Posts from the ‘Children’s Literature’ Category

Egg & Spoon

Egg & Spoon.jpgTitle: Egg & Spoon
Author: Gregory Maguire
Narrator: Michael Page
ISBN: 9781491502167 (audiobook)
Discs/CDs: 11 CDs, 12 hours 51 minutes
Pages: 475 pages
Publisher/Date: Brilliance Audio, c2014. (audiobook) Candlewick Press, c2014 (hardcover)

She is an insane old woman, though Cat, but at least I’m safe in the warmth, and she knows ho to cook. The old woman was ladling pink broth into a bowl whose sides were etched with obscure runes. “Drink up, my dear. I find borscht a wonderful marinade when applied from the inside.” […]
Cat demurred and said, “Who are you really?”
“I’m Queen Victoria. I’m Nellie Bly. I’m Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean — what difference does it make? I’m hungry and I want to eat, so do my bidding.”
“I couldn’t dare take your supper. I have nothing to pay you with.”
“You’re not taking my supper, you’re supplying it.” (141-142)

Gregory Maguire creates a tale reminiscent to the Prince and the Pauper. Even though Ekaterina isn’t a princess, she has many more advantages than Elena, who is essentially starving to death as she tries her best to care for her sick mother after her father has died and her two brothers taken away from home. A lightning strike forces their unlikely meeting, and Elena finds herself in an enviable position when the Ekaterina’s train takes her away from the poverty and towards the Tsar’s palace. She hopes to use that opportunity to reclaim her brother from army conscription, but she doesn’t know that Ekaterina is hot on her trail with her own transportation. In their travels, they realize that Russia might be in more trouble than either girl, and are recruited by the fabled folkloric witch Baba Yaga to solve the problem of melting ice and disappearing magic.

Michael Page’s voice is properly moderated between the high pitched, stereotypical screech of Baba Yaga and the clipped tones of the prince (although he does sound vaguely English and not Russian). Even the two younger girls have slight differences that easily distinguish between the educated Ekaterina and the more rurally raised Elena. The sweeping landscape is described beautifully, and Elena’s situation is especially heart-wrenching when readers realize the troubles behind her meager existence.

Maguire’s tale is less impressive, for if readers are familiar with the story of the prince and the pauper, then they essentially have the plot of the first part of the book. The second half pairs the girls on an adventure to save Russia. It’s discovered that the floodwaters and dampened winter and magic are connected, involving the firebird and ice dragon. I was unfamiliar with the ice dragon legacy, and was intrigued by my introduction to this Russian myth. By the end of the novel, the twist, feel good resolution revealing the cause of the trouble is somewhat moralistic and preachy, encouraging the human race to whine and want less and focus more on reducing the wants of others. It’s an unexpected altruistic message, and while anti-materialists might appreciate the thought, I was disappointed that such a long journey yielded so little action in the conflict.

The magic in the story is supplied by the magic that the girls encounter through their association with Baba Yaga, who has multiple distinguished and unique traits including her unpredictability, attitudinal house which reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle, sarcastic shape-shifting familiar, and pattern of speech which allude to time travels or future premonitions. She is by far my favorite character in the whole story. I can only imagine the fun Maguire must have had in writing her scenes considering the fun I had reading them. Her nontraditional exclamation “Honey Buckets!” became a term of endearment towards her guests, who while certainly unpredicted are not entirely unwanted, regardless of what she alludes. I find that same sort of unexpected endearment towards her in what ultimately is a overly long, predictable plot. Extreme fantasy and fairy tale/folklore fans might appreciate this exposure of not-often portrayed Russian mythology, but most will probably loose interest before the quest even begins.

Audacity Jones to the Rescue

Audacity Jones to the Rescue.jpgTitle: Audacity Jones to the Rescue
Author: Kirby Larson
ISBN: 9780545840569
Pages: 224 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2016.
Reviewed from ARC furnished by the publisher
Publication Date: January 26, 2016

“I am here to solicit a volunteer. For a mission.”
“Mission?” The word worked its way out of Miss Maisie’s gyrating mouth.
“Mission?” Seventeen girlish voices echoed their headmistress.
“I may not say more.” The Commodore held up his hand. “It is a matter of utmost secrecy. And”–he leaned in toward Miss Maisie’s ear–“discretion.” (15)

Audacity Jones has always wanted an adventure, and now she has one, leaving Ohio and the School for Wayward Girls where she has lived as the only true orphan most of her life to follow Commodore Crutchfield all the way to Washington D.C. for a secret mission. Asking questions about her role doesn’t get her any answers, and both the Commodore and his driver Cypher are acting very suspicious. When the mission finally begins, things don’t go as planned as Audacity realizes she might need to stop the Commodore instead of helping him, before his plot involving the President succeeds. With only a newsboy, his grandfather, and a friendly cat to call on for help, Audacity might have more adventure then she desired.

