We Forgot Brock!

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.

We Forgot Brock.jpgTitle: We Forgot Brock!
Author/Illustrator: Carter Goodrich
ISBN: 9781442480902
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2015.

The weird thing about Philip’s friend Brock, dressed in garb reminiscent of a pirate, is that nobody else can see him and everyone calls him “Philip’s Imaginary Friend.” After a day at the fair, Philip falls asleep and Brock gets left behind. Luckily, a girl named Anne and her own imaginary friend named Princess Sparkle Dust find Brock and bring him home with them. Will Brock and Philip ever find each other again? Watercolor illustrations portray the imaginary friends in childish, crayon like states very different from the rest of the more detailed drawings, although if you look carefully you’ll notice they still cast shadows. The problem is neatly solved and everyone makes a new friend in the end. The story is realistically childlike, down to Philip posting “Lost” flyers, which prove surprisingly effective! A sweet story perfect to share with children who may have their own imaginary friend.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.jpgTitle: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Young Readers Edition)
Author: William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
ISBN: 9780803740808
Pages: 293 pages
Publisher/Date: Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of the Penguin Group LLC, c2015

Many of you have probably been saying, “But doesn’t everyone have electricity?” It’s true that most people in Europe and America are lucky to have lights whenever they want them, plus things like air-conditioning and microwave ovens. But in Africa, we’re not so lucky. In fact, only about eight percent of Malawians have electricity in their homes, and most of them live in the city.
Not having electricity meant that I couldn’t do anything at night. I couldn’t read or finish my radio repairs. I couldn’t do my homework or study for school. No watching television. It also meant that when I walked outside to the toilet, I couldn’t see the big spiders or roaches that liked to play in the latrine at night. I only felt them crunch under my bare feet.
Whenever the sun went down, most people stopped what they were doing, brushed their teeth, and went straight to bed. Not at ten p.m., of even nine o’clock–but seven in the evening! Who goes to bed at seven in the evening? Well, most of Africa. (54)

William Kamkwamba was born into a family of six sisters, located in a tiny village in the heart of the African country of Malawi.He spent his time studying for school, helping his family maintain their farm, and fixing radios in his spare time. When he was 13, tragedy struck as a drought swept the country, and with it extreme shortages of food and starvation. With no money for school and no crops to tend at the farm, William started spending time at the library. It was there he discovered the power of windmills, and the idea that a windmill could pump water from the well, fertilize their crops, and provide them with free electricity. He spent the next year teaching himself and collecting and buying scrap metal, including a rusty bicycle, a tractor fan, and a shock absorber. But would a teenager who barely passed middle school be able to design and assemble these pieces and parts together and make something?

This is an uplifting true story about the power of engineering, ingenuity, curiosity, and perseverance. William didn’t know about electricity when he first started taking apart and putting back together radios, but he wasn’t afraid to learn. After dropping out of school due to lack of funds, William tries valiantly to stay on top of his studies so he can rejoin the class next year. He copies his friend’s notes and visits the library often, which he describes in great detail. I can picture the dusty shelves stuffed haphazardly with books that libraries here in America probably discarded because they were out of date or didn’t have colored pictures, but their information is still relevant enough to get William the information he needs.

Anything he can’t find he’s willing to work to acquire. He pleads with this father to have the broken family bicycle. In order to pay for the services of a welder, he stacks firewood for hours to get enough money. When he needed washers, he collected bottle caps, pounded them flat, and hammered a hole into the center. It’s inspiring to think that this young man who so many would see as disadvantaged could do something so extraordinary that it would capture the public’s attention.While the book includes color photographs of his family and invention, it would have been nice and more enlightening if the book had included diagrams of his innovation. The descriptions are very detailed and paired with a picture you get an idea, but for children wanting to duplicate his efforts they may need to mimic his methods and do some more research.

William’s family is disadvantaged, and he recognizes it, but it doesn’t impact his happiness. He doesn’t complain about using the latrine or lacking running water or electricity, only bringing up these details to better explain his situation, not try to excuse it. Overall he has a relatively happy life, with friends and games and free time to pursue his passion, even if that happens to be electrical engineering. In American he’d probably be playing with Lego Mindstorms instead of old radios. It’s important for readers, especially here in the United States, to understand his circumstances and the uniqueness of his accomplishment, and that he had to improvise with what he had instead of purchasing something he needed. The scenes of famine are heart-wrenching, but not sensationalized, and I think every reader will grow teary-eyed at the matter-of-fact telling of the situation with his dog and the medical maladies that fall on William and his friends. It’s one thing to say that African nations are poor or undeveloped or suffering from a famine, but it’s quite different to read about it through the eyes of a child who experienced it and brings those feelings to life.

