Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

Image result for vanderbeekers coverThe Vanderbeekers of 141st Street
Karina Yan Glaser
Houghton Mifflin, 2017 296 pages
Grades 4-8
Realistic Fiction

Different Points of view relate the story of the Vanderbeeker family, long time residents of a Harlem brownstone. A family of five children is not a usual sight in New York City and finding a living space to accommodate such a family is no easy task. The family has been happily ensconced in the 141st brownstone for all of the children's lives when out of the blue the grouchy landlord and upstairs neighbor, Mr. Beiderman, has evicted them. And it's Christmas. The days before this important holiday have the Vanderbeeker children scurrying to find gifts for each other, keep up with their family traditions, Stay out of Mom's way while she is trying to pack and prepare, and scheming to concoct a plan to convince The Beiderman (as they call him) to let them stay. Their plans include getting the neighborhood to sign a petition, bringing him delicious pastries, constructing cheerful decorations, and leaving a kitten on his doorstep. Every plan ends in disaster. With help from friends in the neighborhood the kids finally do some sleuthing and conduct some research on The Beiderman, unearthing secrets about his past which explain his crabby behavior. Can they break through to him before it's too late? Meanwhile, one of the oldest twins is experiencing first love, despite the interference of her sister. Various interpersonal interactions, unpredictable pets and misunderstandings makes for never a dull moment in this madcap house with this crazy and heartfelt family.

Glaser has envisioned a classic American family in the tradition of the Melendys and the Penderwicks with a modern twist. Despite the old-school highbrow New York City name, the Vanderbeekers are a multiracial clan living within a diverse neighborhood. The children are so creative, unique, and unjaded that they feel homeschooled, but they do attend public school. Something about the family reminds me of the clan from All of a Kind Family. Maybe it is the New York setting, possibly the family is mostly all-girl makeup, or it could just be the cozy feel of the story. The book is contemporary and modern, yet has an old-fashioned feel to it. This is really a character piece. The struggle to convince The Beiderman to let them stay is the plot that keeps the story together to introduce this family to children and to give them something to do. At first I had a hard time keeping the children straight, but Glaser draws everyone distinctly enough that I knew them all pretty quickly. Poor Mrs. Vanderbeeker! If getting ready for Christmas with five children isn't hard enough, she has to find a new place to live and pack up their whole lives. I felt for the poor woman, although she seemed pretty calm under the circumstances, although that could just be because we are hearing the story from a child’s perspective. Both boys and girls will enjoy this book. It would make an excellent family read-aloud. The story keeps moving along with enough tension and suspense to keep the readers turning pages, while infused with truly funny bits. I can see sequels in Glaser's future and readers will want to revisit their new friends for another cozy adventure.

Monday, October 16, 2017

All's Faire in Middle School

Image result for alls faire in middle school coverAll's Faire in Middle School
Victoria Jamieson
Dial/Penguin, 2017 248 pages
Grades 5-8
Graphic Novel

Imogene is very excited. The new season of the Florida Renaissance Faire in which her family works is about to start. Now that she is eleven Imogene is allowed to be a part of the cast. Her role will be that of a squire, working under her father, who plays the role of the evil knight. All of her old friends are back for the two month season, including her older crush who plays the role of the hero knight, only this year he has a princess girlfriend in tow. Further complications ensue as homeschooled Imogene begins public school for the first time. Middle School is a bewildering experience and she has a hard time adjusting to changing classes, tricky teachers, current fashion trends, and the dreaded cafeteria at lunchtime. Mika, the reigning queen-bee, befriends Imogene and welcomes her to the cool clique. Imogene is thrilled to have friends, but worries that her clothes aren't right. She is shocked to discover how much the clothes worn by the popular girls actually cost and after visiting Mika's house, realizes for the first time that her family is relatively poor. Meanwhile, at the faire Imogene discovers a way to connect with Faire goers and befriends an outcast from her school who is a regular attendee. Anita also enjoys swordplay and the two work together to entertain visiting children, yet pretend not to be friends at school. Despite Anita's warnings, Imogene continues to hang out with Mika's crowd until she stands up to Mika's meanness, only to have secrets betrayed, landing her suspended from school and a social outcast. Imogene must learn to be true to herself and finds out what it means to be a real knight and an all-around decent person.

