Posts tagged ‘Children’s Fiction’

The Pants Project

Pants Project.jpg

Title: The Pants Project
Author: Cat Clarke
ISBN: 9781492638094
Pages: 267 pages
Publisher/Date: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc. c2017.

Bankridge Middle School had a strict uniform policy, unlike nearly every other school I could have attended. […]
Sexist. Dumb. Unfair. Even the moms agreed with me. […]
“Girls must wear a black, pleated, knee-length skirt.”
I bet I read those words a hundred times during summer vacation. I stared at the computer screen, willing them to morph into something sensible.
The problem wasn’t the last word in that sentence. Skirt wasn’t really the issue, not for me. The issue was the first word. Girls.
Here’s the thing:
I may seem like a girl, but on the inside, I’m a boy. (6-7)

A point of clarification seems necessary, because the only time that Liv is identified with the “he” pronoun is on the book jacket summary, since throughout the book most people are uninformed of Liv’s transgender status and it’s told in a first person perspective. I’m going to try to honor what is obviously the author’s choice to have Liv use “he” pronouns.

Olivia “Liv” Spark is starting middle school with best friend Maisie, but Liv already feels out of place. The dress code requires girls to wear a skirt and boys to wear pants, but while Liv might have been born a girl and looks like a girl, Liv definitely feels like a boy. Nobody knows though, and it’s hard enough to be the new girl in school, much less the outcast that the class bullies Jade and Chelsea are routinely ridiculing about everything, including the too short haircut, lesbian parents, and attempts at making the skirt more bearable. Liv knows that this rule needs to change, and isn’t afraid to start that fight, even if it costs friendships.

This impressed me as a very well written novel. It allowed for some thought-provoking reflection and relayed Liv’s plight with sensitivity but without becoming didactic and was age appropriate in it’s portrayal of a transgender person. Refreshingly unromantic in nature, Liv makes friends with both guys and girls by the end of the book and his struggle to find himself runs parallel with efforts to change the dress code. He’s a nuanced character, with one action at his previous school hanging over his head, making him fearful that he’s been pegged for life with labels (that have nothing to do with his gender) that don’t match how he sees himself. The bullies actions are accurately portrayed both for their spite and pettiness, and the adults are clueless about the behavior, with Liv being reluctant to reveal the specifics because he knows their ability to stop the bullying is limited. The solution to this problem is idealistic at best, but nevertheless resolves the issue.

Liv shows several different ways of activism, including petitions and protests that could serve as a primer for young activists, but his efforts are not always successful. The principal’s initial refusal to hear Liv out seems intended only to drag out the plot, but his exasperation at Liv’s insistence is realistic to an overtaxed and ambitious adult who doesn’t see the priority in Liv’s problem. Liv’s overworked mothers are much more sympathetic to Liv’s feelings, but they are also willing to step back and let Liv work out his own problems and follow his lead. Engaged parents who listen to their children? What a novel idea that isn’t showcased often enough in books! Liv’s confusion about how he feels about them also provides a side of the family that most books don’t show, where children love their family but also want to protect them and themselves from scrutiny.

Highly recommended for collections and children and families seeking this sort of representation.

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Ghost

Ghost.jpgTitle: Ghost
Series: Track #1
Author: Jason Reynolds
ISBN: 9781481450157
Pages: 181 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2016.

So on and on it went, the whistle blowing, one by one, boys and girls on the line, sprinting down the straightaway. Each of their times being recorded. Some were faster than others. Actually, most of the vets were pretty fast, but nobody was faster than the pretty boy, Lu. Nobody. And the coach kept saying stuff like, “Lu’s still the one to beat,” which was kinda pissing me off because . . . I don’t know. It just made me think about this kid Brandon at school, who always . . . ALWAYS picked on me. Not even just me, though. He picked on a lot of people, and didn’t nobody ever do nothing about it. They just said stupid stuff like, Can’t nobody beat him. Same kind of rah-rah this bowling-ball-head coach was kicking about this kid, Lu. It’s just . . . ugh. I mean, he was fast, but honestly, he wasn’t that fast. […] (15)

After challenging and holding his own against the fastest kid on the track team, Castle “Ghost” Cranshaw finds himself being recruited to that same team by Coach Brody. Ghost however isn’t used to running for anyone but himself. Training is difficult without the proper shoes, and his natural speed doesn’t always hold up against the training that the other athletes have received. If he keeps getting in trouble at school, he’s going to find himself off the team that he never dreamed he wanted to be a part of, much less stay on.

What I liked most about this story was that it featured an African-American but the plot didn’t revolve around the fact that Ghost was African-American. It wasn’t a civil rights or slavery or gang story. It’s also an appreciated change of pace that we see a sports story that doesn’t revolve around basketball or football or even baseball, but a sport that doesn’t always get its due recognition. While yes, Ghost’s family is not perfect and he’s suffered some things that most families don’t have to face, it was primarily background and the main focus was on Ghost and the track team. His teammates suffer from a variety of issues in their home life, which are easily shared with the group during an intimate gathering, even though they are supposedly secrets that they keep hidden from everyone. Couch becomes a role model and big influence in his life with surprisingly little effort. For someone who never has played or even considered playing a team sport, Ghost also quickly acclimates to the idea of regular practices and following directions and decisions made by this guy he just met. While I can’t speak for the realism of the track meet scenes, I’m glad the focus was on the track practices and events directly related to Ghost’s membership on the team, instead of slowing the pace of the story with extraneous scenes in school or at home. I expected more attitude from Ghost, especially after we see how he and Couch are introduced. But that bravado falls away and never resurfaces to the levels we witnessed initially, which is slightly disappointing that we can’t see a person of color maintain his attitude and assured nature and still succeed. Supposedly the first book in a series, I wonder if future titles are going to focus on Ghost, his other teammates, or some so far unmet character. Overall, an engaging read if you’re willing to overlook the ease with which the characters come together.

Snow White: A Graphic Novel

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.

Snow White Graphic Novel.jpgTitle: Snow White: A Graphic Novel

Author/Illustrator: Matt Phelan
ISBN: 9780763672331
Pages: unpaged (216 pages)
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2016.

Mostly monochromatic watercolors with selected highlights of red and blue and sparsely phrased supplemental text retells the story of Snow White set during the Great Depression. Samantha White’s father suddenly passes and bequeaths his fortune to her. On the run from a murder attempt by her jealous stepmother, she encounters a gang of seven children, who come to her aid. I see allusions to West Side Story in the gang’s movements and Wizard of Oz when the happy ending finally opens into technicolor drawings. It’s a nit-picky point to wish the text had been hand lettered instead of jarringly added in obviously computerized font, especially when period details were so seamlessly incorporated into the plot. This winter themed adaption is a solid addition to graphic novel collections.

Clementine, Friend of the Week

Clementine Friend of the Week.jpgTitle: Clementine, Friend of the Week
Series: Clementine #4
Author: Sara Pennypacker
Illustrator: Marla Frazee
Narrator: Jessica Almasy
ISBN: 9781440777929 (audiobook), 9780545283076 (hardcover)
Discs/CDs: 2 CDs, 2 hours
Pages: 161 pages
Publisher/Date: Recorded Books, LLC, c2010. (Scholastic Inc, by arrangement with Hyperion Books for Children, an imprint of Disney Book Group, LLC.)