Rather than stay in American after college, it’s also unique to see that William wants to return to his country and work on projects for Africa, in Africa, and run by Africans. He doesn’t disparage his country or community, and wants to help it thrive by building on what is there, instead of changing it culturally or Americanizing it. Ending this blog post in the same way Kamkwamba ends his autobiography, hopefully his story will inspire others.

Often people with the best ideas face the greatest challenges–their country at war; a lack of money or education or the support of those around them. But like me, they choose to stay focused because that dream–as far away as it seems–is the truest and most hopeful thing they have. Think of your dreams and ideas as tiny miracle machines inside you that no one can touch. The more faith you put into them, the bigger they get, until one day they’ll rise up and take you with them. (290)

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Crenshaw

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.

CrenshawTitle: Crenshaw
Author: Katherine Applegate
ISBN: 9781250043238
Pages: 245
Publisher/Date: Feiwel and Friends, and imprint of Macmillan, c2015.

I noticed several weird things about the surfboarding cat.
Thing number one: He was a surfboarding cat.
Thing number two: He was wearing a T-shirt. It said CATS RULE, DOGS DROOL.
Thing number three: He was holding a closed umbrella, like he was worried about getting wet. Which, when you think about it, is kind of not the point of surfing.
Thing number four: No one else on the beach seemed to see him. (3-4)

Ten-year-old Jackson has recently rediscovered his imaginary friend, a black and white, over-sized cat named Crenshaw. His family is slowly preparing for becoming homeless and Jackson still remembers the last time they had to live out of their car. It was also the last time he’d seen Crenshaw, who kept him company during that time. Crenshaw claims he’s there to help, but Jackson wonders how much help Crenshaw will offer this time around. Although featuring a situation that needs more exposure in children’s literature, the addition of an imaginary friend that doesn’t play a huge role in the plot makes it more difficult to recommend to an older audience. Author name recognition will influence its circulation, but I don’t expect it to be a first choice among Applegate’s fans, as it’s much more introspective than Barbara O’Connor’s comedic How to Steal a Dog, which deals with the same topic.

The Fog Diver

Fog DiverTitle: The Fog Diver
Author: Joel Ross
ISBN: 9780062352934
Pages: 328 pages
Publisher/Date: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

My name is Chess, and I was born inside a cage.
Imagine a wooden platform jutting from a mountain cliff. Now picture a chain falling from that platform and vanishing into the Fog, a deadly white mist that covers the entire Earth.
That’s where I was born: locked in a cage, at the end of a chain, inside the Fog.
And I would’ve died there, too, if Mrs. E hadn’t saved me.
When she saw my face for the first time, wisps of Fog swirled inside my right eye, shimmering white shapes that marked me as a freak. That’s why I’ve spent thirteen years keeping my head down, staying quiet and afraid–but now Mrs. E needs help, now <em>she</em> needs saving.
It’s time to stop hiding. Everything is going to change. (1-2)

Scientists built nanites to clean up the polluted Earth, only they made them too smart. The nanites turned on their creators, scrubbing the Earth clean not just of pollution, but of the creators of the pollution. Now mankind has retreated to the mountain tops, and fog divers like Chess literally dive into the fog from flying barges to scavenge for resources. He and his rag-tag team of orphans were brought together by Mrs. E. Dreams of ascending to the safer parts of the mountain have always been a dream, but now they need money and resources to get Mrs. E the help she needs as fog sickness starts taking over. Fog sickness isn’t the only risk though, as the past Mrs. E rescued Chess from comes back to haunt him and hunt for him. Will they be able to escape all the dangers, or will Chess take his last dive?

For fans of the television series Firefly (which I’m watching right now for the first time), this street urchin crew may seem familiar. Maybe author Joel Ross, making his middle-grade debut, is a fan himself? Chess takes the place of River, being hidden in plain sight and with skills no one fully understands. But he is also part Zoe, serving as a second-in-command position to Hazel. Hazel is the captain of the crew, and much like Mal she has her unexpected soft side. Chess says she “wore long, flowing skirts, dreamed of fancy dances, loved pretty sunsets . . . and could bark out orders faster than the toughest junkyard boss.” (28-29) Pilot Swedish has the skills of Wash but the attitude of Jayne. Bea is Kaylee, the spunky, overly enthusiastic and optimistic mechanic, down to talking to the electronics and naming them.

