Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Review: Secret Water by Arthur Ransome (1939)

After the real-life adventure of the Walkers in We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea, it was hard for me to imagine how Arthur Ransome could continue to write exciting stories about these characters. After all, was not their journey to Holland on their own in a borrowed boat a final exam of sorts, the challenge toward which all their make-believe had been building? Thankfully, Ransome has a bigger imagination than I do, and his eighth book in the Swallows and Amazons series is just as engaging as any of the others. Though the Walkers more or less mastered sailing in the last book, in Secret Water, they become true explorers. Their father drops them off on an island with a blank map, announces they are marooned, and leaves them there with one assignment: to explore uncharted territory and complete the map. Not long after, the Walkers are joined by the Blacketts, as well as a new group of “savages”, the Eels, who serve as guides among the islands and teach the Swallows and Amazons all about human sacrifice.

There are a number of things about Secret Water that demonstrate the development of the characters, especially since the first book. Bridget, who was once known as baby “Vicky” is now a member of the expedition. She’s about four years old, and she constantly reminds her siblings that she is old enough to participate in the same things they do. I think most authors tend to portray youngest siblings like Bridget as annoying tag-alongs who hold everything up and make messes, but Bridget is a formidable little girl, and she has her share of shining moments. Roger and Titty, previously the youngest members of the expedition, are now old enough to venture off on their own and take responsibility for themselves and for Bridget. The spirit of imagination and make-believe is most alive in them this time around, though Nancy also gets excited, especially when it comes time to have a corroboree with the Eels.

Susan is still the mother figure, and she plays that role much more completely when Bridget is around than in the past. John, who has in the past been just as much a part of the make-believe as anyone else, seems more fatherly in this book and also more concerned with impressing his own father. While Nancy worries about blood oaths and sacrifices, and Roger and Titty imagine themselves as Israelites and Egyptians, John focuses on the task at hand. We can see the beginnings of manhood in John, and I wonder whether we’ll see as much of him in the rest of the books of the series. Surely at some point Susan and John will outgrow the games of their childhood. I keep wondering whether their coming of age will figure into any of the stories.

Secret Water is a great follow-up to the adventure of We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea. The story rewards the Walkers’ safe journey home with another, more controlled opportunity to explore their independence and we get to see just how much they all love, admire, and want to please their dad. The new characters - Don, the Mastodon, and Daisy, Dum, and Dee, the Eels - are a lot of fun, and again completely different from Dot, Dick, or any of the Walkers or Blacketts. I was also amazed that Ransome described things like changes in the tide and sailing routes in language that made it possible for me to imagine them and follow along.

As curious as I am about the four remaining books in the series, I am disappointed that I’m two-thirds of the way through it already. I’ve come to really love these characters, and I’ll be sad when I finish the last book. That said, though, I’ve heard that book nine, The Big Six, is a detective story, and I’m really eager to see what that will be like, so I know it won't be long before I jump right into the next one.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Review: Nothing Special by Geoff Herbach (2012)

Nothing Special is the sequel to Stupid Fast. This second book about Felton Reinstein deals with the aftermath of the physical and emotional changes he undergoes in the first book, and delves into the effects of his behavior on those around him, especially his younger brother Andrew. Felton tells the story in the form of a letter to his girlfriend, Aleah, who has taken a break from their relationship. He writes the letter on a trip to Florida, the purpose of which becomes clearer as the story he tells progresses. What we do know early on is that Andrew has run away, linked up with his dead father’s family, and caused Felton to miss football camp so that he can sort the whole thing out.

Though the story is told in Felton’s voice, it belongs just as much to Andrew. I believe it is meant to be his photo we see on the cover of the book, and “Nothing Special” refers to the way he feels about himself compared to his older, bigger, more athletic brother. Because the story belongs to both boys, the story is structurally pretty sophisticated. I give Geoff Herbach a lot of credit for switching so effortlessly back and forth between Felton’s activities at the time he writes the story and the events in the past that he is writing about. Though we never enter Andrew’s mind, Felton’s secondhand knowledge of his brother’s feelings very effectively helps the reader understand his difficulties and motivations for running away.

I have to admit that for the first few chapters, I wondered whether this sequel was such a good idea. Felton was so hilarious and so much fun to read about in the first book, and when this book wasn’t instantly just as funny, I felt myself losing interest a little bit. Things do pick up, though, and the story turns away from the sarcastic humor a little bit to show us a softer, more emotional side to Felton. Not only do we get to know more about his dead father, but we also meet a cousin who is very much like him, and we see his friendship with Gus go through some challenges and come out that much stronger. Since Felton didn’t spend very much time considering other people’s feelings in the first book, it only makes sense that he would need to repent and think about the emotional side of things a bit more in his second book.

Stupid Fast is one of the best YA novels I have ever read, and for me, it would be impossible for this sequel to live up to it. That said, Nothing Special is a strong follow-up, and readers who love Felton and the people in his life will enjoy finding out how things have turned out so far.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Book Review: The Last Holiday Concert by Andrew Clements (2004)

The Last Holiday Concert is a heartwarming holiday tale by Andrew Clements. Like his other books, this is a school story, and the focus is on that yearly tradition well known to so many families with elementary school kids: the holiday concert.  Mr. Meinert, the music teacher at Palmer Intermediate School has lost his job due to budget cuts. His students, including popular sixth grader, Hart Evans, aren't aware that they'll be losing their choral director, however, so for them it's business as usual. They don't take chorus - or their upcoming holiday concert - seriously at all. Hart even goes so far as to amuse himself during rehearsal by shooting a rubber band at the ceiling. When he hits Mr. Meinert, however, things take a surprising turn. Next thing he knows, Hart is in charge of the holiday concert, and it's up to him whether the sixth grade chorus will sink or swim in front of its audience.

Before this year, the only Andrew Clements book I had read was Frindle. This year, I added No TalkingTroublemakerThe Landry News, and About Average to my list, and it has been a real pleasure getting to know an author who writes such wonderful realistic school stories. The Last Holiday Concert combines a lot of the signature elements I have come to associate with Clements's work. The story provides the point of view of the main child character as well as of some of the key adults in his life. Family scenes appear now and then, when necessary to the plot, but most of the action takes place within the school setting and focuses on Hart's relationship with Mr. Meinert. Though putting a student completely in charge of a holiday concert seems like an unlikely thing for a teacher to do, Clements makes it really plausible by putting so much realism into the book. Hart and his classmates behave as real kids do, and Mr. Meinert's thoughts and actions humanize him as something more than just that strict chorus teacher the kids don't really like. As in his other books, Clements promotes change in his main character by taking  him out of his comfort zone and presenting him with a true challenge.

The ending of the story is definitely heartfelt, and the way Clements describes the kids' concert is dramatic enough to bring a few tears to the eyes of the reader, especially if that reader is an adult who works with kids. This is a bit of a spoiler, only in the sense that I'm telling you something that doesn't happen, but I was pleased to see that the story's happy ending didn't tie up every loose end. Mr. Meinert never gets his job back. Hart makes a difference, for himself, and for Mr. Meinert, but Clements keeps us grounded in reality by avoiding that It's a Wonderful Life - esque ending, and the book is stronger for it.

The Last Holiday Concert is not just a Christmas story, and the events of the story closely mirror holiday celebrations at many public elementary schools, so this would be a good non-denominational read-aloud for diverse elementary school classes. Those who have also read Clements's The Landry News will note some parallels between Hart's experiences with Mr. Meinert and Cara's with Mr. Larson - it might be interesting to compare and contrast the two relationships to understand better how Clements builds his stories. Whatever the time of year, and whatever the subject matter, you truly can't wrong with a novel by Andrew Clements.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Book Review: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson (1972)

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is a book I always intended to read as a kid, but then never did. Like some of the characters in the story, I was intimidated by the bad behavior of the Herdmans. Me, read a book about kids who smoke cigars? I didn’t think I could do it. What I missed as a middle grade reader is that this book is the perfect embodiment of the true meaning of Christmas.

When the pageant director falls ill, the narrator’s mother steps in to take over. The Herdmans, who have typically been left out of Sunday school activities in the past, decide they want in on the pageant this year, and they sign up for all the major parts in the production, without even really knowing the story of Jesus’s birth. Though most people are horrified by the involvement of these badly behaved kids in an important religious event, the Herdmans surprise everyone by being so willing to engage with the Christmas story and its various significant figures.

I think kids and adults alike are equally guilty when it comes to passing judgment on others. My disapproval for the Herdmans kept me from even reading the book as a goody two shoes kid, and the main character and her friends worry about what will happen to their pageant if kids like the Herdmans get involved. What this story does for us is slowly peel away the layers of our disgust and concern and show us the good at the heart of the Herdman kids, and the way their sincere and honest way of interacting with the world actually makes them better suited to playing out the Christmas story than almost anyone else.

