Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Half Magic

Image result for half magic coverHalf Magic
Edward Eager
HBJ, 1954 192 pages
Grades 3-6
Fantasy


Four children find an ancient coin at the beginning of an uneventful summer during the good-old-days of the 1920's. The eldest, Jane, makes a wish while holding the coin and the wish comes true--almost. After Mother borrows the coin and gets stranded halfway down the road to home the children connect the dots and realize that the coin contains magic, only it grants the wisher only half of that which is asked. What follows is a series of adventures and misadventures as the children take turns carefully phrasing their wishes and livening up the long and boring summer days. From a visit to King Arthur's Court to a riot causing bout of invisibility, high-jinx and mayhem ensue as wishes are crafted and unraveled. A local bookstore owner crosses paths with the family on more than one occasion and becomes the confidant and mentor to the children, as well as a new companion to their over-worked single mother. Eventually, the adventure reaches a climax and ends in a very satisfying way, yet leaving the door open for the sequel, Magic by the Lake.

A classic in a crowded field of fantasy for children, Half Magic has delighted generations of readers. I remember delving into it as a child and falling under its cozy and comforting spell of a style of storytelling from years gone by.  I love that the author offers a shout out to influence E. Nesbit, displays the children walking two miles to the public library loaded down with books as the week’s highlight, and utilizes one of my favorite phrases, first coined by Louis Carroll, of believing in six impossible things before breakfast. Has it stood the test of time? Hard to say. The writing, mood, and familiar plot still spoke to me, although is that my own nostalgic bias? Certainly, the novel was penned in another era, where boys were more important than girls and mothers only worked if they had to, because of dead husbands, and long for the chance to quit and be taken care of by a man. That said, the three sisters in the novel are feisty and of strong disposition and not of the simpering variety. They are equal to their brother in all things and enjoy adventures just as much as he does. With only eight chapters in the book, the chapters go rather long with no breaks to let readers catch their breath. A few black and white drawings grace the pages, but they are much less plentiful than today's young visual readers are used to and less eye-catching. I, personally, loved spending time in Eager's rosy world and felt great satisfaction in the happy ending. Will today's readers agree? I will find out next week at my book-club meeting, as this title is March's selection.

Friday, March 15, 2019

To Night Owl From Dogfish

Related imageTo Night Owl From Dogfish
Holly Goldberg Sloan & Meg Wolitzer
Dial, 2019
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Told entirely in e-mails and letters, Sloan and Wolitzer trace the relationship between two very different girls who are thrown together by chance and stay together by choice. Bett, a risk-taking California girl, contacts Avery, an anxious New Yorker, when their fathers fall and love and plan to send them to summer camp together while they travel to China. Naturally, Bett and Avery resist going to camp, feel threatened by their father's romance, and resent having no say in both the relationship and the decision to spend the summer at camp. After ignoring each other for the first bit of the experience, the two become unlikely friends, eventually getting tossed out together and spending a wonderful summer with Avery's estranged mother and Bett's beloved grandmother. China does not go as planned and the Dad's break up, only to have the daughters disappointed that they will no longer be a family. The two girls design a scheme to reunite the Dads in hope that their love will resurface. Nothing goes as planned and Bett and Avery have to navigate the waters of their friendship on their own terms.

Two award winning authors team-up to create a book featuring another great female team. We know Sloan from the fabulous middle grade novel Counting by Sevens, among other titles, and Wolitzer, a respected adult and teen author, makes her middle grade debut. Folks will immediately make connections to the Parent Trap, but with gay dads. The format is reminiscent of Paula Danzinger and Ann Martin's Longer Letter Later, which was a huge hit in its time. Unconventional formats, in this case primarily e-mails, are very popular with young readers and give the book an extra interesting layer, while also making it accessible to reluctant readers. Summer camp books are also popular, especially ones that involve capers and hijinks. The story has a fun plot, especially as seen through the eyes of the narrators, that moves quickly. The authors include a lot of humor and there are a few laugh-out-loud funny moments. The characters are quirky, believable, and likable. The two protagonists change and grow in positive ways from their relationship with each other and their lives will be forever changed because of the association. A little twist at the end leave readers with a satisfying ending that is not too obvious and saccharine. A fun and fast read that is perfect for the lazy days of summer.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Grenade