The author clarifies in an author’s note the liberties she took with details and timelines when crafting this story, which is always appreciated since we all can’t be knowledgeable about every aspect of history. With age appropriateness she broaches several other discussion worthy topics, including the impact of transitioning from horse and buggy to automobiles had on other industries and the legalities of if a kidnapping truly happens if there is no ransom demand. Audacity is rather precocious because of her literary love, getting intentionally sent to what is called the “Punishment Room” but is really the Library (called such because the proprietor of the school hates to read) in order to escape into the worlds. She is also surprisingly mature for her age, debating with herself early in the book what subject she should focus her reading on based on a variety of school subjects. Although she is naive due to her limited lifestyle, Audacity is not stupid and when given the clues quickly figures things out and reacts accordingly. A dedicated friend who doesn’t ever misstep, quite frankly she’s slightly unbelievable as the plucky orphan heroine.

The other characters were one-dimensional to me, especially the other girls in the school, some of which don’t even make an appearance. The ones who do are almost indistinguishable from each other, although they get identifying traits (the triplets, or the one who came from the circus family, or the bratty bully, etc.). The Commodore and his accomplices are given motivation by the end of the book, but even these two seem stock in their portrayal. I’m not sure if it’s because Larson was trying so hard to keep the plans a secret or simply because she was so focused on developing Audacity. A very quick read, but I don’t think this one will come to mind unless pressed for historical fiction specifically. We’ll see how long it lasts in my memory banks, as it may surprise me.

The Doldrums

Doldrums.jpgTitle: The Doldrums
Author/Illustrator: Nicholas Gannon
ISBN: 9780062320940
Pages: 340 pages
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

“We have to go to Antarctica,” said Archer.
Oliver laughed, but Archer wasn’t joking.
“You’re serious?” said Oliver.
“Yes,” said Archer.
“But that’s impossible.”
“It will be difficult.” Archer corrected him. “But not impossible.”
Oliver shook his head. “There are at least—at least three big problems with that. And the first is that even if you were successful—even if you somehow made it to Antarctica, you’d still probably die down there.”
Archer leaned back on the roof and asked, “What else?”
Oliver blinked a few times. “That’s not a big enough problem for you?” he said, then sighed and continued. “The second is that if you’re not successful, if you get caught, you’ll be slapped off to Raven Wood, which might be worse. The third is that you have no experience with anything of the sort. Antarctica is not an impulse destination.” (101-102)

While Archer’s only friend Oliver is right in that Antarctica is not an impulse destination, Archer has been obsessed with finding his grandparents ever since they disappeared on an iceberg in Antarctica two years ago. Ever since, Archer’s mother has confined him to the house, which is filled with oddities left over from his grandparent’s adventures. When new girl Adelaide moves from France into the house behind Archer’s and rumors spread that she lost her leg when it was eaten by a crocodile on a failed safari trip, Archer thinks he’s at least found a solution to problem number three. Adelaide is willing to assist, and Oliver gets dragged into a scheme to stow away on a boat heading for Antarctica. Archer thinks it is a great plan, Adelaide is excited to go on an adventure wherever it leads, and Oliver doesn’t think it will work, but no one expects the plan to play out like it does.

Archer’s plan is a Hail Mary effort on his part to go somewhere and do something, anything. He’s so envious of his grandparents’ ability to travel the world that his mother’s efforts to confine him and keep him safe make him all the more anxious to get out, get away, and get going. Archer’s father is slightly more realistic than his wife, at one point dryly commenting that there had been no word of iceberg sightings in the area when Archer is denied his request of visiting the nearby park. But unfortunately for Archer, it’s his mother who has the final say in all matters. And also unfortunately for Archer, the plan is laughably simplistic, realistically portrayed for someone who has no experience in exploring, much less mounting a rescue mission.

