Posts tagged ‘Children’s Fiction’

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.

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.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 135 other followers

%d bloggers like this: