Posts tagged ‘Children’s Fiction’

Half a Man

Half a Man.jpgTitle: Half a Man
Author: Michael Morpurgo
Illustrator: Gemma O’Callaghan
ISBN: 9780763677473
Pages: 53 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, text copyright 2005, 2006. Illustrations copyright 2014.

I would wake up then, shaking in terror and knowing that my nightmare was not yet over. For my nightmare would always seem to happen just a day or two before Grandpa came to stay. It was a visit I always dreaded. (4)

Michael’s grandfather was in the navy in the war when his ship was torpedoed and sunk. His grandfather considers himself one of the lucky ones since he didn’t die, but the burns have permanently scarred and affected his body. Told not to stare at his grandfather, Michael has difficulty connecting with a grandfather who doesn’t smile, doesn’t laugh, and doesn’t look like anyone else he knows. Eventually, they find common ground over silently fishing and reading when Michael visits his grandfather at his Sicily island cottage, and Michael may be able to use that connection to reconnect the rest of his family.

This is a quiet book, and one that may be better suited for adults or as a graduation gift then for middle school students, in the same way that Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go” is often given as gifts to adults. The obvious message is that, regardless of how his grandfather describes himself, he is not a “monster man” or “half a man”. It could be used to encourage conversation about what makes a man, or exploring their own family history, especially with the recently passed Veteran’s Day so closely preceding Thanksgiving. Symbolically the illustrations by Gamma O’Callaghan never show the grandfather’s current face and we only see a glimpse of what was in an old photo towards the very end of the book. It’s left up to the imagination to see the grandfather. The pictures sparsely depict the settings and invoke a reflective and melancholy mood with the primarily blue and gray drawings, accented by a specific shade of brilliant yellow and orange. The variety, from small insets to full double-page spreads, force the reader to slow down and absorb the short story and aid tremendously with the pacing of the book.

Sunny Side Up

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Someplace

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Good Summer

Great Good Summer.jpgTitle: The Great Good Summer
Author: Liz Garton Scanlon
ISBN: 9781481411479
Pages: 218 pages
Publisher/Date: Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2015.

God is alive and well in Loomer, Texas, so I don’t know why Mama had to go all the way to The Great Good Bible Church of Panhandle Florida to find him, or to find herself, either.
Daddy says she went to get some of the sadness out of her system. He says it like it should be as easy as getting a soda stain out of a skirt. A little scrub, a little soak, one quick run through the machine—good as new and no big deal.
Every day since Mama left, Daddy’s been trying to convince me that things aren’t all that bad, even though Mama’s become a Holy Roller and has disappeared with a preacher who calls himself Hallelujah Dave. Meanwhile I’ve been trying to convince Daddy that things are truly and indeed all that bad. Hallelujah Dave, for goodness’ sake. (1)

Ivy Green’s mother has followed a charismatic preacher named Hallelujah Dave from Loomer, Texas to The Great Good Bible Church of Panhandle, Florida. Her father seems to think that eventually she will “get it out of her system,” whatever it is, and return to them in her own time. But that isn’t soon enough for Ivy, and with the encouragement of her friend Paul, whose dreams of becoming an astronaut have also been dashed with the closure of the space program. Getting to Florida sounds easy, but the trip is filled with trials and troubles, and it’s not so easy to get to Florida or to get back to Texas.

Every year seems to have its own trend in publishing that no one is able to guess until it’s almost passed. This year, it appears to be ultra-religious sects and communes. I don’t think any of the titles have become blockbuster best sellers, but here are some titles that have come to my attention recently. Liz Garton Scanlon’s first attempt at a novel is an exception to this list because it’s geared for a younger audience. It’s been said that children need these books because they need a variety of experiences to be able to empathize and sympathize with the rest of humanity. Some kids struggle to see themselves portrayed in publishing because they are a minority in some way compared to the majority of children. Ivy’s specific family situation is definitely one that only a small minority of children experience, but her insistence that her mother will return is probably typical of children who suffer from the absence, abandonment, or loss of a parent, regardless of how it happens. In this way, I may be able to convince children to read it, by book talking it as “Ivy’s mother has left, and Ivy is determined to find her and bring her back.”

Ivy’s voice is filled with old world, southern twang that sounds much older than her age. In a way, she is naïve and sheltered and frustrated with her failing faith in her father’s ability to set things right. In other ways, she and Paul are self-sufficient and street smart, having enough knowledge to research the trip, pay for a ticket, avoid detection from almost everyone, and maintain hope that things will work out. But they are also extremely lucky in their journey, and the ending is so pie in the sky happy that younger readers might think that all stories will end happily if you have enough hope and heart.

Cosmoe’s Wiener Getaway

Cosmoe's Wiener GetawayTitle: Galactic Hot Dogs: Cosmoe’s Wiener Getaway
Author: Max Brallier
Illustrator: Rachel Maguire and Nichole Kelley
ISBN: 9781481424943
Pages: 300 pages
Publisher/Date: Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2015.