I loved Jamieson's Newbery winning Roller Girl and love her sophomore effort All's Faire in Middle School even more. Maybe it's the Renn Faire setting (I am a big fan and attend every year) or maybe it is the way Jamieson completely nails the emotions of a struggling sixth grader, but I really connected with this book. Sixth grade is a very difficult year. I found it excruciatingly difficult as did both of my daughters. School gets suddenly harder with changing classes and increased homework and socially friends get complicated. Imogene has it that much harder in that she is beginning school for the first time and has no clue how the school social structure works. She tries desperately to fit in, losing herself in the process. After alienating many of her loved ones and becoming a person whom she dislikes, Imogene must embrace who she is and be true to herself, even if it means having no school friends. Nerds will relate to Imogene's interests and will find comfort in her strength and victorious outcome. Jamieson leaves readers with much food for thought, including being kind, standing up to bullies, being true to yourself, the importance of working hard in school, loyalty, the choice of living simply: doing what you love over selling out to have a better lifestyle, and the power of forgiveness. This coming of age tale sees Imogene embracing a bit of her inner-princess, even though she remains a bit of a tomboy squire and, most importantly, she realizes that she is not the center of the universe. Jamieson's drawings are clear and add humor and depth to the story. Chapter headings appear to be pages straight from ancient fairytales, placing the reader in the Renn Faire setting. Some of the coming of age themes are a bit mature for younger readers, so I would not recommend this book for younger than fifth grade, even though the comic nature of the book appears inviting to a young audience. An excellent addition to the realistic graphic genre for middle grades readers.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Laugh Out Loud

Image result for laugh out loud patterson coverLaugh Out Loud
James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
Jeff Ebbeler, Illustrator
Jimmy Books/Hachette, 2017 275 pages
Grades 3-6 Humor

Young Jimmy wants to start his own company to write and publish books for kids with the company run by kids. His dream is inspired by his house-bound neighbor's plea to “Please give me another book, Jimmy!". He begins writing stories of his own that he thinks will be of interest to kids and his whole school and neighborhood goes nuts for the stories. The book plots that Jimmy conceives will be familiar to fans of James Patterson, as they are the storylines from his already published materials for young people. Jimmy has big dreams for the book company. It will be called "Laugh Out Loud Books” and will move product from one level to another by Ferris Wheel and workers will move around by hoverboards. The only problem is that Jimmy needs capital. All of the adults in his life (with the exception of the librarian:) and the banks he visits all laugh at him, inspiring the name for the company. His accountant/lawyer parents are too busy constantly working to encourage or support his dreams. What is a budding entrepreneur to do? Jimmy refuses to be discouraged. He and his friends work together to get a few of his stories published with the help of a friendly photocopy guy and eventually finding a financial backer. Laugh Out Loud books gets re-branded Jimmy Books and a publishing legend is born!

James Patterson is committed to turning kids into readers. To this end he writes with talented collaborators to create visual kid-friendly books that may not be the stuff of great fiction, but are devoured by readers. Laugh Out Loud is a fictionalized behind-the-scenes look of the creation of James Patterson's new imprint, if he was a kid. The journey is completely fantastical and made-up, yet will teach kids to follow their dreams and not give up, even if all of the adults in their lives think their dreams are unattainable. The story gets a bit absurd at times and is not particularly realistic, but young readers will not mind. Jimmy's parents go from workaholics who barely notice him to rock-band/cartoon artists who quit their jobs and eventually help with the book company. Believable? Not a chance, but kids with parents who are too caught up in their own lives will find hope that the same could happen within their own families. The cartoon-like illustrations are plentiful and add humor and interest to the story. Various characters from Patterson's other books for young people are characters in this tale and at the end of the story he lists which books they are all from, possibly leading readers to yet another book. Young Jimmy is clearly a reader and lover of books. Throughout the story he makes reference to other book titles by other authors. I would have liked to see a bibliography of these titles at the end of the volume to encourage readers to read some stories by other authors. Instead readers are offered an except from Patterson's latest novel Pottymouth and Stoopid. This book is perhaps a bit self serving, but will definitely be enjoyed by readers and at the end of the day teaches them the importance of books and following their dreams.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Room One: a Mystery or Two

Image result for room one mystery or two clementsRoom One: a Mystery or Two
Andrew Clements
Scholastic, 2006 168 pages
Grades 3-6

Amateur detective, paperboy, and independent boy scout, Ted Hammond, is the sole student in sixth grade in his one-class school. Ted's small Nebraskan town is shrinking as families move away after losing their farms and local businesses are forced to close. The school and the whole town itself is in danger of fading away. As Ted pedals by yet another abandoned farmhouse while delivering his papers, he is shocked to see a face in the attic window. Further investigation after school reveals a girl around his age named April. April confesses that her father died in the middle east and her mother was being harassed by a former friend of her father’s and didn't feel safe. Mom, April and her little brother have run away and are now in hiding. Ted agrees to help the little family by bringing them food and other supplies. He finally brings his teacher in on his secret and she promises to help. When the police are seen at the abandoned farm and April's family is missing, Ted fears that his teacher betrayed him. He must use his detective skills to find the whereabouts of the family in order to connect them to the help they need. Ted does locate them and develops a plan to save the day and maybe the whole town. The plan does not go exactly as Ted has hoped, but it does serve as a catalyst for positive change.

Clements, the master of the school story, pens a mystery with social undertones. This is not a conventional mystery. Ted longs to be a detective and to find some real excitement in his sleepy town. His keen observational skills lead him to the family in crisis and he does use his detective abilities to locate them a second time. Ted learns the valuable lesson that real life is not as clean-cut as a case in one of his stories. It is complicated, messy, and unpredictable. Ted's best efforts may seem like a fail, but ultimately lead the town to a different solution. Clements highlights the plight of the mid-western farmer and the slow death of the American farming community. He educates the reader about the New Homestead Act, a proposed solution to resettling abandoned farmland, which has been talked about, but has yet to come to fruition. Other themes explored in this book are society's need to take care of veteran families, mental illness in custodial parents, combating loneliness, and finding a trusted adult when the problem is too big for a kid. Young readers will love the idea of a one-class school. It is also cool that Ted is the only student in his grade. He moves the desks to make a fort in the middle of the classroom where he can explore his many interests. Children will immediately identify with Ted and put themselves in his shoes as he tries to help April, struggles with his solitary existence, and faces many important decisions. This book reads quickly and will appeal to a wide audience. Small pencil illustrations, contributed by Chris Blair, do not particularly add to the story, but will satisfy readers who are more comfortable with some added visuals. The ending is not the one the readers will be expecting, but remains satisfying and positive.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Graveyard Shakes

Image result for graveyard shakes coverGraveyard Shakes
Laura Terry
Graphix/Scholastic, 2017
Grades 4-7
Graphic Novel

Sisters Victoria and Katia must begin life at a posh boarding school in order to avoid life on the farm being home schooled by mom. Older sister, Victoria, is desperate to fit in. She faces humiliation and embarrassment by her classmates, who make fun of her favorite hat and treat her shabbily. Victoria attempts to make friends by joining the soccer team and dragging Katia along to orchestra auditions. Wild-child younger sister, Katia, refuses to conform to the expected mold of the school. Her brilliant piano playing impresses the other kids, yet gets out of control and it becomes clear that she cannot be reined in to join the orchestra. Meanwhile, a little zombie boy, Modie, is being kept alive by his scientist father, who must feed him the soul of a human child every thirteen years. The thirteen years is up and Dad is sending out the local ghosts to help him locate a new victim. Modie knows that it is wrong, but he is powerless to stand up to his strong father. Modie's only friend is Little Ghost, who doesn't fit in with the wild prankster ghosts of the graveyard and the land below. Little ghost meets a new friend as Victoria is out searching for Katia in the graveyard on snowy winter night. Katia is in the church being wild with the evil ghosts, who bring her to Modie's father for the procedure. Victoria, Modie, and Little Ghost must work together to save Katia and stop this vicious cycle. Unfortunately, a sacrifice must be made, yet in the end the evil is defeated. Katia and Victoria at last find their place in the school environment. It is not the school life Victoria aimed for, yet they have friends and are at last happy.

New author/cartoonist Terry offers a fresh contribution to the current trendy genre of middle school problem graphic novels. Graveyard Shakes has a spooky twist that will potentially draw in a new audience. At its core, this story is a coming of age problem novel where the older sister learns to love herself and finds confidence and the young sister becomes a bit more mature and appreciative of her older sister. The spooky layer adds dimension to the story and makes the book more than just another coming of age graphic novel. It is deliciously eerie and will elicit shivers in the target audience. Little Ghost is more Casper than creepy, making it that much more heartfelt when he meets a tragic demise at the end. Moodie is a bit more unsettling and desolate, yet somehow heartwarming, and readers will feel sorry for him, hoping for a painless demise. The plethora of wandering ghosts are interesting and original. Terry obviously had fun creating them. They are not too scary, along the lines of the Disney Haunted Mansion ride, yet will freak out readers who scare easily. Kids who don't like scary stories will stay away from this book anyway once they see the cover. Kids who like a little scare in their stories will find much to enjoy in this original and shivery tale.The well-executed illustrations are all in full color and the panels scan easily. Terry relies more on the pictures telling the story and the text is light and used only to propel the plot. Reluctant readers will gobble up this title and it may attract new readers to the genre.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Riding Freedom

Image result for riding freedomRiding Freedom
Pam Munoz Ryan
Brian Selznick, Illustrator
Scholastic, 1998 138 pages
Grades 3-6
Historical Fiction

