Jane may look small and pale, she is strong, stronger than anyone else in the house, with a moral and ethical core that renders her integrity stunning in it's unshakability. As in the novel, Wasikowska's Jane knows her own mind, and though she is humble, she knows her own value and will not compromise it. Fassbender's Rochester is a haunted, complicated man, with an edge that wavers just to one side of dangerous. The production itself is lovely with light dreamlike expanses contrasting starkly with the dark, sinister interior of Rochester's home. Taut and intense, Jane Eyre is not a movie to watch while texting or playing an app. Luckily, it's appealing enough that even the most tech savvy tween won't want to.

OPINION: Jane Eyre is a classic with much to offer adolescent readers. However, it's also a title that tends to intimidate or simply not interest modern tweens. This adaptation, though faithfully adapted from Bronte's original, renders the story far more accessible by concentrating primarily on Jane's growth, and on her romance with Rochester, in all it's complicated, gothic glory. Darker than all of the perennially popular Jane Austen's work combined, Jane Eyre is a great suggestion for tweens looking for something a touch more gothic, and Fukunaga's film adaptation is a wonderful way to introduce them to the story and pique their interest.

IDEAS: A must-have for any display featuring the classics, it would also be an unexpected inclusion in a display with a romance or historical theme. Also a nice suggestion for fans of the book and for tweens, particularly girls, interested in classical literature / stories, but unsure where to start.

The Rose and the Beast

THE ROSE AND THE BEAST by Francesca Lia Block (Harper Collins, 2000)
GENRE: Fantasy / Fairy Tales
HONORS: L.A. Times Best Seller

REVIEW: The Rose and the Beast is an unexpected collection. Each story is an adaptation of a fairy tale ranging from the popular, ("Snow," a variation on Snow White) to the less well-known, ("Bones," Block's Bluebeard). As in much of Francesca Lia Block's work, the language is lovely and poetic, with a nebulous quality that gives each story the feeling a Impressionist painting. Though not immediately obvious in most cases, the original tales form strong foundation for each adaptation, providing Block with a platform on which to explore themes such as the variable nature of love and friendship, as well as darker issues, such as abuse and alienation. More appropriate for adolescents 13 and over, The Rose and the Beast is a subtle, emotional collection, one that deals with potentially difficult subject matter, while rarely handing the reader a clear-cut solution to any of the situations depicted. That said, the stories are haunting and beautiful, and will reward the reader who takes the time to sit and ponder them.

OPINION: This is a wonderful collection of literary fairy tale adaptations. Each story, written with Block's characteristic linguistic care, skims the surface of the original, while hinting at the depths beneath. A strong addition to any tween collection, it is a book that requires the reader's full emotional and intellectual attention. It would probably be most enjoyed by readers already familiar with the world of fairy tales and their adaptations and / or fans of Block's other work.

IDEAS: A great book for comparative discussion. The tales of full of hints, clues and variations on the original fairy tales that inspired them. Also a great suggestion for fans of Block's other collections, particularly Girl Goddess #9 and How to (un)Cage a Girl.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg (Aladdin, 2002)
GENRE: Contemporary
HONORS: Newbery Medal

REVIEW: When 11-year-old Claudia Kincaid decides to leave home, she decides to do so in comfort, so she invites her 9-year-old brother Jamie, (who has saved all his money), to come with her. The two Kincaids follow Claudia's plan not to run away from home, but rather to run to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jamie and Claudia take up residence at the museum, hiding in bathrooms and sleeping in antique beds, while displaying a level of intelligence and discipline that is admirable in kids their age. What follows is an adventure that, though quiet by 21st century standards, feels both true and engaging. Claudia and Jamie balance each other, for while Claudia is the planner, Jamie holds the purse-strings, resulting in a dynamic that is one of equals. The mystery of the angel statue, (which leads them to Mrs. Frankweiler's mixed-up files), keeps the narrative moving and gives Claudia and Jamie greater purpose. The result is an engrossing, quick read in which Claudia and Jamie gain a greater understanding of themselves and each other, in addition to discovering the statue's mysterious origins.

OPINION: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler has become a modern classic for a reason. Claudia and Jamie are fantastic, complicated characters. They are both flawed, but also remarkable in their ways, making them excellent role-models. Their relationship with each other - one of grudging respect and even admiration - is complex, requiring the reader to think beyond simple, stock brother / sister dynamics. Konisberg keeps the narrative calm, but taut - she has incredible control over her pacing and plot. It really is a must-read.

IDEAS: This is a book that respects it's reader. It's a great introduction to literary mysteries. Also wonderful for kids interested in New York, or those that need to read a Newbery book, but can't find one that interests them. Also a nice addition to a display for books on museums, adventures, art or mysteries. Fantastic book to discuss in class, as well.

July 23, 2012

Virginia Wolf

VIRGINIA WOLF by Kyo Maclear; Illustrated by Isabella Aresenault (Kids Can Press, 2012)
GENRE: Loosely Fictional Biography
HONORS: None yet, though it has received a number of very positive reviews.

REVIEW: One day, a girl named Vanessa notices that her sister, Virginia, has begun to behave "wolfishly". She howls and sends people away, isolating herself in her bed while the household turns upside-down. Rather than be chased off by her sister's terrible, dark mood, Vanessa embraces her and engages her, painting her walls with flowers and enchanted objects so that she might create an enchanted place called "Bloomsberry" for the unhappy Virginia. Thanks to Vanessa's stalwart love, Virginia emerges from her wolfish mood and rejoins her sister in the light. Virginia Wolf is a subtle, delicately crafted book. It draws just enough from the lives of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf to be undeniable biographical, while never explicitly bringing up the topics of depression or Woolf's eventual suicide. Instead, it is a story of sisterly love and support, and how it helps the wolfish Virginia emerge from her dark place. Aresnault's delicate, watercolor illustrations mirror the subtlety and depth of Maclear's prose, making Virginia Wolf an effective, yet unthreatening meditation on "the doldrums" and the isolation that can result.

OPINION: Though simple on the surface, Virginia Wolf is a book with deep emotional resonance. Because Maclear's hand is so light, it is a perfect book for young people not yet ready to deal with the dark, potentially alienating topic of depression or sadness in a direct manner. Instead, Maclear allows the topic to perfume the air while focusing on the support that helps Virginia transcend her doldrums. A beautiful, sensitive book with sophisticated underpinnings and gorgeous illustrations, it is truly a picture book for older readers.

