Posts tagged ‘250-299 pages’

Blackbird Fly

Blackbird FlyTitle: Blackbird Fly
Author: Erin Entrada Kelly
ISBN: 9780062238610
Pages: 296 pages
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

“You may be on the list, Apple, but it could be worse. At least you aren’t Big-leena Moffett.” She paused. “Unless . . .”
“Unless what?” I said. The socked-gut feeling was still there. I wouldn’t have been surprised to lift up my shirt and see a big bruise.
“Unless you’re above Heleena on the list,” said Alyssa. She frowned.
Gretchen rolled her eyes. “That’s not possible.” She looked at me and said again: “That’s not possible, Apple. And the list is stupid anyway. Who cares?”
But we all knew that everyone cared. (46-47)

When Apple was four years old, her father died and her mother moved her to America, specifically Chapel Spring, Louisiana. As the only Filipino in her entire school, she was never the most popular, but at least she has been allowed to hang out with that crowd for years. Until the annual Dog Log is circulated around the school, and rumor has it she’s on it. Now she’s realizing that the folks she used to call her friends really aren’t all that friendly. She starts hanging out with new kid Evan, but he’s not going to help her popularity, and her mother’s constant refusal to get her a guitar, call her by a name that isn’t also a fruit, and order pizza instead of cooking Filipino food, just adds to her frustrations. How did sixth grade get to be so hard so fast?

This slice of life tale didn’t really stand out to me, to the point where I had to skim it to write this review a month after I finished reading it the first time. Apple’s classmate Alyssa was the most realistically written, with dialogue that was self-serving but laced with sarcastic sympathy at the same time. “This is the worst thing that could possibly happen right before the dance. You can’t go by yourself when me and Gretchen have dates, can you? That would just be the most embarrassing thing ever.” (98-99) You cringe every time you hear her talk, because most readers are familiar with someone like that in real life.

Evan is the stereotypical new kid who doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him. As someone who was the new kid several times, I have a hard time believing that a sixth grader, who had friends at his old school, would enter into a new environment with a skin that thick to begin with and make no effort to find friends. Before he is even introduced to the popular posse, he wants nothing to do with them. While it proves to be good instincts on his part, it’s not realistic. More realistic is Heleena’s avoidance of the group, because she has suffered from the repeated ostracism and alienation of her peers and has resigned herself to her fate of simply keeping her head down and attempting to escape notice.

Apple’s insight in how popularity works seem to happen fairly quickly, although the eight week timeline during which the story takes place is difficult to pin down. We see the start of school and the Halloween dance, and there is talk of a quickly approaching field trip slated to occur just before Thanksgiving. But the escalation of teasing is shown in starts and stops, with multiple chapters spent on one day and then almost a whole month passing between two chapters. While I feel Apple’s self-consciousness about her race are accurately portrayed, her mother’s cluelessness seems over done. For instance, according to Apple she hasn’t eaten carrots in years, and yet they have what’s described as a “merry-go-round” style conversation, talking about the same things over and over.

By the end of the story, it’s frustrating to see this fractured family resolve it’s deep seated conflict in just a few minutes of discussion. The same could be said about how Apple’s ostracism at school resolves itself, which reminded me of a scene from Stargirl. However, Stargirl’s rise and subsequent fall from popularity rings truer than this overly optimistic conclusion to a tale where Apple has always been on the outside, but is just beginning to realize it, and isn’t sure she anymore if she wants to be part of the popular crowd. A good message for middle school students struggling to find their place, I just wish the story had been more memorable.

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.

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.

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.

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.

My Year of Running Dangerously

My Year of Running DangerouslyTitle: My Year of Running Dangerously
Author: Tom Foreman
ISBN: 9780399175473
Pages: 276 pages
Publisher/Date: Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, c2015

My descent into the madness of ultrarunning began with a Thanksgiving conversation. The dishes had long been cleared, we’d watched some TV, and I had returned to the kitchen when my eighteen-year-old daughter, Ronnie, asked that question every father dreads.
“How would you feel about running a marathon with me?”
My heart jumped. My pulse raced. A bite of leftover stuffing fell from my fork. […] I had the flexibility of a stepladder, and my weakness for cinnamon rolls had convinced me that covering any sizable number of miles would forever more involve a combustion engine or a plane ticket. […]
I sighed the way a man might when the judge asks if he understands the charges.
“Okay. When do we start?” (5-7)

Tom Foreman is an Emmy Award-winning CNN Correspondent (so proclaimed on the cover of the book). He used to run (used to being the key word there), which consisted of disappearing during high school track practice and getting lucky during meets and four ill-trained for marathons with his brother after college. Using a 4 month training schedule, Foreman works in runs during east coast winters between covering breaking news and constant travel. He finds himself in the most unlikely of places pursuing the pavement. Then, after that first marathon with his daughter, he’s hooked, and keeps going farther and farther distances, until the end of the year arrives and he’s set his sights on a fifty mile ultramarathon. The biggest question waiting for him is if he’ll finish.

