Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Book Review: Out of Bounds by Fred Bowen (2015)

This week, I'm posting reviews of books by children's author Fred Bowen in anticipation of an author interview with him that will be published here on the blog this coming Thursday. This review was originally posted on Goodreads in 2015.

Nate Osborne and his teammates on the Strikers soccer team want nothing more than to beat their rival team, the Monarchs in this year's championship. While it feels like the boys might be willing to do anything to win, Nate learns from his aunt, who is also a soccer player, that there are certain unspoken rules in soccer about fair play and good sportsmanship, including a tradition where game play stops when an injury occurs. At first, when Nate tries to put his new-found knowledge into action in a game, his teammates and opponents scoff at the idea, but ultimately, they all realize it is better for the best team to win based on ability alone, not because of the other team's misfortunes.

This book is another great addition to Fred Bowen's series of middle grade sports books. Like the others, Out of Bounds uses a sporting experience as a means of teaching an important life lesson, and in an afterword, ties the story to real-life examples from sports history. This formula works so well, and Bowen's writing is engaging, lively, and easy to read. What stands out most in this specific story is that Nate's role model is not an older brother or a famous soccer player, but his aunt. There aren't many books where female athletes mentor boys, and it is an interesting dynamic to explore. Especially fun is the bet Nate and his aunt have about who will score more goals in the season, the loser of which has to bake cookies for the winner. There is also a greater focus on statistics and standings in this book than in some of Bowen's other stories, which gives it a nice STEM connection, and also appeals to kids who like both sports and math. Also notable is the dialogue, which rings true as the real talk of middle school boys, but without a lot of the vulgarity and toilet humor that is often associated with this age group. Bowen's books are not just interesting, but wholesome too, which means parents are likely to appreciate them as much as their kids.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Book Review: Double Reverse by Fred Bowen (2014)

This week, I'm posting reviews of books by children's author Fred Bowen in anticipation of an author interview with him that will be published here on the blog this coming Thursday. This review was originally posted on Goodreads in 2014. 

Ninth grader Jesse has never seen himself as a quarterback. That position belongs to his older brother, Jay, who looks the part. When Jay is not named quarterback on his college team, however, Jesse begins to question whether players should be pigeonholed and takes on the challenge of playing quarterback for his own freshman team, while also encouraging a female classmate to join the team as kicker.

Fred Bowen writes a regular sports column for children in The Washington Post, and his background in newspaper writing definitely shows in his fiction. The writing in this book is concise, easy to read, and never dull. Bowen has a knack for moving scenes along using dialogue, and for moving quickly through long periods of time without making the reader feel rushed. Jesse's story spans an entire football season, but Bowen only writes what is absolutely necessary. Very few words are spared for details like setting and physical descriptions of characters; instead, most of the text focuses on football itself, with plenty of scenes from games, and including only those other events which enable the characters to play or watch the game.

Though the main character is a teenager, this is very clearly a middle grade book, and one that could be read by kids as young as 7 or 8. The relationships in the book are all very supportive and healthy - even the ones between characters who may be rivals - and Savannah, the would-be kicker, is treated quite fairly by her teammates, and by the author, who does not exploit her character as a token girl in any way. The story conveys a clear lesson, as does the historical content provided at the back of the book, which highlights various famous sports figures who were hugely successful despite not always looking the part.

Fred Bowen is to this generation what Matt Christopher was to children of previous generations: a reliably talented teller of sports tales that will appeal to reluctant readers who like sports as well as sports-lovers who like to read. 

Thursday, August 9, 2018

All You Need to Read Aloud

It seems like everyone these days is talking about reading aloud. There is so much advice and information out there about it that it can easily start to seem like reading aloud is a complicated activity that requires a lot of specialized knowledge and diligent practice to be done correctly. But really, when it comes down to it, successful read-alouds only require three things: a good book, an engaged adult, and a receptive child.

