Sunday, November 30, 2014

Book Review: The Far-Distant Oxus by Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock (1937)

The Far-Distant Oxus was written by two teenage girls, Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock, as an homage to their favorite author, Arthur Ransome of Swallows and Amazons fame. Ransome enjoyed their book so much that he recommended it to his publisher, who did in fact put it into print with an introduction by Ransome. As do the Swallows and Amazons books, the plot follows a group of British schoolchildren on holiday. Bridget, Frances, and Anthony come to stay with Mr. and Mrs. Fradd at Exmoor, where they meet Peter and Jennifer, as well as the mysterious older boy, Maurice. These children form a team of explorers who christen the places they discover with titles from literature and have a variety of adventures right in their own backyard.

The writing in this book is very inconsistent, as one would expect from the work of teenagers. Still, despite the overuse of certain phrases (these characters are forever “relapsing into silence”), the ridiculous over-romanticization of Maurice, and lack of much of an overarching plot, this book has much to offer young readers. There are some truly imaginative descriptions, including this one from the very first chapter: “From their high position they could look across the valley to a ridge of moor, and beyond that to another and another, stretching like a great purple eiderdown strewed with grey books.” There are real problems with plausible solutions and lively, realistic conversations amongst the characters. The book has flaws, but the reader becomes so wrapped up in its adventures that the problems become part of its charm.

For kids who have read the dozen Swallows and Amazons titles and aren’t quite ready to let go, this book might fulfill their longing for just a few more similar adventures. For kids who themselves aspire to write, the book also makes for wonderful inspiration and motivation. (If only today’s fan fiction were as wholesome, sweet, and earnest as The Far-Distant Oxus.)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Book Review: The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett (2014)

A young girl spies the perfect bicycle in a shop window, then works hard for months to earn the money for it, only to be surprised by the generosity of a kind neighbor.
Because there are no words, the illustrations must carry this story entirely on their own. They do so flawlessly. There is so much personality in the movements of the little girl and the younger brother who tags along with her through much of the book that no words are necessary to know them well. The same is true of the neighbor for whom the little girl works. We learn many things about her - including the fact that she is lonely - from watching her interact with the girl and from the details of her home (such as a photo of a man who must be her husband sitting in the box in her garage.) The sincerity of this story would never come across half as well if the author had tried to put it into words. The fact that the bicycle is the only part of the book that appears in color (aside from a brief appearance by the red airplane from the author's other wordless book) is also a nice touch.

Adults who have trouble with more complicated and surreal wordless books (like those by David Wiesner, for example) might find this one easier to understand and therefore easier to share with kids. The story is completely linear, and the setting is very familiar. A great read-alike might be The Boys by Jeff Newman, another wordless book which also celebrates inter-generational friendships. Also consider pairing it with other picture books about bicycles, including Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle by Chris Raschka and Duck on a Bike by David Shannon.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Book Review: Zooman Sam by Lois Lowry (1999)

At long last, we come to the end of the Anastasia and Sam Krupnik series with Zooman Sam. When Sam's nursery school teacher invites each member of the class to dress up for  the career they might like to have someday, Sam decides he wants to be a zooman. His mother makes him a zookeeper's jumpsuit, and Anastasia's boyfriend lends Sam a collection of baseball caps bearing the names of mascots of animal-themed teams. Quickly Sam realizes that he can't possibly talk about how a zooman cares for every single animal on one day, so he and his teacher devise a plan  to present a few each day until he runs out of hats. Unfortunately, while some of the animals are easy to talk about, others are scary, and Sam isn't sure he'll be able to see his commitment through to the end.

As I read this last book, I couldn't help but think about my intense dislike for the Gooney Bird Greene books. If Lois Lowry can write Sam so well, how is it that she misses the mark so completely with Gooney Bird? I intend to revisit those books now that I've finished this series, in the hopes that my trained eye is sharper now than it was in library school and I might discover that they aren't terrible after all. (As nice as it is to complete a series, I will miss Sam and would love another young character to read about!)