Like the Horrible Harry books, this story shows us the “bad” kids through the eyes of a “good” kid, but though the story focuses on the actions of the Herdmans, it’s the “good” narrator who is changed and enlightened by the story itself. Barbara Robinson’s writing style makes this type of storytelling look easy, and I was amazed by how easily and willingly I was carried along by the events of the story. The ending, where they finally perform the pageant all the way through from beginning to end, has some of the funniest and most poignant moments of any children’s novel. The Herdmans don’t know much about Christmas, but we all learn something from their learning process.

Though The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is now 40 years old, it still holds up really well, and it’s the perfect book to make a part of your family’s Christmas traditions.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Book Review: A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'Engle (1973)

I have to be in a certain mood to read L’Engle’s books about Meg Murry, which is why it took me a while to get to the next one on my list, A Wind in the Door. The story opens with one of the most memorable lines in children’s literature: “There are dragons in the twins’ vegetable garden.” Charles Wallace is indeed seeing strange creatures in the garden, but that’s the least of his troubles. He’s also being bullied at school where the principal, Mr. Jenkins, fails daily to protect him, and he might be suffering from a disease of his mitochondria, which are endangered by something called farandolae. Meg is very worried about Charles Wallace, so when she is approached by a being named Blajeny, who calls himself a Teacher, and assigned to be partners with a cherubim (a singular being so large he is basically plural) named Proginoskes in the completion of three tests, she accepts the challenge and follows her new allies on a quest to save Charles Wallace and many others from being unnamed by the evil Echthroi.

I give Madeleine L’Engle a lot of credit for being able to keep all of these strange words, beings, and places straight in her mind, because even trying to summarize her books gets tricky quickly! I was iffy about this one at the start - it’s difficult for a realistic fiction reader like me to settle into worlds where large dragon-looking cherubim appear in gardens! Once I did get my bearings, though, I enjoyed reading of Meg’s high-stakes struggle against evil. The concept of naming someone or something in order to show one’s love for it really appealed to me, as did the separation of acts of love from feelings of love. The concept of kything as a means of silent communication is also interesting, and I like the way it adds this subtle layer of closeness to Meg’s relationship with Calvin.

At times, I felt that this book really came close to being too mushy and emotional, but for the most part it walked the line fairly well between too much and just enough. As in A Wrinkle in Time, it’s hard not to consider the religious themes and implications of the story, and I appreciate L’Engle’s willingness to continually take on those big issues. I’m also hugely impressed that she could do so much with a setting - Charles Wallace’s mitochondria - where everything is immersed in darkness and no one moves physically. Everything that happens in the characters’ minds is so interesting and dramatic, and much happens even when it seems like almost nothing is happening. I enjoyed it, too, when L’Engle starts writing in free verse toward the end of the book. I may be a bit more cynical now than I was as a teen, so my reaction was a little bit snide after a while, but I know my fifteen year old self would have related strongly to those sections.

I have read A Wind in the Door once before - in library school- and I remembered it as the best book of the Time Quintet. I didn’t have the same reaction this time, but I did like it, and I plan to continue on with my L’Engle reading list until it’s done. Next up is a story featuring Polly O’Keefe, Dragons in the Waters.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book Review: Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach (2011)

I am neither male nor sporty, but I have always loved young adult realistic fiction with male narrators and sports themes. How I managed to miss last year’s Stupid Fast, even after it won a 2011 Cybils Award, completely blows my mind. Thankfully, though, a representative from Sourcebooks visited my library system recently, and included in the presentation was a plug for all three of Geoff Herbach’s books about Felton Reinstein.

Felton is fifteen, and lately he’s been dealing with some changes. For one thing, he can’t seem to stop growing, and every inch of him suddenly has hair. His mom, a hippy who insists on being called Jerri, is also starting to lose her mind, a problem which may or may not be related to Felton’s dad’s suicide ten years before. Pretty much overnight, Felton discovers he is fast, and the football team suddenly starts asking him to work out with them even though he’s never played before in his life. On top of that, Felton’s best friend has gone away for the summer and staying in his house is an African-American piano prodigy, whose talent catches Felton’s eye as well as that of his little brother, Andrew, who is also talented on the piano. The entire story is told from Felton’s point of view on one night late in summer when he just can’t fall asleep.

I think the biggest thing that makes me love a book is the main character’s voice, and Felton has one of the best YA voices I’ve read. He reminded me, at times, of some of Chris Crutcher’s characters, like TJ in Whale Talk, and Moby from Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. At other times, I was sure he was channeling Karl Shoemaker from Tales of the Madman Underground or Guy Langman from Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator. Felton is self-aware and self-deprecating, funny even when he thinks he’s not, sometimes selfish, sometimes giving, very talkative, even if only inside his own brain, and messed up in the way that all people are messed up when they’re trying to survive puberty. Being inside his thoughts for 300 pages was a treat, and even now, having finished the first book and not yet moved onto the second, I am carrying Felton around with me, still sometimes seeing the world from his point of view instead of my own. His voice is infectious, and it lingers for a while after the book is over.

Plot-wise, Stupid Fast is just as engaging as its protagonist. Felton’s journey from the weird kid everyone calls “Squirrel Nut” to a confident and competent member of a sports team is interesting enough on its own, but family dysfunction and romance really add to the reader’s interest and keep the pages turning. Jerri’s slow retreat from her duties as mother and Andrew’s strange behaviors in reaction to the loss of his mother actually made me worry for their future, and concern for Felton’s relationship with Aleah after his mom makes a fool of herself in the neighborhood, kept me up until 2 AM when I finally finished the book and felt satisfied.

In addition to the 2011 Cybils Award in Young Adult Fiction, Stupid Fast also received well-deserved recognition from YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, the Junior Library Guild, and the American Booksellers Association. It is one of the funniest books I have ever read, and a great read-alike for books by Allen Zadoff, Josh Berk, Chris Crutcher, Eric Luper, and Rich Wallace. The second book about Felton, entitled Nothing Special, was released in May 2012. I’m With Stupid, the third in the series, will be published in May 2013.

Geoff Herbach can be heard reading the beginning of Stupid Fast (with a few differences from the published text) here - it’s a great preview of the book and just as fun to listen to even if you’ve already read the whole story.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Book Review: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)

The Hobbit is one of those books I have always intended to read. As a kid, I was deeply disturbed by watching part of the Rankin-Bass movie, and that put me off the entire thing basically until the Lord of the Rings movies came out. Then I was suddenly all about Frodo, and I got very into the whole Tolkien universe. But I still didn’t read The Hobbit. Now, once again, I’m ashamed to say that I’m being motivated to read a book because its movie is coming out. I hope that it saves some face to say that the copy I read was the authorized paperback edition from 1965 and not a 2012 edition with the movie cover, but I’m still pretty ashamed that it took me this long to read a classic.

The Hobbit follows the adventures of reluctant traveler Bilbo Baggins, who is selected by Gandalf to accompany an expedition of dwarves who plan to fight a dragon and win back the treasure they lost years and years ago. As compared with Lord of the Rings, this book is much less dark and less violent. Bilbo does find himself in dangerous situations fairly often, but even when others around him perish or are injured, he is spared the majority of the pain and suffering. I imagine this is because The Hobbit is intended as a children’s story, and that Tolkien wanted to incorporate excitement and adventure, but without scaring his audience so much they’d want to stop reading.

I enjoy Tolkien’s writing, and even read sections of this book aloud to myself in my empty house to just really appreciate the words and descriptions that he puts together. I was disappointed, though, that this book lacked a lot of the high stakes and subtlety of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I had gotten the impression somehow that there were more obvious connections between the two stories than I actually found. It was fun to read about Bilbo’s first encounter with Gollum, wherein he comes to possess the ring that causes all that trouble later on, but I had always imagined that Gollum had a huge role in The Hobbit, and in reality he gets just one chapter. I was thankful for the other characters I got to meet, however, especially Beorn, the large man who can morph into a bear. (He reminded me somewhat of Tom Bombadil, one of my favorite LOTR characters, and I can only hope that they won’t cut Beorn from the film the way they did Tom.) I also have the same affection for Gandalf that I do for Albus Dumbledore. I sighed in relief each time he reappeared in the story, and his relationship with Bilbo is very touching, especially knowing what it will be like in the future stories.

I’m not a fantasy reader, I always say, but The Hobbit is one of those books that everyone should read, regardless of the genre you feel most comfortable with. It’s a bit dense for inexperienced readers to enjoy alone, but it would be a perfect family read-aloud. Kids like stories about defeating dragons, and Bilbo is child-like enough that kids can imagine themselves in his shoes and follow him on his journey. The nice thing about fantasy titles, too, is that they don’t get dated as quickly as realistic fiction titles. The world Tolkien has created can always exist in our imaginations, without the worry that some modern technology will change the way we think of it.