“It’s time to give us your presentation. That’s quite a smile. I’m glad to see you’re so happy about it. Come on up.”
I looked through my backpack in case I had forgotten that I remembered to make some notes last night, but nope.
“That’s all right,” my teacher said. “Just come up and tell us about your life.”
“So I went up to the front of the class. “I was born,” I began. And then nothing else came out, because it is very hard to think when you are standing at the front of the class with all those eyes on you. (40)

Clementine has been chosen as Friend of the Week, an honor that bestows upon her the ability to be line leader, feed the fish, collect the milk money, and tell the class her autobiography. At the end of the week, she will receive a book from her classmates detailing all her positive attributes. But Clementine doesn’t feel like a very good friend, as she doesn’t understand why Margaret is mad at her. She starts granting compliments, tattoos, names, and decorations for the upcoming bike rally. But when her kitten Moisturizer goes missing and that’s all she can focus on, will Clementine loose the friends she’s worked so hard to gain?

I written before how much I love and am charmed by Clementine. She’s got a personality that is impossible to not love. Marla Frazee’s pictures convey the emotions of the entire family, and it’s a shame that they aren’t included in the audiobook format. But Almasy continues her narration of the series, conveying these same emotions through her inflections. Clementine’s distress when her kitten goes missing is authentic to a third grader who looses a pet. She is intent on finding her, at whatever the cost (and it does cost, as more than a few wanted posters are printed by her parents). The outcome realistically solves all the problems. Pennypacker smartly restricts the action to a week in the life, letting everything play out naturally, and I’m excited to see what everyday adventures Clementine gets into next.

Study Hall of Justice

Study Hall of Justice.jpgTitle: Study Hall of Justice
Series: Secret Hero Society
Author: Derek Fridolfs
Illustrator: Dustin Nguyen
ISBN: 9780545825016
Pages: 175
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Inc., c2016 DC Comics

This school is weird!
Yesterday I felt a kid blur past me. Today I witnessed a girl flying through the air. I’m not kidding. Not to mention there’s a ton of clowns and . . . I think I’ve even seen ninja lurking about.
It’s crazy.
My mind and body have been trained by the very best (Alfred saw to that with private tutors). My eyes aren’t playing tricks. So there must be a logical explanation for it.
My investigation continues. But I must also make time to beat level seven of Vigilante Fighter Turbo. Resist the urge to download a cheat code. (28)

Bruce Wayne has recently been accepted to the prestigious Ducard Academy. Upon arrival however, Bruce keeps noticing unexplained things happening. With the administration ignoring the warning signs and possibly aiding in the classroom chaos, who can Bruce turn to for assistance? Equally confused Clark Kent and Diana Prince are also hiding something, but they seem the best options to aid in his investigations. Now the key is to solve the mystery without getting suspended.

This book is a fast read described by some as a hybrid graphic novel, which confused me for a while as to where to put it. After it arrived though, it obviously belonged with the graphic novels. While the primary story is told in panels and pictures, supplemental information is provided in paragraph format in illustrated diary entries, memos, reports, and text messages. Told in short vignettes that propel the main plot of finding out the school’s secrets, many readers with only a cursory knowledge of the DC Comics world will recognize superheroes and super villains featured, including the Joker, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Bane, Lex Luthor, and of course the three main characters. Clark is shown as a bumbling do-good, who on more than one occasion either spills or comes close to spilling information about his secret. Diana is shown as slightly more competent, but also more assertive and angry than either of the boys. Bruce is portrayed as a lonely know-it-all, although my favorite line is when he questions the lack of masks for both Diana’s and Clark’s secret identities. There are passing nods to future events, such as Clark becoming a reporter and Alfred’s at the time off-handed comment to Bruce that “I certainly won’t be a willing partner in your flights of fancy, sir!” (151)

The whole story however is relatively anticlimactic. While yes there are strange things happening in the school, no one is ever in any real danger, and even the weirdness is relatively low-key (getting pied in the face in the hallway, Brainiac as a library monitor, and even the ninjas repeatedly noticed don’t interfere with day-to-day operations until the very end of the book). Although it appears this is a start of a series, the resolution leaves me wondering how these three investigators are going to be able to combine their efforts again in the future. Overall, it becomes a nice introduction and mash-up for super fans or those who like their superhero stories light.

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.

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