The crew members are unique and highly developed, with characteristics and flaws that will allow readers to relate with at least someone, whether it’s the snarky asides of sarcasm, quick-witted thinking, or the more vulnerable moments of emotion. They form a tight-knit family who cares about and trusts one another, even when they are surprised by another’s actions or a never-before revealed secret. It reads like a swashbuckling pirate adventure, with rigging and scavengers, hidden treasures and double crosses. Highly recommended to those readers looking for something unique, or maybe those too young for the airships of Westerfeld’s Leviathan series.

The allusions to the world before are the basis for most of the laughs in this post-apocalyptic, dystopian world. There is little in the way of modern day conveniences, but that goes unremarked upon as they wrap their heads around what little they do know, and make up their own explanations for what they don’t understand. The characters routinely improvise, interchange, and just plain invent references. Primarily, these confusions come from Chess, who has a scrapbook made by his father of various cultural references from before the fog.

  • Chess decides against repeating the “old tale of ‘Skywalker Trek,’ about a space war between the Klingons and the Jedi, set in a future when people lived on distant planets and fought Tribbles, Ewoks, and Borgs.” (17-18).
  • He describes Valentine’s Day as “an old holiday […] when they used to wear green and say ‘be mine’ and kiss under a shamrock. […] They gave flowers to their sweethearts.” (82)
  • “I’m not sure the shell actually snaps.”
    “Of course it does! A snapping turtle is a turtle that snaps, like a bobcat is a cat that bobs. It says so in the name.”
    “Sure,” I said. “And grizzly bears loooove to grizz.” (178)
  • There’s also a reference to weird animals of the past like spelling bees and Hello Kitties which of course I can’t locate currently.

There are a lot of tight escapes, narrow misses, and nail-biting excitement, which is completely inline with the life they lead. While their actions are slightly more legal than the ones seen in Firefly, they are still the underdog in a rigged system. They don’t even own the ship outright, renting it from corrupt folks, making every effort to get out from under the debt and find that big score that will put them on the top. The technology is slightly steampunk in nature, although I would have liked more details on how they were able to adapt to this world above the clouds that today we would deem uninhabitable. While Chess’s rumored existence is initially stereotypical and his ability to go unnoticed for 13 years remarkable, the sudden interest in his skills and presence is explained adequately. The climatic end is just that, and it’s only at the last heart-stopping page that you receive a sudden but satisfactory resolution to the story, worthy of Ocean’s Eleven. While enjoyable as a stand-alone, there is definitely a sequel in the making, with The Lost Compass arriving in May 2016 which will hopefully bring more answers.

The Price of Freedom

Price of FreedomTitle: The Price of Freedom
Author: Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin
Illustrator: Eric Velasquez
ISBN: 9780802721662
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Walker Books for Young Readers, c2013
Publication Date: January 8, 2013

Trouble began in early September 1858, when a ten-year-old boy spied several “rough-looking” men on the porch of an Oberlin flophouse. Suspecting that they were slave hunters, Oberlinians posted lookouts around the hotel.
Indeed, the men were slave hunters. They were led by Anderson Jennings, a Kentuckian who had been promised $500 per slave (equal to about $13,000 each in today’s money) for returning John and Frank to their former owners.

John and Frank had escaped from their master in January, 1856. Fleeing Kentucky, they crossed into Ohio where Quakers sheltered runaway slaves. Even though Ohio was a free state, they could still be legally captured, so the original plan was to continue on to Canada. Upon arriving in Oberlin, Ohio and learning the route was blocked, the two friends stayed in the friendly town, taking up jobs and living among its residents. That all changes when slave catchers come to town, and John is captured. With the law against them, residents of Oberlin demanded John’s release. But are they successful in this time of divided ideals and conflicting politics?

I was slightly disappointed by this book. While the story is unique, based on fact, and one I’d never heard of, the writing lacks the suspense that should probably be present. Almost half the story contains very short non-sequiturs introducing the people involved in rescuing John, which quickly bogs down and confuses the story. The artwork starts strong, and I was especially struck by the page where we see John and Frank peering over a fence with the moon lighting their path visible behind them. Surrounded by spooky, bare-limbed trees, it’s astonishing how well the mood is struck with that one picture. In contrast, the scene where the townspeople have gathered, demanding John’s release, looks hastily colored, with none of the details and only vague impressions and blobs of paint for some of the faces. Eric Velasquez’s artwork seems to lose something when doing larger scenes, and if he had stuck to the closeups and featured only a handful of people in each of his drawings, then I think it would have worked better.

