Posts from the ‘Children’s Historical Fiction’ Category

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.

Sunny Side Up

Sunny Side Up.jpgTitle: Sunny Side Up
Author/Illustrator: Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
Colorist: Lark Pien
ISBN: 9780545741651
Pages: 217 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2015.

”Are we going shopping for new swimsuits for the beach today?”
“Sunny, I have some bad news. We won’t be going to the beach house after all. Your dad thinks it’s best that we cancel the trip.”
“Cancel???”
“I’m sorry, sweetie.”
“But what about Deb? What about all our BIG PLANS?”
“We thought of something even more fun for you to do instead! We’re going to have you visit Grampa in Florida. You’ll get to fly down all by yourself! A ‘big girl’ trip. Doesn’t that sound fun?” (191-192)

Ten-year-old Sunny Lewin will not be visiting the beach house with her family and best friend as planned, but instead has been sent to Florida by herself to spend the remaining weeks of her summer vacation with her grandfather in a 55+ community. The only other person even close to her age is a boy named Buzz, the son of the care-taker. He introduces Sunny to catching lost cats and fishing golf balls out of the ponds to earn spending money for comics. As Sunny learns about the secrets these superheroes keep, her thoughts keep returning to the secrets in her own family that have forced her into this position. Should she have said something sooner? Should she say something now?

I spoke with a colleague about the problem with problem novels recently. Problem novels need to have it as an aspect of the novel, and not have the problem monopolize the plot. An African American character does not always have to overcome racism, a transgender person does not always have to come out of the closet, and a disabled person does not have to always triumph over adversity. As I mentioned in my review of the Great Good Summer, it’s important to see kids dealing with all sorts of problems.

But there is very little action in the sleepy senior citizens community in Florida. The big mystery of the book is why Sunny was sent to Florida, and readers don’t even realize there was a specific reason for this until half way through the book. While revealing her concerns eases her internalized tensions, it doesn’t really solve the problems that caused them, and her struggles aren’t well represented in the visual format of a graphic novel. Multiple flashbacks allude to something sinister, but it is vague and takes too long to develop. The bright colors conflict with the subject matter, which I hesitate to call more mature but is definitely different than the lighter fare of Roller Girls or Smile, which I think is the audience that would be appealed by the cover. I wonder if Sunny’s talk with her grandfather could really make a lasting impact in her life. Even in the author’s note, Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm state that they wrote the book “so younger readers who are facing these same problems today don’t feel ashamed like we did” and encourage readers to “reach out to family members and teachers and school counselors,” but doing that will not solve the initial problems that caused these feelings. This is a very different book then Babymouse or Squish, and I think readers will be surprised.

Finding Someplace

Finding Someplace.jpgTitle: Finding Someplace
Author: Denise Lewis Patrick
ISBN: 9780805047165
Pages: 214 pages
Publisher/Date: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, c2015.

”We’re trapped up here!” she shouted. […]
Reesie held her breath as first his feet disappeared, then his knees. Just as his face vanished, they heard loud splashing. His head popped up again. When he crawled off the ladder, he was wet from the waist down. Reesie saw his eyes and knew how scared he was. Her heart thumped.
“We gotta get on the roof,” he said, reaching for the crowbar. “Miss M, I’m sorry but we have to bust it up.”
”What?” both girls yelled at once.
“Calm it down, a’ight? Yeah, the roof. How else are we gonna get out of here?” (88-89)

Reesie (short for Theresa) Boone is looking forward to her thirteenth birthday party. Everyone else is looking at the upcoming storm, which the news forecasts is going to be the big one. Some neighbors and extended family members are evacuating, but Reesie’s father is on the police force and intent on staying at his post. When her mother gets stuck working at the hospital when the storm hits, Reesie must fend for herself during the storm. But after the storm hits and the water recedes, life does not return to normal, and Reesie wonders if it ever will.