Anyone taking a child to see the first The Hobbit film this holiday season should definitely share the book with that child first. Kids who love Ranger’s Apprentice, Harry Potter, Last Apprentice, and Septimus Heap will feel right at home in Bilbo’s world, but many other types of readers can find something to love about it as well.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Book Review: Eleven Kids, One Summer by Ann M. Martin (1991)

Eleven Kids, One Summer is the sequel to one of my favorite books from childhood, Ten Kids No Pets. Looking back, I remember the first book as the better of the two, but reading them both again as an adult, this sequel is the story that won me over. Keegan, the youngest in the Rosso family, is now six months old, and the family is taking a vacation to Fire Island, where they will stay in a beach house. As the summer passes, each of the kids has an adventure involving everything from fishermen and haunted houses to movie sets and romances.

Here’s what made me love this book:
  • While each of the kids has his or her own adventure, some of the adventures overlap. For example, Candy’s chapter early in the book introduces a haunted house plot that reappears in Hannah’s chapter and Hardy’s chapter in the middle and end of the book. Woody also becomes an entrepreneur in his chapter, which influences things that happen to Bainbridge later on. This interconnectedness made me feel like I was living amongst the Rossos during their vacation, and even when some of the kids were not heavily featured in a chapter, the ongoing plot threads gave me an idea of where they were and what they were doing.
  • Justin Hart, the romantic hero in Ann M. Martin’s romance novel, Just a Summer Romance, as well as the heroine from that story, Melanie, reappear in this book. I read Just a Summer Romance when I was in ninth or tenth grade, and by then I’d forgotten the details of Eleven Kids, One Summer, so I never made the connection until now. I remember really liking those characters, though, and it was nice to check in with them. 
  • Eleven Kids, One Summer has everything in it that I loved about the various plots of the Baby-sitters Club books- a big family, a ghost story, lots of kids of all different ages, movie stars, twins, a hospital visit and a summer vacation. The Publishers Weekly blurb on the back cover of the book says that Ann M. Martin “knows well what pleases young readers” and I would so agree with that statement. She knows how to keep the pages turning and how to create adventures out of seemingly everyday experiences.
  • This book reminds me of The Penderwicks series, and especially of The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. Abbie Rosso and Rosalind Penderwick are both wonderful big sisters, and the younger Rosso siblings all reminded me of Skye, Jane, and Batty at different points. Both books evoke a timeless sense of childhood innocence and the they celebrate the joys of imagination and independent play. Eleven Kids, One Summer was published 14 years ahead of the first Penderwicks book, but they both feel equally contemporary in style and content.
Eleven Kids, One Summer is a perfect example of Ann M. Martin’s talent for creating unique kids and making each different personality relatable for her readers. Reviews from when the book was published were not particularly kind - especially one from School Library Journal that said “signs of formulaic contemporary sit-com fiction are in abundance” in the book, and that “sometimes the pace and content strain credibility.” I think this book is actually heads above many of those poorly written sit-com books, and maybe not everything that happens is likely to happen in real life, but it worked well in the fiction.

Eleven Kids, One Summer is out of print, which makes me sad, but there is obviously still some love for the Rossos, since copies of their books are quite expensive (over 140 dollars!) on Amazon. I think this book brings about heavily nostalgic feelings for a lot of kids of the 90s. I know it does for me.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Book Review: Angie's First Case by Donald Sobol

Donald Sobol is known to most people as the author of the popular Encyclopedia Brown series, of which there are more than 25 titles. What I didn’t realize is that Sobol actually wrote 65 books in all, and that some of them are about girls. Angie’s First Case, which was published in 1981, is the story of a 12-year-old girl who lost her parents at a young age. She and her older sister, Kit, live with their aunt, who doesn’t have much money, so Kit has given up the idea of college to become a police officer. Kit loves her work, but Angie is convinced that her sister could get promoted and be even happier if Angie helps her crack a major case. Every day, Angie goes out jogging in the hopes of catching a band of teen thieves known as the Wolfpack. One day, while she is out with Jess, a chubby boy she likes, Angie sees a series of suspicious events. By witnessing these strange occurrences, Angie sets herself up to become a kidnapping victim as well as a hero.

This book is unlike any other middle grade mystery novel I have ever read. It is mainly plot-driven, like the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, but the characters are strongly developed in the first couple of chapters so that the reader roots for their success as much as for the downfall of the bad guys. There is a hint of romance between Angie and Jess, but it is restricted to holding hands, which is very sweet and keeps the love angle from taking over the action and adventure that is the true focus of the story. The absence of all the technologies we use today requires Angie to rely on her wits to solve the mystery, which always makes a tale like this more exciting. There were a couple of points where I found myself thinking how much easier things would be if the kids did have phones, but I liked the added challenges and the ingenious plans the kids enact to overcome them.

Though Sobol is great at delivering clues and other case-related information in a straightforward manner, he also has some great descriptions that evoke Angie’s emotions and thoughts at certain points in the story. One of my favorites is this moment, where Angie watches Kit put her gun away at the end of the work day.

…[Kit] folded the ten-pound gun belt with its holster, gun, and two pouches of ammunition. The black patent leather gleamed in a ray of evening sunlight.

Angie sat stiffly. The handgun fascinated her. It was .38, fast-loading, six-shot pistol with a dark wood panel inlaid on each side of the handle.

Now it rested snugly in the holster. Yet its deadliness worked eerily on Angie’s mind. The gun seemed much larger than its actual size. She was amazed when it disappeared into the dresser drawer so easily.


This passage conveys the power of the gun, Kit’s carefulness with it, and Angie’s sense of awe surrounding the gun and her sister’s important job.

Also charming is the accompanying illustration for this same chapter:

I love Aunt Velma peeking out at the girls from the living room, and Angie’s completely 80s hair and outfit. I also think it’s sweet that Kit is leaning down to kiss her sister.

This illustration is by Gail Owens, who also illustrated some of the the Encyclopedia Brown books and other books by well-known 80s children’s authors like Johanna Hurwitz, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and Caroline Cooney. Owens was also the illustrator of The Cybil War by Betsy Byars.

I was really impressed by this book and I wonder why Sobol never returned to Angie’s life to tell us of her future cases. It seems like he focused almost exclusively on Encyclopedia Brown in the later years of his career, which makes sense, since they were so popular, but I fell in love with Angie in this book, and I wish there were more mysteries featuring her!

Angie’s First Case is out of print, but copies abound on Amazon. Personally, I think it’s as relevant now as the Encyclopedia Brown books and would love to see it become widely available once again!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Book Review: We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome (1937)

In We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, the Walker children and their mother are waiting at Pin Mill for Daddy to arrive home when they meet a young sailor named Jim Brading. Jim promises to sail the kids around to a few of the nearby ports, giving Mrs. Walker his word that he will not take John, Susan, Titty, and Roger to sea. He doesn’t anticipate the fact that he will run out of petrol, or that a heavy fog will descend over his boat, The Goblin. Nor does he guess that the tide will turn and the Walkers will drift out to sea in his boat, heading for Holland with no captain and no idea how they will get home.

My big frustration with the last book, Pigeon Post, was that I had trouble buying into the make-believe adventures of the Walkers and the Blacketts. For the first time, imagined adventure didn’t seem like enough. I’m so glad that this seventh book in the series finally allows these characters to experience something real. I was a bit disappointed, at first, that the Blacketts do not appear in this book, but even their absence was somewhat refreshing. Without Nancy to call the shots, the other characters are forced into leadership roles, which provides a lot of really nice character development for both John and Susan. Even Titty and Roger show signs of growing up as the story progresses.

What really impressed me the most about We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea is that Ransome manages to keep things exciting for the duration of the book, despite the fact that 90% of it takes place on board the same boat. Weather, seasickness, and passing ships provide the required drama to propel the story forward even when all the characters are doing, essentially, is waiting to reach port and agonizing over what their mother will say when she learns they disobeyed. Ransome’s writing is never dull, and the ending of this story, when they finally find a way home, is one of the most satisfying endings of the entire series. It almost feels like a finale, and though I have started the next book and I’m enjoying it, I still think We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea could have served as the perfect conclusion to the Walkers’ stories. It is the perfect culmination of all their training as sailors and in some ways, the full realization of the fantasy constructed in Peter Duck.