Charlotte Parkhurst is an orphan living in New England in the mid-eighteen-hundreds. Even though she loves horses and has a natural way with them, because she is a girl she must work as a servant in the kitchen with a horribly mean cook. After being forbidden to help out in the stables in her spare time and ride her beloved horses, followed by her best friend being adopted, Charlotte decides to run away. But how? It is not safe or practical for girls to try to strike out on their own. Charlottes changes her name to Charlie, dons boy’s clothes, borrows money from the ex-slave stable-hand who is her friend and sets off to seek her fame and fortune. Naturally, Charlie lands at a stable, where she proves to be an excellent hand, working herself up the ranks to stagecoach driver. The owner of the stables suspects Charlie's true identity, but chooses to kindly allow her to remain in his employ and keeps her secret. An opportunity in California sees Charlie relocating and getting closer to her dream of owning her own stable, only to lose her eye after being kicked by a horse. Her stage coach driving days seem over, yet Charlie does not give up. She learns to drive the coach with one eye, increasing her reputation and finally reaching her lifelong dream. Her old orphan friend and previous boss come to stay at her new stables and Charlie at last seems happy and at peace. Another dream is realized as Charlie becomes the first woman to vote in the United States in 1868. Although voting as a man, Charlie proves that women can make intelligent decisions in politics, paving the road for future generations.

There are very few historical fiction choices for younger chapter readers that do not involve time travel. Riding Freedom is one of my favorites. It is an excellent choice for historical fiction projects, strikes a blow at discrimination based on gender and race, and is an all-around great story. Ryan jams non-stop action into the 138 pages, tracing the life of this little-known American woman. Charlie demonstrates courage, tenacity, and sheer pluckiness in the face of adversity. Nothing seems to keep this character down as she slowly and determinedly realizes her dreams. The colloquial language helps to place the reader in the time of the story and the setting is fully realized. Full-page pencil illustrations, drawn by the wonderfully talented Brian Selznick, can be found in every chapter and help to flesh out the tale and keep readers turning pages. Great for both classroom use and recreation, the book will be enjoyed by a broad audience and works on many levels. The print is large, the chapters are short, and the margins are wide, inviting new chapter book readers. The vocabulary is richer than most books for this audience, bringing the reading level to a deceptively higher level than this selection appears at first glance. The American frontier was not a land of opportunity for everyone. Parkhurst manages to break the constraints of her time and become an American success story and inspiration to future generations.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Children of Exile

Image result for children exile haddixChildren of Exile
Margaret Peterson Haddix
Simon & Schuster, 2016 304 pages
Grades 4-8
Science Fiction

Twelve year-old Rosi has been raised all her life, along with her younger brother Bobo, in an Utopian community called Fredtown by Fred-parents. Life is fair, safe, and dependable. Rosi's life is shattered when she and the other children in the community are informed that they must go back home to their "real" parents, only they don't remember home since they were taken away as babies because it was considered unsafe. The Freds won't tell the children anything about their past or heritage and they reluctantly put them on a plane with cold strangers to journey back to a place the children don't remember. Home is desolate, unfamiliar, and harsh. A mother pulls Rosi and Bobo from the plane and takes them to a ramshackled house where they meet their father, a blind and bitter man who does not seem happy to have them back. The parents seem content enough with Bobo, but treat Rosi coldly. As she walks through the war-torn streets she realizes that the townspeople whom she passes look at her with suspicion. Does it have anything to do with her green eyes? And why are there no other children or teenagers besides the ones returning from Fredtown? A friend from the past has theories about what happened to their parents, the reason that they were sent away, and why everyone is acting so strangely, but then he disappears and Rosi suspects foul play. While trying to get help to rescue her friend, Rosi finds herself in more danger and trouble than she hardly thought possible. Eventually, the secret behind the removal of the children is revealed and the identity of the Freds is discovered. Rosi must now draw on her inner courage to save both Bobo and herself from a life of cruelty and imprisonment.

Haddix is the undisputed queen of the middle grade concept book. Her books have great ideas that hook kids and keep them frantically turning pages. The idea behind Running out of Time, where the prairie girl is really part of a living history exhibit, remains one of my favorite stories in all of kid's lit. The Shadow Children series continues to be one of the most requested series in my library. I had high hopes for Children of Exile and it did not disappoint. There were so many layers of mystery, starting with why the children were taken away in the first place and continuing with the story behind the biological parents and the identity of the Freds and their role in the drama. We see the adventure through Rosi's eyes, as she is first exposed to prejudice, violence and cruelty. Rosi eventualy unravels the secrets behind both societies. Sometimes the reader will guess the outcome and sometimes it comes as a complete surprise. The plot rolls along at a breakneck speed with one plot twist following another. My favorite comes at the end when the identity of the Freds is revealed. Beyond the great story, Haddix offers themes of non-violence, anti-war and weapons, and overcoming physical prejudices, as well as exploring what makes a family and finding inner courage to do the right thing. Sometimes the story gets a little contrived and clunky, but it is written for children to enjoy and does not require finesse. Reluctant readers and science fiction nerds will all love this book and it will be enjoyed by both boys and girls. The cover is interesting and the action starts right away. A sequel Children of Refuge was released last month, giving readers a place to go once they finally reach the conclusion.