Ressie is a realistic character who grows and changes as a result of the events and decisions she is forced to face. In the beginning she focuses on her birthday and party, and by the end she is thinking more about her family and world as a whole. She is bright, intelligent, and has a good head on her shoulders even while her actions are in line with what a teenager would do in those situations. Her family is equally realistically portrayed, with a variety of opinions expressed regarding responsibility to their community and their family, and what action should be taken. It was such a juxtaposition when her brother, who is away at college, calls before the storm to encourage her to evacuate, and then mentions in passing he has a date that evening. It reinforces the idea that life continues elsewhere in the world when a disaster hits, even as people impacted by the storm are hard-pressed to think of anything else and have priorities that are incomparable to anyone who didn’t experience them first hand.

It’s refreshing to see not just the time before and during the storm, but the story follows the family for months as they deal with the fallout and aftermath. Arguments arise, relationships change, and Ressie is faced with an unclear future, tensions at home and school, and nightmares. Readers are privy to all the uncertainties, rather than the glamorized survival instincts that a few other books focus on during their narrative. As we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the storm just months ago, it’s important to remember that even though the storm has passed, the work is just beginning and even 10 years later continues.

The Marvels

MarvelsTitle: The Marvels
Author/Illustrator: Brian Selznick
ISBN: 9780545448680
Pages: 670 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2015.
Publication Date: September 15, 2015

”Leo was inspired by the stories of his great-great-grandfather Billy stowing away aboard a ship four generations earlier. So he decided to run away, too.”
Joseph leaned in closer to the speakers. ”Before the sun rose, Leo wrote a note to his parents, making it clear he didn’t belong in the theatre. Then he set off to the docks to board a ship bound for India. While he waited for the ship, though, he saw a strange orange glow in the sky. Some intuition told him something was terribly wrong, and he ran all the way to his family’s theatre. It turned out that earlier that evening, the doddering old Alexander must have knocked over a candle, or dropped a match, because the entire theatre was engulfed in flames . . .” (511-512)

Joseph Jervis has run away from his boarding school and seeks asylum at his uncle’s house, whom he has only met once. His Uncle Albert lives a peculiar and secluded life surrounded by old furnishings, clothes and toys in a house that has never been updated, with sounds coming from the walls. Joseph is not allowed to touch anything while his uncle tries to figure out how to reach Joseph’s unreachable parents and what to do with the wayward teen. But clues as to the secrets and stories the house is whispering about prove too tempting for Joseph, and he delves into the history of the house and his family. Things aren’t adding up though, and Joseph must finally confront his uncle to get the answers he so desperately desires.

First, let’s chat about production quality, not something I typically address on this blog. The cover is glowingly embellished with contrasting gold lines against a navy blue background. The gold tones are continued onto the edges of the pages. While this makes for an impressive and imposing view from the side, it was more difficult to call it a true page-turner as the pages of my freshly arrived copy stuck together throughout. I doubt the next person who checks it out will have that issue, but it was frustrating as a first reader. A coworker did remark that you had a much more difficult time telling when the sections of print and pictures started and stopped, although if you look closely enough or fan the pages slightly there is still a noticeable color difference. Continuing the trend started with his previously published titles, the spine and back cover features the main character’s face, although we don’t see this particular piece of artwork until the last pages of the novel. Selznick as usual has spared not a single detail, down to the inside of the covers, as the front part features stormy seas and the inside of the back cover showcases a stunning sun over the ocean, giving readers a glimpse of the tempest (pun intended which readers will understand once they read the book) to come and the calm that comes by the end. Whether it’s setting or rising is anyone’s guess, but I think it could be interpreted either way. In the author’s note, he addresses the spelling of words as the British version, which I occasionally noticed but some might not, as an effort to keep the story firmly anchored in its British influences and history. I think this position is beautifully unique and admirably authentic considering how frequently those changes are made, such as the alterations made to J.K. Rowling’s works when they were imported.

Now, onto the story. I won’t say I didn’t like it, but it was more thought-provoking instead of awe-inspiring like his two previous works. In Hugo, we had a ground-breaking format, and in Wonderstruck there was a thought-provoking concept. In The Marvels, we have a story inspired by fact but also providing commentary on the nature of inspired-by-fact stories. What is truth and what is fiction, and how do we determine the difference? Is it really so important to separate the two? I loved what could possibly be the motto of the book, “You either see it or you don’t”, as a straight-forward observation that could be applied to not just physical elements of life but also more conceptual aspects. For instance, in terms of the We Need Diverse Books movement, this is another example of it being there (in this case homosexuality), but not being the main focus of the book, subtly riffing off the “You either see it or you don’t” theme. It’s okay if readers caught it, but it’s also okay if they don’t, as it’s never explicitly stated within the story.