I can’t name many authors whose writing is consistently wonderful over the course many books, but Ransome is such an author. I like the way his stories continue to expand upon the vast universe he has created, and I enjoy the way he tempers every moment of high stress and danger in his stories with a warm moment of comfort among family and friends. We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea ranks high on my list of favorites in this series, right beside Swallowdale and Winter Holiday.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Book Review: Bright Island by Mabel L. Robinson (1937)

Thankful Curtis is the youngest of Mary Curtis’s children and the only girl. Her six brothers have married and left the family home on Bright Island, but Thankful has no such desires. She wants to remain in the place she loves most, where she can hold tightly to memories of her beloved grandfather. Unfortunately, Thankful’s family is concerned that she hasn’t been properly educated about “what a girl is for,” so they decide that she must attend school on the mainland. In the year that follows, Thankful learns the ways of the modern world, which has many more luxuries than her island home, and comes to a greater understanding of herself as a human being.

Bright Island was originally published in 1937, and it was a 1938 Newbery Honor book. It seems that it has been out of print for a while, but Random House has just published a 75th anniversary edition, which I read courtesy of NetGalley. Bright Island is a coming of age story of a type that no one seems to write anymore. Thankful’s age is never identified, but based on her experiences at school, she must be a teenager, meaning this book would likely be classified as YA if it were published today. It certainly shares a lot in common with other young adult books. Thankful struggles with issues of family, identity, friendship, education, romance, and belonging. She must leave the safety of everything she knows and try to stay true to herself out in the real world. This is something every teen faces, either at the start of high school, or when he or she goes away to college.

The writing, despite being 75 years old, is very accessible. Robinson’s lyrical prose is beautiful - especially to read aloud - but the reader doesn’t get bogged down in her descriptions, as in other older books (The Yearling, for example.) Thankful and her mother are the strongest characters in the book, but even more minor characters, like Thankful’s antagonistic roommate, are written sympathetically, so the reader understands their motivations and believes in them as real people. The most interesting parts of the plot actually hinge on the visits of these minor characters to Bright Island. These scenes heighten the tensions between Thankful's island life and the modern world on the mainland and show the reader interesting sides to Thankful's character as well as that of her roommate and of Robert, a popular boy from school.

I expected this book to be similar to Swallows and Amazons, but Bright Island is much more character-driven. There are some sailing scenes, and I was thankful that I had read Swallows and Amazons because that helped with the sailing terminology, but this is not a sailing book, or even an island book. The island is a strong presence because of its importance to Thankful, but Thankful herself is really the center of the plot. It is through her experiences that the reader comes to terms with the inevitable, which is that we will all someday grow up and venture out into the world.

The illustrations by Lynd Ward are a wonderful addition to the story. They look old-fashioned by today's standards, but they do a wonderful job of immersing the reader into the natural world Robinson conveys with her words. I think my favorite image of the entire book is  the snowy illustration at the start of the chapter entitled "The Stranger Leaves Bright Island." I love the way Ward draws the sweep of the winter wind and each individual snowflake. I get cold just looking at the picture.

Bright Island should appeal to girls - and maybe boys, too - who like reading classic works of children’s literature. I think it would make a wonderful read for a mother-daughter book club, as the mother-daughter relationship is one of the central themes. Some read-alikes might include The Little House on the Prairie series, In Summer Light by Zibby O’Neal, and The Moon By Night by Madeleine L’Engle.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Book Review: Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome (1936)

It’s summertime once again, and Nancy has a new project - prospecting for gold on High Topps. Unfortunately, there’s a drought going on, so the camping place she had in mind doesn’t have any water, and the whole team of prospectors is forced to stay at Mrs. Tyson’s farm, with Mrs. Tyson cooking the meals and supervising their every move. Nancy and her friends can’t stand not being able to do things for themselves, so they begin looking for ways to get out of this highly native situation. It looks hopeless at first, but then Titty takes up dowsing, Roger finds a hidden cave filled with gold, and Squashy Hat, a mysterious gentleman staying at another nearby farm seems to be up to something, making him the perfect enemy. Everything will be perfect, if only they can make a gold ingot to show Captain Flint when he returns from sea.

I had really high expectations for Pigeon Post, both because it’s an award winner, and because it once again brings together all three main groups of characters in the Ransome universe - the Swallows, the Amazons, and the Ds. Unfortunately, this book has the slowest start of any of the Swallows and Amazons series. I liked the introduction of the homing pigeons at the start of the story, and Dick’s ingenious system for alerting Mrs. Blackett when they arrive with messages, but I was confused by Titty’s weird reaction to her dowsing abilities. I liked seeing Nancy and company overcome the challenges presented by the drought, but I never for a second believed there could be gold, or that Squashy Hat could be looking for it. I spent the first three-quarters of the book waiting for it to get good, and finding it impossible to suspend my disbelief. This was the first time I couldn’t imagine along with the characters, and it really annoyed me to feel like the series had betrayed me by creating a situation where I couldn’t buy into the game.

Thankfully, after pages and pages of wishing for the good stuff, I was rewarded handsomely. The ending of this book is by far the most exciting of any in the series so far, and it puts the characters in the most danger they have ever been in. The entire last eighth of the book is so good it makes up for all the weirdness with the dowsing and the boring digging and smelting processes. Also, looking back on the book after finishing it, I also noticed some nice character development that has progressed over the course of the series. The fact that these characters who once could only dream of sleeping on Wild Cat Island can now build a well and a furnace shows that the characters are growing and maturing over time. This aging process is most obvious in Roger, who, for the first time, discovers the most important find of the whole summer - the cave containing the gold. While each book of the series is mostly self-contained, I love being able to see the picture and watching the kids grow up more and more with each book.

Besides Peter Duck, Pigeon Post is currently my least favorite of the series. I just didn’t get most of it, and if not for the great ending, I would have been disappointed that I wasted my time. I am very curious about the next book, We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, and I hope it promises more real, rather than imagined, adventure.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review: Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage (2012)

Moses “Mo” LoBeau has lived with the Colonel and Miss Lana in Tupelo Landing, North Carolina ever since she was a baby and washed up after a hurricane. Since then, she’s wondered about the woman she refers to as her “Upstream Mother”, whom she sends messages in bottles, hoping she will someday respond. Until recently, the identity of her biological mother has been Mo’s only mystery, but all that changes when Mr. Jesse, a grumpy regular customer at the Colonel’s cafe, turns up dead. Mo and her best friend, Dale - himself a suspect in the murder because he “borrowed” Mr. Jesse’s boat just hours before his death - decide to help the authorities solve this case by forming their own detective agency. What they uncover, however, is much bigger than either of them anticipates, and there are many twists and turns on their way to the truth.

I’m a sucker for a Southern story, so this book was a natural choice for me, and on top of that, Betsy Bird gave it a glowing review that stuck in my mind so that I recognized the book instantly when it arrived at my library. As it turns out, Mo deserves every bit of praise she received from Ms. Bird, because she is one heck of a memorable middle grade heroine! Mo’s way with words, her sense of humor, her can-do attitude, and her fearlessness in the face of adults make her stand out among her fictional peers and make the reader instantly want to follow her adventures. Tupelo Landing is also a very lively and interesting place, and it doesn’t take long for the reader to feel at home there. This sense of comfort and belonging immediately set the reader up to feel Mo’s sense of loss and betrayal when someone is murdered right in her own town.

I have to admit that I didn’t have very much trouble figuring out the mystery once all the clues had been revealed. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable, or that the story isn’t worth reading, but most of the twists were not news to me by the time they were actually spelled out. That doesn’t make it any less exciting, though, as a storm, a kidnapping, and various other events really draw things out and build up the suspense to such a height that there was a certain point after which I refused to put the book down until the story was over. There are also some interesting insights into the relationship between Lana and the Colonel that come at the end of the story, and a big joke whose punchline made me laugh out loud.

Obvious read-alikes for this book would be Because of Winn Dixie and The Higher Power of Lucky, since both depict small Southern towns and both have motherless protagonists. Digging deeper, though, Three Times Lucky should also work well for kids who like mysteries with a strong sense of place, such as the Wilma Tenderfoot books, The London Eye Mystery, and Missing on Superstition Mountain.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Review: Sport by Louise Fitzhugh (1979)

Sport, one of Harriet M. Welch’s best friends, lives with his dad ,who is an excellent parent, though he is not wealthy or sophisticated like Sport’s mother. Early in the story, Sport’s grandfather passes away, leaving Sport a significant sum of money. This prompts his mother to become suddenly interested in her son’s well-being and she begins trying to gain custody of Sport in place of his dad. When she doesn’t get her way right off the bat, Sport finds himself kidnapped!

I had some reservations when I first decided to read Sport, because I knew it had been rejected by Louise Fitzhugh’s publisher in her lifetime, and was only published later on, after she died. (The full story on that is written up very nicely here, on a blog called Harriet the Spy: the Unauthorized Biography.) Still, I was curious about the differences between Sport and the two titles that were so well-received while Fitzhugh was alive - Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret. I have to say, I’m glad I took the chance, because of the three, this wound up being my favorite.