IDEAS: Beautiful in it's own right, Virginia Wolf is a strong suggestion for young people interested in stories about the bond between sisters, as well as for those dealing with sadness, grief, depression or even just a series of bad moods or bad days. These themes are touched on lightly, but it is this gentle treatment which allows individual readers to glean what they need from the text and illustrations.
*For a lovely short essay by the author on writing a children's book based on a famous depressive and her sister, see the following: http://kyomaclearkids.com/virginia-wolf/extras/whos-afraid-of-virginia-woolf/

The Cod's Tale

THE COD'S TALE by Mark Kurlansky; Illustrated by S.D. Schindler (G.P. Putnam, 2001)
GENRE: Nonfiction / History
HONORS: Orbis Pictus Award

REVIEW: Every aspect of The Cod's Tale has been carefully chosen and meticulously executed, making this a surprisingly interesting mediation on history, zoological science and environmentalism all filtered through the lens of that most unglamorous of fish, the cod. Kurlansky's voice is straightforward and frank, crediting the reader with interest and intelligence without lapsing into didacticism. Schindler's watercolor illustrations are humorous and appealing in their detail, while the maps and timelines compliment and support the text. In addition to a wide range of well-chosen facts, Kurlansky also includes side bars with supplementary quotes, stories and even recipes, drawing the reader further along into the narrative of the cod's once robust presence in the oceans to the species' desperately dwindling numbers. Even more impressive is the fact that Kurlansky manages to convey the global import of this under-considered fish through structure alone. By opening with the cod's place in the oceanographic hierarchy and then narrowing down to the history of how humans have used the fish before widening one again to ponder the environmental impact of overfishing, Kurlansky gives import and interest to a topic that would not, intuitively, have either.

OPINION: Although The Cod's Tale is, ostensibly, a picture book, the level of detail and thought that has gone into it's making elevates it to the level of any nonfiction chapter book, and certainly above most textbooks, based on interest alone. A book that demands thought and consideration, it is still an accessible and engrossing read while being undeniably informative.

IDEAS: A good addition to Earth Day or oceanographic displays. Also a strong suggestion for students interested in topics on environmental impact and the history and influence of food in western culture (and particularly in America).

Technically, It's Not My Fault

TECHNICALLY, IT'S NOT MY FAULT: Concrete Poems by John Grandits (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)
GENRE: Poetry (contemporary / realism)
HONORS: ALA Notable Book for Children; ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers; VOYA Poetry Pick

REVIEW: Poetry can be a difficult sell, particularly for tweens and teens. The assumption tends to be one of leaves of grass and various meditations on things that don't matter, let alone resonate, with modern teens.  Luckily, John Grandits's collection, Technically It's Not My Fault, effectively, and with great humor, dispels that notion. To begin with, Grandits's poems form a narrative arc in which the narrator / poet, a boy named Robert, recounts and ponders his life, from his older sister's choice in head-wear, (apparently, she wears a pyramid shaped hat) to mowing the grass. The result is a humorous and oddly genuine portrait of a twelve-year old boy's world. The other aspect that makes the poems in this collection appeal so strongly with young people, is the fact that they are concrete poems, or poems in which the words form  shapes that elucidate the topic of the poem as a whole. So when Robert writes about the injustice of being punished for setting off fireworks, the words of the poem illustrate the shoot and fizzle of the fireworks in question. Because the form is so integral, it frees the poetry to sound more colloquial and chatty - more like spoken word than iambic pentameter, a fact which renders the poems in this collection accessible to a fantastic degree.

OPINION: This is one of the best poetry collections for young people that I've ever read. Inventive, accessible and polished, it's fun to read simply for the narrative, but in addition to being a fun, quick read, it begs the reader to think, even if briefly, about the nature of poetry and about what poetry is, all the while deepening their capacity to think critically about what they read.

IDEAS: A wonderful suggestion for reluctant readers of both sexes and fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, as both explore the everyday life of modern tweens. An especially great choice for young people resistant to poetry. In fact, you could probably hand it to a tween without saying a word, confident that he or she would enjoy it without even realizing it's a collection of poetry.

July 17, 2012

Cirque Du Freak: A Living Nightmare

CIRQUE DU FREAK: A LIVING NIGHTMARE (Book 1) by Darren Shan (Little Brown, 2002)
GENRE: Horror
HONORS: Sheffield Children's Book Award (Second Prize); WHSmith Children's Book Of The Year (shortlisted); RA-CBC Children's Choice Award

REVIEW: In this fictional autobiography, Darren Shan relates to the reader how he, an average, soccer-playing kid with a fascination for spiders, ends up becoming a vampire's apprentice. Though a bit overly descriptive at times (the account of the freak show goes through each act methodically, somewhat dulling the pace), Shan keeps the overall plot moving at a brisk, suspenseful pace. As the tension mounts and the stakes become higher (pardon the pun), the reader is drawn into the story by the inevitable consequences of Darrens actions. Darker, with more emotional repercussions than many horror series for tweens, Cirque Du Freak makes you feel for Darren, even as you hope you would make different choices than he does.

OPINION: Shan manages to balance horror and humor very successfully. Darren is an appealing protagonist, flawed but like-able and easy to relate to. The story is fast-paced and always evolving - just when one locus of horror resolves, another emerges to take its place. The fact that Darran's actions reap some fairly unappealing and graphic consequences at the end is an added bonus, grounding the series in  a pleasing, unapologetic darkness.

IDEAS: A great read-a-like for fans of R.L. Stine or tweens ready to graduate from the Stine's Goosebumps series. Also a fun title to highlight around Halloween, and a good suggestion for fans of vampire fiction, especially boys.

The House with a Clock in it's Walls

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS by John Bellairs; Illustrated by Edward Gorey (!), (Puffin (reissue), 2004)
GENRE: Horror
HONORS: ALA Children's Book of International Interest Award (1973); NY Times Outstanding Books of 1973 Award; Maude Hart Lovelace Award nominee (1982)

REVIEW: The House with a Clock in Its Walls is classic Bellairs - creepy, gothic and appealingly atmospheric. Recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt goes to live with his Uncle Jonathon in a gorgeous, mysterious house. But all is not as it seems - the house used to be owned by a powerful warlock and the warlock's even more powerful wife, Selenna. Adding to the creepiness is the fact that a clock ticks somewhere deep in the house, but though Jonathon looks for it every night, he has never been able to find it. When a spell goes wrong and Lewis accidentally raises Selenna from the dead, Lewis, Jonathon and Jonathon's neighbor, Florence Zimmermann (a powerful witch), must defeat Selenna and find the clock before it counts down the time to Doomsday. With it's carefully wound tension and foreboding atmosphere, The House with a Clock in the Walls is a delicious read. Plus, one gets the added benefit of enjoying Edward Gorey's illustrations, which perfectly off-set Bellairs's tempered gothic prose.

OPINION: Pleasantly spooky and very well-paced, The House with a Clock in Its Walls may not be as flashy or irreverent as modern horror, but it's understated and tense and oddly charming. It's a quick, fun read and will mostly likely surprise tweens at how hard it is to put down.

IDEAS: A great addition to a Halloween, haunted house or ghost story display, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is also a good suggestion for tweens who prefer their horror to be that of the "creepy, suspenseful" variety rather than blood and guts.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

DIARY OFA WIMPY KID: A Novel in Cartoons by Jeff Kinney (Amulet, 2007)
GENRE: Humor (contemporary)
HONORS: ALA Notable Book Award; multiple Nickelodeon Kid's Choice Awards and nominations

REVIEW: Diary of a Wimpy Kid enjoys a near universal fandom among middle school boys (and many middle school girls). It's the story of Greg Heffley, a sympathetic and frank, "every-kid" figure of a tween-age boy. Appropriately, the diary opens with a caveat - a statement that Greg's mother is making him keep a journal and so that is why he's doing it. Greg's journal (not a diary - girls keep diaries) is informal and colloquial and full of appeal. Greg's struggles with the middle-school social hierarchy, with his big brother Roderick, with his dorky best friend and with his life in general, are conveyed through hand-written notes and goofy drawings, as is appropriate for the diary of a kid Greg's age. The humor is skewed directly at the middle-school set, and though it falls a touch flat from an adult's perspective, it's appeal is undeniable when considering the target audience. Savvy and topical, it's no wonder that the series took off and shows no sign of slowing.

OPINION: Diary of a Wimpy Kid has become something of a cultural juggernaut. It is rare to find a middle-schooler who hasn't read at least one, or seen the movie. Well-written and extremely in touch with the concerns of adolescents (particularly those who are less than popular), it's a strong series deserving of the attention it gets.

IDEAS: Undoubtedly a sure thing for reluctant readers - especially boys - providing you find one who hasn't read them already. A nice suggestion as well for kids ready to graduate from the Geronimo Stilton books, or fans of The Dork Diaries.

Clockwork

CLOCKWORK, or All Wound Up by Philip Pullman; Illustrations by Leonid Gore (Scholastic, 1996).
GENRE: Horror
HONORS: Shortlisted for the Whitebread Children's Book Award (1997); shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal (1997)

REVIEW: As with all of Pullman's work, Clockwork is a model of story construction. Drawing from German fables and fairy tales and redolent with Faustian themes, it is a lovely, though unsettling story. Told in three parts from three different characters' points of view, it begins in the tavern of a small German town. Everyone has gathered to hear Fritz, a local author of some note, read his newest frightening story, a tale called "Clockwork." But all is not as simple as it seems - once begun, the story takes on a life of it's own, leaving the pages and playing out in the town's famous clock tower. Seemingly good men make deals with the devil and consequences must be paid, but as in all good fairy tales, the spirit of innocence prevails and sets things right in the end. Pullman contextualizes his story in a brief but effective forward, equating some stories to clocks in that, once wound, it can be impossible to make them stop. The metaphor is apt. This brief and compelling tale really is a clockwork, fluid and intricate, ticking on, straight to the inevitable end.

OPINION: Clockwork is a beautiful story - dark in the way that certain traditional tales are dark - with a tonal menace that drives the reader forward. Gore's illustrations are shadowy and apt, subtly portraying a safe world briefly invaded by the fantastic. Though commonly overlooked in favor of Pullman's more well known works, Clockwork's grim appeal makes it stand out. 

IDEAS: Recommend to readers (particularly boys) reluctant to read traditional tales. Though original to Pullman, Clockwork employs a number of traditional motifs, (and the killer clockwork knight certainly doesn't hurt). 

July 16, 2012

Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile

CLEOPATRA VII: DAUGHTER OF THE NILE (Royal Diaries) by Kristiana Gregory; Narrated by Josephine Bailey (Tantor Media, 2006)
GENRE: History - Fiction / Audiobook
HONORS: None

REVIEW: In this well-researched fictional account of Cleopatra's early life, Kristina Gregory presents a portrait of the young princess that renders her both incredibly impressive and warmly human. The "diary" begins when Cleopatra is twelve years old. Having survived an assassination attempt, Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy XII, flees Egypt for Rome where he intends to garner the money and support of Julius Caesar and the Roman Senate. Fearing for her life (with good reason) Cleopatra joins him. The diary chronicles her Cleopatra's time in Rome and her well-executed efforts to make herself worthy of being Queen. Though already quite self-aware, Cleopatra grows in wisdom through dedicated effort so that by the time she reaches her fourteenth year, one can easily see the formidable Queen she would become. While the book itself is wonderful, Josephine Bailey's narration truly made the audio version stand out. Fluid and compelling, her voice brought Gregory's prose, and Cleopatra, to life.

OPINION: The first in the Royal Diaries series, Cleopatra VII is a surprising balance of entertainment and scholarship. Though little is actually known about Cleopatra's early life, Gregory uses what primary sources are available to piece together a viable picture of the Queen as a girl. The diary format, as always, lends immediacy to the story while providing the author with plenty of opportunity to slip in exposition and historical detail. Educational and compelling, it's a great addition to a library's collection.

IDEAS: Cleopatra remains a fascinating figure, while ancient Egypt is enjoying a surge in popularity thanks to films like The Mummy and books like The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan and Theodosia and the Eye of Horus by R.L. LaFevers. A great suggestion for fans of either series, Cleopatra VII is also a good read for tweens interested in ancient Egypt, Rome or the great Queen herself.

Mirror, Mirror

MIRROR, MIRROR by Marilyn Singer; Illustrated by Josee Masse (Dutton, 2010)
GENRE: Poetry / Fantasy
HONORS: None

REVIEW: Marilyn Singer plays with an interesting concept in Mirror, Mirror. The poems are all distillations of familiar fairy tales, but the verse is "reversible," which is where things get slightly dicey. The concept of reversible verse is a good one. The poems are meant to have different meanings, depending on whether or not one is reading them front to back or back to front. To aid in this exercise, Singer presents the two versions of each poem side by side as mirror images of the other. Many of the reversals are quite successful, (Rapunzel and Cinderella particularly stand out), but others, (like the Red Riding Hood poem among several others), work well enough in one direction but become forced and nonsensical in the other. That said, Josee Masse's illustrations are lovely, with lush colors and pleasingly rounded, clean lines. Each story receives an illustration and each illustration captures the essence of both the original tale and Singer's poem with charming efficiency. As distillations of well-known stories, the poems are easy to enjoy. 

OPINION: Overall, Mirror, Mirror is very good book and an excellent way to encourage tweens resistant to poetry to give it a try. The tales are familiar and intriguingly presented, providing plenty of opportunity for discussion and individual interpretation. The illustrations are warm and inviting, while the puzzle-like nature of the verse gives the poems a playful quality that belies many kids' assumption that poetry is stuffy and unwelcoming.

IDEAS: Selections of Mirror, Mirror would make a nice addition to classroom discussions on fairy tales and / or poetic form, so long as you cherry-pick a handful rather than present the whole.