Like Archer, Adelaide is also looking for an adventures. She dislikes her new school, her teacher, and her new life, especially after the accident that took her leg. Mrs. Murkley, a teacher at the children’s school, reminds me of Matilda’s teacher, and Adelaide assumes the role of Matilda in her first introduction to the teacher. Adelaide sees the unbelievable animosity that Mrs. Murkley has towards everyone she meets and wants to stop it at all costs. Her quick comebacks against Mrs. Murkley’s tirades are a fine bit of barbed dialogue and just one way that her disability doesn’t slow her down.

Oliver is the most pragmatic of the trio, adding a sense of levity against the other two’s optimistic expectations. He reminded me a little of Ron from the last Harry Potter, where they are both questioning the improvised plan, in this case climbing onto a boat with the bare minimum of supplies and figuring it out when they get there. He at one point even tells his friends that he doesn’t want to go and that “I was in this only for the friendship. […] I’ve only had far-death experiences and I’d prefer to keep it that way.” (227) But by the end, it’s Oliver who has the biggest role in the outcome of the plan, and I like the turn of events even if you don’t get all the answers you want because not everything works out the way the children hoped. The pictures are nice but unnecessary for the story. This would satisfy armchair adventurers like Oliver, but readers like Archer and Adelaide who are expecting more Antarctica adventure may be disappointed, as it’s mostly talk and the action that does take place is nowhere near Antarctica.

Fish in a Tree

Fish in a Tree.jpgTitle: Fish in a Tree
Author: Lynda Mullaly Hunt
ISBN: 9780399162569
Pages: 276 pages
Publisher/Date: Nancy Paulsen Books, published by the Penguin Group LLC, a Penguin Radom House Company, c2015.

She shakes her head a bit as she speaks. “I just don’t get it. Why in the world would you give a pregnant woman a sympathy card?” […]
I stand tall, but everything inside shrinks. The thing is, I feel real bad. I mean, I feel terrible when the neighbor’s dog died, never mind if a baby had died. I just didn’t know it was a sad card like that. All I could see were beautiful yellow flowers. And all I could imagine was how happy I was going to make her.
But there a piles of reasons I can’t tell the absolute truth.
Not to her.
Not to anyone.
No matter how many times I have prayed and worked and hoped, reading for me is still like trying to make sense of a can of alphabet soup that’s been dumped on a plate. I just don’t know how other people do it. (9-10)

Sixth-grader Ally Nickerson has moved a lot because of her father’s military job. Her mother and older brother work long hours at their jobs, so she’s spent an enormous amount of time smartly playing dumb. She hasn’t told a single person how difficult it is for her to read, and gets out of doing assignments and reading by being funny, causing distractions, and sometimes just flat out refusing. When her teacher goes on maternity leave and they get a substitute for several months, he starts to see through her attempts to blend in with the rest of the class. Ally realizes she might not be the only one who stands out, and starts to make friends with no-nonsense Keisha and science-obsessed Albert. Her safely guarded secret is about to become not so secret, and Ally’s biggest fears may come true.

This book has sat on my night-stand for too long, especially considering how good it is. I meant to read just a few chapters and sat up for several hours into the night devouring it. I’ll warn you there will probably be more than a handful of quotes sprinkled throughout this longer review as I try to gather my thoughts.

A little librarian love here: I absolutely love Ally’s new teacher Mr. Daniels. The title of the book comes from the quote that if “you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.” When I wanted to be a teacher, this was the kind of teacher I wanted to be, recognizing the fish in a sea of monkeys and helping them learn to climb, or at least recognize their own abilities. He’s engaging, he’s spirited, he’s invested in his kids, aware of their needs, and willing to alter his teaching to accommodate those needs. He rules his classroom, and the kids know that he means business with very little introduction, which seems slightly unrealistic, but I’m okay with that. I wish Mullaly had included some of Mr. Daniels book recommendations for books, since his book talks are mentioned repeatedly and I used to do book talks to sixth grade students and would love to have received recommendations. His ideas of hands on learning are replicable and impressive, like boxes with mystery objects where in one he suspends an item inside the box in with tape and string in order to fool the students. He also presents an entire list of famous people who exhibited signs of dyslexia, even if not officially diagnosed at that time, including Alexander Graham Bell, George Washington, Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Patricia Polacco, Whoopi Goldberg, Henry Winkler, Muhammad Ali, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, John Lennon, and Walt Disney. I included the whole list here for future reference.

