Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review: The Year of the Baby by Andrea Cheng (2013)

In this sequel to last year's The Year of the Book, Anna, who has learned to make friends beyond the pages of her favorite books is now in fifth grade, and she has a new problem. Her family has just adopted a one-year-old little girl from China named Kaylee, but Kaylee is struggling to thrive in her new environment. Anna is worried each time her new sister returns home with a negative report from the doctor's office about her failure to gain weight. Anna is also having trouble deciding on a topic for an assignment where she has to design and conduct a science experiment. When she and her friends realize that singing helps Kaylee eat her food, they decide to use Kaylee's struggle to gain weight as the focus of their experiment.

Though I was disappointed to see that Abigail Halpin is no longer the illustrator for this series, I was pleased to note that the new illustrations by Patrice Barton have a similar feel to them, which captures the mood of this quiet novel. Like the first book, this one is very introspective, dealing mostly with Anna's personal thoughts and feelings about her friends, her school assignment, and her new sister. The writing, though straightforward and spare, is quite lovely, almost poetic. There are many examples, but here is one which struck me as particularly relatable and well-written:

In the middle of the night I wake up and realize that I forgot to study my spelling and vocabulary words. Last year in fourth grade, they were so easy that I got 100 without studying. But this year there are usually some words I don't know.

I turn on the light, rummage in my backpack for my notebook, and flip quickly through the pages. Twelve words this time: hospitality, lively, simile, metaphor, insomnia, delicious, desert, dessert, adapt, superfluous, comprehensive, limerick. I look hard at the words and spell them in my head. Then I close my eyes and try to remember as many as I can. I think of pictures to go with each word, like desert goes with camels and sand. In about ten minutes, I have the words memorized. I turn the light off again and lie still in my bed.

I love the way this passage highlights Anna's desire to be a good student and the ease with which she is able to memorize, and also the way the author describes the process of memorization.

Another thing I really like about the writing in this book is the way the author works in Anna's discomfort with some of the comments her friend, Laura, makes about Anna's Chinese culture. Here is one example:

“Your sister is so cute.”

Kaylee holds on around my legs.

“She's look like you,” Laura says.

“She's adopted.”

“I know. But she still looks like you.”

I don't know what to say. The only reason Laura thinks we look alike is because we're both Chinese.

Laura's comment seems to originate in ignorance, not in a desire to be hurtful, but I like the way the author gently points out why it makes Anna feel bad. Cheng provides a teachable moment that gives the reader a chance to consider not just how we talk about other people's cultures, but also how we respond to comments that make us uncomfortable. I especially like that this is a small moment in the story, and not the sole focus of the book, because it shows that race and culture are part of our everyday lives and not just something we discuss in stories specifically focused on these issues.

The Year of the Baby is a great follow-up to The Year of the Book, and I'm looking forward to reading the third book, The Year of the Fortune Cookies wherein Anna will take on the new challenges presented by middle school. This series is a logical read-alike for Grace Lin's Year of the Dog, Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days, which are fictional stories based on Lin's own childhood in a Chinese-American family. It also reminds me of Just Grace and the Terrible Tutu and Just Grace and the Double Surprise, which focus on the adoption of a new child into Grace's best friend Mimi's family. This book also fulfills a great need for more kids' books featuring girls doing science.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Book Review: The Blossoms and the Green Phantom by Betsy Byars (1987)

Junior Blossom has had pretty terrible luck with his inventions. First, his wings failed him and landed him in the hospital with two broken legs. Then, his coyote trap caught him (and later Mud) instead of the coyote he so desperately wanted to see. Now, he’s in the midst of building a spaceship called The Green Phantom, but it just isn’t going according to plan. While Maggie practices trick horseback riding so she can join her mom in the rodeo and Vern hangs around at his new friend, Michael’s house, Junior begins to worry that he will never do anything to make his father proud. While Junior’s mother, Vicky, tries to rally the family to help Junior launch his spaceship successfully, Pap has also gone missing, as he has fallen into a dumpster and needs to be rescued. Once again, as the family is kept apart by unforeseen circumstances, they deepen their understanding of their need for one another.

Of the three Blossom books I have read so far, I think this one is my favorite. There is so much emotional depth in each character’s experiences in this story that I feel as though I now know each one intimately. Byars does a beautiful job of describing each child’s feelings about their deceased father, as well as their feelings about one another. Though Vern is not an especially touchy-feely kid, the reader sympathizes deeply with his concerns that Michael won’t like visiting his house because of how different it is. Maggie’s excitement over being asked to join the rodeo with her mother demonstrates how much she loves her mother, and also how much she wants to be a part of her father’s legacy. Junior’s desire for attention and his need to make his dad proud also tug at the heartstrings and remind us how young Junior still is, despite all his bravado and big ideas. Pap is perhaps the most interesting character of all, because we get to see his weaknesses for the first time, as he sits inside the cold dumpster with an orphaned puppy, contemplating what will happen if he isn’t found, while Mud sits injured and powerless to help, just outside.