A good book: 

  • is well-written.
  • has beautiful illustrations.
  • upholds (or at least does not undermine) your family's values.
  • appeals to the adult reader.
  • appeals to the child listener.

Though you can certainly find book lists and reviews aplenty online, and these are useful when you are designing a homeschool curriculum or building your family's book collection, you don't have to have a lot of expertise in children's literature to choose good read-alouds. Reading a book to yourself even just once can give you a good idea of whether the writing flows smoothly or not, whether the pictures contribute to the story, and whether you like the book and approve of its content. (For longer books, pre-reading a couple of chapters can usually give you the same information.)

An engaged adult: 
  • gives read-aloud time her undivided attention.
  • pushes through feelings of awkwardness about reading aloud for the sake of the child's experience. 
  • models a positive attitude regarding books and reading.
  • selects books not at random, but with intention. 
  • presents a read-aloud with an invitation ("Let's see what this book is about") and not a command ("We have to read this book now.")

There are some parents who do silly voices and put on puppet shows, or who (like me) are former children's librarians and tend to turn read-aloud time into a full-blown story time. Rest assured, the parents who do these things are not inherently better at reading aloud than parents who do not. They do those things because they enjoy them, not because they are essential to the read-aloud experience. All that is truly essential is that you are ready and willing to read aloud. Anything else is gravy. (Also, don't worry if you don't sound like an audiobook narrator. Your kids still prefer your familiar voice over that of a stranger, no matter how unpolished it is.)

A receptive child: 
  • is calm and not in the midst of a meltdown.
  • is not already deeply engaged in another activity. 
  • may already be looking at books or asking you to read aloud.
  • does not turn down your invitation to hear a story. 

Good books are steadfast and reliable; the moods of human beings (especially young ones!) are much less so. Though some experts suggest that you must read aloud for a certain number of minutes every day lest your child not get into a good college (!!!), it is much better to prioritize quality over quantity. Suggesting a read-aloud when your child is in a particularly ornery mood or tearing him away from his cool LEGO creation to read when he'd rather not just causes him to develop negative associations with reading aloud that can easily be avoided if you just wait for windows of time during which he is clearly receptive to hearing stories. Watching for those opportunities is a much better way to spend your energy than trying to force a regular reading schedule.

Want to see how reading aloud looks in my family? Check out the Read-at-Home Kids Report, my monthly-ish feature where I share the books my three girls are enjoying. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Reading Through History: Front Desk by Kelly Yang (2018)

In 1990s California, Mia is the daughter of first generation Chinese immigrants. Though her parents were professionals in China, jobs are harder to come by in the  U.S., and the family finds itself managing a hotel whose cruel owner treats Mia's parents very poorly, often failing to keep his word and exploiting their desperation for work for his own gain. Because her parents don't make much money, Mia doesn't have many of the luxuries enjoyed by her classmates, which can be painful at times, but she makes the most of her situation, often manning the front desk at the hotel and becoming friends with the "weeklies" who live there all the time and with the various Chinese immigrants her parents secretly allow to stay there without paying. At school, she also makes friends with Lupe, a fellow immigrant and tries to steer clear of the hotel owner's son, Jason.

Front Desk has all the qualities of an excellent middle grade novel: a strong plot grounded in the author's real-life experiences, a believable protagonist who infuses the story with hope, despite the many hardships she must endure, a mostly black-and-white sense of right and wrong and a great setting with lots of lively supporting characters. I sat down to read just one chapter of the ARC (from Edelweiss) before bed one night, figuring I'd read the book over a period of several days. Two hours later, it was 2 in the morning and I'd read the entire book. It is absolutely engaging from start to finish, and absolutely worthy of the praise it has been receiving from reviewers.

In recent years, I have been fairly disgusted with the way ALA has politicized its awards, but while I have mostly lost faith in that organization, I do think this book is as worthy of recognition as many of my favorite Newbery-winning titles from decades past. Kelly Yang is an excellent writer, and she manages to make a grim set of circumstances fun and entertaining to read about in a way that still feels respectful of the seriousness of the situation. She also keeps everything age-appropriate and mostly avoids preaching at the reader. It's definitely in the top 5 books I've read so far this year, and I will cross my fingers that it receives some formal recognition. 