Albert and Keisha are great contrasts to Ally, and each other, and they make an excellent trio of friends. Neither one of them allows the opinions or the teasing of others affect who they are, what they like, nor how they act. That attitude eventually starts to impact Ally the more she socializes with them. Keisha’s no-nonsense attitude is admirable, and her creativity is as subtle as the messages she bakes into her cupcakes. She is the only one to initially stand up for Ally and Albert and anyone who gets picked on by the classroom, but she is also aware that she herself is different. Albert’s comebacks against Shay and Jessica’s snark and just plain meanness are laughably geeky but also laughably good zingers.

“Actually, I don’t take my appearance lightly. I take you lightly” (62)
“You know, logically, if a person was to pull another down, it would mean that he or she is already below that person.” (71)
“You say purple is the color of royals. They only wore purple because it was the most difficult and expensive color to make. In medieval times, they needed to collect three thousand Murex brandaris snails to have enough slime to make one cloak. So, good for you. I prefer beige. What about you, Ally? Slime or beige?” (121)

Ally is a sympathetic character, and I love her philosophy of life and introspective way of thinking. She stands up for her big brother when her classmates are teasing her about him by distinguishing that “An older brother is older. A big brother looks out for you and smiles when you walk into a room.” (113) Her family does just that, and is supportive of her in every way they can, even if they don’t recognize her inability to read. She recognizes it though, and when others start to realize it she reacts just as any kid would who sees her inability to read as a problem that she can’t solve. There are some heartbreaking scenes when you want to reach through the pages of the book and hug her. She’s asked to define the difference between alone and lonely.

“Well . . . alone is a way to be. It’s being by yourself with no one else around. And it can be good or bad. And it can be a choice. When my mom and brother are both working, I’m alone, but I don’t mind it.” I swallow hard. Shift in my seat. “But being lonely is never a choice. It’s not about who is with you or not. You can feel lonely when you’re alone, but the worst kind of lonely is when you’re in a room full of people, but you’re still alone. Or you feel like you are, anyway.” (123-124)

But she struggles and puts in the hard work in order to triumph, and although I’m not sure most kids would, it serves as an excellent role model for kids who find themselves in the same situation. Give it to fans of Wonder, fans of Rules, fans of Out of My Mind, and buy multiple copies as I feel like this one is going to become an instant favorite with those readers. Hopefully not just with those readers, but with non-readers as well, who really need the message of hope and perseverance, and of making the impossible possible.

Squirrel Power

Squirrel Power -- Squirrel Girl 1-4.jpgTitle: Squirrel Power
Series: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (#1-4)
Author: Ryan North
Illustrator: Erica Henderson
ISBN: 9780785197027
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Marvel Worldwide Inc, a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, LLC, c2015.

Doreen Green is Squirrel Girl, a minor Marvel character introduced in Marvel Super-Heroes #8 back in 1990 approaching Iron-Man as a possible sidekick. Now reappearing in her own comic, Doreen is off to college. Attempting to keep her identity a secret is going to be harder then she thought, since in just the first four issues compiled in this volume she fights off three different sets of street gangs/thug/bank robbers, Kraven the Hunter, Whiplash, and Galactus, all before the end of the first day of classes.

“Fights off” is used loosely though, as two out of the three named bad guys are talked down, which frustrates me personally as implying that a woman as strong as Squirrel can’t take down bad guys and that all women are good for is talking. However, it does prove that fighting isn’t the only solution to the problem and that a superhero with non-traditional powers can be victorious in battle, no matter how unconventional the battle. Many letters to the editor mention reading them to their younger children as young as four years old, and I think it’s great that there is a comic book out there that doesn’t sexualize women and allows a little fun to enter the story line. I also think it’s horrible that every time we run across a comic that does this we have to mention it and field questions and comments like this, when we don’t have to do the same about rippling biceps and spandex for the guys’ costumes.

The original appearance of Squirrel Girl is included in the back bonus material, and I’m personally happy they got rid of the crazy eye-liner marks, although she is very obviously and conspicuously the same person in disguise, just minus the tail which she somehow manages to tuck into her pants without anyone realizing they are padded. Does she ever get to wear a swim suit? Her awkwardness around people is painful, making me wonder how she has ever kept her secret identity a secret. It’s not my favorite comic, but I can see the appeal. I personally loved the fact that she steals Tony Stark’s Ironman armor right from under him, and her use of squirrel abilities and accessories is neatly wrapped into the plot (crushed acorns, walking on electric lines, and super strength and speed). Talking about the highlights to a friend, we were laughing at the feasibility and fantastical nature of the more memorable plot points. Obviously one you need to share to fully enjoy.

