Sunday, October 27, 2013

Book Review: The Little Leftover Witch by Florence Laughlin (1960)

When Halloween is over, Felina, a young witch girl, finds herself stranded with a broken broom, unable to fly home to her family. She is taken in by the Doons - two parents, their daughter, Lucinda, and their cat, Itchabody - who slowly help her shed her witchy persona and become a sweet and loving human child.

This Halloween-themed story was originally published in 1960, and has just been reissued by Simon & Schuster with new cover art, giving it a new lease on life for 2013 readers. Unlike so many holiday titles, this one has a lot of substance and it explores real issues beyond just the whimsy of Halloween night. Though Felina is a witch, and does seem to have magic powers, her story really reads like an allegory of the experience a child might have in a new foster home. Her magical powers and unusual habits can be read as the misbehavior of a child acting out in an uncertain environment, and her ultimate shedding of her witchy identity seems to represent her acceptance of her new family.

What makes this story work so well is the fact that no one - not Lucinda, who narrates the book, and not any of the adults in her life - questions that Felina is a witch. The fact that everyone just accepts that notion as truth actually contributes to an overall sense of ambiguity that I really enjoyed. If Felina truly is a witch, then the story is fantasy, and the adults in the story live in a world where witches exist and their existence is readily accepted. There is a possibility, though, that Felina is not a witch, and that the adults of the story merely humor her insistence that she is in order to help her settle in to her new situation on her own terms. This sense of ambiguity is helped significantly by the fact that the story is narrated not by Felina, but by Lucinda, her foster sister. Lucinda’s childlike outlook makes it perfectly plausible that Felina is a witch, but also makes it equally possible that Felina’s magic powers have been invented to explain her strange behavior as she adjusts to her new family.

I might be reading more into this book than is intended, and I don’t think it’s necessary to adopt my reading to enjoy the story. It works very well as a fantasy tale, and I think young readers who have liked reading about Mildred Hubble in the Worst Witch series, and those who have enjoyed Lulu Goes to Witch School will be delighted to make friends with another witch and to follow the story of how she is ultimately adopted into a human family. Some kids - and I might have been one of them - will wonder why Felina is never returned to her witch family, and why she doesn’t seem to miss them. I could even see some critics possibly complaining that it’s unfair or somehow judgmental to favor the love of a human family over the love of a witch family, but that would really be taking things too far. In my opinion, this is a charming chapter book that will be enjoyed at Halloween and all year round by girls ages 6 to 9.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Book Review: The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher (2013)

Grace Yang loves everything about the FBI, and she often drags her best friend, Sophie Young, along with her on late-night stakeouts in their neighborhood. One night, as they spy on the school counselor, Dr. Agford, the girls are convinced they see her committing a violent crime. Though these claims turn out to be unsubstantiated, neither girl can shake the feeling that this unusual woman, with her fake breasts and giant wig, isn’t quite what she seems. Despite the challenges it creates in their family lives - and in their friendship - the girls become determined to uncover the truth.

It’s difficult to find a really compelling middle grade mystery. Many are either boring, predictable, or implausible, and few manage to keep the reader guessing to the end of the story. The Wig in the Window, therefore, is a pleasant surprise because it has an exciting premise, unexpected twists and turns, interesting characters, and mostly believable situations. From the outset, I was as invested in the characters themselves as in the mystery they attempt to solve, and I was impressed by how the author could develop such an authentic tween vibe within the context of a mystery story. Often, middle grade mysteries feature precocious kids who have professional detective agencies, or else the main characters are older teens like Nancy Drew. It is so refreshing to have a truly scary and suspenseful mystery story that also manages to reflect the interests, concerns, and speech patterns of its target audience.

