Friday, October 31, 2014

Book Review: Lulu and the Hedgehog in the Rain by Hilary McKay (2014)

In her latest animal adventure, Lulu rescues a hedgehog during a terrible rainstorm, then feels personally responsible for his well-being thereafter. By enlisting the help of all of her neighbors - even the grouchy ones - she finds a way to keep him safe while giving him the proper habitat.

What makes this such a great series is that it does not rely on a set formula, and it focuses on character development and problem solving in addition to the enjoyment of animals. Though Lulu has met many animals throughout the volumes of the series, she has never had the same experience twice. This new story not only introduces an animal not often represented in fiction, but it also provides an opportunity to learn more about Lulu's community and her role within it. An animal may be at its center, but this is undoubtedly a story about people.

Lulu and the Hedgehog in the Rain shares similar themes with Violet Mackerel's Natural Habitat, and fans of one would easily enjoy the other. Even kids who do not traditionally enjoy animal stories will find themselves drawn to Lulu's unusual plan and the quirky people she must win over to make it a success.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review: Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin (2014)

Rose Howard, who has OCD and Asperger's Syndrome, lives with her single dad, who has little patience for Rose's quirks, her obsession with homonyms, or her problems at school. Rose's dad often tries to cope by getting drunk, and time and again, he refuses help from his brother, Rose's kind and loving Uncle Weldon. Rose's dad does allow her to have a dog, however: Rain, whom he finds one night wandering the streets without a collar. Rose and Rain are completely inseparable - until Rose's father lets the dog out during a hurricane. When Rain doesn't immediately reappear, Rose realizes she may have lost her forever.

The most remarkable feature of this excellent novel is Ann M. Martin's sensitive treatment of a main character with autism. Martin perfectly captures Rose's character starting from the very first page, where Rose reveals her sweetness, innocence, and annoying quirks in the way she introduces herself to the reader. "Do you have a diagnosis?" she asks, showing just how much her own life has been shaped by labels. Martin recognizes Rose's frustrations as well as those of people around her, and creates a balanced portrait of her life and circumstances.

What happens to Rain and Rose's anger at her father are also handled very well in this story. Martin does a lovely job of filtering the loss of Rain through Rose's unique perspective and she conveys the sadness, hurt, and anger Rose feels in ways that are appropriate to her personality and to her point of view as someone with autism and OCD. Rose's diagnoses are not the defining aspects of her character, but Martin incorporates them into her character in a way that works nicely.

This is an emotional story, and dog lovers in particular will require tissues. (I am not a dog lover, and even I wanted to sniffle a little bit, especially when a twist about Rain's origins complicates the plot.) As a story about a girl who loves her dog, Rain Reign is the perfect read-alike for the Julia Gillian books and Because of Winn-Dixie. As a story about a character with a different outlook on life navigating difficult situations, it also compares nicely to Wonder (though Rain Reign is less transparently about "being different") and Rules (though Rules is a story about autism, instead of an ordinary story starring someone with autism.)

Kudos to Ann M. Martin for one  of the best-written middle grade novels of 2014.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book Review: Henry Reed's Journey by Keith Robertson (1963)

In the second book about Henry Reed, a full year has passed since the summer when Henry and  his friend Midge Glass founded Henry Reed, Inc. This summer, Henry is back in the states and headed for Grover's Corner, but this time on a road trip with the Glass family which begins in California. As Henry and the Glasses travel together through several states, they visit famous landmarks like Disneyland, The Grand  Canyon and Yosemite, and become involved in such escapades as panning for gold and joining an American Indian tribe.

This book is every bit as funny as the first Henry Reed story, and perhaps even more entertaining because of the constantly changing setting. Author Keith Robertson uses running jokes - Henry's inability to find fireworks, Mrs. Glass's growing collection of souvenirs, and Midge's insistence on bringing home bags of pinecones for a museum back home - to build up the humor of the story and provide the book with some structure to tie each episodic chapter together. Henry's wry tone as he observes the chaos that often surrounds him and Midge continues to be an effective device and it makes the reader laugh even harder than she might otherwise. The book also does a decent job of providing the reader with a vicarious travel experience. It would be fun to follow the journey Henry takes in real life and read the book as you go.

Robert McCloskey's illustrations are also such a treat. They do clearly date the books to their time period, but I can't resist the vintage eyeglasses, clothing, cars, and drawing style. McCloskey also had such a talent for conveying personality in his artwork, and the facial expressions he draws in this book remind me so much of one of his best picture books, Lentil, where pictures truly do speak a thousand words.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) by Ellen Raskin (1971)

The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) is a bizarre 1971 middle grade mystery by The Westing Game author Ellen Raskin. Main character Mrs. Carillon is married off to a young man named Leon Carillon when she is just a child. When the couple are finally of age to live as husband and wife, they are out in a boat together when a storm hits. As he struggles to keep his head above water, Leon makes just one parting remark, before he mysteriously disappears. Mrs. Carillon only hears part of what he has to say; the rest is lost to the "glub blub" of the sea. Years and years pass by, but Mrs. Carillon - with the help of an old friend and an adopted set of twins - persists in her pursuit of Leon and the meaning of the "glub blubs."

I distinctly remember buying this book in paperback at Barnes and Noble on a family shopping trip to New Jersey sometime in the early 1990s. I was drawn to the cover, but perplexed by the content, and even after I purchased the book and brought it home, I could never get into it enough to sit down and finish it. I believe my problem was probably related to the fact that this book invites its audience to help solve the mystery. I found this intimidating as a kid, and too gimmicky. I just wanted to be told a story. (This is why I also hadn't read The Westing Game until last year.)