First and foremost, I found this book much easier to read than the other two. One of my frustrations with both Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret is the sophistication of the language, mostly because it distracts me from everything else about the stories. I could never get immersed in characters or plot in those earlier books because the language seemed to call so much attention to itself. This does not happen in Sport. Rather, this story feels like it comes from the point of view of a child, and even the atmosphere of New York City and the issues Sport has with his parents feel more relatable and contemporary.

The second thing I noticed about this book was that I actually felt some connection to Sport. I didn’t feel much of anything for Harriet or Mouse, but Sport got into my head and stayed there for a while. His struggles with adults and his confusion with sorting out the good adults from the bad ones are universal experiences, and I felt real sympathy for him as he went through those situations. I also liked seeing the diversity of his friends, and how cartoonish Harriet seems among them. In his own story, Sport becomes much more than the boy who doesn’t understand how to play town.

I do recognize, of course, that girls have loved Harriet and The Long Secret for at least three generations now, and I want to say that of course those books have merit. I just think they’re for a certain type of reader in a certain type of mood. Sport, on the other hand, is an easier read, more likely to interest boys, and focuses on issues kids still face today - perhaps even more than they did in the 1960s or 70s.

Sport is a great read-alike for books by E.L. Konigsburg and Madeleine L’Engle, who also tackle important real-life issues often against a New York City backdrop.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Book Review: The Young Unicorns by Madeleine L'Engle (1968)

The Young Unicorns picks up not long after the ending of The Moon By Night. The Austins are now living in New York City, where they have befriended Emily Gregory, a young blind pianist, and Josiah “Dave” Davidson, a former gang member who now helps Emily with her reading for school. Early in the story, these characters cross paths with Canon Tallis, the mysterious priest who first appears in The Arm of the Starfish. This meeting is the first in a long series of events that put the innocent Austins and others whom they care for in grave danger.

There is so much happening in this book, I find it almost impossible to summarize it. Part of the story is related to Mr. Austin’s work with the Micro-Ray, a technology so powerful it can easily be misused if it falls into the wrong hands. Another thread of the plot involves the Alphabats, the gang of which Dave used to be a member, who wreak havoc on the streets of Manhattan and continually try to bring Dave back into their fold. Yet another storyline involves the corruption of a priest associated with the cathedral where Rob and Dave have both found such solace.

I spent much of the book in total confusion, trying to put the pieces together to make a complete picture. I’m still not sure I quite understand everything that happened, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the book. I love the Austins, and this book gives a different perspective on their family dynamics than the other books have shown so far. We see the Austins at more of a distance in this book, and from the points of view of outsiders. For the first time, now that they live in the city, the Austins are portrayed as innocent, naive and highly susceptible to the dangers of the outside world. The reader questions whether their closeness and openness with one another is normal or healthy, and worries greatly for their safety. Even Mr. Austin, who seems like such a strong, protective character in The Moon by Night, suddenly seems weak in the face of great evil. I also liked seeing the Austins' reactions as members of the family begin to pull in different directions, even deceiving each other and sneaking out of the house. I tend to read more for character than plot, so in such a plot-driven book, it was nice to have these nice moments of insight into the characters, too.

My other favorite thing about this book is its mood. L'Engle evokes feelings of uncertainty and foreboding in her descriptions of the New York City streets, overrun by drugs and gangs. She also does a lovely job of capturing the awe-inspiring beauty of the cathedral as well as the fear it evokes when such sinister activities take place within its walls.  The Alphabats aren't the most believable gang in the world, but even so, L'Engle made me afraid of them by painting such a bleak and disconcerting picture of 1960s New York City. I'm not sure the end of the story is a great pay-off for all this suspense and intrigue, but it's all still beautifully written up until that point.

Above all, I suppose the main message the reader is meant to take away from The Young Unicorns is revealed in the quotation which inspired the title. It is printed on its own page at the front of the book and refers to “the unicorn, wild and uncommitted, which creature cannot be caught by the hunter, no matter how skillful.” It tells us that the unicorn “can be tamed only of his own free will.” I’m sure there is a way to apply this idea to every character in the story, but it seems to pertain the most to Dave, whose free will is what eventually separated him from the Alphabats, and to the Micro-Ray, whose dangers can’t be contained unless the people in command of it wish to use it safely and protect it.

I’m glad to to have this strange, complex, and frustrating book behind me. I wish my review had more to say, but I just didn't connect as strongly with this book as with the previous Austin titles.  I am, however, really looking forward to the next book on my O’Keefe / Austin list - A Wind in the Door.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Book Review: About Average by Andrew Clements (2012)

About Average, Andrew Clements’s latest school story, is about Jordan Johnston, a girl who feels terribly average. She’s okay at a lot of things, but feels great at only a few, and those things are continually mocked by a mean girl in her class who found her “Things I’m Good At” list in the trash. Jordan tries her hardest to be nice against all odds and basically kill her classmate with kindness, but it’s difficult, and Jordan doubts whether it will work. She also doubts that she will ever discover the great talent that will prove she is extraordinary. Little does she know that disaster will strike, and she, Jordan Johnston, will be the one with the skills needed to save the day...

I can always see the influence of Clements’s teaching career in his stories. Every child he creates is so real, and whenever I visit classrooms or see groups of kids in my library, I can pick out the kids who resemble his characters in some way. This time, he’s written about that introverted, sweet kid who wants to be special, but can’t see past her shortcomings, and who bullies make their easy target. In some ways, Jordan reminds me of Mattie Breen in Linda Urban’s Hound Dog True. She’s a character you want to root for, and whose innate goodness and sweetness are her most appealing qualities, but also the qualities that make her the most vulnerable.

As in his other books, Clements fleshes out this story by occasionally switching to an adult’s point of view. The climax of the story is set up by brief chapters featuring a weather forecaster from the local radio station. Jordan’s teacher, Mrs. Lermon, also gets to have her say, which helps the reader understand Jordan’s role among her classmates. I think this technique works so well in each of Clements’s books, and it’s successful again in About Average.

I think my favorite part of the entire story is the connection to Sarah, Plain and Tall. Because of that book, Jordan begins to think of herself as “Jordan, Plain and Average” and Kylie, a pretty girl in her class, as “Kylie, Cute and Tall”, “Kylie, Kind and Cool” and “Kylie, Strong and Skilled.” These labels work really well to help the reader understand how Jordan sees herself in relation to the rest of the world. It’s also really emotionally satisfying when the “plain and average” label recurs on the last page of the book, with a transformed and positive connotation.

This is a gentle book, with an emotional ending that brought very surprising tears to my eyes. Clements fans won’t be disappointed, and any girl feeling useless or left out will take heart after learning what happens to Jordan. In addition to Hound Dog True, this book also compares well to some of the contemporary American Girl books, including the Kanani and McKenna books.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Book Review: Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1957)

Like Ballet Shoes and Theater Shoes, Dancing Shoes is another novel by Noel Streatfeild about children in show business. The setting for this story is a dancing school run by selfish, demanding Cora Wintle, who calls her students Wintle’s Wonders. Rachel, the main protagonist, is Cora’s niece, and she and her adopted sister Hilary move in with Cora after their mother dies and leaves them orphans. Rachel has no interest in dancing, but Hilary has talent for it, and indeed the girls’ mother wished for Hilary to enroll at the Royal Ballet School. Rachel worries, therefore, that Hilary’s training with Mrs. Wintle isn’t serious enough. On top of that, both girls must contend with the obvious favoritism shown to Cora’s spoiled daughter, Dulcie.

Though I enjoy Noel Streatfeild’s writing very much (and Elizabaeth Sastre’s narration even more), I think this is the weakest of the three “shoes” books I’ve read. The plot structure was very similar to that of Ballet Shoes and Theater Shoes, and the characters weren’t as interesting to me as either the Fossils or the Forbes children. Cora Wintle seemed almost cartoonish in her role as antagonist, and I had a hard time truly buying Rachel’s motivation for preventing Hilary from becoming a Wonder. Characters like Pursey, the girls’ nurse, and Mrs. Storm, their teacher felt like poor imitations of supporting characters in the previous books (namely Nana and Doctor Jakes and Doctor Smith). I also grew weary of Dulcie, who probably could have used a redeeming quality or two.

What was interesting was how much more up-to-date this book felt than the previous two. It was published in 1957, the same year as other still-relevant books like Henry and Ribsy by Beverly Cleary and Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat , and aside from a few dated references, it is the kind of story that could still be published today. In fact, girls who read a lot of middle grade fiction would recognize the rivalry between Rachel and Hilary and Dulcie as very similar to the “mean girls” stories written for tween girls here in the 21st century. In that sense, it might be easier to sell some kids on Dancing Shoes rather than the more old-fashioned “shoes” books.

This is, sadly, the last of Streatfeild’s book available in an audio format. I may not have enjoyed this last book as much as the others, but I will definitely miss listening to Elizabeth Sastre’s wonderful voice, which will forever be the voice of all of Streatfeild’s characters in my mind.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Book Review: The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng (2012)

Anna is in fourth grade, and lately, it seems like her only friends are Ray, the school crossing guard, and people she meets inside of books. She and her old best friend, Laura, are drifting apart, and though Camille, a girl in Anna’s Chinese class, seems really nice, Anna’s fear of new people keeps her at a distance. Over time, though, Anna starts to realize that life can’t be lived between the pages of even the very best book, and she begins to work on getting her nose out of the fictional world so she can make friends in the real one.

Though the writing is quite good, by far, what made me fall in love with The Year of the Book were Abigail Halpin’s illustrations. From the moment I laid eyes on the cover in the library, I was drawn to the many book covers which adorn the tree on the front of the book. I am amazed at how Halpin was able to create these teeny tiny reproductions of well-known covers that, even shrunk, are instantly recognizable. Before I even started reading, I enjoyed playing “Name that Children’s Book” and trying to see how many I had read.

Luckily, the story lives up to the promises of its cover. Anna reads lots of books, and I can think of several big readers right off the top of my head who would love her for that reason alone, regardless of her otherwise passive personality. I love the way author Andrea Cheng portrays the strained friendship between Anna and Laura. So many books simplify the shifts that happen in friendships as girls age, by absenting one friend or the other from the situation altogether. As I recall from my own experience, fourth grade was a pivotal year in which a girl who was my best friend one day could be my worst enemy the next. Cheng really understands that dynamic and all the emotions of hope, confusion, and disappointment it can create. I appreciated the push and pull in the girls’ friendship and Anna’s upset feelings over not knowing where she stands.

Cheng also does a nice job of balancing the theme of racial identity with everything else going on in the story. Anna’s Chinese heritage is important to her, but this is a book about Anna as a whole character, not just Anna as a Chinese-American character. As it should be. I want to see lots more books that understand that idea and treat characters as people, not issues!

The Year of the Book is a quiet story about a quiet girl, which means it might not appeal to readers who gravitate toward lots of adventure and excitement. Plenty of kids, though - bookworms especially - will be thankful for the friendship of a character like Anna who understands just what a fourth grade girl deals with on a daily basis.

Andrea Cheng has many other books. Read about them here. Abigail Halpin is also the illustrator for the adorable Cupcake Diaries, and she did the covers for Penny Dreadful and The Grand Plan to Fix Everything as well. Next to Julia Denos, she might just be my favorite chapter book illustrator! I can’t wait to see more from both Halpin and Cheng.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Book Review: Coot Club by Arthur Ransome (1934)

Coot Club is a story in the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, but it’s the first one so far not to include a single Swallow or Amazon. This time, the only familiar characters are Dick and Dorothea Callum, first introduced as new friends of the Walkers and Blacketts in Winter Holiday. They are spending their Easter holidays with their mother’s former teacher, Mrs. Barrable, who lives in a boat called the Teasel on a river in Norfolk. Mrs. Barrable has a neighbor named Tom, who is a member of the coot club, devoted to the protection of coots and other birds nesting along the river. Tom’s friends and allies include twin girls, experienced sailors nicknamed Port and Starboard, and the Death and Glories, three rough-and-tumble little boys with a boat of their own. Though Mrs. Barrable expects to spend her holidays painting on a stationary Teasel, she soon finds herself on a sailing adventure, as Tom escapes some tourists he has upset, and Dick and Dorothea finally have a chance to prove themselves as real sailors.

Of all the Ransome books I’ve reviewed so far, this one is the hardest to summarize. So much happens, and there are just so many characters. That’s the remarkable thing about Ransome’s writing that I don’t think I have mentioned yet in my reviews - the sheer number of characters and Ransome’s ability to manage them all. The cast grows with each new story, but every personality is fresh and new, and I never have trouble keeping track of who is who. Not only that, but the characters are described so well, each of them seems almost like a real person, and I still think about the characters long after finishing each book. In this book, the reader really comes to sympathize with Tom, who goes to great lengths to escape the hullabaloos, the rude visitors whom Tom has so angered, and to love Mrs. Barrable, who, like Captain Flint, is more like a child than an adult.

The story itself is exciting because it involves a true sailing trip, more similar to the imagined voyage of Peter Duck than to the short day excursions the Swallows and Amazons make in the other books. Kids become armchair travelers as they read, learning about the wildlife, bridges, and geography of the Norfolk Broads, while also adding some new sailing terminology to their vocabularies and worrying about the hullabaloos. It was also interesting to see the differences in Tom and his friends’ approach to sailing as compared with the approach of the Walkers or Blacketts. The Swallows and Amazons do a lot more pretending than do the Coots, but both groups are wary of adult involvement, and both have enemies real and imagined.

As always, the writing in this book is impeccable, and though I missed my beloved Walkers and Blacketts, it didn’t take long for me to delve into this new segment of Ransome’s world which he so carefully and wonderfully describes. I don’t know who is in the rest of the books in the second half of the series, but after finishing Coot Club, I know I wouldn’t mind running into any of its characters again.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Book Review: Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead (2012)

Liar & Spy, the forthcoming new novel from Rebecca Stead, is, in some ways, the complete opposite of When You Reach Me. When You Reach Me has a girl protagonist; Liar & Spy’s main character is a boy. When You Reach Me involves science fiction and historical elements, Liar & Spy is completely contemporary and realistic. When You Reach Me has a pair of old friends who aren’t speaking; Liar & Spy has a pair of new friends just getting to know one another. The two books share one thing in common, however - both feature Rebecca Stead’s unmistakable writing style.

Georges is named for his parents’ favorite artist, Georges Seurat, but most of the kids in his school don’t know that, so they tease him, calling him Gorgeous and generally bullying him until school becomes insufferable. Georges’s family has also just lost their house, and they have had to move into an apartment while his dad finds work and his mom works double shifts as a hospital nurse. Only one exciting thing has happened to Georges: meeting Safer and his sister, Candy. They live in Georges’s apartment building with their free-spirited parents and spend much of their time spying on their neighbors. One in particular, whom Safer calls Mr. X, is a frequent target, because Safer says he smuggles dead bodies out of the building in duffel bags. Georges is drawn immediately into the excitement of spying on a potential murderer, but as Safer becomes more and more reckless, Georges wonders just how far he will be asked to go toward exposing Mr. X’s supposed crimes.

This book is so well-crafted that every character and every place the characters visit, including school, feels somehow magical. Stead chooses such strong, substantial details in her descriptions that the reader can’t help but visualize each sentence. I read this book over several days, riding the train to and from work. Each time I had to put the book down, I would look around dazedly, as though surprised to discover I was not actually living inside the world of the story. When I returned to the story each day, I could feel myself sliding back into the story with ease, eager to absorb every detail.

There are some twists and turns to the plot, with two major mind-blowing reveals toward the end that cause the reader to really reevaluate his/her take on the entire story. Though twists are fun, the more impressive thing is the way in which the mood of the story shifts depending on how Georges is feeling. Georges sees things one way at the beginning of the book, but when his attitude shifts after the events of the story, the very same people and situations look totally different. That kind of subtlety is what sets Stead’s writing apart, and it’s what really pushed me over the edge from a four-star Goodreads rating to a five.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Review: The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh (1965)

I first tried reading my mother’s paperback copy of The Long Secret when I was a kid, and the subject matter and writing style both went right over my head and I pretty much wrote off the entire story. Back in February, when I read Shelf Discovery, I learned that this book was actually a pretty interesting, multi-layered work of fiction, and I decided that my adult brain could probably handle it. Though Shelf Discovery’s “book report” spoiled the ending for me (which I will not do for you here), I still got something out of reading this sequel to Harriet the Spy.

It’s summer, and Harriet and her family are at their summer home, where Harriet spends much of her time palling around with Beth Ellen, whom she calls Mouse because she never stands up for herself or takes any risks. Though Harriet’s strong personality is ever-present, the story belongs to Beth Ellen, and to her difficulties dealing with her flaky mother who is in and out of her life, as well as other pitfalls of growing up. All summer long, Harriet drags Beth Ellen around with her, trying to use her detecting skills to figure out who is leaving mysterious, nasty notes all around town.