Next to the mystery plot itself, this book’s strengths lie in characterization. Especially impressive to me is the way the author develops the layers of Ms. Agford’s character. She keeps the reader guessing from chapter to chapter, and manages to make Agford both sympathetic and truly detestable depending on the evidence currently being explored and the character with whom she is interacting. Another delightful addition to the story is Sophie’s new friend Trista Bottoms, who is the target of tormentors who call her “Boom Boom Bottoms.” I love that Trista is not only confident enough to ignore those negative comments, but also technically savvy and completely capable in ways that Sophie and Grace are not. Her can-do attitude is truly refreshing and it provides a nice challenge to middle grade stereotypes about victims of bullying.

The Wig in the Window is a logical read-alike for The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman by Ben H. Winters, as both books explore the mysteries surrounding a middle school faculty member. It is most likely to appeal to readers who actively seek out mystery novels, but it also has lots to offer fans of the school stories and friendship stories that are so popular with this age group. Other similar titles include the Sleuth or Dare series and the Ruby Redfort series.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Reading Through History: Bo at Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill (2013)

When Bo was a baby, her Mama “walked away”, leaving her to be raised by two burly gold miners, Arvid and Jack. Now she is five years old, and everyone at Ballard Creek is a part of her extended family. She jokes around with “the boys” and imitates their accents. The “good-time girls” dress her up and do her hair. She speaks Eskimo along with English, and enjoys Eskimo foods such as akutaq, which is made from caribou bone marrow and fat. This book takes place over one year at Ballard Creek and tells tales of Bo’s adventures large and small. These include seeing an airplane up-close, being chased by a grizzly bear, catching pneumonia and watching her best friend go to school while she stays home. Through it all, Bo remains a buoyant and carefree little girl enjoying her childhood in late 1920s Alaska.

When I reviewed Ann M. Martin’s first Family Tree book back in April, Ms. Yingling left a comment on my blog which read, “I will have to read this, but I do wish that historical fiction would be more humorous and adventure filled. it is hard enough to get students to read it.” Though I apparently did not reply to her comment, I remember thinking that she was right. My main issue with historical fiction as a kid was that it was depressing and everyone was always getting sick or dying or suffering some other tragedy. This is why Bo at Ballard Creek was like a breath of fresh air for me. This is a kid-friendly historical fiction book that focuses on the day-to-day life of people in a particular time and place without dwelling heavily on hardship.

The age of the main character makes this a difficult book to categorize. Most middle grade readers would probably be turned off by the notion of reading about a character so much younger than themselves, but early chapter book readers don’t yet have the reading skills to tackle much of the vocabulary. While this might make the story difficult to catalogue in libraries, it also makes it a perfect family read-aloud, similar in style and tone to books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Carolyn Haywood, and Beverly Cleary. Young readers of all ages can enjoy the ups and downs of Bo’s exciting young life, and I think they are most likely to do so when the story is shared in a family context. I haven’t heard of any plans for a sequel, but I think it would be wonderful to have more stories about Bo as she ages, so that, like Ramona, she can grow up along with her readers.

The writing alone makes Bo at Ballard Creek one of my favorite books of 2013, but the illustrations caused me to love it even more. LeUyen Pham, who also illustrates the Alvin Ho series, brings Bo’s world to life in her pen and ink drawings, which are scattered generously throughout the text. She is one of my favorite illustrators, and her pictures for this book are full of life and personality which helps immerse the reader in the unfamiliar but thoroughly interesting Alaskan setting. Pham’s artwork helps the reader keep track of the large cast of characters and also provides the necessary visual context young listeners need to help them stay focused on the story as their grown-ups read it aloud.

Author Kirkpatrick Hill based much of Bo at Ballard Creek on her own personal experiences growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska, which makes the book not just entertaining, but also reliable and authentic. Though I was not previously familiar with this author, I am pleased that she has written several other Alaskan tales for children: Dancing at the Odinochka, The Year of Miss Agnes, Toughboy and Sister, and Winter Camp, many of which look like more traditional middle grade novels. Share Bo at Ballard Creek with boys and girls ages 4-10 who enjoy light-hearted historical adventures, and incorporate it into lesson plans and programs exploring the state of Alaska.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Book Review: Anastasia Again by Lois Lowry (1981)

In this second novel about Anastasia, the Krupnik family decides to move to the suburbs. Anastasia is against the idea based on her preconceived notions about suburban life, but even she can’t object when her parents find the perfect house. Once they move in, Anastasia and her brother, Sam, now a toddler, befriend Gertrude Stein, their elderly next door neighbor, whom Anastasia desperately wants to help make new friends and break out of her shell. Anastasia also deals with her complicated feelings for a boy in her old neighborhood, who has gotten the mistaken impression that Anastasia’s little brother is physically disabled.