As an adult, though, I found this book to be charmingly quirky, clever, and funny. I still didn't have any interest in solving the puzzle, but I no longer felt pressured to do so, and I appreciated the details that are included for the kids who do like complicated word games. I also loved the cast of characters, which is smaller than in The Westing Game, but still every bit as interesting and carefully crafted.

Another nice thing about Raskin's books is that they are so strange, they  manage to transcend time. There is nothing in this book that I would consider "dated" because nothing in this book is really normal enough to recognize as part of real life at any time. For the right reader, this book will be as great a fit now as it would have been 40 years ago, which is probably part of the reason it was reprinted in 2011.

Highly recommended for Roald Dahl fans and middle school readers (and another great alternative to the very disappointing Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library.)  

Monday, October 13, 2014

Middle Grade Review: Tell Me by Joan Bauer (2014)

In Joan Bauer's latest novel, Anna's parents are going through a rough patch in their marriage. While they take some time apart, Anna stays with her grandmother, Mim, in the small town of Rosemont. When out in the community one day, Anna sees something troubling: a young girl being held against her will. Unable to shake her gut instinct that something is very wrong, she rallies local residents to help locate the girl and bring her back home.

This carefully constructed middle grade novel features a sympathetic and realistic protagonist whose storyline is both plausible and uplifting. The story touches vaguely on the concept of human trafficking, but steers clear of providing any age-inappropriate detail, and at every turn, competent (but duly flawed) adults are available to provide support, attention, and assistance to Anna's crusade to help the missing girl. Side plots involving Anna's budding friendship with a horse, her aspirations as an actor and her own parents' marital difficulties contribute to the development of Anna's character and to the story as a whole. Joan Bauer's purposeful writing makes her message come across as sincere and honest, giving readers every reason to believe in the strength of community and the importance of even one small voice.

Tell Me is a perfect middle school novel, and is likely to appeal readers (especially girls) who have enjoyed books by Lisa Greenwald, Linda Urban, and Jacqueline Wilson.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Book Review: Anastasia Absolutely by Lois Lowry (1995)

Though there are still two books about the Krupnik family left after this one, Anastasia Absolutely is the last book of the series to star Anastasia as its main character. Anastasia now has a new dog for whom she is primarily responsible. One day, while walking the dog, she is meant to mail a package for her mother, but instead accidentally mails a small bag of dog waste. When she realizes what she has done, Anastasia becomes convinced that she has committed a felony and spends days agonizing over whether to turn herself in, and how she will avoid severe punishment.

Though many of Anastasia’s experiences have been a bit on the silly side, this one is probably the least believable. I just had trouble buying that an intelligent middle schooler could mail a bag of poop without instantly realizing it, or that she would truly believe an accident like that could result in her going to jail. For me, this all made the plot seem rather thin as compared with other books.

What does work nicely is Lowry’s inclusion of Anastasia’s essays for her values class at the end of each chapter. These “what would you do” scenarios give insight into Anastasia’s character, but also provide opportunities for the reader to reflect on his or her own opinions. Lowry has included a document component like this in every Anastasia book, and it has worked successfully each and every time, right up to the end.

Sixteen years passed between the publication of Anastasia Krupnik (1979) and Anastasia Absolutely (1995), and this last book really feels like a relic of the past when compared with other 90s middle grade novels. By the time of this final story’s publication, it seems as though Anastasia would be out of step with the technology, interests, and worldview of the readers in her target audience. For this reason, it is probably wise that Lowry concluded her series here. Also strange is the way Anastasia’s teacher talks to her. He keeps talking about how pretty she is in a way that raises definite red flags in light of contemporary concerns over child sexual abuse, even though no such incident occurs in the story.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Book Review: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken (1962)

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is the story of two girls - Bonnie and Sylvia - who live in a fictitious time period which most closely resembles the Georgian period of British history. Sylvia, who is an orphan, comes by train to stay with her cousin Bonnie at Willoughby Chase, just before Bonnie's parents set sail on a voyage, leaving a distant cousin named Miss Slighcarp in charge of their possessions and affairs. The girls immediately realize that Miss Slighcarp is evil, a fact which she proves herself by firing all the servants, wearing Bonnie's mother's clothing without permission, and sending both girls to a workhouse disguised as a boarding school. Together with their friend, Simon, Bonnie and Sylvia must hatch a plan to escape from Miss Slighcarp and save Willoughby Chase from her evil clutches.

This book is wonderfully well-written. Using rich vocabulary, and specific, memorable details Aiken's descriptions bring to life the myriad settings and characters which make up her fictional world. From the girls' boarding school uniforms, to the wolves which roam the countryside, to Willoughby Chase itself - everything is vivid, unique, and completely real. Though there are fewer wolves in the story than I was expecting, the threat of their encroachment upon the girls' safety makes a wonderful metaphor for the problems and enemies they face as the story progresses. Also perfect are the names given to the many minor characters, especially Abednego Gripe, the lawyer and Mrs. Brisket, the director of the horrible school where the girls are sent.

The author's daughter Lizza Aiken is the narrator for the audiobook edition of this title, and no one could be more perfect. She has just the right voice to evoke the story's intended tone and mood, and her dramatization of different characters' voices is spot-on as well as just plain entertaining. She ranks (along with Elizabeth Sastre of the Shoes books) as one of my favorite audiobook readers of all time.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is truly an adventure story, and it will appeal to readers who enjoy quests and tales of escape. Though the story is dark and even scary at times, sensitive readers need not fret, as there are a variety of surprises in the latter parts of the story that brighten things up considerably. This is also a great story for highlighting and celebrating the courage, resourcefulness, and heroism of young girls. There are 11 other titles set in this same universe, including a prequel, which are listed on the author's website.