July 13, 2012

The English Roses: A Perfect Pair

THE ENGLISH ROSES: A PERFECT PAIR by Madonna; Illustrated by Jeffrey Fulvimari (Puffin, 2009)
GENRE: Romance (contemporary)
HONORS: None

REVIEW: In the eighth installment of Madonna's popular English Roses series, the girls' attention is taken up by the upcoming Valentine's Day dance - except for the brainiest Rose, Nicole's. Nicole is entirely focused on the Science Fair and on beating a boy from another school. When it is announced that she must partner up with popular footballer, Jamie Somers for the project, Nicole is dubious. But lessons are learned when Nicole discovers that Jamie also has a brain in his head. After overcoming uncomfortable gossip and her own competitive nature, Nicole ends up winning on both the scientific and romantic fronts, as one might expect. A Perfect Pair is a rather anemic, slightly vacuous little novel whose five title characters, while ostensibly deeply individuated, blend together like bad watercolors - except for Nicole, whose academic intensity sets her slightly apart from the rest. The quippy narration occasionally charms, but mostly tries too hard (Madonna addresses the reader often, most of the time sounding a bit like your tipsy aunt trying to recapture her youth). Though there are some good messages here - girls can like science, stereotypes are always true, gossip is damaging - but the girls themselves undermine the narrator's well-intentioned assertions, as they happily focus the bulk of their attention on "girl-talk" and "perfecting their outfits for the dance".

OPINION: The Perfect Pair is like a little meringue - pretty, though there isn't much there. While not harmful in any way - the girls obviously care about each other and lessons are learned - there is a lot of "telling" here and very little "showing". It makes for a sweet but hollow read. Likewise, Nicole's romance with the boy from the other school is underdeveloped and tied together with an unsatisfying bow. With conflict that amounts to a tempest in teapot and a climax shimmers with "just so", The Perfect Pair will likely appeal to very young tweens, but there simply isn't enough substance to keep the attention for long.

IDEAS: A good book for a Valentine's display. Also a decent suggestion for reluctant readers and girls looking for light contemporary romance and books about female friendship.

Ottoline and the Yellow Cat

OTTOLINE AND THE YELLOW CAT by Chris Riddell (Harper Collins, 2007)
GENRE: Mystery
HONORS: None (Though Riddell has won various honors for his other work)

REVIEW: Ottoline Brown is a singularly impressive young lady - she is a mistress of disguise, solver of complex puzzles, collector extraordinaire and a formidable clever-plan maker. In Ottoline and the Yellow Cat, Ottoline and her best friend, Mr. Munro (a short individual with Cousin Itt hair who hails from a bog in Norway), set out to solve the mystery of disappearing dogs, but instead uncover a series of fiendish cat burglaries perpetrated by the Yellow Cat who is, appropriately enough, a yellow cat. Though the mystery is slight, the solving of it is entertaining to say the least. Ottoline is a thoughtful, independent protagonist, given to a whimsical seriousity, and yet she's also an entirely believable girl (though quite clever and capable, she misses her traveling parents terribly). Fantastic elements add to the story's charm, (a bear visiting from Canada lives in the laundry room of her building, cats and animals behave in human ways and her mom sends lovely postcards that imply that she already knows what Ottoline's been up to). Riddell's generously detailed illustrations fill in Ottoline's world with such charm and humor that one gets the sense that it's quite a fun place to live.

OPINION: Ottoline and the Yellow Cat is a lovely little book. Appropriate for tweens on the young side of adolescence (8-10 years old), it's themes of problem solving and independence are underscored with both visual and verbal charm. Though not for everyone, young fans of mystery and humor will very likely enjoy this quick little read, (and probably wish they had a Mr. Munro of their own).

IDEAS: A great suggestion for reluctant readers. The illustrations really flesh out the text and make the book feel almost like a very wordy comic (though with much more text). The conversational adds to the story's accessibility while the triumph and silliness of the climax more than rewards the reader's efforts.

July 10, 2012

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning

A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS Book One: THE BAD BEGINNING by Lemony Snicket; Illustrated by Brett Helquist (Harper Collins, 1999)
GENRE: Humor (dark / slightly gothic / slightly scary)
HONORS: Colorado Children's Book Award; Nevada Young Reader's Award; Nene Award; Book Sense Book of the Year Finalist, among others

REVIEW: Drawing equally upon Dickens, Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events does indeed begin ominously with The Bad Beginning. Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire, abruptly orphaned when their loving, wealthy parents perish in a fire that consumes their whole house, are cast into a world where distant relatives mistreat them and scheme horribly to steal their fortune, while well-meaning adults obliviously fail to help. But what could be a miserably depressing read is, in fact, lovely and darkly humorous thanks to two things. The first is Snicket's narrative tone, which is pitch perfect. Even as he describes horrible things (Klaus is struck, Sunny is hung out of a tower window in a cage, fourteen year old Violet is forced into marrying the odious Count Olaf), the tone is light, dry and cheekily informative, (he often interrupts himself to give the reader amusing and contextually specific definitions or to translate Sunny's baby babble). The other factor is the Baudelaire children themselves. Though things get quite bad, and the reader is warned that they will only get worse, one has a sense that the Baudelaires will somehow save themselves. They are genuinely lovely characters - resourceful, smart and protective of each other. They are everything literary orphans should aspire to be.

OPINION: This is a surprisingly enjoyable book. The perfect tonal balance and dark-to-the-edge-of-ridiculousness plot make it a quick, addictive read. A quality story with mass appeal, it has everything young fans of the gothic could want in one lovely, well-illustrated series.

IDEAS: Pair with other famous orphan stories (Huck Finn, Oliver, even The Willoughbys, etc). on a display; use as a classroom supplement to teach vocabulary, plot and tone. Recommend to reluctant readers of both sexes and those who like their humor a little darker.

Inkheart

INKHEART by Cornelia Funke; Read by Lynn Redgrave. (Learning Library Audio, 2005)
GENRE: Adventure / Audiobook
HONORS: None

REVIEW: Inkheart is the story of a girl, Meggie, her bookbinder father, Mo, and the trouble that lands on their doorstep when a figure from Mo's past arrives one rainy night. Though exquisitely detailed with adventures and secrets and nefarious doings and hard-won triumphs, Inkheart is, in the end, a love note to books. Meggie is a born reader with a reverence for the printed page that she inherited (along with a slightly more dangerous gift) from her father. Solace and comfort are found between the pages of various stories, which is interesting because the novel's greatest villain also springs forth from the written word. Though overlong at times, (the book sometimes stalls under the weight of Funke's admittedly beautiful descriptions), Inkheart is a pleasure - truly engrossing, charmingly adventurous and satsifyingly resolved. The audiobook also has the advantage of being read by Lynn Redgrave whose vocal performance is nuanced, varied and masterful. Somehow she manages to sound equally convincing as an illiterate thug as she does as a twelve-year old girl. A real treat.