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Book Review: Goodbye, Chicken Little by Betsy Byars (1979)

Ever since his father died in a coal mining disaster, Jimmie Little has been very fearful. When, on a dare, his uncle Pete drunkenly walks out on thin ice and drowns, Jimmie witnesses the whole thing, and he and his mother both blame Jimmie for not stepping in to prevent the accident. When the surviving family members gather in memory of Pete, however, it becomes clear to Jimmie that he doesn't need to be afraid of facing life head-on because he can draw strength from his relatives.

This book is one of the author's weakest. Though the subject matter should be very emotional, the writing style feels very detached, and it's hard to get into Jimmie's mindset. I was thankful in some ways that she didn't dwell more on the horror of Jimmie's uncle dying before his eyes, but I also felt that for an author who usually shows such empathy for her young characters, she didn't really have any for her protagonist this time around. While it is certainly comforting to surround oneself with family, it seems like, after losing both his dad and his uncle to accidents, Jimmie should probably need something more than a single family reunion to bounce back. The stakes were just too high in this book; Byars does better when the drama of a story takes place within typical everyday occurrences.

If you need a book about grief and loss for kids, you're much better off with either On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer (which is short like this book,  but deeper) or the quintessential Bridge to Terabithia. Even big Byars fans, of which I am one, will find this book difficult to like.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Book Review: Why Can't I Be You by Melissa Walker (2018)

Like last year's Let's Pretend We Never Met, Why Can't I Be You is another strong and engaging middle grade friendship story from Melissa Walker. Claire and Ronan, who live in the same trailer park, have been friends for a long time, but this summer things feel different. Ronan's dad, who has been away from the family for a while, has now returned, but his mental health is questionable. Claire's other good friend, Breanna, has recently moved to a fancy big house with a pool and other amenities of which Claire can only dream, and she has started hanging around with her cousin, Eden, who acts much more sophisticated than Breanna despite being only one year older. Claire is worried about Ronan, jealous of Breanna and both irritated and fascinated by Eden, and she finds herself feeling more and more isolated as the summer wears on, leading her to question whether it might be easier to be someone else.

As the title suggests, this book focuses a lot on the idea that "the grass is always greener on the other side." Each of the characters sees something desirable in another character's life. Claire longs for Breanna's material goods, while Ronan wishes his dad was more like Claire's. Claire wonders if boys will ever look at her the way they look at Eden, and Breanna longs for the simplicity of her former life, when wealth didn't dictate her family's every move. While the characters each grapple with their desires to be someone else, they miss opportunities to show empathy toward one another and to support each other as friends during their times of difficulty. In middle school, kids often feel as though the events of their lives are completely unique to them, and that everyone around them is perfectly happy and well-adjusted. I appreciate that this book shows that every kid has something that makes them insecure and that recognizing that and seeking to help each other through it is the best way to handle it.

I also thought it was interesting to explore how changes in socioeconomic status can affect friendships at this age. So many middle grade friendship stories exist in a vague middle class universe where the characters seem to have whatever material objects the plot deems necessary. This book felt a little more real because the characters did feel the limitations of their financial situations. It was also nice not to have the novel consumed by a lot of romance. Eden is the only character who seems really interested in dating, and Claire finds this puzzling. Often boy/girl best friendships in books like this devolve into ill-fated dating relationships; the friendship at the heart of this book felt all the more believable because that doesn't happen.

Melissa Walker has really hit a sweet spot at the middle grade level with this believable story of how friendships often change as adolescence hits. I hope there will be more books like this from her in the future! (Thanks to Edelweiss for the digital review copy.)

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Old School Kidlit Reading Challenge: July 2018 Link-Up

I took this month off from book reviews, but here is the link-up post for your "old school" book reviews from July. Leave your links in comments!