The other thing missing from this book is map! While I’m impressed that the book provides a bibliography, further reading, and websites lists, along with a small note in the back, there is no map of either the route John and Frank took, or a state map simply identifying where Oberlin is located in correlation to Cleveland. On the suggested Oberlin College website, readers can view a picture of a monument dedicated to the Oberlinians who fought for John’s freedom, but there’s no mention of that monument in the book. Instead, it mentions a sculpture that “honors the role of the college and town” but there’s no picture of it in the book or on the website.

Overall, I feel like this very short story would have worked better in a compilation of little known tales involving either the underground railroad or civil war history since so little is known about the participants. Libraries in Ohio have a unique link to the story, and would do well to have it on hand for young school children. However, I’m not sure how much demand there will be outside of the immediately mentioned area. If this is a diamond in the rough, I think it still needs a little polishing.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Snowmen at Night

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.

Snowmen at Night.jpgTitle: Snowmen at Night
Author: Caralyn Buehner
Illustrator: Mark Buehner
ISBN: 0803725507
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Dial Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, c2002.

One wintry day I made a snowman,
very round and tall.
The next day when I saw him,
he was not the same at all!

His hat had slipped, his arms drooped down,
he really looked a fright–
it made me start to wonder:
What do snowmen do at night? (unpaged)

Simple but bouncy rhymes detail the overnight exploits of snowmen when everyone is asleep, readers learn they sled, skate, drink cold cocoa, and participate in snowball fights among other things. The pictures are almost three-dimensional in places, where you expect the snowball to leap off the page. Upon reading the copyright page, the illustrator alerts readers they can find a cat, rabbit, Santa face, and a T-Rex in “all these wintertime scenes” but they are thoroughly hidden. I had massive difficulty finding them, and occasionally I simply gave up my search, as some of the small seek and finds are the size of your fingernail and hidden in the spindly drawn tree limbs. If reading this after your family makes their own snowman, be prepared to sneak outside to ensure your snowman acts accordingly, as kids will be looking for evidence of the fun it had overnight.

Big Magic

Big Magic.jpgTitle: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
ISBN: 9781594634710
Pages: 276 pages
Publisher/Date: Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, c2015.

There is a famous question that shows up, it seems, in every single self-help book ever written: What would you do if you knew that you could not fail? But I’ve always seen it differently. I think the fiercest question of all is this one: What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail? What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant? (pg. 259)

About halfway through the book, Elizabeth Gilbert summarizes her entire book in just two sentences: “The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust – and those elements are universally accessible. Which doesn’t mean that creative living is always easy; it merely means that creative living is always possible.” (158) Disregard all the other distractions, excuses, and doubts, and just make an effort, and if you don’t think creativity is present at the start, it will be at the end, because it’s always available if you are willing to use it. She supports her claims with stories from her own past and those of people she has met, with a few quotes from other, primarily spiritual, sources.

If you are looking for the science behind creativity, or specific steps to increase or improve your creativity, you’ll be disappointed. I did something that I don’t typically do, and read the book with a packet of sticky notes. When I compiled those quotable moments, it amounted to less than two pages. Once I realized that she’d done TED Talks on creativity (which I haven’t seen), the dearth of real advice became more understandable, and it felt like she had tried to hard to expand her ideas to cover a book length.

Her personification of creativity and other traits as spirits was a detour I could have done without, especially in the chapter about “Enchantment”, which boils down creativity to a combination of a state of mind and dumb luck. The chapter about “Permission” was equally vague, stressing the fact you need to abandon your own doubts about whether you should be attempting creative endeavors. In fact all of the concepts mentioned are internalized, and Gilbert encourages people to either stop or start thinking in a certain way, with few suggestions on how to do that, at one point telling people that if they dress up and make themselves appealing, creativity will find them and want to work with them. I find myself shaking my head thinking “If only it were that easy”.

One portion I specifically found contradictory, in which she tells readers “Whenever anybody tells me they want to write a book in order to help other people, I always think Oh, please don’t. (98)” She defends herself by further justifying that “I did not write this book for you; I wrote it for me. I wrote this book for my own pleasure, because I truly enjoy thinking about the subject of creativity. It’s enjoyable and useful for me to meditate on this topic.” (100) While I agree that she seems to find pleasure in the writing, if she was just doing it for herself then she wouldn’t have published the book, and simply would have kept a meditation journal instead of a manuscript. Anyone who publishes anything has ideas that they want to share with people, and something as philosophical, abstract, and communicative about establishing patterns of behavior as this book is certainly intended to invoke change and ultimately help people; in this specific case, help them be creative. Readers may find kernels of truth, like I did with my two pages of quotes, but the book didn’t need the rest of the background noise.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 136 other followers

%d bloggers like this: