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.