As much as I love the illustrations Selznick put together for this work, they felt redundant this go around. With the inclusion of all the pictures to tell the story from the past, everything we previously witness through the preliminary pictures is spelled out in detail later on in the book. I’m interested to hear from other readers if having the pictures interspersed in the narrative instead of initially presented as a cluster would have changed your perception or enjoyment of the story. It’s understandable their inclusion is meant to more thoroughly engross readers into Joseph’s life and discoveries, to literally see what and how he sees and feel just as confused, frustrated, disappointed, and conned when the truth is revealed. But there is already a layer of separation for us the reader since we know this story we’re reading isn’t true, so I feel like the betrayal when it does come in the climax is never going to impact readers as thoroughly as it does Joseph. Instead I’m scratching my head and find myself referencing Rowling again, comparing the whole story to that one line of Dumbledore’s in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when he asks Harry “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real.” (723) I thought the real twist comes not with Uncle Al’s reveal, but with Selznick’s author’s note delineating what aspects of the story are inspired by real life events and people. In this way there’s almost two plot-twists, which might mean readers’ heads are spinning. Fans of Selznick’s previous works will be satisfied with this slightly circuitous story, but the revelations are what is truly memorable about this read.

Echo

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

EchoTitle: Echo
Author: Pam Munoz Ryan
Illustrator: Dinara Mirtalipova
IBSN: 9780439874021
Pages: 590 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2015.

<blockquote>Otto looked at the sisters, now despondent. “If I could get home, <em>I</em> could help you,” he offered.
“Do you have a woodwind?” asked Eins.
Zwei leaned closer, “A bassoon?”
“Or an oboe, perhaps?” asked Drei.
Otto shook his head. “I only brought on other thing.” He began to unroll his sleeve, which had been folded to the elbow. “This morning, when I bought the book, the Gypsy insisted I take this, too, and did not ask for an extra pfenning.”
He held up a harmonica. (21)</blockquote>

There once were three princesses, spirited away for their own safety to the home of a witch, who became resentful and locked them in a spell. In order to escape, they placed their spirits into a boy’s harmonica, entrusting him with the task of passing it along to the person they were meant to save. First to a young German boy, requiring courage to face down the rising Nazi party and rescue his family. Then to an orphaned American boy, desperate to care for his brother, even if it means separation. Finally to a young Mexican-American girl, whose migrant family might have finally found a home, if they can only fight the prejudices surrounding them. These families are pulled together by the strings of destiny, but will the three princesses finally be released from their captivity?

This hefty tome contains three equally compelling narratives that take readers to the climax of each of these stories, and then drops them like a stone, maintaining the suspense until things resolve at the very end. Readers are invested in the welfare of the characters; the German boy disagreeing with Nazi propaganda, the orphaned American boy trying to maintain his family, and the Mexican-American girl fighting prejudice. These slice of life stories are rich in details, evoking the fears each faces and sharing information about the rise of blues and obscure references to segregation efforts. But those details can also withheld to supply tension, as you never know quite what direction the characters will take at their individual crossroads until it’s actually happening. I can’t say too much without spoiling the stories, but suffice it to say I haven’t been this emotionally engaged while reading in a while. Bravo!

Wall

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

WallTitle: Wall
Author/Illustrator: Tom Clohosy Cole
ISBN: 9780763675608
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Templar Books, an imprint of Candlewick Press, c2014.

A little boy’s family is separated by the Berlin Wall, but he is determined to reunite with his father. The text is sparse, with the evocative artwork supplying most of the details. There is one striking black and white illustration in the middle of the story that I keep returning to again and again, thinking it would better serve a book about the war rather than the aftermath of one. Minus that exception, the illustrations are limited to dark blues and blacks for East Berlin, or reds, pinks, and oranges when portraying either West Berlin or the hope that West Berlin inspired. There is a short explanatory text on the back jacket, which I wish had been better placed as I think most readers will miss it. An interesting topic choice for an idealized picture book, but it could be used by families with personal connections to those events.

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