OPINION: The novel is tailor made for younger tweens hungering for an "epic" series to try. Though the action is dark at times, and genuinely a bit frightening, the story follows many of the tropes established in the books that Meggie so loves. In this way, Inkheart is oddly comforting, even as it keeps you on your toes.

IDEAS: A wonderful suggestion for reluctant readers, boys and girls alike. Also a great pick for a tween book club, especially if the members tend towards the younger side.

The Willoughbys

THE WILLOUGHBYS by Lois Lowry (Yearling, 2010)
GENRE: Humor
HONORS: Iowa Children's Choice Award

REVIEW: The Willoughbys is an "old-fashioned" story about the four Willoughby children - oldest brother Tim, the twins, Barnaby A and Barnaby B and youngest sister, Jane. As is true in many "old-fashioned" stories, the Willoughby parents are despicable people, neglectful, mean and disinterested. Inspired by the story of Hansel and Gretle, they decide to abandon their children, but these children are just as disenchanted with their parents as their parents are with them, so they put into effect a counter-plan to become worthy orphans. The Willoughby's is a parody of those great, old-fashioned members of the children's book canon - Heidi, The Secret Garden, Mary Poppins and the like, filled with gentle send ups of popular tropes such as the charming, no-nonsense nanny and the sad, lonely millionaire.  Though it begins shakily (Tim, who is bossy to the point of despicability himself, and the other children re-abandon an abandoned baby found on their door-step, thus painting themselves as less than sympathetic), Lowry moves forward with a masterful command of both her own skills and the material she is satirizing. By the end of the story, the threads are tied together in lovely, emotionally satisfying bows.

OPINION: Modern tweens may not recognize all of tropes and books that Lowry uses, but they don't have to. It is just as funny taken on it's own merits, thanks to Lowry's sense of the ridiculous and light, narrative voice. Though it is a slight offering by an author honored for more serious works, The Willoughbys is a satisfying read and pleasant surprise.

IDEAS: Create a display using all of the titles mentioned or referenced in the story (Lowry provides titles and descriptions at the end). Also great for classroom use - it's chock full of fantastic vocabulary like "odious" and "winsome" and even features a glossery with highly appealing and slightly irreverent definitions at the back.

Pendragon Book One: The Merchant of Death

PENDRAGON Graphic Novel Book One: THE MERCHANT OF DEATH by Carla Speed McNeal. Based on the novel by D.J. MacHale (Aladdin, 2008).
GENRE: Graphic Novel / Adventure
HONORS: None

REVIEW: Bobby Pendragon is an enviable kid. He's popular, good at sports and romantically linked to a really great girl. But he's also what's known as a "traveler"- people who travel between worlds through "flumes" or passages in time and space. Travelers move between dimensions righting wrongs and doing good, ultimately battling the Traveler-gone-wrong, Saint Dane, the series' big villain. It's a very appealing premise, one with a lot of fantastic potential. Unfortunately, that potential remains unmet, at least in this graphic novel adaptation. Bobby is a singularly unappealing protagonist - weak, vain and shallow - and, unfortunately, there is little growth shown over the course of the narrative arc. One gets the sense that, as Bobby accepts his new, inter-dimensional role, he will only become a different shade of insufferable. The story itself is a storehouse of recyled tropes - boy discovers true identity and gets dragged into a "fight that isn't his", adult role models hang around just long enough to get captured or killed before the apprenticeship is over, and there's even an arena fight. A decent adventure, but nothing to write home about.

OPINION: There's nothing wrong, exactly, with this story. It simply rings shallow and predictable. McNeal's illustrations, though competent, are relatively generic, often tending towards the cluttered and unclear, while the slang incorporated to appeal to tweens ("coolio", "lou-zah!" etc.) rings false and forced. An overall middle-of-the-road offering that will probably appeal to younger male tweens, but make no lasting impression.

IDEAS: A fun supplement to the book series, it's a good introduction to the novels for reluctant readers (especially boys) intimidated by the longer form.

Nightmares and Fairytales: 1140 Rue Royale

NIGHTMARES AND FAIRY TALES Volume 3: 1140 RUE ROYALE by Serena Valentino; Illustrated by Crab Scrambly (SLG Publishing, 2007)
GENRE: Graphic Novel / Horror
HONORS: None (though the series has enjoyed many positive critical reviews)

REVIEW: Nightmares and Fairytales is a series of graphic novels wherein the uniting factor is a strange little doll called Annabel. Annabel is said to be cursed, but her current owner, a girl named Gwen understands her, so Annabel tells her stories of the horrors that she's seen. 1140 Rue Royale is one of Annabel's stories. Though an integrated part of the series, it can easily be read alone. It tells the story of a woman named Victoria and her niece who move into the house on 1140 Rue Royale - a house that is said to be haunted by the slaves who were tortured and killed there years before. What unfolds is a story full of foreboding and magnificent creepiness. Valentino's writing is perfectly paced, giving the reader just enough of a break between frightening occurrences to relax before she ratchets up the wrongness even more. Scrambly's illustrations are gorgeous and atmospheric - one part Edward Gorey, one part early Tim Burton - with odd angles and shadings that make you want to look over your shoulder. Everything about 1140 Rue Royale, it is based on the true story of Delphine LaLaurie, from the panel design to the narrative itself, is meant to sweep the reader along into a story that is dark and honestly horrifying (what was done to the slaves is diabolical). A beautiful, effecting and impressive work.

OPINION: The Nightmares and Fairytales series is, generally speaking, not one for younger adolescents, and some volumes should be consigned strictly to YA. 1140 Rue Royale is an exception, though I would only recommend it for those 12 and above, given the level of horror-style tension, some of the imagery and the violence that is implied. That said, 1140 Rue Royale is horror at it's best - driven not by blood and guts, but by a sense of injustice that must be avenged. Between Valentino's haunting story and Scrambly's evocative illustrations, it's one that the reader will think about long after it's been put down.

IDEAS: A good edition to any display containing darker fare, along with Neil Gaiman, Ted Naifeh etc., 1140 Rue Royale is a good suggestion for older tweens who are into Stephen King and serious poltergeist style ghost stories. Given the abuses to slaves that are depicted, it would also pair well with the Newbery award winning books, The Slave Dancer, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry and The Dark Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural.

July 9, 2012

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lighting Thief


PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTENING THIEF. Film adaptation. (Directed by Chris Columbus. Starring Logan Lerhman. Based on the novels by Rick Riorden)
GENRE: Action / Adventure
HONORS: None

REVIEW: The film adaptation of Rick Riorden’s best-selling series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, moves at an efficient pace while maintaining the essence of what makes the books so appealing – Percy’s struggle to manage himself in the wider world. Lehrman plays Percy, demigod and son of Poseiden, with modern flair, mixing enough defiance into Percy’s geekiness to make him an appealing underdog with plenty of fight. Grover, his satyr "protector", grounds Percy’s quest in contextual gravity while providing comic relief, while Annabeth, the battle-ready daughter of Athena is a nice foil for Percy, who is literally dropped into his new reality when a Fury accosts him. Upon learning of his true heritage, Percy rises to the challenge and proves himself to be a natural hero with what seems to be, at times, convenient ease.

