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.