More anecdotal and motivational then instructional, Foreman avoids giving any specifics regarding his training process, such as the name of the first or any subsequent schedule that gave him guidance. Foreman mentions the bad and the ugly when it comes to running, including inclement weather, injuries, fatigue, and hunger. While running is typically a solitary sport, he also relates the camaraderie he experiences when in a race, meeting people who share this strange passion and looking out for each other, taking turns cheering for the other. It’s a self-deprecating display of what happens when outlandish ideas take hold and the impossible becomes possible. You can almost hear the “Anything you can do I can do better” challenge issuing from the pages, questioning readers “What’s holding you back from accomplishing your goals?” So lace up those running shoes and take that first step towards your own goals. You may be surprised where they lead.

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

After Dark

After DarkTitle: After Dark
Author: James Leck
ISBN: 9781771381109
Pages: 252 pages
Publisher/Date: Kids Can Press Ltd., c2015.

I lowered my hand toward the opening and eased the tweezers into the patient. When I was sure that I had a firm grip on the heart, I took a deep breath and began the extraction. A drop of sweat slipped down my left temple. A hush fell over the room. The patient’s heart was more than halfway out when the door flew open and the lights came on.
“What is going on in here?”

Fifteen-year-old Charlie Harker’s first day of summer vacation starts poorly when his mom announces that they, along with Charlie’s twin sister Lilith and older brother Johnny, are moving to Rolling Hills (population 1251) to renovate his great grandfather’s inn. It gets even worse the first night at the inn, when town crier Miles Van Helsing comes running up to them seeking sanctuary from the “humanoid creatures” supposedly chasing him. While the UFOs Miles has claimed to have seen never materialized, Charlie has to admit there are some weird things happening in town, including people with superhuman strength who avoid the sunlight and wear huge sunglasses even inside. Is Miles’ paranoia spreading to Charlie, or are the headaches and lethargy plaguing the town mysterious symptoms of something worse to come?
This is a page-turner by all standards! When I read The Undertakers by Drago way back in 2012, I mentioned the dearth of realistic zombie novels, wanting more Walking Dead then Warm Bodies. Some readers might be disappointed by the lack of a body count, but the tension and action is strong enough to warrant adding it to the short list. It encompasses sarcastic quips and thrilling chase scenes along with real danger of being changed into … well into whatever the residents are becoming.

Look Miles, it doesn’t matter if they’re crazy, on drugs, or if they’re vampires –“
“More like zombies,” he said, cutting me off.
“Vampires, zombies – call them zompires for all I care!”
“Zompires? That’s a ridiculous name.” (111)

The book reads like a script for a movie, with lots of action and tense scenes after the set-up of the very normal family (or at least, as normal as you can be with a superstar brother and martial arts trained sister) assuming the role of newcomers to an almost abandoned stretch of a small town. The crazy kid’s vigilance is vindicated and then he’s forced to confront what he was always imagining existed but never dreaming he’d have to face on his own. The characters are typecast but recognizably relatable, with Charlie’s mother becoming more exasperated at the antics of her son and this noisy, nosy neighbor kid. There’s a rational explanation for everything they claim to have seen, which prolongs the plot and anticipation. Readers and Charlie and Miles know better, but convincing everyone else is going to take time, quite possibly more time than they have until they too are assimilated. The technology is current without name dropping, with not a single Apple iPhone 6, only cell phones and surveillance videos, which get dropped, damaged, and discarded over the course of the plot. Is the ending convenient, yes, (thank you Kirkus review for reminding me of the term deus ex machina) but in the same way the movie Red Dawn ends conveniently, and that became a classic and an updated remake. Just when you think everything has been resolved, the twist ending sends new chills down your spine and has you looking over your shoulder. Read this as one last homage to the scary Halloween season, or put it on your list for next year.

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