OPINION: The emotional core of Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief rang hollow at times and it lacks the world-building creativity of other series adaptations, but it is still a satisfying ride that will no doubt appeal to fans of the books.

IDEAS: A strong addition to any unit on Greek mythology or hero quests. Show the film and talk about parallels between Percy’s quest and the mythological quests it draws from (Odysseus and the lotus-eaters, Perseus and Medusa, Orpheus in Hades, etc.). There is also an inherent appeal for kids with dyslexia and ADHD as Percy struggles with these conditions before discovering that he is a hero.

Princess Diaries


 THE PRINCESS DIARIES. Film adaptation. (Directed by Garry Marshall. Starring Anne Hathaway. Based on the novel by Meg Cabot)
GENRE: Humor
HONORS: None

REVIEW: Awkward, geeky Mia Thermopolis meets her estranged grandmother and finds out that she isthe heir apparent to the throne of a small European country called Genovia. While most girls would be thrilled at the news, Mia is dismayed. She can’t see herself leading anything, let alone a whole country. What follows is Mia’s physical and emotional transformation as she learns to accept her royal role. Though simplistic at times, Marshall’s adaptation of the Cabot novel is charming, touching and funny by turns, while Hathaway’s Mia is a heroine with substance and depth.

OPINION: Although The Princess Diaries sticks closely its Cinderella / Disney formula, Mia is a refreshing take on the ugly duckling. She is intelligent, sensitive and self-possessed, and while her physical make-over is fun, one gets the sense that this is a girl with enough perspective to rise to the challenge of ruling. 

IDEAS: The movie is a good introduction to the tween romance genre, as well as to fairy tale adaptations. If a girls like it, recommend Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine and Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter (for slightly older tweens). 

Black Butler


BLACK BUTLER. TV adaptation. (Directed by Shinohara Toshiya. Based on the manga by Yana Toboso. Distributed by Funimation)
GENRE: Action (anime)
HONORS: None

REVIEW: Black Butler chronicles the Faustian contract between Ciel, the twelve-year-old head of the Phantomhive family and his demonic butler, Sebastian Michaelis. It is stated throughout the series that Sebastian is “one hell of a butler”, and he is. In addition to overseeing the vast Phantomhive Estate, Sebastian acts as bodyguard, confidant and advisor to his young master as they pursue vengeance upon the villains who killed Ciel’s parents. The premise of Black Butler is rock solid – a young boy in a position of great power wields a secret weapon against those who have crossed him. The pseudo-Victorian setting provides a nice veneer of civilization and Victorian gothic appeal. The overall darkness of the series is leavened by the sometimes heavy-handed antics of the other servants, but though the drama and comedy are, at times, unbalanced, the series is well done, compelling and lovely to look at.

OPINION: Black Butler is a compulsively watchable gothic romp. Girls will find Sebastian to be an attractive, if unattainable figure, while boys will most likely get right behind Ciel’s quest for vengeance and the (moderate) violence that results. The manga, in particular, would be a strong addition to a tween collection, while the anime adaptation is a good suggestion to have on hand.

IDEAS: Both the manga and the anime adaptation are a great suggestion for young readers interested in historical or gothic fiction, but a too young for some of the more intense YA options. It also pairs nicely with Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowle series, which chronicles the nefarious doings of a young, diabolical genius. 

July 7, 2012

A Monster Calls

A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness; Illustrated by Jim Kay (Candlewick Press, 2011)
GENRE: Horror
HONORS: Carnegie Medal (2012); Greenaway Medal (2012); various "Best of 2011" lists, including Booklist's for youth fiction

REVIEW: Any summary will do a disservice to A Monster Calls - it is not a book easily summarized and to do so renders it's subtleties flat or, even worse, nonexistent. Suffice it to say, that a monster comes to Conor O'Malley, a thirteen year old boy whose mother is dying. Through repeated meetings (all of which take place at 12:07 - a time whose profound and unsettling significance is only hinted toward the end), during which the monster tells him three separate stories, Conor faces the nightmare that has plagued him since his mum got sick. Ness's prose is subtle and incisive. Although there is nothing showy about it, his words are profound. Even more impressive, however, is the monster - horrifying, gorgeous and metaphorically towering, the monster is a challenging figure, neither evil nor good, one whose ultimate purpose is frightening, but not in the way one might think. Kay's inky illustrations set the tone for the tale - sooty, dark and confusing - beautifully framing a story that builds to a masterful, natural climax. There is no false step in this book. It is perfect and painful. Most impressively with this subject matter, it rings emotionally true.

OPINION: A Monster Calls is a special book. Without wishing to gush or sound fatuous, it is one of the most incisive, metaphorically sound books I have ever read. Best digested in a single sitting, A Monster Calls is a profoundly moving portrait of grief, denial and catharsis, written by an author with an instinctive understanding of, and empathy for, those trapped in that emotional landscape. It's a frightening book fully of foreboding atmosphere and inevitable hurt. But it is an important book - one whose central truth resonates with the same wild force as the stories that the monster tells.

IDEAS: This is not standard, boo-scare horror. Though younger tweens can read it and get something from it, it will most likely resonate more strongly with readers 12 and up. I would recommend it enthusiastically while keeping the potential reader's age and emotional maturity in mind. It is also a wonderful book for classroom discussions on metaphor, tone, characterization and story structure, and a natural fit for young people struggling with loss and grief.

July 6, 2012

Case Closed? Nine Mysteries Unlocked By Modern Science

CASE CLOSED? NINE MYSTERIES UNLOCKED BY MODERN SCIENCE by Susan Hughes; Illustrated by Michael Wandelmaier
GENRE: History - Nonfiction
HONORS: None

REVIEW: Case Closed? is an attractive, easily readable book that successfully combines history and science to good effect. Arranged chronologically, the "mysteries" primarily involve disappearances - the mummy of Hatshepsut, ancient Egypt's controversial female pharaoh, the Anasazi pueblo peoples and Sir John Franklin's doomed expedition among others. The subjects range from the very familiar, (the disappearance of Anastasia Romanov), to the obscure, (the journey of the ancient explorer, Hsu Fu). All are engaging, though some more than others, and all synthesize the findings of experts in various fields, (medicine, archaeology, meteorology, etc), making this an engrossing, thorough and highly informative read.

OPINION: Wandelmaier's illustrations are attractive and accessible, making what might otherwise be a hard sell easy to pick up. In fact, everything about this book, from the text to the layout is designed to make the subject matter appealing to young people. That said, depth was not sacrificed for gloss - this book contains solid content that draws the reader in naturally. A great book and an excellent introduction to a number of subjects, Case Closed? should have in every library's juvenile nonfiction.

IDEAS: Great for a display on unsolved, historical mysteries, archaeology, science expeditions (both doomed and successful). Also a useful classroom reference.

House of Dolls


HOUSE OF DOLLS by Francesca Lia Block (Harper, 2010)
GENRE: Contemporary (with fantastic elements)
HONORS: None

REVIEW: High up in a penthouse, twelve-year-old Madison Blackberry lives, angry, ignored and jealous of the three dolls who live in the elaborate dollhouse that used to belong to her grandmother. The dolls, Rockstar, Wildflower and Miss Selene, live in peace with their boyfriends (Guy and B Friend), though they fear Madison’s boredom and caprice. And they’re right to fear. After Madison sends Guy off to “war” (a shoebox in the closet) and B Friend is declared MIA, Madison systematically dismantles the dolls’ world, hiding their lovely clothes until they are as shabby and neglected as she feels. It is only through Wildflower’s understanding and compassion that Madison’s anger is addressed and that balance is restored both to Madison’s life and the dollhouse.

OPINION: Though House of Dolls is a slender, deceptively simple story, Block manages to address an impressive number of issues with a light, effective hand. Madison’s need to feel loved and her resulting disappointment manifest as violence – a nice microcosmic metaphor for a macrocosmic problem. Though the dolls are sentient, the book does not feel like fantasy. Magical and lovely though it is, it is grounded in a deep realism, one that will reward repeated readings as a young person grows older.

IDEAS: Though the story is short and relatively straightforward, Block uses language to its full extent, conveying sophisticated thoughts on love, life, war and death in lightly philosophical term terms. It is an excellent volume for slightly older tween ready to step her reading up a notch, while enjoying a quick, compelling story.

Matilda


MATILDA by Roald Dahl, illustrations by Quentin Blake (Puffin Modern Classics, 1988).
GENRE: Humor (satirical, slightly biting)
HONORS: Federation of Children's Group Award (UK 1988)

REVIEW: Matilda is an exceptionally gifted five year-old, able to read and do mathematics well above her grade level. She is also the daughter of two exceptionally rotten parents, but despite her less-than-ideal home life, she is sweet, unassuming and surprisingly wise. The book Matilda, though charming in its own right (as most of Dahl’s work is), is in-and-of-itself exceptional, because of it’s exceptional heroine. As Matilda good naturedly sets out to do everything from read the classics to avenging her beloved teacher, Miss Honey, the reader is propelled along by a compulsion to see how Matilda will handle herself. And one is never disappointed.

OPINION: Matilda occupies a territory that is difficult to define – it is humorous without being expressly funny and it passes fluidly back and forth between the realistic and fantastic – and yet, Dahl never falters. The story is seamless and his heroine is a delight from start to finish. Though younger adolescents may get more out of reading it with an adult (some of the vocabulary and phrasings may prove challenging), most will gobble the story up as Matilda gets hers over the wretched Wormwoods and the horrific Miss Trunchbull.

IDEAS: Matilda would be a great suggestion for a summer reading program. It would also do well in a display of books that celebrate reading (along with the Inkheart series, etc.)

Love That Dog: A Novel


LOVE THAT DOG: A NOVEL by Susan Creech (Scholastic, 2001)
GENRE: Contemporary
HONORS: Carnegie Medal finalist; 

REVIEW: On September 13, Jack writes down in his notebook that he does not want to write poetry, because “boy’s don’t write poetry. Girl’s do.” By the end of the book, on June 6th, Jack writes a letter thanking Walter Dean Myers for writing the poem, “Love That Boy” and for coming to talk to his class. Jack’s evolution over the course of the year is moving and inevitable and Creech reveals worlds of emotion through his changing relationship to poetry and his ability to write it. By weaving in snippets of, and references to, canonical poems, (“Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “Red Wheelbarrow” among others) Creech hints at a deeper world and poetry’s ability to transcend resistance and grief. That said, the narrative is the opposite of stuffy, and Jack is a compelling but typical kid. His growth over the course of the year is not miraculous. It is natural. But that manner in which he experiences it is true poetry. 

OPINION: Creech tells the moving story of a boy’s relationship to his dog and his growth over the course of a year with a spare, poetic grace. Structurally, Love That Dog could not be more sound, mixing prose and poetry seamlessly and effectively to communicate story, emotion and the accessibility of poetry with simple, stunning efficiency. I realize that I’m gushing, but I was simply blown away. And the back matter Creech includes at the end only deepens the reader’s appreciation for, and understanding of, the topic.

IDEAS: It’s a fantastic discussion book and would do well as a quick book club selection or intro to a unit on poetry. Would also do well in a poetry display with Robert Frost, Walter Dean Myers and William Carlos Williams, among others. 

The Charmed Bracelet


THE CHARMED BRACELET (Nancy Drew Graphic Novels #7) by Stefan Petrucha, illustrated by Vaughn Ross (Papercutz, 2006)
GENRE: Graphic Novel
HONORS: None

REVIEW: Unlike some other graphic novel adaptations of classic tween series, the Nancy Drew Girl Detective series introduces the famous amateur sleuth through a series of new mysteries. Unfortunately, they lack the cleverness and interest of either the original series, or the Case Files series from the 80’s and 90’s. Superficially speaking, The Charmed Bracelet is glossy and fast-paced with Nancy wise-cracking her way through a pithy narration. And that’s just the problem – the entire treatment is superficial. Nancy Drew is known for her independence, intelligence and loyalty to her friends – they are the qualities that have made her endure for over nearly 80 years. But this new Nancy has a shallowness to her that is, at best, unappealing. There is no great mind at work here, no serious determination to solve anything. There is just a chest jutting petulance that is odd and strangely off-putting given who this character is. The mystery itself suffers from the same lack of depth, with little to no tension and an extremely pat resolution, and while Ross’s illustrations are attractive for the most part, they are also cluttered, over-busy and difficult to make out, as if they are trying to hide the fact that there really isn’t anything going on below the blurb.

OPINION: Though I can see how the Papercutz graphic novel adaptation will appeal to tweens and perhaps even introduce a new generation to the famous girl detective, it feels like a bit of a waste. While the idea for a graphic novel adaptation is fantastic, the execution leaves much to be desired, and while I wouldn’t keep the series out of a collection, I would do my best to push the novels to interested readers, as well.

IDEAS: Might make a fun addition to a “Nancy Drew Through the Years” display in a library. Could also make for good comparative discussion in a book group or even classroom, with students reading one of the older novels along with the graphic novels and comparing characterizations.

The Truth About Stacey


THE TRUTH ABOUT STACEY (Baby-Sitter's Club Graphic Novel) by Ann M. Martin, adapted by Raina Telgemeier (Graphix, 2006)
GENRE: Graphic Novel
HONORS: YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, 2007; ALA's Top 10 Graphic Novels for Youth list

REVIEW: Kristy, Claudia, MaryAnn and Stacey are back in a series of graphic novel adaptations of Ann M. Martin’s beloved Baby-Sitter’s Club. Though the format is 21st century, the stories themselves remain timeless. In The Truth About Stacey, the girls grapple with a group of rival baby-sitters while Stacey quietly wrestles with her diabetes and her parents’ stifling, if well-meaning, attempts to control it for her. The bulk of Martin’s original text remains in tact, having been transcribed to dialogue bubbles and narrator’s panels, providing a sense of immediacy and emotional warmth. Telgemeier’s clean, black and white illustrations beautifully render each girl, updating their styles without sacrificing the class  of Martin’s original conceptions (while Claudia sports a magenta streak in her long black hair, her clothing is entirely appropriate for a hip, artistic seventh grader.) Emotions are conveyed with a minimum of fuss, bringing each girl, as an individual, to life. These girls care about each other, and they care about the kids they sit for. It’s the heart of the series and it’s clear in every panel.

OPINION: Telgemeier has succeeded in producing a series of graphic novels that, far from detracting from the original books, heightens the already towering appeal of the novels. Emotionally down to earth, yet complicated enough to resonate with tweens, the graphic novels bring a whole new audience to the original stories, and judging from the well worn copies at the library, they are doing it quite well. A strong addition to any school of public library collection.

IDEAS: The Baby-Sitters Club graphic novel series is a great recommendation for tween girls who are reluctant readers. The adaptations are as resonant as the original novels were over 20 years ago, but the graphic novels, with Telgemeier’s spot-on illustrations and clean lay-out, make them an especially un-intimidating introduction to storytelling in book form. 

Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things


COURTNEY CRUMRIN AND THE NIGHT THINGS by Ted Naifeh (Oni Press, 2002)
GENRE: Graphic Novel 
HONORS: Eisner Award nominations – One for Best Limited Series (2003); One for Best Title for Younger Audience (2005)

REVIEW: Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things is the first volume in the three volume series that chronicles the not-so-normal everyday life of a loner girl who learns magic from her mysterious uncle and uses it to navigate a world of school bullies and bloodthirsty goblins and adolescent peer pressure. Throughout her adventures, Courtney displays ingenuity and intelligence, qualities that see her through some truly strange things (a good-girl doppelganger, goblins stealing a baby she’s sitting, etc). But though she is independent, strong and loyal, Courtney is far from perfect – she’s sarcastic and grumpy too, making her a fantastically real adolescent heroine. The world she inhabits is, by turns, normal to the point of banality, as well as gothic and creepy. Thanks to Neifeh’s clean, expressive illustrations (everyone but Courtney, Uncle Aloysius and select Night Things have vacant, empty eyes – a nice commentary on how Courtney feels about “normal”, suburban life), it’s a world that the reader can’t help but want to enter.


OPINION:
Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things
is excellent on several levels – the stories are fast-paced, engrossing and easy to read, making it a great selection for reluctant readers; and the subject matter veers elegantly between the fantastic (spells gone wrong) to the very real (bullying and isolation). It’s simply too good not to have in a library’s tween collection.


IDEAS: Excellent recommendation for reluctant readers or tweens with an alternative vibe, great addition to any graphic novel display, particularly with other, darker / alternative stories like Gloomcookie and any of Neil Gaiman’s work.

My Secret War


MY SECRET WAR: The WWII Diary of Madeline Beck (Dear America) by Mary Pope Osborne (Scholastic, 2000)
GENRE: History - Fiction
HONORS: none

REVIEW: My Secret War: The World War II Diary of Madeline Beck is a solid, if somewhat uninspired novel that blends nonfiction and fiction into the narrative of one girl’s wartime experiences between 1941-1942. Maddie is an earnest protagonist who’s Lt. Colonial father is stationed in the Pacific when Roosevelt declares war on the Japanese and the Allied powers officially form. Told in diary form, the story moves at an efficient pace as Maddie navigates the social difficulties of being the new girl at school, finds purpose by organizing war efforts for local kids on the home front and even experiences her first romantic relationship. Though a bit superficial through the first 2/3’s of the book, the story reaches a nice emotional depth when Maddie’s father is wounded in battle. The supporting characters are all nicely drawn, with both adults and kids reacting realistically to the outbreak of the war and the war culture that sprouted up over night in the States. Though the dialogue of colloquially neutral (an effective choice), Osborne sometimes sprinkles in period slang, like “jeepers” and “doggone it”. Though a bit heavy-handed, it does help establish the period.

OPINION: Overall, this a solid offering. The blend of fiction and nonfiction is a bit too seemless at times – real events are credited to fictional characters – but the amount of information and exposition that Osborne packs into the epistolary structure is impressive and well-placed. Beneath the agelessness of tween angst is a history lesson worth learning, and My Secret War is a nice dose of sugar to help it go down.

IDEAS: As with all the titles in the Dear America series, My Secret War would be great supplemental reading for classroom use. It’s also a good recommendation for kids interested in WWII and a nice addition to a display on D-Day or Pearl Harbor. 

THE AVIARY by Kathleen O’Dell (Knopf, 2011)
GENRE: Mystery 
HONORS: None

REVIEW: Eleven year old Clara lives in the once magnificent Glendoveer mansion, (the family home of a great magician) with her mother, the housekeeper, the magician’s aging widow and an aviary full of exotic birds. The birds respond to Clara as they respond to no one else – squawking, shrieking and eventually talking – as they enlist her help in solving the mystery of the five Glendoveer children, who were murdered fifty years before. It is a mystery that Clara is, unknowingly, at the very heart of.

OPINION: The Aviary is a well paced, if slightly predictable, juvenile take on the Victorian gothic novel. The Glendoveer mansion is a gorgeous crumbling mausoleum, complete with locked rooms and drafty halls, in which Clara is essentially confined due to a “weak heart”. Her connection to Mrs. Glendoveer and the feathered inhabitants of the aviary is both genuine and touching, grounding her in her cloistered world, even as she longs to break free of it. The mystery at the heart of the novel – who killed the five oldest Glendoveer children and kidnapped the youngest – is interesting enough to drive the plot, though it does, at times, verge on the slightly ridiculous as it nears the inevitable climax. Overall, a quick-reading love note to period fiction of the Victorian age with just enough creepiness and mystery to keep young readers on their toes.

IDEAS: Pair with other ghost stories in a library book club or display. It might also be included on a classroom reading list with “Turn of the Screw” or “The Monkey’s Paw”. It’s a fun novel and a good way to introduce tension and mood.