It’s Evil Princess Dagger.
And she’s aboard our ship!
“What the butt?! What are you doing here?!”
“Stealing your ship, silly. I’m an evil princess. Y’know?”
I start stuttering, “NO-NO. NO-NO. NO. You can’t be here! Your evil mom is gonna think we kidnapped you. She’ll KILL us!”
Princess Dagger is about to respond, when—BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP “Brace for impact,” our pet robot, F.R.E.D., says.
“SMUDGE!” I exclaim. “They’re trying to shoot us out of space!”
The princess has a sly smile on her face. “Duh! They think you kidnapped me.” (18-19)

Cosmoe is in TROUBLE! All he did was enter a giant hot dog into the Intragalactic Food Truck Cook-Off, which then got stolen by the Evil Princess Dagger, who then stows away on their ship. The ship is being chased by the Evil Queen Dagger and all her minions, initially just to reclaim her run-away daughter. But when the whole galaxy is informed that Cosmoe found a stranded zombie pirate ship yielding a piece of a Map-O-Sphere that reveals the location of an extreme evil when fully assembled, Cosmoe, his buddy Humphree, and the princess have more than the Evil Queen to worry about.

Yes, the book is just as wildly frenetic as that summary. Zombie pirates, references to movies like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Indiana Jones (even though Cosmoe is the only Earthling in the cast and therefore the only one who understands them) and ongoing laser blasts battles are found within the pages. If Cosmoe is comparable to Han Solo, and Humphree is the equivalent to Chewie, then I guess that means the Evil Princess assumes the role of Leia and the Evil Queen a version of Darth Vader, but that would be doing an injustice to both the original and this not quite parody. Made up slang makes it very younger kid friendly, including “What the Butt!” and “Smudge!” and silly stupidity fills the pages alongside the graphic novel style illustrations. Longer then Captain Underpants or Geronimo Stilton, it’s still accessible to that audience while appealing to older readers. There is very little character development, with no explanation as to why Princess Dagger feels this compulsion to be evil only in the presence of her mother, why Humphree retired from piracy (supposedly it’s “long and complicated” and involves Cosmoe), or even why Cosmoe is riding around on a flying food truck. But in all honesty, it doesn’t matter, because just like a themed roller coaster, it is the ride you are there to enjoy, and readers will enjoy this fast paced, space odyssey which I predict will continue in future installments.

Act 1

Act One Jack and LouisaTitle: Jack & Louisa Act One
Author: Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Kate Wetherhead
ISBN: 9780448478395
Pages: 229 pages
Publisher/Date: Grosset & Dunlap, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, c2015.

”Listen,” I whispered. “As far as you are concerned, I’m not a Musical Theater anything. You saw how Tanner and those boys acted when they found out I was from New York. What do you think they’d do if they found out I took ballet every week?”
“My friend Jenny takes ballet!” Louisa chimed in.
“Good for her,” I replied. “I don’t do that anymore. For now I just need to keep quiet, go to class, remember where my locker is, and try not to get stuffed in one, okay?” (85)

Twelve-year-old Jack has just moved from New York to Shaker Heights, Ohio, and is attempting to blend in with the rest of the student population. But his neighbor Louisa knows his secret, that’s he’s acted in Broadway and got kicked off a debut show because his voice decided to change. Louisa disagrees with Jack’s decision to leave the theater completely, never to return. She’s going to make every effort to get him back on stage, starting with the community theater’s production of “Into the Woods”. If Jack is more interested in playing the role of a normal kid, Louisa might need some real stage magic to get him to cooperate. Or will her actions push him away for good?

I’m curious to see if this becomes a series, based on the Act One written on the cover. Especially since there is enough material to mine for future books, like if Jack brought Louisa to New York for a visit, or if a classmate competed against one of them and earned the part. Jack and Louisa are both much more grounded character as compared to Tim Federle’s Nate in Better Nate Than Ever, and readers will be sympathetic to his plight as a new kid searching for a new identity. Louisa is a hyper, peppy kid who has a few friends her age but isn’t afraid to be different and follow her passion, even if it’s not the popular thing. She isn’t a manic pixie though, and knows how to keep a secret and doesn’t make herself or Jack stand out unnecessarily. An initial reluctance in becoming friends and teasing from Louisa’s friend that Louisa likes Jack thankfully doesn’t turn into a romance, although I could see it happening if there are future installments. They are supportive of each other’s decisions, and having that friend to turn to at all times is important. There’s enough tension in the “will he or won’t he” dilemmas that Jack faces to keep readers engaged without the romantic angle. The pros and cons of small town Ohio and community theatre receive just as much attention as those involving New York and professional shows, and the knowledge and first-hand experience of the authors shows in the easy inclusion of facts about both. Into the Woods, the play of choice by the community theatre, was incorporated into the plot both on and off stage, and was a smart choice considering the recent movie and audiences probable familiarity with the story, but prior knowledge isn’t necessary to understand the book. Bravo.

Act Two Jack and LouisaEdit: Just before I posted this, I attended a publisher’s book preview and discovered that I was right, there is a sequel! Coming to a book store near you February 16, 2016. Does anyone have an advanced copy they want to lend me?

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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