I liked this book, but I have a harder time imagining a contemporary child who would like it. The language is very rich, and Fitzhugh’s style is so distinct it would be impossible to say this book is not well-written. However, the language is so adult and the layering of the story threads and themes so complicated, that I think it could be a hard sell. In fact, my library (which is in an affluent part of the city, where kids regularly request highly literary books) doesn’t even own a copy, and in 18 months, no one has ever asked me for it. I couldn’t tell if some of what seemed adult about the book was really just a product of the differences between adolescence during the 21st century and adolescence in the mid-1960s, or if Fitzhugh’s writing just has that tone of maturity, but either way, it might take awhile for a child reader to get used to the flow of the language.

Thematically, I was surprised at how much the story touched on big life issues, like religion, puberty, menstruation, marriage, and feminism. In that sense, I really thought it compared well with Judy Blume books, as well as contemporary titles by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (the Alice series) and Lauren Myracle (Ten, Eleven, Twelve, etc.). It was interesting to me how the concerns girls have about growing up both change and remain the same over time.

I’m really glad I read The Long Secret, and I think any girl who has ever held back her feelings or felt like a mouse will really relate to Beth Ellen and find themselves much more interested in befriending her than domineering, bewildering Harriet.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review: The Landry News by Andrew Clements (1999)

Cara Landry’s teacher, Mr. Larson, was once named teacher of the year. These days, though, he is burned out and spends most of his days sitting at a desk with the newspaper and a cup of coffee, letting the kids in his class teach themselves whatever they might want to know. During one such unstructured school day Cara writes the first edition of The Landry News, her personal newspaper, in which she writes a scathing editorial about the lack of teaching in her classroom. The newspaper lights a fire under Mr. Larson, and eventually grows to become a class project that changes his outlook on teaching.

As he does in No TalkingFrindle, and Troublemaker, Andrew Clements creates a very vivid image of the school he writes about in this book. Within a very few pages, I could picture the messy, chaotic environment of Mr. Larson’s classroom, and his casual, bored demeanor as he sits at his desk. By including the principal’s point of view along with Mr. Larson’s and Cara’s, Clements gives the reader a complete view of the school and a great sense of where everyone fits in the grand scheme of things. I like that Clements is able to keep the school story genre fresh by spending time on these details in each of his books.

The plot itself is pretty predictable, though there are some twists and turns on the way to the obvious ending. There is a bit of emotional mushiness that might make adult readers - especially teachers - a bit misty-eyed, but this is balanced out pretty well by the lessons the kids learn about freedom of the press, and by Cara’s own journey toward getting over her parents’ divorce. This book isn’t as funny as some of Clements’s other books, but it has a lot of heart, and it encourages kids to consider their teachers as people, not just authority figures.

Recommend this book to Clements fans, and to readers who have enjoyed The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman by Ben H. Winters, Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea, Nothing But the Truth by Avi, and Clementine’s Letter by Sara Pennypacker.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Review: The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron (1981)

Julian is a young African-American boy with a talent for spinning yarns. Whether he’s making excuses for eating his mother’s pudding or convincing his little brother, Huey, that cats come from catalogs, he always has a great story to tell, and a dad who appreciates and cultivates his big imagination.

I was surprised right away by how beautiful the writing is in this book. It’s simple enough to be read by a newly independent reader, but it doesn’t sacrifice art for the sake of simplicity. Author Ann Cameron weaves lovely figures of speech in and out of her sentences, and her words project strong, complete images into the reader’s mind. Here’s just one example:

My father is a big man with wild black hair. When he laughs, the sun laughs in the windowpanes. When he thinks, you can almost see his thoughts sitting on all the tables and chairs. When he is angry, me and my little brother, Huey, shiver to the bottom of our shoes.

There are a lot of ways to tell a reader that a character’s father has a strong influence on him, and a strong presence, but this is by far the most appealing way I can imagine. It’s also a very accessible description, even though it’s not completely straightforward. Kids can recognize all of those words, and if they pause to consider them, they can decode the meaning of Cameron’s metaphors.

Another great strength of this book is its dreamlike style of illustration. Julian’s imagination, and his dad’s, seem to consume each of the drawings, bringing elements of the adventures they invent right into their everyday lives. The visual cues provided by the illustrations also help kids to understand the more poetic tone of this book as compared with other early chapter books, which will give them a little more context for understanding Cameron’s style.

This book is so skinny it often gets lost on my library shelves. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t wait to recommend it to my early chapter book readers - especially the boys who need something beyond Magic Tree House and Star Wars.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: The Telltale Summer of Tina C. by Lila Perl (1975)

Tina Carstairs is twelve years old, and considers herself a Sad Soul. She and her friends have even formed a club - the Saturday Sad Souls Club - devoted to the improvement of their most egregious flaws. But even though Tina has a twitch that flares up when she’s angry or anxious, that’s not the biggest of her problems. Her mother walked out on the family, moved away, and met a new man. Her father is planning to marry an overly sweet young woman named Rosebud. And Tina’s friends have invited a new girl into their club despite the fact that she doesn’t seem to have any flaws. The only thing that might save Tina’s summer from total disaster is Johann, a sixteen-year-old Dutch tourist she meets in New York City.

The illustration on its front cover and even the blurb on the back of it reduce this book to a frivolous story about a misunderstood adolescent. I realized very early on in the story, however, that this book has much more depth than that. The Telltale Summer of Tina C. is a well-written slice-of-life story about growing up in the 1970s suburbs. Though Tina’s parents are divorced, she is troubled by the idea of blended families, and outright disturbed by the fact that her mother’s new boyfriend does the cooking, while she works all day. Though Tina has some angst - about her twitch and the boys who tease her for it - her life is pretty well sheltered until she has the opportunity to visit New York. The story arc really resembles a coming of age story more than anything else, and Tina is a well-developed, flawed, but lovable protagonist whose emotional experiences are more important than the individual points of the plot.

As I read, I found myself wondering how a twelve-year-old girl of 1975 might react to certain things about this story. Would it seem unusual, or dangerous, for example, for a girl Tina’s age to spend time with a sixteen-year-old boy in a museum, without adult supervision? In 2012, parents would go nuts, I think, imagining all the ways in which an older boy might take advantage of a younger girl, but was society the same way back then? Or did parents feel safer? I also wondered if the underlying discomfort with divorce and remarriage reflected the author’s attitude, or Tina’s, and whether the average reader of this book would have felt the same sense of confusion and dread, or if she would take it in better stride.

I really don’t think a book like this one could be published today. It’s so innocent, and I can imagine a 21st century twelve-year-old finding it tedious and slow-moving. On the other hand, it’s one of the best Apple paperbacks I’ve ever read, and kids who are weary of the darkness of contemporary YA might like to give it a shot. It’s out of print, but copies are available online.

See more posts about this book at Cliquey Pizza: 80's teen book series & pop culture and New York Minknit.  Kirkus’s original review from 1975 is also available here.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Reading Through History: The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman (1986)

The Whipping Boy is a slim historical fiction novel that won the Newbery Medal back in 1987. It’s the story of Prince Horace, also called Prince Brat, who often misbehaves on purpose in order to see his whipping boy, Jemmy, get punished. When the prince runs away and Jemmy follows, they fall in with some criminals and must switch places in order to outsmart them and make their escape.

Of all the relationships presented in children’s books, this one, between a prince and the boy who is punished daily on his behalf, is one of the most unusual and the most interesting. Though the story is mainly an adventure, following the two boys as they try to outsmart a pair of ne’er-do-wells, it also raises a lot of important questions about wealth, status, education, and justice. The prince is rich and powerful, but he has never learned to read or write because he is always busy misbehaving. The whipping boy, however, who can afford to take nothing for granted, has learned the lessons intended for the prince and is fully literate. Inside the castle, the prince’s crown gives him authority; outside the castle walls, Jemmy becomes the powerful one because he can read and write. When the boys trade places, it’s not just a cute Parent Trap-esque plot device. Instead, the swap is used to illustrate the mostly arbitrary societal constructs that separate the haves from the have-nots. The reader learns, without explicitly being taught, that there are different types of riches, and that the last can suddenly be first when circumstances shift and change.

There are many other elements to this book that make it great. I’m sure kids are pleased to see Prince Brat get his comeuppance after Jemmy has endured so many beatings in his stead, but I bet they enjoy his journey toward redemption just as much. Each character the boys meet on their journey back to the castle is colorful and memorable, and the boys’ clever plan for finally escaping their captors makes for a very satisfying ending.