Image result for grenade gratz coverGrenade
Alan Gratz
Scholastic, 2018 255 pages
Grades 7-Up
Historical Fiction

A gristly account of the final battle of World War II as seen through the ideas of two young participants. Ray, a barely-grown American private, and Hideki, a local teenager, narrate two different perspectives of the bloody and lengthy Battle of Okinawa on an island off the coast of Japan. Ray is new to war and this late battle is his first. Together with his company he learns the ropes, encounters terrible moments with both civilians and Japanese soldiers, and sees a comrade die before his eyes, before he falls into trouble of his own. Hideki is a student drafted into a last-ditch civilian effort as Japan struggles to keep control of their holdings. Armed with two grenades, one to throw at the enemy and one to kill himself before the American get hold of him, Hideki is set loose to defend the island he calls home. As he struggles for survival, he has surprise reunions with family and friends and meets both kind and terribly damaged soldiers from both sides of the battle. Hideki watches as his beautiful island home is destroyed by war and he must decide what role he will play as the battle continues to unfold.

Coming straight off the heels of critically acclaimed Refuge, Gratz offers another frank look at the price of war and corrupt political bureaucracy. I often say that I know about the world because of reading children's books and this book helped to educate me about the Battle of Okinawa, about which I previously knew nothing. It was a terribly long and bloody battle, as historically detailed in an author's note in the back of the volume, and instrumental in ending the war with Japan. Gratz delivers a message against war, the price paid by both soldiers and civilians, and the way it turns ordinary people into monsters. The story was thoroughly researched and the message sound, yet this is not a story for children, who are the targeted age group. The book is extremely and violently graphic and people die in horrible ways. Civilian children are used as human shield for the Japanese and must strip naked to surrender to the American at gun point, as one child is shot. Grenade is best suited to teenagers, especially boys who may be reluctant readers. The action truly never stops and the anti-war message is one worth hearing. The publisher places this book for grades 3-7 and so I, as well as most of the libraries in my system, put it in the children's section. I plan on moving it to the teen section-if I can get my hands back on it, since it seems to be always checked out. Sure to be devoured by action-loving tweens/teens, yet caution should be exhibited by sensitive readers.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Ungifted

Image result for ungifted korman coverUngifted
Gordon Korman
Balzer + Bray, 2012 288 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction/Humor


Impulse control has never been Donovan's strong suit and he has a penchant for trouble. Multiple points of view relate what happens when Donovan "accidentally" knocks a statue off its pedestal, down a hill and into the school gym during the championship basketball game, leaving behind major damage. Intending to note Donovan’s name for future punishment, the superintendent puts him accidentally on a list to be sent to the gifted and talented magnet school. The new school is the perfect place to hide out until the heat is off. Reluctantly, Donovan becomes involved with his geeky classmates and makes some connections, even going so far as to join the robotics club, where his video-game expertise makes him a natural at controlling the robot's movements with a joystick. He brings a certain impulsiveness and charisma that the super-smart kids lack and he exposes them to previously undiscovered pleasures, such as YouTube. The only problem is: Donovan is not particularly smart and he is struggling academically. The teachers are catching on and demand that he retest. If Donovan fails this test he will go back to his old middle school, where he is sure to be nabbed for the statue crime, also letting down his new friends from the robotics club right before the big competition.