There is so much to like about Lois Lowry’s writing. Her dialogue reads like real conversation. Her characters have delightful quirks and flaws. She manages to understand exactly what it’s like to be an awkward twelve-year-old, but she makes it fun and not painful to read about the experience. I think what I especially like about this book is how the entire storyline is firmly grounded in family life. Contemporary middle grade fiction being published right now seems to focus more on school and friends than on family, so it’s refreshing when I read about a character whose parents are such an important part of her life, even if that character’s stories were published before I was born.

I had some questions about the authenticity of Sam’s verbal skills and even his thought processes, since he doesn’t seem like a typical two-year-old. Still, I was mostly able to buy that he was just an advanced child, because of the highly intellectual environment in which he is being raised. Also related to Sam, I appreciated that Lowry jumped ahead in time between the first and second books of this series, so that he was no longer an infant at the start of this book. I think Anastasia’s relationship to him is very interesting, and it might not have been so if there were several books where all Sam did was sleep and have his diaper changed. It’s also nice to see that Anastasia mostly likes her brother, but that there are also realistic moments of disgust with some of his toddler behaviors.

Anastasia Again! does a lovely job of exploring the family’s move to the suburbs and of highlighting the relationships young people can develop with their elderly neighbors. The dynamic between Anastasia and Gertrude Stein is much more interesting than the superficial dynamics between middle school kids that turn up in so many books, and both characters stuck with me long after I finished the story.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Book Review: The Picts and the Martyrs by Arthur Ransome (1943)

Dick and Dorothea have just arrived for a visit at Beckfoot with Nancy and Peggy when the unthinkable happens. Nancy and Peggy’s Great Aunt Maria turns up, determined to look after the Blackett girls while their mother is away. To avoid upsetting the Great Aunt, Dick and Dorothea hide themselves away in a nearby shed, calling themselves “picts” and keeping out of sight. In the meantime, Nancy implicates many adults in her plot to keep the visitors secret including Cook, the mailman, and Timothy.

The absence of the Swallows for the entire story was a disappointment for me in this book, as it is the second to last in the series, and I only have one more chance to spend any time with those characters. My personal feelings aside, though, I really appreciate that Ransome chose to explore a different dynamic in this story. I like the way he pairs the two quietest and least troublesome characters, Dick and Dorothea, with the wild, opinionated Amazon pirates, and forces them to conspire to keep a secret. I really enjoyed seeing how seriously Dick and Dorothea took their role as picts, and it made me laugh to see the usually mouthy Nancy behaving herself primly for the benefit of the great aunt. This book provides a lot of insight into the unlikely friendship between these two pairs of kids and gives Dick and Dorothea the opportunity to be something more than resident nerds.

There is less sailing in this book than in many of the others, which I also saw as a plus because it provides more room for character development. Since the reader spends most of the story with the D’s, these two characters come much more strongly to life than in other books where all the characters are present. The lack of a sailing-oriented plot also provides other opportunities for adventure, including a late-night break-in at Beckfoot and an all-out manhunt when the great aunt eventually goes missing. There were many wonderfully suspenseful moments that kept me on the edge of my seat as my husband read the book aloud to me, and many chapters where I groaned as I realized I’d be left waiting to find out what happened until the next day.

The Picts and the Martyrs ranks high on my list of favorites in the Swallows and Amazons series, right beside Winter Holiday. Though I will be sad to finish the series, I’m glad to have one more book to go - Great Northern?