This book reminds me a lot of The Tale of Despereaux, and I think fans of one will equally enjoy the other. It’s also a nice, quick read with lots of action that a reluctant reader might be willing to try over something longer and more intimidating. I like Sid Fleischman’s straightforward writing style, and though I saw the happy ending coming from the beginning, the road he took to get there was thoroughly enjoyable.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Book Review: Flying the Dragon by Natalie Dias Lorenzi (2012)

Skye and Hiroshi are cousins, but they never meet until their grandfather becomes ill, forcing Hiroshi and his parents to bring him from Japan to the United States for cancer treatment. As Hiroshi learns English and attempts to navigate the American school system, American-born Skye attends Japanese school and struggles to fend off the bullies who don’t understand her cousin’s cultural differences. Though they often find themselves as odds, one thing brings these cousins together - their mutual love for their grandfather and his passion for flying handcrafted kites.

Flying the Dragon is a beautifully written story about identity, family, loss, and hope. From the very first page, the words seem to flow effortlessly, painting a picture of Skye’s family, then Hiroshi’s, in alternating chapters. Even simple, mundane things are described in very specific and poetic language, from the “tightrope of cheese” stretching from a slice of pizza, to the “bamboo bones” of the dragon kite. The plot moves easily from one event to the next, peeling back layers of family history and emotion as the characters develop their connection to each other, and to their grandfather. The story unfolds so naturally, it feels almost like a conversation between the reader and the two sympathetic protagonists. Even historical details and family anecdotes are worked into the text in such a way that the reader never drowns in too much information. Lorenzi writes only what is needed to convey the story’s truth, and the result is close to perfection.

This book speaks to so many relevant issues - immigration, English as a Second Language, cultural identity, family secrets - but at heart, it is a story, not a lesson or a lecture. Kids will learn plenty from reading this book, but it will be because the story talks to them on their level, and not down to them from the point of view of an older, wiser adult. The characters are believable and well-crafted, their experiences relatable and interesting, and the story as a whole, is entertaining, edifying, and at times, really exciting. This would be a great title for a book club discussion, or for a family to read together. It compares well to books like The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, in which a young Chinese-American girl must share a room with her Chinese aunt, or Same Sun Here, where two kids from different cultures form a strong friendship based on their differences as well as their similarities.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Book Review: The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L'Engle (1965)

Adam Eddington, a bright high school student with an interest in marine biology, plans to spend his summer working for Dr. O’Keefe on the island of Gaea. In the airport before he boards his plane, he meets Kali, a beautiful girl, who warns him that Dr. O’Keefe and his colleague, Canon Tallis, are dangerous and cannot be trusted. After this meeting, things change dramatically for Adam. Suddenly, his credentials and motives are questioned, and he can’t decide whether to place his loyalties with Dr. O’Keefe and his loving, innocent daughter Polyhymnia, or with Kali and her dad, Typhon Cutter, who asks Adam to spy on his behalf.

Of all the L’Engle books I’ve read so far, this one is the strangest. From the start, the book gives the reader an unsettled feeling which really doesn’t resolve itself until almost the end of the story. This feeling arises from the suspenseful plot as well as from the strange otherworldliness of 12-year-old Poly. Dr. O’Keefe describes his daughter in terms of her ability to love, saying, “She loves in an extraordinary way for a twelve-year-old, a simple, pure outpouring, with no looking for anything in return.” This ability makes her character seem somehow sheltered and gullible, and annoys me a little bit because she doesn’t seem to have any flaws. At every moment of the story, Poly is this shining example of perfect human love, and that perfection doesn’t jibe with real-life adolescence, or with L’Engle’s depiction of adolescence in her other books. Vicky Austin might go overboard with her self-deprecation and sense of otherness, but she is ten times more believable than Poly.

I had some trouble, also, buying into the starfish regeneration research that Dr. O’Keefe works on. The entire concept - and the potential for it to be abused by evil forces - reads more like the subject of a superhero comic than a science fiction novel. The science behind regeneration in humans seems too easy, and I never quite felt the sense of urgency the characters feel about protecting those secret scientific discoveries. I’m also starting to grow somewhat weary of these “special” kids L’Engle writes about, who are so well-versed in poetry, music, and culture. Is the Tallis canon really something tweens or teens would recognize? I found myself questioning that and wondering if she could have told the story without quite so many precocious characters.

Saying all of this makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy this novel, and that actually is not the case. I was drawn into the mystery almost immediately, and enjoyed getting to know Adam’s voice. I was pleased to see the subtle references to A Wrinkle In Time - especially Poly’s siblings’ names - that made it clear that Dr. O’Keefe is Calvin, and his wife is Meg, even though the narrative never says as much. It was an interesting read, and it left me with a lot to think about and process before moving onto the next book, The Young Unicorns.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Book Review: Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome (1933)

Winter Holiday is the fourth book in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, and the first one not set during summer vacation. In this adventure, the Walker kids (John, Susan, Titty, and Roger) and the Blackett girls (Nancy and Peggy) are joined by a third set of siblings - Dick and Dorothea Callum, known as the D’s. This time, instead of sailing to Wild Cat Island or setting up camp in Swallowdale, these allied groups are preparing themselves for a trip to the North Pole. There is just one problem - Nancy, the usual leader of the group’s expeditions, has the mumps, and they must do without her spirited guidance.

The most impressive thing about this series is the way Ransome is consistently able to reinvent the Lake District setting to make it seem new for each adventure. What I particularly enjoy is the fact that each reinvention comes as a result of everyday events in the kids’ lives. In Swallows and Amazons, the two groups meet in the first place because they both discover the same island. In Swallowdale, they wreck the Swallow, which forces them to scout out a place to camp that can be reached on foot. Now, in Winter Holiday, it’s the winter weather that requires them to re-imagine their tropical paradise as the site of an arctic expedition. Ransome totally immerses the reader in each new world he creates, and this arctic setting is no exception. I was happy to start thinking of Wild Cat Island as Spitzbergen, and Captain Flint’s houseboat as The Fram, and I loved the way the kids adjusted their make-believe to suit the ice on the lake and the many skaters out on the water enjoying it.

Another wonderful aspect of this book is the shift in point of view from the previous stories. In the early books of the series, the reader sees almost everything from the perspective of the Walkers, as they learn from Nancy and Peggy how to become real sailors. By introducing Dick and Dorothea, city kids with no real camping or sailing experience, the reader gets to see the familiar world of the Swallows and Amazons through fresh new eyes. Dick’s scientific interests, especially in astronomy, and Dorothea’s tendency to romanticize everything and turn it into literature, also add further depth to the books, and provide more opportunities for more types of kids to connect with them. It’s also just exciting to see regular kids getting to do all the exciting things the Swallows and Amazons do. I think kids always get a kick out of living vicariously through fictitious people who are similar to them.

Finally, I think this book does a great job of really humanizing Susan. All along, she has been the best behaved child of them all, serving as surrogate mother and keeper of the peace. In Winter Holiday, though, we finally see her resolve waver a little bit, as even she is overcome by the fun of the arctic exploration. There is much more sneaking out at night and disregarding adult rules and warnings in this book than in the others, and it’s gratifying to see that Susan isn’t just a goody two shoes. It’s also nice to see minor rule-breaking that doesn’t result in disaster, and for which the kids always make amends.

After Peter Duck’s strange departure from Ransome’s normal storytelling style, I worried that Winter Holiday would be another disappointment, but I was wrong to be concerned. It was a truly great story, with all the wonderful description, character development, and suspense I have come to expect from Ransome’s excellent writing

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Book Review: Lulu and the Duck in the Park by Hilary McKay (2012)

Lulu has many interesting and wonderful qualities, but what she’s known for is her love of animals and her huge collection of them. One day, while her elementary school class visits the park, she gets hold of a duck egg that needs protection. Despite her teacher’s blatant dislike of animals, Lulu takes the egg back to class with her. All is well, until... the egg suddenly starts to hatch!

This chapter book is by Hilary McKay, the author of the Casson family series, the first book of which I reviewed last year. Since it’s for a younger audience, this book deviates quite a bit from the style of the series books, but it’s every bit as well-written as McKay’s books for older readers. Lulu, whose personality reminds me a lot of Ramona Quimby and Clementine, is the kind of good-hearted, bold character kids really relate to and root for. Her predicament with the duck is just the kind of thing that makes five to seven year olds laugh, but it also appeals to that common interest in rescuing animals that leads so many kids to say they want to be veterinarians.

Though I was somewhat puzzled by the class trips to the park and a bit uncomfortable with how strict and mean Lulu’s teacher seemed to be, I don’t think these are true flaws in the story. Rather, I think they demonstrate how attuned McKay is the minds of kids. Children do often see strict adults as simply cruel, and I doubt kids will notice anything unusual about a few extra field trips. In fact, reading about walking through the park is probably more fun than reading about regular classroom activities.

An obvious companion for this book would be Duck for a Day by Australian author, Meg McKinlay. I also think it would be a nice tie-in for a science project involving hatching chicks.