In any case, Zooman Sam is especially impressive because it makes such a great, compelling story out of a small classroom event. Lowry has taken on big things (dystopian societies, the Holocaust, death), but her talent for writing effectively about little things is what has elevated her to a favorite author for me.

There isn't much more to say about this book that I haven't already mentioned in a previous review; children's literature enthusiasts who haven't read the Sam books just need to see for themselves how sweet, charming, and timeless they are.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Reading Through History: The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald (1967)

In the first book of a classic children's series, narrator J.D. tells the story of the year his older brother Tom (T.D.) - the self-proclaimed "great brain" and known prankster and con artist - reforms himself.  Through the eyes of his younger brother, Tom is revealed to be charming, mischievous, and conniving, but deep down a caring and devoted friend.

This semi-autobiographical novel of the author's Utah childhood features one of the best narrators in children's literature. J.D.'s is the perfect deadpan voice to report matter-of-factly on his brother's exploits. At times, the author brilliantly uses J.D.'s naivete as an opportunity to reveal information to the reader that the narrator himself does not understand. (J.D. often does not realize when he is about to be hoodwinked, while the reader chuckles along with Tom, marveling at his audacity and wit.)

Historical details of the time period - the end of the nineteenth century - really enrich the story, and at times, add to the humor. Discussion of the family's new water closet opens the action, and its construction provides the story's first great swindle. This book also gives contemporary kids a great opportunity to think about ways to amuse themselves without many of the bells, whistles, and gadgets now heavily relied upon as sources of entertainment.

Like the Henry Reed series, this is another great book about boys being boys and brothers being brothers. Additional read-alikes include Knucklehead by Jon Scieszka, Cheaper by the Dozen, and the Alvin Ho series. The Great Brain would also be a great book to recommend to upper elementary readers who liked Horrible Harry as first and second graders.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book Review: Annika Riz, Math Whiz by Claudia Mills (2014)

In this second chapter book in the Franklin School Friends series, Annika struggles with her best friends' misunderstanding of her interest in math. It is not until she enters a sudoku contest and helps her friends solve a major baking problem that she realizes how special her talent really is.

Whereas the previous book, Kelsey Green, Reading Queen focused on the need for a gifted student to be charitable toward struggling classmates, this follow-up focuses on an internal struggle on the part of a gifted child to accept her own unique abilities and to share them with others. Annika's turmoil over being teased or misunderstood for liking math highlights the fact that Claudia Mills is deeply in touch with the concerns of schoolchildren and has empathy for even their smallest struggles. Even kids who do not like math themselves will feel for Annika and relate to her desire to be accepted and rewarded for doing the things she loves. Kids will also really enjoy the disastrous baking exploits the three girls share as they prepare for a school carnival.

Annika Riz, Math Whiz is not quite as strong as Kelsey Green, Reading Queen, but those who have already begun the series will undoubtedly pick it up. If nothing else, the story presents math in a positive light and as a viable interest for young girls. This book is most appropriate for grades 2 to 4.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Reading Through History: The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis (2014)

In 1901 Ontario, Canada, Benji Alston and Red Stockard lead very different -and separate - lives. They are connected only by a mysterious figure who inhabits the forest. For Red and his friends, this presence is known as the South Woods Lion Man. To Benji and everyone he knows, his name is the Madman of Piney Woods. Through a series of encounters with this strange and elusive man, the boys grow ever-closer to meeting each other, saving a life, and becoming good friends.