The Seventh Most Important Thing

Seventh Most Important Thing.jpgTitle: The Seventh Most Important Thing
Author: Shelley Pearsall
ISBN: 9780553497281
Pages: 278 pages
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, c2015.

Arthur’s first week back at school was about as successful as his first day or probation had been. Going from juvie to school was like going from one extreme to the other. In juvie, you learned to avoid everyone else. If some convict kid wanted to cut in front of you in the food line or steal your banana pudding at supper, you let him, no questions asked.
When Arthur got back to school in December, everybody avoided him. He felt as if he were inside an invisible box. Nobody bumped into him in the hallway. Nobody spoke to him. When he sat down in the cafeteria for lunch, the other kids picked up their trays and left. The whole school knew what he’d done, of course. Nothing was a secret at Byrd Junior High. You couldn’t fart without somebody knowing. (57)

Arthur T. Owens had his reasons for throwing a brick at the Junk Man’s head, but the judge doesn’t want to hear them. The judge also doesn’t want to listen to the fact that the brick actually hit him in the arm, but he will listen to the Junk Man. That’s how Arthur finds himself working 120 hours of community service for the Junk Man, whose real name is James Hampton. Mr. Hampton gives Arthur a list of seven things to collect, including mirrors, lightbulbs, and cardboard, which Arthur has to dig through trash, quite frequently in the snow, in order to find. But as his hours start adding up, Arthur’s involvement with Hampton also increases, until eventually it’s his investment that is the only thing keeping the project alive.

This story is one of those stories that you don’t think could possibly have happened, and then you realize it’s inspired by actual events. There actually was a James Hampton, an eccentric artist who lived during that time period, although come to think of it the only mentions to a year are in the very first chapters and the lack of technological references mean it could have taken place in any time period. Pearsall’s author’s note separates fact from fiction and includes a couple pictures, although it becomes obvious she’s taken a few liberties with details and timelines. But this is ultimately Arthur’s story, and it makes sense that Arthur’s character was the most developed. He’s not a bad kid, but he’s not seen as a good kid either based almost exclusively on his family history, and so when one thing goes wrong, the whole world turns against him. His judge and parole officer are no nonsense type people, his principal assumes the worst of him and is convinced Arthur’s the instigator in trouble at school even when told otherwise, and even his younger sister keeps calling him a bad person, but he makes allowances for her because she doesn’t understand. Arthur swings from proving them all right to proving them all wrong as he works at making his own reputation, and I feel like those attitudes are fairly accurate to modern day beliefs as well. This novel could provoke discussion on a number of topics.

Fuzzy Mud

Fuzzy Mud.jpgTitle: Fuzzy Mud
Author: Louis Sachar
ISBN: 9780385743785
Pages: 183 pages
Publisher/Date: Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2015.

With sudden ferocity, Chad lunged at him. He slugged Marshall in the face, and then in the side of the neck.
Tamaya screamed.
Marshall tried to protect himself, but Chad hit him twice more, then grabbed him by the head and threw him to the ground.
“Leave him alone!” Tamaya shouted.
Chad glared at her. “You’re next, Tamaya,” he said.
Marshall tried to get up, but Chad’s knee caught the side of his head, knocking him back down.
Tamaya didn’t think. She just reacted.
She reached into the fuzzy mud and grabbed a handful of thick and gooey muck. She ran at Chad, and as he turned toward her, she shoved it into his face. (32-33)

Marshall always walks younger neighbor Tamaya home from their prestigious school. In order to avoid a fight with antagonistic new kid Chad, Marshall takes them deep into the neighboring woods, but Chad follows. They escape, although the next day they realize they might have discovered something that impacts not just them but possibly the entire world. Sachar makes it pretty clear that the fuzzy mud is the culprit for all their troubles, especially since the book is titled after the substance. Excerpts from public hearings that take place prior to and after the primary events are lightly interspersed, but they serve more as info dumps and red herrings in building suspense then actually advancing the plot. The happy ending is plausible if a little convenient, but sometimes scientific discoveries happen that way. For younger readers not ready for Hiassen, this might be a good introduction to the eco thriller genre.

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