Korman lends his characteristic humor and effortless storytelling to give readers a new school story, this time exploring what it means to be "gifted". The multiple points of view give the book an added dimension and interest, allowing the reader to see the action from all sides. The plot never flags and Korman even offers some nail-biting moments, that although hilarious, will have the reader holding their breath. Yes, the kids in Donovan's new school are super smart, but Donovan is gifted in his own ways and he fills a void in the lives of these students and makes them better-rounded individuals. Part of the story-line involves the smart kids missing a human growth and development credit (aka sex ed), which Donovan helps out with by bringing his pregnant older sister to school, allowing the students to follow her pregnancy, thus fulfilling the requirement. Sex is mentioned, though the author does not go into details, making this book better suited for older elementary. Smart kids will love the robotics, not-so-smart kids will appreciate the regular guy getting the better of the school administrators, and all readers will enjoy the humor and wacky situations, including a robot smack-down. Both boys and girls are the target audience for the story and since it takes place in a school setting, it would be a perfect classroom read aloud. A sequel Supergifted was released last year and features Noah, the smartest of the nerds, who must now attend Donovan's public middle school.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Stella Diaz Has Something to Say

Image result for stella diaz coverStella Diaz Has Something to Say
Angela Dominguez
Roaring Brook Press, 2018 200 pages
Grades 3-5
Realistic Fiction

Stella lives with her mother and older brother in Chicago. Her family is from Mexico and Stella often feels as if she belongs in neither American nor Mexican culture. English and Spanish get mixed up in her brain and when asked to speak up in class, she often freezes. This school year is proving challenging. Stella's best friend Jenny is in another class and she must tolerate the taunts of a group of mean girls. To further complicate matters, the topic of immigration is discussed in class and Stella realizes that she is an "alien", which makes her feel like less than her classmates. At home money is tight and Dad is absent, causing confusion in her feelings and loyalties. A new boy joins Stella's class and she would like to make friends, only she can't talk to him without turning roja. A class presentation on Stella's favorite topic, sea animals, brings the challenge of speaking in front of the class, while also bringing the unexpected gift of a visit to the aquarium. Will Stella gain some confidence to stand up to the mean girls and to find her place within school society?

Author/Illustrator, Dominguez, makes her middle grade debut with this semi-autobiographical novel loosely based on her own experiences, as explained in an author's note in the back of the volume. Readers will be comforted to learn that Stella/Dominguez is shy and fearful and struggles with speech and keeping her languages straight. Stella is a smart, warm and lovable little girl, who is still working out some kinks, and readers will identify with her troubles and be relieved to see what a seemingly confident and cool lady the author became. Through the first person narration, tracing a school year, we see huge character growth in Stella, as she learns to develop the “strength of a starfish” and her inner confidence grows. Readers will see a demonstration of how to effectively deal with bullies and will find hope in Stella's victory over them. Spanish speakers will enjoy seeing their language dispersed throughout the text and English speakers will be able to understand the words in context. The reading level is perfect for third and fourth graders, who are growing out of chapter books, yet aren't ready for more mature, longer titles. Black and white illustrations, contributed by the author/illustrator, are sprinkled throughout the text to encourage emerging readers along. A winning tale featuring a likable protagonist sure to inspire children to embrace who they are and to find their inner “starfish”.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Extraordinary Birds

Related imageExtraordinary Birds
Sandy Stark-McGinnis
Bloomsbury, 2019 April, 214 pages
Grades 4-7
Realistic Fiction

Eleven year old December is off to yet another foster home armed only with two suitcases and two books: The Complete Guide to Birds vol. 1, left behind by her absent mother, and Bird Girl: an Extraordinary Tale, her fictionalized on-going biography. December believes the the scars on her back are emerging wings and that once she manages the power of flight and morphs into a bird, she will be reunited again with her mother. To encourage her wings to sprout, December keeps jumping out of trees, often with disastrous results. After the last failed attempt she is brought to the home of Eleanor, a bird rescuer who works at a wildlife rehabilitation center. December respects Eleanor's love and care of birds and kind and gentle ways, but is she really trying to lure her into a false sense of security only to stuff her, like the other creatures found in Eleanor's side-business/taxidermy workroom? School starts out with a rough start and December must find her way around a snarky group of sparkly girls who pick on the one nice person who has friendship potential. Should December stick-up for Cheryllynn, even if it means making herself a target for the mean girls?