One of the many wonderful things about this book is that it does not just relate known historical events through the eyes of children. Rather, Curtis tells a compelling story that immerses the reader in day-to-day life in Ontario at the turn of the 20th century, bringing the time period to life in a very real and relatable way. The pranks, fights, games, and conversations the two main characters have with their friends and family members are lively, funny, interesting, and exciting, giving readers lots of reasons to enjoy the book and to see it through to the end. Kids will love the hints of mystery and adventure that accompany the historical details, and they will find it easy to love both Benji and Red. 
This book is a companion to Elijah of Buxton, but it takes place 40 years later, and its connections to the first book are slow to reveal themselves, but well worth the wait. Though it is possible to enjoy The Madman of Piney Woods without reading Elijah of Buxton first, the emotional impact of the final quarter of Madman can never be as strong as the author obviously intends without knowledge of the events of Elijah. The NetGalley blurb for this book states that it "will break your heart -- and expand it, too," and this is absolutely true. The story is beautifully told and beautifully written.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Book Review: The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues by Ellen Raskin (1975)

The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues is one of the odd mystery novels Ellen Raskin wrote prior to The Westing Game. The main character is 17-year-old art student Dickory Dock, who lives in Greenwich Village with her brother and sister-in-law. At the start of the story, she takes a job as a painter's assistant to an artist named Garson, who works from his home at 12 Cobble Lane. Other residents of the building include such odd characters as Manny Mallomar, Shrimps Marinara, and a deaf, mentally disabled man known as Isaac Bickerstaff. The chief of detectives, Joseph Quinn, is a regular visitor as well, calling upon Garson's talent as a sketch artist to solve various cases, each of which is represented by a chapter in the book. As Dickory helps solve each case, she also learns more and more about the strange histories of and connections between all the people connected with Garson.

This book was not as enjoyable for me as The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), mostly because I had a hard time figuring out where it was going. I was constantly distracted by the ridiculous names and by the running gag of characters misremembering the nursery rhyme from which Dickory's name is taken. The individual cases were fun to read and reminiscent of Encyclopedia Brown, but the larger overarching mystery was slow to develop and didn't really grab my interest until the book's climax. 

It was hard to imagine an audience for such an out there story. Kids with a strong interest in art should be drawn to it, especially if it is presented as a read-alike for The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Chasing Vermeer. Honestly, though, aside from subject matter it doesn't really even have much in common with those titles. It's definitely in a class by itself.

For me, the most interesting part of reading this book was seeing all the echoes of ideas that appear again in The Westing Game, especially when it comes to setting (primarily one building), disguises,  and a diverse, weird cast of characters of varying ages. The Westing Game is decidedly the stronger of the two books, but I enjoyed seeing how those same ideas first work themselves out in this earlier work. Keep The Tattooed Potato on hand for readers looking for a challenge and for die-hard fans of the author. If your copy needs to be replaced, there is, thankfully, an updated cover.  

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Book Review: See You Around, Sam! by Lois Lowry (1996)

When Sam comes home from nursery school wearing plastic fangs given to him by a classmate, his mother confesses her "fang-phobia" and insists that he not wear them in her sight. Astounded by this injustice, Sam decides to run away from home, but not before stopping in to see all his favorite neighbors.

Running away is a pretty common theme in children's books, and it is a threat most kids make at some point. What is so clever about this book, though, is the way it can be read on two levels. Readers who are Sam's age may fully believe he plans to run away, while those as old as Anastasia or older will recognize the ploys the adults use to keep him close to home while encouraging him to stay. (Lotta on Troublemaker Street does a similar thing, but See You Around, Sam really perfects it.) Sam's growing realization that fangs are actually not that comfortable and his slow change of heart about his desire to leave home are so true to life, and parent readers will undoubtedly recognize some of Sam's traits and behaviors as similar to those exhibited by their own kids.

This book is really the ideal chapter book to read as a family, especially when a child is four or five years old. Lowry really understands how the preschool mind works, but she makes sure to also provide a few knowing nods toward the parents as well, which makes the reading experience a true pleasure for all ages. 

This is definitely the best of the Sam books.  I hope this series will also be given new covers so these wonderful books will catch the eyes of a new audience.