This book is filled with beautiful descriptions. Here are just a few of my favorite brief passages:

  • On page 42, Vern reflects on the differences between himself and Michael, and his certainty that Michael’s involvement in any project will make it a success:

    Now that his mother had included Michael in the project, he figured they couldn’t lose. After all, Michael and his family had every single thing there was in the world. Michael’s father’s workshop was like a hardware store. Michael’s room was like the sporting goods department at Sears.

    Though the text never comes right out and says that Vern is ashamed of his family, or that he wishes for more material things, this passage gives the reader that sense in just a few words.
  • On page 63, Pap watches the sunset from the dumpster:

    Pap watched the sun go down from inside the dumpster. It was a big red sun that hung over the purple ridges of mountains for a long time. Then it dropped with amazing speed behind the peaks and out of sight.

    Pap felt a chill touch his bones.

    Again, Byars uses just a few short lines to convey both the coolness of the evening as the sun disappears and Pap’s growing fear about never being rescued.
  • On page 72, the Green Phantom is launched for the first time:

    It gave Junior a strange, scientific feeling. He knew the Phantom wasn’t real. He knew it was only air mattresses and garbage bags and Day-Glo paint, and yet seeing something that strange and beautiful made him feel - well, maybe it wasn’t a scientific feeling where everything happened according to law, this was more of a science fiction feeling where things happened the way you wanted them to happen.
    I think the line about the difference between scientific feelings and science fiction feelings is my favorite of the entire story.
This book is so easy to overlook, especially editions with older covers, but despite the odd title and dated illustrations, this is an extremely well-written and touching story about a family coming together to support its youngest and oldest members in times of great need.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Book Review: Anastasia at Your Service by Lois Lowry (1982)

Anastasia has settled into suburban life, but she really wishes she had a job. Specifically, she wants to work as a Lady’s Companion to a rich old lady, a position she imagines would be quite glamorous and suited to her abilities. When she puts out an ad, Anastasia is in fact hired by a rich grandmother, but it turns out that Mrs. Bellingham just wants her to work as a maid. Worse, Mrs. Bellingham has a granddaughter, Daphne, who is Anastasia’s age, and she just happens to be a witness to one of Anastasia’s most embarrassing moments of all time! This is not the fabulous summer Anastasia imagined, but her trials and tribulations make for hilarious tween reading material all the same.

It is so puzzling to me that the Anastasia series didn’t really catch on with me as a kid. I can remember looking at them many times in the library and bookstores, but I never really got hooked. Now, though, I look forward to reading each volume, because of the quirky protagonist, clever dialogue, and warm family environment. Kids will recognize bits of themselves in Anastasia - her imagination, her stubborn streak, her anger at being treated unfairly, and her humiliation when she makes wacky plans that don’t come off quite as she imagined. Readers will feel sympathy for her, too, when a family emergency erases her worries about how she looks to her employer and instead focuses her energy on the well-being of her baby brother.

Readers who like Harriet the Spy and From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler will also be likely fans of this book, because of its vintage style, intelligent writing, and memorable characters.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Book Review: The Blossoms Meet the Vulture Lady by Betsy Byars (1986)

A year has passed since Junior Blossom broke his legs and Pap went to jail. Now Junior is working on a brand-new, top secret project - a coyote trap. While the rest of his family is busy, Junior takes his trap into the woods to set it, only to accidentally trap himself inside. To his surprise, he is rescued by an eccentric recluse known as Mad Mary, whose kindness toward Junior sparks a new, unlikely friendship.

This second book about the Blossom family is very similar in content to the first book, but without being utterly repetitious. Though Junior is once again separated from the rest of the family, the circumstances are quite different this time around, and the overall message is less about the uniqueness of the Blossom family and more about their acceptance of a person like Mad Mary whose way of living is so unorthdox and even intimidating. The cast of characters remains small in this second book, which makes it possible for the reader to spend a bit of time inside each character’s mind. Maggie and Vern frustrate Junior by not being there to question him about his trap, but they show their interest in their brother’s quirky inventions in their own way. Ralphie, Junior’s hospital roommate from the first book, reappears, filled with love and admiration for Maggie, while Vern longs for a best friend of his own. Mud, the family dog, is back as well, and even he has a role in the adventure when the empty trap snaps shut on him, too. Pap rounds out the family with his very specific personality and his own backstory regarding his years in school with Mad Mary. Just spending time with these characters is a treat. It almost doesn’t matter what happens in the book; just looking in on this well-developed family is enjoyable all on its own.

This book features deep characterization, wonderful dialogue, and hints of mystery and adventure. It can appeal easily to boys and girls, and it’s short enough that less enthusiastic readers might be willing to give it a chance over other, longer books available on their reading level. Readers will be encouraged to consider the meaning of concepts like family and friendship, and to examine their own prejudices against both little brothers and those who are in any way perceived as “different.” The story is by turns introspective and action-packed, and the outcome of Junior’s accidental trapping of himself is completely satisfying. Readers will leave this story anxiously waiting to find out what Junior will build next and what sort of trouble he’ll find himself in.