Debut middle-grade author, McGinnis, offers a heartbreaking, yet ultimately hopeful novel for fans of sad problem fiction such as Counting by Sevens and One for the Murphy's. Sure to find an audience, I have kids in my library who will only read this type of book. Told in first person, December is a sympathetic character who's story readers will immediately care about. We slowly see December's past unfurl, as she starts to come to terms with her trauma and accept the fact that she is girl not bird. December is a fully realized character, as is Eleanor, and readers will relish their growing relationship. As December learns to trust Eleanor, so does the hawk that she is rehabilitating learn to trust her, eventually also finding healing. Cheryllyn, a girl born in a boy's body, is less developed, yet this is not her story to tell and it is age-appropriate for December to narrate about Cheryllyn only as she effects her own life. Cheryllyn's gender is not what is important about her or even obvious in the plot, its her traits as a friend and a person that is central to the story. The writing is beautiful, lyrical and atmospheric, setting it apart from the average problem novel. This book would make a wonderful choice for classroom use, as well as book discussion and the cover makes it accessible to both girls and boys. A climatic scene towards the end will have readers holding their breath, but it eventually leads to December finding "home" and peace, as the reader lets out a contented sigh.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Max & the Midnights

Image result for max midnights coverMax & the Midnights
Lincoln Peirce
Crown/Penguin, 2019 279 pages
Grades 3-7
Graphic/Fiction Hybrid

Big Nate introduces the author's new series featuring Max, a want-to-be knight stuck traveling with lame troubadour uncle in medieval times. The duo end up in Uncle Budrick's hometown of Byjovia where they find the kingdom much changed. Good King Conrad the Kind is dead and his evil brother, Prince Gastley is now the ruler. All of the adults seem to be under a spell and behave hostile. Max and Uncle Budrick meet a boy named Kevyn and then two homeless kids who are in trouble. The four form a team called the Midnights and together with Uncle Budrick, who has been turned into a duck by King Conrad's former wizard gone rusty, the group journeys into the woods to fulfill a prophesy to take down Gastley. Along the way one of the Midnights discovers that she has wizarding powers, a secret about Max is revealed, important bewitched weapons are discovered and employed, a boy in a tower is rescued to great acclaim, battles ensue with the evil witch assisting Gastley, and the day is saved. Max, as well as the other Midnights, find their true destinies and campaign for the right to follow them instead of following generational apprenticing.

My most previous blog post featured the critically claimed The Book of Boy, which was set in the middle ages. This new title by the author/illustrator of the Big Nate series is also set in medieval times but could not be more different. Decidedly more low-brow, yet also more readable, this title will enjoy a larger readership. Half graphic novel, half fiction, this new story will appeal to Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, and Dav Pilkey fans. The action and fast moving plot will keep readers turning pages and the humor will keep them entertained. Filled with puns, the story is actually quite clever and made me laugh out loud more than once. Characteristic to Peirce's usual style, the pen and ink illustrations are well drawn and do their fair share of the heavy lifting in delivering the plot. Max's gender appears to be male, yet a surprise about a third of the way through reveals otherwise. Boys will think they are reading a book about a boy having adventures and will be "all in" before they discover that the protagonist is actually a girl. This will help them to realize that books featuring girls can be cool and interesting and it will allow girls to feel that they can have adventures and do exciting things. This story will attract all readers, who are sure to see it through to conclusion. Twenty-one copies out of sixty are currently available in my library system, and both of the copies I purchased for my library are checked out. This is fun story that will be enjoyed by all by and author with legs. A slam dunk!